The first eleven churches organized in Eagle Rock/Idaho Falls were:
- First Baptist 1882
- Trinity Methodist 1883
- Catholic 1890
- First Presbyterian 1891
- Swedish Mission 1895
- St. John’s Episcopal 1895
- First Evangelical Lutheran 1898
- Swedish Evangelical Mission 1899
- St. John Lutheran 1909
- First Christian 1915
- Salvation Army 1915.
Prior to completion of the first church building, groups of believers met in homes. People of all denominations attended Rebecca Mitchell’s Sunday school, even Mormons., After completion of the Baptist Church building in November, 1884, it was used by several church groups, and that practice was repeated as other church buildings were constructed and new churches formed. By 1900 there eight churches meeting in the Idaho Falls area, by 1915, eleven, and by 1934, fourteen.
This section contains a few stories of some of the early churches.
Samuel Wishard was a pastor and missionary of the Presbyterian Church. At the request of eight people in Eagle Rock, he came to organize the First Presbyterian Church, with their first meeting on April 29, 1891.
Samuel was born in Johnson County, Indiana in 1825 and grew up on his family’s farm. Reflecting on his childhood, he wrote, “The summers were spent in juvenile efforts to be useful on the farm; the winters were passed in the old log school house, then a dreaded place of imprisonment, now a cherished memory.” Of his family he wrote, “(My) mother of nine children and wife of a toiling husband was for many years the only praying soul in the family. Her prayers were heard and an altar of prayer was erected that kept the fire burning until that home was dissolved.”
At twenty-one years of age, Samuel Wishard was converted through the preaching of evangelist Rev. James McCoy. “In the solitude of a great forest, after hearing McCoy preach, I faced the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ and answered it by ‘believing on the Lord Jesus Christ.’” The evangelist had remarked that he hoped some of the young men who were converted would hear the call to preach, and that became a personal question to Samuel, “Why not you?” The young convert seriously doubted his talents and argued with God. But “He set before me the preciousness of one soul and the privilege of winning the poorest wanderer to Christ. That settled the question sweetly, joyfully, forever.”
With the help of an older minister he was engaged as a pastor in Rushvill, Indiana on New Year’s Day, 1857. The following month he married his longtime friend and sweetheart Sophia Evarts, a teacher and musician. In the next 18 years, Samuel and Sophia had eight children.
Samuel served four and a half years at the church in Rushville, then six years at a church in Michigan, from which 50 men left to fight in the Civil War. After two more pastorates, he spent three years working as a traveling evangelist in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, three years as a pastor in Chicago, four years as Synodical Missionary in Kentucky, three years as pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa, and then 16 years as the Synodical Missionary in Utah and surrounding areas. During this period he made frequent trips into Southeast Idaho.
In 1901, at age 76, he travelled 375 miles in the dead of winter to conduct a week of meetings and establish a church in Salmon. The last 75 miles were by a sled pulled by six horses. Going up a pass the sled became unstable, and Samuel jumped off, ending up being dragged through snow by a rope to the summit.
Three years later he made 66 visits, travelling a total of 4,000 miles, to Pocatello to arouse sufficient interest to start a Presbyterian Church there. In his 16 years as missionary to Utah he was instrumental in organizing 34 different churches in Utah and Idaho, travelling a total of 346,372 miles by rail, stage and mail wagon. According to an article in the Post Register on the 75th anniversary of the First Presbyterian Church in Idaho Falls, 15 of these 34 churches were in Idaho, including churches in Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Rigby, St. Anthony and Salmon.
His remarks about his ministry at a meeting of the Salt Lake City Ministerial Association in 1903 included the following:
“The first lesson learned in (my) ministry was this: Any servant of God whom He has called into the ministry can do the work that God has called him to do, provided he counts God in, goes where and as He leads.”
“Some things were settled in (my) early ministry, among them this – God hears prayer, not only, but He delights to answer prayer. It is His glory and pleasure to hear the cry of His people.”
“Another discovery was made – God can use small men. It is nothing with Him to help, whether with many or with them that have no power. I think we are in danger of not being small enough for God to use us.”
At age 81, he travelled to New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburg to seek funding for a Presbyterian College in Salt Lake City. With funding secured, he retired, but continued to travel and preach. Shortly after retiring to Los Angeles in 1906, he and his wife spent several months with their missionary daughter in China, who had served there with her husband for 30 years. Another one of his daughter was a missionary in China for 40 years. In Los Angeles Rev. Wishard was active in evangelism and preaching up to his death at age 90, in 1915.
The Swedish Mission Churches
Throughout the history of Eagle Rock and Idaho Falls, Jesus has been worshiped in this community in different languages. Several of the most recent church plants in Idaho Falls have been Hispanic churches, and naturally they use Spanish in their services to worship the Lord. Three of the first eight churches in Idaho Falls used Swedish, and a fourth possibly used German. The Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Gustaf Adolphus Church, which began in 1898, begin switching to English about 1910, while the other two Swedish-speaking congregations, started in 1895 and 1898, continued to worship in Swedish for several decades.
In 1894 the Great Western Land and Irrigation Company was formed by four men of Swedish descent to develop lands to be irrigated by the Great Western Canal and Improvement System. The company promoted this development to Swedish communities in the Midwestern United States through presentations and advertisements in Swedish-American newspapers. In large part due to the drought in the Midwest in 1893, the Panic of 1893, and the resulting national depression, many farmers in the Midwest were receptive, some might say vulnerable, to these promotional schemes.
The first Swedish-American immigrants arrived in New Sweden in the summer of 1894. By 1900, 31 families had settled in New Sweden, taking most of the available land. The immigrants were primarily young couples, most in their early 20’s, some in their teens. On July 30, 1895, a meeting was held in New Sweden to discuss organizing a Swedish-language church. Within a month the Mission Church of New Sweden was incorporated, and consisted of 34 charter members (17 couples). In September of that same year plans were drawn up for a church building, which when completed was also used for community meetings and as the New Sweden school until a separate school building was completed in 1901. Thus the church was constructed while many of the settlers were still living in temporary housing – lumber shacks, dugouts, and a few lava rock buildings – all without electricity. Building a church was more important to them than building permanent homes, barns or the other outbuilding needed on their farms. The first service in the new church building was held on Christmas Day, 1895. In 1896 15 more member were added to the church, and that same year J. E. Johnson became the first pastor, being paid $20/month.
A second Swedish-speaking congregation, the Swedish Evangelical Mission, began in Idaho Falls on March 10, 1899 with 18 charter members. The group purchased a small wooden chapel on Western Avenue for $175, which had been the first LDS meetinghouse, constructed in 1885. After purchasing the chapel, it was moved from its original site along the river to Western Avenue. With a membership of 36 in 1906, the church purchased property on 6th and Boulevard. The following year the church voted to seek membership in the Mission Covenant denomination.
As early as 1901 these two congregations discussed merging, and also considered having a common minister. Services continued in the New Sweden church until 1928, when the building and land were sold, debts paid and the remaining balance given to the Mission Covenant Church in Idaho Falls.
The Mission Covenant Church discussed holding services in English rather than Swedish as early as 1921, but decided they would remain in Swedish, although English was being used by then in the Sunday school and youth meetings. Swedish continued to be used until March 27, 1934, when English was used in the minutes from board meetings for the first time.
The Start of First Christian Church
Nearly 60% of the churches that presently meet in Idaho Falls have fewer than 100 members. First Christian started in 1916 with 107 charter members! At that time it was the 11th church in Idaho Falls, yet the fourth largest.
Like many Christian denominations, the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ traces its roots to a movement, actually two separate movements that began in Pennsylvania and Kentucky in the early 1800’s. These movements united in 1832. Objecting to practices in churches that expressed denominational exclusiveness, the founders of the Christian Church hoped to restore Christian unity by returning to New Testament faith and practices.
A few years prior to the founding of the church in Idaho Falls, Frank Jones, corresponding secretary of the Southern Idaho Christian Missionary Society, sought to organize a Christian Church in Idaho Falls, but after a few meetings the people he gathered disbanded for lack of a pastor. However, the Ladies Aid Society of this fledgling church continued to meet, and purchased a lot on South Boulevard. On November 1, 1915, the South Idaho Missionary Society sent Rev. D. B Titus to Idaho Falls. He held meetings over a two-week period in New Sweden, which resulted in a number of people becoming interested in forming the church. A service was held in the Star Theater, and following the service, a meeting to discuss building on the lot purchased by the Ladies Aid Society. About 30 were present and unanimously voted to authorize Rev. Titus to select a building committee. Excavation began the following day!
In January 1916, the Taylor Evangelistic Company of Los Angeles conducted an evangelistic campaign on the corner of Elm Street and Eastern Avenue. According to a written history of First Christian Church, “This was of much value in helping to discover members of the Christian Church as well as adding new converts.” During this time First Christian held services in the rooms of the Gem State Business College at the corner of B Street and Park Avenue. By February 6, sufficient work had been completed on the church building that a two-week evangelistic campaign was held there. On February 20, the building was dedicated. Following a sermon preached by Rev. Titus entitled, “God’s Portion,” he announced the building had cost $3,200 and $3,000 of bills were outstanding. After the afternoon and evening services, $3,900 had been collected. The surplus was used to finish the basement and buy a piano.
A Church in Idaho Falls Planted by a Student Missionary Pastor from Squirrel, Idaho
Several churches in Idaho Falls, most notably Shiloh Foursquare and Calvary Baptist, have planted churches in the surrounding smaller communities of Southeastern Idaho. But one early church in Idaho Falls was begun by a young missionary pastor while living in Squirrel, Idaho. Squirrel is about 7 miles east and 3 miles south of Ashton. The following is extracted from the 1934 Golden Jubilee Edition of the Post Register, and Mary Jane Fritzen’s Idaho Falls, City of Destiny.
In 1902 the Reverend E. P. Meyer of Squirrel, Idaho, a student missionary, sensed the opportunity and realized the necessity for a beginning a mission program in Southeastern Idaho, including Idaho Falls. He organized German Lutherans in Squirrel and Twin Falls in 1903, and started visiting Idaho Falls in 1904. In 1909 he was officially installed as a Missionary Pastor to Idaho Falls and to the surrounding vicinity. He built up the congregation to a communicant membership of eighteen by the time he accepted a call to Memo, South Dakota in 1911.