Chapter 8: Understanding Death and Resurrection

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, (2011), 77–88


When loved ones die and when we contemplate our own mortality, we can find comfort and assurance in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and in the eternal reality of the resurrection.

From the Life of Wilford Woodruff

In early August 1839, Elder Wilford Woodruff left his home in Montrose, Iowa, obeying the Lord’s call to serve a mission in the British Isles. He bade farewell to his wife, Phoebe, and his only child, one-year-old Sarah Emma. At the time, Phoebe was pregnant with Wilford Jr., who would be born March 22, 1840.

A few months after leaving Montrose, Elder Woodruff was in the eastern United States, preaching the gospel and preparing for the journey to Great Britain. During this stay he wrote in his journal of three separate dreams in which he saw his wife. After the first dream he wrote the following entry in his journal: “I saw Mrs. Woodruff in deep affliction in a dream at Montrose. I did not see Sarah Emma.”1 His report of the second dream was also short: “I had a dream during the night and had an interview with Mrs. Woodruff but did not see Sarah Emma.”2 The third dream was more detailed: “We rejoiced much at having an interview with each other, yet our embraces were mixed with sorrow, for after conversing a while about her domestic affairs, I asked where Sarah Emma was. … She said, weeping, … ‘She is dead.’ We sorrowed a moment, and I awoke. … Is this dream true? Time must determine.”3

On July 14, 1840, Elder Woodruff, now in Great Britain, wrote a journal entry commemorating an important day for his family: “Sarah Emma is two years old this day. May the Lord preserve my wife and children from sickness and death until my return.” Always one to acknowledge the Lord’s will, he added, “O Lord, I commit them into thy hands; feed, clothe, and comfort them, and thine shall be the glory.”4 Three days later, little Sarah Emma died.

Elder Woodruff did not learn of his daughter’s death until October 22, 1840, when he read the news in a letter sent to one of his brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve.5 Four days later he finally received the news from Phoebe, in a letter dated July 18. He copied part of her letter in his journal:

“My dear Wilford, what will be your feelings when I say that yesterday I was called to witness the departure of our little Sarah Emma from this world? Yes, she is gone. The relentless hand of death has snatched her from my embrace. … When looking on her, I have often thought how I should feel to part with her. I thought I could not live without her, especially in the absence of my companion. But she has gone. The Lord hath taken her home to Himself for some wise purpose.

“It is a trial to me, but the Lord hath stood by me in a wonderful manner. I can see and feel that He has taken her home and will take better care of her than I possibly could for a little while until I shall go and meet her. Yes, Wilford, we have one little angel in heaven, and I think it likely her spirit has visited you before this time.

“It is hard living without her. … She left a kiss for her papa with me just before she died. … The elders laid hands upon her and anointed her a number of times, but the next day her spirit took its flight from this to another world without a groan.

“Today Wilford [Jr.] and I, with quite a number of friends accompanying us, came over to Commerce, [Illinois,] to pay our last respects to our little darling in seeing her decently buried. She had no relative to follow her to the grave or to shed a tear for her but her ma and little Wilford. … I have just been to take a pleasing, melancholy walk to Sarah’s grave. She lies alone in peace. I can say that the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, and blessed be the name of the Lord [see Job 1:21].”6

Other than copying Phoebe’s letter, Elder Woodruff wrote very little about his daughter’s passing. He merely said that Sarah Emma had been “taken from time” and that she was “gone to be seen no more in this life.”7

In his 91 years, Wilford Woodruff endured the deaths of many loved ones, including a number of family members and all the Apostles with whom he served under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith. At these solemn times, he found comfort in his testimony of the restored gospel and in the “eternal reality” of the resurrection.8 He often taught that the death of a righteous Latter-day Saint is both a trying time and a time to rejoice. In fact, toward the end of his life he wrote the following instructions concerning his own funeral: “I do not wish my family or friends to wear any badge of mourning for me at my funeral or afterwards, for if I am true and faithful unto death there will be no necessity for anyone to mourn for me.”9

Teachings of Wilford Woodruff

At death each person’s spirit enters the spirit world, where the righteous rejoice together and continue in the Lord’s work.

A great many [people] believe when a man dies that is the end of him, that there is no hereafter. Can any sensible man believe that the God of heaven has created two or three hundred thousand million spirits, and given them tabernacles [physical bodies], merely to come and live upon the earth and then to pass away into oblivion or to be annihilated? It seems to me that no reflecting man can entertain such belief. It is contrary to common sense and to serious reflection.10

When mourning the loss of our departed friends, I cannot help but think that in every death there is a birth; the spirit leaves the body dead to us, and passes to the other side of the veil alive to that great and noble company that are also working for the accomplishment of the purposes of God, in the redemption and salvation of a fallen world.11

There is rejoicing when the spirit of a Saint of the Living God enters into the spirit world and meets with the Saints who have gone before.12

Some labor this side of the veil, others on the other side of the veil. If we tarry here we expect to labor in the cause of salvation, and if we go hence we expect to continue our work until the coming of the Son of Man.13

Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all persons will be resurrected, their spirits reuniting with their immortal bodies.

We acknowledge that through Adam all have died, that death through the fall must pass upon the whole human family, also upon the beasts of the field, the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and all the works of God, as far as this earth is concerned. It is a law that is unchangeable and irrevocable. … The Savior himself tasted of death; He died to redeem the world; His body was laid in the tomb, but it did not see corruption; and after three days it arose from the grave and put on immortality. He was the first fruit of the resurrection.14

Christ leaving the tomb

President Woodruff testified that the Savior was “the first fruit of the resurrection.”

I am satisfied, always have been, in regard to the resurrection. I rejoice in it. The way was opened unto us by the blood of the Son of God.15

When the resurrection comes, we shall come forth clothed with immortal bodies; and the persecutions, suffering, sorrow, pain and death, incident to mortality, will be done away forever.16

This doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is most glorious. It is comforting, at least to my spirit, to think, that, in the morning of the resurrection, my spirit will have the privilege of dwelling in the very same body that it occupied here. As elders of Israel we have travelled a great many thousand miles in weariness and fatigue, laboring to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the children of men. I would be very glad to have the same body in the resurrection with which I waded swamps, swam rivers and travelled and labored to build up the kingdom of God here on the earth.17

The gospel provides comfort when loved ones die.

Without the gospel of Christ the separation by death is one of the most gloomy subjects it is possible to contemplate; but just as soon as we obtain the gospel and learn the principle of the resurrection the gloom, sorrow and suffering occasioned by death are, in a great measure, taken away. I have often thought that, to see a dead body, and to see that body laid in the grave and covered with earth, is one of the most gloomy things on earth; without the gospel it is like taking a leap in the dark. But as quick as we obtain the gospel, as soon as the spirit of man is enlightened by the inspiration of the Almighty, he can exclaim with one of old—“Oh grave, where is thy victory, Oh death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the gift of God is eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” [See 1 Corinthians 15:55–57.] The resurrection of the dead presents itself before the enlightened mind of man, and he has a foundation for his spirit to rest upon. That is the position of the Latter-day Saints to-day. We do know for ourselves, we are not in the dark with regard to this matter; God has revealed it to us and we do understand the principle of the resurrection of the dead, and that the gospel brings life and immortality to light [see 2 Timothy 1:10].18

Christ showing his resurrected body

“Just as soon as we obtain the gospel and learn the principle of the resurrection the gloom, sorrow and suffering occasioned by death are, in a great measure, taken away.”

It is hard, of course, to part with our friends. … It is natural for us to give expression to our feelings in tears in laying away the bodies of our beloved friends, and there is a degree to which we may go which is proper and right; but there are extremes which are often indulged in, which is neither proper nor right for Latter-day Saints to copy after.19

For some cause or reason unbeknown to me, I have lived to attend the funerals and follow to the grave a great share of the Prophets and Apostles and many of the Saints who have labored in this Church in their day and generation. … I have never felt to mourn in my spirit to follow any Prophet, any Apostle, any Saint of the living God to the grave who has been true and faithful to God, who has been true and faithful to His covenants, who has received the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the ordinances thereof, and the holy Priesthood. Such men and women have filled their mission here upon earth with honor, with labor, with love, until they have been called home. They have died in the faith, and they will receive a crown of glory.

Those have been my feelings in the death of President [Brigham] Young, Brother [Heber C.] Kimball, Brother [John] Taylor, the Twelve Apostles, and all men who have received the Gospel of Christ and been true and faithful in that mission. There is an eternal reality—which the whole world will find out—in life. There is an eternal reality in death. There is an eternal reality in the resurrection, and in the future judgments, and in God’s dealing with all men in the future according to the deeds done in the body; and when a man or a woman who has entered into covenant with the Lord, who has received the Gospel and the ordinances thereof, and been true and faithful in his or her day and generation, has been called home into the spirit world, where is the man who comprehends these principles that can mourn for that brother or sister?20

Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all children who die before arriving at the years of accountability will inherit celestial glory.

There is no infant or child that has died before arriving at the years of accountability, but what is redeemed, and is therefore entirely beyond the torments of hell. … I will defy any man to find in any of the records of divine truth any ordinance instituted for the salvation of little innocent children; it would be unnecessary on the face of it, and the only thing that can be found is where Jesus took the little ones in his arms and blessed them, which is and would be perfectly right to do according to the order of God. But the sprinkling of infants or the doctrine that infants go to hell under any circumstances, is a doctrine ordained of man and not of God, and is therefore of no avail and entirely wrong and displeasing in the sight of God. So much about the infants. … They are redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.21

Children are innocent before the Lord; as to their death and the cause thereof, that is in the hands of God, and we should not complain of the Lord or his dispensations any more than Job did. … There is this consolation connected with the matter—they are innocent, they are not in transgression. They have paid the law of death which God passed on Adam and all his posterity; but when their spirits left their bodies and got into the spirit world their trouble and affliction were over. … They will come forth out of their graves in the morning of the resurrection, … clothed with glory, immortality and eternal life, in eternal beauty and bloom, and they will be given into the hands of their parents, and they will receive them in the family organization of the celestial world, and their parents will have them for ever. They will live as long as their God lives. This, to Latter-day Saints, who believe in the resurrection, should be a source of comfort and consolation.

… The question may arise with me and with you—“Why has the Lord taken away my children?” But that is not for me to tell, because I do not know; it is in the hands of the Lord, and it has been so from the creation of the world all the way down. Children are taken away in their infancy, and they go to the spirit world. They come here and fulfil the object of their coming, that is, they tabernacle in the flesh. They come to receive a probation and an inheritance on the earth; they obtain a body, or tabernacle, and that tabernacle will be preserved for them, and in the morning of the resurrection the spirits and bodies will be reunited, and as here we find children of various ages in a family, from the infant at the mother’s breast to manhood, so will it be in the family organization in the celestial world. Our children will be restored to us as they are laid down if we, their parents, keep the faith and prove ourselves worthy to obtain eternal life; and if we do not so prove ourselves our children will still be preserved, and will inherit celestial glory. This is my view in regard to all infants who die, whether they are born to Jew or Gentile, righteous or wicked. They come from their eternal father and their eternal mother unto whom they were born in the eternal world, and they will be restored to their eternal parentage; and all parents who have received children here according to the order of God and the holy priesthood, no matter in what age they may have lived, will claim those children in the morning of the resurrection, and they will be given unto them and they will grace their family organizations in the celestial world. …

… I will say to our mourning friends, your children are taken away and you cannot help it, we cannot any of us help it; there is no censure to be given to parents when they do the best they can. A mother should not be censured because she cannot save her sick child, and we have to leave these things in the hand of God. It will be but a little time until they will be restored to us. …

With regard to the growth, glory or exaltation of children in the life to come God has not revealed anything on that subject to me, either about your children, mine or anybody else’s, any further than we know they are saved. And I feel that we have to put our trust in the Lord in these afflictions, we have to lean upon his arm and to look to him for comfort and consolation. We do not mourn under these afflictions as those who have no hope; we do not mourn the loss of our children as though we were never going to see them again, because we know better. The Lord has taught us better, and so has the gospel; the revelations of Jesus Christ have shown us that they will be restored to us in the resurrection of the just. …

… I pray my Heavenly Father that he will bless Brother and Sister Wheeler [a couple whose four-year-old and six year-old sons had recently died] in their bereavement, and give them his Holy Spirit, that, when they lie down at night and rise in the morning and miss their children, they may feel to commit themselves into the hands of the Lord, and realize that their separation from their little ones is not for ever, but that in a little time they will be restored to them. This applies to us all in the loss of our children. We lay them away in the grave, but they will come forth in the morning of the resurrection, and if we are faithful to the truth, we shall receive them and rejoice with them.22

We should live in such a way that we will be prepared to receive the blessings God has in store for us when we die.

Our future destiny lies on the other side of the veil. When I die I want the privilege of going where God my Heavenly Father is, and where Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, is.23

We should try to improve our time, our talents and our opportunities while we are here upon the earth. I realize that this world is not our abiding place. We have an evidence of this every day of our lives. We are called upon to bury our prophets, apostles, elders, fathers, mothers, wives and children, all of which shows us that we have no lease of life. We should therefore improve our time to-day.24

This admonition comes home forcibly to the living, “Be ye also ready.” [Matthew 24:44.] And it applies to us all. And it is for us as parents and elders of Israel to labor in the cause of God, while we are permitted to tarry; living up to the light and knowledge that we have been blessed with. For there is a time appointed unto all men; and he takes away many according to the counsels of his own will. He takes whom he will take, and spares whom he will spare for a wise purpose in himself.25

When we have passed through the sorrows of mortality and have the joy and glory of the celestial kingdom conferred upon us we shall then know that the afflictions of mortality have prepared us for and enabled us to appreciate the blessings which God has in store for the faithful.26

That this people may repent of all their sins and wake up and have power to come before God that their prayers may be heard, be prepared to defend the kingdom and never desert their covenants and their brethren, or betray the gospel, but overcome the world and be prepared to become joint heirs with Christ to the fulness of the first resurrection which is prepared for those who keep the commandments of God, is my prayer.27

Suggestions for Study and Teaching

Consider these ideas as you study the chapter or as you prepare to teach. For additional help, see pages v–ix.

  • Review the account of Sarah Emma Woodruff’s death (pages 77, 79–80). What doctrines comforted and strengthened Elder and Sister Woodruff? What can we learn from this story?

  • According to President Woodruff, what experiences can we look forward to in the spirit world? (See pages 80–81.) How does this knowledge help you?

  • As you read President Woodruff’s counsel about mourning the deaths of loved ones, what principles do you see? (See pages 82–83.) How have you found peace when loved ones have died? How can we help others who mourn in times of death?

  • How does the Atonement of Jesus Christ take the sting out of death? (See pages 81–83; see also 1 Corinthians 15:55–57; Mosiah 16:6–9.)

  • What do you learn from President Woodruff’s teachings about little children who die? (See pages 84–86.)

  • Review page 87. Try to recall family members or friends who seemed ready when it was their time to die. What can we learn from these people? According to President Woodruff, what must we do to prepare for life after death? (See pages 86–87.)

  • How do President Woodruff’s teachings contribute to your understanding of death and resurrection?

Related Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 15; Alma 11:42–45; 28:12; 34:32–41; Moroni 8:12–19; D&C 42:45–47; 76:50–70; 138:57

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, November 8, 1839, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  2.   2.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, November 11, 1839.

  3.   3.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, November 28, 1839.

  4.   4.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, July 14, 1840.

  5.   5.

    See Journal of Wilford Woodruff, October 22, 1840.

  6.   6.

    In Journal of Wilford Woodruff, October 26, 1840.

  7.   7.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, summary of the year 1840.

  8.   8.

    Deseret Weekly, April 4, 1891, 462.

  9.   9.

    In “President Wilford Woodruff,” Millennial Star, September 22, 1898, 604.

  10.   10.

    Deseret Weekly, September 21, 1889, 394.

  11.   11.

    The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, sel. G. Homer Durham (1946), 245.

  12.   12.

    Deseret Weekly, April 4, 1891, 463.

  13.   13.

    The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 246.

  14.   14.

    The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 244.

  15.   15.

    Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, January 17, 1882, 1.

  16.   16.

    Deseret Weekly, February 24, 1894, 288.

  17.   17.

    Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, December 28, 1875, 1.

  18.   18.

    Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, July 20, 1875, 1.

  19.   19.

    The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 247.

  20.   20.

    Deseret Weekly, April 4, 1891, 462.

  21.   21.

    The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 232–33.

  22.   22.

    Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, July 20, 1875, 1.

  23.   23.

    Deseret Weekly, April 6, 1889, 451.

  24.   24.

    Millennial Star, November 21, 1887, 742.

  25.   25.

    The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 246.

  26.   26.

    Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, July 20, 1875, 1.

  27.   27.

    Deseret News, December 31, 1856, 340.