Wilford Woodruff and the Changing Nature of Mormon Religious Experience
Journal of Mormon History
University of Illinois Press; Mormon History Association
There are various ways in which the problem of Mormonism's attraction and meaning can be tackled. The historian could investigate the lives, experiences, and beliefs of a broad range of people who joined the movement. He or she could attempt a statistical study of the backgrounds of the members of the church and investigate official and unofficial statements about the nature of communicants' beliefs. Or he or she might investigate the life of one person who was important in the movement and whose ideas, experiences, and beliefs serve as a model for understanding the movement as a whole.
Here we will take the latter course--that is, to consider the life of a single individual--and look at Wilford Woodruff for the purpose. Though it might have seemed more logical to choose Joseph Smith or Brigham Young, or perhaps, as a representative example, some more anonymous member of the church, there are a number of reasons why Woodruff can better serve. Since Woodruff joined the church three years after its organization, he had no contact with Joseph Smith or the prophet's family during the church's formation. Nevertheless, beginning with the Zion's Camp episode he knew Joseph Smith intimately, and he was a central figure in virtually every important development in the church's history except the settlement of Missouri. Of even more importance, he kept a journal in which he recorded his religious life. He set as his task to retain for himself and to transmit to posterity the development of God's Kingdom here on earth. Moreover, the journal covers an extremely long-sustained period, encompassing the years from 1834 until his death in 1898. For nearly two-thirds of a century, Woodruff recorded the meaning of Mormonism to himself and those close to him. In many ways, Wilford Woodruff's life was the life of the dominant strain of Mormonism in the nineteenth century. By understanding what Mormonism meant to him, then, one can more clearly understand what it meant to those who joined the church during the nineteenth century. [From the text]