Wilford Woodruff’s experiences, when contrasted with the experiences of his older brother Azmon, and his missionary companion Warren Parrish, provide an interesting case study for those seeking to understand what actions and attitudes will sustain the faith of a young adult or any new convert.
Seek Truth through Study and Prayer
Wilford Woodruff’s journals and histories provide an invaluable insight into the development of his faith during the first three years of his Church membership when he was a young adult. Two of his closest friends during that period shared many of the same conversion experiences, and yet both fell away from the Church.
Essential to Wilford’s conversion was his desire to seek truth long before he was baptized. He explained he “could not find a body of people, denomination, or church that had for its doctrine, faith, and practices those principles, ordinances, and gifts which constituted the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by Him and His apostles. Neither did I find anywhere the manifestations of the Holy Ghost with its attendant gifts and graces.”
Wilford searched, Enos-like, but could not find the true church of Christ on the earth.
I had given myself up to the reading of the Scriptures and to earnest prayer before God day and night as far as I could years before I heard the fullness of the gospel preached by a Latter-day Saint. I had pleaded with the Lord many hours in the forest, among the rocks, and in the fields, and in the mill – often at midnight for light and truth and for His Spirit to guide me in the way of salvation. My prayers were answered and many things revealed to me.
As we seek to know why Wilford’s faith never faltered during those formative years, part of the answer lies in his extensive longing for truth prior to ever hearing missionaries preach the gospel. For young adults today to remain true their faith and covenants, they too must have a longing for truth.
Sacrifice is Essential
In 1832, Wilford moved to Richland, New York with his older brother Azmon and Azmon’s wife Elizabeth. There they purchased a 140-acre farm with a sawmill, house, and orchard. The following year, Wilford’s search for truth was rewarded when two missionaries, Zera Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney, arrived in Richland. On December 29, 1833, Azmon and Wilford attended a meeting held by the missionaries at a local schoolhouse. After the missionaries had preached, the brothers stood and testified that the missionaries had preached the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
Two days later, they were baptized. Although Wilford recorded the snow was about three feet deep and the water was mixed with ice and snow, he wrote, “yet I did not feel the cold.”
The Baptism of Wilford Woodruff, from “The Great Apostasy”
January 2, 1834, Azmon was ordained an Elder in the newly established Branch and Wilford was ordained a Teacher. Three months later, Parley Pratt and Harry Brown visited Azmon and Wilford. Wilford summarized their encounter:
we had a precious interview Brother Parley preached with us untill about midnight he was on an important mission . . . under a command of the Lord to gather together some of the servants of the Lord to go up to Zion . . . it was the will of the Lord that the yo[u]ng men & middle aged what could be spared should go up to Zion.
The timing of this call from the Lord was not convenient. Wilford wrote, “I told Brother Parley our circumstances.” Wilford had significant financial and other commitments. Those valid reasons apparently did not carry much sway with Brother Parley: “He told me it was my duty to prepare to go up to Zion.”
From Wilford’s earliest days as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he established patterns of sacrifice and obedience to the Lord’s servants. In contrast, Azmon did not respond to the call from the Lord through His appointed servants and chose to remain in New York.
It was not long after Azmon’s rejection of the call to duty that he began expressing doubts about the Prophet Joseph. This led to a rift with his brother Wilford. Azmon’s faith quickly deteriorated and led him down a path away from the truth that was only reversed forty years later.
Obedience and Mentoring by Church Leaders
Fourteen days after responding Parley’s call to duty, Wilford arrived in Kirtland and wrote:
There for the first time I had a view of our beloved Brother Joseph Smith the prophet & seer which God hath raised up in these last days through whom the Saints receive Revelations from time to time. Brother Joseph invited us to take up our abode with him & accordingly we did and boarded at his house most of the time for a week.
The important connections for Wilford continued. On April 26, 1838, he was introduced to Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. The next day, being the Sabbath, he attended meetings and heard several Church leaders speak:
Brother Sidney Rigdon, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt and others spoke. Joseph Smith closing during the meeting. It appeared to me there was more light made manifest at that meeting respecting the gospel and Kingdom of God than I had ever received from the whole Sectarian world.
Wilford’s path of sacrifice to accept the call to go immediately to Kirtland and become a member of Zion’s Camp changed the course of his life. His proximity to the Prophet during Zion’s Camp and his interaction with future Church leaders had a profound influence on him.
Wilford’s recognition of Joseph’s prophetic calling is evident early in Zion’s camp. “Brother Joseph often addressed us in the name of the Lord while on our journey and often while addressing the camp he was clothed upon with much of the spirit of God.”
Depiction of the Camp of Israel arriving in Missouri.
Wilford’s respect for Joseph grew after Zion’s Camp was disbanded. In Missouri, he wrote:
On the third day of July I attended the meeting at Lyman Wight’s at which time Joseph Smith the Prophet organized the High Council. Joseph was clothed with the power of God. He chastised David Whitmer & others for unfaithfulness. Said their hearts were not set upon the building of the Kingdom of God as they should be. After he was chastised he was set apart under the hand of Joseph to preside over the Land of Zion.
Joseph’s approach foreshadowed God’s subsequent instruction to show forth an increase of love after reproving with sharpness. Joseph’s magnanimous act is recorded without editorial comment by the author. But this combination of blunt, direct correction followed by immediate encouragement and expressions of confidence no doubt shaped Wilford’s own developing leadership style.
On December 31, 1834, Wilford recorded his consecration of all his temporal goods to the Lord. He acknowledged this consecration was necessary to “become a lawful heir to the Celestial Kingdom of God.” Sacrifice in the name of the Lord is an essential element of a continuing conversion to the Lord. Wilford’s unhesitating obedience and willing service was greatly rewarded over the remainder of his long life. Through his sacrifice Wilford was strengthened in his convictions.
For young adults, it is sometimes difficult to connect the dots between actions in mortality and the resulting eternal consequences. The pull of the world can blind one to the eternal blessings of obedience to God. This ability to connect the earthly with the eternal, the temporal with the infinite, is a key to Wilford’s unwavering commitment to God and keeping his covenants during his young adult years.
Seeking Friends Who Will Strengthen Faith
Seven months prior to Wilford’s baptism in Richland, New York, and only fifty miles to the north, a future friend and missionary companion, Warren Parrish, was baptized by Brigham Young. Wilford and Warren shared two life-changing experiences together shortly after their baptisms. Both participated in Zion’s Camp and, after Zion’s Camp was disbanded, both were called to serve in the Tennessee Mission.
On April 5, 1835, Wilford and Warren began serving as missionary companions. They spent almost four months together teaching the gospel. Warren was a faithful example for Wilford. For young adults, good friends who encourage and reinforce faith are essential. Seeking out those who will strengthen and support eternal goals is vital. Changes and transitions are a frequent occurrence in the life of a young adult and can be a test of faith.
Following several baptisms, Elder Parrish received a letter from Oliver Cowdery instructing him to return to Kirtland because he had been called to serve in the Quorum of the Seventy. Before leaving, Elder Parrish ordained Wilford an Elder on July 23, 1835. After having shared such incredible milestones and experiences, Wilford expressed his sorrow over Elder Parish’s departure.
Wilford expressed his sadness and his doubts, but also responded with his continuing resilience:
Rode in company for the last time with Elder Warren Parrish to the mouth of Sandy. Brother Parrish preached to several hundreds for the space of three hours and baptized 1 person. The time had now arrived however painful it might be for me to take the parting hand with Brother Parrish. I know not that we shall ever meet again until we meet in Eternity. May the blessings of God crown his days and prepare him for the Celestial Kingdom. O worthy Brother farewell but not forever.
I am now left alone without human aid to assist me in preaching the gospel. My circuit is about 100 miles in extent besides the care of all the Churches within the limits of the same. Who is weak and I not weak? Who is offended and I burn not? O may the Lord give me strength as my day and many souls as seals of my ministry. O God prepare me for the battle.
Many months later while still laboring in the Tennessee Mission, on April 19, 1836, Wilford had an interview with a fellow missionary and his future brother-in-law, Abraham O. Smoot. Elder Smoot reported to Wilford regarding several days he had recently spent with the apostle, David W. Patten, and his wife.
Wilford recorded that the news from Elder Patten “was glorious in the first degree. He gave me an account of the endowment at Kirtland, Ohio. The heavens was opened unto them. Angels and Jesus Christ was seen of them sitting at the right hand of the father.” The date Wilford recorded this was only days following the dedication of the Kirtland Temple and the Pentecostal season that ensued, including the grand vision of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery recorded in Doctrine and Covenants section 110.
Wilford traveled and preached with David Patten and his wife Ann over the next several weeks. This intensive training by one of the Lord’s anointed played a powerful role in Wilford’s development. Experiences with and mentoring by seasoned Church leaders is essential to the spiritual development of young adults.
Focusing on Temple Covenants
In November 1836, Wilford received instructions to conclude his mission and return to Kirtland. On November 25th he recorded his feelings upon entering the village of Kirtland and seeing the temple:
I truly felt to rejoice at the sight as it was the first time that my eyes ever beheld the house of the Lord built by commandment and revelation . . . I spent one of the happiest days of my life at this time visiting Kirtland and the House of the Lord.
Over the next four months, Wilford made repeated visits to the temple, often in the company of Warren Parrish. He recorded numerous spiritual experiences he had during temple worship. For young adults returning from missions, temple worship is essential to maintaining and increasing one’s faith.
The Kirtland Safety Society was formed in January 1837, with Warren Parrish playing a central role as secretary, signatory, and teller. This coincided with the Panic of 1837 that was sweeping the country. The panic and land speculation severely affected Church members struggling to establish homes and businesses in Kirtland. Warren’s responsibility for the Safety Society’s stock ledger, missing funds, and his issuance of bank notes following the resignation of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon from the Safety Society resulted in accusations of fraud and embezzlement.
Kirtland Safety Society Bank Note signed by Warren Parrish and Frederick G. Williams on July 4, 1837
In the middle of the crisis in Kirtland, on April 13, 1837, Wilford married Phebe Carter in a wedding ceremony performed by Frederick G. Williams, a counselor in the First Presidency. Two weeks later, Wilford and Phebe moved in with Warren Parrish and his wife Elizabeth. Some of the events that resulted in Warren’s apostasy transpired while the Woodruffs boarded with the Parishes. One can only imagine the dinner conversations.
May 28, 1837, was an especially difficult day for Wilford. He went to the House of the Lord to worship that day, but the meeting was interrupted. He recorded in his journal the mutiny led by his dear friend, Warren Parrish.
But; alas, one arose, once a friend, (not now) in the blackness of his face and corruption of his heart stretched out his puny arm and proclaimed against Joseph. Joseph acted wisely while all saw the spirit of his foe. O, Warren Warren when thou art converted strengthen thy brethren. O my God deliver me from such a crime I pray thee.
The following day Warren drafted a statement for several members of the Quorum of the Twelve, accusing Joseph Smith of lying and extortion, which was presented to the Bishop’s Council. The temporal concerns and financial difficulties they were facing overshadowed their trust in God’s promises. While Warren Parrish’s heart was “set so much upon the things of this world” that he turned against the prophet and left the Church, Wilford’s focus remained on Joseph’s counsel that all would be well if they “would give heed to the commandments the Lord had given.”
A Foundation of Faith and a Focus on Eternity
By the Spring of 1837, when Wilford Woodruff married and left the young single adult stage of life, he had been a member of the Church for just over three years. During that time, his two closest friends, his brother Azmon and his mission companion Warren Parrish, had abandoned their faith.
Azmon fell away shortly after refusing a call from the Lord to join Zion’s Camp. Warren fell away because of the allure of worldly over eternal matters. In Wilford’s words, Warren was a smart man, but his smartness “was distorted by ambition, envy, and bitterness.” The reasons for Wilford’s faithful adherence to his covenants when those closest to him were not faithful relates to his having been an earnest seeker of truth long before he found the gospel. He also demonstrated innate resilience and optimism that manifested itself during the sternest of tests. He sacrificed early and often both his time and temporal goods.
Wilford also obeyed the Lord’s servants promptly when called to serve and accepted mentoring from senior leaders in the Church. His temple worship was an important setting for numerous spiritual experiences that strengthened his faith.
Finally, Wilford had a gift for seeing the connection between his mortal actions and eternal consequences. From his baptism on December 31, 1833, until his marriage to Phebe Carter on April 13, 1837, Wilford was a model young single adult from whom we can learn much.
Jordan Woodruff Clements is a great-great-grandson of Wilford Woodruff and Chairman of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation Board.
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 Thomas G. Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth, The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet, Signature Books, 1991, p. 15.
 Mathias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, History of His Life and Labors, Deseret News, 1909, pp. 14-15.
 Ibid., p. 18
 Doctrine and Covenants 121:43.
 Jeffrey N. Walker, The Kirtland Safety Society and the Fraud of Grandison Newell: A Legal Examination, BYU Studies Quarterly, 54:3, pp. 56-58. https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/the-kirtland-safety-society-and-the-fraud-of-grandison-newell-a-legal-examination/.
 Doctrine and Covenants 121:35.
 Mathias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, History of His Life and Labors, Deseret News, 1909, p. 88.