For the first time in history, a prophet of God was about to make an audio recording of his testimony.
It was Friday, March 12, 1897, only 20 years since Thomas Edison had invented the first phonograph. President Wilford Woodruff of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had just turned 90 years old. He knew his voice would be preserved for the ages and chose his six points carefully.
Joseph J. Daynes Jr., President Woodruff's son-in-law, brought a phonograph to the LDS Church office "for the purpose of showing its workings, and to get Pres. Woodruff to talk into it," the Journal History of the church states. Phonographs in that day used hard, waxlike cylinders to record two minutes at a time. A needle made indentations into the wax as the cylinder spun on a spindle.
The prophet agreed to make the recording on the condition that he could keep the cylinders so they couldn't be used for "advertising."
A few months ago, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, a professor of church history and doctrine at BYU, spoke at the BYU Studies Symposium about the recording. He said the two counselors in the First Presidency in 1897 — President George Q. Cannon and President Joseph F. Smith — were also present and recorded their witness that they had listened to the prophet's testimony as he spoke it.
The Journal History states that the recordings were played back "quite audibly and satisfactorily to all of the First Presidency."
The bad news? The March 12 recordings have not survived.
The good news? President Woodruff re-recorded the same testimony a week later on March 19, 1897.
The Journal History states that the recording on the 19th was "to obtain better results than were secured on the 12th." President Cannon was at the office with the prophet, but it appears President Smith wasn't present during the second recording.
What President Woodruff spoke into the phonograph was important enough to him to make two attempts. Out of a lifetime of spiritual experiences — including knowing the Prophet Joseph Smith personally — President Woodruff chose to focus on six things for posterity:
Joseph Smith's commitment to freedom of religion.
Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God.
The "Last Charge" that Joseph Smith gave to members of the Quorum of the Twelve on March 26, 1844, in Nauvoo, Ill.
The temple endowment ordinances were first revealed to Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith was a martyr for Jesus Christ.
The power of God was visibly manifest in Joseph Smith.
"Notice that he doesn't talk about the First Vision, he doesn't talk about John the Baptist, he doesn't talk about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, or the establishment of the church of Christ or even the appearance of Christ in the Kirtland Temple," Holzapfel said. "But those weren't disputed. What was disputed was what happened in Nauvoo. Therefore he focuses on the disputed area."
At the time, The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now called the Community of Christ) challenged the Mormons' story of how Joseph gave the Twelve the keys of leadership in Nauvoo. Some critics also claimed that Brigham Young, not Joseph Smith, created the temple endowment ordinances.
"Wilford Woodruff felt compelled to tell what he saw, heard and experienced as an eyewitness in Nauvoo," Holzapfel said.
Wilford Woodruff was at the last meeting Joseph Smith held with members of the Quorum of the Twelve in the spring of 1844 — a gathering known today as the "Last Charge." It was "a pivotal moment in the Restoration," Holzapfel said. "Who was to succeed the Prophet Joseph Smith?"
"I bear my testimony," President Woodruff said in his recorded testimony, "that in the early spring of 1844, in Nauvoo, the Prophet Joseph Smith called the Twelve Apostles together and he delivered unto them the ordinances of the church and kingdom of God; and all the keys and powers that God had bestowed upon him, he sealed upon our heads, and he told us that we must round up our shoulders and bear off this kingdom, or we would be damned."
He described the power of God then resting upon Joseph: "His face was as clear as amber, and he was covered with a power that I had never seen in any man in the flesh before."
President Woodruff also answered the question about temple ceremonies, saying how he and others had received their endowments "under his (Joseph Smith's) hands."
President Woodruff's four-minute testimony was originally recorded in two parts on two cylinders. A copy was apparently made five days later. At some point in time, the first of the original cylinders was lost or damaged, leaving only three cylinders in church archives
The recording remained unknown to most Mormons; the prophet's voice silent.
Christine R. Marin, an information specialist archivist at the Church History Library, said that in 1968, the cylinders were taken to Recording Arts in Salt Lake City to have the testimony transferred onto tape. The electronic media department at BYU also tried to make a more complete transfer.
The results weren't satisfactory, so the cylinders were taken to Walter L. Welch at Syracuse University in New York. Welch was able to make a tape that was, according to one account, "more than 60 percent intelligible."
In January 1972, a flexible plastic record was bound within the church's New Era youth magazine. That record included a small portion of President Woodruff's testimony, along with recordings of several other prophets. The prophet's voice was heard again, but only partially.
The older transfers can now be heard in limited places on the Internet. There are plans, both Holzapfel and Marin said, to someday try to make new recordings of the cylinders. But this won't happen until technology is found that won't degrade the original artifacts.
Until then, members of the LDS Church can still come and listen to a prophet's voice as President Woodruff testifies of things he heard with his own ears and saw with his own eyes: the Prophet Joseph Smith speaking with the power of God and with a face as clear as amber.
Full transcript of President Wilford Woodruff's testimony
Friday, March, 19th, 1897
I bear my testimony that the Prophet Joseph Smith said, before a large assemblage in Illinois, that if he were the emperor of the world and had control over the whole human family he would sustain every man, woman and child in the enjoyment of their religion. These are my sentiments today.
I bear my testimony that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God — ordained of God to lay the foundation of his church and kingdom in the last dispensation of the fullness of times.
I bear my testimony that in the early spring of 1844, in Nauvoo, the Prophet Joseph Smith called the Twelve Apostles together and he delivered unto them the ordinances of the church and kingdom of God; and all the keys and powers that God had bestowed upon him, he sealed upon our heads, and he told us that we must round up our shoulders and bear off this kingdom, or we would be damned. I am the only man now living in the flesh who heard that testimony from his mouth, and I know that it was true by the power God manifest to him. At that meeting he stood on his feet for about three hours and taught us the things of the kingdom. His face was as clear as amber, (end of first cylinder) and he was covered with a power that I had never seen in any man in the flesh before.
I bear testimony that Joseph Smith was the author of the endowments as received by the Latter-day Saints. I received my own endowments under his hands and direction, and I know they are true principles. I not only received my own endowments under his hands, but I bear my testimony that Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, George A. Smith, John Taylor and other brethren received their endowments under the hands and direction of the Prophet Joseph; and also my wife Phoebe, Bathsheba Smith, Leonora Taylor, Mary Smith and others whose names I cannot recall now.
The Prophet Joseph laid down his life for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, and he will be crowned as a martyr in the presence of God and the Lamb.
In all his testimonies to us the power of God was visibly manifest with the Prophet Joseph.
This is my testimony, spoken by myself into a talking machine on this the 19th day of March, 1897, in the 91st year of my age. Wilford Woodruff.