Woodruff's Vision of the Founding Fathers

Stephen Taysom put together a collection of essays in a new book titled Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader.  Topics include biographies, theory, experience, memory, and media/literature with authors such as Newell Bringhurst, Larry Foster, and Jonathan Stapley (to name a few.)

Many of us are familiar with Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the Founding Fathers in the St. George Temple.  Brian Stuy gives some interesting background on this story.  Just after the temple was dedicated in 1877, apostle and temple president Wilford Woodruff had a dream on two successive nights.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence said to Woodruff,

You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us.  We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.

Stuy notes that Woodruff had been reading a book titled Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America.  Woodruff participated in proxy work for not only these famous Americans, but also Christopher Columbus and John Wesley.  Stuy believes this book to be the source that may have inspired Woodruff to ponder on the subject.

However, Woodruff was not the first to perform proxy work for the Founding Fathers.  Stuy quotes Charlotte Haven, writing in May 1843.  She witnessed baptisms for the dead performed in the Mississippi River:

We drew a little nearer and heard several names repeated by the elders as the victims were douched [bathed], and you can imagine our surprise when the name George Washington was called.

Stuy goes on to say on pages 84-86,

In addition to the event Haven witnessed, there were at least three other occasions in Nauvoo when George Washington was baptized.5 Others for whom this proxy ordinance was performed in Illinois include Benjamin Franklin;6 Presidents John Adams, William Henry Harisson, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe;  George Washington’s wife, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington; mother Mary Ball Washington; and Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson.7 Later in St. George, Woodruff would arrange to have proxy baptisms perfromed for all of these individuals.

In 1876, most likely in response to the centennial the nation celebrated that year, [John] Bernhisel began systematically arranging for the baptism of all the Founding Fathers and other well-known U.S. leaders.  On August 9, he and his daughter Mary went to the Endowment House and were baptized for most of the deceased U.S. presidents and their wives.  Bernhisel was also baptized for Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry.13

Duplicate temple work is something that has long been a problem.  In fact, that is a major reason why the church has put the new program for familysearch online.  With the old PAF files, duplication was a tremendous problem.  With the new Family Search, the hope is for more collaboration and less duplication.

While the baptisms were performed multiple times, Stuy notes that the Endowment House only allowed for “live” ordinances.  The St. George Temple is the first temple in which endowments were performed for the dead.  In that case, even though baptisms were performed previously for the Founding Fathers, Woodruff wsa the first to allow the other ordinances to be performed for these men and women.  Stuy notes that in 1985, President Benson wanted to make sure these ordinances were performed.  While most had been performed, some wives and children of the signers weren’t completed, so Benson made sure these were done in time for the bicentennial celebration of the Constitutional Convention in 1987.

What do you make of Woodruff’s vision?

12 comments on “Woodruff's Vision of the Founding Fathers

  1. Thank you so much for such an compelling and scholarly resource. I really do enjoy this blog.

    I believe earthly ordinances aren’t actually indispensable in the eternal scheme but rather useful ritual for some in finding additional purpose and meaning in those philosophies to which we’ve chosen to dedicated our lives. Vicarious temple work holds the same promise.

    Woodruff’s vision was something that transcended direct necessity. The resulting efforts have been shared and celebrated by the community for generations. Duplication is of little consequence.

    Personally, I think it’s sweet how we’ve evolved our revolutionary heroes into epic champions of faith and Christianity. While I have no doubt some were, there is compelling evidence that their views were as diverse and their adherence as varied as any we see today among the American population. If a belief in the divinity of Jesus is the measure, I doubt many of the principle founders would even be considered Christian by today’s definition. Again, how the community can embrace and celebrate takes precedence over direct necessity for historical fact.

    “Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.” ~ Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

  2. I believe that Woodruff’s dreams were just that…dreams. I find it highly questionable that the founding fathers would make the trip to the St. George temple for the sole purpose of obtaining saving ordinances. How come no one else has? What about Grog who lived 10,000 years ago but will never have his work done for him? He predates writing, probably predates religion as we know it.
    I just don’t believe saving ordinances are necessary.

  3. Bishop Rick, welcome back. It’s been a while.

    If Grog was in the book Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women of Europe and America, then I’m sure Pres Woodruff would have done his work. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait until the millenium when Grog will let us know his work needs to be done! :)

  4. You are missing that they were calling the brethren to repentance for judging them as not worthy because of the well known weaknesses of many of the founding fathers.

    The layers on the story give it a meaning that is completely missed when it is treated as some sort of triumphalism.

  5. MH: If I meet Grog in the millenium and I hear that he has requested his work be done for him, I will completely change my tune.

    Ethesis: What about all the other well known characters throughout history? Why haven’t they requested their work be done? It just doesn’t add up, especially when you figure many of the founding fathers were Deists.

  6. […] reader is a collection of essays on varying topics in Mormon studies.  I previously discussed Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the Founding Fathers.  One of the most entertaining essays was titled “A Mormon Bigfoot” by Matthew Bowman. […]

  7. […] reader is a collection of essays on varying topics in Mormon studies.  I previously discussed Wilford Woodruff’s vision of the Founding Fathers.  One of the most entertaining essays was titled “A Mormon Bigfoot” by Matthew Bowman. […]

  8. […] of these were done without the consent of the family (the baptism of George Washington and the other founding fathers occurring after a man had a dream th…), while some were.  But still – it’s done without the consent of the individual.  And […]

  9. […] of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), and savior on mount Zion to the Framers of the Republic. U.S.A.! U.S.A! L.D.S.! L.D.S.! Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  10. God uses dreams to reveal his will to man, examples; Nabucodonosor, Apostle Peter, Daniel expert on the interpretation, Jose Father of Jesus, Joseph son Of Israel, to mention few from the Bible, Book of Mormon; Lehi, Nephi,etc…. so if someone want to put down Wilford Woodruft dosen’t understand the scriptures

  11. Baptism isn’t the only saving ordinance done in the temple, so perhaps the spirits were looking for a completion of their work — work that could only be done in the temple. But since the event has been canonized, too paraphrase an old bumper sticker: “The scriptures say it, I believe it and that settles it!“ 😂 As for those who have and haven’t requested their work be done, how would anyone know? Perhaps Cicero, Socrates, Jefferson Davis and Grog have all made similar requests and we just don’t know it. (It’s like people in the church who say, “Why don’t our prophets see angels or have visions anymore?“ You just want to reach over and smack them! 😬)

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