John Andreas Widtsoe was born on 31 January 1872, on the island of Froen, Trondhjem, Norway, to John A. and Anna C. Gaarden Widtsoe. He became one of Utah's most distinguished scholars, educators, scientists, and spiritual leaders. Widtsoe joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1881 when his widowed mother became converted to the church. In 1883 he left Norway with his mother and younger brother, Osborne for Utah, where they established their home in Logan. He attended Brigham Young College in Logan where he graduated in 1891. He then entered Harvard University and graduated with high honors in 1894.
After graduation, Widtsoe returned to Logan to teach chemistry from 1894 to 1898 at the Utah State Agricultural College (Utah State University). Awarded the Parker Traveling Scholarship, he traveled to Germany where he obtained a Ph.D. from the University of Goettingen in 1899. Upon his return to Utah in 1900, he was appointed director of the Utah Experiment Station. He held that position until 1905 when he became director of the Department of Agriculture at Brigham Young University in Provo. Two years later he was chosen president of the Utah State Agricultural College, a position which he held until 1916 when he became President of the University of Utah.
After serving as president of the University of Utah from 1916 to 1921, Widtsoe was called to be one of the twelve apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a position which he held until his death on 29 November 1952. In 1898, just prior to his departure for Europe, he married Leah Eudora Dunford. Seven children were born to the couple.
As a scholar and scientist, Widtsoe is best known for his book Dry Farming, A System of Agriculture for Countries Under Low Rainfall. Published in 1911, the book remains the definitive work on dry farming throughout the world. In 1920, he wrote The Principles of Irrigation Practice. Widstoe organized farmers' institutes, dry farming congresses, and was the leading force in promoting this new agricultural system throughout Utah.
As an educator, he is the only person to serve as president of Utah's two oldest public institutions of higher education, Utah State University and the University of Utah. He also served two terms as president of the Utah Education Association, served on the State Board of Education, was appointed Commissioner of Church Education for the LDS Church, and was instrumental in the establishment of that church's high school seminary program.
His public service included membership on the Utah Council of Defense and chairman of the Food Production Committee of Salt Lake City During World War I, president of the Utah State Historical Society, and director of the Genealogical Society.
As a spiritual leader, he emphasized the search for truth and the need for an intelligent understanding of church doctrine and principles rather than simple blind obedience. This approach was followed during his tenure as editor of The Improvement Era, the primary monthly publication of the LDS Church, and in his numerous church books and articles, among which include: Joseph Smith as Scientist (1908), Rational Theology (1915), In Search of Truth (1930), Priesthood and Church Government (1939) and Evidences and Reconciliations (1943).
See: John A. Widtsoe, In a Sunlit Land (1952); and John A. Widtsoe, In The Gospel Net: The Story of Anna Karine Gaarden Widtsoe (1941).
Allan Kent Powell