Wilford Woodruff and the Sermons of Joseph Smith

A number of Joseph Smith’s sermons appear only through the good fortune of having Wilford Woodruff present. But what kind of reporter was he? The answer is complicated. First, Woodruff was an inveterate diarist and its impossible to over emphasize the importance of that in understanding Mormonism, particularly the Utah Mormonism of the 19th century. A major bonus: they’ve been published. (Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833-1898 (9 vols.). (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984-). You can pick up a used copy for under $3,000. There is also an electronic version from Signature Books, “New Mormon Studies CD” for a lot less (warning: the interface is rather primitive and mac users will need a Windows emulator).

Woodruff’s actual diary is mostly a pleasant read and his script is not bad when he’s not in a hurry.

Which brings us back to Joseph Smith (JS). Woodruff, while a faithful diarist, was not an immediate diarist. Many of his entries were written well after the events – he often had major “catch up” sessions. There is some legend about Woodruff’s reporting, encouraged by him in fact, that his recounting of JS’s sermons was a matter of Divine Inspiration. That he was driven to write down JS’s remarks, whereupon, he promptly forgot the details of the experience. I’m sure there is truth to this story, but like most such claims, it has had its share of exaggeration. In the first place, Woodruff was present at quite a number of sermons where he wrote nothing at all in remembrance. In the second, for those reports where Woodruff gives us significant text, it is clear that he took notes at the event, then fleshed those out and copied them into his journal perhaps days later.

So again the question: how good was he? Do we get some real flavor of what JS said? I think so. Do we get anything like a transcript of JS’s remarks? Not in the slightest.

When I was working on the good old King Follett Discourse for the book a few years ago (I started with that, since I rightly expected it would exhaust me both historically and textually – and I’m still not finished with it – it has an amazing history) I noticed a pattern in Woodruff’s reports that I haven’t had occasion to revise: Woodruff gets many things right in his reports, but not everything, and he makes critical errors and glosses of material (you’s have to wait for the book people). Consequently, his reports are valuable, no question about that, but they should be used with caution in trying to understand or construct authentic texts of JS’s sermons.

In the King Follett sermon in particular, Woodruff and official clerk Thomas Bullock offer the only robust texts for the final portion of the sermon. Bullock has a reputation (with me) of reporting chunks of sermons that reflect, in my belief, what he actually heard. He was pretty fast and based on various textual arguments, pretty accurate.

Comparing Woodruff and Bullock for the entire event gives us some idea of how Woodruff constructed his reports. First, his reports don’t often reflect the actual words of JS (but they often give us confidence in the more literal reports). Like most other longhand reporters (and to a lesser extent later Church shorthand reporters) his sermon reports are episodic. The connecting text between episodes is evident in a careful reading. Second, Woodruff’s textual polishing sometimes placed much of his reporting rather far into both a contemplative and subjective place. In short, I don’t know what we would do without Wilford, but sometimes I don’t know what to do *with* him.

Woodruff was a key figure in the restoration. Though his colleagues always saw him as eminently faithful and reliable, he wasn’t seen as the brightest of intellects by some of them. In his aged years, his colleagues suspected that he just didn’t have what it took to keep up with those fast-moving 1890s, and he didn’t care much for their life orientations either. But however much that may have been true, it is Wilford Woodruff that we must thank for much of modern Mormonism. His emphasis and change in the way we handle temples and temple work founded much of LDS discourse and praxis in the 20th century. Go Wilford.


  1. Love me some Wilford. And these are some really import ideas, WVS. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich at MHA a couple of years ago presented some of her research on the WW diary and highlighted some material from early drafts (perhaps notes, as you say) of the diary. Are you aware of how much of this material exists and what time periods it covers?

    I think it was Ron Esplin at the same MHA presentation in the Q&A stated that if someone would pay for it, he would love to publish the diary.

    I also heard a rumor of another Signature edition, but I can’t remember the details.

    Can’t wait for the book, WVS. Any idea about an ETA and what form it might take?

  2. Love these analysis of who to trust in early records of sermons. It’s all a lot more complex than thought.

  3. J., the draft entries are very important. ETA — I hope a more or less complete MS is in place next year sometime. I keep revising things though.

  4. unknown says:

    Does anyone have the details of another Signature edition of the Woodruff journals? I’m sure that there would be great interest among those that can’t afford a $3,000 used copy.

  5. It is fascinating to realize just how much of so many reports happens to be based on unreliable narrators.

  6. I don’t think Woodruff is unreliable as a reporter of themes. He can be rather unreliable as a reporter of words.

  7. Having just completed an annotated edition of the History of the Church for the Smith-Pettit Foundation, Dan Vogel has accepted an invitation to annotate a new trade edition of the Woodruff diaries which will include some extra materials that have surfaced since the early 1980s. Since the originals were like a double spaced typescript. This new annotated and fully typeset edition could reduce down to five or six volumes. –Tom Kimball

  8. Really interesting news Tom, thanks.