One of the great challenges of our age is for members to remain committed to their covenants, notwithstanding opposition and adversity. As a leader among young adults for many years, I have observed some members conclude that because of challenges in their lives, God’s plan and promises don’t work. The life of Wilford Woodruff provides overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
His life was filled with adversity, especially during those periods immediately prior to leading great advances in the growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His life stands as a witness to the blessings that come to the “wise man, which buil[ds] his house upon a rock” of faith in Jesus Christ.
Most members of the Church know about Wilford Woodruff’s remarkable mission in England in 1840 and 1841 that led to the baptisms of almost two thousand people. The descendants of those converts number in the hundreds of thousands today. What is sometimes overlooked is that the eighteen months preceding Wilford’s remarkable harvest of souls, particularly at Benbow Farm, were filled with extreme adversity, commencing shortly after Wilford’s call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Such adversity continued unabated until he received the inspiration from God on March 1, 1840, his thirty-third birthday, to immediately leave a prosperous nascent field of missionary labor in Staffordshire, England, and to head south—not knowing in advance that it would lead to a miracle of biblical proportions at Benbow Farm.
It is this eighteen-month period of trial and challenges immediately preceding the miracle at Benbow Farm that help us understand the strength of his faith in God’s plan and promises.
Obedience through Adversity
On August 9, 1838, while serving a mission in the Fox Islands off the coast of Maine, Wilford received a letter from Thomas B. Marsh, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The letter informed Wilford of his call to that Quorum: “It is agreeable to the word of the Lord, given very lately, that you should come speedily to Far West, and, on the 26th of April, next, take your leave of the Saints here and depart for other climes, across the mighty deep.”
Marsh’s letter referred to a revelation the Prophet Joseph Smith received on July 8, 1838, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 118:
Let them take leave of my saints in the city of Far West, on the twenty-sixth day of April next, on the building-spot of my house, saith the Lord. Let my servant John Taylor, and also my servant John E. Page, and also my servant Wilford Woodruff, and also my servant Willard Richards, be appointed to fill the places of those who have fallen, and be officially notified of their appointment.”
Joseph Smith’s obedience to the Lord’s command to send his most trusted supporters, the Apostles, on a mission to England was a heroic act of faith. The years 1837 and 1838 were full of wide-spread apostasy and turmoil among the leaders of the Church. In fact, the four new appointments to the Twelve, as stated in the revelation, were to take the place of “those who [had] fallen.” And after receiving the revelation contained in Doctrine and Covenants 118, circumstances worsened for Joseph. On December 1, 1838, he along with his brother Hyrum and a few other Church leaders were imprisoned in Liberty Jail.
At the same time, Wilford experienced his own epic trials. After receiving the letter notifying him of his appointment to the Twelve, he gathered many of the recent converts from the Fox Islands and started west to join the Saints in Illinois. While traveling through Ohio, Wilford’s wife Phebe became deathly ill. Wilford recorded in his journal the pathetic scene:
The 1st of December was a trying day to my soul. My wife continued to fail, and in the afternoon, about 4 o’clock, she appeared to be struck with death. I stopped my team, and it seemed as though she would breathe her last lying in the wagon. Two of the sisters sat beside her, to see if they could do anything for her in her last moments. I stood upon the ground, in deep affliction, and meditated. I cried to the Lord, and prayed that she might live and not be taken from me.
Phebe’s life hung in the balance for the next two days. Wilford recorded the painful experience of observing Phebe’s every breath as if it might be her last. Finally, on December 3, he described a miraculous healing:
The spirit and power of God began to rest upon me until, for the first time during her sickness, faith filled my soul, although she lay before me as one dead. . . . I laid my hands upon her, and in the name of Jesus Christ I rebuked the power of death and the destroyer, and commanded the same to depart from her, and the spirit of life to enter her body. Her spirit returned to her body, and from that hour she was made whole; and we all felt to praise the name of God, and to trust in Him and keep His commandments.
In the spring of 1839, the Woodruffs joined other Saints gathering in Quincy, Illinois. It is difficult to imagine the extreme hardship of this era in Church history. Their prophet was imprisoned. Their membership was scattered across the state of Missouri, with over ten thousand Saints fleeing that state in response to Governor Lilburn Boggs’s Mormon Extermination Order issued October 27, 1838. Thirty-five of their number had been murdered, including the Apostle David W. Patten.
In this setting, Wilford recorded the Apostles’ discussion considering whether they should risk their lives by traveling across the state of Missouri to reach the temple site at Far West, in fulfillment of the revelation Joseph had received the previous year.
Father Joseph Smith, the patriarch, was at Quincy, Illinois. He and others who were present did not think it wisdom for us to attempt the journey, as our lives would be in great jeopardy. They thought the Lord would take the will for the deed. But when President Young asked the Twelve what our feelings were upon the subject, we all of us, as the voice of one man, said the Lord God had spoken, and it was for us to obey. It was the Lord’s business to take care of His servants, and we would fulfill the commandment, or die trying.
In a demonstration of remarkable faith and courage, the Twelve embarked on April 18, 1839, for their journey to Far West, arriving on the evening of April 25. The next morning, they laid the southeast chief cornerstone of the Temple, consistent with the revelation. There were five existing members of the Twelve present: Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, John E. Page, and John Taylor. At the location of the newly laid chief cornerstone, Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith were ordained Apostles of the Lord.
The cornerstone that is preserved at the site today stands as a monument to the heroic faith of that little band of Apostles who risked their lives to comply with the will of the Lord.
Miracles through Hardship
The Church leaders met briefly with local Saints in Far West and then retraced their steps, arriving back in Quincy, Illinois, on May 2. During this time, Joseph escaped from his captors and made his way to Illinois. On May 3, Wilford recorded that he rode to a location four miles from Quincy where he was reunited with Joseph.
Once more I had the happy privilege of taking Brother Joseph by the hand. Two years had rolled away since I had seen his face. He greeted us with great joy . . . Joseph was frank, open and familiar as usual, and our rejoicing was great. No man can understand the joyful sensations created by such a meeting, except those who have been in tribulation for the gospel’s sake.
Before leaving on their missions, the Twelve had to find appropriate living arrangements for their families. This was no small chore. The Saints were gathering to the swampland at the bend of the Mississippi River then known as Commerce, later to be renamed Nauvoo. Wilford recorded their desperate situation: “President Brigham Young and myself, with our families, occupied one room about fourteen feet square.”
By early July, it was time for the Apostles to leave for their missions in England. However, the swampland in which the Saints settled was infested with mosquitoes. A malaria epidemic broke out and many died or were incapacitated by illness. Amidst this devastating affliction, on July 22, 1839, Joseph, filled with the Spirit of God, embarked upon a great day of healing.
After the Prophet healed Brigham Young, he walked past Wilford and said simply, “Brother Woodruff, follow me.” Wilford then witnessed the Prophet miraculously heal Elijah Fordham who was near death. At Joseph’s command, Elijah rose from his sick bed, fully recovered.
Wilford witnessed additional miraculous, instantaneous healings at the hand of the Prophet Joseph that day. Finally, while Joseph and Wilford stood at the river’s edge waiting for a ferry, a man approached the Prophet and requested that Joseph would heal his five-month-old twin children who were near death. They were located two miles away. Wilford recorded the following in his journal:
The Prophet said he could not go; but, after pausing some time, he said he would send some one to heal them; and he turned to me and said: “You go with the man and heal his children.” He took a red silk handkerchief out of his pocket and gave it to me, and told me to wipe their faces with the handkerchief when I administered to them, and they should be healed. . . . I went with the man, and did as the Prophet commanded me, and the children were healed.
Three days later, Wilford himself became sick, along with his wife, Phebe. Both were bedridden with chills and fever. After two weeks of being in this condition, Wilford resolved to depart on his mission notwithstanding his sickness.
The 7th of August was the last day I spent at home in Montrose, and although sick with the chills and fever most of the day, I made what preparations I could to start on the morrow on a mission of four thousand miles, to preach the gospel to the nations of the earth; and this, too, without purse or scrip, with disease resting upon me, and a stroke of fever and ague once every two days. . . .
Early upon the morning of the 8th of August, I arose from my bed of sickness, laid my hands upon the head of my sick wife, Phoebe, and blessed her. I then departed from the embrace of my companion, and left her almost without food or the necessaries of life. She parted from me with the fortitude that becomes a Saint, realizing the responsibilities of her companion.
Wilford’s Mission to England: The Miracle at Benbow Farm
Brigham Young took Wilford by canoe across the Mississippi River. Wilford got as far as the Nauvoo post office where he laid on the ground. At that very moment, the Prophet Joseph walked by and said: “Well, Brother Woodruff, you have started upon your mission.”
Wilford replied: “Yes, but I feel and look more like a subject for the dissecting room than a missionary.”
Joseph responded with some tough love: “What did you say that for? Get up, and go along; all will be right with you!”
Gathering all the faith he could muster in his weakened condition, Wilford got up and resumed his journey to England. The entire trip, made with little money and still suffering from illness, was itself a heroic act of faith. He and Elder John Taylor arrived in Liverpool, England, on January 11, 1840.
Wilford began his missionary work and enjoyed success while laboring in the area around Staffordshire, England. He baptized and confirmed many new converts in his five weeks in the area.
On Sunday, March 1, 1840, his thirty-third birthday, he preached twice to large crowds in the City Hall in the town of Hanley. During the evening meeting, as the initial hymn was being sung, Wilford recalled, “the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and the voice of God said to me, ‘This is the last meeting that you will hold with this people for many days.’ ”
He was taken by surprise with this spiritual impression. He had already had several convert baptisms and anticipated many more. Nevertheless, he announced he was leaving to obey the Spirit’s prompting to travel south. On March 3, he traveled by coach to Wolverhampton. The next morning, he walked several miles until he arrived at Hill Farm, owned by John Benbow.
He described Mr. Benbow as a “wealthy farmer” with a wife, Jane, and no children. Wilford announced to John Benbow that he was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that he “had been sent to him by the commandment of God as a messenger of salvation, to preach the gospel of life unto him and his household, and the inhabitants of the land.”
Wilford soon learned why he had received the prompting directing him to John and Jane Benbow. They gladly embraced Wilford’s message and told him there was a group of six hundred people who had broken away from the Wesleyan Methodists, taking the name United Brethren. Wilford recorded, “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.”
Mr. Benbow’s farmhouse included a hall in which Wilford began preaching. A large crowd gathered for his first sermon on the evening of March 5, 1840. The next night, another throng of people arrived for a second sermon. Following the sermon, Wilford baptized six people, including John and Jane Benbow and four preachers of the United Brethren.
“The Dawning of a Brighter Day” by Julie Rogers
Realizing a great harvest of souls had begun, the next morning Wilford cleared out a pond on the farm to prepare for future baptisms to follow. This act of faith was not in vain. The miraculous flood of conversions had begun. Over the next few months, Wilford baptized in that pond most of the six hundred members of the United Brethren. In the broader area around Herefordshire, it is estimated that somewhere between fifteen hundred and two thousand people were baptized by Wilford and his missionary colleagues.
The members of the Church know well the remarkable results of Wilford’s missionary work at Benbow Farm, including the baptisms of constables sent to arrest him and clerks from the Church of England sent to disrupt his preaching. While the results of Wilford’s missionary labors were stunning, those who doubt whether the Lord keeps his promises would do well to remember the eighteen months of extreme sacrifice, deprivation, and intense opposition that preceded these miraculous events at Benbow Farm.
Wilford Woodruff’s life was filled with miracles. But such miracles were always preceded by periods of intense opposition and adversity. All of us would be blessed by following Wilford’s example of obeying the voice of the Lord, no matter the cost, trusting that it is “the Lord’s business to take care of His servants.” Wilford truly built his house upon a rock. “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”
Jordan Clements is the Chair of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation Board of Directors and a great-great grandson of Wilford Woodruff.
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Some original text has been edited for clarity and readability.
 Matthew 7:24.
 Doctrine and Covenants 118:5–6.
 Matthew 7:25.