Sunday, August 14, 2016

Wilford Woodruff and the Founding Fathers

Picture of the Founding Fathers in the waiting room of the Philadelphia Temple.
Photograph courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With the beautiful new temple opening in Philadelphia, there has been a surge of interest in the story about Wilford Woodruff's vision of the Founding Fathers. (Here it is in a lesson manual (link)). An accurate account was shared today in the Philadelphia Stake Conference, and interest will undoubtedly remain high about the story.

Please be aware that incorrect versions of the story have been shared widely over the years. If you learned the story of Wilford Woodruff and the Founding Fathers many years ago in seminary or at your mother's knee, or if you are familiar with the works of art, or if you have read certain books on the topic, it would be a good idea to catch up with the current scholarship before you find yourself sharing erroneous information.

It was not until recently that independent historians and authors including Jennifer MackleyBlaine YorgasonBrian Stuy, and myself, looked carefully at the story and realized that the shared versions were not always true to Wilford Woodruff's experience. Some errors traced back to an unreliable account written by a descendant of a man named James G. Bleak. (If you like gritty historical detail, you can read a short history of the erroneous Bleak account here (link). The woman who wrote the linked comment probably knows more about Wilford Woodruff than any other living person.)

Here are eight important points about the vision:

• The vision was one in a series of notable events to happen in the first year of operation of the St. George Temple, the first temple built in Utah Territory. The events of 1877, including the vision of the Founding Fathers, helped Wilford Woodruff and the men and women working with him to figure out how to move large numbers of people through the temple, and for the first time in this dispensation, administer all the temple ordinances for both the living and the dead. 

• Wilford Woodruff's vision and experiences helped raise interest among Church members about the doctrines associated with temple work, and they also taught him and the Church about the universal reach of the gospel. He wrote after a similar experience earlier that year:
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.
• The vision of the Founding Fathers may have occurred in a room in the St. George Temple, but it also may have occurred in an upstairs room in the home of Thomas and Caroline Cottam. Wilford Woodruff was alone during the vision, which happened on two successive nights. He was familiar with the workings of the gifts of the spirit, and his visions had changing meanings for him over his lifetime.

• Wilford Woodruff said that the spirits of the signers of the Declaration of Independence gathered around him. He subsequently collected the temple workers in the temple and did baptisms and endowments for the Founding Fathers and for George Washington. He would have known that many of them already had proxy baptisms done in Nauvoo or in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City, but it does not seem to have been a concern for him: many people were baptized multiple times in those days, including when they joined the Church, when they arrived in Utah, when they joined a United Order, when they needed a blessing of health, etc.

• In addition to the work for the Founding Fathers, President Woodruff and Lucy Bigelow Young and the men and women of the community did proxy work for many of the presidents of the United States and fifty eminent men and seventy eminent women. President Woodruff got the names of the eminent men and women from a two-volume work by Evert A. Duyckinck, Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America. He took the names almost sequentially from the volumes, and included a few errors specific to the books. (He managed to do the proxy work for a few people who were mentioned in the books but were still living!) Some of the names he chose: Washington Irving, Jane Austen, Stonewall Jackson, Lord Nelson, Lady Nelson, Michael Faraday, Christopher Columbus, and Edward "it was a dark and stormy night" Bulwer-Lytton.

• Wilford Woodruff's vision was a vital step — one of many — in the development of modern temple work. If you're using the story mainly to make political or historical conclusions about the Founding Fathers, you're missing a more important story about the power and beauty of the gospel.

• As you learn about his life, you will learn that it was no coincidence that President Woodruff, after his joyful participation in early adoptions and sealings, was the one to end plural marriage and adoptive sealings in the 1890s.

• Although Wilford Woodruff's vision was an important step in the development of temple work, the First Presidency directs us to do temple work for our own families, and not for famous or unrelated people. If you need help finding opportunities for temple work in your family, contact your ward family history consultants or start using the many learning resources available through the FamilySearch Learning Center (link), the BYU Family History Library (link), and many other organizations ready and willing to help you learn how to provide saving ordinances to your family.

Additional reading:


  1. I'm a descendant of Thomas and Caroline Cottam and once heard about this possibility from my grandmother, who learned about it from her cousin. Which of the additional readings provides information about this possibility? Thank you.

  2. If you're a Cottam descendant, you'll definitely want to read the Yorgason book! It's a great history of the temple, and the Cottam connection is discussed in a footnote. Unfortunately, there's not a single source that is entirely conclusive, but the Cottam home remains a strong possibility, based on what Woodruff said about the vision, and discounting the unreliable Bleak account.