Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton

Chapter 6.
Edwin Woolley: Bishop of the Thirteenth Ward

[p.53]Edwin D. Woolley came from a long line of Pennsylvania Quakers. Born in 1807, he grew up on a farm in Newlin Township, Pennsylvania, and the Quaker influence of his early years affected his entire life. In fact, long after he became a Mormon, Edwin continued to use the deeply ingrained expressions thee and thou.

In 1831 Edwin married a young Quaker, Mary Wickersham, and began a farm of his own. When his father died, Edwin and Mary shouldered the responsibility for the younger brothers and sisters. They moved to Ohio in 1832 and purchased a quarter section of land. In April 1837 Edwin moved his family half a mile from the farm to East Rochester, Ohio, where he opened a mercantile business.

In East Rochester, Edwin heard stories about Joseph Smith, whom some called “the Prophet.” One day, two missionaries, George A. Smith and Lorenzo D. Barnes, visited the Woolley home, and in November 1837 Mary Woolley was baptized.

To test her Edwin said, “Mary, I will give thee a new silk dress if thou wilt say that Joseph is not a Prophet.” But Mary valued her testimony more than a silk dress and remained true to her convictions.

[p.54]Intrigued by what he saw and heard, Edwin decided to visit the Prophet himself. He and Mary rode ninety miles to Kirtland on horseback in one day—a strenuous feat—only to find that Joseph had gone to Missouri. However, they did meet the Prophet’s father, and persuaded him to spend the winter with them in East Rochester.

Undoubtedly Joseph Smith, Sr., influenced Edwin’s decision to be baptized. It was cold and blustery on Christmas Eve 1837 when Edwin joined the Church. On Christmas day he was ordained a high priest and set apart to preside over the East Rochester branch.

Keenly aware of his inexperience in the Church, Edwin felt inadequate to lead. Once, kneeling in prayer with his wife and family, he began, “Our Father in Heaven,” and stopped. Turning to Mary, he asked, “What shall I say next? Thee has been in the Church longer than I have.”

In the spring of 1839, upon returning from a mission to Pennsylvania, Edwin finally met the Prophet Joseph in Quincy, Illinois. The main body of the Church had just been driven from Missouri, and Joseph invited Edwin to help select a site in Illinois where the Saints could gather and live in peace.

The site chosen was Commerce, which Joseph renamed Nauvoo. The Woolleys moved there in 1840 and opened a general store. One day, the Prophet walked in, surveyed the well-stocked shelves, and said, “Brother Woolley, we want all your goods for the building up of the Kingdom of God.” After Joseph left, Edwin boxed up all his goods except those previously committed to Saint Louis companies. When the Prophet returned, Edwin asked if he should deliver the goods somewhere or if the Prophet would call for them. Joseph, deeply moved, told him to return the goods to the shelves and go on with his business. Edwin had passed the test.

Edwin’s loyalty to the Prophet and his devotion to the cause involved him in many important events in early Church history. The revelation on plural marriage was read for the first time in Edwin’s home in October 1843. He accepted it as a revelation from God and became one of the first to comply with it, marrying Louisa Gordon and Ellen Wilding. Louisa was a [p.55]convert from New York who had been previously married; and Ellen, a servant in the Woolley home, had been converted in England by Heber C. Kimball.

Mary consented to Edwin’s plural marriages but found it difficult to live with the tensions of plurality and returned to her parents’ home in East Rochester. After a short time, however, she became converted to the principle and rejoined Edwin in Nauvoo.

On the day Joseph and Hyrum left for Carthage Jail in 1844, they stopped at the Woolley home. There, according to Edwin, Joseph uttered the famous words, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning.”

After the expulsion from Nauvoo in 1846, the fifteen Woolleys—Edwin, Mary, Louisa, Ellen, their seven children, and four relatives—spent the winter on the banks of the Missouri at Winter Quarters. At Brigham Young’s request, Edwin remained in Winter Quarters for another year to operate the store which outfitted the Saints for their trek to the Rocky Mountains.

Finally, on 27 May 1848 Edwin and his family left Winter Quarters for the Salt Lake Valley. Louisa chose to remain behind and died the following year. Mary accompanied Edwin and five weeks later, on July 5, she gave birth to a baby girl, Mary Louisa, at Goose Creek, Nebraska, on the north bank of the Platte River. Mary Louisa was to become the mother of J. Reuben Clark, Jr.

The Woolleys entered the Salt Lake Valley in September 1848 and camped outside the Old Fort. When lots were assigned, Edwin received a lot on the corner of what is now Third East and Third South streets. He built an adobe house which was so small that part of the family had to live in the wagon beds just outside the door of the house. He was also allotted a tract of land south of the city and began farming.

On 12 February 1849 Edwin became a member of the high council of the first stake in the Great Salt Lake Valley, a position he held for ten years, including the first five years he served as bishop of the Thirteenth Ward.

In 1849 Brigham called Edwin to go east to assist with [p.56]emigration and purchase of supplies for the Church. In Saint Louis he met a young English convert, Mary Ann Olpin, whom he engaged to care for his son and to cook for the company on the return trip. In the fall of 1850, Mary Ann became the fourth Mrs. Woolley.

Edwin farmed, operated a mercantile establishment, and managed Brigham Young’s personal business affairs for several years. In September 1851 he was elected to the Utah House of Representatives. He was an incorporator of the Deseret Telegraph Company and of Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, and served several terms as Salt Lake County Recorder.

In 1854 Edwin was called to serve as bishop of the Thirteenth Ward. When he said he needed some time to decide whom to call as his counselors, Brigham Young replied that until they were selected, he, President Young, and Heber C. Kimball would serve as counselors. Edwin quickly named Briant Stringham and John W. Woolley, his son.

The responsibilities of a bishop during the latter half of the nineteenth century were enormous. Bishop Woolley saw that the ward was fenced in to protect the gardens and orchards from stray livestock; that a ward school was built and staffed; that ward dances, musicals, and theatricals were properly supervised; that his ward’s quota of laborers fulfilled their public works assignments; that ward members were instructed in improved methods of agriculture and livestock breeding; and that the members of his ward behaved like Saints. In short, he was the ward’s business and domestic affairs advisor as well as its pastor.

For all practical purposes, the Latter-day Saints living between Main Street and Third East, and South Temple and Third South belonged to the Thirteenth Ward Church. Every church activity was organized, directed, and carried out in the ward. Bishop Woolley introduced and directed programs, collected tithes and contributions, and relayed doctrinal pronouncements and policy decisions. He solicited volunteers for colonizing and preaching missions and arranged for teamsters to transport immigrants from the east.

[p.57]As “a judge in Israel,” he was the mediator, arbitrator, and conciliator in all disputes. Any difficulties between ward members which could not be settled privately—and there were many—were settled by the bishop. He was the representative of the members in his ward in dealing with Church, city, and territorial officials. He was, in short, their advocate, defender, planner, and foreman.

With these enormous responsibilities, Edwin Woolley’s success and longevity as bishop of the Thirteenth Ward for twenty-seven years was remarkable.

Bishop Woolley insisted on running a tight ship. In his first talk at the biweekly bishops’ meeting, he said, “A bishop should act as a father to the people, who should be obedient to him as children to their parents. And the bishop should not require of the people what they are unable to do, so that his reasonable requests may be respected and attended to.”

He relied heavily on the Aaronic Priesthood of his ward. They were the legs and feet of the bishop, as he put it. The offices of deacon, teacher, and priest were by no means limited to young men; in fact, the large majority of Aaronic Priesthood holders were adults. Priesthood appointments were not determined by age, but by suitability for the task. Deacons helped the bishop with meetinghouse maintenance and harvested the crops of elders and seventies away on missions. Elders, seventies, and high priests functioned as members of the deacons quorum while performing these tasks.

Teachers were appointed to visit families, report their spiritual and temporal condition to the bishop, and help provide for their needs. For example, they helped immigrants take out citizenship papers, raised money for the Perpetual Emigration Fund and public works projects, and encouraged ward members to unity and obedience in the gospel. Generally, “teachers” held the Melchizedek Priesthood and were “on loan,” so to speak, to the bishop and the teachers quorum.

Priests officiated in administering the sacrament, conducted baptismal services, preached, and in some instances served as branch presidents.

Bishop Woolley had a gift for pastoral care. He was [p.58]concerned with the practical application of the gospel in the lives of ordinary people. Not particularly inclined to theology, he declared that he “did not like so much extra faith, but liked to see the works.”

The Poor Account of the Thirteenth Ward’s ledger books demonstrates Bishop Woolley’s concern for the unfortunate: donations to a woman with cancer, donations toward building a house for a poor family, and appropriations for the “poor hands” working on the temple. Under Bishop Woolley’s direction, the teachers collected all kinds of things for the needy—tea, soap, matches, candles, sugar, coffee, eggs, butter, cheese, apples, rice, clothing, burial shrouds, and children’s books.

Edwin Woolley cared for his people and worked unstintingly for their welfare. He was an effective bishop not only because he worked hard but because he was not afraid to take responsibility in his calling. Contrary to the anti-Mormon stereotypes of the nineteenth century, Brigham Young’s bishops were not sycophants or lackeys. When they disagreed, he did not call for their resignations but respected them for their exercise of judgment and their right to inspiration. At times, Bishop Woolley demonstrated his independent spirit by resisting new programs and methods. When the Sunday Schools were organized, for example, he waited several years to see how they would function before implementing the program. When ward Relief Societies were instituted in 1867 and 1868, the Thirteenth Ward was one of the last to comply. Bishop Woolley explained, “It is not my habit to be in a hurry in our movements, nor do I wish the Sisters to rush in their movements, but be cool and deliberate …. In time we will be ahead of those who have moved so fast.” Bishop Woolley wanted to be certain the new organization functioned under him, not alongside or above him. At the organizational meeting of his ward’s Relief Society, he emphasized, “I wish to select such sisters for officers as will listen to my counsel, and to carry out such measures as I shall suggest from time to time.”

Nor did Bishop Woolley hesitate to counsel against some of the programs proposed by Eliza R. Snow, president of the [p.59]general Relief Society. For example, when Sister Snow urged the sisters to plant mulberry trees and begin a silk culture, he expressed doubt that the project would succeed, and told his ward Relief Society to drag their feet on it.

When Brigham Young held a Church-wide price convention in 1864 to establish uniform prices, Bishop Woolley resisted. “We may understand some general things alike,” he said, “but the minutia we cannot all understand until they transpire. The time has not yet come when all can see eye to eye. If we wait patiently we will see things come out all right.”

Bishop Woolley demonstrated his tolerance for dissent by aiding his heretical counselor (1864-1869) William S. Godbe. Godbe had been out of harmony with Church policies for some time before he organized a spiritualist movement called the Church of Zion. During the months that followed that tragic schism, Bishop Woolley permitted the leaders of the Godbeite movement to hold meetings in the Thirteenth Ward assembly rooms. Knowing that Godbe had been a respected counselor, Bishop Woolley deemed it prudent to “answer” the dissidents after each of their Sunday meetings. The Godbeites responded the following week. Thus, a series of debates on the New Movement, as it was called, was held in the ward meetinghouse.

Bishop Woolley survived this period with only one important tiff with Brigham Young in February 1870. The issue was not the rental of the Thirteenth Ward hall to the Godbeites, but its rental for a dance. Bishop Woolley had hoped the dance would help raise money to refurbish the building; but when President Young learned the ward would be competing with the Church’s Social Hall, he reprimanded the bishop in the School of the Prophets. The ward meeting-house, he said, should be used only for “sacred purposes.” After all, that was why they had built the Salt Lake Theatre and Social Hall.

The bishop contritely replied that he never would have rented the hall if he had known the authorities were opposed to it. He explained the ward’s financial condition. The people wanted a place “for fun and frolic,” but were unable to raise the funds needed to repair the building. There were some persons [p.60]who owned thousands of dollars of property in the ward, he said, but they were so stingy they would not give five dollars without a half hour’s sermon on consecration.

Brigham Young’s counselor George A. Smith commented that while he recognized there were problems in restricting social events to the Social Hall, he was opposed as a matter of policy to using ward meetinghouses for theatrical plays and dances. Bishop Woolley chuckled and whispered to a friend nearby, “You see, President Smith is coming over to my side.”

At the opening of the School of the Prophets the following week, President Young called on Bishop Woolley to say whether he did not mean him when he said there were some who owned thousands of dollars of property in the ward yet would require a half hour’s preaching before they would make a five dollar contribution. Bishop Woolley denied that he had President Young in mind.

Then the President asked whether the bishop did not build the assembly rooms of the ward for the express purpose of competing with the Social Hall. No, Bishop Woolley replied, though he thought the rental for the Social Hall was “too high in price” and the hall too small in size. President Young defended the fee and asked whether it was true that he had said that President George A. Smith was coming over to his (Bishop Woolley’s) side on the issue. George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith arose to confirm that they had distinctly overheard the bishop make the statement. Bishop Woolley looked a little chagrined. President George A. Smith then arose and said that inasmuch as “he was believed to be going over to Bishop Woolley’s side, he would now make a motion that Bishop Woolley take a mission to Europe.”

Immediately, Edwin jumped up and expressed deep regret for having hurt the feelings of his brethren. He asked for forgiveness and pleaded, “Brethren, please don’t send me on a mission to Europe to atone for what I have done. If I deserve to be punished, let it be done here.”

Having made his point, President Young was magnanimous: “I do not remember ever having sent a man on a [p.61]mission to punish him,” he declared. “We send men on missions to do them good—to give them a chance to get the spirit of God.” President Smith then substituted another motion, which was carried, that Bishop Woolley “be allowed a further trial as a bishop.” Bishop Woolley continued that “further trial” until his death eleven years later.

Woolley family members today who admire the contrariness of their progenitor enjoy the story that once Brigham Young said that if Bishop Woolley should fall off his horse while crossing to the other side of the Jordan, they should not look for him floating downstream. Instead, they would find him swimming upstream, obstinately contending against the current.

On one occasion, according to the family, the bishop and Brigham had a heated discussion about a business deal. President Young, who could be very sarcastic, turned as he was leaving and said, “Now, Bishop Woolley, I guess you will go off and apostatize.” To which Edwin rejoined, “If this were your church, President Young, I would be tempted to do so. But this is just as much my church as it is yours, and why should I apostatize from my own church?”

Despite their disagreements, Brigham Young dearly loved his outspoken bishop. In a painting commissioned by Brigham Young called “President Young and His Friends,” Bishop Woolley is depicted along with Heber C. Kimball, Daniel H. Wells, George A. Smith, and four others.

Beginning in the middle 1850s, Edwin and his brother Samuel Amos Woolley operated a store in the Deseret or Tithing Store Building located on the present site of the Hotel Utah, just east of Temple Square. As he prospered, Bishop Woolley commissioned Truman O. Angell, architect of the Salt Lake Temple, to build a home for him on the corner of State Street and Social Hall Avenue. It was one of the finest houses west of the Missouri River. In this home Edwin’s first wile Mary died in 1859, after a long illness. Edwin wrote a long letter to her nonmember family in Ohio: “I do not know, but some of you may think that [as] I have other wives and children, that my first wife may have been neglected, but for [p.62]your comfort in this trying hour I will say to you, she was my first wife, the wife of my youth and for whom I never lost my first love. She is as dear today to me as the day I took her from your door and never has it been otherwise.”

When Bishop Woolley died in 1881 at the age of seventy-four, he left 334 living descendants, the basis for a large, prominent family. Among his descendants are J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and Spencer Woolley Kimball.

The Deseret News obituary made this apt characterization: “Bishop Edwin D. Woolley was a good and useful man. It is doubtful if one more industrious could be found anywhere. His life was one continuing scene of endeavor. He was exceedingly outspoken, uttering his sentiments sometimes without much regard to consequences …. Under his unusual frankness of speech, he carried a kind and manly heart.”