Latter-day Saint History

Who Was John A. Widtsoe?

John A. Widtsoe was an apostle, a scientist, and an administrator.

John A. Widtsoe was an apostle, a scientist, and an administrator in the early twentieth century. In those roles, he revolutionized dry-climate farming, served as president of two universities, and became a notable theologian in Latter-day Saint history. He was also the grandson-in-law of Brigham Young. This interview with Thomas G. Alexander discusses John A. Widtsoe.

Read more about John A. Widtsoe in John A. Widtsoe: Scientist and Theologian, 1872–1952

Table of Contents

Who was John A. Widtsoe?

John A. Widtsoe was a world-famous chemist who served as president of Utah State Agricultural College (renamed Utah State University) and the University of Utah. As director of the Utah State Experiment Station, he wrote books on irrigated farming and on dry farming which were later published by a national press.

He was also an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who served from 1921 until his death in 1952.

How did you approach writing this biography?

I approached the biography as a short biography for a general audience. It is part of a series of similar short biographies of prominent Latter-day Saints commissioned for the same purpose.

What caused Widtsoe’s faith crisis during his college years?

I really don’t know what caused his faith crisis, but I suspect that it was a result of his scientific education in chemistry which led him to wonder whether he could reconcile his scientific knowledge with his religious faith.

He was able to do this, and during his life he wrote about the congruence of these two sources of knowledge.

In what ways did Widtsoe revolutionize two fields of farming?

At the Utah State Agricultural Experiment station, he and his staff conducted experiments in which they grew irrigated crops in ways that kept them free from natural water and measured the amount of water that it required to produce good crops.

In fact, Young taught both of these things.

In working on dry farming, he and a colleague Lewis Merrill traveled throughout Utah and used an augur to determine depth at which water was located in various soils.

In this way, they determined where sufficient soil water was available in good soil to produce crops.

What were some of Widtsoe’s other professional achievements?

As president of the Utah State Agricultural College, John A. Widtsoe resolved some of the problems created by his predecessor William J. Kerr’s attempt to challenge the University of Utah by competing with them in areas outside the agricultural college’s mandate.

At the University of Utah, he cleaned up the mess caused by Joseph T. Kingsbury’s dictatorial administration by enlarging the faculty’s role in university governance by instituting a constitution for the college patterned after one at the University of Illinois.

Listen to Thomas G. Alexander talk about John A. Widtsoe in this Signature Books podcast.

As an apostle, he worked to get missionaries readmitted to European Countries following World War I, he worked to reorganize the church’s educational system to reduce the number of colleges and academies that the church supported and offering religious education at seminaries and institutes.

He wrote numerous essays on church doctrine and practice under the title “Evidences and Reconciliations,” that helped to clarify the church’s beliefs.

What challenges did he face as president of the European Mission?

John A. Widtsoe worked with Reed Smoot in meeting with officials and opinion leaders in various countries in Europe to help them to understand that the church no longer practiced polygamy and that the other things about the church—that it was a radical sect, that it engaged in violence, and various other things— were simply not true.

What Widtsoe teachings haven’t held up over time?

John A. Widtsoe’s book, Joseph Smith as Scientist was based on pre-Einsteinian scientific knowledge.  He wrote that the luminous ether which scientists had formerly believed provided the medium for light wages to pass through space was the Holy Ghost. 

With the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, scientists know that light is both solid quanta and a wave so that such a medium was unnecessary.

Widtsoe wrote that Brigham Young did not teach that progress in the after-mortal life could lead people to move from one kingdom to another.  He also wrote that Young did not teach the Adam-God doctrine. In fact, Young taught both of these things.  

What Widtsoe writings have contributed to Latter-day Saint thought?

Widtsoe’s writings on irrigated agriculture and dry farming still provide information that is useful to farmers in carrying on their activities. Many of the essays he wrote in Evidences and Reconciliations are still useful in our understanding of Latter-day Saint doctrine.  

How did Widtsoe’s views on evolution change over time?

Widtsoe’s writings on evolution in Evidences and Reconciliations are more conservative than his early writings. In the early writings, he said that evolution could occur at the Orders level. In later writings, he wrote that evolution was to be considered as change over time.

Who was Leah Dunford?

Leah Dunford was John A. Widtsoe’s wife. She was the daughter of Susa Young Gates—perhaps the most famous daughter of Brigham Young—and Alma B. Dunford, a dentist.

Susa and Alma had divorced by the time that Leah married John. She also established a home economics department at Brigham Young University, and worked on community improvement in Salt Lake City as part of a number of women’s clubs.

Why were John and Leah’s writings about the Word of Wisdom controversial?

John and Leah wrote about the Word of Wisdom in a book they called: The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation.  This was controversial because the book went far beyond Doctrine and Covenants Section 89.  They said that you should not eat or drink chocolate or anything with caffeine in it for instance.

John A. Widtsoe and his wife Leah Dunford Widtsoe.
John A. Widtsoe and Leah Dunford Widtsoe wrote an expansive interpretation of the Doctrine & Covenants, according to biographer Thomas G. Alexander.

What do you hope people remember about John A. Widtsoe?

I would hope that people remember a number of things about John A. Widtsoe:

  • Science and religion. First is his belief that science and religion could be reconciled. He believed that you could draw on both disciplines to understand things and that you made a mistake by leaving one or the other out.
  • University president. Second, we should remember that he is the only person who served as president of both what is now Utah State University and the University of Utah.
  • Past issues. We should remember that he resolved issues caused by his predecessors: William J. Kerr and Joseph T. Kingsbury at the two institutions.
  • WWI missionaries. We should remember that he helped get missionaries back in European countries after World War I.
  • European mission. We should remember that he reorganized the administration of the European and British Mission by separating the administration of the two, by writing new tracts, by holding annual mission presidents conferences, and by turning local administration over to local members.

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About the interview participant

Thomas G. Alexander is an American historian and academic who is a professor emeritus at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he was also Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr. Professor of Western History and director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies. He is known for his outstanding historical work, particularly Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet, Utah: The Right Place and Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith.

Further Reading

John A. Widtsoe Resources

  • John A. Widtsoe: Scientist and Theologian, 1872–1952 (Signature Books)
  • John A. Widtsoe Speeches (BYU)
  • A Rational Theology (Project Gutenberg)
  • Tales from the Archives 3: The 1934-5 Newspaper Proxy Wars and Writing Hot (Ben Spackman)

Brief Biographies Series

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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