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Introduction to the Journals

While supervising the recording and copying of his revelations at his residence in Hiram, Ohio, in 1832, Joseph Smith ventured into a new genre. He dictated to his clerk a brief journal entry, which the clerk recorded in a volume that was being used to record revelations. Dated 8 March 1832, the passage reads: “Chose this day and ordained brother Jesse Gause and Broth[er] Sidney [Rigdon] to be my councellers of the ministry of the presidency of th[e] high Pristhood and from the 16th of February up to this date have been at home except a journey to Kirtland on the 29 Feby and returned home one [on] the 4th of March we received a revelation in Kirtland and one since I returned home blessed be the name of the Lord.”1 More than eight months elapsed without any further recording of that nature. On 27 November 1832, Smith’s first journal was purchased, and he began it by stating his intention “to keep a minute acount of all things that come under my obsevation.”2 Although useful records resulted, the reality seldom approached this ideal. Many early entries were brief, and there were gaps within journals and between journals. In the 1830s, only for the six months preceding the dedication of the House of the Lord in Kirtland, Ohio, in March 1836 and for part of 1838 were entries relatively sustained and detailed. Diary keeping improved in the 1840s, owing mainly to the diligence and longevity in the task of Willard Richards, who began writing for Joseph Smith in December 1841. And then, on 22 June 1844, Smith’s tenth and final journal volume came to an abrupt halt. This volume, kept almost daily by Richards, suddenly ceased amid the mounting trouble that led to Smith being killed within the week.

By the end of Smith’s life, he and his scribes produced ten volumes of Joseph Smith journals comprising over 1,500 manuscript pages. Of the total, only about 35 manuscript pages contain autograph writing, where Smith put his own pen to the paper. Internal evidence suggests that he dictated another 250 or so pages. The remaining pages—about 1,300, or more than 80 percent of the total—were primarily the work of five men who were appointed to keep Smith’s journals: Warren Parrish, George W. Robinson, James Mulholland, Willard Richards, and William Clayton. On a few occasions, Sidney Rigdon, Frederick G. Williams, Parley P. Pratt, Eliza R. Snow, and others penned entries.

As with Smith’s record keeping in general, his journal-keeping methods developed over time. Before he and his scribes developed a consistent, workable procedure, their efforts, intentionally or not, echoed several genres. The first six journals each bear a title—Book for Record, Sketch Book, Scriptory Book, Memorandum, and Minute Book (all constituting the present first volume of The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals series), and Book of the Law of the Lord (the title of the book containing the first journal presented in volume two of the Journals series). These titles, in the end, reflect something of the varied contents and purposes of these journals. The Scriptory Book, for example, contains various written records, or scripts—letters, minutes, revelations, and other transcribed documents—as well as typical journal entries recording daily events. Combining miscellaneous documents with proper journal entries, the book functioned as a repository for information Smith and his scribes wanted to preserve.

Similarly, the record titled “Memorandum” seems to have been intended as a record different from a typical journal. Kept by scribe James Mulholland, the document appears on first inspection to be an example of inept journal keeping. Mulholland’s terse entries—“At home all day”; “Saw him early morning”3—record almost nothing of interest. But a memorandum, in the 1830s as today, is defined as a written reminder or a note of a transaction, a purpose that Mulholland’s journal fulfilled. Mulholland apparently began the journal just after Joseph Smith met with legal counsel as difficulties mounted in Missouri—counsel may have recommended that Smith keep a record to verify his whereabouts each day. If we take the title of Mulholland’s document at face value, his record accomplishes what we may infer Smith requested.

Early on in the sixth of these variously titled journals, the diary keeping settled into a more predictable pattern. By this time, Joseph Smith had a regular cadre of scribes with better-defined procedures for keeping journals, copying letters, and writing his history. Preeminent among them was Willard Richards, who also inscribed portions of the 1839–1843 letterbook and Nauvoo municipal records and took a leading role in the creation of Smith’s history both before and after Smith’s death. Although from December 1841 forward Richards inscribed significant parts of the sixth Joseph Smith journal, by 1843 he was Smith’s consistent journal keeper. In December 1842, when he began the first of four matching journal volumes, he took an approach that served him well until the end. The four volumes he kept, each of which he titled “President Joseph Smith’s Journal,” were one endeavor applied consistently over time.

One benefit to come from Joseph Smith’s practice of delegating journal keeping to others is the substantial number of sermons reported in the journals. Smith evidently did not speak from written texts; no such texts survive. An 1830 revelation promised that God would give him “in the very moment” what to say,4 and Smith relied on that promise. According to a scribe’s report, Smith told an audience in 1843 that “his mind was continually ocupied with the business of the day. and he had to depend entirely upon the living God for every thing he said on such occasions.”5 Thus his words to his followers are accessible only through notes kept by others. The four journal volumes written by Willard Richards during the last eighteen months of Smith’s life record fifty-nine discourses, twenty-five in substantial detail.

Throughout all Joseph Smith’s journals, readers must differentiate between first-person material referring to him and that referring to his scribes. For convenience and brevity, scribes often followed the convention of writing with Joseph Smith as an implied first person. For example, in April 1834, Oliver Cowdery wrote in Smith’s journal: “left Kirtland. . . . Travelled to W. W. Williams’ . . . took dinner, after which we travelled on.”6 In the first part of this entry, readers must supply Smith as the subject who “left,” “Travelled,” and “took dinner.” Later in the entry, however, Cowdery himself joins in as part of the “we” who “travelled on.”

In other cases, assuming Joseph Smith to be the subject creates errors. For example, the documentary History of the Church, a work first published serially in church periodicals in the nineteenth century and available since the early twentieth century in six volumes (a seventh volume covers the early administration of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young), says that Smith traveled from Commerce to Quincy, Illinois, and back between 14 and 19 May 1839.7 This is based on a seemingly clear first-person journal entry: “I returned to Quincy so kept no Minute of course, I got back here Sunday ev[en]ing the 19th May.”8 However, other documentary evidence establishes that the “I” in this entry is scribe James Mulholland, who made the entry to explain not having recorded Smith’s activities during that week.

The Journals series clarifies other misconceptions stemming from the familiar History of the Church. While Joseph Smith’s journals were used as the foundation for much of the day-by-day chronological text of the History, the early editors and compilers of the History inserted a wide variety of other materials into the narrative and then presented the entire work as a seamless first-person account by Smith. The present edition of Smith’s journals presents the complete text of the original manuscripts without any of the other material inserted in the History, allowing readers to distinguish Smith’s journals from other documents.

Through the diverse material in Joseph Smith’s journals, readers may follow him on his pursuit of an overarching goal—to “establish Zion” among his people. While the journals fall short of his original intent of providing a “minute acount of all things that come under my obsevation,” they do contain over 1,500 pages of material recording his challenges and efforts toward building what he saw as the beginnings of the kingdom of God on earth.