Woodruff was born on 1 March 1807, one of nine children, in Farmington, Connecticut. His father was a miller, but his mother died when he was very young; he was brought up by a step-mother. He worked for his father as a young man, but in 1832 moved to Richland, Oswego Co., New York, where he was recruited by elders of the Latter-day Saints church, baptised and ordained as a teacher in 1834. He moved to the church’s centre, in Kirtland, Ohio. There he met the founder, Joseph Smith, and he was soon ordained a priest. Over the next few years, he was sent on various missions, and rose quickly through the church’s hierarchy, being called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1837, to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1838, and, the following year, to the Apostleship. He married his first wife, Phoebe Carter, in 1837; in the next 40 years, he would marry eight more times. His wives are said to have born him 34 children.
In the late 1830s, Woodruff led a party of church of members to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they settled, and where Woodruff became a member of the city council, as well as chaplain for the Nauvoo Legion, a local militia. During the 1840s, Woodruff made two successful missions to Britain; and in 1847 he was a member of the first pioneer company of Latter-day Saints to arrive in Utah’s Great Basin. He became a successful farmer with extensive livestock herds, as well as orchards. He served for 14 years as head of the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society, and in 1855 became president of the Utah Territorial Horticultural Society. He was also very involved in the early 1860s (but unsuccessful) bid by Utah to join the Union. In 1856, he was appointed as the Latter-day Saints church’s historian, a role he then held for over 30 years.
In 1877, Woodruff became president of St. George’s, the Latter-Day Saints’ first temple in Utah, and was instrumental in developing its ceremonial procedures. When John Taylor (who had succeeded Brigham Young as leader of the church) died in 1887, Woodruff assumed the leadership (being ordained president in 1889). However, at the time, he was still in hiding from federal agents wanting to arrest him for polygamy; and the church itself was facing increasing political, legal and financial pressure because of its stance on plural marriages. In 1890, Woodruff issued a Manifesto that officially terminated the practice of polygamy, an act which then eased the way for Utah to be accepted in the Union in 1896. Woodruff died in 1898. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Mormonism or the Latter-day Saints Church History website.
Apart from being the leader that formally ended polygamy within the church, Woodruff is also remembered and admired for his diary. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism says it is ‘a meticulous multivolume work covering nearly the entire history of the Church in the nineteenth century’, and that it ‘contains the only record of many events and speeches of Church leaders’. A biography of Woodruff by Matthias F. Cowley called Wilford Woodruff - History of His Life and Labors as recorded in his daily journals was published by Deseret News in 1909. But despite the title, the narrative is based on the diaries rather than quoting from them. However, in 1982, a selection of extracts from Woodruff’s 15 journals was published by Kraut’s Pioneer Press. This is freely available at Internet Archive.
Here is part of the publisher’s preface: ‘Wilford Woodruff kept one of the most important journals in the early Church. Recorded within its pages are some of the greatest moments in the Church’s history, much of which might otherwise have gone unrecorded. He was personally acquainted with the Prophet Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and John Taylor, and kept a faithful record of many of their private meetings and counsel. Here for the first time in print are selected out the choicest gems of doctrine and history as they were recorded by this great man.’ And here are several extracts.
19 February 1837
‘I repaired to the house of the Lord and stood in the midst of the congregation of the Saints, where I beheld President Joseph Smith Jr. arise in the stand and for several hours addressed the Saints in the power of God. Joseph had been absent from Kirtland on business for the Church, though not half as long as Moses was in the mount. Many were stirred up in their hearts and some were against him as the Israelites were against Moses, but when he arose in the power of God in their midst, as Moses did anciently, they were put to silence for the complainers saw that he stood in the power of a Prophet. O how weak is man.’
15 May 1842
‘True information has just reached us that the noted Governor Boggs of Missouri who by his orders expelled ten thousand Latter-day Saints, has just been assassinated in his own house and fallen in his own blood. Three balls were shot through his head, two through his brains and one through his mouth, tongue and throat. Thus this ungodly wretch has fallen in the midst of his iniquity and the vengeance of God has overtaken him at last, and he has met his just deserts though by an unknown hand. This information is proclaimed through all the papers and by dispatched messengers and hand bills through the land. Thus Boggs hath died as a fool dieth and gone to his place to receive the reward of his works.’
30 June 1843
‘Excerpts from the synopsis of the remarks of Joseph Smith following his close escape from officials of Missouri; the excerpts indicate the bellicose expressions uttered publicly on this occasion: “. . . If our enemies are determined to oppress us and deprive us of our rights and privileges as they have done and if the authorities that be on the earth will not assist us in our rights, nor give us that protection which the laws and Constitution of the United States and of this State guarantee unto us, then we will claim them from higher power from heaven and from God Almighty and the Constitution, etc. I swear I will not deal so mildly with them again, for the time has come when forbearance is no longer a virtue, and if you are again taken unlawfully, you are at liberty to give loose to blood and thunder, but act with Almighty power.”
“. . . Will not the State of Missouri stay her hand in her unhallowed persecutions against the Saints; if not, I restrain you not any longer; I say in the name of Jesus Christ, I this day turn the key that opens the heavens to restrain you no longer from this time forth. I will lead you to battle, if you are not afraid to die and feel disposed to spill your blood in your own defense you will not offend me. Be not the aggressor; bear until they strike on the one cheek, offer the other and they will be sure to strike that, then defend yourselves and God shall bear you off. Will any part of Illinois say we shall not have our rights, treat them as strangers and not friends and let them go to Hell. Say some, we will mob you and be damned, if I under the necessity of giving up our charted rights, privileges and freedom which our fathers fought, bled and died for, and which the Constitution of the United States and this state guarantee unto us, I will do it at the point of the bayonet and sword.”
“. . . Furthermore if Missouri continues her warfare and continues to issue her writs against me and this people unlawfully and unjustly, as they have done and our rights are trampled upon and they take away my rights, I swear with uplifted hands to heaven I will spill my blood in its defense. They shall not take away our rights and if they don’t stop leading me by the nose, I will lead them by the nose; and if they don’t let me alone, I will turn up the world. I will make war. When we shake our own bushes, we want to catch our own fruit.” ’
17 September 1843
‘In Maine, I walked part of the way home with Father. I talked of taking Rhoda Foss home with me. Father said it would be well if I was a mind to it. I am quite at a stand, don’t know what Phebe will say about it. I returned to Sister Foss and spent the night. I conversed with her during the evening and blessed her. She is strong in faith and desires to go to Nauvoo and intends soon to come and make a visit and stay as long as she pleases. Shosh is not very well contented down east; had rather come to the west. There is quite a western fever in a number of our friends in Maine.’
30 August 1846
‘President Young then addressed the meeting and said that it was an Eternal Principle that before God would chose a man to rule any part of his kingdom, he must first learn to be ruled, and that the Lord was preparing a people for that purpose and fifty years would not pass away before many who are now present will each rule over many more than what I do this day.’
16 May 1851
‘At Summit Creek, met with the citizens to agree upon electing officers. President Young said that he cared nothing about the feeling of the nation who had driven us out. We should not follow in the path of political foolery. We should have one candidate and but one as delegate to Congress. We can speak our feelings freely, but when we vote, let it be for the candidate of our choice. Should we have two candidates and they have about equal votes, the United States would know we had apostatized from our faith and union, or we were trying to deceive them. We would stand better in their eyes to take our own independent course and get united. If we have but one track, the Saints will walk on it. If we have two tracks, there will be a plenty of devils to run on them. If we begin right, we shall go right. If we begin wrong, we shall keep wrong. The United States are afraid of our union and so is the world. In speaking of the Indians, he said these Indians were the descendants of the Old Gadianton robbers who infested these mountains for more than a thousand years.’
19 October 1856
‘President Young said I have got a letter from Elder Hyde. He officiated as clerk in Drummonds Court and wrote things there day after day against God, our religion and the people for a few dimes. He ought to be cut off from the Quorum of the Twelve and the Church. He is no more fit to stand at the head of the Quorum of the Twelve than a dog. His soul is entirely occupied with a few dimes and it is much more in his eyes than God, Heaven, and Eternal Life. He is a stink in my nostrils.’
7 February 1879
‘For the first time in my life I have had to flee away from the enemies for the gospel’s sake or from any other cause. They are now trying to arrest me on polygamy. And as I had to leave St. George at 7 o’clock, I got into a wagon from the temple with David H. Cannon and drove all night.’
16 December 1879
‘I dreamed at night that President Taylor was sealing all in the Church, plural marriages to them that wished it. We met in the Council of the 12. I thought the glory of God rested upon us and we did all our work openly and the government had no power over us and we rejoiced together.’
See also Father of Mormon history and Mobocracy is rife, the former concerning the diaries of Leonard J Arrington, and the latter about those of Brigham Young.