The Keys of the Kingdom
April 2004

“The Keys of the Kingdom,” Liahona, Apr. 2004, 41

Gospel Classics:

The Keys of the Kingdom

Published in Millennial Star, 2 Sept. 1889, 545–49; subheads added; paragraphing altered; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling modernized.

President Wilford Woodruff

Wilford Woodruff was born on 1 March 1807 in Connecticut to Aphek and Beulah Woodruff. Zera Pulsipher, an early Church missionary, baptized him on 31 December 1833 in an icy stream near Richland, New York. He was ordained an Apostle by Brigham Young on 26 April 1839 and became Church President on 7 April 1889. He died on 2 September 1898 in San Francisco, California. This is a portion of the remarks given by President Woodruff on 2 June 1889 at a YMMIA conference.

Before the close of this conference there is a subject upon which I wish to bear my testimony. … I am … the only one living in the flesh who was with … Joseph Smith, the Prophet of God, when he gave to the Twelve Apostles their charge concerning the priesthood and the keys of the kingdom of God; and as I myself shall soon pass away like other men, I want to leave my testimony to these Latter-day Saint[s].

News of the Martyrdom

I was sitting with Brigham Young in the depot in the city of Boston at the time when the two prophets [Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum] were martyred. Of course we had no telegraphs and no fast reports as we have today to give communication over the land. During that period Brother Young was waiting there for a train of cars to go to Peterborough. Whilst sitting there we were overshadowed by a cloud of darkness and gloom as great as I ever witnessed in my life. … Neither of us knew or understood the cause until after the report of the death of the prophets was manifested to us. Brother Brigham left; I remained in Boston, and the next day took passage for Fox Islands, a place I had visited some years before, and baptized numbers of people and organized branches upon both those islands. My father-in-law, Ezra Carter, carried me on a wagon from Scarborough to Portland. I there engaged passage on board of a steamer. I had put my trunk on board and was just bidding my father-in-law farewell, when a man came out from a shop—a shoemaker—holding a newspaper in his hand. He said, “Father Carter, Joseph and Hyrum Smith have been martyred—they have been murdered in Carthage Jail!”

As soon as I looked at the paper, the Spirit said to me that it was true. I had no time for consultation, the steamer’s bell was ringing, so I stepped on board and took my trunk back to land. As I drew it off, the plank was drawn in. I told Father Carter to drive me back to Scarborough. I there took the car for Boston. …

Next day I met Brigham Young in the streets of Boston, he having just returned, opposite to Sister Voce’s house. We reached out our hands, but neither of us was able to speak a word. We walked into Sister Voce’s house. We each took a seat and [covered] our faces. We were overwhelmed with grief and our faces were soon bathed in a flood of tears. … After we had done weeping we began to converse together concerning the death of the prophets. In the course of the conversation, he smote his hand upon his thigh and said, “Thank God, the keys of the kingdom are here.” …

The Last Meeting

All that President Young or myself or any member of the Quorum need have done in the matter was to have referred to the last instructions at the last meeting we had with the Prophet Joseph before starting on our mission. I have alluded to that meeting many times in my life.

The Prophet Joseph, I am now satisfied, had a thorough presentiment that that was the last meeting we would hold together here in the flesh. We had had our endowments; we had had all the blessings sealed upon our heads that were ever given to the apostles or prophets on the face of the earth. On that occasion the Prophet Joseph rose up and said to us: “Brethren, I have desired to live to see this temple built. I shall never live to see it, but you will. I have sealed upon your heads all the keys of the kingdom of God. I have sealed upon you every key, power, principle that the God of heaven has revealed to me. Now, no matter where I may go or what I may do, the kingdom rests upon you.”

Now, don’t you wonder why we, as Apostles, could not have understood that the prophet of God was going to be taken away from us? But we did not understand it. The Apostles in the days of Jesus Christ could not understand what the Savior meant when He told them, “I am going away; if I do not go away the Comforter will not come!” [see John 16:7]. Neither did we understand what Joseph meant. “But,” he said, after having done this, “ye Apostles of the Lamb of God, my brethren, upon your shoulders this kingdom rests; now you have got to round up your shoulders and bear off the kingdom.” And he also made this very strange remark: “If you do not do it you will be damned.”

I am the last man living who heard that declaration. He told the truth, too; for would not any of the men who have held the keys of the kingdom of God or an apostleship in this Church have been under condemnation and would not the wrath of God have rested upon them if they had deserted these principles or denied and turned from them and undertaken to serve themselves instead of the work of the Lord which was committed to their hands?

The Keys Are Here

When the Lord gave the keys of the kingdom of God, the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood, of the apostleship, and sealed them upon the head of Joseph Smith, He sealed them upon his head to stay here upon the earth until the coming of the Son of Man. Well might Brigham Young say, “The keys of the kingdom of God are here.” They were with him to the day of his death. They then rested upon the head of another man—President John Taylor. He held those keys to the hour of his death. They then fell by turn, or in the providence of God, upon Wilford Woodruff.

I say to the Latter-day Saints the keys of the kingdom of God are here, and they are going to stay here, too, until the coming of the Son of Man. Let all Israel understand that. They may not rest upon my head but a short time, but they will then rest on the head of another Apostle, and another after him, and so continue until the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the clouds of heaven to “reward every man according to the deeds done in the body” [see History of the Church, 1:245]. …

We Are in the Hands of the Lord

… I say to all Israel at this day, I say to the whole world, that the God of Israel, who organized this Church and kingdom, never ordained any President or Presidency to lead it astray. Hear it, ye Israel, no man who has ever breathed the breath of life can hold these keys of the kingdom of God and lead the people astray. …

Let us make up our minds to serve and honor God. Do not have any fears concerning the kingdom; the Lord will lead that aright; and if Brother Woodruff or any of the Presidency of this Church should take any course to lead you astray, the Lord will remove us out of the way. We are in the hands of the Lord, and those keys will be held and taken care of by the God of Israel until He comes whose right it is to reign.

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

Photography by Christina Smith; artifacts courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art