Wilford Woodruff's Leadership | Steven C. Harper | May 5, 2022

Videographer: Vincent Pelina

Speaker: Steven C. Harper



I'm thankful to be here tonight and have a chance to talk to you. I want to talk about Wilford Woodruff's leadership between 1887 and 1890, and if you are a nerdy historian like Jake and I then, immediately you think, well, those are some of the hardest years ever. Right? Is that what everybody think? Oh, okay. 

Well let me start this way then. Early in 1887, the United States overwhelmingly passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act. It was the latest and the strongest in a series of laws that were aimed at the Latter-day Saints headquartered in Utah territory. It dissolved The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it undercut the gathering of its immigrant members. It disenfranchised women in the territory and it compelled, compelled those who were polygamous wives to testify against their husbands. It weighed heavily on the Latter-day Saints and their leaders. In his very last public sermon to the saints, President John Taylor highlighted the dilemma that they were all facing. "Which shall we obey?" he said. "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?" President Taylor had since then gone into hiding to avoid prosecution for polygamy, and by the summer of 1887, he was dying.

Late on July 14th, a 30 year old apostle—just think about those few words for a second—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 Grant's senior,  and much wiser as Heber J Grant would live to realize, and as we've heard here tonight. They discussed the dire political situation, and then they had a long talk about what was troubling Elder Grant most. The sickness of President John Taylor, as he put it, and the changes that would of necessity take place in case of his death. Elder Grant was blunt. He worried about George Q. Cannon, John Taylor's nephew and counselor, and that he might come to preside over the church after John Taylor died and Hebrew J Grant did not like, or trust George Q. Cannon. He liked John Taylor's other counselor, Joseph F. Smith a lot and Heber J Grant felt that George Cannon had mistreated the quorum, whereas Joseph F. Smith was destined to become the greatest among them. Elder Grant lobbied Wilford to endorse Joseph F. Smith as John Taylor's successor. Wilford replied that he would rather see both Cannon and Smith resumed their positions in the quorum of the 12 apostles if John Taylor were to die. He said he was willing, Wilford said he was willing to sustain Joseph F. Smith as president if all the apostles were of the same mind, but he said he didn't think that was likely to happen. Well, Heber J Grant left that meeting with Wilford after midnight and feeling that it was likely to happen. He thought it would be Joseph F. Smith. Though, he said it might be my love for him and not the impressions of the spirit.

He debated himself in the days that followed that. Of course, I know that president Woodruff must be president of the church while the First Presidency remains unorganized, Heber J Grant wrote in his journal. I have unlimited confidence in President Woodruff and can sustain him with all my heart, but Heber did not have perfect confidence, as he put it, in George Cannon, and he thought it was certain that President Woodruff would choose him as a counselor. Then again, Elder Grant described Wilford Woodruff as a man whose whole ambition is to know the mind and will of God and who desires with all his heart and strength to carry it out after learning it.

Grant might've had George Cannon in mind and he certainly was thinking of himself when he wrote that the humility of President Woodruff is perfect, and an example that men feeling that they possess more ability would do well to pattern after. Heber continued, I am not naturally possessed of the great humility of spirit that I see and admire so much in him.

John Taylor died on July 25th. Telegrams were sent to the apostles who were away, Erastus Snow in Mexico, Brigham Young Jr., Francis Lyman, and John Henry Smith in Arizona, summoning them to Salt Lake City, where Joseph F. Smith had just recently returned from Hawaii. Wilford Woodruff, who was returning to Salt Lake from St. George received the news the next day, as he was going to bed. He did not sleep well that night. "The responsibility of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lays upon my shoulders," he wrote in his journal. "It is a high and responsible position for any man to occupy and a position that needs great wisdom."

He prayed that he would be equal to the task. A week later on August 3rd, 1887, Wilford convened a meeting of 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 the scope of their office, and he began by telling them that he was the only apostle still alive who had received the temple endowment ordinances from Joseph Smith. He told how Joseph bestowed on the apostles, all the priesthood, keys and powers that he had received from ministering angels and how Joseph had commissioned the apostles to lead the Savior's church into the future.

Wilford said Joseph's commission was still ringing in his ears. Wilford then explained what he had earlier told Heber J Grant about the apostles. He said, "They preside in all the world where there is no First Presidency, and when there is a First Presidency, the apostles preside in all the world where the First Presidency are not. That was in contrast to the views of Salt Lake stake president, Angus Cannon, George's younger brother, who sometimes reminded the apostles that he, not they, presided in his stake. Several of the apostles—Can you imagine that today? Several of the apostles, especially the youngest ones were sensitive to slights like that. They felt that they deserve more power than they thought John Taylor had recognized in them. As Wilford spoke to them, he acknowledged his advanced age, but Heber J 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 lived nearer to God, or that is accomplished more for the advancement of this work than President Woodruff. He is, Grant continued, as humble as a little 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 Wilford's relationship to George Q. Cannon. "Opposition materialized," Woodruff biographer Thomas Alexander, "When it became apparent that Cannon would be Woodruff's choice for First Counselor." Wilford's journal says that this meeting included a good deal of conversation about George Cannon.

Grant and others were outspoken. They felt Cannon had suppressed evidence of his sons adultery and misappropriation of funds. Several of the apostles felt that Cannon had mitigated the consequences that his son, a former counselor in the church's presiding bishopric, deserved. Cannon offered an explanation, then the intense meeting recessed while lawyers briefed Wilford Woodruff and others about the pending confiscation of church property by the federal government. When the apostles resumed their discussion, they were joined by Daniel Wells, a counselor to the quorum, who passionately urged them to form a 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 the 12 apostles and that body, not a new First Presidency, presided over the church. Wilford Woodruff prepared a letter to the saints of God throughout the whole world.

It announced John Taylor's death and it assured the saints that God is at the helm and all is well. And then Wilford linked the past and the present and the future in this letter, he said, "as upon two former 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 in 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 else.

It 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 of them 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 that Cannon could be annoying or that his strengths had weaknesses, but he knew that he needed him in order to help lead the Lord's church.

The apostles had left their August meeting with gestures of goodwill, but Wilford knew that they were unsettled. Heber J Grant felt frustrated with himself for not opposing Cannon more vocally. When Wilford gathered the apostles again on the morning of October 5th, 1887, the day before General Conference, he invited them to voice their feelings freely and they did so for hours. Moses Thatcher critiqued George Cannon's leadership and business practices. Heber Grant listed several grievances with Cannon. John Henry Smith and Francis Lyman shared theirs. Wilford listened to all of it and then told what he personally knew of three prior church presidents, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and John Taylor. He said that he had personally observed weaknesses in each one of them, and that 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, he taught, and he said, "this is the key upon which I wish to treat all these matters." Wilford acknowledged that George Q. Cannon had failings as well. He said he wanted the apostles to see themselves in these examples. If Cannon was not flawed, he said, as he drove his point home, he would not be with us.

That was Wilford Woodruff's version of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's teaching, when he said, "except in the case of His Only Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it, and so should we, and when you see imperfection," Elder Holland continued, "Remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work as one gifted writer has suggested. When the infinite fullness has poured forth, it is not the oil's fault if there is some loss because finite vessels cannot quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me," Elder Holland concluded. "So be patient and kind and forgiving." 

Wilford added a warning to his version of that teaching. If we do not feel to forgive and become united, the spirit of the Lord will not be with us. Wilford's journal entry for the day, says, "met with the 12 apostles and sat all day and night until 12 o'clock in trying to settle some difficulties. It was painful." When General Conference convened a few hours later, there was no first presidency for the saints to sustain. The next evening, October 6th, 1887, the apostles met again for five hours. The discussion got heated, but ended, said Brigham Young Jr., 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—that date mean anything to you? Wilford noted in his journal, "the United States government are 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 am 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 March in council meetings with the apostles, trying to achieve consensus on 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 G.Q. Cannon. We spent a painful day. A spirit of jealousy has crept into the quorum." Wilford said he 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 Cannon." Wilford's journal says, "I could not sleep at night."

It continued for a fourth day, "a painful day," Wilford called it again, saying, "I think the most of any day yet, the more we tried to get together, the wider apart we were." He noted that there were five apostles against Cannon and six who sustained him, adding, "I never saw as 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 these things, but it is true." Erastus Snow's comments pained Wilford most. Snow predicted, "evil consequences follow the association of men who say yes, yes to whatever their leaders say," and then he added, "sycophants should not be near leaders." Elder Snow went so far as to say that George Cannon's disposition to obedience might not be so good for a counselor in the First Presidency. Cannon said that you were asked to Snow praise 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 President should say was right.

He did not know that I might've influenced President Woodruff in regard to this matter of the First Presidency, and if the First Presidency were organized, it would soar above the heads of the 12. Wilford Woodruff took Erastus Snow's comments personally. "It stirred my blood," he confessed, and then he in turn defended Cannon and took some personal shots at Erastus Snow, saying he did not know what he was talking about and that Cannon was no toady. (The word they used in those days to mean that sort of, a follower that's just sickeningly, you know, you get the idea, a sycophant, a follower just for the approval of the leader, not for any pure principles.) George Cannon is no toady. I can just try to picture a President Woodruff standing up and spitting those words out of his mouth in a meeting like this. "Erastus Snow, besides you're always late to meetings," President Woodruff said, "you're too hard on the saints. And you've got a reputation for nepotism."

Very wonderfully, Erastus Snow meekly accepted President Woodruff's rebuke and thanked him for it and hoped that he would continue to admonish him whenever he needed it. For his part, Wilford knew that he had erred in losing his usual patience and losing his characteristic focus on what was really at stake. He asked Erastus to pardon him. When he reported this exchange to his journal, Wilford wrote, "I went too far in the matter." There was no resolution that night after the apostles spent all day on it and then Monday as well. At the end of Monday, all was reconciled, Wilford said. He and Erastus had reconciled that is, but there was still 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 very sorry for his actions, and he was 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 the desire to be heard and to be entrusted with meaningful assignments. So he found some common ground with some reforms that Elder Grant and Elder Thatcher had proposed and he assigned them to enact these reforms. Elder Grant's hard feelings gradually thawed during this period, and he in turn warned Moses Thatcher that they needed to end their hostility toward George Cannon.

Early in 1889, Wilford felt like he could, again, propose to organize the First Presidency. He confided to his secretary that the apostles were so divided on some issues that he would rather attend a funeral than a quorum meeting, but he said, at least they were beginning to see eye to eye. Historian Ronald Walker wrote, "the growing consensus was attribute to Woodruff's leadership. A less patient man might've forced a greater confrontation and brought open rupture." At the same time, President Woodruff had not yielded on what the Lord had inspired him to do.

Wilford worked with Elder Cannon and Elder Thatcher to resolve their remaining differences, and on April 5th, 1889, Wilford proposed that they unitedly organize the First Presidency with George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith as his counselors in it. Elder 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 the proposal was the Lord's mind and will, and this time there was no opposition. Moses Thatcher said of George Cannon, "when I vote for him, I shall do so freely and I will try to sustain him 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." So it was the next. Wilford wrote of it, "I was constantly overwhelmed." The next day he wrote, "this seventh day of April 1889 was one of the most important days of my life. For upon this Sabbath 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 Woodruff then asked 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, discernment, and faith that he had accumulated to lead the saints through what came next, and he was ready. He was sure as he put it, "that the Lord has watched over me from my birth until the present day." In early June, President Woodruff became sick. "I suffered everything but death," he wrote in his journal. "My family thought I would die." When his health returned, he held a constant stream of private meetings, conferences, and temple recommend interviews. One of his meetings in mid August was with President Cannon and John McLaren, a member of the Utah commission, the government committee tasked with enforcing laws that prevented Latter-day Saints from voting. McLaren urged President Woodruff to end plural marriage. He dwelled upon the gravity of the situation and what measures we might expect to have enacted against us, President Cannon wrote in his journal. President Woodruff's entry says McLaren told us what the government would do with us. President Woodruff had to discern what to do about plural marriage as the campaign against it intensified. Historian Jed Woodworth wrote a humble, simple unassuming man with little of President Cannon's learning.

President Woodruff arrived at the conclusion that a change had to be made long before Cannon did. President Woodruff was presiding over a stake conference in September 1889. President Cannon was with him, and between conference sessions, the stake president asked a hard question. Given the situation, the stake president wondered if he should issue temple recommends to people planning to enter plural marriages. President Woodruff answered the question by revoking a revealed precedent. He drew on Doctrine and Covenants section 124, and he explained that when the Lord commanded the saints in Jackson county to build a temple and their enemies prevented their doing it, he accepted the offering and the consequences fell upon the people who would not let them obey that command of God. President Woodruff then said the saints should not begin any new plural marriages in the territory. George Cannon was shocked. So when President Woodruff said, "here's President Cannon, he can say what he thinks about the matter." He said nothing. "This is the first time I have heard President Woodruff express himself so plainly upon this subject," Elder Cannon later wrote in his journal, "and therefore I was not prepared to fully acquiesce in his expressions, for, to me, it is an exceedingly grave question and it is the first time that anything of this kind has ever been uttered to my knowledge by one holding the keys."

It was a year later before President Woodruff knew for sure that the time had come to bring an end to plural marriage. By then President Cannon was ready for the revelation too. When he arrived at President Woodruff's office on the morning of September 23rd, 1890, President Cannon found President Woodruff quite stirred up in his feelings concerning the steps taken by our enemies to malign us before the country and to make false statements concerning our teaching and action.

He felt (this is President Cannon speaking about President Woodruff). He felt that it was his duty to get out some kind of manifesto. President Woodruff retreated into a private room with his secretary and dictated a statement. He came out of the room later with a calm, contented look on his face. The next day President Woodruff met with his counselors and all the available apostles.

He read the document to them and he requested their feedback. A few rounds of revisions were made before it was published and given to the press. President Cannon proposed that a word be changed here and there, but he said, and he wanted everybody to know this, "this whole matter has been President Woodruff's at President Woodruff's own insistence. He has felt strongly impelled to do what he has, and he has spoken with great plainness to the brethren in regard to the necessity to have something of this kind being done. He has stated that the Lord had made it plain to him that it was his duty, and he felt perfectly clear in his mind that it was the right thing."

President Woodruff's journal entry for the next day, September 25th, 1890, says, "I have arrived at a point in the history of my life as the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the church. The United States government has taken a stand and passed laws to destroy the Latter-day Saints, and after praying to the Lord and feeling inspired by His spirit, I have issued the following proclamation, which is sustained by my counselors and the 12 apostles." And the next thing in his journal is the document we now know as official declaration one, followed, excuse me, which tells President Woodruff's intentions and efforts to submit to all the laws of the United States.

When the apostles met on Thursday, October 2nd, two days before General Conference, they discussed, what, if anything, to do with the document at conference. Some apostles advocated reading it at conference. Others said not to. Some said they should seek a sustaining vote for it at conference and others opposed that.

President Woodruff asked President Cannon for his views, President Cannon replied that his mind was unclear. Present Woodruff alone would make the final decision. On Monday morning, October 6th, 1890, Orson Whitney read the manifesto, as it was then called, to the saints assembled in conference. And then Lorenzo Snow, president of the quorum of the 12 apostles, said, "I move that recognizing Wilford Woodruff as the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the only man on the earth at the present time, who holds all the keys to the sealing ordinances. We consider him fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the manifesto, which has been read in our hearing in which is dated September 24th, 1890, and that as a church in General Conference assembled, we accept his declaration concerning plural marriages as authoritative and binding." The saints sustained that proposal.

And then out of the blue President Woodruff called on President Cannon to speak. That's the way they did it in those days. "I felt to shrink very much from it," President Cannon wrote in his journal, "I never was called upon to do a thing that seemed more difficult than this." He was at an unusual loss for words, his mind was blank. He knew that whatever he said had to be inspired by the spirit of the Lord. And then he remembered what President Woodruff had taught the stake president a year earlier from Doctrine and Covenants section 124 verse 49. When I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name and they do a work unto my name and they go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, it behooveth me to require that work no more at their hands, but to accept of their offerings. It's on this basis, President Cannon explained that President Woodruff has felt himself justified in issuing this manifesto. Now President Cannon was speaking freely and without any fear. He knew as he explained that some saints oppose this change while others wondered why it had taken so long, he confessed that he had been in the first camp, but that he now knew that President Woodruff had acted on the Lord's will in the Lord's time, mindful of, but not dictated by, the pressures from outside and inside the church.

We have waited for the Lord to move in the matter, President Cannon explained. He said, "President Woodruff made up his mind that he would write something and he had the spirit of it. He had prayed about it and had besought God repeatedly to show him what to do." President Cannon testified, "I know that it was right much as it has gone against the grain with me in many respects."

President Woodruff rose from his seat next and spoke. He promised the saints that the Lord would not let him lead them astray and they believed him. He had steered them safely through one of the most perilous passages in all of sacred history. 

Wilford Woodruff was the prophet to lead the Latter-day Saints in those trying times and President Russell M. Nelson is the prophet to lead the Latter-day Saints in these trying times. It is very hard to lead and especially hard to cultivate consensus on the horns of a dilemma or two while myopic spectators and commentators doubt you and dispute your methods and your motives. I'm very, very grateful for the humble, strong, inspired leadership of President Wilford Woodruff and I am grateful that he and others documented this history so well. I am strengthened for the present and for the future by knowing that the Lord and his prophets have guided us safely through perilous times in the past. I would not have that knowledge or the faith or the hope that comes from it if Wilford Woodruff had neglected to record it. Whenever I talk, whenever I tell this to people, they tell me, many of them tell me they never knew this story before and that's simply because they have not had access to the Wilford Woodruff Papers. 

What if there was an organization dedicated to telling the whole world this story and a thousand other ones like it that are buried in the Wilford Woodruff Papers. True stories about how the Lord leads his people through his prophets in perilous times. Wait, there is an organization, thanks to you. Thanks to each of you, there is that organization. May the Lord bless you for your part in publishing this good news. I testify that God will guide the future as he has the past. Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake. In every change he faithful will remain. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.