The story of Wilford Woodruff and the Vision of the Founding Fathers is included as supplemental material in Gospel Doctrine Lesson 39, which will be taught in many areas of the Church in the next week or two. The account in the lesson manual is historically accurate but may be seen by some as problematic.
Unfortunately, many of the materials that teachers or class members may find by doing a web search are much more problematic and may lack historical accuracy or context.
Since I’ve been working on “The Eminent Women of the St. George Temple” project for several years now, here is a brief summary of the story as well as a response to criticisms of the story.
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When Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, one of the first things he did was locate a site for the temple, but as he aged, he realized that he would not live long enough to see the temple completed. In January 1871 he was attending a stake leadership meeting in St. George when he suddenly asked, “What…of building a temple in St. George?” It took a minute for the men in the room to process what he had just said, but once they did, Erastus Snow shouted, “Glory! Hallelujah!!” and there was general rejoicing.
Building a smaller temple in St. George would not only allow Brigham Young to see a temple in operation before his death, it would also provide a public works project to help relieve the suffering of the poverty-stricken Saints there.
When the temple opened in January 1877, Brigham Young was mostly bedridden and he turned the practical operations over to Wilford Woodruff. President Woodruff was in charge of developing day-to-day procedures for temple work, including figuring out the doctrine and practice of the proxy endowment.
Baptisms for the dead had been done for members’ deceased loved ones and notable world figures in Nauvoo and in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City, but endowments for the dead were not done until the St. George Temple opened.
On January 9, President Woodruff noted: “This is the day that the first ordinances of the Endowments for the dead was performed in the Temple of God in St George at 12 oclok Presidet Brigham Young being present we Commenced to Baptized for the dead….”1
Then on January 11, President Woodruff noted, “To day was the first day in which Endowments were given in the Temple at St George. We gave Endowments for 63 for the living and 10 for the dead.”
Over the next two decades, Wilford Woodruff had the responsibility to synthesize temple ordinances and practices including the endowment, sealing, and adoptions.2 His responsibility eventually culminated in a number of changes in the 1890s, including the end of the practices of adoption and plural marriage.
The women of Washington County were vital to the early development of temple work. In particular, Lucy Bigelow Young served as de facto temple matron, and her daughter Susa Young Dunford Gates later played a major part in creating the Genealogical Society of Utah, now FamilySearch.
Wilford Woodruff first explained one of his early revelations regarding temple work to a gathering of sisters in the temple. That discussion with the sisters resulted in the men and women of Washington County coming together to help Wilford Woodruff do the temple work for his deceased relatives on his birthday in March 1877. He noted on that occasion:
By this labor in redeeming our dead by Proxey much Can be accomplished. Our dead Can be redeemed. This principle has given me great Joy unspeakable at the thought that I Can live on the Earth to behold my Numerous friends redeemed who are in the spirit World. This principle says to us in loud language that the Lord is Good and Gracious, and his Mercies Endureth forever.
Several months later, Wilford Woodruff was evidently contemplating the universal reach of temple work when he began using several books including Evert Duyckinck’s two volume set, Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America, to compile “a list of the Noted Men of the 17 Centaury and 18th including the signers of the declaration of Independence and the Presidents of the United States for Baptism on Tuesday the 21 Aug 1877.” As he compiled the list, he was visited by the spirits of some of the men and encouraged to do their work.
He and J. D. T. McAllister baptized each other for the men. Then “Sister Lucy Bigelow Young went forth into the font and was Baptized for Martha Washington and her famaly and seventy (70) of the Eminent women of the world.” Lucy Young may have helped create the list of Eminent Women, since two of her relatives had their proxy work done in the midst of the baptisms. Then, as he had done on his birthday, Wilford Woodruff gathered the men and women of Washington County together in the temple to do the endowments for the Eminent Men and Women and Founding Fathers.
Several weeks later, after he returned to Salt Lake City for Brigham Young’s funeral, Wilford Woodruff spoke in the Tabernacle and said:
The dead will be after you, they will seek after you as they have after us in St. George. They called upon us, knowing that we held the keys and power to redeem them. I will here say, before closing, that two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.”
These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. … I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister [sic] to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all…
Church policy is now, and has been for many years, that members should only submit temple work for their own family or friends, with the permission of the friend’s family. Since the example of Wilford Woodruff doing temple work for the Founding Fathers was a vital step in his understanding of temple work and in the changes that he would be making during his lifetime, it would be unfortunate to see it as a guide to how we should do temple work. Members of the Church now use the current guidelines set by the First Presidency, available to read when submitting names for temple work in FamilySearch Family Tree.
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As I’ve worked on this project, I’ve found that people sometimes become very concerned that most of the Founding Fathers already had proxy baptisms done before this vision occurred. Wilford Woodruff’s note, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us,” leaves people wondering why the Founding Fathers would have appeared to Wilford Woodruff if their baptisms had already been done?
There are a variety of explanations.
First, the process of note-taking and publishing spoken sermons was complicated in the days before recording equipment, and involved some interpretation on the part of the person transcribing the speech. George F. Gibbs was in St. George during the time that the temple began its operation, but as he took down the words of Wilford Woodruff’s speech in Salt Lake City in September, he and others might not have fully understood the transition that was taking place in the temple work, and he and Wilford Woodruff may not have used the exact and specific language to describe the ordinances and events that we might use today.
Second, to rephrase what he said, Wilford Woodruff noted that the Founding Fathers had communicated to him that he had not done their work in the Endowment House. This was true. He had not done it although others had, and it could have been a serious oversight on his part, since he had a specific responsibility and mission to develop and alter the doctrines and practices of temple work including proxy ordinances, adoptions, and sealings.
Third, when he wrote in his journal, he used interchangeable language to refer to baptisms and endowments. Note the repetitive language from January 9, “the first ordinances of the Endowments,” and January 11, “the first day in which Endowments…” He was not writing in error; the baptisms that were done on January 9 were a vital preliminary part of the entirely new ordinance of proxy endowments.
Fourth, Church practices have changed since the pioneer days. In the early Church, members could be baptized a number of times. They could be baptized for health, they could be baptized when they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they could be baptized when they joined a United Order; they were not normally just baptized once in their life when they turned eight or joined the Church, so repeating proxy work was unlikely to have concerned anyone.
Fifth, the system of temple record-keeping was in its infancy in 1877, and even if someone had a proxy baptism done in the Endowment House, it would have been repeated as part of the proxy endowment in St. George.
Finally, Wilford Woodruff’s actual accounts of these events differ from how they have been portrayed subsequently in artwork and story.3 Part of this may be due to a lack of understanding about what was going on in the St. George Temple. Part of it may be a misunderstanding about how President Woodruff experienced dreams, visions, and revelation. Often, as with scriptural prophecy with its layers of meaning, the significance of his experiences changed over time as he gained a deeper understanding of the experiences.
President Woodruff would undoubtedly be bemused at the contortions people tie themselves into to read malice or dishonesty into his statements, and as is so often the case, the real story of the people and events is much more fascinating and complicated than any legend can be. It is better to appreciate the experience for what it is and not get hung up on a single inelegant or possibly slightly inaccurate phrase in an entire lengthy ministry and mission, and let that phrase overwhelm the truth in the experience.
For More Reading on This Topic
The Endowment House: Ardis recently wrote a post summarizing the history of the Endowment House with a link to Lisle G. Brown’s excellent article, “’Temple Pro Tempore’: The Salt Lake City Endowment House.”
The St. George Temple: Mormon novelist Blaine M. Yorgason, with the help of Richard Schmutz and Douglas Alder, has written a history of the St. George Temple, All That Was Promised: The St. George Temple and the Unfolding of the Restoration (Deseret Book, 2013). It is an amazing story.
The Doctrine of Adoption: See Samuel Brown, “Early Mormon Adoption Theology and the Mechanics of Salvation,” and Jonathan Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37 (Summer 2011).
The Eminent Women: I am writing a series of biographies pairing the stories of the Eminent Women with the stories of the Washington County women who did their temple work. See an index to the biographies here or here.
Wilford Woodruff and Temple Work: Washington lawyer Jennifer Mackley has done some detailed and remarkable work on this subject and is currently finishing a book about Wilford Woodruff and the development of temple doctrine and temple work.
Wilford Woodruff’s Vision: See Brian H. Stuy’s article, “Wilford Woodruff’s Vision of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.” Journal of Mormon History 26 (Spring 2000).
Wilford Woodruff: Thomas Alexander’s biography, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff is the standard treatment of his life.
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Since “The Eminent Women of the St. George Temple” is an ongoing project, I will not footnote this post with citations, but if you have a question about any source or element of the story, please leave a comment with your question.
- All spellings and punctuation are preserved from the Scott G. Kenney transcription of the Woodruff diaries. [↩]
- For more information on the Doctrine of Adoption and Woodruff’s changes and developments, see the suggested readings at the end of the post. As a matter of trivia, one practice that dates back to those early days in St. George is the use of white clothing for temple work. [↩]
- Some of the misunderstanding may trace back to an alleged quote by James G. Bleak that contradicts Wilford Woodruff’s account. I have not yet found the original source for the Bleak quote or seen any indication as to its origin, date, or authenticity. [↩]