Digital Access to Wilford Woodruff’s Journals

Faye Fischer, Church History Specialist
29 August 2018

Wilford Woodruff’s journals are now available in the Church History Catalog. This post describes just how influential and important Wilford Woodruff’s journals are in the study of Church history.

Many people know Wilford Woodruff from the pivotal events that took place during his time as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the release of the Manifesto (Official Declaration 1), the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, and Utah’s statehood. They picture him as he appeared in his later life—a stately older man with sleek white hair, a well-trimmed white beard, and piercingly clear eyes. Yet he is best known to historians as a prolific journal keeper. For more than 60 years, he kept a daily record of events both routine and extraordinary.

Woodruff’s journals—comprising more than 7,000 pages of meticulously recorded history and invaluable personal insight—have been in the custody of the Church since the late 19th century. These journals have been digitized, and the images can now be viewed through the Church History Catalog as MS 1352. The project was directed by archivists Brandon Metcalf and Jay Burton. It took six years and countless hours to review the journals, prepare the original manuscripts for digitization, and scan and upload every page. While transcripts of the journal have been published previously, this is the first time researchers will be able to explore the primary source and see Woodruff’s own handwriting, drawings, and embellishments.

Wilford Woodruff journal, 1837; portrait of Wilford Woodruff, circa 1850–1860

Much of what we know about early Church history comes from his journals, which provide rich detail, context, and corroboration for significant events. Brandon Metcalf observed, “Arguably, Wilford Woodruff is the most important journal keeper in Church history, especially among those that kept a journal in the 19th century.”1 Woodruff’s journals played an important role in the Joseph Smith Papers, particularly regarding Joseph Smith’s sermons. Several unique discourses and descriptions of meetings can be found in Wilford Woodruff’s records.

When Wilford Woodruff began his journal in 1835, he was simply a faithful diarist following the mandate given to Joseph Smith on the day the Church was organized: “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.”2 He was just a “regular Wilford,” said Jay Burton. “He didn’t know what role he would play. Yet he started chronicling his life, and as it turned out, he was witness to many of the key events of the Restoration.”3 Woodruff would have a front-row view of many of those events. He would be ordained an Apostle, travel across land and sea to preach the gospel, immigrate to the Rocky Mountains, and become President of the Church. We are fortunate that he recorded it all in such detail.

Wilford Woodruff often spoke about the worth of keeping a personal record. He noted that we often fail to see the future significance of our own lives. “We are not apt to think of the importance of Events as they transpire with us but we feel the importance of them afterwards[;] we are living in one of the most important generations that man ever lived on Earth & we should write an account of those important transactions which are taking place before our Eyes,” he wrote.4 He extended this invitation to the youth of the Church: “I wish to say to my young friends that it will be a great blessing to them, and their children after them, if they will keep a daily journal of what takes place with them and around them. … ‘What shall I write?’ you ask. Write about anything that is worth preserving, or the best you have.”5

With devices and tools at our fingertips, it’s easier to record our own history than Wilford Woodruff could have ever imagined. It is also easier to access, study, and explore the history our predecessors wrote for us. Sharing that history is an important part of what we do at the Church History Library. Library director Keith Erekson has stated: “The Church History Library is home to the Church’s most important historical records. We keep records of the past to assist in carrying out the Lord’s work in the present and future. We are also pleased when we can employ modern technology to share important records with the public through our online catalog.”6

[1] Brandon Metcalf, in personal conversation with the author, July 31, 2018.
[2] Doctrine and Covenants 21:1.
[3] Jay Burton, in personal conversation with the author, July 31, 2018.
[4] Wilford Woodruff journal, Sept. 6, 1856, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
[5] Wilford Woodruff, “Keep a Journal,” Juvenile Instructor, vol. 2, no. 1 (Jan. 1, 1867), 5.
[6] Keith Erekson, in personal conversation with the author, Aug. 2, 2018.