I will never forget the first time I could have died.
My mom, my aunt and uncle, and their son had all had the bright idea for us to go “for a ride” that winter night. That me and my second cousin, who was just six years old and was a year younger than me, had wanted to go along, seemed agreeable to everyone. For once no one seemed to mind us youngsters staying up so late into the night. My dear Grandma Roberts had thought it was a bad idea from the start though. “Don’t you think you should leave the kids at least?” she had said rather tersely as we all put on our coats in her kitchen. “It’s just not safe,” she repeated as we crunched over the snow in her driveway. And with her looking on, disapprovingly, we all piled in to my uncle’s ’73 Ford Bronco. My younger cousin and I used small coolers as our seats in the back, and we took off for a trip I would never forget.
As we had driven up the on-ramp to I-70 heading east out of Salina, Utah that night I remember my mom saying in a concerned tone, “It’s already snowing pretty bad. Are you sure we should keep going?” Two hours later we were sliding back and forth on a road I remembered traveling the previous summer. Even in the warmth of June and with dry dirt the road had scared me. I had actually ducked my head down just to not look out the window during that drive because I’d been so scared. Now, in the dead of winter, and knowing we were now sliding back and forth and that same road, I was doing the death grip on the back of my mother’s seat in the Bronco. To everyone else in the vehicle it had been a good time. Never mind that the roads we were riding on had cliffs reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie. As we continued driving further, ascending higher, and encountering deeper snow, the mood in the vehicle quickly changed from jovial to tense. Finally my uncle, driving his Bronco, gave into the pleadings of my good aunt who seemed just as nervous now as I did. Upon reaching a small clearing and wide spot my uncle quickly turned the Bronco around and we began our descent down the mountain pass.
As I’ve grown older it has always struck me that I can remember nearly everything in the moments leading up to the event itself. The heater was blowing at full blast. My aunt, in the front passenger seat kept holding up her hands to warm them near the vent. My mom and older cousin in the back seat had gone from laughing to nervously peering left out the windows. And my cousin Nick and I sat in the back, far from the heater vents, and nearly freezing to death (or so it seemed) even with gloves and coats on. The snow was falling so fast it was nearly a white out, and as we jerked back and forth in the deep muddy ruts of the road everyone held their breath. Then my older cousin made the comment that was like the elephant in the vehicle, “If we slip off the side we’re probably all going to die.” My aunt reeled around and yelled at him for making such a comment. “You’ll scare the kids!” she said. – “Too late,” I thought rubbing my hands together and wondering if there was something to tie myself down with. – My uncle grabbed tighter onto the wheel, and my mom turned around and comforted me. The only joy I had was looking over and seeing Nick just as scared as I was. It brought a strange sense of comfort to me. Then no one spoke. We inched along, literally. The only sounds being that of the motor, the heater, and the muddy road and snow beneath us.
Then it happened, all in slow motion. We slid suddenly to the left, towards the cliff. I reached for my mom. Nick reached for me. My uncle jerked the wheel to the right and floored it. My aunt screamed a cry of terror, my mom grabbed onto the driver’s seat. My older cousin in front of me had a look on his face I’ll never forget. And I knew we were going to die.
Then, just as suddenly as we had started to slide, we stopped! Suddenly. The side of the Bronco hitting something hard, but firm. In our two seconds of terror we had only moved a few feet, but my uncle had managed to slam us right into the only tree standing on the left side of the road. We weren’t rolling to our deaths. Elation was immediate, but then subsided as my uncle said matter-of-factly, “The tree could give at any second.”
We collectively held our breath again, and as my uncle slowly applied pressure to the gas I remember thinking, “I will never forget this moment. I could have just died.” As we slowly inched down the rest of that mountain road that night I remember thanking Jesus repeatedly in my head for not being dead.
I was right about that night. I never forgot it. And as I went through my youth and young adult years it struck me amazingly how Providence always seemed to protect me from disaster. Whether it was not going when the light turned green as a teenager, or knowing exactly what to say to the man who had pulled his gun on me during my full-time missionary service, the Lord has reached down repeatedly in my life to protect me from disaster. God’s great love and kindness is something I am without words to express my true thanks.
As I was thinking about this the other day I was reminded of President Wilford Woodruff’s experiences when he was young. Often, when referring to President Woodruff, we speak of The Manifesto which ended the practice of plural marriage in the Church, or we talk about his meticulous journal keeping. As prophet he not only saw the Church through some of the most difficult of trying times, but he also led the Saints through jubilation as the Salt Lake Temple was finally dedicated and as Utah became a State. That he was a man raised up of God with a mission and purpose is without doubt for those who have studied his great life. And nowhere is that more evident than when you read his own account of his youth.
Said he in summing up his own life a few years before his death,
From the beginning of my ministry in 1834 until the close of 1895 I have traveled in all 172,369 miles; held 7,655 meetings; preached 3,526 discourses; organized 51 branches of the Church and 77 preaching places; my journeys cover England, Scotland, Wales, and 23 states and 5 territories of the Union. My life abounds in incidents which to me surely indicate the direct inter-position of God whom I firmly believe has guided my every step. On 27 distinct occasions I have been saved from dangers which threatened my life. I am the father of 17 sons and 16 daughters. I have a posterity of 100 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.”
That Wilford Woodruff recognized the 27 occasions in his life in which the Lord’s protecting hand was over him says much about both the man and the importance of his mission. So what were these occasions, and how did they come to happen? Well, I shall share them here with you now, many of which you have probably never heard. I will warn you though, it will take a few minutes to read through this account of these truly miraculous experiences, but it will give you a greater love and appreciation for both this dear prophet, and for the Lord who protected him mightily through his life.
Chapter 2 – “A Chapter of Accidents” – From Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors by Elder Matthias Cowley
The journal of Wilford Woodruff contains a chapter which he designates as a “chapter of accidents.” It is given thus early in his biography as it reveals the purposes of an overruling Providence whose mercies and guiding powers are remarkably mani fested throughout a long and arduous career. He himself regarded his escapes from death as an evidence of a destructive power that sought to thwart that special mission in life so wonderfully revealed in the subsequent chapters of this biography. His life throughout discloses a constant struggle against obstacles which he had to overcome. They are manifested in every degree of dfficulty, and to less courageous natures many of them would have been insurmountable.
There are in his words which describe the misfortunes that overtook him no traces of envy, discouragement or despair. That others were born to an easier life did not awaken within him a spirit of envy or doubt. To his mind the joys or sorrows of this world were all subordinate to the will of an overruling Providence. While he did not complain, he did not ascribe his difficulties or dangers to fate. He was never so much concerned about the difficulty in surmounting an obstacle as he was about his ability through the goodness of God to do so. “Evidently,” he says, “I have been numbered with those who are apparently the marked victims of misfortunes. It has seemed to me at times as though some invisible power were watching my footsteps in search of an opportunity to destroy my life. I, therefore, ascribe my preservation on earth to the watchcare of a merciful Providence, whose hand has been stretched out to rescue me from death when I was in the presence of the most threatening dangers. Some of these dangers from which I so narrowly escaped I shall here briefly describe:
When three years of age, I fell into a caldron of scalding water and although instantly rescued, I was so badly burned that it was nine months before I was thought to be out of the danger of fatal consequences. My fifth and sixth years were interwoven with many accidents. On a certain day, in company with my elder brothers, I entered the barn, and chose the top of a hay mow for a place of diversion. We had not been there long before I fell from the great beam upon my face on the bare floor. I was severely hurt, but recovered in a short time, and was again at play.”
One Saturday evening,, with my brothers Azmon and Thompson, while playing in the chamber of my father’s house, contrary to his instructions, I made a misstep and fell to the bottom of the stairs, breaking one of my arms in the fall. So much for disobedience. I suffered intensely, but soon recovered, feeling that whatever I suffered in the future, it would not be for disobedience to parents. The Lord has commanded children to obey their parents ; and Paul says, ‘This is the first commandment with promise.'”
It was only a short time after this that I narrowly escaped with my life. My father owned a number of homed cattle, among which was a surly bull. One evening I was feeding pumpkins to the cattle, and the bull leaving his own took the pumpkin I had given to a cow which I called mine. I was incensed at the selfishness of this male beast, and promptly picked up the pumpkin he had left, to give it to the cow. No sooner had I got it in my arms than the bull came plunging toward me with great fury. I ran down the hill with all my might, the bull at my heels. My father, seeing the danger I was in, called to me to throw down the pumpkin, but (forgetting to be obedient) I held on, and as the bull was approaching me with the fierceness of a tiger, I made a misstep and fell flat upon the ground. The pumpkin rolled out of my arms, the bull leaped over me, ran his homs into the pumpkin and tore it to pieces. Undoubtedly he would have done the same thing to me if I had not fallen to the ground. This escape, like all others, I attribute to the mercy and goodness of God.”
During the same year, while visiting at my Uncle Eldad Woodruff’s, I fell from a porch across some timber, and broke my other arm.”
Not many months passed by before I was called to endure a still greater misfortune. My father owned a saw mill in addition to his flour mill, and one morning, in company with several other boys, I went into the saw mill and got upon the headlock of the carriage to ride, not anticipatng any danger; but before I was aware of it my leg was caught between the headlock and the fender post and broken in two. I was taken to the house, and lay nine hours before my bones were replaced. That time was spent in severe pain; but being young, my bones soon knitted together, and in a few weeks I. was upon my feet as usual, attending to the sports of youth. During this confinement my brother Thompson was my companion. He was suffering from typhus fever.”
Shortly after this, upon a dark night, I was kicked in the abdomen by an ox ; but being too close to the animal to receive the full force of the blow, I was more frightened than hurt.”
It was not long before I made my first effort at loading hay. I was very young, but thought I had loaded it all right. When on the way to the barn, the wheel of the wagon struck a rock, and off went the hay. I fell to the ground with the load on top of me; this was soon removed, and aside from a little smothering I was unhurt.”
When eight years of age, I accompanied my father, with several others in a one-horse wagon, about three miles from home, to attend to some work. On the way the horse became frightened, ran down a hill, and turned over the wagon, with us in it. We were in danger, but were again saved by the hand of Providence. None of us were injured.”
One day I climbed an elm tree to procure some bark; while about fifteen feet from the ground, the limb upon which I stood, being dry, broke, and I fell to the ground upon my back. The accident apparently knocked the breath out of my body. A cousin ran to the house and told my parents that I was dead, but before my friends reached me I revived, rose to my feet, and met them on the way.”
When twelve years old I was nearly drowned in Farmington River. I sank in thirty feet of water, and was miraculously saved by a young man named Bacon. The restoration to life caused me great suffering.”
At thirteen years of age, while passing through Farmington meadows, in the depths of winter, in a blinding snowstorm, I became so chilled and overcome with cold that I could not travel. I crawled into the hollow of a large apple tree. A man in the distance saw me, and, realizing the danger I was in, hastened to where I was. Before he arrived at the spot I had fallen asleep, and was almost unconscious. He had much difficulty in arousing me to a sense of my critical condition, and promptly had me conveyed to my father’s house, where, through a kind Providence, my life was again preserved.”
At fourteen years of age I split my left instep open with an ax which went almost through my foot. I suffered intensely from this injury, and my foot was nine months in getting well.”
When fifteen years old I was bitten in the hand by a mad dog in the last stages of hydrophobia. However, he did not draw blood, and through the mercy and power of God I was again preserved from an awful death.”
At the age of seventeen I met with an accident which caused me much suffering, and came nearly ending my life. I was riding a very ill-tempered horse, which, while going down a very steep, rocky hill, suddenly leaped from the road and ran down the steepest part of the hill, going at full speed amid the thickest of the rocks. At the same time, he commenced kicking, and was about to land me over his head among the rocks, but I lodged on the top of his head, and grabbed each of his ears with my hands, expecting every moment to be dashed to pieces against the rocks. While in this position, sitting astride the horse’s neck, with neither briddle nor other means of guiding him except his ears, he plunged down the hill among the rocks with great fury, until he struck a rock nearly breast high, which threw him to the earth. I went over his head, landing squarely upon my feet almost one rod in front of the horse. Alighting upon my feet was probably the means of saving my life; for if I had struck the ground upon any other part of my body, it would probably have killed me instantly. As it was, one of my legs was broken in two places, and both my ankles put out of place in a shocking manner. The horse almost rolled over me in his struggles to get up. My uncle saw me, and came to my assistance. I was carried to his house in an armchair. I lay from 2 o’clock in the afternoon until 10 o’ clock at night without medical aid and in great pain, when my fathef arrived with Dr. Swift, of Farmington. The doctor set my bones, boxed up my limbs, and that night conveyed me eight miles in his carriage to my father’s house. I had good attention, and although my sufferings were great, in eight weeks I was out upon my crutches, and was soon restored to a sound condition.”
In 1827, while managing a flour mill for Aunt Wheeler, in Avon, Conn., I was standing upon one of the wheels, clearing away the ice. A man, not knowing I was in that position, hoisted the gate and turned upon the wheel a full head of water. The wheel started at once, my foot slipped, and I was plunged head foremost over the rim of the wheel into about three feet of water, my weight had drawn my legs out of the wheel, or I would have been drawn under a shaft and crushed to death.”
In 1831, while in charge of a flour mill at Collinsville, Conn., I was standing upon one of the arms inside of a breastwheel twenty feet in diameter, clearing off the ice. A full head of water was turned on suddenly. The wheel started instantly. I dropped my ax and leaped about twenty feet to the bottom of the wheel. As I struck the bottom, I rolled out against a rugged stone, with only two feet of clearance between the stone and the wheel. The latter caught me and rolled me out into the water below, where I found myself, much frightened, but thankful to Providence that no bones were broken.”
The day that I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — December 31, 1833 — my horse, with newly calked shoes, kicked the hat off my head. If he had struck two inches lower, doubtless he would have killed me instantly. Ten minutes later, while driving the same horse and another hitched to a sled with loose boards on the bottom and no box, the boards slipped forward under the pole and struck the ground. This at once threw the boards up endwise, and pitched me forward between the horses. I held on the lines; the horses, frightened, ran down the hill, dragging me under the sled behind them. The road, however, was smooth, and I escaped without injury.”
In 1834, while traveling in Zion’s Camp to Missouri, a rifle was discharged accidentally. The ball passed through three tents with a dozen men in each, and lodged in the axletree of a wagon, without injury to anyone; it passed within a few inches of my breast. Many others escaped quite as providentially as I did.”
A few months later a musket, heavily loaded with buckshot, and pointed directly at my breast, was snapped accidentally; but it missed fire, and again the Lord preserved my life.”
In April, 1839, in Rochester, Ills., I was riding upon the running-gear of a wagon. I sat upon the front axletree. The bolt came out of the coupling-pole, separating the wheels, the front from the rear; and my weight upon the front bolster and tongue turned the coupling-pole over on the horses’ backs, turned the stakes upside down, which shut me between the bolster and tongue, but in such a manner that my head and shoulders dragged upon the ground. The horses took fright and ran into an open prairie. They dragged me for about half a mile, and notwithstanding my awkward position I managed to guide them so as to run them into the corner of a high worm-fence, where we landed in a pile together. I was considerable bruised, but escaped without any broken bones, and after one day’s rest was able to attend to my labors again.”
On the 15th day of October, 1846, while with the Camp of Israel building up Winter Quarters, on the west side of the Missouri River (then Indian country,) I passed through one of the most painful and serious misfortunes of my life. I took my ax and went two and a half miles upon the bluff to cut some shingle timber to cover my cabin. I was accompanied by two men. While felling the third tree, I stepped back of it some eight feet, where I thought I was entirely out of danger. There was, however, a crook in the tree, which, when the tree fell, struck a knoll and caused the tree to bound endwise back of the stump. As it bounded backwards, the butt end of the tree hit me in the breast, and knocked me back and above the ground several feet, against a standing oak. The falling tree followed me in its bounds and severely crushed me against the standing tree. I fell to the ground, alighting upon my feet. My left thigh and hip were badly bruised, also my left arm; my breastbone and three ribs on my left side were broken. I was bruised about my lungs, vitals and left side in a serious manner. After the accident I sat upon a log while Mr. John Garrison went a quarter of a mile and got my horse. Notwithstanding I was so badly hurt, I had to mount my horse and ride two and a half miles over an exceedingly rough road. On account of severe pain I had to dismount twice on my way home. My breast and vitals were so badly injured that at each step of the horse pain went through me like an arrow. I continued on horseback until I arrived at Turkey Creek, on the north side of Winter Quarters. I was then exhausted, and was taken off the horse and carried in a chair to my wagon. I was met in the street by Presidents Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, and others, who assisted in carrying me to the wagon. Before placing me upon my bed they laid hands upon me, and in the name of the Lord rebuked the pain and distress, and said that I should live, and not die. I was then laid upon my bed in the wagon, as my cabin was not yet done. As. the apostles prophesied upon my head, so it came to pass ; I did not die. I employed no physician, but was administered to by the elders of Israel, and nursed by my wife. I lay upon my bed, unable to move until my breast-bone began to knit together on the ninth day. In about twenty days I began to walk, and in thirty days from the time I was hurt, I returned to my laborious employment.”
I have not now a lame limb about me, notwithstanding it all. I have been able to endure the hardest kind of manual labor, exposures, hardships, and journeys. I have walked forty, fifty, and, on one occasion, sixty miles in a single day. The only inconvenience I am now conscious of is that if I overwork, or take a severe cold, I feel it more sensibly in my breast and left side than I did before my last injury. I have given considerable space in recounting the foregoing peculiar circumstances which I have experienced in life. A summary of what is here given may be briefly stated thus : I have broken both legs, one of them in two places; both arms, both ankles, my breastbone, and three ribs; I have been scalded, frozen, and drowned; I have been in two water wheels while turning under a full head; I have passed through a score of other hairbreadth escapes. The repeated deliverances from all these remarkable dangers I ascribe to the mercies of my Heavenly Father. In recalling them to mind I always feel impressed to render the gratitude of my heart, with thanksgiving and joy, to the Lord. I pray that the remainder of my days may pass in His service, in the building up of His kingdom.”
When one stops to reflect upon the character of the accidents and the manner of escape, he is impressed by the thought that they came along as part of the remarkable incidents of his life. They are marvels to be sure, but the whole life of Wilford Woodruff is a marvel. He was on the spot when the danger arrived. He never seems to have been disconcerted by it. He was so serene in his faith that he always had an assurance that all would end well, and he, consequently, is never found in a complainly mood, even when undergoing the severest pain. His patience, therefore, was a powerful factor in bringing to his life a large measure of confidence in the ultimate goodness of an overruling Providence.
(End of Chapter)
I echo the sentiments of both President Wilford Woodruff and Elder Cowley, who summarized his experiences, when I say that the Lord’s protecting hand is over His saints. I know it to be true. Whether or not you have ever personally had such remarkable experiences as those named here does not matter. What matters is that God has saved you for these days, for this part of this Dispensation for a reason, and you have a mission to fulfill.
I will never forget riding in a ’73 Ford Bronco and nearly plummeting to my death when I was just seven years old. Nor will I forget the other sacred experiences when I have witnessed the Lord’s almighty and protective hand save me and my life. I am grateful to know that Providence is so near to all of us, and that He is saving us for whatever His purposes may be.
I testify that it’s true.