This article originally appeared in Vol.54, No.4 (2007) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Susan Lofgren

Some time ago, back in 1974, Carolyn Owen obtained possession of an old box of belongings from her father. The box had been tucked away in a dark corner of her parent’s basement since 1948—passed down to her father, Asahel Hart Jr., when his father (her grandpa) had died. Carolyn’s mother, Ruth Murphy, asked Carolyn to look through “that old box” when Ruth had decided to move from the family home.

To her profound astonishment when Carolyn Woodruff Owen opened the box, she discovered a “treasure chest” containing the original diaries of her great grandfather, the beloved prophet .

Carolyn’s uncle Kenneth Woodruff remembered that President Woodruff’s close friend, renowned architect Truman Angell, had made the wooden box for him in which to keep his special papers.

“We found the material and took two volumes to the historical department [of the LDS Church] for evaluation. We found it was valuable, handwritten material of Wilford Woodruff. We contacted the rest of the family and it was decided to give it to the Church,” reported Ruth Woodruff to the Deseret News, May 29, 1976.

On May 24, 1976, the material was presented to the Church Historical Department and included 16 volumes consisting of small notebooks in which President Woodruff wrote his diaries and other accounts, an appointment book, membership record books of branches in the Southern States when he was a missionary there, bank account books and monetary account books of his five wives. There was also a large handwritten autobiography that included recopied entries from May 1837 to December 1843 from some of the smaller dairies.1 Other priceless artifacts contained in the box included uncut stock certificates for funding the building of the Nauvoo House and an 8 1/2 x 11-inch metal engraving negative used for printing a picture of Wilford Woodruff Truman Angels “old box” contained a priceless record of Latter-day Saint history spanning the Church’s beginnings, the settling of the Salt Lake Valley and nearing the turn of the century—two years away from when President Woodruff died in 1898. Historian Thomas G. Alexander “asserts that Woodruff saw more of nineteenth-century Mormonism than any other individual and is arguably the third most important figure in LDS church history.”2

Wilford Woodruff was born on March L 1807, in Farmington, Hartford County, Connecticut; we honor him on this 200th anniversary of his birth.

One of eight sons and one daughter born to Apheck Woodruff and Beulah Thompson Woodruff, Wilford became interested in religion at an early age and spent many hours in study and prayer.

“Almost from infancy, it seemed as if two opposing powers were at work, one to destroy, the other to preserve him…. He frequently remarked during his life, that every bone in his body had been broken, excepting his neck and spine,”3

Wilford followed his father s trade as a miller and struck out on his own at age 20. Between the ages of 20 and 23, Wilford became increasingly concerned about his own mortality and his parents’ future deaths. He occasionally played cards and went dancing but felt these activities and associations were leading him away from God. He recorded in his journal, “I learned by experience and by the workings of the spirit of the Lord within my own soul that the transitory pleasures of human life do not in any way constitute true and lasting happiness.”4

Wilford’s hunger for spiritual guidance seemed to be pacified only through personal study in the Bible rather than attending religious services. His remarkable spiritual depth leads him to a continual search for a physical manifestation of a restoration of Christ’s primitive church on earth. Such religious individuals as Wilford were termed “seekers” and while “unsure about the exact nature of the restoration or the form it would take, such seekers waited and … lived as members of Jesus Christ s invisible church, according to their best understanding of scripture.”5

In 1828, a Simsbury seeker named Robert Mason prophesied to Wilford that the “Church and Kingdom of God [would] be made manifest, revealed and established upon the Earth among the Children of men [and that Wilford] would stand in that kingdom and assist in building it up.”6

In December 1833, armed with this spiritual background, Wilford and his brother Azmon attended a sermon held in a local schoolhouse, in Richland, Oswego County, New York, Prior to attending, the brothers prayed for the spirit to discern whether the two Mormon missionaries were men of God. Wilford wrote,

“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”7

On December 31, 1833, Zera Pulsipher baptized Wilford, Azmon, and two young women whom the Mormon elders had healed In a letter to his father in March 1834, Wilford explained that his seeking had come to an end and that he had found the everlasting gospel.”8

Significant to note, the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded in his journal on December 31, 1833, “Wilford Woodruff was baptized at Richland, Oswego county New York, by Zera Pulsipher”—this was before Joseph and Wilford had ever met. In another entry Joseph noted that Brother Woodruff had been ordained a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood (January 1834), Wilford Woodruff visited the Prophet Joseph for the first time on April 25, 1834, in Kirtland, Ohio.9

Early in February 1834, Wilford immediately began preparations to join the main body of the Church at Kirtland, Ohio. By May he became a member of Zions Camp and headed for Missouri and was then sent on a mission to the Southern States with a companion, Harry Brown.

He records amazing experiences in Arkansas: 

We were hardly in Arkansas when we heard of a [Mormon] family named Akeman. in Jackson county in the persecution … and we went a long way to visit them. There had recently been heavy rains, and a creek that we had to cross was swollen to a rapid stream of eight rods in width. There was no person living nearer than two miles from the crossing and no boat…. We did not stop, feeling to trust in God…

Just as we arrived at the rolling flood, a Negro on a powerful horse entered the stream on the opposite shore and rode through it. On our making our wants known to him, he took us, one at a time, behind him and carried us safely over, and we went on our way rejoicing.

During that night, Wilford had a dream in which serpents were about to destroy him:

“At that instant, I felt as though nothing but the power of God could save me, and I stood still. Just before the serpent reached me, he dropped dead at my feet I awoke in the morning and pandered upon the dream…. I related to my companion my dream, and told him we should see something strange.”

With great anticipation, the two missionaries arrived to meet Mr. Akeman only to discover he had apostatized from the Church and was full of hatred towards the Church authorities. Word traveled through the settlements of the two “Mormon” preachers and a mob was raised. Wilford s companion wanted to leave, but Wilford “told him no, I would stay and see my dream fulfilled.”

“I was commanded of the Lord by the Holy Ghost to go and warn Mr, Akeman to repent of his wickedness. I did so, and each time he raged against me, and the last time he ordered me out of his home. When I went out he followed me and was very angry. When he came up to me, about eight rods from the house, he fell dead at my feet, turned black and swelled up, as I saw the serpents do in my dream.”10

Wilford preached at his funeral during which many of the mob died suddenly.

His missionary travels took him through Kentucky and Tennessee, laboring with such faithful Saints as Warren Parrish, Abraham Owen Smoot, and the Apostle David W. Patten.

In April of 1837, Wilford married his first wife, Phoebe W. Carter, at the home of the Prophet, Joseph Smith in Kirtland.

Ordained as an apostle, in July of 1839, Wilford assisted the Prophet Joseph Smith during an epidemic of fever and ague that swept over parts of Nauvoo and Montrose. Busy blessing the main body of Saints, the Prophet sent Elder Woodruff three miles away to bless two sick children with a red handkerchief “to use in wiping the faces of [the] two children. [He] told [Wilford] to keep it, s a token of the bond between them.”11

The children were healed.

An unwavering missionary, a seventy, and now an apostle, Wilford participated in the ordinance of foot washing in the Kirtland Temple, was shown the Urim and Thummim by Joseph Smith, and heralds the most successful Mormon missionary efforts, which occurred during his British experience in the spring of 1840 among the United Brethren in Herfordshire, England. In eight days he baptized 160 of them, including their presiding elder, Thomas Kington, and 47 other preachers. Over the next seven months in the areas of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire, he and his brethren baptized over 1800 souls, including about 200 preachers of different denominations.

In 1843, Wilford was sent again on a mission to the East with Brigham Young and George A. Smith to collect funds for building the Nauvoo Temple and the Nauvoo House. This beloved friend and confidant of Joseph Smith nominated the Prophet for U.S. President at the convention in Boston, July 1, 1844—completely unaware that Joseph had been murdered days before at Carthage jail June 27, 1844,

It was several days later he learned of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith while reading the July 9, 1844, issue of the Boston Times.11 The loss of his friend—the man he referred to as “Joseph the Seer” was a profound shock.

He writes on July 17:

I have never shed a tear since I heard of the death of the Prophets until this morning .,. but my whole soul has felt nerved up like steel Elder B. Young arrived in Boston this morning, I walked him to 57 Temple St,.,. Br. Young took to the bed and I the big chair, and I here veiled my face and for the first time gave vent to my grief and mourning for the Prophet and Patriarch of the church, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, who were murdered by a gentile mob. After being bathed by a flood of tears, I felt composed.13

Mourning the death of their beloved leader, the apostles pressed forward with the work of the Church, acutely illustrated by Wilford’s account of a dream of Heber C. Kimball, August 5, 1844: “Elder Kimball . . . said the Prophet Joseph Smith had laid the foundation for a great work and it was now for us to build on it. He thought Brother Joseph was present and appeared natural.”14

In January 1845, Wilford Woodruff had returned to England at Liverpool to preside over the British Mission, only to return April 13, 1846, to a Nauvoo in turmoil. The exodus of the Saints had already begun—“a bitter spirit of persecution reigned among Nauvoos nonmember population, and a spirit of apostasy had descended upon many Church members.”15 Governor Thomas Ford had announced his intention to withdraw any militia to protect the Nauvoo citizens, making the outrageous claim that their forces were far too small compared to the brewing mob.

Amidst a city under siege of a civil war, Wilford Woodruff, Orson Hyde, and 20 elders dressed in temple robes to proceed with the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple, on May 1, 1846. Wilford spoke following Orson Hyde’s dedicatory prayer with the charge that the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum “would rise in Judgment against this Nation, the State of Illinois, Hancock Co, and especially Carthage and the murderers it contains.”16

Wilford Woodruff is credited with introducing fly fishing to America, when on July 8, 1847, near Fort Bridger; Wyoming, he made the first cast, catching 12 brook trout in a two-hour period. In the 1890s, he wrote letters about hunting and fishing in the West to Forest and Stream magazines, the forerunner to Field and Stream.

The legendary migration to the Salt Lake Valley had begun, Wilford’s final purchases for the journey included a “total entourage of six wagons, a carriage, and forty-two head of livestock.”17 He stopped at Mount Pisgah with his family, who along with most of the Saints struggled with illness, exposure, chills and fevers. While he was camped on the Missouri River, October 15, 1846, “a tree he chopped down pitched backward, pinning him against a nearby standing oak, breaking his left arm, breast bone, and three ribs, and bruising his thigh, hip, and some internal organs.

It took Wilford more than a month to recuperate. Wilford was assigned captain of the first 10 wagons, arriving in Salt Lake Valley on July 24th, with President Young, who was sick with mountain fever. He records the following on that famous day:

This is an important day in the history of my life and the history of the Church… We came in view of the great valley or basin [of] the Salt Lake, . . . land of promise held in reserve by the hand of God for a resting place for the Saints upon which the Zion of God will be built. We gazed with wonder and admiration upon the vast, rich, fertile valley, with the heaviest garb of green vegetation in the midst of which lay a large lake of salt water.”18

After settling President Young at the valleys first encampment—even before eating—Wilford immediately planted the seed potatoes he had brought with him: “repaired to the ploughed field and planted potatoes (a half bushel), hoping with the blessings of God at least to save the seed for another year.”20

Wilford Woodruff was a natural agriculturist. He was the first president of the Utah Horticultural Society, organized at Salt Lake City in September 1855. He loved outdoor life, was exceedingly active and busy, and when not in his office or away from home, was sure to be found bustling about his farm, hoeing corn, harvesting grain, building, or engaging in like pursuits.21

Armed with unwavering faith and dedication to the principles he lived by Wilford Woodruff in the years ahead would be a colonizer, retail merchant, farmer, rancher, gardener, and political servant* He would continue his missionary service, presiding over the Church in the Eastern States and Canada, August 1848; the Fox Island and Canada, June 1849. He traveled frequently with President Young to explore and help colonize various parts of Utah* From the years 1851 to 1876 he accompanied Brigham Young on 10 different occasions to Southern Utah—over half of these excursions included St. George.

On November 10, 1876, arriving in St. George, Wilford wrote:

“The temple in St. George is as white as snow, both inside and out, and is a beautiful contrast with the red appearance of the surrounding country.”22 For several months until March the following year he composed “the ceremony of the endowment from beginning to end.”23

As president of the St. George Temple, Wilford then refocused his temple work from living endowments to the vicarious work for the dead. In February 7, 1877, he received a revelation to gather “Daughters, and Mothers in Zion” to receive “their washing and Anointing and Endowments for and behalf of the wives who are dead and have been sealed to my servant Wilford, or those who are to be sealed to him.”24 On his 70th birthday March 1, 154 women from St, George—including three church presidents wives and four of his daughters—were recruited, to accomplish the temple work.

On March 30, 1877, Elder Woodruff personally served for the first time as a proxy in a temple endowment. He wrote: “This is the first day I ever went [to] the temple to get endowments for the dead. I got [an] endowment today for the Prophet, Robert Mason. I was ordained a high priest and patriarch for [him]”25 On this special occasion, Wilford was able to honor the man who, in 1828, had prophesied of the restoration of the gospel and Elder Woodruff s key role in the building of the restored church.

In August 1877 (after the death of Brigham Young) Wilford received visions regarding noted men of the 17th and 18th century—including signers of the Declaration of Independence—who urged him to do their temple work. During the next two years, Elder Woodruff performed tremendous amounts of temple work—more than 41,000 vicarious baptisms, 3,188 performed by himself, his family and friends for their dead ancestors.

During the 1880s, the volatile issue of polygamy reached its height of intensity. Anti-polygamy crusades followed the Edmunds law in March 1882, and Wilford Woodruff was forced to spend much of his time hiding in Arizona and Southern Utah. February 15, 1882:

“There has never been a time since the organization of the church when there has been such a universal howl and cry throughout the land against the Latter-day Saints that there is now The whole land is flooded with lies against the people of God. As it is now, the whole government seems determined on the destruction of all faithful Latter-day Saints.”26

The St. George Temple became a location of refuge, where a bedroom was prepared in an upper room of the temple. The 72-year-old exile was forced to hide in Santa Clara or in the deserts of Arizona, sleeping on the ground, in tents—never staying in one spot for very long—in order to avoid the U.S. Marshals constantly searching for him. During some of his excursions, he preached to the Apache, Pueblo, Navajo, and Hopi Indian tribes.

The many years of hiding underground were difficult for the aging apostle. His routine while in exile became monotonous, generally consisting of reading, writing, and counseling. December 25, 1885:

“Christmas day, I spent in the chamber locked up as a prisoner while all the family went to the ward schoolhouse to attend the Christmas [party].”27

In February 1886, Wilford was back in Salt Lake City, when the Garda House, the Presidents Office and Historians Office were raided by the United States marshal and his deputies, searching for Presidents Taylor, Cannon, and Smith. Apostles Erastus Snow, Franklin D. Richards, and President Woodruff were in the Historians Office. Calmly walking into the street, Wilford passed by the officers—unrecognized—into the crowd.

In July 1887, Wilford received word that the prophet John Taylor had died, Returning to Salt Lake City after a nine-month exile in St. George—still hiding from federal officials—President Woodruff had to watch the funeral from the curtained window of the Presidents office on South Temple Street, the same as when his first wife, Phoebe, had died, November 10, 1885.

It wasn’t until April 9, 1889, when the Council of the First Presidency was reorganized that Wilford Woodruff was sustained as President of the Church, with George Q. Cannon and Joseph R Smith as his counselors.

The events of the 1880s also signaled the end of exclusive Mormon political domination of Utah. The mining boom swelled the ranks of gentile voters. This gentile population, mostly Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, reached an all-time high of 44 percent by 1890. Practicing polygamists were all disfranchised and the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act prohibited all Utah women—the majority Mormon—from voting, disincorporated the Church, dissolved the perpetual emigration fund, and empowered the attorney general to bring suit to escheat church properties to the United States.

Under such dire circumstances, the Mormon efforts to maintain any control were fading drastically. Woodruff recognized by 1889 that Utah without statehood would remain, politically speaking, a dependency or ward of the United States. In-state capacity, we would be freed from such dependency, and would possess the powers and independence of a Sovereign State, with authority to make and execute our own laws.”28

During the 1890s Church property was confiscated, revenues declined while expenditures skyrocketed and the economic recession plunged the Church into debt. The Church continued to seek appeals with the US, Supreme Court, between 1888-1890, fearing the government might confiscate all religious property—including the temples—as well as other church holdings. The pressure to renounce polygamy intensified again. On June 12, 1890, George Q, Cannon received a letter from Secretary of State James G. Blaine for “leading authorities of the church to sign in which they make a virtual renunciation of plural marriage.”29

In September 1890, President Woodruff held meetings with church authorities that would change the future of Mormonism. He wrote on September 25:

“I have arrived at a point in the history of my life as the President of the Church,., where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the Church, The United States Government has taken a stand and passed laws to destroy the Latter-day Saints upon the subject of polygamy or patriarchal order of marriage. And after praying to the Lord, and feeling inspired by his spirit, I have issued . . . [a] Proclamation which is sustained by my counselors and the Twelve Apostles.”30

Creating “a sensation throughout the whole United States,” this legendary “Official Declaration” declared, “We are not teaching polygamy or plural marriage nor permitting any person to enter into the practice.” President Woodruff continued with “I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws [of Congress forbidding plural marriages] and to use my influence with the members of the church over which I preside to have them do likewise. And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.”31

Woodruff s Manifesto was presented at the October 6, 1890, General Conference and accepted by vote from the whole conference. The “people were told by their leader that the Lord accepted their sacrifices in behalf of the principle and desired them now to submit to the law of the land. They obeyed.

“An era of good feeling ensued. Mormons and Gentiles affiliated socially and politically and were friendly as never before. The crusade—a six years’ reign of terror—came to an end. Presidents Harrison and Cleveland, in successive proclamations, pardoned all polygamists, and the Mormon Church property, forfeited and escheated to the government under the provisions of the Edmunds-Tucker law of March 1887, was restored by act of Congress to its rightful owner.”32

The Manifesto at last brought about a healing for the weary Saints—persecuted, slandered and abhorred for four decades. Soon curious visitors flooded into the valley to see this peculiar society that had received so much national attention. In May 1892, 400 Presbyterian ministers came to the Salt Lake Tabernacle ”to pay their respects .., and pronounced themselves much pleased with their reception. ,.. Many of the gentiles are coming to Zion…. to behold the glory thereof” wrote President Woodruff.33 On the Church’s 63rd birthday, April 6, 1893, President Woodruff dedicated the Salt Lake Temple, In September President Woodruff his wife, Emma Smith Woodruff, Presidents George Q. Cannon and Joseph E Smith, and members of their families were all present at the Worlds Fair in Chicago, when the Tabernacle Choir, received second prize. The Church authorities were greeted cordially and with honor everywhere.

Unfortunately, Wilford Woodruff s last years were still riddled with crises and challenges—particularly the financial debt of the Church. Of equal complexity were the political oppositions. Although the Manifesto resolved the polygamy issue, many still feared the rise of political power by the Mormons. The struggle for statehood continued for several more years until finally—after a 47-year battle—Utah was admitted into the Union as a state, January 4, 1894 (See Pioneer magazine [2004] 51, No.3.)

On March 1, 1897, President Woodruff celebrated his 90th birthday with the largest assemblage ever in the tabernacle. His wife, Emma, with the same birthday, turned 59. The tabernacle was adorned with a huge star; white streamers with the inscriptions “Glory be to God,” “Honor to his Prophet;” and a basket of 90 roses was presented by the Deseret Sunday School Union.

He wrote, “The scene completely overpowered me. The events of my childhood and early manhood came to my mind. I remembered vividly how I prayed to the Lord that I might live to see a prophet or an apostle who would teach me the gospel of Christ. Here I stood in the great Tabernacle filled with ten thousand children, with prophets, apostles and saints. My head was a fountain of tears.”34

Wilford Woodruff spoke on July 24, 1898, at the dedication of the Old Fort Square as a public park of Salt Lake City. Three weeks later he traveled to San Francisco with President George Q. Cannon—a visit from which he would not return. He had taken frequent trips, over the years, to California to obtain relief from his failing health. Without warning, following a sudden attack of illness, the fourth president of the Church “slept peacefully all night and passed away without movement,” September 2, 1898.35

George Q. Cannon wrote, “I cannot describe the feelings I had. The event was so unexpected, so terrible— and away from home. I could not understand it, I felt that I had lost the best friend I had on earth I have known President Woodruff since I was a boy twelve years of age. I have loved him with great affection.”36

The prophet’s body was returned to Salt Lake City on September 4, 1898. When the news reached Lorenzo Snow, President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, he retired to the Salt Lake Temple, Holy of Holies, and pleaded with the Lord to bring President Woodruff back. Christ appeared to him, “Wilford is with me now.”37

President Woodruff during his life was married five times and was the father of 31 children. His son, Abraham Owen Woodruff, became one of the Twelve Apostles.

The following tribute was given at the funeral services, September 8, 1898, by George Q, Cannon:

“President Woodruff was an unassuming man, very unaffected, and childlike in his demands. . . . His traits and characteristics were ennobling, and so energetic was he that nothing was too burdensome for him, even in his advanced years He was straightforward in all his dealings with his fellowmen and never shirked an obligation. He was free, sociable, and amiable in every respect. He looked upon all mankind as his equals and was one who cherished the most profound respect for all with whom he associated and his purity was like unto that of the angels themselves.”38

By the time of his death, Wilford Woodruff was the leader of more than a quarter-million followers worldwide and a new era that was entering the mainstream of American culture. We honor this amazing heritage of Wilford Woodruff.


1 “The Memorabilia of President Woodruff” Deseret News, May 29, 1976.

2 Book review by Richard W Sadler of Thomas G. Alexander’s Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff a Mormon Prophet, Utah Historical Quarterly 60, no. 2 (Winter 1992): 187-93.

3 Orson F. Whitney History of Utah (Salt Lake City: G. Q. Cannon & Som Co., 1892-1904), 4:30-34.

4 Resource material from Carolyn Woodruff Owen.

5 Thomas G. Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruffs a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 17.

6 As cited in Alexander, 19.

7 “Moments with the Prophets: A Fateful Visit,” Deseret News, LDS Church News section, December 26, 1992.

8 Alexander, 2L

9 George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, cl986), 163.

10 “A Mormon in Arkansas,” by Mark E, Peterson, Arkansas Gazette Magazine, Little Rock, 9, no. 14, December 2, 1934.

11 Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff Journal, 9 vols., ed* by Scott G. Kenney (Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983), 1:346-48.

12 Francis M. Gibbons, Wilford Woodruff: Wondrous Worker Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, l988), 84.

13 Woodruff, 2:422-23.

14 Ibid., 433.

15 Gibbons, 110.

16 Woodruff, 3:42-46.

17 Alexander, 132.

18 Alexander, 135.

19 Woodruff, 3:233-34.

20 Ibid, 235.

21 Whitney, 4:30-34.

22 Woodruff, 7:291.

23 Ibid., 322-27.

24 Ibid., 331.

25 Ibid*, 342,

26 Woodruff, 8:90—91.

27 Ibid., 8:350.

28 Lewis Allen (Woodruff) to William Atkin, January 3GS 1889, Wilford Woodruff-Atkin Correspondence, Utah State Historical Society.

29 Abraham H. Cannon Journal, June 12, 1890, Special Collections, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

30 Woodruff 9:114.

31 Ibid., 9:115, 116.

32 Whitney, 4:30-34.

33 Woodruff, 9:200, 218-19.

34 Resource material from Carolyn Woodruff Owen.

35 Woodruff, 9:561.

36 George Q. Cannon journal and resource material from Carolyn Woodruff Owen.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

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