President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled us to “cultivate in [our] hearts a living and vibrant testimony of the restoration of the gospel.” 1 As we strive to follow this counsel, we can learn much if we view the Restoration through the eyes of one of President Hinckley’s predecessors—Wilford Woodruff (1807–98), the fourth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Searching for the True Church
In the 1820s, Joseph Smith experienced the First Vision, conversed with angels, translated the gold plates by the power of God, and received priesthood authority. In a neighboring state, a young man named Wilford Woodruff was searching for the true Church. He said, “I believed … that the Church of God would be reestablished upon the earth, and that I should live to see it.” 2
Yearning to find the truth, Wilford Woodruff attended many religious meetings in the area around his home. At one such gathering, permission was given for anyone in the congregation to speak. Young Wilford stood, knowing that 40 or more ministers of various churches were in attendance. He stepped into the aisle and said:
“My friends, will you tell me why you don’t contend for the faith once delivered to the Saints? Will you tell me why you don’t contend for that Gospel that Jesus Christ taught, and that His Apostles taught? Why do you not contend for that religion that gives unto you power before God, power to heal the sick, to make the blind to see, the lame to walk, and that gives you the Holy Ghost and those gifts and graces that have been manifest from the creation of the world? Why do you not teach the people those principles that the ancient Patriarchs and Prophets taught while they were clothed with the revelations of God? They had the administrations of angels; they had dreams and visions, and constant revelation to guide and direct them in the path in which they should walk.”
The people at the meeting must have been surprised to hear such bold language from such a young man. Immediately, the presiding minister tried to discount the ideas Wilford Woodruff had shared. “My dear young man,” he said, “you would be a very smart man, and a very useful man in the earth, if you did not believe all those foolish things. These things were given to the children of men in the dark ages of the world. … Today we live in the blaze of the glorious gospel light, and we do not need those things.”
Unconvinced by this minister’s comments, Wilford replied, “Then give me the dark ages of the world; give me those ages when men received these principles.” 3
Some time later, in a small schoolhouse, 26-year-old Wilford Woodruff stood to speak in another meeting. This time he spoke in response to the testimonies of Elders Zera Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney, missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He later recounted: “[Elder Pulsipher] opened the door for any remarks to be made. The house was crowded. The first thing I knew I stood on top of a bench before the people, not knowing what I got up for. But I said to my neighbors and friends, ‘I want you to be careful what you say as touching these men … and their testimony, for they are servants of God, and they have testified unto us the truth—principles that I have been looking for from my childhood.’” 4 Wilford Woodruff was baptized and confirmed two days later, on December 31, 1833.
Contending for the Faith
When Wilford Woodruff stood and spoke to the ministers in his area, he referred to an excerpt from near the end of the New Testament. He repeated Jude’s plea to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Wilford Woodruff’s use of this seldom-quoted passage showed his keen biblical knowledge, which he had acquired as he “learned verse after verse and chapter after chapter.” 5 But his emphasizing of the verse revealed more than his careful study—it revealed his determination to search for the truth. He knew that “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” had been lost, and he contended earnestly to find it. Once he did find it, he embraced it without hesitation.
Having experienced the confusion brought about by the Great Apostasy, Wilford Woodruff rejoiced to learn what it truly meant to “live in the blaze of the glorious gospel light.” That light grew brighter and brighter for him as he cultivated and shared his testimony of the Restoration throughout his life.
Teachings of President Wilford Woodruff
When we see pictures of President Wilford Woodruff with his prominent forehead and piercing eyes, we might assume that he was a stern, distant man. But through a study of his life and teachings, we can come to know him as a lively, compassionate, humble servant of God—a man who went on his way rejoicing, even in times of trial. 6 In his face we see nobility and strength rather than sternness. And we find that his words, although more than a century old, are anything but distant. In fact, they are so relevant to our lives today that we would not be surprised if we heard similar statements from the pulpit at the next general conference.
The following quotations highlight President Woodruff’s testimony of the restored gospel. They are taken from Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, which is the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum for 2006 in 24 languages.
Restoration of the Gospel. “I thank God that I live in this day and age of the world, when my ears have heard the sound of the fulness of the gospel of Christ.” 7
“We have the privilege of walking in the light, we have the privilege of comprehending and knowing the truth, of knowing the way to be saved and exalted in the presence of our Father and God. We are in a position to know his mind and will, through his servants the prophets. The Lord has given unto us teachers and inspired men, men who are inspired by the Spirit and power of God; clothed them with truth and endowed them with wisdom to teach us at all times the path we should walk in. This is a great blessing.” 8
Atonement of Jesus Christ. “It [has] been fully established beyond all controversy, from the flood of testimony … from the revelations of God, given in various dispensations and ages of the world, and in different parts of the globe, that the object of Christ’s mission to the earth was to offer himself as a sacrifice to redeem mankind from eternal death, and that it was perfectly in accordance with the will of the Father that such a sacrifice should be made. He acted strictly in obedience to his Father’s will in all things from the beginning, and drank of the bitter cup given him. Herein is brought to light, glory, honour, immortality, and eternal life, with that charity which is greater than faith or hope, for the Lamb of God has thereby performed that for man which [man] could not accomplish for himself.” 9
“There is no being that has power to save the souls of men and give them eternal life, except the Lord Jesus Christ, under the command of His Father.” 10
The Prophet Joseph Smith. “I have felt to rejoice exceedingly in what I saw of brother Joseph, for in his public and private career he carried with him the Spirit of the Almighty, and he manifested a greatness of soul which I had never seen in any other man.” 11
“I will say myself that I do not believe there ever was a man … that was more closely united and associated with God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, than the Prophet Joseph Smith. The power of revelation was with him from the day that he was called to receive the Priesthood up to the time when he was martyred. The power of inspiration was with him day by day.” 12
Priesthood. “When an apostle or president, bishop or any man holding the priesthood officiates, he administers by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ; then that priesthood has effect, and all the blessings that a servant of God bestows upon the children of men, will take effect both in this life and in that which is to come. If I have a blessing given to me by the holy priesthood, or if I receive a blessing from a patriarch, those gifts and blessings will reach into the other world; and if I am true to my covenants through this life, I can claim every blessing that has been conferred upon me, because that authority by which they were conferred is ordained of God, and it is that by which the sons of the Most High administer unto the children of men the ordinances of life and salvation, and those official acts will have their effect upon those persons beyond the grave as well as in this life. These are the true riches; they are riches that will last to all eternity, and we have power through these blessings, conferred by the gospel, to receive our bodies again and to preserve our identity in eternity. Yes, we can claim this by virtue of the holy priesthood.” 13
Keeping the Commandments. “There is no man or woman who has ever lived on the earth and kept the commandments of God who will be ashamed of, or sorry for it, when they go into the presence of God.” 14
Gift of the Holy Ghost. “Now, if you have the Holy Ghost with you—and every one ought to have—I can say unto you that there is no greater gift, there is no greater blessing, there is no greater testimony given to any man on earth. You may have the administration of angels; you may see many miracles; you may see many wonders in the earth; but I claim that the gift of the Holy Ghost is the greatest gift that can be bestowed upon man. It is by this power that we have performed that which we have. It is this that sustains us through all the persecutions, trials and tribulations that come upon us.” 15
“Through all my life and labors, whenever I have been told to do anything by the Spirit of the Lord, I have always found it good to do it. I have been preserved by that power. … Get the spirit of revelation with you. And when you get that you are safe, and you will do exactly what the Lord wants you to do.” 16
Family Life. “We are all expecting to live together forever after death. I think we all as parents and children ought to take all the pains we can to make each other happy as long as we live that we may have nothing to regret.” 17
“It is a great thing to know how to act so as to gain the feelings and affections of our families, that will lead them in the path wherein they may be saved. This is a study and a work that should not be laid aside by parents. … Many times we may consider business so urgent that it must crowd these things out of our minds, but this should not be. Any man’s mind that is open, and who looks forward to the work that lies before us, will see and feel that the responsibility that rests upon him concerning his own family, and especially in the rearing up of his children, is very great.
“We want to save our children, and to have them partake of all the blessings that encircle the sanctified, to have them receive the blessings of their parents who have been faithful to the fulness of the gospel.” 18
Missionary Work. “Mankind in all ages search for happiness; they desire social and domestic peace; and when they think of the vast future, they desire to participate in the blessings that are spoken of as pertaining to that state of existence; but they know not how to obtain them, except a servant of God comes along and points out the way of life.” 19
“My whole life almost has been spent in this Church; and from the time I came into the Church I went on missions and have never ceased altogether from that day to this. I have always rejoiced in this, and do to-day. When I die and lay down my body, I do not want anybody to rise up and say that I have neglected my duty in trying to give him salvation as far as I could. I have always rejoiced in preaching the Gospel; I have rejoiced in administering the ordinances of life and salvation at home and abroad, because I have known that this was the work of God, and I know it is to-day.” 20
Temple and Family History Work. “What is gold and silver; what are the riches of this world? They all perish with the using. We pass away and leave them. But if we have eternal life, if we keep the faith and overcome, we shall rejoice when we go upon the other side of the veil. I rejoice in all these things. There is hardly any principle the Lord has revealed that I have rejoiced more in than in the redemption of our dead; that we will have our fathers, our mothers, our wives and our children with us in the family organization, in the morning of the first resurrection and in the Celestial Kingdom. These are grand principles. They are worth every sacrifice.” 21
“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.” 22
“No right feeling Latter-day Saint can think upon this subject without being thrilled with heavenly joy.” 23
Words of Warning and Encouragement
Looking back on the Church’s history and reaching forward to the Church’s destiny, President Gordon B. Hinckley exhorts us: “We are the beneficiaries of [the] great Restoration. … We can’t afford to be tawdry people. We ought to stand a little taller, be a little better for the great inheritance which we have.” 24 More than 120 years ago, President Wilford Woodruff gave a similar challenge to the Latter-day Saints. His words, both in warning and encouragement, are just as true for us today:
“What manner of men and women ought we to be, who are called to take part in the great latter-day work? We should be men and women of faith, valiant for the truth as it has been revealed and committed into our hand. We should be men and women of integrity to God and to His holy Priesthood, true to Him and true to one another. We should not permit houses and lands, gold and silver, nor any of this world’s goods to draw us aside from pursuing the great object which God has sent us to perform. Our aim is high, our destiny is high and we should never disappoint our Father, nor the heavenly hosts who are watching over us. We should not disappoint the millions in the spirit world, who too are watching over us with an interest and anxiety that have hardly entered into our hearts to conceive of. These are great and mighty things which God requires of us. We would not be worthy of salvation, we would not be worthy of eternal lives in the kingdom of our God, if anything could turn us away from the truth or from the love of it.” 25
“Recurring Themes of President Hinckley,” Ensign, June 2000, 21.
Quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff (2004), xix.
Quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 36–37; see also 35.
Millennial Star, Oct. 5, 1891, 627; see also Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xix–xx, 37–38.
Quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 35.
See Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 109, 153, 162, 218.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 10.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 8–9.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 69–70.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 74.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 14.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 16.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 42–43.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 214.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 49.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 52.
Quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 163.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 167–68.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 92.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 95.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 192–93.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 176.
“Excerpts from Recent Addresses of President Gordon B. Hinckley,” Ensign, Mar. 1999, 72.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 43–44.