“John and Leah Widtsoe,” Church History Topics
“John and Leah Widtsoe”
John Andreas Widtsoe and Leah Eudora Dunford Widtsoe were a prominent Latter-day Saint couple in the early 20th century. While John worked as a scientist and academic administrator and later served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Leah earned advanced degrees in home economics and was a prolific author. Both wrote articles and prepared materials for Church publications. They saw their marriage as a full partnership that included professional collaboration, Church service, and raising their children.
John was born in 1872 in Norway and immigrated to the United States in 1883 with his mother, Anna Widtsoe, and his brother Osborne. Anna had joined the Church in Norway three years before, and John himself was baptized after the family settled in Logan, Utah. He worked during the day and found teachers to tutor him at night until he could attend Brigham Young College in Logan at age 17. Impressed by John’s potential, college principal Joseph M. Tanner arranged for John to join a group of young men after graduation whom Tanner helped to enroll at Harvard University in Massachusetts. 1 After graduating summa cum laude in chemistry in 1894, John returned to Logan as a researcher at the Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University). 2
Leah, daughter of Susa Young Gates and Alma Dunford and granddaughter of Brigham Young, was born in 1874. She earned a teaching certificate from the University of Utah in 1896 and continued her education at the esteemed Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where she studied domestic science. She pursued further graduate studies at Brigham Young University and in 1897 replaced her mother as head of the domestic science department. 3 Leah promoted an expansive view of homemaking, affirming that “all the learning in the world can be applied and centralized in the home.” 4
John and Leah met through the influence of Leah’s mother, Susa Young Gates. Susa became acquainted with John during the summer she spent in Massachusetts studying English with a Harvard-affiliated program in 1892. Impressed with the aspiring scholar, she arranged for Leah to join Maud May Babcock and a group of young women set to study speech and drama in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the following summer so Leah could meet John in person. As Susa had hoped, they were attracted to each other and exchanged letters over the next several years. 5 In June 1898, Leah and John were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple by Joseph F. Smith. Shortly thereafter, the newlyweds set sail for Germany so John could complete doctoral studies at the University of Göttingen and build expertise in soil science. 6
After returning to the United States, John began a distinguished academic career. He held various positions, including director of the Utah Experiment Station and professor of chemistry at Utah State Agricultural College; director of the agricultural department at Brigham Young University; president of Utah State Agricultural College; and president of the University of Utah. In 1921, five years into his tenure as president of the University of Utah, John was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As an Apostle, John helped shape education in the Church through his positions on the board of trustees for Brigham Young University and the Church’s board of education. 7
Throughout his apostolic service and professional career, John sought to help Latter-day Saints embrace their faith and Church teachings through scientific reasoning. He wrote several books based on this theme, including Evidences and Reconciliations; A Rational Theology; and Joseph Smith as Scientist. Realizing the need for a comprehensive reference book on priesthood, he published Priesthood and Church Government in 1939 under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve. He also wrote about nutrition for the Young Woman’s Journal and was associate editor of the Improvement Era from 1935 to 1952. 8
Leah’s specialties in home economics and sociology opened doors for her as well. In addition to her faculty position at Brigham Young University, she authored books and articles about cooking and increasing household efficiency. 9 She coauthored a book with John using scientific evidence to support the Word of Wisdom and collaborated with her mother on books about the accomplishments of Latter-day Saint women and the life of Brigham Young. 10 She helped to organize the League of Women Voters in Utah and participated in civic organizations supporting the American war effort during the two world wars. 11 Leah was inducted into the Utah Hall of Fame in 1958.
In 1927 John and Leah were called to preside over the European Mission. While serving as a mission president, John wrote missionary tracts and helped shape curriculum for youth. Both John and Leah were instrumental in bolstering the Mutual Improvement Association programs for young Latter-day Saints in Europe. 12 Leah served as the Relief Society president of the European Mission and oversaw the activities and curriculum of Relief Societies throughout Europe. Her role included facilitating the distribution and translation of Church materials. 13
The Widtsoes had seven children, but only three lived past infancy: their oldest daughter, Anne; their youngest daughter, Eudora; and a son, Marsel, who died as a young man. John passed away in 1952 at the age of 80. Before Leah died in 1965, she said, “Don’t weep for me when I die. I’ll be singing glad hosannas as I go to meet my loved ones.” 14