Cover image: Joseph photo via Biblical Typology.
Children love stories, and as a child my mother Ruth would read to me from a children’s book of Bible stories. One of my favorites was the story of Joseph with his coat of many colors. As I learned about his life it was clear, as the scriptures recorded, that “the Lord was with Joseph“ always. (Genesis 39:2–3, 21, 23).
My mother also told me stories about her grandfather, Wilford Woodruff. I was fascinated to hear about his many accidents, close calls with death, his success as a missionary and pioneer, and his association with temples. After a challenging situation Wilford frequently would write “I went on my way rejoicing.” Only years later did I fully appreciate how many characteristics were shared by Wilford and Joseph, these two great men of God.
Two of many similarities were their love of family and their confidence that the Lord would support them under all circumstances.
Love For and Commitment to Family
Both Joseph and Wilford loved their parents, siblings, and relatives, and they were committed to the temporal and spiritual welfare of these loved ones.
Genesis chapters 37 through 50 detail Joseph’s early promise as a favored son, his dreams, the betrayal by his brothers in selling him into Egyptian slavery, being falsely accused of a crime by Potiphar’s wife, imprisonment, and finally his deliverance through his inspired interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream and his rise to a position of power second only to Pharaoh.
During the great famine, Joseph demonstrated his great love for his family by saving them from starvation and providing them with a new home in Egypt. Further, Joseph forgave his brothers of their treachery, telling them:
Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life . . . And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God. (Genesis 45:6-8)
Wilford Woodruff, like Joseph, went before his family spiritually so that they might have eternal life. As a young man Wilford was spiritually engaged. He was a seeker, who by scripture study and prayer was looking for a church that followed the pattern of the one established anciently by Jesus.
While still in his youth a deeply spiritual man in his neighborhood named Robert Mason told Wilford that Wilford would live to see the restoration of Christ’s true church and that Wilford would “become a conspicuous actor in that kingdom.” (Leaves from my Journal, p. 5)
Robert Mason’s prophecy was fulfilled in late December 1833 when Wilford and his brother Azmon heard the restored gospel preached by Zerah Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney while living in Richland, New York near Lake Ontario. They were baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on December 31, 1833.
After their baptism, Azmon was ordained an Elder and made branch president while Wilford was ordained a Teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood. Soon a call came to the brothers to join the Zion’s Camp march to help the persecuted Saints in Missouri. Wilford responded to the call while Azmon did not. It was not long before Azmon became inactive in the Church. The blessings of obedience for Wilford far outweighed the sacrifices he made.
In Kirtland, Ohio, Wilford received his patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr. In that blessing Wilford was promised that he would bring his father’s household into the Kingdom of God.
From time to time as Wilford would visit his family in Connecticut, he would share with his them his beliefs and the blessings that came from his membership in the Church. On one of these visits in the summer of 1837 Wilford baptized his Uncle Ozem, Aunt Hannah, and his cousin John, fulfilling a dream he had when he was only 11 years old. (Leaves From My Journal, pp. 40)
A year later, while on his way to his mission field in Maine, Wilford again visited his father Aphek’s home in Farmington, Connecticut. He records the following in his autobiographical work Leaves From My Journal:
On the 1st of July, 1838, there occurred one of the most interesting events of my whole life in the ministry. When Father Joseph Smith gave me my patriarchal blessing, among the many wonderful things he promised me was that I should bring my father’s household into the Kingdom of God; and I felt that if I ever obtained that blessing, the time therefor had come. By the help of God I preached the gospel faithfully to my father’s household and to all who were with him, as well as to my other relatives . . . My father was believing my testimony, as were all in his household; but upon this occasion it appeared as if the devil were determined to hinder the fulfillment of the promise of the patriarch to me.
It seemed as if Lucifer, the son of the morning, had gathered together the hosts of hell, and was exerting his powers upon us all. Distress overwhelmed the whole household, and all were tempted to reject the work; and it seemed as if the same power would devour me. I had to take to my bed for an hour before the time of meeting. There I prayed to the Lord with my whole soul for deliverance; for I knew then that the power of the devil was exercised to hinder me from accomplishing what God had promised I should do. The Lord heard my prayer and answered my petition. When the hour of meeting came, I arose from my bed and could sing and shout for joy to think I had been delivered from the power of the evil one. Filled with the power of God, I stood in the midst of the congregation and preached unto the people in great plainness the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At the close of the meeting we assembled on the banks of the Farmington River, “because there was much water there,” and I led six of my friends into the river and baptized them for the remission of their sins. All of my father’s household were included in this number, as the patriarch had promised . . . It was truly a day of joy to my soul. I had baptized my father, stepmother, and sister, and I afterwards added a number of other relatives. I felt that the work of this day alone amply repaid me for all my labors in the ministry.
Who can comprehend the joy, the glory, the happiness and consolation that an Elder of Israel feels in being an instrument in the hands of God of bringing his father, mother, sister, brother, or any of the posterity of Adam through the door that enters into life and salvation? No man can, unless he has experienced these things and possesses the testimony of Jesus Christ and the inspiration of Almighty God.” (Leaves From My Journal, pp. 86-88)
Many years later, Wilford was able to help his brother Azmon move to Utah and renew his activity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When the knowledge of salvation for the dead was restored, Wilford received the saving ordinances for many of his relatives and friends becoming truly a savior on Mount Zion. Included in that number was Robert Mason.
In all this, Wilford was truly Joseph like.
Waiting on the Lord With Faith
Like Joseph, Wilford always bided his time, waiting to see the workings of God in his behalf and in the blessing of the Church. For instance, Wilford noted that the only office in the Church he ever aspired to was that of a Priest. In the fall of 1834 while working in Liberty, Missouri after the Zion’s Camp March, Wilford had a great desire to serve a mission. However, as a Teacher he could not be a missionary. He had to at least hold the office of Priest.
Wilford went into a Hickory Grove near the Michael Arthur farm where he had been working and prayed fervently that he could be ordained a Priest and go on a mission. Wilford‘s prayer was immediately answered, for upon coming out of the woods he encountered Judge Elias Higbee of the High Council who informed Wilford that “the Lord has revealed to me that it is your privilege to be ordained and to go and preach the Gospel.” (Leaves from my Journal, p. 20)
Shortly after, Wilford was ordained a Priest by Simeon Carter and called on a mission to Arkansas and Tennessee. In January 1835 Wilford and his younger companion, Elder Harry Brown, began their mission on foot.
On March 24, 1835, Wilford and his companion were trudging through deep mud and water between Little Rock, Arkansas to Memphis, Tennessee when Wilford could go no farther due to a sharp pain in his knee. As Wilford sat down on a log in what he later described as an “alligator swamp” near present day Colt, Arkansas, his companion announced he needed to get back to Kirtland quickly to help his family, bid Wilford farewell.
Lame and with no aid in sight Wilford recorded: “I knelt down in the mud and prayed and the Lord healed me and I went on my way rejoicing.” (Leaves from my Journal, p. 29)
Like Joseph, the Lord was with Wilford to deliver him in times of need.
About a year later Wilford was laboring with other missionaries near Paris, Tennessee when the opportunity presented itself for some of his companions to travel to Ohio to receive their “endowment of power” in the Kirtland Temple. Wilford, however, was not invited to join them, but was instead asked to stay and preside over the work while they were gone.
He described what happened to him in a talk given years later in Utah:
I have had the administration of angels in my day and time, though I never prayed for an angel. I have had, in several instances, the administration of holy messengers. In 1835, at Brother A. O. Smoot’s mother’s house in Kentucky, I received a letter one day from Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, requesting me to stay in Kentucky and Tennessee and take charge of the Church there. He wanted David Patten and Warren Parrish to go to Kirtland to receive their endowments. Joseph said in that letter: “You shall lose no blessing by pursuing this course.” That letter was a great joy, a great comfort and consolation to me.
I had traveled with Joseph Smith to Missouri. I had been acquainted with him, and I knew he was a Prophet of God. In the evening of that day I went into a little back room, in which was a small settee. I was alone. I was overwhelmed with joy and consolation at the letter I had received and the encouraging words it contained.
I knelt down and prayed. I arose from my knees and sat down. The room was filled with light. A messenger came to me. We had a long conversation. He laid before me as if in a panorama, the signs of the last days, and told me what was coming to pass. I saw the sun turned to darkness, the moon to blood, the stars fall from heaven. I saw the resurrection day. I saw armies of men in the first resurrection, clothed with the robes of the Holy Priesthood. I saw the second resurrection. I saw a great many signs that were presented before me, by this personage; and among the rest, there were seven lions, as of burning brass, set in the heavens. He says, “That is one of the signs that will appear in the heavens before the coming of the Son of Man. It is a sign of the various dispensations.”
Now, had I been an artist, on the next day I could have sat down at my table and drawn, as clearly as though I had studied them all my life, everything I saw. I went to meeting the next day, with Brother Smoot. I hardly knew where I was. I did not comprehend a being, scarcely. I was entirely overwhelmed with what I had seen the night before. (Discourse delivered March 3, 1889, in Provo, Utah.)
While Wilford may have missed experiences in Kirtland, by obedience he was richly compensated by the Lord through an angelic administration and a glorious vision of the Savior’s Second Coming. At the time, Wilford could have little imagined one day he would preside as Church President for the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple.
Like Joseph, from his youth to old age, Wilford patiently and faithfully followed the path of Discipleship confident in so doing that the Lord would always be with him. And He was.
Whatever imprisons us, and no matter how deep the mud we must wade through, God will always be with us.
Richard Woodruff Lambert is a great-grandson of Wilford Woodruff. He serves as Vice Chairman of the Ensign Peak Foundation (Formerly Mormon Historic Sites Foundation) and is the former President of the Wilford Woodruff Family Association.
This article was written in collaboration with the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. To learn more about the Foundation’s word visit www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
The mission of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation is to digitally preserve and publish Wilford Woodruff’s eyewitness account of the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thousands of transcribed pages are available at wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents, including Wilford’s journals, missionary records, dreams and visions, autobiographies, and histories.
Please join us in this effort by contributing your time as a volunteer or your financial resources to support the transcription and research teams. Learn more at wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/volunteer