Eliza Tupper Wilkes: Prairie Pastor

Dakota Territory's Eliza Tupper Wilkes: Prairie Pastor.

by Doug Chapman

This is Doug's paper from the opening day of the Dakota Conference on History, Literature, Art, and Archaeology, May 25, 2000. It was held in the Madsen Center at Augustana College and was sponsored by the South Dakota Humanities Council and the Center for Western Studies.

In 1863, the Civil War was going strong; Fort Wadsworth, later renamed Fort Sisseton, was being constructed on the coteau des prairie near Kettle Lakes, Dakota Territory; and Olympia Brown was ordained a minister of the faith in St. Lawrence, NY-—the first woman to be seminary ordained.

It had only been ten years earlier that the very first woman, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, was ordained at all. She was ordained by the congregation of her Congregational Church, September 15, 1853, in South Butler, New York. Since this action was taken without the approval of--indeed, in spite of grave protests by the Congregational General Conference, in order to be able to marry people legally, she joined the Unitarian Church. She went on to write eight books on religion and to help her friends Julia Ward Howe and Susan B. Anthony on suffrage tours.

She had been a very bright, articulate student and so moved the church elders that she was accepted to full membership at the age of nine due to her impassioned public confession of belief. As the only authorized woman delegate to the Temperance Convention in New York City in 1853, she was shouted down each time she arose to speak, because she was a woman.

Thus, when Eliza Smith Tupper was ordained May 2,1871, in Rochester, MN, she was in the first wave of women to be allowed into the professionally trained ministry. She fared little better than Antoinette at first. It had been Quaker friends who encouraged the young Eliza, who wanted to enter missionary work, but it was the Universalists who allowed her into seminary. The Universalists were the first, and at that time the only denomination to matriculate women. The early vituperative bombast written about women in seminary is nothing short of infuriating to read. Women's desire to vote was nothing compared to the vehemence allotted to this perceived effrontery.

Eliza had been born Eliza Smith Tupper in Houlton, Maine on October 8, 1844. Now, those who have visited only the beautiful Acadian coast and coastal islands of Maine, would be astonished at Houlton. It is very far north, near the eastern border with New Brunswick, Canada. Today this is potato country. Enormous warehouses stock vast quantities of potatoes for the pre-packaged markets–instant buds, dehydrated, instant au gratins, etc. It is rural and poor. In the middle of the nineteenth century, logging was the local industry, but it was no less poor. Her father, a liberal Baptist minister of Mayflower pedigree, looked after the needs of these isolated rustics.

Her mother, Ellen Smith Tupper, was from another very old New England family-–the Smiths of Rhode Island. By 1630, the Smiths were an established farming family in Sandwich, Massachusetts at the head of Cape Cod. Even 200 years later, in the 1830s and 1840s, the Cape was remote, isolated and dotted with small fishing villages, cranberry bogs and the occasional estate of the landed gentry. It was not the summer playground with well-paved Robert Frost-like roads it has become today. Even so, Sandwich was a hotbed of liberal thought for young Ellen Smith and a fertile ground for the development of a woman who was to go on to be the country’s foremost expert on bee keeping, specializing in Italian bees. She edited and wrote major articles for the national apiary magazine, American Bee Journal. Her daughter(s) had a great role model.

When Eliza was six years old, the family moved to Brighton, Washington County, IA, where her father wanted to work with the Indian population. In 1850, this was the Western Wilderness. But with typical Yankee zeal, in spite of luxurious beginnings, the Tuppers adapted and grew to love their new frontier home—though the family must have thought little of the available education. At 16, Eliza was sent to the academy in Calais (CAL-us), Maine, for her high school education. She lived with her maternal grandfather, Noah Smith, who may also have taught at Calais Academy. He was at one time Governor of Maine.

She returned to Pella, Iowa, to study for missionary work at the recently founded Baptist school, Iowa Central University. She graduated in 1866 with honors. This school was sold to the Reformed Church in the period 1900-1907 and renamed Central College. It is today a major teaching unit of the Reformed Church in America.

After graduation, the young Eliza, fervent in her desire to help those less fortunate than herself, and after many dinner discussions with Quaker friends she had made in this time, made a major decision. She would enter a seminary and study for the ministry. One display of her quick, quiet wit: when Eliza became a Universalist, she was quoted saying she had "left the devil behind."

As stated, women in seminary was a very new concept, and then as now, there were many who thought it was heretical and downright blasphemous to entertain the thought that women had a right to preach from a divinity school background.

She managed a very strong personal life while in divinity studies. While in Neenah, Wisconsin, she married a young lawyer, William Wilkes, in November, 1869. For health reasons, the young couple moved to Colorado Springs, CO, and she started a small group, founding the first of at least 11 churches and religious societies... and their first child was born.

After the young couple moved to Rochester, MN, Eliza was ordained, on May 2, 1871. She immediately went to work. As a lone missionary, traveling the countryside without benefit of denomination, she aided all the remote and isolated people she could. Traveling by horse and buggy, crossing streams without bridges, was just another challenge for this formidable woman.

In 1878, the Wilkes’ moved to Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory, where he became a very successful lawyer and then a Minnehaha County judge. Her parents followed and "homesteaded" in Dakota Territory near the Iowa village of Beloit, where her two younger sisters attended school. They both were later to join her as Unitarian ministers of the prairie.

William Wilkes support was vital in Eliza’s career. Every one knows that behind every successful woman is a good man. Without his support, financial (for which I make no apology; George Washington did not mow his own lawn) and morale, she could never have founded Unitarian churches in: Palo Alto and Alameda, CA, Madison, Huron, Miner (Fedora), Sioux Falls, DT, Luverne and Adrian, MN, and Rock Rapids, IA. Most without much aid from any denomination. The Universalists and Unitarians (who had begun to grudgingly ordain women) pretty much stuck their controversial new female pastorate out on the prairie, far away from the populated churches. Presumably out here, they could cause less of a stir.

She was also the guiding influence in the founding of the Ladies’ History Club, now the Sioux Falls Woman’s Club, a member of the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs, a national organization.

With her husband’s help, she filled the gap for those in this new town who wished to read. Her work with literacy for young women made her particularly popular with them, and a target for the men opposed to womens’ suffrage. The Reading Club became the Carnegie Public Library and Eliza and William Wilkes contributed the first $50 for books. Eliza was appointed a committee of one to buy the first books.

Eliza founded All Souls Church in Sioux Falls, DT, in 1886, but had for several years held services of liberal thinkers in her home and in the Congregational and Methodist Church buildings. Although the Sioux Falls Church of All Souls was Eliza’s home church, she turned over the pulpit to the very able Carolyn Bartlett, another member of the Iowa sisterhood, and turned most of her professional attention to the church in Luverne, MN. What a commitment that must have been in the 1890s. When you drive to Luverne sometime, count the bridges that we now whiz over without a thought... not to mention the small streams that now flow through culverts underneath the road. The dirt trails then must have been a real challenge in the muds of spring, the dusts of summer, the bugs of fall, and the ice of winter. Summer heat must have presented just as many unpleasant trips as winter cold, especially in the womens’ attire of the period.

Eliza Tupper Wilkes was the first ordained woman to function in Dakota Territory, paving the way for many other denominations to fill our churches with the thoughts and talents of women. She was the first woman to preach at the Stanford University Chapel—in May, 1895. Her sermon was titled "Character in the Light of Evolution." In addition, she was the mother of six successful children: at least five of them in partnership owned many theatres around the entire nation and were instrumental in the creation of the film industry in Hollywood. These are the children Eliza is said to have taken camping at the Universalist Revival grounds in lower Sherman Park, a spot now occupied by Westward Ho Country Club. She was an Associate Pastor at First Unitarian Church, Oakland, CA, and continually made herself available to fill in all over the nation as health and time permitted.

Eliza was also known as a gracious hostess for the many guests Judge Wilkes must have entertained. Her death certificate from Atlantic City, NJ, of February 5, 1917, merely says "housewife." After creating and growing more in her lifetime than many of us can dream of, against formidable odds most of do not face, it seems "housewife," —however grand a function that certainly is,—"housewife" just doesn’t cover her accomplishments.

In 1996, the Fund for Unitarian Universalism, the All Souls Church, the South Dakota State Historical Society and the Minnehaha County Historical Society erected a marker for her at the site of her Sioux Falls Church, 12th Street and Dakota Avenue, just south of the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Sciences. She is buried, without a marker, in the family plot at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Sioux Falls, SD. Her parents, one son and her husband are buried with her. In 2000, work is progressing on a grave marker for her, but for the present, the company of family is no doubt satisfactory for this modest, gentle woman of the prairie.

The Iowa Sisterhood which helped Eliza become an important prairie pastor, was, alas, short-lived. The climate that created it was soon replaced by a vehement reaction against women in the pulpit. Some of the writing is so hateful to read that I don’t include any here.

The societies died on the vine and the strength of the Unitarians and Universalists never became strong in this area. New England’s smallest towns have a Unitarian Church and small rural hamlets in the Deep South have their Universalist churches. But the Midwest has only a handful of these churches left. Churches founded by the good graces and modest demeanor of Eliza Tupper Wilkes and her fellow women in the Iowa Sisterhood are now all gone. The Sioux Falls’ All Souls Church was reborn in the 1950s with the old name. Eliza is still enthusiastically considered the founder. One of the few remaining small churches founded in this period on the plains is in Hanska, MN. The church in Palo Alto, CA, is the only church Eliza Tupper Wilkes founded which has been in continuous existence.

Let us hear a few words from Eliza. I will quote briefly from a treatise she wrote entitled "Is Unitarianism Adapted to the Masses?" printed in the April 2, 1887, edition of Unity Magazine. It is in response to a comment made by a certain Mr. Brown who was evidently rather overly proud, some might even say snooty. He was presumably the reverend of a congregation in the East. Mr. Brown said: "For a certain portion of the unchurched in this country, our form of faith is undoubtedly too simple and too much lacking in purely emotional power." Imagine this response being delivered by the feminine voice, at a time when women’s voices were just plain never heard in church pulpits:

"The heresy in this question is widespread. The feeling that our gospel is for the few, hampers all our missionary work. Who are the masses? Do we mean the unlettered people who are doing the world’s rough work? The overburdened men and women whose bodies are deformed by toil, and minds dwarfed by disuse? … If these starving souls are reaching for something... have we no food?

. . If for all these "weary and heavy laden", Unitarianism has no rest, then so much the worse for Unitarianism. If ours is philosophy for the cultured few, if we have to offer a rose-colored bed of ease for dilettantes in religion, if, instead of food for the hungry, we have only delicacies for epicures, then our end is at hand

Our simple message is intended for the weakest, most despondent of the All-Father. I wonder not that they who believe in man’s total depravity and fall, his everlasting condemnation, should hesitate to approach the lowest prodigal; but for us with our faith in man, with our message of hope and good cheer, where can we hesitate? Into the lowest hell of remorse we may go to cry,

. . "Look up, you are God’s child; there is hope, there is help for you."

. . Into the darkest night of sorrow we may take the light, "God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world."

Alas, how sad, if by our stammering we fail to deliver the message for which the weary "masses" are waiting! If it fail to reach them, let us blame neither the message nor the people, but our bungling delivery. "How did you like that sermon?" was asked a farmer of one of our church-door pulpit tracts. "Wahl, the fodder was a leetle too high in the rack." Let us lower the rack, brethren, before we condemn the fodder."