I wanted to share two excerpts from Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine that clarify what is not explained in the recent essay posted on lds.org "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo."
The essay states, in part:
Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married. Neither these women nor Joseph explained much about these sealings, though several women said they were for eternity alone. Other women left no records, making it unknown whether their sealings were for time and eternity or were for eternity alone.
There are several possible explanations for this practice. These sealings may have provided a way to create an eternal bond or link between Joseph’s family and other families within the Church. These ties extended both vertically, from parent to child, and horizontally, from one family to another. Today such eternal bonds are achieved through the temple marriages of individuals who are also sealed to their own birth families, in this way linking families together. Joseph Smith’s sealings to women already married may have been an early version of linking one family to another. In Nauvoo, most if not all of the first husbands seem to have continued living in the same household with their wives during Joseph’s lifetime, and complaints about these sealings with Joseph Smith are virtually absent from the documentary record.
These sealings may also be explained by Joseph’s reluctance to enter plural marriage because of the sorrow it would bring to his wife Emma. He may have believed that sealings to married women would comply with the Lord’s command without requiring him to have normal marriage relationships. This could explain why, according to Lorenzo Snow, the angel reprimanded Joseph for having “demurred” on plural marriage even after he had entered into the practice. After this rebuke, according to this interpretation, Joseph returned primarily to sealings with single women.
Another possibility is that, in an era when life spans were shorter than they are today, faithful women felt an urgency to be sealed by priesthood authority. Several of these women were married either to non-Mormons or former Mormons, and more than one of the women later expressed unhappiness in their present marriages. Living in a time when divorce was difficult to obtain, these women may have believed a sealing to Joseph Smith would give them blessings they might not otherwise receive in the next life.
The women who united with Joseph Smith in plural marriage risked reputation and self-respect in being associated with a principle so foreign to their culture and so easily misunderstood by others. “I made a greater sacrifice than to give my life,” said Zina Huntington Jacobs, “for never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman.” Nevertheless, she wrote, “I searched the scripture & by humble prayer to my Heavenly Father I obtained a testimony for myself.” After Joseph’s death, most of the women sealed to him moved to Utah with the Saints, remained faithful Church members, and defended both plural marriage and Joseph.
The explanation from Wilford Woodruff’s perspective follows in context:
THE POWER OF ELIJAH
The first divine instruction Joseph received following the 1820 appearance of God and Jesus Christ was in 1823. When Moroni visited Joseph he repeated the prophecy of Malachi regarding the mission of Elijah and its importance. However, it would take twenty-one years for the necessary elements to be revealed before Joseph understood and could teach the Saints about their vital role in God’s plan of salvation to connect parents and children. The restoration of the priesthood and conferral of the priesthood keys had to come before the ordinances that would be revealed could be administered with the proper authority. The conversion and gathering of enough Saints prepared to receive the ordinances had to be accomplished. Then temples had to be built before those who had received the ordinances for themselves could officiate by proxy for their loved ones.
By July 1843 there was no doubt that Joseph understood the significance of the sealing power. God clearly stated that the keys and power of the priesthood had been conferred upon Joseph Smith, and through this priesthood power would come the restoration of all things. On March 10, 1844, Wilford recorded what he called “one of the most important and interesting subjects ever presented to the Saints.” On this occasion Joseph Smith explained the spirit and power of Elijah to the Saints. He told them that, holding the keys of the fulness of the Melchizedek Priesthood, they could receive and perform all the ordinances belonging to the kingdom of God. In response to the question, “What is this office and work of Elijah?” Joseph stated, “It is one of the greatest and most important subjects that God has revealed.” He then told the Saints to “Go and seal on earth your sons and daughters unto yourself and yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory.”
In two short years, Joseph had progressed from teaching that baptism was sufficient to bind the fathers and children together, to learning that it was possible to seal individuals to each other on both sides of the veil and thus fulfill Elijah’s mission to connect families eternally. His understanding of God’s plan made clear that together with their descendants and ancestors, the Saints could be exalted and blessed with eternal increase, and eternal lives. He told the Saints that this restoration of the ancient order of things was what would reconcile the scriptural truths, justify the ways of God, and harmonize every principle of justice and righteousness. In April 1844 Joseph declared, “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead. . . . [F]or it is necessary . . . that those who are going before and those who come after us should have salvation in common with us.”
This expansion of ordinances applied not only to the Saints’ progenitors, but to their descendants as well. In 1843 Joseph Smith had reassured the Saints that children would not be lost in death, but would be saved by virtue of the covenants of their fathers and mothers. In a sermon given on August 13, 1843, Joseph explained, “When a seal is put upon the father and mother, it secures their posterity.” Thus it was not necessary for children to participate in the sealing ordinance if their parents had been sealed; the children would be heirs to the sealing blessings through their parents’ sealing.
As comforting as this revelation was, it represented a limited application of the sealing power; the sealing blessings only extended from parents to children. It was not until 1844 that Joseph made it clear that the sealing power was not confined to the living—only binding children through their parents’ sealing—but extended from children to deceased parents through the veil between earth and heaven.
Wilford later acknowledged that the principle of sealing and the linking of all dispensations was on Joseph’s mind “more than most any other subject that was given to him.” He said, Joseph was “wound up with this work,” but he did not live long enough to “enter any further upon these things.” Although Joseph taught the Saints to have their children sealed to them and to be sealed to their fathers, Joseph did not officiate in any family or multigenerational sealings before his death. It was not until the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated in December 1845 that the first child-to-parent sealings were performed under the direction of Brigham Young. Then children, born before their parents had been sealed to each other and their marriage recognized by God, could be sealed to their parents.
Another sealing ordinance that Joseph Smith alluded to but did not live long enough to explain or administer was what became known as “priesthood adoption.”
HEIRS OF THE PRIESTHOOD
In 1832, the Lord had revealed through Joseph Smith that all those who receive the fulness of the priesthood are promised sanctification and all that the Father has. In this same revelation—now contained in Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants—the Lord explained that those who obtained the priesthood would become the sons of Moses and part of a patriarchal priesthood chain from Moses through Abraham back to Adam. If they were true to the oath and covenant of the priesthood, they would have the ability to claim the same blessings promised to the children of Israel as the seed of Abraham.
In August 1843, Joseph taught of the relationship of the sealing powers to the “doctrine of election with the seed of Abraham.” In one discourse Joseph said the sealing of fathers and children would be “according to the declarations of the prophets.” In a second discourse he explained that the priesthood was directly from God, “not by descent from father or mother.” The Saints thus needed to seal the patriarchal chain of priesthood back to Adam—who received the priesthood directly from God. Joseph promised the Saints that when they finished the temple they would “receive more knowledge” concerning the patriarchal priesthood.
Most converts to the Church residing in Nauvoo were not only the first generation of their family within the Church, they were the only generation of their family within the Church. Many were adults who had been forced to leave family behind to join the Saints and did not anticipate ever having family members within the Church on earth to whom they could be sealed. Without parents who were able to participate in the sealing ordinance to link the generations, they were afraid they would be left without a priesthood connection to the family of God.
Similarly, married converts who joined the Church, but had spouses who did not join, could not be sealed to each other and, consequently, could not have their children sealed to them. There were also few men who had been ordained to the priesthood, and even fewer who had received all the temple ordinances. Only those men who had been ordained, washed, anointed, endowed, and sealed had the “fulness of the priesthood” required to be a part of the patriarchal priesthood chain.
The conundrum was solved in part through the law of adoption, which linked non-relatives together if traditional family ties had been severed. Adoption ceremonially created father-child priesthood relationships for those who had no biological father within the Church to connect to. The practice of adoption also alleviated the concern that, if the Saints’ ancestors did not accept the gospel in the spirit world, the Saints would not have a connection to the family of God. In addition, adoption to priesthood leaders, rather than relatives, allowed individuals to be sealed into a priesthood line when fathers or husbands appeared unworthy to lead their families to salvation and exaltation.
Being sealed, through marriage or by adoption, to a worthy man ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood was vital to the Saints’ eternal membership in the kingdom of God. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime the only sealings into priesthood lineage were of women. (Men were not adopted into the priesthood lineage of other men until the Nauvoo Temple was completed.) Understandably, women desired to be sealed to one holding a high priesthood office hoping that it would be an indication of the man’s faithfulness.
At least ten women in Nauvoo chose to be sealed to Joseph Smith spiritually (for eternity, not mortality) in order to be connected to his priesthood lineage, yet remained physically with their husbands. Some of these women – Ruth Vose Sayers, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, and perhaps Sarah Kingsley Howe Cleveland – were married to men who supported the Church but were not baptized members. Others – Sylvia Sessions Lyon, Patty Bartlett Sessions, Elvira Annie Cowles Holmes, and Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs – were married to men who were members of the Church but were not Church leaders. One, Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde, was the wife of an apostle. Joseph’s assurance to these women was that being sealed to him for eternity and adopted into his priesthood line would assure their own exaltation and benefit their husbands and children as well. After Joseph Smith’s death, five more women chose to be sealed to their husbands for mortality only and to Joseph for eternity.
The application of these sealing principles, and the ability to receive the ordinances required for exaltation hinged on the Saints’ ability to administer the ordinances. On March 4, 1844, with an unending list of concerns ranging from poverty to mob violence, Joseph set the priorities when he told the Twelve “we need the Temple more than anything else.” Three months later, the exterior walls of the temple were only partially completed when he and his brother Hyrum were murdered. Joseph did not live to administer any sealing ordinances within the temple.
UNLOCKING THE HEAVENS
Wilford met Joseph Smith in 1834 and over the course of their eleven-year association he gained an unshakable testimony of Joseph’s role as a prophet who communicated revealed truths. From 1834 to 1844 Wilford was a witness to the doctrines revealed to Joseph that moved the Saints forward in their understanding of God’s plan. He could not have imagined that forty-five years after Joseph’s death he would stand as the prophet of a new generation with the keys to unlock the heavens.
As prophet, Wilford relied on continuing revelation. Staying true to the purity of the restored gospel while being open to continual refinements and even corrections was a responsibility he understood well. He had witnessed Joseph’s adaptation to circumstances, such as the revelation on baptism for the dead. The initial revelation did not include practical details. The instructions on whether baptisms could be performed in the local river and streams changed once the temple font was prepared. The necessity of proper record keeping and the importance of witnesses were subsequently revealed, as was the need for women to act as proxies for women, and men for men. In 1857 Wilford reflected on these events and explained, “All was not revealed at once, but the Lord showed the Prophet a principle, and the people acted upon it according to the light which they had.”
DO EXACTLY WHAT GOD SAID
Wilford approached changes in temple practices in the 1890s with the same matter-of-fact acknowledgment that the Saints were doing the best they could with the information they had at the time. Wilford described his perspective on the unfolding of gospel principles and doctrines this way: “When a boy begins his education at school he begins at the first rudiments, and continues to progress step by step. It is so with the student in the study of the everlasting Gospel. There were not many principles revealed to us when we first received it, but they were developed to us as fast as we were capable of making use of them.”
Although Joseph Smith had been taught about Elijah’s mission in 1823 and began sealing couples in the 1840s, fifty years passed before the Saints had the experience necessary to understand the next step. It took time for them to raise or convert families who were prepared to enter the temples, and for those Saints to then vicariously baptize, ordain, and endow generations on the other side of the veil. The multigenerational growth of the Church was the final element needed to fulfill the instruction Joseph Smith had received seventy-one years earlier.
In April 1894 Wilford received the revelation on the law of adoption which led to a complete restructuring of the sealing ordinances. During the General Church Conference he shared the revelation with the Saints. Rather than adoption into the priesthood lineage of Church leaders, Wilford told the Saints to seal children to parents, and parents to grandparents. “Then,” he explained, “you will do exactly what God said when He declared He would send Elijah the prophet in the last days.” With this pronouncement, Wilford expanded and extended the scope of temple ordinance work and changed the sealing practices that had been taught in the Church since the Nauvoo period.
Wilford received this revelation almost twenty-two hundred years after Malachi recorded his prophecy regarding the sealing powers of Elijah and seventy years after Elijah’s mission to connect the generations of the children of God was explained to Joseph Smith. However, the concepts that Joseph had introduced in the months before his death were subsequently interpreted and instituted by Brigham Young and John Taylor according to the understanding they had at the time. Wilford told the Saints that he, Brigham Young, and John Taylor felt “there was more to be revealed on the subject.”
For the fifty years preceding Wilford’s 1894 revelation, there had been three types of sealing ordinances: the sealing of couples, the sealing of children to their parents, and sealings into another man’s priesthood lineage, known as adoptions. Wilford’s concerns and inquiries regarding these practices led to the revelation in 1894 and the changes he understood were necessary to correctly implement God’s will. Only then could family units be created generation upon generation through the sealing power, and links in the eternal family chain be properly connected. When Wilford acknowledged in 1857 that the “full particulars of this order” were not revealed until after the days of Joseph Smith, he told the Saints this showed an advance in building the kingdom and proved the importance of continuing revelation. His statement foreshadowed the fact that he was not only a witness to the incremental development of temple ordinances and practices over the course of nineteenth-century Church history, he was also the instrument through which many revealed changes were made.
Understanding the development of Church doctrine and practices regarding the sealing ordinances from 1844 to 1894 is key to comprehending the impact of the revelation Wilford received. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, although he taught the concept of an unbroken patriarchal priesthood chain spanning the dispensations and discussed the need for children to be sealed to their parents, he only officiated in the ordinance of sealing men and women as couples. There are no records of any priesthood adoptions or child-to-parent sealings before he was killed in June 1844. It was only after Joseph’s death, when the Nauvoo Temple was sufficiently completed in 1845, that Brigham Young began sealing children to parents and initiated the first adoptions of men into the priesthood lineage of other men.
When the Endowment House was constructed in Salt Lake City in 1855, only endowments and marriage sealings were performed there; priesthood sealings or adoptions and the sealing of children to parents would not be allowed until the St. George Temple was dedicated. In January 1856, Brigham gave what Wilford called “one of the greatest sermons he had ever delivered on earth.” Wilford recorded Brigham’s counsel on families, ordinances, and covenants, among other things. In his discourse Brigham called priesthood adoptions “the highest ordinance,” and “the last ordinance of the Kingdom of God on the earth.” He told the Saints that priesthood adoptions represent a final sealing and were “above all the endowments that can be given you.”
Yet, in 1862, Brigham referred to adoption as the “principle that has not been named by me in years.” He told the Saints that although priesthood adoption was a glorious doctrine, and they needed to complete the unbroken chain of the priesthood from Adam to the latest generation, the Saints were not ready for it. He then explained he had received revelation on “how to organize this people so that they can live like the family of heaven,” but could not carry it out “while so much selfishness and wickedness reign in the Elders of Israel.” His reluctance was due to the unsuccessful attempt to use priesthood adoption as an organizational tool in the exodus from Nauvoo.
Five years later, in Brigham Young’s remarks to the Saints gathered in the Tabernacle, he wondered out loud, “Will the time ever come that we can commence and organize this people as a family? It will. Do we know how? Yes; what was lacking in these revelations from Joseph to enable us to do so was revealed to me. Do you think we will ever be one? When we get home to our Father and God will we not wish to be in the family? Will it not be our highest ambition and desire to be reckoned as the sons of the living God, as the daughters of the Almighty . . . ?”
Accordingly, as the construction of the temple progressed in St. George, Church leaders began to encourage the Saints to prepare themselves for the ordinances of sealing and adoption that they would finally be able to administer. Wilford’s discourses through the years maintained this central theme: that God had raised them up in the last dispensation to carry on His work; His work would be accomplished through the priesthood; and God had given the Saints “the kingdom and the keys thereof.” He pleaded with the Saints not to disappoint God or neglect the things of eternal life for earthly pursuits. He then told the men that one thing—making it possible for their wives and children to dwell with them in the presence of God—would amply pay them for “the labors of a thousand years.” Finally he asked, “What is anything we can do or suffer, to be compared with the multiplicity of kingdoms, thrones and principalities that God has revealed to us?”
ADOPTIONS IN THE ST. GEORGE TEMPLE
After the completion of the St. George Temple in 1877, the ordinance of adoption was reintroduced and practiced in conjunction with sealings of husbands to wives, and children to parents, for both the living and dead. Wilford performed the first adoption in the St. George Temple on March 22, 1877, and began having others adopted to him shortly thereafter. By 1885 his journal record shows that forty-five persons had been adopted to him. Between 1877 and 1894 he officiated in the adoptions of ninety-six men to other priesthood holders.
Sealing the marriages of deceased husbands and wives was also done in the St. George Temple. However, widows who had been married to non-members or “unworthy” husbands were counseled to be sealed to living priesthood holders, rather than take the risk that their deceased husbands might not accept the gospel or be valiant in the spirit world. Depending on their ages and temporal needs, the sealings were either considered adoption into a man’s priesthood line or resulted in plural marriage relationships. The children, if any, were sealed rather than adopted to the new husband, and the deceased spouse was then adopted as a child as well, in order to ensure his connection to the family’s priesthood line.
BORN UNDER THE COVENANT
Because adoption was a sealing ordinance, the two terms were used almost interchangeably. The difference was determined by biological relationships in some cases, and the distinction was made based on when parents were endowed and sealed. In answer to the question, “How many children are entitled to the blessings of Abraham?” Wilford recorded Brigham’s counsel. Brigham had explained that all children who are born after their parents have been endowed and sealed are entitled to those blessings. Children born before their parents’ sealing would need to be adopted to their parents. He encouraged all who want the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to get their endowments before getting married. “Then,” he assured them, “all your children will be heirs to the Priesthood.”
After waiting for thirty-one years, children—born before their parents’ marriage was sealed—could be sealed to their parents in the St. George Temple. Wilford and Phebe’s first child Sarah, who died as a child prior to their sealing in 1843, was sealed to them by proxy on November 9, 1881. Children whose deceased parents were not members of the Church were adopted to a priesthood holder. This alleviated the concern over the worthiness of deceased parents, particularly those who had been adamantly opposed to their child’s affiliation to the Church when they were alive. For this reason, the practice of adoption to living and deceased Church leaders—rather than parents for whom ordinances had been performed by proxy—continued.
MORE TO BE REVEALED
Even though the practice of priesthood adoption continued under Wilford’s leadership as President of the St. George Temple, it was something that concerned him. Wilford’s own reticence is evidenced by the fact that he waited eighteen years after the reintroduction of the adoption ordinance in 1877 to have members of his family adopted to Joseph Smith. When the Logan and Manti temples began operating in the 1880s and the Salt Lake Temple was finally completed in 1893, the implications of the practice became more troublesome to Wilford as President of the Church. Those, including Wilford, who had traced their family history back many generations wanted to seal or adopt their family members so their place in the family of God would be secured.
In 1891 Edward Bunker Sr., a good friend of Wilford’s and a former Bishop in the St. George Stake, wrote a letter detailing his concerns regarding the practice of adoption (among other things) to the Stake leadership. Edward did not believe there was a man on earth that thoroughly understood the principle of adoption, or at least he had never been taught it in a way he could understand. He wrote, “I believe it is permitted more to satisfy the minds of the people for the present until the Lord reveals more fully on the principle.”
Edward Bunker’s sentiments echoed those of Brigham Young spoken in 1846, almost fifty years earlier. At that time Brigham had explained that the law of adoption was “a schoolmaster to bring them back into the covenant of the Priesthood” and he was aware that it was “not clearly understood by many” at that time. Brigham then confessed that even he “had only a smattering of those things,” but was sure that more would be revealed.
Based on Wilford’s own concerns, and perhaps those expressed by others through the years, he sought additional revelation on the sealing ordinances. In his April 1894 Conference address, Wilford confirmed Brigham’s statement. He told the Saints that, although they had been acting according to all the light and knowledge they had, “I have not felt satisfied, neither did President Taylor, neither has any man since the Prophet Joseph who has attended to the ordinance of adoption in the temples of our God. We have felt that there was more to be revealed upon the subject than we had received.” Wilford explained that he and his counselors had prayed over the matter, and he had indeed received revelation outlining the changes that must be made “in order to satisfy our Heavenly Father, satisfy our dead and ourselves.”
He then announced that it was the will of the Lord for the Saints “from this time to trace their genealogies as far as they can, and to be sealed to their fathers and mothers.” He also said that the Saints should have children sealed to their parents, and “run this chain through as far as you can get it.” This meant they would be connecting the generations by strengthening natural ties instead of creating convoluted links.
Recognizing the simplicity of the revelation, Wilford reflected on the commencement of the practice of adoption in Nauvoo. Referring to the fact that some men campaigned in an effort to enlarge their “kingdoms,” he acknowledged that “there was a spirit manifested by some in that work that was not of God.” Hundreds of men and women were adopted to men “not of their lineage.” He told the Saints that when he prayed to know who he should be adopted to, “the Spirit of God said to me, ‘Have you not a father, who begot you?’ ‘Yes, I have.’ ‘Then why not honor him? Why not be adopted to him?’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘that is right.’”
In his remarks, Wilford also included special instructions to the women of the Church whose husbands had died without hearing the gospel. In the past, he said, the request of a woman in this situation who wanted to be sealed to her husband was denied and she was told she could not be sealed to him. He continued, “Many a woman’s heart has ached because of this, and as a servant of God I have broken that chain.” He did not think it right to deprive a woman of being sealed to her husband because, he queried, “What do any of us know with regard to him? Will he not hear the gospel and embrace it in the spirit worlds?”
ONE STEP IN ADVANCE
Wilford emphasized that this change in practice was not a new doctrine, but actually based on what had been revealed to Joseph Smith regarding the mission of Elijah. He referred to Joseph’s 1842 letter to the Saints when Joseph first said there must be a welding link between the fathers and the children. Wilford went on to explain, “I was adopted to my father, and should have had my father sealed to his father, and so on back; and the duty that I want every man who presides over a temple to see performed from this day henceforth and forever, unless the Lord Almighty commands otherwise, is, let every man be adopted to his father. When a man receives the endowments, adopt him to his father; not to Wilford Woodruff, nor to any other man outside the lineage of his fathers. That is the will of God to this people. . . . [L]et every man be adopted to his father; and then you will do exactly what God said when he declared he would send Elijah the prophet in the last days. . . . [T]hen we will make one step in advance of what we have had before. This is the will of the Lord to this people, and I think when you come to reflect upon it you will find it to be true.”
The Saints had initially worried that being sealed to those who had not accepted the gospel on earth, including their own parents, might put their salvation in jeopardy if those individuals did not accept the gospel in the spirit world. Wilford’s response to this concern was three-fold. First he reminded them that “God is no respecter of persons; he will not give privileges to one generation and withhold them from another; and the whole human family, from father Adam down to our day, have got to have the privilege, somewhere, of hearing the Gospel of Christ; and the generations that have passed and gone without hearing that Gospel in its fullness, power and glory, will never be held responsible by God for not obeying it, neither will he bring them under condemnation for rejecting a law they never saw or understood; and if they live up to the light they had they are justified so far, and they have to be preached to in the spirit world.”
Second, he wanted the Saints to understand it was not the responsibility of the living to judge, but to do their part in offering the choice by performing the saving ordinances by proxy for every member of the human family regardless of their perceived worthiness. To those who asked, “What if these people do not receive the Gospel?” he answered, “That will be their fault, not mine. This is a duty that rests upon all Israel, that they shall attend to this work, as far as they have the opportunity here on the earth.” This, in Wilford’s view, was what was required of the Saints. The knowledge that all of the temple ordinances would eventually be performed for all God’s children changed the Saints’ perspective on the perceived need to be sealed to one of the leaders of the Church instead of their own fathers and mothers.
Finally, Wilford assured them that, “There will be very few, if any, who will not accept the Gospel.” Confusion regarding the status of adoptions to leaders or relatives who subsequently left the Church was replaced with the understanding that, regardless of their perceived worthiness or faithfulness on earth, all God’s children should be given the benefit of the doubt and be included as a link in the eternal family. Furthermore, the sealing blessings would still be applicable to each individual who remained worthy of their sealing covenants regardless of the choices made by others.
Wilford concluded his remarks by saying, “It is my duty to honor my father who begot me in the flesh. It is your duty to do the same. When you do this, the Spirit of God will be with you. And we shall continue this work, the Lord adding light to that which we have already received. . . . Go and be adopted to your fathers, and save your fathers, and stand at the head of your father’s house, as saviors upon Mount Zion, and God will bless you in this.” “This is,” he continued, “what I want carried out in our temples. I have had a great anxiety over this matter. I have had a great desire that I might live to deliver these principles to the Latter-day Saints, for they are true. They are one step forward in the work of the ministry and in the work of the endowments in these temples of our God.”
When he reflected on the history of the Church and the development of his own understanding, he simply said, “There will be no end to this work until it is perfected.”
George Q. Cannon—his first counselor in the First Presidency—spoke next and added his testimony in support of the revealed changes. “[Y]ou can see the advantage of pursuing now the course that is pointed out by the word of God to us,” he said, “It will make everyone careful to obtain the connection and to get the names properly of the sons and daughters of men to have them sealed to their parents. It will draw the line fairly; it will define lineage clearly.”
THE FAMILY OF GOD
These principles are still practiced and believed by Church members: the fulfillment of the mission of Elijah is to bind families together, to link the generations, to seal the children to their fathers and the fathers to their God. All other priesthood ordinances are designed to lead members step by step toward this ultimate goal of eternal families.
Wilford’s announcement rewrote the nature of temple ordinances and changed the perspective of the Saints not only regarding their own parents and grandparents but with regard to the need to return to the temple again and again. For fifty years, following the introduction of proxy temple sealings, the Saints were only able to seal children to parents if the father was ordained to the priesthood. Therefore, sealings to deceased parents were limited to those who had accepted the gospel in mortality until proxy ordination began in 1877 in the St. George Temple. Even then, proxy sealings were only performed for one deceased generation. Although Church members had collected names of relatives in order to act as proxy in their baptisms and endowments, they were not able to organize these relatives into individual family units and perform sealings generation upon generation.
With the reassurance that most, if not all, of their family members would accept the gospel in the spirit world, the Saints were able to move forward. Rather than only performing ordinances for those they judged worthy or sealing to those they presumed would accept the gospel, they would leave judgment to God. Following Wilford’s announcement in 1894, those who had previously sealed fathers to non-relatives or mothers and their children to priesthood leaders could now make natural family connections, sealing children to parents through every generation. By 1897, in the Salt Lake Temple alone, 21,288 couples were sealed by proxy and 17,936 children were sealed to their parents.
Naturally the Saints wondered about the validity of the more than 13,000 sealings and adoptions previously performed between unrelated individuals. The counsel given was to focus on organizing and sealing generational families, not to worry about undoing ordinance work previously completed. This also remains the standard in Church practice regarding proxy ordinance work. The Saints are counseled to do their best research and record keeping and rest assured that the validity of all ordinances will be determined “beyond the veil.” Ultimately it is up to each individual, because all must “qualify themselves” for and accept the saving and exalting ordinances performed in their behalf.
THEY SHALL LEARN WISDOM
Throughout the history of the Church, whenever changes occurred in the temple ordinances or the Church organization, some questioned why these things were not perfected in the beginning. To those who wondered, and those who still wonder, the Lord responds: “I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.”
In Wilford’s May 1894 address he made it clear that God would continue to guide the work of the Church, particularly in relation to the temples: “I want to say, as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that we should now go on and progress. We have not gotten through with revelation. We have not gotten through with the work of God. But at this period we want to go on and fulfill this commandment of God given through Malachi—that the Lord should send Elijah the prophet.” Wilford explained that although Brigham Young accomplished all that God required at his hands, he did not receive all the revelations that belong to this work; neither did John Taylor nor had Wilford as prophet. Wilford then concluded, “There will be no end to this work until it is perfected.”
Thus he reminded the Saints that prophets and revelation were still a vital part of the progress of God’s work, that although Joseph Smith had been inspired to lay a firm foundation before his death in 1844, God would work through His subsequent prophets to continue perfecting the Church structure built on that foundation. Wilford’s devotion to Joseph and deference to his predecessors did not prevent him from believing that God had yet to reveal many great and important things pertaining to His Kingdom.
Footnote references and the chapters these excerpts were extracted from are in Wilford Woodruff's Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine.