Wilford Woodruff: Man of Faith and Zeal


Wilford Woodruff stands as an example of what great faith plus great zeal—combined with an ever-attentive ear and a heart that is obedient to the promptings of the Holy Ghost—can do for each member of the Church. He, particularly, needed to be a strong man, able to depend on the Lord, because he led the Church during a very difficult time.

At the time of President John Taylor’s death in 1887, Wilford Woodruff was in hiding because of friction between the Church and the United States government over plural marriage. The government had seized the Church’s property. Many heads of families and many community leaders were either in prison or in hiding. And the Saints in the state of Idaho had even lost their right to vote.

These were only some of the conditions that Elder Woodruff faced when he became the fourth President of the Church. Even while he was guiding the affairs of the Church, he could not come out of hiding long enough to address his beloved people in general conference. As President of the Church during these difficult times, Wilford Woodruff had to rely heavily on the Lord to help him care for the Saints. But by this time in his life, he was well prepared to do so.

Learning to Trust God

Wilford Woodruff learned early in life to trust deeply in the power of the Lord. According to his own record, he had many accidents and other hardships and was spared only because of the mercy of the Lord. He fell into a caldron of scalding water at the age of three; he slipped from a beam in his father’s barn, landing on his face on the bare floor; he broke his arm by falling down some stairs; he was kicked in the stomach by an ox; he was buried beneath a load of hay when his wagon tipped over; he was in a wagon that overturned when a runaway horse bolted down a hill; he fell fifteen feet from a tree, landing flat on his back; he was saved from drowning; he narrowly escaped freezing to death when a passerby happened to see him crawl into the hollow of an apple tree; he split open the instep of his left foot while chopping wood; he was bitten by a dog in the last stages of rabies; he was thrown from a runaway horse and broke one of his legs in two places and dislocated both ankles. And all of this happened before Wilford was twenty years old!

Later he fell twice from the top of a mill wheel, narrowly escaping being crushed to death. On other occasions, he was dragged behind a runaway horse; a gun aimed directly at his chest snapped accidentally but fortunately misfired; and a falling tree hit him in the chest, breaking his breastbone and three ribs and badly bruising his left thigh, hip, and arm.

It is no wonder that he recognized early the Lord’s power to preserve him. Contemplating these accidents later in his life he said, “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.”

A thoughtful young man, he wanted to do what was right. In his early teens, he wrote, “My age is an important period in the life of every man; for, generally speaking, at this period of life man forms much of his character for time and eternity. How cautious I ought to be in passing this landmark along the road of my early existence! I feel that I need care, prudence, circumspection and wisdom to guide my footsteps in the path which leads to honor and eternal life.”

Finding Truth

Wilford Woodruff’s constant search for guidance led him often to the Lord in prayer. Then, when he finally did have the opportunity to hear the gospel, he was well prepared to receive it.

He describes his introduction to the gospel: “Elder Pulsipher opened with prayer. He knelt down and asked the Lord in the name of Jesus Christ for what he wanted. His manner of prayer and the influence which went with it impressed me greatly. The spirit of the Lord rested upon me and bore witness that he was a servant of God. After singing, he preached to the people for an hour and a half. The spirit of God rested mightily upon him, and he bore a strong testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon and of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I believed all that he said. The spirit bore witness of its truth. …

“Liberty was then given by the elders to any one in the congregation to arise and speak for or against what they had heard as they might choose. Almost instantly I found myself upon my feet. The spirit of the Lord urged me to bear testimony of the truth of the message delivered by these elders. I exhorted my neighbors and friends not to oppose these men, for they were the true servants of God. They had preached to us that night the pure gospel of Jesus Christ. When I sat down, my brother Azmon arose and bore a similar testimony. He was followed by several others.”

Three days later, after carefully searching the Book of Mormon, he was baptized on 31 December 1833. He wrote: “The snow was about three feet deep, the day was cold, and the water was mixed with ice and snow, yet I did not feel cold.”

Keeping a History

Soon after this, he went to Kirtland, where he met the Prophet Joseph Smith. From Kirtland, he and other new members accompanied the Prophet on the march of Zion’s Camp. During this period he was “moved upon” to start recording the significant events of Church history. Later he commented on this heavenly direction:

“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. I have recorded nearly all the sermons and teachings that I ever heard from the Prophet Joseph, I have in my journal many of the sermons of President Brigham Young, and such men as Orson Hyde, Parley P. Pratt and others. Another reason I was moved upon to write in the early days was that nearly all the historians appointed in those times apostatized and took the journals away with them.”

“Governed by the Spirit”

Soon after the march of Zion’s Camp, young Wilford began his great missionary career by serving in the southern United States, Canada, and the northeastern United States. As a missionary, he often experienced the guidance of the Spirit. At the time of his departure from the mission field, as he was helping groups of converts gather to Zion, he wrote:

“After spending two years and a half in New England and Canada, getting the Saints out, I started back with the last lot, about a hundred from Boston. We landed in Pittsburgh at dusk. We were anxious not to stay there, but to go on to St. Louis. I saw a steamer making steam ready to go out. I went to the captain and asked him how many passengers he had. ‘Three hundred and fifty.’ ‘Could you take another hundred?’ ‘Yes.’ The Spirit said to me, ‘Don’t go aboard that steamer, you nor your company.’ All right, said I. I had learned something about that still, small voice. I did not go aboard that steamer, but waited till the next morning. In thirty minutes after that steamer left, it took fire. It had ropes instead of wheel chains, and they could not go ashore. It was a dark night and not a soul was saved. If I had not obeyed the influence of that monitor within me, I would have been there.

“I have been governed and controlled by the Spirit. I have been acquainted with this Spirit. It was not the blow of trumpets nor thunder and lightning; it was the still, small voice to me.”

He was ordained as an Apostle at Far West, Missouri, in 1839, when he was thirty-two years old.

Preaching the Gospel

Many Church members think of Wilford Woodruff as a great missionary. Heber J. Grant said of him, “Perhaps [Wilford Woodruff] was the greatest converter of men we have ever had in the Church.” (In Conference Report, April 1942.) Though he had already been on two missions, his best-known mission was to England, which began in 1839.

On his thirty-third birthday, Wilford Woodruff was preaching in the town of Hanley, England. He was extremely successful in that location, and so he was surprised when the Lord inspired him to go southward, where he was literally directed to the John Benbow farm just outside of Birmingham. A group known as the United Brethren had banded together and were praying for the Lord to send messengers with the fulness of the gospel.

From this group alone, Elder Woodruff baptized 45 preachers and 160 members of the congregation. One of the policemen who was sent to arrest Elder Woodruff for preaching the gospel joined the Church himself after listening to this dynamic missionary speak. Two local officials from the Church of England who went to spy on the meetings also ended up asking for baptism at his hand.

Wilford Woodruff brought 336 people into the Church in the year 1840. Then, responding to the call of President Joseph Smith, he and the other Brethren set sail for home, bringing with them a boatload of converts.

Following the Voice of the Spirit

After this mission, Elder Woodruff was active in helping to build the temple in Nauvoo and in preparing the Saints to go to the Rocky Mountains. During this time, he had some great spiritual experiences because of his faith and sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit.

The following spiritual experiences speak well for the close relationship Wilford Woodruff had with his Father in Heaven:

—“My missions have been by [the] Spirit of revelation. I was told to go to the Fox Islands [off the coast of northeastern U.S.] by that same still small voice. In the time of the great apostasy in Kirtland the Spirit of the Lord said to me, ‘Get you a partner and go to Fox Islands.’ I knew no more what was in Fox Islands than what was in Kolob. I went there, however, baptized a hundred.”

—Once when he was lost in a severe storm, “groping like the blind for the wall, a bright light suddenly shone around us, and revealed to us our dangerous situation at the edge of a gulf. The light continued with us until we found the road. We then went on our way rejoicing, though the darkness returned and the rain continued.”

—Another time, after he had parked his carriage for the night and he and his family had retired in it, a voice said to him, “Get up, and move your carriage.” A short while later, a big, heavy tree, caught by a whirlwind, was thrown where his carriage had been parked.

—While in London as a missionary, he had a terrifying experience with a “prince of darkness. … As he was about to overcome me I prayed to the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, for help. I then had power over him and he left me, though I was much wounded. Afterwards three men dressed in white came to me and prayed with me, and I was healed immediately of all my wounds, and delivered of my troubles.”

—“Two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me [in the temple], wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, ‘… 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 straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McAllister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all.”

Wilford Woodruff never seemed to waste time or energy. During a time of persecution, while he was in exile, he taught the gospel to the American Indians in the southwestern United States. He had a great love and respect for these people, and even though he was seventy-two at the time, he still loved to be among them and to hunt and fish while he was in the wilderness. This great missionary and emissary of God was also a great outdoorsman.

Although he was able to come out of exile for a short time, he had to go back into hiding as the persecution against the Saints reached its height. Imagine this great man’s heartbreak in 1895 when he could not even attend the funeral of his dear wife Phoebe!

While he was President of the Church, he continued to pour out his heart to the Lord, asking for guidance that he might properly lead the Saints. On 25 September 1890, President Woodruff announced to the world in the famous Manifesto that it was the will of the Lord that plural marriage be discontinued. (See D&C, OD 1.)

Toward the end of his administration, as the hostility of the U.S. government faded, President Woodruff dedicated the Salt Lake Temple (6 April 1893) and lived to see Utah become a state in 1896. This meant that the Saints could choose their own local civic leaders.

President Woodruff died at age ninety-one in San Francisco, California. He had served his fellowmen and the Lord well. He had traveled more than 175,000 miles to preach the gospel, had baptized 2,000 people into the Church, and had written in journals more than 7,000 pages of Church history, covering a period of 62 years. He was a missionary, miller, printer, farmer, pioneer, colonizer, statesman, Apostle, and prophet of the Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly, for Wilford Woodruff, great faith plus great zeal equaled great experiences.

This same equation applies to each of us. If we hunger and thirst to have the witness of the Spirit in our own lives, we must put forth the effort necessary to receive it.

Wilford Woodruff Highlights, 1807–1898

Date

Age

Event

1807

1 March: Born in Farmington, Connecticut.

1821

14

Works as a miller.

1833

26

31 December: Is baptized.

1834

27

Participates in the march of Zion’s Camp.

1834–36

27–29

Serves mission to southern United States.

1837

30

Marries Phoebe Carter.

1837–38

30–31

Serves mission to eastern U.S. and Fox Islands.

1839

32

26 April: Is ordained an Apostle.

1839–41

32–34

Serves mission to Great Britain.

1842

35

Becomes business manager of Times and Seasons.

1843–44

36–37

Serves mission to the eastern U.S.; learns of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom.

1844–46

37–39

Serves as president of European Mission.

1847

40

24 July: Enters Great Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young.

1848–50

41–43

Presides over the Church in the eastern U.S.

1850

43

Is appointed to the territorial legislature.

1856

49

Is appointed Church Historian.

1877

70

Becomes president of the St. George Temple.

1879

72

While in exile, does missionary work among American Indians.

1887

80

Becomes leader of the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

1888

81

17 May: Dedicates the Manti Temple.

1889

82

Is sustained President of the Church.

1890

83

Issues the “Manifesto,” discontinuing plural marriage.

1893

86

6 April: Dedicates the Salt Lake Temple.

1898

91

2 September: Dies in San Francisco, California.

Sources

  1. 1.

    Diaries and papers of Wilford Woodruff, located in the LDS Church Archives.

  2. 2.

    “History of Wilford Woodruff,” Deseret News 8, numbers 18–22 (July—August 1858).

  3. 3.

    “Autobiography of Wilford Woodruff,” Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine 3 (October 1883—July 1884).

  4. 4.

    Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal, Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1881.

  5. 5.

    Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964.

[illustrations] Illustrations by Harold I. Hopkinson

[illustration] On 4 January 1896, Utah became the 45th state in the United States. President Woodruff and his counselors, George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith, rejoiced with the Saints. A large U.S. flag was draped on the newly dedicated Salt Lake Temple. (The illustration of the flag on the temple is based on a historical photograph.)