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 obedient heart 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 took the reins of the kingdom during a very difficult time.

At the time of President Taylor’s death, Wilford Woodruff was in hiding because of friction between the Church and the 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 Idaho had even lost their right to vote as a result of the passing of the “Idaho Test Oath.”

These were only some of the conditions that Elder Woodruff faced when he became president of the Church. He was guiding the affairs of the Church, yet during this period he could not even come out of hiding long enough to address his beloved people in general conference. Though at all times he was directing the kingdom, of necessity he needed to rely heavily on the Lord in caring for the Saints, and by this time in his life, he was greatly and ably prepared to do so.

Wilford Woodruff learned to trust deeply in the power of the Lord early in life. According to his own record, he underwent many accidents and other hardships and was only spared 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 both his arms by falls; he narrowly missed being gored by a bull; he broke his leg by a fall from a carriage; 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 fiat on his back; he was saved from drowning in thirty feet of water; 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. 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 two other occasions he was dragged behind a runaway horse; a gun aimed directly at his chest snapped accidentally but fortunately misfired; 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 early recognized 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 always 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.”

His constant search for guidance led him often to the Lord in prayer so that 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 to 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 December 31, 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.”

Soon after this he went to Kirtland where he met the Prophet Joseph Smith.

From Kirtland he marched with other new members to Zions’ 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 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.”

Soon after young Wilford got to Zions’ Camp, he began his great missionary career by serving as a missionary in Arkansas, Tennessee, Canada, and New England, where he often experienced the guidance of the Spirit. At the time of his departure from the mission field 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 Pittsburg 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.

Many Church members think of Wilford Woodruff as a great missionary. Heber J. Grant said of him, “Perhaps he [Wilford Woodruff] was the greatest converter of men we have ever had in the Church.” Though he had already been on two missions, his most famous mission was to England, and it began in 1839.

On his thirty-third birthday Wilford Woodruff was preaching in the town of Hanley in England. He was extremely successful in that location, and so he was surprised when the Lord directed him to leave and 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 fullness of the gospel.

From this group alone Elder Woodruff baptized 45 preachers and 160 members of the congregation. One of the policemen sent to arrest this dynamic missionary for preaching the gospel joined the Church himself after listening to Elder Woodruff 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—in 1840—brought 336 people into the Church in one year. 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.

After this mission he 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.

Picked at random, 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 by that same still small voice. In the time of the great apostacy 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 then what was in Kolob. I went there, however, baptized a hundred. …”

—Once when 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, the darkness returned and the rain continued.”

—Another time, after he had parked his carriage for the night and had retired in it, “a voice said to me, ‘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, 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 his time as president in exile he taught the gospel to the Indians in the Southwest. 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. He was one of the first to experiment with artificial flies in fishing in the western United States.

Though he was able to come out of exile for a short time, he had to go back into hiding as the persecution reached its height against the Saints. 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 September 25, 1890, President Woodruff announced to the world in the famous Manifesto that it was the will of the Lord that plural marriage be suspended.

Toward the end of his administration, as the hostility of the government faded, he dedicated the Salt Lake Temple and lived to see statehood come to Utah. This meant the Saints could choose their own local civic leaders.

President Woodruff died at age ninety-one in San Francisco. 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. If there is any one thing to learn from his life, it is the eternal equation that great faith plus great zeal equals great experiences.

This applies to each of us—in receiving answers to our prayers as well as in having wonderful experiences in all that we do in the Church. 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.

Are you willing to do it?

Wilford Woodruff Highlights (1807–1898)

 

Age

 

Mar. 1, 1807

Born in Farmington, Connecticut

1821

14

Works as miller

1833

26

Baptized

1834–36

27–29

Serves mission to Southern States

1837

30

Marries Phoebe Carter

1837–38

30–31

Serves mission to Eastern States and Fox Islands

1839

32

Ordained apostle

1839–41

32–34

Serves mission to Great Britain

1842

35

Business manager, Times and Seasons

1844–46

37–39

President of European Mission

1848–50

41–43

Presides over Church in Eastern States

1856

49

Appointed Church historian

1877

70

Becomes president, St. George Temple

1879

72

While in exile, does missionary work among Indians

1887

80

Becomes leader of Church as president of Council of the Twelve

1888

81

Dedicates Manti Temple in private services

1889

82

Sustained president of Church

1890

83

Issues Manifesto stopping plural marriage

1893

86

Dedicates Salt Lake Temple

1896

89

Fast day is changed from first Thursday of month to first Sunday

Sept. 2, 1898

91

Dies in San Francisco

[illustration] Earliest known engraving of Wilford Woodruff.

[photo] The president’s pocketknife.

[photo] President Woodruff’s great spiritual insight seems apparent in this portrait.

[photo] Note the rich design in this tablecloth used in the president’s home.

[photo] President Woodruff dedicated the Salt Lake Temple in 1893. This is a special invitation signed by him.

[photo] Wallet of President Woodruff.

[photo] Gold-headed cane given to President Woodruff on his ninetieth birthday.

[photo] The president’s shaving mug.

[photo] A great journal keeper, Wilford Woodruff made this entry the day the Saints entered Great Salt Lake Valley.

[photo] Photo of Elder Woodruff when he was an apostle.

[photo] Fire tongs used by Wilford Woodruff during journey across plains.

[photo] This wagon of Wilford Woodruff’s is the one in which a sick Brigham Young was riding when he arose and said, “This is the place.”

[photo] Wilford Woodruff a few years before being sustained president of the Church.

[photo] The president and his wife Emma Woodruff in 1895.

[photo] Awards won by President Woodruff at an agricultural exhibit.

[photo] Woodruff Villa, the president’s Salt Lake home, still stands.