Wilford Woodruff and Writing the Histories of the Twelve

By February 16, 2009

This is continued from my other “Woodruff as Historian” posts.

According to Howard C. Searle, whose dissertation on Early Mormon Historiography is by far the best work on the subject, Wilford Woodruff?s work on the short biographies of the Quorum of the Twelve is one of his two most important contributions to 19th century Church history.[1]

While the writing of Joseph Smith?s history was coming to a close in 1856, attention was understandably turning to the next historical project. Logically, they decided to start working on the history of Brigham Young, though this involved going back in history and covering his birth through August 8, 1844, when the Twelve took leadership of the Church. Beyond a history of just Brigham, Wilford wanted a detailed history of the entire Young family. To Phineas Young, Brigham?s brother, Woodruff wrote,

Will you favor us with a brief sketch of your life, for the church history in connection with the Young family, name your religion before embracing Mormonism, where & when you was baptized, and by whom. Your ordinations, offices, by whom, short synopsis of your missions, with the number baptized, your marriages & children &c up till Augt. 8. 1844. We have an account of all the family but you, and shall be pleased to have yours by return of mail.[2]

However, rather than just limiting their work to just Brigham and his family, Woodruff desired to compile short histories of every member of the Quorum of the Twelve prior to August, 1844. His interest in this project probably stemmed from several reasons. First is his role as secretary for the Twelve–a position he held since 1852–which had kept him interested in the ecclesiastical body’s history. Second, the work is a reflection of the growing importance of the Quorum itself, especially when dealing with their rise to power within the Nauvoo years Woodruff just finished writing about. And finally, it is a testament to Woodruff?s desire to compile a full and complete history?even if that history largely entailed those in leadership positions.

At the beginning of February, Woodruff began sending out requests to several Quorum members:

Bro. [Amasa] Lyman, the history of the church is now revised and corrected up to Augt. 8. 1844 when Prest. Young and the Twelve become the Presidency of the church, at this period the history will commence, and give a brief recount of the parentage, early life, missions and history of each of the Twelve. We would be pleased to have your history at your earliest convenience say from 8 to 10 pages foolscap. Br. [Charles C.] Rich?s history will come in at the date of his ordination and reception unto the Quorum.[3]

Throughout the writing of these histories, Woodruff still received advice from those whom he was writing about (it must have been a relief to 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 Historian?s Office reviewing, revising, and correcting their histories (most often Brigham Young, who seemed very much concerned with how he was portrayed in his biography). For example, Luke Johnson, one of the original apostles who fell away but later returned, once spent an entire day with Woodruff going over his history.[4] In another occasion, Brigham Young stayed ?3+ hours in Compiling his History.”[5] Heber C. Kimball once had his history read to him and then remarked that ?he did not think it full enough?[6]–there were obviously some drawbacks of writing about those who had constant contact with the work.

Besides soliciting help from current LDS apostles, however, Woodruff?s concern for completeness also included reaching out to those who had fallen away. A month after he had requested help from Amasa Lyman and Charles C. Rich, Woodruff noted in his journal that he ?found great difficulty in obtaining any thing for the History of those who had apostitized.?[7] For instance, Lyman Wight, an early confidant of Joseph Smith and Nauvoo-era apostle, became disaffected with Brigham Young and eventually established his own schismatic Mormon settlement in Texas. Though the LDS Church had not had much contact with the wayward apostle, Woodruff hoped to include Wight in the historical process. On the first day of July, 1857, Woodruff wrote Wright,

I take the liberty of addressing a few lines to you for various reasons, one is for old acquaintance sake and another for the purpose of making a request of you, and upon the subject I will write first, it is this. During the last year I have been engaged in writing the History of the church and especially the History of the Twelve. I am taking up the Quorum from the commencement, have been trying to write your History but I cannot do justice to it at all without your assistance, and on the receipt of this I wish you could write a sketch of your life and forward it to me to this city, name your lineage or forefathers as far back as you can get, with anything you knew about the, and where you was from and when, what your religion was before you embraced the gospel, where you was baptized and who by and all your ordinations, and by whom ordained ? an outline of all your missions.

Woodruff also asked specific questions like whether Wright fought in the War of 1812 and what his recollection was concerning Liberty Jail.[8] Unfortunately, although Wright did send in some form of a history, it was not in time to be published. In June, 1858, Woodruff wrote again to the estranged apostle, explaining that the Utah War had ?caused almost universal destruction of all our mail matter? and delayed the delivery of Wight?s response.[9]

These biographies were eventually compiled in books F and G of the Manuscript History of the Church, and were published in the Deseret News and Millennial Star.[10] This project consumed Woodruff?s life for almost two years, and stands as a testament to his unflinching desire to fulfill what he felt was his duty, as included in a prayer he recorded in his journal:

I Pray that the Lord will preserve me for a season that I may labour to assist in preserving & keeping a Record of this Church & kingdom & the dealings of God with us & preserve me O Lord from dishonouring my Calling or priesthood but give me faith power & grace to pass through whatever I may be Called to meet.[11]


[1] Searle, ?Early Mormon Historiography,? 139. Woodruff’s other important contribution, of course, is his journal.

[2] Wilford Woodruff to Phineas Young, 28 February 1857, LDS Church Archives. (All documents come from Church Archives.) Elsewhere, Woodruff gave further details concerning the history of Young?s family,

Please also tell br. Phineas [Young] that we want a brief sketch of his life as we are compiling a short sketch of each one of the Brothers and sisters of bro. Brigham, their families, their missions, and important events in their lives, all these sketches will be required from your birth till Augt. 8, 1844, when the history of the Church becomes the history of br. Brigham, and takes all his brethren from that day along daily as Joseph?s history did? (Wilford Woodruff to orson Pratt, 28 February 1857.)

[3] Wilford Woodruff to Amasa Lyman and Charles C. Rich, 28 February 1857, LDS Church Archives. See also Wilford Woodruff Journal, 28 February 1857.

[4] Wilford Woodruff Journal, 20 March 1857.

[5] Wilford Woodruff Journal, 26 August 1857.

[6] Wilford Woodruff Journal, 23 February 1857.

[7] Wilford Woodruff Journal, 17 March 1857.

[8] Wilford Woodruff to Lyman Wight, 1 July 1857.

[9] Though I have tried diligently, I have not been able to find Wight?s response and corresponding history. Woodruff noted that it was ?dated Mountain Valley Aug. 4 ?57,? but it does not appear that the archives has a copy of it (at least that I could find).

However, it appears that Wight wrote a long, perhaps polemical history to support his schismatic claims, for it garnered a spirited response from Woodruff, George A. Smith, Amasa Lyman, Charles C. Rich, and two of Wight?s nephews that defended Young?s claim to authority (a letter that probably deserves a post of its own). Wilford Woodruff to Lyman Wight, 30 June 1858.

[10] Searle, ?Early Mormon Historiography,? 141. Searle includes useful graphs detailing who wrote which histories (pgs. 341-342) and where they were published (344-345).

[11] Wilford Woodruff Journal, 26 August 1857.

*Just to put his work on this project in more historical context, here is just one external problem he was dealing with while writing the histories: ?I was troubled with the teeth ake. I took an instrumen & dug a stump of a tooth out of my Jaw that was broke off level at the Gum. It was a tedious operation. I spent the evening at the office reading history.? (Wilford Woodruff Journal, 18th February 1857.)
What a trooper! (and then there was that pesky Utah War…)

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period


  1. Nice stuff. Thanks Ben. I look forward to your full presentation in a couple of weeks.

    Comment by Christopher — February 16, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

  2. Nice write up. Esplin writes about several manuscript drafts of Brigham Young’s history that he used in his dissy. When doing some work on early BY, I wanted to track down those manuscripts, but no one knew anything about them. Have you come across anything about them in your digging?

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 16, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  3. Good stuff, Ben. It’s gonna be a fun conference.

    Comment by Jared T — February 17, 2009 @ 12:11 am

  4. That’s a good question, J. The only different manuscripts I have found is the first draft of the Brigham Young History, started by Joseph L. Campbell in 1858 and dragged on without progressing very far, and then when it picked up after Thomas Bullock returned from his mission in 1859.

    Searle writes that they were on the same volume, but I seem to remember that they are two different manuscripts. His dissy gives pictures of the front pages of both the rough draft and the “manuscript history.”

    I’m sorry I’m not much help. WW didn’t work much on the BY history; that was mostly done by the office’s clerks and oversaw by G.A.S while Woodruff could focus on the rest of the Twelve (and his agriculture–seriously, he was obsessed).

    Comment by Ben — February 17, 2009 @ 12:25 am

  5. Ben,

    I had the same question as Stapley. I’ve asked the reference librarians at the church archives, Esplin, and several others, and no one could help me track down any of the draft manuscripts. How would I locate the Campbell/Bullock draft?

    Comment by John Turner — February 17, 2009 @ 10:51 am

  6. As an aside, this in 76n1 from Esplin’s dissy:

    In 1858 the Deseret News published histories of each of original members of the Twelve. Some were prepared by the men themselves; others were a product of the apostles (and their clerks) that worked in the Church Historian’s Office. Young’s history was a combination of the efforts of the historians, relying both on their own experience and documents in their possession, and Young’s dictation and answers to questions put to him. Evidence suggests that Young assisted in the preparation of each of the several versions and approved the final manuscript. The three manuscripts of Young’s history will be referred to here by number order of preparation.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 17, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  7. Ben,
    I’m new to this blog and have thoroughly enjoyed your work.

    Comment by Renn — February 17, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

  8. Not qualified to comment on the post itself, but the very last comment about do-it-yourself dentistry struck a chord. There are men and then there are MEN (and WOMEN)! How the ancients did it I cannot fathom. I know there is a reason I was born in the age of local anesthetics.

    Comment by Yet Another John — February 17, 2009 @ 11:26 pm


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