On John A. Widtsoe

John A. Widtsoe was an influential apostle and theologian in the Church who came from a scientific background. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, biographer Thomas G. Alexander discussed the life and contributions of this apostle-scientist. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.

Thomas Alexander offered a succinct summary of who John A. Widtsoe was:

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.

Thomas Alexander also explained more about the ways in which Widtsoe was a world-famous chemist:

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 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. …

Widtsoe’s writings on irrigated agriculture and dry farming still provide information that is useful to farmers in carrying on their activities.

His research on farming in dry climates was important in establishing the best approaches to irrigation in those regions.

As a Church leader, Widtsoe also made some contributions, including keeping Europe open to missionary work:

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. …

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. …

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.

Born in Norway and known around the world for his scientific and administrative accomplishments, Widtsoe was an ideal candidate for this mission.

The other major contribution of John A. Widtsoe to the Church was his theological writings:

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

Many of the essays he wrote in Evidences and Reconciliations are still useful in our understanding of Latter-day Saint doctrine.

Not every doctrinal writing that Widtsoe produced was accepted or has remained uncontroversial:

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. …

John and Leah [Dunford Widtsoe, his wife] 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.

So, scientific knowledge has shifted from the type he was working to reconcile with his beliefs, while his work with the Word of Wisdom was seen as excessive, even in his own time.

For more on John A. Widtsoe, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview with Thomas G. Alexander. While you’re there, take some time to explore the new Harold B. Lee Quotes page!

1 comment for “On John A. Widtsoe

  1. thx for this post.

    BTW, the OP mentions a co-author ‘Leah’, but probably due to the condensing necessary in a copost does not say who that is. So this from the larger post:

    “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.”

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