Your Sunday Brunch Special #6: Dear Diary

Ever kept a diary? Part of my historian avocation (nobody pays me to do it) involves reading the journals/diaries of people now long dead. A danger in doing so is taking them too seriously. Diarists vary in their ability and “desire” to robustly represent their perceptions and experience. Some seem nearly robotic (George Albert Smith for example) in reporting what they had for breakfast and who they saw that day – and little else – as though they had little or no reaction whatsoever. Others seem to give us wonderful and candid detail even where great embarrassment might come from its revelation.[1] Most edit the happenings around them, distilling their memories of the day or days into brief accounts of conversations, feelings, impressions, etc. filtered through a lens only they understand. Many write prayers and other sacred things.

Even the most candid only give us a picture of the past sieved through the obstacles of prejudice, faulty senses, point of observation, strong feelings, environmental issues or personal sensitivities. We see this when multiple witnesses to an event leave contemporary reports of that event. But the candid diary is far better than a blank page, even if it merely gives us a better picture of the diarist than the event.

Two diarists of note in Mormon history are the famous Wilford Woodruff (1807-1898), and the less well known but wonderful Abraham Hoagland Cannnon (1859-1896). Woodruff occasionally gives us some deep insight into various issues and feelings but most of these are not personal (his domestic interactions in plural marriages, say). He was a chronicler of the first water though.[2] His journals extend from 1834 to his death in 1898. They leave tantalizing clues about what he was thinking, but sometimes do not betray those thoughts.[3] For example,

Drove to the Office, feeling well. I thought it for the best to write my views and feelings on the matter which has been on my mind for some time and which has been made quite clear to me in regard to the Godhead and of which I hope to be able to speak at at[sic] the coming Conference so that I can submit the same to Bros Cannon & Smith [February 23, 1898]

On the other hand, he reports the words of others with some fidelity. For instance, his reports of Joseph Smith’s sermons are an important addition to the historical record. His reports on the doings of the apostles in Utah, particularly the words of Brigham Young and others are beyond valuation. Woodruff’s sermon reports are sometimes written from memory, sometimes by expanding notes taken at the event. In either case when other witnesses exist, it is seen that Woodruff does not give verbatim accounts but is mostly reliable in sense.

Elder Cannon, like Woodruff, summarizes his experience but often gives useful details. Here’s one excerpt:

Thursday June 1st 1893 . . . At 2 o’clock I attended my Quorum meeting in the temple. Present: all of the Presidency, though Pres. Woodruff had to leave because of weakness before the meeting dismissed, Pres. L. Snow, F. D. Richards, F. M. Lyman, John W. Taylor and M. W. Merrill as well as myself Geo. F. Gibbs Clerk. Bros. John D. T. McAllister, Nephi W. Clayton, and James Jack were also in attendance a part of the time. We first had some talk about the ordinance of adoption in the Temple. Jos. F. Smith said Pres. Young had told him to follow in the ordinance work for the dead the rules which will ordinarily govern similar work for the living. President John Taylor had ruled that no person could represent another who is dead in the receiving of any ordinance which the living person had not already received. The conversation lasted for some time, but was finally dismissed for future consideration when we could devote more time and thought to the subject. The custom was however approved of giving endowments to children over eight yrs. of age if they are dead and of sealing to parents only one generation beyond the one in the church.

My mother began keeping a journal in the 1980s. It is an interesting document and has a peculiar flavor to me because the events she chronicles are invested with perceived motivations and feelings that just weren’t there in my experience. I don’t think this kind of thing is abnormal.

Are you a journal keeper? Ever write dear diary? Got any interesting experiences related to reading a diary?

[1] General Authorities have been counseled not to record their authoritative interactions in private diaries.

[2] Since Woodruff, like many 19th century diarists wrote for posterity and eventually the public perhaps, most of his entries may be called self-conscious. Nevertheless, he can be quite candid. Even skilled early Mormon clerks assigned to attempt verbatim reports clearly edit in both subtle and obvious ways in the interest of keeping up with the speakers.

[3] Another issue is transparency. Is it even possible? And to define it?


  1. I kept a journal religiously through my freshman and sophomore years of high school. All of it is angsty, self-absorbed crap. Only through blogging online have I been able to keep a useful, interesting regular record of my life. Going on 10 years now of online blog/journaling (and some of that is angsty and self-absorbed as well,mostly the part where I was dating/engaged to my husband but dating long distance.)

  2. I confess that as much as I like pawing through other people’s diaries, I have kept one only sporadically myself. I always stop whenever there’s a church talk or magazine article on the importance of keeping a journal, because they never point to any value to anyone except those who are downstream on a pedigree chart; that’s discouraging for a genealogical dead-end. But then I’ll have an interesting interaction with someone whom I know Someone In The Future will be interested in reading about, and I’ll start again … and then peter out when interactions with interesting people become scarce.

    I’ve slogged my way through my share of diaries that record little more than how many miles a missionary walked that day, or how many adobes a settler made that day, and a lesser number where a diarist treated his page as a dear friend, recording there the things he had nobody to say them to in real life. The latter are the best, but even the business-is-business diaries can be interesting in another way: I’m transcribing the diary of a missionary now who hardly ever records a personal thought but does record enough exterior detail for me to project my own feelings. I don’t know how he reacted, but I can imagine how *I* would in those circumstances. I think I would rather have that matter-of-fact style diary than one that was so angsty and self-absorbed that it could be the record of anybody anywhere.

  3. Having taught journal-keeping and related courses a lot, I cherish a number of wonderful diary stories.

    Two of my favorites: First one is set up in Wyoming on a farm. Wife is writing to missionary son and wants to tell him exactly how bitterly cold it was yeserday. She is aware that her husband keeps a log of some sort; she assumes it’s a record of the daily milk production, but he also tracks the weather. So she finds this log in the barn and reads the following:

    “Yesterday I heard Jean on the phone to her friend LouAnn.
    She was saying, ‘So how are you feeling? How are things with you?’ She never asks ME how I’m feeling. I guess she doesn’t really care any more.” Wife drops the logbook and races out of the barn in search of her husband.

    Is it kosher to read someone else’s diary. Not really. Is it sometimes invaluable? Definitely.

    Another true tale later, also about sneaking peeks at another’s journal.

  4. StillConfused says:

    Definitely no journals here. Why let reality stand in the way of a good story retelling? Anyone who has heard my renditions of prior events know that any form of written record would only count against me.

  5. I keep a personal online journal as it is thearapeutic to write out feelings… But I think I would die of embarrassment if anyone one read it….

  6. Chris Gordon says:

    I was a diligent journaler on my mission and have been each year since I married (the 5 year gap in between is something I wish I could recover). On my mission, my journal took the form of letters to my deceased father. All my older brothers mentioned how valuable it had been to them to finally come to an understanding of our father through letters to and from him as missionaries. That was my way of compensating. Take my letters home to Mom combined with my journal to Dad and you have a pretty good picture of my thoughts and feelings about my mission.

    I spent several months writing personal essays of sorts about chapters in my life where there are holes in my chronological journal. I wanted to capture my thoughts about high school, seminary, undergraduate years, etc. while they were still reasonably fresh. Reflecting on what used to be important to me and trying to understand why and trying to record events and stories and people was one of the most rewarding experiences of my journaling years.

  7. Chris, a colleague told us that during his mission, he kept a careful and regular missionary journal, and he wrote his mother long weekly letters as well. He says that there is no comparison between the two records, the letters home being full of honesty, puzzlement, joy and pride, a very personal voice one can still recognize as Bert’s fifty years later, whereas the missionary journal could have been written by almost any elder.

    Diary story #2 among my favorites: Set over in Price, Utah. Family having ongoing turmoil because the sixteen year old daughter is dating a non-member. Lots of frowns, steely looks, big sighs, head-shaking, a few tears, arguments, several groundings, slammed doors, some shouting. Mother and daughter at an unpleasant impasse.

    Daughter one day goes to her mother’s closet to get something, and happens on a small box of diaries from twenty years earlier.
    Her mother’s. Picks one from the year her mother was sixteen.
    Reads the groanings of a daughter who loves a non-member coal-miner’s son, her storms and rants and punishments and heartbreak. Takes the book in her hand and finds her mother in the kitchen. She holds up the little green diary and says, “Mother?”

    Red face, stammering, nervous laughter, readings aloud, more laughter, tears, lots of talk as the pages of the diary are shared.
    Balm of Gilead.

  8. Thanks for the responses. Elouise, fun stories.

  9. Chris Gordon says:

    That’s interesting, Elouise. I guess everyone handles that differently. I found that I was much more of a reporter of events and was much more focused on the good news to my mother. That’s probably reflective of my protective nature towards my mom in general and my desire to please. My letters to my “father” in my personal journal are where you get the angst, the insecurity, and occasionally a different spin on the news (as my letters home were weekly but my journal entries to my father were generally a few times a week). It’s not that the personal entries were the negative and the letters home the positive, per se, though. I wrote home on journal paper and had Mom keep my letters in a missionary journal identical to the one I kept in the field. I just recently re-filed the letters so that they are chronological with letters to Mom and letters to Dad interspersed. It was only in re-reading them that way that I really saw how different the two were.

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