Additional Resource

The Survival Story of Joseph Smith’s First Journal

A child’s scribbles on an end sheet and in the interior of Joseph Smith’s first known journal may suggest that the prophet and founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was an “indulgent father who allowed family access to his personal records.”

“We don’t really know who or when a child had access to this 1832 journal,” explains Christy Best, an archivist involved in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, “but it did happen at some point.”

Such interesting discoveries are among the insights uncovered as an army of researchers work to compile the exhaustive series encompassing the collected papers of Joseph Smith. The first volume in the project, published by The Church Historian’s Press, details the first five Smith diaries and journals, covering 1832–1839, and includes entries that he wrote and dictated, as well as many entries composed by scribes.

Smith’s first journal, a pocket memory book he purchased in 1832, bears distinguishing markers of the mileage accrued in the journey from Ohio to Salt Lake City.

“We don’t know where he bought it,” offers Best, “but we do know that it was originally a vibrant blue marbled cover, not the faded brown we see. Some of the bright blue threads survive inside the cover. On the edge, two of three loops survived, loops that would have held a small lead pencil or some other writing implement.”

The size, 3 ½ by 6 inches, perfectly suits a vest or coat pocket and leads Best to assume that the journal may have been carried close to the Prophet’s person.

Although several “heart-tugging details” emerge in the text of the journal, including a prophetic plea that “God grant that I be directed in all my thoughts,” many entries indicate that “nothing of note transpired on this day.”

Smith began the journal with the recorded intent to “keep a minute acount of all things that come under my obse[r]vation.” He wrote daily for the first ten days and then failed to make an additional entry for nearly a year.

The pocket journal also contains the handwriting of other Church leaders, including Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams.

Some travel notations were included in the text, but the exact routing of the journal is unknown. Joseph’s wife Emma is known to have carried some of Joseph’s papers with her in a hurried exodus from Missouri to western Illinois, but in Nauvoo, this volume surfaced in the hands of Robert B. Thompson. Thompson and others were charged with the task of compiling a history of the Church and used the material in the 1832 journal as a resource.

When the Saints reluctantly left Nauvoo in February 1846, the journal was among items included in the “large and small box inventories compiled by Thomas Bullock,” Best added.

At some time during the journey, the journal and other 1840s papers belonging to the Prophet incurred significant damage with water, leaving ripples of mud and silt embedded in the pages.

“These papers are in a group that obviously was almost lost,” notes Glenn Rowe, director of special projects in the Church History Department. “We don’t know how or when they were damaged, but they did survive.”

Church leader Willard Richards established a Church historian’s office in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, a stop during the westward migration. The Nauvoo inventoried documents, it is assumed, were a part of that office. Once he arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, Richards opened an additional historian’s office in a small house on South Temple Street. In 1917, the first Smith journal and other historic documents were moved to the Church Administration Building; the collection was transferred to the then newly constructed Church Office Building in 1973. Another transfer will soon take place to the new Church History Library, currently under construction.

Methods of storage and preservation have improved through the years, Rowe explains. “There was always a concern for important original documents — they were stored in manila envelopes for protection, but in the 1970s and 1980s acid-free folders, environmental controls in storage rooms and white gloves to process conservation added life to documents. Now digital studies greatly reduce the number of times required to view an original document.”

With the publication of The Joseph Smith Papers, documents “very close to Joseph’s person, such as this first journal, will be available for study and discussion worldwide, not just in our carefully monitored storage facilities,” Rowe concluded.

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