I imagine that in the minds of most American Mormons, there is a faint recollection of a grainy image of church leaders sitting together in the striped vestments of Federal criminality. The reality of virtually all general church leaders and many local leaders either being incarcerated or on the lam is so incongruent to modern lived experience as to be almost absurd. Enter Reid Neilson, the current chief operator at the LDS Historical Department, who has edited a collection of letters written by Apostle and Church President Wilford Woodruff to a family with whom he hid from the Marshals.
Reid L. Neilson, In the Whirlpool: The Pre-Manifesto Letters of President Wilford Woodruff to the William Atkin Family, 1885-1890 (Normon, Okl.: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2011). 232 pp. Footnotes; photos, maps, appendices, index. Clothe. $29.95; ISBN: 9780870623905
A decade ago Neilson published a biography qua family history of William and Rachel Atkin, the founders of Atkinville, erstwhile suburb of late-nineteenth-century St. George…that is, if you can call a family settlement a suburb. Being far enough away from St. George to anticipate any possible raid from the Feds, the Atkins sheltered polygamist fugitives, among whom was Wilford Woodruff. Woodruff subsequently maintained an active correspondence with the Atkin family, who kept the letters and generations later donated them to the church for microfilming.
In the Whirlpool is Neilson’s presentation of the bulk of these letters in addition to several introductory essays. The volume opens with Neilson’s essay describing the relationship between the Atkins family and Wilford Woodruff. Though he sometimes takes what appears to be an uncritical eye towards later family accounts as published privately, he does artfully illustrate the place in time and geography where the Atkins sheltered Woodruff. Woodruff comes alive as aging outdoorsman in forced exile among fish and fowl.
The two subsequent essays are reprints by Thomas Alexander and Jan Shipps.  Alexander’s essay is slightly edited and remains a very solid piece contextualizing the coming of the Manifesto with his trademarked exhaustive research (including access to generally restricted items) and perspicacious insight. Shipps’ essay is dramatically cut in this presentation. Though dated, it remains a very important and accessible treatment of the Manifesto’s reception.
As indicated by the essays, the focus of the volume is the lead-up to and reception of the Manifesto in 1890. Consequently, Neilson did not include the dozen or so post-Manifesto extant letters between Woodruff and the Atkins. In order to maximize accessibility, Neilson employed a type of clean text transcription method that silently corrects spelling, capitalizes words and adds punctuation. As these documents are generally going to be used for their content, it is very likely that a diplomatic transcription familiar to readers of the Joseph Smith Papers was neither necessary nor widely desired. Those researchers hungry to analyze the documents may access them at their repositories.
The letters are significant and their content is important, comprising pp. 127-97. Though Woodruff kept a detailed journal that is a jewel in History Library’s crown, these letters offer some wonderful additional (and personal) material. For example, in the very first letter Woodruff, recounts the dying and death of his first wife Phebe, (128) in a way that is very complementary to the account in his journal.  In fact, I think consistent references to Woodruff’s journals would have added significantly to this volume and in some places may have offered contrasting information. 
In another wonderful description, Woodruff wrote of his bodyguard: “I have a large stout man who goes with me every where night and day. Carries 2 pistols and a double barrel shotgun and says he will shoot the marshals if they come to take me. (Don’t tell anybody this.)” (143) Indeed!
The annotation of the letters focuses primarily on people and places, with occasional moments of broader context. This emphasis is very helpful to maintain a clear picture of who is being discussed and where they are described. It does have some drawbacks, however. In those instances when some context is added, it is easy to miss the complexity of the lived experience.  Moreover, while this type of annotation will help general readers, those more fluent in Mormon history will feel overlooked. For example, on pp. 149-50, Woodruff states his sorrow at learning of David H. Cannon’s “scrapes,” due to his inexperience. I couldn’t find any description of what Cannon’s situation was that elicited such a response. Others might ask what the “temple tank” and piping were that occupied so much space in the correspondence (187-89) or what the “recommends” Woodruff sent to the Atkin’s in October, 1890 were for (196).
In summary, this is an excellent collection that his handsomely cast. The essay portion will be valuable for those not familiar with the details of events surrounding the Manifesto, and is a great refresher for those that are. People will purchase the volume, however, for the letters. And they are worth it.
- Original essays available as: Thomas G. Alexander, “The Odyssey of a Latter-day Prophet: Wilford Woodruff and the Manifesto of 1890,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 169-206; Jan Shipps, “The Principle Revoked: A Closer Look at the Demise of Plural Marriage,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 65-77.
- Had I read it in time, I would have certainly cited this letter in my article on Mormon last rites, due out any day now with BYU Studies.
- For example, p. 196 includes a letter dated October 23, 1890, whereas Woodruff’s journal indicated that he wrote the letter on October 24.
- For example, Woodruff’s daughter-in-law Clara visited Salt Lake in December 1887 and became deathly ill. Woodruff wrote that “by administration [n69] and nursing she has got up again.” The footnote states: “Administration refers to a healing blessing offered by worthy LDS men through the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood and by the laying on of hands.” (148) This note cites the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. While this is a fine description of Latter-day Saint practice, and the Encyclopedia is a fair general reference, it is quite likely that the note is not accurate. Woodruff repeatedly describes “administering” to Clara, with the first instance as follows: “Clara was vary sick through the night. Emma & Ovando worked with her nearly all night. We administered to Clara.” Woodruff is documented to have administered healing rituals with women, particularly female members of his household. Moreover, during Clara’s sickness she was visited by Zina D. H. Young, healer extraordinaire. Woodruff, Journal, 8:470-72. Not that this is a pet topic for me or anything.