Utah History Encyclopedia


By H. Jeffrey Silliman

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.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994.