Cover image: Wilford and Phebe Woodruff with Phebe’s father Ezra Carter and their daughters Susan and Phoebe.

On July 18, 1840, Phebe Woodruff sat down to write one of the most heart-wrenching letters of her life. Since August of the previous year, Phebe had been living on her own near the banks of the Mississippi. Meanwhile, her husband, Wilford Woodruff, was serving a mission in England. During Wilford’s absence, Phebe had given birth to their son Wilford Jr., cared for their young daughter Sarah Emma, and relied heavily on the charity of the Saints in Montrose, Iowa.[1] Yet, she was blessed with “that fortitude that becometh a saint realizing the call & responsibility of her companion.”[2]

I Find The Lord To Be My Friend

While the sacrifice of being separated was difficult, Phebe was supportive of her husband’s desire to serve the Lord. In an earlier letter to Wilford she had written,

I want to see you so much but I believe that I can say upon serious reflection that I have not wished you back once untill you have filled your mission although I have had many trials since you left but I find God to be my friend, I feel your absence to be a great privation and sacrifice for me to make but I hope and trust that you will be the means of doing much good and fill your mission in the love and fear of God as soon as possible and come home to me and our little ones as soon as possible with the smiles of heaven resting on you.[3]

But on July 18, Phebe’s resolve was being tested as never before. She wrote, “Yesterday I was called to witness the departure of … little Sarah Emma from this world— yes she is gone … we have one little angel in heaven.”[4] Filled with grief, she continued, “It is a severe trial for me to pass through particularly so in your absence but the Lord has stood by me in a wonderful manner I can see and feel that he has taken her home.”[5] Despite her challenges, Phebe was determined to remain courageous and accept the Lord’s will. She continued, “I can say that the Lord gave her and the Lord hath taken her away and blessed be the name of the Lord, —he is wise in all his purposes.”[6]

Excerpt from Phebe Woodruff’s July 18, 1840 letter to Wilford Woodruff[7]

At some point we will all be called to endure trials that seem too hard to bear. For some, that is losing a loved one before they have lived a full life. For others, it might be poverty, loneliness, uncertainty, or a crisis of faith. Phebe Woodruff experienced all these struggles. The letters Phebe sent to Wilford during this trying year reveal feelings of almost constant loneliness, newfound grief, questions about doctrine, and concern about her ability to endure to the end. However, they also reveal a valiant woman determined to stay true to her testimony and “let God prevail” in her life.[8]

Turning Mourning into Joy

Phebe found joy as she prioritized her faith and testimony of Jesus Christ. Like her, we can faithfully rely on the Lord during times of trial, for His promise is sure: “Their soul shall be as a watered garden: and they shall not sorrow any more at all … for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow.”[9] Our souls, just like gardens, require time and attention to flower and mature. It is a process to turn our mourning into joy. But as we are willing to let God prevail in our lives, He will send blessings and miracles that will “make [us] rejoice.”[10]

Phebe’s acceptance of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ prepared her to be faithful through trying times. Before Sarah Emma died, Phebe wrote, “I would often look back and ask myself the question did I leave my fathers house for the sake of honour, ease, or popularity, I think I did not but for the word of God then I would try to be reconciled to my situation.”[11] With these words, Phebe showed that she was already on the path that would allow God to turn her mourning to joy, for “the things of the world [were] empty and vain” to her.[12]

Elder Gerrit W. Gong stated that “the Lord’s hand in our lives is often clearest in hindsight.”[13] Hindsight not only gives us a better understanding of past events but, when we let it, it also gives us a clearer vision of the future. Phebe could see how the word of God had blessed her life; that was enough for her to know His word would continue to be a source of comfort and strength in her present circumstances.

The Lord Has Promised Strength

Phebe was also “willing to let whatever [the Lord needed her] to do take precedence over every other ambition.”[14] Nothing else but the Lord’s will could have separated her from the company of her husband. This conviction was affirmed in a letter Phebe wrote six weeks into her grief.

I will try to await patiently your return which I know will be as soon as the Lord’s will is done with you there and did I not know that the Lord required you to be in his vine yard I could not endure your absence but the Lord has promised strength equal to our day and I find he has fulfilled that promise to me, for I have been enabled the most of the time to be contented and reconciled to my situation.[15]

The Lord enables us to meet our challenges through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. President Harold B. Lee remarked, “Sometimes when you are going through the most severe tests, you will be nearer to God than you have any idea.”[16] But God lets us have difficult days, and Phebe had many.[17]

Over the next couple of months, Phebe would experience a rollercoaster of emotions. In September she wrote, “If little Sarah could have lived I should have thought my troubles and afflictions were light but now I think they are serious.”[18] By October, she worried her faith was weakening. She confessed, “You cannot think how much I miss little Sarah Emma her death has disarmed me of all courage faith & fortitude.”[19]

She also revealed that she was somewhat troubled by the doctrine of baptism for the dead and other things, which Joseph Smith had “learned by revelation.”[20] She explained, “Brother Joseph makes this doctrine look very plain and consistent— he has been bringing strange things forward to the church this season—strong meat—he has delivered a course of lectures this season which were very interesting.”[21] She was also trying to understand why some are “raised to life again” and asked, “If so Willford why may not our little Sarah be raised to life again?”[22]

These kinds of doctrinal questions are not unusual, and in fact, they gave Phebe the opportunity to “put [her] faith into practice.”[23] Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “It’s natural to have questions. … There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions.”[24] Prayer is one of the most important ways to “put faith into practice” and the most direct line of communication to God, who is the best source for answers.

We Have the Same God to Call Upon

Before Wilford left for England, he and Phebe had set aside a time each day when they could be united in prayer. Phebe was faithful to this hour and on occasion asked Wilford, “Have you forgotten our hour for prayer … although far distant from each other we have the same God to call on, who hears the prayer of his children.”[25] So, when this time of adversity was upon Phebe, she knew prayer would see her through and she pled, “O pray for me Willford that I may have grace and strength equal to my day – for I feel like a lonely child on the earth now but I endure it as for Christ sake.”[26]

James E. Talmage said that “prayer is made up of heart throbs and the righteous yearnings of the soul.”[27] Phebe experienced many “heart throbs and righteous yearnings” as she worked through her grief and significant questions. As a result, at the end of October she was able to write, “I feel quite well in mind today after committing my case to my heavenly father he has taken it into his hands and will do right about it.”[28] Phebe did not know what the winter months would bring. She wanted more than anything to have Wilford home with her. But she was confident in the Lord and had faith to “accept His will and timing” in her life—even if the outcome was not what she hoped for.[29]

President Nelson taught that “as you choose to let God prevail in your lives, you will experience for yourselves that our God is ‘a God of miracles.’ ”[30] Many of God’s miracles are manifested to us through tender mercies. During the first week of November, a tender mercy came to Phebe in the form of two very unexpected visitors at her home in Iowa. She wrote to Wilford,

I presume you will be somewhat surprised when you learn where this letter was written but perhaps not more than I was when I went to my door in Iowa and saw brother J. F. Carter and L. Scammans ride up to the door. I could hard[ly] think it possible that they could be there but truly strange things happen in these last days, they came on to see the country and stopped with me about 6 days and insisted on my accompanying them home and spending the winter at home and then if I wished I could return with you in the spring.[31]

Joseph Carter and Luther Scammans were Phebe’s brother and brother-in-law from Scarborough, Maine. They had traveled over 1,300 miles to visit their sister. When they discovered Phebe’s difficult situation, they insisted she return with them and spend the winter in the care of her family. This was a tender mercy from the Lord especially for Phebe. Elder Bednar taught that “the Lord’s tender mercies are very personal and individualized …which we receive from and because of and through the Lord Jesus Christ.”[32]

Let Him Be Your God

The Lord loved Phebe, and He blessed her for her faithfulness because He “loveth those who will have him to be their God.”[33] This individualized blessing for Phebe provided the comfort and joy she desperately needed after struggling through a season of loss and grief.

Like Phebe, we can be confident that the Lord will water our souls, even though most of the time there is a period of waiting. “Waiting to be healed physically or emotionally. Waiting for answers that penetrate the deepest part of our hearts. Waiting for a miracle.”[34] When His law is written in our hearts, God can “turn mourning into joy.” He will comfort us, and make us rejoice from our sorrow.[35]

Erin B. Hills is a Research Assistant with the Wilford

Woodruff Papers Project and a graduate of Brigham Young University–Idaho. Erin lives with her husband and five children in Virginia. When she is not preoccupied with kids or engrossed in genealogical research, she is writing poetry.

To learn more about the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project, and how you can volunteer as a transcriber or a researcher, please visit

Enjoy watching this 2-minute video testimony of Elder Crowe about the angels “round about him to bear him up” as he serves in the same area where Wilford Woodruff taught his ancestors the gospel in 1840. You can find more stories and testimonies at


Some spelling and punctuation modified for clarity.

[1] Letter from Phebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, April 1, 1840, p. 1, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[2] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, August 8, 1839, p. 106, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[3] Letter from Phebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, July 2, 1840, p. 3, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[4] Letter from Phebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, July 18, 1840, p. 1, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[5] Letter from Phebe, July 18, 1840, p. 1.

[6] Letter from Phebe, July 18, 1840, p. 2.

[7] Letter from Phebe, July 18, 1840, p. 1.

[8] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” Ensign, October 2020,

[9] Jeremiah 31:12–13.

[10] Jeremiah 31:13.

[11] Letter from Phebe,  July 2, 1840, p. 2, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[12] Letter from Phebe, July 18, 1840, p. 1, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[13] Gerrit W. Gong, “Always Remember Him,” Ensign, May 2016,

[14] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail.”

[15] Letter from Phebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, September 8, 1840, p. 1, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[16] Harold B. Lee, Conference Report, 1973, p. 114.

[17] Larry Richman, “Learning through Life’s Trials,” Ensign, March 2010,

[18] Letter from Phebe, September 8, 1840, p. 2, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[19] Letter from Phebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, October 6, 1840, p. 2, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[20] Letter from Phebe, October 6, 1840, p. 2.

[21] Letter from Phebe, October 6, 1840, p. 2.

[22] Letter from Phebe, October 6, 1840, p. 3.

[23] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come Join with Us,” Ensign, November 2013,

[24] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come Join with Us.”

[25] Letter from Phebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, April 1, 1840, p. 2, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[26] Letter from Phebe, October 6, 1840, p. 2, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[27] James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977), p. 238.

[28] .  Letter from Phebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, October 25, 1840, p. 1,

[29] David A. Bednar, “Accepting the Lord’s Will and Timing,” Ensign, August 2016,

[30] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail.”

[31] Letter from Phebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, December 6, 1840, p. 1, Wilford Woodruff Papers,

[32] David A. Bednar, “The Tender Mercies of the Lord,” Ensign, May 2005,

[33] 1 Nephi 17:40.

[34] Amy A. Wright, “Christ Heals That Which Is Broken,” Liahona, May 2022,

[35] Jeremiah 31:13.