New Book!



Wilford Woodruff is the “One” Man 

          With the death of John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff became the “one” man holding the keys of sealing.  Nevertheless, he was in his eightieth year and some members of the Quorum of the Twelve felt a younger president might be preferable.  A few months after John Taylor’s death and prior to the reorganization of the First Presidency, Heber J. Grant, a junior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, wrote to the presiding apostle.  He asked President Woodruff if he knew “any reason in case of the death of the President of the Church why the Twelve Apostles should not choose some other person besides the President of the Twelve to be the President of the Church?”[1] 

          Wilford Woodruff recorded: “I answered him that I have several vary strong reasons why they should not.  Because at the death of the President of the Church, the Twelve Apostles became the presiding authority of the Church.   And the President of the Twelve was virtually the President of the Church by virtue of his office as much while presiding over Twelve Apostles as while presiding over two as his Counselors.  And in the appointment of Brigham Young and John Taylor to the presidency of the Church it never entered into the heart of any one of the Twelve Apostles to claim the right to preside over Brigham Young or John Taylor as they were already the President of the Church.   And if they were not fit to be the president of the Church they were not fit to Preside over the Twelve Apostles.”[2]

          It was just over two years before the First Presidency was again reorganized retaining both George Q. Cannon as First Counselor and Joseph F. Smith as Second Counselor.[3]  On 7 April 1889, Wilford Woodruff was sustained as President of the Church, acknowledging, “This is the highest office ever conferred upon any man in the flesh.”[4]  George Q. Cannon explained: “President Woodruff is the only man upon the earth who holds the keys of the sealing power....  there is an order in the Church of God, and that order is that there is only one man at a time on the earth who holds the keys of sealing, and that man is the President of the Church, now Wilford Woodruff.”[5]

          Shortly thereafter President Woodruff began a policy of refusing permission for plural marriages.  He informed Counselor Cannon who was surprised and recorded:  “This is the first time that I have heard President Woodruff express himself so plainly upon this subject... for, to me, it is an exceedingly grave question, and it is the first time that anything of this kind has ever been uttered to my knowledge, by one holding the keys.”[6]

          The crisis atmosphere expanded when on 19 May 1890 the Supreme Court ruled that the government could rightfully dissolve the Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and confiscate the Church’s holdings including the temples at Logan, Manti and St. George and the Salt Lake Temple nearing completion, appropriating their value for charitable use. 

          As the “one” man holding the keys of sealing, President Woodruff could easily discern the disastrous effect this would have on his responsibilities to the living and the dead.  By dissolving the Church as a corporate entity and imprisoning practicing polygamists, Church leaders would lose the ability to do missionary work, to effectuate the final “gathering” of the elect.  And with the loss of the temples, the commandment given to the Latter-day Saints to accomplish temple ordinance work for the dead would be completely curtailed.  Ten years earlier President John Taylor observed: “We will build our Temples and be Saviors on Mount Zion, and the kingdom will be our Lord’s.”[7]  Realistically, that would no longer be possible.

          On the other hand, for several decades polygamy had been central to Latter-day Saint doctrine, identity and solidarity.  At one time, up to “twenty to twenty-five per cent of LDS adults were members of polygamous households.”[8]  The thought of suspending the practice brought poignant recollections of the sacrifices of Church members for the principle including hundreds who had spent time in prison.[9]  Thousands more had been involved in hiding its practice, which encompassed even children within the Church who were taught to conceal the identity of their parents.  By 1890, over 12,000 Latter-day Saints in Utah had been prevented from voting.[10]

          Contrariwise, to ignore the momentum of governmental interference was not an agreeable option either.  It appeared the Lord was demanding the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice that most Church leaders and members were willing to make.  Undoubtedly, President Woodruff felt it would be a good time for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

          One can hardly read the historical account of the year 1890 without feeling some sympathy for Wilford Woodruff.  He was in his eighty-third year and faced a challenge not yet encountered in the history of the Church.  President Woodruff  knew that deliverance would come to the Church and it’s members in the Lord’s “own due time and way.”[11]  But then he also hoped “that Jesus Christ would come quickly, bringing a cataclysmic ending to the sufferings of the Saints and revenge on their enemies.”[12]  Deliverance came, but with much less drama. 

The 1890 Manifesto 

          On the morning of 24 September 1890, President Woodruff entered the First Presidency’s office with new resolve.  His journal entry for that date states: “I have arrived at a point in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the church.”[13]

          Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, John R. Winder, recalled:  “One morning during the dark days of persecution, I met Pres. Woodruff and asked him how he was feeling. ‘Pretty well,’ he said, ‘only I did not get much rest during the past night. I was wrestling with the Lord all night.’  Handing me some sheets of paper, he said, ‘And this is the result of my wrestling.’ The sheets contained the Manifesto, which was later adopted by the Twelve and published with very little alteration.”[14]  Those sheets contained 510 words all written by his own hand.  Ultimately the document was edited to the Manifesto’s final length of 356 words.[15]         

          It is possible that a few Church members may have rejoiced upon hearing President Woodruff’s announcement 24 September 1890, anticipating an immediate reduction of governmental oppression.[16]  But in reality, it appears that most Latter-day Saints did not know what to do with the Manifesto.[17]  To clarify the issue, one month later President Woodruff taught that his intent was not to “undertake to please the world... The Lord has given us commandments concerning many things and we have carried them out as far as we could, but when we cannot do it, we are justified.  The Lord does not require at our hands things that we cannot do.”[18]  During the following year President Woodruff gave additional insight:

          I have had some revelations of late, and very important ones to me, and I will tell you what the Lord has said to me. Let me bring your minds to what is termed the manifesto. The Lord has told me by revelation that there are many members of the church throughout Zion who are sorely tried in their hearts because of that manifesto... The Lord has told me to ask the Latter-day Saints a question, and he also told me that if they would listen to what I said to them and answer the question put to them by the Spirit and power of God, they would all answer alike, and they would all believe alike with regard to this matter.

          The question is this: Which is the wisest course for the Latter-day Saints to pursue – to continue to attempt to practice plural marriage, with the laws of the nation against it and the opposition of sixty millions of people, and at the cost of the confiscation and loss of all the temples,[19] and the stopping of all the ordinances therein, both for the living and the dead, and the imprisonment of the First Presidency and Twelve and the heads of families in the Church, and the confiscation of personal property of the people (all of which of themselves would stop the practice); or, after doing and suffering what we have through our adherence to this principle to cease the practice and submit to the law, and through doing so leave the prophets, apostles and fathers at home, so that they can instruct the people and attend to the duties of the Church, and also leave the temples in the hands of the Saints, so that they can attend to the ordinances of the gospel, both for the living and the dead?

          The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice...  all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. ..

          I know there are a good many men, and probably some leading men, in this Church who have been tried and felt as though President Woodruff had lost the Spirit of God and was about to apostatize. Now, I want you to understand that he has not lost the Spirit, nor is he about to apostatize. The Lord is with him, and with this people. He has told me exactly what to do, and what the result would be if we did not do it...  I saw exactly what would come to pass if there was not something done. I have had this spirit upon me for a long time. But I want to say this: I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do; and when the hour came that I was commanded to do that, it was all clear to me. I went before the Lord, and I wrote what the Lord told me to write...

          The Lord is at work with us. He is doing things here that you do not comprehend.[20] 

          In this talk President Woodruff sought to further assure his listeners that the Manifesto was from God, not man.[21]  He said: “He [God] has told me exactly what to do...”  “The God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do...”  “I wrote what the Lord told me to write.”  Later he would also teach:  “Almighty God commanded me to do what I did.”[22]  “The Son of God felt disposed to have [the Manifesto] presented to the Church...”[23]  “What I said to the people of our Church I said by inspiration, as I view it – by the mind and will of the Lord. I intended to give them to understand that we should stop the practice of plural marriage.”[24]  Privately Wilford Woodruff also stated “that the manifesto was just as authoritative and binding as though it had been given in the form of ‘Thus saith the Lord...’”[25] 


[1]   Heber J. Grant Journal, 20 March, 3 April 1887.  In Alexander, “Wilford Woodruff and the Manifesto,” 179.

[2]   Wilford Woodruff Journals, 28 March 1887.

[3]   Concerning this transition, Lorin C. Woolley taught: “At the death of President Taylor, an executive committee of five, consisting of George Q. Cannon, Erastus Snow, Moses Thatcher, John Henry Smith and Francis M. Lyman, was appointed to conduct the affairs of the Church.  That is the reason that President Woodruff was not placed in the position of President for about three years after the death of President Taylor.  These brethren would not allow it.  Finally George Q. Cannon and John Henry Smith relented, voting to sustain Wilford Woodruff, the other three men holding out.  Finally Erastus Snow and Moses Thatcher were taking a trip south, when Brother Snow stopped and said, ‘We are wrong.  I am going to vote with the other brethren.’  Whereupon Moses Thatcher, shaking his fist in the face of Brother Snow, said, ‘If you were not an old man as you are, I would smash you in the face.’  The majority of the Executive Committee then voted for President Woodruff as President of the Church.”  (BOR 10 of typescript; Items 8.)  This account appears to be pure fiction and is entirely unsupported by contemporary documents recounting the events surrounding President Woodruff’s reorganization of the First Presidency.

[4]   Cowley, Wilford Woodruff: History, 564–65.

[5]   Deseret News Weekly, 41:551.  In CD 2:132-33.

[6]   George Q. Cannon Diary, 9 Sept. 1889; italics added.  In Quinn, “New Plural Marriages,” 36.

[7]   JD 20:62.

[8]   Encyclopedia of Mormonism 3:1095.  See also Daynes, “Single Men in a Polygamous Society,” 89-111; Logue, “Mormon Monogamy and Polygamy,” 3-26;  Lowell  Bennion, “Mormon Polygamy in 1880,” 27-42.

[9]   Melvin Bashore wrote:  “more than thirteen hundred men and a few women [were] in prisons in Arizona, Michigan, South Dakota, Idaho and Utah.”   (“Mormon Cohabs of the 1880’s,” 24.)

[10]   Bradley, Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists, 5.

[11]   “Revelation to President Wilford Woodruff,” 24 November 1889, MFP 3:176.

[12]   Staker, Diaries of Wilford Woodruff, xiii.

[13]   In Lyman, “Political Background of the Manifesto,” 32.  See also discussion in Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 3-4.

[14]   Rudger Clawson Diary, 6 July 1902;  Quinn, “New Plural Marriages,” 44.

[15]   Quinn, “New Plural Marriages,” 44.

[16]   Mormon fundamentalists would later assert that a majority of Church members actively sought a manifesto, regardless of eternal consequences.  This theory is advanced in Vance Allred, “Manifesto of 1890,” 80-96.

[17]   On numerous occasions fundamentalist leaders voice the opinion that a majority of Church members desired a “manifesto.”  Rulon C. Allred taught in 1966: “President Wilford Woodruff signed the Manifesto because God permitted it and because the majority of the Church demanded it” (16 November 1966, Gems, 1:5; see also Rulon C. Allred, Treasures of Knowledge, 1:40).  However, claims such as these are not supported by contemporary documents.  The vast majority of Latter-day Saints were not “demanding” a Manifesto with most not knowing how to respond to it when it was released in 1890.

[18]   Deseret Weekly News, 18 October 1890.  CD 2:136; Lyman, “Political Background of the Manifesto,” 34-35.  Mormon fundamentalists generally  believe that Woodruff should have held strong, allowing the Lord to fight the battle in whatever way He desired so long as He didn’t suspend the practice of plural marriage.  They reflect a confidence that God’s solution to those problems would never include the removal the practice of polygamy.  See Kraut, Holy Priesthood, 6:259-63.

[19]   On 24 September 1890, Apostle Marriner W. Merrill recorded in his journal: “I went to Salt Lake and met in council with President Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, Joseph F. Smith, F. D. Richards, and Moses Thatcher, where President Woodruff had an article read he had prepared for the press of the country declaring to the world that we did not celebrate plural marriages now in the Church and that he counseled the members of the Church not to break the law in relation to plural marriage. The article was approved by all the brethren present, including myself, which seems the only way to retain the possession of our Temples and continue the ordinance work for the living and dead, which was considered more important than continuing the practice of plural marriages for the present.”  Marriner Wood Merrill, “Notes from the Miscellaneous Record Book, 1886-1906,” September 24, [1890], CDROM; see also Melvin Clarence Merrill, ed., Marriner Wood Merrill and His Family, n.p., 1937, 127.  In Jesse, “Comparative Study,” 176.

[20]   Collected Discourses 2:287-288.  Durham, Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 213-16. 

[21]   Fundamentalist writer Dennis R. Short states that the 1890 Manifesto is from “Lucifer!” Questions on Plural Marriage, 23-25.

[22]   Collected Discourses 2:288-89.  Durham, Discourses of Wilford Woodruff , 216.

[23]   From a discourse at the sixth session of the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, April, 1893. Typescript of Dedicatory Services, Archives, CHD, Salt Lake City, Utah.  D&C Official Declaration – 1.  See also Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 218 and Lyman, Political Deliverance, 299.

[24]   Wilford Woodruff, Testimony before the Master in Chancery, 19-20 October 1891, published in the Deseret News Weekly, 23 October 1891, 4-5.  In Fulton, Most Holy Principle, 2:525-32.

[25]   First Presidency Office Journal, 21 October 1891.  In Quinn, “New Plural Marriages,” 51.  Despite these teachings, Rulon C. Allred taught: “[Wilford Woodruff] didn’t say the Manifesto was a revelation, never at any time” (Rulon C. Allred, Treasures of Knowledge, 1:51.)