He was a country boy, born in an isolated logging camp overlooking the Suwannee River in western Florida. Though he came to know a wider world, he never got the country out of his heart. But people throughout northern Florida, southern Georgia, and other parts of the United States eventually blessed his name because of his Christlike characteristics and his love of sharing the gospel.
Fourteen days following his birth at Fowler’s Bluff, Florida, on 29 December 1919, two LDS missionaries visited his home. They asked if he had been blessed. Upon learning what “being blessed” meant, the infant’s non-LDS mother requested that the ordinance be performed later, when her husband could be present. That evening, as he was about to proceed with the blessing, the elder learned that no name had been selected for the child. With the parents’ permission, he bestowed his own name, Wilford Watts, on the Jordan infant.
Sometime before Wilford Watts Jordan was seven, his parents joined the Church. They also moved to Jacksonville. Life in the city brought with it the opportunity to attend Church services for the first time. Wilford was baptized the following year but was only marginally active in the Church until well into his teens.
During his seventeenth year, he had an experience that changed his life dramatically. Following one fast and testimony meeting, Wilford vented feelings of disbelief in the claims of those who had testified that they knew Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Book of Mormon is the word of God. Turning to a family friend who had just expressed these convictions, Wilford declared, “I think you are just a liar. You’re just talking. That’s the thing that disgusts me with the Church.”
Wilford expected a whipping from his father. Later he confessed that his outburst was wrong. But when his father asked, “Son, don’t you know this church is true?” Wilford responded that all churches teach truth and their members were as good as, if not better than, many of the Latter-day Saints he knew. To this his father replied, “It may not be the only church on the earth that teaches a truth, but it is the only church on the earth that teaches all the truths of Jesus Christ.” His father further admonished that the time had come for Wilford to discover that the Church was true, and that the best way to find out was through the Book of Mormon.
Impressed by his father’s words, Wilford followed his counsel. “I sat down and told the Lord before I began to read [the Book of Mormon], in a simple prayer, that I would probably never read the whole thing, but I’d like to know as I read it whether it was true or false.
“I didn’t hear a voice, but I had a burning within my bosom and a conviction within my mind that it was true. And before I finished reading in Alma, in the fortieth chapter—I remember the scripture well, Alma 40:7–13—I had such a conviction and a feeling that I knew it was the truth.” For the remainder of his life, this testimony was indelibly lodged in the heart of Wilford Jordan.
To those who came to know him, Wilford was a throwback to horse-drawn wagon days and simpler ways, more at home in the woods beside a campfire than he was in a modern kitchen. The stream, the forest, the lake—all of nature—was a supermarket to him. An invitation to a cookout at the Jordan home, down the road a piece from the Oak Grove Chapel in rural north Florida, was truly an event.
An exciting array of entrees prepared by Wilford, whose skill as a chef was acknowledged throughout north Florida and south Georgia, awaited his guests. He prepared crawfish tails, armadillo, squirrel, possum, raccoon, land or freshwater turtles, and rattlesnake loin with a businesslike flurry. Warned beforehand that they must “eat up all you take,” everyone responded to the call of “Come and get it” by filling plates with salad, ears of corn, hush puppies, black-eyed peas, green beans, okra, collards, and his variety of meats. Wilford’s one claim to secular fame resulted from this penchant for making use of whatever nature offered.
Typical Wilford Jordan family outings often included twenty or more friends and investigators or members who needed fellowshipping. On one occasion Wilford and his wife, Virginia, along with their four children, floated and swam down the Iche Tucknee, one of his favorite streams, collecting a meal of turtles and fish as they went. Among their catch was a large soft-shelled turtle that Wilford deftly cleaned and cooked. During the course of the family’s meal, two strangers happened by and introduced themselves as naturalists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. They made inquiries as to what the Jordans were eating and were invited to dine. Examining the discarded turtle shell after the meal, they discovered that it was the largest of its species they had ever encountered. They took the shell back to the Smithsonian, where Wilford was given due credit as its captor. Wilford was pleased, but the turtle was not nearly the largest specimen of this variety that he had caught.
Wilford Jordan, gracious host, paled in comparison to Wilford Jordan, man of the Spirit. Except for brief periods when he served in a bishopric or as a stake high councilor, Wilford’s only callings were those associated with the stake or general Church missionary effort. He never ceased his missionary labors, beginning with a call to a full-time mission in 1942 and ending with his service as a counselor in the Florida Tallahassee Mission before his death in 1985. During this forty-three-year period, the number of people he baptized ranged from as few as ten in one year to a high of fifty-four in another. In all, he performed more than seven hundred baptisms. The world would have been relatively unchanged by Wilford Jordan’s sixty-five-year journey through it, except that he taught the gospel as few others do.
He was able to share the gospel so freely because he genuinely cared about people, both in and out of the Church. Nonmembers knew from the outset that they were important to him and would be no less his friends if they rejected his message.
There was, for example, elderly Mama Hall. At their first meeting with her, Wilford and his stake missionary companion explained the history and coming forth of the Book of Mormon. They left a copy with her, promising that if she would read it she would know of its truthfulness.
During their next visit, when asked if she had read the book, Mrs. Hall responded that she had and that she knew it did not contain the truth. In the ensuing discussion, Wilford informed her that she was not being truthful and should quit “pussyfooting around about it” and read it as she had promised. She was, he told her, “a good woman and needed to know more about the Church.” When they went back the next week, Wilford reminisced, “I began to call her Mama Hall, and from that week I taught her the gospel.” She joined the Church and lived to be ninety-two. “Every time she saw me,” Wilford recalled, “she said, ‘Hello, Son,’ and every time I saw her, I said, ‘Hello, Mama Hall.’ I stayed her friend through thick and thin, and she died happy in the Church.”
As a young missionary in the Southern states, Wilford Jordan successfully shared his message by going into the fields to work alongside the people. Gaining their confidence, he was often invited to stay overnight, to eat at their table, and to teach them the restored gospel. “Whatever they did, I tried to do it with them,” he recalled. “Then the ones who were interested would come to our meetings at night. Sometimes my companions would say, ‘We didn’t come here to scrub floors,’ or ‘We didn’t come out here to pick cotton,’ or ‘We didn’t come out here to do this or that. We came out here to teach the gospel.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m teaching the gospel.’”
Later, as a young father, he was employed through the day on one job and late at night on another, but many of his evenings during the week were given over to traveling and teaching. On weekends, when opportunity allowed, he took investigators fishing and hunting or to Church activities. This became a pattern for the remainder of his life.
On one occasion, after waiting hours for her father to come home from a teaching assignment, one of his two daughters suggested that he was often absent from the family “wasting his time on people who didn’t matter.” It was true that among those he taught were people others would pass by. But to Brother Jordan no one was too ordinary or too uninviting to be taught the saving truths of the gospel. Perhaps it was for this reason that members and friends of the Church from Orlando to Atlanta thought first of Wilford Jordan when they had a friend or relative with whom they wished to share the gospel, or when they wished to say good-bye appropriately to a loved one taken by death. (The message of his funeral sermons was always directed toward the unconverted among his listeners.) His diary reveals the many thousands of miles driven and the countless hours required to meet the almost daily appointments involving service to others. This service was accomplished at great expense to himself and to his family, who shared him with all of north Florida and south Georgia—and in the end would not have had it any other way.
After Wilford’s retirement in 1980 from Terminal Transport, a railroad company in Jacksonville, he began his own landscaping business. During that time he was also called to serve in the presidency of the Florida Tallahassee Mission. With Wilford busier than ever, his teaching of nonmembers became, if anything, more intense, extending throughout the whole of the mission.
Though he was approaching sixty-six, the members and nonmembers whose yards he worked on for ten to twelve hours a day, often six days a week, still depended on him. If Church service or family necessitated a change in his carefully arranged schedule, they knew that Wilford would put in extra hours and effort to make sure that every obligation was met. It was both a trademark of and a tribute to his work that whenever he received a new contract to care for a private yard or the grounds of a public building, the change in its appearance elicited spontaneous comment from local residents: “I wonder when Brother Jordan took on this project?”
His death made local headlines not only because he was so well known, but also because of its unusual cause. Although he had handled reptiles for much of his life, Wilford was bitten by the severed head of a large cane snake, a type of rattlesnake common to the area. (It was customary for him to catch snakes and keep them caged until he had time to kill and skin them. The prepared skins were then given to prisoners at the nearby state penitentiary, who fashioned them into belts; the edible flesh was properly prepared and later eaten.) Wilford inadvertently brushed his hand against the head and three or four inches of body that had been placed to one side. Snake’s heads are able to deliver bites for some time after they are removed, and the bite he received was severe. Poison from the wound at the base of his right thumb moved quickly to all parts of Wilford’s body, resulting in his death after three painful days.
Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve once told Wilford Watts Jordan in a blessing that he had been foreordained to be a missionary on earth. Perhaps he has the privilege of continuing in that labor where he is now. But thousands who knew him or knew of him in mortality can only offer deeply felt thanks to his family for sharing him while he was here.
1 quart crawfish tails
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 can (16 ounces) tomatoes
Put all ingredients in a large pot and cover with water. Boil over medium heat for 15 minutes. To serve, pour over cooked rice. Makes six servings.
Turtle (Snapping, Soft Shell, Green Back)
1 good-sized turtle, cut up
3 whole onions
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
4 potatoes, cut in fourths
4 carrots, cut up
Put all ingredients in a large pot and cover with water. Boil over medium heat for approximately 30 minutes. Note: Turtle may also be fried as you would chicken.
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
4 sweet potatoes, peeled and quartered
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Salt and pepper raccoon and brown in oven for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Add sweet potatoes, cover, and bake for one hour
(From The Florida Times Union, 30 November 1978, p. I-14.)