“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” – Matthew 16:18
“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” – Matthew 18:20
The Early Church in Eagle Rock
If 1865 is taken as the date of the beginning of Eagle Rock, then for the first 19 years of our community, the church met in homes and businesses and outdoor locations, as the first church building was not completed until November 1884. But lack of church buildings did not hinder the early church in Eagle Rock. In the 1860s and 1870s, circuit-riding preachers held meetings at Taylor’s Bridge. Historian and former Idaho Falls mayor, Barzilla Clark notes,
“These gospel itinerants had personal contacts with nearly every man, woman, and child in their territory and were welcome visitors in any home or any group.”
Not that there were that many people here in those early years; the 1870 census shows only 23 dwellings and 75 people in the whole Upper Snake River District, Eagle Rock Post Office of Idaho Territory, an area that included much more than Eagle Rock itself. By 1880, the population of the Eagle Rock and Willow Creek Districts of the county had grown to 250 people.
The first meeting of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Eagle Rock was held in the home of James Richie on August 12, 1881. An article reviewing the history of Idaho Falls published in 1907 claims that the first church service in Eagle Rock was held in the home of Rebecca Mitchell, presumably in 1882, the year she arrived in the community. The author of that story must have been unaware of the earlier Episcopal service, but undisputed is the fact that both were held in homes. In the fall of 1882, the first service held in Eagle Rock by a Methodist minister, Rev. F. A. Riggin, a missionary from Montana, was also held in a home. Trinity Methodist Church was organized the following year and met in homes and later the school building until the Baptist Church completed their building in 1884, where they met for a time. The second church building erected in Idaho Falls was the Presbyterian Church in 1892.
So in the early years of our community, the church met in homes, and the first meetings of the early churches were in homes, as has been the case also for some of the newest churches in Idaho Falls.
No review of the early churches in Idaho Falls, or even the history of Eagle Rock, would be complete without mentioning the contributions of Rebecca Mitchell. One history of Idaho Falls written in 1907 tersely summarized her 26 years as a resident of Eagle Rock and Idaho Falls as:
Rebecca Mitchell was the first school teacher, also the first Sunday school teacher, the first missionary, the founder of the Baptist church, and the first woman to be the chaplain of any legislature body in the world.
Another article, written in 1934, calls her “the guiding influence in all civic and social reforms in Idaho 30 and 40 years ago.” An Idaho Falls historian writes, “It seems that Mrs. Mitchell is identified with every good and noble work done in our city,” and then goes into detail about them. When she died in 1908, the newspaper opened the story of her life with,
Her death ends a long and useful career, she having been before the public in this state, working in the interests of right and justice for over a quarter of a century.
We’ve put her story as she wrote it herself in our book Jesus in Idaho Falls.* I’ve recently compiled a bibliography that lists one hundred and seventy-three sources of information about her, and I’m working on condensing this information into a story that will supplement what she wrote about herself. I just want to mention a few things about her life and death.
When Rebecca Mitchell was 14, her mother died, forcing her to drop out of school and take on responsibilities caring for younger siblings and assuming more of the never-ending chores of a family farm in the 1840s. Married at age 19, four years later her husband died, leaving her with two sons, ages 1 and 3, which she raised by herself for the next 12 years. She then remarried and had two daughters, one of whom died at age 5. God used these apparent tragedies to build into her the fortitude, courage, faith, and convictions that would she would need fulfilling her calling in the frontier town of Eagle Rock.
Rebecca Mitchell died in Idaho Falls in 1908 of a contagious disease, at age 74. The symptoms of this disease are almost identical to those of coronavirus, and like our present pandemic, her disease has a latent form in which no symptoms are manifest, but can later turn into the active, contagious form.
Tuberculosis confined Rebecca Mitchell to her bed for much of the last three years of her life. But perhaps the best statement of her legacy is contained in this newspaper report, written well into her sickness but still 7 months before her death:
The W.C.T.U. will meet on Wednesday at 2:30 at the M. E. parsonage. It has been meeting for many months with Mrs. Rebecca Mitchell, in her room of sickness, and on this occasion it will repair to its usual place if thought best when the time comes. Though confined to her room, and suffering much, Mrs. Mitchell does not lose her strong grip on all affairs relating to the welfare of her fellowmen. She still prays and toils for the triumph of the right and the overthrow of evil, and she is not one who lives in vain. Institutions and men which stand in the way of Rebecca Mitchell’s prayer and God will sooner or later come to grief. They had better stand aside, for her God is the God of Moses and her faith is like that of Daniel.
Whether in sickness or health, may we follow Mrs. Rebecca Mitchell’s example of prayer and toiling for the kingdom of God.
For her own account of her life, see Section 5.2.1, Glimpses From My Life by Rebecca Brown Mitchell, https://barnescm2.wixsite.com/jiif/jesus-church-called-and-sent.