Joseph Smith’s First Journal

R. Eric Smith

Lost Sermons

Prophet’s Record Keeping Began with Simple Volume

Joseph Smith began keeping a personal record a month before he turned 27. His first journal, a small volume that documents November of 1832 through December of 1834 in a little over a hundred pages, is one of the priceless treasures preserved in the Church History Library in Salt Lake City. While Joseph kept this journal only sporadically, turning much of the responsibility of record keeping over to scribes, the little book opens a window into the Prophet’s personality and is an important record of Church activities.

Joseph purchased that first journal, measuring roughly four inches wide by six inches high, on November 27, 1832.1 Whereas a larger book would have lent itself to the creation of formal records, perhaps kept at a desk, the book Joseph bought that day could be carried in a pocket. Indeed, the journal accompanied Joseph on two missions that are described in its pages, and it was likely brought on other journeys. Three leather loops on the outside meant the journal could be fastened shut by closing the covers and inserting a pencil through the loops. The front and back covers were decorated with paper dyed in a marble pattern. The colors have faded over time, but in Joseph’s day the vibrant blue in the pattern would have stood out.

The immediate impetus for beginning the journal may have been a revelation Joseph recorded the day he bought the book. The revelation, documented in a November 27 letter from the Prophet to William W. Phelps, explained that the “duty of the Lord’s clerk”—John Whitmer was the official Church historian at the time—was to keep “a history, and a general church record of all things that transpire in Zion.” “Zion” referred to Missouri, where Phelps and Whitmer were living.2 Perhaps the revelation also prompted Joseph to begin a personal record.

This book is the first of seven journals kept by or for Joseph. The other six journals vary in size and length, as well as in the types of information recorded in them. The six additional books cover September 1835 to April 1836; March to September 1838; September and October 1838; April to October 1839; December 1841 to December 1842; and December 1842 to June 1844.3

Content and Coverage of the Journal

During the time recorded in his first journal, Joseph and his family lived in a small community in Kirtland, Ohio. At the time, the Church was growing rapidly but was still rather small, with a few hundred members around Kirtland and several hundred more in Missouri—some 900 miles away—where they were endeavoring to build a literal Zion.

Joseph called his first journal a “Book for Record” and wrote that his purpose was “to keep a minute account of all things that come under my observation.”4 He faithfully wrote in the book for nine consecutive days, through December 6, 1832, after which 10 months passed before another entry was composed. Those first nine entries are brief, recording the Prophet’s thoughts and a few of his activities, such as preaching and holding meetings. During the period when the journal is silent, Joseph Smith dictated several revelations, continued his translation of the Bible, established and met with the School of the Prophets, and developed plans for a Mormon settlement in Missouri.

Journal keeping resumed in October 1833 as Joseph prepared to leave on a short proselytizing mission to Canada to preach to the family of Church member Freeman Nickerson. Entries then continue fairly regularly until the end of April 1834. During this period, Joseph responded to a heartbreaking situation in Missouri, where the Saints were forcibly evicted from Jackson County in late 1833. His first written reference to it was simple and heartfelt: “25th Nov. Brothers Orson Hyde and John Gould returned from Zion and brought the melancholy intelligence of the riot in Zion with the inhabitants persecuting the brethren.” Later, in January of the next year, he again referred to the suffering of the Saints there: “Oh my God, have mercy on my brethren in Zion for Christ’s sake. Amen.”5

Also during this period, Joseph’s journal records his efforts to help set up printing operations in Kirtland, to bring a complaint against a man who had disturbed the peace, to oversee construction of the Kirtland Temple, and to fulfill another mission. That mission was to Pennsylvania and New York and was intended to raise funds and volunteers for the Zion’s Camp march, which was sent to assist displaced Saints in Missouri. The journal again falls silent from May to July 1834, when Joseph was marching with Zion’s Camp. Six more entries were recorded from August to December 1834. The last was made December 5, the day Joseph ordained Oliver Cowdery an assistant president of the Church. Joseph did not begin another journal until September of the following year.

In all, Joseph’s first journal contains about 80 entries, some of which cover the events of more than one day and some of which are notes (such as a list of donations) rather than a narrative entry. The journal provides spotty treatment of some events and time periods and rather consistent treatment of others while remaining completely silent on some incidents. Of the 739 days that fall within the range of the journal (November 27, 1832, to December 5, 1834), the journal offers information about Joseph Smith’s activities for about 130 of those days, or about one day in every six. However, during the 209-day period when Joseph’s journal keeping was most active—October 4, 1833, to April 30, 1834—the journal contains information for about 115 days, roughly every other day.

In the journal, the most attention is given to the two missions. In fact, during the missions, information is recorded concerning every day but one, perhaps suggesting a special effort to document these episodes. Joseph’s missions were lengthy, tiring journeys through small communities, and the journal aptly captures the emotions of Joseph and his companions—earnest hopes and prayers for success, frustration with setbacks, joy when they found an attentive congregation to which they could preach, and concern for their families. On March 2, 1834, Joseph recorded a stop in New York where he preached to a local congregation. “Had a good meeting,” he wrote. “There is a small church in this place that seems to be strong in the faith. Oh, may God keep them in the faith and save them and lead them to Zion.”6 To some degree, a modern reader can relive the Prophet’s adventures by tracing his journeys from place to place on a map while reading the relevant entries.

Who Did the Writing?

Among the thousands of pages of journals, letters, histories, and other documents that make up Joseph Smith’s papers, his handwriting is found on only a small fraction, perhaps enough to fill only a single volume. He almost always dictated to a scribe or had a scribe write under his general direction or supervision.7

In Joseph’s journals, only the first one contains a substantial amount of his handwriting. Of the roughly eighty entries in the volume, Joseph wrote about half of them entirely himself. His handwriting appears in another dozen or so entries. He personally inscribed a handful of entries in his lengthy second journal, but his remaining five journals were kept entirely by scribes and clerks. Some entries by scribes in Joseph’s first two journals were evidently recorded from the Prophet’s dictation, but otherwise entries were composed by the scribes themselves as they observed the Prophet’s activities.

In the period covered in his first journal, Joseph did not have the more formal cadre of scribes and clerks he did in later years. Instead, he relied on key associates for scribal help, including Oliver Cowdery (the second elder of the Church), and Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams (counselors in the Church presidency). Parley P. Pratt, who accompanied Joseph on his fundraising and recruiting mission, also made entries in the journal. A few others wrote brief notes on the last pages of the journal, where Joseph kept a list of subscribers to the Church newspaper, The Evening and the Morning Star.

One may wonder why Joseph didn’t begin keeping a journal earlier in his life, why his journal keeping was inconsistent,8 and why he assigned journal-keeping duties to scribes. In part, the answer is he had a lifelong preference for communicating through the spoken word versus the written word. This preference may have stemmed in part from the circumstances of his upbringing: he had limited formal education and was raised in a culture with a rich oral tradition.9 Joseph Smith was a powerful orator, capable of holding a large audience’s attention for hours. In contrast, he admitted to being frustrated by expressing himself in writing.10

While Joseph’s writing—like that of many Americans of this era—contains many misspellings, punctuation mistakes, and other technical errors, it is plain and powerful. When he chose to write himself, he communicated well. At the time, better-educated men who served with Joseph in Church leadership might have appeared to have an advantage over him as writers, but his simple, direct approach has better withstood the passage of time than the more ornate, verbose styles of others.

A Window into Joseph Smith’s Personality

In the quest for a sense of Joseph Smith’s personality, there is probably no better window on the man than the journal entries and other materials he wrote or dictated. Dean Jessee, a historian who spent many years closely studying the Prophet’s papers, has observed:

“In order to understand the doctrines taught by the Prophet, it is important to study his words wherever they may be found. However, in order to understand the personality of Joseph Smith, it is necessary to determine the Prophet’s proximity to the documents he created. In many instances, for example, thoughts and ideas that other people had written at his request were recorded over his name. While these may well reflect the Prophet’s intent, message, and doctrine, some do not convey his manner or personality.

“In other words, the accuracy with which we perceive Joseph Smith’s personality is dependent upon our ability to sort through the personalities who, as an unintentional by-product of the record-keeping process, have to some extent obscured our view of the Prophet as an individual. . . .

“The value of the Prophet’s [handwritten documents and] other material dictated by him is that we know for sure that these particular writings contain his own thoughts and feelings.”11

In the entries he wrote in his first journal, Joseph is open and emotional, expressing hopes and concerns and often breaking seamlessly into prayers to God. His thoughts turn often to his family, to fellow Saints, and to people he hopes will accept the gospel message. An excerpt from a journal entry dated March 3, 1834, written while Joseph was away from home on a mission, is representative:

“Oh, may God bless us with the gift of utterance to accomplish the journey and the errand on which we are sent and return soon to the land of Kirtland and find my family all well. O Lord, bless my little children with health and long life to do good in this generation for Christ’s sake. Amen.”12

When he returned home from his journey on March 28, he found his prayers had been answered:

“Came home. Found my family all well, and the Lord be praised for this blessing.”13

The Journals in a Larger Context

Joseph Smith’s journal-keeping habits in this early period may be better appreciated when viewed in the context of his overall record-keeping practices; in the early years of the Prophet’s ministry, most of his efforts to keep records centered on the sacred.

In late 1827, Joseph began translating the Book of Mormon, an effort that occupied much of his attention until the record was published in the spring of 1830. The first of his revelations later published in the Doctrine and Covenants was received in the summer of 1828, and scores more came in the next several years. Few if any of the original dictation texts of those revelations have survived, but Joseph and his associates took great care to preserve their content. In 1830 or 1831, Church historian John Whitmer began transcribing loose copies of revelations into a more permanent record book. Joseph later reviewed the book and made some revisions. In 1832, Joseph began a second record book, in which he kept copies of revelations. He inscribed material in the volume and reviewed it later, when the revelations were being published. Meanwhile, in 1830, Joseph had begun revising and expanding the Bible through inspiration and revelation, giving us what is known today as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. That project continued until 1833. During this same period, he repeatedly gave instructions about the importance of keeping historical records and initiated efforts to publish his revelations.

The year Joseph began his first journal was a watershed one for early Mormon record keeping. In addition to beginning a journal in 1832, Joseph also produced his first narrative history, in which he gave an account of his First Vision and of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. That same year, clerks began keeping minute books, to record deliberations and decisions of Church councils, as well as a letter book, to keep copies of the Prophet’s outgoing and incoming correspondence. If Joseph was not the most accomplished journal keeper from 1832 to 1834, he was nevertheless the driving force behind an impressive effort to keep a broad set of records documenting both his activities and those of the young Church.14

It is also possible that Joseph gave lower priority to journal keeping at this time because he thought other records would fill the gaps. For example, Joseph’s journal is completely silent from May 1 to August 20, 1834. As noted above, however, during most of this time he was marching to and from Missouri. In a letter to his wife, Emma, written near the beginning of the march, Joseph mentioned that Frederick G. Williams would send periodic reports of the journey to Oliver Cowdery, who had remained in Ohio.15 If Williams indeed made such reports, they unfortunately have not survived.

When trying to understand an episode mentioned in the Prophet’s journals, it can be helpful to investigate what other Church records of the period say about the same event. For instance, Joseph’s journal entry for December 5, 1832, reports that he spent the day copying letters and translating and that in the evening he went to a council meeting at which Solomon Humphrey was appointed a companion to Noah Packard “in the work of the ministry.”16 The minute book entry for the same day provides additional information about the council, including the fact that Humphrey had “desired to know the will of the Lord respecting him” and that he was to commence his labors in Parkman, Ohio, a town not far from Kirtland.17

Similarly, Joseph Smith’s journal entry for October 12, 1833, recorded that he had “much anxiety” about his family.18 At the time, the Prophet was a long way from home—in Mount Pleasant, Upper Canada—on a proselytizing mission. His family, who were living in Ohio, then consisted of Emma and two young children. The day he expressed this concern in his journal, Joseph received a revelation that assured him and his traveling companion, Sidney Rigdon, of the well-being of their families.19 Taken together, the journal entry and the revelation tell a powerful story about God’s care for his servants.

Thanks to resources like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website, which collects and publishes all the Prophet’s known papers in a single place, this kind of investigative work—comparable to putting together a puzzle—is becoming increasingly easier. Also on that site, you can read and view images of Joseph’s entire first journal. Entries in Joseph’s own handwriting are marked in boldface.