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.