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Historians Introduce the Brigham Young Papers Project and First Volume of Journals

People will learn and understand more about the second president of the Church through his journals, one editor and historian says

Brigham Young was the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.2023 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Trent Toone, Church News

Brigham Young felt the gospel fire and missionary spirit begin to blaze within him as he sat wet following his baptism and ordination to the office of elder in the newly organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 14, 1832.

“I wanted to thunder and roar out the gospel to the nations,” he said years later. The feeling “burned in my bones like fire pent up. ... Nothing would satisfy me but to cry abroad in the world, what the Lord was doing in the latter-days. ... I had to go out and preach, lest my bones should consume within me.”

Many know the general details of what Young went on to do after his conversion — serving missions, becoming an Apostle and the second president of the Church, guiding thousands of Saints to the Great Salt Lake Valley and colonizing the west.

What few know are the day-to-day details of Young’s life.

That will change in the coming years as The Brigham Young Center produces the Brigham Young Papers, beginning with “The Brigham Young Journals, Volume 1, April 1832 to February 1846.”

While it appears to come on the heels of the now-completed Joseph Smith Papers, the Brigham Young Papers project actually launched five years ago. The plan is to make the bulk of Brigham’s documents available online, with a small subset published in print, including journals, letters and personal writings. The project will also provide information about the man and the world he lived in.

The first volume of the journals series focuses on Brigham’s life before coming to Utah, said Ronald K. Esplin, director of the Brigham Young Papers project and general editor of the Brigham Young Journals.

“People will know more about Brigham during his early life preparation and through the transition as he becomes a leader in these Nauvoo and pre-Utah years through this volume than they can probably learn in any other single place,” Esplin said.

What Are the Brigham Young Papers?

Similar to the Joseph Smith Papers, the objective of the Brigham Young Papers project is to collect, document and make available his papers, facilitating biographical research, writing and publications about his life and world.


One significant difference between the two is that Young lived longer and produced thousands more documents that still exist today.

“Joseph was manageable, but it took us more than 20 years [with Church resources],” Esplin said.

The Church is supportive of the Brigham Young Papers but could not devote the same resources to a project that would likely span many decades, Esplin said.

In 2017, the Brigham Young Center Foundation was created as a nonprofit organization to tackle the project with several seasoned historians and scholars on its board and staff, most of whom have years of experience with the Joseph Smith Papers. The main source of funding comes from John D. Esplin, Ronald Esplin’s son and a member of the board.

“This exists with outside donations,” Ronald Esplin said. “We have cooperation and coordination from the Church, which is essential because the Church owns the documents.”

Brigham Young’s Journals

The project begins with Brigham Young’s journals, edited by historians Dean C. Jessee, Brent M. Rogers, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat and Andrew H. Hedges.

“The Brigham Young Journals, Volume 1” features the early Church leader’s pre-Utah journals and provides glimpses into his life and ministry, as well as Church history. Courtesy of the Brigham Young Papers, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

The Brigham Young Journals: Volume 1, April 1832 to February 1846” is the first of four volumes in the journal series. Released in August, the new volume presents Young’s pre-Utah journals, which include three written in his own hand (1832–45) and his Nauvoo, Illinois, office journal kept by clerks (1844–46). These records offer glimpses into Young’s life and ministry as well as key moments in early Church history.

“You will see things about Brigham Young that you do not really think about — how much he misses his family, how desperately devoted he is to Joseph Smith, how many missions he serves and how many sacrifices he makes,” Dirkmaat said.

Future journal volumes pick up in the 1850s and continue through the early 1860s, when Esplin said “inexplicably, they stop.” Young did not keep a diary the final 14 years of his life before his death in 1877.

“‘Inexplicable’ is the right word. At this point we don’t know why [Brigham stopped keeping a journal],” Rogers said. “As we delve deeper into Brigham and his world, we will find out more, and perhaps we can answer that question.”

The first volume features editorial overviews, extensive annotation, detailed physical descriptions of each journal and photographs. There are reference materials, including maps, a chronology and trip itineraries. The transcriptions show Brigham Young to be a tireless missionary, devoted family man and Church leader in the making.

The first volume was completed in five years with the historians and editors working part-time hours beyond their normal full-time jobs.

“This is a labor of love,” Rogers said with a smile.

The fact that they all know early Church history and documentary editing after working on the Joseph Smith Papers and other projects was a significant factor.

“We didn’t have to train anybody on anything,” Esplin said. “They knew Brigham. They know the sources because they have lived in this building [the Church History Library]. We said, ‘Here’s the task, go at it,’ and they did it with a passion.”

Inside Brigham Young’s Journals

While the Joseph Smith Papers were primarily designed for scholars, the most accessible and easy-to-consume parts for Latter-day Saints and others are the journals and histories.

The same is true for the Brigham Young Papers. The layout was also designed to make it easier for readers to follow.

“Everybody can read those, gain from those, enjoy them and come out enriched by them. It is the same here,” Esplin said. “The journals are accessible with a narrative, a story as his life unfolds. This volume, while it is deeply annotated, it is the annotation that helps you understand the story and carry forward.”

In the fall of 1845, the Latter-day Saints were working to finish the Nauvoo Temple and preparing to go west. One journal entry, dated Sept. 5 of that year reads: “Went [to] the big field and took dinner with the proprietors.”

A footnote researched and compiled by Dirkmaat tells the rest of the story.

“The Big Field Association was a joint farming cooperative that had pooled resources to farm 3,840 acres outside of Nauvoo. The recent harvest had been a spectacular one, boasting 30,000 bushels of corn and 30,000 bushels of wheat, as well as many other crops raised on the land. A celebratory dinner was held by the trustees of the association to which the Twelve and many others were invited. Willard Richards placed the attendance at 616 adults and an unspecified number of children.”

Thanks to this and other well-researched annotations that add valuable context, readers will be able to understand and appreciate Young’s concise and sometimes cryptic journal entries, the historians said.

“You have this entry that is roughly meaningless when you read it, and suddenly there is meaning. Now I know what he is talking about,” Dirkmaat said. “That is what historians primarily do. Of course, that requires going through a whole bunch of other sources — letters, other people’s journals, all surrounding the same dates and events — to see if anyone else talked about the same thing. It is fun when you track something down, almost like a detective.”

Another entry, dated January 24, 1845, reads: “I inquired of the Lord whether we should stay here and finish the temple. The answer is we should.”

The footnote explains: “Finishing the temple had been a high priority for Young and the Twelve since 8 August 1844, one they stressed repeatedly. The day before this ritual prayer, Young learned of (and noted in his journal) an increased prospect of violence as former Latter-day Saints sought to stir up enemies to stop them from finishing the temple. This threat likely formed the backdrop for seeking renewed confirmation.”

Esplin added further explanation.

“He was facing a personal crisis. ... Under his leadership, he had to recognize the possibility of presiding over violence if they are going to finish the temple, and they were absolutely committed to finishing the temple,” he said. “So we can take these short entries and help people understand that it is a brief moment that he recorded something meaningful to him that has a context.”

Unique Glimpses Into Brigham Young’s Daily Life

The importance of family is one theme that emerged for Rogers as he worked on this first volume of Young’s journals.

Daguerreotype of Brigham Young, circa 1846. This is the earliest known likeness of Brigham Young taken from life. The daguerreotype is attributed to Lucian R. Foster.2023 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Before leading the Church, Young served several missions, which often required him to leave his family under difficult circumstances, including sick family members and babies days after birth. The Lord eventually revealed in Doctrine and Covenants 126 that Young’s “offering” was accepted.

Readers will see “an interesting family network and connection” in the journals with “glimpses of his love and devotion,” Rogers said, and “how much he thinks about them and even dreams about them and wants to make sure they are OK.”

Young’s journals offer insight into the life of an early Latter-day Saint missionary and the earliest missionary efforts of the Quorum of the Twelve. “That’s when you get some of Brigham’s most in-depth writing,” Rogers said.

A series of journal entries in January 1846 all show Young spending considerable time officiating ordinances in the Nauvoo Temple.

“I gave myself up entirely to the work of the Lord in the temple almost night and day,” Young wrote on January 17, 1846. “I have spent not taking more than four hours upon an average out of 24 to sleep and but seldom ever allowing myself the time and opportunity of going home once in a week.”

Esplin said reading Young’s journals will show that he and the Quorum of the Twelve carried out the mission of Joseph Smith.

“Joseph prepared the Quorum of the Twelve with the keys, the knowledge, the instruction and understanding, the passion to see the temple was finished and the Saints were endowed. In these diary entries you will see they carried out that commission,” Esplin said. “It was Brigham who organized the endowment in the Nauvoo. It was Brigham who presided over it all. It was Brigham who, 33 years later, dictated the ordinances the first time they were ever put to paper in St. George, on the eve of his death.”

Understanding Brigham Young

The Brigham Young journals will help readers understand that Young was a “foundational” instrument in the history of the Restoration and western American history. Sometimes people read a part of a sermon or take a snippet of his life and say, “That is Brigham Young,” Rogers said.

The editors and historians want Young to be understood in the most thorough and complete way possible.

“He is a much more complete and complicated person, and we should try to understand him, through his own words, first and foremost, then try to put the context around his life,” Rogers said. “I think he deserves to be understood on his own terms and this book will help people understand him on his own terms.”

An image of Brigham Young during his years as the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.2023 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Dirkmaat agreed, saying if you want to learn about a historical figure, go straight to the source.

“For Latter-day Saints, here is a great opportunity to get to know Brigham Young the person,” Dirkmaat said. “Sure, you are not going to know everything about him, but you are going to certainly understand a lot better what he has to say about himself than you are listening to what someone on social media thinks about him.”

The journals and Brigham Young Papers project will also clarify misunderstandings about Young and his role in Church history.

“Brigham belongs to the Latter-day Saints and they need to understand him better so that they can embrace him,” Esplin said.

Copyright 2023 Deseret News Publishing Company.

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