When Melchizedek Priesthood brethren and Relief Society sisters study the teachings of President Wilford Woodruff during the coming year, they will be exploring the mind of a man whose life, words and deeds bridged the very early history of the Restoration and the modern-day era of the Church.
Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff is now being distributed to local units of the Church as the basis for the Relief Society and priesthood course of study in the new year. The book is the eighth in a series of such volumes and courses of study instituted by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve to help Church members "deepen (their) understanding of the restored gospel and draw closer to the Lord through the teachings of the latter-day prophets" (p. v). It is intended that as volumes are added, members will build a collection of gospel reference books in their home.
Through President Woodruff's teachings, members will come to know better a man who was tireless in his dedication to carrying forward the work of the kingdom and unflagging in his loyalty to God the Father, the Savior Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration.
Consider these accomplishments of this man, who served as the fourth president of the Church from April 1889 to September 1898:
• He became intimately acquainted early on with the Prophet Joseph and, to the end of his life, bore fervent testimony of Joseph's mission and calling.
• He brought hundreds of souls in the United States and the British Isles to a knowledge of the restored gospel, converting many who themselves went on to become stalwart workers in the kingdom of God.
• His participation in the Zion's Camp march under the leadership of Joseph Smith steeled him, along with other early brethren, for later trials and responsibilities in Church leadership.
• He was among the members of the Quorum of the Twelve who served during the ministry of Joseph Smith and was present on the occasion several months before the Prophet's death when he exhorted the Twelve to "bear off the keys of the Kingdom of God in righteousness and in honor in all the world." Elder Woodruff's and others' recollection of this charge, in the minds of most Church members, helped resolve the controversy as to who should lead the Church following Joseph's death.
• He played a key role in the westward exodus of the Church and its resettlement in the Mountain West. He was a member of the first party of pioneers to reach the Salt Lake valley, and it was his carriage that carried an ailing Brigham Young at the time President Young first gazed upon the valley. It was Elder Woodruff who preserved for history President Young's immortal words on that occasion: "This is the right place; drive on."
• He built upon the teachings of and revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith pertaining to salvation for the dead. He himself received revelation that clarified the doctrine of proxy temple work for the eternal sealing of families in genealogical lineages. He dedicated two of the first four temples built in the post-Nauvoo period of the Church, including, as Church president, the Salt Lake Temple. An apostle, he was the first man to serve as president of the St. George Temple.
• As the author of the Manifesto that officially ended the practice in the Church of entering into plural marriage, he has the distinction of being one of only four Church presidents besides Joseph Smith to receive a revelation that is now part of the scriptural canon. (See Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1).
• In the period leading up to the issuance of the Manifesto, he steadied the Church in a time of difficulty and oppression over the doctrine of plural marriage, a time in which much of the Church's property was confiscated and many of its leading brethren were imprisoned. The revelation he received set the stage for the granting of statehood for Utah in 1896 — which Church members in the territory had sought since the settlement of the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 — and for the gradual and eventual acceptance of the Church in the 20th century by the public at large.
• He was a meticulous and dedicated journal keeper; his writings provide invaluable information and insight, not just about his own life but also about the key events of Church history in which he took a vital part. This attention to detail and record served him well as he occupied from 1875-1889 the position of Church Historian.
The tone of Wilford Woodruff's service in the kingdom and eventual leadership of the Church was set early on during his boyhood in Farmington, Conn.
"At an early age my mind began to be exercised upon religious subjects," he recalled. "I did not then join any church for the reason that I could not find a body of people, denomination or church that had for its doctrine, faith, and practices those principles, ordinances and gifts which constituted the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by Him and His apostles."
He was influenced in his youth by an aged family friend, Robert Mason of nearby Sansbury, Conn. "By many he was called a prophet; to my knowledge many of his prophecies have been fulfilled," Brother Woodruff wrote.
One prophecy in particular had a deep impact upon young Wilford: "He told me that the day was near when the Lord would establish His Church and Kingdom upon the earth with all its ancient gifts and blessings. He said that such a work would commence upon the earth before he died, but that he would not live to partake of its blessings. He said that I should live to do so and that I should become a conspicuous actor in that kingdom."
Robert Mason's prophecy was symbolized in a vision he reported that he had in his field in open day. He found himself in the midst of a vast orchard of fruit trees, but found no fruit to satisfy his hunger. Then, as if torn by a whirlwind, the trees began to fall. Thereafter, he saw shoots springing up from the roots and forming themselves into young, beautiful trees, which budded, blossomed and brought forth fruit. When he was about to eat the fruit, the vision closed, and he did not taste it.
Asking God in prayer the meaning of the vision, he was told: "This is to show you that my Church is not organized among men in the generation to which you belong; but in the days of your children, the Church and Kingdom of God shall be made manifest with all the gifts and blessings enjoyed by the Saints in past ages. You shall live to be made acquainted with it, but shall not partake of its blessings before you depart this life. You will be blest of the Lord after death because you have followed the dictation of my Spirit in this life."
Wilford wrote that the vision was given to Robert Mason about the year 1800, and Robert related it to him in 1830, the year in which the Church was organized. After joining the Church, Wilford wrote to him to say he had found the true gospel and its blessings. Robert received the letter with joy but died before he had the privilege of receiving gospel ordinances.
"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," President Woodruff wrote. "He was a good man, a true prophet; for his prophecies have been fulfilled. There was so much reason in the teachings of this man, and such harmony between them and the prophecies and teachings of Christ and of the apostles and prophets of old, that I believed in them with all my heart."
Wilford Woodruff had the opportunity to partake of the fruit that Robert Mason never received in mortality. Through his tireless and miraculous missionary labors, establishment of the genealogical work of the Church and his teachings pertaining to redemption of the dead, he dedicated his life to bringing the fruit to as many of God's children as he could.
(Sources: Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff; Matthias F. Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, His Life and Labors, 1909, The Woodruff Family Association; Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal.)
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