Journal Writing: Importance and Influence for Generations

by Melanie Nef, digital and manuscript archivist
14 July 2020

In this post, archivist Melanie Nef discusses the important role journaling has played throughout Church history and highlights Church History Library resources that can help with personal journaling.

I was six years old when I received my first journal and made my first entry in it: “At Gandmas house we had lot of fun and play game there . . . she gave me six bracelet.” I wonder how much of that trip to my grandparents’ house I would remember if I hadn’t written about it in my journal. Thankfully, I can still read that entry and recall the trip: they had just returned to Idaho from a mission in India, and they’d brought those bracelets for me. (I still have—and treasure—them.) Although I was an irregular journal writer as a child, I am grateful for the small effort I made; it has aided me in forming connections to my past feelings and memories.

A journal can be a powerful tool. It can help us process our emotions, as well as personal and spiritual experiences; it can help us identify our blessings; it can be a chronicle of our triumphs and setbacks; and it can remind us of the past. Additionally, journaling has the potential to greatly influence future generations. In keeping a journal, you can join historical and religious leaders who have brought understanding and insight to others.

We are a Church of record keepers.

As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have inherited a rich history of record keepers: Nephi, Mormon, Wilford Woodruff, Emmeline B. Wells, and Spencer W. Kimball, to name a few. One of the first, and often repeated, instructions given to Joseph Smith was to keep a record of the Church.1

Wilford Woodruff, circa 1840s

Many of these journals are available in the Church History Library. For example, Wilford Woodruff wrote detailed accounts of his life and the early Church for over 60 years of his life. These papers include journals, account books, correspondence, and more. Reflecting on President Woodruff’s writing, Elder B. H. Roberts stated:

“President Woodruff rendered a most important service to the Church. His journals . . . constitute an original documentary historical treasure which is priceless. The Church is indebted to these journals for a reliable record of discourses and sayings of the Prophet of the New Dispensation—Joseph Smith—which but for him would have been lost forever. The same is true as to the discourses and sayings of Brigham Young, and other leading elders of the Church; [and] for minutes of important council meetings, decisions, judgments, policies, and many official actions of a private nature, without which the writer of history may not be able to get right viewpoints on many things—in all these respects these Journals of President Woodruff are invaluable.”2

Another latter-day writer was Patty Bartlett Sessions, a midwife and early Church member who detailed the Saints’ migration from Nauvoo to Utah in her journals.3

Patty Bartlett Sessions

She continued to write until she was in her 90s. As historian Donna Smart wrote, “The value of the diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions cannot be exaggerated.”4 Her account, along with many other Church members’ journals and musings, were used to write Saints, the new multivolume narrative history of the Church, among other publications.

Without the writings of past Church members, we would not have as clear an understanding of our early Church history. We would not know beloved historical figures as well as we do. Those journals became building blocks to comprehending and interpreting history—and your journals can, too.

You can learn more of past Church members and their experiences by searching the Church History Catalog for journals and diaries.

It’s interesting to think that those early Church members may not have realized the importance of their writings—and, honestly, we may sometimes feel the same way about our own journaling. Spencer W. Kimball, a passionate advocate of journal writing, acknowledged this, saying that “people often use the excuse that their lives are uneventful and nobody would be interested in what they have done. But,” he continued, “I promise you that if you will keep your journals and records, they will indeed be a source of great inspiration to your families, to your children, your grandchildren, and others, on through the generations. Each of us is important to those who are near and dear to us—and as our posterity read of our life’s experiences, they, too, will come to know and love us.”5

Which begs the question: How do we start?

If you struggle to know where to begin, start small.

When you begin, it’s perfectly fine to start by writing down small details. You may choose to write a little about yourself, including your family, where you live, and what you like to spend time doing. After a while, you may wish to include larger details, such as your conversion to the Church or perhaps experiences growing up in the Church. It is part of the mission of the Church History Department to document the histories of the members of the Church, and details like these are important.

Along similar lines, President Henry B. Eyring shared another way to jump-start your journaling. Once, as a young man, he encountered his father-in-law performing a kind act of service after a long workday. While contemplating his father-in-law’s actions, he heard a voice: “‘I’m not giving you these experiences for yourself. Write them down.’” He continued, “I went inside. I didn’t go to bed. Although I was tired, I took out some paper and began to write. And as I did, I understood the message I had heard in my mind. I was supposed to record for my children to read, someday in the future, how I had seen the hand of God blessing our family. Grandpa didn’t have to do what he was doing for us. He could have had someone else do it or not have done it at all. But he was serving us, his family, in the way covenant disciples of Jesus Christ always do. I knew that was true. And so I wrote it down, so that my children could have the memory someday when they would need it.”

That first experience grew into a simple habit. President Eyring continued: “I wrote down a few lines every day for years. I never missed a day no matter how tired I was or how early I would have to start the next day. Before I would write, I would ponder this question: ‘Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?’ As I kept at it, something began to happen. As I would cast my mind over the day, I would see evidence of what God had done for one of us that I had not recognized in the busy moments of the day. As that happened, and it happened often, I realized that trying to remember had allowed God to show me what He had done.”6

Your unique stories and perspectives can have long-lasting impact. Recognizing and documenting God’s hand in your life through journaling can be a great blessing to your posterity. As King Benjamin told his sons, “I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates, which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God.”7

Begin Writing Today

Additionally, as Spencer W. Kimball explained:

“Your story should be written now while it is fresh and while the true details are available.

“Your private journal should record the way you face up to challenges that beset you. Do not suppose life changes so much that your experiences will not be interesting to your posterity. Experiences of work, relations with people, and an awareness of the rightness and wrongness of actions will always be relevant. Your journal, like most others, will tell of problems as old as the world and how you dealt with them.”8

In other words, consider the unique circumstances in which you live. You are in a unique position to capture the various aspects of daily gospel living as they happen. What is happening around you right now? Our world is full of commotion; many of us confront serious challenges—crises even—both on an individual and on a community level. How has it affected you and your family?

For example, future generations will be interested to see how Church members responded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Has the resulting economic downturn affected you? When sacrament meetings were temporarily suspended, how did you react? You could give some examples of what home-centered, Church-supported learning—including the Come, Follow Me curriculum—looks like. How has the necessity of studying at home changed or enhanced your understanding of home-centered gospel learning? How has the sacrament been administered in your area? How has ministering been accomplished? Through it all, can you identify the hand of the Lord in your life?

In this era of change and uncertainty, journaling will help you to learn from the past, ponder personal experiences, understand yourself and others, and identify God’s influence and involvement in your life.

As you make a record of your experiences, please consider contacting the Church History Department about the possibility of donating your journals, where they will be professionally preserved to bless future generations. Of particular interest are journals documenting the experiences of missionaries throughout the world.