Wilford Woodruff: 'Wilford the faithful' became God's anointed

Joseph Smith and the early Saints knew him as "Wilford the Faithful." The Lord called him "my servant." (D&C 118:6.) In his youth he had dreamed of someday seeing an apostle of the Lord.

Not only did Wilford Woodruff's dream of seeing an apostle come true, but he lived worthy to become one himself and eventually preside, for nine and a half years as the Lord's chief apostle upon the earth. His life would extend throughout most of the nineteenth century. He was completely immersed in the restoration of the gospel, intimately familiar with all the early pioneers and was an eye witness to many events that would establish the Church in this dispensation.Wilford Woodruff was born March 1, 1807, into an industrious family, near Farmington, Conn. In his youth Wilford often assisted his father, who was a miller by trade. His ancestors were originally from England and had been farmers and millers for several generations. They were known in the community for being hard workers and for their generosity. Eighteen-hour work days were common in the Woodruff family.

Wilford was very active as a child and throughout all his life. He once said, "I have been in a hurry all my life." (Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, p. 289.) With all his energy, he seemed to have a knack for having accidents.

Later he reported that on 27 distinct occasions he had been saved from dangers which threatened his life." (Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, p. 6.) At age 3 he fell into a cauldron of scalding water; once he fell from a beam inside a barn onto the bare floor; he fell down stairs and broke one of his arms; he very narrowly missed being gored by a bull; he was almost smothered by a full load of hay; he barely escaped drowning; he nearly froze to death; he was bitten by a mad dog; he fell from a porch and broke his other arm; he was poisoned; he split the instep of his foot open with an ax; while climbing an elm tree he fell about 15 feet to the ground and was knocked unconscious; he fell from a horse and dislocated his ankles and broke his leg in two places.

By the age of 20 he had broken nearly every bone in his body and narrowly escaped death many times. Elder Woodruff felt that these misfortunes could be attributed to a destructive power that sought to stop his mission in this life. (Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, p. 477.) He knew that it was by God's mercy and protection he had been preserved.

Young Wilford was a student of the scriptures. He searched and prayed and pondered the scriptures. At age 14 he took up residence with a local farmer and attended school during the winter, working on the farm in the summer. With some friends he attended prayer meetings among the Presbyterians, they being the only religious group in town at the time. He later recalled that preaching he heard at those meetings created more darkness than light, more misery than happiness, and it did not enlighten the mind. Wilford labored hard to obtain religion but felt that he had not yet obtained any special light at that time in his life.

One person who recognized the destiny of young Wilford was a visionary man named Robert Mason. He had a vision that a latter-day work was about to begin. In his vision he was carried away to an orchard with a large number of trees that had no fruit. All of them fell to the ground and almost immediately shoots began coming up as new, healthy trees. Blossoms and fruit followed. He stepped forward to pick some of the fruit, but the vision closed and he was not allowed to eat.

The Lord revealed to him the meaning of the vision. It was that Christ's true Church would be established on the earth again, that he would be alive when the restoration began, but he would not live to fully participate in it. From his vision he also learned that Wilford Woodruff would play an important role in that restoration.

In 1830, he related the vision to Wilford. It was about three years later that Wilford would be baptized into the Church. Robert Mason did not have the privilege of joining the Church. This concerned Wilford. Elder Woodruff stated, "The first opportunity I had after the truth of baptism for the dead was revealed, I went forth and was baptized for him in the temple font at Nauvoo." (Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, p. 18.)

Wilford Woodruff first learned of the Church at the age of 26 through a newspaper article that ridiculed the Church. He was impressed by the article and wanted to meet the Mormons. An opportunity came a year later when two elders of the Church held a meeting in the town schoolhouse. He skipped dinner that night and ran to the schoolhouse. While running he prayed that he might know if the missionaries were true servants of God. Wilford received that witness and was baptized on December 31, 1833. He tells of that day: "The snow was about three feet deep, the day was cold, and the water was mixed with ice and snow, yet I did not feel the cold." (Nibley, The Presidents of the Church, p. 135.)

Early the following year Wilford made the journey to Kirtland, Ohio, to visit the Prophet Joseph Smith. Of this visit he said: "Here for the first time in my life I met and had an interview with our beloved Prophet Joseph Smith, the man whom God has chosen to bring forth his revelations in these last days. My first introduction was not of a kind to satisfy the pre-conceived notions of the sectarian mind as to what a prophet ought to be, and how he should appear. It might have shocked the faith of some men. I found him and his brother, Hyrum, out shooting at a mark with a brace of pistols. When they stopped shooting, I was introduced to Brother Joseph and he shook hands with me most heartily." (Nibley, The Presidents of the Church, p. 136.)

The Prophet later invited Wilford to stay in Kirtland. He eagerly accepted the invitation.

During this visit Wilford was asked to become a member of Zion's Camp. It was a long march of more than 1,000 miles to help the Saints in Missouri who had been driven from their homes. Once the march was completed and upon finding that the Saints were so scattered that they were unable to restore them to their lands, the camp was disbanded.

The Prophet invited all of the young men of the camp without families to remain in Missouri. Wilford who had been a member for less than a year, followed this advice and settled in Clay County. Of his experience in Zion's Camp he said: "We gained an experience that we never could have gained in any other way. We had the privilege of beholding the face of the Prophet . . . and seeing the workings of the Spirit of God with him, and the revelations of Jesus Christ unto him and the fulfillment of those revelations." (Journal of Discourses 13:158.) From the members of Zion's Camp, many of the future leaders of the Church would be called to prominent Church positions. Wilford Woodruff was among them.

In November 1834 he received a call from Bishop Partridge to serve a mission to the Southern States, particularly in the states of Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. This was a difficult and challenging assignment. The towns were few and widely separated. It was while on this mission that Wilford made one of his longest and hardest day's journey. He and his companion walked more than 60 miles between sunrise and 10 o'clock at night without a morsel of food to eat. This would become a frequent practice of this committed missionary.

One finds recorded in his journal many days when he walked more than 30 miles. He summed up his mission in Arkansas and Tennessee, noting that he had traveled 3,248 miles, held 170 meetings and baptized 43 persons.

Later, in 1837, Elder Woodruff was called to serve another mission on the Fox Islands off the coast of Maine. After serving until May of 1838, he then visited his old home in Farmington, Conn., and had the great pleasure of baptizing his father, stepmother and his sister.

While serving in the Fox Islands in August 1838, he received a letter from Thomas Marsh informing him of his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. On his return from Maine, he led a company of 53 converts nearly 2,000 miles to Nauvoo, Ill., the new headquarters of the Church. On April 26, 1839, he was ordained an Apostle at Far West, which was a fulfillment of a revelation given to Joseph Smith foretelling that members of the Twelve would take leave from Far West to go on missions.

Elder Woodruff was among some of the first missionaries to introduce Mormonism in England. He traveled there twice - once with other missionaries in 1839 and then as president of the mission in 1844. During his first mission, he witnessed the baptisms of over 1,800 people including 200 ministers who followed him into the waters of baptism.

At the home of John Benbow of Herefordshire, he converted a whole congregation of United Brethren who were praying for the gospel to be brought to them, along with a constable who came to arrest him and two spies that were sent by the Church of England. Altogether he baptized over 600 people in a pond located on the Benbow property.

Wilford Woodruff was an avid journal keeper. In the archives of the Church there are over 7,000 pages of his journal entries. He recalled: "I have had the spirit and calling upon me since I first entered into this Church. I have made a record from the first sermon I heard, and from that day until now I have kept a daily journal. Whenever I heard Joseph Smith preach, teach, or prophesy, I always felt it my duty to write it; I felt uneasy and could not eat, drink, or sleep until I did write; and my mind had been so exercised upon the subject that when I heard Joseph Smith teach and had no pencil or paper, I would go home and sit down and write the whole sermon almost word for word and sentence by sentence until it was delivered, and when I had written it, it was taken from me, and I remembered it no more. This was a gift of God to me." (Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, pp. 476-477.)

When the Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo, he looked back upon the temple as the city disappeared from view and asked the Lord to remember the sacrifices of the Saints. After settling in Winter Quarters with the Saints, he witnessed much suffering. He was a member of the first pioneer company to arrive in the Great Salt Lake Basin on July 24, 1847. President Brigham Young was riding in Wilford Woodruff's carriage when he first viewed the Great Salt Lake Valley and declared "This is the right place." Elder Woodruff remained in Salt Lake for one month and two days, and then with a number of brethren began the weary return trip back to Winter Quarters.

In 1848 President Young requested that Elder Woodruff undertake a mission to the Eastern States. Ever willing to do what he was asked to do, he served until early 1850 and then returned to the Salt Lake Valley. There he served in the Utah Territorial Legislature for 22 years, on the Territorial Council for 21 years, and in the leadership of several cooperatives and associations.

In 1887, Elder Woodruff was appointed as the first president of the St. George Temple. Here he experienced some marvelous manifestations. It was in this temple that the signers of the Declaration of Independence appeared to him and requested that their temple work be done. As they gathered around him, they wanted to know why he did not redeem them. "We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remain true to it and were faithful to God." (JD 19:229.)

Elder Woodruff related that they waited on him for two days and two nights as he was baptized for the signers of the Declaration of Independence and 50 other prominent men, making 100 in all. They included John Wesley, Columbus and others. He was baptized for every president of the United States until that time except three.

At the death of President John Taylor in 1887, the Quorum of the Twelve led the Church until the April General Conference of 1889. Wilford Woodruff was then sustained as President of the Church at the age of 82. He had not expected to outlive John Taylor, who was younger, but realized that this was the Lord's will. President Woodruff came to the Tabernacle during the conference. He entered during the afternoon session to a thunder of applause from the people. He spoke only briefly before he had to leave early to avoid arrest for the practice of plural marriage.

These were precarious years (1880s) for President Woodruff, other Church leaders, and the members of the Church in general. Many arrests had taken place for the practice of plural marriage. The Church was losing property through unfair taxation and confiscation. President Woodruff humbly approached the Lord asking for help. For weeks President Woodruff wrestled mightily with the Lord. The Lord gave him a vision showing him the consequences of the continued practice of plural marriage and instructed President Woodruff in what he should do. On September 24, 1890, he issued what is now called The Manifesto which announced the end of the official practice of plural marriage. (D&C Official Declaration No. 1.)

He proclaimed: "The Lord showed me by vision, by revelation, exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. All temple ordinances would be stopped, confusion would reign throughout Israel and many men would be made prisoners. But I want to say this. I would have let all the temples go out of our hands, I should have gone to prison myself and let every other man go there had not the God in heaven commanded me to do what I did do. I went before the Lord and I wrote what the Lord told me to write." (Excerpts Deseret Weekly, November 14, 1891, Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah.)

As the Salt Lake Temple neared completion, there was some concern that the builders would not finish by the proposed dedicatory date. The work on the temple had begun in 1853, 40 years previously. President Woodruff called the workmen together and related to them what had been said, that some of the workmen felt it was impossible to have the temple ready by April 6th. As he looked upon the body of men he told them that he did not believe a word of it. Although some of the men were sick and weak, he knew they would be there working again in the morning. President Woodruff reminded them that they were not there by accident but had been ordained in the Eternal world to perform such a glorious work. He promised that he would be at the temple on April 6th to dedicate the building. In conclusion he shared with them a vision he had of the event 50 years previous in the city of Boston. (From the diary of Frederick William Hurst, Church Historical Department, Library Archives Division, p. 204.) On April 6, 1893, at 10:00 a.m., on the fifth floor in the Salt Lake Temple, with 2,500 people in attendance, the first of 41 dedicatory services began.

Utah was granted statehood in 1896. President Woodruff was grateful that he had lived to see Utah admitted to the Union. In the latter part of 1897 and the early months of 1898 his health began to fail. In August 1898, with a group of friends, he traveled to San Francisco to seek relief from his ailments. President Woodruff passed away Sept. 2, 1898, at the age of 92.

His noble life exemplified the great confidence God had in him to accomplish this work. He once proclaimed, "Be it known that I, Wilford Woodruff, do freely covenant myself, unto the Lord, for the purpose of assisting in the building up of His kingdom and His Zion upon the earth, that I may keep His law." This he did. Joseph Smith was right. Truly he was "Wilford the Faithful."


Jessee, Dean, edited by Arrington, Leonard J., The Presidents of the Church, Deseret Book, 1986

Cowley, Mathias F., Wilford Woodruff, Deseret News, 1909

Nibley, Preston, The Presidents of the Church, Deseret Book, 1960

Highlights in the life of Wilford Woodruff

-Born March 1, 1807, in Farmington, Hartford County, Conn.

-Age 14, learned the trade of miller

-Age 26, baptized into the Church

-Age 27, met Joseph Smith and participated in march of Zion's Camp


-Age 27-29, served a mission to the Southern States (1834-36)

-Age 30, married Phoebe Carter, served a mission to the Eastern States and Fox Islands

-Age 32, ordained an apostle by Brigham Young, served a mission to Great Britain.

-Age 36, served a money-raising mission to the Eastern States (1843-44)

-Age 37, served a mission to the Eastern States, called to preside over Europeam Mission,

-Age 40, entered the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young.

-Age 41, presided over the Church in the Eastern States.

-Age 44, appointed to Territorial Legislature.

-Age 49, appointed Church Historiam

-Age 70, received visitation by historically prominent people in St. George Temple

-Age 73, became President of the Quorum of the Twelve

-Age 78, underwent self-imposed exile (Edmunds Act)

-Age 82, sustained President of the Church (April 7, 1889)

-Age 86, dedicated Salt Lake Temple

-Age 91, died in San Francisco, Calif., on Sept. 2, 1898.

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