This month’s Ensign contains a fascinating little article describing Joseph Smith’s seven journals. The authors, two friends of mine, are editors on the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Mark Ashurst-McGee (MA, USU; PhD. candidate, ASU) is editing journals from the 1830s. Alex Smith (MA, BYU) is editing Smith’s journals from 1841-April 1843. Mark is also editing the journals from April 1843 to June 1844. They’re both excellent scholars and likely know more about these journals, in terms of content, physical description, and provenance, than anyone alive. Alex has worked directly with the Nauvoo journal, The Book of the Law of the Lord, which previous scholars such as Scott Faulring and Michael Marquardt have not had access to.
The 6 page article gives summaries of the seven journals and also includes images of the artifacts. We also get blessed with images of the Joseph from Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration and other church artwork. Here’s a basic summary of each journal:
- First Ohio Journal: 1832-1834
- Smith was inconsistent at best in his early record keeping. The journal was written in part by Smith himself, and so contains some deeply moving, although short in length, personal reflections from the Prophet. It also contains insights into the middle years of Kirtland.
- Second Ohio Journal: 1835-1836
- This journal was kept primarily by scribes, although Smith dictated much of it. It contains fascinating accounts of the First Vision, Moroni, the translation of the book of Abraham, a vision of the celestial kingdom, the preparations for the solemn assembly in the Kirtland House of the Lord, and the visit of the Savior and other ancient prophets to the Kirtland Temple.
- First Missouri Journal: March-September 1838
- This journal was kept primarily by the General Church Recorder, George Robinson. It contains records of the disciplinary actions against Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, as well as a fascinating account of the growing tensions between the Mormons and vigilantes in northern Missouri. The journal unfortunately stops at the beginning of September, leaving many of the events of the Mormon War unrecorded.
- Second Missouri Journal: September-October 1838
- This is a brief account of Smith’s comings and goings in September and October by scribes. As far as content goes, it is the least interesting of all of his journals.
- First Illinois Journal: 1839
- This journal, kept by scribes, is a window into Nauvoo’s early days, and includes desciptions of buying land and the malaria outbreak afflicting the Saints.
- Second Illinois Journal: 1841-1842
- This journal, kept by scribes, describes the formation of the Relief Society, the construction of the Nauvoo Temple, Smith’s activities as church president, city mayor, storekeeper, chief justice, newspaper editor, and commander of the Nauvoo Legion. It also contains court records and correspondence.
- Third Illinois Journal: 1842-1844
- Although written by a scribe, the journal entries “capture the Prophet’s personality and character in ways that that Joseph likely would not have written about himself” (39). The journal contains court records of cases over which Smith presided, and ends the week before Smith’s marytrdom.
Given the venue of the article, I think the authors did an excellent job of providing an overview of the journals and making history accessible for ordinary members of the church. Historians familiar with the journals no doubt would have liked a deeper treatment of their content, but given the venue, we’ll just have to take what we can get. I for one am glad that the Ensign is taking a more aggressive approach to including church history articles. I’d like to see a history section become a permanent feature in the magazine as a way to introduce ordinary members to historical artifacts, such as these journals, as well as instruct members on more problematic issues in the church’s past, like the recent Mountain Meadows article.