Jacob Spori

Kingdom Builder, 1847–1903

James R Christianson

James R. Christianson, “Jacob Spori: Kingdom Builder, 1847–1903,” in Supporting Saints: Life Stories of Nineteenth-Century Mormons, ed. Donald Q. Cannon and David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, Religious Studies Center, 1985), 343–68.

James R. Christianson was an associate professor of Church history at Brigham Young University when this was published. He received his BA and MA from Brigham Young University and his PhD from the University of Kansas. His interest in Jacob Spori grew out of several years of residence in Europe.

In November 1879 a rather substantial article dealing with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appeared in the Volksblatt, a weekly publication of the Reformed Church of Switzerland. The article was precipitated by the fact that one Jacob Spori, the principle of a Primarschule in the state of Bern and a former member of the Kantonsynode, or state synod, had converted to the largely American church. It therefore seemed proper, wrote Volksblatt editor Reverent Gottlieb Joss, for the religious press to take a second, more in-depth look at these “Saints.” [1] That the attention of Reverend Joss was drawn to the activities of a former parishioner is evidence that Mormons of nineteeth-century rural Switzerland did not go unnoticed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It is also indication that Jacob Spori, both in 1879 and for many years thereafter, was acknowledged as being more than just an ordinary convert to the Mormon movement.

Born 26 March 1847, Jacob grew up in adequate but not opulent circumstances. His father, Jacob (1810–76), was a schoolteacher, a real estate broker, and an elected city official. In 1846 the elder Jacob Spori married Susanna Katharina Böhlen (1827–1880), a member of the “Dorf aristocracy.” This helped secure his election in 1851 and subsequent reelections to public office. His marriage may also have enhanced his credibility as a buyer and seller of houses and lands. [2] Father Spori first saw his future wife when she was an elementary-age student in the school where he taught. He determined then that he would one day marry her and later did so though she was seventeen years his junior.

Grandfather Jacob Spori (1777–1845), like his father, Joahnnes (1740–89), was employed as sexton at the local church and cemetery. At age seventy-eight, in a state of depression, he hanged himself in the family barn. His daughter, who was the first to find him, took her own life that same day in a nearby river. [3] Family tradition indicates that great-grandfather Johannes, though himself uneducated, also had been a teacher in the local school. Jacob’s maternal grandfather, Daniel Böhlen, was a prominent figure in both the community and the church, as was Jacob’s great-grandfather, Samuel Böhlen. [4]

Jacob himself was born in Oberwyl at the family home, called the Stuckli im Dorfli, across the lane from the church where his grandfather and great-grandfather Spori had been employed sextons. [5] He was reared in the Standen, a beautifully located home somewhat isolated from the community.

Following the completion of his schooling in the Oberwyl Secondarschule, Jacob applied in 1863 for admittance to a state teachers’ college in Munchenbuchsee, a village near the city of Bern. But the young applicant, who had just turned sixteen, was rejected because of his age. He reapplied the following year and was admitted, passing his entrance exams with a score that was just two points less than the highest recorded over a three-year period. [6]

School records indicate that during the three years of his advanced study, the value of his father’s property was more than that of any other student except one. The amount, 15,563 franks, was not, however, an indication of wealth as much as it was a testimony that the school was not popular among the financially well-off. A full 40 percent of those attending listed the value of their parents’ property at zero. In light of this, it is of interest to note that Jacob received 120 franks a year for spending money, an amount equal to that given the average student. [7]

When he graduated with honors in April 1867, Jacob had received a well-rounded education, his report cards indicating he was thoroughly schooled in German, French, mathematics, history, music, penmanship, drafting, geography, religion, psychology, and the natural sciences. [8] On 2 May he was employed to teach elementary education in the village of Hausern, near St. Stephan. He moved the following year to Erlenbach and in 1869 to the village of Lenk. In both Erlenback and Lenk he taught on the secondary level. His first three teaching positions, as well as his next one in his hometown school in Oberwyl where he started teaching in 1871, were all in Niedersemmental and were part of the same school district. [9]

Besides being an able teacher, Jacob was an avid student of history and languages. In addition, the writings of the eighteenth-century Pietists, with their emphasis on a future kingdom of righteousness and on the second coming of Christ, were a special fascination to him. He himself wrote of an ideal world where the priests, teachers, and intellectuals of every level of society would work and walk together in an effort to benefit all mankind. In recognition of his excellence as a thinker and teacher, Jacob Spori was honored in 1873 by an article in the Reformed Church of Switzerland’s official publication, the Volksblatt, and the following year he became principal of the school where he taught. Shortly thereafter, he was chosen for a seat on the prestigious Synodalrath for the State of Bern. [10]

In October 1874 at the very crest of his popularity, Jacob, seemingly everyone’s young man of promise, took a further step in the enhancement of his career by marrying Magdalena Roschi. She was the attractive daughter of a well-to-do landholder who, like his father before him, was a prominent political figure in the area. [11] The following year, Jacob was selected to serve as a member of the town council, and when father Spori, who was city clerk, died in early 1876, the townspeople elected Jacob to that office. [12]

By 1876, one would suppose that his spirits, like his reputation, would be soaring among the clouds. He and Magdalena were the parents of two children; they were living in the “Zelg,” a lovely home purchased by his father at a bankruptcy sale; and they enjoyed an excellent standing in the community.

For Jacob, however, a storm was brewing that would greatly alter the course of his life. For a number of years he had viewed with despair the bitterness with which the several divisions that existed within the Reformed Church referred to each other. Greatly troubled by what he read and observed, he began searching elsewhere for what he perceived was the ideal society. Writing retrospectively in 1888, Jacob, in a letter to his former students in Oberwyl, reminded them of how “we examined together the various religious movements of the day and found good in all of them; but when we compared the teaching of these competing churches with the biblical teachings and promises, we discovered that some day additional light would be shed on a happier and more righteous mankind.” [13] Convinced that the men representing the multiple factions were honorable and good and worthy of his admiration, he was, nevertheless, forced to conclude that truth was to be found in neither their words nor their writings and that, became of the current state of affairs, the sacred character of the church was greatly diminished in the eyes of the people. [14]

In a manner fascinatingly reminiscent of the questions and conflicts which Karl G. Maeser grappled with twenty years earlier, Jacob Spori struggled to the conclusion that he could no longer represent in the eyes of his students and those who had entrusted him with his seat on the Synod Council that which he himself did not believe. [15] Pursuant to this, as an act of conscience, he resigned his position with the church and stepped down as principal of the Oberschule in Oberwyl. He did continue to teach at the elementary level for a greatly reduced salary. [16] In consequence of all this, Spori’s world in December 1876 was a far cry from what it had been in January, and the new year brought even greater change.

As Jacob related it, early in 1877 he heard

that God had sent an angel and the great kingdom of the future was being established and a people was gathering in Americas’ Far West. This people was again enjoying all of those blessings which were upon the earth at the time of the apostles, the absence of which had been the cause of so much misfortune throughout Christianity for hundreds of years. Many terrible things were being said about this people, the Mormons. I fully expected this, knowing that all the powers and lies of darkness would be rushed to the battle once God initiated the restoration of all things which Peter prophesied by the spirit of truth as recorded in Acts 3:21. As a teacher and servant of the people I was responsible to you and all my fellowmen to thoroughly examine this new message. After many weeks of study, biblical comparisons, prayer and exhausting, lonely, thought filled nights, God led me to the truth, exactly as promised in James 1:5 and John 14:21–23. [17]

Convinced beyond doubt, Jacob was baptised into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He then joined with the few Saints and other interested persons who met at the home of Peter Hoffman in the nearby village of Ringoldingen. Neither his wife nor any of his family shared his interest in Mormonism, but this does not appear to have alienated them from him. He and his wife continued to live at the Zelg, where a third child was born to them. One year later they moved to the Bruggmatte, the home of his wife’s parents. It was there that their fourth child was born. [18]

The relatively peaceful circumstances experienced at home were not mirrored in the community or at the school where Jacob taught. Although technically independent of the church, the schools were, in fact, viewed as being rightfully subject to ecclesiastical influence. The same was true for all elected offices. Both Spori’s competence and his right to continue as a teacher were immediately questioned, and school officials ordered an investigation that continued into the summer of 1877. Apparently, in the end Jacob offered his resignation and his contract was canceled. School officials were convinced that he could not do justice to his profession and represent the Mormon faith at the same time. [19]

Jacob continued in his position as city clerk until the November 1877 election, in which he was soundly defeated. His becoming a Mormon seems to have been the primary reason for his defeat: Jacob had received the support of an overwhelming majority in his first election; in 1877 he obtained less than one-tenth of the vote. [20]

Swiss Mormons in 1877 were few in number and were generally ignored or, when attention was drawn to them, viewed with considerable contempt. However, the truly difficult days of the 1850s and 1860s, when members were regularly abused and the elders were driven from the country were past. In 1864, the Swiss government had decreed that Mormons were Christian and, therefore, protected in their right to worship by the 1848 constitutional provision which guaranteed freedom of religion for all Christian nationals. This, plus a similar finding in a court case in 1876 involving John U. Stucki, president of the Swiss-German Mission, had established that the fights of the Swiss Saints were no longer to be ignored. By 1880 considerable tolerance was in evidence and, though a climate of mistrust and disdain continued, the well-being of members and missionaries was rarely in jeopardy. [21]

Jacob was jobless for just a few months during 1878 before he was employed by the president of the Swiss-German Mission to act as an emigration agent for the Church. Despite the considerable attention he received from government officials who brought charges against him for supposedly disadvantaging the gullible and for acting without a license, he was successful in helping organize an emigrant company made up of proselytes to the Mormon faith. [22]

By 1 July 1879 Spori himself was prepared to leave Switzerland and seek out the Zion he had envisioned as a young man and later identified through the teachings of the Mormon missionaries. As was true of many who had preceded him, this decision meant leaving his wife and children behind. While many took this action because they could not afford ship’s passage for the entire family, in Jacob’s case the problem was more than a matter of finances. In addition to the fact that Magdalena did not share his acceptance of Mormonism, she was a potential heir to her father’s lands and home and was, so it appears, far too practical to disinherit herself by emigrating. According to descendants and relatives of the Spori family in Switzerland, it was primarily for this last reason, and not the oft-reported claim that his wife and children were taken from him by his father-in-law, that Jacob journeyed alone to Utah. [23]

The venture Jacob was about to undertake was by no means novel, having been experienced by thousands of his fellow Europeans. As “seekers,” they discovered that the message of this strange sect was both exciting and original because its American representatives testified not of dead but of living prophets and not of a future restoration but of a kingdom then building. They spoke of a gathering already in motion which each need only step forward to join and be brought to holy places, where the God of Heaven would protect, direct, and prepare them for the trying times ahead and for the coming of his Son. [24] Though the elders’ reports were at times exaggerated and tended to color the arid wastelands of the Great Basin a verdant green, the convert’s commitment or determination to act on the question toward which early preaching was directed—that of emigration—was usually fortified by the words, “I have been there.” [25] For the true “seeker,” there was magic in the message of the missionary who could declare, “I have been there! It exists! Zion flourishes!” At every stage their witness of a real and working gathering encouraged strength and decisiveness in place of indecision and even apostasy, these being the fruits of the poverty, tradition, or persecution that often accompanied the proselyte as he stepped from the waters of baptism.

With this message ringing in his ears, Jacob willingly exchanged the lush valleys and snowcapped mountains of the “Oberland” for the water-starved expanses of a land that humbled its most ardent masters. Almost as though he were immune to contrasts, immigrant Spori, finding no market for his teaching or linguistic talents, labored with his hands at a variety of unskilled jobs, accumulating neither land nor home in the process. Most of his early years in Utah were spent in or near Logan. Although these years were hard, they were not barren. In addition to learning English and making numerous acquaintances, Jacob gained many experiences on the farms, railroads, and in the mills and mines of the area, experiences that were a decided asset years later when he made the American West his permanent home. [26]

During his five years’ absence from Switzerland, Jacob was often lonely and depressed. Magdalena, or “Mädeli” as he affectionately called her, and the children were ever on his mind. Distances, however, were shortened and time weighed less heavily because of letters from home and the regular arrival of the Volksblatt, which contained considerable local news.

In fact, his response to the article appearing in the 15 November 1879 edition led to Jacob’s being characterized as a stalwart defender of the faith, an assessment that was justified on repeated occasions during the remainder of his life. [27] In his letter to Reverend Joss, editor of the Volksblatt, Jacob revealed a sharpness of tongue and intellect that was combative, but sincere. Swiss relatives whose natural curiosity causes them, even after more than a hundred years, to have a lively interest in this “Spori Jacob who went to America with the Mormons,” think of him as one who was fearless in his convictions and one who, once his mind was made up, could never be made to change it. Clearly evident in the letter was Jacob’s total commitment to his new faith and his willingness to engage and foe in its defense. [28] Because of this, he welcomed the call that came in September 1884 to serve in the Swiss-German mission. [29]

Elder Spori left Logan on 11 October 1884 and arrived in Liverpool on 27 October. After a brief stay in England, he journeyed to Switzerland where he was allowed several weeks to become reacquainted with his wife and children before commencing his missionary labors. He and his family had been separated for five years; Jacob was now thirty-seven years old.

On 18 November 1884, Edward Schoenfeld, president of the mission, received a message from European Mission head, John H. Smith, inquiring concerning the cost of travel to Constantinople and asking if Jacob Spori spoke quality German and French. Learning from Jacob that his linguistic abilities were more than sufficient and that he had some financial reserves (most likely from his father’s estate), President Schoenfeld sent an affirmative reply to President Smith. On 27 November, having received instructions to do so, President Schoenfeld informed Elder Spori and Elder George Conrad Naegle that their mission call was being extended to Turkey. [30]

On 29 November, President Schoenfeld recorded, “Brother Spori with wife and child appeared, and we had a comfortable time together. His child is sick since 17 months caused by a fall from a swing, and it will be a matter of great faith to have it healed by the prayer of faith and administering.” On the thirtieth he noted, “baptism of Br. Spori’s wife, I have confirmed her.” [31]

Jacob and his companion set out for Constantinople on 6 December, just a few days after Magdalena’s baptism. Several days later, Elder Naegle returned to Bern with the report that upon their arrival in Genoa, Italy, they had learned that Constantinople was under quarantine. Following hours of painful deliberation, they decided that since they did not have sufficient funds for both of them to wait out the travel ban, Jacob would continue the journey alone. [32]

The nearly month-long journey to Constantinople, which included an eleven-day delay necessitated by the quarantine, was almost more than Jacob could endure. Toward the end of December his enthusiasm had waned to the point that efforts to occupy himself with the study of history, geography, and languages could not spare him days filled with thoughts of home, troubled memories of his experiences in America, and periods of self-doubt and self-incrimination. It appears that his brief visit with his wife and children awakened in him, now that he was again separated from them, feelings of guilt for having remained in America so long. With much time on his hands, he tormented himself with the thought that had the Lord not blessed him he might have forsaken his family and in turn proved himself unworthy of missionary service. Such thoughts of America reminded him of those long years when the only work he could find was as a laborer on the railroad in Idaho and Montana, or when he was reduced to shoveling snow or doing other forms of manual labor in order to live and not be dependent upon others. His early lack of facility with the language and his inability to find employment befitting his training as a teacher or as one skilled in writing and keeping records was a real blow to his pride. He also remembered with feeling the times of sickness when he was “half dead and frozen and sick and no one but a few of the brothers seemed to care.” [33] His mission to Turkey and a total sense of dependence on the Lord brought all this into focus, causing him many sleepless nights and troubled dreams. [34]

The one positive note revealed in his diary during the final week of the voyage concerned the forty-six bottles of wine served with his meals during the twenty-three-day voyage. On 31 December, they day he disembarked, he wrote, “While on the ship I did not touch any wine. 23 days = 46 bottles. Now that is something. It was paid for, included as part for the ticket, made available daily. One sees that God does help.” [35]

Immediately upon arrival, Jacob went to the home of Hagop T. Vartooquian, a resident of Constantinople of Armenian descent who, representing himself as the minister of a sizable congregation, had written President John Henry Smith in England and requested missionaries. Jacob’s initial impression of and experiences with his host were mostly positive. After a brief stay in previously arranged housing, he moved in with the Armenian family.

Vartooquian, who spoke English, his wife, Phipsmac, and their two older children Sisak and Ormais, were baptized on 4 January, and what appeared to be a friendly relationship developed between the two men. [36]

Sensitive to the need for a command of the languages he would be required to use in declaring the gospel, Jacob turned to Hagop Vartooquian for help. Initially, the Armenian was eager to oblige, but he soon began to resent having to take time to teach his guest. Jacob, who shared the family’s two-room apartment and ate his meals with them, became increasingly ill at ease. On 23 January, Spori recorded in his journal:

I have already spelled out a fair amount of Armenian and, if one had time, it warranted much cause for laughter. He [Vartooquian] was kind enough to listen to me and was satisfied. He did suggest that I go through it two or three more times, as if I had not already done so thirty or forty times. Mr. V. comes home late at night. I do not know what he is doing during the night time, but his look is false and shallow.

It’s a miracle! He gave me another lesson in Turkish. Wait just a few more weeks, then I will hardly need your charity. If I only had time and it were not half a sin, I would turn the things I have to observe here into a comedy. [37]

The following day he correctly analyzed his problem when he wrote: “My miserable situation is, by the way, my own fault. If I had just followed the advice of President Smith, rented a small room and lived on bread and water, I could have held out for a long time.” [38]

Jacob’s concerns were not simply due to his deteriorating relationship with his convert host. His diary reveals a lonely, cold, depressed missionary. Letters from “Mädeli” were “miserable,” telling of her own doubts and of her worry for their injured child. The weather was cold and damp, as was the small crowded Vartooquian apartment. Jacob’s days were crowded with worries about home and finances and with the study of the Turkish, Armenian, French, Italian, English, Greek, and Danish languages. His nights were crowded with violent, unsettling dreams, or were often sleepless. The only thing that kept him going was an occasional ray of light that shone through, such as on the morning when he wrote: “I slept warm . . . dreamed of John Taylor. He was friendly and encouraged me. This made me very happy and gave me new courage.” [39]

Just one month after the date of their baptism, Vartooquian and his wife declared that they wished to have nothing more to do with the Church. Even though he had paid considerable sums in advance, Jacob was presented with a statement covering twenty-five days’ lodging and meals and he was invited to leave. During several drunken flare-ups, the Armenian—who, Jacob learned, was not a minister and had not been one for the past eight years—made it clear he had expected the Church to aid him financially. His disenchantment with the Church stemmed from the disappointment of that expectation. For this he blamed his guest. Spori’s response to leaving was to the point: “This evening will be the last night here. Thank God!” [40]

Jacob moved to the home of a German family, and his mission really began. His dreams and sleeplessness subsided. He made contact with a number of individuals with whom he exchanged language instruction. He was introduced at the German Working Men’s Union, where he had an occasional opportunity to teach the gospel. On 15 April he summarized his new outlook when he wrote, “I studied Turkish and desire to continue. I feel only peace and clearness of thought. Happy is the man who is in the service of God.” [41]

About this same time, Jacob learned that his injured daughter, “Katheli,” had died. Since the death of the child was not unexpected and he knew that his family was being cared for by his in-laws, he was able to accept her death. The additional news, however, that he might be asked to return from his mission was greeted with protest. He expressed the wish to continue his efforts to teach the gospel and to master the languages.

As the weeks passed, opportunities to share the gospel began to multiply. Jacob was even called on to give blessings, and with positive results. Of one such occasion he wrote:

On the 12th of April I was called on to visit two other sick persons. I promised to fast for them, and call again and see what to do. In the evening I had a good opportunity of explaining the Gospel. I was treated like a pasha which was quite different from my simple way of living. But people think it foolish for me to refuse such good coffee, such fine tobacco, such wonderful wine, and such good, sweet ‘Racky’ [Liquor] and fine beer. On the 13th the old sick lady mentioned before was out of her bed, and said she was perfectly well. This result caused a veritable Turkish astonishment. A doctor called upon her to convince himself, and she told him a few words for which the Lord will bless her. [42]

In time, Jacob became rather well known. His forthright style, the incomprehensible doctrine of the Word of Wisdom, and the more familiar teaching of plural marriage gained him considerable attention if not converts. He was also successful in having articles about the Church and even portions of the Voice of Warning by Parley P. Pratt published in local newspapers. Toward the end of the year, he was extremely busy with teaching, writing pamphlets, and studying the necessary languages. There was no concrete payoff for these months of work, however, as his only baptisms in Constantinople came just four days after his arrival in Turkey when the four members of the Vartooquian family joined the Church.

On 6 December 1885, Joseph M. Tanner, an elder from the Swiss-German Mission, joined Elder Spori in Constantinople. Elder Tanner was in the city for two days before he met his new companion. When they finally did get together, Jacob’s months of isolation were over. [43]

The arrival of Elder Tanner brought a new vigor and direction to the work. The elders began to make additional use of the newspapers and to hold more public meetings. A number of newspaper editors were suddenly anxious to give the message of the elders a fair hearing. It soon became necessary to rent a room where they could meet with those who came to inquire further. Even the Minister of Public Instruction, Munif Pasha, requested an interview with them in order to learn more of their religious beliefs and history. For the most part, however, their conversations were in French and German with French and German natives living in Constantinople. [44]

The two missionaries wanted to work with Turkish nationals whom they usually found were more Christlike in their habits than the Christians, but their interest level rarely went beyond a few courteous questions. Regarding this, Elder Tanner sent the following report to Elder Franklin D. Richards in Salt Lake City:

So far as I have the spirit of discernment the Turks are the only ones, as a nation, that live so as to receive the gospel. They are far above Europeans in real Christian ethics. . . . I cannot say what the will of the Lord may be regarding the spread of the Gospel among the Turks; but I have a great desire that they should have it in their own language, for I feel that if an opening can be made among them, there will be a great work accomplished in these lands. They are very reticent, but very courteous. [45]

Upon his return from a visit to the Holy Land in the company of Elder Francis M. Lyman, Jr., Elder Tanner, after sharing his impressions with Spori, requested the permission of President Wells in Switzerland to have Elder Spori travel to Haifa and work with the German-speaking colonies located there. Elder Tanner had been greatly impressed by these devout people who, several years earlier, had gathered in Palestine to await the second coming of Christ. [46]

President Wells gave his consent, and Elder Spori took passage for Jaffa on 29 July 1886. After a pleasant, uneventful voyage, he arrived at his destination on 8 August. His initial reception by both the Germans and his fellow Swiss was neither warm nor hostile but was characterized more by a general feeling of disinterest. They saw no need for either authority or baptism, and, like many people, were conditioned because of a prior knowledge of the doctrine of plural marriage to not take Mormonism seriously. Jacob, however, was not discouraged. For him, just being in the Holy Land was reward enough for his efforts. Within a few days of his arrival he journeyed to Jerusalem and to other sacred sites. And while marveling at being in the very places he had once talked about with his students, he used the occasion to discuss the gospel with and bear testimony to numerous Jews, Arabs, and German-speaking pilgrims. [47]

By 14 August, he was back in Jaffa, concerned with how he might successfully approach members of the German-speaking community. Having just arrived in the city after a long, dry journey, and wishing to refresh himself, he approached a well, which the Europeans owned. As he paused to obtain water, he was attacked by two massive dogs. In an effort to defend himself, he began pelting the beasts with a number of large stones. As the animals retreated, he let fly with one last missile that sailed beyond the dogs and over a nearby fence. Immediately he heard a cry and the sound of angry German voices. In an instant the dogs, two Germans, three Arabs, and a black man were facing him. “I stood there rocks in hand,” wrote Jacob, “with the old Berner blood rising and my instinct for self preservation awakened. I was ready to take on the whole group, including the dogs.” [48] Fortunately, after a brief exchange, the group retreated behind the fence; and Jacob, no longer angry, but overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, shame, and fear of God for his unmissionary-like behavior, hurriedly left the area. Fearing that he had seriously injured someone, Jacob eventually went to the office of the American consulate and confessed his actions. It was with great relief he learned that no complaint had been registered and that he was free to continue his missionary labors.

Shortly after his troublesome incident, Jacob traveled to Haifa, where he was happy to find a more open and receptive group of German immigrants. Aided by references from the few friends he had won in Jaffa, he was busy teaching and bearing testimony from the time of his arrival. On 16 August he met George Grau, a blacksmith who, along with his wife, showed an immediate and mature interest in the gospel. During the next two weeks, Elder Spori met with Grau and his wife on a near-daily basis. They became close friends, and he was often invited to dine with them. [49]

At this time, Jacob was destitute of funds—he found it necessary to leave his wedding ring with the postmaster as security for a twenty-frank loan—but refused offers of aid from Grau and others. Jacob preferred to work long hours cleaning Grau’s goat pens and blacksmith shop to pay for his meals and eventually for a place to sleep. The latter became necessary when he was stung by a large scorpion and became very ill. [50]

George Grau was baptized on 29 August; on 3 September he was ordained an elder. Shortly after Jacob’s return to Jaffa, on 16 September, Grau baptized his wife. The Graus were a happy, positive couple, and from the very outset, they became the heart of the missionary effort in Haifa and the surrounding area. They attracted other interested persons to the Church, and, in time, with the help of Joseph Tanner, who labored in Palestine throughout most of 1887, a small branch was established. Eventually, most of those baptized emigrated to America and settled near Provo, Utah. [51]

During the next three months, Jacob traveled widely. When he left for Constantinople in early January 1887, he had delivered his message in every German community in Palestine. Although Jacob was generally well received, there is no record of any further baptisms being performed. [52]

Shortly after boarding ship at Jaffa for his return voyage, Jacob met and was eventually responsible for the baptism of Mischa Markow, a young man who became one of the most interesting and able of all early Mormon emissaries. A Hungarian with Serbian ancestry, Mischa, himself a seeker, had earlier moved to Alexandria, where he worked as a barber. About the same time that Jacob was preparing to leave Palestine, Mischa was admonished in a dream to leave for Constantinople. Acting immediately, he sold his business and belongings and, after considerable difficulty, boarded a ship sailing for Constantinople by way of Jaffa. After meeting Elder Spori (the two were able to converse in German), Markow eagerly listened to the stranger’s message of the restoration. By the time they reached Constantinople, he was ready to become a member of the Church. Following his baptism, he was encouraged by the elders to emigrate. However, he refused to do so, expressing a desire to preach the gospel before going to America. [53] Mischa’s colorful service as a missionary for the Church is best described in a paragraph he appended as a flyleaf of his life story.

I, Mischa Markow Preach the Gospel in 8th Kingdoms: 1. Belgien, 2. Hungary, 3. Romanien, 4. Bulgarien, 5. Germany, 6. Turkey, 7. Russia, Serbia. I was 11th times in to City court. 4th Times in to Magistrate, 2. Times in to High Cort. I was 3 Times guardet Police stud by the Gate and if somebody wants to come to hear me police did not Let him in. And that was in Romanien, Bulgarien, & Serbien. 2 Times I was banished that is in Hungary and in Serbien. I was 2 times in the jail in Romanien and Hungary. [54]

Following his return to Constantinople, Jacob had but a short time remaining before being released from his mission. He busied himself during these weeks studying Hebrew and Russian and teaching French to Elder Tanner and Turkish to a newly arrived elder, Ferdinand Hinze. He was also responsible for the publication of several pamphlets in German, Turkish, and Armenian. As no other funds were available, Jacob used his travel money to pay for the printing. This delayed his return to Switzerland until he was able to earn the necessary amount for passage by giving language lessons. [55] On 23 March 1887, he finally left for Switzerland, where he rejoined his family and began preparations for their eventual emigration to America.

During the ensuing months, Jacob was called on to use both voice and pen in defending the reputation of the Church and the rights of its members, as he previously had done while in America and while on his mission. There are, for example, more letters on file in Swiss government archives from Jacob Spori addressing state and national officials on matters concerning the Church and its members than from almost all other nineteenth-century Mormon spokesmen combined. One reason for this may be that while numerous additional letters might have been written but were not saved, Jacob’s, because of who he was during his pre-Mormon days, warranted preservation.

One such letter, written from Constantinople on 18 May 1886, was in response to an article in a Bern newspaper, Der Freien Oberlander, in which the writer suggested that “the Mormon apostles of plural marriage who were pursuing their business of death” should not only be warned but prosecuted and punished. [56] Referring to the article, Jacob eloquently reminded the Bern heads of state that the Swiss had fought for, won, and now exemplified the role of freedom before the world. Religious freedom, he suggested, was either to be honored or the whole of the concept was stripped of significance. Reviewing the history of the persecution of the Church members in detail and picturing the blissful, happy circumstances of the hardworking Swiss emigrants after taming, as they had, the most raw of climates and conditions, he asked why anyone would endure all that was required for his own and his religion’s sake and then, as the news article charged, be base and immoral. “In the name of sound reason,” he wrote, “could not a man with immoral motives achieve his purposes much more cheaply by spending a few pieces of gold in any of the civilized Christian cities?” [57] It appears that in this, as in other letters, petitions, and requests, Jacob Spori was sought out by Swiss mission leaders in the hope that in certain critical situations, where the attempts of others might go unacknowledged, both his reputation and eloquence would serve to open doors, gain a hearing, or divert an action.

Jacob also labored during the fall of 1887 and winter of 1888 to form an emigrant company that would leave for Utah in the spring. This accomplished, he sailed from England on 26 May 1888 with his family and his sister Anna, who had joined the Church and decided that she too would gather to Zion.

Upon his arrival in America, Jacob took his family to Rexburg, Idaho. The city had been established about five years earlier and had become a center for the growth and development taking place throughout the Snake River Valley. It was also the residence of Henry Flamm, a Swiss immigrant who had befriended Jacob in America during a period of severe illness in 1879. They had also worked together in Bern just prior to Jacob’s departure for Utah in 1879. [58]

Some weeks after his arrival in Rexburg, Jacob Spori was called as a member of the stake board of education. As part of an ambitious program to expand Church education, LDS leaders had commissioned the organizing of schools or academies throughout several of the western states and the Mormon colonies in Mexico. The Bannock Stake, headquartered in Rexburg, was one of these; the board, under the direction of President Thomas E. Ricks, worked vigorously so as to be ready for the upcoming school year. Although somewhat late in beginning, they were successful, and history was made as the first classes of the Bannock Stake Academy were welcomed on 12 November 1888. [59]

Much to his surprise, Jacob was selected as the principal of the fledgling school. There was no question about his being qualified, but, as he had learned during his earlier years in Zion, what the European immigrant did and what he was capable of doing often bore little relationship to one another. This perception appears to have so impressed itself upon his mind that throughout his mission he always referred to himself as a simple woodchopper, never mentioning either his education or his teaching experience except as he wrote to Swiss government officials. Jacob was a good principal. He cared about and sacrificed for the Academy. After three years, however, he resigned his position, having determined he must get his own financial house in order. The salary promised him each year ranged between $300 and $700 and was usually paid out of the tithing house. Since his salary depended on the tithing house’s having either funds or commodities, he was never sure of his income. But perhaps his most significant reward during his years as principal was his occasional association with Karl G. Maeser at the campus of Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Utah. [60]

After leaving the Academy, Jacob immersed himself in a number of interesting, although sometimes controversial, ventures. On 15 December 1892 a letter he had written to a Church member in Switzerland appeared in Der Stern, a monthly publication of the Swiss-German Mission. It was introduced to the magazine’s readers with the comment that the editors wished to show what an active, dedicated person could accomplish in a short time. In the letter, Spori detailed how he and several brethren were working a mine near Logan, which, according to best reports, could become one of the most productive in Utah. He was also involved in the purchase of lands and the laying out of lots for the establishment of a community to be settled, hopefully, by his “good German brethren.” Under his direction, canals and fences were being built, crops were being planted, and shares in a steam saw and coal mine had been purchased. In closing he wrote, “Zion is moving busily ahead; the Lord may soon appear and we must hurry our preparations.” [61]

Following the appearance of this letter, Jacob was accused of writing it in an attempt to entice immigrants into investing in his schemes. Responding to this charge, he immediately wrote to Der Stern, asking that he be allowed to defend himself. Point by point, he justified each of his activities, stating that his sole purpose was to aid his brethren in the kingdom to help themselves. By becoming independent of the world, they could work together under the influence of the Spirit and prepare for the day when the Lord would once again entrust his people with the lost keys to the United Order. [62]

Events of the following years seem to indicate that Jacob’s apparently well-intended efforts to strengthen the kingdom were greeted with continued criticism, in spite of the fact that a valuable canal system bearing the Spori name was completed, making possible the development of thousands of acres of rich farmland. [63]

In a December 1894 letter to his former missionary companion George Naegle, who was then serving as president of the Swiss-German Mission, Jacob wrote of those who came to Zion thinking it a place where one “sang psalms continually and rested peacefully” but who, when they found it to be otherwise—a place where the “called” worked to become chosen, and enduring to the end was the only path available to the righteous—”sprouted evil tongues and bred unrest.” Referring to how Satan would sift some as wheat and to the suffering borne by Christ and Joseph Smith, he seemed to be saying that though he too had suffered and been sifted, he was still firm in his conviction that the gospel was true. At this time, he was again teaching and had been called to serve on the Bannock Stake High Council. [64]

Spori’s last letter to appear in Der Stern was written to George Naegle 10 November 1895 and stated, “I am once again in the state of Montana and have two contracts, one for nine months and one for a year; one of the Twelve knows where I am and what I am doing here.” [65] What happened to Jacob’s mine, sawmill, and land development schemes, and why he went to Montana to work on the railroad are not clear. Also, why an Apostle knew where he was and what he was doing is a small mystery.

Upon returning from Montana late in 1896, Jacob again took up teaching during the winter months and pursued his mining interests throughout the summer. His wife, Magdalena, died 14 September 1900. Three years later, on 27 September 1903, at age fifty-six and suffering from diabetes, Jacob died. That his age was not advanced when he died and that death came rather suddenly led to rumors being circulated among family members and acquaintances in Switzerland that he was murdered.

Jacob Spori was in his day, and has remained, an enigma. Acquaintances dating from his pre-Mormon years were impressed by his intelligence, strength of character, teaching skills, and piety. When these very qualities led him to embrace what was perceived as the most objectionable of sects, Mormonism, those same people were distressed but not angered. He retained their guarded respect, and his voice was acknowledged as one to be listened to. In fact, Jacob’s most difficult hours were not spent among Gentiles but in Zion among a people in the process of becoming Saints, a people with much room for growth. He recognized this and was, therefore, able to shrug off those who misunderstood his sincerity and genuineness regarding lots, land, mines, mills, and communities for immigrants. Thinking him greedy, they pictured him as one who preyed on the misfortunes of others. Some, among them descendants and admirers, have mistaken his fascination with languages as being a matter of pride and perhaps fuel for his ego. In reality, however, Jacob saw language as a necessary medium for teaching the gospel. It hardly seems likely that any other motivation could have driven him to labor as his diary reveals he did in an effort to master so many. In the end, his vision was greater than his grasp as time and opportunity limited his fluency to English, German, and French, and a better than average ability in Turkish and Armenian.

If Jacob had a public relations problem, it was that he was simply not believable—he was so genuine as to be suspect. This led to numerous disappointments for him and to misunderstandings with his fellow Saints. As his daughter Elizabeth noted some years after his death:

He was generous to a fault, both in material and ethical things. Too generous, many would say for his own good, but he always believed that only when we give do we received and only that which makes another happy can bring happiness to ourselves.

His honesty and integrity cannot be questioned now in the light of these passing years and could he speak for himself, he would say,

“Here is my life; whatever of fault and mistake there is in it, pass it by; whatever of worth take it for your own; it is yours!” [66]

Jacob Spori, a truly great man, believed in and was prepared to sacrifice all for that which he prized most—the gospel of Christ. He cared about others, all others, and did something about it. Because in the cosmopolitan city of Constantinople there were those who spoke Greek, Danish, Italian, Turkish, and Armenian, he studied each language in order that all might hear his message. He made himself rich, not in a material sense, but as a teacher and a builder and a man of vision. Jacob Spori was indeed a kingdom builder.


[1] “Einiges über die Mormonen,” Volksblatt für die Reformirte Kirche der Schweiz, XI Jahrgang, nr. 21 (15 Nov. 1879): 181–82. Hereafter cited as Volksblatt.

[2] City records show the elder Spori winning elections following his marriage in 1846 and continuing to do so until shortly before his death in 1876.

[3] “Protokoll über die Versamlungen der Einwohner von Oberwyl, 1845–1895,” Gemeinde Oberwyl, 262, 429.

[4] “Protokoll,” 262, 429; Jacob Spori Pedigree Chart, in possession of the author.

[5] Some homes were given names and were so known and are so identified at the present time.

[6] “Lehrerbuildung, Seminarin, Lokales, Munchenbuchsee,” 1862–1870, Stadt Archives, Bern, BB III b 5208. 1863 VI/XII.

[7] “Lehrerbuildung,” 1864, 1865, 1866.

[8] “Lehrerbuildung,” 1866.

[9] “Primar and Secondar Schülen, Lokales, Amtsbezirk Niedersemmental, Gemeinde Oberwyl,” 1856–1896, Stadt Archives, Bern, BB III b, 690155, 1867–71.

[10] Jacob Spori, “Offener Brief an Hrn. Pfarren G. Joss in Herzogenbuchsee, Schweiz,” Der Stern, vols. 12–15 (4 January 1880): 56–57.

[11] Magdalena’s father, Michael Roschi, held the positions of Germeinde Rath and Sittensrichter. The latter was a form of justice of the peace and was responsible to admonish, judge, and punish the youth regarding their moral behavior. Grandfather Michael Roschi had occupied these same positions as well as that of Chorrichter, a form of judge, and Kirchmeier.

[12] “Protokoll der Einwohner Gemeinde Versamlung, 1832–1890,” Gemeinde Oberwyl, 328–29.

[13] Jacob Spori, “Einige Wörter an Meine Gewesenen Schulkinder,” Der Stern, vols. 18–21 (May 1888): 157.

[14] Spori, “Offener Brief an Hrn. Pfarren G. Joss,” 57.

[15] Douglas F. Tobler, “Karl G. Maeser’s German Background, 1828–1856: The Making of Zion’s Teacher,” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (Winter 1977): 170–71.

[16] “Nachrichten und Korrespondenten,” Volksblatt, VIII. Jahrgang, no. 34 (Samstag, 19 Aug. 1876): 136, and “Spori to Joss,” Volksblatt, 57.

[17] Spori, “Einige Wörter an Meine Gewesenen Schulkinder,” Der Stern, vols. 18–21 (May 1888): 157–58.

[18] “Protokoll der Einwohner Gemeinde Versamlung, 1832–1890,” Gemeinde Oberwyl, 342.

[19] “Brief von [indecipherable] an Herren Jakob Spori in Oberwyl,” 9 June 1877. Primar u. Secondar Schulen, Lokales, Amtsbezirk Niedersemmental, Gemeinde Oberwyl, 1856–96. Stadt Archives, Bern, BB III b, 690155.

[20] “Protokoll der Einwohner Gemeinde Versamlung, 1832–1890,” Gemeinde Oberwyl, 328–42.

[21] James R. Christenson et al., The International Church (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1982), 34. See also Millennial Star 38 (27 March 1826): 203.

[22] “Anzeige gegen Jacob Spori und Missionar Flamm,” Richter Amt Thun, Kanton Bern, 19 July 1879, 748–49.

[23] Interviews with numerous Spori family members, Niedersemmental, Switzerland, June–July 1980.

[24] Christianson, The International Church, 51.

[25] Christianson, The International Church, 52.

[26] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” October–December 1884; and Denton Brewerton, “Istanbul and Rexburg,” Ensign, June 1980, 26.

[27] “Einiges über die Mormonen,” Volksblatt, XI Jahrgang, no. 46 (Samstag, 15 November 1879): 181–82.

[28] “Ein Brief aus Utah,” Volksblatt, XII Jahrgang, no. 21 (Samstag, 22 May 1880): 81–82.

[29] “Jacob Spori to the Utah Journal,” Logan, Utah, Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 11, 1885, 13, Library-Archives, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[30] Diary of Edward Schoenfeld, Vol. 1, 18 to 27 November 1884.

[31] Diary of Edward Schoenfeld, 29 November and 30 November 1884.

[32] Ibid., 6 December and 8 December 1884.

[33] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 2 August 1885, 149.

[34] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 22 December 1884 to 30 January 1885, 25–122.

[35] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 31 December 1884, 36.

[36] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 4 January 1885, 54.

[37] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 23 January 1885, 54.

[38] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 24 January 1885, 86.

[39] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 13 January 1885, 73.

[40] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 3 February 1885, 137–49.

[41] “Jacob Spori Tagebuch,” 15 April 1885.

[42] “Abstract of Correspondence from Constantinople,” Millennial Star 47 (18 May 1885): 317.

[43] Joseph M. Tanner to Daniel H. Wells, 9 December 1885, Millennial Star 48 (11 January 1886): 29–30.

[44] See numerous letters from Jacob Spori and Joseph M. Tanner to Daniel H. Wells in Millennial Star 48 (1886): 75–76; 108–9; 443–44; 479.

[45] Joseph M. Tanner to Franklin D. Richards, 31 August 1886, Deseret News, 6 October 1886, 606.

[46] “Tanner to Daniel H. Wells,” 22 June 1886, Millennial Star 48 (12 July 1886): 443.

[47] “Spori Tagebuch,” 8 August to 14 August 1884.

[48] “Spori Tagebuch,” 15 August 1884.

[49] “Spori Tagebuch,” 16 August to 29 August 1884.

[50] “Spori Tagebuch,” 16 August to 21 September 1884.

[51]“Turkish Mission 1884–1900,” Church Historian’s Office, 6 September 1887. Also “Spori to Wells,” 12 October 1886, Millennial Star, 48 (15 November 1886): 731.

[52] “Spori to Wells,” Millennial Star XVIII (13 December 1886): 14.

[53] Mischa Markow, “Life and History,” LDS Church Archives (n.p., n.d.).

[54] Markow, “Life and History.”

[55] “Spori Tagebuch,” 15 January 1887 to 23 March 1887.

[56] “Mormonen,” Der Freien Oberlander, no. 37 (8 May 1886): 2.

[57] “Jacob Spori an den Titl. Regierungsrath des Kantons Bern,” Bestands Register 11/1, 7175 (A) 1, National Archives, Bern, 18 May 1886.

[58] “Spori Tagebuck,” 31 August 1884, 72.

[59] “Bannock Stake Minute Book,” 12 November 1888, 282–83. See also Jerry C. Roundy, “Ricks College—A Struggle for Survival” (PhD diss., Brigham Young University, 1975), 25–26.

[60] Roundy, “Ricks College,” 27, 33, 37.

[61] “Aus einem Brief von Bruder Spori,” Der Stern, vols. 23–24 (15 December 1892): 377.

[62] “Spori an Präsident George J.J. Scharrer,” Der Stern, vols. 25–27 (11 January 1893): 58–60.

[63] “Spori an den Regierungsrath des Kantons Bern,” Bestands Register 11/1 in 7175 (A) 1 National Archives, Bern, 22 March 1894.

[64] “Spori an Präsident George Naegle,” Der Stern, vols. 25–27 (21 December 1894): 30–31.

[65] “Spori an Präsident George Naegle,” 10 November 1895, 238.

[66] Elizabeth S. Stowell, “A History of Jacob Spori, by His Daughter” (18 November 1926), MS, paper for the Daughters of the Snake River Pioneers (located in Special Collections, Brigham Young University–Idaho), 18.