Viewing the Temple Through Wilford Woodruff’s Eyes

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Review of Jennifer Ann Mackley, Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine (Seattle, WA: High Desert Publishing, 2014). 441 pp., appendices, selected bibliography, index. $26.95.

In Wilford Woodruff’s Witness, Jennifer Ann Mackley takes what could easily be a dry topic and turns it into a fascinating study not only of the unfolding of Latter-day Saint temple doctrine but also of early Mormonism. Primarily using Woodruff’s own words taken from his journals and published discourses, the narrative follows the line-upon‑line revelation of doctrine pertaining to the purpose and ordinances of the temple and the quest for sacred space to conduct these rites.

With over three hundred illustrations, the book visually reinforces the concepts presented in the text and reminds readers that they are in a world far removed from the present. Doctrines we now take for granted were slowly being revealed, and leaders grappled with foreign concepts as they simultaneously rejoiced in promised blessings. Along the journey, readers are taught valuable principles applicable to understanding the nature of current prophetic revelation within the Latter-day Saint community, as they view the imperfect nature of the temple doctrine reception and implementation in the early Church.

When presenting Woodruff’s growing understanding of the work for the dead, Mackley presents only enough biographical information to provide context and refrains from overabundant commentary or analysis, instead deferring to primary sources when possible to tell the story. This approach allows the author to accomplish at least three things in the book. First, readers are given glimpses into the unique experience of living in Nauvoo and being taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith. In a letter to Wilford, his wife Phoebe described the announcement of baptisms for the dead at an October 1840 conference as “‘strong Meat;’ one of the ‘strange doctrines’ Joseph had brought forth that season … [Page 2][but] he made it very plain and consistent with the gospel” (p. 48). Second, readers are introduced to unusual temple practices no longer utilized, such as baptisms for healing. Mackley introduces these rites, safely guiding members along an unknown path by explaining contemporary thinking behind their initiation and practice. Third, it allows for the interweaving of explanations of complex doctrine by presenting them through Woodruff’s eyes as he feels more and more compelled to delve into temple practices that leave him unsettled. In one case he vigorously embraces the practice of non-relative adoptions but in 1894 realizes its inappropriateness in light of the words of Malachi. Abandoning them as resolutely as he once sought them, he establishes the precursor to the Family History Library, allowing members to more easily identify their ancestors.

Mackley lays out an engaging, clear, and complete timeline for the development of temple doctrine within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the glimpses into early Church history are the hidden jewels of this volume. As readers learn about the gradual unfolding of the form, function, and meaning of temple ordinances, they are also given tastes of the sometimes messy practice of polygyny, the preaching of misunderstood doctrine, the details of the sewing of the first temple clothes and garments, the gentle and patient manner in which President Woodruff taught the Saints the necessity of forsaking former practices, and the countless hours he dedicated to the work of salvation of both the living and the dead.

This book was written for mainstream Mormons, but scholars will not be disappointed. It is obvious that Mackley has carefully researched the topic because of her meticulous notations, many expanding on concepts from the cited text. In appealing to both audiences, the author elected to use endnotes rather than footnotes. This will frustrate some, but the continuous numbering makes finding endnotes a more manageable prospect, and the information makes the inconvenience well worth the additional effort. While the text mentions Woodruff’s zeal for temple work and initial fervor for the ordinance of adoption, one would need to look in the endnote section to learn that his enthusiasm also extended to proxy marriage sealings, as he had 267 women sealed to him (note 734).

The appendix contains five charts, with four pertaining to Woodruff’s life and only one pertaining to the development of temple doctrine. This seems an interesting shift, as Mackley foregoes discussion of Woodruff’s personal life in lieu of his ecclesiastical affairs within the body of the text. Much of what is contained in these four charts seems like material [Page 3]for another book, eliciting more questions than answers in opposition to her excellent narrative. Context for some of the material is located in the endnotes, but tying the two together would be a laborious process.

Readers may fear that because the book was self-published, it is of lesser quality than one published by a college press or mainstream LDS publisher. While the cover art and binding are only of moderate quality, the text itself has been well-edited and the chronicle accomplishes the rare feat of turning a historical timeline into a fascinating read. One of the reasons Mackley may have self-published is that there wasn’t a suitable mainstream publisher for this book. Though the topic is presented in a faith-promoting manner, it is also a comprehensive treatment that mentions by name all of the Latter-day Saint temple rites. While the author is careful to not reveal that which is sacred, she does nevertheless mention rites that Latter-day Saints have been asked not to discuss. For this reason, the niche publishers for this topic may have shied away from accepting the manuscript.

Wilford Woodruff’s Witness is an important addition to the scholarship of temple rites in the LDS Church. It strips away the cloak of uncomfortableness about the changing nature and understanding of temple ceremonies by clearly acknowledging them and postulating that evolution of any complex doctrine is to be expected, especially those that are new and complex such as that introduced by Joseph Smith to the early Saints.

3 thoughts on “Viewing the Temple Through Wilford Woodruff’s Eyes

  1. For those of you who may be preparing a book for publication, I thought I would share why I chose to self-publish. Following my MHA presentation in 2012, I was approached by a publisher who asked to review my manuscript. It was accepted for publication, but they strongly suggested removing Wilford Woodruff from the spotlight. I didn’t feel that the story could be told without him and, for that reason along with a related concern, I withdrew my manuscript. I then submitted it to two other publishers. The first, an independent publisher, wanted to publish it immediately without waiting for copyright on the images, and I believed the images were such an asset to the historical value of the narrative that I chose to withdraw the manuscript. The second, an LDS publisher, said it would take two years to get it from manuscript to store shelves. A third (academic) publisher offered me an advance if I would publish through them, promised it would be fast tracked and out in 9 months, but wanted less “faith” and more of an emphasis on the “scholarly.” I declined their offer and, instead, hired professionals to edit, index, design, and print it so I could maintain control of the content and get it published “immediately.” Immediately actually took longer than the 9 months the third publisher guaranteed, but I kept Wilford Woodruff as the narrator and his faith as the message.

    I have been told that combining a biography with an historical narrative is the most difficult way to write a book, but this was Wilford Woodruff’s story and it could only be told through the experiences of his life. Since publication I’ve wondered if I’d have chosen differently knowing then what I know now. It would certainly have been cheaper to go through a publisher (even though they take 85-90%), but I don’t think the end product would have been better. So, I hope you enjoy the journey!

  2. [Editor’s note: we opened the door for comments on self-publishing, but these do not address the substance of the article. Please address the article for future comments]

    For anyone considering self publishing, there are several companies available that will considerably shorten the greater than nine months this one took, and at the same time often charge nothing up front. The only one I can really talk about is CreateSpace since I have published a few books with them. My publications include a life story of my parents, a book I’m sure nobody but my family would be interested in and it cost me not a cent to publish it. I have also published a couple of political books with them (“Freedom or Serfdom? The Case for Limited, Constitutional Government and Against Statism,” and “A Dictionary of Polspeak, What Politicians Really Mean.”

    Create Space, and probably similar companies, will accept Word or .pdf manuscripts. They will either help you design your cover (for a fee of course) or provide limited software to allow you to design your own. They also offer optional editing services, again for a fee. You can get proofs back within a week after finalizing your book and, since they are print on demand, the book is available as soon as you give final approval. They also make it easy to produce a Kindle version.

    The biggest advantage of this company is that it is an Amazon company so your books go on Amazon immediately. The biggest disadvantage is that it is an Amazon company so a lot of book stores are reluctant to carry books from a company they regard as harming their business.

  3. This information that this book discusses is the type of information I enjoy reading about about, and I am fascinated with the Temple. Thanks for bringing this book to everyone’s attention. And the information on self publishing was very informative. I am writing a book that, hopefully, will help many people.

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