10 questions with Gary Boatright

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Gary Boatright discusses the “Wagon Box Prophecy” and explains what happens when a false (but faith-promoting) story becomes accepted as fact.

Who is Gary Boatright?

Gary Boatright: Ever since junior high school, I knew I wanted to do something with history. It was not until my mission that I gained an appreciation for the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After returning home, I received a bachelor’s degree in history from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. During my time at Weber State, Dr. Gene Sessions, Dr. Richard Sadler, and other professors nurtured and encouraged my passion for Church history.  

In 2000, Glen Leonard, then director of the Museum of Church History and Art (now the Church History Museum) hired me to manage the museum store. Three years later, Glen and Steve Olsen asked me to assist in the administration of the museum. Thinking my career path was firmly planted at the museum, I received a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Oklahoma, but a major department reorganization disrupted my well-planned museum career path. To this day I am grateful for the disruption, as I soon found myself working in the Church’s historic sites program.

For 16 years I worked as a historic sites curator. I specialized in historic landscapes, managed the Church’s historic markers program, and researched and wrote interpretive material used by the missionaries who guide tours at the sites.

In 2018, on-site operations transferred from the Missionary Department to the Church History Department. With that change, I became the operations manager for Church historic sites. In this new role I work very closely with site leaders to ensure they and their missionaries have the tools and the resources to provide an engaging, memorable, and inspiring experience for visitors.

What was the Wagon Box Prophecy?

Gary Boatright: Well, there is the story of the Wagon Box Prophecy, then there is what actually happened.

In June 1884, Wilford Woodruff, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and fellow Apostle Heber J. Grant visited the Latter-day Saints who had been called to establish communities in southern Idaho.

During their travels, they stopped for a brief meeting along Sand Creek, near present-day Iona, Idaho. The Saints in the area were struggling and facing many hardships and disappointments.

Aware of the difficulties of the group, Wilford Woodruff stepped up into a wagon and offered words of encouragement and hope.

Wilford Woodruff was the fourth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1884, he gave what came to be known as the “Wagon Box Prophecy” in Idaho. Credit: Gary Boatright.

During his brief remarks, Woodruff prophesied of the future greatness of the area. He blessed the people and the land, and he prophesied that the Saints would have “all the facilities here that they had at home,” before they moved to southern Idaho.

Thus, the Wagon Box Prophecy.

In 1940, a pageant took place in Idaho Falls, Idaho, which added an element to the story—specifically, the inclusion of temples in the prophecy. This has become part of the historic memory in southern Idaho and has been accepted as accurate.

Since the 1940 pageant, the story of the Wagon Box Prophecy has become central in any telling of Church history in southern Idaho. The story has been shared far and wide, throughout southern Idaho on historical markers, in additional pageants and cultural celebrations, and over the pulpit in Church meetings.

How did Gary Boatright come across the story of the Wagon Box Prophecy?

Gary Boatright: In 2011 a group from Idaho approached the Church regarding the development of a heroic-size monument commemorating the Wagon Box Prophecy. No one on our team was familiar with the history of the event, so the assignment fell to me to learn more about the story and to verify its accuracy.

As I began my research, I found several secondhand sources with the quote attributed to Wilford Woodruff.

According to these sources, he began by saying, “The spirit of the Lord rests mightily upon me and I feel to bless you in the name of Jesus Christ.” He then went on to bless the land and prophesy of homes, schools, churches, and temples. “Yes,” he proclaimed, “as I look into the future of this great valley I can see temples. . . .”

I saw this declaration over and over in several publications, but not one of them cited a primary source.

In my search I came across an article by Mary Jane Fritzen, published in the Journal of Mormon History in 2010. Her article, “Search for Sources for Wilford Woodruff’s Idaho ‘Wagon Box Prophecy,’” traces the history of the story and its use over time.

Despite her great work and research, she did not find an original source for the quote, specifically the line about temples.

I thought if Fritzen did not find anything, perhaps there was nothing to find.

Then, while searching through the Church History Library’s catalog, I came across an entry that caught my attention: “Pageant scripts / J. Karl Wood,” with a publisher listed in Idaho Falls. The catalog records listed the contents as “The temple of EE-DA-How: a sacred pageant celebrating the laying of the corner stone of the Idaho Falls Temple.”

I called the item to the desk and began reading.

I soon realized what I had found: the source of the statement.

Conceptual design for a heroic size monument commemorating the Wagon Box Prophecy. Credit; Gary L. Boatright.

Why was Wilford Woodruff at Sand Creek on June 17, 1884, and what did he say to the people?

Gary Boatright: During June 1884, Wilford Woodruff and Heber J. Grant traveled through the communities of southern Idaho. Several local leaders, including Thomas E. Ricks, traveled with them.

They stopped at the camp of Rufus Norton, along Sand Creek. Norton’s family and several other Latter-day Saint families had left their homes to create a new community in southern Idaho. Many were struggling, perhaps even questioning why they left their comfortable homes and communities to start again from nothing. President Woodruff and Elder Grant called a meeting with the small group. They shared a message from the First Presidency and then encouraged the Saints in their efforts. The Apostles then appointed Caldwalder Owens to preside over the small congregation.

Contemporary accounts of the meeting contain minimal information. Wilford Woodruff simply recorded the names of the speakers and the length of their remarks in minutes. Heber J. Grant’s journal fails to provide any additional information. However, years later, during general conference in April 1899, Elder Grant recalled the meeting and shared a detailed account of Wilford Woodruff’s remarks.

According to Elder Grant, Elder Woodruff said,

“Be not disheartened, because, God’s blessing is upon this land. It will be but a little time until there will be prosperous and happy settlements of the Latter-day Saints here.”

—Wilford Woodruff

Elder Grant recalled his fellow Apostle stating that they would soon have a meetinghouse, a school, and “all the facilities here that you had at home before you came here.”

Elder Grant then asked the general conference audience, “What is the result today?” He explained that the Saints had built up the town of Iona and a stake consisting of nearly 5,000 people. Regarding Wilford Woodruff’s prophecy of the future of the community, Elder Grant concluded, “The words of the prophet Wilford Woodruff have been fulfilled to the very letter.”

Who was J. Karl Wood, and what did he believe was the purpose of pageants?

Gary Boatright: J. Karl Wood . . . I wish I could travel back in time to meet him. I have several questions I would like to ask him.

Wood was involved in several pageants of the Church during the mid-20th century, including celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Logan Temple, the Hill Cumorah, and the laying of the cornerstone for the Idaho Falls Temple in 1940.

Wood believed believe that pageants, as a form of storytelling, helped make the past seem more real. “The purpose of religious pageants and plays,” he wrote, “is to appeal to the emotions of the people, to make them feel intensely the spirit of the church and to give them insight into the history of the Latter-day Saints.”

Wood did not oppose enhancing or adding to history if it helped to connect the past with the present.

He also felt it important for the audience to feel emotion during a pageant. “It is fondly hoped that the heart strings may be touched to the extent that we may appreciate our great heritage a little more.” This philosophy significantly influenced his script for the Idaho Falls pageant.

How did Wood’s account of Woodruff’s speech differ from contemporary accounts?

Gary Boatright: Wood’s portrayal of the Wagon Box Prophecy in the pageant “The Temple of EE-DA-HOW” used the remarks that Heber J. Grant shared in general conference in 1899. Not surprisingly, Wood added some flair and language to the narrative to help draw the audience emotionally into the scene. Wood also took the liberty to expand the story to help connect the past to the present.

Remember, the purpose of the Idaho Falls pageant was to celebrate the beginning of construction of the Idaho Falls Temple. Wood’s script directly connected the past, Wilford Woodruff’s prophecy, with the present, the temple.

In Wood’s script, Woodruff prophesied of several things the settlers of Sand Creek would soon have: a meetinghouse, a school, and everything else they had in their former community.

This was consistent with what Heber J. Grant remembered of the prophecy when he shared it in 1899.

But in Wood’s pageant, Wilford Woodruff saw more: “Yes, and as I look into the future of this great valley I can see temples—I can see beautiful temples erected to the name of the Living God where holy labors may be carried on in His name through generations to come.”

Notice that it is not just one temple but temples, plural. This addition of temples not only helped connect the past to the present but created a historic memory that solidified itself over time.

Was the text of Wood’s fictional account ever used in way that suggested it contained the actual words of Woodruff?

Gary Boatright: Yes, many times. I find it quite surprising how quickly the account from the pageant found its way into the historical narrative. It is very likely that many of those who witnessed the pageant believed the story and the dialogue to be accurate.

Why wouldn’t they? They were watching a Church pageant with figures from their history.

Within two years of the pageant, Fred Schwendiman, a resident of Idaho Falls and later a member of the temple presidency, published an article in the Church’s Improvement Era. The article explained how Church leaders prophesied of a temple in the area and then proceeded to share a narrative similar to Wood’s pageant script, including the line about temples.

It was not word for word, but clearly Schwendiman used the pageant as his source. I can’t find any evidence that he was involved in the pageant, but he records in his journal that he attended the production.

Within a few short years, the account of the Wagon Box Prophecy shared in the pageant was solidified as a historical fact.

During the dedication of the Idaho Falls Temple in September 1945, Elder Ezra Taft Benson shared the story during one of the dedicatory sessions. Elder Benson’s remarks were later shared with thousands of members of the Church in the Church News.

Though Benson’s telling of the story is not word for word, it is clearly based on the pageant script.

Did Benson know that the quote, specifically the addition of temples, was created for the pageant?

I doubt it. He unknowingly shared a created history, which he and many other people assumed was fact.

Since the dedication, the story has been shared in articles and books, written on historic markers, and recreated in other pageants and cultural celebrations. The few times there is a citation with the quote, the source most frequently cited is the Church News report of Elder Benson’s dedicatory remarks.   

Do we know if Wood ever saw his fictional account portrayed as historical fact?

Gary Boatright: That is a great question and one that I do not have an answer to. I believe it is very likely Wood may have read Fred Schwendiman’s article in the Improvement Era.  It is more likely he knew of Elder Benson’s use of the quote during the temple dedication, since it was reported in the Church News.

Was he concerned that it was being shared as history?

Or did he feel that he was helping to clarify or interpret the event from his point of view?

I wish we knew how he felt about it.

What lessons can we learn about verifying source accuracy when hearing faith-promoting stories today?

Gary Boatright: During my 20 years with the Church History Department, I have come to appreciate the value, importance, and power that comes with sharing an accurate history.

I remember the first time I visited Historic Nauvoo. During a tour of one of the homes, the guide shared a story—a much-beloved story—that is not true. As other guests were getting moist eyes because of this emotional story, I was standing there and thinking, “This story isn’t true. It’s a great story, but it didn’t happen.”

Regardless of how many times the story is told, regardless of who tells it or the venue where it is told, it will never be true.

A true and accurate history is genuinely faith promoting. There is no need to embellish the past.

We are seeing the truth of this in Saints, the new multi-volume history of the Church. An accurate history is also a faith-promoting history.

Some may ask, “What about the difficult issues in Church history? How can they be faith promoting?”

For me it is amazing to see that the early Saints were a lot like me. Ordinary people doing their best to live a successful life and striving to be faithful to the Lord and to His Church. That is what I am trying to do.

Some faith-promoting stories are based on some truth, but over time they transform into more myth. Typically, truth remains at the core. As we look at the past, we frequently find the true stories and events to be better and far more powerful than beloved myths we often hear.

What inspiration do you take from Woodruff and Grant’s encounter with the Saints at Sand Creek?

Gary Boatright: Wilford Woodruff and Heber J. Grant traveled throughout the settlements of southern Idaho, encouraging the Saints. These were people struggling to build a new community.

As Wilford Woodruff climbed into the wagon and began to share the vision he saw for the area, I believe most of those listening to his prophetic words were buoyed up by his remarks and committed to help fulfill the vision he shared with them.

Many of those people lived to see his vision fulfilled, and they realized the benefits of living in a beautiful and prosperous community that they helped build.

Like those Saints who gathered along Sand Creek, we can look to our leaders to help buoy up our spirits and strengthen our faith.

I believe many may have had that experience at the recent—and historic—general conference.

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, Church leaders offered words of hope and encouragement and shared a vision of a brighter future. It is up to us to help make that brighter future a reality.

Recommended resources

Learn more about the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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