Our beloved prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, tells us often that faithful members of this Church are “covenant Israel,” “children of the covenant,” and on the “covenant path.” We read about this path in Isaiah as we learn of the children of Israel making covenants with the Lord—not just making covenants, but rejoicing in those covenants. In Isaiah 61:8, the Lord tells us, “I will direct their work in truth, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.” Then in verses 10 and 11, Isaiah answers, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in God, for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation . . . so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.”
Dr. Kerry Muhlestein, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, writes in his book Learning to Love Isaiah that these chapters of scripture describe “in joyful terms the conditions that will come to righteous covenant keepers.”1 Wilford Woodruff, fourth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and long-time missionary and disciple of the Lord, was one such joyful, righteous covenant keeper.
Joy and Hardship Intertwined
Because Wilford Woodruff was such a prolific journal writer, we are blessed with his meticulous, firsthand witness of the unfolding of the Restoration from his baptism in 1833 to his death in 1898. In addition to the Church history he kept, we also have a very personal account of his hardships, triumphs, and faith. Often these triumphs were superimposed over the struggles—we see him facing devastating personal losses while in the same breath using his favorite refrain: “and we went on our way rejoicing.” At the end of each year, Wilford recorded a summary of his thoughts and activities in his journal. In addition to cataloging the miles he traveled and the blessings he gave, he took a personal inventory of his life. At the end of 1840, only seven years after his baptism and with decades of life to come, Wilford reflected on being away from home in England for the last twelve months and on the loss of his first child, Sarah Emma.
This has been an important year to myself, to all the saints & to the world at large in many respects. Never have I spent a year with more interest than 1840. Never have I been called to make greater sacrifices or enjoyed greater blessings. I have been called to make a sacrifice of the society of my wife & children, not once beholding their faces, one of which is taken from time (Sarah Emma is gone to be seen no more in this life). The whole year has been spent in a foreign nation combating error with everlasting truth, meeting with many contradictions of sinners who oppose themselves against the truth, being stoned, mobbed & opposed.
While he spent a moment reflecting on the sacrifices he had made, he devoted the majority of the journal entry to rejoicing, saying,
Yet the Lord hath blessed me with a great harvest of souls as seals of my ministry. Many hundreds have received the word with joy & gladness & are now rejoicing in the new & Everlasting Covenant which saints live in a lively hope of meeting in the celestial glory of our God. I feel very thankful to my Heavenly Father, for his great goodness & Loving kindness towards me & my brethren during the past year & may the Lord still be with us during the following year. In fine every year will be more & more interesting from this time forth until the winding up scene & the coming of the Messiah.2
The young missionary was clearly rejoicing not just in the baptismal covenant so many had made in England, but in his own covenants. Despite the many hardships, he was grateful and happy with the course of his year. He felt the same eagerness for his covenants from the moment of his own baptism:
I truly felt that I could exclaim with the servant of God that it was better to be a doorkeeper in the house of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness; I felt much of the spirit of God bearing witness to the Book of Mormon. I believed it was light out of darkness and truth out of the ground.3
Wilford’s and his family’s covenants would be a balm and respite to them in the years to come. We read in Isaiah 61:3 that the Lord will “give unto [covenant Israel] beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.” How beautiful is that phrase, “trees of righteousness”! It implies standing firm and tall in faith and dedication to our covenants. To do that, we must be planted firmly in the Lord’s house despite our challenges and setbacks, just as Wilford was.
Life was not easy for Wilford and his wife Phebe, so often separated from each other. Not only did their beloved first child, Sarah Emma, die while Wilford was serving in England, but they also lost four other infant children later in life. Wilford suffered an extensive list of near-fatal accidents. Phebe, traveling on one occasion with her husband, contracted brain fever and later related to Wilford that her spirit left her body only to be brought back to this life by a blessing from Wilford and the ministering of angels. Wilford Woodruff believed in the covenants he had made and found the “beauty for ashes” described in Isaiah, saying of that particular event, “praised be the name of GOD for we will ever keep his commandments & trust in him Praise the Lord O my soul for all of his wonderful acts.”4
Temple Blessings in Utah Territory
The Woodruffs’ trials were far from over after their trek to the Salt Lake Valley, yet Wilford knew the Lord was with him. Like the Savior fighting to preserve the Hebrews in Exodus, Isaiah 63:9 tells us, “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.” Phebe and Wilford had struggled through Wilford’s life threatening accident, the death of their 16-month old child Joseph, and the premature delivery and death of their seventh child in Winter Quarters as they began their trek west. And still, when they finally reached their new promised land, he praised the Lord, saying:
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.5
We can see that he was already planning for the covenants and blessings of the new temples to come. On January 1, 1877, almost thirty years after first entering the Salt Lake Valley, Wilford Woodruff and other Church leaders dedicated the completed parts of the St. George Utah Temple, saying:
We are this day blessed with a privilege that but few since the days of Adam have ever enjoyed, but few of the sons of Adam have ever had the privilege of entering into a temple built by the commandment of God in which to administer ordinances both for the living and the dead.6
The opening of the St. George Utah Temple marked the beginning of an intense period of temple work for Wilford Woodruff. In her book Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine, Jennifer Ann Mackley describes his devotion as he spent six or seven days a week in the House of the Lord: “During the first eight months of ordinance work in the St. George Temple, Wilford participated in or presided over 24,384 baptisms, 11,597 endowments, the sealing of 3,706 couples and 268 children to their parents.”7 He found great joy in this temple work and the blessings it would bring to so many. “On one occasion he spoke of how glorious it was that they, ‘like the ancient Saints,’ could be baptized for the dead, and ‘thus open the prison doors and set the prisoners free!’”8
Wilford experienced the glory referenced in Isaiah 60 verses 1 and 13. “Arise, shine: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. . . . I will make the place of my feet glorious.” The Lord grants covenant keepers of Israel an added measure of glory, as they are endowed with the power of the covenants they make in the temple.
It was during these same months of increasing temple work in St. George that President Brigham Young asked Wilford Woodruff, his secretary L. John Nuttall, and his son Brigham Young, Jr., to record and codify the temple ordinances that had previously been passed down only orally. Unifying the temple text across all temples would allow the faithful Saints to have the same glorious learning opportunity repeatedly in each temple as they dotted the new territory.
Despite such great developments, up to this point members were only able to perform temple work for their own ancestors. Wilford Woodruff, a seasoned apostle now well versed in the temple ordinances and presiding over the operations of the St. George Utah Temple, was eager to share these covenants with many more of his deceased ancestors. But the question remained: how?
When we commenced work in the temple I began to reflect: “How can I redeem my dead? I have some three thousand names of the dead who have been baptized for, and how can I get endowments for them?” I had none of my family there, and if they had been there they would not have been able to get endowments for so many.
While praying to the Lord to show me how to redeem my dead, the Spirit of God rested upon me, and the voice of the Spirit said to me, “Go and call upon the sons and the daughters of Zion in St. George, to come into the temple of the Lord and get their endowments for your dead; and it shall be acceptable unto me, saith the Lord.”
This filled my soul with joy, and I saw that it opened a field as wide as eternity for the salvation of our dead and the redemption of man, that we might magnify our calling as saviors upon Mount Zion.9
We can feel Wilford’s joy as this solution was revealed to him. He had been taught God’s way to share the beauty of the temple with an endless number of ancestors and descendants. It also meant that others could serve as proxies in temple work and share in the temple blessings, a revelation that millions continue to benefit from today.
Testifying with a New Name
Making temple covenants, and allowing so many others to do so through temple ordinances, gives us the opportunity to rejoice as the Lord’s covenant people. As we read in Mosiah 18:8, making baptismal covenants allows us “to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people,” and like those Alma baptized at the waters of Mormon, we can all “[clap our] hands with joy” at the prospect of taking on the Lord’s name.
President Russell M. Nelson reminded us of this when he said, “As a people, we are His covenant children, and we will be called by His name.”10 We learn in Isaiah 62:2 that as we make and keep covenants, we become the Lord’s: “and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name.” Kerry Muhlestein explains,
This state of righteousness will cause God to give those in the covenant a new name. Scripturally, new names are often associated with covenants, and they designate that the person is taking on new life or is becoming a new person. It is this very God-given life, represented by a God-given name, that will draw others in. . . . The Joseph Smith Translation renders [the new names from Isaiah 62:4] in a very readable and accurate way, saying that Israel will be called “Delightful” and her land “Union.” How wonderful this is! All who truly make and keep covenants will be a delight unto God, and they will be unified with Him in a promised land and eventually in the celestial kingdom, the eternal promised land.11
Wilford Woodruff also rejoiced in taking the Lord’s name upon him, and accordingly, he wanted to use that name to testify of the joy he had found. On April 7, 1837, after a visit to the Kirtland Ohio Temple, he wrote:
And I Wilford testify in the name of Jesus Christ that many precious things were shown me concerning my brethren by the Holy Spirit in prophecy & revelation. Our hearts were made glad & we went our way rejoicing.12
It was Wilford’s journal keeping that became his enduring method of sharing his witness with the world, and he knew it, writing,
O Lord, if it be thy will, give me the privilege of recording in this year’s Journal great blessing, pronounced upon my head from mine anointing & from under the hands of the Patriarch JOSEPH, & an account of Great visions, & the opening of the heavens, & the revelation of JESUS CHRIST unto me, that I may be a special witness of Thee, O Lord, & may I also have the administering of Holy angels, that I may be taught of the Eternal things of the Priesthood.13
Later in his life, Wilford Woodruff made this account in his journal, looking back at all he had recorded from 1834 to 1885: “I recorded in my Journals 30 sermons of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and 81 sermons of President Brigham Young & of the Twelve Apostles; I recorded in my Journals from 1834 to 1885, 4000 pages.”14
As we read those thousands of handwritten pages, we feel Wilford Woodruff’s dedication and joy in keeping his covenants and his records. We see the same message related to us in Isaiah 63:7–8: “I will mention the lovingkindness of the Lord, and the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord hath bestowed on us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which he hath bestowed on them according to his mercies, and according to the multitude of his lovingkindnesses. For he said, Surely they are my people.”
Wilford’s writing makes it clear that one thing he always rejoiced in was being counted among the Lord’s covenant people. In fact, it seems that being counted among the Lord’s people was his most prized blessing. He wanted to be with the Saints, he wanted to help them understand and honor all their temple covenants, and he inexhaustibly dedicated his entire adult life to building and gathering the House of Israel. Wilford Woodruff exemplified the life Isaiah so succinctly described with his brief yet tender declaration in Isaiah 63 verse 19: “We are thine.”
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 and has since been an English Instructor at Purdue University, copy editor, technical writer, caterer, travel writer, and historical researcher and writer. Along with serving on the Board, Kristy volunteers as a transcriptionist on the Wilford Woodruff Papers. She has loved getting to know Wilford Woodruff better through his writing and is always inspired and surprised by his dedication, tenacity, personality, hard work, and faith, and hopes to share Wilford Woodruff’s testimony with a wider audience.
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, letters, 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.
Some original text has been edited for clarity and readability.
- Kerry Muhlestein, Learning to Love Isaiah: A Guide and Commentary, Covenant Communications, 2021, p. 475.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, December 31, 1840, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/journal/1840-12-31.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, December 31, 1833, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/journal/1840-12-31.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, December 2, 1838–December 5, 1838, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/journal/1838-12-02.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, July 24, 1847, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/journal/1847-07-24.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, January 1, 1877, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/journal/1877-01-01.
- Jennifer Ann Mackley, Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine, High Desert Publishing, 2018, p. 192.
- Mackley, p. 176.
- “Leaves From My Journal,” p. 104, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/leaves-from-my-journal.
- Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” Ensign, November 2020, org/study/ensign.
- Muhlestein, pp. 500–501.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, April 7, 1837, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/journal/1837-04-07.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, December 31, 1836, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/journal/1836-12-31.
- Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, December 29, 1885, Wilford Woodruff Papers, org/journal/1885-12-29.