Saint of the Week: Edmund James Peck, Apostle to the Inuit

This week’s saint is Edmund James Peck (1850-1924).  Peck was an Anglican missionary to the Inuit, who called him Uqammaq (he who speaks well).  After spending some years working on freighter ships, in 1876, his calling as a missionary was confirmed, and he went to the Arctic under the leadership of the Rt. Rev. John Horden, Bishop of Moosonee.  He studied Inuktitut, using materials from the Moravian missionaries who were already established on Hudson’s Bay and in Greenland.

His first missionary trip lasted from 1876-1884.  He made sure that he learned Inuktitut and Cree, believing that a knowledge of local languages was essential to evangelism.*  On February 3, 1878, he was ordained to the priesthood at Moose Factory; at this occasion, he preached the sermon in Cree.  He also used the Cree syllabery developed by James Evans to give new impetus for the Inuktitut language, with greater accessibility of the Scriptures in Inuktitut.  To quote the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

In 1877 he distributed catechisms. His Portions of the Holy Scripture for the use of the Esquimaux on the northern and eastern shores of Hudson’s Bay was published in London in 1878. This first volume was followed in 1881 by Portions of the Book of Common Prayer: together with hymns, addresses, etc., for the use of the Eskimo of Hudson’s Bay and by St. Luke’s Gospel translated into the language of the Eskimo of Hudson’s Bay.

If you have studied the history of mission, you will know how important those items were.  If a people is to truly come to the full knowledge of Christ and who He is, if a people is to truly become and remain Christian, then they must have the Bible available in their language.  Peck set a precedent for Anglican activities in the North; today, in many towns, the Inuit only go to the Anglican church because the others do not offer services in Inuktitut, whereas the Anglican Church has translated both the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, as well as various hymns, into the language of the people.  This is one aspect of Anglican Reformational zeal that has yet to wane.

After an exploratory trip, Peck left the North in 1884, ending his first journey.  He went to England and got married.

His second journey with the Inuit was from 1885 to 1892.  Based in Fort George, Que., he carried out the work of evangelism amongst the communities nearby, sort of like a John Wesley of the North, I imagine.  During this time, three children were born to him, but in 1892, the Pecks were forced to return to England; his wife was suffering to ill health due to the isolation.  This is not uncommon, from what I understand.

On August 21, 1894, having acquired free passage across the Atlantic, he and Joseph Calder Parker, established the first Anglican mission on Baffin Island.  They were now able to reach Inuit who had not yet heard the gospel.  They built their first church out of sealskin on Blacklead Island.  Between 1894 and 1905, he made various missionary journeys amongst the different Inuit communities.  Teaming up with other missionaries, he also continued his work of translation, including all four gospels and more selections from the Book of Common Prayer.

Peck moved to Ottawa where he worked at publishing an English-Eskimo Dictionary and Eskimo Grammar.  He made several more journeys to the North and also gathered ethnographical materials.

Part of the strategy of the CMS, for which he worked, was to train local leaders and get Bibles into people’s hands as quickly as possible.  Peck did this, often ordaining converted shamen to be pastors.  To this day, many of Canada’s Inuit are Christians of the Anglican tradition, due in large part to the efforts of Peck and others like him.

His feast day is today, August 10.

*Ray Aldred, a current leader amongst indigenous Christians, says that we must communicate the Gospel in the heart language of the people, which includes vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but also much more.  You can read the transcript of his talk from Urbana 03 here.

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