FAIR Voice Episode #27: Wilford Woodruff Papers Part 2
Hanna Seriac, Steven C. Harper, and Jennifer Ann Mackley
Host Hanna Seriac talks to our Executive Editor, Steve Harper, and our Executive Director, Jennifer Mackley, about Wilford Woodruff's life and conversion, the development of temple doctrine, and what we can learn from him about continuing revelation. They end the interview with a discussion of how the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project got started and what the process is to collect, digitize, preserve, and publish Wilford's documents.
Hanna Seriac, Steven Harper, and Jennifer Mackley
(start transcription at n6:13:95)
Hanna Seriac: Studying the life of Joseph Smith has been something that has truly blessed me in a lot of different ways, but without further ado, let's talk about Wilford Woodruff. Today I have Steve Harper and Jennifer Mackley of the Wilford Woodruff Papers. Please check the link in the description, and we will also talk about this at the end, but I would love for you to click that link. I would love for you to see if you would like to volunteer, see if you would like to donate, there are a lot of different ways that you can help them out. And I am so glad to have them on today. And without further ado, we're going to start. Let's start off by talking about, who was Wilford Woodruff?
Steven Harper: Well, I'm nervous because the world expert on Wilford Woodruff is listening in.
Wilford Woodruff would have thought of himself as nobody special. He would have thought of himself as unusually inclined to accidents and dangers and life-threatening experiences. And he would have thought of himself as somebody that you could rely on, somebody you could send to the ends of the earth with the most difficult job and count on it being done.
So, he was born in March, 1807 and within two years, his mother had passed away. He was raised by his father and his step mother. A couple of brothers. Any sisters, Jennifer?
Jennifer Mackley: He did have one, Eunice.
Steven Harper: One sister, Eunice. That's right. And went to school, actually. Grew up in Connecticut. Grew up among devout Christians, mostly Congregationalists, but with a fair Baptist presence and intense Christianity.
Wilford was a Christian and a believer, in fact maybe more so, maybe more intensely so than any of his family members, relatives. He was shaped very much by a prophecy by a fellow named Robert Mason. Correct? Anything I get wrong, Jennifer. Robert Mason, who told Wilford that he had seen a day when the gospel fullness would be available and that he would not live to see it, that is Robert Mason would not live to see it, but Wilford would, and he counted on that. Wilford counted on that.
He moved to New York, central upstate New York, where he worked. He grew up working as a miller. His father built and ran mills, and Wilford did that kind of work. And it was there in New York that he first met a couple of missionaries preaching the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the everlasting covenant, and he and his brother both listened and were attentive to that, and ended up embracing the gospel. Wilford did. Not long after that Wilford was recruited to join the Camp of Israel. The Lord had called for an army of men to march to Missouri to provide relief and supplies, and potentially even defense for the Saints who had been exiled from Jackson County, from the promised land. And they were told to go, willing to lay down their lives. And as far as they knew, they might very well have to do that. So that was a trip that in hindsight looks to us like no big deal or maybe even a failure, but at the time looked like an Abrahamic kind of sacrifice, a willingness to give your life and your [unclear] for the cause of Zion, and Wilford walked every step of the way with that in mind, completely willing to do so, and he remained that way throughout his whole life.
After the Camp of Israel march, he didn't come back to New York or Ohio where the church was headquartered. He went on a mission south, and spent much of the next couple of years in Kentucky and Tennessee, where he contributed to the growth of the church and the strength of the church there, and then made his way back to Kirtland, Ohio. He was too late to be there for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, but he arrived the next year and participated in the same ordinances as they had in January through April, 1836, when the temple was dedicated. He received a washing and anointing ordinance, a foot washing, and he was privy to the store of spiritual gifts and testimony meetings that were a spiritual highlight of his life.
He again, was in close proximity of Joseph Smith, the prophet, and hung on his every word. He knew him and got to know him better and better. So Wilford is among the many people who knew Joseph well and believed in him most. It's an important point to remember that the people who knew Joseph Smith best believed him most, and Wilford became one of that number.
He got married. He met and fell for Phoebe Woodruff. Phoebe Whittemore Carter was her name. They got married in 1837, I think. Am I right about that, Jennifer? 1837. And then not long after that, because they were out off again on missions, this time Wilford goes to the East coast to his own relatives and also to Phoebe's relatives, and Phoebe will join him at different times on this mission. She'll go to visit her own family and often they'll intersect. She and Wilford will meet up in Scarborough, Maine where Phoebe's family lives. Wilford will end up on some islands off the coast of Maine where he and his companions will open missionary work on the islands of the sea. He had received a blessing and a call to the Seventy that made him feel like he had an obligation to take the gospel to the islands of the sea, and he literally did that. Had great success, and will later lead the converts from that mission, along with him and Phoebe, to Zion. That is, they're going to take a wagon train and go to Missouri. Before they get there, though, they hear word that the Saints have been driven by the governor's executive order from the state of Missouri.
Now I skipped over a minor detail. When he's on his mission, off the coast of Maine, he receives a letter from the president of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, Thomas Marsh. And in this letter, president Marsh says, ” Wilford, you have been called to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve apostles.” And I don't think he saw that coming. So he accepted that call. It'll be awhile before he could get back to where he could be ordained. And when he is ordained, Wilford will finally be ordained an apostle while he's sitting on a cornerstone for the Far West Temple. Joseph Smith is in jail in Liberty, Missouri, at the time, and Brigham Young is leading the apostles, and they are fulfilling the revelation that caused them to leave from that spot, the Far West Temple site, for a mission to England. And Wilford is going to join that mission and he's going to be ordained on that spot. And from there they go east across the Mississippi River and try to recover economically, and then try to recover from malaria before they leave on their mission.
But, from there he takes the first of multiple missions to England and he becomes a fantastically successful missionary there. I don't know if anybody's ever enjoyed the kind of success that Wilford did in England. He's the main missionary that contributes to the success and to the conversion of hundreds of members of a kind of reformed church that's looking for the restoration of the gospel. This group that's ready for what Wilford preaches, and it's the United Brethren, and they join the church in mass, and many of them gather then to Nauvoo, and build the church. How far do you want to go, Hanna? Is this okay? Or too much detail or too little?
Hanna Seriac: Perfect. One thing that I would love for Jennifer to talk a little bit more about is how Wilford learned about the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Steven Harper: Great idea.
Jennifer Mackley: Actually, this is one of my favorite stories because it is such a personal one. So when Wilford was searching for what he considered would have to be the church that Christ established, one of the most significant things to him was that miracles, that gift the spirit, would follow the believers. And according to the churches that he knew, that had ended. So one of the things that he had sought was to follow Christ’s example. Although he'd been baptized as a baby, he felt the need to be baptized by immersion and went to, or wrote to a local minister and said, “will you perform this ordinance for me?” And the minister, assuming that Wilford was becoming a member of his congregation said, “you know, that's fantastic!” And Wilford said, “no, I just want the ordinance. I don't think your church is correct, but I need to follow the example of Christ.” So when he heard the gospel taught by Zera Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney, he recognized not only what he'd been looking for, but that they had the authority to perform the ordinance in the correct way. That there was more to it than just the action.
So the story of Zera Pulsipher and Elijah Cheney is fascinating to me, because according to the pulse of her family, Zera was out threshing his barn and felt impressed to leave home immediately and serve a mission. And he went into his wife and explained to her what he felt impressed to do. And she basically said, “can I get you a pair of socks and maybe a clean shirt?” So he left, he went by his neighbor's house, a few miles away, Elijah Cheney, and they both headed north and they basically walked for 60 miles before they stopped. And the house that they stopped at was the home where Wilford lived with his brother Azmon and Azmon’s wife, Elizabeth. They weren't there, they were out working. And Elizabeth said they would love to hear what these gentlemen had to say, because she knew that they'd been seeking the truth. So that night they held a meeting at the school house. So when Wilford got back to his home and Elizabeth said that's what was going on, he went directly to the school house and he arrived in time to hear Zera's opening prayer. And he basically knelt down and asked the Lord for what he wanted, is how Wilford put it, and the way that he prayed was unusual in Wilford’s experience. So after singing, Zera then preached for an hour and Wilford's impression of what he said was that he had learned more about the gospel in that time, then he had in all that he'd studied and he felt the witness from the Spirit of God during that meeting. So he stood up at the end of the meeting and expressed his conviction about what the elders had said. He asked for the Book of Mormon, and he said he believed it was light and truth. So he read it, and the next morning asked if he could be baptized, which he was on December 31st, of 1833 in upstate New York, meaning they had to break the ice to get into the Grindstone Creek to baptize him. But he said, “the snow was about three feet deep, but the water mixed with ice,” he said, “I didn't feel any cold.”
So that was an amazing moment because at the age of 26, he was joining a church that had barely over 3000 converts, that it existed for just three years, and it was led by a 28 year old who had just declared to the world that he was a prophet of God that had received new scripture, and was receiving additional revelations.
So the faith that it took to not only embrace that, but then three months later, to hear from Parley P. Pratt that he needed to join, basically what we now call Zion's Camp, he did! He left everything and consecrated himself and everything he had to the work of the Lord and never looked back.
Hanna Seriac: That's a really beautiful story. I love the strong conviction that we see in the saints at this time. I think it's a really great example for all of us to look to. What do you think Woodruff’s most notable or unique contributions are to Latter-day Saint tradition? Let's start with Professor Harper and then we'll go to Jennifer.
Steven Harper: I don't think there's any question about the most significant thing he did, and that is to develop the restoration of temple doctrine and ordinances. When Joseph Smith endowed nine men on May 4th, 1842, one of them was Brigham Young. And Brigham tells us that Joseph said, “here's the whole thing.” Kind of dumped it out and then said to Brigham young, “this isn't organized right. That's going to be your job. You're going to have to figure this out.” Well Brigham Young did that as best he could. And in the last year of his life, he dedicated the St. George Temple and made Wilford Woodruff the president of it. And then he dumped that same job onto Wilford. “This isn't finished. You're going to have to figure it out. It is now your job.” Wilford took up that responsibility. He's the one who, together with his associates there, wrote the temple ordinances for the first time. And then he led us through that work and began the work of endowing and sealing the dead in mass, and on a scale that we'd never seen before. Before that people didn't go to receive endowments for the dead, you could be baptized for the dead, but it's really in the St. George Temple under President Woodruff's direction that endowments and sealings for the dead ramp up. And then Wilford oversaw the end of plural marriage and its replacement with genealogical sealings, the way we do them today, then that was a process of revelation that he didn't necessarily anticipate. And didn't necessarily welcome, at least at the beginning. Right? He took a defensive position as Latter-day Saints did in those days. But when it became clear to him that he was supposed to let plural marriage go, and that instead he was supposed to guide the Saints and sealing themselves to their ancestors genealogically, that's when that work started and really ramped up under his direction. And I would say those are the most significant of many contributions that he made. Jennifer knows more about what I just told you than anybody on the planet.
Hanna Seriac: Yeah, we're really lucky to have her. Jennifer, what do you think the most significant or unique contributions are that Woodruff made for Latter-day Saint tradition?
Jennifer Mackley: So I agree with Steve, that his contributions to the development of temple doctrine are unparalleled. I think he's always been well-known as an incredible missionary, his success in England in 1800 converts in 1840, that was an incredible number compared to, he had baptized one person in 1839. So that alone was miraculous. And, I think part of it was his personal dedication. So his example in his fearlessness in taking the gospel to the world and his dedication to that. He spent 10 of the first 15 years in the church on missions. But Steve also alluded to a process. And to me, that is what I take away from all of Wilford Woodruff’s writings is that it truly was a process, that what was revealed to Joseph Smith was required going back to the Lord. So they would get a revelation, a certain doctrine, and then they would go back to say, “we understand that there is universal salvation. That baptism for the dead is a part of the plan so that everyone has this opportunity.” But then they had to go back and say, “exactly how do we do this?” And then it was, “you need to make sure you record them.” That was important. “And then you need to make sure that there are witnesses,” and then it was, “because all of this is part of the next step with the endowments and the sealings.” And as each thing was revealed, it required going back to the Lord, and that takes humility, that takes an understanding that it's a long process, a long-term commitment to what's happening.
And for Wilford Woodruff, the initial revelations just on the celestial kingdom, on the fact that his own brother who had been, or yes, his own brother who died before he received the gospel, his mother who died when he was a year and a half old, that they weren't lost, which is a problem that every religion on earth was trying to explain away because they couldn't solve that. So it seems.
I think the other more significant thing, almost, than even temple doctrine or missionary work, is the fact that he recorded it. We wouldn't know these things if Wilford hadn't written them down. So his record is the critical piece. Many of us receive revelations. Many of us see miracles, experience healings, or spiritual whisperings, or even more significant, signs and wonders if you want to call them that, but we don't write them down. Or, if we do, they're lost to history. And the miracle of Wilford's record is, you know, then they kept it, it was a daily record and it shows the process. It shows the step-by-step understanding and commitment and humility and sacrifice and faith and respect.
So, we know that he walked over 180,000 miles because he recorded every step. And we know that he set apart, his 10 years as a missionary, but he set apart another 5,500 missionaries. And he wrote 6,198 pages in his journal. He gave 3,559 discourses. And he wrote 13,308 letters.
But in addition to that, he participated in the ordination of 11,000 men to priesthood offices, and he helped build six temples and participated in dedicating five of them. And when he presided over the St George Temple, he sealed over 11,000 couples, and witnessed another 33,000 sealings. So it wasn't just a calling. It was an absolute consecration of his life. And the most important part of that was to accomplish what the Lord would have us do.
And if the Church and revelation had ended when Joseph Smith was killed in 1844, the Church wouldn't look the same. If revelation had ceased when Brigham Young died in 1877, we wouldn't recognize some of the ordinances that we do today.
And it was Wilford Woodruff who not only outlived those, his contemporaries, but did it in a way to carry forward what they had started. And to me, that is the impact of, not only what he did, but what he recorded, and how we understand Joseph's words, and Brigham's commitment, is through the lens of Wilford Woodruff’s records.
Hanna Seriac: Yeah, the records are definitely really important, and i think focusing on bringing those to light is a really good effort. So this leads me to my next question, Jennifer, how did the Wilford Woodruff Papers project start? And why is it happening now?
Jennifer Mackley: Well, it's happening now because this is the time. The Joseph Smith Papers set the standard and set the foundation for the history of the church. And because Joseph Smith's life ended in 1844, Wilford Woodruff’s record not only starts in 1830, when he joined the church and started recording in 1833, the development of the Restoration, but that he carried it through to 1898. So to tell the story of the development of temple doctrine, or to explain the [unclear]
So to tell the story of the entire 19th century of church history, the Restoration, the priesthood, the temple doctrine, the scriptural development, all those things, it requires someone who was there, not reflecting on the last 60 years, had a good life, serves some mission, love my family, but every single day.
So my mother told me the story of Wilford Woodruff’s experience with the Founding Fathers in the St. George Temple. And she said it would really be great if someone researched the women, there were one hundred eminent men and seventy women on the list that Wilford Woodruff wrote down. So my mom's focus was the women, because the men are the Founding Fathers and well-known people in history. So I started reading the stories of the women, but also their works. There were authors like Charlotte Bronte, and there were poets like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and there were controversial political figures like Marie Antoinette. So it was interesting to me to read about these women, but at some point I asked the question, you know, “why Wilford Woodruff?” You know, if these were the eminent women that he wrote down, why would the eminent men have appeared to him? And, why did he include these people?
So instead of reading what other people had written about his experience, I started reading his writings and I had to use the interlibrary loan to get the copies of his journals, but I read them all. And then I started reading his discourses because I wanted to know what he said about that experience and how he shared that experience. And, so then I started researching to find more discourses. And then I wanted to read his letters from that time period, so I started collecting those. And over the course of about 15 years I collected about 27,000 documents. And, when I was reading these things, I was just doing it out of curiosity, and I started writing down kind of a timeline of his life in the context of church history and US history. And then at some point in that, my husband said, “why don't you share what you're learning?” Because I think he was tired of me telling him all the stories, and he encouraged me to apply to speak at the Mormon History Association. So I did that in 2011, and in the audience were two old Wilford Woodruff’s great-grandsons. And they said, “ if you want to write more about this, we would love to help you.” And so Lambert Ambrose Woodruff agreed to read drafts of my book. It's called Wilford Woodruff’s Witness because it is his words and his experiences. This is not my perspective on his experiences, or my interpretation, because it truly is his story. And when I published that, it took three years. I didn't have the money to market it or to give it away for free, so I made a website to put everything that I could have on, to share what I could.
And then I started to give presentations and firesides, and more people wanted more information, but I didn't have the expertise or the time that it would take to transcribe everything. I started to transcribe letters and discourses, but I knew that it needed real historians and people with training, like Steve Harper, and not me. So I was asked to speak at various places. And, in the questions at the end was always, “what's next? Are you going to write another book, or you know, what are you going to do?” And it was last August, 2019, that I presented a fireside in Spanish Fork, and Don Perry was in the audience, and said the same question at the end, “what's next?” And I said, “if I had my dream, it would be the Wilford Woodruff Papers.” And, I met with him the next morning and he said, “let's do this.” So we co-founded the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. And the first person that we met with was Steve Harper, because if anybody could do this and know how to do it, it was him.
But the miraculous development from there was with the support of the Church History Department and the Wilford Woodruff Family Association, and incredibly talented people that I had met along the way. If I could give you the timeline and the names of the people that had helped me in my research, or even somebody's daughter who'd helped me, and then her father is now working at the Foundation, or a friend of a friend. So the talent and the money and the time that it takes to do something like this is just mind boggling! But in spite of the coronavirus, it's happening!
And just to give you one date, we met with the Church History Department and Steve on February 26th or 27th. The Wilford Woodruff family gathering was that Sunday, March 1st, Wilford Woodruff’s birthday. And that's when we made the announcement, and I flew home the next day, and haven't left the house since, because of coronavirus. So had that not happened in those three days, we wouldn't have a foundation. But since then, people have stepped forward with the funding to get us started, and with the abilities, the talents, the skills, to make it happen, because it's not just transcription. There's a whole process that only Steve can explain, that, to take it from the documents, through the process of making them available online for everyone for free.
Hanna Seriac: Your story's really beautiful, Jennifer. I really just admire so much how you just dove right in, and then this amazing, amazing foundation started because of your curiosity. Don't sell yourself short, you are doing amazing things, and I really respect you a lot. And I'm grateful for you. Professor Harper, your stated mission is to collect, digitally preserve, transcribe, and publish Wilford Woodruff Papers.
How do you collect these documents, and how will you publish them?
Steven Harper: Great question. Much of the collection work has already been done before us. Wilford's descendants have saved and cherished his papers largely, and many of them have made their way from family into possession of the Church History Department. And they are the best people in the world at collecting and preserving these kinds of records. They've made lots of the images available on their website, and so that's our main repository where we get access to the documents from. There are other places too, where they're sort of scattered around. There are thousands and thousands of letters. Some of them are in Provo. Some of them are at the U in Salt Lake, scattered around. And of course, there are probably many, many letters out there that we don't know about yet that are still scattered. Jennifer knows exactly how many Wilford said he wrote and received in his journal, but we only have a relatively small chunk of that total number. We assume that many of them are not extant anymore, but we also assume that there are still documents out there that we don't know about yet and still haven't collected. So we're eager to cooperate with anybody who knows anything about where they are, and find them that way. Once we know where a document is, and we get access to it, then we put it into our text editor. This is just software that we use to do the transcription process, and make sure that it's as close as possible to the original writing. We put it through a second level verification process. This is just standard for documentary editing. And eventually it'll go through a third level verification. But in the meantime, we're eager to get these documents onto the web.
So right now we are working on a very impressive content management system or a website you might call it, but it's more than just a website. It's a massive, an impressive system that will handle these thousands of documents. Wilford's corpus of writings is massive compared to Joseph Smith’s, alright? So josephsmithpapers.org is a state-of-the-art website for this kind of a project. And, we know that we probably can't do one that's as expensive, for one thing, and maybe as capable as josephsmithpapers.org, but we are really proud of what a talented team of people have put together, and it's going to be impressive, and it's going to be a lot less expensive, but it's going to be nearly as capable as josephsmithpapers.org. It's going to be free, open access, and over the next decade, every Wilford Woodruff paper that we can get our hands on will be on that website for free.
Hanna Seriac: That's awesome. Well, I'm looking forward to that. I have a question really fast though. Regarding the editorial method that you use when you're transcribing documents like this, often you'll see spelling errors or spelling variations or grammatical errors. Do you decide to keep those in, or do you change them?
Steven Harper: Document editors are not like copy editors. Copy editors try to fix other people's mistakes. That's fine. That's what they're there for. I'm thankful for copy editors. They've saved me a lot of trouble. But documenters, like us, try to mediate between a person alive today, and a person from the past, like Wilford Woodruff. And we try to do that in the same way that a museum curator might mediate between past and present. In other words, we want to present the artifacts that we have, in this case, Wilford Woodruff’s writings, and we want to make them meaningful and useful to people in the present, but we want to not wreck Wilford in the process. We don't want to mediate any more than necessary. We don't want to change who he was. We don't want to give readers today the wrong impression. So we keep, we work really hard to keep Wilford's unique and creative spelling and writing and so forth. Now, he presents probably the biggest challenge to doing that from anybody I've ever worked on in this regard, because Wilford has his own rules for writing. He has a middle case, right? We have upper case letters and lowercase letters, but Wilford has a middle case, and trying to figure out what rules are used to decide when to use the middle case is mind boggling to me. So we're going to do our very, very best to preserve him. And we're going to not entirely succeed. We just don't have any middle case letters on our keyboard. So what we're doing is making sure that the website includes images of Wilford's documents, and that way, even though the transcription, right, the typed copy of his letters or journal entries, will have some limitations and representing exactly how Wilford wrote, a reader can quite easily refer to the actual document. Even put them side by side on their screen and compare.
So we're going to try to keep Wilford as close to his pristine condition as possible, and make his documents as searchable and as accessible as possible for users today.
Hanna Seriac: That’s wonderful. I'm really looking forward to seeing more of them. Jennifer, could you please talk about what the actual content of these documents is? So we've mentioned that they’re letters and discourses, but what did Wilford Woodruff write about?
Jennifer Mackley: Yes. Wilford Woodruff was, I don't know, a Renaissance man, if you want to say that. He was into everything. And, he was an outdoorsman. He was a horticulturist. He was a philosopher. He was a scriptorian. He was also a family man, and I mean, that's why he wrote 13,308 letters. He traveled so much in his missionary work, and then kept in touch with his family, his extended family, Phoebe's family.
He had businesses and his wives lived in different cities, and he was always traveling with his responsibilities as an apostle and temple president. And, so he wrote down again, everything, whether it was the price of apples. He had 70 species of apples that he grew in his own orchard. Whether it was his books from his, you know, he would order seeds from around the world.
But it was also his wisdom to his children, and his advice to his younger children, his married children, his writings to his son on his mission. And, he was also official church correspondent, and the difficult decisions that had to be made and the principles that those decisions were based on. So the letters themselves are enlightening.
One of my favorites is the letter received from his wife, explaining the new doctrine of baptism for the dead that she had just heard Joseph Smith teaching in conference, and she just put that in the middle of a 10 page letter to him that month. And, his discourses are also revealing.
His journal is more of an official record. He begins it by saying, “this is a period in world history that has never been known before, and we need to record every instance of God's hand in our lives.” And that's why he recorded every ordinance, every confirmation, every baptism, every blessing, every healing, every mob that attacked him, everywhere that he traveled.
And so the letters are more personal and the discourses include, he would track each year, his annual summary in his journal. So the discourses that he recorded were 3,559, and we have only found 995 of them because some were not, you know, published in the conference report. They may have been funeral eulogies, or a meeting in someone's home, or a distant traveling while on his mission in a courthouse, or in the middle of the park in London.
So, what he considered a speech or a discourse was not necessarily a formal meeting. But those are passionate and poignant, and we know exactly how long they worked because he wrote down, “spoke 14 minutes, Brigham spoke 40, Willard Richards spoke 20.”
So those are things that we have the breadcrumbs to follow. To find. And I would like to find every one, of course. But what we do have has never been transcribed and published before. So that's the contribution of the Wilford Woodruff Papers. The journals have been transcribed and were published in the eighties and were just republished. But, you have to pay to buy the book, and you can't search the book. And, you can't look up your ancestor, or a date in church history that leads to more information. And that's the basis of what's in the documents that will, you hope, will lead to better scholarship and better understanding of history, and a better appreciation for what it took to restore the gospel and keep it from being destroyed.
Hanna Seriac: Professor Harper, I believe documents were often not published beforehand. Have they been cited widely, or not at all, really?
Steven Harper: They have been cited, but not widely. Wilford's journals are known to church history experts. You can't claim to be an expert in the early church, or early 19th century church history, if you don't know Wilford Woodruff’s journals. They're our backbone. They comprise almost 20%, actually, of Joseph Smith's documentary history, or manuscript history. In other words, as an assistant church historian himself, in the 19th century, Wilford and his associates drew on his records to flesh out Joseph Smith's own manuscript history.
So his records have been cited from beginning then, and ever since, but it's not the case that generally speaking, they're well-known. Right? Most Latter-day Saints might know the name, Wilford Woodruff, but it's not common for them to know about his record keeping and his documents and his contributions.
So we're interested in making the records available to everyone, not just the experts who might have the ability to get that $700 bound set. We want them available at people's fingertips. Searchable. So they could find, in an instant, that letter about baptism for the dead, and use it for a lesson for their youth group or whatever the case might be.
Hanna Seriac: That's awesome. I'm a big fan of open-access. Yeah, Jennifer, do you have something to add?
Jennifer Mackley: So for example, he wrote over 13,000 letters and received over 17,000. So it's also the fact that there's a conversation. It's not just his version of the story, but it's the understanding back and forth. Within those letters another apostle's wife may have written a note, or Wilford might've written something on Brigham Young's letter home. So it includes all of those things. And when you add it up, less than 1% of his letters have been transcribed. And partly because we haven't found them all. We have about 6,500 that are digitized. And we're not trying to physically collect, we're just trying to digitally preserve. So when someone says, “I have a letter,” it will be scanned and then transcribed. Not, “we'd like to take it and try to store it and keep it.” That's not what the Foundation is about, but to make it accessible and most of all, to preserve it. So, to take what we have and to transcribe it will take years, but that doesn't mean we're going to stop looking for the rest of them.
Hanna Seriac: That's really wonderful. So both Jennifer and Professor Harper, what has been your favorite discovery while working on this project, so far?
Steven Harper: Well, what I love most, frankly, is something that is sort of between the lines. I love the love story between Wilford and Phoebe Carter.
And there aren't any, well, you see it in odd ways, maybe unexpected ways. Wilford liked to make designs in his journal, little sketches, little figures, text boxes with initials in them. And some of them, you can understand. Some of them, you can't. And then he also liked to write about Phoebe whenever he saw her, whenever they crossed, when they first met, Right?
There was a kind of delight in what he writes about her. That is my favorite thing in the journals. And he's often, as Jennifer said, on missions, right? The first decade of their married life, he spends more time away from her then with her. He's on missions. And, it's wonderful to him anytime he can cross her path, or receive a letter from her, or even have the prospect of getting back together with her, sometime in the foreseeable future, it brings him a kind of joy and delight that's really precious to me. I love seeing that.
And the best and most elaborate design he ever makes in his journal is on a day when he and Phoebe have this sort of awful day. It’s freezing cold outside. They try to warm their house by making a fire, and all that does is fill the house with smoke. And that makes them so sick that they have to go back to bed, and their daughter then falls out of a chair and smashes her face and is bleeding. And they don't feel well, even that night when they go to a meeting. It was a very special meeting. And it's at this meeting that they received the highest and holiest ordinances of the restored gospel, and Wilford writes in his journal. And then he makes this elaborate, really beautiful design about how important that whole day and its experiences are to him. In other words, the most important thing in my life is being sealed to the people that I love most. And the most important thing in Wilford's life is the restored gospel that promises him those blessings, that seals him to the people he loves most. Death disrupted Wilford's life from the time he was an infant, and death disrupts our lives. And the answer to that, the antidote, is the Savior and the sealing power of his holy priesthood, and nothing was more important to Wilford than that. And he would cross the earth to tell people that. And it's because it was the most important thing in his life. That's what I love most about his journals and letter, and documents.
Hanna Seriac: That's really wonderful. I also really like when you see President Nelson look at Wendy Nelson with that much love and admiration. And that, to me, is kind of a similar phenomenon. Seeing how much our prophets and apostles value the sealing ordinances has always been something that stood out to me. Jennifer, what is your personal favorite discovery that you've had so far? You've read a lot, so you have a lot to pull from.
Jennifer Mackley: I think for me, I mean, I felt like I was a good student of church history before I met Wilford Woodruff, so to speak. But to understand him as a human, not as a prophet. I mean, you can look at the pictures of these men. They're all, they have big beards and white hair and they look like, you know, some unreachable personality. And we can get to know President Nelson, or in my life, President Hinckley, or President Kimball. And we can see them as human beings. And I understand that in some way it's comforting to know that imperfect people can do God's work. And for me, that's what Wilford Woodruff’s story is all about. Is this unusual, down to earth, hardworking man changed the world, and changed the history of the church. And did it with a sense of humor.
And that's what comes through in his writings. Simple things, like he was building his house in Nauvoo, and he worked hard, everything he did, he just would say, “you know, I exhausted myself.” Or he would do something the next day, just be so sore and tired. But when he was building his house in Nauvoo, which incidentally, he only got to live in for six weeks. But he said in those days, you hand kilned your bricks. And he said, “I flung 7,000 bricks today. I nearly melted myself.” And it's just funny to me that he can say things like that, like Steve said, in the midst of what the rest of us would just call it a day. Just, you know, it's too hard. And he had a relationship like that with Phoebe, where they could laugh about things that were truly disheartening. And with Brigham Young. Brigham Young teased him about the fact that he wrote everything down. And they'd be in meetings and somebody would make a smart aleck remark. And he'd say,” Wilford, did you get that? We want to check back later.” And just that he was real. And I think sometimes we study church history as if, you know, we're looking back at Moses, or Noah, or even Adam. Just so removed. And it's not. They’re real people. And again, it gives me hope that the rest of us can accomplish God's will. If these imperfect yet completely consecrated individuals were willing to do what it took to accomplish what God had asked them to do, and to rely on that with complete faith. And, Wilford Woodruff, to me, is that example.
Hanna Seriac: I love what you said about meeting him. And I do think that reading the words of our ancestors has this ability for us to feel like we know them on a personal level. And that to me is one of the beautiful things about church history, is it's really turning your heart back to your fathers. And whether they're your literal fathers, or your fathers by virtue of being adopted into the house of Israel through covenants. And I think that that's just one of the most beautiful things that you've said. Jennifer, could you tell me a little bit about what work remains to be done?
Jennifer Mackley: Well, as Steve mentioned, this project is just coming up to one year, and we have another 10 to go. So our plan, and our milestones, will be each year on Wilford Woodruff’s birthday, to publish another set of documents.
This year will be the first 20% of his journals, the first 20% of the transcribed letters, and the first autobiography. So he wrote about seven different, you could call them, autobiographies, but retelling of his story. And, we have those to transcribe. Doing one each year. And then with the journals, we'll finish those in five years, with 20% each year.
The letters. We have the 6,500, approximately, that are ready to go, and hope that we'll find more in the meantime. But those will also be going forward. Then there will be symposia every two years to review what's been published and to, again, share it in a more comprehensive way with not just scholars, but members of the church and other people interested in the history.
And all of that is going to be an intense effort. Not just a couple of days a year, but every day of the year. So we have a great deal to do. And even if we run out of money after five years, it will still be an incredible contribution to the total documentation of the restoration, and to share even that much of his testimony, will be fantastic.
But our hope is that we will continue to get the support that we need when with volunteers, and with the financial resources that we need to go forward. We're doing it all virtually. We don't have an office. We don't have any overhead. Everybody's working on their own computers to transcribe and verify. And it's an incredible technological experiment to pull this off, without, I mean, there's more than 50 people involved, and I've met six of them. So it's come together in a way that makes me believe even more strongly in 1 Nephi 3:7. When the Lord wants us to accomplish something, he'll provide a way. And so far he has not disappointed.
Hanna Seriac: That's really wonderful. Professor Harper, how do you expect this to impact a Latter-day Saint scholarship?
Steven Harper: Well, when we worked on the Joseph Smith Papers, we used to say that this project will make it so that no one can ever do responsible scholarship on Joseph Smith again, without actually knowing the documents.
And that's true for Wilford Woodruff. And it's true for a lot more than just Wilford. Wilford’s not just documenting his own life, as Jennifer said, he documents the whole history of the church in a way that no one else ever has, right? He's the best record keeper we've ever had.
So anybody who tries to do any kind of scholarship on 19th century church history will have to know Wilford's documents. They'll have to be better informed. And that includes myself. We'll be better informed. We'll do better historical work, more responsible, more accurate historical work, because these papers will be easy to access, and we will have no excuse for not doing it well.
Hanna Seriac: That's awesome. I'm really happy to see that kind of shifts things, because I do think when we have more primary documents to use, oftentimes we have more positive perspectives on the people who we described. Jennifer, where can we find this project on social media, and what needs currently exist? How could someone get involved and help you guys out?
Jennifer Mackley: It is, our website is wilfordwoodruffpapers.org. And that is where all of the documents will be accessible. And already there is information on his wives, his children, and the timeline of his life in church history and U.S. history. And you can go to that website and contact us. It's firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com.
So the two things that we need are the funding to work with the documents, which means paying people by the hour to verify, in teams of two so that one is checking the original and one is checking the transcript. And the other is to volunteer so that we don't need to pay people to do that. So those are the best ways to support the project.
And we have social media, right now, is limited. But we have videos and podcasts that kind of tell the background. And then we will continue to do more to highlight the different aspects of the papers as we go forward. So we'll have presentations, the videos that introduce parts and show the documents themselves, and the process that we're going through. As well as just discussions with the various scholars involved.
Hanna Seriac: Absolutely. I'll be sure to get everything in the description of this podcast, and also direct people to come help you out. I hope you get some volunteers to help transcribe things. And thank you both for coming on today. It was a pleasure to talk to you both.
Steven Harper: Thank you, Anna.
Jennifer Mackley: Thank you very much.