The Apostle John the Beloved presents a humble yet powerful witness of the Savior in the Gospel of John. He begins with repeated testimonies of the Savior’s divine mission, both his own testimony and that of John the Baptist. Eric D. Huntsman, Brigham Young University professor of Ancient Scripture, explained that “beyond his friendship with the Savior, other passages reveal [the Apostle John] as a powerful witness of the most important events of Jesus’s mission: he stood at the foot of the cross to witness the Lord’s death as a sacrifice for sin, ran to the tomb after the Resurrection to confirm that it was empty, and saw the resurrected Savior.”1
A Powerful Witness
Wilford Woodruff, fourth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also knew the value of testifying. He knew that the way to teach people with the Spirit was to bear personal witness of the restored gospel and to record the witness of others, just as we are encouraged to do in 2 Corinthians 13:1: “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” We are the beneficiaries of Wilford Woodruff’s witness: he left behind 30 daybooks and journals, wrote more than 13,000 letters, and gave at least 3,559 discourses and speeches over the 64 years between his baptism and death, and on almost every page he bore testimony of the Savior and the restored gospel.
The question remains, why did Wilford Woodruff, like John the Beloved, feel such an urgency to record and testify? Wilford wrote in his Book of Revelations that “faith comes by hearing the word of God through the testimony of the Servants of God, that Testimony is always attended by the spirit of prophecy and revelation.”2 Apostle Howard W. Hunter similarly explained John’s motivation in recording his own and John the Baptist’s witness of the Savior when he said,
The immediate purpose of the mission of John the Baptist was to bear witness that Jesus was the true Light, the true teacher of the way of life eternal, and to invite men to believe in him for the remission of their sins and be baptized. John the Baptist was not the Messiah or the leader of a great movement; he was the herald and witness, bearing testimony to the nature and divine titles of Jesus, and the witness through whom God attested the divine sonship of Jesus.3
John repeatedly recorded his own testimony and that of John the Baptist in John 1. In verse 7 John the Apostle declared that John the Baptist came “to bear witness of the light, to bear record of the gospel through the Son;”4 again in verse 15, “And John bare witness of him”; in verse 32, “And John bare record”; in verse 34, “And I saw, and bare record”; and in verses 29 and 36, “Behold the Lamb of God.” He spoke of John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”5
Like the Apostle John, Wilford felt it was also his duty to record and testify—not only his duty, but also the responsibility of every faithful leader. In a journal entry in 1862, he explained:
This Church is organized with a presidency of 3 men, the Twelve Apostles, also 63 Quorums of Seventies 4,410, Apostles and many thousands of High Priests, Elders, Bishops, Priests, Teachers, and Deacons. All should keep a Journal of the dealings of God with them and their official acts, and keep a true History of Events in this great dispensation. I was inspired and moved upon to write a Journal and keep a record of the affairs of this Church from the time I first Joined this Church up to the Present time. I seldom Ever heard the Prophet Joseph, or Brigham Young, or the Apostles teach preach or Prophesy or perform any official act but what I have recorded it in my Journals, unless some other persons were recording the same, and I could not feel Easy until I had accomplished it. I have written more sacred History of the teaching of the prophets and Apostles and 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. 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 council and Teaching From the Presidency or Twelve.6
Again in a journal entry that same year, he explained how scripture is the recorded history of testimony throughout the ages, thereby giving an added motivation for preserving his witness of the Restoration:
The ancient Jaredites and Nephites who inhabited this continent were commanded of God to write their history upon Brass & Gold Plates, which were hid up in the Earth to come forth in our day to be translated by the Prophet Joseph through the power of God for the benefit of the Saints. This forms the Book of Mormon and is the purest translation of ancient records that we have any knowledge of upon Earth, yet this record gives but a limited Idea of the dealings of God with that People, yet what we have obtained was by strict commandment of God. But let us turn our thoughts a moment to our own day. I need not tell you that this is the kingdom of God, Established by God Himself which is to take the place of all other kingdoms upon Earth, and we are the People Ordained of God to Establish his kingdom upon the Earth, build up Zion, and prepare the way for the coming of Jesus Christ. Now should we not keep a Journal, Record, and History of the dealings of God with [us] as they transpire day by day before our Eyes?7
The Value of Testifying
While Wilford Woodruff clearly recognized the lasting value of recording his faith, he was not only interested in doing so for the sake of preservation. His testimony had immediate value to him and those around him. He wrote about his decision to first serve a mission shortly after his baptism, and about the witness he received from the Lord:
I had a great desire to preach the gospel, which I did not name to my brethren, but one Sunday evening I retired into the woods alone, and called upon the Lord in earnest prayer to open my way to go and preach the gospel to the inhabitants of the earth; the spirit of the Lord bore witness that my prayer was heard, and should be answered. I arose from my knees happy, and walked some forty rods and met Elias Higbee, a High Priest, with whom I had staid a number of months. As I approached him, he said “Brother Wilford, the Spirit of the Lord tells me that you should be ordained and go on a mission.” I replied, “I am ready.”8
Wilford’s practice of first recognizing and then recording his faith helped him reach the point where he could say, “I am ready,” even though as a new member in a new Church, he couldn’t possibly have known what he was signing up for.
Young Wilford Woodruff, however, jumped in with both feet, and his faith was fed from the start. While traveling with Zion’s Camp in 1834, just a few months after his baptism, Wilford recorded the Prophet Joseph’s powerful testimony in the History of Zion’s Camp.
On Sunday the 27 of April the saints met together and held a testimony meeting, and many of the elders spoke and bore their testimony. Among the number was Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, Hyrum Smith, Oliver Cowdry, and also Joseph Smith the Prophet who closed by saying, “Brethren, we are laying the foundation of a great work and you know it not, you comprehend it not. The work we are engaged in will grow, spread, and increase until it will fill the land: it will go from sea to sea; it will fill the Rocky Mountains: all nations will hear it: it will fill its destiny; it is the work of Almighty God, and he will maintain and defend it.” It appears to me there was more light made manifest in that meeting pertaining to the gospel and kingdom of God than I had ever received from the whole Sectarian world.9
A Soul Filled With Enthusiasm
Because he was so well practiced in bearing his testimony, he knew that he sometimes wore out his friends and families with his repeated witness, even writing to his brother Asahel, “I am entirely unshaken in its work and in consequence of this, my soul being wrap’d in the work, when I have written to any of my friends (yourself not excepted) I have principally written upon the subject and this is why I say, perhaps I have been too tedious in my letters to you.”10
Tedious or not, it was this enthusiasm that took him to England, to find and baptize the United Brethren in 1840. He wrote in his journal that spring, “I Wilford Woodruff being led by the spirit visited Frooms Hill in Herefordshire, England, 5 miles North of Ledbury on the 5th day of March 1840 and commenced preaching the word of God unto the people.”11 That preaching led to significant conversions at the farm of John and Jane Benbow.
I here found a society called “United Brethren,” numbering about six hundred members, and about fifty preachers; Thomas Kington was the presiding elder. They came from all quarters to hear me preach, and believed my testimony; and I preached and baptized daily. The ministers of the Church of England sent three church clerks to see what I was doing, and I baptized them. One constable came to arrest me for preaching, and I baptized him. In about thirty days I baptized 160, forty eight of whom were preachers of the United Brethren, including their presiding elder, Thomas Kington.12
Wilford’s missionary enthusiasm continued throughout his tenure in the Church. He clearly acknowledged the Lord’s hand in his ability to share the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ—he should have died several dozen times over, as he wrote in his Autobiography in the Deseret News in 1858:
I have occupied considerable space in referring to those peculiar circumstances which have attended me during life, and to sum the matter up it stands thus:—I have broken both legs—one in two places—both arms, my breast bone and three ribs, and had both ankles dislocated. I have been drowned, frozen, scalded, and bit by a mad dog—have been in water wheels under full head of water—have passed through several severe fits of sickness, and encountered poison in its worst forms—have landed in a pile of railroad ruins—have barely been missed by the passing bullet, and have passed through a score of other hair-breadth escapes. It has appeared miraculous to me, that with all the injuries and broken bones which I have had, I have not a lame limb, but have been enabled to endure the hardest labor, exposures and journeys—have often walked forty, fifty, and on one occasion, sixty miles in a day. The protection and mercy of God has been over me, and my life thus far has been preserved; for which blessings I feel to render the gratitude of my heart to my Heavenly Father, praying that the remainder of my days may be spent in His service and in the building up of His kingdom.13
The Power of His Testimony
And what a blessing it is to us that his life was preserved. There are many accounts of the early history of the Church that we only have through Wilford Woodruff. One such example is his testimony given in his June 1889 “Keys of the Kingdom” discourse. President Woodruff, now the prophet, recounted when Joseph Smith “gave to the Twelve Apostles their charge concerning the Priesthood and the Keys of the Kingdom.” In the context of his meeting with Brigham Young in Boston immediately after they received the news of Joseph Smith’s death, Wilford said,
We were overwhelmed with grief … After we had done weeping we began to converse together concerning the death of the Prophets [Joseph and Hyrum Smith]. In the course of the conversation, [Brigham Young] smote his hand upon his thigh and said, “Thank God, the keys of the Kingdom are here.” . . . [Brigham] referred to the last instructions at the last meeting we had with the Prophet Joseph. . . . The Prophet Joseph I am now satisfied, had a thorough presentiment that that was the last meeting we would hold together here in the flesh. We had had our endowments; we had had all the blessings sealed upon our heads that were ever given to the Apostles or Prophets on the face of the earth. On that occasion the Prophet Joseph rose up and said to us, “Brethren, I have desired to live to see this temple built. I shall never live to see it, but you will. I have sealed upon your heads all the keys of the Kingdom of God. I have sealed upon you every key, power, principle that the God of heaven has revealed to me or sealed upon me. Now, no matter where I may go or what I may do, the Kingdom rests upon you.”14
What more compelling proof could there be of the power of one man’s simple yet sure testimony than baptizing over a hundred converts, including leaders of another religion and the constable who came to put a stop to it all; of testifying of the Prophet Joseph and his role in the restoration of the priesthood and the Church; of assuring the early Saints of the continuity of priesthood keys and God’s authority on the earth?
The Apostle John tells us of John the Baptist, “The same came into the world for a witness, to bear witness of the light, to bear record of the gospel through the Son, unto all, that through him men might believe. He was not that light, but came to bear witness of that light, Which was the true light, which lighteth every man who cometh into the world; Even the Son of God. He who was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.”15 Just as John the Baptist bore witness of Christ, Wilford was a humble testifier of the Savior. It was his powerful testimony that touched the hearts of those seeking the truth.
In John 1:45 we read, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Wilford had found the Lord and couldn’t keep from sharing his witness. Still today, we are blessed with the testimony he left behind, like this tender letter he wrote to his children near the end of his life, valuable to us still today as it must have been to them at the time:
Again I wish to say to you my children, that I know that God lives, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and the Savior of the world, and He shed His blood to redeem us from death, and God raised up Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God who brought forth the Book of Mormon, and laid the foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which the Lord is well pleased. And the Church of Christ and the Zion and Kingdom of God has been organized. It is on the earth for the last time and this Church and Kingdom of God will stand and fill the whole earth and be thrown down no more forever.16
Kristy Wheelwright Taylor is the Board Secretary for the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. She has a master’s degree in Humanities from Brigham Young University. She spends much of her time in volunteer work, Church service, and writing for various websites and publications. Along with serving on the Board and working with the team and our donors, Kristy volunteers as a transcriptionist of the Wilford Woodruff Papers. She has loved getting to know Wilford Woodruff better through his writings and is always inspired and surprised by his dedication, tenacity, personality, hard work, and faith.
Be inspired by the words of Wilford Woodruff in person at the upcoming Building Latter-day Faith Conference on March 4, 2023 at BYU. To register or learn more about the conference, visit 2023.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
To learn more about the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project and read never before accessible Church history records visit wilfordwoodruffpapers.org. Please join us in this effort by contributing your time as a volunteer or your financial resources to support the transcription and research teams. For details visit wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/volunteer.
Some original text has been edited for clarity and readability.
- Eric D. Huntsman,“John, the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved,” Ensign, January 2019, ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
- “Religious – Book of Revelations 1838-1842,” p. 29, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/book-of-revelations.
- Howard W. Hunter, “Blessed are Those Who Have Not Seen,” Conference Report, October 1968, pp. 138–142.
- John 1:7, Joseph Smith Translation.
- John 1:23.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, February 12, 1862, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/journal/1862-02-12.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, February 12, 1862, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/journal/1862-02-12.
- “Autobiography 1858 Deseret News,” p. 1, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/deseret-news-autobiography.
- “History – The History of Zion’s Camp,” p. 4, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/history-of-zions-camp.
- “Letter to Asahel H. Woodruff, 7 July 1837,” p. 5, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/letter/1837-07-07.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, April 13, 1840, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/journal/1840-04-13.
- “Autobiography 1858 Deseret News,” p. 4, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/deseret-news-autobiography
- “Autobiography 1858 Deseret News,” p. 6, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/deseret-news-autobiography.
- “Discourse 1889-08-02,” p. 1, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/discourse/1889-08-02.
- John 1:7–10, Joseph Smith Translation.
- “Letter to Asahel, Clara, Owen, Blanche, and Alice Woodruff, 1 February 1887,” p. 1, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/letter/1887-02-01.