The Wagon Box Prophecy and the Temples

History is a fascinating world to explore, with many twists and turns along the way as we come to understand more about the narratives we have received and how they were formed.  Each generation of historians has the opportunity to try and peel back the world we live in and get at the truth of what happened in the past.  A fascinating example of this was discussed in a recent 10 questions interview with Gary Boatright, the operations manager for Church historic sites.  What follows here is a co-post to Kurt Manwaring’s interview—a summary with some commentary and quotes from the original, but I encourage you to go read the full interview here.

An important story of Church history for Latter-day Saints living in southern and eastern Idaho is known as the “Wagon Box Prophecy.”  According to the most frequent rendition of the tale, in 1884, Wilford Woodruff and Heber J. Grant visited southern Idaho and comforted newly-relocated Saints that were facing difficult times there.  While visiting one small group, Elder Woodruff preached from a wagon box, and said that: “The spirit of the Lord rests mightily upon me and I feel to bless you in the name of Jesus Christ.” He then went on to bless the land and prophesy of homes, schools, churches, and temples. “Yes,” he proclaimed, “as I look into the future of this great valley I can see temples. …”  Now, my in-laws live in eastern Idaho, and I have heard the story told a few times in connection with both the Idaho Falls Temple and the Rexburg Temple while visiting the area.  In fact, it was important enough to the Saints living there that a major monument commemorating the moment was proposed by a group living in the area around 2010, resulting in Gary Boatright and his colleagues investigating the history of the event.  His findings are an interesting study in how a story sometimes grows with the telling and a cautionary tale in sharing faith-promoting stories not entirely based in fact.

As Gary Boatright began his search, he realized very quickly that it was difficult to find a primary source for the story.  He found the same “declaration over and over in several publications, but not one of them cited a primary source.”  Even in an article by Mary Jane Fritzen devoted to the “Search for Sources for Wilford Woodruff’s Idaho ‘Wagon Box Prophecy’,” there was, ultimately no “original source for the quote, specifically the line about temples.”  As far as the words said when they were visiting with a small group of Saints, Boatright summarized that:

Contemporary accounts of the meeting contain minimal information. Wilford Woodruff simply recorded the names of the speakers and the length of their remarks in minutes. Heber J. Grant’s journal fails to provide any additional information. However, years later, during general conference in April 1899, Elder Grant recalled the meeting and shared a detailed account of Wilford Woodruff’s remarks.

According to Elder Grant, Elder Woodruff said, “Be not disheartened, because, God’s blessing is upon this land. It will be but a little time until there will be prosperous and happy settlements of the Latter-day Saints here.”

Elder Grant recalled his fellow Apostle stating that they would soon have a meetinghouse, a school, and “all the facilities here that you had at home before you came here.”

Elder Grant then asked the general conference audience, “What is the result today?” He explained that the Saints had built up the town of Iona and a stake consisting of nearly 5,000 people. Regarding Wilford Woodruff’s prophecy of the future of the community, Elder Grant concluded, “The words of the prophet Wilford Woodruff have been fulfilled to the very letter.”

Note that there is no mention of a temple in the account and that in 1899, when Elder Grant said the prophecy had been fulfilled, there was still no temple in Idaho (or any temple operating outside of Utah, for that matter).

It was only as Boatright dug through the Church History Library’s catalogue that he found what he came realize was the source of the statement—a pageant script by J. Karl Wood written to celebrate the laying of the corner stone of the Idaho Falls Temple in 1940.  Wood believed that “that the purpose of religious pageants and plays is to appeal to the emotions of the people, to make them feel intensely the spirit of the church and to give them insight into the history of the Latter-day Saints.”  It seems that because it was his hope “that the heart strings may be touched to the extent that we may appreciate our great heritage a little more,” he took some creative license in shaping Elder Woodruff’s words in the pageant, using the summary of his remarks given by Elder Grant, but adding the statement that: “Yes, and as I look into the future of this great valley I can see temples—I can see beautiful temples erected to the name of the Living God where holy labors may be carried on in His name through generations to come.”  From the perspective 1940, a time where a temple was going to finally be built in Idaho after nearly fifty years of having four temples operating in Utah, it probably seemed a logical extrapolation to make from the statement that the Saints that they would have “all the facilities here that you had at home before you came here,” even if Elder Woodruff never actually mentioned temples.  As Gary Boatright put it, Wood “took the liberty to expand the story to help connect the past to the present.”

The expanded version of Elder Woodruff’s remarks that was presented in the pageant was accepted by many of those who attended as an accurate depiction of the past and quoted by them, becoming part of the historical narrative.  As Boatright explained:

Within two years of the pageant, Fred Schwendiman, a resident of Idaho Falls and later a member of the temple presidency, published an article in the Church’s Improvement Era. The article explained how Church leaders prophesied of a temple in the area and then proceeded to share a narrative similar to Wood’s pageant script, including the line about temples.

It was not word for word, but clearly Schwendiman used the pageant as his source. I can’t find any evidence that he was involved in the pageant, but he records in his journal that he attended the production.

Within a few short years, the account of the Wagon Box Prophecy shared in the pageant was solidified as a historical fact.

During the dedication of the Idaho Falls Temple in September 1945, Elder Ezra Taft Benson shared the story during one of the dedicatory sessions. Elder Benson’s remarks were later shared with thousands of members of the Church in the Church News.

Though Benson’s telling of the story is not word for word, it is clearly based on the pageant script.

Did Benson know that the quote, specifically the addition of temples, was created for the pageant?

I doubt it. He unknowingly shared a created history, which he and many other people assumed was fact.

Since the dedication, the story has been shared in articles and books, written on historic markers, and recreated in other pageants and cultural celebrations. The few times there is a citation with the quote, the source most frequently cited is the Church News report of Elder Benson’s dedicatory remarks.

Through the pageant, Schwendiman’s article, and Elder Benson’s remarks, J. Karl Wood’s version of Wilford Woodruff’s “Wagon Box Prophecy” was accepted as history.

There are analogues to this story in the history of other temples.  At least in the Intermountain West, the idea of a prophecy that a temple will be built in a specific location is an important part of the narrative of many temples.  Sometimes, however, the desire to have that prophecy distorts the historical facts.  For example, in Brigham City, Utah, it was commonly accepted that Brigham Young had visited the settlement and prophesied that there would be a temple built there, with a location called the old Reservoir Hill being the spot where it would be built.  The tradition was so strong that when the Church announced that a temple would be built in downtown Brigham City rather than on the hill, some Latter-day Saints in the area were surprised or confused by the decision.  Clint Christensen of the Church History Department did some research and found that much of the story grew out of a 1911 incident, where a resident named Joseph F. Hansen offered land on Reservoir Hill to the Church for the purpose of building a temple, and offer which received some favorable consideration by the First Presidency, but was ultimately turned down because he didn’t have a clear title to the property.[1]  The desire for a prophecy about the temple and (potentially) some remarks from Brigham Young blended with later events, leading to an inaccurate collective memory of history.

So what do we learn from all this about verifying source accuracy when hearing and telling faith promoting stories?  Gary Boatright had the following to share:

During my 20 years with the Church History Department, I have come to appreciate the value, importance, and power that comes with sharing an accurate history.

I remember the first time I visited Historic Nauvoo. During a tour of one of the homes, the guide shared a story—a much-beloved story—that is not true. As other guests were getting moist eyes because of this emotional story, I was standing there and thinking, “This story isn’t true. It’s a great story, but it didn’t happen.”

Regardless of how many times the story is told, regardless of who tells it or the venue where it is told, it will never be true.

A true and accurate history is genuinely faith promoting. There is no need to embellish the past.

We are seeing the truth of this in Saints, the new multi-volume history of the Church. An accurate history is also a faith-promoting history. …

For me it is amazing to see that the early Saints were a lot like me. Ordinary people doing their best to live a successful life and striving to be faithful to the Lord and to His Church. That is what I am trying to do.

It’s an approach to Church history that I appreciate and respect.

As mentioned, what has been presented here is a summary with commentary on the full interview with Gary Boatright, which is available here.  For more insights into the story of the “Wagon Box Prophesy,” J. Karl Wood, and what Boatright finds inspiring about Church history (including Wilford Woodruff’s visit to Idaho in 1884), I recommend going and reading the 10 questions interview with Kurt Manwaring.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See Clint Christensn, “High on the Mountain Top?” Box Elder News Journal, August 2012.

19 comments for “The Wagon Box Prophecy and the Temples

  1. It is good for members to share stories of faith. That can be done honestly — the teller believes the story to be true and uses it for an honorable purpose. It is also good for historians to look for history, and to help improve or change or stop future tellings of the story. All of this can be done charitably.

    It is not good for a person to present a story as true when knowing otherwise. It is also not good for a person to hate the teller of a story when the teller shares a untrue story but in good faith and for a good purpose.

    We need charity and we need honesty. I am glad the Church is taking steps to own its own history.

    The pageant as the source of the inaccurate embellishment of the story is good to know. Hopefully, and charitably, people will come to see their inadvertent error and will stop telling the untrue version. In a non-church context, think of Hollywood — so many allegedly historical movies contain untrue elements, yet only a few people know catch them. For example, I know that the Nuremberg trials movie of a few years ago has far more untruths than truths — indeed, it is almost wholly fake — but a non-historian might think it is true. But there is a difference — Elder Benson said what he said and told a story he thought was true to help strengthen the faith of his fellow Saints, while the Hollywood producers deliberately and purposefully lied to create drama, to virtue signal themselves as woke, and to make money.

    I hope the church historians will help us tell our stories better. I hope to charitably accept and adapt to continuing learnings without hating others who might be shown to have shared untrue stories.

  2. Thanks for this post. I don’t think that it’s been ever more apparent about how untruths spread faster than truths.
    I think it’s extra important for the church to focus on the truths. I suspect that something which contributes to people leaving the church is finding out things that they thought were true/part of the gospel, turn out to not be true.

  3. Sometimes when I explore the origins of an ahistorical story at Keepa, I note that the Spirit testifies of truth, and cannot testify of falsity. Sometimes when a person is moved by hearing a story-that-is-not-so, I suppose the person is moved by the spirit of sincerity of the teller, or perhaps the spirit of “truthiness,” of something that illustrates a principle we believe to be true even when the illustration itself didn’t happen.

    Mostly, though, I think we are moved in such cases by mere sentiment, by emotional manipulation even when the teller doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing. This can be a problem when the believer eventually finds out that he has believed a fabrication, or perhaps more often when the line between sentiment and Spirit becomes so blurred that people can no longer tell the difference, or even reject the Spirit because it doesn’t come with the same tear-provoking sentiment he has been conditioned to expect.

    That’s why I believe it is imperative that teachers — including so-called motivational/inspirational speakers — and writers of, hypothetical books — not overdramatize or embroider or emotionalize or sentimentalize the stories they tell. If a story is true, the facts, which can be told in graceful or poetic or moving language without stretching the facts themselves, will move an audience to respond to its truth. If you find yourself telling more than you heard or read when you learned the story, if you find yourself pounding home the “moral of the tale” rather than letting the story itself speak for itself, then you’ve gone too far.

    The truth is good enough.

  4. jader3rd, I agree. There’s a lot of issues where people feel betrayed by finding untruths, even though they often result from the Church being in a similar situation to Ezra Taft Benson in this story–repeating things that were assumed to be correct, but that turned out not to be when rigorous source checking was done later on. I think that the fact that they had Gary Boatright dig into this issue is a sign of how rigorous the history department is trying to be today when dealing with history in order to support efforts to focus on the truths.

    ji, thank you for sharing your thoughts, and I agree with you as well. I particularly like the way you stated that historian’s efforts can be used to charitably “improve or change or stop future tellings of the story.” I think this is a situation where it’s pretty easy to apply charity to the people involved. Wood was trying to make the past meaningful to the present, and I can really see where adding temples to the prophecy isn’t a big stretch of the imagination in the time and place where he was. It’s a much smaller change than what many Hollywood writers do to history, as you say. As far as the other players, who repeated the pageant’s wording without doing in-depth source research beforehand, that’s something that is very frequent, which is unfortunate but also understandable.

    Amen, Ardis. Couldn’t agree more.

  5. Well, let’s not get carried away. This isn’t a case of making up a story out of whole cloth. We may not have a contemporaneous transcript, but 15 years isn’t all that late as far as reminiscences go. And we do have an eyewitness report of a prophet saying there would be settlements, schools, meetinghouses and facilities. As far as source reliability and accuracy goes, that’s on the high end when it comes to prophecies like this. Seeing the temples as a particular fulfillment of the prophecy seems more to underline than to distort the original intent.

    This is not a case of historical inaccuracy, which is hardly the right category for understanding prophecies in any case. This is instead a near-perfect example of how prophecies are created, transmitted, and expanded. These prophecies get transmitted because people look up at the church or school or temple on the hill and see themselves inside the prophecy, experiencing its fulfillment. “Fact or fiction” is not the right way to frame this at all, and even if you did, what we have here seems to come down heavily on the side of fact.

  6. If a wife hears a story from a previously reliable source that her husband died in an accident while in a far-away place, she grieves and mourns. The person shared the news in good faith, honestly, and the wife grieved and mourned in good faith, honestly. The mother shares the story with her children, thinking it is true, and they have emotional reactions, both to the loss of their father and to the grief of their mother. All of this is honest, even if the underlying story is factually untrue. The wife starts to wear black clothing, and the kids are kept from the playground. Then, later, when they learn there was an inaccuracy in the story (maybe there really was an accident, but the husband wasn’t killed), they adapt to the new information. The kids don’t hate their mother for sharing an untrue story and making them stay away from the playground, and the mother doesn’t hate the person who delivered the inaccurate story that caused her grief, even though they were all emotionally affected by both the initial story and the later corrected story. Rather, everyone acts charitably.

    In the above, everyone has acted honestly — there is no dishonesty. My definition of honesty may differ from someone else’s.

  7. You’re right, Jonathan, “fact or fiction” is not the best way to frame the discussion and was a poor choice for the post title. I may have to adjust that. There was a prophecy made, so the main story in and of itself seems to be fact rather than fiction.

    I still see it as a distortion of the historical record and a form of presentism to see temples as a part of the prophecy, however. Wilford Woodruff spoke in 1884–a time when there was only one or two functioning temples. The St. George Temple had been operating for a few years, and the Logan Temple was either close to being finished or newly dedicated when Wilford Woodruff and Heber J. Grant visited Idaho (so would not have been functional when the settlers had arrived in Idaho). There was the Endowment House in Salt Lake City as well, but it wasn’t considered a fully functional temple. So, unless the Saints he was speaking to had moved from southwestern Utah, they wouldn’t have had a temple back home to consider as part of “all the facilities … that you had at home before you came here.” Hence, in 1899, Heber J. Grant felt that the prophecy had been completely fulfilled. It’s only looking back at the situation from the mid-20th century onwards that it would make sense to assume that temples would have been part of the prophecy. Nowadays, in my experience, the temples are what people are most interested in as being part of the story, which is why that is more the focus of the discussion than the communities being established in Idaho.

  8. Of course it’s presentism, but that too is how prophecies work: we recognize a potential meaning of the past that is expressed in the present. Or as Luther said, the meaning of many prophecies becomes clear only in their fulfillment.

    It’s useful to point out that Wilford Woodruff didn’t specifically mention temples, and that Heber J. Grant saw the prophecy as fulfilled in 1899. But I don’t think this particular case requires much modification to continue service as an inspiring story. It would only require shifting the rhetoric slightly to:

    In 1884, Woodruff said (as recorded by Grant) that Eastern Idaho would one day have thriving communities, schools, churches, etc.
    In 1899, Grant thought the prophecy was fulfilled by Iona, at the time a thriving town of 5,000.
    Imagine how overjoyed Grant and Woodruff would be to see cities, universities, temples…

    I think that’s accurate, and still leaves most of the frosting on the cake.

  9. I really appreciate Chad Nielsen’s efforts in tracking down the origins of the Wagon Box Prophecy. Having worked for decades as a professional translator for the government, and having been very good at my job, I can tell you emphatically that it is extremely difficult to achieve a fully accurate transcript of a speech, even if written copies are provided in advance. I think that this difficulty also applies to the passing on down of recollections about a historical event, and what was supposedly said on a given occasion.

    Also, our memory is fallible and often changes how we remember an event, even if we were a first-hand witness. I lived several years as a teenaged boy in a nice, older residential neighborhood in Stuttgart, Germany. I visited that neighborhood two years ago, and was confronted with the fact that my memory of many things was different from what was actually there; I am referring to things that had been consciously preserved, and kept unchanged, over the years. While it was a wonderful visit of remembrance, the evidence of my memory’s fallibility was a bit humbling.

    And, almost all people—and I must include myself in this group—like to embellish on things that have happened. We like to make the story more entertaining, or more powerful. This is basic human nature, and this also explains why we need the Chad Nielsens of the Church reconstructing what actually happened. I prefer my faith to be based as much as possible on actual events.

    Knowing these things, I am not bothered by differing accounts of the same events, in the four Gospels. Nor am I bothered by Joseph Smith’s differing accounts of the First Vision.

  10. Taiwan, just to be clear, it was Gary Boatright who did the difficult work of tracking down the sources. I just am lucky to get to work with his recent interview with Kurt Manwaring. I appreciate his work as well, though, and for similar reasons.

    Jonathan, I’d agree that that’s a good way to shift the rhetoric and preserve the meaning of the prophecy for Latter-day Saints today. Also, I did adjust the title of the post based on your recommendation to not frame it as a fact or fiction discussion.

  11. Chad Nielsen:

    Thank you for correction. Did I just prove my own point about fallible memory? In this case, straight from reading your post, to the comment section……

  12. For the record, the town of Iona has never approached a population of 5,000. Pres Grant was referring to the surrounding stake, probably Idaho Falls, which was established in 1895.

  13. I spent my teens in Rexburg, mid-60’s to mid-70’s. Though I have never heard this story, we were told a faith-promoting temple story that was not as positive. Our seminary teachers told us that our parents had argued that the temple should be built in Rexburg rather than Idaho Falls. They were told that as a result of their arrogance in thinking they knew more than the Church leaders, their children would be hard-hearted and disobedient. Our behavior was held up as the fulfillment of that prophecy.

  14. It has struck me for years that almost nothing that we “know” to be true or real is actually so. Not completely. Whether it is the D-day invasion, or the crossing of the Delaware, or stories of ancient times such as items from the life of Buddha or Jesus, or church history things such as the expulsion from Nauvoo, or the rescue of the handcart pioneers, or finally in this case a prophesy of temples in Idaho, we see time and again that some part of the collective narrative is wrong or untrue. Usually the untrue part is some sort of hopeful thinking or “filling in a gap” in the narrative. It shouldn’t bother us. And it is what keeps historians fed, paid, and relevant.

    There are always “facts” to re-examine. The reasons for the un-truths become as interesting as the un-truths themselves, because they show us what a people wish to believe. We become emotionally invested in the un-truth. We often have no interest in, or reason to, re-examine a story. President Benson didn’t feel a need (I think) to carefully research the temple aspects of the Wagon Box Prophesy, because it made sense to him. Prophets and apostles prophesy. It is what they do. So why examine a story that perfectly fits how we see life? Lance Armstrong wins bicycle races. Washington cannot tell a lie. Joseph Smith saw two personages. The crickets saved the pioneers. All of these are “true” in certain ways, but are flawed in other ways as well.

  15. Ji, I generally agree with what your comments said. I was uncomfortable that in two of your comments you use the word hate twice, in each. No one else in the comments uses hate.

    To me hate is an extreme negative emotional reaction, which could involve revenge, and loathing.

    Is this what you mean by hate? Or has it been redefined, to something like dislike, or unhappy?

    Just thought hate was not the apropriate word. Am I wrong.

  16. “They were told that as a result of their arrogance in thinking they knew more than the Church leaders, their children would be hard-hearted and disobedient. Our behavior was held up as the fulfillment of that prophecy.”

    Unlike the good-natured full-cooperation normally exhibited among children everywhere else. ;)

  17. Geoff,

    I wrote that it is not good to hate, as I believe that it is not good to hate. I used examples showing people not choosing to hate, but instead choosing to be charitable. I encourage charity in all that we do, and I never encourage hatred. If charity and hatred are imagined as being two ends of a continuum of possible emotional responses, I think it is generally better policy to choose responses towards the charity end of the continuum.

    In the context of the original posting: When someone learns that there might have been a factual inaccuracy in a story previously told by another in good faith, I hope he or she can react charitably towards the teller of the story.

    If substituting dislike as a euphemism for hate works better for you, I’m okay with that. That might even be a charitable approach.

  18. When I was young, I “learned” that the seagulls didn’t eat the crickets, they dropped them in the GSL to drown and then went back for more. Also, the reason for polygamy was a surfeit of males. Unfortunately, there are many, many “faith promoting rumors.” Many members’s foundational beliefs are predicated on these rumors. God protected the missionaries from the Brussels’ bombing and the Temple Choir was directed away from London explosions. God is shielding Mormons from the 19 virus. Paul Dunn became famous, and well-to-do, telling lies (or at least half truths). Elder Holland was caught with a couple questionable stories. Reality is interesting enough without having to fabricate stories.

    For me, God is not looking down and stirring the everyday moments of our lives.

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