Review: In the Whirlpool

I imagine that in the minds of most American Mormons, there is a faint recollection of a grainy image of church leaders sitting together in the striped vestments of Federal criminality. The reality of virtually all general church leaders and many local leaders either being incarcerated or on the lam is so incongruent to modern lived experience as to be almost absurd. Enter Reid Neilson, the current chief operator at the LDS Historical Department, who has edited a collection of letters written by Apostle and Church President Wilford Woodruff to a family with whom he hid from the Marshals.

Reid L. Neilson, In the Whirlpool: The Pre-Manifesto Letters of President Wilford Woodruff to the William Atkin Family, 1885-1890 (Normon, Okl.: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2011). 232 pp. Footnotes; photos, maps, appendices, index. Clothe. $29.95; ISBN: 9780870623905

A decade ago Neilson published a biography qua family history of William and Rachel Atkin, the founders of Atkinville, erstwhile suburb of late-nineteenth-century St. George…that is, if you can call a family settlement a suburb. Being far enough away from St. George to anticipate any possible raid from the Feds, the Atkins sheltered polygamist fugitives, among whom was Wilford Woodruff. Woodruff subsequently maintained an active correspondence with the Atkin family, who kept the letters and generations later donated them to the church for microfilming.

In the Whirlpool is Neilson’s presentation of the bulk of these letters in addition to several introductory essays. The volume opens with Neilson’s essay describing the relationship between the Atkins family and Wilford Woodruff. Though he sometimes takes what appears to be an uncritical eye towards later family accounts as published privately, he does artfully illustrate the place in time and geography where the Atkins sheltered Woodruff. Woodruff comes alive as aging outdoorsman in forced exile among fish and fowl.

The two subsequent essays are reprints by Thomas Alexander and Jan Shipps. [1] Alexander’s essay is slightly edited and remains a very solid piece contextualizing the coming of the Manifesto with his trademarked exhaustive research (including access to generally restricted items) and perspicacious insight. Shipps’ essay is dramatically cut in this presentation. Though dated, it remains a very important and accessible treatment of the Manifesto’s reception.

As indicated by the essays, the focus of the volume is the lead-up to and reception of the Manifesto in 1890. Consequently, Neilson did not include the dozen or so post-Manifesto extant letters between Woodruff and the Atkins. In order to maximize accessibility, Neilson employed a type of clean text transcription method that silently corrects spelling, capitalizes words and adds punctuation. As these documents are generally going to be used for their content, it is very likely that a diplomatic transcription familiar to readers of the Joseph Smith Papers was neither necessary nor widely desired. Those researchers hungry to analyze the documents may access them at their repositories.

The letters are significant and their content is important, comprising pp. 127-97. Though Woodruff kept a detailed journal that is a jewel in History Library’s crown, these letters offer some wonderful additional (and personal) material. For example, in the very first letter Woodruff, recounts the dying and death of his first wife Phebe, (128) in a way that is very complementary to the account in his journal. [2] In fact, I think consistent references to Woodruff’s journals would have added significantly to this volume and in some places may have offered contrasting information. [3]

In another wonderful description, Woodruff wrote of his bodyguard: “I have a large stout man who goes with me every where night and day. Carries 2 pistols and a double barrel shotgun and says he will shoot the marshals if they come to take me. (Don’t tell anybody this.)” (143) Indeed!

The annotation of the letters focuses primarily on people and places, with occasional moments of broader context. This emphasis is very helpful to maintain a clear picture of who is being discussed and where they are described. It does have some drawbacks, however. In those instances when some context is added, it is easy to miss the complexity of the lived experience. [4] Moreover, while this type of annotation will help general readers, those more fluent in Mormon history will feel overlooked. For example, on pp. 149-50, Woodruff states his sorrow at learning of David H. Cannon’s “scrapes,” due to his inexperience. I couldn’t find any description of what Cannon’s situation was that elicited such a response. Others might ask what the “temple tank” and piping were that occupied so much space in the correspondence (187-89) or what the “recommends” Woodruff sent to the Atkin’s in October, 1890 were for (196).

In summary, this is an excellent collection that his handsomely cast. The essay portion will be valuable for those not familiar with the details of events surrounding the Manifesto, and is a great refresher for those that are. People will purchase the volume, however, for the letters. And they are worth it.


  1. Original essays available as: Thomas G. Alexander, “The Odyssey of a Latter-day Prophet: Wilford Woodruff and the Manifesto of 1890,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 169-206; Jan Shipps, “The Principle Revoked: A Closer Look at the Demise of Plural Marriage,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 65-77.
  2. Had I read it in time, I would have certainly cited this letter in my article on Mormon last rites, due out any day now with BYU Studies.
  3. For example, p. 196 includes a letter dated October 23, 1890, whereas Woodruff’s journal indicated that he wrote the letter on October 24.
  4. For example, Woodruff’s daughter-in-law Clara visited Salt Lake in December 1887 and became deathly ill. Woodruff wrote that “by administration [n69] and nursing she has got up again.” The footnote states: “Administration refers to a healing blessing offered by worthy LDS men through the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood and by the laying on of hands.” (148) This note cites the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. While this is a fine description of Latter-day Saint practice, and the Encyclopedia is a fair general reference, it is quite likely that the note is not accurate. Woodruff repeatedly describes “administering” to Clara, with the first instance as follows: “Clara was vary sick through the night. Emma & Ovando worked with her nearly all night. We administered to Clara.” Woodruff is documented to have administered healing rituals with women, particularly female members of his household. Moreover, during Clara’s sickness she was visited by Zina D. H. Young, healer extraordinaire. Woodruff, Journal, 8:470-72. Not that this is a pet topic for me or anything.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the review, J.

  2. The first thing I thought of when I saw this was the experience of a handful of current local leaders who have recently gotten into legal problems for not being in the U.S. legally. So some current LDS congregations can maybe somewhat relate. Fortunately this time the legal problems are not related (or at least we hope are not related) to religion. And it’s only occurring at the local level, and only in a handful of Spanish-speaking branches.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    Thanks J. I appreciate this review, and I’ll gladly listen to you go on about your pet topics anytime.

  4. Thanks, J. I flipped through the book the other day, and it looks like a gem.

  5. “being incarcerated or on the lam is so incongruent to modern lived experience as to be almost absurd”

    Really? Do you read any newspapers?

    One of the most common legal problems for contemporary local church leaders is related to failure to report sexual abuse and a variety of related Bishopric bumblings around. This problem involves 100s of events millions of tithing dollars lost to settlements and is serious enough that the church has set up a central hotline for local leaders to call for advice. Recently two Bishops in Arizona barely escaped prosecution for following advice given not to report confessed criminal activity generating many discussions in the bloggernacle.

    In pioneer times, Mormons equated the US federal government with Babylon and felt no shame in breaking laws that went contrary to church practices, polygamy being only one of the most visible examples. Today the respect we Mormons hold for the law of the land is often a thin veneer over these traditional attitudes.

    For instance, it is acceptable for an illegal immigrant who pays tithing to hold a temple recommend and perform priesthood ordinations, while a legal citizen member of the church who pays income taxes but no tithing is denied a temple recommend. Illegal immigrants do pay sales tax but do not pay income tax. This represents a significant boost in their wages that allows them to work for less cost to employers and better compete with tax paying citizens for scarce jobs.

    Another example is the Mormon approach to scouting. In my experience Mormons just make up their own rules as they go and flog boys through a watered-down sprint to the eagle’s nest. I realize that some wards do better than others and scouting is flexible to an extent. But not following scouting rules is not the same kind of problem in the church as not following the handbook. Visible (but not crucial) is when Mormon scouts don’t have to wear the uniform properly yet we insist on white shirts at the sacrament table. No scout leader who has internalized the two-deep leadership concept would ever consider taking a teenage boy who is not his son home teaching with him alone as a junior companion.

    Mormons respect church rules far more than they respect the rules of other institutions and often this comes off as a lack of integrity to those outside of the church. In extreme cases it is going to land us in jail.

  6. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Mike, it appears to me that there are aspects of church policy that bug you. I have a fairly sensitive absurdometer, though and I stick by my original statement, as well as perceiving a fairly high level in your comment. I do happen to be familiar with the newspapers as you say, and there was no chance of prosecution in Arizona, given the State laws and the actions of the Bishops. Moreover, having virtually all church leaders incarcerated or fugitives from the law as categorically different than a relaxed attitude to an anachronistic youth fraternity that will eventually be outmoded in church practice.

    For many people, their Mormonism does come first. And the law of land is king, the church’s progressive stance (with some cases civil disobedience) on emigration notwithstanding.

  7. Interesting perspective, Mike – with obvious word choices throughout to bolster it (“flog boys” – blaming the Church for not checking immigration status of every Hispanic investigator and member when there is NO law that says it must – “barely escaped prosecution” – etc.).

    This is one case where I agree with the general idea that their are legal issues with which we are grappling, but to equate them with the legal issues of our polygamous past (really, even to compare them as reasonably similar) simply is absurd, imo.

  8. “…Woodruff wrote of his bodyguard: “I have a large stout man who goes with me every where night and day. Carries 2 pistols and a double barrel shotgun and says he will shoot the marshals if they come to take me. (Don’t tell anybody this.)…”

    I really like this image. It is an interesting post and makes me glad that I didn’t live back in those days. It makes the issues I have do deal with in my life seem almost trivial.

  9. Thanks for the review, J. And nice work fielding the subsequent commentary.