Visions of Freedom: Wilford Woodruff and the Signers of the Declaration of Independence by Michael de Groote and Ronald L. Fox (ISBN: 978-1-60861-227-7) is a book about Wilford Woodruff’s visions (he had two of them on this subject) and the men that appeared to him. The first part of the book discusses the history behind modern vicarious ordinances in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (anciently, the Bible contains one passage discussing baptism for the dead, and scholarly literature discusses a few others). The next major theme of the book is how Wilford Woodruff’s preaching about his visions and the work he did in the St. George Temple for the men who appeared to him, as well as for some other famous people throughout history, changed, to a significant degree, the Mormon outlook on work for the dead in the temple. Before President Woodruff’s visions, the vast majority of temple work was done only for ancestors or very close friends. What that meant was that once a person had traced his genealogy as far as he could, he didn’t have much of a reason to attend the temple. President Woodruff’s work for the Founding Fathers and others taught that temple work was necessary for all who had ever lived, which also gave faithful saints a reason to come to the temple again and again. The majority of the book, though, consists of short biographies of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Each signer gets at least one page, although most have more than that. There are some appendices that discuss the actual temple work and various accounts of President Woodruff’s visions.
I am not normally attracted to reading about Church history. The history of the United States fascinates me. I’m sure this overlap helped this book be of interest, but I think it had more to do with the fact that the story was one that was of interest to me as a kid. I found the discussion of baptisms for the dead in the early Church quite intriguing. What I missed in the discussion of Wilford Woodruff’s dream was the actual sermons in which he talked about it. I found them, later, in the appendices. I thought that was an unnatural place for them. They should’ve been front and center. Finally, the biographies were interesting. They were just snippets and, usually, not very long, providing highlights of government service and the thoughts of other Founding Fathers on the person in question. I enjoyed learning about how they came to be involved in the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Many of them were what would be called “flip-floppers” in today’s toxic political environment (although maybe not necessarily since that term, at its purest, refers to those who change positions for political expediency, not because of any deeply held personal belief). Many were British supporters until things just got too out of hand (it was almost always taxes that bothered them, but property rights and religion played a role, too). The wide cross section of society was interesting, too. Most of the signers were from the upper or upper middle class. Not all, though. There were guys who had worked their way up from being the apprentices of tradesmen to being judges. There were merchants, clergymen, lawyers, and others. What they had in common was a desire for themselves and their fellow countrymen to be free. The book typically pointed out when one of the signers owned slaves or not. This is a fascination that modern history has, but I thought it was dealt with admirably by the authors, who noted, at the end, that, unfortunately, many of our Founding Fathers were slave owners, but that was a burning issue then, and most of those who owned slaves struggled with it, later freeing some or all of their slaves or helping to write laws that hampered the slave trade in the U.S., but the important thing was that the founding documents (many signed not just the Declaration, but the Constitution as well) made it possible to later eliminate slavery in America. Ultimately, that’s why they came to President Woodruff: they wanted to be free, free from spiritual prison in the afterlife. It was an interesting historical and theological read that made me think about my amazing national heritage as well as my testimony in a loving God that has provided a way for all men to return to him and experience salvation.
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