Eliza Tupper Wilkes (1844–1917) was a circuit-riding preacher who started eleven Universalist and Unitarian churches in the American West. The Unitarians and Universalists were two Protestant denominations that shared an interest in abolition, women’s rights, including suffrage. They were some of the first denominations willing to have women train in their seminaries and then employ them as ministers. Wilkes was one of the earliest ministers. She worked with and mentored other liberal women, many of whom were Unitarian and Universalist ministers in the West. This was important at a time when female ministers were derided by most of the established clergy and spurned by the older congregations “back east.”
Wilkes was born Eliza Mason Tupper on October 8, 1844, in Houlton, Maine, the eldest child of Allen and Ellen Smith Tupper. Her father, Allen, was a Baptist minister from a long line of reforming Baptist ministers. Her mother, Ellen, was a suffragist, editor, and writer of Mrs. Tupper's Journal, American Bee Journal, Youth’s Companion, and other periodicals. At least three of Eliza’s younger sisters— Mila Tupper Maynard, Kate Tupper Galpin, and Margaret Tupper True—followed in her footsteps, working in the fields of education, welfare, temperance, liberal religion, and women’s suffrage. Mila Tupper Maynard and Margaret Tupper True also spent part of their lives doing so in Colorado. Margaret was the mother of artist Allen Tupper True.
When Eliza was five, the family moved to Brighton, Iowa, so that her father could do missionary work with the Indigenous people living in the area. Her mother earned the titles “queen bee of Iowa” and “the Iowa bee woman” for her research and writing on honeybees. Ellen also taught college courses on beekeeping at Iowa State College.
In 1860 Eliza returned to Maine to attend school. After three years in the east, she began studying to be a missionary. She attended Iowa Central University, a new Baptist institution in Pella, Iowa. She graduated with honors in 1866 and was teaching in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, when she began questioning her religious path. Introspection and discussions with Quaker friends led her to leave the Baptist faith, turning her mind to ministry and social activism.
Saying she had “left the devil behind,” Eliza underwent a second baptism in 1867 and became a Universalist, to the dismay of her parents and friends. Universalists did not believe in hell and emphasized the power of love in life. Eliza was inspired by Olympia Brown, who had graduated from a Universalist seminary in 1860. Olympia had also mentored Augusta Chapin, pastor of the Mt. Pleasant Universalist Church. Augusta and temperance lecturer Mary Livermore encouraged Eliza to pursue Universalist ministry. Instead of wanting to be a missionary, she shifted her focus to preaching and helping build new churches in the West.
After successfully preaching from Chapin’s Mt. Pleasant pulpit, Eliza moved to Manasha, Wisconsin, to lead her first church. A year later, she moved to Neenah, Wisconsin, where she met William Wilkes, a successful young law clerk. They married in 1869. Eliza Wilkes was ordained in 1871 while she was a minister to the Universalist congregation in Rochester, Minnesota.
Eliza and William relocated to Colorado Springs, Colorado Territory, in 1873. William began a law practice while Eliza found her place in the new city. The first three of the couple’s six children were born during their five-year stay in Colorado Springs. Because of the challenges of motherhood, Eliza pulled back from full-time ministry, instead taking on community activities. She did organize a new Universalist church in Colorado Springs, initially housed in Unity Hall on Cascade Avenue near Bijou Street. There she preached regularly to get it started. Her sermons generally focused on love as a force in life and society. Unity later became All Souls Unitarian Church on Tejon Street in 1893.
One of Wilkes’s friends and parishioners was writer Helen Hunt Jackson. They often spent days riding and rambling to the top of nearby Cheyenne Mountain. Eliza worked with Helen and others in the city to start Colorado College (affiliated with the Congregational denomination). She went on to serve as president of its first auxiliary board. In 1875, on a trip to Massachusetts, she attended the first Women’s Ministerial Conference organized by Julia Ward Howe.
Wilkes was also one of the ministers to deliver the invocation during the Colorado Constitutional Convention in 1875–76. She spoke to the convention on January 11, 1876. She was chosen because she was part of the Territorial Woman Suffrage Society and because one of the convention members put her name in the invocation rotation. Her participation was part of an attempt to raise the image of women during the struggle to get women’s suffrage into the new Colorado Constitution. The campaign to include women’s suffrage in the new state constitution failed, but in 1877 it did grant Colorado women the right to vote in school elections and hold school offices. A subsequent referendum on general women’s suffrage failed in the same year.
When Wilkes and her oldest 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 his law practice, starting the firm of Wilkes and Welles. He also served several terms 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 women’s suffrage and temperance lecturers.
This community activism gave Wilkes a high profile in Unitarian and women’s suffrage circles. She was soon asked to speak to groups and sometimes to lead their efforts. In 1884 she represented South Dakota as its honorary vice president at the National Women’s Suffrage Association. She also served as director of the Iowa Unitarian Conference and secretary of the Post Office Missions of St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1886 Wilkes helped organize All Souls Unitarian Church in Sioux Falls.
Wilkes was one of eighteen ordained women on the stage for the 1893 World’s Congress of Representative Women held at the World’s Fair in Chicago. By that time, as heart problems and a hectic schedule caught up with her, Wilkes began to spend the winter months in California, where she remained active in women’s suffrage and the Unitarian Church. In 1901 she moved to Santa Ana, California, where she once again assisted in founding a new congregation. William joined her a couple of years later. Her husband died in 1909. Although Wilkes formally retired from the ministry that year, she served as chaplain for the Cumnock School in Los Angeles, California, where her sister Kate Tupper Galpin was head of school. In 1911 she participated in the successful women’s suffrage campaign in California.
Eliza Tupper Wilkes died on February 5, 1917. Her family buried her ashes in the family plot at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.