“John A. Widtsoe—Master Teacher,” Friend, May 1990, 48
The baby boy born to John Anderson Widtsoe and Anna Karine Gaarden Widtsoe came into this world with his wrist attached to the side of his head. He was their first child, and there was some doubt that he would live. But after a crude surgical operation to release the arm, the boy survived. They named him John Andreas Widtsoe, and thus began the life of a remarkable man whose warmth and generosity as a master teacher influenced the lives of countless people for good throughout the world.
When young John was about two, his family moved from storm-lashed Froya, the outermost island off the coast of Norway, to Namos on the mainland. Their new home was about 80 miles (128 km) north of Trondheim, the ancient capital of Norway. Here John’s father could expand his opportunities as a schoolmaster. A second son, Aasbjorn (later Osborne) Johannes Peder Widtsoe, was born in Namos. But within weeks of this birth, disaster struck—the boys’ father died suddenly, the result of a knotted intestine.
Anna and her two boys moved to Trondheim to be near her in-laws. However, she maintained her independence by living in a rented apartment, where she eked out a living as a seamstress. Anna was anxious that John should follow in his father’s footsteps, and one of her husband’s schoolfellows offered to tutor the bright seven-year-old, launching the lad on his astounding career as a scholar/teacher.
One day when John’s shoes were delivered from the shoemaker, Anna found a Latter-day Saint missionary tract tucked inside each shoe. The tracts sparked her curiosity, and when another pair of shoes needed repairing, she took them to the shoemaker herself to find out the meaning of the tracts. After finishing her business with the shoemaker’s wife, Anna was told that the shoemaker would explain what the tracts meant.
“You may be surprised to hear me say that I can give you something of more value than soles for your child’s shoes,” (John A. Widtsoe, In the Gospel Net, page 54) the shoemaker boldly declared to Anna.
She was perplexed and told the man that he spoke in riddles. But he pleaded with her to listen and said that he could teach her about the Lord’s true plan of salvation for His children.
Anna couldn’t forget her conversation with the humble, courageous shoemaker. And as other tracts came from the shoemaker, she struggled mightily, for she knew her Bible well. She worried about the new concepts and certain points of doctrine. But after attending meetings with the missionaries and other Saints over the next two years, she accepted the gospel and was baptized.
When Anna’s joy over her conversion wasn’t shared by friends and relatives and when she couldn’t persuade them to accept the gospel, she decided to emigrate to the United States with a group of Norwegian Saints intent on going to Zion. It was 1883, and in the fall of that year she arrived in Logan, Utah. She was determined that her family’s first obligation should be to Heavenly Father because of His many blessings to them. Her next obligation was to see that her boys received the best education possible.
John, then eleven, was extremely bright and a quick learner. Soon he was fluent in the new language. The little family’s plans suffered a setback one day soon after their arrival, when John was attacked by a rabid dog and confined to his bed for six weeks. After his recovery, he continued his education and worked part-time. His mother worked at her dressmaking, and she helped support the boys’ schooling with her sewing and with small earnings from some property that she had managed to buy.
At seventeen, John registered at Brigham Young College in Logan. Two years later he graduated, and soon after that, he boarded a train bound for Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Harvard University. The venture was financed by bank loans and mortgages against his mother’s property. It was at Harvard that John met his future wife, Leah Eudora Dunford, who attended classes there one summer. In 1894 John graduated in chemistry with highest honors and accepted a job as professor of chemistry and as chemist at the experiment station at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in Logan.
John conducted thousands of experiments to find ways to make arid lands more productive, and he held meetings with farmers throughout the state to share the results of his improved methods. He was as fine a teacher as he was a researcher. He had a gift for teaching, and he and his students enjoyed each other’s company. He challenged them to become achievers, and they became as excited about discovering truths as their mentor.
John married Eudora in 1898. Then after studying physiological chemistry (now biochemistry) in Goettingen, Germany, on a Harvard fellowship, he became an international authority in agricultural chemistry for areas with harsh climates. He became president of Utah Agricultural College and later the president of the University of Utah. His teaching, writing, and organizational ability were recognized within the Church and utilized at the same time that he was getting his academic training. He authored over thirty books, devised concordances, and wrote numerous pamphlets and study courses for the Church.
In 1921 John A. Widtsoe was called to be an Apostle. “Truth,” he said, “had always been my first love. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I had found, used, and enjoyed truth.” He was appointed Commissioner of Church Education, and later he served as president of the British and European missions. Occasionally he continued to serve on agricultural commissions and as an agricultural consultant in the United States and abroad.
Only three of the Widtsoes’ seven children lived to adulthood, and one of these, a son, died when he was twenty-four.
Near the end of an unimaginably productive life, Elder Widtsoe expressed this humble desire: “I hope it will be said of me I have tried to live unselfishly, to serve God and my fellow man, and [to] use my time and talents industriously for the advancement of the human good” (John A. Widtsoe, In a Sunlit Land, page 244).