Brigham Young’s Early Journals

While the Joseph Smith Papers project is, in many respects, wrapping up, other presidents of the Church—including Brigham Young— have begun to receive more attention and papers projects of their own. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Ronald K. Esplin discussed some of his observations about the first volume of the Brigham Young journals to be published by what could be called the Brigham Young Papers Project.

To start, Ronald K. Esplin explained why Brigham Young even kept a journal:

Brigham Young felt a religious obligation to make a record of his missionary labors. If he had not felt compelled to travel and to preach (something the journals document), he likely never would have kept a personal journal.

He begins by noting his baptism and then records (at first very briefly) his missionary journeys—where he traveled and some of the people he taught and baptized.

When he is at home and not on the road as a missionary, there is at first no record. By Nauvoo, he has come to see his record not only as a missionary journal but also as a record of his ministry more broadly, prompting him to write more consistently and often with more detail.

So, initially, it filled out as an obligation to record missionary service, but later became more important to Young.

As Young’s position in the Church evolved, his approach to recording did too:

Three of the four diaries presented in this volume were written in Brigham Young’s hand. (The fourth was a “secretary’s” or office journal kept by others in late Nauvoo.)

Many entries in Brigham’s hand (especially at the beginning) are often short and sometimes cryptic. They record people and places—but not with the kind of detail that conveys emotion and personality.

And while his handwriting is fairly legible, there are some other aspects of his writing that make it difficult to read:

His spelling provides an unusual challenge. Lacking formal schooling, he never learned the “standard spelling” of his day. Instead, he spelled most words phonetically. (He would have done better with a phonetic language like Spanish or German.)

Brigham’s struggles with the idiosyncrasies of written English left him to spell “creatively,” as we say. We occasionally edit his most creative attempts by inserting the correct word in brackets, but otherwise let you see the phonetic spelling he wrote with.


Now, what were the times that he was most consistent and why were they notable? Esplin wrote that 

Two periods of the 1840s elicited Brigham Young’s most consistent journal writing—and produced many of his longer entries. The first was the year he spent in the British Isles leading the Quorum of the Twelve’s first mission as a quorum since their inaugural mission of 1835 and first mission abroad.

It was a pivotal time for Young, the new president of his quorum, and his record helps document that crucial mission for the quorum and the church. …

Some of his best entries were those written later in Nauvoo—especially after the murder of Joseph Smith. They show Brigham and his quorum with new responsibilities thrust upon their shoulders. During this period, Brigham shared more details than normal—and he wrote more often and more consistently. The result is an invaluable record of that crucial transition to new leadership.

These were important times to keep a record.

Some of Esplin’s favorite entries came from this latter period:

My favorite entries deal with the temple—especially when Young and the Twelve pushed to complete the temple and endow the Saints before leaving it behind on their exodus West. In ways that not many Latter-day Saints understand, Brigham and his quorum members preserved the teachings and ordinances that Joseph Smith revealed in Nauvoo. These entries in Young’s journal tell part of that story.

He explained in a little more detail what happened:

When you read the last journal entries before the Latter-day Saints leave Nauvoo in a time of crisis, Brigham is at the Nauvoo Temple night and day to provide the Saints their religious ordinances.

The members of the Church are so desperate to receive their endowments that Brigham Young essentially sleeps in the temple for the last several weeks documented in his last journal so he can endow as many members as possible.

When he tries to close the temple so that he can advance movement to the Rocky Mountains, he sees hundreds of people lined up waiting for their endowments. His heart is moved by compassion—and he opens the temple so they can receive the ordinances.

The performance of temple ordinances in Nauvoo were extremely important to the Latter-day Saints at the time, and some would not be performed again until the completion of the St. George Temple thirty one years later. 

For more of the early journals of Brigham Young, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to read the full interview.