Cover image: Winter Quarters by C. C. A. Christensen.
The above title comes from Wilford Woodruff of the Council of the Twelve Apostles as he surveyed the sprawling, westward-bound encampments of the Latter-day Saints at Mt. Pisgah, Iowa Territory on June 30, 1846. Brigham Young and the vanguard Latter-day Saint camps were restlessly waiting at the Missouri River, and Wilford arrived just in time to witness Captain James Allen’s request for a 500-man Mormon Battalion. This request led to Brigham Young’s decision to establish a Winter Quarters in the region of Council Bluffs.
Wilford was not alone in describing this momentous chapter in our history. Many added their insights and reflections but none other captured the spiritual significance, the theological developments and interpretations, and the temple dimensions quite as well as did this man from Connecticut.[i]
Of all the many topics Wilford discoursed upon while at Winter Quarters and later along the trail to the Valley, three were of the greatest interest to him: his attention to the troubles and sufferings of the Saints in a time of terrible trial and difficulty; his sensitivity to all things temple related; and, above all, his careful regard for Brigham Young’s constant reminders to his people of the need for increased obedience and repentance.
Trials and Difficulties
On October 15, 1846, Wilford suffered a nearly fatal timber-cutting accident and lay in bed convalescing for three weeks afterwards. During that time, he also lost two young infant sons, Joseph and Ezra. Sensing the pall of death all around him and wondering if his own life would be spared, Wilford recorded, “I have never seen the Latter-day Saints in any situation where they seemed to be passing through greater tribulations or wearing out faster than at the present time.”[ii] Before the winter was over, several hundred others died there of scurvy, exhaustion, and exposure. Just days before the vanguard company of the Twelve left for the Rocky Mountains, Wilford joined others in anointing and blessing the many still sick in camp.
Wilford’s second recurring area of interest pertained to matters of the temple. Since he had first laid eyes on the Kirtland Temple back in 1836, Wilford Woodruff was carefully attuned to the doctrines, ordinances, and importance of the temple. This temple consciousness pervades all his writings, a temple prism of understanding and interpretation.
It was Wilford who baptized for the dead a handful of deceased individuals in the Missouri River at Winter Quarters.[iii] It was Wilford who noted marriage sealings in Willard Richards’ octagon and in various other Winter Quarters cabins.[iv] When one of his beloved converts from England-Sister Benbow-died in Winter Quarters in late November 1846, he noted that she was “laid out in her garments according to her endowments.”[v] He even made sketches of what a temple in the mountains of the West might someday look like. And on May 13, 1847, as the vanguard company was approaching Ash Hollow on the Platte River, a weary Wilford dreamed that they “had arived at our Journeys end whare we were to build up a stake of Zion. As we came onto the place there was An open vision of A temple presented before me…I gazed upon it & it was glorious. It appeared as though it was built of white & blue stone. The sight of it filled me with Joy and I awoke & behold it was a dream.”[vi]
Furthermore, Wilford carefully noted the many times the leadership of the Church retired to some secluded spot along the trail to dress in temple robes to circle themselves in prayer for one another’s health and spiritual well-being. For instance, just before leaving the Scotts Bluff region, “the camp had A Prayer meeting in the morning & met Again in public Meeting. President Young in company with the quorum of the Twelve & a few others went into the valley of the Hills & according to the order of the Priesthood prayed in a circle.”[vii]
Wilford also paid particular attention to the law of adoption in which many Saints were then being united or sealed to one or other of the leading authorities of the Church, rather than to their own ancestors.[viii] Quoting Brigham Young judiciously yet at almost every turn, Wilford wrote that this law was much more than a social organization in which groups of families joined to help one another build cabins, construct wagons, and make the trip west together in companies. Rather, it was a sealing ordinance, a spiritual uniting of men and women into the families of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, and even of Wilford Woodruff.
As Brigham Young put it: “I have gathered a number of families around me by the law of adoption and sealed the covenant according to the order of the Priesthood…it being the means of salvation left to bring us back to God…. Suffice it to say that I will extend the Chain of the Priesthood back through the Apostolic dispensation to Father Adam just as soon as I can get a temple built.”[ix] Although this practice would later fade away and be replaced eventually by the practice of families being sealed to their deceased ancestors, during the time the Saints resided at the Missouri River and were moving westward, the law of adoption prevailed.
Sensing that the practice was, however, imperfectly understood and unevenly applied, Wilford recorded that “the Lord introduced the law of adoption for the benefit of the children of men as a schoolmaster to bring them back into the covenant of the priesthood.”[x] But at that time, they grasped the broad outlines of the temple doctrine of uniting families eternally and sensed that more revelation on the topic would be forthcoming. Wilford Woodruff years later, as President of the Church, received the revelation directing him to suspend the practice of adoption in favor of sealing families to their own ancestors.[xi]
Yet the topic of Wilford Woodruff’s greatest interest was the Saints’ obedience to apostolic counsel. Having witnessed the deaths of many during Zion’s Camp of 1834 and the sufferings of the Saints in Missouri, he was convinced that the success or failure of their present struggles westward depended primarily on the repentance and righteousness of the people. Put succinctly, they would find their place if they followed their God![xii]
As the Saints hurriedly prepared themselves for the impending winter, Wilford deliberately chose to emphasize the sermons of Brigham Young. For instance, on December 15, 1846, Brigham arose to cry repentance to the people. “The camp of Israel must repent or it will not be long before a man could not bear the Priesthood upon his head in their midst and the Twelve would have to flee out of their midst and go to the mountains which would be a great curse to this people.”[xiii]
This interpretation may also explain why, of all journal writers, Wilford included in his writings the entire text of The Word and Will of the Lord (Doctrine and Covenants 136) which says nothing about their future destination but everything about keeping the commandments. “Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another. Cease drunkenness; and let your words tend to edifying one another” (Doctrine and Covenants 136:23-24). In fact, Wilford is one of very few to discuss the sermons by Brigham Young that led up to the composition of this, Brigham Young’s only canonized revelation. Brigham implored,
You must stop your swearing. You must stop your [w]horedoms. You must stop your back bitings [and] speaking evil of the Twelve and of me. You must stop these things and put away your wickedness or you will be damned. You will be destroyed. You will be visited by pestilence and plague and by the sword, and you will fall to the ground. And I warn you and fore warn you of these things if you do not repent… I would rather go to the mountains with the Twelve alone and not to have another soul with us than to have those who will not be subject to the Priesthood but practice wickedness and serve the devil.[xiv]
Brigham Young returned repeatedly to this theme as the Saints traveled farther west, but never in such a dramatic way as when he halted the camp at Scotts Bluff in late May of 1847. And once again, Wilford was there to record it all. “I think I will take for my text to preach my sermon for I am about to revolt from travling with this camp any further with the spirit they now possess,” a worried Brother Brigham thundered after a particularly strenuous stretch.[xv]
They knew they were in Sioux country far away from home and still far removed from the Rocky Mountains. Tensions were high and tempers flared in a worried, collective fear that they were far behind schedule. Everything-their successful venture, the health and safety of their families, even the future of the Church-depended on the successful completion of their journey. The future was in their hands and no one felt it more than Brigham Young.
I am now resolved not to go any further with the Camp unless you will Covenant to humble yourselves before the Lord & serve him & quit your folley & wickedness…. How would you look if they [the future Saints] would know your conduct & Ask you what did you do when you went to seek out Zion, & find A resting place for the Saints where the Standard of the Kingdom of God could be reared? [Did] you spend A good deal of your time in dancing pitching quate, Jumping wrestling &c? Yes. Yes. Did you play Cards, dice checkers & dominoes? O! Yes. What Could you do with yourself? Why you would shrink from the glance of the eyes of God Angels & men even wicked men. Then are you not ashamed of yourselves for practicing these things? Yes you are & you must quit it.[xvi]
Wilford followed in much the same vein reminding them of Zion’s Camp when “more than twenty of our numbers fell by the stroke & we all suffered much in our feelings. And I pray the Lord I may not see another such a time. And I would now Advise my brethren to be Careful in Keeping the Covenant we have made lest by & by the word of the Lord Come unto us as in the days of Joseph & we cannot escape his judgment.”[xvii]
The response was dramatic. Several arose, wept, and confessed their sins. All covenanted to do better before they returned to the trail, and the chastened company moved forward. Wilford soon after summed it all up as a blessing: “The Lord has truly been with us on this Journey. We have had peace & union in our midst… Great good will grow out of this mission if we are faithful in keeping the commandments of God.”[xviii]
The House of God
The excitement of Wilford and the Latter-day Saint company grew as they neared the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Finally, the much-anticipated day arrived, affording Wilford one last time to return to his cherished themes of temple and obedience.
JULY 24th 1847 This is an important day in the History of my life and the History of the Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter Day Saints. On this important day after traveling from our encampment 6 miles through the deep ravine… we came in full view of the great valley or Bason [of] the Salt Lake and land of promise held in reserve by the hand of GOD for a resting place for the Saints upon which A portion of the Zion of GOD will be built. Thoughts of Pleasing meditations ran in rapid succession through our minds while we contemplated that not many years that the House of GOD would stand upon the top of the Mountains while the valleys would be converted into orchard, vineyard, gardens & fields by the inhabitants of Zion & the Standard be unfurled for the nations to gather there to. President Young expressed his full satisfaction in the Appearance of the valley as A resting place for the Saints & was Amply repayed for his Journey.[xix]
Richard E. Bennett, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus of Church History and Doctrine at BYU. He is currently president of the Nebraska and Iowa Historic Sites Mission where he and his wife, Patricia, serve as directors of the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters. He has written extensively on Church History topics and authored many books and articles on the Saints’ exodus from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley including Mormons at the Missouri: Winter Quarters, 1846-1852; The Journey West: The Mormon Pioneer Journals of Horace K. Whitney; We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus 1846-1848; and Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice.
This article was written in cooperation with the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project. To learn more about the Project, visit http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
The mission of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project 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 http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents, including Wilford’s journals, letters, missionary records, 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 http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/volunteer
[i] The finest biography of Wilford Woodruff remains Thomas G. Alexander, Things in Heaven and on Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, A Mormon Prophet. (Salt Lake City: Signature Press, 1993). See also Jennifer Ann Mackley, Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine. (Seattle: High Desert Publishing, 2014) In my most recent study, Temples Rising: A Heritage of Sacrifice (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2019), I rely heavily on Wilford’s understanding of the central place of temple worship in nineteenth century Latter-day Saint history.
[ii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/48cbe06c-21b4-43af-b497-91648c43f481/page/0ee3c360-8aa6-44df-9da0-d960af12c0f4 17-21 November, 1846, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, <http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org> wilfordwoodruffpapers.org. Misspellings have been generally corrected throughout.
[iii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/d26413a0-3f7b-4dce-b588-81ed0331e873 4 April 1848, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[iv] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2 883f0/page/afae67b4-9d16-4eb3-b9b2-dca24341195b, 24 January 1847. For much more on sealings at Winter Quarters, see the author’s Temples Rising, pp. 122-125.
[v] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/48cbe06c-21b4-43af-b497-91648c43f481/page/10788e53-ac9d-41a2-a7d6-c56dc30d7379, 28 November 1846, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[vi] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/pag/afae67b4-9d16-4eb3-b9b2-dca24341195b, 13 May 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[vii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/e42272c9-0cd9-4d24-ab52-a927d74ee8cc, 30 May 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org
[viii] I shall not attempt here to discuss in detail the Law of Adoption as it was understood during the Exodus era. For more see Jennifer Ann Mackley, Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine, pp. 267-292. See also Temples Rising, particularly pp. 125-130. See also Gordon Irving, “The Law of Adoption: One Phase of the Mormon Concept of Salvation, 1830-1980” BYU Studies 14, No. 3 (Summer 1974):291-314. See also Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism.” Journal of Mormon History, 37, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 53-118.
[ix] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/cd006984-b14e-49b0-b643-eb80689cffdf, 16 February 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[x] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/b5a0bb25-5aa5-4615-81bd-86464755ac48, 16 February 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org. Italics mine.
[xi] For much more on this development of sealings see Temples Rising, particularly chapter 4.
[xii] Richard E. Bennett, “‘My Idea Is to Go Right Through Right Side Up With Care’: The Exodus as Reformation.” Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture Series No. 3. Logan, Utah Special Collections and Archives, Merrill Library, Utah State University, 6 November 1997.
[xiii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/48cbe06c-21b4-43af-b497-91648c43f481/page/ae0be873-fc2d-4add-83b8-92f9d710c419, 15 December 1846, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[xiv] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/48cbe06c-21b4-43af-b497-91648c43f481/page/71756629-08a6-4411-ba6a-c5eb04610347, 20 December 1846, The Wilford Woodruff Papers. Hosea Stout, chief of police at Winter Quarters, speaking squarely of the thefts, fornications, and various criminal activities of a very small minority of Saints may have prompted Brigham Young’s threats.
[xv] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/bb15fcb8-eee7-49a5-9358-e2c9d09b3d0d, 29 May 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[xvi] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/009c99ad-b5ab-43d6-8f43-2638a9f23a79, 29 May 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[xvii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/009c99ad-b5ab-43d6-8f43-2638a9f23a79, 29 May 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[xviii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/099ef341-e6e5-4fcc-a27e-8d2f3c27fcf0, 13 June 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
[xix] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c971e56-08d1-4e91-9ade-4fb00f2883f0/page/2e8ff169-b49c-4702-b329-31e0aa9b8fbc, 24 July 1847, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, http://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.