THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN UTAH
First Pressbyterian Church, Salt Lake, 1907
The Presbyterian Church made its most significant impact in the lives of
the people of Utah through education, but the basic work of establishing
congregations began first. The first Presbyterian congregation was organized
in Corinne. A pastor arrived to begin work in June 1896, just one month
after the golden spike was driven on nearby Promontory Point. The going
wasn't easy early on, but the Corrine congregation was finally officially
organized on 14 July 1870 under the leadership of the Reverend Edward Bayliss,
and the Presbyterians had a toehold in Utah.
A second congregation followed in Salt Lake City in the fall of 1871, when
the First Presbyterian Church was officially organized on 12 November under
the leadership of the Reverend Josiah Welch. A third congregation was established
in the rip-roaring mining town of Alta in the summer of 1873 with Rev. J.P.
Schell as pastor. A school for the children of the town was opened that
fall in the new church building.
These new Presbyterian congregations were a result of the expansive vision,
sturdy faith, and seemingly inexhaustible energy of the Reverend Sheldon
Jackson, Superintendent of Missions for Iowa, Nebraska, Dakota, Montana,
Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. He was appointed to that position less than
a month before the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Jackson
was a man of action, and in his first year of work he traveled 22,690 miles
by railroad, stagecoach, horseback, and on foot, and Presbyterian congregations
were established in many parts of the American West.
The decade from 1875 to 1884 was one of expansion for the Presbyterian Church
in Utah, and education moved to the forefront. There were no public schools
in Utah until 1890. Jackson, Welch, Schell, and other Presbyterian leaders
concluded that there was need for a better quality of education for the
children of Utah than was offered in the private Mormon schools then available.
The school in Alta was the first attempt to develop this idea. Unfortunately,
neither the school nor the church were ever reopened after the church's
building was burned down in the fire that destroyed virtually the entire
town of Alta on 4 August 1878.
The next attempt to develop schools began with the arrival of the Reverend
Duncan J. McMillan at Mt. Pleasant in 1875. Many of the town's residents
were Scandinavian converts to the Mormon Church, and some had become disillusioned
and left it. They built a building, which they named Liberal Hall, and let
it be known that any evangelical minister was welcome to use it. Recruited
by Jackson, McMillan arrived on 3 March and immediately arranged to purchase
the hall and open a school.
McMillan had been Superintendent of Schools in Carlinville, Illinois, before
coming west at Jackson's urging. He planned to open the school two weeks
after his arrival. Due to subtle opposition, it took more time, but the
school finally opened on 19 April with fifty-four pupils. It was called
Wasatch Academy. Opposition quickly became open. Mormon Church President
Brigham Young soon personally instructed his people to unite and drive McMillan
from the community. Forty pupils were immediately withdrawn from the school,
but McMillan stayed.
Ironically, the fierce opposition of the Mormon hierarchy only served to
McMillan's efforts in the long run. People from towns near and far like
Spring City, Ephraim, Nephi, Monroe, and Parowan heard of his work and appealed
to him to establish schools in their towns. Over time, schools were established
in all of these towns and in many others. Churches grew up alongside most
of the schools, including the First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Pleasant,
organized on 11 January 1880.
The education strategy of the Presbyterians was being simultaneously implemented
in Salt Lake City. Professor J.M. Coyner arrived to establish a school in
the facilities of the First Presbyterian Church. It opened on 12 April 1875
with sixty-three pupils, and it was called the Salt Lake Collegiate Institute.
However, Presbyterian Church denominational policies hindered the development
of more schools by restricting the flow of mission monies from women's missionary
societies and by refusing to allow the appointment of single women as missionary
teachers. Jackson and the Presbytery of Utah (a presbytery is a regional
governing body of the denomination) successfully petitioned the General
Assembly (the national governing body of the denomination) for a policy
change. As a result, money and teachers became more available.
Between 1877 and 1884, thirty-three schools were started, most of them with
single women teachers, and most of them funded with money received through
the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions from women's missionary societies.
It appealed strongly to Presbyterian women in the Midwest and East to help
minister to Mormon women, some of whom were living in polygamy, through
the education of their children.
New congregations grew up alongside the new schools, but sometimes they
were established first, with the schools following. Congregations were established
in Bingham Canyon (1875), American Fork (1876), Manti (1878), Brigham City
(1878), Ogden (1878), Logan (1878), Springville (1880), and Payson (1883).
McMillan became Superintendent of Missions for Utah, Idaho, and Montana
in March 1880. He developed a master plan for educational mission outreach
built around establishing primary day schools in every major geographic
area and population center in Utah. Six regional secondary schools called
academies would educate those wanting further education. A college, to be
established in Salt Lake City, was to be the capstone of the system.
By 1884 thirty-three day schools and two academies, Wasatch Academy and
the Salt Lake Collegiate Institute, were in operation. In 1885 the Hungerford
Academy was opened in Springville, and in 1891 the New Jersey Academy was
opened in Logan. Plans for academies in Parowan and Richfield didn't materialize.
In 1890 the territorial legislature passed the public school act, and this
was the death knell for Presbyterian schools in Utah. One by one the day
schools closed. Hungerford Academy closed and merged with Wasatch Academy
in 1913; New Jersey Academy followed suit in 1934. Sheldon Jackson College,
which had developed out of the Salt Lake Collegiate Institute in 1897, was
reorganized in 1902 and renamed Westminster College. It moved to its present
site in 1911. Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant and Westminster College are
the only two surviving Presbyterian schools of the forty-one established
beginning in 1873.
As the public school system developed, Presbyterians were in a position
to contribute significant leadership and did so. The first superintendent
of public schools in Salt Lake City was J.F. Millspaugh, Superintendent
of the Salt Lake Collegiate Institute.
As schools closed, so did many of the congregations. These closures were
partially offset by the organization of Westminster (1889) and Third (1892)
churches in Salt Lake City, as well as congregations in Green River (1906),
Ferron (1906), Myton (1907), and Delta (1914). The congregation in Ferron
later closed and the one in Green River left the Presbyterian Church in
the late 1950s.
In 1924 Japanese congregations were established jointly with the Congregational
Church in Salt Lake City and Ogden. In the late 1970s the Community of Christ
Presbyterian Church (1978) was organized in Salt Lake City. The Korean Presbyterian
Church of Utah (1980) in Salt Lake City, Community of Grace Presbyterian
Church (1983) in Sandy, and Westminster Presbyterian Church in Kaysville
(1986) followed. The United Church of Kanab, developed in partnership with
the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, and the United Church
of Christ, was also organized in 1986. Finally, the Good Shepherd Presbyterian
Church in St. George was officially organized in February 1988 and has been
growing steadily ever since.
In 1930, the Presbyterian Church changed its national constitution to allow
the election of women to the office of elder. Elders, in partnership with
ministers of the Word, provide leadership and governance for the church
at all levels (the name "Presbyterian" comes from presbyter,
the Greek word for elder). Elders elected by local congregations comprise
the Session, the governing board of the congregation. Elders and ministers
of the Word elected by presbyteries comprise the General Assembly each year.
The 1931 Presbyterian General Assembly in Pittsburgh had five women commissioners,
one of whom was from Utah, Mrs. B.J. (Mina) Silliman of Green River.
Since the early days in Utah, the Presbyterian Church has always worked
cooperatively with other Protestant churches. The most significant expression
of this ecumenical spirit began in 1970 when the Presbyterian Church and
the United Methodist Church formed the United Ministries Council. By 1977
the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist churches, and the Christian
Church (Disciples of Christ) had joined the council and the name of the
group association became Shared Ministry in Utah. The African Methodist
Episcopal Church became the sixth partner in January 1990. Programs, statewide
mission outreach, and coordination of the resources of local congregations
of these denominations in Utah is carried out through Shared Ministry. Utah
is the only place in the United States where this kind of partnership in
ministry is being carried out in this way.
See: George K. Davies, A History of the Presbyterian Church in Utah (1947);
Clifford M. Drury, Presbyterian Panorama: One Hundred and Fifty Years
of National Missions History (1952); and Robert L. Stewart, Sheldon
H. Jeffrey Silliman