The Life and Ministry of Wilford Woodruff

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, (2011), xv–xxxvii


“God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.”1 So begins President Wilford Woodruff’s favorite hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

“He loved [that hymn],” remarked President Heber J. Grant, who served as an Apostle when Wilford Woodruff was President of the Church. “We sang it, I am sure, sometimes twice a month in our weekly meetings in the Temple, and very seldom did a month pass by when that song was not called for by Brother Woodruff. He believed in this work with all his heart and soul, and labored with all the power that God gave him for its advancement.”2

Matthias F. Cowley, who also served with President Woodruff, observed: “Perhaps no man in the Church ever felt more profoundly the truth of the words, ‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform,’ than Wilford Woodruff. He was so intensely spiritual, so completely devoted to the service of God, that all through his life the miraculous manifestations of God’s purposes were abundantly given. He had never based his faith upon miracles, they merely confirmed what he believed with all his heart and supported his ideas of the teachings of Holy Writ.”3

As President Grant and Brother Cowley observed, President Woodruff’s favorite hymn was a fitting theme for his life. It was also descriptive of the progress he witnessed in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The hymn continues:

Ye fearful Saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev’ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his works in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.4

Wilford Woodruff was a prominent participant in many defining events of early Church history, and he became familiar with clouds of adversity that eventually led to blessings for the faithful. He tasted the bitterness of persecution and suffering, but through it all he also partook of the sweetness of being led by the hand of God. And as he saw the Restoration of the gospel unfold, he gained a clear understanding of God’s work.

Wilford Woodruff’s Childhood and Youth: A Solid Foundation Laid in the Home

Wilford Woodruff was born on March 1, 1807, in Farmington, Connecticut, to Aphek Woodruff and Beulah Thompson Woodruff. When he was 15 months old, his mother died of spotted fever. About three years later, Aphek remarried. Wilford and his two older brothers were raised by their father and by their stepmother, Azubah Hart Woodruff. Aphek and Azubah had six more children together, four of whom died in their infancy or childhood.

Wilford Woodruff’s writings show that he grew up much like other boys of his time. He went to school and worked on the family farm. He also worked in his father’s sawmill when he was very young, gaining experience that would help him as an adult when he operated a mill himself. One of his favorite pastimes was fishing, and he and his brothers often fished for trout in the stream that ran by their father’s mill.

He loved his family and had profound respect for his parents. With admiration and gratitude, he described his father as a robust man who always did “a great amount of labor” and who was “a man of great charity, honesty, integrity and truth.”5 He also recalled how his stepmother’s gospel teachings helped lead him to seek the Lord’s true Church.6

Even as he grew older, many of his greatest joys in life were linked to his parents and siblings. He joined the Church on the same day as his brother Azmon. He rejoiced when he was able to teach and baptize his father and stepmother and their household. Later in his life he ensured that temple work was done for his mother, a privilege that he said was enough to pay him for all the labors of his life.7

“The Protection and Mercy of God”

Looking back on his childhood and youth, Wilford Woodruff acknowledged the hand of the Lord in preserving his life many times. In an article titled “Chapter of Accidents,” he described some of the accidents he had suffered, marveling that he had lived to tell about them. For example, he told of an adventure he had on the family farm: “When six years of age, I came near being killed by a surly bull. My father and I were feeding pumpkins to the cattle, [and] a surly bull drove my cow away from the one she was eating. I took the pumpkin he had left, upon which he pitched at me. My father told me to throw down the pumpkin and run. I ran down a steep hill, and took the pumpkin with me, being determined that the cow should have her rights. The bull pursued. As he was about to overtake me, I stepped into a post hole and fell; the bull leaped over me, after the pumpkin, and tore it to pieces with his horns, and would have served me in the same way, had I not fallen.”8

He also told of an accident he had when he was 17 years old: “I was riding a very ill-tempered horse that I was not acquainted with; and while going down a very steep rocky hill, the horse taking advantage of the ground, suddenly leaped from the road, and ran down the steep, amid the rocks, at full speed, and commenced kicking up, and attempted to throw me over his head upon the rocks; but I lodged upon the top of his head, grasped hold of each ear as with a death grip, expecting every moment to be dashed to pieces against the rocks. While in this position, sitting astride of his neck, with no bridle to guide him but his ears, he plunged down the hill under full speed, until he ran against a rock, and was dashed to the ground. I went over both his head and the rocks, about one rod [about five meters or five and one-half yards], and struck the ground square on my feet, being the only thing visible that saved my life; for, had I struck upon any other part of my body, it must have killed me instantly; as it was, my bones crushed from under me as though they were reeds. It broke my left leg in two places, and put out both my ankles in a shocking manner, and the horse came near rolling over me in his struggles to get up. My uncle, Titus Woodruff, saw me fall, got assistance, and carried me to his house. I lay from 2 p.m. till 10, without medical aid; then my father arrived, bringing Dr. Swift, of Farmington, with him, who set my bones, boxed up my limbs, and carried me in his carriage eight miles that night to my father’s. My sufferings were very great. I had good attention, however, and in eight weeks I was out-doors upon my crutches.”9

Wilford Woodruff’s life continued to be preserved, despite frequent accidents even in his adulthood. At the age of 41, he gave a summary of the mishaps he had experienced, expressing gratitude for the preserving hand of the Lord:

“I have broken both legs—one in two places—both arms, my breast bone and three ribs, and had both ankles dislocated. I have been drowned, frozen, scalded and bit by a mad dog—have been in two water wheels under full head of water—have passed through several severe fits of sickness, and encountered poison in its worst forms—have landed in a pile of railroad ruins—have barely been missed by the passing bullets, and have passed through a score of other hair-breadth escapes.

“It has appeared miraculous to me, that with all the injuries and broken bones which I have had, I have not a lame limb, but have been enabled to endure the hardest labor, exposures and journeys—have often walked forty, fifty, and on one occasion, sixty miles in a day. The protection and mercy of God has been over me, and my life thus far has been preserved; for which blessings I feel to render the gratitude of my heart to my Heavenly Father, praying that the remainder of my days may be spent in His service and in the building up of His kingdom.”10

Seeking and Finding the Lord’s True Church

Wilford Woodruff was in his youth when he first desired to serve the Lord and learn of Him. He said, “At an early age my mind was exercised upon religious subjects.”11 However, he chose not to join any church. Instead he was determined to find the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Inspired by the teachings of his parents and other friends and by the whisperings of the Spirit, he became convinced “that the Church of Christ was in the wilderness—that there had been a falling away from pure and undefiled religion before God and that a great change was at hand.”12 He was particularly motivated by the teachings of a man named Robert Mason, who prophesied that Wilford would live to taste the fruit of the restored gospel (see pages 1–3 in this book).

Years later, believing that other Latter-day Saints could benefit from his personal experiences,13 President Wilford Woodruff often told the story of his search for the truth. He recounted:

“I could not find any denomination whose doctrines, faith or practice, agreed with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or the ordinances and gifts which the Apostles taught. Although the ministers of the day taught that the faith, gifts, graces, miracles and ordinances, which the ancient Saints enjoyed, were done away and no longer needed, I did not believe it to be true, only as they were done away through the unbelief of the children of men. I believed the same gifts, graces, miracles and power would be manifest in one age of the world as in another, when God had a Church upon the earth, and that the Church of God would be re-established upon the earth, and that I should live to see it. These principles were riveted upon my mind from the perusal of the Old and New Testament, with fervent prayer that the Lord would show me what was right and wrong, and lead me in the path of salvation, without any regard to the opinions of man; and the whisperings of the Spirit of the Lord for the space of three years taught me that he was about to set up his Church and kingdom upon the earth in the last days.”14

“My soul was drawn out upon these things,” he said. “In my early manhood I prayed day and night that I might live to see a prophet. I would have gone a thousand miles to have seen a prophet, or a man that could teach me the things that I read of in the Bible. I could not join any church, because I could not find any church at that time that advocated these principles. I spent many a midnight hour, by the river side, in the mountains, and in my mill … calling upon God that I might live to see a prophet or some man that would teach me of the things of the kingdom of God as I read them.”15

Wilford Woodruff’s search ended when he was 26 years old. On December 29, 1833, he heard a sermon preached by Elder Zera Pulsipher, a Latter-day Saint missionary. In his journal he described his response to Elder Pulsipher’s sermon:

“He commenced the meeting with some introductory remarks and then prayed. I felt the Spirit of God to bear witness that he was the servant of God. He then commenced preaching, and that too as with authority, and when he had finished his discourse I truly felt that it was the first gospel sermon that I had ever heard. I thought it was what I had long been looking for. I could not feel it my duty to leave the house without bearing witness to the truth before the people. I opened my eyes to see, my ears to hear, my heart to understand, and my doors to entertain him who had administered unto us.”16

Wilford Woodruff invited Elder Pulsipher and his companion, Elijah Cheney, to stay in the Woodruff home. Two days later, having spent some time reading the Book of Mormon and meeting with the missionaries, Brother Woodruff was baptized and confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From that day his life changed. Having found the truth, he dedicated himself to bringing it to others.

“A Desire to Go and Preach the Gospel”

Determined to keep the covenants he made at baptism, Wilford Woodruff was a willing instrument in the Lord’s hands, always ready to do His will. In late 1834 he “had a desire to go and preach the Gospel,”17 and he received a call to serve in the southeastern United States. He knew that trials awaited him and that his life could be in danger as he traveled, but he found strength in his testimony and faith. He later recalled: “I knew the Gospel which the Lord had revealed to Joseph Smith was true, and of such great value that I wanted to tell it to the people who had not heard it. It was so good and plain, it seemed to me I could make the people believe it.”18

When Wilford Woodruff began his first mission, he was a recently ordained priest in the Aaronic Priesthood. His companion, who had been ordained an elder, stayed with him through the early trials of the mission but soon became discouraged and returned to his home in Kirtland, Ohio. Left alone in an unfamiliar land, Wilford prayed for help and continued his missionary labors, wading through swamps and wetlands. He finally arrived in the city of Memphis, Tennessee, “weary and hungry.”19 In his first missionary experience there, he spoke to a large audience. He recounted:

“I went to the best tavern [or inn] in the place, kept by Mr. Josiah Jackson. I told him I was a stranger, and had no money. I asked him if he would keep me over night. He asked me what my business was. I told him I was a preacher of the Gospel. He laughed, and said that I did not look much like a preacher. I did not blame him, as all the preachers he had ever been acquainted with rode on fine horses or in fine carriages, clothed in broadcloth, and had large salaries, and would see this whole world sink to perdition before they could wade through one hundred and seventy miles of mud to save the people.

“The landlord wanted a little fun, so he said he would keep me if I would preach. He wanted to see if I could preach. I must confess that by this time I became a little mischievous, and pled with him not to set me preaching. The more I pled to be excused, the more determined Mr. Jackson was that I should preach. …

“I sat down in a large hall to eat supper. Before I got through, the room began to be filled by some of the rich and fashionable of Memphis, dressed in their broadcloth and silk, while my appearance was such as you can imagine, after traveling through the mud as I had been. When I had finished eating, the table was carried out of the room over the heads of the people. I was placed in the corner of the room, with a stand having a Bible, hymn book and candle on it, hemmed in by a dozen men, with the landlord in the center. There were present some five hundred persons who had come together, not to hear a Gospel sermon but to have some fun. … How would you like this position? On your first mission, without a companion or friend, and to be called upon to preach to such a congregation? With me it was one of the most pleasing hours of my life, although I felt as though I should like company.

“I read a hymn, and asked them to sing. Not a soul would sing a word. I told them I had not the gift of singing; but with the help of the Lord, I would both pray and preach. I knelt down to pray, and the men around me dropped on their knees. I prayed to the Lord to give me his Spirit and to show me the hearts of the people. I promised the Lord in my prayer I would deliver to that congregation whatever He would give to me. I arose and spoke one hour and a half, and it was one of the best sermons of my life.

“The lives of the congregation were opened to the vision of my mind, and I told them of their wicked deeds and the reward they would obtain. The men who surrounded me dropped their heads. Three minutes after I closed I was the only person in the room.

“Soon I was shown to a bed, in a room adjoining a large one in which were assembled many of the men whom I had been preaching to. I could hear their conversation. One man said he would like to know how that Mormon boy knew of their past lives. In a little while they got to disputing about some doctrinal point. One suggested calling me to decide the point. The landlord said, ‘no; we have had enough for once.’

“In the morning, I had a good breakfast. The landlord said if I came that way again to stop at his house, and stay as long as I might choose.”20

In November 1836, Wilford Woodruff completed his mission in the southeastern United States. He recorded in his journal that in 1835 and 1836 he had traveled 9,805 miles, held 323 meetings, organized 4 branches of the Church, baptized 70 people and confirmed 62, performed 11 priesthood ordinations, and healed 4 people by the laying on of hands and that he had been delivered from the hands of 6 different mobs.21 He was ordained an elder in June 1835 and a Seventy in May 1836.

When Elder Woodruff returned to Kirtland, he found that many Church members there had fallen into apostasy and were speaking against the Prophet Joseph Smith. “In the time of the apostasy in Kirtland,” he later said, “Joseph Smith hardly knew when he met a man, unless the Spirit of God revealed it to him, whether he was friend or foe. Most of the leading men were fighting him.”22

Even “in the midst of that darkness,”23 Wilford Woodruff remained true to the Prophet and true to his own determination to preach the gospel. He was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy, and in that capacity he continued to testify of the truth, traveling to conferences in the area. After he had been in Kirtland for less than a year, he followed a prompting to serve a full-time mission on the Fox Islands, just off the coast of the state of Maine. He said:

“The Spirit of God said to me, ‘You choose a partner and go straight to Fox Islands.’ Well, I knew no more what was on Fox Islands than what was on Kolob. But the Lord told me to go, and I went. I chose Jonathan H. Hale, and he went with me. We cast out some devils there, preached the Gospel and performed some miracles. … I got to Fox Islands, and did a good work there.”24 When Elder Woodruff arrived at the Fox Islands, he found “a people there wishing for the ancient order of things.” He later reported, “Without dwelling upon it, I will say I baptized over 100 while there.”25

Continuing Missionary Service as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ

While Elder Woodruff was serving a mission on the Fox Islands in 1838, he received a calling that expanded his missionary service for the rest of his life. “On the 9th of August, I received a letter,” he said, “from Thomas B. Marsh, who was then President of the Twelve Apostles, informing me that Joseph Smith, the Prophet, had received a revelation, naming as persons to be chosen to fill the places of those who had fallen: John E. Page, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Willard Richards.

“President Marsh added, in his letter, ‘Know then, Brother Woodruff, by this, that you are appointed to fill the place of one of the Twelve Apostles, and that it is agreeable to the word of the Lord, given very lately, that you should come speedily to Far West, and on the 26th of April next, take your leave of the Saints here and depart for other climes across the mighty deep.’”

President Woodruff later commented, “The substance of this letter had been revealed to me several weeks before, but I had not named it to any person.”26

The instruction to “depart for other climes across the mighty deep” referred to the Lord’s command that the Twelve serve missions in Great Britain. Soon after being ordained an Apostle on April 26, 1839, Elder Wilford Woodruff departed for Great Britain as one of the “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world” (D&C 107:23).

Wilford Woodruff arriving in England

In 1839, Elder Wilford Woodruff (foreground), Elder Brigham Young (background), and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles left their homes to preach the gospel in England.

Elder Woodruff would later serve other missions in the United States and in Great Britain. He became known as one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Church. This book contains many accounts from his missionary experiences.

Helping the Saints Gather Together

Today Latter-day Saints are encouraged to build up the kingdom of God in the areas where they live, thus strengthening the Church worldwide. In the early days of the Church, Latter-day Saint missionaries encouraged new converts to emigrate to the headquarters of the Church, whether that was in Kirtland, Ohio, or Jackson County, Missouri, or Nauvoo, Illinois, or Salt Lake City, Utah.

Wilford Woodruff home in Nauvoo

Elder Wilford Woodruff and his family lived in this home in Nauvoo, Illinois

About two years after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Saints were forced to leave their homes in Nauvoo, establishing a temporary settlement in Winter Quarters, Nebraska. Elder Woodruff, who had been serving a mission in England, returned to the main body of the Church. Departing from Winter Quarters, he helped lead the Saints on their most well-known emigration: their journey across the plains and mountains of the United States to their promised land in the Salt Lake Valley. As part of the first company of pioneers, he transported President Brigham Young, who was ill, the last part of the journey. Elder Woodruff was present when President Young rose from his bed in the wagon, surveyed the land before them, and proclaimed: “It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.”27

Elder Woodruff continued to help the Saints gather to their promised land. On one of his missions, he and his family spent two and one-half years in Canada and the northeastern United States, helping Church members emigrate to the Salt Lake Valley. He was with the last group of these Saints when he had the following experience, showing his sensitivity to the promptings of the Spirit:

“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.’ I was just about to tell him we wanted to go aboard when that 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 myself, with the rest of the company.”28

Service in the Salt Lake Valley

After the Saints settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Elder Woodruff’s duties changed. He was no longer sent abroad on full-time missions. Instead his activities included helping more Saints emigrate to Church headquarters, meeting with those who visited the area, serving as a legislator, working to irrigate and cultivate the land, and developing crops and farming methods. He frequently visited settlements of Latter-day Saints in Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, preaching the gospel and encouraging the Saints in their duties.

Wilford Woodruff served as Assistant Church Historian from 1856 to 1883 and as Church Historian from 1883 to 1889, a period spanning the majority of his service in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Although this responsibility required a great deal of time, he considered it a privilege, believing that “the history of this Church will remain through time and in eternity.”29 His service as a historian was a continuation of a work he had done since 1835, when he began keeping a journal—a personal record of his life and of the history of the Church (see pages 125–27).

In his continuing efforts to strengthen the Church, serve in the community, and provide for his family, Wilford Woodruff followed principles he had learned from his hardworking father. Elder Franklin D. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that Elder Woodruff was “noted for his activity, industry and physical endurance. Though not a large man, he was able to perform labors that would have prostrated men of ordinary physique.”30

Elder Woodruff’s journal is full of entries recording long days of hard work. He once told of a time when, at age 67, he climbed a 12-foot ladder with his son Asahel to gather peaches from a peach tree. Asahel started to lose his balance. In trying to save Asahel, Elder Woodruff himself fell. He wrote: “I fell under the ladder about 10 feet to the ground and struck on my right shoulder and hip and hurt me very much. It did not hurt Asahel much. I was very sore and lame all night.”31 The next day he recorded, “I was very sore and lame today, yet I went to the field and returned home in the evening.”32 Commenting on this occurrence, Matthias Cowley said: “One naturally wonders what a man at his time of life was doing up a tree. In the first place, with Elder Woodruff it was never a question of age when he saw something he thought ought to be done, provided it was possible for him to do it. He was everywhere. … He was ready for any emergency at any time. If he saw a limb in the top of an apple tree that should be sawed off, the thought barely took possession of him before he was in the top of the tree, and it was always hard for him to ask anybody else to do a thing that he could do himself.”33

Temple Building and Temple Work

Whenever the Saints stayed for an extended period of time in a central location, they built a temple. They followed this pattern in Kirtland, in Nauvoo, and finally in Salt Lake City. In doing so, they were true to a revelation from the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith—a revelation that Elder Woodruff recorded in his journal:

“What was the object of gathering the Jews together, or the people of God in any age of the world? The main object was to build unto the Lord an house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and glories of His kingdom and teach the people the ways of salvation. For there are certain ordinances and principles that when they are taught and practiced, must be done in a place or house built for that purpose. This was purposed in the mind of God before the world was, and it was for this purpose that God designed to gather together the Jews oft, but they would not. It is for the same purpose that God gathers together the people in the last days—to build unto the Lord an house to prepare them for the ordinances and endowments, washings and anointings, etc.”34

Elder Woodruff frequently exhorted his fellow Saints to partake of the blessings available in the temple. He said: “I consider that the building of temples is one of the important things required by the Lord of the Latter-day Saints in the dispensation of the fulness of times, that we may go into those temples and not only redeem the living but redeem our dead.”35 With characteristic diligence, he set an example of temple work, ensuring that the work be done for thousands of his ancestors.

Like many other prophets of his day, Elder Woodruff prophesied that the time would come when there would be temples all over the world.36 He rejoiced in the opportunity to see that prophecy begin to be fulfilled, as four temples were built and dedicated in the Utah Territory during the first 46 years after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley—in the cities of St. George, Logan, Manti, and Salt Lake City.

Manti Temple

The Manti Utah Temple, dedicated by President Wilford Woodruff in 1888.

President Woodruff offered the dedicatory prayers for the temples in Manti and Salt Lake City. In a message to all members of the Church, he and his counselors in the First Presidency testified of blessings that come to those who attend temple dedications in a spirit of sincere worship: “The sweet whisperings of the Holy Spirit will be given to them and the treasures of Heaven, the communion of angels, will be added from time to time, for [the Lord’s] promise has gone forth and it cannot fail!”37 He wrote of one such experience, which he had at the dedication of the Logan Temple:

“While attending the dedication of this temple, the reflection came upon me of the many hours I had spent in prayer in my early manhood in calling upon God to permit me to live in the earth to see the Church of Christ established and a people raised up who would receive the ancient gospel and contend for the faith once delivered to the Saints. The Lord promised me that I should live to find the people of God and have a name and a place … within his house, a name better than of sons or of daughters, a name that should not be cut off. And I today rejoice in having a name with his people and assist in the dedication of another temple to his most holy name. Praise be unto God and the Lamb forever.”38

Wilford Woodruff’s Service as President of the Church

When President John Taylor died on July 25, 1887, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became the Church’s governing body, with President Woodruff as the presiding officer. Feeling the burden of leading the entire Church, President Woodruff recorded the following thoughts in his journal: “This places me in a very peculiar situation, a position I have never looked for during my life. But in the providence of God it is laid upon me, and I pray God my Heavenly Father to give me grace equal to my day. It is a high and responsible position for any man to occupy and a position that needs great wisdom. I never expected to outlive President Taylor. … But it has come to pass. … I can only say, Marvelous are thy ways, O Lord God Almighty, for thou hast certainly chosen the weak things of this world to perform thy work on the earth. May thy servant Wilford be prepared for whatever awaits him on earth and have power to perform whatever is required at his hands by the God of Heaven. I ask this blessing of my Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.”39 President Woodruff was sustained as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 7, 1889. He was the fourth President of the Church in this dispensation.

The First Presidency in 1893

President Wilford Woodruff, center, with his counselors in the First Presidency: Presidents George Q. Cannon, left, and Joseph F. Smith, right.

Testifying of the Lord’s Latter-day Work

In his messages to the members of the Church, President Woodruff repeatedly testified of the Restoration of the gospel, just as he had done throughout his ministry. However, he bore testimony with increased urgency during those last nine years of his life. He was the last living man to have served as an Apostle with Joseph Smith, and he felt a pressing need to leave a clear and abiding testimony of the Prophet of the Restoration. About a year before he died, he said:

“There are many things I do not understand, and one is why I am here at my present age. I do not understand why I have been preserved as long as I have been when so many Apostles and Prophets have been called home. … I am the only man living in the flesh that received endowments under the hands of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I am the only man in the flesh that was with the Twelve Apostles when he turned over the kingdom of God to them and laid upon them the commandment to bear off this kingdom. He stood for some three hours in a room delivering to us his last lecture. The room was filled as with consuming fire. His face was as clear as amber; his words were like vivid lightning to us. They penetrated every part of our bodies from the crown of our head to the soles of our feet. He said, ‘Brethren, the Lord Almighty has sealed upon my head every Priesthood, every key, every power, every principle that belongs to the last dispensation of the fulness of times, and to the building up of the kingdom of God. I have sealed upon your heads all those principles, Priesthood, apostleship, and keys of the kingdom of God, and now you have got to round up your shoulders and bear off this kingdom or you will be damned.’ I do not forget those words—I never shall while I live. That was the last speech he ever made in the flesh. Soon afterward he was martyred and called home to glory.”40

As President of the Church, President Woodruff urged the Saints to seek and follow the guidance of the Holy Ghost, be true to their covenants, preach the gospel at home and abroad, be honest in their temporal responsibilities, and be diligent in temple and family history work. His counsel echoed a statement he had made when he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve: “However good we may be we should aim continually to improve and become better. We have obeyed a different law and gospel to what other people have obeyed, and we have a different kingdom in view, and our aim should be correspondingly higher before the Lord our God, and we should govern and control ourselves accordingly, and I pray God my Heavenly Father that his Spirit may rest upon us and enable us to do so.”41

Issuing the Manifesto

Strengthened by the Lord’s guiding hand, President Woodruff led the Latter-day Saints through one of the most turbulent times in this dispensation. In the late 1880s the Church continued to practice plural marriage in obedience to the Lord’s command to the Prophet Joseph Smith. However, the United States government had recently passed laws against the practice, with severe penalties for the violation of those laws, including confiscation of Church property and denial of Church members’ basic civil rights, such as the right to vote. These developments also opened legal channels for the prosecution of Latter-day Saints who were practicing plural marriage. The Church made legal appeals, but to no avail.

These circumstances weighed heavily on President Woodruff. He sought the will of the Lord on the matter and eventually received a revelation that Latter-day Saints should cease the practice of entering into plural marriage. Obeying the Lord’s command, he issued what came to be known as the Manifesto—an inspired statement that remains the basis of the Church’s stance on the subject of plural marriage. In this public declaration, dated September 24, 1890, he stated his intention to submit to the laws of the land. He also testified that the Church had ceased teaching the practice of plural marriage.42 On October 6, 1890, in a session of general conference, the Latter-day Saints sustained their prophet’s declaration, unanimously supporting a statement that he was “fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the Manifesto.”43

Reaffirming the Eternal Nature of the Family

About three months before the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred, he delivered a discourse to a large assembly of Saints. Elder Wilford Woodruff, who recorded a synopsis of the discourse, said that the Prophet spoke on “one of the most important and interesting subjects ever presented to the Saints.”44 As part of this sermon, the Prophet testified of the eternal nature of families. He spoke of the need to be sealed to our parents and to continue that sealing ordinance throughout our generations:

“This is the spirit of Elijah, that we redeem our dead and connect ourselves with our fathers which are in heaven and seal up our dead to come forth in the first resurrection, and here we want the power of Elijah to seal those who dwell on earth to those which dwell in heaven. … Go and seal on earth your sons and daughters unto yourself and yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory.”45

For the next few decades, the Latter-day Saints knew that there was to be “a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children” (D&C 128:18). However, their procedures were not completely set in order; as President Woodruff observed, the Prophet Joseph had not lived long enough to “enter any further upon these things.”46 Acting according to “all the light and knowledge [they] had,”47 they often had themselves sealed, or “adopted,” to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, or other Church leaders of their day rather than to their own fathers and mothers. As President of the Church, President Woodruff referred to this practice, saying: “We have not fully carried out those principles in fulfillment of the revelations of God to us, in sealing the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. I have not felt satisfied, neither did President [John] Taylor, neither has any man since the Prophet Joseph who has attended to the ordinance of adoption in the temples of our God. We have felt that there was more to be revealed upon this subject than we had received.”48

That additional revelation came to President Woodruff on April 5, 1894.49 Three days later, in a general conference address, he told of the revelation: “When I went before the Lord to know who I should be adopted to … , the Spirit of God said to me, ‘Have you not a father, who begot you?’ ‘Yes, I have.’ ‘Then why not honor him? Why not be adopted to him?’ ‘Yes,’ says I, ‘that is right.’ I was adopted to my father, and should have had my father sealed to his father, and so on back; and the duty that I want every man who presides over a temple to see performed from this day henceforth and forever, unless the Lord Almighty commands otherwise, is, let every man be adopted to his father. … That is the will of God to this people. I want all men who preside over these temples in these mountains of Israel to bear this in mind. What business have I to take away the rights of the lineage of any man? What right has any man to do this? No; I say let every man be adopted to his father; and then you will do exactly what God said when he declared He would send Elijah the prophet in the last days [see Malachi 4:5–6]. …

“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. …

“Brethren and sisters, lay these things to heart. Let us go on with our records, fill them up righteously before the Lord, and carry out this principle, and the blessings of God will attend us, and those who are redeemed will bless us in days to come. I pray God that as a people our eyes may be opened to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to understand the great and mighty work that rests upon our shoulders, and that the God of heaven requires at our hands.”50

“We Ever Pray for Thee”

On March 1, 1897, Latter-day Saints filled the Salt Lake Tabernacle to celebrate President Wilford Woodruff’s 90th birthday. There they heard a new hymn: “We Ever Pray for Thee.” Evan Stephens had adapted the music of an existing hymn and had written new words to pay tribute to the Church’s beloved prophet:

We ever pray for thee, our prophet dear,
That God will give to thee comfort and cheer;
As the advancing years furrow thy brow,
Still may the light within shine bright as now,
Still may the light within shine bright as now.
We ever pray for thee with all our hearts,
That strength be given thee to do thy part,
To guide and counsel us from day to day,
To shed a holy light around our way,
To shed a holy light around our way.
We ever pray for thee with fervent love;
And as the children’s prayer is heard above,
Thou shalt be ever blest, and God will give
All that is meet and best while thou shalt live,
All that is meet and best while thou shalt live.51

Eighteen months later, on September 2, 1898, President Wilford Woodruff passed away, finally joining his fellow Saints who had preceded him in death. At his funeral, which was held in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, a “spirit of peace … brooded over the entire arrangements, and pervaded the assembly and remained to soothe the feelings of all.” The interior of the Tabernacle was “artistically draped in white,” with “profuse and magnificent” floral arrangements and sheaves of wheat and oats. “On each side of the organ were the figures 1847 and large bunches of sagebrush and sunflowers [and] tops of pine trees,” recalling the pioneers’ entrance into the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. Above a large portrait of President Woodruff, the declaration “Being dead yet speaketh” was illuminated, in tribute to a prophet of God whose teachings and example would continue to inspire the Latter-day Saints in their efforts to help build up the kingdom of God.52

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Hymns, no. 285; text by William Cowper.

  2.   2.

    In Conference Report, April 1937, 11.

  3.   3.

    Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors As Recorded in His Daily Journals (1964), 37.

  4.   4.

    Hymns, no. 285.

  5.   5.

    “History of Wilford Woodruff (From His Own Pen),” Millennial Star, March 18, 1865, 167–68.

  6.   6.

    See Journal of Wilford Woodruff, preface to 1838, Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  7.   7.

    See Deseret Weekly, February 24, 1894, 288.

  8.   8.

    “History of Wilford Woodruff (From His Own Pen): Chapter of Accidents,” Millennial Star, June 10, 1865, 359–60; from a document Elder Woodruff wrote in 1858.

  9.   9.

    “History of Wilford Woodruff (From His Own Pen): Chapter of Accidents,” Millennial Star, June 17, 1865, 374–75.

  10.   10.

    “History of Wilford Woodruff (From His Own Pen): Chapter of Accidents,” Millennial Star, June 24, 1865, 392.

  11.   11.

    “History of Wilford Woodruff (From His Own Pen),” Millennial Star, March 25, 1865, 182.

  12.   12.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, preface to 1838.

  13.   13.

    See Deseret Weekly, September 5, 1891, 323.

  14.   14.

    Millennial Star, March 25, 1865, 182.

  15.   15.

    Millennial Star, November 21, 1895, 741.

  16.   16.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, introduction.

  17.   17.

    “Leaves from My Journal,” Millennial Star, May 30, 1881, 342.

  18.   18.

    Millennial Star, May 30, 1881, 342.

  19.   19.

    “Leaves from My Journal,” Millennial Star, June 20, 1881, 391.

  20.   20.

    Millennial Star, June 20, 1881, 391.

  21.   21.

    See Journal of Wilford Woodruff, summaries of 1835 and 1836.

  22.   22.

    Deseret Weekly, November 7, 1896, 643.

  23.   23.

    Deseret Weekly, November 7, 1896, 643.

  24.   24.

    Deseret Weekly, November 7, 1896, 643.

  25.   25.

    In Conference Report, October 1897, 46.

  26.   26.

    “Leaves from My Journal,” Millennial Star, September 26, 1881, 621.

  27.   27.

    Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, July 27, 1880, 2.

  28.   28.

    In Conference Report, April 1898, 30.

  29.   29.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, September 6, 1856.

  30.   30.

    “Wilford Woodruff,” Improvement Era, October 1898, 865.

  31.   31.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, September 7, 1874.

  32.   32.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, September 8, 1874.

  33.   33.

    Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors, 484.

  34.   34.

    Quoted by Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Wilford Woodruff, June 11, 1843.

  35.   35.

    Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, May 2, 1876, 4.

  36.   36.

    See Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, March 26, 1878, 1.

  37.   37.

    “Address from the First Presidency,” Millennial Star, April 10, 1893, 246.

  38.   38.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, May 17, 1884.

  39.   39.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, July 25, 1887.

  40.   40.

    Deseret Weekly, September 4, 1897, 356.

  41.   41.

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

  42.   42.

    See Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1.

  43.   43.

    Lorenzo Snow, in text accompanying Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1.

  44.   44.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, March 10, 1844.

  45.   45.

    Quoted by Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Wilford Woodruff, March 10, 1844.

  46.   46.

    “Discourse by President Wilford Woodruff,” Millennial Star, May 28, 1894, 338.

  47.   47.

    Millennial Star, May 28, 1894, 337.

  48.   48.

    Millennial Star, May 28, 1894, 337.

  49.   49.

    See Journal of Wilford Woodruff, April 5, 1894.

  50.   50.

    Millennial Star, May 28, 1894, 338, 339, 341.

  51.   51.

    Hymns, no. 23.

  52.   52.

    See “In Memoriam: President Wilford Woodruff,” Woman’s Exponent, September 15, 1898, 44–45.