John A. Widtsoe, Apostle of Irrigation

Mormons, after their arrival in the arid Salt Lake Valley, found that they needed to control nature; for exmple they needed irrigation to support their growing population. And the more they controlled nature, the more more they needed science and technology. At some risk to its conservative theological base, the church sent its young people away to get the best training possible.


John A. Widtsoe is a case in point. Born in Norway in 1872, he migrated with his mother to Utah, grew up in the faith, and later went off to study chemistry at Harvard. He understood that the Mormon mission was “to conquer the desert in terms of processes based on scientific study.” His commitment to that conquest was, in the words of the Church’s press, “ardent and appropriate.” As a reward for his leadership and commitment, he was given leadership positions: college president, member of the Church’s Quorum of Twelve Apostles, etc. At the same time, he helped lay the foundations for modern irrigation science. In 1914, he published his treatise The Principles of Irrigation.

Widtsoe served on several boards and commissions relating to water development. In 1921, the governor placed him on the State Water Storage Board, on which he remained until its dissolution in 1941. In 1947, the Utah Water and Power Board, with a revolving fund with which to work, was authorized and Widtsoe was appointed a member. According to Widtsoe, this board provided “the magnificnet opportunity to continue the work of the pioneers.” In 1922, he was appointed to a national fact finders committee to investigate the problems associated with some U.S. Bureau of Reclamation irrigation projects. Upon his arriveal in Washington D.C., he was made vice-chairman and secretary of the committee.

In a talk at the Church’s semi-annual conference in April 1952, Apostle Widtsoe explained that he had miissed the previous conference because of his participation in a Canadian commission examining a proposed irrigation project in Saskatchewan. He used this lead-in to make some poignant comparison between the gospel and irrigation. But before that he bragged a little (1952):

. . . our people (Mormons) came here (Utah) and for the first time in the history of civilization demonstrated that a successful manner of community living might be built with an irrigation ditch. In this State, from which we have spread over the West and are spreading over the world, has come the birth of modern irrigation. Most countries which lie in part under low rainfall have snet agents or representatives here to find out what we did and how we did it, and whether they can do it also. We have a worldwide reputation in reclaiming desert lands by the use of water.

He was also proud of the twentieth-century research that had been going on at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University): “. . . we have the honor of being not only the generators of modern-day irrigation, but also of placing the ancient art on a modern scientific basis.” While Widtsoe overstates his case, the Mormons had a right to be proud of their accomplishments.

Widtsoe concludes his conference speech by comparing irrigation to the Mormon gospel:

The weavers of the midlands in England, the coal miners of Wales, the fishermen in Norway, the trudging farmers of Denmark, very common ordinary people, who accept the gospel from the lips of some humble Mormon missionary become so charged by those enlightening truths of the gospel that they are not the same people any longer. They have been fertilized, so to speak, by the Spirit of God that from eternal truth, just as in irrigation the barren, dry soil is fertilized by diverting the stream of water from the irrigation ditch onto the thirsty land.

Just as Mormon church had sent missionaries all over the world to find converts to their religion, they were now poised to send engineers, with the zeal of missionaries, to preach the gospel of scientific irrigation. John A. Widtsoe was the first and most famous of these, but by no means the last. Widtsoe is today enshrined in the Mormon pantheon of intellectual giants.

But the marriage of scientist and religous leader was not always easy. For example, Apostle Widtsoe commented on the possibility of a literal Noah’s flood. One where the whole earth is covered. Despite his comments (strong doubts), the Church is still embroiled in this discussion today. He was also unwittingly caught in the middle of a debate on evolution. Since Widtsoe was a good friend of Joseph Fielding Smith (a strong anti-evolution proponent), he had to walk carefully. While Apostle Widtsoe is a great example of being a church leader and respected scientist, this path has been more difficult for other scientists to follow. There can be a strong disconnect between conservative theology and science. How do deal with this disconnect is the $64K question. In the end, it ends up a very personal decision.

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2 Responses to John A. Widtsoe, Apostle of Irrigation

  1. Roger Hansen says:

    The Mormon church seems to be rediscovering Elder Widtsoe. The following bio appear in the February 2010 Ensign (p. 70):

    “John Andreas Widtsoe was born on January 31, 1872, on the remote, windswept island of Froya. John was 6 when his father died, and John’s mother, Anna, took him and his younger brother to live in Trondheim.

    There Anna was introduced to the restored gospel by a shoemake who left LDS pamphlets in the shoes he repaired for the young widow. It was a bold move by the craftman, who was considered to be of a lower class than the widow of an educator. But Anna’s curiosity was piqued, and she responded to the gospel message.

    In 1883 the Widtsoe family immigrated to Logan UT where young John later enrolled in Brigham Young College. A hard worker and a bright student, he graduated in 1891, studied chemistry at Harvard University, and graduated with highest honors in 1894. While at Harvard, he met Leah Eudora Dunford. They married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1898 and became the parents of seven children, only three of whom lived to adulthood.

    John began his professional career as a professor of chemistry and as a chemist at the experiment station at Utah Agricultural College (now USU) in Logan. He later studied physiological chemistry (biochemistry) in Gottingen, Germany, received a PhD, and became an international authority on agricultural chemistry in harsh climates. He was also a recognized authority on irrigation and dry farming.

    John A. Widtoe served as president of the UAC from 1907 to 1916, when he was named president of the UofU. He served in that capacity until 1921, when he was called to the Quorum of the 12 Apostles.

    Elder Widtose was associate editor of the Improvement Era from 1935 to 1952. He also wrote a number of books that were widely used in the Church, including “Priesthood and Church Government.” He was president of the European Mission from 1926 to 1932, during which time he dedicated Czechoslovakia for the preaching of the gospel.

    Elder Widtsoe died in SLC on November 29, 1952, at the age of 80.

  2. rogerdhansen says:

    According to Ed Firmage Jr. (Light in Darkness):

    “And even if we didn’t have environmental, health, and economic reasons to return to locally grown food, there is a spiritual imperative. People need to be involved in raising their own food as a principle of stewardship. We need to reconnect with the earth as the ground of being. Writing in 1947, apostle John Widtsoe, Mormonism’s great exponent of desert agriculture, expressed the opinion that, “The people who have descended from the pioneers still cherish the thought that the majority of members of the Church are farmers and hope that it may ever be so. . . The earnest belief in farming as the cementing element in all social and economic progress is one of the major contributions to the world of the people who settled the Western American deserts.” (How the Desert Was Tamed. SLC, Deseret Book, 1947, 18, 20)

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