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Woman's career in religion, women’s rights got its start in Rochester

Columnist Tom Weber finds Eliza Tupper Wilkes to be ahead of her time.

Eliza Tupper Wilkes.jpg
Eliza Tupper Wilkes. Contributed
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Eliza Tupper Wilkes was way ahead of her time.

In an era when the roles of women were largely confined to cooking, sewing and child-rearing, she was an ordained Universalist minister who served and established several churches, was an active voice in the women’s suffrage movement, helped found one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges, and was a mother to six children.

Equally surprising, given 19th century mores, she did all of this with the full support of her husband, William A. Wilkes, who was himself a busy attorney and county judge.

And, we might add, she began many of her pioneering efforts in Rochester.

Eliza Tupper was born in 1844 in Maine, and was raised in a strict Baptist family. When she was 5, the family moved to Iowa. Eventually, Eliza enrolled in Iowa Central University, a Baptist college. After graduation, she became a teacher in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where a crisis of faith changed her life.

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How, she wondered, could a loving God condemn souls that had not yet heard the Gospel to eternal damnation? Surely, missionaries could not get to everyone. Through the influence of local Universalists and Quakers, Tupper adopted a more liberal outlook on salvation. Universalists believed all souls would eventually be saved, and Eliza Tupper became a convert. She also resolved to become a Universalist minister and was soon preaching at a church in Neenah, Wis.

Meanwhile, the Rochester Universalist Society had been formed in 1866. In June 1869, Eliza Tupper arrived in Rochester as the new minister of the church. She stayed for a few months before returning to Wisconsin, to be married to Wilkes.

In December 1870, Eliza and William moved to Rochester, where she was officially ordained as a minister. For the next three years she served the Rochester Universalist Society. She was apparently also one of the first members of the Rochester women’s suffrage society.

From Rochester, the new minister ventured into the countryside, visiting farms and towns to offer her services wherever she was needed. It was a new style of ministry for a woman traveling alone by horse and buggy across the prairie.

In 1872, the Wilkes family moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where it was hoped Eliza would find relief from a chronic heart condition. While there, she organized a Unitarian church (Unitarians and Universalists were theological cousins) and helped establish Colorado College.

Alas, her health didn’t improve, and in 1878, the Wilkeses pulled up stakes once again and moved to Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory. William practiced law and became a county judge. Eliza founded a church in Sioux Falls, as well churches in several small South Dakota and Minnesota communities. For a time, she was co-minister of the Luverne, Minn., church with her sister, Mila, who had become a Unitarian minister.

“Our success gives me courage to undertake anything and to hope for everything,” Eliza said.

In 1900, Eliza and William moved permanently to California, where she had already established more churches. She served as a minister and devoted much of her time and energy to the women’s suffrage movement.

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Eliza Tupper Wilkes, whose influential career in religion and women’s rights got its start in Rochester, died in 1917.

With her many achievements, Eliza was always too busy to be boastful.

As her sister Mila said, “That she was a pioneer in a new work for women made little impression upon her.”

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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