Wilford Woodruff once asked, “What is there that can tempt any man to depart from the Gospel of Christ?” This question followed his stated belief in the resurrection, the promise of life with our loved ones, our Savior, and our Heavenly Parents. He said, “We have everything to encourage us. When you think of eternal life; when you think of the heavenly hosts; when you think of those that have gone before us, awaiting the final resurrection . . . [to] enter into His glory, what is there than can tempt any man to depart from the Gospel of Christ?”[i]
This Easter weekend was an opportunity for us to contemplate the perfect life and the Atoning sacrifice of our Savior and His willingness to give His life to overcome death. It is also an opportunity to answer that question for ourselves: with everything to encourage us, why do we depart from the truths that we know? If not for days or years, why even for a moment? What is worth more than our eternal salvation and the eternal life of our families?
Resurrection and Eternal Life
Even before Wilford Woodruff was taught the principles of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, he was focused on the promise of life beyond this mortal existence because he had lost so many family members and friends. His mother died when he was 15 months old and his brothers were three and five years of age. His father remarried and, of Wilford’s six half-siblings, only two lived to adulthood. His beloved half-brother Asahel died at the age of 24, and his only sister Eunice died at the age of 32. Wilford later lost thirteen of his children, and he blamed himself for some of their deaths because of the difficult circumstances through which his family struggled as they traveled to Zion to fulfill what he sincerely believed was God’s will.
Two experiences illustrate Wilford’s unshakable faith in life beyond mortal death, and his gratitude for the Savior’s Atonement. The first experience was with his wife Phebe in 1838 as they journeyed from Maine to join the Saints in Illinois. On the 23rd of November Phebe was “attacked with a severe headache, which terminated in brain fever.” Her strength continued to fail and, on December 1st, Wilford stopped the horses when “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.”[ii]
He prayed that she might live and not be taken from him and “claimed the promises the Lord had made.” His prayer was answered and she revived enough to be moved from the wagon to a local inn. Wilford continued to pray in faith, but on December 3rd Phebe “seemed to be sinking gradually, and in the evening the spirit apparently left her body, and she was dead.” Several women gathered around her weeping and yet, in his sorrow, Wilford felt the spirit and power of God rest upon him “until faith filled his soul.”
With consecrated oil he anointed her body, then laid his hands upon her and, in the name of Jesus Christ, he “rebuked the power of death and of 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.”[iii] Having the spiritual courage to pronounce such a blessing is a testament to Wilford’s faith in God’s promises and power.
Afterward Phebe shared with Wilford that, after her spirit left her body, two messengers came into the room where she saw her body lying on the bed. One explained to her that she could choose to go rest in the spirit world or “have the privilege of returning to her tabernacle and continuing her labors upon the earth.”[iv] She chose to return to her family. She chose to endure mortality with her husband and children with a knowledge that life continues after death and with the promise of eternal life.
Another example of Wilford’s eternal perspective in the midst of heartbreaking mortal experiences was the tragic death of his twenty-year-old son Brigham in 1877. Brigham had just completed college and returned home to visit his mother, Sarah. He drowned while duck hunting with his brothers and Wilford, who was presiding over the St. George Temple, received the news by telegram.
Wilford was comforted, in spite of his grief, by his belief that his precious boy would be able to work with him as they continued their efforts to share the Gospel with those who had not had an opportunity to hear the truth while on earth. Wilford wrote, “He was a good young Man, virtuous, Temperate, Honest, and lived his Religion. He had received his Endowments. I have felt calm, composed, and reconciled in this bereavement. I have thought that as I was doing so much for the dead here in the Temple in St. George, that it might be necessary to have one of the family in the spirit world.”[v]
A Privilege and a Responsibility
Rather than shaking his faith in a merciful God, these and other experiences solidified Wilford’s testimony of God’s promised blessings. He focused his efforts more intensely on what he defined as the “highest calling the Lord ever called any human being to, in any age of the world:” to receive the priesthood keys and powers to teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every living soul, to prepare themselves to return to the presence of God.
He reminded the Saints that we have been given that privilege, “to understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to give it to the human family, so that they might qualify and prepare themselves for eternal life.”[vi] It is a privilege and a responsibility to be converted and then, when we are converted, to “strengthen our brethren.”[vii]
Wilford’s plea in 1896 was not to those his age, the grandparents or parents, but to the youth. In General Conference he spoke to them directly: “I want to say now to the rising generation, gird up the loins of your minds, prepare yourselves, and realize you have a mission before you. Who are going to bear this kingdom off when we go to the grave? To whom does the God of Israel look to do this? He looks to our sons and daughters that are rising up here.
“This responsibility rests upon them, and I hope they will fulfill and magnify their calling. There is nothing like it on earth. You may get the riches of the world; they pass away; but eternal life, celestial glory, a place with the righteous after resurrection, with immortal bodies, are worth more than all this world can give.”[viii]
That challenge and plea to the rising generation has not changed. Each generation is responsible to those who have preceded us and to those who will follow us. “For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation.”[ix]
Consecrating and Dedication Ourselves
When Wilford was 28 years old, he covenanted with God to consecrate himself and all he possessed to build God’s kingdom on the earth, believing it was duty of every Latter-day Saint to consecrate and dedicate themselves and all they possessed unto God “in order to become lawful heirs to the Celestial Kingdom of God.”[x]
Wilford then spent ten of the next fifteen years of his life sharing the gospel with the living, and focused the remaining fifty years of his life on sharing the gospel with those on the other side of the veil through temple ordinances, serving as a proxy for his ancestors and working on behalf of others.
When he was almost 70 years old and the first generation of Church leaders was passing to the other side of the veil, he wondered, “Where are the strong ones who are prepared to rise up and bear off the kingdom?” He was encouraged by the testimonies of young men in General Conference and declared, “the Lord has raised up this people to accomplish his purposes; . . . You have been called here and God has put into your hands his cause and kingdom . . . God has raised you up and has put this power into your hands, and you hold the keys for the salvation of Israel.” He promised the Saints that “the Lord will not disappoint you or this generation with regard to the fulfillment of his promises.”
He then asked a vital question, “How do you think eternity feels today?”
How does eternity feel today? How does eternity factor into our daily lives? Our perspective? Our choices?
Wilford continued his discourse by proclaiming, “This is the best people on the face of the earth. But however good we may be, we should aim continually to improve and become better. We have obeyed a different law and Gospel to what other people have obeyed, and we have a different kingdom in view, and our aim should be correspondingly higher before the Lord our God, and we should govern and control ourselves accordingly, and I pray God my heavenly Father that his Spirit may rest upon us and enable us to do so.”[xi]
The Highway to Holiness
Shortly after being sustained as the prophet and President of the Church, Russell M. Nelson challenged the youth to firmly plant their feet on “the covenant path.”[xii] Wilford Woodruff referred to the covenant path as “the path of holiness.” Reflecting on his first steps on this path he said he had only a faint idea of how narrow that path would be, and “much less did I in my weakness conceive the many artful and cunning devices of Satan to draw the child of God from paths of holiness . . . seeking who he may devour and that he grasps . . . every one that turns aside from the Highway to Holiness.”[xiii]
Like President Nelson’s reference to the youth as the battalion of the Lord, Wilford Woodruff referred to himself as a “raw undisciplined recruit” in the warfare between the forces of righteousness and those of the Adversary. Like many young people, as a new convert, he felt he “could not wield with ease the Sword of the Spirit and the Shield of Faith.” The armor did not fit him well and he realized, “the garments of salvation could not be expected to fit perfectly” at first. Only through the mercy and forgiveness and grace of “the Captain of our Salvation” would he be able to find his footing, take upon him the whole armor of God, and “having done all, to stand.”[xiv]
Wilford had sought answers to his questions in the scriptures and recognized the truth when he first heard the testimonies of Latter-day Saint missionaries. When he embraced the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, he did so because, although he felt he had great faith and a knowledge of gospel truths, he wanted more. He prayed that God would enable him to be faithful because salvation was the object of his life.
Eternal life was the principle that sustained him from the time he entered the Church as the Kingdom of God on the earth.[xv] He understood that eternal life is not an individual pursuit and wanted each of his family members to share that life with him. He asked: “How would I feel, after living as long as I have, with the privileges I have had of going into these temples, to go into the spirit world without having done this work?” He did not want to meet his progenitors and have one say, “You held in your hand the power to go forth and redeem me, and you have not done it.”[xvi]
Wilford often shared his feelings of joy in the privilege of completing saving ordinances for over four thousand of his own family members as well as many others. Serving in the temple as a proxy for them was a blessing and privilege, he believed, “the fulness and glory of which we will never know until the veil is opened.” He expected the reunions that would occur on the other side of the veil would be happy ones.[xvii]
How Does Eternity Feel Today?
When Wilford Woodruff passed through the veil at the age of 91, he would not have been surprised and probably felt right at home. And it must have been a very happy reunion. A reunion that we can all look forward to if we continue to ask ourselves, “How does eternity feel today?” If we continue to remember that, through the Atonement of our Savior Jesus Christ, the garments of our salvation will fit perfectly.
If we plant our feet firmly on the highway to holiness–the covenant path that leads to eternal life–and walk each other home, nothing can tempt us to depart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Christ’s infinite sacrifice was for every soul. His Atonement is a gift freely given. Because of Him, our life after mortal death is a reality and our eternity has already begun.
Jennifer Ann Mackley, JD, is the Executive Director of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation, which she co-founded with Donald W. Parry in 2020. Jennifer has authored or edited 21 books including Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine. She has served as a historian for the Wilford Woodruff Family Association since 2014 and has made numerous presentations and podcasts based on her research of Wilford Woodruff and the development of temple doctrine in the nineteenth century. Her hope in making Wilford Woodruff’s writings available online is to increase faith in our Savior and understanding of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Discover more from Wilford Woodruff’s eyewitness account at wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
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[i] Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, October 9, 1887.
[v] Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, June 16, 1877.
[vi] Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, April 5, 1896.
[vii] Luke 22:32.
[viii] Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, April 5, 1896.
[ix] Doctrine and Covenants 128:15.
[xi] Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, October 8, 1875.
[xiv] Ephesians 6:13.
[xv] Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, December 12, 1869.
[xvi] Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, May 14, 1896.
[xvii] Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, May 14, 1896.