Some Presbyterian missionaries have played a dual role of anthropologist. By collecting and preserving artwork and artifacts from cultures to which they have brought the gospel, they have done a great service to the world in making known how certain people groups have lived and expressed themselves. Two examples are given here.
Sheldon Jackson (1834-1909) was a pioneer missionary to Alaska. He began his efforts to preach the gospel there in 1877, ten years after the territory of Alaska was purchased by the United States. It is thought that he traveled around 1 million miles in his missionary career. In the 1890s, he served as the General Agent for Education in the Alaskan Territory. Early on, he began to collect items for a museum representing the aboriginal people of Alaska, including the Inupiat, Yup'ik, Tlingit, Aleut, Alutiiq and Athabascan-speaking people. The Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska was first established in 1887. The present building (which houses over 5000 artifacts) was constructed in 1897, and is the oldest concrete structure in Alaska. It provides a valuable window of insight into the native cultures of Alaska.
William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927) was a Southern Presbyterian minister of African-American descent, Sheppard was born in Waynesboro, Virginia, and served as a missionary in the Belgian Congo for two decades. He also helped to expose atrocities committed by the soldiers of King Leopold II to the eyes of the world. Upon his return to the United States, he donated artifacts to his alma mater, Hampton University (Hampton, Virginia) that he collected from his time with the Kuba people. He contributed between 3000 and 4000 artifacts which became the basis of an impressive collection by the Hampton University Art Museum. It was the privilege of this writer to peruse the collection recently. No photography is allowed in the museum, but some photographs of Kuba art and artifacts may be found in illustrations from Sheppard’s Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo (1917).
The Hampton University Art Museum states:
By the 1870s Hampton had established an African studies program and dozens of African pieces from various cultures were registered into the collection over the following three decades. Then in 1911 the school acquired the William H. Sheppard Collection of African Art - several hundred superb pieces gathered by Hampton alumnus William Sheppard between 1890 and 1910 in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not only was Sheppard the first westerner to enter the Kuba Kingdom, he was first African American to collect African art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His contribution to Hampton University Museum's collections gives it the oldest collection of Kuba-related material in the world.
Missionaries have often performed double-duty as anthropologists by describing and preserving aspects of the cultures with which they have interacted. These are two examples of American Presbyterians who have contributed to the world’s understanding of particular cultures in Alaska and Africa, to whom we all owe a great debt.