The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume I, Number 1, Pages 11-18
Winter, 1976

Washington Biography: Lemuel Wells, Pioneer Missionary

By J. William T. Youngs

Many early settlers were attracted to the West by the lawlessness that was frequently associated with the frontier. Of these some wanted to participate in the disorderly life, others wanted to tame it. Lemuel H. Wells was one of those who sought to "civilize" the West. In over a half a century as an Episcopal minister in Washington he helped establish over two dozen churches, a hospital, and several schools. Wells and others like him brought to Washington a courage and resourcefulness, which were as dramatic as, and considerably more constructive than, that of the unruly frontiersmen who sometimes sought to oppose their work. In his ninetieth year he wrote an autobiography, which gives us a firsthand account of his remarkable life.

Early Life

Lemuel Wells was born in Yonkers, New York, on December 3, 1841. His parents, Horace D. Wells and Mary Barker Wells, were "earnest Christian people" who had decided that their son would be a minister, and when he misbehaved, they reminded him of his "destiny."

Nonetheless, Wells' youth was marked by normal boyish pranks. His first recollection is of an altercation with the family parrot: "He had escaped from his cage and perched in a small pear tree, and I climbed up and got him by the foot; then he got me by the finger - and I still have the scar." Lemuel once claimed that he was sick in order to miss church and go swimming instead. His father commiserated with him, sent him to bed - and locked up his clothes.

Although such behavior was not a promising beginning for a future clergyman, Wells also recalled episodes in his youth, which helped prepare him for his career. After hearing a minister recount his experiences among the Indians, Lemuel decided to become a missionary. Accordingly, when he was older, his father hired a lightweight champion boxer to give him instructions in self-defense. At the end of the course his instructor gave him a "regular bout" in which he knocked Lemuel out and broke his nose. Wells reports, "I have had a crooked nose ever since, but a number of times I have felt a great satisfaction in a crisis by knowing I could defend myself." As a child Lemuel also gained experience in horsemanship by being mounted on a "vicious little black pony" who once bucked him off into a servant's arms. "I have been thankful for this training," he says, "many a time when riding a half-wild bronco of the plains."

Wells' recollection of such experiences shows the sense of humor, which was an important asset in his missionary career. But his levity was balanced by his earnestness about religion. He recalls, for example, an occasion when he swore at another child and was called to reckoning by his mother. She told him that he had taken God's name in vain and so committed a great sin. Then, he recalls, "she knelt down with me and prayed with me and when we rose she said, 'I hope you will never take God's name in vain again as long as you live.' And I never have."

In 1860 at the age of 18 Wells entered Trinity College in Hartford. He was there for only two years because with the beginning of the Civil War he decided to recruit a company and join the fighting. He won rapid promotion when one of his senior officers was wounded and another was found drunk on duty. In May 1863, outside of Vicksburg, he became commander of General Grant's bodyguard. He remembered Grant as a forceful, effective general.

After the war, he completed his undergraduate education at Hobart College in 1867 and graduated two years later from Berkeley Divinity School. The next week he married Elizabeth Folger, niece and adopted daughter of Secretary of War Charles J. Folger. After spending a year touring Europe with his new bride, he was ordained as an Episcopalian priest and became assistant minister in Trinity Church, New Haven, Connecticut.

Lemuel Wells might easily have spent the rest of his life as a minister in his native Connecticut except for a tragedy, which profoundly altered his life. A year after his arrival in New Haven, his young wife died. He recalls, "In answer to my prayers asking why such a visitation was sent upon me, God revealed to me that it was his wish to have me go into the mission fields."

Wells wrote to several bishops asking whether they had any "hard missionary work" for him. Bishop Morris of Oregon and Washington wrote back that he wanted to place a man at Walla Walla. Wells decided, "a place with such a name needed a missionary" and accepted the offer.

Gone West

Lemuel Wells' journey to his new post was his first introduction to the rigors of frontier life - by train across the prairie through great herds of buffalo to San Francisco; by steamer to Portland; then by a series of narrow gauge railways and steamers to Wallula, and from there by coach to Walla Walla. In Portland he met Bishop Morris, who warned him that except for three towns, Eastern Washington was "practically a wilderness." He urged Wells not only to preach the gospel, but also to "found institutions."

When Wells came to Walla Walla he found that gold had been discovered in the region and the community was a typical Western boomtown. Shortly after he arrived, he saw a man shot to death in the street. When he walked through town with one of the vestrymen, they had to stay in the center of the muddy street, to avoid "dark places." The vestryman was head of the local vigilantes and was afraid of being shot by friends of someone he had recently hanged.

Wells had to work hard to interest local citizens in joining the church. He began by meeting in a hardware store with six people who had been confirmed earlier by Bishop Morris. After a smallpox epidemic ravaged the town the number of communicants was reduced to three and then to one. "This one," writes Wells, "fortunately, was the organist."

Eventually the epidemic passed and Wells persuaded others to join the church. He had refused to accept financial assistance from the Bishop, preferring to rely on the good will of his people. And so his first residence was only a small room above a wood house:

"The walls were one board thick without any battens and the winter winds howled through the generous cracks." He improved his condition by plastering the wall with church newspapers and by fashioning a bunk, a table, and a chair out of a barrel. Fortunately, the congregation eventually took pity on him and held a special collection which enabled him to find better lodgings.

The church grew steadily and eventually acquired a new building for its meetings. Once it was prospering, Wells recalled his bishop's advice to "found institutions," and set about establishing St. Paul's, a school for girls. Through the assistance of Eastern benefactors and student fees (which often came in the form of gold nuggets, cattle, potatoes, and flour), the school prospered.


After a smallpox epidemic ravaged the town the number of communicants was reduced to three and then to one.
"This one," writes Wells, "fortunately, was the organist."


To establish a school and a church in one town was a significant achievement, but Wells felt a responsibility to minister to the whole region. Having begun the church in Walla Walla, he set out on a series of missionary journeys in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, which would enable him to found twenty-two missions. The list of towns where he began churches reads like a directory of the frontier villages in his region: Waitsburg, Dayton, Colfax, Pomeroy, Ritzville, La Grande, Pendleton, Pullman, North Yakima, Camas, Moscow, Palouse, Northport, Kennewick, Zillah, Lewiston, Ellensburg, Sunnyside, Weston, Cove, Baker City, and Roslyn.

His accounts of his missionary journeys furnish some of the most fascinating reading in his autobiography. Trips, which take only a few hours today, required many days of travel. So, for example, on a journey to Gold Beach in southern Oregon, he used ten means of conveyance: railroad, rowboat, steamboat, surf wagon, sailboat, poleboat, railroad handcar, horse, and mule. He was the victim of at least one stagecoach robbery, and on numerous occasions, riding alone through the forests, he encountered bears and mountain lions. In the night he could sometimes depend on the hospitality of church members, but he frequently had to sleep outside in a haystack or even under the snow.

The ruggedness of the terrain was matched by the character of the people. Wells often encountered outright hostility to the gospel. In a barroom in Baker, he urged everyone to attend his service the next day in La Grande. When one of the men asked him why they should go to church, he replied that it would help them go to heaven. Then another man broke in, "What's in heaven for me? There ain't no whiskey nor cigars nor cards; I don't want to go to heaven."


On a journey to Gold Beach in southern Oregon, he
used ten means of conveyance: railroad, rowboat, steamboat,
surf wagon, sailboat, poleboat, railroad handcar, horse, and mule.


In the same region a stage driver told him that he had tried to be a Christian after he first arrived in the West, but when he attempted to read the Bible, other drivers teased him and spit at him. "There ain't no use trying to be a Christian on this route," he said.

Wells' response to the cantankerous and assertive people of the new territory was his own brand of forcefulness. When a bully in Ritzville told him to get out of town and threatened to "make him dance," Wells told him, "See here, mister, you've got the earmarks of a greenhorn on you and I've been here too long to be afraid of you, so shoot away." Wells' retort was "greeted by such merriment" that the gunman let him alone.

The missionary's first problem in any new town was to find prospective members for the church he hoped to establish. Sometimes he was fortunate enough to find that the local Episcopalians were already organized before his arrival. In Ritzville, the same town where the bully threatened to shoot at him, another man greeted him with the news that he had been a choirboy at Trinity Church in New York and had been drilling a local choir in preparation for his arrival.

Most people were neither as hostile nor as supportive as those he found in Ritzville. In the usual pattern he arrived in a town and then had to work hard to find people to attend his religious services. In towns where there were initially no church members, Wells frequently toured the bars trying to persuade men to come to his service. In Pendleton, Oregon, the resistance was particularly acute, men fleeing out the back door of the bars as he came in the front. Finally he found a saloonkeeper who had been "partially brought up" in the Episcopalian faith who persuaded most of the men in his saloon to attend a service by offering them free drinks. Joe, the saloonkeeper, eventually became one of the pillars of the church, and helped establish it financially by publicly reprimanding communicants who did not make the proper contribution on "dollar day."

Vancouver, Washington - July, 1858

Wells' relation with the Indians in the region was usually constructive. At least once he prayed over a sick Indian who subsequently recovered from disease. Another act of friendship may have saved his life. As he was sleeping one night in the White Horse Tavern atop the Blue Mountains, he was awakened by an Indian to whom he had once given a pair of trousers. The man urged Wells to dress quickly and led him outside to where the missionary's horse stood saddled.

After they had traveled some distance towards La Grande, the Indian told him to look back. Wells reports: "I saw the tavern was in flames and heard the yells of the Indians and the noise of their guns as they killed the fleeing occupants. When I was in safety, without a word he turned and left me." This was his first knowledge of the Nez Perce War.

Wells' many adventures in his missionary days are so impressive that they tend to obscure the more significant but less dramatic results of his work. In many places the product of his ministry was the creation of a permanent church, some of them near at hand to his home parish in Walla Walla, other in distant parts of the country that he could visit only once a year.


Often the new churches showed the marks of the rough materials - people and resources - from which they were made. In Pendleton, Oregon, a fine church was eventually built, but Wells complained that the communicants had not abandoned their vices for the sake of the church. In fact, they had raised money for the building by holding a series of dances where liquor flowed freely. It chagrined Wells that the people called the church "The Little Brown Jug." He characterized the religious sensibilities of the typical frontiersman by describing a man who thought he was a good Christian because, as he said, "I don't drink or take dope nor cheat at the cards, and I never killed but one man in my life and I couldn't help that because he called me a liar."

But with the minister's leadership the people were capable of fine acts of religious devotion. In Chelan, for example, they had thought they were too poor to build a church. But Wells persuaded them that a good building could be made of logs. So for one day the men went to the hills with axes and crosscut saws to fell trees, which they rafted down the lake to the mill at Chelan. The operation "resulted in one of the most charming churches in the district. Even the altar and altar rail were made of the smaller logs and the effect was most pleasing."

After a few years a routine was established in Wells' missionary life. Confrontations with hard trails and hard men were followed by cooperation between minister and people in building new churches. As he considered his career, he must often have felt that he was helping to produce order where before there had been only chaos. His description of a night spent lost in the woods can be read as a parable of his work.

He had fallen asleep on his horse and awoke to find himself lost. "Trees were piled up all around us, dead limbs interlaced ... I knew that there were terrible precipices and pitfalls and I could see only dark shadows and dark abysses of blackness."

He spent an uneasy night in the woods, but with the morning there was a scene, which he regarded as a symbol of hope: "At last the morning came; the sun arose. Oh, what a transformation! Peak after peak was bathed in glory. Rocks took form and shape; tree tops silvered with the rays; warmth returned; flowers were painted anew; beasts fled to their dens; the trail was found and hope returned. I went on my way and thought of the promise, 'In thy light shall we see light'."


"I esteem it the greatest pleasure of my life to
minister to these isolated communities where it seems
as though no man cares for their soul."


As Wells continued his missionary journeys, the spiritual "shadows" and "abysses" retreated and communicants and churches took "form and shape" in the wilderness. His autobiography contains many accounts of religious services held in the face of adverse conditions. Once in a dense forest he came upon a family that had been unable to attend church for the past four years. At the parents' urging, Wells agreed to stay the night. He baptized the child and celebrated the Lord's supper. "That alone," he says, "was worth all the trouble I had taken to reach those scattered people."

On another journey he passed through Waterville, a town which had kept up a Sunday School even though they had not had a pastor for six years. The people turned out at 7 o'clock in the morning so that he could hold a communion service for them in time to catch the 8 o'clock stage. After recounting this last episode, he wrote, "I esteem it the greatest pleasure of my life to minister to these isolated communities where it seems as though no man cares for their soul."

Bishop Wells

Wells had spent some twenty years acting as a missionary priest in Walla Walla and a short time as a pastor in Tacoma, when, in 1892, a new Episcopalian diocese was formed in Eastern Washington and he was elected bishop. In spite of his new title, he retained his close affinity for the common people of his region. Once he was established in Spokane, he set about as he had in Walla Walla, establishing institutions, including a new hospital and a school. He continued, too, his travels to other parishes. "Much of my work," he writes, "was in visiting country places and holding services in their halls or school buildings or private homes."

In 1900 and in 1910 he attended the Lambeth Conference, a meeting held once every ten years in London and attended by all of the Episcopalian bishops. In England he was feted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and even by Queen Victoria herself. But he was somewhat uncomfortable in such signs of respect for "a poor missionary bishop."

In 1880 he had taken a second wife, Henrietta Garretson, who bore him a daughter, Mary. Lemuel Wells would undoubtedly have been a doting father, but in 1887 Mary died at the age of four. In 1903 the mother died, and Wells was once more a widower. He remained single until 1915 when an extraordinary thing happened.

A full half century before, while he was an undergraduate in college, he had courted a wealthy girl named Jane Sheldon. He had made several visits to her home, when one evening her father, "a proud, pompous man who prided himself on his family connections," met him at the door and asked if he could supply any letters of introduction. Overwhelmed, Wells had not reflected that he could easily provide such letters from General Grant and others. Instead he muttered, "No, sir", and walked away. He recalls, "As I wended my path through the beautiful grounds I saw her fair form on the front porch and waved a farewell that broke my heart."

Perhaps her heart, too, had been broken. At any rate, after her husband's death, she came West in 1915 to be Lemuel Wells' third bride.

In the same year, at the age of 73, Wells resigned as Bishop of Spokane explaining that his age would not permit him to make the rigorous journeys, which the position required. Believing that it would not be good for the new Bishop for his predecessor to remain in Spokane, he and Jane decided to settle in Tacoma. There he continued his ministerial work, conducting services and teaching Bible classes. His wife, too, led several Bible classes and also helped secure funds for St. Mark's Church.

These must have been years of deep contentment for the Bishop. Behind him lay four decades of successful missionary work. Now he lived in a town where he had helped form several churches, where he loved to look out at the mountains and the Sound, and where he could continue even in retirement, helping with God's work. With him after fifty years was his childhood sweetheart, with whom he could share memories of the rich years they had spent apart.

The idyll was broken on March 29, 1922 when Jane Wells died of pneumonia. On that day, he recalls, "all earthly joys came to an end." With Jane's death Bishop Wells, now in his eighties, tried several living arrangements before agreeing at the age of 87 to live in a Tacoma nursing home with his 93-year-old brother.

Despite his grief over Jane's death, the Bishop continued his teaching and ministry. In his ninetieth year he dictated his memoirs, an act the clergymen of his bishopric had urged him to begin many years before. Both the humor and the warmth that had marked his earlier career are apparent when we see him at work on his fine autobiography. He begins by explaining why he has finally decided to write:

"I lately had a hint that I had better hurry up if I were going to write at all. I went to New York and as I am a little deaf I consulted an eminent specialist about it. He examined my ears carefully and said, 'Why, there is nothing the matter with your ears; they are all right. How does your deafness show itself?'

'Why, I can't hear very well over the telephone.'

Then he asked me some questions very rapidly, but I could not understand him. Then he spoke more slowly and I understood perfectly.

'There, your brain works slowly; that's the trouble. It is stiffer than it used to be and as you grow older it does not respond so quickly to impressions.'

‘Well, doctor, will this increase?' 'I am afraid so.'

'What will be the result?'

'Oh, if you live long enough you will be an idiot. Ten dollars, please!' "

Bishop Wells was amused at this blunt assessment of his health, but he was sufficiently concerned that on his return to Tacoma he arranged to begin his autobiography with the help of a young friend of his wife. And so, having outlived three wives, he set about to recount his long years as a pioneer missionary.

Lemuel Wells' tender humanity as well as his resourcefulness and wit must have been apparent to Mrs. Glen Darling as she transcribed his memories. In the preface he expresses his gratitude to Mrs. Darling and to "her little girl who nestles up against me and rests her head upon my shoulder and listens to the story as I dictate."