Thomas Alexander – Things in Heaven and Earth : The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet

Thomas Alexander – Things in Heaven and Earth : The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet

The following review was provided by Roger Launius, NASA Chief Historian

Thomas G. Alexander, professor of history at Brigham Young University and one of the leaders of what has been called the “New Mormon History” that tries to approach the subject with functional objectivity, has written a good biography of the Mormon Church’s fourth president. Alexander asserts that Woodruff was “arguably the third most important figure in all of LDS Church history after Joseph Smith . . . and Brigham Young” (p. 331). While perhaps an overstatement, there is no question but that Woodruff was a central leader of nineteenth century Mormonism. He was a member of the church’s council of twelve apostles between 1835 and 1889. Then he became president and headed the Mormon movement until his death in 1898 at age 91.

Alexander presents Woodruff as a true believer in the message of Joseph Smith and the Mormon religion. That meant, for Woodruff, the acceptance of “a world view that unified the temporal and spiritual realms in God’s kingdom and in the lives of church members” (p. xiii). That holistic view of the temporal and spiritual found expression in the Mormon theocratic state of early Utah. Ironically, Woodruff began the dismantling of that theocracy in response to the challenges of federal authority. He, for instance, was responsible for the 1890 manifesto ending the performance of plural marriages and he set the course for Utah’s statehood in 1896 by working to remove the church from politics.

Although there is much to admire in Things in Heaven and Earth, there are some imperfections. One of them is occasional demonstrations of pro-Mormon bias and the too-easy acceptance of the court position. For example, Alexander argues that the “intermingling of church and state [in pioneer Utah] would have generated little opposition in a Protestant-dominated community” (p. 176), but there is little reason to accept that conclusion. The quest for empire that early Rocky Mountain Mormonism mandated always ran against the grain of the American mainstream and the nation asserted itself to defend against a perceived threat to liberty. There are numerous examples in American history of other religious groups, in similar instances being handled roughly by the larger community.

Even so, Things in Heaven and Earth is a fine biography. It is sympathetic without being hagiographic, and Alexander’s conclusions are usually well measured. It can be profitably read by anyone interested in the development of Mormonism, new religions of the nineteenth century, and the American West.

from the publisher:
When Wilford Woodruff converted to the LDS church in 1833, he joined a millenarian group of a few thousand persecuted believers clustered around Kirtland, Ohio. When he died sixty-five years later in 1898, he was the leader of more than a quarter of a million followers worldwide who were on the verge of entering the mainstream of American culture.

Before attaining that status of senior church apostle at the death of John Taylor in 1886, Woodruff had been one of the fiercest opponents of United States hegemony. He spent years evading territorial marshals on the Mormon “underground,” escaping prosecution for polygamy, unable even to attend his first wife’s funeral. As church president, faced with disfranchisement and federal confiscation of Mormon property, including temples, Woodruff reached his monumental decision in 1890 to accept U.S. law and to petition for Utah statehood.

As church doctrines and practices evolved, Woodruff himself changed. The author examines the secular and religious development of Woodruff’s world view from apocalyptic mystic to pragmatic conciliator. He also reveals the gentle, solitary farmer; the fisherman and horticulturalist; the family man with seven wives; the charismatic preacher of the Mormon Reformation; the astute businessman; the urbane, savvy politician who courted the favor of prominent Republicans in California and Oregon (Leland Stanford and Isaac Trumbo); and the vulnerable romantic who pursued the affections of Lydia Mountford, an international lecturer and Jewish rights advocate. He traces a faithful polygamist who ultimately embraced the Christian Home movement and settled comfortably into a monogamous relationship in an otherwise typically Victorian setting.

Thomas G. Alexander is the Lemuel H. Redd Professor of Western History at Brigham Young University and the former director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies. His publications include Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930; Mormons and Gentiles: A History of Salt Lake City; Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet; and Utah: The Right Place. He is the co-editor of Manchester Mormons: The Journals of William Clayton, 1840-1842 and of Utah’s History, and is the author of several significant historical monographs, and a contributing author to Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine and The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past.