First in a series on Wilford Woodruff's wives

Phoebe Whittemore Carter
(March 8, 1807- November 10, 1885)

Phoebe, Wilford's first wife, was born in Scarborough, Maine, on March 8, 1807.  She was the sixth of eleven children born to Ezra Carter and Sarah Fabyan.[1]

Phoebe was converted to the Church in 1834 at the age of 27, against her parents' wishes.  When she left her family behind to gather with the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, she said she was, "sustained only by my faith and trust in Israel’s God.  My friends marveled at my course, as did I, but something within impelled me on. My mother’s grief at my leaving home was almost more than I could bear; and had it not been for the spirit within I should have faltered at the last.  My mother told me she would rather see me buried than going thus alone into the heartless world, and especially was she concerned about my leaving home to cast my lot among the Mormons. ‘Phoebe,’ she said, impressively, ‘will you come back to me if you find Mormonism false?’ I answered thrice, ‘Yes, mother, I will.’ These were my words well remembered to this day; she knew I would keep my promise. My answer relieved her trouble; but it cost us all much sorrow to part. When the time came for my departure I dared not trust myself to say farewell, so I wrote my good-bye to each, and leaving them on my table, ran down stairs and jumped into the carriage. Thus I left my beloved home of childhood to link my life with the Saints of God."  (Phoebe's mother, father, three sisters and one brother were later baptized members of the Church.[2])

Phoebe received her patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr. on November 10, 1836.  She was working as a school teacher when she was first introduced to Wilford Woodruff on January 28, 1837. They were married less than three months later, on April 13, 1837, at the home of Joseph Smith.  Joseph had planned on performing the ceremony for them but was "under the necessity of fleeing" for several days because of the actions of certain "wicked and ungodly men."  Instead Phoebe and Wilford were married by Frederick G. Williams, 2nd counselor in the First Presidency of the Church.  The following month, Wilford left for a mission to the Fox Islands off the coast of Maine.  Phoebe understood the sacrifices that might be required of them as they consecrated themselves and their lives to God.  Phoebe later wrote of Wilford, "I can truly say I have found him a worthy man with scarcely his superior on earth. He has built up a branch of the Church wherever he has labored. He has been faithful to God and his family, every day of his life. My respect for him has increased with our years, and my desire for an eternal union with him will be the last wish of my mortal life."

Their first child, Sarah Emma, was born on July 14, 1838 in Scarborough, Maine, where Phoebe was staying with her family.  Wilford was able to be with them for a month before returning to his missionary work in the Fox Islands.  By the time they left Maine to gather with the Saints in Missouri, Governor Bogg’s extermination order had forced the Saints to seek refuge in Illinois.  Their journey almost cost Phoebe’s life.  The story taken from Wilford’s writings exemplifies Phoebe’s strength and the faith they shared. “On the 23rd of November my wife, Phoebe, was attacked with a severe headache, which terminated in brain fever. She grew more and more distressed daily as we continued our journey. It was a terrible ordeal for a woman to travel in a wagon over rough roads, afflicted as she was. At the same time our child was also very sick.”[3] 

Wilford tried to find places for her to rest, but Phoebe’s health continued to decline, and Wilford wrote, “December 3rd found my wife very low. I spent the day in taking care of her, and the following day I returned to Eaton [a nearby town] to get some things for her. She seemed to be gradually sinking, and in the evening her spirit apparently left her body, and she was dead.  The sisters gathered around her body, weeping, while I stood looking at her in sorrow. The Spirit and power of God began to rest upon me until, for the first time during her sickness, faith filled my soul, although she lay before me as one dead.”[4]  Wilford said he laid his hands upon her and, in the name of Jesus Christ, “rebuked the power of death and the destroyer, and commanded the same to depart from her, and the spirit of life to enter her body.  Her spirit returned to her body, and from that hour she was made whole; and we all felt to praise the name of God, and to trust in him and keep his commandments.” 

Afterwards Phoebe told him that her spirit left her body, and she saw her body lying upon the bed, and the sisters weeping. While she looked at them, at her husband, and her baby, she said two personages came into the room. “One of these messengers informed her that she could have her choice: she might go to rest in the spirit world, or, on one condition she could have the privilege of returning to her tabernacle and continuing her labors upon the earth. The condition was, if she felt that she could stand by her husband, and with him pass through all the cares, trials, tribulations and afflictions of life which he would be called to pass through for the Gospel’s sake unto the end. When she looked at the situation of her husband and child she said: ‘Yes, I will do it!’”[5]  It was at the moment she made her decision that her spirit re-entered her tabernacle.  Three days later, on December 6th, Wilford wrote that the Spirit said, “‘Arise, and continue thy journey!’ and through the mercy of God my wife was enabled to arise and dress herself and walk to the wagon, and we went on our way rejoicing.”[6]

Phoebe and Wilford arrived in May 1839 and lived temporarily across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo in the abandoned army barracks of Fort Des Moines in Montrose, Iowa.  Leaving Phoebe in these terrible conditions, Wilford was called to serve another mission with the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve, this time to the British Isles.  While he was in England (August 1839-October 1841), Phoebe gave birth to their first son, Wilford, Jr., in March 1840, and four months later suffered alone through the death of their daughter Sarah on July 14, 1840.

When Phoebe wrote to Wilford, on May 4, 1840, she expressed her continued faith: “I know that it is the will of God that you should labor in his vineyard; therefore, I feel reconciled to his will in these things. I have not been left to murmur or complain since you left me, but am looking forward to the day when you shall return home once more to the bosom of your family, having fulfilled your mission in the love and fear of God. You are always present with me when I go before the throne of grace, and when I am asking for protection and blessings upon myself and children, I claim the same for my dear companion, who has gone far from me, even to a foreign nation, to preach the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Six days after Wilford returned from England he purchased a log house in Nauvoo, ferried their belongings over from Iowa, and for the first time in their married life they lived under their own roof.  He began building a brick house for them, but they were not able to move into the house until 1844 and then only lived in it sporadically for a total of less than 100 days.

By 1843, the temple ordinances revealed to Joseph Smith included baptisms, washings and anointings, the endowment, and sealings.  Between 1843 and 1844 Joseph administered or directed the administration of these ordinances to both men and women.  Wilford and Phoebe were sealed on November 11, 1843.  On that day Wilford wrote that Hyrum Smith “sealed the marriage covenant between me and my wife Phoebe W. Carter for time and eternity …”  On December 2, 1843, Wilford received his endowment and three weeks later Phoebe received her washings, anointings and endowment under the direction of Emma and Mary Fielding Smith.  Phoebe testified that Joseph Smith "was one of the greatest prophets the Lord ever called, that he lived for the redemption of mankind and died a martyr for the truth."  It was after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in June 1844 that Phoebe accompanied Wilford to Europe so he could preside of the missionary work there.   Their son Wilford Jr., remained in Nauvoo and they left Phoebe Amelia in the care of Phoebe’s sister, only taking one-year-old Susan Amelia with them.  While living in England Phoebe gave birth to Joseph Carter on July 18, 1845.

They returned to Nauvoo in April 1846 in time to assist in the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple before leaving to join the Saints in Iowa and escape the ongoing persecution.  Mary Ann Jackson had traveled with the Woodruffs from England and was sealed to Wilford on August 2, 1846 in Winter Quarters, Nebraska.  The winter of 1846 was a tragic one for the Woodruffs.  Wilford was seriously injured while felling trees to build a cabin for his expanding family and, within days after his accident, their one-year-old son Joseph died on November 12th.[7]  Phoebe was pregnant at the time and gave birth to another son, Ezra, prematurely on December 8, 1846.  He died two days later.  Of her seven children, only three remained alive: Wilford Jr., Phoebe Amelia and Susan.  Wilford’s tribute to Phoebe on their departure from Nauvoo explains her ability to endure.  He wrote, “Phoebe possesses too much firmness and faith in God and confidence in God to put her hand to the plough and look back or to wholly give way to such trials. She is determined, like Ruth, to forsake her kindred and country for Christ's sake and my own, and the cause in which she is engaged. As I behold this principle beaming in her daily walk, heart and countenance, it binds my whole soul to her stronger than death or the bars of a castle."[8]

In the spring of 1847 Phoebe remained in Iowa with their three children while Wilford accompanied the first pioneer expedition to the Salt Lake Valley.  On April 3, 1847, Wilford wrote in his journal: “I have never felt more weight upon my mind at any time while leaving my family to go on a mission than now. My prayer to God is that He will sustain myself and family to meet again on the earth as He hath done in the many missions I have taken on the earth in the vineyard of the Lord.”  Four days later his family watched him as he departed on a 2,500 mile journey that would take him away for six months.

On October 28, 1847, three days before he returned to his family in Council Bluffs, Phoebe delivered a baby girl, Shuah.  Shortly after his arrival, Phoebe and Wilford were asked to move with their family to preside over the missionary work in and gathering of the Saints from the Eastern States.  This mission lasted almost two years and was significant for the Woodruffs in several ways.  Wilford and Phoebe’s sacrifices included the death of their nine-month-old daughter Shuah as they traveled east.  On the other hand, they were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about 100 miles from Phoebe’s hometown, and were able to share the gospel with members of Phoebe’s extended family.  Wilford baptized over 20 individuals, including Phoebe’s father.  On March 22, 1849 Wilford wrote that he baptized Ezra Carter in the ocean. He then recorded, “This is a great consolation to my soul.”[9]  Ezra was 76 years old and Phoebe accompanied her father to the water and back again. 

When the Woodruffs left Maine in the spring of 1850, they had gathered about 100 Saints, among them Phoebe’s sister, Sarah Foss, and her family.  Their company was later joined by another 125 Saints and they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on October 14, 1850.  They moved into the cabins Wilford had built in 1847 in preparation for their eventual arrival, and he later built an adobe house.  Phoebe was finally able to establish a permanent home, later named the Valley House, where she lived for the rest of her life.  It was located on the corner of South Temple and West Temple streets (where Abravanel Hall now stands in downtown Salt Lake City). Wilford’s father Aphek owned the lot next to the Valley House, and Phoebe’s sister Sarah lived two doors down. 

Phoebe gave birth to her fifth daughter Beulah in 1851, and her fourth son in 1853, but he died within a few hours.  Of her nine children, only five lived beyond the age of two years.  That same year Wilford married two additional wives, Sarah Brown and Emma [Smoot] Smith. The Valley House briefly held four generations of the Woodruff family (after Susan married in 1859 and bore Phoebe’s first grandchild, Eugenia, in 1860), and the families of four of Wilford’s wives: Phoebe (with 3 children), Emma (with 2 children), Sarah (with 3 children), and Delight (with 1 child).

At the organization of the 14th Ward Relief Society in 1856, Phoebe was chosen by Bishop Abraham Hoagland as President. Under her leadership more than 75 women in the 14th Ward embroidered or appliqued a quilt block to make a beautiful commemorative quilt that was raffled to raise money. Those who contributed to the effort included Phoebe's sister Sarah Foss and Sarah’s daughter Rhoda; Phoebe’s daughters 14-year-old Phoebe Amelia, 13-year-old Susan Cornelia, and even 6-year-old Beulah; and three of Wilford’s plural wives – Sarah Brown, Emma [Smoot] Smith, and Delight Stocking (who was sealed to Wilford in 1857).[10]  Phoebe’s square was the centerpiece of the quilt.  It featured a beehive on top of a table surrounded by flowers, bees and butterflies.  Underneath the table she embroidered, “By industry we thrive” and below that, “Phebe W. Woodruff President of the 14th Ward Female Relief Society.”  The Deseret News article published May 20, 1857, stated that, to date, the Society had raised $200.01 of which $126 was donated to the Perpetual Emigration Fund.

When Phoebe wrote her short autobiography she included her thoughts on polygamy: "When the principle of plural marriage was first taught, I thought it was the most wicked thing I ever heard of; consequently I opposed it to the best of my ability, until I became sick and wretched. As soon, however, as I became convinced that it originated as a revelation from God through Joseph, knowing him to be a prophet, I wrestled with my Heavenly Father in fervent prayer, to be guided aright at that all-important moment of my life. The answer came. Peace was given to my mind. I knew it was the will of God; and from that time to the present I have sought to faithfully honor the patriarchal law."

In January 1870 when Congress was considering legislation against polygamy she was among the women protesting.  She spoke at a mass meeting held in Salt Lake City and said, in part, "I am proud that I am a citizen of Utah, and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have been a member of this Church for 36 years, and had the privilege of living in the days of the Prophet Joseph, and heard his teaching for many years. He ever counseled us to honor, obey and maintain the principles of our noble Constitution ... President Brigham Young has always taught the same principle. This glorious legacy of our fathers, the Constitution of the United States, guarantees unto all the citizens of this great republic the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, as it expressly says, 'Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' Cullom's Bill is in direct violation of this declaration ... Shall we, as wives and mothers, sit still and see our husbands and sons, whom we know are obeying the highest behest of heaven, suffer for their religion, without exerting ourselves to the extent of our power for their deliverance? No; verily no! God has revealed unto us the law of the patriarchal order of marriage, and commanded us to obey it. We are sealed to our husbands for time and eternity, that we may dwell with them and our children in the world to come; which guarantees unto us the greatest blessing for which we are created. If the rulers of the nation will so far depart from the spirit and letter of our glorious Constitution as to deprive our prophets, apostles and elders of citizenship, and imprison them for obeying this law, let them grant this, our last request, to make their prisons large enough to hold their wives, for where they go we will go also."  The following month Phoebe was named to a committee to promote women's suffrage.

In her later years as her children began families of their own, Phoebe served on the Deseret Hospital Board of Directors and was an official worker in the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society which Wilford had helped establish in 1852.  She was also one of the presiding board of the Ladies’ Cooperative Retrenchment Association (the precursor of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association now called Young Women’s or Mutual).  In addition, Phoebe was elected one of the Executive Board of the Deseret Hospital in 1882. 

Phoebe lived to the age of 78, dying after a fall caused a serious head injury.  Wilford had been in hiding, but risked arrest to visit her after her accident.  On November 9, 1885, realizing her serious condition, he “blessed her and anointed her for her burial."  His wife of more than 48 years died a few hours later.  Under these difficult circumstances, although he watched from the office window, he wrote, “I was not permitted to attend her funeral without being arrested for my religion, and imprisoned … I saw the procession as it passed the office, I saw the hearse that carried my wife … to the grave. … Persecution is raging against the Latter Day Saints.  I am perfectly willing for my wife to lie down and go to sleep and be freed from any of the persecution from the wicked.  I hope I may prove true and faithful unto the end that I may meet with her and our friends in the Celestial Kingdom of God ….” 

Wilford also wrote this poem in her honor:
“Sleep on Dear Phoebe, but ere long from this;
The conquered tomb shall yield its captive prey;
Then with thy husband, children, friends and Prophets and Apostles;
Thou shall reign in bliss as wife, queen, mother, and Saint to an eternal day."[11]

Carol Holindrake Nielson, The Salt Lake City 14th Ward Album Quilt, 1857: Stories of the Relief Society Women and Their Quilt.
Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom. 
Wilford Woodruff’s Journals, 1:139-41, 1:164-65, 1:167-69, 1:181-85, 1:188-89, 1:192-93, 1:216, 1:219-20, 1:224-25, 1:230-33, 1:236-37, 1:240-41, 1:243, 1:254, 1:271-72, 1:274, 1:281-83, 1:285-86, 1:288, 1:294, 1:298, 1:303-305, 1:311, 1:338, 1:342, 1:344, 1:346, 1:348-49, 1:353, 1:358, 1:365-66, 1:370, 1:372-73, 1:403, 1:413, 1:426, 1:443, 1:454-55, 1:471, 1:483-84, 1:486, 1:488, 1:494, 1:497, 1:541-42, 1:545, 1:551, 2:24, 2:28-29, 2:37, 2:105, 2:120-21, 2:157, 2:177-78, 2:188-89, 2:259-60, 2:272-73, 2:278, 2:305, 2:307, 2:327, 2:332, 2:344, 2:412, 2:422, 2:455-56, 2:458, 2:477, 2:561, 2:600, 2:624, 3:8, 30, 65-66, 68-69, 97, 99, 104, 263, 288-89, 343, 359-60, 367, 370, 377-80, 433-34, 587-88, 4:211, 281, 442, 5:28, 53, 185, 251, 261, 339, 391-92, 412, 461, 6:14, 37, 44, 46, 68, 129-31, 137, 165, 174, 177, 192, 209, 239, 298, 326, 330, 348-49, 387-88, 392-94, 408, 443, 457, 462, 489, 504, 521, 532, 535, 537, 545, 566, 7:27, 32, 44, 68, 74, 76-77, 84, 99, 107, 121, 126, 138, 142, 144, 152, 156, 159, 169, 174, 186, 188, 193-96, 206, 213, 218-19, 237, 248, 264, 267, 279, 286, 292-94, 320, 341-42, 345, 375, 380, 382, 404, 433, 450, 454, 475, 478, 481, 484, 489, 491-92, 496-97, 512, 516, 518, 526, 528, 532-33, 557, 562, 564, 576-77, 586, 591, 605, 608, 8:3, 9, 11, 15, 17-19, 26, 31, 36, 42, 45, 64, 89, 111, 113, 121, 140, 156-58, 168, 172, 185, 206, 225, 229, 232, 234, 237, 251, 273-74, 276-78, 280, 284-85, 289, 299-302, 308, 310-11, 314-16, 320, 322, 326, 332-35, 338-39, 342-44, 354, 381, 429, 465, 9:141, 292, 534-36, 426, 534-35, 553.