Reverend Stewart Sheldon
Territorial superintendent of the Dakota Home Missionary Society from 1874 – 1886.
Father recovered his full health, lived to be the Home Missonary Superintendent for a territory bigger than all Massachusetts and Connecticut, established over 100 churches, most of which are thriving today, and lived to ninety years, surviving all the doctors who told him he was going out to Dakota to die. – Charles M. Sheldon
In By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 23, “On the Pilgrim Way”), Reverend Alden conducts the first church service in the new town of De Smet, accompanied by a young, red-headed missionary Laura identifies as Rev. Scotty Stuart. Caroline Ingalls’ recollections of the organization of the Congregational Church in De Smet indicate that “Rev. Alden was appointed to have charge of this field for first six months of 1880 by Supt. Stewart Sheldon of Cong’l work in D.T.” and that “Rev. E.H. Alden came and on Feby 29 1880 preached the first sermon in this vicinity” at the Ingallses’ – there being twenty-five persons present. Although it’s hard to imagine having the territorial superintendent of the mission society for all of Dakota Territory at your first service and not include his name in your records, it’s long been believed that Laura’s mention of “Rev. Stuart” must have meant that Rev. Stewart Sheldon was in attendance. He may have been, but I’ve yet to see definitive proof (and I sure would love to). Some early church records can be found HERE. E.H. Alden was appointed to the Dakota Territory mission field including Aurora, De Smet, and Ashton on January 30, 1880. Records show that while he was appointed for a six months’ term, he only served 2 months. Rev. Alden didn’t organize the church at De Smet; that was done by Rev. Brown in June 1880.
Newspapers do offer clues as to Rev. Sheldon’s whereabouts that winter:
February 13, 1880 (Yankton) Press and Daily Dakotaian: Rev. S. Sheldon of Yankton occupied the Baptist pulpit at Elk Point last Sunday morning, Feb. 8.
The March 5, 1880 (Yankton) Press and Daily Dakotaian reported that “A Congregational church was organized in Davison county, Feb. 15th, Rev. Mr. Sheldon, general missionary for Dakota, conducting the services.”
The March 6, 1880 Press and Daily Dakotaian reported that “Rev. Mr. Walker was installed as pastor of the Congregational church at Vermillion last Wednesday…” and that “Rev. Mr. Sheldon and J.R. Sanborn of Yankton delivered the charge to the people.” This implies that if Rev. Sheldon was in De Smet on Feb. 29, and 140 miles south in Vermillion on March 3, he didn’t immediately continue west with Rev. Alden as suggested in By the Shores of Silver Lake.
The Sioux City (Iowa) Journal of April 8, 1880, reported: Rev. Sheldon of Yankton, who was in the city yesterday, has just returned from a visit to the valley of the upper Sioux, and reports track laying on the Black Hills branch of the Northwestern now about twelve miles west of Volga, the terminus of last winter, and the track still going down. The grading was finished on this branch as far west as the Jim last fall. Volga is growing rapidly, and now contains some two hundred houses. At Watertown, the terminus of the Winona & St. Peter branch of the Northwestern, there is no talk of extension this season. The town has added five hundred inhabitants to its population of four months ago, when Rev. Sheldon visited it, and now counts 2,000 inhabitants. Immigration is pouring in, and there is no government land to be had for a days’ drive to the west.
Stewart Sheldon was born December 20, 1823, in Perry Center (Wyoming County) New York; his parents were Horace Sheldon and Philenia (Ward) Sheldon. He joined the Congregational Church at Perry Center in 1841. Stewart was educated at Perry Center Institute and graduated from Hamilton College in 1848. After graduation, he set off on an adventure, sailing around Cape Horn and landing at the Valley of Paradise, Chile, 114 days later. For several years he taught English in the Spanish schools of Valparaiso, also organizing several Christian churches and devoting much of his time to missionary work.
He then settled in San Francisco, recently destroyed by fire and earthquake, and assisted surveyors in making a new survey of the area. That complete, he headed inland to Nevada City and took up prospecting for gold, often clearing from $50 to $200 per day. After tiring of prospecting, he headed back home, having traveled some 20,000 miles in all. He walked in on his family (who believed him dead) as if he had only been gone a day.
Stewart Sheldon married Sarah Ward in Cuba, New York, on July 15, 1852; the couple had six children. Sheldon enrolled at Auburn Theological Seminary and was ordained to the Congregational ministry in August 1854. He held New York pastorates at York (1852), Silver Creek (1853), Wellsville (1855-1860); in Central Falls, Rhode Island (1860-1866); in Chilicothe, Missouri (1866-1867); and in Lansing, Michigan (1868-1869). During the winter of 1868-1869, the Sheldons were visited by Sarah’s brother, Joseph Ward, a missionary who had settled in Dakota Territory in 1858, serving as the first pastor of Yankton Congregational Church; he founded Yankton College in 1881. Rev. Sheldon was in poor health (he contracted cholera and malaria during his travels), and Rev. Ward suggested a move to the dry air in Dakota Territory would extend his life by a year or two.
In November 1869, Rev. Sheldon filed on a homestead in Yankton County, the N-NW 2 & N-NE 3, Township 93, Range 56 North. He built a two story log cabin for his family, and for five years, he worked on his claim and in the mission field, preaching at churches in Vermillion, Elk Point, Richland and Bon Homme, traveling on horseback between services. He made final proof on his claim in December 1874, and in 1879, he sold the homestead and the family moved to Yankton so his children could more easily attend school.
Rev. Sheldon was appointed Territorial Superintendent of churches in Dakota Territory by the American Home Missionary Society, serving from June 20, 1874, until June 20, 1886. In his years of service he saw the Congregational churches of Dakota Territory grow from one church with a membership of ten, to over one hundred churches with a membership of 3,571 and a Sunday school membership of 5,641. His missionary work led him to travel over 25,000 miles, most of them by horse-and-buggy. In 1886, Rev. Sheldon was appointed Field Secretary of the American Congregational Union, with his office in Boston.
For a detailed account of his life, see Rev. Stewart Sheldon’s autobiographical Gleanings By the Way, From ’36 to ’89, published in 1890.
What Would Jesus Do? In 1889, Reverend and Mrs. Sheldon and daughters moved to Topeka, Kansas, where their son, Charles, had been appointed pastor of Central Congregational Church. Charles Sheldon was firm in his belief that no race or class of people would be excluded from his church. A gifted writer since his youth, he came up with a novel way to increase church attendance, by reading a chapter or two of sermon-stories he’d written instead of preaching the usual sermon at the evening service, always ending his reading with a cliff-hanger. The message of each story was simple: to love God and love your neighbor.
In 1896, one of these sermon-stories was titled In His Steps; What Would Jesus Do? In it, Sheldon encouraged everyone to take care of those less fortunate by asking prior to any action, “What would Jesus do?” The series was so popular that it was published in The Advance as a serial, and the following year in book form. A copyright error put the book into the public domain, and although Rev. Sheldon didn’t earn a single dollar from sales of his book, it continues to have a profound influence on its readers to this day.
Rev. Stewart Sheldon and his wife Sarah spent the rest of their lives in Topeka. Sarah Sheldon died December 24, 1905; she was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery. Rev. Sheldon died on July 5, 1912, at age 89; he was buried beside his wife.