Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Historical News Flash: Wilford Woodruff’s Vision of the Founding Fathers

Historical News Flash: Wilford Woodruff’s Vision of the Founding Fathers

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - October 22, 2013

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.


  1. All spellings and punctuation are preserved from the Scott G. Kenney transcription of the Woodruff diaries. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []


  1. Your last point, about how portrayals of Pres. Woodruff’s accounts differ from the actual accounts themselves, is what troubles me most. As a Mormon I’m no stranger to problematic historical accounts, or romanticized retellings. But when an entire Gospel Doctrine lesson is practically centered on this vision, I’m a little torn about what the point of the lesson should be. A vision of the first Continental Congress entreating President Woodruff for their temple work just isn’t very meaningful when the lesson seems to be “19th century recordkeeping was bad and the Prophet is not omniscient,” rather than “Certain departed spirits were so concerned about their eternal salvation that they appealed directly to the Prophet.”

    I’m not trying to read anything malicious or dishonest into the story–maybe I’m just suggesting it be decanonized.

    Comment by Bro. Jones — October 22, 2013 @ 8:08 am

  2. Awesome, awesome, awesome. Thanks for this “news flash.” So helpful. Thanks!

    Comment by David Y. — October 22, 2013 @ 9:13 am

  3. If those who appeared to President Woodruff had not had proxy Endowments performed on their behalf, I don’t see the problem with the accounts as they have come down in time. Am I missing something?

    Comment by Tom O. — October 22, 2013 @ 9:27 am

  4. Lessons that try to use history to teach a concept often have to do some gymnastics to make the stories fit. We can complain about the parts left out and the examination of 19th century from a 21st century mindset, OR we can appreciate the limitations the medium (historical object lessons) and how difficult it is to do well. Either way, it can really get the discussion going in class. With a talented teacher to keep the discussion on track, that can be a satisfying experience.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — October 22, 2013 @ 9:28 am

  5. Thank you, Amy, for this helpful explanation. Having recently discovered new information about my family history out of the 19th Century Temple records (Special Collections FHL), I have become more aware of the various systems of record-keeping and how the ordinances and the understanding of them have developed over time.

    As you say, the basic historical and spiritual aspects of President Woodruff’s testimony about the Spirits of the Dead including many of the Founders is still valid. We cannot explain a complex history of record keeping and ordinance development in a 40-minute Sunday School class. We can avoid the temptation to ascribe modern political motives and interpretations to sacred aspects of President Woodruff’s experiences. And we can charitably encourage others to avoid it too.

    And I have my own testimony of how the Spirits of the Dead have been “after” me to do research and Temple work. So far, there have been no direct visions of President Washington or anyone else telling me how to straighten out Congress or interpret the Constitution. They’d probably have to have a spiritual founders’ council meeting to come to some consensus anyway.

    Comment by Grant — October 22, 2013 @ 9:33 am

  6. Thanks for the additional context, Amy. THis is great.

    As to the Bleak quote, I have seen one of his quotes regarding Martin Luther and John Wesley also appearing, attributed to Bleak’s personal journal, but with no date or page references. Not helpful.

    Comment by kevinf — October 22, 2013 @ 11:09 am

  7. Thanks for this. I was originally exposed to the controversy on another blog, and trust this one to get the story straight.

    Artwork as history can be just as problematic as movies as history. Unfortunately, we often absorb the artistic renditions as a true renderings, even if at a subconscious level.

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 22, 2013 @ 11:34 am

  8. Thanks, all, for the comments.

    I hope that “19th century recordkeeping was bad and the Prophet is not omniscient” is not the take-away message from this post. 19th century records can be amazingly awesome, as were the lives and ministries of the prophets.

    More important is the point that this experience was a vital — if misunderstood — step in the transition from Nauvoo-era temple work to how we understand temple work today. It was no coincidence that President Woodruff, after so joyfully participating in those early adoptions and sealings, was the one to end plural marriage and adoptions.

    Comment by Amy T — October 22, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

  9. And, a personal note. This post actually came about because on Sunday during church I was looking ahead at the upcoming Sunday School lessons and saw that this story is mentioned in the manual. I then wondered what people would find if they googled the story. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that I was dismayed. As has happened before, I am not going to put up with anyone defaming with the memory of the good people of St. George, and that includes Temple President Wilford Woodruff.

    They were most certainly not perfect — tomorrow’s Eminent Women post about Caroline Blake Hardy is good proof of that — but they suffered and sacrificed greatly to be where they were, doing what they were doing. The stories of those men and women that built the temple and then gathered there in 1877 and 1878 are fascinating and varied. But they were just people, gathered out of all the world, doing their best with what they had.

    Several years ago I was sitting in a Stake Relief Society conference in a stake far away from St. George, but the original home of a few of the pioneers there. I looked around at the sisters, and realized that if I were to write their stories one by one, they would be similar to the stories I’m telling about the Eminent Women: conversions, sacrifice, family, church service, spiritual gifts, adventures, and many trials, so this project has been a lesson in appreciating and understanding the experiences and diversity of the members of the Church.

    Comment by Amy T — October 22, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  10. Amy said:

    More important is the point that this experience was a vital — if misunderstood — step in the transition from Nauvoo-era temple work to how we understand temple work today. It was no coincidence that President Woodruff, after so joyfully participating in those early adoptions and sealings, was the one to end plural marriage and adoptions.

    Oh, I definitely got that from the post. I was just objecting to the unfortunate fact that your well-founded points are probably beyond the scope of many Gospel Doctrine classes, where the lesson will continue to be simply, “The Founding Fathers appeared to Pres. Woodruff in a vision and asked for their temple work.” I find discussing complications and growth and change to be faith-promoting, but the Sunday school manuals seem to steer towards simpler understandings of everything.

    Comment by Bro. Jones — October 22, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  11. The Sunday School manuals try to strike a balance between providing a very basic lesson appropriate for inexperienced members in areas where the Church is still getting established, and giving enough flexibility to allow learning even in a Provo ward where the class membership includes four former bishops, two former stake presidents, a former mission president, and three BYU religion professors.

    I’d hate to have the job of trying to get that balance right.

    Comment by Vader — October 22, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

  12. I think another point to make (But would require at least an entire blog post) would be the culture of visions in the 19th century. They were seen much differently then. Or he could mean vision in a less literal sense. Or maybe even he had a dream that wasn’t actually a visitation of heavenly beings.

    Comment by cubee — October 22, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  13. There are certainly a lot of considerations involved in this story, and when this essay went over double the length of a normal readable blog post, I had to cut rather than expand on any of those considerations, so I do appreciate all of you adding your experiences and ideas and notes about sources.

    And I’ve been thinking this afternoon about Grant’s comments. When Wilford Woodruff mentioned that “they [the Founding Fathers] waited on me,” I imagine that many people who are involved in family history work can sympathize with that experience.

    Comment by Amy T — October 22, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

  14. Amy has done a great job of putting Wilford Woodruff’s experience into context here.

    For me, Wilford Woodruff’s experience led to 15 years of research and resulted in a better understanding of the development of temple doctrine … and a 400 page book with 1,010 footnotes. That is the power it has had over the past 135 years – a sort of lightning rod that has brought attention to the subject of vicarious ordinance work.

    I agree that parsing words usually leads to missing the point. (After all, church leaders delivered lengthy discourses without notes and their own statements 20 years apart don’t necessarily correlate word for word.) For me, the message Wilford Woodruff was trying to convey was of universal salvation. He wanted to impress upon the members of the Church the fact that it was up to them – as the only people on earth with the necessary priesthood power, ordinances, and temples – to offer salvation to those who had missed their chance in mortality.

    With that said, given Amy’s third footnote, I thought I would share James Godson Bleak’s statement and go ahead and parse some words. :)
    His statement was “copied from some of his own records” by his great-granddaughter and the version I have is in her handwriting. My estimate is James Bleak’s statement/record was made 20-40 years after 1877. (It was at least 21 years after the fact because he repeats parts of Wilford Woodruff’s April 1898 Conference address regarding the experience and less than 40 years because he died in 1918.)

    In the April 1898 Conference Wilford Woodruff stated: “I am going to bear my testimony to this assembly, if I never do it again in my life, that those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men. General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord. Another thing I am going to say here, because I have a right to say it. Every one of those men that signed the Declaration of Independence, with General Washington, called upon me, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, in th e Temple at St. George, two consecutive nights, and demanded at my hands that I should go forth and attend to the ordinances of the House of God for them…. I told these brethren that it was their duty to go into the Temple and labor until they had got endowments for all of them. The did it. Would those spirits have called upon me, as an Elder in Israel to perform that work if they had not been noble spirits before God? They would not.” (Wilford Woodruff, Conference Report, April 1898, p. 89-90.)

    James Godson Bleak’s statement:”I was also present in the St. Geo. Temple and witnessed the appearance of the Spirits of the Signers of the Declaratio of Independence and also the Spirits of the Presidents of the U.S.up to that time. And also others, such as Martin Luther and John Wesley. (The man that started the Methodist Faith) who came to Wilford Woodruff and demanded that their baptism and endowments be done. Wilford Woodruff was baptized for all of them. While I and Brothers J.D.T. McAllister and David H Cannon (who were witnesses to the request) were endowed for them. These men that we did work for were choice Spirits, not Wicked men. They laid the foundation of this American Gov., and signed the Declaration of Independence and were the best spirits the God of Heaven could find on the face of the earth to perform this work. Martin Luther and John Wesley helped to release the people from religious bondage that held them during the dark ages. They also prepared the
    peoples hearts so they would be ready to receive the restored gospel when the Lord sent it again to Men on earth. Wilford Woodruff,’Said, Would those spirits have came to me and demanded at my hand as an Elder in Israel, that I should go and attend to the saving ordinances in the House of God, for them if they had not been noble spirits before God? They would not. I bear testimony because its true. The Spirit of God bare record to myself and these brethern while we were laboring in thier behalf.'”

    (Errors: Wilford Woodruff only said the Founding Fathers appeared, not the US Presidents and not the other men/women he included on his list. Martin Luther was not on Wilford Woodruff’s list and his work was not done at the time. Wilford Woodruff was not baptized for all of the men. James Bleak served as proxy in the endowment for only 2, David Cannon for 3, and John McAllister served as proxy for 2. There were dozens of men who served as proxies and the endowment work was not completed for those on Wilford’s list until February 1878.)

    Comment by Jennifer Mackley — October 23, 2013 @ 4:07 pm

  15. Thank you for the additional information, Jennifer, including about the Bleak quote. It has been a source of some puzzlement, since as far as I’ve been able to tell, his “Annals of the southern Utah mission” is generally accepted as a reliable source. (I do wish there was a copy available online.)

    Comment by Amy T — October 23, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

  16. Quoted from JDTMcA family’s consolidated version of the events:

    ‘August 21, 1877 was a very special day for John Daniel Thompson McAllister: “This day I was baptised for all the dead Presidents of the United States except Martin Van Buren and Jas. Buchanan.” The next day he “received Endowments for General George Washington and was ordained a High Priest for him also. On the 23rd, he “received Endowments for Millard Fillmore. Also acted for Augustine Washington.” He was also ordained a High Priest for Benjamin Franklin on this day. He was also baptized for George Washington’s father, Augustine and his great-grandfather, John Washington. He also baptized Wilford Woodruff for the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and fifty other eminent men, making 100 in all, including John Wesley and Columbus.’

    Comment by Rachelle — October 24, 2013 @ 9:44 am

  17. Since this article is showing up in the sidebar in a round robin kind of way, I would like to state again that it is a brief response to specific concerns people had last fall.

    My argument, if it wasn’t clear from the article: sometimes historical misunderstandings happen, and it’s a real stretch in this case to attribute the misunderstandings to malice or deceit. There are a number of possible explanations for the misunderstandings that arose; I propose a few.

    If anyone would like to discuss any of my suggestions or share additional information, I will be happy to discuss sources and theories, as long as it can be done in a way that is respectful to Wilford Woodruff and the hard-working, devoted, and very human people of St. George.

    Once again, my main project — researching and telling the stories of the women of Washington County who helped Wilford Woodruff with this temple work — is an ongoing project, and I reserve the right to update conclusions or information as I continue to gather sources, including anything having to do with the James G. Bleak quote which Jennifer explains in comment 14.

    Comment by Amy T — August 19, 2014 @ 10:38 am

  18. I have a question for Amy Tanner Thiriot.
    In your article “Historical News Flash: Wilfor Woodruff’s Vision of the Founding Fathers, you state that: “Several months later, Wilford Woodruff was evidently contemplating the universal reach of temple work when he began using several books including Evert Duychkinck’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 17th Centaury and 18th….” However, there is no footnote there. Would it be possible to share with me the documentation that you found, where he used these books and specifically Duychkinck’s to make his list?
    Thanking you in advance
    Gale Tenney

    Comment by Gale Tenney — April 6, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

  19. Hi Gale,

    To start, I would suggest Jennifer Mackley’s well-researched and recently-published book, Wilford Woodruff’s Witness. Another good resource for up-to-date information on this story as well as a compelling story about the St George Temple: Blain Yorgason, et al., All That Was Promised. The links are to Deseret Book; you can also find the books elsewhere, including Amazon.

    It’s been a while since I put up any new stories in the Eminent Women of the St George Temple series, but I plan to resume the biographies after completing another project that started as a tangent to the Wilford Woodruff/Eminent Women series.

    Comment by Amy T — April 6, 2015 @ 4:05 pm

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