Adventures of a Diary Hunter


Davis Bitton

Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University–Hawaii

April 13, 2006
Dr. Davis Bitton
Visiting Professor of History

Let me tell you something about historians. They don't just sit around reading books and stuffing their heads with names and dates. Historians are people who are very interested in records of all kinds. They are passionate about primary sources. From these original documents, if they are good historians, they construct their versions of the past. That is one reason I became very interested in diaries. (A diary, by the way, is that book in which you write down the events of your life day by day, or week by week, or however you do it.)

My specialized training was in European history—Renaissance and Reformation—and that is what I taught in my university appointments. But I was also a Latter-day Saint. I have always been interested in our Latter-day Saint history. What a magnificent panorama it is! Our history is filled with prophets and apostles, persecution, crossing the plains of America, establishing settlements throughout the West, and missionary journeys throughout the world. I couldn't stop myself from exploring this history. That is how I became interested in Mormon diaries.

So early in my career I found myself becoming a diary-hunter. (Incidentally, sometimes these records are called journals; if you kept a missionary journal, you were keeping a diary.) Whenever I was in a library or archives, I would look for these first-hand accounts. I have checked the holdings in Utah, Idaho, California, Arizona, Missouri, Texas, Hawaii, and other states. When someone gave me a lead, I have visited homes and examined diaries. For me it has been an adventure.

Naturally I enlisted the help of others. Our good Brother Keith Perkins helped survey the diaries located at BYU in Provo. My friend Gordon Irving helped enormously in Salt Lake City in the Historical Department of the Church. I personally read more than 1500 diaries. Finally a book was published. It lists more than 2800 diaries and autobiographies, tells where they are located, and gives a summary of their content. I understand that my Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies has been useful to many people.

As a self-certified diary-hunter, I want to share with you some of my experiences and some of the things I learned.

Wilford Woodruff.

This year the manual used by Melchizedek Priesthood contains a picture of one page of Wilford Woodruff's journal. I will never forget my first experience in reading through this great work in his handwriting. He was an early convert to the Church, baptized the last day of 1833. From 1834 to his death in 1898, Wilford Woodruff kept a journal. Thanks to Brother Woodruff, we have the words of many sermons delivered by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Many events in church history can be dated because of this record.

During the time I was assistant Church historian, I was able to work with the Woodruff family. In parts of his journal Wilford had employed an obsolete form of shorthand They found someone who could read this old shorthand. They had the whole thing typed and double-checked for accuracy. Finally, with our encouragement, they arranged for its publication.

At the end of each year Wilford would summarize his activities by listing some things that could be counted. Here is his summary for the year 1837.

  • Miles traveled, 2,350.
  • Meetings held, 108.
  • Churches planted, 3.
  • Persons baptized, 21.
  • Healings through administration, 5.
  •  Children blessed, 2.
  • Letters sent, 30.
  • Letters received, 13.

I learned that being well organized and keeping a record of activities made one a more useful servant of the Lord.

Peregrine Sessions.

Someone from Bountiful, Utah, originally called Sessions Settlement, told me I should read the diary of Perregrine Sessions. Anyone with a first name like Perregrine deserves attention!

On 18 September 1853, Perregrine Sessions wrote a story he had heard about Sarah Kirkman and her husband John.

"He had been slack about his prayers. After several evenings passed and he did not pray, she told him that something would happen. So she took a chain and put it under the bed with a string [attached] to it. After she had said her prayers and he in the bed laughing at her, telling her she could pray for both, she again told him something would happen. Directly after she was in bed she began to snore as though she was asleep. She then pulled the string and the chain began to rattle. John says, 'Sarah, Sarah, did you hear that?'

"'Why, what now? I told you something would happen. Hold your tongue and go to sleep and don't bother me. You would have heard nothing of it if you had said your prayers.' Directly she was asleep and the chain began to crink on the floor.

"He again calls, 'Sarah,' and began clinging to her. She began to push him away from her and told him to hold his noise and if he did not she would kick him out of bed. And directly she was asleep again and the chain began to jingle. He gets out of bed and kneels down and with his hair [standing] on its ends and says, 'Oh, Lord, if you will forgive me now, I will do better for time to come and not let the Devil have me. O Lord, have mercy on poor me!' This time, he began to cry for mercy, and once in a while the chain would rattle...

"At length he gets into bed and clings to Sarah and covers up head and ears. But he has not forgot[ten] to say his prayers since."

I learned that our Mormon pioneers had a sense of humor. A sense of humor helps keep us from being overcome by the cares of life. We do not make light of sacred things, but the ability to laugh at ourselves and find humor in everyday situations helps our mental health. President Gordon B. Hinckley is a good model for us all.

Charles L. Walker.

One day Andrew Karl Larson and his wife Katherine Miles Larson, who had traveled from St. George to Salt Lake City, came to see me. They told me about the diary of Katherine's grandfather, Charles Lowell Walker. At their request, I read through this diary and recognized a real treasure. Eventually I was able to assist the Larsons in publishing that diary in two volumes.

Charles Walker, usually known as Charley, was not a general authority of the Church. Like most of us, he was an ordinary member. He faithfully attended his meetings. He did his home teaching. He kept notes of his Sunday School classes and the talks that were given in sacrament meeting. I grew to love this jovial, hard-working man.

In 1862, Walker was called to join the group that first settled St. George, Utah. When he went, there was no city there, no airplanes, no trains, no highways. It was hot and dusty. But he accepted the call and remained there for the rest of his life.

Charley Walker was one of those who labored to construct the St. George Temple. In May 1876, Brigham Young arrived. During his few weeks in St. George, President Young attended meetings and addressed the people, urging them to finish the temple and encouraging them. At one of these meetings the choir sang a special temple song composed by Charley Walker. After the meeting, Brigham Young beckoned to Charley and asked if he might have a copy of that song. How would you feel if the prophet made such a request of you? Charley Walker was thrilled and excited. Let us hear his own words from his diary:

"After meeting I went home and got the song and took it to him. He treated me very kindly and asked me to sit beside him and take dinner with him. I spent the time very pleasantly and found him to be very polite, genial, and sociable, and I felt quite at home in chatting over the work on the temple, old times, and other general topics. In bidding him goodbye he took my hand in both of his and said, God bless Br Charley, and God has blessed you hasn't he? It seemed that in an instant all the blessings I had ever recei[v]ed were before me. My emotion was too much to answer him and I chokingly said, I have learned to trust in the Lord."

I learned to trust in the Lord and to recognize with gratitude the many, many blessings in my own life. 


What about women? Didn't Latter-day Saint women keep any diaries? They certainly did. Some of those I have read are real treasures.

Starting with Eliza R. Snow and Emmeline B. Wells, women who served in leadership positions kept detailed diaries. For the history of the Church during the Nauvoo period and the crossing of the plains, some of the most informative diaries were kept by women. When my wife and I want to read about crossing the plains, one of our favorite books is Journey to Zion by Carol C. Madsen. It is a compilation of overland diaries, and some of the best are by our Latter-day Saint women.

You didn't have to be a prominent person to keep a record of your life. A wonderful Latter-day Saint woman by the name of Mary Suzanna Fowler had settled with her husband on a farm. Then he was called to serve as a missionary in Texas and Oklahoma. He would be gone for more than two years, leaving her to provide for herself and the children and to send money to him.

Here is what she wrote in her diary: "I am thankful for the privilege of parting with my husband for a little while to spread the glorious gospel which is dearer than anything on earth to me. And I believe our Heavenly Father will take care of him and us."

I learned that sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.

George Tanner.

One day a colorful character came to see me. His name was George Tanner. A tall, large-boned man with a broad, friendly face, George Tanner was one of the first institute teachers in the Church. The institute program was just beginning when he was employed and assigned to the University of Idaho.

George was now retired. I discovered that after his retirement, he took up a project of preserving the history of his own family, who had been called as pioneers to settle in Arizona along the Little Colorado River. He had discovered some important diaries from that settlement period in the 1870s and 1880s. He borrowed these diaries from families and typed them out. In this way he had accumulated an impressive collection of early Arizona Mormon diaries.

I read all of these diaries. I felt like I had lived many lives. Oh, our Latter-day Saint history is rich—filled with so many fascinating human experiences. Each country, each settlement, each family has its own story.

Mary Bezjian.

One day a dear little woman named Mary Bezjian came in with her granddaughter. She had written a simple version of her personal history. Modest and unassuming, she could not believe that anyone besides her family would be interested in her. Let me tell you her story.

The Bezjians were Christian Armenians living in Turkey. Then near the beginning of the twentieth century they heard the message of the restored gospel and joined the Church. A horrible episode occurred called the Armenian Massacres. Thousands of Armenians were killed. The Bezjians were persecuted because they were Armenians. They were also persecuted by other Armenians because they were Mormons. In order to save their lives, they gathered the few belonging they could carry and fled across the border into Syria.

In Syria they established a rug-making business. Their contact with the Church was irregular. Sometimes a traveling missionary would call on them. Sometimes a church magazine would come in the mail. One of the rugs made by this Armenian family living in Syria is now on display at the Church Museum of History and Art. It is decorated with pictures of temples and prophets, all taken from the magazines.

After World War II life became precarious in Syria. Once again, under cover of night, they crossed the border, this time into Lebanon. From Lebanon they wanted to emigrate to the United States, where they had relatives and could worship according to the dictates of their conscience. But the paperwork seemed overwhelming, funds were scarce, and it proved impossible to go where they wanted to go.

Somehow they managed to move to Switzerland. There they pulled themselves together and arranged the necessary financial support. Finally, they moved to Salt Lake City and were adjusting to the new environment.

This, I thought, is an epic story! It could be made into a movie. It can inspire others. At the very least it deserves to be preserved. Sister Bezjian is no longer alive. I am very glad to have helped preserve her story.
I learned that there are people in the Church today whose lives are full of drama and courage and inspiration.

George Q. Cannon.

One of the great diaries of our Latter-day Saint history was kept by President George Q. Cannon. It started just before he was called as a missionary here in Hawaii. Later he served as president of the British Mission, then as an Apostle, and for twenty-one years a member of the First Presidency. A personal diary kept by such a man tells us a lot about Church history.

I knew about the George Q. Cannon journal but didn't think I would ever have a chance to see it. Even though I was assistant Church historian and had access to all kinds of material, the Cannon diary was kept in the vault of the First Presidency and was not made available, presumably because it contained details about disciplinary cases and other sensitive information.

Then two members of the Cannon family approached me. They asked if I would write a biography of George Q. Cannon. They had a typescript of his journal and would allow me to use it. I was later allowed to examine President Cannon's actual handwritten diaries. Let us open this Latter-day Saint diary at two or three places.

George Q. Cannon became a very associate of President Brigham Young. President Young recognized in his younger friend someone who was intelligent, wise, and totally committed to the work of the kingdom. During Brother Brigham's final illness in 1877, George Q. Cannon was by his side giving comfort. He watched as Brigham Young, that great servant of the Lord, breathed his last breath and passed to the other side of the veil.

After the funeral, some people began to complain about Brigham Young. Now that he was gone, they felt free to talk about his faults and wrong decisions. George Q. Cannon refused to join in the chorus of criticism.

Here is what he wrote in his diary: "The thought ever with me was: If I criticize or find fault with, or judge Brother Brigham, how far shall I go? If I commence where shall I stop? I dared not to trust myself in such a course. I knew that apostasy frequently resulted from the indulgence of the spirit of criticizing and fault-finding." George Q. Cannon recognized the dangers of the slippery slope.

I learned to avoid the spirit of criticizing and fault finding.

George Q. Cannon had a large family. Forty-three children. It wasn't always easy to keep them straight, as I found out in a recollection of Collins Cannon, one of the younger sons. Here is what Collins wrote:

"I was about eight and one day I came upon Father and Uncle Angus M. on Main Street. Before I go further with this anecdote I must [explain that] Uncle Angus was a kisser. He kissed all and sundry, young and old, male and female alike, and it didn't matter whether it was on Main Street or wherever...Uncle Angus had grandson twins...They were called Jack and Chick. They were about my age...I had chanced upon Father and Uncle Angus and I was attempting to slide by unnoticed on account of my dread of the kissing ordeal...Angus spotted me, halted me and you guessed it—he kissed me...Father looked on and said, 'Angus, which is that, Jack or Chick?' My world tumbled about me...and I cried out, 'No, no, Pa! I ain't Jack or Chick! I'm Aunt Martha's little boy."

George Q. Cannon was often away from Utah and often living alone in Washington, D.C. In his personal diary, I peeked into his thoughts and prayers. Some of these diary entries are so sacred that I do not feel justified in publicizing them, except to say that here was a man who lived very close to the Lord.

An expression he used quite often in describing his relationship to his Heavenly Father was friend of God. He wanted to be a friend of God; that is, he wanted to be on God's side and with God loving and inspiring him. He wrote letters to his children urging them to become a friend of God. In December 1873 he was in Washington, D.C. It was a cold winter, and he was all alone. Here is what he wrote in his diary: "I called upon Him mightily in prayer to help me. This is a great comfort to me. I am here without a man who is in sympathy with me. But I have a Friend more powerful than they all. In this I rejoice."

I learned that George Q. Cannon was a friend of God and took upon myself the lifetime goal of establishing and maintaining the same relationship.

Do you think that you and I should keep a record of our activities? "My life is too ordinary," you might say. Or you may be one of those people who do not enjoy writing. Let me very gently suggest some things you might want to consider.

1. A personal record of your activities can be very valuable to you in ways you do not now recognize. College years are precious, but they do not last forever. If you simply write down something about your recreational activities, classes, church meetings and devotional assemblies, even if it is only one idea, you will create a record that in future years will enable you to relive your formative years at BYU-Hawaii.

2. A personal record can be very valuable to your family. Just ask yourself how much you would appreciate having a diary from a grandparent.

3. A personal record can make a contribution to our Church history. You probably do not think in these terms when you are writing, but it is from such records that we are able to reconstruct what happened in the past.

4. Prophets have strongly urged us to keep a personal record. What do you think? When the prophet speaks, maybe this should be reason enough all by itself. Here is the counsel of President Spencer W. Kimball:

"Get a notebook, my young folks, a journal that will last through all time, and maybe the angels may quote from it for eternity. Begin today and write in it your goings and comings, your deepest thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies. . . . Your story should be written now while it is fresh and while the true details are available."

One way some people do it now is to write their diary on the computer and save it to be copied out later. Or they send a regular e-mail to their family. If that is done on a regular basis, let us say weekly or monthly, it can be copied out. It may seem trivial now, but in future years you will discover that you have a valuable record of your life.

We talked earlier about Wilford Woodruff. When I first read his journal, I came across an entry made in Kirtland, Ohio. On 9 April 1837, Wilford attended meetings in the new Kirtland Temple and heard talks by John Smith, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, and Sidney Rigdon. Then the Prophet Joseph Smith stood up to address the congregation. Late that night, writing by candlelight, Wilford Woodruff tried to capture his feelings. Here are his words from his diary:

"Joseph arose and like the lion of the tribe of Judah he poured out his soul in the midst of the congregation of the Saints. But who can find language to write his words and teachings as with an iron pen in a rock that they may stand for future generations to look upon [?] A fountain of knowledge rolled from his mouth to the people...There is not a greater man than Joseph standing in this generation. The gentiles look upon him and he is to them like [a] bed of gold concealed from human view. They know not his principle, his spirit, his wisdom, virtue, philanthropy, nor his calling. His mind like Enoch's swells wide as eternity. Nothing short of a God can comprehend his soul."

Reading those words from his diary, I had no doubt that Wilford Woodruff was one hundred percent convinced that Joseph was a prophet of God. Here was someone who knew Joseph Smith a lot better than I ever could and who testified of his divine prophetic power.

Thank you, Brother Wilford. Thank you for keeping your magnificent journal. After having read hundreds of diaries—as well as autobiographies and many oral histories—I am grateful to all those who have followed the counsel to keep a record. I hope that each of us will examine our situation and resolve to keep a record of our own life that is worthy of all acceptation.