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Founding Fathers Latter-day Saint History

What Was Wilford Woodruff’s Vision of the Founding Fathers?

The truth is, no one but Wilford Woodruff knows all of the details.

Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the Founding Fathers played a role in the development of temple doctrine. While serving as president of the St. George temple, Woodruff said that early American figures like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson asked him for temple ordinances. The Apostle didn’t describe these encounters with as much detail as his daily journal, but there are three key sources where he recounts what happened. In this interview, Jennifer Mackley explains what we know about Wilford Woodruff’s vision.


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What is the historical context for Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the Founding Fathers?

Proxy ordinance work began in Nauvoo, Illinois, with the revelation to Joseph Smith regarding baptisms for the dead in 1840. When the Nauvoo Temple was sufficiently completed in 1845, members of the Church who had been taught the endowment by Joseph Smith began administering the endowment to others. However, no proxy endowments were performed.

In 1851 temple ordinance work was continued in the Council House in Salt Lake City, and in 1855 ordinance work began in the newly constructed Endowment House. But, Brigham Young explained in 1874:

We can, at the present time, go into the Endowment House and be baptized for the dead, receive our washings and anointing, etc. . . . We also have the privilege of sealing women to men, . . . in the Endowment House; but [other ordinances] . . . cannot be done without a Temple.

Brigham Young

The construction of the Salt Lake Temple was less than halfway completed in 1871 when Brigham Young proposed building a temple in St. George, Utah. As soon as the lower story of the St. George temple was finished, the temple was privately dedicated on January 1, 1877, and the administration of ordinances began on January 9, 1877. This was the first time when all the temple ordinances could be performed for the living and by proxy for the dead.

Wilford Woodruff had prepared a list of 3,000 family members and focused on completing their proxy baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, washings, anointings, endowments, and sealings. During the first eight months of ordinance work in the St. George Temple, Wilford participated in or presided over:

  • 24,384 baptisms
  • 11,597 endowments
  • the sealing of 3,706 couples and 268 children to their parents
  • 309 second anointings
  • and 53 priesthood adoptions, including thousands of ordinances for his own ancestors.

After the appearance of the Signers in August 1877, Wilford commented:

I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, from the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives.

Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, Sept. 16, 1877
Listen to Jennifer Mackley talk about Wilford Woodruff and the mission of Elijah—including his vision of the Founding Fathers.

Which Founding Fathers appeared to Wilford Woodruff?

Wilford Woodruff recorded a list of 100 prominent figures in his journal, including Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson:

  1. Abraham Clark
  2. Arthur Middleton
  3. Benjamin Franklin
  4. Benjamin Harrison
  5. Benjamin Rush
  6. Button Gwinnett
  7. Caesar Rodney
  8. Carter Braxton
  9. Charles Carroll
  10. Edward Rutledge
  11. Francis Hopkinson
  12. Francis Lewis
  13. Francis Lightfoot Lee
  14. George Clymer
  15. George Read
  16. George Ross
  17. George Taylor
  18. George Walton
  19. George Wythe
  20. James Smith
  21. James Wilson
  22. John Adams
  23. John Hart
  24. John Morton
  25. John Penn
  26. John Witherspoon
  27. Joseph Hewes
  28. Josiah Bartlett
  29. Lewis Morris
  30. Lyman Hall
  31. Philip Livingston
  32. Richard Henry Lee
  33. Richard Stockton
  34. Robert Morris
  35. Samuel Adams
  36. Samuel Chase
  37. Thomas Heyward
  38. Thomas Jefferson
  39. Thomas Lynch
  40. Thomas McKean
  41. Thomas Nelson
  42. Thomas Stone
  43. William Hooper
  44. William Paca
  45. William Whipple
  46. Amerigo Vespucci
  47. Camillo Benso de Cavour
  48. Chariton Theodor Georgiades de Boësku
  49. Christopher Columbus
  50. Daniel O’Connell
  51. Daniel Webster
  52. David Garrick
  53. David Glasgow Farragut
  54. David Livingstone
  55. Edward George Lytton Bulwer
  56. Edward Gibbon
  57. Elbridge Thomas Gerry
  58. Frederick the Great of Prussia
  59. Friederich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humbolt
  60. George Gordon Byron
  61. George Peabody
  62. George Stephenson
  63. Henry Clay
  64. Henry Grattan
  65. Henry Peter Brougham
  66. Hiram Powers
  67. Horatio Nelson
  68. Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller
  69. Johann Justus von Liebig
  70. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  71. John Caldwell Calhoun
  72. John Philip Kemble
  73. John Philpot Curran
  74. John Wesley
  75. Joshua Reynolds
  76. Louis Agassiz
  77. Matthew Thornton
  78. Michael Faraday
  79. Napoleon III of France
  80. Oliver Goldsmith
  81. Oliver Wolcott
  82. Pablo Benito Juárez
  83. Richard Cobden
  84. Robert Burns
  85. Robert Fulton
  86. Robert Treat Paine
  87. Roger Sherman
  88. Samuel Huntington
  89. Samuel Johnson
  90. Stephen Hopkins
  91. Thomas Babington Macaulay
  92. Thomas Chalmers
  93. Thomas Jonathan Jackson
  94. Walter Scott
  95. Washington Irving
  96. William Ellery
  97. William Henry Seward
  98. William Makepeace Thackeray
  99. William Williams
  100. William Wordsworth
A page from Wilford Woodruff's journal showing the names of Founding Fathers for whom he authorized proxy temple work.
Wilford’s journal entry listing the men for whom proxy ordinance work began on August 21, 1877
A list of eminent men from Wilford Woodruff's journal for whom he authorized temple ordinances.
Wilford’s journal entry listing other Eminent Men for whom proxy ordinance work began on August 21, 1877

What are the best sources we have for his vision?

Wilford Woodruff recorded the list in his journal and he gave three discourses stating the signers of the Declaration of Independence appeared to him: on September 16, 1877, on December 12, 1897, and on April 10, 1898.

Wilford Woodruff and the Founding Fathers (1877 discourse)

His 1877 discourse was delivered in the Tabernacle and published in the Journal of Discourses. He spoke at length about the importance of temple work, among other things, then said:

I feel to say little else to the Latter-day Saints wherever and whenever I have the opportunity of speaking to them, than to call upon them to build these Temples now under way, to hurry them up to completion. The dead will be after you, they will seek after you as they have after us in St. George. . . . two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me . . . These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights.

Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, Sept. 16, 1877

Wilford Woodruff and the Founding Fathers (1897 discourse)

In his 1897 discourse, delivered at the Salt Lake Stake Conference and published in the Deseret News, Wilford Woodruff stated:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the men that laid the foundation of this great American government know full well that there has not been a power on the earth where they could apply to have this principle carried out in their behalf, only the Apostles that held the keys of the kingdom of God in this generation. They have gone to them and plead with them to redeem them because there was no other power on earth could do it, and this has been accomplished.

Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, Dec. 12, 1897

Wilford Woodruff and the Founding Fathers (1898 discourse)

Wilford Woodruff’s 1898 discourse—his last Conference address before his death—was delivered in the Tabernacle and published in the Conference Report.

He said:

Every one of those men that signed the Declaration of Independence, with General Washington, called upon me, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the Temple at St. George, two consecutive nights, and demanded at my hands that I should go forth and attend to the ordinances of the House of God for them.

Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, April 10, 1898

Wilford Woodruff also recorded a list of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence and other “eminent men” for whom he initiated temple ordinance work in his journal on August 21, 1877.

The two signers he was not baptized for that day were John Hancock and William Floyd, for whom proxy temple work had been started by relatives on May 29 and March 13 respectively.


What are some other sources?

Amy Tanner Thiriot has completed extensive research and published some of her conclusions at keepapitchinin.org.

Michael de Groote and Ronald L. Fox wrote a book: Visions of Freedom: Wilford Woodruff and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Chapters 10 and 11 in Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine focus on Wilford Woodruff’s time presiding over the St. George Temple and the details of his three revelations received in 1877 that influenced changes in temple work, including his vision of the Founding Fathers.


Do we know why Founding Fathers appeared to Wilford Woodruff?

Wilford Woodruff believed the Founding Fathers laid the foundation of the government and nation that would provide the freedoms necessary to restore the gospel, the priesthood, priesthood keys, and the Church of Jesus Christ. He also believed they understood the ordinances necessary for salvation. He believed that the Founding Fathers were inspired in their combined efforts while they were alive, yet none of them had the opportunity to hear the restored gospel or accept it in mortality. The fact that they came to Wilford and asked him to attend to the temple ordinances for them suggested to Wilford that they had accepted the gospel in the spirit world.

In his September 1877 discourse, after affirming that those on the other side of the veil would “seek after” the Saints as they had reached out to Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple, he shared, “They called upon us, knowing that we held the keys and power to redeem them.”

In his December 1897 discourse he asked,

Can you point me to any emperor, king, priest, denomination or power on the face of the whole earth, outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who has power to go forth and redeem one of their dead? There never was a soul anywhere that could do this until God organized His Church upon the earth.”

Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, Dec. 12, 1897

He then said, “The signers of the Declaration of Independence and the men that laid the foundation of this great American government know full well that there has not been a power on the earth where they could apply to have this principle carried out in their behalf, only the Apostles that held the keys of the kingdom of God in this generation.”


Did Brigham Young know about this experience before he died?

Probably not. Wilford Woodruff’s experience probably took place between August 16 and 19, 1877, because he made his list of individuals for whom he planned to initiate proxy ordinance work on Sunday, August 19.

Wilford Woodruff, and his counselor John D. T. McAllister, wrote a letter to Brigham Young on Monday, August 20, but did not include any information about the experience in that letter.

They began administering the proxy temple ordinances on Tuesday, August 21, 1877: Brother McAllister baptizing Wilford Woodruff as proxy for 100 men including the Founding Fathers, and Wilford baptizing John as proxy for the 21 men, including members of George Washington’s family and many of the presidents of the United States.

Brigham Young became ill on Wednesday, August 23, and remained seriously ill until his death on August 29, 1877.


Who else did Wilford Woodruff initiate temple work for?

Inspired by his two-day experience with the Founding Fathers, Wilford spent Sunday evening, August 19, 1877, preparing a list of some of the “noted men” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries using Evert A. Duyckinck’s two-volume work titled Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America.

He added the names of 54 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 13 of the first 15 presidents of the United States, and members of George Washington’s extended family to those he had gathered from Duyckinck’s books.

The two Signers excluded from Wilford Woodruff’s list were William Floyd and John Hancock, whose proxy temple work had already been initiated by family members in the St. George Temple. Wilford Woodruff said he excluded Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan from the list of U.S. presidents because of their actions against the Saints.

In addition to the list of eminent men, Wilford Woodruff noted that:

Sister Lucy Bigelow Young went Forth into the font and was Baptized for Martha Washington and her family and seventy (70) of the Eminent women of the world.

Wilford Woodruff, Journal, Aug. 21, 1877

The eminent women range from infamous to unknown. Some were admired figures, including the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and novelists Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. Others, such as Charlotte de Corday and Marie Antoinette, were more controversial historical figures. Of the women on Wilford’s list, 37 were wives of the eminent men. Another 24 of the women were married, but Wilford did not include their husbands on the corresponding list of eminent men, and proxy ordinances were not performed for them at that time—including men such as Lord Palmerston, Thomas Moore, Patrick Calhoun, and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Eleven of the women were members of George Washington’s extended family.

For a complete list of the eminent men and women for whom proxy temple work was initiated by Woodruff, with short bios and links to their FamilySearch profiles, see wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/people.


Proxy baptisms had already been done for most of the Founding Fathers. Why did he redo them?

Wilford Woodruff doesn’t explain why. However, rebaptism was a common practice at the time, so he would not have considered it unusual to administer the ordinance again.

The Wilford Woodruff Papers Timeline with sources shows that he was:

  • baptized as a member of the Church in 1833
  • rebaptized in Nauvoo under the direction of Joseph Smith in 1842
  • rebaptized crossing the plains in 1846 (and with the other members of the Pioneer Company after they entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847)
  • rebaptized with the other apostles in the new baptismal font in Salt Lake City
  • and then again with the entire Utah Territorial Legislature in 1856, and rebaptized a sixth time in 1875.

Sometimes baptisms were repeated to ensure records were accurate. Other times rebaptism indicated a renewal of covenants or a new commitment when joining a United Order. Individuals were rebaptized before receiving their own endowments.

In the case of the Founding Fathers it may have been part of the new temple protocol. With the initiation of the first proxy endowments, temple ordinances for all deceased individuals began with proxy baptism, confirmation, and priesthood ordination for men, before washings and anointings and the endowment were administered.

(See Chapter 4 “Baptism for the Dead and Rebaptism” in Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine and “Rebaptism in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” by Jonathan A. Stapley and David W. Grua.)


Who did the temple work for the Founding Fathers?

On August 21, 1877, Wilford Woodruff was baptized by John D. T. McAllister for the Founding Fathers and some of the eminent men—a total of 100 men. He then baptized John D. T. McAllister as proxy for 13 presidents of the United States and members of George Washington’s extended family—a total of 21.

Proxy ordinations and proxy endowments were completed for the majority of the men over the next few days with the help of men in the St. George area acting as proxies. All of the eminent men were ordained to the office of Elder, except George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Horatio Nelson, John Wesley, and Christopher Columbus who were ordained to the office of High Priest between August 22 and 24, 1877.

Temple work stopped after news of Brigham Young’s serious condition was received by telegram on August 27, and Wilford Woodruff left St. George for Salt Lake City on August 30. The endowments for the remaining eminent men and women were finally completed after Wilford returned to preside over the St. George Temple in February 1878.

Amy Tanner Thiriot has completed remarkable research on both the eminent women and the Latter-day Saint women who acted as proxies on their behalf. You can find their stories at theancestorfiles and keepapitchinin.

A photocopy of the St. George temple record showing eminent women that Wilford Woodruff authorized temple ordinances for.
St. George temple record of proxy baptisms for eminent women by Lucy Bigelow Young on August 21, 1877

What are some misunderstandings about Wilford Woodruff and the Founding Fathers?

Much has been written about Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the Founding Fathers. Because he did not record the experience in his journal in August 1877—when he recorded so many other details on a daily basis—it is often referenced by those who claim he made up the story after the fact.

His decision to begin the temple work for the Founding Fathers in the St. George Temple with proxy baptisms—even though baptisms for many of them had been previously performed—has also been scrutinized.

The words he used to describe the experience in three public addresses between 1877 and 1898 have been parsed and compared. Speculation has been published, with at least one author claiming that all of the eminent men and women appeared to Wilford Woodruff—something which he never claimed or implied.

The truth is, no one but Wilford Woodruff knows all of the details, such as when the Founding Fathers waited on him for two days and nights, where he was when he conversed with them, all that they said, why he chose to include some eminent men on his list and not others, why he chose the specific eminent women that were included on the list, etc.

I choose to take Wilford Woodruff at his word, and will continue to gather all the puzzle pieces I can, reserving my questions and withholding judgment. Whether or not the historical record is ever complete, I believe the experience affected his life and the course of temple work, and I know learning about it certainly changed the course of my life.


How did this vision influence the development of Latter-day Saint temple doctrine?

The appearance of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence to Wilford Woodruff changed not only his view of temple work, but also became a powerful example of the universal nature of temple work.

Through this and his focus on temple service, Wilford Woodruff gained an understanding of the vital role of the living in providing the opportunity to accept Christ’s salvation to all who have ever lived. It also reminded the Saints that those in the spirit world expected them to fulfill their responsibility.

The lesson he took from this experience—and the message he repeatedly shared with the Saints—was of universal salvation. All of God’s children will be taught the principles of the gospel and all will need to accept the saving ordinances.

It was through Wilford Woodruff that the revelation on multi-generational family sealings was received in 1894, which changed the focus of temple work to eternal families, as God intended. (See Chapter 16 of Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine.)


What did John Taylor think about Woodruff’s influence on temple doctrine?

On November 14, 1877, John Taylor said:

Brother Woodruff has been operating a long time in the Temple at St. George and you have perhaps heard him testify of visits that he has had from the spirit world, the spirits of men who once lived on the earth, desiring him to officiate for them in the Temple ordinances. This feeling is planted in the hearts of the people.”

John Taylor, Discourse, Nov. 14, 1877

He then added, “The Lord has shown us that we must build temples in which to officiate for them. We have commenced to do so, and our fathers have already commenced to feel after us, manifesting themselves by dreams and visions, and in various ways to those most interested in their welfare.”


How did this vision influence your own passion for the history of our temples?

After my mother shared the story of Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the Founding Fathers in the St. George Temple with me and told me that he also initiated the temple work for 70 eminent women (in addition to the 121 men), I felt compelled to find out more.

My initial interest in those included in the list of eminent women led me to research about Wilford Woodruff and why he had this experience. My curiosity led to reading his journals, discourses, and available letters as well as available contemporaneous sources in Church history. . . and the conclusion that this experience was not about eminent men or eminent women, but about the importance of temple work and our role in God’s work to bring to pass the eternal life of man.


About the interview participant

Jennifer Ann Mackley is the Executive Director of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. She has edited or authored nearly two dozen books, including Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine.


Further reading

Wilford Woodruff Founding Fathers resources

  • Wilford Woodruff and the Development of Temple Doctrine (Book)
  • Wilford Woodruff’s Vision of the Founding Fathers (Keepapitchinin)
  • Wilford Woodruff and the Rise of Temple Consciousness among the Latter-day Saints, 1877-84 (BYU Religious Studies Center)
  • Ministry of Wilford Woodruff: The Work of the Temple (Church Media Library)
  • “Which Is the Wisest Course?”: The Transformation in Mormon Temple Consciousness, 1870–1898 (BYU Studies)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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