The William Clayton Diaries?

Yesterday, the good folks at the LDS Church History Library announced that the Church Historian’s Press would be publishing the William Clayton diaries. Mormon History Nerds united in celebratory meme-making. I imagine that most Mormons when faced with this news would likely shrug. The news of new Missionary interview questions and smartphone proselytizing has way more traction. I dusted off the appendix I included in my review of Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 2 (and yes having a review appendix is absurd, but I still think it was a solid review), and have updated it with info from the intervening half decade.

William Clayton was an early British convert with book-keeping experience. One year after he converted, Church leaders ordained him as a high priest and he served in the British mission presidency from 1838-1840, after which he emigrated to Nauvoo. In 1842 he began serving as Joseph Smith’s recorder and scribe. Clayton observed Smith in the most important personal and institutional contexts. Clayton’s journal is the most detailed account of the last two years of Smith’s life. It is also the only contemporaneous account of many controversial aspects of that life: polygamy, the rift between Emma and Joseph over the topic, the temple quorum, the Council of Fifty, etc.

I am unfortunately unaware of the provenance of the Clayton journals. They were used by Church historians in the preparation of the “Manuscript History” in the 1850s and they appear to have landed, with many other important documents and items, in the personal papers of apostle and church historian, Joseph Fielding Smith. Smith eventually became Church President and a safe containing these papers became what is often referred to as the First Presidency vault. The materials archived by the First Presidency are outside of the purview of the LDS Church History Library and its registers are not public. [n1]

In the late 1970s the First Presidency granted access to some documents in their holding. It appears that several scholars received access to some form of the Nauvoo era Clayton journals, namely James B. Allen (and Dean Jesse?), Andrew F. Ehat, and D. Michael Quinn. [n2] They each prepared typescripts of varying quality. As I understand it, Allen’s typescript is the most complete, with Ehat’s being the least, comprising approximately half of the holograph text. In my limited experience, Allen’s typescript is also the most accurate, with Quinn’s being the least. Each scholar used their typescripts for important scholarly contributions at the vanguard of the New Mormon History. [n3]

Ehat collaborated with Lyndon Cook on several projects, notably The Words of Joseph Smith [n4]. At the time, Ehat was a graduate student at BYU and Cook was on faculty. Ehat shared a copy of his Clayton typescript with Cook, who kept it in his office. As was common, his office was also used by student ward bishoprics. One bishopric member noticed the document, copied it, and circulated it fairly broadly. A copy eventually made it to the Tanners who published it. [n5] Lawsuits ensued. Ehat won, but the decision was overturned on appeal. [n6]

George Smith later edited the Ehat transcript and included it with publicly available Clayton journals and a transcript of a purloined copy of the Heber C. Kimball temple journal kept by Clayton [a copy of the microfilm was previously published by the Tanners] in the widely cited, An Intimate Chronicle. [n7] Allen reviewed this volume and concluded that content selection of the Nauvoo journals was highly skewed, likely reflecting Ehat’s research interests. [n8]

Allen’s complete typescript has not been made publicly available beyond employees of the LDS Church History Library. However, in 2002 Allen published a revised and retitled version of his Clayton biography, which included an appendix of Clayton diary excerpts used as source material for the “Manuscript History,” which comes to most of us as the History of the Church. [n9] This appendix remains the only published transcripts of several important portions of the diary. For example before the release of J2, the source material for Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants was only available in this appendix.

Quinn eventually donated his research papers to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, his alma mater, and his Clayton typescript is open to researchers. An unidentified party accessed this material and released two small printings (50 and 100 volumes respectively) of Clayton’s Nauvoo diary. [n10] This volume apparently includes thirty percent more text than the Ehat transcript.

It is my understanding that the distribution of the Clayton diary was viewed by many within the Church hierarchy to be exploitative and a betrayal of trust. Since their release and until the JSP, no scholars have had access to the documents. This lack of access is a critical lacuna as scholars have, out of necessity, relied on less-than-critical (and less-than-legitimate) transcripts in the analyses of the most important aspects of Joseph Smith’s life.

The JSPP folks have been using the Clayton diaries extensively in for footnotes, and most recently Laurel Thatcher Ulrich got access to the holograph for her splendid volume, A House Full of Females. The First Presidency has also relaxed its control on several documents in their archive, and even released photos of one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones. I imagine that the good will of many laborers in history’s vineyard, and the positive reception of all of these items, has helped create an environment when the publication of the Clayton diaries is a reality. I’m grateful to all of the people who have contributed to that, both in and out of church employment. Thank you.


  1. The most complete discussion of the “First Presidency’s vault” to date, including some of the spurious claims associated with it, is Richard E. Turley, Jr., Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), index: “First Presidency—vault.” See also JSP, J2, 5 note 8; JSP, R1, 5 note 6; Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831–1836 (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies/Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), xiii.
  2. While it is clear that Allen (and Dean Jessee) received access to the holograph journals, it is not clear whether Quinn and Ehat did or whether they worked from an existing typescript. [EDIT: Gary Bergera adds some additional insight to who had access to what documents, in a comment below.]
  3. All three published their earliest uses of the Clayton diary in BYU Studies articles. Perhaps the culmination of their respective work with the document is: James B. Allen, Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Andrew F. Ehat, “Joseph Smith’s Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question” (MA thesis, Brigham Young University, 1982); D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994).
  4. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1980).
  5. Clayton’s Secret Writings Uncovered: Extracts from the Diaries of Joseph Smith’s Secretary William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, [1982]).
  6. 780 F.2d 876, Tenth Circuit – Andrew F. Ehat, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, Modern Microfilm Company, Defendants-Appellants., US.FEDERAL.ca10.
  7. George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995).
  8. James B. Allen, “An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton [Book review],” BYU Studies 35, no. 2 (1995), 165-175. This review also includes more information on the publication history of Ehat’s transcript. See also the reprint of the review, with subsequent corresponding responses by Smith and Allen, “Editing William Clayton and Politics of Mormon History,” Dialogue 30 (Summer 1997): 129-156.
  9. James B. Allen, No Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), Appendix I.
  10. The Nauvoo Diaries of William Clayton, 1842-1846, Abridged (Salt Lake City: Privately Published, 2010). This volume was sold at Benchmark Books and was part of a series of short printing volumes based on the archival typescripts of yore, including The Diaries of Heber J. Grant, 1880-1945, Abridged and Minutes of the Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1835-1893.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Very helpful background and context. Many thanks.

  2. Great summary, J.

  3. J, I may be able to add some additional comments. Mike Quinn had official access to the Jessee transcription, not the original, and made his notes from that source. (I don’t know that Allen ever made his own transcription; I’d always understood that Allen relied on Jessee’s transcription, though Allen could certainly have taken his own notes while the originals were on loan to the Historical Department.) The Clayton/Kimball Nauvoo journal in “An Intimate Chronicle” was transcribed from the photocopy that the Tanners published. (I don’t know the source for the Tanners’ photocopy, but copies were circulating fairly widely in the 1970s.) I believe Ron Huggins is working on a biography of the Tanners and plans to deal with these kinds of issues in some depth.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Gary. I really appreciate the helpful information. Going back and reading above, I wasn’t clear about the path of the HCK diary kept by Clayton, and consequently it could be read in multiple ways. The information you included is an important part of the story. I was also unaware of the Huggins bio. That sounds really interesting.

    I also appreciate the clarification on the access people had to what documents. (I’ll add a note in the post to point people to your comment)

  5. Gary, odd as the story may sound, I believe that Allen and Jessee were independently making transcriptions from Clayton’s holograph, discovered that they were working on the same task, and then divided the labor so that both transcribed roughly half of the complete transcription of the three manuscript volumes in question. I can’t speak to your comment about Quinn’s access, but I understand that Andy Ehat made his notes using the Jessee/Allen transcription rather than the original manuscript.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    GMD, I’ve heard that as well.

  7. GMD, you could very easily be right. I’d understood that the Clayton diaries were loaned to the Historical Department to aid Allen’s biography, and that while they were there, Jessee made a complete transcription. Allen could’ve made his own notes/transcriptions as well. Everything I’ve heard about Ehat’s access is strictly hearsay. (My comments about Quinn’s access come directly from Quinn. I thought he’d had access to the originals while they were in the Historical Department, but he corrected me.)

  8. As I’ve commented elsewhere, the three most “mysterious” documents in LDS HIstory for my entire adult life (since the late 70s) were the Council of Fifty Minutes (released as part of JSPP); George Q. Cannon diary (released on line by JSPP); and the William Clayton diary (see OP). I agree with the sentiments at the end of the OP. The good will of many for a long time has earned the release of these (regardless of the reasons they were withheld previously). We’re in a Golden Age. I’m sure Leonard Arrington and his associates who have passed are smiling.

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