Methodist Women Missionaries Worked Hard in Utah

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, October 1996

Image shows the Methodist Church and Women’s Home Missionary Society in Moroni. Two deaconesses are on the porch.

Among the national endeavors of Methodist women was the Women’s Home Missionary Society (WHMS) which trained female teachers, nurses, and missionaries whom it sent to the southern states, New Mexico, and other regions. From 1880 to 1890 the number one recipient of WHMS funds and woman power was Utah.

Methodist male missionaries first came to Corinne, Utah, in 1870, when the little community was still a major railroad junction and boomtown. From Corinne, Methodism spread throughout northern Utah and later the rest of the state.

The very winter of WHMS’s founding two women missionaries arrived in Utah to teach at the Salt Lake Seminary. Soon others followed to assist ministers in Methodist churches and schools in Ogden, Tooele, and Park City. Over the next decade the Methodists established schools in Grantsville, Spanish Fork, Moroni, Mount Pleasant, Spring City, Ephraim, Richfield, and Elsinore. They usually built a single building that doubled as both chapel and school for, like the Presbyterians, they discovered that even tiny schools provided “open sesame” to Mormon homes and a community influence proselytizing could not produce.

Throughout the 1880s and 90s Utah Methodism’s force of women missionaries varied between 10 and 15. Most of them assisted a male minister, but in smaller towns the ladies often worked by themselves, even holding Sunday services and delivering sermons. Most were single and thus able to devote their entire energies to one- to two-year missions. A few married while in the Utah mission field. And many developed trusting relationships with the Mormons among whom they worked. A Miss Baker, while teaching in Moroni, was asked on two separate occasions to give a talk at a Mormon funeral.

Obtaining converts in Mormon country was never easy. One approach used by Utah Methodists was to appeal to ethnic groups. They estimated, for instance, that one-third of the 46,000 Scandinavians who had immigrated to Utah were disaffected with Mormonism: “This indicates the possibilities which existed of attracting [them] to other Christian faiths.” For a time, a separate Scandinavian Mission existed comprising Utah, Idaho, Montana, California, Oregon, and Washington. Richfield, said to be two-thirds Scandinavian, was an outpost of this mission.

Later WHMS workers served Utah’s Italian and Chinese populations. They organized English classes for Chinese immigrants. For Salt Lake City Catholics in about 1917, Methodist women established a whole core of outreach programs: sewing and language classes, a kindergarten as well as “Kitchen garten,” mother’s conference, Red Cross office, and their own branch of the city public library. In this way Methodist emissaries made many friends and did much good, although they ultimately found that “Working with the Roman Catholic Italians was no less demanding that it had been to work with the Scandinavian Mormons and, in terms of conversions, was no more successful.”

Although most of these missionaries went quietly about their work, a few were outspoken warriors for national Methodism’s campaign against polygamy. Missionary Angie Newman wrote and lectured with some success against the appointment of a Mormon army chaplain and the seating of two Mormon polygamists in Congress. She was also the guiding force behind the Salt Lake Industrial Home for polygamous wives.

Other WHMS boarding houses were more successful than the Industrial Home. Boarding houses established in Utah included the Davis, Thompson, Philadelphia, East Ohio, Gurley, and Columbus homes located from Logan to Elsinore. Each was named either for a prominent Methodist worker or a donor or group of donors who had made the home possible.

Methodist women missionaries may have made few converts in Utah, but they succeeded in assisting many young women and immigrants and in paving the way for Utah’s public school system and hastening the decline of Mormon polygamy.

Source: The First Century of the Methodist Church in Utah (Salt Lake City: Utah Methodism Centennial Committee, 1970).