On June 21, 1895, Seymour B. Young called on President Wilford Woodruff. That night, writing in his own journal, Brother Young wrote: “Had a nice visit with him. He showed to me two of the first volumes of his journal. I never saw anything kept so nice.”
Anyone who has ever seen any part of Wilford Woodruff’s journal would certainly agree. It is one of the monumental examples of personal record-keeping. From the time he joined the Church in 1833 and through his long, eventful life, Wilford Woodruff must have spent an hour a day on it, even more when the occasion required, carefully setting down his experiences and feelings. Since he lived through exciting times and was often close to the centers of activity, his ardent consistency in writing produced one of the magnificent primary sources for the history of the Church during the nineteenth century.
Wilford Woodruff was not the only Latter-day Saint to keep a diary. There are hundreds of surviving personal records from the Saints of the past century. To some extent the practice continues to the present. Mormon historians used to say that keeping personal journals or diaries was a thing of the past, but many people have corrected that, telling of their own diaries or those of friends or family members, and it seems clear that the practice is continuing. It should. Probably no people, with the possible exception of the Puritans or the early Quakers, have been so mindful of personal records as have the Latter-day Saints.
How do we explain our zeal for writing personal journals? It doubtless was stimulated by the sense of being involved in events of historic, even cosmic, significance. Moreover, the strong sense of family encouraged by our theology must have provided an additional stimulus; many of the records clearly express the hope that they will be of value to the author’s children and grandchildren. But such predisposing influences may have been less important than the fact that the Saints were advised that it was their duty to keep a journal.
The advice came originally from the Prophet Joseph Smith and was repeated by other leaders for many years. As late as the 1890s, for example, Erastus Snow so advised the Saints in Arizona during one of his sermons. One of his listeners, Lucy Hannah White Flake, promptly began to follow his course; during the remaining years of her life she produced a moving, human record of life on the Arizona frontier.
Several hundred personal diaries of Latter-day Saints have been deposited in the Church archives or in other research libraries. Some are short; others are long. Some are halting and grammatically unorthodox, others are highly literate. Some are limited to missionary experiences. Some are by General Authorities, mission presidents, stake presidents, and bishops, but many are by ordinary members of the Church. Some are exciting in their description of conflict and dramatic events; others reflect lives of drudgery and of eking out a living in a harsh environment. All these diaries contribute, as no other records can, to our understanding of what life was like in the past, helping us to appreciate the achievements of our ancestors.
It is largely through their diaries, for example, that we are able to appreciate the conversion experiences that brought our forebears into the Church. On the night of December 29, 1833, Wilford Woodruff had just attended a cottage meeting and heard Zerah Pulsipher proclaim the truth of Mormonism. Brother Woodruff wrote:
“I felt the spirit of God to bear witness that he was the servant of God. He then commenced preaching and that too as with authority and when he had finished his discourse I truly felt that it was the first gospel sermon that I had ever heard … I could not feel it my duty to leave the house without bearing witness to the truth before the people. I opened my eyes to see, my ears to hear, my heart to understand and my doors to entertain him who had administered unto us.”
Hundreds of other diaries describe their authors’ conversions, a momentous turning point in each of their lives. Many of them tell of hearing the Prophet Joseph Smith and becoming acquainted with him. In 1837, after hearing the Prophet give a sermon that lasted about three hours, Wilford Woodruff wrote:
“That fountain of light, principle and virtue that came forth out of the heart and mouth of the prophet Joseph whose soul like Enoch’s swelled wide as eternity—I say such evidences presented in such a forcible manner ought to drive into oblivion every particle of unbelief and dubiety from the mind of the hearers, for such language, sentiment, principles and spirit cannot flow from darkness. Joseph Smith Jr. is a prophet of God raised up for the deliverance of Israel as true as my heart now burns within me while I am penning these lines, which is as true as truth itself.”
Thanks to Wilford Woodruff’s habit of keeping a regular journal we can come close to his emotions as he reflected on the Prophet’s powerful sermon.
There are other fine moments that would be lost except for diaries. In crossing the plains in 1847, the Pioneer company stopped for the Sabbath day and heard a sermon by Heber C. Kimball. Fortunately Norton Jacob went to his wagon and wrote down what he heard. Here is his entry for that day:
“Tuesday, 1st day of June 1847—A warm, pleasant morning. All seem to be under the influence of the good Spirit. Brother Heber was speaking of selfishness; that everyone should feel as though they could take hold and assist one another just as quick as they would themselves; that when we would feel an interest in all our brethren’s welfare we would be filled with light and life, while selfishness tends to death; it kills the soul. One who acts for the good of the whole acts like a god, while he that coils himself up in himself and only strives to advance his own affairs will sink down to nothing.”
These noble sentiments can still inspire us as they inspired Norton Jacob on that spring day of 1847.
Nearly thirty years later, Brigham Young was visiting in St. George when the temple there was nearing completion. A celebration was held in which the Saints paid their respects to President Young on his birthday, and later there was a special meeting for “old folks.” After the meeting President Young called Charles L. Walker over to him and asked for a copy of “The Temple Song” that Brother Walker had composed. In his diary (a rich and colorful document of the period) Brother Walker told of a precious experience that he would never forget:
“After meeting I went home and got the song and took it to him. He treated me very kindly and asked me to sit beside him and take dinner with him. I spent the time very pleasantly and found him to be very polite, genial, and sociable and I felt quite at home in chatting over the work on the temple, old times and other general topics. In bidding him goodbye he took my hand in both of his and said, ‘God bless you. Brother Charley, and God has blessed you, hasn’t He?’ It seemed that in an instant all the blessings I had ever received were before me. My emotion was too much to answer him, and I chokingly said, ‘I have learned to trust in the Lord.’”
Some of the finest diaries were kept by General Authorities, men who were very busy and who did not seek to enjoy their “golden years” in peaceful retirement. Wilford Woodruff’s monumental journal has already been mentioned. Other imposing diaries were kept by Franklin D. Richards, Amasa Lyman, Brigham Young, Jr., Orson F. Whitney, Anthon H. Lund, Heber J. Grant, and John Henry Smith, to mention only a few.
One of the marvelous surviving diaries is that of Abraham H. Cannon, whose first entries were made in 1879 during his mission in Germany and extend nearly to his death in 1896. A son of George Q. Cannon, Abraham H. held responsible Church positions and was active in community affairs.
He became a member of the First Council of Seventy and later was a member of the council of the Twelve. In a beautiful hand he wrote almost every day, demonstrating a fine sense of what was important.
Opening the work at random, I found the following entry for July 26, 1888:
“26 July 1888: Very hot day. Most of the day I spent at the office where we printed a form of the S.S. Music book. John Q. was down today and I accompanied him to the base ball match between the Salt Lakes and Nationals which was won by the former in a nicely played game by a score of 10 to 3. The Nationals made all their runs in the first innings. The umpire, Best, was very unfair to both sides, and allowed the players to influence his decisions. About 7 P.M. I went down to the farm.”
From this single entry we get tantalizing glimpses into the preparation of a Sunday School book, the friendly relations between the author and his brother, entertainment and sports in the 1880s, and the combination of urban and rural existence that was common at that time.
The Abraham Cannon journals are full of unexpected treasures: descriptions of small towns visited for stake conferences; summaries of talks heard and delivered; activities of the Cannon family; comments on the theater, horse racing, and other entertainment; business and politics; and summaries of statements made by different General Authorities. It is a great human document and a valuable source for a difficult period in the history of the Church.
Closer to life as it was lived are the diaries of ordinary members of the Church. Many of them, especially in the past century, have an epic sweep, dealing as they do with conversion, emigration to a new land, travel over vast distances, exploration, and settlement. One of the great diaries, eloquent in its simplicity, is that of Joseph Beecroft.
At its start he was in England. In 1856 he emigrated to the United States and started westward with the Martin handcart company. At Des Moines, Iowa, he left the camp to go into the city to buy supplies. Somehow he misunderstood the departure time or was detained longer than expected, because when he returned to the camp he found that the company had left. So Beecroft and his wife sought lodging and work in Des Moines where they remained until 1859. We read of hard times, hard work, church meetings, conversations, and some entertainment: “Went to Carrots circus in the evening”; “Spent the evening at home in reading, fiddling etc.”
After arriving in Salt Lake City in 1859, Beecroft tried his hand at a variety of jobs: manufacturing, building, butchering. A skilled printer, he eventually found employment at the Deseret News printing office. For a number of years his report of activities in the printing shop provided an unusual perspective, from below as it were, on the activities of the News.
Beecroft was marvelously human. Imperfect, making mistakes, he nevertheless endears himself by his honesty and his faltering efforts to improve. In 1861, after he had been a member of the Church for several years, he penned the following entry: “I paid my first Tything to day … a fine roaster out of a brood of 10, 7 of which we reared. Oh, Lord help me pay my tything under all our curcumstances.”
He attempted to establish a homestead in Weber County. It was hard work against enormous obstacles. To add to the family income, Joseph and his son John would hire out as fiddlers for dances and parties. Numerous trips between Weber and Salt Lake are described, as he went back and forth with produce to sell in the city and to attend meetings there and buy what was necessary. On one of these trips in 1862 he noted: “Was overtaken by one hundred troops on their way from Salt Lake City to the plains to protect the mail line and telegraph wires.” This, of course, was during the Civil War. In 1864 Beecroft moved to Southern Utah and continued to describe his life and thoughts, his work and worries, his travels and meetings year after year until 1883.
Those who failed to keep a daily record sometimes wrote recollections later in life, preserving experiences for others to enjoy that otherwise would have been lost. Here is Aaron Johnson describing a meeting with Buffalo Bill at Idaho Falls in 1903. He had been told that the celebrity was in his private tent getting ready for the show and did not want to be disturbed.
“I sauntered close to the tent, and could plainly see Bill. He had been shaved, and the barber—his barber—was combing Bill’s long hair down over his shoulders, while another man was busy fastening Bill’s leggings and decorations properly.
“Through the narrow opening in the tent door I watched the proceedings until the Old Scout was completely made up for the show. Then this ‘Hero of the plains’ walked out the back door of his tent. So I hurried around and when close to him I said, ‘Mr. Cody.’ He faced me, and I continued: ‘Mr. Cody, for a long time I’ve wanted to meet and shake your hand. What about it?’ I asked. ‘Simplest thing extant,’ he said and took me by the hand! He, Buffalo Bill, took me by the hand—shook it too, and me only a ‘Deluded Mormon!’
“I told Bill I was a Mormon, that I had eight stalwart boys, and that they all admired him and that his history, Life of Buffalo Bill, held its place on our center table.
“Bill told me that some of his best friends were Mormons and that our people who reside in Big Horn Basin were ‘just fine.’
“Buffalo Bill then presented me with a string of beads, telling me to hand them to my wife with his best wishes.
“Then the Scout gave me a pass to the reserved section of the tent, shook my hand, and we parted—of course.
“The show? Well, I’ll arrange with Victor Hugo to depict the wonders of this ‘marvelous’ show!”
Glimpses into tender relationships often come through the journal accounts. Here, for example, is an unpretentious, lovely tribute from Aaron Johnson to his wife Louisa:
It is not only the dramatic and colorful events that are worth recording. It is also valuable to know the daily round of activities, the hard physical labor that occupied most of the time of our ancestors, the hardships and discouragements. Besides, there are many incidents of daily life that are easily forgotten. Those who record them preserve precious moments that can later be cherished, relived as it were, by members of the family. Moments of humor, family incidents, sickness, prayer, conversations, visits—such is the stuff of diaries that become rich veins of delight and inspiration and information.
Fortunately many of these vivid personal accounts have been published in whole or in part. Here are a few of those whose diaries are available in published form: Israel Barlow, John Bennion, Henry W. Bigler, John Brown, Thomas D. Brown, William Clayton, Howard Egan, Joseph Fish, Thales Haskell, Norton Jacob, Andrew Jenson, John D. Lee, Jesse N. Smith, Hosea Stout, Archer Walters, and John Woodhouse. Many others remain unpublished. The guide to Mormon diaries that I have been preparing should help interested readers in finding both published and unpublished accounts.
If you have such records in your personal possession or if you know of such material elsewhere, the Historical Department of the Church would be grateful to hear about them. Many people have made a wise decision in turning over such handwritten or typed material to the church archives, where it can be safely preserved under proper humidity control for future generations. Others have at least agreed to have the church archives make a photocopy of the original, thus providing some insurance against loss.
It is often easier even for the descendants to examine grandfather’s journal in the pleasant atmosphere of the church archives than to find it in the home of a relative. After all, if someone took the time and effort to write the account in the first place, it seems that those into whose hands the work has fallen should do what is necessary to see that it is preserved. (Note: in this article all quotations from journals may be found in the archives division of the Church Historical Department.)
We cannot all be Wilford Woodruffs, but we can be motivated as he was to keep a record of our own activities. And we can honor and protect the records of our fathers. It is through such records that our historians, present and future, will endeavor to write a true and faithful history of the Latter-day Saints.