Eliza Tupper Wilkes (October 8, 1844-February 5, 1917) was a circuit-riding preacher who started eleven Universalist and Unitarian churches in the American West. Among the first women ordained into the ministry, Wilkes worked with and mentored other liberal women ministers in the West. Known as the "Iowa Sisterhood," these women found opportunity and support in the Women's Western Unitarian Conference and from the leading western Unitarian minister, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, at a time when women ministers were derided by most of the established clergy and spurned by the older congregations "back east."
Wilkes was born Eliza Mason Tupper in Houlton, Maine, the eldest child of Allen and Ellen Smith Tupper. Her father was a Baptist minister while her mother was an editor and writer for Mrs. Tupper's Journal, American Bee Journal, Youth's Companion and other periodicals. When Eliza was five the family moved to Brighton, Iowa so her father could work with American Indians. Her mother earned the titles "queen bee of Iowa," and "the Iowa bee woman," for her research and writing on honeybees along with the college courses she taught on beekeeping at Iowa State College. In 1860 Eliza returned to Maine to attend school, staying with her grandfather Noah Smith, in Calais. After three years in the east, she entered Iowa Central University in Pella, Iowa, a new Baptist institution, to learn missionary work. She graduated with honors in 1866 and was teaching in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, when introspection and discussions with Quaker friends led her to relinquish the Baptist faith, while retaining her missionary objective.
Saying she had "left the devil behind," Eliza underwent a second baptism in 1867 and, to the dismay of her parents and friends, became a Universalist. Augusta Chapin, pastor of the Mt. Pleasant Universalist Church, and temperance lecturer Mary Livermore encouraged her to pursue Universalist ministry. After successfully preaching from Chapin's Mt. Pleasant pulpit, she moved to Manasha, Wisconsin to take up her own pulpit. A year later she moved on to Neenah, Wisconsin. Here she met William Wilkes, a successful young law clerk, whom she married in 1869. From 1870 to 1873, Eliza Wilkes was minister to the Universalist congregation in Rochester, Minnesota where she was ordained in 1871.
Eliza and William relocated to Colorado Springs in Colorado Territory in 1873. William began a law practice while Eliza, visiting New England, filled a pulpit for a few months. In 1875, on a trip to Massachusetts, she attended the first Women's Ministerial Conference organized by Julia Ward Howe. According to Howe, Wilkes showed great promise as a minister. The first three of the Wilkes' six children were born during their five-year stay in Colorado Springs. Eliza pulled back from full-time ministry but took on community activities. She organized a new Unitarian congregation, preaching regularly to get it started. She and her friend and parishioner, writer Helen Hunt Jackson, often spent days riding and rambling to the top of nearby Cheyenne Mountain. Wilkes helped start Colorado College (affiliated with the Congregational denomination), going on to serve as president of its first auxiliary board. In 1876 she campaigned unsuccessfully for the inclusion of women's suffrage in the new state constitution. A suffrage referendum the following year also failed.
When Eliza and her eldest son began to suffer from heart problems, the family decided to leave Colorado for a lower altitude. In 1878 they moved to Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory (later South Dakota). William resumed the practice of law, starting the firm of Wilkes and Welles. He also served several terms on the bench as a Minnehaha County Judge. With young children Eliza had little time for ministry. Nevertheless household help, tutors for the children, and her husband's support freed her for community projects: organizing a library society, developing a women's club, and hosting touring women's suffrage and temperance lecturers. In 1884 she served as Honorary Vice President from South Dakota to the National Women's Suffrage Association. She also served as the director of the Iowa Unitarian Conference and secretary of the Post Office Missions of St. Paul, Minnesota.
From her base in Sioux Falls, Wilkes organized Universalist and Unitarian churches in South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota. The first, All Souls Universalist Church in Sioux Falls, held its initial meeting in 1886. The next year the congregation called Caroline Bartlett (later Crane) as their minister. They built a new church at Twelfth and Dakota Avenues two years later. Eliza Wilkes's circuit riding planted Unitarian congregations in Miner, Madison, and Huron, South Dakota as well as in Luverne and Adrian, Minnesota. She also started a congregation in Rock Rapids, Iowa. Many Sundays she preached in Rock Rapids in the morning and then rode fifteen miles to Luverne for an afternoon service.
Eliza's parents moved to nearby Beloit, Iowa, fifteen miles south of Sioux Falls. Her sister Mila, who was twenty years younger, often assisted with church business. At least three sisters, Mila Frances Tupper (later Maynard), Kate Tupper (later Galpin), and Margaret Tupper (later True) followed in Eliza's footsteps, working in the fields of education, welfare, temperance, liberal religion, and women's suffrage.
By the early 1890s, as heart problems and a hectic schedule caught up with her, Wilkes began to spend the winter months in California. During the winter of 1890-91 she served the Alameda, California Unitarian Church. Wilkes was one of eighteen ordained women on the stage for the 1893 World's Congress of Representative Women held in Chicago, Illinois. Back in California in 1894, she served as Assistant Pastor at Oakland's First Unitarian Church. In 1895, Wilkes became the first woman minister to be a delegate to the Pacific Unitarian Conference. She was also elected President of the Western Woman's Unitarian Conference.
Between 1895 and 1901 Wilkes made yearly trips to Sioux Falls to check on her congregations. Finally, in 1901, she moved to Santa Ana, California. There, she once again assisted in the founding of a new congregation. William joined her a couple of years later. In 1905 she shared the pulpit with Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon and Anna Howard Shaw at the national suffrage convention in Portland, Oregon. Wilkes was also active in the Woman's Congress Association of the Pacific Coast and the California Equal Suffrage Association. In 1911 she took part in the successful women's suffrage campaign in California. In 1913, at the Governor's request, she represented California at the International Women Suffrage Congress in Budapest. She twice traveled to England to assist with suffrage campaigns.
Her husband died in 1909. Although she formally retired from the ministry that year, Wilkes served as Chaplain for the Cumnock School in Los Angeles, California until her death in 1917. Her sister, Kate Tupper Galpin, was head of the Cumnock School Academy. In 1917 Eliza visited her daughter Queenie in Northampton, Massachusetts. She died while on a short holiday in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She was buried without a marker in the family plot at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls.
The Allen Tupper True Collection in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art contains letters, photographs, and memorabilia from the Tupper and Wilkes families. Other letters and records can be found in Jenkin Lloyd Jones Papers, Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago; Jenkin Lloyd Jones and Western Unitarian Conference Papers, Wiggins Library at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois; and the American Unitarian Association Archives at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Biographical sources include a 16-page booklet, Mila Tupper Maynard, A Mother's Ministry: Glimpses into the Life of Eliza Tupper Wilkes, 1844-1917 (1917?); Dana Bailey, History of Minnehaha County (1899); and the conference presentation, Doug Chapman, Dakota Territory's Eliza Tupper Wilkes: Prairie Pastor (2000), which is available on the Internet. A number of short items by and about Eliza Tupper Wilkes and her family can be found in 19th century suffrage and religious periodicals and reports including: Old and New, the Iowa Unitarian Conference monthly; the Woman's Standard, a national suffrage publication; Progress, the official organ of the National American Women Suffrage Association; Unity, published by the Western Unitarian Association; and The Christian Register. Secondary sources include Cynthia Grant Tucker, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers on the Frontier, 1880-1930 (1990); Charles H. Lyttle, Freedom Moves West: A History of the Western Unitarian Conference 1852-1952 (1952); and Ronald Knapp, ed., Bring, O Past, Your Honor: Unitarian Universalism and the Area That Is Now Prairie Star District (1986).