Lessons for Today from the Life of Wilford Woodruff: BYU Education Week 2022

by Mele Fangu

On the morning of August 15, 2022, thousands of people gathered on the campus of Brigham Young University to be inspired by presenters from around the world. Among these were presenters from the Wilford Woodruff Papers—Steven Harper, Matthew Godfrey, LaJean Carruth, and Jennifer Mackley—who shared lessons learned from Wilford Woodruff.

The mission of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project is to digitally preserve and publish Wilford Woodruff’s eyewitness account of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ from 1833 to 1898. The purpose in making Wilford Woodruff’s faithful records universally accessible is to inspire all people, especially the rising generation, to study and to increase their faith in Jesus Christ, to understand and honor sacred temple covenants, and to thereby receive the blessings of exaltation with their families.

Steven Harper’s presentation on Wilford Woodruff’s leadership at Education Week 2022

This year’s theme of BYU Education Week was “100 Years of Instruction and Learning: ‘Of Things Both in Heaven and in the Earth,’” a phrase found in Doctrine and Covenants 88:79. This theme was selected to commemorate the program’s 100th anniversary and the diversity of learning that has been available through the years.

Steven Harper, the executive editor of the Project and former editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, started the week off by presenting “Leading through a Crisis,” detailing the struggle to reorganize the First Presidency following John Taylor’s death in 1887 in the midst of the United States government’s judicial and political persecution of the Saints. 

Steven closed with his testimony that "Wilford Woodruff was the prophet to lead the Latter-day Saints in those trying times, and President Russell M. Nelson is the prophet to lead the Latter-day Saints in these trying times.” He continued, 

It is very hard to lead and especially hard to cultivate consensus on the horns of a dilemma or two while myopic spectators and commentators doubt you and dispute your methods and your motives. I'm very grateful for the humble, strong, inspired leadership of President Wilford Woodruff and I am grateful that he and others documented this history so well. I am strengthened for the present and for the future by knowing that the Lord and His prophets have guided us safely through perilous times in the past. I would not have that knowledge, or the faith or the hope that comes from it, if Wilford Woodruff had neglected to record it.

Steven’s conclusion about those who say they never knew about this chapter in Church history is, “That's simply because they have not had access to the Wilford Woodruff Papers.” He was happy to report that we do have access now. This incredible history has been made universally accessible at wilfordwoodruffpapers.org through the efforts of those working with the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project.

Matthew Godfrey’s presentation on Zion’s Camp at Education Week 2022

Matthew Godfrey, who worked as an editor for the Joseph Smith Papers and is currently serving as an advisor to the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project, presented “Sacrifice and Obedience: Lessons from Zion’s Camp.” In his presentation he explained that 

Wilford learned about the necessity of sacrifice in developing spirituality through his Zion's Camp experiences. His willingness to leave his and his brother's farm behind to do the duty of the Lord was one example of this sacrificeand it had a great impact on Wilford's life. It is interesting to think about why Wilford became one of the Church's great leaderseven the prophet of Godwhile his brother Azmon, who did not answer the call to join Zion’s Camp, struggled with his testimony for much of his life. There are certainly many reasons for this—matters of faith are complicated things—but Wilford's willingness to sacrifice for the gospel, expressed early in his Church membership, was one factor.”

Jennifer Mackley, executive director of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation, shared stories from Wilford’s missions and taught lessons from his journals in her presentation, “Seeking Revelation and Teaching Truth.” Jennifer focused on the process of revelation. She said, 

Every one of us has questions. Seeking truth and sharing it is how we participate in God’s work. Wilford Woodruff understood that we must ask and seek in order to receive truth. He also understood that seeking is a process. Acting on answers from God can lead to more questions, and clarifying answers revealed to us lead to more knowledge as the processes of faith, revelation, and consecration repeat line upon line and precept upon precept.

The week concluded with LaJean Carruth teaching how to better understand Church history through shorthand in her presentation, “Understanding Church History: What Shorthand Reveals in Wilford Woodruff’s Records.” LaJean’s efforts over the past five decades have brought to light “Lost Sermons,” those that were recorded in shorthand and left untranslated and those that were recorded in shorthand, but published with alterations and additions not based on the original shorthand. 

Wilford Woodruff’s writings incorporate not only Pitman and Taylor shorthand, but also Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Deseret Alphabet, and his own form of English, both longhand and print, interspersed with over 3,000 unique symbols. LaJean’s work and the insights she has discovered allow us to better understand the personalities of and relationships between early Church leaders and more fully appreciate the revealed wisdom those leaders taught.

LaJean’s presentation not only answered the question, “What did Wilford Woodruff write in shorthand?” but also “What did Wilford Woodruff and other leaders say that we have never heard before, because it was in shorthand?” She explained that “many of Wilford Woodruff’s notations in shorthand are spiritual, some deeply personal.” LaJean’s comparison of the shorthand record to the published version of Wilford Woodruff’s counsel at the funeral of two young brothers, demonstrates the answer to the second question.

David Evan’s original shorthand

Journal of Discourses 18:32

they came from God they come from Eternal

Father and their Eternal Mother who begot

their spirits in the eternal world they

will be restored again to their eternal parentage,

those who have received these

children and heirs of the priesthood no matter

what age of the world that they may have

lived in and

have received children born according to the

order of God and the holy priesthood

those parents

will claim those children in the morning of

the resurrection and they will be given unto them

They come from their eternal

Father and their eternal Mother unto whom they were born in the eternal world, and they

will be restored to their eternal parentage;

and all parents who have received children here according to the

order of God and the holy priesthood,

no matter in what age they may have lived,

will claim those children in the morning of the resurrection, and they will be given unto them

Along with having speakers, the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project also had a booth where attendees could learn more about the Project, sign up for volunteer opportunities, and meet members of the Foundation’s team. Matthew Godfrey, Jennifer Mackley, and Steven Harper were available for a meet and greet and book signings. Many Education Week attendees were eager to ask questions about the Project, learn about the upcoming new edition of Wilford Woodruff’s Witness, and discover more about the temple.

Jennifer Mackley with booth visitor

As visitors entered the Wilkinson Center, they were drawn to Wilford Woodruff’s portrait and expressed their admiration for the late prophet. With tears, one person said this Project changed everything for his family history and temple work. Through the research completed as part of the Project, members of his family were able to fill in missing gaps that had prevented them from moving their work forward for months. Another person approached the booth with a big smile explaining that her ancestor was converted through Wilford Woodruff’s missionary efforts and that she has benefited so much from her generational legacy of the Restored gospel. A descendant of Wilford Woodruff and his wife Phebe was excited to learn that historical documents are being digitized not only to preserve them, but also in order to transcribe them and make them available online. He offered to share Phebe’s journals so they could be digitized and made accessible through the Project.

The lessons for today from the life of Wilford Woodruff touched hundreds that attended Education Week. Because of his sacrifices to document sacred history and dedication to bring others unto Christ, Wilford Woodruff’s records of the Restoration of the gospel are a legacy inherited by all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other seekers of truth. 

If you would like to learn more about the Project, sign up as a volunteer, or contribute documents, please visit us at wilfordwoodruffpapers.org or email us at contact@wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.