I have in mind the iconic story we all know of Wilford Woodruff's late night encounter with the spirits of George Washington and the rest of the founding fathers in the St. George temple. It is one of my favorite stories from church history, and one that I have long drawn inspiration from. So you can imagine how disappointed I was to learn that it could not possibly have occurred. Unless you believe George Washington is capable of telling a lie.
For those who may not be familiar with the story (and I can't imagine any member who is not), here is Wilford Woodruff's personal testimony as delivered in the Salt Lake City tabernacle in September of 1877:
"I will here say, before closing, that two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. 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." (Journal of Discourses Vol. XIX, pg 229)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.
In the recently published collection of essays Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader,  Brian H. Stuy reveals that baptisms for the signers had already been performed by Haden Wells Church and John M. Bernhisel as recently as a year before Woodruff says those men appeared to him in the St. George temple. As Stuy rightly asks, if the founder's baptisms had already been performed, "why would they need to urge Wilford Woodruff to repeat the same ordinances? They could not have been referring to endowments since these were not performed for the dead in the endowment house."
I really want to give Woodruff the benefit of the doubt on this, because I honestly want to believe his story. If he had related that experience only once, we might be able to suppose George Gibbs, the scribe who recorded the talk, had misquoted him. But Woodruff must have felt the story was too good not to repeat, so he told it again and again. "In 1892," writes Stuy, "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.' "
A few months before his death, Woodruff reinforced the testimony of that event from the stand at April conference 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."1876 was the centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the celebrations taking place throughout America may have been the catalyst that prompted Haden Church and John Bernhisel to perform the baptisms of the men who signed that document. But even that wasn't the first time many of those prominent persons had the ordinance of baptism performed in their stead. After Joseph Smith revealed the doctrine of baptism for the dead in 1841, members of the church instantly began having themselves baptized for their immediate dead ancestors, and when they ran out of family names, they naturally took to coming up with names of famous people they wanted to be baptized for.
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.
As it turns out, zealous members had themselves baptized for George Washington at least three times while the Saints were still in Nauvoo, which makes sense since his name was probably the first to come to most people's minds when contemplating a list of prominent Americans. Charlotte Haven, a non-Mormon visitor to Nauvoo, wrote home about an account she witnessed of Mormons performing proxy baptisms in the Mississippi river:
"We followed the bank toward town, and rounding a little point covered with willows and cottonwoods, we spied quite a crowd of people, and soon perceived there was a baptism. Two elders stood knee-deep in the icy cold water, and immersed one after another as fast as they could come down the bank. We soon observed that some of them went in and were plunged several times. We were told that they were baptized for the dead who had not had an opportunity of adopting the doctrines of the Latter Day Saints. So these poor mortals in ice-cold water were releasing their ancestors and relatives from purgatory! We drew a little nearer and heard several names repeated by the elders as the victims were douched, and you can imagine our surprise when the name George Washington was called. So after these fifty years he is out of purgatory and on his way to the 'celestial' heaven!" ("A Girl's Letters From Nauvoo," The Overland Monthly December 1890, pg 630) As famous as George Washington was, Benjamin Franklin may hold the record for most baptisms performed for a Founding Father. He was dunked first in Nauvoo with John Harrington as proxy, then by Haden Church in the Salt Lake endowment house in 1871, and again by John Bernhisel in 1876. After Wilford Woodruff performed the ordinance for Franklin in the St George temple in 1877, records show the same Benjamin Franklin was baptized there again in 1880 and yet again in 1884. More recently Franklin was baptized in the London temple in 1972, then the Arizona temple in '75, and finally in Boise in 1992. (Dimensions of Faith, fn 6 pg 105)
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.
In Woodruff's defense, practically everyone was inventing faith promoting stories back then, and not just us Mormons. Even George Bancroft, probably the most respected historian of the 19th century, whose ten volume History of the United States was considered the ultimate resource, had no problem making stuff up if he thought it would assist the narrative. As journalist Jeff Riggenbach reports:
Why American History Is Not What They Say, Pg 27)I own a reprint of a history textbook first published in 1879, The Story of Liberty, by Charles Carleton Coffin. It chronicles "the struggles of men in England and Europe against the tyranny of emperors, kings, popes, archbishops, bishops and inquisitors." I love this book; I even used it while home schooling my kids. Every chapter is an inspired read. But here's the thing: even though most of the stories are based on historical events, they are stories. Coffin invented whole conversations, made undocumented leaps of fancy, and otherwise just made stuff up to get his points across. But Coffin's work was not an anomaly. That's just the way historians handled things prior to the early 20th century, when historical objectivity as we know it today began to replace the less disciplined methods.
Mormon chroniclers in the early 1800s were no different than non-Mormon chroniclers. Anyone who has read History of Joseph Smith by His Mother Lucy Mack Smith certainly realizes that there is something artificial sounding about the Victorian language and affected dialogue Lucy employs in her retelling of the life of the Prophet. Joseph's mother was as adept at embellishing events as any other biographer of her day. It's not likely, for instance, that the episode of Joseph's leg surgery took place exactly as Lucy reports it.
We deserve to come to grips with the fact that some of our history actually did happen the way we heard it, and some of it did not. But whether particular episodes are true or not, many false ones have been accepted as gospel in the minds of many members, since most of us never bother to avail ourselves of the facts regarding our own history. Since we hear repeated so often that "the Church is true," some members tend to believe nothing about our history could possibly be false. But as Jessie Embry and William Wilson observed on the 150th anniversary of Pioneer Day, "Much of what average Mormons know about the church's past was not learned from reading scholarly books. It comes from listening to stories at home and in a variety of church settings." ("Folk Ideas of Mormon Pioneers," Dialogue, Volume 31, No 3)
In the same book wherein Brian Stuy discusses the Wilford Woodruff account, Matthew Bowman provides an extensive discussion on the subject of what Bowman titles "The Mormon Bigfoot." This is the tale told by Apostle David W. Patten of an experience he had in 1836 while serving a mission in the backwoods of Tennessee. Here is the story as Patten related it to Abraham Smoot:
"I met with a very remarkable personage who had represented himself as Cain who had murdered his brother Abel...As I was riding along the road on my mule I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me. He walked along beside me for about two miles. His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing, but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. I asked him where he dwelt and he replied that he had no home, that he was a wanderer in the earth and traveled to and fro. He said he was a very miserable creature, that he had earnestly sought death during his sojourn upon the earth, but that he could not die, and his mission was to destroy the souls of men. About the time he expressed himself thus, I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence, and he immediately departed out of my sight."There's no denying this is a good story, and it was wholeheartedly accepted by most of the early pioneers. I first heard it from my mother, and later in seminary it was taught to us as factual.
Now, I don't know if this incident really happened to Patten or not. I can tell you for certain that I used to believe it, but today the tale strikes me as a bit silly and not very credible. It's more likely Patten had a lot of time on that boring mule ride to concoct a tall tale to relate to his friends when he got home. This was, after all, Tennessee, home to such famous tale spinners as Davy Crockett. Perhaps there was something in the air in those parts that encouraged such hyperbole.
I don't know if the Patten story still circulates much in the church today, but I don't think it has the traction the Woodruff vision has enjoyed. Unlike Woodruff's vision, which serves to encourage people to get fired up about temple work, I don't think Patten's Bigfoot sighting serves any purpose other than as a ripping yarn to tell around the campfire.
Or maybe the reason Patten's story doesn't have the cachet of Woodruff's vision is because Patten died two years after his experience and didn't have the opportunities Woodruff did to reinforce it through repeated tellings.  Wilford Woodruff also had the good fortune to live long enough to become President of the Church, and nothing gives a story legs and added prestige so much as being able to relate it from a position of authority. (Ask Thomas Monson about the time he found five dollars in his pants.)
When In Doubt, Check The Source
Wilford Woodruff was a prodigious journal keeper who wrote in his diary almost daily. He was thoughtful enough to leave us 31 separate volumes describing his life and experiences. That makes it a simple task for interested scholars to simply go back and read what Woodruff wrote at the time he claimed to have had that miraculous visitation from the founders. Oddly, Woodruff's journal entry for August 19, 1877 contains no mention of the miraculous event he would later relate in public:
“I spent the evening in preparing a list of the noted men of the 17 century and 18th, including the signers of the Declaration of Independence and presidents of the United States, for baptism on Tuesday the 21 Aug 1877.”And his entry for Tuesday, August 21st:
“I, Wilford Woodruff, went to the temple of the Lord this morning and was baptized for 100 persons who were dead, including the signers of the Declaration of Independence.… I was baptized for the following names.”He then listed the names of 100 men. The baptisms were performed by J.D.T. McCallister, who was a counselor in the temple presidency. Woodruff's journal entry for the 21st continues:
Woodruff's journal entry for that period makes no mention of the miraculous visitation, only that he spent the evening of the 19th compiling a list of the noted men, then showed up at the temple on the morning of the 21st to meet with Brother McCallister and perform baptisms for the men on that list. He calmly records in his diary that it was an "interesting" day."When Br. McAllister had baptized me for the 100 names, I baptized him for 21, including Gen. Washington and his forefathers and all the presidents of the United States that were not on my list except Buchanan, Van Buren, and Grant.  It was a very interesting day. I felt thankful that we had the privilege and the power to administer for the worthy dead, especially for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, that inasmuch as they had laid the foundation of our Government, that we could do as much for them as they had done for us."
Yet the way Woodruff told the story publicly a month later, the founders appeared to him as a group and berated him for not seeing to their baptisms whereupon he "straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers." No mention of waiting until Tuesday. 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.
And here's the kicker: 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.
This penchant Wilford Woodruff had for exaggeration after the fact was almost a trademark of his. As I discussed in my piece Why Mormon History Is Not What They Say, the well-worn story of Brigham Young transforming into Joseph Smith before the crowd that had gathered to decide Joseph Smith's successor is an event that clearly never happened either. In this instance, Woodruff didn't start the rumors, but once they were fully launched by others years after the event, Woodruff jumped on board and even managed to top some of the other member's stories about it. Throughout the remainder of his life, every time Woodruff told that story, he added something new and more marvelous to it.
But as Reid Harper documents in his well researched article "The Mantle of Joseph," Wilford Woodruff gave at least four detailed reports of what happened that day, none of which mentioned or alluded in any way to anything out of the ordinary; no mention whatsoever of Brigham Young transforming into the voice or visage of Joseph Smith. These reports were consistent with the bland accounts given by the two Nauvoo newspapers, the scribes recording the speeches, and those in the crowd who mentioned the debates in their personal diaries. "Only much later," writes Harper, "speaking extempore in 1872 and 1892, does Woodruff term the events miraculous."
"If the transfiguration occurred in the morning meeting, Woodruff, who was not present, could not have been an eyewitness as he later claims. If the transformation took place in the afternoon meeting, Woodruff's silence about the event until 1872 and 1892 seems very curious." (Journal of Mormon History, pg 45) Woodruff seemed to have a way of embellishing ordinary events in order to make them appear extraordinary. For instance, shortly before Joseph Smith's death, the prophet met with the twelve apostles. No one present had any idea it would be their last meeting with the prophet, of course, but later in life Woodruff just couldn't resist making more of that meeting than it was. In 1893 he said "Joseph Smith spoke to [the twelve] for more than three hours" and "his face shown like amber."
The next year Woodruff said Joseph "called the twelve together the last time he spoke to us, and his face shown like amber." And the year after that Woodruff claimed "shortly before his death, he was transfigured before them, his face shown like amber, and he gave us all the keys to the kingdom." (Quoted in Denver Snuffer, Passing The Heavenly Gift, fn pg 76)
None of the other members of the quorum of the twelve mentioned anything about Joseph being transfigured, or his face shining like amber; nor did they claim they were given the keys to succession at that time. This is revisionist history on Woodruff's part, because at the time of Joseph Smith's death there was much confusion as to who had what keys and what they were for. We have been taught the succession went smoothly, and that the twelve were in control and knew what they were doing all along. But this is a version of history that Wilford Woodruff did his best to help promote. As Denver Snuffer reminds us, "Even today there is no full description of what keys were involved or what rights were included.
(Ibid, pg 74)
So why am I making a big deal out of all this? After all, if everybody back in the day fudged the truth a little in order to strengthen the testimonies of others, what's the harm? Why single out Wilford Woodruff?
Well, in the first place, it's never a good idea to allow anyone's testimony to be based on a falsehood, because eventually the lie is uncovered and those whose testimonies had been buttressed by that lie are often devastated when the facts come out -as eventually they always do.
There are people in this church who have had actual contact with heavenly visitors and angelic beings. False stories like those imagined by Wilford Woodruff serve only to cheapen these real experiences and instill doubt in the less faithful.
Secondly, As much as I want to believe Woodruff's story, finding out it was a fabrication bothers me on a personal level. I have been an avid student of the lives and words of the founders for more than thirty years. My bookshelves are filled with their biographies and many volumes of their writings. I realize these men were not demi-gods, but in my opinion they were mighty close. I believe the Lord when he said that he raised these men up for the purpose of founding a nation built on the principles of freedom. (D&C 101:80) I also agree with Wilford Woodruff when he said "those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth." (Conference Report, April 1898, pg 89)
So I find it a bit unsettling and...I'm searching for the right word here; I want to say sacrilegious...for Woodruff to manipulate the memories of those great men in order to make himself appear somehow privileged to have had a special encounter with them.
Finally, I'm harping on Wilford Woodruff not just because he tended to gild the lily now and then, but because he is the single individual responsible for setting in motion what has become the biggest lie in Mormonism, a lie that has slowly been festering for the past hundred years until today it threatens to destroy the church of Jesus Christ from within.
You may think I am overstating the threat, but I am not. That falsehood is the one that asserts the prophet can never lead the church astray. This offhand remark Woodruff once uttered to silence criticism has now become, in the minds of many, the first principle of the gospel. It is repeated endlessly, preached from the pulpit, and taught to our children in Primary. Yet God never revealed such a doctrine, and our scriptures consistently warn against anything resembling it. This false teaching has become so pervasive that recently a general authority upped the ante by declaring "We have the Lord’s personal promise that the prophets will never lead us astray."
I can guarantee you the Lord never gave his "personal promise" about any such thing. You can search the scriptures and the general conference archives until your eyes swim and never find one instance of a recorded revelation from God declaring the prophets will never lead us astray, or that God wants us to "follow" them. We didn't get that doctrine from God. We have it because one fine day in 1889 Wilford Woodruff just pulled it out of his butt.
Make no mistake; when Woodruff came up with that whopper, he didn't say the Lord told him to declare it. Woodruff's exact words were, "I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty."
Did you catch that? "I say." Wilford Woodruff is the one who said it. The Lord never made any such statement, either through Woodruff or through any other man.
It's the perfect lie, because it contains its own circular reasoning as to why the lie must be believed:
Can the Prophet ever lead the church astray?
Because he's the Prophet.
How do we know that to be true?
Because the Lord will never let that happen.
Who Says so?
The Prophet says so.
Why should we believe him?
Because the Prophet will never lead the church astray.
Because he's the Prophet.
Still Waiting For The Message
I was born during the first year of the administration of President David O. Mckay. Since that time I have seen six more men attain to the presidency of the church, and through most of my life I listened intently when they spoke. Much of that counsel was useful and much of it was uplifting. But although each of these men held the keys as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, not once in all that time did any of them ever record a revelation from God or issue a prophecy in God's name. Why, then, am I admonished to follow them? If they had something in particular God wanted them to reveal, why have they never announced it to the world?
Joseph Smith taught us that a prophet is only a prophet when he is speaking as a prophet -in other words, when he has been instructed by God to deliver a specific message directly from God. By the time Heber J. Grant ascended to the office, the definition of "prophet" had evolved to merely someone with a particular title and station in the Church. On several occasions Grant affirmed that he had never had an audience with the Lord; in fact he was leary of anyone who claimed they had. Near the end of his life, in October of 1942, he expressed his distrust of such epiphanies:
"I have never prayed to see the Savior. I know of men -Apostles- who have seen the Savior more than once. I have prayed to the Lord for the inspiration of His spirit to guide me, and I have told him that I have seen so many men fall because of some great manifestation to them, they felt their importance, their greatness."On many occasions, Heber J. Grant made it clear that he believed loyalty to the Church was more important than having a personal relationship with Christ. And this was the titular prophet of God.
Wilford Woodruff's most lasting accomplishment was in converting the church from a belief in divine revelation to belief in a group of divinely appointed leaders. The effective result is the tacit assumption that we have our own Mormon Pope to lead and guide us. Just as with the Catholics, if we can't have God himself living among us yet, we'll settle for men we can treat like gods.
According to the Woodruff Doctrine, as long as the Lord has not interfered by killing off the prophets, the operating assumption is that the prophets are continuing to do just fine. (I have to wonder what awful statement Howard W. Hunter was about to utter, because that guy didn't last five minutes.)
Let's Eliminate The Middle Man
In addition to the blatant prevarications Wilford Woodruff foisted on the membership of the church, he made his share of prophetic blunders, too, such as when he told the people, "I believe there are many children now living in the mountains of Israel [Utah] who will never taste death; that is, they will dwell on the earth at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ."
That was in 1875. To my knowledge all those children are long gone, and the Second Coming is yet to occur. I hope nobody bet the farm on that prediction. So much for not leading the church astray.
In the clear absence of any revelatory guidance from Church leaders, a growing number of devout latter-day Saints are finding it quite possible to embrace the teachings of the Restoration without also having to pledge their loyalty to men who insist on placing themselves between them and the Christ. The religion the Lord restored through Joseph Smith contains some amazing insights, but you may miss a lot of them if you're too busy playing follow the leader. We deserve to stop being followers and instead look up with an eye single to the glory of God. Isn't it past time for the drunkards of Ephraim to awake and arise, and shake off their slumber?
The salient and most heavily promoted "doctrine" in the Church today, the one that says the president of the church will never lead the church astray, was never taught by Joseph Smith, and never revealed by God. Even Wiford Woodruff did not pretend he got it through revelation. Since Wilford Woodruff's word has been shown to be less than reliable on multiple occasions, maybe we shouldn't take so much stock in everything he said.
(Don't bother clicking on the numbered links; I can't get them to work on this platform.)
1. Brian Stuy is something of an expert on Wilford Woodruff, having compiled the five volume Collected Discourses,a sequel of sorts to the Journal of Discourses. Stuy's Collection contains the so-called "lost speeches," many written while Church leaders were in prison.
2. Charlotte Haven had arrived in Nauvoo to visit her brother, and her take on the city is as interesting a travelogue as the one later written by Mark Twain when he visited Salt Lake City. Haven had the opportunity of dining with Joseph and Emma Smith, and was quite taken with Emma; not so much with Joseph. "Mrs. Smith was pleasant and social, more so than we had ever seen her before, and we were quite pleased with her; while her husband is the greatest egotist I ever met." Charlotte also had little positive to say about Joseph's appearance: "He has a large head and phrenologists would unhesitatingly pronounce it a bad one, for the organs situated in the back part are decidedly the most prominent." In addition to the link provided above, Miss Haven's account is one of several fascinating narratives contained in the collection Among The Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers.
3. Elvis Presley was baptized at least seven times before Church authorities got wise and started putting a cap on things. You can see his baptismal slips here
4. Patten, the first Apostle of the Restoration to taste death, was felled from his horse while charging a group of armed Missourians at what later became known as the Battle of Crooked River. I maintain Patten's death would not have occurred had the Mormons not been so convinced of their invulnerability, and not acted in violation of D&C 98: 32. The Mormons acted without Joseph Smith's knowledge or authorization. I presented my view of this tragic incident in part 2 of When Mormons Take The Lord's Name In Vain.
5. Woodruff chose not to baptize Presidents Van Buren, Buchanan, and Grant for obvious reasons. Van Buren had snubbed Joseph Smith when he traveled to Washington to seek redress of grievance, and Buchanan had sent the U.S. Army to Utah to deal with the "Mormon problem." Ulysses S. Grant would not have been baptized for the dead because in 1877 he was not yet dead.
6. You may not be able to access Harper's piece in the Journal of Mormon History unless you are a member of the Mormon History Association. (I recommend you join, because not only do you receive the quarterly journal, you also get unlimited access to all the back issues.) You can read Thomas Alexander's scholarly account "The Making of a Mormon Myth" here, and also my analysis here.
[About Comments: Please, people, try to stop commenting as "Anonymous." So many people use that option that it's become impossible to know one commenter from another. The simplest option is to put a username in the dropdown box that says "Username/URL." You can usually leave the URL box blank, but if the system insists, just type in a random name, such as Amazon.com or LDS.org. I am informed that some browsers don't allow the use of any option other than "Anonymous." If that is the problem in your case, and you MUST use the anonymous option, please put a username of your choice at the end of your comment so that others can be clear about who they are responding to. -Rock]