Wilford Woodruff's 1897 Testimony in Context: New Discoveries
by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, BYU
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel spoke on Wilford Woodruff's March 12, 1897, testimony—the first testimony of a Latter-day Prophet to be audio recorded. Of all the experiences Woodruff had and all the doctrines he knew, what did he choose to record for posterity, both in writing and on the first sound recording? He emphasized his testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and that fact that Smith revealed priesthood ordinances and conferred priesthood keys on the Twelve.
Throughout Wilford Woodruff's life, he frequently referred to the last meeting the Quorum of the Twelve had with Joseph Smith before leaving on their missions and Smith's martyrdom. Yet Woodruff, one of the best diary keepers in Church history, recorded little about this event on March 26, 1844: "A rainy day. I met in council with the brethren." Joseph Smith's diary mentions he was in council from 9:00 to 12:00 and again from 2:00 to 5:00, and William Clayton's diary also notes a meeting on that day.
Later, during the succession crisis following Smith's death, Woodruff began to speak about the charges Joseph Smith gave to the Twelve in that meeting. For the next fifty-four years, he regularly referred to this event. If it was so life-changing and truly established the authority of the Twelve to lead the Church, why did Woodruff omit the details of the meeting from his diary? Holzapfel shared what seems to be an insignificant journal entry from his own diary as an example: "Went on date to Wilkinson Center." When talking about that date, he fills in more details from his memory. That is because he later married the woman whom he took on that date, so what seemed insignificant took on added meaning.
Perhaps Woodruff did not recognize the true significance of the meeting until Smith's martyrdom. However, a more likely theory is that no one took minutes because of the sacred nature of so many of Smith's teachings. In his recorded testimony, Wilford Woodruff did not address his witness of the Book of Mormon, the First Vision, or anything else that was not disputed at the time. He was partly responding to rumors and questions regarding the origin of the endowment. But he was also preparing his testimony for future, unseen generations. As the last Apostle living who had been in the meeting with Joseph Smith, he felt a responsiblity to encapsulate what he felt was the Smith's legacy---priesthood, temple ordinances, and the resulting blessings. Through his teachings and revelations, Joseph Smith clarified why the Savior taught that "great shall be your reward in heaven"--not that heaven itself is the reward. Joseph Smith and Wilford Woodruff believed there is more and that it had to do with eternal families and exaltation.
While historians prefer to work with contemporary sources, often these sources are fragmentary and participants' recordings of memories after the fact must be used to help fill in the gaps. Holzapfel argued that Woodruff's memories of that important meeting are reliable, even if they are colored and shaped by retrospect, because the core of the story never changed, including the date, the participants, the location, and Joseph Smith's appearance (his face shone "like amber"). He especially recounted Joseph Smith placing the burden of the kingdom on the Twelve's shoulders, warning them to bear off the kingdom or be damned.
Hozapfel pointed out, "Our memory challenges us on nonessential points. but on events that change our lives, our memory is magnified." Wilford Woodruff was not a detached observer in that Nauvoo meeting but a participant in something that deeply affected himself and his understanding of his life's mission. Holzapfel said, "It's not surprising that his memory would allow him to recall specific points about that day throughout his life."
Finally, Holzapfel revealed an exciting possibility. Wilford Woodruff recorded the same testimony twice, on two different dates, in order to get a better sound recording. Why, then, did the Church have a third cylinder in its archives? Holzapfel read a statement from George Q. Cannon, explaining that both he and Joseph F. Smith also recorded their witnesses that they were present to hear Wilford Woodruff's testimony. What if the third cylinder holds the only recording of George Q. Cannon and the earliest recording of Joseph F. Smith? If there is a way to extract the audio from those cylinders and re-record them, it will be exciting to find out what they hold.