“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

By January 30, 2009

Continued from a former post.

Wilford Woodruff was having a tough time in his new assignment as Assistant Church Historian. After his appointement at the 1856 April General Conference, he was anxious to get started and optimistic about his possibilities. The first couple months, however, ended up being more difficult than he had expected. First, he came down with a crippling disease that kept him away from the office for several weeks–in fact, he wrote that he couldn’t even leave his bed for quite some time. Finally, towards the end of May, he was able to put in his first full day’s work with his new duties, writing to George A. Smith (current Church Historian and on a mission in the East Coast), “I am now calculating to devote my time [to the history].”[1]

Prior to Woodruff’s call, George A. Smith, Thomas Bullock, and the others working in the Historian’s Office had worked on “compiling the History of Joseph Smith from April 1st 1840 to his death on June 27, 1844.”[2] In May 1856, the only thing left to be completed was the Prophet’s last day’s in Carthage. However, this turned out to be a lot more difficult than Woodruff had expected because of incomplete records. On June 24th, he noted in his journal that, “We find a great Difficulty in writing the History of Joseph esspecially During the last few days of his life as no one kept a Journal of the same except Dr Richards wrote some but Died before the History was written out.”[3] As a result of this problem, Woodruff was left to rely on eyewitness who were still living (and still in the Church) to help fill in the gaps, a task which had fortunately been done at various times during the previous decade.

Unfortunately, this brought on a new difficulty for Woodruff: conflicting accounts. Writing George A. Smith on June 30th, he lamented that,

We are still laboring upon that part of the History, and we almost daily get new statements from men who were directly or indirectly connected with the scenes of the last four days of the lives of the Prophet and Patriarch, and many of these accounts are in direct opposition to each other. We have statements of John J. Fullmer, Dan Jones, S. Markham, W.W. Phelps, R Cahoon, AC Hodge, O.P. Rockwell, Wm Clayton, D.B. Huntington and others in connection with D Richards Journal lying before us, and find they conflict a good deal.[4]

To try and solve this dillemna, Woodruff wrote who he felt was the most reliable eyewitness to the events leading up to the martyrdom: John Taylor, who was currently serving a mission on the East Coast. “We are very busy writing the history of the latter days of Joseph,” he wrote to Taylor, “and we have had a great many conflicting statements on the subject which renders it necessary for me to call in the aid of an eye and ear witness to enable me to do justice to it.” Woodruff then counsels Taylor to, when he has time, sit down with George Smith and “write out an account of all the circumstances relating to the subject which came under your considerable observation or experience” while in Carthage. Specifically, Woodruff wanted answers to certain questions like if Hyrum also tasted liquor just before the martyrdom, whether it was Joseph or Hyrum who requested Taylor to sing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” for a second time, and related questions to the handling of the dead bodies.[5]

Another problem the new Assistant Church Historian evidentally experienced was growing biases among the Utah Saints. For instance, Emma Smith, once a celebrated figure within the Church as Joseph’s wife, soon became seen as an individual unworth and unable to follow the Lord’s counsel as a result of her rejection of polygamy and refusal to move west.[6] Thus, it is expected that several saints hoped to get a “jab” in when (mis)remembering her involvement before Joseph’s death. Concerning the martyrdom, though William Clayton had recorded earlier that Emma came up with the idea that they should prepare a petition for the Governor to release the imprisoned men in an attept to free Joseph, Saints were now trying to clear her from the record and make her appear more sinister. “Sister Taylor says that Sister Hyrum Smith and herself got a man,” Woodruff wrote to Bernhisal, “to draw up a petition to the Governor to restore those men in prison to their wiives and children; this was signed by Sister Hyrum Smith, Sister Taylor…but when presented to Emma she utterly refused to sign it”[7]–perpetuating the stereotype that Emma had grown more and more distant from her now polygamous husband. Woodruff was leery of this view, and therefore wrote both Bernhisal and Taylor to try and get facts straight.

What surprises me the most about this was Woodruff’s determination to get the even minutest facts right. It seems that he honestly sought to “keep a true and faithful history of thy Church and kingdom,” as his dedication prayer plead for.[8] To Bernhisal he wrote, “we feel that it is due Joseph Smith and the Church and Kingdom of God, and to all future generations that we embody every act and word in the history of the Last days of the prophet.”[9] Truly he took his duty seriously as an historian.

While us modern historians may critique the History of the Church for its flaws and failures (lack of dealing with polygamy, etc.) and lack of professionalism when compared to history today, reading Woodruff’s journal and letters makes it very apparent that they were honestly trying to keep what they felt was an faithful record. Woodruff really thought that it was his duty to God, Joseph Smith, and future generations to preserve an accurate history–even down to the points of which Smith brother requested a second singing of a song shortly before their death to who cleaned their bodies shortly after they died.


[1] Wilford Woodruff to George Albert Smith, 28 May 1856, LDS Church Archives. (All the following letters are found in the archives as well.)

[2] George A. Smith to Wilford Woodruff, 21 April 1856.

[3] Wilford Woodruff Journal, 24 June 1856. In a letter to John Bernhisal, Woodruff wrote that, “the period of Joseph’s History is the most difficult to make out as Dr Richards wrote but little and that in detached sentences, expecting to make it out himself, but died before doing it.” Woodruff to John Bernhisal, 30 June 1856.

[4] Woodruff to Smith, 30 June 1856.

[5] Woodruff to John Taylor, 30 June 1856. Interestingly, Woodruff also asked Taylor about an event Dan Jones claimed happened the night before the martyrdom:

Dan Jones makes the following statement: ?We were awoke [during the night of the 26th] by heavy treads as of soldiers close by, and heard a whispering under the window ?who shall go in? how many shall go in? then they came up stairs to the prison door against which we had taken the precaution to place a chair; hearing us speaking to each other they hesitated, when Joseph called out, ?come on you assassins! We are ready for you and would as willingly die now as at daylight!? Hearing this they returned again.?

It appears that John Taylor must not have corroborated it, since it did not appear in the final history.

[6] “Emma Smith is one of the damnedest liars I know of on this earth,” claimed Brigham in 1866. Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 48, Winter 1980, 82.

[7] Woodruff to Bernhisal, 30 June 1856.

[8] Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 15 September 1856, LDS Church Archives.

[9] Woodruff to Bernhisal, 30 June 1856.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period


  1. Ben:

    A great series of posts; I hope there are more. Thanks! ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — January 30, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  2. Thanks, Ben. Really great stuff. This reminds me of one of Dean Jessee’s articles, where he deals with the construction of the HJS narrative for the last week before JS’s death. Does concentrating on WW shed additional light on what Dean said?

    Comment by David G. — January 30, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

  3. Good question, David. I had read Jessee’s article on it a couple years ago, but to be honest I had forgotten that he had written on the account of the martyrdom. Besides adding more detail to Woodruff’s involvement (Jessee only spends about two pages on it–though he has good detail), I can see the divergant styles between G.A. Smith and Wilford: Smith was a bit more liberal in his approach to witness accounts, while Woodruff desired to compare, contrast, and overall be more selective with individual’s reminiscences. In short, Woodruff seems more of a stickler.

    Also, and this may just be Woodruff’s outlook and incoming expectations, but he seems thoroughly frustrated with their inability to have a perfect record; of course this is coming from a guy who kept a wonderful record himself.

    Comment by Ben — January 30, 2009 @ 6:46 pm

  4. Very cool stuff. Thanks Ben, and I look forward to your presentation on the subject.

    Comment by Christopher — January 31, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

  5. Excellent post.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 1, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

  6. What surprises me most is that you are surprised to find Wilford Woodruff’s “determination to get the even minutest facts right” :-). What do you think the Lord meant when he told Moses “Thou shalt not lie”? Nice post otherwise. Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Tom D — February 2, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  7. […] him after the troubles he had while working the last few days of Joseph Smith?s life, detailed here). The Church Historian’s Office Book recorded the many visits of several apostles to the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Wilford Woodruff and Writing the Histories of the Twelve — February 16, 2009 @ 5:29 pm


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks for this. I think about this book all the time and I'm always glad to have a refresher on its contents and arguments.”

Tyler on Guest Post - Mormonism: “Thank you, all, for your help and support!”

J. Stapley on A Quick Note: Historicizing: “Here is the YM org chart from 1967, which doesn't include a YM's presidency, so perhaps that dating of the presidencies to the mid 1970s…”

Mees Tielens on The Mechanics of Applying: “Just a gentle tip that if you are one of the interdisciplinary folks presenting at MHA your panel will probably not be well attended, but…”

Ardis on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J. My memory isn't perfect, but so far as it extends I don't recall ever seeing such a comprehensive and easy-to-follow explainer of the…”

J Stuart on 2019 Book of Mormon: “Eccles Conference Center, Rooms 201 and 205. I don't have any further information and their website doesn't seem to be updated.”