“May We Keep a True and Faithful Record and History of Thy Church and Kingdom”: Wilford Woodruff and the Preservation of History

By January 1, 2009

[WARNING: Since my Mormon-related research for the next couple months will primarily be focused on Wilford Woodruff’s time as Assistant Church Historian, most of my posts will probably closely relate to that subject; be advised.]

When George A. Smith, at the time the Church Historian, was called to fulfill a Church assignment to Washington D.C. in 1856, the brethren found it necessary to appoint someone to pick up Smith’s work and continue various historical projects—including the completion of the time-consuming “History of Joseph Smith.” An obvious temporary replacement for “St. George” was his former missionary companion and fellow apostle, Wilford Woodruff. Indeed, the zealous journal-keeper was a natural pick for the position because of several reasons: having been an early convert, he took part in many important historical events including Zion’s Camp, the Kirtland Temple “Pentecostal” activities (though he missed the actual dedication), Nauvoo, the western trek, etc.; he already had a keen interest for the Church’s history, and had several times helped out George A. Smith several times on historical matters[1]; and finally, his journals comprised a priceless collection of accounts detailing important occasions in the Church’s past.[2] Thus, in Woodruff’s summary to the April 1856 conference, he wrote, “All of the Authorities of the Church were present & received and W. Woodruff was appointed Assistant Historian—was to take charge of the office during the absence of G.A. Smith.”[3]

Though Woodruff’s journals are often referred to as an important contribution to early Mormon history, little attention has been given to his crucial work while in the official capacity of historian.[4] Woodruff served as an assistant to three Church Historians (George Albert Smith, Albert Carrington, and Orson Pratt) from 1856 to 1881, and then acted as Church Historian himself from 1881 until 1889. During those forty-three years, he accomplished many remarkable feats, including finishing “The History of Joseph Smith,” working on the often-overlooked “History of Brigham Young,” compiling individual biographies for almost every individual called by Joseph Smith to be an apostle, and collecting numerous historical documents from many various sources.[5]

Like many of us, it took a while for Woodruff to become interested in history. Matthias Cowley wrote that though Woodruff hated to read as a child, he would later come to describe reading as “most exaltant” and the specific practice of reading history as “most delightsome.” Before joining the Church, he had already read histories of the United States, England, Scotland, Greece, and Rome, as well as, like many others of the period, the works of Josephus.[6] Once in the Church, he felt it his specific obligation to keep a detailed history in his journal, including recording many of Joseph Smith’s sermons, believing that these would be used as a record for a future complete compilation of the Church’s history. In 1857, a year after he had been called as Assistant Historian, he was able to address a congregation and describe how journal keeping is not just important as a personal record, but it is also for the Church’s benefit:

Brother Hunter said that He wanted the clerk to keep a record of their meetings as it would make a good History. This is a subject I have always felt interested in & as there are many branches in the kingdom of God so their should be some persons engaged in each branch. I have often spoken upon this subject & I have often thought that to many it was dry and uninteresting to many. I mean the subject of Journal [p.35] writing & keeping a history of what transpires with us from day to day. I was deeply impressed with the importance of this subject to day while reading the History of the organization of the quorum of the Twelve and the remarks of the Prophet Joseph upon the subject. [Quotes at length from JS’s famous sermon on keeping a history.]
I have thus referds to sume of the words of Joseph to the Twelve Apostles at their organization. This Shows the feelings of the Prophet Joseph upon this subject. I have had this same subject upon my mind ever since I have been a member of the Church. I have been inspired & moved upon to keep a Journal & write the affairs of this Church as far as I Can. I did not understand why my feelings was exercised so much in the early age of this Church but I understand it now. I seldom ever heard Brother Joseph or the Twelve preach or teach any principle but what I felt as uneasy as a fish out of water untill I had written it. Then I felt right. I could write a sermon of Josephs a week after it was delivered almost word for word & after it was written it was taken from me or from my mind. This was a gift from God unto me and I have kept a Journal of almost evry day of my life for the last 24 years.

Woodruff then addressed the challenging aspects of such a task:

You may say that this is a great deal of trouble. Vary well. It has been to me in one sens. It has occupied nearly evry leasure moment of my time for 24 years. But what of it? I have never spent any of my time more profitably for the benefit of mankind than in my Journal writing for a great portion of the Church History has been Compiled from my Journals & some of the most glorious Gospel Sermons truths & revelations that were given from God to this people through the mouth of the Prophets Joseph, Brigham, Heber & the Twelve Could not be found upon the Earth on record ownly in my Journals & they are Compiled in the Church History & transmitted to the Saints of God in all future Generations. Does not this pay me for my trouble? It does.[7]

Such reflections were mostly made possible after seeing the benefits of his journal while serving in the Historian’s Office. But, even before making it to Utah, Woodruff knew the importance of an appointed Church Historian. While at Winters Quarters, there was an important discussion among the Quorum of the Twelve regarding Willard Richard’s office as Church Historian. Richards was under the impression that his role of historian should take precedence over his other duties, even during the difficult and involved trek west. Other more practical leaders felt Richards’ historical tasks should be put on hold until they were settled in the new Zion. In the midst of this debate, Woodruff stood up in defense of the Historian’s office:

Elder Woodruff said, the subject alluded to by [Richards] was a benefit to the whole Church and the kingdom of God. When he heard Joseph Smith preach he could not rest until he wrote it—felt we were living in the most important era in the world, and the people ought to keep a strict eye upon the Historian—felt deeply interested in the blocks out of which he was to be judged. He rejoiced that the Church had a ready writer and said he felt [Richards] should go to work and save the Church history.[8]

Thus, it was understandably a humbling experience for Woodruff when he was called as Assistant Church Historian. One of his first duties in this office was to dedicate the new Historian’s Office, and his dedicatory prayer is a great reflection of what he saw as the sacredness of the Calling.

And, by virtue of the Holy Priesthood vested in us, in the name of Jesus Christ we dedicate and consecrate it unto the Lord our God, and we set it apart that it may contain the holy records of the Church and kingdom of God, and we ask in the name of Jesus Christ that it may be sanctified and holy unto thy name and we pray that we may be baptized by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, while acting as Historians, or clerks for the Church; and may we keep a true and faithful history of thy Church and kingdom, and thy servants, and may it be kept in that way and manner that it may be acceptable unto thee O Lord and unto they servants the Presidency of the Church…
And we ask thee to bless us and prosper us in all things, and we pray that thou wilt bring to our remembrance all things that are necessary to the writing of this history. And that papers and documents and all things necessary, may be brought to us, to compile a right, useful, and proper history…and bless those of thy servants, who are among the nations of the earth and grant that they may be inspired to send an account of their works that we may be enabled to keep a true and faithful record that when we have gone into the world of spirits that the saints of God may be blessed in reading our record which we have kept.[9]

As you can see, Woodruff’s role in preserving the history of the Church expanded much further than just keeping his indispensible journal. He saw the daily recording of events as a first, albeit important, step of preparing a “faithful and true record and history” for the saints to enjoy and learn lessons from. Starting in the 1850’s, he would spend the next four centuries decades of his life working to create this history and dissipate it among the Church.

[Future installments may or may not explore the specific activities Woodruff took part of in his office of historian.]

_____________________________________

[1] Wilford Woodruff Journal, 20 April 1854. [Most references to Woodruff’s Journals were found in Kenney’s transcriptions, though quotes come directly from the original in the LDS Church Archives.]
[2] Steven Harper gave a great presentation on Woodruff’s journals’ role in Mormon history at the 2007 BYU symposium on Wilford Woodruff. Steven Harper, “A True and Faithful Record: Wilford Woodruff as Journal Keeper,” paper presented at the 2007 Wilford Woodruff Symposium, copy in my possession.
[3] Woodruff Journal, 7 April 1856.
[4] Howard Searle’s excellent dissertation, “Early Mormon Historiography,” probably gives the most attention to Woodruff’s labors, though it is necessarily limited since his purpose is to describe all historical activities within the first three decades of the Church. Thomas Alexander’s otherwise outstanding biography, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet, mentions very little of Woodruff’s activities in this capacity.
[5] For example, while Woodruff was writing the many histories of the different apostles, he corresponded with several former leaders who had since left the church and had become hostile, including Lyman Wright and William McLellin.
[6] Matthias Cowley, Wilford Woodruff (1909; rpt. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964), 23.
[7] Woodruff Journal, 17 March 1857.
[8] Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 17 December 1846, LDS Church Archives.
[9] Journal History, 15 September 1856.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period


Comments

  1. Wonderful, Ben. I remember the thrill I felt at seeing WWoodruff’s signature and “assistant” title on so many letters in the Historian’s Office letterbook — you always hear about the man at the top of just about any endeavor, and seldom about the assistant who so often does the bulk of the day-to-day work, and I hadn’t known that WWoodruff was that assistant in the Historian’s Office. I enjoyed this post and look forward to more.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 1, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

  2. Thanks, Ben. I’m especially interested in how WW saw himself as a church historian.

    we pray that we may be baptized by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, while acting as Historians, or clerks for the Church

    That’s pretty powerful.

    that when we have gone into the world of spirits that the saints of God may be blessed in reading our record which we have kept

    I think everyone who has worked with WW’s diaries can attest to this, and I look forward to your posts explaining how WW’s work in the Office attests to it as well.

    Comment by David G. — January 1, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

  3. Great post, Ben. WW lived over four centuries?? I think I missed some of that coverage in the published version of his journal 🙂

    Comment by Jared T — January 1, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  4. Jared: Whoops. It appears parts of my brain hasn’t quite made it to the new year yet.

    Comment by Ben — January 1, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

  5. Thanks for this, Ben. I look forward to future installments on the subject.

    Comment by Christopher — January 2, 2009 @ 11:42 am

  6. I look forwar to this work. I am away, so can’t check; but I think i remember Woodruff preaching in the Card Utah diaries about how it is our religious obligation to keep a journal and to record the bad as well as the good.

    Also, if I am remembering correctly, the WW diary includes his blessing after the dedication of the endowment house font and his rebaptism to “write the truth” or something like that as Church historian. Awesome.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 2, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  7. Thanks Ben! I look forward to your future posts. Mormon historians owe a lot to Wilford Woodruff. I’m not sure how much we would have left to work with if he had been so prescient.

    Comment by Brett D. — January 2, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

  8. Actually I have been browsing WW’s journals alot because it has important clues about my ancestors who were converts from his historic mission to England. His journal is the early source record that I have to identify some of these people with.

    Comment by Palm Springs LDS — January 4, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  9. […] Continued from a former post. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “We Feel that it is due Joseph Smith…that We Embody Every Act and Word in the History of the Last Days”: A Glimpse into the Difficulties of Wilford Woodruff, Assistant Church Historian — January 30, 2009 @ 4:16 pm


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