A Solid Head | Steven C. Harper | March 5, 2022

Videographer: James Dalrymple

Speaker: Steven C. Harper



Thank you Rich. That was a generous and beautiful introduction. Thank you, Brianna. And I said your name right. And Sharon, that music was just what I needed. I had two panic attacks, minor ones in the moments leading up to it because I may have prepared the wrong talk. It seems like my assignment was to talk about the relationship between Joseph Smith and Wilford Woodruff.

And I might work that in, but the other panic attack was when I thought everybody here knows this stuff already. They know it, they know everything I'm going to say. So we can just go right now if you want. We can just go to refreshments if that's the case, but I'll give the talk anyway. I'm guessing I'm among friends who will make me feel good about myself, whether or not you already know everything I'm going to say.

I would like to echo what Jennifer said about the Wilford Woodford Papers Foundation and about the Wilford Woodruff family. I am thrilled to be here with you. This is my first opportunity to be with you, and I'm grateful for you. I'm grateful for Wilford and Phoebe Woodruff: all the rest of the members of the family. Wilford would be thrilled to know that his posterity cares about the things that he cared most about, and he cared most about his posterity and the sealing blessings that bind the generations of family together. 

Nobody worked harder for the sealing of families in the whole restoration than Wilford Woodruff has, and I'm grateful for what that means for me and my family. Clearly you're grateful for what that means for you and your family.

I hope you'll find some way to be involved in the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. There's all kinds of things you can do from letting us know that you have Wilford Woodruff’s pocket Bible. If you have anything like that, please let us know. That was so cool to hear about that. I can't wait to have a look at that Bible with his annotations in it. It's going to be exciting to see. Or if you want to transcribe Wilford Woodruff’s documents or get involved in some other ways. If you've got money to spare to make the work of the foundation go.

Whether it's a little or a lot, it will be a great blessing to many, many, many people. We'll be blessed by knowing more about the restored gospel because Wilford Woodruff kept such good records of it. So we invite you to find a way to bless, to continue the work that he did. And I want to say, because I don't think that Jennifer would ever do so in any way, probably draw attention to herself that she is; well Wilford Woodruff is the greatest record keeper of the restoration because God put a spirit on him. 

He had this feeling like he couldn't sleep until he recorded the sacred things that he'd been a witness to. Well, for the last 25 years, the Lord has inspired Jennifer Mackley to make sure those records get to the people. If all they do is sit on a shelf somewhere in somebody's attic, they didn't do the work that God inspired them to.

So I'm grateful to her for being of the same spiritual caliber as Wilford Woodruff and not letting this work rest, And I think it will be associated with her in it. Not in any way equal to her in it. She's in-fatigable. I think that's a word that means you can't keep her from working.

Makes us all tired to try to think of it. I'm grateful for what she's done. There's no Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation without her work, and I'm grateful for it. Okay. I can't delay any longer. I gotta give the talk I prepared, hoping that you don’t all know it already, and that it’s the assignment. It is a talk I've been wanting to give for a long, long time, and I'm grateful for this opportunity to have been able to put it together. It goes like this.

Early in 1887, as you may very well know, the United States of America overwhelmingly passed the Edmunds-Tucker act. It was the latest and the strongest by quite a bit in a series of laws that were aimed at the Latter-day Saints who were headquartered here in Utah Territory.

This law dissolved the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Imagine that. It dissolved the Church. It disenfranchised women in the territory, and then compelled those who were polygamous wives that testified as their husbands. It undercut the gathering of the immigrant members of the Church from the world, and then weighed very heavily on the Latter-day Saints and their leaders.

In his very last talk that he gave to the Saints, President John Taylor highlighted the dilemma that laws like this one made the Latter-day Saints come face to face with. He said, “which shall we obey? I would like to obey and place myself in subjection to every law of man. What then? Am I to disobey the law of God?”

So John Taylor had since gone into hiding, since giving that talk, and to avoid prosecution for polygamy. And by the summer of 1887, he was dying. Late on July 14th, a 30 year old apostle named Heber J. Grant sought a private meeting in St. George with his quorum president, Wilford Woodruff, who was nearly 50 years senior to Heber J Grant and much wiser as Grant would live to realize. 

They discussed in their meeting the dire local situation, and then they had a long talk about what was troubling Elder Grant most of all, the sickness of president John Taylor and the changes that will of necessity take place in case of his death, as he repeated in his journal. Elder Grant was blunt.

He worried that George Q. Cannon, Taylor's nephew and counselor, would come to preside over the Church after John Taylor died. Heber J. Grant did not like, or trust George Q. Cannon. He liked John Taylor's other counselor, Joseph F. Smith, a lot, and Grant felt that Cannon had mistreated the quorum. Whereas Joseph F. Smith was destined to be the greatest among them. 

Elder Grant lobbied Wilford to endorse Joseph F. as John Taylor successor. Wilford replied; He would rather see George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith resume their positions in the quorum of apostles if John Taylor were to die. He said he was willing to sustain Joseph F. Smith as President of the Church, if all the apostles were, but he did not think that was likely to happen.

Grant left his meeting with Wilford after midnight, feeling that it would be Joseph F. Smith. Though, he said, it may be my love for him and not the impressions of the spirit. Then debated himself in the days of fall. In Heber grants, journal entries He said these kinds of things over the next few days. 

“Of course, I know that President Woodruff must be the President of the Church while the first presidency remains unorganized.

I have unlimited confidence in President Woodruff and can sustain him with all my heart. But Heber said he did not have perfect confidence in George Q. Cannon. And he thought it was certain that President Woodruff would choose George Q. \ Cannon as a counselor. Then again, Elder Grant wrote of Wilford Woodruff:

“It is delightful to meet a man whose whole ambition is to know the mind and will of God and who desires with all of his heart and strength to carry out that will after learning it.”

The humility of President Woodruff is perfect; an example of the man feeling that they possess more ability would do well to patter after. He might have had George Q. Cannon in mind, and he was certainly thinking of himself when he said that. He said:

“There's not a stronger man with God than Wilford Woodruff.”

And then continued:

“I pray for the strength and wisdom to follow his good example. I am not naturally possessed of the great humility of the spirit that I see and admire so much in him.”

John Taylor died on July 25th. Joseph F. Smith had recently returned from Hawaii to Salt Lake City. Telegrams were sent to the apostles who were away: Erastus Snow in Mexico, Brigham Young Junior, Francis Lyman, and John Smith in Arizona, summoning them to Salt Lake City. Wilford Woodruff was returning to Salt Lake from St. George. 

He received the news the next day as he was going to bed. He barely slept at night. The responsibility of the care of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lays on my shoulders.

He wrote in his journal:

“It is a high and responsible position for anyone to occupy and a position that needs great wisdom.”

He prayed that it would be equal to the task. A week later on August 3rd, 1887, Wilford convened a meeting, all the apostles who were in Salt Lake City, Lorenzo, Snow, Franklin D Richards, Moses Thatcher, John Henry Smith, Francis M Lyman, Heber J. Grant, John W. Taylor, George Q Cannon and Joseph F. Smith. Wilford wanted the apostles to sense the significance and scope of their office and he began by saying that he was the only apostle still alive, who had received the temple endowment ordinances from Joseph Smith. He told how Joseph had sealed all of the priesthood keys powers that he had received on the apostles and how he commissioned them to lead the Savior's church into the future.

Wilford said that Joseph's commission was still ringing in his ears. Wilford then explained to them what either earlier told Heber J Grant about the apostles. That they presided in all the world when there was no first presidency. And when there was a first presidency, the apostles presided in all the world where the first presidency was not.

Well, that was in contrast to the views of Salt Lake Stake President Angus Ken, George’s younger brother who sometimes reminded some of the apostles that he, not they, presided in his stake. And several of the apostles, especially the youngest ones were sensitive to slights like that, they felt that they deserved more power than they thought that John Taylor had recognized.

As Wilford spoke to them He acknowledged his advanced age, but Elder Grant felt delighted  by the wisdom that came from what he called Wilford's long and useful life. Elder Grant wrote in his journal entry for the day that “there is today no man in the church that has the nearer to God, or that has accomplished more for the advancement of this work than President Woodruff.”

He is” , Heber J Grant continued “as humble as a child and as near as I can judge has no ambition other than to know the mind and will of God, and then to wish for the power to do his will.” The problem for Elder Grant and some of the other apostles was rather Wilford Woodruff's relationship to George Q Cannon.

Wilford’s biographer Thomas Alexander said “opposition materialized when it became apparent that Cannon would be Wilford's first choice for a counselor. Grant And the other apostles could see that George Cannon would not become the new president, but he feared he might dominate Church affairs as the first counselor to an aging and perhaps too pliable Wilford Woodruff. As Heber J Grant and others felt that George Q. Cannon had done as a counselor to President John Taylor. Wilford's journal says the meeting included a great deal of conversation about Cannon. Grant and others were outspoken.

They felt that Canon had suppressed evidence of his son's adultery and misappropriation of funds. Several of the apostles felt that Cannon had mitigated the consequences that his son, former counselor in the church’s presiding Bishopric deserved. I feel a little bit like this is a soap opera. I don't want to give the wrong impression.

I have great love and admiration for these chosen servants of the Lord. George Q. Cannon offered an explanation. And then the intense meeting recessed while lawyers briefed Wilford Woodruff, and the others about the pending confiscation of church property by the federal government. Wanting to keep that always in your mind, what's going on here behind the scenes.

The pressure is immense and the difficulties are overwhelming. When the apostles resumed their discussion, they were joined by Daniel Wells, a counselor to the quorum. Who passionately urged them to form a new first presidency immediately, but that idea fell flat. Too many members of the quorum opposed Cannon as a counselor.

And when the conversation heated up, Wilford suggested that they change the subject. In the end, George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith resumed their positions in the quorum of 12 apostles and that body, not a new first presidency, presided over the church. Wilford prepared a letter to the saints of God throughout the world. It announced John Taylor's death, assured the Saints that God is at the helm, and all is well. And then Wilford in the letter linked the past and the present and the future. 

He said “as upon two form occasions in our history, the duty and responsibility of presiding over and directing the affairs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all the world devolves upon the 12 apostles. With the blessing of the Lord and the faith and prayers of his people we hope to do our duty until we too shall be laid to rest.”

The letter included counsel to the saints, to forgive each other and warnings to avoid unrighteous dominion, and to overcome pride. Counsel Wilford meant for himself and the apostles as much as for anyone. The letter was published in the millennial star on August 29th, 1887 and it was signed “Wilford, Woodruff in behalf of the 12 apostles.”

Wilford let matters rest for the next two months, the apostles were at an impasse. They all knew that George Q. Cannon was the smartest among them, including George Q. Cannon. Moreover, he was the only one with experience in Washington, DC and he had managed church finances and other first presidency matters almost single-handedly as John Taylor's health declined. 

He had knowledge, skill, experience and a way with words that Wilford Woodruff lacked. Wilford did not dispute the Cannon could be annoying and that his strengths have weaknesses, but he knew he knew he needed him to help lead the Lord's church.

The apostles had left their August meeting with gestures of goodwill for each other, but Wilford knew that they were unsettled. Heber J Grant felt frustrated with himself as he put in his journal for not opposing Cannon more vocally in that August meeting. So when Wilford gathered the apostles again on the morning of October 5th, 1887, the day before general conference, he invited them to voice all their feelings and they did so for hours.

Moses Thatcher critiqued George Q Cannon’s leadership and business practices, Heber J. Grant listed several grievances, more than a dozen with George Q. Cannon. John Henry Smith and Francis N. Lyman shared theirs as well. Wilford listened to all of it. And then he told what he personally knew of the three prior church presidents, Joseph Smith, Brigham, and John Taylor.

He said he had observed weaknesses in each one of them. And he had disagreed with all of them from time to time, but he had not assumed that they were accountable to him. He said “they were responsible to God and not to me.” And he taught the apostles. This is the key upon which I wish to treat all these men.

Wilford acknowledged all of George Q. Cannon's failings as well. He wanted the apostles to see themselves in these examples that he was giving from history. He said “if George Q Cannon was not flawed, he would not be here with us.: That was Wilford’s version of Elder Jeffrey R Holland’s teaching when he said “except in the case of his only, his only perfect begotten son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work. That must be terribly frustrating to him, but he deals with it. And so should we, and when you see imperfection, remember,” Elder Holland continued, “that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. He went on to say “as one gifted writer has suggested when the infinite fullness is poured forth. It's not the oil's fault if there was some loss because finite vessels can't quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me,” Elder Holland concluded. “So be patient and kind and forgiving.”

To that same sentiment Wilford added a warning to the apostles. He said, “if we do not feel to forgive and become United, the spirit of the Lord will not be with us.”

His journal entry for the day says “met with the 12 apostles and sat all day and night until 12 o'clock. And trying to settle some difficulties. It was painful. When general conference convened a few hours later, there was no first presidency to present for the saints to sustain. 

The next evening, October 6th, 1887, the apostles met again for five hours. The discussion got heated, but ended according to Brigham Young Junior with differences healed. And we were one again. He thanked the Lord and noted in his journal, how desperately the times required, what he called a solid head. Five months later on March 1st, 1888 Wilford noted in his journal, “the United States government is now seizing the church property through a receiver. And what the end will be God only knows. May his will be done.”

And then he added “this is my birthday. I'm 81 years old this day.” He felt strongly that the unprecedentedly trying times required a first presidency and that George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith should be his counselors in it. He spent much of that March in council meetings with the apostles, trying very hard to achieve consensus in the matter. On March 20th, he wrote, “I am sorry to have to record in my journal that there is quite a division in the quorum of the 12 apostles. Most of the younger brethren are bringing accusations against George Q. Cannon. We spent a painful day. The spirit of jealousy has crept into the quorum.”

Wilford could not sleep. The next day was worse. The day after that, he said “we spent a whole day in council, the same as the other two days, hearing accusations against George Q. Cannon. Wilford his journal says “I could not sleep at night’’. And then it continued for a fourth day, a painful day Wilford called it again, saying “I think the most of any day we've had. The more we tried to get together, the wider apart we were.” He noted that there were five apostles against and six who sustained him.

Adding “I never saw so much bitterness manifest against one good man by five apostles since the days of the apostate 12 against the prophet Joseph in Kirtland. It is painful to record this. But it is true.” Erastus Snow's comments pained Wilford most. Erastus predicted “evil consequences will follow the association of men who say yes, yes to whatever their leaders say.”

Adding “sycophants should not be near leaders.” Erastus Snow went so far as to say that George Canon's disposition to obedience might not be so good for a counselor in the first place. Cannon said that “Snow praised my qualities in this respect, but qualified it by conveying the idea that I was inclined too much to render unquestioned obedience and to submit to whatever the president should say was right.”

“He did not know but that I, George Q. Cannon, might've influenced president Woodruff in regard to this matter of the first presidency. And that if the first presidency were organized, it would soar above the heads of the twelve. Wilford took those comments from Erastus Snow personally.

“It stirred my blood,” He confessed in his journal. And he in turn defended Cannon and took some personal shots at Erastus Snow saying Erastus didn't know what he was talking about. And then George Q. Cannon was no toady. The word they used in those days for, for somebody who follows a sort of sickeningly somebody else just to gain their favor. 

He was no toady. Besides Erastus you're always late to meetings and you're too hard on the Saints and you have a reputation for nepotism. I paraphrased all that. But those are exactly the arguments that were made against Erastus Snow. Quite beautifully, Erastus Snow meekly accepted President Woodruff's rebuke and thanked him for it.

And hoped that it would continue to admonish him whenever he needed it. And for his part, Wilford knew that he had erred in losing his usual patience and in losing his characteristic focus on what was really at stake. And he asked Erastus to pardon him. When he reported the exchange to his journal Wilford wrote “I went too far in the matter.”

Though there was no resolution at night after the apostle spent all day the following Monday together Wilford said all it was reconciled. Meaning that he and Erastus had reconciled, but there was no resolution on the need for a new first presidency. Over the next few months, Erastus Snow made it clear to Heber J. Grant and Moses Thatcher that he was sorry for his actions and concerned that all of them were on what he called the spiritual precipice.

Wilford Woodruff, meanwhile, recognized that part of what was driving the younger apostles was a desire to be heard and to be entrusted with meaningful assignments. So we found some common ground with some reforms that Heber J. Grant and Moses Thatcher had proposed, especially in terms of church finance.

And he assigned those two apostles to carry out in an act, the reform. Heber J. Grant's hard feelings gradually thawed and he and in turn, warned Moses Thatcher and it was time for both of them to end their hostility towards George Q. Cannon. 

“The growing consensus,” said the great historian Ronald Walker, “was a tribute to Wilford’s leadership. A less patient man might have forced a greater confrontation and brought open rupture. Yet President Woodruff's quiet way, had controlled events and whatever his words about denying personal ambition, he had never yielded from his view, the right view that he, as the senior apostle, must lead the church.”

That's the end of the quote from Professor Walker. Wilford Woodruff continued to work with George Q. Cannon and Moses Thatcher to resolve their remaining differences.

And then on April 5th, 1889, Wilford proposed to the apostles that they unitedly organize the first presidency with George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith as his counselors in it. Cannon said he could accept the calling if he knew that it was God's will. And that every one of his brethren in the quorum approved of it. Wilford testified that he knew that the proposal was the Lord's mind and will, and this time there was no opposition to it.

Moses Thatcher said of George Q. Cannon, “when I vote for him, I shall do so freely and I will try to sustain them with all my might.” Wilford’s journal entry for that day begins “the 12 apostles met in council and we organized the first presidency by appointing Wilford Woodruff, President and George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith counselors.”

The rest of that day was packed with pressing business and concerns. And so was the next. Wilford wrote of it, “I was constantly overwhelmed.” The next day, he wrote, “this seven day of April, 1889 was one of the most important days of my life. For upon this seventh day, I was appointed the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by the unanimous voice of 10,000 Latter-day Saints.”

Wilford then asked in his journal entry “God to protect me during my remaining days and give me power to magnify my calling to the end of my days.” It would take all the wisdom and discernment and faith that Wilford had accumulated over those many years of faithful service for him to lead the Latter-day Saints for what came next.

Wilford was ready. He was sure that “the Lord has watched over me from my birth until the present day.” And I am sure of that too. I am sure that Wilford Woodruff was the leader that the Latter-day Saints needed in those trying times. And I am sure that President Russell M. Nelson is the leader that we need in these trying times.

It's easy and maybe understandable under great stress in which we find ourselves to dictate what a prophet should do. It's easy and maybe understandable to find fault when we assume that what we see is all there is. What's hard is to lead and especially to cultivate consensus on the horns of a dilemma or to while myopic, spectators and commentators doubt you and dispute your methods and your motives.

George Washington led like that. And Abraham Lincoln led like that. And Spencer W. Kimball that like that, but no one I studied is ever done better or with more at stake than Woodruff. And I am very grateful for that. And I bear this testimony in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.