“Chapter 4: Wilford Woodruff: Fourth President of the Church,” Presidents of the Church Student Manual (2004), 56–74
“Chapter 4,” Presidents of the Church Student Manual, 56–74
He was born 1 March 1807 in Farmington, Hartford County, Connecticut, to Aphek and Beulah Thompson Woodruff.
He learned the trade of a miller (1821).
He was baptized into the Church near Richmond, New York (31 Dec. 1833).
He participated in the march of Zion’s Camp (May–July 1834).
He served a mission to the southern United States (1834–36).
He married Phoebe Carter (13 Apr. 1837).
He served a mission to the eastern United States and the Fox Islands (off the coast of Maine; 1837–38).
He was ordained an Apostle by Brigham Young (26 Apr. 1839).
He served a mission to Great Britain (1839–41).
He served a money-raising mission to the eastern United States (1844).
He presided over the European Mission (1844–46).
He entered the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young (24 July 1847).
He presided over the Church in the Eastern States (1848–50).
He was appointed to the Territorial Legislature (1850).
He was appointed Church Historian (1856).
He participated in reestablishing the School of the Prophets (1867).
He was president of the St. George Temple; he was visited by the spirits of historically prominent people in the St. George Utah Temple (1877).
He became President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (10 Oct. 1880).
He went into exile because of persecution for practicing plural marriage (Feb. 1886).
He led the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after John Taylor’s death (25 July 1887).
He dedicated the Manti Utah Temple (17 May 1888).
He became President of the Church (7 Apr. 1889).
The Manifesto ending plural marriage (Official Declaration 1) was written (24 Sept. 1890) and accepted by the Church membership (6 Oct. 1890).
He dedicated the Salt Lake Temple (6 Apr. 1893).
He organized the Utah Genealogical Society (Nov. 1894).
He died in San Francisco, California (2 Sept. 1898).
Wilford Woodruff’s life extended through almost all of the nineteenth century. For most of his life, from his conversion in 1833 until his death in 1898, he participated in advancing the cause of the kingdom of God.
Though few grasped the significance of the little stone cut out of the mountain without hands (see Daniel 2:34–35), the Lord raised up seers who, in some measure, comprehended the purposes of the Almighty—not only for their time but for all times. Wilford Woodruff was one of them, and he taught about the importance of this last gospel dispensation:
“This is the only dispensation which God has ever established that was foreordained, before the world was made, not to be overcome by wicked men and devils. … The prophet [Enoch] asked the Lord whether there would ever be a time when the earth should rest; and the Lord answered that in the dispensation of the fulness of times the earth would fill the measure of its days, and then it would rest from wickedness and abominations, for in that day he would establish his kingdom upon it, to be thrown down no more for ever. Then a reign of righteousness would commence and the honest and meek of the earth would be gathered together to serve the Lord, and upon them would rest power to build up the great Zion of God in the latter days. …
“This dispensation is one that all the patriarchs and prophets had their eye upon, and the Lord has commenced it, and has carried it on. …
“The work that is to be so marvelous in the eyes of men has already commenced, and is assuming shape and proportions; but they cannot see it. It will consist in preaching the gospel to all the world, gathering the Saints from the midst of all those nations who reject it; building up the Zion of God; establishing permanently in the earth his kingdom; preparing for the work of the gathering of the Jews and the events that will follow their settlement in their own lands, and in preparing for ourselves holy places in which to stand when the judgments of God shall overtake the nations. This is truly a good work” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham , 109–11).
In his vision of the spirit world, President Joseph F. Smith observed that Wilford Woodruff was one of the noble and great ones chosen in the pre-earth life to lead in this dispensation:
“The Prophet Joseph Smith, and my father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and other choice spirits who were reserved to come forth in the fulness of times to take part in laying the foundations of the great latter-day work, …
“… were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.
“Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men” (D&C 138:53, 55–56).
Wilford Woodruff was born 1 March 1807 in Farmington, Connecticut, to Aphek and Beulah Thompson Woodruff. His great-grandfather Josiah Woodruff lived almost one hundred years, performing manual labor up to his death. His grandfather Eldad Woodruff had a reputation of being the hardest worker in the county. Wilford learned in his youth the value of work and, with his father, he labored in the Farmington grist mills.
Wilford Woodruff’s early years were marked by many difficulties and accidents. He was often in peril but, through the grace of God, his life was preserved. He recorded in his journal:
“Evidently, … I have been numbered with those who are apparently the marked victims of misfortunes. It has seemed to me at times as though some invisible power were watching my footsteps in search of an opportunity to destroy my life. I, therefore, ascribe my preservation on earth to the watchcare of a merciful Providence, whose hand has been stretched out to rescue me from death when I was in the presence of the most threatening dangers. Some of these dangers from which I so narrowly escaped I shall here briefly describe:
“When three years of age, I fell into a caldron of scalding water and although instantly rescued, I was so badly burned that it was nine months before I was thought to be out of the danger of fatal consequences. My fifth and sixth years were interwoven with many accidents. On a certain day, in company with my elder brothers, I entered the barn, and chose the top of a haymow for a place of diversion. We had not been there long before I fell from the great beam upon my face on the bare floor. I was severely hurt, but recovered in a short time, and was again at play.
“One Saturday evening, with my brothers Azmon and Thompson, while playing in the chamber of my father’s house, contrary to his instructions, I made a misstep and fell to the bottom of the stairs, breaking one of my arms in the fall. So much for disobedience. I suffered intensely, but soon recovered, feeling that whatever I suffered in the future, it would not be for disobedience to parents. The Lord has commanded children to obey their parents; and Paul says, ‘This is the first commandment with promise.’
“It was only a short time after this that I narrowly escaped with my life. My father owned a number of horned cattle, among which was a surly bull. One evening I was feeding pumpkins to the cattle, and the bull leaving his own took the pumpkin I had given to a cow which I called mine. I was incensed at the selfishness of this male beast, and promptly picked up the pumpkin he had left, to give it to the cow. No sooner had I got it in my arms than the bull came plunging toward me with great fury. I ran down the hill with all my might, the bull at my heels. My father, seeing the danger I was in, called to me to throw down the pumpkin, but (forgetting to be obedient) I held on, and as the bull was approaching me with the fierceness of a tiger, I made a misstep and fell flat upon the ground. The pumpkin rolled out of my arms, the bull leaped over me, ran his horns into the pumpkin and tore it to pieces. Undoubtedly he would have done the same thing to me if I had not fallen to the ground. This escape, like all others, I attribute to the mercy and goodness of God.
“During the same year, while visiting at my Uncle Eldad Woodruff’s, I fell from a porch across some timber, and broke my other arm.
“Not many months passed by before I was called to endure a still greater misfortune. My father owned a sawmill in addition to his flour mill, and one morning, in company with several other boys, I went into the sawmill and got upon the headlock of the carriage to ride, not anticipating any danger; but before I was aware of it my leg was caught between the headlock and the fender post and broken in two. I was taken to the house, and lay nine hours before my bones were replaced. That time was spent in severe pain; but being young, my bones soon knitted together, and in a few weeks I was upon my feet as usual, attending to the sports of youth. During this confinement my brother Thompson was my companion. He was suffering from typhus fever.
“Shortly after this, upon a dark night, I was kicked in the abdomen by an ox; but being too close to the animal to receive the full force of the blow, I was more frightened than hurt.
“It was not long before I made my first effort at loading hay. I was very young, but thought I had loaded it all right. When on the way to the barn, the wheel of the wagon struck a rock, and off went the hay. I fell to the ground with the load on top of me; this was soon removed, and aside from a little smothering I was unhurt.
“When eight years of age, I accompanied my father, with several others in a one-horse wagon, about three miles from home, to attend to some work. On the way the horse became frightened, ran down a hill, and turned over the wagon, with us in it. We were in danger, but were again saved by the hand of Providence. None of us were injured.
“One day I climbed an elm tree to procure some bark; while about fifteen feet from the ground, the limb upon which I stood, being dry, broke, and I fell to the ground upon my back. The accident apparently knocked the breath out of my body. A cousin ran to the house and told my parents that I was dead, but before my friends reached me I revived, rose to my feet, and met them on the way.
“When twelve years old I was nearly drowned in Farmington River. I sank in thirty feet of water, and was miraculously saved by a young man named Bacon. The restoration to life caused me great suffering.
“At thirteen years of age, while passing through Farmington meadows, in the depths of winter, in a blinding snowstorm, I became so chilled and overcome with cold that I could not travel. I crawled into the hollow of a large apple tree. A man in the distance saw me, and, realizing the danger I was in, hastened to where I was. Before he arrived at the spot I had fallen asleep, and was almost unconscious. He had much difficulty in arousing me to a sense of my critical condition, and promptly had me conveyed to my father’s house, where, through a kind Providence, my life was again preserved.
“At fourteen years of age I split my left instep open with an ax which went almost through my foot. I suffered intensely from this injury, and my foot was nine months in getting well.
“When fifteen years old I was bitten in the hand by a mad dog in the last stages of hydrophobia. However, he did not draw blood, and through the mercy and power of God I was again preserved from an awful death.
“At the age of seventeen I met with an accident which caused me much suffering, and came nearly ending my life. I was riding a very ill-tempered horse, which, while going down a very steep, rocky hill, suddenly leaped from the road and ran down the steepest part of the hill, going at full speed amid the thickest of the rocks. At the same time, he commenced kicking, and was about to land me over his head among the rocks, but I lodged on the top of his head, and grabbed each of his ears with my hands, expecting every moment to be dashed to pieces against the rocks. While in this position, sitting astride the horse’s neck, with neither bridle nor other means of guiding him except his ears, he plunged down the hill among the rocks with great fury, until he struck a rock nearly breast high, which threw him to the earth. I went over his head, landing squarely upon my feet almost one rod in front of the horse. Alighting upon my feet was probably the means of saving my life; for if I had struck the ground upon any other part of my body, it would probably have killed me instantly. As it was, one of my legs was broken in two places, and both my ankles put out of place in a shocking manner. The horse almost rolled over me in his struggles to get up. My uncle saw me, and came to my assistance. I was carried to his house in an armchair. I lay from 2 o’clock in the afternoon until 10 o’clock at night without medical aid and in great pain, when my father arrived with Dr. Swift, of Farmington. The doctor set my bones, boxed up my limbs, and that night conveyed me eight miles in his carriage to my father’s house. I had good attention, and although my sufferings were great, in eight weeks I was out upon my crutches, and was soon restored to a sound condition” (quoted in Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, Fourth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: History of His Life and Labors As Recorded in His Daily Journals , 5–9).
He told of several other accidents and near accidents, and concluded this part of his journal by writing: “A summary of what is here given may be briefly stated thus: I have broken both legs, one of them in two places; both arms, both ankles, my breastbone, and three ribs; I have been scalded, frozen, and drowned; I have been in two water wheels while turning under a full head; I have passed through a score of other hairbreadth escapes. The repeated deliverances from all these remarkable dangers I ascribe to the mercies of my Heavenly Father. In recalling them to mind I always feel impressed to render the gratitude of my heart, with thanksgiving and joy, to the Lord. I pray that the remainder of my days may pass in His service, in the building up of His kingdom” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 11–12).
Wilford Woodruff hungered after righteousness in his youth. He was an avid student of the Bible and desired to know and do the will of the Lord. He wrote: “In my zeal to promote good, I got up prayer meetings in our village and prayed for light and knowledge. It was my desire to receive the ordinances of the gospel, as I could plainly see by reading the Bible that baptism by immersion was a sacred ordinance. In my eagerness, yet being ignorant of the holy priesthood and of the true authority to officiate in the ordinances of eternal life, I requested the Baptist minister to baptize me. At first he refused because I told him I would not join his church as it did not harmonize with the apostolic church which our Savior established. Finally after several conversations, he baptized me on the 5th of May, 1831. He also baptized my brother Asahel. This was the first and only gospel ordinance I sought for until I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 28–29).
“On one occasion, after praying most earnestly to know about the people of the Lord, if any such there were on earth, he [Wilford Woodruff] says: ‘The Spirit of the Lord said unto me: “Go to my Word and I will there show thee my will and answer thy prayer.” I opened the Bible promiscuously, praying the Lord to direct me to that portion of his Word which would answer my prayer. I opened to the 56th Chapter of Isaiah. I was satisfied it was in response to my prayer. I felt that the salvation of God was about to be revealed and His righteousness come forth. I was also satisfied that I should live to see the people of God gathered. From this time on until the gospel found me I was contented and felt that I should trouble myself no more about the churches and the ministers’” (Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 29).
One who had significant influence on Wilford Woodruff even before Wilford heard about the Restoration was Robert Mason, a godly man who yearned for the full gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord had mercy upon him, and through a vision he was enlightened concerning that which would soon be accomplished on the earth. Wilford Woodruff wrote the following about the vision:
“Father Mason did not claim that he had any authority to officiate in the ordinances of the gospel, nor did he believe that such authority existed on the earth. He did believe, however, that it was the privilege of any man who had faith in God to fast and pray for the healing of the sick by the laying on of hands. He believed it his right and the right of every honest-hearted man or woman to receive light and knowledge, visions, and revelations by the prayer of faith. He told me that the day was near when the Lord would establish His Church and Kingdom upon the earth with all its ancient gifts and blessings. He said that such a work would commence upon the earth before he died, but that he would not live to partake of its blessings. He said that I should live to do so, and that I should become a conspicuous actor in that kingdom.
“The last time I ever saw him he related to me the following vision which he had in his field in open day: ‘I was carried away in a vision and found myself in the midst of a vast orchard of fruit trees. I became hungry and wandered through this vast orchard searching for fruit to eat, but I found none. While I stood in amazement finding no fruit in the midst of so many trees, they began to fall to the ground as if torn up by a whirlwind. They continued to fall until there was not a tree standing in the whole orchard. I immediately saw thereafter shoots springing up from the roots and forming themselves into young and beautiful trees. These budded, blossomed, and brought forth fruit which ripened and was the most beautiful to look upon of anything my eyes had ever beheld. I stretched forth my hand and plucked some of the fruit. I gazed upon it with delight; but when I was about to eat of it, the vision closed and I did not taste the fruit.’
“‘At the close of the vision I bowed down in humble prayer and asked the Lord to show me the meaning of the vision. Then the voice of the Lord came to me saying: “Son of man, thou hast sought me diligently to know the truth concerning my Church and Kingdom among men. This is to show you that my Church is not organized among men in the generation to which you belong; but in the days of your children the Church and Kingdom of God shall be made manifest with all the gifts and the blessings enjoyed by the Saints in past ages. You shall live to be made acquainted with it, but shall not partake of its blessings before you depart this life. You will be blest of the Lord after death because you have followed the dictation of my Spirit in this life.”’
“When Father Mason had finished relating the vision and its interpretation, he said, calling me by my Christian name: ‘Wilford, I shall never partake of this fruit in the flesh, but you will and you will become a conspicuous actor in the new kingdom.’ He then turned and left me. These were the last words he ever spoke to me upon the earth. To me this was a very striking circumstance. I had passed many days during a period of twenty years with this old Father Mason. He had never mentioned this vision to me before. On this occasion he said he felt impelled by the Spirit of the Lord to relate it to me.
“The vision was given to him about the year 1800. He related it to me in 1830, the spring in which the Church was organized. Three years later when I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, almost the first person I thought of was this prophet, Robert Mason. Upon my arrival in Missouri with Zion’s Camp, I wrote him a long letter in which I informed him that I had found the true gospel with all its blessings; that the authority of the Church of Christ had been restored to the earth as he had told me it would be; that I had received the ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands; that I knew for myself that God had established through Joseph Smith, the Prophet, the Church of Christ upon the earth.
“He received my letter with great joy and had it read over to him many times. He handled it as he had handled the fruit in the vision. He was very aged and soon died without having the privilege of receiving the ordinances of the gospel at the hands of an elder of the Church.
“The first opportunity I had after the truth of baptism for the dead was revealed, I went forth and was baptized for him in the temple font at Nauvoo” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 16–18).
A great part of Wilford Woodruff’s wisdom was his perception of the real purpose of his life. He wrote:
“I was twenty-three years of age; and in reflecting upon the past, I became sincerely convinced that there was no real peace of mind or true happiness except in the service of God and in doing those things which would meet His approval. As far as my imagination would enable me, I brought before my mind all the honor, glory, and happiness of the whole world. I thought of the gold and the wealth of the rich, of the glory, grandeur, and power of kings, presidents, princes, and rulers. I thought of the military renown of Alexander, Napoleon, and other great generals. I cast my mind over the innumerable paths through which the giddy world travels in search of pleasure and happiness. In summing up the whole matter in the vision of my mind, I had to exclaim with Solomon: ‘All is vanity of vanities sayeth the preacher.’
“I could see that within a few years all would end alike in the grave. I was convinced that no man could enjoy true happiness and obtain that which would feed the immortal soul, except God was his friend and Jesus Christ his advocate. I was convinced that man became their friend by doing the will of the Father, and by keeping His commandments. I made a firm resolution that from then I would seek the Lord to know His will, to keep His commandments, and to follow the dictates of His Holy Spirit. Upon this ground I was determined to stand and to spend my future life in the maintenance of these convictions” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 26–27).
When he heard the witness of two Mormon missionaries on 29 December 1833, Wilford Woodruff quickly recognized the truth and was baptized just two days later. From that point on, there was no turning back. He wrote: “I felt that I could truly exclaim with the prophet of God, ‘I had rather be a door-keeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.’ The fulness of the everlasting gospel had come at last. It filled my heart with great joy. It laid the foundation of a greater and more glorious work than I ever expected to see in this life. I pray God in the name of Jesus Christ to guide my future life, that I may live to His honor and glory, and be a blessing to my fellowmen, and in the end be saved in His celestial kingdom, even so, Amen” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 36).
In 1833, the Lord called upon the faithful priesthood holders of His church to travel from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri to redeem and restore the land of Zion (see D&C 101; 103). The Prophet Joseph Smith led the group, and Wilford Woodruff was among the approximately two hundred who went. When they left, Wilford was twenty-seven and had been a member of the Church less than six months.
While marching with the Prophet Joseph Smith in Zion’s Camp, Wilford was further honed and sharpened—prepared for greater service in the cause of the Master.
Thirty-six years later, in Salt Lake City, he recounted: “When the members of Zion’s Camp were called, many of us had never beheld each others’ faces; we were strangers to each other and many had never seen the prophet. We had been scattered abroad, like corn sifted in a sieve, throughout the nation. We were young men, and were called upon in that early day to go up and redeem Zion, and what we had to do we had to do by faith. We assembled together from the various states at Kirtland and went up to redeem Zion, in fulfilment of the commandment of God unto us. God accepted our works as He did the works of Abraham. We accomplished a great deal, though apostates and unbelievers many times asked the question, ‘What have you done?’ We gained an experience that we never could have gained in any other way. We had the privilege of beholding the face of the prophet, and we had the privilege of traveling a thousand miles with him, and seeing the workings of the Spirit of God with him, and the revelations of Jesus Christ unto him and the fulfilment of those revelations. And he gathered some two hundred elders from throughout the nation in that early day and sent us broadcast into the world to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Had I not gone up with Zion’s Camp I should not have been here today, and I presume that would have been the case with many others in this Territory” (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, sel. G. Homer Durham , 305).
By mid 1834, Wilford Woodruff’s desire to be a missionary had become so intense that in many prayers he pleaded with the Lord for that privilege. He served his first mission in the southern United States. Without purse or scrip and walking as far as sixty miles in a single day, the young missionary went forth. He later testified that he had the ministration of angels on his mission and that he was never more blessed than as a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood fulfilling an honorable mission:
“I had the administration of angels while holding the office of a priest. I had visions and revelations. I traveled thousands of miles. I baptized men, though I could not confirm them because I had not the authority to do it.
“I speak of these things to show that a man should not be ashamed of any portion of the priesthood. Our young men, if they are deacons, should labor to fulfil that office. If they do that, they may then be called to the office of a teacher, whose duty it is to teach the people, visit the Saints and see that there is no evil or iniquity carried on. God has no respect for persons in this priesthood any further than as they magnify their callings and do their duty” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 298).
Wilford Woodruff met Phoebe Carter in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1837. They knew each other for about two and a half months and decided to marry. They were married at the residence of the Prophet Joseph Smith on 13 April 1837. The ceremony was performed by President Frederick G. Williams, who was a counselor in the First Presidency, because the Prophet had to flee his enemies at the time. The newly married couple began their life together at the Prophet’s home, and they would remain together for forty-eight years, until Phoebe’s death on 19 November 1885.
Many members of Wilford Woodruff’s family had been skeptical of or not interested in the teachings of the Church. Wilford wrote of an experience he had during a visit with them:
“On the 1st of July, 1838, there occurred one of the most interesting events of my whole life in the ministry. When Father Joseph Smith gave me my patriarchal blessing, among the many wonderful things he promised me was that I should bring my father’s household into the Kingdom of God; and I felt that if I ever obtained that blessing, the time therefor had come. By the help of God I preached the gospel faithfully to my father’s household and to all who were with him, as well as to my other relatives, and I appointed a meeting at my father’s home on Sunday, the 1st of July. My father was believing my testimony, as were all in his household; but upon this occasion it appeared as if the devil were determined to hinder the fulfillment of the promise of the patriarch to me. … Distress overwhelmed the whole household, and all were tempted to reject the work; and it seemed as if the same power would devour me. I had to take to my bed for an hour before the time of meeting. There I prayed to the Lord with my whole soul for deliverance; for I knew then that the power of the devil was exercised to hinder me from accomplishing what God had promised I should do. The Lord heard my prayer and answered my petition. When the hour of meeting came, I arose from my bed and could sing and shout for joy to think I had been delivered from the power of the evil one. Filled with the power of God, I stood in the midst of the congregation and preached unto the people in great plainness the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“At the close of the meeting we assembled on the banks of the Farmington River, ‘because there was much water there,’ and I led six of my friends into the river and baptized them for the remission of their sins. All of my father’s household were included in this number, as the patriarch had promised. … It was truly a day of joy to my soul. I had baptized my father, stepmother, and sister, and I afterwards added a number of other relatives. I felt that the work of this day alone amply repaid me for all my labors in the ministry” (Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 91–92).
Wilford Woodruff was ordained an Apostle by Brigham Young on 26 April 1839. Soon thereafter, Elder Woodruff began a momentous mission to England. Like Paul of old, being led by the Spirit, he brought thousands of souls unto Christ. President Heber J. Grant later said of him, “I believe that no other man who ever walked the face of the earth was a greater converter of souls to the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (in Conference Report, Jun. 1919, 8).
During the next few years, after returning from his mission, Elder Woodruff became a member of the Nauvoo City Council (1841), worked on the Nauvoo Temple (1842), and labored as business manager for the Times and Seasons.
Wilford Woodruff was present when the Prophet Joseph Smith conferred all of the keys of the kingdom of God upon the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. After the death of the Prophet, Elder Woodruff saw the mantle of leadership fall upon a transfigured Brigham Young. He had a personal witness that the keys of the kingdom in their fulness were held by the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve. In 1889, he taught:
“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” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 73).
He also said: “The God of heaven has put into our hands the Gospel, the Priesthood, the keys of his kingdom, and the power to redeem the earth from the dominion of sin and wickedness under which it has groaned for centuries, and under which it groans today. Let us lay these things to heart, and try to live our religion; so that when we get through we may look back on our lives, and feel that we have done what was required of us, individually and collectively. The Lord requires much at our hands—more than he has ever required of any generation that has preceded us; for no generation that has ever lived on the earth was called upon to establish the kingdom of God on the earth, knowing that it should be thrown down no more for ever” (in Journal of Discourses, 14:6).
In 1880, Elder Wilford Woodruff talked about the great success he was led to during his missionary service in England:
“How many times have we been called by revelation to go to the right and left, here, there, and the other place, contrary to our expectation?
“I will here relate what took place in my own experience. I was in Staffordshire in the year 1840. I was in the town of Stanley and held a meeting in the City Hall. I had a week’s appointments out in that town. Before I rose to speak to the people, the Spirit of the Lord said to me, ‘This is the last meeting you will hold with this people for many days.’ I told the congregation when I arose what the Spirit of the Lord had manifested to me. They were as much surprised as I was. I did not know what the Lord wanted, but I saw the purpose of God afterwards. The Spirit of the Lord said to me, ‘Go south.’ I traveled eighty miles; went into the south of England. As soon as I arrived, I met John Benbow. It was clearly made manifest to me why I had been called thither. I had left a good field, where I was baptizing every night in the week. When I got to this place, I found a people—some 600 of them—who had … formed themselves into a sect called the United Brethren. I found that they were praying for light and truth and that they had gone about as far as they could go. I saw that the Lord had sent me to them. I went to work amongst them and ultimately baptized their superintendent, forty preachers and some 600 members. … Altogether some 1800 were baptized in that field of labor. … I name these things to show how we have to be governed and led by the revelations of God day by day. Without this we can do nothing” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 60).
Wilford Woodruff followed counsel of the Prophet Joseph Smith by faithfully keeping a journal. In the archives of the Church Historian’s Office there are some seven thousand pages of the journals of Wilford Woodruff. The record he kept was invaluable for himself, for his family, and now for the whole Church. Later in his life, in 1856, Elder Woodruff began his career as a Church historian, but from the beginning of his life in the Church, he felt that he had a special stewardship to record the important happenings, speeches, places, people, and events of the Restoration. His extensive journals are the basis of much of what we know about the early Church history.
On 20 January 1872, he recorded the following in his journal, concerning what he had taught in a meeting in the School of the Prophets:
“There is one subject I wish to speak upon and that is the keeping of a journal with respect to the dealings of God with us. I have many times thought the Quorum of the Twelve and others considered me rather enthusiastic upon this subject; but when the Prophet Joseph organized the Quorum of the Twelve, he counseled them to keep a history of their lives, and gave his reasons why they should do so. I have had this spirit and calling upon me since I first entered this Church. I made a record from the first sermon I heard, and from that day until now I have kept a daily journal. Whenever I heard Joseph Smith preach, teach, or prophesy, I always felt it my duty to write it; I felt uneasy and could not eat, drink, or sleep until I did write; and my mind has been so exercised upon this subject that when I heard Joseph Smith teach and had no pencil or paper, I would go home and sit down and write the whole sermon, almost word for word and sentence by sentence as it was delivered, and when I had written it it was taken from me, I remembered it no more. This was the gift of God to me.
“The devil has sought to take away my life from the day I was born until now, more so even than the lives of other men. I seem to be a marked victim of the adversary. I can find but one reason for this: the devil knew if I got into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I would write the history of that Church and leave on record the works and teachings of the prophets, of the apostles and elders” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 476–77).
In his 6 September 1856 journal entry, Wilford Woodruff wrote: “We are not apt to think of the importance of events as they transpire with us, but we feel the importance of them afterwards. We are living in one of the most important generations that man ever lived on earth, and we should write an account of those important transactions which are taking place before our eyes in fulfillment of the prophecies and the revelation of God. There is a great flood of revelations fulfilling in our day, and as they are transpiring before our eyes we want a record made of them” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 4:444; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling standardized).
On 17 March 1857, he wrote: “I have never spent any of my time more profitably for the benefit of mankind than in my journal writing. … Some of the most glorious gospel sermons, truths, and revelations that were given from God to this people through the mouth of the Prophets Joseph, Brigham, Heber, and the Twelve could not be found upon the earth on record, only in my journals, and they are compiled in the Church history and transmitted to the Saints of God in all future generations. Does not this pay me for my trouble? It does” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 5:37; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling standardized).
In his journal entry for 5 July 1877, he testified: “God has inspired me to keep a journal and history of this Church, and I warn the future historians to give credence to my history of this Church and kingdom, for my testimony is true, and the truth of its record will be manifest in the world to come” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 7:359; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling standardized).
To Wilford Woodruff, one of the most precious principles of the gospel was the work for the dead. He became the first president of the St. George Utah Temple. Later, he was instrumental in organizing the Genealogical Society of Utah, which facilitated the work of salvation for those beyond the veil. In 1877, Elder Woodruff spoke about the importance of temples and temple work:
“It is our duty to rise up and build these Temples. I look upon this portion of our ministry as a mission of as much importance as preaching to the living; the dead will hear the voice of the servants of God in the spirit-world, and they cannot come forth in the morning of the resurrection, unless certain ordinances are performed, for and in their behalf, in Temples built to the name of God. It takes just as much to save a dead man as a living man. …
“I will here say, before closing, that two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, ‘You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.’ These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, from the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives. I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others; I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them” (in Journal of Discourses, 19:228–29).
Since then, the temple work of those three presidents has been completed.
After a short ten years of peace in the West (1847–57), the Church again faced persecution. Church leaders knew that once people colonized the West, Church members would once again face many of the persecutions and challenges they had previously faced when they were driven from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. The wicked could not leave the Church alone.
In a letter written to President John Taylor and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dated 15 September 1879, Elder Wilford Woodruff stated: “The devil is making a hard struggle to stop the building of temples, and the work of God, and the wicked are helping him, but, brethren, God reigns and will stand by you to the end” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 528).
By 1884, the Federal government of the United States mobilized its forces not only to confront the popular issue of polygamy, but to threaten the very lives of the Latter-day Saint people and the existence of the Church as an institution. The temper of the times is, in part, reflected by the following exchange between a Latter-day Saint newspaper editor, John Nicholson, and a federal judge when Brother Nicholson appeared in court for sentencing.
In his statement, Brother Nicholson said: “My purpose is fixed and, I hope, unalterable. It is, that I shall stand by my allegiance to God, fidelity to my family, and what I conceive to be my duty to the Constitution of the country, which guarantees the fullest religious liberty to the citizen.” The judge, in his reply, said, “If you do not submit to it of course you must take the consequences; but the will of the American people is expressed, … and this law will go on and grind you and your institution to powder” (Deseret News [Weekly], 21 Oct. 1885, 1).
Wilford Woodruff presided over the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from the time of President John Taylor’s death on 25 July 1887 until he was sustained as President of the Church on 7 April 1889. In general conference on that day he said: “This 7th day of April, 1889, is one of the most important days in my life, for I was made President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by the unanimous vote of ten thousand of them. The vote was first taken by quorums and then by the entire congregation as in the case of President John Taylor. This is the highest office ever conferred upon any man in the flesh. It came to me in the eighty-third year of my life. I pray God to protect me and give me power to magnify my calling to the end of my days. The Lord has watched over me until the present time” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 564–65).
Concerning his responsibilities as President of the Church, President Wilford Woodruff taught: “It is my duty to have fellowship with God, as weak an instrument as I am in the hands of God. It is my duty to have power with God. And when I have this, then my counselors should stand by me and with me. We should be of one heart and mind in all matters, temporal and spiritual, that come before us in the labor of the Church and kingdom of God. And I am thankful to say that this has been the case since I have been called to this position, or since the organization of the Presidency of the Church” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 89).
It was a time of grave crisis for the Church when President Wilford Woodruff began his administration as President of the Church. President John Taylor had died in exile, and most of the prominent Church leaders were in prison or were unable to lead effectively because of persecutions. Federal laws not only made it unlawful to practice plural marriage but also prohibited those who did so from voting or running for public office. Utah’s admission as a state seemed hopelessly deadlocked. There was legislation that sought to disenfranchise all members of the Church. The Church, as an institution, was disincorporated, tithing funds were seized, and Temple Square and other Church properties were transferred to the United States government. There was a serious attempt by many to actually destroy the entity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Missionary work for the living and temple work for the dead were greatly threatened.
In his journal, President Wilford Woodruff summarized 1889 by writing: “Thus ends the year 1889, and the word of the Prophet Joseph Smith is beginning to be fulfilled that the whole nation would turn against Zion and make war upon the Saints. The nation has never been filled so full of lies against the Saints as today. 1890 will be an important year with the Latter-day Saints and [the] American nation” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9:74; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling standardized).
The Manifesto on plural marriage (see Official Declaration 1) made clear the Lord’s will concerning the discontinuance of the practice of plural marriage. After years of sacrifice and abiding the Lord’s commandment on plural marriage, the Saints’ faith in living prophets would be tested.
“These were precarious years (1880s) for President Woodruff, other Church leaders, and the members of the Church in general. Many arrests had taken place for the practice of plural marriage. The Church was losing property through unfair taxation and confiscation. President Woodruff humbly approached the Lord asking for help. For weeks President Woodruff wrestled mightily with the Lord. The Lord gave him a vision showing him the consequences of the continued practice of plural marriage and instructed President Woodruff in what he should do. On September 24, 1890, he issued what is now called The Manifesto which announced the end of the practice of plural marriage” (Brian Smith, “Wilford Woodruff: ‘Wilford the Faithful’ Became God’s Anointed,” Church News, 1 May 1993, 10).
On 1 November 1891, in an address at a stake conference in Logan, Utah, President Woodruff taught:
“‘And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be Scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation’ [D&C 68:4].
“It is by that power that we have led Israel. By that power President Young presided over and led the Church. By the same power President John Taylor presided over and led the Church. And that is the way I have acted, according to the best of my ability, in that capacity. I do not want the Latter-day Saints to understand that the Lord is not with us, and that He is not giving revelations to us; for He is giving us revelation, and will give us revelation until this scene is wound up.
“I have had some revelations of late, and very important ones to me, and I will tell you what the Lord has said to me. Let me bring your minds to what is termed the manifesto. The Lord has told me by revelation that there are many members of the Church throughout Zion who are sorely tried in their hearts because of that manifesto. …
“The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. … All [temple] ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us, and leave our prophets and apostles and fathers free men, and the temples in the hands of the people, so that the dead may be redeemed. …
“… I saw exactly what would come to pass if there was not something done. I have had this spirit upon me for a long time. But I want to say this: I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do; and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write. I laid it before my brethren—such strong men as Brother [George] Q. Cannon, Brother [Joseph] F. Smith, and the Twelve Apostles. I might as well undertake to turn an army with banners out of its course as to turn them out of a course that they considered to be right. These men agreed with me, and ten thousand Latter-day Saints also agreed with me. Why? Because they were moved upon by the Spirit of God and by the revelations of Jesus Christ to do it” (“Remarks Made by President Wilford Woodruff,” Deseret Evening News, 7 Nov. 1891, 4; see also Official Declaration 1, Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto).
The Lord’s purposes will be fulfilled, and we can have confidence that each prophet who presides over the Lord’s people has been empowered to pursue a steady course. President Wilford Woodruff declared: “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” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 74).
President Wilford Woodruff taught the following about revelation:
“What is revelation? The testimony of the Father and Son. How many of you have had revelation? How many of you have had the Spirit of God whisper unto you—the still small voice? I would have been in the spirit world a great many years ago if I had not followed the promptings of the still small voice. These were the revelations of Jesus Christ, the strongest testimony a man or a woman can have. I have had many testimonies since I have been connected with this Church and kingdom. I have been blessed at times with certain gifts and graces, certain revelations and ministrations; but with them all I have never found anything that I could place more dependency upon than the still small voice of the Holy Ghost” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 45).
“It is this preknowledge which God has given concerning his work … which is one of the chief causes of the strength possessed by the Latter-day Saints. It is the principle of revelation from the head of the church to the church itself—a principle which in its operation is not confined to one man, or to three men, or to twelve men; but is extended to every individual in the Church, in greater or less degree, as each one chooses to avail himself of it. There is an appointed way, however, in which revelation from the Lord for the government of his church is received. There is but one man on the earth, at a time, who holds this power. But every individual member has the privilege of receiving revelation from the Lord for his guidance in his own affairs” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 54).
“The Lord would not permit me to occupy this position one day of my life, unless I was susceptible to the Holy Spirit and to the revelations of God. It is too late in the day for this Church to stand without revelation” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 57).
In his journal entry for 26 January 1880, Wilford Woodruff wrote: “I went to bed filled with prayer and meditation. I fell asleep and slept until about midnight. I awoke. The Lord poured out His spirit upon me and opened the vision of my mind so I could comprehend in a good measure the mind and will of God and His purposes concerning our nation and the inhabitants of Zion. And when the vision of my mind was open to comprehend the situation of our nation, their wickedness, abominations, and corruptions and the judgments of God and the destruction that awaited them, and when I comprehended the great and mighty responsibility which rested upon the Quorum of the Apostles in the sight of God and the heavenly hosts, my head became a fountain of tears and my pillow was wet as with the dews of heaven. And sleep departed from me, and the Lord revealed unto me our duty, even the duty of the Twelve Apostles and all the faithful elders of Israel” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 7:546; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling standardized).
Elder Woodruff, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, made a copy of the revelation he received and submitted it to the Presidency of the Church.
President Wilford Woodruff was always very concerned with the work for the dead. In 1894 the Genealogical Society of Utah was organized under his direction. In that same year, President Woodruff announced important matters that the Lord had revealed relating to family sealings:
“We want the Latter-day Saints from this time to trace their genealogies as far as they can, and to be sealed to their fathers and mothers. Have children sealed to their parents, and run this chain through as far as you can get it. … This is the will of the Lord to this people, and I think when you come to reflect upon it you will find it to be true. …
“… The fathers of this people will embrace the gospel. It is my duty to honor my father who begot me in the flesh. It is your duty to do the same. When you do this, the Spirit of God will be with you. And we shall continue this work, the Lord adding light to that which we have already received. … There are men in this congregation who wish to be adopted [sealed] to me. I say to them today, if they can hear me, Go and be adopted [sealed] to your fathers, and save your fathers, and stand at the head of your father’s house, as saviors upon Mount Zion, and God will bless you in this. This is what I want to say, and what I want carried out in our temples. … I have had a great anxiety over this matter. I have had a great desire that I might live to deliver these principles to the Latter-day Saints, for they are true. They are one step forward in the work of the ministry and in the work of the endowments in these temples of our God. … I have gone to work with the assistance of my friends and redeemed my father’s and my mother’s house. When I inquired of the Lord how I could redeem my dead, while I was in St. George, not having any of my family there, the Lord told me to call upon the Saints in St. George and let them officiate for me in that temple, and it should be acceptable unto him. … This is a revelation to us. We can help one another in these matters” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 157–59).
In 1896, under the direction of President Wilford Woodruff, the practice of having “fast day” on the first Thursday of the month was changed to the present observance of the first Sunday of the month. Along with this change, the First Presidency reiterated eternal principles: “In some places the custom has arisen to consider it a fast to omit eating breakfast. This is not in accordance with the views and practice of the past. When fasts were observed in the early days, it was the rule to not partake of food from the previous day until after the meeting in the afternoon of the fast day. In making donations to the poor also it has been the understanding that the food that would be necessary for the two meals should be donated to the poor, and as much more as those who are liberally inclined and have the means may feel disposed to give” (“An Address,” The Deseret Weekly, 14 Nov. 1896, 678).
President Wilford Woodruff taught:
“So many things have occurred which are entirely different to preconceived notions as to the course that would be taken in building up Zion that each one needs to have a knowledge that God is leading us in the path which we are now pursuing. To some who are inclined to despond and to take a gloomy view of affairs, the ship Zion may, perhaps, appear to be drifting away from its old moorings because things are being done or movements consented to which, to their eyes, portend disaster to us and to the work of God.
“There has always been a few among us who have been filled with evil forebodings, and who have failed to see the wisdom of God in the steps which his people have been led to take. They have questioned and found fault with the counsel that has been given and the measures which have been adopted and have asserted that revelation had ceased and the Saints were no longer guided by men to whom God made known his will. … Experience has proved that in all such cases those who make these accusations are themselves in the dark.
“But the faithful people—those who have lived strictly in accordance with their profession as Saints and with the requirements of the gospel—have not been assailed by doubts of this character. There might be many things which they could not fully understand, the reasons for which might not be fully apparent to them at the time; but possessing the Spirit of God, and being led by it, they trusted in the Lord and felt satisfied to leave the management of his kingdom and its affairs to his supreme wisdom. Time developed to their minds the correctness of the course which the Church had been led to adopt. This has occurred so frequently in our career that the instances will readily suggest themselves to those familiar with our history. In this way, however, the faith of the people has been constantly tested” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 141–42).
Note the following from President Wilford Woodruff:
“Joseph Smith visited me a great deal after his death, and taught me many important principles. … Among other things, he told me to get the Spirit of God; that all of us needed it. …
“Brigham Young also visited me after his death. … And he told me what Joseph Smith had taught him in Winter Quarters, to teach the people to get the Spirit of God. He said, ‘I want you to teach the people to get the Spirit of God. You cannot build up the Kingdom of God without that.’
“That is what I want to say to the brethren and sisters here today. Every man and woman in this Church should labor to get that Spirit. We are surrounded by these evil spirits that are at war against God and against everything looking to the building up of the kingdom of God; and we need this Holy Spirit to enable us to overcome these influences. I have had the Holy Ghost in my travels. Every man has that has gone out into the vineyard and labored faithfully for the cause of God. I have referred to the administration of angels to myself. What did these angels do? One of them taught me some things relating to the signs that should precede the coming of the Son of Man. Others came and saved my life. What then? They turned and left me. But how is it with the Holy Ghost? The Holy Ghost does not leave me if I do my duty. It does not leave any man who does his duty. We have known this all the way through. Joseph Smith told Brother John Taylor on one occasion to labor to get the Spirit of God, and to follow its dictation, and it would become a principle of revelation within him. God has blessed me with that, and everything I have done since I have been in this Church has been done upon that principle. The Spirit of God has told me what to do, and I have had to follow that” (“Discourse,” The Deseret Weekly, 7 Nov. 1896, 642–43).
“One of the most important events of President Woodruff’s long life was the celebration of his ninetieth birthday on March 1, 1897. On that occasion thousands of Latter-day Saints gathered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle to do him honor. Appropriate remarks were made by his counselors and others of the General Authorities. A silver mounted cane was presented to him by temple workers. The vast congregation sang ‘We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.’ On returning to his home President Woodruff recorded his impressions of the day in his journal. ‘The scene completely overpowered me. The events of my childhood and early manhood came to my mind. I remembered vividly how I prayed to the Lord that I might live to see a Prophet or an Apostle who would teach me the gospel of Christ. Here I stood in the great Tabernacle filled with ten thousand children, with Prophets, Apostles and Saints. My head was a fountain of tears. Still I addressed the mighty congregation’” (Preston Nibley, The Presidents of the Church , 132–33).
Wilford Woodruff had a clear vision of life and was faithful to it. He once said: “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Not much. What will a man give in exchange for his soul, when he gets on the other side of the veil? I marvel very much at the little interest manifested by the inhabitants of the earth generally in their future state. There is not a person here today but what is going to live on the other side of the veil as long as his Creator—to the endless ages of eternity, and the eternal destiny of every individual depends upon the manner in which the few short years of the life in the flesh are spent. I ask, in the name of the Lord, what is popularity to you or me? What is gold or silver, or this world’s goods to any of us, any further than to enable us to obtain what we need to eat, drink, and wear, and to build up the kingdom of God. And for us to stop praying, and to become crazy after the riches of the world, is the very height of foolishness and folly. To see the way that some people act, you might suppose that they are going to live here eternally, and that their eternal destiny depends upon the number of dollars they have. I sometimes ask the Latter-day Saints, how much we had when we came here? How much did we bring, and where did it come from? I do not think any one of us brought a wife or a brick house; I do not think that any of us were born on horseback or in a carriage, or that we brought railroad scrip and cattle and houses with us, but we were born naked as Job, and I think that we shall leave here as naked as he did” (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 243–44).
When President Wilford Woodruff’s great heart ceased to beat on 2 September 1898, the Saints of God had reason to mourn, for a noble life had left their midst. It was a noble life because it had been consecrated to further the cause of Zion. In his journal years earlier, President Woodruff had written: “Be it known that I, Wilford Woodruff, do freely covenant with my God, that I freely consecrate and dedicate myself, together with all my properties and effects, unto the Lord, for the purpose of assisting in the building up of His Kingdom and His Zion upon the earth, that I may keep His law. I lay all before the Bishop of His Church, that I may be a lawful heir to the celestial Kingdom of God” (quoted in Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, 45).
Wilford Woodruff was a man who in his early youth dreamed of some day seeing an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, and he lived to walk himself in the way of the prophets and even finally to preside among the Saints. It was President Woodruff’s wish that he remain faithful in all things to the end of his life. He was known by many as “Wilford the Faithful”; in an early revelation the Lord called him “my servant” (D&C 118:6). What a great epitaph for any son of God.