How the Missionary Wilford Woodruff Became a Father, Almost a Widower, and Finally an Apostle
By Steven C. Harper, PhD, Executive Editor of the Wilford Woodruff Papers
“Her name is Sarah Emma Woodruff,” Wilford, a proud, new father, wrote in his journal. “She was born July 14th, 1838 at half past five oclock in the morning,” then prayed, “O Lord prepare her for thyself.” Thirty-one-year-old Phebe Carter, the baby’s petite mother, had married Wilford in the spring of 1837 at Kirtland, Ohio, where she was teaching school, shortly after he returned from a mission in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Phebe had come to Kirtland two years earlier against the wishes of loving parents.
“Will you come back to me if you find Mormonism false?” her mother had asked.
“Yes, mother,” she replied, “I will.”
Phebe and Wilford worked for a few weeks after their wedding but then Wilford, a new member of the First Quorum of Seventy, set out for New England to preach the gospel to his relatives and others in the Farmington River Valley of Connecticut, not far from the Atlantic Coast. Planning to meet Wilford at the home of his father and stepmother, Phebe followed him, hoping to bring her parents and siblings, who lived in Maine, into the new covenant too, as she served alongside her husband, and they started their own family.
Daguerreotypes of Wilford Woodruff and Phebe Whittemore Carter circa 1849
The newlyweds served together at first and their harvest was gratifying. Wilford first baptized his aunt and uncle, then other friends and family members followed. Wilford and Phebe went next to teach the people of the Fox Islands off the Atlantic Coast, where Wilford felt drawn by a prophecy in his patriarchal blessing that said he would preach on the islands. “With him I went to the ‘Islands of the Sea,’” Phebe wrote. Olive and Jonathan Hale, friends from Kirtland, went too, and dozens of converts embraced the restored gospel they preached.
Bulah Thompson Woodruff’s headstone - Courtesy of Kenneth Mays
Phebe and Wilford parted again as her womb swelled in anticipation of Sarah Emma’s mid-summer arrival. While Phebe stayed with her family in Maine, Wilford worked his way up and down the coast. He visited his mother’s grave in Connecticut. He told everyone who would listen of the need to gather out of the world before the Savior’s Second Coming. As with Phebe, his closest relatives remained unconvinced.
Wilford persisted. He returned over and over to his father and stepmother and wrote to them in between visits. He told them of his own conversion, hoping, as he put it, that they “will begin to believe that there is a God in Israel who reveals himself in these last days & that He hath a prophet in the land.” They let the word grow in them and began to believe. Finally Wilford baptized his stepmother, his father, and his half-sister in the Farmington River that summer, praising the Lord that they were in the new covenant with him. Wilford formed a branch of the church composed of his friends and relatives, then raced north 200 miles to Maine where he rejoined Phebe a few days before Sarah Emma’s arrival. They prayed together, Wilford gave Phebe a blessing, and he pled with God to be with her as she gave birth.
Phebe recovered unusually easily while Wilford cut hay as payment to Phebe’s sister Sarah Foss, their able midwife. Wilford also wrote a letter to Thomas Marsh, The President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Missouri. Wilford reported on his ministry, utterly unaware that a life-changing letter from President Marsh was on its way to him. Life was good. True, Phebe’s family had not embraced the gospel as Wilford’s had, but they were loving and Phebe and Wilford were hopeful. Many had received the gospel, and Sarah Emma was healthy. But at the same time a storm had been gathering. Saints from Missouri to Maine were under attack.
LaRoy Sunderland, an eloquent Protestant pamphleteer, spoke for many critics among the clergy who were disgusted with the Book of Mormon, citing its pretension to be scripture. There was no scripture, they claimed, but the Bible. Wilford and other missionaries answered that they preached the Bible’s gospel, but Sunderland and his allies spurned the notion, sure that the saints’ spiritual gifts, gathering of Israel, and building New Jerusalem were perversions of Bible truths. They lashed out at missionaries like Wilford whose preaching took a toll of converts from the ministers’ flocks. Wilford and others lashed back, welcoming the fight perhaps too much, thinking of aggravated clergymen as evidence that they were right and likening their enemies to the persecutors of the earliest apostles.
More painful and more upsetting to Phebe and Wilford was the apostasy of friends.
In the spring as some of the Fox Islands’converts began to sell their land, planning to gather with the saints in Missouri, a venomous letter arrived at the post office from Warren Parrish, Wilford’s former mission companion and Joseph Smith’s erstwhile scribe, “teeming with falsehood against Joseph & the Church,” Wilford wrote. The contents quickly circulated and Wilford worried that they were believed.
Other letters followed, some faithful and some from the formidable, growing group of disgruntled saints, or former ones. Through the mail Phebe and Wilford learned that Joseph and Emma had already fled Kirtland for Missouri, and hundreds of faithful saints were preparing to follow. The convert saints in the islands were less bitterly divided than the saints in Kirtland, but there too many had chosen to not keep the covenant. Justus Ames, the first islander to embrace the restored gospel, who had been so serviceable to Wilford in furnishing his boat for the missionary’s use, decided not to go. In the end, two-thirds chose not to make the journey all the way to Zion, a decision Wilford was sure they would someday regret. Others, already planning to gather to Missouri, joined in prayer, seeking to know when to depart. On April 26, 1838, the missionaries received revelation that their work in the islands was nearly finished for a season, and they and all who wished to gather were to prepare to head west in the fall. Wilford had no idea what awaited him exactly one year later to the day.
Two weeks after Sarah Emma’s birth in July, Wilford left Phebe in her parents’ care, prayed for her and their baby, and ferried to the Fox Islands one last time to help the saints pack for the trip from the edge of the continent to its heart. There, on August 9, 1838, Wilford received this unexpected letter from Thomas Marsh, dated July 14:
Sir; a fiew days since Prest. Joseph Smith Jr and some others were assembled to attend to some Church business when it was thought proper to select those who was designed of the LORD to fill the places of those of the twelve who had fallen a<w>ay namely Wm. E Mclellin, Lyman E. Johnson, Luke Johnson, and John F. Bointon. The persons selected were John E. Page, John Taylor, Willford Woodruff and Wilard Richards.
On the following day five of the twelve with President Rigdon and some others met and resolved that President Rigdon write to Br. Richards who is now in England and inform him of his appointment, and that P. P. Pratt write to Orson Pratt and inform him that the LORD has commanded that the 12 assemble in this place as soon as possible and that I should write to yourself. Know then Brother Woodruff by this that you are appointed to fill the place of one of the twelve apostles; and that it is agreeable to the word of the LORD given vary lately that you should come spedily to far west. And on the 26 of April next to take your leave of the saints here and depart for other climes across the mighty deep! Yours in the love of God
Thomas B. Marsh
Thomas Marsh letter to Wilford Woodruff
Now Wilford knew why he had felt inspired to return to Missouri.
Wilford and Phebe met again at her parents’ home in Maine. There she joined the westbound wagon train, with tears running down her cheeks and her baby in a swinging cradle. “Mrs Woodruff manifested great fortitude in parting with her friends,” Wilford wrote late that night as he took his turn stoking the fire and standing guard, confiding his own mixed feelings to his diary. There had been eight families in the beginning, converts and friends all bound for Zion in Missouri. They were aware that some settlers there were hostile to their idea of gathering, but they could hardly have imagined the governor’s order to the militia to rid the state of Latter-day Saints, or that President Thomas Marsh and others who had so recently led the Church were now allied with the saints’ enemies.
Seven weeks passed slowly. The nights grew colder, some of the families stopped to find shelter for the winter, replenish their supplies, to bury the body of five-year-old Clara Thomas. Three families including the Woodruffs pressed on, even though Wilford had heard the news “that there was great trouble among the saints caused by the inhabitants of Mo.” Then Wilford stopped the wagon. He could go no further. Phebe was dying. She had been sick for more than a week, tormented by a brain fever that caused her severe headache to intensify with every bump in the road. Finally Wilford, sure she was soon to die, could not bear to cause her any more suffering.
As he stopped, Sisters Luce and Brown came quickly to see if they could help. Phebe lay in the wagon bed, barely breathing, but she clung to life as the sisters offered comfort and Wilford stood nearby praying. When he saw that she would live a little longer he found her a private room and carried her to a comfortable bed, fueled the fire, and watched. Humbled by his helplessness, Wilford began to search his soul, confessing his sins to God and covenanting, again, to keep his commandments. In the evening Phebe said she felt like she had just a few more minutes, and began to testify of the gospel and to admonish Wilford to be faithful for their daughter’s sake. They prayed together and then Wilford laid his hands on her head and offered her to God. Phebe endured until the next evening, then, despite their hopes and prayers the sisters stood by weeping as Wilford looked on her lifeless body.
He did not know that Phebe remained in the room, unseen, watching them. She looked at her husband and her sickly baby. Then two angels appeared, saying they had come for her. One of them explained that she had a choice. She could accompany them to rest in the spirit world, or, on one condition, she could return to her body. Did she want to stand beside Wilford through life’s troubles, enduring all for the gospel’s sake? Phebe looked again at Wilford, at Sarah. Then she turned to the angel and said “Yes, I will do it.”
Wilford began to feel something he had not experienced during her sickness, a gift of faith and power that distilled gently on him. He thought of the oil he had saved from his anointing in the House of the Lord at Kirtland. He took it out and consecrated it again, this time for anointing the sick. He poured a bit on Phebe’s body, bowed his head and, as he blessed her, the angels withdrew and she returned to her body on the bed. “We both obtained a great blessing,” Wilford noted, “and according to her faith her fever left her & praised be the name of GOD.” Still very weak, Phebe rested as Wilford spent the next day pondering, praying, and recording his blessings, and the following day they climbed aboard their wagon once again and pointed it toward the trouble they knew lay ahead.
They did not make it all the way to Missouri that year. When they learned that the saints were retreating from Missouri, driven by the governor’s order, Phebe, Wilford, and Sarah stopped in Illinois among the saints there, and hunkered down for the winter in a home they borrowed from a widowed sister. There was no point in pressing on to Far West for Wilford to be ordained. Joseph Smith and his counselors were stuck in a tiny dungeon in Liberty, Missouri. Thomas Marsh had left the church, David Patten had been killed in the clash, and the next senior apostle, Brigham Young, was moving the saints out of Far West, over the Mississippi River to the area around Quincy, Illinois, nearer to where Phebe and Wilford already were.
Instead, when they learned that many of the Missouri saints had found refuge about 120 miles away, Phebe and Wilford took Sarah there in the wagon to visit. They ate with Emma Smith and learned from her about Joseph’s unjust imprisonment. A strange mix of joy and lament overwhelmed them as they encountered dozens of old friends in the streets. They found others camped on the river bank, and learned from them of the tragedies they had fled. After conferring with the apostles who were in Quincy, Wilford resolved to move his family there so he could prepare, as he put it, “to fulfill a certain revelation & commandment of the Lord which required us to take our leave of the Saints at far west on the 26th day of April 1839 for the nations of the earth.”
Phebe and eight-month-old Sarah got settled among the saints in Quincy and Wilford headed west with apostles Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, and young George A. Smith. George was ten years Wilford’s junior at age 22 and, like Wilford, newly called to join the quorum of twelve apostles. Not everyone thought they were wise. Why, some naturally wondered, should they go west just to begin a mission to the East? Why walk back into Missouri against the current of refugee saints trying to get out before being spit out? “The Lord would accept the will for the deed,” some suggested, not expecting the apostles to fulfill the impossible command to begin their mission at the Far West temple site on April 26, 1839.
Besides, there was hardly a quorum of apostles at all. Six of the original twelve had disaffected. David Patten was dead. Parley Pratt was in prison. That meant that Brigham Young presided. He led the way into Missouri, meeting Heber Kimball and John Page on the way, to begin the work the imprisoned First Presidency had given him of filling the Quorum with men the Lord had named and the saints had sustained. “We mooved forward,” Wilford wrote, “to the building spot of the house of the Lord in the City of far west & held a Council & fulfilled the revelation & Commandment.”
Revelation received July 8, 1838 calling Wilford Woodruff to apostleship
Wilford sat on the stone laid at the southeast corner of the temple site, the chief cornerstone of a temple the saints could not build. Five apostles encircled him, and Brigham Young ordained him to the holy apostleship. They ordained George A. Smith as well. Recognizing that they had done all they could, they left the building in the Lord’s hands and rode 32 miles to catch up with the last families making their way out of Missouri. They crossed the wide Mississippi River together on a steam-powered ferry a few days later, relieved and satisfied that they had fulfilled the Lord’s command in the July 8, 1838 revelation in Doctrine and Covenants section 118, and their covenant to help the poor to safety.
That is how the missionary Wilford Woodruff became a father, almost a widower, and an apostle in one action-packed year. His family and his faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ were paramount to him. His relentless quest was to bind his family and his faith together in a covenant so strong that no governor’s order, no dungeon cell, not even death could overturn it. He would have gone anywhere and done anything the Lord asked of him. Like Paul, he was convinced “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Steven C. Harper, PhD, is a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and the Executive Editor of the Wilford Woodruff Papers. After graduating from BYU with a BA in history, he earned an MA in American history from Utah State University, and a PhD in early American history from Lehigh University. He began teaching at BYU Hawaii in 2000, then joined the faculty at BYU in 2002, and taught at the BYU Jerusalem Center in 2011–2012. He became a volume editor of The Joseph Smith Papers and the document editor for BYU Studies in 2002. In 2012 Steve was appointed as the managing historian and a general editor of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, and was named editor in chief of BYU Studies Quarterly in 2018. He has authored numerous books and dozens of articles including: Promised Land (2006), Making Sense of the Doctrine and Covenants (2008), Joseph Smith’s First Vision (2012), and First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins (2019).
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 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 49, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/feee995e-e173-4198-9bd1-6856410285cf.
 “Phoebe W. Carter Woodruff”, Representative Women of Deseret, accessed 23 Oct. 2013 at http://www.mormonwomenhistory.org/final/biographies/pww.html.
 Thomas G. Alexander, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991), 55-57.
 Alexander, Heaven and Earth, 57-61.
 Wilford Woodruff to Aphek and Azubah Woodruff, Colebrook, Connecticut, May 7, 1837, Aphek Woodruff Family Correspondence, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
 Wilford’s patriarchal blessing prophesied that he would bring his relatives into the kingdom of God. "Journal (December 29, 1833 – January 3, 1838)," p. 147, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/0c135f54-be55-48db-8cf0-91d0e9f2258f/page/d7e43c06-1403-4baf-81f8-ffe5b4b9db0b. He exulted in a special journal entry, therefore, after baptizing his father, stepmother, and half-sister. See "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 45, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/8baf5218-aec3-467c-93dc-16d06ca08b2f.
 Alexander, Heaven and Earth, 70. "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 48, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/67634794-130e-4b14-83bf-4b2b35a4963d.
 Alexander, Heaven and Earth, 61-71.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 28, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/61c5ce1f-e799-4b0d-b84c-af9c3ab2d244.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 25, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 6, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/a01dfccc-8bdc-4217-b698-9c1decc9720c/page/3fbc5648-62e1-4222-b482-e1b1b0aa8991.
 Alexander, Heaven and Earth, 74-76.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 29, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 6, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/cb7259b0-91b5-4d26-89d4-ac324e075083.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 52, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 6, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/56681581-b7d9-44ba-b777-377c9badb2fd.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 53, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 6, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/79323183-8277-4722-bd39-12c6a0219a0e/page/dc92878a-c691-4eb6-bac0-757c533f04b3. See Doctrine and Covenants 118, in which the Lord called Wilford as an apostle and commanded that he be notified. Revelation, Far West, MO, 8 July 1838, in Joseph Smith, Journal, Mar-Sept. 1838, 54-55, CHL. Available at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-8-july-1838-a-dc-118.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 66, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/40aa7cd5-d69c-4df4-b0a9-d76254cf6993. Woodruff mentions the swinging cradle in his October 9 entry. Thomas G. Alexander wrote of Phebe’s feelings on leaving her parents, saying that she penned the poem “On Leaving Home” in her autograph book regarding the occasion. The poem is not attributed and is on a loose sheet of paper in the book, but not written on the book’s pages. It’s not clear that the poem was written for this occasion of her leaving her parents’ home. See Alexander, Heaven and Earth, 75, also Phoebe Whittemore Carter Woodruff, autograph book, 1838-1844, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
 Wilford Woodruff later appended to his October 24, 1838 journal entry that Marsh had that day made his affidavit. "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 69, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/286e0be8-ac92-423f-9aa6-5fe2201aee94.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 70, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/9a06bbf5-13de-4598-a8d7-36ece32d1ea2.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 71, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/450d697c-56c2-4953-8700-f4f8c37a52bd.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 72, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/662a6dc0-907b-4239-b3c0-0d635ed98d07. Journal History of the Church, vol. 10, October 9, 1838, 3, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 74, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/917750c6-6f43-4aca-9e4c-3cc8d3494966.
 Journal History of the Church, vol. 10, October 9, 1838, 3, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 74, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/917750c6-6f43-4aca-9e4c-3cc8d3494966. Journal History of the Church, vol. 10, October 9, 1838, 3, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 79, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/e592ffd6-86b5-42b0-bbef-f1cc597bd268.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 84, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/c3b26037-5a77-4301-a693-650c8ef75935.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 87, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/4d11e5fd-4769-414c-9006-37eae09135c8.
 Doctrine and Covenants 118; See Revelation, Far West, MO, 8 July 1838, in Joseph Smith, Journal, Mar-Sept. 1838, 54-55, CHL (Doctrine and Covenants 118). Available at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-8-july-1838-a-dc-118. For concerned saints, see Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 12 Dec. 1869, 13:159.
 Wilford wrote that he and George A. Smith had been previously nominated by the First Pres., accepted by the twelve, and acknowledged by the Church. "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 88, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/5098623b-df4f-40f5-a7bd-21ecb9ab6eb6. On January 16, 1839, the First Presidency wrote instructions to Brigham Young and Heber Kimball to lead the Church, ordain the new apostles as soon as possible, and regulate the Elders as inspired. See Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Hyrum Smith, letter, Liberty, MO, to Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young, Far West, MO, 16 Jan. 1839, Kimball family correspondence, Church History Library. Available at http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letter-to-heber-c-kimball-and-brigham-young-16-january-1839.
 "Journal (January 1, 1838 – December 31, 1839)," p. 88, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed October 7, 2021, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/22e14db2-30f8-4a6d-af51-132c66e05d8b/page/5098623b-df4f-40f5-a7bd-21ecb9ab6eb6.
 “President Wilford Woodruff,” Deseret Evening News, September 2, 1898, 4; Lyndon W. Cook, Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985) 236; “Woodruff, Wilford,” in Andrew Jenson, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History Co., 1901) 1:22.
 “Sketch of the Autobiography of George Albert Smith,” LDS Millennial Star, 1 July 1865, 27:440.