Editor’s Note: It is particularly significant to share this information on this specific day as it is Wilford Woodruff’s birthday.
On March 1, 1807 a child was born in Connecticut who would become not only another witness of the Restoration, but a catalyst in the process of revelation that was required. From the day of his baptism on December 31, 1833 he kept a faithful record of “this Church and kingdom and the dealings of God with us.”[i] His record provides a front row seat to the ongoing restoration of the principles and doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
His name? Wilford Woodruff.
We Went On Our Way Rejoicing
Wilford often concluded his description of a difficult experience with the expression “and we went on our way rejoicing.” For example, when Wilford was a missionary in Arkansas in 1835, traveling between members’ homes was long, rough, and dangerous. After enduring much opposition, he hoped to find someone who would treat him with kindness. He met a Native American who put Wilford on the back of his horse to take him across the river. Wilford’s response was, “and we went on our way rejoicing.”[ii]
When Wilford had spent five hours in the dark in a blinding storm struggling to ford another river, after making it safely across, he wrote, “and we went on our way rejoicing.”[iii]
When Wilford was sick with chills and fever in Nauvoo, he was undeterred in leaving for New York to fulfill his mission in England. The Prophet Joseph saw him and said, “‘Well, Brother Woodruff, you have started upon your mission.’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘but I feel and look more like a subject for the dissecting room than a missionary.’ Joseph replied, ‘Get up, and go along; all will be right with you!’” So Wilford went on his way rejoicing.[iv]
In the words of one who knew Wilford well, “No amount of self-denial has been too great for him to cheerfully endure for the advancement of the cause of God.”[v]
We are still benefiting from Wilford Woodruff’s legacy of cheerful endurance.
Why? Because he kept a daily record. A record of every mile he walked, every blessing and ordinance he administered, every heartache he suffered, every mistake he made, every prayer God answered.
The Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation
George A. Smith stated unequivocally that Wilford Woodruff has “done more to preserve the history of this Church than any man on the earth.”[vi] The Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation, established in 2020, is now making his preserved history available to every person with access to the internet.
The Wilford Woodruff Papers Project is dedicated to collecting, digitally preserving, transcribing, and publishing all of Wilford Woodruff’s documents in the next ten years. The first transcribed documents are available online today at www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org. These documents represent 1/40th of the cataloged collection, less than 3%, but include almost 1,500 pages. And you will be able to see the original documents next to the transcriptions with hyperlinks to many of the people and places he describes.
Every three months over the next decade, additional transcriptions of Wilford’s journals, discourses, autobiographies, correspondence and personal papers will be added. Through his records we can better understand the process of revelation that established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the faith it was founded upon.
Those who believe the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ started and ended with Joseph Smith may be surprised by Wilford’s day by day account of the Restoration as it unfolded in the nineteenth century. Joseph Smith only lived long enough to establish the foundational framework of the Church.
Wilford testified that “All was not revealed at once, but the Lord showed the Prophet a principle, and the people acted upon it according to the light which they had. All the perfection and glory of it was not revealed at first; but, as fast as it was revealed, the people endeavored to obey.”[vii]
Although he received priesthood authority, essential priesthood keys, and the sacred ordinances of the temple, Joseph was martyred before the implications of those ordinances could be fully realized, and before the full administration of temple ordinances for the living and the dead could begin.
The Restoration continued under the inspired leadership of Brigham Young. After Joseph’s death in 1844, Brigham presided over the limited ordinances administered in the Nauvoo Temple until the Exodus in 1846. Once the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, some temple ordinances were performed in the Endowment House and other temporary locations between 1847 and 1877.
But Brigham died only four months after administration of all the ordinances for both the living and the dead began in the St. George Temple in 1877. He was therefore unable to participate in the fulfillment of the promises God revealed regarding Elijah’s mission on the earth.
Temple work was still impeded by the Saints’ limited understanding of the breadth and scope of God’s plan of salvation through John Taylor’s tenure as President of the Church.
It was Wilford Woodruff who received the revelations in the 1870s and 1890s that, in his words, would finally enable the Saints to “do exactly what God said when He declared He would send Elijah the prophet in the last days.”[viii]
Through Wilford’s experiences with Joseph in Kirtland and Nauvoo, and with the written records of the temple ceremonies he and Brigham had received under Joseph’s direction, Wilford was prepared to receive additional revelation. He was the first prophet to preside over the administration of the saving ordinances in multiple temples, when the Manti, Logan, and Salt Lake temples were completed.
Additional revelation led to Wilford’s difficult decisions to end the practices of rebaptism, adoption, and polygamy. Through additional revelation, he put the final puzzle pieces in place to complete the picture Moroni outlined to Joseph Smith in 1823.
In the April 1894 General Conference, when speaking of the law of adoption, President Woodruff explained, “We have felt that there was more to be revealed upon the subject than we had received.”[ix]
For the fifty years preceding Wilford’s 1894 revelation, there had been three types of sealing ordinances: the sealing of couples, the sealing of children to their parents, and sealings, otherwise known as “adoptions,” into a worthy man’s priesthood lineage.
Wilford’s concerns and inquiries regarding these practices led to the revelation in 1894 and the changes he understood were necessary to correctly implement God’s will. Only then could family units be created generation upon generation through the sealing power, and links in eternal families be properly connected.
When Wilford acknowledged that the “full particulars of this order” were not revealed until after the days of Joseph Smith, he told the Saints this showed an advance in building the kingdom and proved the importance of continuing revelation.
His statement foreshadowed the fact that he was not only a witness to the incremental development of temple ordinances and practices over the course of nineteenth-century Church history, he was also the instrument through which many revealed changes were made.
Wilford also testified that Brigham Young “accomplished all that God required at his hands. But he did not receive all the revelations that belong to this work; neither did President Taylor, nor has Wilford Woodruff. There will be no end to this work until it is perfected.”
It is now our opportunity to be instruments in God’s work and glory “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”[x] To participate in the process of revelation and the continuing restoration of all things.
President Russell M. Nelson recently reminded us that, “If you think the Church is fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning. There’s much more to come. Wait till next year, and then the next year. Eat your vitamins, get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”[xi]
Wilford’s Extraordinary Work
The Wilford Woodruff Papers are uniquely able to help expand our understanding of our collective history as a Church. The Joseph Smith Papers project includes the foundational documents of the Church from 1830 to 1844. Wilford Woodruff’s daily record extends that history through 1898: from his introduction to the Restored Church in 1833 through his ten years of missionary efforts; from New York to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Iowa, and finally the Salt Lake Valley. In spite of the personal challenges he suffered and the deaths and loss he endured, he wholeheartedly consecrated 59 years of his life to serving as an apostle and prophet. His unmatched eyewitness account chronicles a remarkable era of faith.
In October 2019 President Russell M. Nelson asked us to focus on immersing ourselves “in the glorious light of the Restoration.”[xii] He also challenged us to, “Make a list of all the Lord has promised He will do for covenant Israel.”[xiii]
We now have access to Wilford’s list because he not only recorded the Lord’s promises, but the fulfilment of those promises as he made and kept his covenants. In 1856 he wrote, “We are living in one of the most important generations that man ever lived on Earth and we should write an account of those important transactions which are taking place before our eyes in fulfillment of the prophecies and the revelation of God.”[xiv]
He later added, “shall [we] be blessed with these things and not count them worth recording? Not even make the mark of a pen to leave the account on record for [our] children and future generations to read? I say [we] should. I think the Lord requires this at our hands and it is a rich and Holy legacy which is justly due our posterity.”[xv]
We are the beneficiaries of Wilford Woodruff’s rich legacy, his record left for future generations to examine and learn from. His writings provide answers received through the process of continuing revelation, such as: What was the purpose of the law of adoption? What led to his announcement in 1894 that rewrote the nature of temple work? How many times did Satan try to thwart Wilford’s work, including attempts on his life? Why was Wilford baptized nine times? What details of the life of Joseph Smith are preserved only in Wilford’s journals? What is the connection between the temples and the Manifesto he issued in 1890?
The Wilford Woodruff Papers Project
The documents now available at www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org are a fraction of Wilford Woodruff’s expansive archives of more than 40,000 letters, journals, and discourses. The vast majority of these documents have not been transcribed. Many of the letters he tallies in his journals may not have survived the almost 200 years since they were written. Some are in private collections, have not been digitally preserved, or are not accessible to the public. We have gathered thousands of documents, but we will continue our search and would appreciate your help in that effort.
The Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation is committed to making all of Wilford’s records not only accessible, but understandable. It is a monumental task that will require not only locating and digitally preserving his documents, but transcribing them word by word, completing a second and third level verification of the transcriptions, and then conducting research on each person Wilford interacted with and corresponded with. We know that the result will be a blessing to us now and to future generations.
We hope you will visit www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org and take your front row seat to Church history. We are discovering new things every day.
If you are willing to volunteer your time and talents and be a part of this historic undertaking, visit our volunteer page to learn more about the current opportunities.
If you would like to be the first to know when new content is added to the site, please visit our website at www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org and subscribe to our monthly email updates.
To learn more about the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project, please watch this 3-minute video introduction by Steven C. Harper, our Executive Editor.
Jennifer Ann Mackley, JD, is the Executive Director of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation, which she co-founded with Donald W. Parry in 2020. In addition to her legal practice, Jennifer has authored or edited 21 books including Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine. She has served as a historian for the Wilford Woodruff Family Association since 2014 and has made numerous presentations and podcasts based on her research of Wilford Woodruff’s life and records. Her hope in transcribing and publishing Wilford Woodruff’s Papers is to help Church members and historians alike understand the importance of the temple ordinances and gain insights into the Restoration through Wilford’s unique perspective of the revelatory process.
[i] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, August 28, 1857.
[ii] Leaves From My Journal, Juvenile Instructor Office, Salt Lake City, Utah, (1882), 13.
[iii] Leaves, 20.
[iv] Leaves, 69.
[v] Leaves, preface.
[vi] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, August 21, 1860.
[vii] Remarks by Elder Wilford Woodruff, Delivered in the Bowery, Great Salt Lake City, Thursday, April 9, 1857.
[viii] Millennial Star, May 28, 1894.
[ix] Millennial Star, May 28, 1894.
[x] Moses 1:39.
[xi] Russell M. Nelson, in “Latter-day Saint Prophet, Wife and Apostle Share Insights of Global Ministry,” Oct. 30, 2018, newsroom.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
[xii] Russell M. Nelson, “Closing Remarks” General Conference, October 2019.
[xiii] Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” General Conference, October 2020.
[xiv] Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 28 Sept. 1846.
[xv] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, November 18, 1855.