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