How might the Lord choose to prepare a twenty-six-year-old convert to become a prophet and future President of the newly restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? For Wilford Woodruff, it was through a series of early missions that taught the young disciple the lessons of consecrated service, joyful hard work, faith to open his mouth, and exact obedience to the Lord’s commands.


Wilford Woodruff joined the Church in upstate New York on December 31, 1833. He immediately began to keep a journal, which has become an incredible record of the unfolding Restoration—both because of his diligence and thoroughness in recording his experiences over the next sixty-five years and because of his faithfulness and leadership in building the Lord’s kingdom throughout that time. Thanks to his descendants, these journals and records have been preserved and, through the efforts of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation, his record is well on its way to being fully digitized and published online at so that all can benefit from the remarkable journey of faith that prepared Wilford Woodruff to lead the Lord’s Church during some of its greatest challenges.


Because these documents are available to us, we can draw on Wilford Woodruff’s writings to illustrate four important habits or characteristics he learned as a missionary. These not only made him an incredible missionary, but they also prepared him to lead and serve in the Lord’s kingdom throughout his life, the final eleven years of which were spent as senior Apostle and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These are also the same habits or characteristics that make so many young men and young women today outstanding missionaries and future leaders.


Because Wilford Woodruff spent almost two-thirds of the first seven years of his Church membership on four different missions, it’s useful to chart how those mission experiences intersected with some of the key events in his personal life, as shown in this image:



Consecrated Service: Zion’s Camp

Within three months of his baptism, Wilford accepted the Prophet Joseph’s call (delivered by Parley P. Pratt) to serve as part of Zion’s Camp to help protect the Saints in Missouri. Wilford traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, and, as requested by the Prophet, was ready to leave on May 1, 1834. During this mission, Wilford learned of the Lord’s blessings to those who diligently serve Him through consecrated service.


As the company moved towards Missouri, Wilford wrote, “It was a great school for us to be led by a Prophet of God a thousand miles, through cities, towns, villages and through the wilderness.”1 During their time in Missouri, Wilford recorded,


The Lord delivered Israel in the days of Moses by dividing the Red Sea, so they went over dry shod. When their enemies tried to do the same, the water closed upon them and they were drowned. The Lord delivered Zion’s Camp from their enemies on the 19th of June, 1834, by piling up the waters in Fishing River forty feet in one night, so our enemies could not cross. He also sent a great hailstorm which broke them up and sent them seeking for shelter.2


When Zion’s Camp disbanded, Wilford Woodruff was asked to stay behind in Missouri and build Zion, which he willingly did. On December 31, 1834, he wrote in his journal,


Be it known that I Willford Woodruff do freely covenant with my God that I freely consecrate and dedicate myself together with all my properties and affects unto the Lord for the purpose of assisting in building up His kingdom even Zion on the earth that I may keep His law and lay all things before the bishop of his Church that I may be a lawful heir to the Kingdom of God even the Celestial Kingdom.3


Clearly Wilford Woodruff had internalized the characteristic of consecrated service.

Journal Entry, December 31, 1834

Journal Entry, December 31, 1834



Joyful Hard Work: The Southern States

At the end of his first full year as a Church member, Wilford was called to serve a full-time proselyting mission to the Southern States. He and his companion, Harry Brown, left Kirtland, Ohio for Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee on January 13, 1835. To facilitate their travel, the pair found it necessary to hollow out a log to make a canoe so they could travel downriver.


Very quickly, Wilford learned the importance of joyful hard work, often remarking after what most of us would consider a challenging experience, “and we went on our way rejoicing.” Wherever they stopped, Wilford noted in his journal that while he spent part of his day preaching and sharing the message of the restored Church, he also spent part of the day working for those who put them up and fed them.


When he had been on his second mission for just over two months, his commitment to joyful hard work was put to the test when his companion decided to return home, leaving Wilford in a muddy swamp in Tennessee. In his journal, he recorded, “On the 24th of March, after traveling some 10 miles through mud, I was taken lame with a sharp pain in my knee. I sat down on a log. My companion, who was anxious to get to his home in Kirtland, left me sitting in an alligator swamp. I did not see him again for two years. I knelt down in the mud and prayed, and the Lord healed me, and I went on my way rejoicing.”4


After Wilford’s companion left him, Wilford continued on his way to Memphis, Tennessee arriving on March 27, weary and hungry. He recorded in his journal the following:


I went to the best tavern in the place, kept by Mr Josiah Jackson. I told him I was a stranger, and had no money. I asked him if he would keep me overnight. He inquired of me what my business was. I told him I was a preacher of the gospel.


The landlord wanted a little fun, so he said he would keep me if I would preach. He wanted to see if I could preach. I must confess that by this time I became a little mischievous and pleaded with him not to set me preaching. The more I plead to be excused, the more determined Mr. Jackson was that I should preach.


. . . the room began to be filled by some of the rich and fashionable of Memphis, dressed in their broadcloth and silk, while my appearance was such as you can imagine, after traveling through the mud as I had been. . . .


There were present some five hundred persons who had come together, not to hear a gospel sermon, but to have some fun. I read a hymn, and asked them to sing. Not a soul would sing a word. I told them I had not the gift of singing; but with the help of the Lord, I would both pray and preach. I knelt down to pray, and the men around me dropped on their knees. I prayed to the Lord to give me His Spirit and to show me the hearts of the people. I promised the Lord in my prayer I would deliver to that congregation whatever He would give to me. I arose and spoke one hour and a half and it was one of the best sermons of my life.


The lives of the congregation were opened to the vision of my mind, and I told them of their wicked deeds and the reward they would obtain. The men who surrounded me dropped their heads. Three minutes after I closed I was the only person in the room.5


The men in attendance knew they had heard something exceptional.

Faith to Open His Mouth: New England and the Fox Islands

This experience in Memphis confirmed for Wilford the importance of a third characteristic, opening his mouth, trusting God would fill it and the Spirit would provide a second witness. This is a characteristic that the Lord had repeatedly emphasized in revelations received and recorded by the Prophet Joseph Smith on behalf of early missionaries going out to preach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 33:8–10, the Lord instructed:

Open your mouths and they shall be filled . . . Yea, open your mouths and spare not, and you shall be laden with sheaves upon your backs, for lo, I am with you. Yea, open your mouths and they shall be filled, saying: Repent, repent, and prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

In November of 1836, Wilford completed his mission to the Southern States and returned to Kirtland, Ohio, where he met and married Phebe Carter on April 13, 1837. With Phebe by his side, Wilford was anxious to fulfill his patriarchal blessing which said he would preach the gospel on the islands of the sea. He also hoped to share the gospel with his family and Phebe’s family, whom he had not yet met. Six weeks after he and Phebe were married, Wilford was called to serve his third mission—to New England and the Fox Islands in Maine. Wilford and Phebe departed Kirtland as newlyweds on May 31, 1837, on a mission that would last sixteen months.

Wilford worked diligently to build the kingdom in the Fox Islands, but he also traveled frequently back to Scarborough, Maine, to meet with Phebe’s family and to Connecticut to meet with members of his own family. As Wilford continued to open his mouth, preaching daily, he was richly blessed, eventually baptizing several families and forming a branch in the Fox Islands. In addition, by mid-summer Wilford was able to baptize his uncle, aunt, and their son, as well as his father, step-mother, and half-sister. He later baptized Phebe’s father, Ezra Carter, and Phebe’s sister Sarah Foss and her children.


On July 14, 1838, while residing with her family in Scarborough, Maine, Phebe gave birth to their first child, Sarah Emma Woodruff. Unknown to Wilford and Phebe at the time, a week earlier on July 8, 1838, at Far West, Missouri, the Prophet Joseph Smith had received the revelation recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 118, instructing that the vacancies in the Twelve Apostles should be filled; and that the Apostles should meet at the temple site in Far West on April 26, 1839, to depart on their missions to Great Britain.


It wasn’t until August 9, 1838, that Wilford received a letter from Thomas B. Marsh, informing him of his call to serve as an Apostle and inviting him to leave on a mission to Great Britain in 1839. He completed his third mission just over a month later and departed with seven families from the Fox Island branch to join with the gathering Saints in Missouri.

Exact Obedience: British Mission

In the spring of 1839, Apostles Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, and John Taylor along with Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith, made the dangerous journey to Far West, Missouri, the area the Saints had recently been driven from, in order to fulfill the Lord’s command to begin their missions to England from the Far West temple site on April 26, 1839. Wilford recorded, “We moved forward to the building spot of the house of the Lord in the city of far west & held a council & fulfilled the revelation and commandment.”6

Far West Temple Site Marker

Far West Temple Site Marker


Wilford sat on the stone laid at the southeast corner of the temple site, the chief cornerstone of the temple the Saints could not build. Five Apostles encircled him, and Brigham Young ordained him to the holy apostleship. They ordained George A. Smith as well. It was about 2:00 in the morning. They then left to catch up with the final group of Saints fleeing Missouri headed for the area of Quincy, Iowa, and Nauvoo, Illinois.


This experience served to confirm for Wilford the importance of a fourth characteristic, exact obedience while trusting the Lord and His purposes. While it took Wilford several more months to arrive at his assigned field of missionary labor, in early 1840 he began laboring in the Staffordshire Potteries area in mid-England. At the close of his first six weeks in that area, on Wilford Woodruff’s 33rd birthday he recorded in his journal:


I baptized, confirmed and blessed many, and we had a good field open for labor. Many were believing, and it appears as though we had a door open to bring many into the Church in that part of the vineyard.


It being Sunday, I preached twice through the day to a large assembly in the City Hall . . . and administered the sacrament unto the Saints. In the evening I again met with a large assembly of the Saints and strangers, and while singing the first hymn 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.” I was astonished at this, as I had many appointments out in that district. . . . At the close of the meeting four persons came forward for baptism, and we went down into the water and baptized them.


In the morning I went in secret before the Lord, and asked Him what His will was concerning me. The answer I got was that I should go to the south, for the Lord had a great work for me to perform there, as many souls were waiting for the word of the Lord.


On the 3rd of March, 1840, in fulfillment of the word of the Lord to me, I took coach . . . and then walked a number of miles to Mr. John Benbow’s, Hill FarmCastle FromeLedbury, Herefordshire. This was a farming country in the south of England, a region where no Elder of the Latter-day Saints had visited.


. . . I presented myself to him as a missionary from America, an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who 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.7


Benbow Farm and Pond, by Francis R. Magleby, Church of Jesus Christ Media Library

Benbow Farm and Pond, by Francis R. Magleby, Church of Jesus Christ Media Library


This visit to Benbow Farm led to the baptism of not just the Benbow family, but over six hundred people in thirty-five days. Reflecting on the first year of his England mission experiences, Wilford Woodruff wrote:


The whole History of this Herefordshire Mission shows us the importance of carefully listening to the still small voice of the spirit of God, to listen to the revelations of the Holy Ghost. The Lord had a people there prepared for the Gospel, they were praying for light and truth, the Lord sent me to them, I declared the Gospel of Life and Salvation unto them, and some eighteen hundred souls received it and many of them have been gathered to Zion in these Mountains.8

Missionary Service to Prepare a Future Prophet

These four characteristics, consecrated service, joyful hard work, the faith to open his mouth, and exact obedience, which Wilford Woodruff learned and internalized so effectively during his first four missions, spanning just over seven years of Church membership, became foundational elements of his leadership over the next fifty-seven years of his life. When we consider an extensive, though not exhaustive, list of his Church leadership, we can see why the Lord trained Wilford Woodruff so carefully from the moment of his conversion:


  • Presided over the European Mission (1844–1846)
  • Helped lead a company of pioneers bound for the Great Salt Lake Valley (1847)
  • Assisted with the migration of Saints to Utah (1847–1850)
  • Served as Assistant Church Historian (1856–1883)
  • Served as Church Historian (1883–1889)
  • Served as President of the St. George Utah Temple (1877–1884)
  • Refined temple doctrine and practices (1877–1898)
  • Served as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1880–1889)
  • Became presiding Apostle of the Church (1887)
  • Sought unity of the Apostles before reorganizing the First Presidency (1887–1889)
  • Dedicated the Manti Utah Temple (May 1888)
  • Sustained as President of the Church (April 1889)
  • Issued proclamation on polygamy (September 1890)
  • Dedicated the Salt Lake City Utah Temple (April 1893)
  • Received revelation on sealing generational families (April 1894)
  • Oversaw the establishment of the Genealogical Society of Utah (November 1894)


What an incredible blessing it is for us to have access to the journals, discourses, and so many other writings of Wilford Woodruff. He provided us not only with his own faith-filled experiences and insights and a model to follow in our own missionary and Church service, but with a detailed and inspirational account of the Lord’s ongoing Restoration of the Gospel and the Church of Jesus Christ in the latter days.


The Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation’s mission is to digitally preserve and publish Wilford Woodruff’s eyewitness account of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The purpose of making Wilford Woodruff’s records universally accessible is to inspire all people, especially the rising generation, to study and to increase their faith in Jesus Christ. For more information please see


After receiving his Master’s and PhD degrees from Stanford University, Steve spent most of his academic career at the Harvard Business School serving as a Senior Associate Dean overseeing the MBA program. He also spent almost a decade at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where he served as the Chair of the Strategic Management Department. Since his retirement from Harvard, he served as President of BYU-Hawaii for eight years and he and his wife Margaret have presided over the England London Mission, served as senior missionaries at BYU–Idaho, and presided over the Boston Massachusetts Temple. While serving in the temple they became deeply interested in Wilford Woodruff’s contributions to the temple ordinances after reading Jennifer Mackley’s book, Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine. They are grateful for the blessing it is to have access to Wilford Woodruff’s writings on this topic and want to assist this effort so everyone can learn from his documents and revelations.


Kristy WheelrightKristy Wheelwright Taylor has a Master’s degree in Humanities from Brigham Young University. She spends much of her time in volunteer work and writing for various websites and publications. Along with serving on the Board and working with the Wilford Woodruff Papers team, Kristy spends some of her time as a transcriptionist on the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project. She has loved getting to know Wilford Woodruff better through his writing and is always inspired and surprised by his dedication, tenacity, personality, humor, hard work, and faith. It’s just an added bonus that she gets to work with her dad.






Some original text has been edited for clarity and readability.

  1. Leaves from My Journal, p. 18, org/leaves-from-my-journal.
  2. Leaves from My Journal, p. 18, org/leaves-from-my-journal.
  3. Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, December 31, 1834, p. 32, org/journal/1834-12-31.
  4. Leaves from My Journal, p. 28, org/leaves-from-my-journal.
  5. Leaves from My Journal, p. 29, org/leaves-from-my-journal.
  6. Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, April 26, 1839, p. 88, org/journal/1839-04-26.
  7. Leaves from My Journal, p. 89, org/leaves-from-my-journal.
  8. Autobiography 1882 Leaves from My Journal notes, p. 60, org/leaves-from-my-journal-notes.