Cover image via Gospel Media Library.

In 1832, twenty-five-year-old Wilford Woodruff, along with his older married brother Azmon and his wife Elizabeth, left their immediate family and life-long home of Farmington (now Avon), Connecticut, and moved to Richland, New York, where the two brothers put a down payment on a 140-acre farm that included a home and a sawmill. The move proved to be providential and life-changing for both.

Conversion in New York

On 29 December 1833, two Mormon elders, Zera Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney, stopped at the home of the two brothers to share the message of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of Christ’s ancient Church. Neither Wilford nor Azmon were home at the time, but the missionaries informed Elizabeth about a preaching meeting that would be held that evening in a nearby schoolhouse. When the time for the meeting arrived, both Wilford and Azmon attended. Elder Pulsipher’s preaching struck a spiritual cord with Wilford. “I felt the spirit of God . . . bear witness that he was the servant of God,” he wrote. “When he had finished his discourse I truly felt that it was the first gospel sermon that I had ever he[a]rd.” Two days after the meeting, on the last day of the year, 31 December, Elder Pulsipher baptized both Woodruff brothers.[i]

Leadership in Zion’s Camp

In early April 1834, Parley P. Pratt, came from Kirtland and visited Wilford and Azmon and informed them that Joseph Smith had received a revelation (D&C 103) instructing the Church to raise an armed company to march to Missouri, where, with the assistance of state militia mustered out by Missouri governor Daniel Dunklin, they hoped to assist the Saints who had been expelled from Jackson County repossess their property and homes. Azmon chose not to go, but Wilford agreed to volunteer and wasted no time in settling his affairs.

On 11 April, accompanied by two other local Mormon recruits, Henry Brown and Warren Ingles, Wilford left for Kirtland, where they arrived two weeks later. Here, he met Joseph Smith for the first time and even boarded at his home until May 1, when he left Kirtland bound for Missouri in the first company of the Mormon army known as the Camp of Israel (later Zion’s Camp).[ii] Although the Mormon army experienced a number of hardships and setbacks during the two-month-long trek to western Missouri, Wilford relished the adventure. Ultimately, however, Governor Dunklin made the decision not to call out the state militia to assist the Saints, thereby eliminating the possibility that Church members would be restored to their homes and property.

When the camp disbanded, most of the men returned to their homes in the East. However, Wilford chose to remain in Clay County, where for the next six months, he lived with Lyman Wight on the property of Michael Arthur, a prosperous landowner and friendly non-Mormon, who employed them to construct a two-story home for him.[iii]

Service in the South

In January 1835, Bishop Edward Partridge called Wilford Woodruff to serve a mission to the Southern states, his first extended mission and one that would last nearly two years and take him through the backwoods of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky.[iv] A month after he commenced his mission, a special meeting convened in Kirtland on 14 February 1835 for the men who had participated in the Camp of Israel expedition to Missouri. Had Wilford returned to Ohio (he was in Crawford County, Arkansas, at the time), he would likely have been in attendance.

During this meeting, the First Presidency blessed and set apart the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon—Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris—who were assigned to choose, call, and ordain twelve men to make up the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Those chosen included: Lyman E. Johnson, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, David W. Patten, Luke Johnson, William E. McLellin, John F. Boynton, Orson Pratt, William Smith Thomas B. Marsh, and Parley P. Pratt.[v] Six weeks later, in early May, the entire quorum met together for the first time and organized the quorum by seniority, oldest to youngest.[vi] Thereafter, it was decided that seniority would be determined by time of ordination.

As a member of the Camp of Israel and while he lived in Clay County Wilford had become acquainted with all the men who were selected, except Elder John Boynton. It was probably not until June, while in Kentucky, that Wilford received the news about the establishment of the quorum and the names of the men called to the apostleship—the office he unknowingly would occupy in just a few years.

During his mission to the “Southern states,” Wilford distinguished himself as a tireless missionary and a dynamic preacher, laboring at various times with Henry Brown, Warren Parrish (who ordained him a seventy), Abraham O. Smoot, and for a time, apostle David W. Patten. But for much of the time he was on his own. He crisscrossed three states traveling literally several thousand miles. He held hundreds of preaching meetings, baptized around a hundred people, and performed scores of healing blessings and ordinations.[vii]

Return to Kirtland

In late November 1836, he made his way back to Kirtland, where he found a bustling Mormon community and a stately temple. “I truly felt to rejoice at the sight,” he wrote, “as it was the first time that mine eyes ever beheld the house of the Lord.”[viii]

The first few months of 1837 were eventful days for Wilford. His journal records the spiritual exuberance he felt worshipping with the Saints, participating in the ordinances of the Kirtland endowment, attending meetings with his fellow members of the Quorum of the Seventy, and receiving his patriarchal blessing under the hands of Joseph Smith Sr.

In late January 1837, Wilford was introduced to Phebe Carter, from Scarborough, Maine, who had joined the Church in 1834 and moved to Kirtland. Following a two-and-a-half-month courtship, they were married on 13 April 1837, by Frederick G. Williams, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, at the home of Joseph Smith.[ix]

Mission in Maine

It did not take long for Wilford Woodruff to decide to serve another mission, and on 31 May 1837, just over six weeks after his marriage, Wilford left Kirtland in company with Jonathan H. Hale, his companion, on his second extended mission. “I felt impressed by the Spirit of God to take a mission to the Fox Islands,” part of Maine’s coastal islands, a region he noted that he “knew nothing about.”[x] He believed the gospel was to be taken “unto the isles of the sea,” and although the Fox Islands lay just a few miles from Maine’s eastern shore, they still qualified as “isles.”

Leaving Ohio, Elders Woodruff and Hale preached in community churches, schools, and town halls, in upstate New York, Ontario, Canada (Kingston), and eastern Massachusetts, baptizing those willing to accept their message and strengthening Church members residing in small, scattered branches of the Church. Upon arriving in Avon, Connecticut, in mid-July, Wilford was not only reunited with his parents and other family members after a five-year absence, but also his wife Phebe, who had traveled from Kirtland to join him.[xi]

Three weeks later, Wilford and Phebe made their way to Scarborough, Maine, where, on 8 August, they arrived at the home of Phebe’s parents, Ezra and Sarah Carter, who met their new son-in-law for the first time. Phebe made plans to spend time with her family while her husband and Elder Hale preached and proselytized on the Fox Islands.[xii]

Elders Woodruff and Hale set foot on North Haven Island, Maine, on 20 August 1837. The pair wasted no time in getting an audience, and secured permission to preach in a Baptist meetinghouse that very night. Wilford wrote, “This was the first time that I or any Elder of the Church, (to my knowledge) ever arose before the inhabitants of one of the Islands of the sea to preach unto them the fullness of the everlasting gospel and the Book of Mormon.”[xiii] In early October (some two months after their initial arrival), Hale returned to Ohio, leaving Wilford without a companion, although at various times, Phebe left her family in Scarborough to join him. He labored primarily on North Haven and Vinal Haven (the south island), but occasionally returned to the mainland, where he preached in a number of communities on Maine’s coastal shore.

Crisis in Kirtland

While Wilford was enjoying considerable success in his missionary labors in Maine, the Church in Kirtland was experiencing a wave of internal dissension generated by the collapse of the Church-backed Kirtland Anti-Banking Safety Society and other economic factors. The dissenters, some fifty in number, were led by Warren Parrish (Wilford’s well-loved mission companion and the Prophet’s former personal secretary), Luke Johnson and John F. Boynton (apostles), Martin Harris (Book of Mormon witness), Joseph Coe (Kirtland High Council), and Cyrus Smalling (Seventy), who openly opposed Joseph Smith’s leadership, resulting in their being cut off from the Church in late December 1837.[xiv]

Fearing possible repercussions, the Prophet, Sidney Rigdon, Brigham Young, and other loyal leaders, fled to Kirtland on 12 January 1838, and made their way to join the members of the Church residing in Far West, Missouri. However, at the time, the Church in northern Missouri was experiencing its own element of apostasy. On 10 March 1838, just two days before Joseph Smith arrived in Far West, the Missouri high council and bishopric excommunicated W.W. Phelps and John Whitmer, counselors in the Missouri presidency.[xv] One month later, on 12 April, Oliver Cowdery, assistant president of the Church, was cut off, followed the next day, 13 April, by David Whitmer, the president of the Church in Missouri, and apostle Lyman E. Johnson.[xvi] Lastly, on 11 May, William E. McLellin’s membership was withdrawn.[xvii] Sadly, Phelps and Cowdery would be the only excommunicants to find their way back into the Church.[AB1] 

In January 1838, Wilford was joined on the Fox Islands by a second missionary companion, Elder Joseph Ball. The pair worked together for three months, after which Wilford was left once again to preach on his own or with recent converts who had been baptized. In early summer, he left the islands and traveled to Farmington, Connecticut, to visit and teach his parents and other extended family members. On 1 July, an exultant Wilford baptized his father, his stepmother Azuba, his half-sister Eunice, an uncle, two aunts, and two cousins.[xviii] He was also present for the birth of his and Phebe’s first child, a daughter, Sarah Emma, born on 14 July.[xix]

Thomas B. Marsh, courtesy Church History Library[AB2] 

Call to the Twelve

In August, Wilford returned to the Fox Islands, where on 9 August, he received a letter from Thomas B. Marsh, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, dated 14 July 1838, written from Far West, Missouri:

Elder W. Woodruff.

Sir; a fiew [few] days since, Prest. Joseph Smith Jr and someone [some] others was assembled together to attend to some church business, when it was thought proper to select those who was designed of the Lord to fill the places of those of the twelve who had fallen; namely William E. McLellin, Lyman E. Johnson, Luke Johnson and John F. Bointon [Boynton]. The persons selected were John E. Page, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Willard Richards. On the following day five of the Twelve with President Rigdon and some others met and resolved that President Rigdon write to Br Richards, who is now in England, and inform him of his appointment and that P.P. Pratt write to Orson Pratt that the 12 assemble in this place as soon as possible, and that I should write to yourself.[xx] Know then by this br[other] Woodruff that you are appointed to fill the place of one of the twelve apostles; and that it is agreeable to the word of the Lord given very lately that you should come spe[e]dily to Far West. And on the 26th of April next, to take your leave of the saints here and depart for other climes acrost the mighty deep!

Yours in the Love of God,
Thomas B. Marsh
Wilford Woodruff
Far West July 14th 1838

PS. Bring all the Subscribers you can and come with speed

                                                                  T. B. Marsh[xxi]

News of his appointment to the Twelve was soul-stirring. That evening Wilford noted in his journal, “Sleep departed from me as I spent the night in deep meditation.”[xxii] He also made a transcription of Marsh’s letter into his journal.[xxiii] It would be a day he would never forget.


[i] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, December 1, 1833, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/4f515e72-5a4c-49b0-b8f2-f2805c4af876.

[ii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, April 11, 1834, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/debc532c-b73d-412c-9e10-a8b27d5ae4f2.

[iii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, July 1, 1834, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/4e6d1c72-b825-4fb8-bff6-207cb84444d3.

[iv] Wilford Woodruff, “Autobiography of Wilford Woodruff,” Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine 3, no. 1 (October 1883):4, hereafter cited as Woodruff, “Autobiography.” The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/69665780-2dad-4c72-ac99-b6166ed1ee51/page/b1bab6f8-6bd7-44ac-bb8b-e7274820b3b9.

[v] Matthew C. Godfrey, Brenden W. Rensink, Alex D. Smith, Max H Parkin, and Alexander L. Baugh, eds., Documents, Volume 4: April 1834–September 1835, Vol. 4 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed., Ronald K. Esplin and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 226–28, hereafter cited as JSP, D4. Lyman Johnson, Brigham Young, and Heber C. Kimball were ordained and blessed on this occasion. The following day, February 15, Orson Hyde, David W. Patten, Luke Johnson, William E. McClellan, John F. Boynton, William Smith received their ordinations and blessings. Three of those called, Parley P. Pratt, Thomas B. Marsh, and Orson Pratt were not in Kirtland at the time the Quorum of the Twelve was organized, so they did not receive their ordinations and blessings until later—Parley P. Pratt on 21 February 1835, and Marsh and Orson Pratt on 26 April 1835. See JSP, D4:239, 294.

[vi] JSP, D4:301.

[vii] For a summary of Woodruff’s mission to the Southern states see Woodruff, “Autobiography,” 4–14, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/69665780-2dad-4c72-ac99-b6166ed1ee51/page/b1bab6f8-6bd7-44ac-bb8b-e7274820b3b9.

[viii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, November 25, 1836, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/ed2cead6-b7f8-45f1-9c7f-5da7ec03faec.

[ix] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, April 13, 1837, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/114d13a4-1517-423c-96d4-cb06e7fa0f2f.

[x] Woodruff, “Autobiography,” 11, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/69665780-2dad-4c72-ac99-b6166ed1ee51/page/e1523429-284e-4d3d-bb31-7d80390ca7b3. In remarks given in 1896, Woodruff stated: “The Spirit of God said to me, ‘You choose a partner and go straight to Fox Islands.’ Well, I knew no more what was on Fox Islands than what was on Kolob. But the Lord told me to go, and I went. I chose Jonathan H. Hale, and he went with me.” Deseret Weekly (Salt Lake City), 7 November 1896, 643. The fact that Phebe’s family lived in Scarborough, Maine, no doubt also influenced his decision.

[xi] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, July 13, 1837 – July 20, 1837, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/ef82842d-b48d-465c-baf3-6afefd8daad7.

[xii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, August 1, 1837 – August 9, 1837, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/44ca07e7-563d-46f2-8c94-4ae797ce3542.

[xiii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, August 20, 1837, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/0b40f245-5b91-428d-8ce2-76806a6719f1. Although Woodruff would have liked to claim the distinction of being the first Mormon missionary to preach the restored gospel on an isle of the sea, he could not have known that on 23 July, less than a month previous, Heber C. Kimball preached the first Mormon sermon in Preston, England.

[xiv] John and Clarissa Smith to George A. Smith, 1 January 1838, 1, MS 1332, George A. Smith Papers, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT. John Smith gives 28 December 1837, as the date of the excommunication of Parrish, Johnson, Boynton, Harris, Coe, and Smalling.

[xv] JSP, D4:4.

[xvi] JSP, D4:83-104.

[xvii] Dean C. Jessee, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds., Journals Volume 1: 1832–1839, Vol. 1 of the Journal Series of the Joseph Smith Papers ed., Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: The Church Historians Press, 2008), 268–69.

[xviii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, July 1, 1838, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/79323183-8277-4722-bd39-12c6a0219a0e/page/5f6f6be1-9ab0-4b63-b0fe-f562234a2c33.

[xix] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, July 7, 1838 – July 14, 1838, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/feee995e-e173-4198-9bd1-6856410285cf; and Woodruff, “Autobiography,” 22, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/69665780-2dad-4c72-ac99-b6166ed1ee51/page/6e7684dc-af8f-45ad-a050-85a7d44c6f4d.

[xx] Marsh indicated that Sidney Rigdon was to write Willard Richards in England about his appointment, Parley P. Pratt was to write his brother Orson to come to Far West, and that he (Marsh) was to write and notify Woodruff of his call to the apostleship. Marsh did not indicate who was to notify John E. Page and John Taylor. This was likely because at the time, both men were in company with a number of Canadian Church members who were en route to Missouri.

[xxi] Thomas B. Marsh to Wilford Woodruff, 14 July 1838, p. 1, MS 1352, bx 6, fd 11, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT. In the letter, Marsh did not mention to Woodruff that on 8 July 1838, six days previous to writing his letter, Joseph Smith had received and dictated an actual revelation naming the four men who were called to replace the apostles who had been cut off. The revelation appears as section 118 in the Doctrine and Covenants.

[xxii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, August 9, 1838, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/dc92878a-c691-4eb6-bac0-757c533f04b3. Woodruff wrote this statement in shorthand. LaJean Purcell provided the transcription.

[xxiii] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, August 4, 1838 – August 9, 1838, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/dc92878a-c691-4eb6-bac0-757c533f04b3.