In March of 1838, the newlyweds, Wilford and Phebe Woodruff, were in Maine where Phebe had accompanied Wilford on a mission, and where she was staying with her family in town. On an afternoon off from preaching and traveling, Wilford and Brother Cyrus Sterrett went with their wives for a visit to the shore. Wilford writes that they
“…went several hundred yards from shore to a sand bar (it being low tide), to dig clams. The ground near the shore was much lower than the bar we were on, and while we were all busy digging clams and talking “Mormonism,” the dashing of the waves of the incoming tide against the shore suddenly made us conscious that we had fifty yards of water between us and the shore. The surf waves also added to our difficulty, and as we had no boat, our only alternative was to cross our four arms, thus forming a kind of arm-chair for our wives to sit upon, and carry them in turn to the shore, wading through two-and-a-half feet of water. By the time we got our wives and clams safely landed, the truth of the maxim was firmly impressed upon our minds, that “Time and tide wait for no man,” not even for a preacher of the gospel.”
Wilford, writing about this in his autobiography Leaves from my Journal, calls it “Adventures in the Surf.” Adventures, indeed. This was one of the more fun adventures the couple saw in their long lives and is a great example of their life as a pair: they’re just glad to be in it together.
Phebe Whittemore Carter was born in 1807 in Scarborough, Maine. She was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1834 and moved to Kirtland, Ohio, soon after, where she met and married Wilford Woodruff in 1837. It was only a few months later that Wilford was called to serve in a mission in the eastern United States, and as they were just married and Phebe’s family was there, she went with him on the trip. And so we see their partnership and love story begin.
Wilford took the Bible verse to go “without purse and scrip” to heart and couldn’t afford the coach ticket for both of them on the whole journey. He writes, “On my arrival at Hartford, not having money to pay the fare for both of us, I paid my wife’s fare to Rowley, Mass,…and I journeyed on foot.” What he means is he let Phebe ride in the coach and he walked 136 miles in two-and-a-half days to catch up with her.[2,3]
Phebe gave birth to the first of her nine children the next year while still in Maine. Sarah Emma was born 14 July 1838, and the new parents were as excited for her arrival as every young couple. While Wilford writes about the new baby on the day of her birth, it is Phebe that he’s concerned about the rest of the week as she’s starting to recover. He writes an update about her each day in his journal and spends the better part of the first several days sticking close to home helping with projects around Phebe’s sister’s house.
Phebe and Wilford were separated often, leaving Phebe on her own for many of the challenges that faced the early Saints, yet she was not without support; like us today, she relied on a network of friends, family, and church members. When the couple were together, Phebe accompanied Wilford on speaking assignments, nursing the sick, and visiting the Apostles and their families. On 1 July 1839, before Wilford left on his first mission to England, Phebe and Wilford hosted the Prophet Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and the Twelve Apostles for dinner at their house, then she and the wives of the other elders, Brigham Young and John Taylor, heading to England spent the evening at the Youngs’ home. Sidney Ridgon, joined by Joseph and Hyrum, gave Phebe and the others each a blessing. For any of us today whose family has faced an overwhelming new calling, we can imagine the comfort it would be for the leadership of the Church to recognize the sacrifice she was making and bless her for what was to come.
A similar scene unfolded five years later when Phebe and her children were preparing to accompany Wilford on his next mission to England, this time with Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball offering the blessing. Wilford records the blessing in his journal , writing that Phebe’s “life & health shall be precious in the eyes of the Lord and in the hour of distress & trouble thou shalt be preserved by the power of God.”[5,6] It was powerful moments like these that strengthened Phebe’s faith and made her equal to the tasks ahead of her.
Phebe shares her own experiences of great faith, as well. In December 1838, while traveling through Ohio with Wilford on rough roads in the cold weather, Phebe was dying of brain fever. Wilford writes,
“She called me to her bedside in the evening and said she felt as though a few moments more would end her existence in this life. She manifested great confidence in the cause she had embraced, and exhorted me to have confidence in God and
to keep His commandments.”
Despite Wilford fervently praying for her recovery, she died the next day, December 3, yet Wilford blessed her and she revived. Phebe told her husband about what she experienced while he was standing over her body, which, of course, he recorded in his journal,
“While this operation was going on with me (as my wife related afterwards) her spirit left her body, and she saw it lying upon the bed, and the sisters weeping. She looked at them and at me, and upon her babe, and, while gazing upon this scene, two personages came into the room carrying a coffin and told her they had come for her body. One of these mes-sengers informed her that she could have her choice: she might go to rest in the spirit world, or, on one condition she could have the privilege of returning to her tabernacle and continuing her labors upon the earth. The condition was, if she felt that she could stand by her husband, and with him pass through all the cares, trials, tribulation and afflictions of life which he would be called to pass through for the gospel’s sake unto the end. When she looked at the situation of her husband and child she said: ‘Yes, I will do it!'”
Hearing Phebe telling of this experience in her own words allows us today to feel of her strong spirit and her conviction in the choices she made. By 1838, Phebe and Wilford had already experienced hardship, but it was nothing compared to what was coming. Still, Phebe chose to stay with her husband and weather the trials heading her way. It wasn’t even two years later that she lost her first baby, Sarah Emma, and had to write a heart-wrenching letter from Nauvoo to Wilford in England. She writes,
“…you cannot think how much I miss little Sarah Emma her death has disarmed me of all courage & fortitude. . . . O pray for me Willford that I may have grace and strength equal to my day–for I feel like a lonely child on the earth now but I endure it as for Christ sake knowing that nothing but a sense of duty to our heavenly father would cause us to part with the enjoyment of each of each others society; but I will try to be patient and take as good care of our little lad as I can untill you return, which I pray God may be soon, for it seames that you have been gone an age . . . do tell me something about when you think of comeing HOME.”
Sarah Emma’s death hit Phebe hard, just as it did Wilford when he got the news. When we read her letter today, we recognize the familiar voice of a grieving mother trying her best but just wanting her husband to come home to her. It’s comforting for the modern reader to feel her true, heartfelt emotions because they are so similar to how we would feel if we were in her position.
In that same letter, however, she also shares the good news of the Restoration, as she writes of building the temple in Nauvoo and Joseph Smith’s revelation about Baptism for the Dead. It’s no wonder that every time she wrote her husband a letter, he commented on it in his journal with some variation of how he would “truly rejoice to receive” this letter. It was from Phebe that Wilford first heard this exciting new doctrine:
“Now a few words from Brother Joseph sermon on the living’s being baptized for the dead that they may be judged according to men in the flesh; he has learned by revelation that those in this church may be baptized for any of their relatives who are dead and had not a…privaledge of hearing…this gospel even for their children, parents, bothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, & aunts,— but not for acquaintances unless they send a ministering spirit to their friends on earth,— as soon as they are baptized for their friends they are released from prison and they can claim them in the resurrection and bring them into the celestial kingdom— this doctrin is cordially received by the church and they are going forward in multitudes, some are going to be baptized as many as 16 times— they have to be baptized and confirmed separately for every friend…Brother Joseph makes this doctrin look verry plain and consisten— he has been bringing strange things forward to the church this season— strong meat— he has delivered a course of lectures this season which were verry interesting…he says that the throne of God stands on the earth.”
Soon she would arrive in the Salt Lake Valley, after Wilford and Brigham Young brought the first settlers there. While Phebe was the first of ten wives for Wilford (six of those marriages were very short lived, lasting from under a month to two years), she remained his confidant and partner throughout their lives. Looking at her marriage and her husband’s new wives from a modern lens, we can appreciate even more her dedication to her faith and her commitment to her husband. Phebe saw her husband for the last time on 9 November 1885, after Wilford had been in hiding off and on since late in 1879, for practicing polygamy. She died the next day; Wilford was not able to attend her funeral but watched from afar.
During her long life, she saw the Restoration unfold, she accompanied her husband on three missions, she spent Christmas day 1844 on a boat bound for Liverpool and “was much pleased” with the Christmas cake, she lost five of her nine children before their third birthdays, she counseled with her husband as he took more wives, and she was sealed in Nauvoo, where she also finally had a home of her own. When we read the letters she wrote and received, and the commentary of her husband, we get to know Phebe not just as an early Church History figure, but as a real person. We can see her faith amid the trials she faced–losing children, polygamy, separations from her husband. Most of us don’t have to experience anything like what she went through in her long life, but we can gain empathy for what she faced and see how learning directly from the Prophet Joseph and the early apostles, her husband included, would have strengthened her and her family. Her letters are honest, heartfelt, often painful, and always full of detailed information. Hearing her own words as she tells her story gives us a glimpse into her life, thoughts, and spunky personality. We can get to know her as a loving mother, a dedicated wife and partner, and a woman of great faith.
To learn more about Phebe and Wilford’s story, visit www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.
Kristy Wheelwright Taylor serves as the secretary on the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation Board of Directors and as an editorial transcriptionist for the Wilford Woodruff Papers Project.
 Wilford, Phebe, and her father Ezra Carter, with daughters Susan and Phebe, Boston, 1849. Courtesy of Ron Fox
 Blessing to Phebe from Brigham Young and Heber C Kimball, 28 Aug 1844