Wilford Woodruff’s Witness

Aug 29, 14 Wilford Woodruff’s Witness

3 sentence summary of the review:
Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine recounts Wilford’s life and his account/view of the development of the Temple using as frequently as possible his own words. Looking at Woodruff, the temple, and church policy/development as an interdependent triad is insightful and can even be paradigm shifting. The author Jennifer Mackley is very knowledgeable of Woodruff’s life and writes the book from Woodruff’s point of view, thus making a history book that is more faith-friendly than Rough Stone Rolling.

Now for the review proper:

Let me start off with the things that initially bugged me about the book and then move on to the things I loved. When I started reading this book, the acknowledgment of thanks given by Mackley to the historians who helped her (such as Jonathan Stapley, Thomas Alexander, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Connell O’Donovan, Todd Compton, D. Michael Quinn, Richard E Turley, Russell Stevenson, etc.) made me excited to dig in. In retrospect, this altered my expectations of the book and made some of the early portions of the book disappointing. Having seen such large names in New Mormon History being thanked, I was expecting a scholarly/academic book. I was expecting the book, even if it was clearly a faithful book, to come from an objective view similar to Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. Instead the book spends less than two pages discussing Masonry and its influence on temple ritual, it assumes historicity of the Book of Abraham, and covered polygamy in a minimalist manner that felt inadequate. I don’t share this to dissuade anyone from reading it (I’d like everyone to read it) but rather to set the appropriate expectations.

Upon revisiting the introduction, I found the key for setting my expectations properly and thoroughly enjoying the book. Mackley is clear that this book is meant to convey the thoughts and words of Wilford Woodruff and that she sought to keep all commentary to a minimal level. This holds true through the book. Woodruff is quoted extensively and on issues where Woodruff is silent, Mackley avoids imposing her own psychoanalysis of Wilford. Such a book would naturally avoid many “controversial” issues. Without considering the approach used in writing the book, some might label the book an apologetic work. Certainly to some degree it is. The book is aimed at giving the reader a window into how Wilford saw/interpreted/understood the role of temples in Mormonism.
Wilford Woodruff's Witness
One last aside prior to getting into text, I wanted to comment on a cosmetic aspect of the book. This book was filled with photographs. There are a large number of great photos, some of which had never been published previously. It seemed that every few page turns there would be another photo. The photos were relevant to the surrounding text and really helped bring the book to life.

The book does a great job of juggling the biographical discussion of Wilford’s life along with covering temple development and now extinct temple rituals. I thought it flowed very well. Among the many temple rituals/developments discussed in the book, the law of adoption is covered in great detail. Even though I’ve read the major historical articles covering the law of adoption, I still gained new insights about that practice from this book.

For me the most lasting impression from the book was the interdependent influence among Wilford, Temples/temple rituals, and Church policy. Wilford not only played a major role in shaping temple practice, but his heavy involvement in temple rituals shaped him in a powerful way. His temple work shaped his view of the gospel, his view of Mormon soteriology, and his decision-making as church president. Prior to reading this book I considered Woodruff’s eschatology to be the primary influence behind the first Official Declaration ending polygamy. This book makes a very strong case that Woodruff’s love of temples and his view of the theological/soteriological role they play was the most significant influence behind the prayer which led to the Official Declaration (more so than his millennial expectations). My impression after having read the book is that Wilford was willing to sacrifice everything to continue the practice of polygamy, except the temples. The turn-around time from when the threat of losing the temples became both actual and imminent to when Woodruff issued the Official Declaration was very short.

This book has the potential to influence how members view the fluidity of our ordinances. Following Wilford through the changes in the church highlights how these practices have been adjusted over time while also delivering a narrative flow that is often lacking in an abstract discussion of ritual development. It is difficult to review these changes and retain a view that the way things are now is how they should always be.

Even more importantly, this book highlights potential barriers to revelation. Mackley shows how Wilford prayed many times about ending polygamy in order to stop the troubles the church was in, but Wilford repeatedly felt that polygamy should continue. Mackley indicates that when the possibility of the temples being confiscated became real, the nature of Wilford’s question changed. Now he was asking how to save the temples from being lost and if ending polygamy was that answer. Mackley adds her commentary that this shift in focus prepared Woodruff to receive the dream-vision which led to the Official Declaration.

As I mentioned near the beginning, this book presents a very faithful view of Wilford’s life and the development of temples in Mormonism. I felt that this book was more faith-friendly than Rough Stone Rolling. I’d love to see members who wouldn’t normally venture into reading new Mormon history read this book. It is faith-affirming yet can be paradigm shifting. In our current phase of church development, the best thing all members can do is to learn about how we went through earlier phases. This is a book that you can share with family which can do just that without bombarding them with difficult issues.

If you are someone who can’t stand reading faithful views on problematic issues in Mormonism, then this book might not be for you. If you are such a person but are interested in trying to see things through the lens of Wilford Woodruff, then I think you would enjoy the book. Viewing the temple and church through Wilford’s eyes can give new insight even to those who are very familiar with Mormon history.

Honestly, I feel like Mormons of all stripes would enjoy this book. If you’d like to hear even more about the content of the book, there is an upcoming RationalFaiths podcast with Jennifer Mackley that you should check out.

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Geoff was born in Northern Utah and raised primarily in Central California. He received a BS in Biomedical Physics from Fresno State, a MS and PhD in Bioengineering from Stanford, and is now a medical physics resident at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. He served his LDS Mission in Donetsk Ukraine. He's married and has two boys and two girls. He is currently a gospel doctrine teacher and in the Sunday School Presidency. He also blogs at mormonliberals.org

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the brief review Geoff! I have this book on my Amazon wishlist, but have been uncertain about getting it since it seemed to be more of a “faith-promoting” book than a scholarly one. One thing that turned me off about it was, incidentally, the strange use of numbered footnotes in the book – instead of starting over with a new footnote 1 in each chapter, the footnotes number from 1-1000+ through the entire book!! Rant aside (and I probably should not judge a book by its footnote-system) it sounds like this is well enough researched to take a look at. I’m hoping she provides enough Joseph Smith-era context for the temple ordinances too?

    I look forward to the upcoming Rational Faiths podcast to learn more about the book and the author’s conclusions. With temple matters having changed so much from the time of Joseph Smith (law of adoption, common second anointing, eternity only sealings, etc.) to now, I have been meaning to read up on Wilford Woodruff’s role in the development of temple worship. Absent a more thoroughly scholarly Rough Stone Rolling type book, this just might be it.

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    • To be honest, in my view there isn’t a significant amount of analysis of the Joseph-era ordinances. Additionally, the temple ordinances aren’t necessarily discussed abstractly; it really is how Wilford viewed/understood them. As I mentioned (and yes, I know I’m just repeating it) it really helped me see the impact Wilford had on the development of temple ordinances and how the temple impacted him and his choices as church president.

      I should also say that Jennifer is incredibly well-read on all things related to Wilford Woodruff’s life. She knows her stuff. I could see some comparing her to Brian Hales in that way (as Brian Hales is to Nauvoo polygamy, Jennifer is to Wilford Woodruff’s life). Great at getting the facts and then presenting those facts in a faithful way.

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      • Thanks for the response. It definitely does look like a promising book, even if it is less academic or background-situating than I might want. I just started reading Brian Hales’ work on Joseph Smith and polygamy, so I can see what you mean.

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