Istanbul and Rexburg: Jacob Spori’s Mission Field


In 1847, the same year the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley, Jacob Spori was born in a lonely village in the Swiss Alps. He was to lead a remarkable life, his dedication to the Church leading to accomplishments on both sides of the globe—including teaching himself Turkish while on a mission in Istanbul, and almost single-handedly supporting Ricks College, financially, as its first administrator.

Jacob grow up in Oberwill, Switzerland. His father was of French Huguenot descent, from a long line of school teachers and professors. Jacob was of the same mold. His love for books surfaced early, and he entered high school at age thirteen, graduating from college nine years later with degrees in mathematics and in arts and music. Jacob eventually learned to read and write thirteen languages.

Both of Jacob’s parents were dedicated to principles of Christian living. From them he learned the value and dignity of hard work; untiring energy was a quality he retained all his life.

When he was twenty-eight, Jacob married Magdalena Roschi, a lovely, cultured girl from his own village. Life was now a joyful experience for the young man, who was the principal of the high school he had attended. He was also honored by holding all of his late father’s offices, including auditor, assessor, and treasurer of Canton Bern, the second largest county in Switzerland.

In the late 1870s, however, Jacob’s life took a drastic change. He heard the gospel, accepted it, and immediately faced persecution. He was forced to resign his position as principal, and was relieved of his county offices. But the worst shock came when Jacob’s father-in-law took Jacob’s wife and four small children from him.

Jacob felt that he should go to Zion, and in 1879 he emigrated to Logan, Utah. He led a lonely but diversified life for the next five years. He studied English and Church history, worked in sawmills, and lay track for the railroad. His sister in Switzerland, Anna Clara, forwarded his letters so he could keep in touch with his wife and children.

Those first years in America were difficult for Jacob. His daughter, Elizabeth Stowell, tells that he had a hard time adjusting to his new life and was often discouraged. But he never regretted having accepted the gospel.

In 1884 Elder Spori was called on a mission to Turkey. He arrived in Istanbul just a few days after Christmas and immediately began to proselyte. At first he needed an interpreter, but he had a unique talent with languages and in only three months had a good command of Turkish. He taught the gospel with strength and vigor. Using various methods to get his message into the homes of Turkish families, he taught French and English without charge and blessed the lives of many by teaching them the gospel. His students learned new languages, but they learned about the restored Church at the same time. Jacob also taught German but charged for this service to obtain funds for food and clothing.

In the summer of 1886 Elder Spori was called to go to Palestine. He was the first called specifically as a missionary to that country in this dispensation. Orson Hyde dedicated the land in 1841, but did not proselyte there. Elder Spori performed Palestine’s first baptism when he baptized Johan George Grau on 29 August 1886.

Elder Spori’s labors extended as far as Joppa, Damascus, and Jerusalem. It was here in the land of Palestine that he discovered how miracles can come about through small means.

By local law all Christians had to be out of the city of Haifa before the gates were locked at dusk. But Elder Spori was working in that city with an investigator who was ill at the time. The young Mormon elder hated to leave until he was sure his friend was better. That evening, with the investigator on the mend, Jacob made plans to leave the city. He knew the gates were locked and that getting caught meant going to jail. As he walked along the city’s shore, pondering what to do, he watched the fishing boats coming into port. He noticed some men preparing the nets for the next day’s work and had the feeling he should help them. He stepped up and began working; no one seemed to notice him. When the work was finally done the men rolled up the nets, got into the small boat and prepared to set sail. Without a word Elder Spori also got into the boat. Before long they were on the sea. The next day the boat landed at Cairo, and Elder Spori jumped from the boat, went into the city, and resumed preaching the gospel.

After a mission of three and a half years, Elder Spori was released, and he returned to Switzerland. There he fulfilled an assignment from President Wilford Woodruff to help organize a company of Saints for their journey to Zion. It took him nearly a year to accomplish this.

Before his mission had ended, Elder Spori had received word from an almost unconsolable wife, still in Switzerland, that their eldest daughter, Katherine, had died from injuries received in a fall from a swing. Jacob, knowing well of the gospel’s ability to heal spiritual wounds, wrote his wife of the doctrines of the Church. She was touched by these new truths and became convinced the gospel was true.

Mrs. Spori applied for baptism and was reunited with her husband when he arrived in Switzerland following his missionary labors. She later bore fervent testimony and gave thanks for the eternal truths the gospel brought into her life.

Before leaving for Zion, Elder Spori translated several Church tracts into French. He was assisted by his youngest sister, Anna Clara Spori, a talented and well-educated young woman.

Finally, Jacob Spori and his wife and three children, Jacob, Magdalena, and Louise, and his sister Anna Clara left Berne for America. It was June, 1888. Their destination was Rexburg, Idaho. Jacob had been called to be the first principal of Ricks College, and the new school was getting ready to open.

Homes in Rexburg were scarce so the Spori family moved into an empty tithing granary. Their fifth child, Elizabeth, was born there 6 July 1888.

Leading the new college was a great challenge for Jacob. His daughter reports that many of the students had had very little opportunity to attend school, and that many were anxious to begin at the bottom of “the three Rs.” The “campus” consisted of a single log house, with homemade benches and a curtain that stretched between classes. Conditions were difficult, but the new principal never gave in to discouragement or bitterness.

On the day the school was officially opened, Jacob received a blessing pronounced at the opening session by Dr. Karl G. Maeser, the Church superintendent of schools and a fellow German-speaking immigrant. Jacob was profoundly impressed by this blessing—especially since Dr. Maeser stated it was not just for the three teachers in the opening ceremonies but it would also apply to all those who taught at the institution in the future. From that time, Elder Spori felt it his sacred duty to help carry the school to success despite poverty and hardship.

Jacob made great sacrifices to keep the school open to “bless the lives of many people.” To keep expenses down, he often taught during the day and did janitorial work at night. With the help of the older boys, he chopped all the firewood for the school. Many Saturdays were spent cleaning and repairing the school room.

The following year in the valley was not only a challenge to Jacob Spori but to the other families as well. Crops were poor; cattle died. The farmers struggled to survive; there was little, if anything, to give to the school.

As a result, the Church seriously considered closing the school until the people could maintain it. But Elder Spori could not agree. He said there were great blessings promised the school and those who attended and taught there. He wrote Karl G. Maeser and asked for some vacation time so he could go out and earn money to pay the other two teachers while they completed the winter and spring terms. He went back to the railroad and worked, sending the funds to Rexburg to pay the two teachers. The school did not close down.

For the four years Jacob Spori was principal, he not on!y taught school, but was a friend of the families of the students. He would visit the homes of the Saints, especially when there was sickness there.

“At the time of the diptheria epidemic in 1891,” his daughter recalls, “he went fearlessly to administer to the sick and comfort the bereaved.” Two of his daughters caught this dreaded disease, but he administered to them, believing they would be spared by the power of God. And they were.

After four years as academy principal Elder Spori asked for and received an honorable release from his work. He then turned to farming and began a project that was in later years a boon to agriculture in the area—he helped in the development of the canal on the Egin Bench, known as the Spori Canal.

Jacob Spori died in 1903—he was back teaching again, still doing the things he felt had to be done. His doctor had warned him that he suffered from diabetes and that he should stop working and rest more. Jacob’s reply was that he would rather “die working than die resting.”

Versatility and unwavering faith are two traits that characterize Jacob Spori’s life. He was a great educator, a student of languages, a missionary. He liked geology and mining, receiving his final degree in metallurgy when he was fifty years old. He became interested in medicine in Istanbul. Music was his great escape. He learned to play several different instruments. Science and agriculture were also parts of his life.

His life is well summarized in the words of his daughter: “He had such a burning testimony that he bore it whenever the opportunity presented itself. He used to tell us that nothing men can do will ever change the truthfulness of the gospel. All the seeming sacrifices he made seemed nothing to him compared with the peace and joy that came into his life when he joined the Church.”

Illustrated by Scott Greer

The Bannock Stake Academy in 1895. The academy later became known as Ricks College. Jacob Spori served as the first principal there. (Photography by J. Stanley Anderson courtesy BYU Photo Archives.)

Denton Y. Brewerton, coordinator of press relations at Ricks College, serves as a high councilor in the Rexburg Idaho Stake.