reviews – Things in Heaven and Earth
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.
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.”
Alexander, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, spent 3 1/2 years researching Woodruff. An author of 15 books, Alexander said he had written several articles about the Mormon president before Salt Lake City-based Signature Books approached him about doing a book. The 500-page book, published this month, sells for $28.95 and is available at Deseret Book and other Mormon bookstores.
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.”
The Salt Lake Tribune, David L. Bigler
To Wilford Woodruff fell the bitter duty to disavow polygamy as the price of statehood and end more than 40 years of cold war with the American republic. In 1890, the fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued the historic “Manifesto” which put his church on the road to respectability and growth.
Only then did Utah, one of the first places settled west of the Missouri River, become one of the last to enter the Union as its 45th state. The 1996 centennial of Utah’s acceptance will be followed only by Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii.
No ringing “Thus saith the Lord” was the document, directed “To whom it may concern,” that made Woodruff one of Mormonism’s most significant leaders. Instead, typical of the man himself, it was a simple affirmation of his own commitment to obey the law and influence others to do the same. Nor is it likely that he foresaw the revolutionary consequences of his action.
On the contrary, while hiding from federal marshals at a remote sheepherder’s camp a few years before, he had received a revelation in which God vowed to pour out his judgement on “that Nation or House or people, who seek to hinder my People from obeying the Patriarchal Law of Abraham,” referring to plural marriage. Unfortunately, gentile tormentors were not impressed.
Soon after, Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which outlawed unlawful cohabitation, disenfranchised polygamists and established a commission to dictate elections in the territory. This punitive measure was followed by the Edmunds-Tucker law of 1887, which included provisions to destroy the Mormon Church altogether, politically as well as economically.
After such laws were upheld, the man who replaced John Taylor in 1899 reluctantly issued the document for which he is best known. His decision not only opened the way for his church to become a major religion, but it also touched off far-reaching changes in Mormon beliefs and society.
In this important biography, Thomas G. Alexander, one of Utah’s most recognized historians, weighs the innovations Woodruff made in separating “non-essential from essential Mormonism.” Besides the end of polygamy, they include the demise of theocratic rule and acceptance of such economical and political freedoms as private ownership of property and the right to vote in secret.
Such revolutionary changes were introduced at age 83 by the least radical of early Mormon leaders, a consistently faithful follower of such dynamic figures as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Taylor. The most human and likable of his peers, Woodruff was a man who bristled when pushed, but was easily melted by kindness or generosity.
He was also an ardent millennialist for whom the veil between this world and the next was thin, if there at all, which makes the title of this book especially appropriate. From his roots in the chiliastic spirit of New England to the reforms he introduced in 1890, his life is presented by the author, director of Brigham Young University’s Charles Redd Center, with style and integrity.
Logan Herald Journal, Ronald K. Jenkins
One hundred years ago dramatic and long-reaching events were occurring in the territory of Utah. Several attempts at achieving statehood had been denied and the federal government was putting extreme pressure on the LDS Church. Wilford Woodruff was president of the LDS Church during this time of threatened disfranchisement and federal confiscation of all Mormon Temples and was faced with the consequences of whatever decision was to be made.
Things in Heaven and Earth, the Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet is a new biography of this pioneer prophet who held the future of his church and the Territory of Utah in his hands. It is a well-documented account of the major events surrounding this man’s life. Beginning with his birth in 1807 the author details Woodruff’s life and aspirations. He came in contact with the LDS Church in 1833 and committed his life to its cause, never wavering or looking back.
Thomas G. Alexander is the author of his new biography about Wilford Woodruff. Alexander received his undergraduate training at Utah State University and a doctoral degree in history from the University of California at Berkeley. He has written more than 50 articles and a dozen books in the field of Western history. He is a professor at Brigham Young University and directs the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.
Using the journals of Woodruff as background plus a multitude of additional supplemental sources, Alexander has created an authoritative record of the life and times of Woodruff. He traces his background and the experiences to help us better understand why he followed the path he did and perhaps how he arrived at the momentous decisions that were required of him in later life.
The title for this book is excellent. It illustrates graphically what life was for Woodruff. Alexander’s biography emphasizes the historical earthly side and reminds us of the real life situations Woodruff was faced with each day. Challenges such as constant missionary callings, providing for a polygamous family, meeting the challenges of a new territory, and complying with the requirements of God and man occupied his daily life. For those interested in the heavenly or spiritual side of Woodruff, Cowley’s biography of Woodruff would be an excellent choice. And for those who like to read the original documents the Journals of Wilford Woodruff are also available.
Wilford Woodruff held the future in his hands and the decisions he made dramatically affected those who were contemporary with him, as well as all of us today. Understanding Woodruff means understanding Utah—our thinking, our habits, our traditions, our way of life. Things in Heaven and Earth is an excellent introduction to and study of this man. During 1992 perhaps you would like to discover the world of Wilford Woodruff. This book and the other titles mentioned are now available for your use at the Logan Library.
Sunstone, Kenneth L. Cannon II
Thomas Alexander’s recent biography of Wilford Woodruff is an intriguing addition to the growing canon of important works on the history of the LDS church by its members. Utilizing his own painstaking and voluminous primary research conducted over decades, as well as recent historical scholarship of others, he provides both a perceptive and sympathetic portrait of Woodruff and one of the most comprehensive histories of nineteenth-century Mormonism. In short, this is the best kind of biography: it not only provides a compelling view of an important historical character, through his experience it also provides new insights into the history of the movement in which he played a significant role.
The title of the book is well chosen. Alexander presents Wilford Woodruff as a man who, although obsessed with “things in heaven,” also had one foot firmly set on earthly soil. Woodruff’s formal education was unusual for his time. His natural curiosity prompted him to pursue educational opportunities beyond his formal schooling, making him one of the most educated of early Church leaders. He forced himself to develop practical leadership skills that helped him lead the Church through one of its most difficult times. Alexander develops well the dual themes of the spiritual and the practical in Woodruff’s life.
The first two chapters are devoted to the background and early life of Woodruff. Alexander introduces the reader to a relatively well-educated, hard-working Connecticut youth surrounded by religious revivals. Woodruff’s own naturally spiritual nature led him “to become a Christian primitivist, a millennialist, and a seeker” not formally associated with a particular denomination. Alexander tells us of Robert Mason, a fascinating prophet with whom young Wilford became acquainted. This “Simsbury Prophet” told Woodruff about a revelation he had received that convinced him he would never find the true church. Mason prophesied, however, that Woodruff would find the truth. This experience helped young Wilford, who had a strong sense of his own mortality because he was unusually accident-prone, to focus on things spiritual. Woodruff recognized the profound influence Mason had on his life, and one of the first vicarious baptisms for the dead that he conducted in Nauvoo was for Mason. Later, shortly after the completion of the St. George Temple, Woodruff completed Mason’s other temple work and “adopted” Mason.
Fully utilizing Woodruff’s extensive dairies, Alexander sets forth in detail Woodruff’s remarkably successful missions and chronicles the occasional disputes with other, less committed Church leaders. His success among the United Brethren in Great Britain is unique in Mormon history. Woodruff began preaching to members of this group at the Benbow farm in March 1840. Thirty-six days later he left the area after having baptized 158 people.
Through Alexander’s narrative, the reader experiences the early ordinances, the “intensive charismatic experience,” and the academic studies conducted in the Kirtland Temple, although Woodruff missed the initial dedication of the temple. The murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith are seen through Woodruff’s eyes as well as the difficult transition that soon followed. The inner workings of the Church hierarchy are followed first-hand throughout the administration of Brigham Young and John Taylor. Woodruff’s further visions and revelations and his service in the St. George Temple are fully described.
Alexander carefully chronicles Woodruff’s temporal life. He describes in detail Woodruff’s participation in the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, the Polysophical Society, and several other, less well known early Utah groups. He follows Woodruff through museums and libraries. He analyzes Woodruff’s experiments with plants and the practical steps Woodruff took to further Utah’s pioneer economy by introducing certain strains of plants and animals to the territory. Alexander describes Woodruff’s business pursuits as a merchant and farmer, and discusses openly and sympathetically his family life, noting both his successes and failures.
Alexander closely examines Wilford Woodruff’s tenure as Church president, one of the most difficult periods for the Church. Woodruff led the Church through radical changes that ushered the Church into the twentieth century. The Church’s woes caused by the Edmunds-Tucker Act and the related official abandonment of polygamy, the major modifications in Church views and practices, and the accomplishment of statehood are treated as well or better than they are treated in other works.
Alexander’s writing style is lucid and readable with little flourish. Some might find portions of the book too detailed, but the cumulative effect is one which makes the book hard to put down. There are several typographical errors and one or two misplaced endnotes, but these are so few and far between that only the most careful reader will ever find them.
Alexander’s view of Woodruff is sympathetic but honest. Although his conclusion that Woodruff was the third most important nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint (behind only Joseph Smith and Brigham Young) is subject to dispute, there is little doubt that this work is one of the two or three best and most important biographies of nineteenth-century Church leaders both because of the breadth of Wilford Woodruff’s role in Mormon history and because of the scholarly and careful manner in which Thomas Alexander researched and presented the work.
BYU Magazine, James P. Bell
On occasion, uninformed individuals will suggest that the work of historians is essentially completed, that everything we need to know about our past is pretty well in place, or that current historical research is not much more than a reshuffling of firmly established facts.
For Thomas G. Alexander, who holds the Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr., Chair in Western History at BYU, understanding history is a never-ending endeavor that encompasses all aspects of the human condition. “I think everybody seeks for a usable past,” he says. “By that I mean a past that helps them understand the condition in which they find themselves today. The problem with thinking that we have all the history we need is that the history one group of people finds satisfactory may not satisfy others because it doesn’t answer the questions they want answers for.”
Though he has been actively involved in a wide range of historical activities for over 35 years—having published widely in areas of western, Utah, and Mormon history; having sponsored and overseen countless research projects, seminars, and publications during his 20 years as associate director and then director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU; and having taught history to thousands of students during 31 years at BYU—Tom Alexander is not letting up in the least in his efforts to understand the past and its relevance to the present.
In his book, Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff (Signature Books, 1991), Alexander demonstrates both his interest in particular aspects of a subject’s life as well as his concern for detail and openness. Noting that two previous biographies had been written about this early church leader (one by Mathias F. Cowley and one by Francis M. Gibbons), he explains that although each of the three biographies deals with his spiritual experiences and his involvement with the Church, the others don’t deal as extensively with President Woodruff’s relationships with his families, with his involvements with non-Mormons, with his cultural interests, or with his economic activities. Each is a topic that President Woodruff wrote about in his extensive journals, and each was of particular interest to Alexander as he selected what to include in his biography.
He also looked, in some detail, at issues surrounding President Woodruff’s polygamous marriages—issues that others might choose to pass over.
“Of the marriages that he entered into,” Alexander says, “not all of them lasted. And while that may be disturbing to some, if you look at what happened in his life, it is easy to see why those divorces took place. Also, if you look at his families, they all produced children who were pillars of the community, who contributed a great deal to Utah’s development. To point out that there were problems does not mean that there weren’t successes.”
Alexander also deals with some of the changes that took place within President Woodruff and within the Church during his service as an apostle and then as president of the Church through some of its darkest days. Noting that by the standards of the 19th century President Woodruff was a very well-educated and well-travelled man, Alexander explains that “as people gather experience, as they read more widely, and as things happen to them, they begin to perceive things in different ways and they respond in different ways to conditions that exist in society. And I think that Wilford Woodruff changed over time to some degree, particularly as he guided the Church through the battles it fought with Washington over polygamy and issues of religious freedom. This is one of the things I try to deal with in the biography—to indicate the reasons for these changes.
“At the same time this is a man who was deeply spiritual and very much guided by the spirit. That never changed, and it was his underpinning of educated spirituality that allowed him to deal with many of the problems that perhaps might have stumped others. He was the right man at the right time for the problems the Church was having in the late 1800s. And he was well prepared, I feel, to receive and implement the revelation that brought about the Manifesto.”
Writing about his upbringing in A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars (Centerville, Utah: Cannon Press, 1986), Alexander says, “Always one of the smallest boys in my class, I had endured a series of childhood diseases…that left me with inner ear damage and poor physical coordination. I was generally the last chosen when the boys picked the baseball teams—usually ending up in right field.
“Horatio Alger did not live in our neighborhood. Neither did Charles Atlas. The stories of little boys with pluck standing up to bullies and getting the best of them rang hollow to me…In real life, the little guy got beaten up by the bullies.”
What Alexander did have was, in his words, “an above average mind,” which he put to good use in junior high and high school and which eventually led him to the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1965, and then to BYU as a member of the history faculty.
Although the campuses of Berkeley and BYU were worlds apart in the mid-1960s, Alexander found support—both moral and tangible—for his research at BYU and found himself among colleagues who encouraged him as well as intellectually active students.
His approach to his research and writing—whether the topic is the Interior Department’s role in the development of the Intermountain West or the extensive journals of Wilford Woodruff— stems from a combination of his commitment to honesty and candor and his own interests and inclinations.
“I don’t think that objectivity is possible,” Alexander says. “It is impossible not to become emotionally involved with the topics you deal with. But I do think that historians ought to try to be honest, meaning that they must try to understand the past in the way participants understood it and then try to deal honestly with the evidence.”
Recognizing that it would be impossible for a historian to include every last bit of information on a topic, Alexander notes that “there is a difference in being selective in the evidence you use and in suppressing evidence. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides said that the ideal a historian ought to strive for is accuracy and relevance. What that means, basically, is that you try to be accurate in the way you portray things, and you try to find evidence that is relevant. But there is a difference between selecting evidence and suppressing evidence. It is not the same thing.
“The things I write about are, on the whole, recorded events that can be verified. But we need to understand that when we write history, we embed the interpretation of past events in the narrative. Moreover, there are always things you cannot know, either because you don’t have the documents or because evidence is contradictory. At the same time, everything you write is a selection from a large body of material that could be put in the narrative. But you select the things that seem relevant, and that selection is dictated, to a large extent, by the interests you have, by the questions you want to answer, and by what you understand from what happened in the past.”
As Tom Alexander discusses the topics he has spent countless hours researching and interpreting, it is evident that this is a man not given to histrionics—that, while holding strong views, he is thoughtful, measured, and even humbled a bit by what he has observed of the human condition. In fact, when asked about lessons he has learned from history, he comments that although “lessons” are not something he thinks much about in his work, he does feel that “one of the things we ought to learn from history is that you have to learn to cooperate with people. If you can’t do that, if the differences you have with others become so great that you can’t see the similarities you have with them, then you’re in for an enormous amount of trouble.
“When people perceive that a problem they have has become sufficiently serious, they can and will find ways to deal with it. The work I’ve done in environmental history seems to indicate that.
“But it can take people a long time to recognize the problems that they need to address because they tend to be too conservative; they tend to become situated and accept that certain discomforts are just part of the condition they live in, instead of recognizing that if they were to do something, they could deal with their problems.
“I think, overall, that while human beings have been extraordinarily cruel to one another and have often fouled up the environment, they are also often able to stand back from the problems they have created and begin to solve them. What we see in history is that although some people can be extraordinarily cruel and vicious, there are others who accept and live by higher ideals and, in turn, deal in extraordinarily complex humanitarian ways with people and the environment.”
Asked about his overall view of the human condition, Alexander smiles and says, “I would probably say I am optimistically ambivalent, if you can accept that kind of oxymoron.”
In writing about the compatibility of his professional pursuits with his religious conviction, Alexander has talked of various stages in his life when he has learned that it is not necessary to compartmentalize his historical views from his convictions concerning the Church, nor his admittedly liberal social views from the conservative views of others who share his faith.
Describing a conclusion he came to after many years of teaching and research, he writes in A Thoughtful Faith, “The attitudes that had coalesced in my mind by this time led me to believe that I could combine secular and religious knowledge. These did not have to occupy separate realms…[Regarding my political and social views,] I have the same right to the confirmation of the Spirit on such matters as any other Church member.
“I find absolutely no need to be disrespectful on those matters where there may be disagreements. A statement B. H. Roberts made…strikes me as relevant in this regard: ‘In essentials let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.'”
One senses from Tom Alexander that his study of history—the highs and the lows, the good and the bad—has likewise contributed to his own charitable view.
Library Journal, Carolyn Craft
Alexander’s comprehensive biography of Woodruff (1807-98, fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) focuses especially on the issue of polygamy, a practice officially acknowledged by Mormon leadership in 1852 and considered by most a divinely sanctioned responsibility, though contrary to U. S. law and a cause of persecution of Mormons. Woodruff, who had entered into nine marriages, divorced four wives, and had two others predecease him, issued a proclamation in 1890 discouraging polygamy among Mormons and encouraging submission to federal law. Alexander views this as separating the temporal from the spiritual domain and destroying the previously holistic kingdom. Despite this great revolution in Mormonism, Woodruff was “a transitional figure who rejected neither the basic concept of the holistic kingdom nor the divinity of plural marriages,” maintains Alexander. Mormons and U. S. cultural and religious historians will find this book of interest. Recommended for large academic libraries and collection of Mormonism.
Books of the Southwest
Woodruff was the fourth president of the LDS Church and is regarded as a prophet and seer. In this biography we witness his unfolding as he embraces each of the Mormon tenets: doing missionary work, business enterprise, politics, even plural marriage. He gained importance, however, in the 1890s when he issued a Manifesto abolishing polygamy as well as the Mormon political party. A remarkable treatise on early Mormon development.
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.
This is a fascinating, detailed, meticulously researched and comprehensive biography of a remarkable man, his life, work, and thought. Biographer Thomas G. Alexander (Lemuel Redd Professor of Western History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah) has made an important and seminal contribution to the study of Wilford Woodruff’s personal life and his role in the development and expansion of the Latter-day Saint church. Things in Heaven and Earth is important reading for those who are interested in Mormon history in general and in the lives of the influential men who led and shaped its activities, theology, expansion, and organization. Also very highly recommened is Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930.