“To the Throne of Grace,” chapter 37 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 37: “To the Throne of Grace”
Wilford Woodruff and George Q. Cannon arrived at the Manti temple in the middle of the night on May 15, 1888. They had left Salt Lake City a few days earlier, traveling after sundown to avoid marshals. The last leg of their trip was a forty-mile carriage ride through treacherous canyon terrain. Navigating in darkness, the driver had twice run the carriage off the road, nearly sending the apostles crashing down the mountain.1
Wilford had come to Sanpete Valley to dedicate the third temple in Utah. Since appearing at public events would endanger George and other Church leaders, Wilford had decided to dedicate the temple in a small, private ceremony. Later, the Saints would hold a public dedication without him for those who had a special recommend from their bishop or stake president.2
The beauty of the new temple was breathtaking. Constructed with cream-colored limestone from the nearby mountains, it rose atop a hill overlooking a sea of wheat fields. Delicately carved trimmings and colorful murals adorned the temple’s interior, and two magnificent spiral staircases stood as if suspended in air, without a single pillar for support.3
Completing the temple was a bright spot in an otherwise difficult time for Wilford. Disunity within the Quorum of the Twelve continued to threaten their ability to lead the Church effectively. Eight months had passed since John Taylor’s death, and some junior apostles were still finding fault with George. Wilford was ready to organize the First Presidency, but he could not do so as long as the quorum was out of harmony.
The apostles had made some progress in healing the rift in their quorum. In March, Wilford had brought them together several times to try to reconcile their differences. During one meeting, he reminded the quorum that they must be guided by humility and love. He meekly confessed his own wrongdoing in speaking too sharply at times, prompting each apostle to confess his sins and ask the others for forgiveness. Afterward, though, a few members of the quorum still remained unwilling to support the formation of a new First Presidency.4
The Edmunds-Tucker Act continued to threaten the Church as well. With power to confiscate Church property valued over $50,000, federal officials had taken control of the Church’s tithing office, president’s office, and temple block, which included the unfinished Salt Lake temple. The government had then offered to rent back the temple block for a courtesy fee of one dollar per month. Wilford had found the offer insulting, but he agreed to it to allow construction on the temple to continue.5
The new law had also put oversight of Utah’s public schools into the hands of a federal commission, and the apostles worried that Latter-day Saint educators would be passed over when they sought teaching positions. Earlier that year, George had suggested establishing more Church-owned academies to employ these instructors and teach gospel principles to students. Wilford and the apostles had unanimously supported the plan, and on April 8 they announced the organization of a board of education to govern the new system.6
With these matters looming over the Church, Wilford dedicated the Manti temple on May 17, 1888. In the celestial room, he knelt at an altar and offered a prayer, thanking God for the wondrous blessing of another temple in Zion.
“Thou hast seen the labors of Thy Saints in the building of this house. Their motives and their exertions are all known to Thee,” he prayed. “We this day present it to Thee, O Lord our God, as the fruit of the tithings and freewill offerings of Thy people.”
That day, following the dedication, Wilford received a report that federal marshal Frank Dyer was demanding that the Church turn over all its property in Logan, including the tithing house, tabernacle, and temple. Wilford recorded a simple prayer in his journal, asking God to protect the temples from those who wished to defile them.7
The following week, apostle Lorenzo Snow presided at the Manti temple’s public dedication. Before the first session began, many Saints in the temple’s assembly hall heard angelic voices singing throughout the room. At other times, Saints saw halos or bright manifestations of light around speakers. Some people reported seeing Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and other personages. While Lorenzo read the dedicatory prayer, someone in the congregation heard a voice say, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, the Lord be praised.”
For the Saints, these spiritual manifestations were signs of God’s watchful care. “They comfort the people,” wrote one witness to the outpourings, “being an evidence that in the most cloudy times, the Lord is with them.”8
While still on their mission to Hawaii, Susa and Jacob Gates were beginning to think about what they would do when they returned to Utah. One day early in 1888, Jacob said, “Su, I wish you could get a position on the Exponent as associate editor.” Susa had already published articles in the Woman’s Exponent under the pen name “Homespun,” and Jacob had great confidence in her writing talent.
Susa wanted to use her writing to help the Church. Eliza Snow had once encouraged her to “never write a line or a word that is not calculated to help and benefit this kingdom,” and Susa tried to live by that counsel. Lately, she had begun thinking about writing articles in defense of the Church for magazines in the eastern United States. But she had never considered working as an editor before.9
The truth was, she struggled to find time to write. She was up by six o’clock most mornings, attending to three children and the never-ending tasks of running a household.10 Barely a year had passed since the deaths of her small sons, Jay and Karl, and she still struggled with their loss, at times wishing she could leave Laie just to keep her thoughts from returning to the two graves on the hillside above her home. A cough from any of her children still made her anxious.11 Was now the right time to take on more responsibilities?
But once the idea of working for the Exponent was planted in Susa’s mind, it quickly took root. She wrote to Zina Young and described her desire to change the Woman’s Exponent into a monthly magazine printed on fine paper, similar to popular women’s magazines of the time.
“My whole soul is for the building up of this kingdom. I would labor so hard to help my sisters,” she wrote. “The work would be a labor of love, for you know I love writing.”12
At the same time, she sent a letter to Emmeline Wells, the newspaper’s editor, and others she respected, asking for advice. Romania Pratt, one of the territory’s few female physicians and a regular writer for the Woman’s Exponent, was the first to respond.
“My dear young and gifted friend,” she wrote, “I do not feel that you will be in your best situation as a member or partner in the Exponent.” Emmeline liked to manage the paper her own way, Romania explained, and would not welcome Susa’s involvement. Instead, Romania suggested that Susa start a new magazine for the Church’s young women.13
Susa loved the idea, and she wrote to her friend Joseph F. Smith about it. He responded a short time later, full of support. He envisioned a magazine written and produced entirely by Latter-day Saint women, and he encouraged Susa to seek “good and wise counselors” to help her.
“Not one who is capable should be denied the privilege to do their best,” he wrote. “Our community is different from any other. Our prosperity lies in our own union, cooperation, and mutual effort. There is no one independent.”14
At Joseph’s recommendation, Susa wrote to Wilford Woodruff and the presidency of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, seeking their support for the magazine. Wilford wrote back with his approval a few months later. The Y.L.M.I.A. presidency also gave her their support.
“Well, it is in the hands of the Lord,” Susa wrote in her journal. As soon as she returned to the United States, she would try to make her magazine a reality.15
In the fall of 1888, George Q. Cannon decided that it was in his and the Church’s best interest for him to go to prison. In the months before John Taylor’s death, the Lord had revealed that George needed to go back into hiding with the prophet to help manage the Church. Now that John had passed away and the leadership of the Church was in the hands of the Twelve, George no longer had a duty to stay hidden.16
Wilford Woodruff also believed that the Saints needed to mend their relationship with the United States government in order to win statehood for Utah. Under a state government, the Saints could use their majority vote to elect leaders who would protect their religious freedoms. Since the Edmunds-Tucker Act applied only to territories, it would no longer have power to harm the Church if Utah became a state.17 But the United States Congress was unlikely to grant statehood to Utah while a prominent apostle was a fugitive from justice.
When he learned that the United States attorney was willing to recommend a lenient sentence, George began to consider how turning himself in might benefit the Saints. His surrender could serve as an olive branch to Washington’s lawmakers. He also hoped his actions might strengthen the resolve of other men to face up to similar charges.18
On September 17, he pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful cohabitation, aware that he might have to spend nearly a year in jail. The chief justice, who was rumored to be more moderate in his dealings with the Saints than previous judges, gave him the relatively short sentence of 175 days behind bars.19
George wanted to begin his jail term as soon as possible, so on the same day as his sentencing, he was transported to the Utah territorial penitentiary. The weather-beaten prison sat on a hill in Salt Lake City.20 Normally, when new prisoners entered the yard, inmates liked to heckle them by shouting, “Fresh fish!” But when George came in, no one yelled. Instead, the men circled around him, surprised and curious to see an apostle in prison.
Inside, George found three levels of small cells. The warden gave him a cell on the top level and told him he could stay inside without locking the heavy iron doors. George was not seeking favors, however. He wore the same black-and-white prison uniform and abided by the same rules as the rest of the inmates.21
After a short time in prison, George organized a Bible class. Over sixty men attended the first Sunday meeting, including several who were not Latter-day Saints. The prisoners read and discussed the first five chapters of Matthew. “A most delightful spirit prevailed,” George wrote in his journal.22
Week followed week, and George found his time in prison to be happier than he had expected. During visiting days, he conducted Church business and met with other apostles, including Heber Grant, whose heart was beginning to soften toward him. He also received visits from friends and family, and he spent much time counseling fellow inmates.
“My cell has seemed a heavenly place,” George wrote in his journal. “I feel that angels have been there.”23
While George Q. Cannon served his prison sentence, Joseph F. Smith traveled to Washington, DC, to help the Church’s attorney, Franklin S. Richards, lobby for Utah statehood.24 Still a fugitive, Joseph sometimes wondered if he should follow George’s example and turn himself in to the authorities. But Wilford Woodruff had assigned Joseph to oversee the Church’s political activity in Washington, and Joseph believed either statehood or an act of divine intervention was the only path to lasting religious liberty for the Saints.25
In Washington, Joseph was free to move around town, though he was careful to avoid the halls of Congress, where someone might recognize him. He spent several days helping Franklin prepare a speech to the committee that would ultimately recommend whether Congress should vote for or against Utah statehood. Then, a few hours before the speech, he blessed Franklin that a good spirit would be with him.26
During the speech, Franklin represented plural marriage as a dying practice. Often, he said, the polygamy cases the government prosecuted were against elderly men who had entered into plural marriage years before. Franklin also argued that Utah’s residents, a large majority of whom did not practice plural marriage, should have the liberty to elect their own officials under a state government.27
After days of deliberations, the committee decided to make no recommendation to Congress. Joseph was disappointed, but he thought so much of Franklin’s speech that he sent copies of it to more than three thousand lawmakers and prominent persons across the country.
Not long after, however, he received a telegram informing him that George Peters, the United States attorney for Utah, was planning to summon members of Joseph’s family to testify against him before a grand jury.28
Joseph considered it an act of betrayal. A few months earlier, Peters had extorted $5,000 from the Church with a promise that he would be lenient in future prosecutions of Latter-day Saints. Although political favors were often bought and sold at this time in the United States, Joseph’s whole being had revolted at the thought of paying Peters. But after discussing the matter with Wilford, Joseph had decided that submitting to the blackmail might help protect the Saints.29
Joseph replied to the telegram immediately, giving instructions on where his wives and children could hide. But he felt anxious for the rest of the day. “I pray God to protect my family from the merciless grasp of the pitiless, bigoted foe,” he wrote in his journal.30
Throughout the winter of 1888–89, the Quorum of the Twelve still could not come to an agreement over the formation of a new First Presidency. Federal marshals, meanwhile, continued to apprehend Church leaders. In December, apostle Francis Lyman surrendered to authorities, joining George Q. Cannon in prison. As president of the Twelve, Wilford Woodruff was forced to lead the Church with fewer and fewer apostles by his side.31
Wilford spent some of his time working on his farm, writing letters, and signing recommends for Saints wanting to attend the temples in Logan, Manti, or St. George.32 In February 1889, George Q. Cannon was released after serving five months in prison. Wilford invited him and several friends to his office the following day to celebrate. Members of the Tabernacle Choir hauled in an organ, and the choir sang hymns. Then some Hawaiian Saints who had immigrated to Utah sang three songs, including two composed for the occasion. One of the men, Kanaka, was over ninety years old. George had baptized him while on his mission to Hawaii in the early 1850s.
That night, Wilford joined the Cannon family for a turkey dinner. “Your father has got the biggest brain and the best mind of any man in the kingdom,” he told one of George’s sons. Now that George was released from prison, Wilford hoped all the apostles could recognize his goodness and move forward together to lead the Church.33
After Zina Young returned to Salt Lake City from Cardston, she felt the full weight of her new responsibility as the general president of the Relief Society. She now stood at the head of more than twenty-two thousand women in hundreds of wards and branches across the world. In addition to serving as a spiritual leader, she oversaw several institutions, such as the Deseret Hospital, and multiple assets, including over thirty-two thousand bushels of grain in storage.
Zina had selected two experienced Relief Society leaders, Jane Richards and Bathsheba Smith, to support her as counselors, but the demands of the calling still felt overwhelming. Her daughter, Zina Presendia, reminded her of another person who could help. “See dear Aunt Em,” she wrote. “She is a natural-made general.”34
Zina Presendia was referring to Emmeline Wells, who served as a secretary to the Relief Society, a role that put her in charge of communications, business transactions, and arranging visits to Relief Societies throughout the territory. Emmeline’s duties as editor of the Woman’s Exponent already kept her extremely busy.35 Even so, she willingly agreed to help Zina with her new responsibilities.
“Evidently my work will be more extensive in the future than it has been,” Emmeline wrote in her journal. “Responsibilities come thick and fast upon the women of Zion.”36
Both Zina and Emmeline felt strongly about women having the right to vote—a right the Edmunds-Tucker Act had taken from them. In the winter of 1889, Zina and Emmeline met with Wilford Woodruff and other Church leaders to discuss forming a women’s suffrage association for Utah. Wilford and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve gave their full support.37
Soon, women’s suffrage meetings began to follow regular Relief Society meetings in wards all around Utah and Idaho. Emmeline often published reports of these meetings in the Woman’s Exponent. Zina, meanwhile, called on the United States government to return the “God-given right of suffrage” to Utah’s women. “By and with it we will be enabled to do vast good to the world,” she said. She also declared her commitment to working with women outside the Church. “We expect to reach out our hands to the women of America,” she said, “and say we are one with you in this grand struggle.”38
As the Relief Society grew, Zina worried that individual stakes were becoming disconnected from general Relief Society leaders and from one another. Her solution was to invite Relief Societies from outlying stakes to Salt Lake City for a conference. The Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association had held similar conferences with success.39
The first general Relief Society conference was scheduled for April 6, 1889, to coincide with general conference. On that night, Zina stood in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in front of women who had gathered to Zion from many nations. Over the past forty years, more than eighty thousand Latter-day Saints had emigrated to America from across the seas. Most came from the United Kingdom, but many others came from Scandinavia and the German-speaking areas of Europe. Still others had come from New Zealand, Australia, and other islands of the Pacific.
Zina encouraged the diverse congregation to visit each other’s meetings and become acquainted with one another. “It will tend to union and harmony, promote confidence, and strengthen the cords that bind us together,” she promised, “for there is more difference in our manner of speech than in the motives of our hearts.”
“Sisters, let us be as one grand phalanx and stand for the right,” she said. “Do not doubt the goodness of God or the truth of the work in which we are engaged.”40
On the first Friday in April 1889, Wilford Woodruff called the apostles together. Nearly two years had passed since John Taylor’s death, and Wilford had waited patiently for the quorum to find unity. He had led, as the revelations instructed, gently and meekly, with long-suffering and love unfeigned. Now, the day before the April general conference was to begin, he felt the time had come to reorganize the First Presidency.
Over the preceding months, a growing consensus had developed among the apostles that forming a First Presidency was in the best interest of the Church and that Wilford was the Lord’s choice to lead them, no matter whom he chose as his counselors. Wilford had even written to Francis Lyman in prison and received his support.41
The apostles now unanimously agreed to form a new First Presidency. Wilford then nominated George Q. Cannon as his first counselor and Joseph F. Smith as his second.
“I can only accept this nomination by knowing that it is the will of the Lord,” George said, “and that it is with the hearty and full approval of my brethren.”
“I have prayed over this matter,” Wilford assured him, “and I know that it is the mind and will of the Lord.”
Despite lingering questions about George, Moses Thatcher voted in favor. “When I vote for him, I shall do so freely and will try and sustain him with all my might,” he said. Heber Grant also voiced his support for President Woodruff’s choice with only minor reservations.
The rest of the apostles sustained the new presidency wholeheartedly, and Wilford was pleased that the quorum was finally becoming united. “I have never seen a time when the Church needs the services of the Twelve more than today,” he said.42
On Sunday, thousands of Saints filed into the tabernacle for the afternoon session of general conference. At this solemn assembly, Church members had the opportunity to sustain their new First Presidency. When the names of Wilford and his counselors were read, a sea of hands went up in support.43
“I have a great desire that, as a people, we may be united in heart, that we may have faith in the revelations of God and look to those things which have been promised unto us,” Wilford told the Saints later in the meeting. He then bore testimony of Jesus Christ.
“In meekness and lowliness of heart He labored faithfully while He dwelt in the flesh to carry out the will of His Father,” he said. “Trace the history of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, from the manger to the cross, onward through sufferings, mingled with blood, to the throne of grace, and there is an example for the elders of Israel, an example for all those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ.”44