Cover image: Wilford Woodruff in the 1870s courtesy of Bruce Woodruff.
Editor’s Note: On March 1, 2021, the Foundation formally launched an open access website wilfordwoodruffpapers.org with the first of 40 uploads of transcribed documents.
Wilford Woodruff was an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ for 59 years. To acknowledge God’s direction in his daily life, he documented nearly every testimony he bore, every mission on which he embarked, every person he baptized or blessed, and every temple ordinance he performed in the Lord’s service.
This second of a four-part series to understand the legacy of Wilford Woodruff (Click here to see part one), includes an explanation of our mission to collect, transcribe, publish, and digitally preserve Wilford Woodruff’s records to proclaim that Jesus Christ has restored his gospel and continues to reveal his will through his prophets.
The first significant challenge of the Foundation is to preserve and publish known documents, but the most difficult challenge is to locate and preserve Wilford’s writings that are not yet known.
The following story reveals just such a find in the 1970s.
The Treasure Box
One of the items handed down to Wilford Woodruff’s descendants for more than a century was a hand-made wooden box. The box eventually was inherited by Wilford’s great-granddaughter Carolyn Woodruff Owen. Like many family heirlooms, it had languished in her parents’ basement for years.
The four-minute video below interviews Carolyn along with Stephen Woodruff Owen, her son, and unfolds the story of how this treasure box was discovered and the priceless documents it contained.
We know there are other treasures forgotten—in attics, storage rooms, or closets. We hope to discover many more of them so we can digitally preserve them for generations to come. The vast majority of Wilford Woodruff’s papers have been donated by family members and private collectors to the Church History Library and the Brigham Young University and University of Utah libraries to ensure they are accessible to and treasured by current and future members of the Church and those interested in studying the history that only Wilford Woodruff recorded.
Relevance of Church History
Though Wilford’s documents were generated 120 to 200 years ago, they have relevance today. Some members question the Church and its teachings. Questions can be good, leading to enlightenment. But questions combined with ignorance often just magnify the ignorance and produce patterns that interfere with revelation. Because fragmented truth weakens and destroys testimonies, there is an urgent need to provide additional insights into the Restoration of the Gospel. Wilford is a veritable voice in the wilderness through his eyewitness account of the daily events that demonstrate the faith and fortitude on which the early Saints built their testimonies.
“Was Joseph Smith a deceiver?” Wilford wrote in 1882. “There is a way to test this, and we have tested it to our satisfaction. The great promise made to us when we first heard the preaching of the elders of this Church was, that if we obeyed certain requirements of the Gospel, we should receive the Holy Ghost; and this same promise is extended to the world of mankind. If that promise had fallen, Utah would doubtless be as barren today as it was when we founded it in 1847.” Journal of Discourses, 23:79-80, March 26, 1882.
Later, Wilford added, “With all the apostasies that we have had, and with all the difficulties and afflictions we have been called to pass through . . . it was no temptation to me to doubt this work or to doubt that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.” Bear Lake Stake Conference, August 10, 1891, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 53:628, (1891).
Why Transcribe the Wilford Woodruff Papers?
We have a generation of Church members who not only need access to the truth, but need it in the context of why the Gospel and particularly the temple ordinances are not just relevant but vital to our daily lives. The Wilford Woodruff Papers, together with the Joseph Smith Papers, will strengthen current truth seekers, as well as future generations.
For the first time, all of Wilford Woodruff’s available papers will be easily accessible in one place—the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation website. Here they will live freely accessible for all. They will constitute an essential resource for academic scholars and all other students of the life and work of Wilford Woodruff, early Latter-day Saint history, and nineteenth-century American religion.
“Wilford Woodruff largely made the glasses through which we see the [Latter-day Saint] past,” said Steven C. Harper, Executive Editor of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project. “Wilford kept a daily record comprising thousands of pages from his baptism in 1833 to his death in 1898.”
Seven thousand of Wilford’s journal pages have already been digitized by the Church and can be viewed online through the Church History Catalog. For many readers, however, they may be very difficult to decipher.
The time it takes to learn Wilford’s handwriting, interpret his unique spelling patterns, decipher his symbols, and translate the shorthand and even Deseret Alphabet interspersed through his letters and journals is mind-boggling. Not knowing the individuals and places he references is similar to reading the script of a movie without experiencing the audio and video elements.
The purpose of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project is to make not only his journals—comprising just seven percent of his writings—but all his available correspondence and discourses accessible to everyone in context. Preserving and transcribing these records will share his first-hand witness with the world in an unprecedented way.
Free online access will give anyone with internet access the ability to search the papers by word, by topic, and by names. Visitors will discover visual depictions geographically and chronologically, link the individuals mentioned in each document to their biographical references, and therefore understand Wilford’s experiences in the context of his life, his relationships, the early Restoration, and world history.
The documents will elucidate through his eyes why Jesus Christ restored his church and the authority to perform saving ordinances through Joseph Smith, and why Wilford and others like him wore out their lives so we could have those blessings.
The generous resources of a major private donor, combined with Church funds, made possible the Joseph Smith Papers, which are a tremendous asset to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members, as well as all others interested in the Church and its history. Now everyone can enjoy the blessing of contributing to a parallel project by making donations—large or small—to make possible the completion of the Wilford Woodruff Papers project.
Funds will be used primarily for research, transcribing, and the services required to update and maintain the websites. The ten-year project has a budget of $10 million—all from donations. To financially support our transcription and research teams, learn how you can make a donation or email us at [email protected].
The project is enormous, and the Church History Department has offered its support by granting access to the Wilford Woodruff documents in its collection and generously providing technical advice to our web team. The number of journals, letters, discourses, and histories written by Wilford Woodruff is more than 16,000. We have only located 7,000 but hope that those who understand the significance of the records they may find in their attics or basements will be willing to share digital copies of them as part of this great endeavor.
The significance of The Joseph Smith Papers, which include the foundational documents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is difficult to overstate. The Joseph Smith Papers Calendar of Documents includes 2,500 documents written by Joseph Smith, or written at his request by scribes. The 7,000 documents in the Wilford Woodruff Papers Calendar of Documents contain more than 40,000 pages. Wilford Woodruff’s records will extend the history of the restoration another 54 years, from Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in 1844 to Wilford Woodruff’s death in 1898. Combined, they will tell the story of the Restoration in the nineteenth century in a remarkable way.
Wilford Woodruff is an example of someone unceasingly devoted to securing for himself and all of us the promises of the Lord for Covenant Israel. It is fitting to conclude with one of Wilford’s many testimonies of the Restoration:
“I bear my testimony that Joseph Smith was a true Prophet of God, ordained of God to lay the foundation of His Church and kingdom in the last dispensation and fulness of times . . . The Prophet Joseph laid down his life for the word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ, and he will be crowned as a martyr in the presence of God and the Lamb. In all his testimonies to us, the power of God was visibly manifest in the Prophet Joseph.” Wilford Woodruff’s Testimony, Recorded on March 19, 1897.
Next week in Part Three, we’ll examine the “who” of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation and delve into some of the many talented individuals who make up our team. We hope you will visit www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org and take your front row seat to Church history. We are discovering new things every day.
To be the first to know when new content is added to the site, please visit www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org and subscribe to our monthly email updates.
Richard E. Turley Jr.—Chair of Advisory Committee
Rick is the chair of the Advisory Committee for the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. He recently retired from his position as Managing Director of the Communication Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Previously, he served as Managing Director of the Public Affairs Department, Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, and Managing Director of the Family and Church History Departments. He was a member of the editorial board for The Joseph Smith Papers, serves on the Board of the Brigham Young Center Foundation, and was a general editor of the Journals of George Q. Cannon print volumes. Among his numerous publications, he coedited the second volume in the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers (2011).