Missionary work in the Pacific Northwest first commenced in 1855 but lasted for just a few years due to persecution, both locally and in Utah. While missionary work in Washington and Oregon would not resume until decades later, Zion was extending its people beyond territorial Utah. As the settlements of the saints became more established in southern Idaho, stakes were formed, first Bear Lake in 1869, then later Bannock and Oneida, both in 1884. The Oneida Stake was established in the portion of the Cache Valley located in Idaho. The boundaries of the stake were originally described encompassing Oneida County and some portions of neighboring Bannock County. That said, its boundaries were somewhat elastic; a branch was established in Baker City, Oregon in 1893 and was placed under the ecclesiastical administration of the Oneida Stake.
In 1896, Oneida Stake President George C. Parkinson suggested that missionaries be called to preach in other communities in the Pacific Northwest. The First Presidency of the Church agreed and called Edward Stevenson, a member of the First Quorum of Seventies, to serve and open up missionary work. Elder Stevenson selected Matthias F. Cowley, then the second counselor in the Oneida Stake Presidency, to serve in this capacity.
Elder Stevenson was in his 78th year and was in good health at the beginning of the missionary tour. Born in Gibraltar to British parents in the spring of 1820, Elder Stevenson joined the church in Michigan in 1833 and set out on at age 14 to Clay County, Missouri to join the saints. His life paralleled and directly interfaced with many notable events of the Restoration. He heard firsthand each of the three witnesses testify of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. His was a consecrated life, having crossed the plains 19 times in all, including in 1847 in the Charles C. Rich Company and in 1859 as the captain of a company bearing his name. He served a number of missions for the Church, including a mission to bring the aged Martin Harris to Utah in 1870. The mission to the Pacific Northwest was to be his last in mortality.
Matthias Cowley was much younger, turning 38 years old while they were in their missionary travels. The following year, he and his wife Abbie Hyde Cowley would give birth to a son, Matthew Cowley, a prolific missionary and apostle. As a member of the Oneida Stake Presidency, he was undoubtedly dedicated to the faith.
Taking up their journey in early June 1896, Elders Stevenson and Cowley visited villages in southeastern Idaho before arriving in the mission field at Lima, Montana on June 16. They traveled in Montana, organizing branches and visiting such places as Anaconda, Butte, Helena and Florence. From Florence they went to Post Falls, Idaho, where a Methodist by the name of Samuel Young, took them into their home. They held two meetings on Sunday, August 30, at the local hall of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), a fraternal order of American Civil War veterans. They counted 65 in attendance at their afternoon meeting, and an even greater crowd that evening. In unseasonably wet conditions, they arrived in Spokane the next day and went straightway, as they later wrote, to “the oracle of the people, the press.”
By 1896, Spokane had positioned itself as the heart of the Inland Empire. Although it started later than other frontier towns in Washington State, its geography and hydrology lent it to become a rail hub with abundant hydro-electric power and multiple transcontinental railroads running through, with more to come. Incorporated only 15 years prior, Spokane was closing in on 35,000 in habitants and the center of mining, agriculture and industry for the region.
The elders were generously reported on by the Spokane press. There seemed to be some mutual respect between the missionaries and the editors at the Spokesman-Review. The newspaper, for its part, conveyed Elder Stevenson’s venerable demeanor and vigorous stature to its readers. Elder Stevenson kept with him the deed to his original property he acquired in Salt Lake City in 1948, and the newspaper printed a facsimile of this curiously small bit of paper for its readers to see. Elder Stevenson told the newspaper their mission objective: “We have so long been misrepresented by our enemies, that we now wish to represent ourselves.” He added, “Our church is now growing and we have attained a position that I think entitles us to a little respect.” As part of the report, the Spokesman-Reviewprinted the Articles of Faith. The missionaries wrote the Deseret News a few days later of this positive reception, stating “Zion is growing in favor.”
Their visit to Spokane was brief, but they spent several more weeks in the area, traveling by train to Palouse, Washington where they found a Benjamin Turnbow and family, who was of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but who’s relative, Samuel Turnbow, was a member of the Church in Utah and known of by Elder Cowley. After a diligent search, they found members of the church, Lyman Fisher Chapin and Emma Woolley Chapin, living a few miles south of Palouse. They stayed and preached in Palouse a few days before continuing to Lewiston, Idaho on September 7. They were well received by local officials, with the mayor and sheriff offering the courthouse free of charge to preach. The elders decided instead to hold their services in the local G.A.R. hall. Like the Spokesman-Review, the Lewiston Daily Teller seemed favorable to the advent of the missionaries.
On Tuesday, September 15, 1896, Elders Stevenson and Cowley embarked on a boat on the Snake River to travel to Walla Walla. Their mission would be cut short with Elder Stevenson growing seriously ill while there. They were able to visit saints in Baker City, Oregon before returning home but Elder Stevenson’s condition grew worse, and on January 27, 1897, he passed from this life. Elder Cowley would be called to the apostleship in 1897 and served in the quorum for a time. He spent a time disaffected from the Church, but regained membership and died firm in the faith in 1940.
This brief expedition would pave the way for missionary work to fully commence in 1897. It also introduced threads that ran through the tapestry that would form the Spokane Stake some 51 years later: the importance of finding, both convert and member, the building of relationships with the community and press, and the essential role of intrepid, faith-filled members and missionaries.
- The Oneida Stake : 100 years of LDS history in Southeast Idaho, accessed on Family Search, https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/records/item/222315-the-oneida-stake-100-years-of-lds-history-in-southeast-idaho
- Northwestern States Mission manuscript history and historical reports, 1857-1972; Volume 1, 1896-1912; Part 1, 1896-1898; Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/1f4f30a7-b8e6-4d28-b4da-e13f5001f103/0/0
- “Latter Day Saints – Mormon Missionaries Visit Spokane to Preach Their Doctrines” The Spokesman-Review(Spokane, Washington) · 1 Sep 1896, Tue · Page 5
- Edward Stevenson, Church History Biographical Database, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/chd/individual/edward-stevenson-1820
- Edward Stevenson, Family Search, https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/details/KWNJ-FXM
- Matthias F. Cowley, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthias_F._Cowley
- “Mormon Missionaries are Here” Lewiston Daily Teller · 10 Sep 1896, Tue · Page 1
- 1895-1900 Spokane photograph, Washington State Archives, Spokane City Historic Preservation Office Collection, https://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov/Record/View/1AEB8D2F4AF1F3F6437E945CBB1520A8