Actually, his pants aren’t on fire; he just didn’t know the full story.

President Dieter Uchtdorf recently spoke to the Church History Symposium. He said something that is vital for us to remember as we discover troubling aspects of our history:

…a little more information can make all the difference in the world… A small amount of additional information—and perhaps a bit of context—makes a wondrous difference in our capacity to understand the meaning of words and the meaning of life’s circumstances.

If we add a little context and a small amount of additional information then most of the conclusions in Rock’s post collapse.


In the post Rock argues that because baptisms for the dead had already been performed for the Founding Fathers that Wilford Woodruff is lying about his account of their visitation to him in 1877. The assumption is made that if they had already been baptized then they would not have appeared to Wilford to request that their ordinance work be performed.

As Rock said, when in doubt, check the source. If we read the essay by Brian Stuy (which Rock cites) it becomes clear that Rock’s post is largely a retelling of much of Stuy’s paper. However Rock seems to ignore all the alternative explanations given by Stuy and instead lands directly on lying as the solution.

It’s too bad Wilford hadn’t bothered to check the records at the endowment house, because if he had, he would have seen that proxy baptisms for the founders had already been done. Sometimes repeatedly.… When Wilford Woodruff wondered aloud why it was the Saints had been concerned only with “reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives” while forgetting to consider the men who founded the country, he was clearly unaware of the great interest many of the Saints had taken to looking after the salvation of those eminent worthies.… Just as modern members of the church often express the desire to personally perform the work for dead celebrities, it was not unusual for the early Saints to wish to stand in as proxies for the baptisms of famous American and European historical figures. Church records prove that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had already had their proxy baptisms done for them, some multiple times before the idea had ever occurred to Wilford Woodruff in 1877. So unless there was a group of mischievous ghosts who slipped into the St George temple dressed in colonial garb with the goal of playing a prank on poor Wilford Woodruff, we’re going to have to assume Woodruff himself was fibbing about the whole thing.… Of course, Woodruff was unaware that Brothers Church and Bernhisel had already performed those baptisms in the endowment house, and for some reason the founders didn’t bother to mention that little detail.… After Haden Wells Church had systematically been baptized for the founding fathers in 1872, J.D.T McCallister was the guy who performed the confirmations. This was the same J.D.T McCallister who would later assist Wilford Woodruff in performing baptisms for those very same signers all over again. I guess McCallister felt it wise to just keep his mouth shut and not say anything to Elder Woodruff, since Woodruff was the temple president at the time and must have had his reasons.

Before jumping into the many other plausible interpretations of Wilford’s statements, it’s important that we review some of the differences in how baptism was treated in the early church.


Brief Review of Early Mormon Temple Ordinances

It was common upon major events for someone to be rebaptized to renew their covenants as they are about to take upon themselves further commitments. Wilford himself had been baptized 7 times prior to this vision of the Founding Fathers. People didn’t blink an eye at multiple baptisms. It was normal.

Additionally, the church used baptism as a means of healing. Many, even children under age 8, were baptized for their health. In fact, for the first 4 years after the Manti Temple was dedicated, more baptisms for health were performed in the temple than any other ordinance for the living.

As one might guess, given the relative diversity of the uses of baptism, the church members weren’t all entirely clear on the protocols involved in baptism, especially in baptisms for health and proxy baptisms. It was largely that way from the start. When Joseph first introduced baptism for the dead to the church, many people began performing these baptisms in the river. Members were also being baptized for deceased of the opposite sex. Joseph said that this was not correct and also said that the members would need to wait until the temple baptismal font was dedicated before they could perform proxy baptisms. The records we have of those early Nauvoo baptisms are primarily from people’s personal journals.

Wilford first heard about baptism for the dead in a letter from his wife Phebe. In this letter as she told about Joseph’s instructions she emphasized the role of the eldest convert in each family in performing the ordinances. In work for the dead, there were “rights of heirship” which were to be followed. Brigham discussed this in an 1873 address to the saints:

There are some inquiries now with regard to officiating in ordinances, which I wish to answer. Some brethren here are anxious to know whether they can receive endowments for their sons or for their daughters. No, they cannot until we have a Temple; but they can officiate in the ordinances so far as baptism and sealing are concerned. A man can be baptized for a son who died before hearing the Gospel. A woman can be baptized for her daughter, who died without the Gospel. Suppose that the father of a dead son wishes to have a wife sealed to his son; if the young woman desired as a wife is dead and have a mother or other female relative in the Church, such mother is the heir, and she can act in the sealing ordinances in the stead of her daughter. But if the young woman desired as a wife have no relative in the Church, to act in her behalf, then the mother of the young man can be baptized for her, and act as proxy for her in the sealing ordinances.… For instance, a man and his wife come into the Church; he says, “My father and mother were good people; I would like to officiate for them.” “Well, have you any other friends in the Church?” “Nobody but myself and my wife.” Well, now, the wife is not a blood relation, consequently she is not in reality the proper person, but she can be appointed the heir if there are no other relatives—if there are no sisters, this wife of his can officiate for the mother; but if the man has a sister in the Church, it is the privilege and place of the sister of this man, the daughter of those parents that are dead, to go and officiate—be baptized, to go and be sealed with her brother for her father and mother. If this man and woman have a daughter old enough to officiate for her grandmother, she is a blood relation, and is the heir, and can act; but if there is no daughter, the man’s wife can be appointed as the heir.

This “right of heirship” was the policy of the church in performing proxy ordinances. Was it always followed? No. Frequently people did not know about details of church policy and there was no fast, easy means of getting information about them. It is clear that it Wilford was aware of this teaching of the right of heirship because he was concerned that he would never be capable of performing the temple work for his ancestors. Wilford had searched for and documented over 3,100 members of his family tree. Because members were only to perform ordinance work for their own ancestors and his family was not living in St. George, it seemed an impossible task to Wilford. Then on February 23, 1877 Wilford testified:

When I inquired of the Lord how I could redeem my dead … not having any of my family there, the Lord told me to call upon the Saints in St. George and let them officiate for me in that temple, and it should be acceptable unto him. Brother McAllister and the brethren and sisters there have assisted me in this work, and I felt to bless them with every feeling of my heart. This is a revelation to us. We can help one another in these matters, if we have not relatives sufficient to carry this on, and it will be acceptable unto the Lord.

Even with this revelation we see the caveat “if we have not relatives sufficient to carry this on.”


Another important piece of information is that no proxy endowments had ever occurred until after the dedication of the St. George Temple in 1877. Same for proxy priesthood ordinations. Additionally while the Endowment house allowed the Saints to perform proxy baptisms and sealings between husband and wife prior to the St. George Temple, there had been no sealing of children to parents or priesthood adoptions since the Nauvoo Temple.


Rock’s Claims

So with that background, let’s return to the issues raised in Rock’s post and Stuy’s paper. The big issue seems to be the words used in Wilford’s 1877 account:

Said they, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, from the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives. I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others. I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them.


The heart of the issue is the statement “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us.” By specifying the Endowment House and saying nothing had been done, the implication is that baptism and perhaps sealing to spouse had not been done for them.

Does this necessarily mean that Wilford lied? No. There are several other possibilities.

George Gibbs was the one who transcribed what he thought Wilford said in that General Conference quote. Rock acknowledges this and claims that we could suppose it was a misquote except that Wilford said something similar on multiple occasions. Let’s look at those quotes, first from Stuy’s paper:

he described how these individuals ‘came to me two nights in succession and pleaded with [me] as one man pleads with another to redeem them.’

Then Wilford said in 1898:

General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord. Another thing I am going to say here, because I have a right to say it. Everyone of those men that signed the Declaration of Independence with General Washington called upon me, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Temple at St. George, two consecutive nights, and demanded at my hands that I should go forth and attend to the ordinances of the house of God for them.

Notice that in these quotes there is no mention of the Endowment House. In Mormon theology, a person needs not only baptism, but other temple ordinances such as Endowments and the sealing of children to parents. These had not been (and could not have been) performed for them prior to the dedication of the St. George Temple. The Founders did need many other ordinances performed. So we could suppose that Wilford was misquoted, rather than saying his pants are on fire.


Another possible explanation is the delineation (or lack thereof) between the temple ordinances. When my grandfather received his endowment in the early 1940s, initiatory work was not a stand-alone ordinance (or set of ordinances). Initiatory was simply the first part of the Endowment. In St. George it was very common (likely the norm) to include baptism and confirmation as part of the Temple Endowment. Perhaps just as Joseph taught that baptism without confirmation is only half a baptism, baptism and confirmation without the rest of the temple ordinances was not a complete ordinance. Wilford at times referred to baptism as Endowment, and he also discussed baptism as a sealing ordinance.

Perhaps when we read “You have had the use of the Endowment House…” the “you” refers specifically to Wilford. Given his position and responsibilities it may have more of a personal rebuke that, as he said “the thought never entered my heart.”

Another possible, though less likely explanation involves the right of heirship. While the right of heirship definitely applied to proxy endowment work, it unclear and/or unlikely that it applied to baptisms. However, if we consider the possibility that the right of heirship does apply then it would follow that because the proxy baptisms performed on behalf of the Founding Fathers were not done by a descendent or by someone with authorization from the presiding authority in the church, they would be considered invalid. If that is the case, then the wording of the 1877 account is not problematic.

Stuy asks some important questions in his footnotes, which might be explained by the right of heirship. Footnote 7 reads:

[Hayden Wells] Church performed the proxy baptisms for twenty-nine of the fifty-four signers—just more than half. Why he did not perform the work for the remaining signers is unknown (Endowment House, 23 August 1871, 17 April 1872, #183384). Oliver Wolcott, one of the signers for whom Church did not perform the work, nevertheless had his work performed by a descendant, Phineas Wolcott Cook (ibid., 13 September 1872, #183384).

It seems entirely plausible to me that partway through his efforts Hayden Church was told that because he wasn’t a descendent and didn’t have authorization that he needed to stop. Notice that just months after this Oliver Wolcott was baptized by a descendent.

Stuy also includes a footnote which undermines the statement “Of course, Woodruff was unaware that Brothers Church and Bernhisel had already performed those baptisms in the endowment house, and for some reason the founders didn’t bother to mention that little detail.” In footnote 17 we read:

On the other hand, Woodruff may have known of Bernhisel’s work. On 9 August 1876, the first day that Bernhisel performed proxy baptisms, Woodruff was doing live sealings, also in the Endowment House. When Bernhisel returned to the Endowment House two weeks later on 23 August to do baptisms for most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, however, Woodruff was speaking at a funeral. If he was aware of any individual names, it seems likely he would not have performed the work again in St. George, just as he omitted William Floyd and John Hancock. Exceptions, however, do exist. Woodruff conducted the sealing of Charlotte Corday to Joseph Smith on 5 September 1870, following her proxy baptism by Josephine Ursenbach (Endowment House, 29 December 1869, #183382). It is difficult to understand Woodruff’s perceived need to reperform Corday’s baptism in St. George. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 766.

John Hancock’s work was done by a relative, Levi Hancock, again fitting well with the idea of heirship making proxy ordinance work valid. William Floyd’s work was performed by Addison Everett. In this case, I am not aware of a relationship between the two. It is important to note that under Wilford’s tenure as Temple President that Addison Everett was the one who completed the proxy work for William Floyd. Perhaps if Everett is not related to Floyd, permission from a presiding authority had been granted to do the work.

Amy Thiriot listed other possible explanations, which I’d encourage you to check out.

At this point it should be clear that there are many other plausible explanations, not just the narrative presented by Rock. At the end of his post, Rock lists the reasons he was “making a big deal out of this.” The first two reasons are clearly undermined when we look closer at the history.


Biggest Lie?

The final reason Rock gives for his accusations of dishonesty is that he thinks that Wilford “is the single individual responsible for setting in motion what has become the biggest lie in Mormonism.” Rock’s ‘biggest lie’ is that the president of the church cannot lead the church astray. As before, if we look a little closer at history, we can find an earlier quote of this principle from Joseph F. Smith in 1883:

When he [Brigham] died that mantle fell upon John Taylor, and while he lives he will hold that authority inasmuch as he is faithful. So it was with President Brigham Young, he held it on condition of his faithfulness. If any man in that position should become unfaithful, God would remove him out of his place. I testify in the name of Israel’s God that He will not suffer the head of the Church, him whom He has chosen to stand at the head, to transgress His laws and apostatize; the moment he should take a course that would in time lead to it, God would take him away. Why? Because to suffer a wicked man to occupy that position, would be to allow, as it were, the fountain to become corrupted, which is something He will never permit. And why will he not suffer it? Because it is not the work of Joseph Smith; it is not the work of Brigham Young or of John Taylor. It is not the work of man but of God Almighty; and it is His business to see that the men who occupy this position are men after His own heart, men that will receive instructions from Him, and that will carry out the same according to the counsels of His will. You may depend that he will see to it, and risk nothing upon this head. Hence you will have no reason to find fault or to rise up in judgment upon President Taylor or upon President Young, or upon the Prophet Joseph Smith, or upon the Twelve Apostles.

We can also read this from Brigham Young in 1862:

The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and he will never suffer you to be led astray if you are found doing your duty. You may go home and sleep as sweetly as a babe in its mother’s arms, as to any danger of your leaders leading you astray, for if they should try to do so the Lord would quickly sweep them from the earth.

There are also multiple accounts of Joseph Smith saying the same thing. Orson Hyde reported:

Joseph the Prophet … said, ‘Brethren, remember that the majority of this people will never go astray; and as long as you keep with the majority you are sure to enter the celestial kingdom.’

William G. Nelson reported:

I have heard the Prophet speak in public on many occasions. In one meeting I heard him say: ‘I will give you a key that will never rust,—if you will stay with the majority of the Twelve Apostles, and the records of the Church, you will never be led astray.’ The history of the Church has proven this to be true.

Ezra T. Clark remembered:

I heard the Prophet Joseph say that he would give the Saints a key whereby they would never be led away or deceived, and that was: The Lord would never suffer a majority of this people to be led away or deceived by imposters, nor would He allow the records of this Church to fall into the hands of the enemy.

So this was being taught long before the Manifesto. To claim otherwise is either due to ignorance of the earlier teachings or is a big lie. Again, looking at a little more history not only undermines Rock’s final reason, it proves it false. If we want to say that the concept that God will not allow the church to be led astray is false then we must grapple with the fact that Joseph Smith made such a claim. This had been taught in the church for nearly a half century prior to when it was claimed that Wilford introduced it. Clearly it is not Wilford Woodruff’s pants that are on fire.

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 an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah working as a Clinical Medical Physicist. He served his LDS Mission in Donetsk Ukraine. He's married and has two boys and two girls. He is currently the ward organist and primary pianist.

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