Very few in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kept records like Wilford Woodruff.
Starting in 1828, Woodruff’s meticulous records document his extensive ministry and missionary service, the teachings of Joseph Smith and other leaders, daily happenings, his witness of the church’s Restoration and other significant events until his death in 1898.
That roughly translates into more than 11,000 pages in 31 daybooks and journals. The fourth president of the church also penned over 13,000 letters, receiving more than 17,000 in return.
“His records provided the backbone of church history in the 1800s,” said Jennifer Ann Mackley, who has studied Woodruff’s life for 24 years. “The value of his record is unmatched. His records complete the story of the Restoration in the 19th century.”
Thanks to the efforts of Mackley and others, all of Woodruff’s documents, previously available only in archives or limited-edition books, will now be accessible to everyone in the years to come.
This week the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation launched a new website, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org, featuring the first batch of transcribed documents (1,500 pages), information about the Woodruff family, historic images, a timeline of his life, a map of places where he lived, taught and served, along with a database of people mentioned in his writings.
The website’s debut comes in timing with Woodruff’s 214th birthday on March 1. For the next 10 years, the plan is to upload additional transcriptions of Woodruff’s journals, discourses, autobiographies, correspondence and personal papers every quarter, eventually publishing all his documents.
The Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation is not sponsored by the church but is working with the consent and cooperation of the Church History Department, said Mackley, who serves as a board member and the project’s executive director.
“We are excited to offer this expansive free resource to the public,” she said. “People will be able to see images of Wilford Woodruff’s original documents next to the transcriptions and understand them better through the contextual reference material we are creating.”
Richard E. Turley Jr., who recently retired as managing director of the church’s Communication Department, will serve as chair of the adviser board for the Wilford Woodruff Papers. His third-great-grandfather, Theodore Turley, who also happens to be Mackley’s ancestor, was a missionary companion of Woodruff in England in the early 1840s.
“My ancestor kept a journal that we have, but Wilford Woodruff seemed to track everything. He was a very thorough and consistent journal-keeper,” Turley said. “Most people don’t keep good records, and those who do keep good records keep fairly brief ones. He was one who recognized, I think, the long term impact of keeping good records.”
As the former assistant church historian and recorder, Turley was involved in the Joseph Smith Papers Project. He’s also on the board of the Brigham Young Center, which is looking to bring out the Brigham Young Papers, and he helped to launch the George Q. Cannon Papers.
Turley champions documentary editing as a way of making more original historical sources available so people can write with greater accuracy. It’s important to make Woodruff’s writings available so people can understand the history of the 19th century church, he said.
“I’m a strong advocate of getting the Wilford Woodruff journals out because they are certainly among the top handful of historical sources that we have,” Turley said. “The value of the site will grow over time, and people will recognize that.”
An all-star team of historians, scholars, professionals and volunteers has been assembled to work on the Wilford Woodruff Papers. Donald W. Parry and Jordan W. Clements serve as co-chairs of the board. Steven C. Harper, a professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, is the executive editor.
Jordan Woodruff Clements, Woodruff’s great-great-grandson, came to admire his ancestor as a young boy. The church leader’s unwavering witness of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his stalwart faith has strengthen Clements’ own spiritual convictions throughout his life. To be involved in this project is “incredibly gratifying,” Clements said.
“President Woodruff was a man of remarkable faith. He received revelations daily. As we read his journals and his letters, we realize the benefits of that daily connection with heaven,” he said. “His journals inspire us to seek revelation for our own lives and to be similarly connected with heaven.”
Readers of Woodruff’s writings will recognize his faithful attitude, consecration and willingness to sacrifice for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mackley recounted that during the Nauvoo era, Woodruff spent two years building a nice brick home only to live it in for six weeks before the Saints were expelled. The Woodruff family crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa amid frigid temperatures, then Wilford was injured while chopping down a tree. A month later, his son Joseph died. This caused his wife to go into premature labor and she delivered a child that died two days later.
“With all of that, he doesn’t hesitate to say the Lord is with them,” Mackley said. “The fact that Joseph was their first child born in the covenant, all of that is enough for him. It’s a remarkable outlook on life. Not everybody has that perspective.”
While the process of transcribing each document is tedious and laborious, Mackley has come to appreciate Woodruff’s “unique” handwriting.
“He has an uppercase, a lowercase and a middle case. So there’s some interpretation there,” she said. “If you look at a page of his journal, it’s indecipherable until you understand how he wrote and the care that he took. I imagine him writing in a wagon or working by candlelight, or in some cases, he’s listening to Joseph Smith preach in the grove and he’s writing on someone’s back.”
Woodruff didn’t just write in his journals, he was also an artist of sorts. He used symbols in his entries so that he could refer back at the end of each year and create an annual report of everything he had done.
“When I say everything, I mean everything,” Mackley said. “Every step he took, every discourse, every baptism, blessing or ordinance that he performed, every individual he talked to, every place where he stayed, including the addresses. ... He would draw a casket with the name of the individual who died. He marked each occasion with these sometimes intricate drawings. So his journal is something to behold.”
Mackley, Turley and Clements hope people will visit the website often with the understanding that new content will be uploaded every three months.
“Right now, I think the important thing is to just sort of go and sample it, recognizing that in the future there will be a vast amount of content,” Turley said. “When you launch something like this sometimes people have a tendency to take one look and never come back. This is one, however, that I strongly recommend they keep coming back to.”
Learn more about the Wilford Woodruff Papers at wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
Correction: A previous version mistakenly omitted “papers” from the name of the foundation and website URL. It is the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation and wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.