by Maddie Christensen and Kristy Wheelwright Taylor
Wilford Woodruff kept a journal from the time of his baptism at the close of 1833 until his death in 1898, saying, “I have ever been impressed . . . of the deep importance of keeping a journal and record of the dealings of God with his people.”1 His sixty-plus years of records comprise over 115,000 written pages (26,000 of which have been located), left to us as journals, letters, discourses, autobiographies, and personal papers. These records document a large part of the early Restoration of the gospel. Three years ago, Jennifer Mackley and Don Parry created the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation, whose mission is to digitally preserve and publish Wilford Woodruff’s eyewitness account of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It seeks to make Wilford Woodruff’s records universally accessible to inspire all people, especially the rising generation, to study and to increase their faith in Jesus Christ. In celebration of these newly published documents, the Foundation hosted its first conference, Building Latter-day Faith. The conference was held at the Hinckley Center on the campus of Brigham Young University on Saturday, March 4, 2023, with over 350 people in attendance.
In the three years since the Project’s beginning, we have published more than 10,000 pages on our open website, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org. These pages are indexed with tags for the people Wilford Woodruff encountered, the places he visited, and the topics he wrote about. Making these documents and these features available to all has introduced a valuable research tool for those who are interested in expanding their personal study, writing a talk for sacrament meeting, working on a lesson for church, or writing an academic paper for a religion class or journal. Publishing these records expands Wilford Woodruff’s reach to a broad range of searchers of the truth. The conference was aimed at these seekers of truth who want to be instructed, inspired, and motivated by Wilford Woodruff’s witness of the Restoration.
The event began with lunch and an introduction from the Foundation’s Executive Director and Co-Founder, Jennifer Mackley, author of Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine. After studying Wilford Woodruff for the last twenty-five years, Jennifer says, “He not only recorded the daily process of revelation and the Restoration, but the strength it took to find joy when enduring loneliness, separation, and heartache. His testimony of God’s love and forgiveness is timeless.” Following Jennifer’s remarks, we heard from our keynote speaker, Pulitzer Prize–winning author and historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, known for the quote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” In Laurel’s book A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835–1870, she describes the strength and influence of Latter-day Saint women, relying heavily on Wilford Woodruff’s journals and letters as primary source material. She spoke to us on the depth of Wilford’s records and what we in the twenty-first century can take from them.
The afternoon session included presentations from the student winners of the Carol Sorenson Smith awards, Ellie Hancock and Hovan Lawton. Both are recent college graduates who have studied and researched Wilford Woodruff’s life. Ellie spoke on the topic of missionary faith in persecution. Before the conference, she commented, “I feel like this is a topic that’s not often talked about in Church history and I’m really excited to talk about it!” Hovan Lawton discussed the sacrifices of those called to serve. Hovan shares, “One thing that struck me about the mission acceptance letters was the variety in challenges and obstacles of those nineteenth-century missionaries.”
After the student presentations, we were privileged to hear from Josh Matson, a religious educator and decoding expert. He gave a presentation called “Decoding Wilford Woodruff’s Journals.” Dr. Matson shares, “Participating in a conference dedicated to the Papers of Wilford Woodruff is a dream come true for me. I have been fascinated with Woodruff’s Papers since I was an undergraduate at BYU and many of the resources to study his life were inaccessible at the time. Today these papers are becoming more accessible by the day and re-introducing them to the public through this conference is a magnificent opportunity and privilege to be a part of.”
Amy Harris, BYU history professor and Director of the Family History Program at BYU, then offered insights related to the world of British converts. Dr. Harris found inspiration in her extensive study of British families during the period young Elder Woodruff served in England, saying, “The most rewarding part about studying history and genealogy is the sense of the humanity of people in the past, that they’re real people making real choices in their time.”2
Steven C. Wheelwright, former president of BYU–Hawaii and an advisor to the Foundation, was the final speaker. He discussed how Wilford Woodruff’s missionary service aided in preparing Wilford to become the future prophet. Dr. Wheelwright shares, “The more we get to know Wilford Woodruff as a husband, father, priesthood leader, all of the things that he was, the more we admire him, the more we think other people need to know this because they will get the blessings from knowing him and knowing how he lived his life.”
Historian, BYU professor, volume editor of The Joseph Smith Papers, and Executive Editor of the Wilford Woodruff Papers, Steven C. Harper gave the conclusion of the conference and moderated a Q&A session with some of the speakers. Of Wilford Woodruff’s contribution to Church history, Steve has said, “Wilford Woodruff largely made the glasses through which we see the [Latter-day Saint] past.” The Wilford Woodruff Papers Project has been blessed by Dr. Harper’s insightful leadership, and we were richly fed by his participation at the conference.
In conjunction with the conference, the Foundation hosted an arts contest with submissions in visual art, literature, dance, digital art, and music from high school students, college students, and pre-professionals. All art pieces were on display at the conference and the winner received the Carol Sorensen Smith Award. In addition to student art, works by artists Kendra Burton3 and Vicki Walker4 were also showcased at the conference.
The Foundation commissioned two artists to create pieces specifically for the conference. Julie Rogers contributed two works, “The Dawning of a Brighter Day” and “Language of Inspiration.” She shares, “I love to record the simple things people do each day and capture the emotion of the moment. I love to paint light as it dances around a subject, especially the human figure. It is my desire to not only paint the physical being, but the personality and sense of the soul.”5 To see more of Julie’s work, visit her website, julierogersart.com.
The second artist commissioned for the conference, Sam Day, created a piece inspired by Wilford’s baptism, sharing that his work is “a declaration of [his] faith.”6 The piece he created was called “I did not feel the cold,” and it depicts the historically accurate scene of Wilford being baptized in a frozen river. For more information on Sam Day, visit his website, samday.com. Some of the artwork was available for sale in an online auction, with all proceeds benefiting the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation.
We were also blessed to have a few of Wilford Woodruff’s personal items on display from various collections, including the trunk discovered by Foundation advisor and Woodruff descendant, Stephen Woodruff Owen, which contained a treasure trove of Wilford Woodruff’s possessions.7 The Church History Library also allowed the Foundation to display items like Wilford Woodruff’s fly-fishing rod, his glasses, his revolver, a door plate, and many paintings of the Woodruff family. Additionally, many items were on display from the private collection of Brent Ashworth, including Wilford Woodruff’s saddle, a letter to his wife Phebe, and a silk cover.
Between sessions of the conference, attendees had the opportunity to browse various booths of partners of the Foundation, including FAIR, the Church History Museum, the Church History Library, the Joseph Smith Papers, FamilySearch, Meridian Magazine, Book of Mormon Central, Mormonr, The Interpreter Foundation, and the Come, Follow Me Foundation. To learn more about partners associated with the Foundation, visit wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/about/partners.
Wilford Woodruff shared that “as wickedness increases in the world, we should increase in righteousness, in faith, and in knowledge.” The research and scholarship presented at the conference through the speakers and displays gave us that opportunity.
1 “Autobiography 1857-1858 Draft 1,” p. 39, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/autobiography/draft-one.
2 Interview with Fiona Fitzsimons, “Interview: Professor Amy Harris of Brigham Young University,” irishfamilyhistorycentre.com/article/interview-professor-amy-harris-of-brigham-young-university/.
3 To learn more about Kendra Burton, visit her website at kendraburton.com.
4 To learn more about Vickie Walker, visit her website at vickiwalkerart.com.
5 To learn more about Julie, visit her website at julierogersart.com.
6 To learn more about Sam Day, visit his website at samday.com.
7 “Treasure Box,” filmed by James Dalrymple, featuring Stephen Woodruff Owen, Carolyn Woodruff Owen, and Wilford Woodruff, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/treasure-box.
Maddie is the Public Relations Manager for the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. She is currently a student at Brigham Young University working towards a degree in Public Relations with a minor in Global Studies. She will graduate in December of 2023. She is originally from Missouri and enjoys cooking, traveling, reading, and spending time with friends and family. Maddie has always loved learning about Church history and loves to read the words of Wilford Woodruff. She is passionate about sharing those words with everyone and is grateful to be part of such an incredible work.
Kristy Wheelwright Taylor is the Board Secretary for the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. She has a master’s degree in Humanities from Brigham Young University. She spends much of her time in volunteer work, Church service, and writing for various websites and publications. Along with serving on the Board and working with the team and our donors, Kristy volunteers as a transcriptionist of the Wilford Woodruff Papers. She has loved getting to know Wilford Woodruff better through his writings and is always inspired and surprised by his dedication, tenacity, personality, hard work, and faith.