Wilford Woodruff: A Man of Record


His personal chronicle, which gave us much of the history of the early Church, illustrates the value of preserving a record of our lives.

During his long life, President Wilford Woodruff faced accident and death so many times it took a record keeper of his considerable talent to keep track. Among his misfortunes, he suffered several broken bones, split his foot with an ax, was bitten by a rabid dog, was battered by falling trees, came near to being crushed by a water wheel, and on two occasions narrowly missed being killed by gunfire. He came away unscathed from a train wreck; was nearly drowned, frozen, and scalded to death; and survived several life-threatening illnesses.

In 1856, as he faced a particularly harrowing ordeal from blood poisoning, he wrote: “I have been a marked victim as an attack for the power of the destroyer from my infancy up to the present day. I have faced accident, misfortune, and apparently death so many times and in so many shapes and forms from my childhood through life thus far that it has become a proverb with me to say that there has seemed to be two powers constantly watching me and at work with me, one to kill and the other to save me.” 1

After pondering the meaning of it all, he came to the conclusion that “the devil knew if I got into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I would write the history of the Church and leave on record the doings, works, and teachings of the prophets and Apostles, elders and Saints in the latter days and that I would attend to the ordinances of the House of God for my father’s household and friends, both for the living and the dead.” 2

Although a man of the land, without formal education, Wilford Woodruff nevertheless became one of the premier record keepers of the nineteenth century. The same Spirit that convinced him of the truths Mormon missionaries brought to him also motivated his tireless writing. 3 Besides, the Prophet Joseph Smith, upon organizing the Quorum of the Twelve, had commanded the Apostles “to write and keep a journal or history of their lives.” 4

Wilford Woodruff joined the Latter-day Saints at a time when record keeping in the Church was in its beginning stages—a time when valuable records were lost due to unsettled conditions, when caretakers of the Church history apostatized and took records with them, and when faithful participants in the unfolding drama of the kingdom often kept no record at all. 5 All of this contributed to Wilford Woodruff’s great anxiety to keep a careful record of his own. For him, record keeping was more than a casual activity; it was a religious service. He not only kept a diary and collected family records but also carried on an extensive correspondence.

Something of President Woodruff’s tenacity is seen in an incident that occurred in 1879 while he was living in a remote area of Arizona, 165 miles from a post office. After a few days’ absence from home, he returned to find forty-one letters. Persuading the mail carrier to wait for him to answer his correspondence, he embarked on a writing marathon during which he produced thirty-six letters in three days and nights of almost uninterrupted writing. He said that he wrote “until my hand and arm became numb and brain ceased to act,” and he was forced to stay in bed in great pain for four days with what he called “bilious cramps.” 6

At the heart of the Woodruff literary legacy is his daily journal. Beginning shortly after his conversion and continuing to his death in 1898, Wilford Woodruff’s day books and journals, comprising thirty-one handwritten volumes, cover almost the entire span of the Church’s nineteenth-century history. For Elder Woodruff, the writing of a diary was inherent in ordination to the priesthood. As an avid student of the past, he recognized that the story of God’s dealings with mankind could not be written without the records of eyewitnesses. And the records of the commoner are as important as those of the king. “You may say that historians have handed [the history of nations, kingdoms, and countries] down unto us. But how have historians obtained materials from which to compile their history? I answer from the scribes, reporters, and journalists who wrote day-by-day events as they passed before their eyes. And this class of men forms the foundation of all history, and from their material, historians who live hundreds of years after events transpire will compile history.” 7

Addressing a congregation of Saints in 1862, Elder Woodruff regretted that so few contemporary records had been kept of the events of Church history, and then rehearsed his own efforts: “I seldom ever heard the Prophet Joseph, or Brigham Young, or the Apostles teach, preach, or prophesy or perform any official act but what I have recorded it in my journals unless some other persons were recording the same, and I could not feel easy until I had accomplished it.” He continued, “I have written more sacred history of the teaching of the prophets and Apostles and official acts of the Latter-day Saints than would make several testaments as large as the one handed down to us by the ancient Apostles. I have kept a journal of almost every day of my life since I have been a member of this Church.” 8 A few years earlier he had observed that “a great portion of the Church history has been compiled from my journals, and some of the most glorious gospel sermons, truths, and revelations that were given from God to this people … could not be found upon the earth on record only in my journals.” 9 For example, of sixteen discourses of Joseph Smith recorded by Wilford Woodruff in his diary, nine are exclusive reports preserved by no one else.

In addition to his personal record keeping, Elder Woodruff served history in other ways. In 1852 he was appointed clerk and historian of the Quorum of the Twelve. Four years later he began thirty-four years of service as a historian in the Church Historian’s Office. As he began his new assignment, it became his responsibility to write the history of the Church during the last days of Joseph Smith’s life. This was a challenging task due to the lack of firsthand information, but by soliciting accounts from widely scattered eyewitnesses and carefully analyzing their contradictory reminiscences, Elder Woodruff was finally able to complete the history through the end of the Prophet’s lifetime. He then continued the narrative into the presidency of Brigham Young. He also produced a history of eight of the first members of the Quorum of the Twelve. In recognizing Elder Woodruff’s efforts, George A. Smith observed in 1860 that he “had done more to preserve the history of this Church than any man on the earth.” 10

In his capacity as a Church historian, Elder Woodruff lost no opportunity to encourage the Saints to keep personal records. In 1853 he exhorted brethren of the priesthood to keep a journal and history of their lives, “for the record and history of this church and kingdom will be wanted in a future day. There has been no dispensation on earth the proceedings of which will be more interesting than the one in which we live.” 11

At a quarterly conference in Bountiful, Utah, Elder Woodruff asked the assembled Saints, many of whom had traveled throughout the earth and witnessed marvelous things, if they could “not count them worth recording—not even make the mark of a pen to leave the account on record for their children and future generations to read? I say they should. I think the Lord requires this at our hands, and it is a rich and holy legacy which is justly due our posterity.” 12

Elder Woodruff reminded a company of missionaries in 1856, “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. … If there was no other motive in view only to have the privilege of reading over our journals and for our children to read, it would pay for the time spent in writing it.” 13

The other part of the answer Elder Woodruff had obtained to his query as to why, throughout his life, he seemed to have been marked for destruction by some evil force was that Satan knew Wilford would bring salvation to his family, both living and dead. Indeed, a substantial amount of President Woodruff’s writings reflect this concern for his family. When the light of the gospel burst upon him, he frequently shared its hope with his loved ones. In 1838, for example, with a “deeper interest than ever in the salvation of the soul of my father,” he stopped at the place of his birth in Connecticut, where he was able to baptize not only his father but his stepmother, his only sister, an aunt, and a cousin. 14

As the knowledge of salvation for those who had died without hearing the gospel became known, Elder Woodruff’s writings reveal his efforts to provide saving ordinances for departed family members. Feeling that he “held the keys of the dead of my father’s house,” he spent countless hours copying their records and writing the genealogy of his family. 15 In 1874 he obtained access to a history of his hometown, Farmington, Connecticut, and was elated to find references to ancestors of both his mother’s and father’s lines. Although suffering from a severe cold, he spent the better part of a week writing the genealogy of his Connecticut family. 16

In 1876 he bought a history in which he found all the descendants of ancestor Stephen Hart, born in Braintree, England, in 1605. In the following weeks he spent many days “getting out the names of the Hart family for baptism.” 17 On June 20 he recorded the fulfillment of his labors: “Glory Hallelujah for this day, for in spite of the Devil through the blessing of God I have had the privilege … of going into the Endowment House and with my family have been baptized for 949 … of my dead relatives and friends.” Two days later he repeated the process for 924 others. Later in the year, he spent most of a week in St. George “preparing the names” of Hart and Woodruff ancestors for sealing in the newly constructed temple. 18 By 1885 his records had produced vicarious baptisms for 3,188 of his family and friends, and endowments for 2,518 of them. 19 To the end of his life, President Woodruff actively corresponded with relatives and others, including the New England Historical and Genealogical Society, for family information. 20

Besides his desire to fulfill the purposes for which he believed he had been repeatedly spared from death during his lifetime, Wilford Woodruff, in the opening lines of his diary, articulated another reason for his record keeping. He felt it was his duty “to keep a journal of my travels that when required I may give an account of my stewardship.” He therefore carefully charted his own labors. “Should we not have respect enough to God to make a record of those blessings which he pours out upon us and our official acts which we do in his name upon the face of the earth?” he once asked. 21 So precise was President Woodruff’s “journalizing” that at the beginning of each year he was able to quantify his official acts during the previous year. And in 1885 he compiled a fifty-year summary, observing that he had traveled 143,369 miles, held 4,191 meetings, and preached 3,250 discourses. Through his eight-month ministry in England, 1,800 people were added to the Church, of whom he personally baptized 1,043. He had organized 51 branches of the Church, confirmed 3,343 individuals, ordained 23 patriarchs, 93 high priests, 59 seventies, 23 bishops, and 667 elders, and assisted in ordaining 4,347 others. He had also ordained 446 priests, 66 teachers, and 15 deacons. He set apart and blessed 1,034 missionaries and assisted with 4,512 others, blessed 283 children, administered to 922 sick persons, worked in the Salt Lake Endowment House 603 days, spent 111 days supervising the digging of the Salt Lake Temple foundation, and collected $1,674 for the Nauvoo Temple. 22

It was Will Durant who wrote that “civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew. … The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. … History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage. … If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.” 23

If the reason for the inordinate number of accidents and sufferings Wilford Woodruff experienced in his lifetime was, as he believed, because Satan “knew he would write,” it was also because few individuals would enlarge the memory of mankind as effectively as he did.

[photos] Still life photography by Phil Shurtleff

Dean C. Jessee, a research historian with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University, serves as the Family History coordinator for the Salt Lake South Cottonwood Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Diary of Wilford Woodruff, 28 Apr. 1856; hereafter cited as Woodruff diary. Spelling, capitalization, and punctuation have been modernized, but exact wording has been retained. All manuscript sources are located in the Woodruff Papers, Archives Division, Church Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. The best available source of the Woodruff diary is Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983). On the life of Wilford Woodruff, see Thomas G. Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth: the Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991).

  2.   2.

    Woodruff diary, 20 Jan. 1872.

  3.   3.

    In addition to his written testimony, President Woodruff made an audio recording of his testimony. He was the first prophet to do so.

  4.   4.

    Woodruff diary, 20 Jan. 1872.

  5.   5.

    Ibid.

  6.   6.

    Wilford Woodruff to Emma Woodruff, 19 May 1879; see also Woodruff diary, 28 Apr.–8 May 1879.

  7.   7.

    Woodruff diary, 12 Feb. 1862.

  8.   8.

    Woodruff diary, 12 Feb. 1862.

  9.   9.

    Woodruff diary, 17 Mar. 1857.

  10.   10.

    Woodruff diary, 21 Aug. 1860.

  11.   11.

    Woodruff diary, 15 Feb. 1853.

  12.   12.

    Woodruff diary, 18 Nov. 1855.

  13.   13.

    Woodruff diary, 6 Sept. 1856.

  14.   14.

    Woodruff diary, 1 July 1838.

  15.   15.

    Wilford Woodruff, “Epistle,” The Contributor, Apr. 1887, p. 235; Woodruff diary, 14 Apr. 1870; 16, 18 Nov. 1876; 24 Mar. 1877; 2 Dec. 1880.

  16.   16.

    Woodruff diary, 13–16, 18, 23 Mar. 1875.

  17.   17.

    Woodruff diary, 27 Feb. 1876; see also 28 Jan.; 6 Feb.; 9, 14–18, 22 Mar. 1876.

  18.   18.

    Woodruff diary, 20–24 Nov. 1876.

  19.   19.

    Woodruff diary, synopsis following the year 1885.

  20.   20.

    Woodruff diary, 10 Jan. 1876; 17 Nov. 1880; 8 Jan. 1884; 9 Dec. 1892.

  21.   21.

    Woodruff diary, 12 Feb. 1862.

  22.   22.

    Woodruff diary, synopsis following the year 1885.

  23.   23.

    Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), pp. 101–2.