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Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff Paperback – August 15, 1993
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Whether it was a revelation or a practical, political decision, his edit ending plural marriages in the Mormon Church a hundred years ago elevated Wilford Woodruff to a place in church annals not far below Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. "On balance, he is arguably the third most important figure in all of Latter-day Saint history after Joseph Smith, who began Mormonism, and Brigham Young, who led the Saints to Utah and supervised the early colonization of the intermountain West," writes author-researcher Thomas Alexander in his newly published book Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, A Mormon Prophet. "A man for his season, Woodruff shepherded Mormonism out of a morass of persecution and isolation," Alexander writes, pointing to the prophet's 1890 "manifesto" that opened the way for Utah statehood and removal of an issue that had stigmatized the church. Woodruff, fourth of 13 Mormon presidents, who served from 1889 to 1898, is credited with saving the church by formally ending plural marriages in church teachings and thus appeasing the United States government, which threatened to dissolve the Mormon Church and confiscate its far-flung property. "What Wilford Woodruff did basically was to bring about this accommodation, which was necessary at the time with the rest of the United States," Alexander said, during a book tour stop in Mesa. "It allowed the church to continue to exist without being destroyed. It allowed the church to prosper." Woodruff, who is believed to have had nine wives over the course of his 91-year-life, "was essentially the architect of the Mormons' accommodation with the rest of the nation," Alexander said. Writing in his diary on Sept. 25, 1890, Woodruff said he had arrived "at a point in the history of my life as president of the church where I am under the necessity of acting for the temporal salvation of the church. The United States government has taken a stand and passed laws to destroy the Latter-day Saints upon the subject of polygamy or patriarchal order of marriage. And after praying to the Lord and feeling inspired by his spirit, I have issued (a) proclamation which is sustained by my councilors and 12 apostles." Plural marriages, which grew out of the teachings and revelations of Smith, were initially open only to the Council of the Twelve Apostles and other high leaders, he said. "It really wasn't open to the church membership until after 1852," he said. "It was resisted by most of the members of the church. It was contrary to their perceptions of normal Christian morality, which had been monogamous." For those who entered into plural marriages, the overwhelming arrangement was no more than two wives, Alexander said. Not more than 20 percent of Mormon men who married entered into polygamy, which hits its peak in the early 1880s. One church leader bemoaned that men entering polygamy needed more spiritual power and patience "to preside over that household" than "to go to the nations and preach the gospel." And, wrote Alexander, "Large families with multiple wives placed considerable strain on the marriage relationship because of demands for clothing and other goods and because of jealousy and family disputes. In February 1857, Woodruff "offered" his daughter Phebe Amelia, soon to turn 15, to Brigham Young, but the president said he "did not wish to marry any more young women" but would find another man for the girl. "On reflection, Woodruff saw some humor in old men chasing girls barely into puberty," Alexander writes. "Writing to George A. Smith, he said that nearly all are trying to get wives until there is hardly a girl 14 years old in Utah." --Associated Press
The trials, successes and failures of a pivotal figure in Mormon history are explored in this detailed biography by the director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University. Like many 19th-century New Englanders influenced by America's tradition of religious dissent, Wilford Woodruff (1807-1898) moved through phases of spiritual questing until he found a church that matched his scriptural interpretations. Becoming a Latter-day Saint in 1833, he rose to prominence among a community of beleaguered believers in Kirtland, Ohio. During his tenure as church president, he led a reform movement that abolished polygamy (he participated in plural marriages but eventually became monogamous), opened the Mormon community to commerce and worldly business, prepared for the eventual statehood of Utah. An international traveler, tireless in church work, Woodruff emerges here as a complex, often ambitious leader. This biography of "the third most important figure in all of LDS church history" will enhance the Mormon archive, but its appeal to the general reader is less apparent. --Publisher's Weekly
From the Publisher
Wilford Woodruff converted to the LDS church in 1833, he joined a millenarian group of a few thousand persecuted believers clustered around Kirtland, Ohio. When he died sixty-five years later in 1898, he was the leader of more than a quarter of a million followers worldwide who were on the verge of entering the mainstream of American culture. Before attaining that status of senior church apostle at the death of John Taylor in 1886, Woodruff had been one of the fiercest opponents of United States hegemony. He spent years evading territorial marshals on the Mormon "underground," escaping prosecution for polygamy, unable even to attend his first wife's funeral. As church president, faced with disfranchisement and federal confiscation of Mormon property, including temples, Woodruff reached his monumental decision in 1890 to accept U.S. law and to petition for Utah statehood.
As church doctrines and practices evolved, Woodruff himself changed. The author examines the secular and religious development of Woodruff's world view from apocalyptic mystic to pragmatic conciliator. He also reveals the gentle, solitary farmer; the fisherman and horticulturalist; the family man with seven wives; the charismatic preacher of the Mormon Reformation; the astute businessman; the urbane, savvy politician who courted the favor of prominent Republicans in California and Oregon (Leland Stanford and Isaac Trumbo); and the vulnerable romantic who pursued the affections of Lydia Mountford, an international lecturer and Jewish rights advocate. He traces a faithful polygamist who ultimately embraced the Christian Home movement and settled comfortably into a monogamous relationship in an otherwise typically Victorian setting.
This book is the winner of the BEST BOOK AWARD, MORMON HISTORY ASSOCIATION and the EVANS BIOGRAPHY AWARD, MOUNTAIN WEST CENTER.
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Alexander presents Woodruff as a true believer in the message of Joseph Smith and the Mormon religion. That meant, for Woodruff, the acceptance of "a world view that unified the temporal and spiritual realms in God's kingdom and in the lives of church members" (p. xiii). That holistic view of the temporal and spiritual found expression in the Mormon theocratic state of early Utah. Ironically, Woodruff began the dismantling of that theocracy in response to the challenges of federal authority. He, for instance, was responsible for the 1890 manifesto ending the performance of plural marriages and he set the course for Utah's statehood in 1896 by working to remove the church from politics.
Although there is much to admire in "Things in Heaven and Earth," there are some imperfections. One of them is occasional demonstrations of pro-Mormon bias and the too-easy acceptance of the court position. For example, Alexander argues that the "intermingling of church and state [in pioneer Utah] would have generated little opposition in a Protestant-dominated community" (p. 176), but there is little reason to accept that conclusion. The quest for empire that early Rocky Mountain Mormonism mandated always ran against the grain of the American mainstream and the nation asserted itself to defend against a perceived threat to liberty. There are numerous examples in American history of other religious groups, in similar instances being handled roughly by the larger community.
Even so, "Things in Heaven and Earth" is a fine biography. It is sympathetic without being hagiographic, and Alexander's conclusions are usually well measured. It can be profitably read by anyone interested in the development of Mormonism, new religions of the nineteenth century, and the American West.
The tragedy is that the story that occurred in the Mormon "kingdom" during the life span of the 4th President of the Church was anything but dry! While I disagree with the author's assertion that "Woodruff was probably the 3rd most important Mormon after Joseph Smith and Brigham Young," (I don't know how you could possibly quantify the value of a man, and then rank them in some sort of Letterman's Top Ten List...especially when you consider the incredible contributions of other Mormons, including Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, the Pratt Brothers, as well as some of the more notorious, such as John Bennett,) still, so very much changed in Utah during his presidency that radically shaped the future of the West, that the feel and meaning of the story should be TOLD, not merely documented. It was during the leadership era of Wilford Woodruff that the Mormons finally joined the United States, which was in reality an incredible shift in the paradigm of the Mormon hierarchy. Plural Marriage, one of two keystones to Mormon segregation, (the other being the notion of theocratic inheritence of whatever land they happened to occupy), was eliminated...more or less...during his leadership. And the millenialism of the Saints became considerably tempered. Instead, Alexander chose to focus on the breakup of the People's Party and the importance of the tension then between Mormon Democrats and Mormon Republicans. To read this book, you would think that was the biggest story in Woodruff's life. I don't disagree that it was important in shaping policy, but it wasn't the real story. Furthermore, you practically know nothing about his families as a result of reading this book, only that he had four, plus a few divorced wives, which you would think in the family orientation of this church that these people would be a more significant subject of this book.
The fact of the matter is, Alexander has chosen to focus on the History of Utah and the Church during the life of Wilford Woodruff, while mentioning Woodruff's involvment, rather than focus on his life, while mentioning what was going on in the church. We know the history already, but tell us about the Man!
Read the book, but don't expect to be kept on the edge of your seat, shed any tears, or experience vicariously the joy and satisfaction of a full life, well lived in the service of his fellow men, his country, and his God.