About the Collection
John Stillman Woodbury
by Brian A. Warburton
John Stillman Woodbury was born 20 November 1825 in New Salem, Massachusetts, to Jeremiah Woodbury and Elizabeth Bartlett. In his early years John helped work on the family farm. John’s mother had suffered for years from a lung problem and had almost died several times. In 1841 Mormon missionaries came to the Woodbury home and John’s mother asked them to administer to her. After the blessing she was healed and the family was convinced of the truthfulness of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The family was baptized, with John being baptized on 29 August 1841, and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the members of the church were gathering. While in Nauvoo, John enjoyed the associations with prominent leaders of the church, including Joseph Smith. John received his patriarchal blessing from Hyrum Smith, the Prophet’s brother.
In the winter of 1846 the Mormons were driven from Nauvoo by mobs and the Woodbury family joined with the main body of saints at Winter Quarters, Nebraska. In the spring of 1847 they prepared to leave for the Salt Lake Valley with the other members of the church. Two of John’s brothers, William and Joseph, were married and their wives refused to go any further. The family bid farewell to the two brothers and their wives, who returned to Massachusetts. The rest of the family continued on with the Mormon pioneers and were part of Abraham O. Smoot’s group of hundred, which arrived in the Salt Lake Valley 25 September 1847. After their arrival in Salt Lake John’s father started a nursery business.
In 1850 John was called to serve a mission to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). He was set apart for this calling by President Brigham Young and was promised the gifts of tongues and healing. President Young also encouraged John to marry and take his wife with him on his mission. John followed through with this and married Elvira Stevens on 23 December 1850. On 13 March 1851 John and his new wife left for California with a large company of saints under the direction of Parley P. Pratt. Once the company reached California John’s wife temporarily stayed in San Bernadino, and later San Francisco because of illness, but joined him later. John continued on to Hawaii and arrived there in August 1851.1 John stopped writing in his journal while still in California and he didn’t resume writing until 1853. By this time he had become fluent in the language and was actively preaching the gospel and directing congregations of new converts. John often wrote of the opposition he faced from other religions. “Today held meeting at this house. About thirty in attendance they gave good attention and many are believing but have not courage to come out and obey the gospel, fearing the reproach of men and the old Calvinistic church.”2 John spent four years preaching on the Hawaiian Islands and came to greatly love the people he had served and lived with. When it came time for him to depart he expressed his feeling for the people. “After making a few remarks, expressive of my kindly (& good) feelings towards them & my desires & prayers for their welfare & eternal happiness & for the blessings of heaven to rest upon them & blessing them in the name of the Lord with a full heart I bid them farewell.”3 John sailed, with a group of saints from Australia, for San Francisco and from there continued on to Salt Lake.
John arrived in Salt Lake in 1856 and may have been granted a divorce from Elvira at that time.4 John was again called to the Sandwich Islands mission and left Salt Lake on 13 May 1857 with a wagon train heading for San Francisco. He sailed from San Francisco on 8 September 1857. When John returned to Hawaii he was not greeted with good news. He was informed by the missionaries that the great success the islands had experienced during his first mission had ceased. “They state that the work is at a very low ebb on these islands, that the native saints are nearly dead & many have left the church all together.” But John stayed positive and that same day wrote in his journal “Yet I do not feel discouraged, but to exersis the more faith and dilagance in the work of the Lord.”5 John continued to work hard, but this mission was cut short when the missionaries were called back to Utah in 1858, because of the “Utah War”. After returning to Utah John found the crisis had passed and he was called by Brigham Young to help settle the Saint George area of Southwestern Utah. The trip to Saint George was very rough and dangerous and John’s daughter recorded that he had to let his wagon down over cliffs with chains.6 Once in St. George John followed in his father’s footsteps and started a fruit tree nursery. In December 1863 John met Martha Alice Parker at a Christmas party. The two fell in love and were married a year later, in the Salt Lake Endowment House, on 27 December 1864. John took his new wife back to St. George where they lived out their lives together, becoming the parents of ten children.
John was called a third and final time to go on a mission to the Sandwich Islands in 1876. John was nervous about leaving his young family behind, especially because his wife had an eye disease that had left her blind. John expressed his concerns to his Stake President, Erastus Snow. President Snow told John to lay his hands on his wife, dedicate her to the Lord and promise her that her sight would be restored. John gave his wife the blessing before leaving for his mission 4 January 1877. The promise given to the Woodbury’s was fulfilled and according to their daughter, Susan, her mother’s sight was restored just before her father’s release to go home.7
When John returned from his mission and to his business and farming, he served as a High Councilman in the LDS church for many years, and in September 1896 he was ordained a patriarch for the St. George Stake. John died 21 December 1914 at his home in St. George and was buried in the city cemetery. After hearing the news of John’s death President Joseph F. Smith, the prophet of the LDS church remarked that “He was the kindest man I ever knew. He was a father to me in the Hawaiian mission field. He met me at the boat when I landed—a boy of fifteen years, sick and heartbroken over the death of my mother. He fed me and nursed me back to health, and on the white sands of the beach, he taught me the Hawaiian language.”8
1 R. Lanier Britsch, Unto the Islands of the Sea: A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Pacific. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986). 103.
2 John Stillman Woodbury, “Diaries, 1851- 1877”. MSS 168, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. 20 February 1853.
3 Ibid., 12 August 1855.
4 Susan Camilla Woodbury Judd, “History of John Stillman Woodbury,” L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. This short history written by Woodbury’s daughter claims that he was granted a divorce in 1856. 3.
5 Woodbury. 24 September 1857.
6 Judd,. 3.
7 Ibid., 4.
8 Ibid., 5.
Britsch, R. Lanier. Unto the Islands of the Sea: A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Pacific. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1986.
Carter, Kate B. Treasures of Pioneer History. Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1952.
Easton, Susan Ward. Pioneers of 1847. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1980.
Esshom, Frank. Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah. Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1966.
Judd, Susan Camilla Woodbury. “History of John Stillman Woodbury.” L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.
Woodbury, John Stillman. “Diaries, 1851-1877.” MSS 168, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.