Zerah Pulsipher’s “Call to the North”
In 1833, less than a year after joining the Church, Zerah Pulsipher was working on his farm and felt impressed to begin preaching the gospel. The feeling was so strong that shortly before noon he unyoked his oxen and turned them into the pasture, then walked to the house and asked his wife for a clean shirt and a pair of socks.
“Where on earth are you going?” she asked.
“I don’t know, only that I am going to preach the gospel. The Lord will show me where to go. I am going where He guides me.”
“How long will you be gone?” she inquired.
“I don’t know. Just long enough to do the work the Lord has for me to do.”[i]
Zerah asked his neighbor Elijah Cheney to join him and they headed north. They walked almost sixty miles before reaching Richland, New York, where they knocked on the door of two brothers: Wilford and Azmon Woodruff. The Woodruffs attended the missionaries’ meeting at the local schoolhouse that evening. Because Zerah prepared and consecrated himself, sought to do God’s will, acted immediately on a prompting to “go north,” and shared the gospel and his testimony, Wilford and Azmon recognized the truth and felt the Spirit. Wilford read the Book of Mormon and two days later both brothers were baptized on December 31, 1833.[ii]
After Wilford Woodruff’s baptism, he spent ten of the next sixteen years as a missionary, sharing the truths of the restored gospel. Between 1835 and 1850 he served seven missions. During this service he learned the importance of four processes: preparing personally, maintaining faith, seeking guidance through prayer, and acting on inspiration. As a missionary he faced persecution, fear, temptation, loneliness, depression, exhaustion, and self-doubt, and he overcame these challenges through these processes.
We can likewise overcome our challenges by following his example and the pattern he set, serving according to the Lord’s will and sharing the truth we know with others. In these ways we can participate in the gathering of Israel, which President Russell M. Nelson said is “the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance, nothing else compares in majesty.”[iii]
Wilford Woodruff’s Process
Wilford Woodruff prepared himself to act according to whatever answers he received from the Lord. One way he accomplished this preparation was by seeking truth. He wrote, “From the age of 14 to 23 my mind was often exercised upon the subject of my soul’s salvation. Then at that age I resolved by the grace of God assisting me to be led by the spirit and word of God into that truth which maketh free thereby. I had no desire to join any of the sectarian Churches for I found by comparing the Churches with the records of divine truth that they were neither contending nor receiving the faith once delivered to the Saints.”[iv]
Wilford was prepared to receive truth after studying the scriptures; seeking for truth led him to the meeting with Zerah; his faith in God’s promises and the gifts of the Spirit enabled him to receive his own witness that the words spoken were true; and he acted upon them immediately to bear witness of the truth.
He explained, “I opened my eyes to see my ears to hear my heart to understand. I felt the spirit of God to bear witness that [Zerah Pulsipher] was the servant of God. He then commenced preaching and that to us with authority, and when he had finished his discourse I truly felt that it was the first gospel sermon that I had ever heard. I thought it was what I had long been looking for. I could not feel it my duty to leave the house without bearing witness to the truth before the people.”[v]
The following morning, Wilford asked to be baptized, as a witness before God that he had entered into a covenant with Him, to serve Him and keep His commandments, and, as we read in Mosiah 18:9–10, “to stand as a witness of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in . . . that He may pour out His Spirit more abundantly.” Thanks to Wilford’s curious mind and spiritual preparation, his conversion was swift and encompassing.
He wrote in his journal, “Be it known that I Willford Woodruff do freely covenant with my God that I freely consecrate and dedicate myself together with all my properties and affects unto the Lord for the purpose of assisting in building up his kingdom even Zion on the earth that I may keep his law and lay all things before the bishop of his Church that I may be a lawful heir to the Kingdom of God even the Celestial Kingdom.”[vi]
The new convert wasted no time in proving his dedication to the Lord, starting with a call to participate with the Saints in Zion’s Camp only a few months after his baptism, writing in his journal on April 11, 1834, “Brother Parley said it was the will of the Lord that the young men & middle aged what could be spared should go up to Zion. . . . He told me it was my duty to try to prepare myself and go up to Zion. And accordingly I used every exertion to settle my accounts arrange my affairs and prepare myself to join my Brethren to go to Missouri.”[vii]
This experience would turn out to be a proving ground for him and one where he learned at the feet of the Prophet, as he recorded in his journal: “It was a great school for us to be led by a Prophet of God.”[viii]
Constantly seeking additional guidance from the Lord to direct him as he served was Wilford’s priority. He understood that he must ask to receive and seek to find. He also learned quickly that whenever he was blessed with any good thing, he must be willing to share it with others. Determined to keep the covenants he made at baptism, Wilford prepared himself to be an instrument in the Lord’s hands, and he sought opportunities to serve. After Zion’s Camp he spent the summer months working, and in the fall of 1834, he felt ready to serve a mission.
I knew the gospel which the Lord had revealed to Joseph Smith was true, and of such great value that I wanted to tell it to the people who had not heard it. . . . I went into the woods where no one could see me, and I prayed to the Lord to open my way so that I could go and preach the gospel. While I was praying, the Spirit of the Lord came upon me, and told me my prayer was heard and that my request should be granted. . . . As soon as I met [Lyman Wight], he said, “the Lord has revealed to me that it is your privilege to be ordained, and to go and preach the gospel.” I told him I was willing to do whatever the Lord required of me.[ix]
He preached the gospel for the next two years in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Repeating and Refining the Process
Less than a year after returning from his first mission, Wilford recorded, “The Spirit of God said to me, ‘You choose a partner and go straight to Fox Islands.’ Well, I knew no more what was on Fox Islands than what was on Kolob. But the Lord told me to go, and I went.”[x] While serving on the Fox Islands off the coast of Maine, he received a letter from Thomas B. Marsh, President of the Quorum of the Twelve, informing him that he was to be ordained an Apostle and a member of that Quorum. In the same letter he received the call to his third mission, this time to Great Britain.[xi] Big things were in store for the Apostle and missionary. He was prepared to rely on the process of revelation to carry him through his new adventure as a representative of the Lord’s Church in England.
Wilford Woodruff’s “Call to Go South”
President Nelson reminds us that if we pray and listen, “thoughts, feelings, and direction will come into our mind. Recording those impressions will help us remember what actions the Lord would have us take. As we repeat this process, we will, in the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ‘grow into the principle of revelation.’ ”[xii]
Wilford was not just practicing this process of recording his impressions, but of acting on those whisperings of the Spirit, and acting with boldness. One of his most memorable examples of acting on the Lord’s guidance while serving in England happened as he was working in what he considered a successful area of the mission—he had, after all, participated in forty baptisms in Staffordshire in February, 1840. But he wrote in his journal on March 1, “As I met in the evening with a large assembly in Hanley, the Lord revealed unto me that it would be the last meeting that I would hold with the Saints in the [Staffordshire] Potteries . . . I went before the Lord in prayer, and asked him where I should go; the Spirit said, ‘Go to the south.’ According to the directions of the Spirit, on the 3rd, I went to Herefordshire.”[xiii]
In Herefordshire he met John and Jane Benbow and was introduced to the United Brethren, a group of some six hundred who had broken off from the Wesleyan Methodists and were prepared for more spiritual knowledge, as illustrated in this experience that took place the Sunday prior to Wilford’s coming:
Susan Brooks . . . with a companion [was] walking a distance to fill an appointment for preaching when one said to the other: “What are you going to preach today?”
“I don’t know, I have preached all I know. What are you going to preach?”
“I, also, have preached all I know. I hope the Lord will send us light.””[xiv]
And light they did receive, in the form of the restored gospel taught by a young missionary. As Elder Woodruff wrote,
This body of United Brethren were searching for light and truth, but had gone as far as they could, and were continually calling upon the Lord to open the way before them, and send them light and knowledge that they might know the true way to be saved.[xv]
They prayed to the Lord that he would open the way before them, that they might advance in the things of his kingdom. I will say that the power of God rested upon me and upon the people. There was a spirit to convince and a people whose hearts were open and ready to receive the Gospel.[xvi]
The month of March in Herefordshire saw 160 baptisms, with hundreds more soon to follow. Wilford Woodruff opened forty authorized places to preach and worship. That group of converts led to the funding to print five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon. By June they were organized into twelve branches comprising 541 members; by July they numbered 1,007 members. All because one missionary knew how to receive revelation and act on it.
Recording and Sharing the Process
Wilford Woodruff believed in the importance of keeping records. He wrote: “I have written more sacred History of the teaching of the prophets & Apostles & official acts of the Latter day Saints than would make several Testaments as large as the one Handed down to us by the Ancient Apostles.”[xvii]
His journal keeping was a way for him to seek more light and direction, and to see the hand of the Lord in his life. In the same journal entry, he explained, “All should keep a Journal of the dealings of God with them and their officials acts, and keep a true History of Events in this great dispensation. . . . I have kept a Journal of almost every day of my life since I have been a member of this Church. By referring to my Journals I could tell each day what I have done, the company I have been in, and what was transpiring around me, and any counsel and Teaching.”
Wilford Woodruff’s recordkeeping began with his baptism on the last day of 1833 and continued through his death in 1898, making sixty-five years of documentation totaling over 100,000 pages. This dedication to journaling made him an unusually detailed and unique recordkeeper.
Wilford Woodruff believed recordkeeping has a higher purpose, reminding us, “The Lord gives unto us dreams, visions, and revelations and many blessings. Should we not have respect enough to God to make a record of those blessings which He pours out upon us and our official acts which we do in His name upon the face of the Earth? I think we should.”[xviii]
His recordkeeping encourages us to record our own “book of life” (Revelation 20:12). We are similarly encouraged to keep a history of our life in Doctrine and Covenants 128:8, and our responsibility is eternally significant: “Whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; for out of the books shall your dead be judged, according to their own works.”
We have to determine for ourselves how our lives will be remembered and how our stories will be told. The testimonies, struggles, and triumphs we share in our recorded history can open hearts and doors not just for our family members, but for countless others.
Continuing to Seek Understanding and Follow the Lord’s Guidance
Wilford Woodruff was constantly seeking additional guidance from the Lord to direct him as he served. He understood the Lord’s promise meant we must ask to receive and we must seek to find, just as we read in Matthew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” He knew that when we receive revelation, we spend time in the presence of God.
President Russell M. Nelson reminded us how to continue learning by personal revelation: “Learn how to access the power of heaven. Every one of us has questions. Seeking to learn, understand, and recognize truth is a vital part of our mortal experience. . . . You too will learn best by asking inspired questions.”[xix]
Wilford understood that seeking is a process, that answers can lead to more questions for clarification, and that clarifying answers lead us to more knowledge as the process repeats. This is taught in Doctrine and Covenants 42:61: “If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge.”
Lessons for Today from the Life of Wilford Woodruff
As I have received the good and the evil, the fruits of obedience and disobedience, I think I am justified in exhorting all . . . to always obey the whisperings of the Spirit. . . . The Spirit of God will rule over and guide all men who will permit it and seek for it.[xx]
Wilford Woodruff believed in seeking, testifying of, and acting on the word of the Lord. From him we are reminded that faith is a process. Repentance is a process. Conversion is a process, as are consecration, revelation, perfection, and exaltation. These processes are how we continue seeking, learning, acting, and testifying in faith. They are also how we gather Israel. President Nelson taught us, “This doctrine of the gathering is one of the important teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We not only teach this doctrine, but we participate in it. We do so as we help to gather the elect of the Lord on both sides of the veil.”[xxi]
From Wilford we also learn to expect miracles as we act in faith. We read in Ether 12:12: “For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself until after their faith.” Wilford did not base his faith upon miracles; miracles merely confirmed what he believed with all his heart and supported the promises in scripture that miracles follow faith. There is no quota of miracles for each of us; there is no finite number. God is not going to run out of miracles. Or mercy. Or forgiveness. Or love. Wilford Woodruff reminds us to expect miracles and act according to the miracles we receive.
Wilford Woodruff sought God’s direction in everything and his faith was such that he sought for and saw the hand of God in everything. He expected and found miracles. He taught, “We are in the hands of God. We have come to this earth in this time upon a mission. We have been born on purpose in this generation to take part in this work. . . . We are living in an important day. We are called to do a work for the Lord, and we are going to do it as far as we have time and opportunity. . . . let us be faithful. Let us trust in God.”[xxii]
He expected and depended on inspiration, not only for personal direction but divine protection, and we can rely on the same as we fulfill our earthly missions.
Jennifer Ann Mackley is the Executive Director of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project, founded in 2020. Jennifer has authored or edited 21 books including Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine. Her hope in making Wilford Woodruff’s records and eyewitness account of the Restoration available online is to increase faith in our Savior and enhance our understanding of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Discover more from Wilford Woodruff’s Papers at wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[i] Typescript of History of Zerah Pulsipher, as written by himself, p.7, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
[viii] Autobiography 1882 Leaves from My Journal, p. 18, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/autobiography/leaves-from-my-journal.
[ix] Autobiography 1882 Leaves from My Journal, p. 20, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/autobiography/leaves-from-my-journal.
[xiii] Autobiography 1865 Millennial Star, p. 31, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/autobiography/millennial-star.
[xv] Autobiography 1883 Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine, p. 37, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/autobiography/tullidges-quarterly-magazine.
[xx] Autobiography 1882 Leaves from My Journal, p. 103, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/autobiography/leaves-from-my-journal.