1887 October Woodruff Epistle

1887 Epistle image

President of Quorum of Twelve: Wilford Woodruff, in behalf of Council of the Twelve Apostles

        In the decades following the United States Civil War (1861-1865), the United States continued to grow in population1 and strength as a nation. One of the chief factors in this growth was immigration, signified by the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor on October 28, 1886. From 1861-1885, Republican party candidates won the presidency of the United States, bringing into office varying degrees of commitment to the party’s crusade to rid the country of the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy. While slavery was finally abolished in the middle of the 1860s, Presidents UIysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Chester A. Arthur were particularly harsh in their denouncement of the practice of polygamy thereafter and adamant in their pursuit of legislation to eradicate it. When Grover Cleveland was elected for his first term, the first Democratic presidential victor in twenty-eight years, Latter-day Saints hoped for some reprieve from the prosecutorial persecution and also for a realization of their long-awaited hopes for statehood. As the nation’s chief executive officer, President Cleveland felt he had a constitutional responsibility to enforce the laws already in place, but he reluctantly allowed the harshest legislation to date, the Edmunds-Tucker Act, to pass into law without his signature in February 1887. Meanwhile, he advocated for lighter sentences for convictions and continued to negotiate with Church leaders to resolve the decades-old standstill on the issue.1

        Due to the mounting efforts of federal officials to arrest and convict Church leaders, President John Taylor joined many other Latter-day Saint men choosing to “live in seclusion” (Epistle, p.1) to evade law enforcement in February 1885. While in this “underground” exile, President Taylor resumed a practice begun with the First Presidency under Joseph Smith in the early 1840s2 and taken up again by President Brigham Young from 1849 to 18563 of writing regular epistles to the Church to provide continued prophetic leadership even though he was physically absent.4 The format of this 1887 Epistle follows the same basic format as the Epistles written by President Taylor from 1885-1887.

        President Wilford Woodruff, President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles at the time, is the only official signatory on this document, writing “in behalf of the Council of the Twelve Apostles.” Although President Woodruff seems to have been in favor of reorganizing the First Presidency immediately, there were several matters that needed to be reconciled within the Quorum before that reorganization could be done unanimously, as directed in Doctrine and Covenants 107:27-31.5 Accordingly, at a meeting of the Quorum on August 15, 1887, President Woodruff was authorized to “transact such business as was necessary in the absence of the quorum and have it presented to the quorum when [it] met.”6 With this understanding, President Woodruff wrote this Epistle on behalf of the entire Quorum. It is unknown whether this Epistle was presented to the Quorum before it was read in general conference on October 8, 1887, and subsequently published in the Ogden Herald on October 9 and three days later in the Deseret News. It was republished sometime later in pamphlet form and reprinted in the Millennial Star on November 14, 1887, followed by an editorial note7 that this “excellent Epistle” was sure to “meet with the approbation of all.”

        Nearly the first three pages of the Epistle recounts Church history and revealed principles relative to the succession of apostolic leadership following the death of a President of the Church. It was especially appropriate for President Woodruff to testify of these events and teachings, since he was the last man alive who was present in Nauvoo when the Prophet Joseph Smith bestowed upon the Twelve all the restored keys of the Priesthood. The remaining thirteen pages address various spiritual, ecclesiastical, and temporal matters in a hopeful and faith-filled tone. For example, when referring to the recent persecution of the saints for the practice of polygamy, President Woodruff recounts that the absence of many Church leaders may have a salutary effect in the end by helping Church members develop “intelligent obedience,” meaning that they would use their individual agency to “obtain a testimony for ourselves from [God] concerning the truth of the principles which he teaches, and then be firm and unshaken in the performance of all which is necessary for salvation” (Epistle, p. 4). Marriage also is lauded as “ordained of God unto man” (Epistle, p. 8; see also D&C 49:15). In short, the Saints were exhorted “to build up Zion” seeking “to extend its benefits and blessings unto all mankind” (Epistle, p. 8) by living “the principles of the Gospel. In no way can we better convince the world of their truth than in showing in our acts and dealings with one another and with mankind the elevating effect they have upon us” (p. 10).

       The various ecclesiastical institutions of the Church--the Primary (less than ten years old at the time)8, Mutual Improvement Associations, Sunday Schools, and the Relief Societies, are commended for their positive growth and satisfactory effects. Instructions are also given to stake leaders to coordinate the use of fast offerings collected by the wards to care for all those in need in the stakes before appealing to the general Church finances for help (see Epistle, pp. 6-8). President Woodruff also reports on the progress of temple work and the challenges and successes of various missions within the United States and around the world.

       In temporal matters, President Woodruff warns the saints “against forming the bad habit of incurring debt,” encouraging them to “Be content with modest gains, and be not misled by illusory hopes of acquiring wealth” and “not to indulge in tastes which they cannot gratify without running in debt” (Epistle, p. 9). Repeating common themes found in previous epistles from his predecessors, President Woodruff encourages more industry, home manufacturing, hard work, and education. Speaking of the latter, he declared: “The education of the mind and the education of the body should go hand in hand. A skillful brain should be joined with a skillful hand.” Emphasizing the need for education of youth particularly, he continued: “The subject of proper education of the youth of Zion is one of the greatest importance.” Referring to the establishment of previous academies for this purpose under President Brigham Young’s direction, he wrote encouragingly: “We trust it will not be long before schools of this kind will be established in every city and village where the Latter-day Saints reside” (Epistle, p. 14). Indeed, this proved to be a great impetus for the proliferation of Church academies during President Woodruff’s ministry as President of the Church, which has had significant long-term effects on the Church’s educational efforts.9

       At these important historical transitional junctions in the spiritual, ecclesiastical, and temporal leadership of the Kingdom of God on the earth, inspired documents such as this solidified foundational principles and practices that have become ingrained in the worldview of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Woodruff’s conclusion encapsulates the feelings of gratitude, testimony, and hope that Latter-day Saints around the world feel for this “marvelous work and a wonder” (Isaiah 29:14; 2 Nephi 25:17; 27:26):

We cannot refrain from expressing to you our own feelings of thankfulness that we live in such an age, and that God has bestowed upon us His Holy Priesthood and has permitted us to take part in His great work. We are thankful that we are associated with this people called Latter-day Saints; that we live in a day when Prophets and Apostles have been raised up in the Church of Christ; and that God has stretched forth His hand to fulfil His great and marvelous purposes which have been predicted by the mouths of the holy prophets since the world began. We testify in the name of our Lord and Master, Jesus, that this is the great work of which the prophets have spoken, that God is the founder of it, and that it will stand forever, and accomplish all that has been predicted concerning it. Zion is established and will be redeemed. And it is our continual desire unto God that His people may be faithful in keeping His commandments and doing His will, so that they may be accounted worthy to stand, and their children after them, and inherit the great blessings, which He has to bestow upon the faithful. (Epistle, p. 16)

  1. United States population has been estimated at 31 million in 1860 and 62 million by 1890.
  2. Joseph Smith and his counselors issued at least three such epistles in 1840-41 in September 1840 (see “Letter to Saints Scattered Abroad, September 1840,” p. [177], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 17, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-saints-scattered-abroad-september-1840/1); October 4, 1840 (see “Report of the First Presidency, 4 October 1840,” p. 187, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 17, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/report-of-the-first-presidency-4-october-1840/1; and April 7, 1841 (see "Report of the First Presidency to the Church, circa 7 April 1841," p. 384, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 17, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/report-of-the-first-presidency-to-the-church-circa-7april-1841/1).
  3. From 1849 to 1856, the First Presidency authored fourteen epistles reporting on the progress of the Church and giving instruction to the members of the Church. These were issued nearly semi-annually, in conjunction with the Church’s semi-annual general conferences. All of these epistles, with well-researched historical background and insightful commentary, can be found in Neilson, Reid L. and Waite, Nathan N. (2017), Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel: The General Epistles of the Mormon First Presidency, Oxford University Press.
  4. As noted in the beginning of this epistle, President Taylor and his counselors issued five epistles, in conjunction with the semi-annual general conferences of the Church: April 4, 1885 (see Millennial Star; 1881-1890 (Volumes 43-52); 1885 (Volume 47); 1885 May 11 (No. 19); Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=63a17bf0-9f85-488f-8484-3ee7200c723b&crate=0&index=1 ,accessed: May 17, 2021); October 6, 1885 (see Woman's Exponent; Volume 14, 1885 June - 1886 May; 1885 October 15, pages 73-80; Church History Library, https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=5f0ea9d1-6c09-4daa-a938-a9b8a62a1c74&crate=0&index=0 ; accessed: May 19, 2021); April 6, 1886 (see Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First Presidency. (1886). An epistle of the First Presidency to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in General Conference assembled: read April 6th, 1886, at the fifty-sixth General Annual Conference, held at Provo, Utah. Salt Lake City: The Deseret News Company, Printers, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101074862481&view=1up&seq=1 ; accessed: May 19, 2021); October 6, 1886 (see Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (1886). An epistle of the First Presidency, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints : read at the Semi-Annual Conference, held at Coalville, Summit County, Utah, October, 1886. Salt Lake City: n.p., https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/22670 ; accessed May 19, 2021); April 8, 1887 (see Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. First Presidency., Smith, J. F. (Joseph Fielding)., Cannon, G. Q. (George Quayle)., Taylor, J., Deseret News (Firm). (1887). An epistle of the First Presidency: to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in general conference assembled. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t6qz25c49&view=1up&seq=7 ; accessed May 19, 2021).
  5. See Thomas G. Alexander (1991), Things in Heaven and Earth: The life and times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet, Signature Books, 242-245.
  6. As cited in Francis M. Gibbons (1988), Wilford Woodruff: Wondrous Worker, Prophet of God, Deseret Book Company, 348.
  7. Elder George Teasdale, of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, was the editor of the Millennial Star at the time.
  8. Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992), s.v. “Primary,” https://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Primary ; accessed May 19, 2021.

Wilford Woodruff bore repeated testimony that the Prophet Joseph Smith had passed on all the priesthood keys he had received to the Twelve Apostles before his death. This experience is frequently referred to as the “Last Charge Meeting.” This meeting left a lasting impact on President Woodruff’s soul. Shortly before his own death, President Woodruff bore a powerful testimony of the “Last Charge Meeting” and of Joseph Smith:

I bear my testimony that Joseph Smith was a true Prophet of God, ordained of God to lay the foundation of His Church and kingdom in the last dispensation and fulness of times. … The Prophet Joseph laid down his life for the word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ, and he will be crowned as a martyr in the presence of God and the Lamb. In all his testimonies to us, the power of God was visibly manifest in the Prophet Joseph.

Read More: https://byustudies.byu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/45.2HolzapfelHarperTranscript-0e95af86-4ab2-4f7f-92a9-0f95dfb868f9.pdf

Many involved with the “Last Charge Meeting” shared their testimonies of that crucial event, but President Woodruff seems to have shared it more times than anyone else. There are at least eight documented times when President Woodruff shared his eyewitness account of this experience, including in the 1887 Epistle. Commenting on the unique role President Woodruff had in preserving this important meeting to future generations, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Stephen H. Smoot wrote:

The fact is, for the last eleven years of his life, Wilford Woodruff was the only remaining member of the Twelve who had received the “Last Charge”, and he testified to that fact.

Read More: https://rsc.byu.edu/banner-gospel-wilford-woodruff/wilford-woodruffs-1897-testimony#_ednref52

In a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps in June of 1831, the Lord made it clear that the Church would make the education of God’s children a top priority (D&C 55:4). Over half a century later, the 1887 Epistle showed that the leaders of the Church continued to be interested in the education of young people. The call to establish stake academies where religion could be taught to youth spread rapidly through the Church. One book noted:

The response of local leaders “was swift. Within fourteen months, 20 of the 21 stakes in Utah complied,” and “by the end of 1889, all but two of the stakes in the Church had appointed academy principals.”
These stake academies have left a legacy of faith and erudition that has lasted for generations! Not only did they pave the way for the establishment of Seminaries and Institutes, but the Bannock Stake Academy, which was formed one year after this epistle was released, would go on to become Ricks College, and eventually Brigham Young University-Idaho.

Read More: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/bc/content/shared/content/english/pdf/language-materials/00334_000_bookmarked_history_book.pdf

Less than two months after the issuance of this epistle, Eliza R. Snow, the General Relief Society President, passed away. Although a call had been extended to Louie Bouton Felt to serve as the General Primary President in 1880, it was not until the passing of President Snow that President Felt took over full administrative responsibilities for the Primary Association. Following the guidance found in the 1887 Epistle and spurred on by the death of President Snow, President Felt redoubled her efforts to take the Primary Association to every corner of the Church. Getting things started wasn’t easy, so the support from the 1887 Epistle and other publications proved vital in achieving this goal. In reference to the 1887 Epistle, RoseAnn Benson noted, “...priesthood leaders, from the prophet on down to the stake presidents, were united regarding the importance of Primary work”. Ultimately, President Felt succeeded in establishing a Primary in every Stake and many missions in the Church. She was also responsible for the founding of the popular children’s magazine now known as The Friend, mortgaging her own home to finance the first few issues.

Read More: https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/sarah-louisa-bouton-felt-thousands-called-her-mother/#footnote-059

The Perpetual Emigration Fund helped more than 30,000 Latter-day Saints make the trip from Europe to Salt Lake City in the 1800’s. As stated in the 1887 Epistle, the PEF Company was dissolved following the passage of the Edmunds-Tucker act earlier that year. While the Act was later repealed in 1978, it effectively ended the PEF. However, the principles that undergirded the PEF, as explained in the 1887 Epistle, would live on. Just as President Woodruff wrote that the original PEF was instituted to “aid the poor of our people”, so too would a new PEF, the Perpetual Education Fund, become a way to help the poor of the Church engaged in the work of the gathering of Israel. In the April 2001 General Conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the creation of the Perpetual Education Fund, patterned after the Perpetual Emigration Fund, saying:

Now, my brethren, we face another problem in the Church. We have many missionaries, both young men and young women, who are called locally and who serve with honor in Mexico, Central America, South America, the Philippines, and other places. They have very little money, but they make a contribution with what they have...
In an effort to remedy this situation, we propose a plan—a plan which we believe is inspired by the Lord. The Church is establishing a fund largely from the contributions of faithful Latter-day Saints who have and will contribute for this purpose. We are deeply grateful to them. Based on similar principles to those underlying the Perpetual Emigration Fund, we shall call it the Perpetual Education Fund.
From the earnings of this fund, loans will be made to ambitious young men and women, for the most part returned missionaries, so that they may borrow money to attend school. Then when they qualify for employment, it is anticipated that they will return that which they have borrowed together with a small amount of interest designed as an incentive to repay the loan.

Read More: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2001/05/the-perpetual-education-fund?lang=eng

The 1887 Epistle is referenced at least eight times in the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff manual (2004):

The earliest known copy of the 1887 Epistle may be this version published in the Ogden Heral on Oct. 9, 1887, the day after it was read in the October 1887 General Conference

While the 1887 Epistle was read in the Saturday afternoon session of conference on Oct. 8 (see Deseret News, October 12, 1887, p. 613), it was published in the Deseret News on October 12, 1887, pp. 616-617, 624:

This digital version of the October 12, 1887, issue of the Deseret News is a partial version of the 1887 Epistle; it is missing p. 624:

[Featured Version] At some point after the 1887 Epistle was read, it was republished for broader distribution in pamphlet form. For some unknown reason, the date is wrong on the cover since the Deseret News for October, 12, 1887, confirms that it was read on October 8, not October 10:

For the benefit of members of the Church in Europe, the 1887 Epistle was reprinted in the Millennial Star on November 14, 1887, pp. 721-736 (this version also includes a subsequent editorial note affirming its authority):