by Orson F Whitney, History of the Church, Vol. 4
Wilford the faithful—Wilford the beloved. In those two phrases are summed up the character, the career, and a portion of the reward of that great and good man, President Woodruff, one of the pioneer builders of the commonwealth, which he saw grow from an infantile colony into a Territory, and finally into a sovereign State. On almost the identical spot where he and his confreres, in July, 1847, broke the virgin soil and put in the first seed planted in Salt Lake valley, he, in July, 1897, unveiled the monument erected by a grateful people to the memory of Brigham Young and the Pioneers. That was his life’s crowning act in a temporal way, as the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, a little over four years previous, was its crowning act in a spiritual way. Thenceforth the tired body, worn out by the ceaseless activity of the spirit, seemed but awaiting the inevitable dissolution that would prepare the mortal frame for the peaceful rest of the tomb and open to the immortal intelligence the portals of paradise.
Wilford Woodruff was a native of Farmington (now Avon), Hartford county, Connecticut, and was born March 1st, 1807. He was the son of Aphek Woodruff and his wife, Beulah Thompson. He came of a hardy, long-lived race—his great-grandfather, Josiah Woodruff, attaining to the age of nearly a hundred years; and he inherited from his ancestors the activity, endurance and industrious nature for which he was noted. Almost from infancy, it seemed as if two opposing powers were at work, one to destroy, the other to preserve him. This conviction was borne in upon his mind by a remarkable succession of accidents, from which he recovered or was rescued, as he believed, by an interposing Providence. He frequently remarked during his life, that every bone in his body had been broken, excepting his neck and spine.
A miller by vocation, at twenty years of age, after having assisted his father in the Farmington mills, he took the management of a flouring mill belonging to his aunt, Helen Wheeler. He afterwards had the charge of flouring mills at South Canton and New Hartford, Connecticut. In the spring of 1832 he went with his brother Azmon to Richland, Oswego county, New York, where he purchased a farm and sawmill and set up in business for himself.
It was while living at Richland, in the year 1833, that he was converted to Mormonism, which he first heard preached by Zera Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney, two Elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though naturally religious, he was far from sanctimonious, and up to this time had held aloof from all churches, his course determined by a belief that none of the modern religious societies had divine authority, and that the true church of Christ would yet be re-established upon the earth. He derived some of his views from Robert Mason, otherwise known as “The Old Prophet Mason,” who lived at Simsbury, Connecticut. He was therefore prepared for the message proclaimed by Joseph Smith and his followers. He and his brother Azmon both believed, entertained the Elders, and offered themselves for baptism, Wilford being baptized and confirmed by Zera Pulsipher December 31st, 1833. Two days later he was ordained to the office of a Teacher-
Early in February, 1834, he was visited by Elder Parley P. Pratt, under whose advice and instructions he began at once to make preparations for joining the body of the Church at Kirtland, Ohio. Having settled up his business, he started with a wagon and horses, and arrived there on the 25th of April. A week later he became a member of Zion’s Camp, and in May set out for Missouri. At Lyman Wight’s house, in Clay county, Missouri, on the 5th of November, he was ordained a Priest by Elder Simeon Carter, and soon afterward was sent upon a mission to the Southern States.
Passing through Jackson county, the hotbed of anti-Mormonism from which section the Latter-day Saints had recently been driven, he and his companion, Elder Harry Brown, after suffering much from hunger and fatigue, were entertained by a man named Conner, who gave them breakfast, but cursed them while they were eating it, because they were Mormons. At Pettyjohn creek, in Arkansas, they called upon Alexander Akeman, who had belonged to the Church in Jackson county, but had turned against it, and was now very bitter in his opposition. Wilford Woodruff bore his testimony to the apostate, who followed him from the house in a great rage, but just before reaching the object of his wrath fell dead at his feet, as if struck by lightning. Meetings and baptisms followed, after which the two missionaries proceeded southward, rowing down the Arkansas river in a cottonwood canoe of their own manufacture. From Little Rock they waded through mud and water on toward Memphis, Tennessee, during which journey Elder Brown, annoyed by the slow progress they were making, departed, leaving his companion, who was suffering from rheumatism, sitting on a log in the mud and water, unable to walk, without food, and far from any house. Kneeling down in the wet, the young Priest prayed to God, asking Him to heal him. He was instantly relieved of pain, and continued on his way, preaching wherever he could find hearers.
In Benton county,Tennessee, early in April, 1835, he joined Elder Warren Parrish and labored with him for over three months, during which time they converted and baptized over forty persons. Elder Parrish, called to Kirtland, ordained Wilford Woodruff an Elder (June 28), and the latter, after being left alone, prosecuted his labors in Kentucky and Tennessee, baptizing over thirty more. Among his associates was Abraham Owen Smoot, whom Elder Parrish had baptized, and whom Elder Woodruff now ordained an Elder. In April, 1836, the latter labored in Tennessee, under the direction of Apostle David W. Patten, who, on May 31st, ordained him to the office of a Seventy. Some months later Elders Woodruff and Smoot were released to go to Kirtland, where they arrived on the 25th of November, the former having previously organized the first company of Saints that emigrated from the Southern States. It numbered twenty-two souls.
Up to this time Wilford Woodruff was a single man, but now he decided to marry. The lady who became his wife was Phebe W. Carter, to whom he was united April 13th, 1837, President Frederick G. Williams performing the ceremony at the home of the Prophet Joseph Smith in Kirtland. The Prophet himself was to have officiated, but was prevented by a mob. Those were perilous times for the Church, some of whose leading men had apostatized and others were preparing to fall away. Wilford Woodruff was among those who stood staunchly by the Prophet, defending him against the attacks of his enemies. By Joseph’s advice he attended the Temple school and studied English and Latin for a season, but missionary work was more to his liking, and he was soon on his way to a new field of labor.
It was on the last day of May, in the year 1837, that he started upon a mission to Fox Islands, off the coast of Maine. He was now one of the First Quorum of Seventy. After attending a conference in Canada, and ordaining Elders, Priests, Teachers and Deacons, he proceeded to Farmington, Connecticut, where he baptized his uncle, Ozem Woodruff, and others of his kindred. He visited his wife’s relatives at Scarborough, Maine, and then went on to his destination. He was accompanied to Fox Islands by Elder Jonathan H. Hale. The day they landed,—Sunday, August 20th—Wilford Woodruff preached the first Mormon sermon ever delivered there, in the only church on North Island. They preached often and baptized many. In the summer of 1838 Elder Woodruff baptized his father, his stepmother, his sister Eunice and other relatives in Connecticut, and after organizing a branch there, went back to Fox Islands, where, on August 9th he learned of his appointment to fill a vacancy in the quorum of the Twelve 1 Apostles.
In the ensuing fall, at the head of a company of Saints, including his wife and infant child, he started through rain, mud, frost and snow for Missouri, but on the way learned of the exodus of the Church from that state, and so tarried through the winter in Illinois. At Quincy he met Apostles Brigham Young and John Taylor, whom he afterwards accompanied, with others, to Far West, Missouri. There, on the 20th of April, 1839, he was ordained an Apostle by President Brigham Young, the ordination taking place on the Temple lot, during the meeting held on that memorable morning by those apostolic fulfillers of prophecy. George A. Smith was ordained an Apostle at the same meeting. Returning to Quincy, Wilford Woodruff again met President Joseph Smith, who had just escaped from captivity in Missouri.
He was with the Prophet in the founding of Nauvoo, and assisted him in the midst of a fearful epidemic of fever and ague that swept over that section, during which Joseph healed many that were lying at the point of death. Not having time to visit and bless two sick children three miles away, the Prophet gave Elder Woodruff a red silk handkerchief and told him to go and lay hands on the children and wipe their faces with the handkerchief and they should be healed. The Apostle did as he was told, and the little ones recovered. The date of this incident was July 22nd, 1839.
Sick himself with chills and fever, his family also sick, and with only four days’ provisions on hand, Apostle Woodruff, on the 8th day of the ensuing August, started upon his first mission to england. Sailing from New York in company with John Taylor and Theodore Turley, he landed at Liverpool January 11, 1840. He spent forty days in the Staffordshire potteries, preaching and baptizing, and then proceeded south into Herefordshire, where he found a society called “United Brethren,” numbering some six hundred and fifty souls. In eight days he baptized one hundred and sixty of them, including their presiding elder, Thomas Kington, and forty-seven other preachers. He also baptized three clerks of the Church of England, who had been sent by their ministers to watch and report his movements. A constable who came to arrest him was also gathered into the fold. After meeting President Young and others of his quorum at Liverpool, where they landed on the 6th of April, and attending a council and conference at Preston, where Willard Richards was ordained an Apostle and the missionary work of the Twelve outlined, he returned to Herefordshire. There and in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire he spent seven months. During that time he and his brethren baptized over eighteen hundred souls, including two hundred preachers of different denominations. In August he went to London and assisted Heber C. Kimball and George A. Smith to establish Mormonism in that great city. In April, 1841, he sailed with President Young and his party for America, landing at New York about the last of May. Journeying westward, he was wrecked on Lake Michigan, but escaped and reached Nauvoo on the 6th of October.
He was now placed in charge of the business department of the Church printing office, and also became a member of the city council. He filled a mission to the East, in company with Brigham Young and George A. Smith, to collect funds for the Nauvoo Temple and the Nauvoo House; and later went forth with other Elders to electioneer for the Prophet in the Presidential campaign of 1844. He little dreamed upon leaving Nauvoo, May 9th, that he had looked his last, that day, upon the living features of his revered and beloved leader. He was at Portland, Maine, about to step on board a steamer bound for Fox Islands, when he saw an account of the murder of Joseph .and Hyrum Smith. He forthwith returned to Boston and accompanied President Young and others of the Twelve to Nauvoo.
At a council held there soon after their arrival, Wilford Woodruff was appointed to preside over the British mission, and pursuant to that call landed at Liverpool January 3rd, 1845. April 13th, 1846, found him back at Nauvoo, where the exodus of the Saints was in progress. President Young and most of the Apostles having already departed for the west. As soon as possible he followed with another company, stopping at Mount Pisgah, one hundred and seventy-two miles from Nauvoo, where he met Captain James Allen, of the United States army, who had come to present the Government’s requisition for the Mormon Battalion. The Apostle at once sent a courier to the Church leaders at Council Bluffs (whither Captain Allen immediately repaired), and then, under order from President Young, he proceeded to enroll volunteers at Mount Pisgah. The following winter he spent on the Missouri River, where occurred one of his terrible accidents, in which he was crushed by a falling tree. He was healed by the prayer of faith and the administration of the Elders, including President Young.
The next spring found him on his way across the plains as a member of the Pioneer Company, He was captain of the first ten wagons in that famous organization. He arrived ;n Salt Lake valley on the 24th of July, bringing with him in his carriage President Young, who was sick with mountain fever. Pioneer Woodruff’s first act after his arrival here was eminently characteristic of him. It was to plant the seed potatoes he had brought with him from the frontier. Having assisted to explore the Valley, lay out Salt Lake City, and erect the Old Fort, he returned with President Young and others to the Missouri River, where he had left his family. He was there when the First Presidency was reorganized, but in the spring of 1848 went on a mission to the Eastern States, from which he returned to Salt Lake City in 1850.
December of that year found him a member of the Council or Senate of the General Assembly of Deseret, and September following a member of the House in the first Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah. He subsequently sat in the Council for a period of twenty years. He traveled much with President Young, exploring and helping to colonize various parts of Utah and establish new settlements.
Wilford Woodruff was a natural agriculturist. Without worldly ambition, and utterly devoid of show and ostentation, he shunned prominence rather than courted it, and esteemed place and power, so far as this world’s honors went, as mere baubles, not worth the seeking. He delighted in tilling the soil and causing it to yield in abundance and variety. It was his pride and pleasure to find upon his trees or vines an abnormally large peach, apple, strawberry, or potato, to take its circumference and diameter, and exhibit the same admiringly to his neighbors. He was the first president of the utah horticultural society, organized at Salt Lake City in September, 1855, and for a long period was president of the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society. He resided for many years in what is now the Valley House, ‘which he owned; hut he also had a fine farm in the southern suburbs of the town, the place known as “Woodruff Villa.” 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.
For one who made no pretensions to education, oratory or literary ability, Wilford Woodruff was remarkable for his extensive fund of general knowledge, his ready and rapid utterance, and his graphic powers of description. He perused with avidity the public prints, which, with the Church works, constituted the greater part of his reading; and had a retentive memory and quick recollection of personal experiences and historical happenings, especially those affecting his people and religion. He kept a daily journal from the time he entered the ministry up to within two days of his death, and recorded therein with untiring industry every important event in Mormon history. His well known zeal and diligence in this direction doubtless suggested him in due time as a most proper person for Church Historian, to which office he succeeded at the death of Apostle Orson Pratt, in 1881, having previously held the position of his assistant. He continued to be Church Historian until he succeeded to the Presidency of the Church.
When the St. George Temple was dedicated, in 1877, Apostle Woodruff was placed in charge as its president, and during the next two years he performed an immense amount of labor in that sacred edifice. More than forty-one thousand vicarious baptisms took place there during his term of presidency, and of these, three thousand one hundred and eighty-eight were performed by himself, his family and friends for their dead ancestors. President Woodruff testified that while in the Temple he received visitations three nights in succession from prominent Americans of the Colonial period, including the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who from the spirit world solicited his services in their behalf. He responded cheerfully, and had the necessary work done for them.
In October, 1880, he was sustained as President of the Twelve Apostles, succeeding President John Taylor in that position. During the anti-polygamy crusade following the enactment of the Edmunds law, March, 1882, he spent much of his time in Arizona and Southern Utah, but was at Salt Lake City in February, 1880, when the Garde House, the President’s. Office and the Historian’s Office were raided by the United States marshal and his deputies, in quest of Presidents Taylor, Cannon and Smith. President Woodruff was in the Historian’s Office at the time, with Apostles Erastus Snow and Franklin D. Richards. Calmly walking into the street, he passed by the officers into the crowd, apparently unrecognized
At the death of President Taylor, in July, 1887, he succeeded virtually to the leadership of the Church, which then rested upon the Apostolic Council over which he presided. On April 9, 1889, the Council of the First Presidency was reorganized and Wilford Woodruff was sustained as President of the Church, with George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith as his counselors. He succeeded President Taylor as Trustee-in-trust for the Church, also as president of Z. C. M. I. and of Zion’s Savings Bank.
On September, 24, 1890, President Woodruff issued the famous “manifesto,” discontinuing the practice of plural marriage; a declaration accepted and sustained by the Church at the following October 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. Local political lines, upon which a long and bitter fight had been waged, were obliterated; the People’s party and subsequently the Liberal party disbanded, and the citizens generally, regardless of past prejudices and affiliations, divided on national party lines, mostly as Democrats and Republicans. 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. Utah, a Territory since September 9, 1850, on January 4, 1890, was admitted into the Union as a State.
In the midst of these changes—predicted in a general way by President Woodruff at the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, April, 1893—the venerable leader in the fall of that year visited the World’s Fair at Chicago, accompanying the Tabernacle Choir, which there competed with the trained choristers of Wales and other countries, and in the great vocal contest bore off second prize. President Woodruff and party, including his wife, Emma Smith Woodruff, and other members of his family, Presidents George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith, with members of their families, were everywhere greeted cordially and received with honor. Especially was this the case at Independence, Jackson county, Missouri, from which part, just sixty years before, the Latter-day Saints had been ruthlessly expelled by mob violence. By the civic authorities of Independence and by the Elders of the so-called Reorganized Church there residing, the Utah visitors were warmly welcomed and treated with the utmost courtesy.
The year 1897 was a notable one in the life of President Woodruff and in the history of the commonwealth of which he was one of the principal founders. It was Utah’s year of jubilee. On March 1st, the President attained his ninetieth anniversary, an event celebrated at the great Tabernacle in the presence of an immense gathering of friends, including the Governor of the State, members of the Legislature and other public officials, Mormons and non-Mormons. At the close of the proceedings, which were also in honor of Mrs. Emma Woodruff, who was fifty-nine years old that day, a reception was held, the entire assemblage passing by and shaking hands with the venerable leader and his wife. On July 20th, at the opening of the Utah Pioneer Jubilee, the President, though in feeble health, officiated in the ceremony of unveiling the statue of President Brigham Young surmounting the monument erected in his honor and that of the Pioneers. In the afternoon he attended the reception at the Tabernacle, where he was presented with a gold badge designed for the oldest Pioneer present. July 22nd, the third day of the festival, he was crowned with flowers at the Tabernacle by the children who had marched in that day’s procession; the floral wreath being presented and placed upon the brow of the aged Pioneer by little Ida Taylor Whittaker, a grand-daughter of President John Taylor. July 24th, the closing day of the celebration, President Woodruff, in his carriage, headed the great Pioneer pageant, and was greeted with enthusiasm by the multitude.
A year later to the day he made a speech at the dedication of the Old Fort Square as a public park of Salt Lake City; and within the next three weeks set out upon a visit to San Francisco—the visit from which he was destined not to return alive. For several years he had taken frequent trips to California, where he obtained relief from his besetting ailment, insomnia. During one of these trips, in 1890, while fishing at Catalina Islands, the aged sportsman, assisted by his wife, had hauled out a yellow tail weighing thirty pounds. He was as proud of his catch as if it had been a five-pound strawberry, picked from his patch at Woodruff Villa. His love for rod and gun was almost equal to his fondness for hoe and sickle. An event of his last visit to the coast was his attendance, by invitation, in company with President George Q. Cannon, at a banquet given on the evening of August 27, 1898, by the Bohemian Club of San Francisco, in honor of an octogenarian, who addressed the assemblage. The company, surprised and delighted at the vigor manifested by their aged friend, were simply astounded when President Woodruff, then in his ninety-second year, promptly responded to a call for an impromptu speech, with even more vigor and vivacity.
The next day was the Sabbath: and the President addressed the Latter-day Saints of the San Francisco branch at their regular meeting in that city. This was his last public appearance. On Tuesday he was taken ill, and though everything possible was done for him that skill and kindness could devise, he gradually sank into the sleep of death, passing peacefully away at twenty minutes to seven o’clock on the morning of the 2nd of September. He died at the home of Colonel Isaac Trumbo, where he and his party had been most kindly entertained. Accompanied by his wife Emma and other friends, the remains of the deceased leader were brought home for burial. The funeral services were held in the Tabernacle on the 8th of September.
President Woodruff during his life was married five times, and was the father of thirty-one children, one of whom, his son Abraham Owen Woodruff, is now one of the Twelve Apostles. The eldest son bears his father’s full name. These two, with his sons James, Asahel, David and Newton, are probably the male descendants best known in the community. Among the President’s daughters are Mrs. Phebe Snow, Mrs. Beulah Beatie, Mrs. Belle Moses, Mrs. Clara Beebe, Mrs. Blanche Daynes, Mrs. Alice McEwan and Miss Mary Woodruff.
Wilford Woodruff was beloved by his people for his great integrity, and was universally esteemed for his honest and guileless nature. He had no enemies, and in his case— though such examples are rare—this fact constituted a credit shadowed by no element of reproach. His crowning characteristic, next to fidelity and devotion to principle, was his simple, childlike humility. He was “an Israelite indeed,’’ in whom there was “no guile.”