Fred Woods has spent more than two decades collecting the sometimes-forgotten tales of Latter-day Saints who crossed the sea.
“Some of these accounts are riveting,” Woods said. “You’ll have a man in a raging storm taking his shoes off and standing on deck, dripping wet, and putting his right arm to the square and rebuking the winds and the waves.”
Woods, a professor of religious education at Brigham Young University in Provo, is the compiler for Saints by Sea, a database housed by the BYU Harold B. Lee Library that includes autobiographies, journals, images and letters of more than 1,000 members of The Church of Latter-day Saints who immigrated to the United States by sea.
About 90,000 Latter-day Saint converts traveled across oceans during the 1800s to reach the United States.
But while Woods said that sea voyages were 90% of the journey for most Latter-day Saints, what people most often hear are handcart stories, which were only a small percentage of what happened. As Woods puts it, people are often missing the boat, or forgetting the sail before the trail.
“The maritime portion, it gets neglected,” Woods said.
He believes there’s miracles within those sea stories. Woods said not a single vessel carrying Latter-day Saints was lost during that time.
“When the storms would howl they’d have special prayers below deck, and also the priest would go on deck and command the winds and the waves to obey,” Woods said.
Woods continues to add more accounts to the database. There are also efforts to connect the 1,300 accounts to FamilySearch.
While he now plans to write a book on the topic, maritime voyages weren’t always a passion project for Woods. He completed a dissertation on water in the Hebrew Bible and planned to study the Dead Sea Scrolls, until he started thinking about maritime voyages while at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City.
Woods, a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, felt as if he was called to the project. He said it’s more than genealogy, and that people of all faiths can learn about history from the accounts.
He’s most fascinated by the reasons behind why people sold everything they owned to sail across the sea. But mainly, he said he hopes Latter-day Saints use the database in order to perform rituals for deceased ancestors in the church’s temples.
Multiple others have aided in the efforts. Woods said it’s a story of teamwork.
“I think this is a great example of what can be done when people as a team are guided towards doing something that the Lord wants them to do,” Woods said.