I vividly remember my excitement when, in January 1972, I first heard a recording of Wilford Woodruff testifying to the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. Almost incredibly, this was the actual voice of someone who had not only known the Prophet but had worked closely with him in church leadership.
The recording was made on March 19, 1897, using a wax-cylinder device invented by Thomas Edison. An earlier and perhaps identical recording had been made exactly a week earlier by Joseph J. Daynes Jr., who was President Woodruff’s son-in-law and the president of Salt Lake City’s Daynes Music. But its quality had proven unsatisfactory, and it no longer survives.
President Woodruff wrote his statement out, and it’s interesting to see what he thought important enough to include in the first recording ever made by a church president.
“I bear my testimony,” he declared, “that the Prophet Joseph Smith said, before a large assemblage in Illinois, that if he were the emperor of the world and had control over the whole human family he would sustain every man, woman and child in the enjoyment of their religion. These are my sentiments today.”
President Woodruff chose to emphasize the Latter-day Saint commitment to religious freedom. He did so on other occasions, too, and in similar language. One 1898 diarist mentions his recounting that “he had heard the Prophet Joseph Smith say many times that if he, Joseph, were the Emperor of the whole world, he would let every man, woman, and child worship God as they pleased and would protect them in the free exercise of their religion.”
President Woodruff also spoke of the so-called “Last Charge” meeting, held on March 26, 1844 — the last meeting of Joseph Smith with the apostles before their departure for the East. (Joseph was assassinated just three months later; he seems to have expected his death.) This was a strictly confidential gathering, and no minutes survive from it.
“I bear my testimony,” said President Woodruff, “that in the early spring of 1844, in Nauvoo, the Prophet Joseph Smith called the Twelve Apostles together and he delivered unto them the ordinances of the church and kingdom of God; and all the keys and powers that God had bestowed upon him, he sealed upon our heads, and he told us that we must round up our shoulders and bear off this kingdom, or we would be damned. I am the only man now living in the flesh who heard that testimony from his mouth, and I know that it was true by the power of God manifest to him. At that meeting he stood on his feet for about three hours and taught us the things of the kingdom. His face was as clear as amber, and he was covered with a power that I had never seen in any man in the flesh before. In all his testimonies to us the power of God was visibly manifest with the Prophet Joseph.”
President Woodruff testified on several occasions regarding the amber-like clarity of the Prophet’s face during that “Last Charge” meeting, and numerous others who knew Joseph left statements about his luminous transparency during the receipt of revelations.
Aware that he was the last living apostolic link to Joseph Smith, President Woodruff was plainly using Edison’s device in a bid to communicate his witness to future generations:
“I bear my testimony that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, ordained of God to lay the foundation of his church and kingdom in the last dispensation of the fullness of times. The Prophet Joseph laid down his life for the word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ, and he will be crowned as a martyr in the presence of God and the Lamb.
“This is my testimony, spoken by myself into a talking machine on this the 19th day of March, 1897, in the 91st year of my age.”
Recognizing that he would soon die, Wilford Woodruff reiterated the Latter-day Saint commitment to religious liberty, bore record that Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles legitimately succeeded to church leadership, and testified that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ. He wanted later generations to know that he knew.
For excellent historical analysis, see Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Stephen H. Smoot, “Wilford Woodruff’s 1897 Testimony” (http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/banner-gospel-wilford-woodruff/10-wilford-woodruffs-1897-testimony).
Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, founded and edits MormonScholarsTestify.org and BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture," blogs on Patheos.com, and speaks only for himself.