Brigham Young Latter-day Saint History

What Did Brigham Young Write About in His Journal?

The first volume of the Brigham Young Journals begins with the prophet’s baptism.

The first volume of the Brigham Young Journals begins with the prophet’s baptism and ends with his marathon efforts to endow the Nauvoo saints before their westward exodus. As the first installment in a four-part series, the book offers readers an intimate portrayal of Brigham Young, featuring elements such as his phonetic spelling, missionary labors, and devotion to his family. In this interview, Ronald K. Esplin explains what he and historian Brent M. Rogers find most fascinating about the journals.

Read Volume 1 of the Brigham Young Journals to learn more.

Table of contents

Why did Brigham Young keep a journal?

Brigham Young felt a religious obligation to make a record of his missionary labors. If he had not felt compelled to travel and to preach (something the journals document), he likely never would have kept a personal journal.

He begins by noting his baptism and then records (at first very briefly) his missionary journeys—where he traveled and some of the people he taught and baptized.

When he is at home and not on the road as a missionary, there is at first no record. By Nauvoo, he has come to see his record not only as a missionary journal but also as a record of his ministry more broadly, prompting him to write more consistently and often with more detail.

What are some significant events found in Volume 1?

The mission of the Twelve to Great Britain from early 1840 to April 1841 proved to be one of the most significant events in Brigham Young’s life, in the life and experience of his quorum, and in the early church.

Thousands accepted the message of the young apostles from America. They soon emigrated from Britain to enrich the small and still struggling church on the American frontier—first by the hundreds and then by the thousands.

Young’s handwriting is not especially difficult to read.

Young’s record of that mission is invaluable. His personal perspective on succession following the murder of Joseph Smith is also an important view of a pivotal event.

But just as significant is a thread that runs through many of the Nauvoo entries and comes to dominate the journals near the end—that is, the need to finish the Nauvoo temple regardless of cost and obstacles, and endow the Saints before leaving for the West.

Young’s Nauvoo journals document that effort and convey something about why it was essential.

Do his emotions show up very often?

Many of Brigham Young’s journal entries are brief and matter of fact, leaving little room for expressing emotions—except where they are the focus of an entry.

An example of that can be found in January 1842, a period when, at home and not traveling, he wrote little. (Until late Nauvoo, his diaries mostly document his travels.)

On 18 January he wrote:

this Evening I am with my wife a lone by my fire side for the first time for years we enjoi it and feele to prase the Lord.

Even in their brevity, his journals do convey care and connections with members of his family and his concerns for others more generally.

An 1841 painting of Latter-day Saint prophet Brigham Young.
Painting of Brigham Young, circa early June 1841. This portrait was painted by an unknown artist, likely in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during Brigham’s stay in the city on his return to Nauvoo from Great Britain. This painting is apparently the oldest surviving visual image of Brigham Young. Courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

How many journal entries are written in Brigham’s hand?

Three of the four diaries presented in this volume were written in Brigham Young’s hand. (The fourth was a “secretary’s” or office journal kept by others in late Nauvoo.)

Many entries in Brigham’s hand (especially at the beginning) are often short and sometimes cryptic. They record people and places—but not with the kind of detail that conveys emotion and personality.

The code is thought to be a Masonic cypher.

However, they document his diligence in sharing the message of the restoration, making concrete his faith and belief. Some of the later entries are often more detailed. They inform us more about his religious convictions and the depth and sincerity of his commitment to the message of the Restoration.

Every entry documents the life of one who is energetic, driven, and engaged in the things he most cares about.

Is Brigham Young’s handwriting hard to read?

Brigham Young’s handwriting is not especially difficult to read. His often “open” script is usually clear enough—although it’s less clear (like it is with us) when he’s cramped or in a hurry.

On the other hand, his spelling provides an unusual challenge. Lacking formal schooling, he never learned the “standard spelling” of his day. Instead, he spelled most words phonetically. (He would have done better with a phonetic language like Spanish or German.)

Brigham’s struggles with the idiosyncrasies of written English left him to spell “creatively,” as we say. We occasionally edit his most creative attempts by inserting the correct word in brackets, but otherwise let you see the phonetic spelling he wrote with.

What do the “ME” notations reveal about polygamy?

These notations, which may refer to “married for eternity” (ME) or “married for time (MT), appear at the top of some pages containing the names of women who later sources confirm were plural wives of Brigham Young.

However, the nature of his relationship to these women at the time their names appear in his journal is not known. It is possible, and in some cases likely, that the references in the journal are on dates when plural marriages occurred.

What do you make of Brigham’s passages about the Masonic code?

Relying in part on the work of Andrew Ehat, our volume’s footnote sheds light on the code, but we do not offer a definitive reading. Though the code is thought to be a Masonic cypher, it does not precisely match any known key. That may be because Young used a key different than ones that have been located—or perhaps because he used the key imperfectly.

One line of coded text seems to relate to his joining the Nauvoo Masonic lodge, which met on 6 January, the date of the entry in Young’s journal. But it is not certain he was a member until a little later.

Some have suggested that the second line of code documents a plural marriage of Joseph Smith. We offer the possibility but remain uncertain.

There appears to be an erased page in Brigham Young’s journal. Do we know anything about that?

Nothing conclusive. Part of it appears to be the date (likely October 31, 1843, as there is an entry for 29-30 October and 1 November 1843) and Brigham’s last name “Young.”

About two-thirds to three-fourths of the page has been erased or crossed out, and rendered totally illegible.

When are his entries most consistent?

Two periods of the 1840s elicited Brigham Young’s most consistent journal writing—and produced many of his longer entries. The first was the year he spent in the British Isles leading the Quorum of the Twelve’s first mission as a quorum since their inaugural mission of 1835 and first mission abroad.

It was a pivotal time for Young, the new president of his quorum, and his record helps document that crucial mission for the quorum and the church.

Gerritt J. Dirkmaat and Brent M. Rogers talk about what readers will find in the first published volume of Brigham Young’s journals.

Brigham Young journal entries in London

A two week period in which Brigham Young visited London shows his activity and mobility. The entries are presented here without the annotation found in the book:

30 November 1840 • Monday

monday the 30 took the Cars came to London arived here a bout 6 – P.M. found Br Woodruff at his lodgens came to see Father Corner

1 December 1840 • Tuesday

December the 1 Br Woodruff Kimball and myself went across London bridge Went in to the Borrow took dinner at Allgood Sister Turley sister came acros another Bridge through smithfield market I Preach[ed] in the evening

2 December 1840 • Wednesday

wensday 2 went to see Br Rodgers daughter mrs [Benedetto] Sangiovanni had a good visit came home in the [e]vening I went to see

3 December 1840 • Thursday

thursday 3 v[i]sited the tower of London went through it and then went to the tunnel of under the Thames and retur[n]ed home Preached in evening

4 December 1840 • Friday

frida 4 Br Woodruff and my self went to visit the Westmister abbey we walked through St James Park had a fare vue of all the Palses saw whare qwene Victory [Queen Victoria] rezide[s] in Buckinham Pales [Palace] went from there to the abby had a vue of the hol of it and returned to our lodgens whare Br Kimball had ben all day

5 December 1840 • Saturday

Saterday the six <5> staed in the house most of the day

6 December 1840 • Sunday

on Sunday 7 6 I went to st Palls Church in the morning Br Kimball & R. Williams went with me in the after noon Br Kimball Preached to a fue in the little chappel I Preached in the evening We had a good meeting had the sacrement in the eve at Father corners after mee[ting]

7 December 1840 • Monday

Monday 8 7 Brothers Kimball Woodruff and Williams & my self went and visite[d] the surgent [Surgeons] musem of eria [earlier?] times and preserved bodies and the[n] to the Nation galirey [National Gallery] – & – c – in the evening

8 December 1840 • Tuesday

tusday 8 went to the Park and the Pantheam [Pantheon] and so home mist [most] of our company

9 December 1840 • Wednesday

wensday 9 went in the morning to St Paul Church went all over it up in to the ball 404 feet high went in to the valt saw the tombs [of] sir Bengman [Benjamin] West who died in London 1820 we then went to the monume[n]t then crost London Bridge and a cros the Iron Bridge then went to the British musaman [museum] and then home

10 December 1840 • Thursday

thursday went to mr Akins Church as he brake bred to his Church verry [every] thursday morning – but they would not let [us] goe in we returned home had a good meeting the evening

11 December 1840 • Friday

frday morning 11 I started at 6 a.m. Br Woodruff and Williams came with me to the Raleway station took the car at 8 rode 63 miles in a bout 2 1/2 hours then took [the] Coach road 38 miles came to Cheltenham, in a fue minits found a good home at Sister Marthen Brewit No 12 Warick Building Winchumb street Cheltenham – lodged at temperenc[e] hotel 2 nights

13 December 1840 • Sunday

on sunday <13> I Preached twice to a large congration a good Prospect of a good work walked in the evening to the liegh to Br Brewet staed all night

Brigham Young journal entries in Nauvoo

Some of his best entries were those written later in Nauvoo—especially after the murder of Joseph Smith. They show Brigham and his quorum with new responsibilities thrust upon their shoulders. During this period, Brigham shared more details than normal—and he wrote more often and more consistently. The result is an invaluable record of that crucial transition to new leadership.

Here is an example of Young’s personal journal entries leading to the excommunication of Sidney Rigdon (without the annotation found in the book):

3 September 1844 •Tuesday

tusday 3 had an intervue with Br [Sidney] Rigdon he said he had Power and authority above the twelve did not concider him self bound to thir councel in the evening the twelve had a councel with him again he was far from being or feeling an in trist [interest] with the twelve after a long conversation Br Rigdons licence was demanded he would not give them up said the church had not ben led for a long time by the Lord, and he should come out tell all a bout the secrits of the Church

4 September 1844 •Wednesday

4 Br Alexa[n]der Hunt Paid in $25.60 for the temple had a day of rest

5 September 1844 •Thursday

5 Br [William] Marks Came to see me about P[r]es [Sidney] Rigdon and his revelations in the afternoon went to the prayer meeting and exposed the fals prophets

Sister [Sarah] Rockwell came with 5 pare of gloves for the temple. 1 do [ditto] mittens $525

6 September 1844 • Friday

6 Br Kimball and my self visited the sick till 2 o.c P.M. Brs A[masa]. Lyman[,] C. Pa d irt ge [Carolyn Ely Partridge] – had a councel in the evening with the officers of the Lagon [Legion]

6 Br Alonzo W. Whitney stated to Br H[eber]. C. Kimball that he was in a meeting last weak at Lenard Sobes [Leonard Soby’s] there he heard S. Rigdon say that the 12 ware in the Bogas buisness and there was [w]rits out for them at Carthege.

they [said] Sidney Rigdon and his party must send cirten [certain] men to the Branches to turn the saints to him & then he could lead them to S[idney]. R[igdon]. said he should goe to Pitsburgh and publish all the wickedness & history of Nauvoo let it rest on the Living or the dead insinuating that Joseph & Hyram was rong Sameul James read a chapter [and] made the aplecation that Joseph was decived and left to have falce revelations. Some said thire was no use to pay enny thing more on the temple namely Crouse Hunter twist & Richar[ds] Rigdon asscented to it all and gave them som instricton [instruction]

Twist or Soby said me we must not come out against Joseph at once or pull on that string to hard you know the feelings of the People and the man of sin spoken of is the twelve

7 September 1844 • Saturday

7 I seald Br John P. Greene [to] my sister Rhodia [Rhoda] Young and to Mary Eliza Nelson, as he was dying

Br John Mc Gewin came to my house to Bord or live with me

the names of my staff

4 adicamps
Isaac Morley first
Jefferson Hunt 2

2 Secreterry

12 garde
1 Alfus [Alpheus] Cutler
Ronalds Choon [Reynolds Cahoon]
James Allread [Allred]
Thomas Grover
John Butler
Gorge Cremer [George Creymour]
Abraham C Hodge
Shedrick [Shadrach] Roundy
Cornaious [Cornelius] P. Lott
[Lewis] Dunbar Wilson
Henery [Henry] G. Sherwood
Sameul [Samuel] H Smith

1 Chaplen
Drill master genaral
Commander of the S[t]aff

8 September 1844 • Sunday

on Sunday the 8 we had a meeting on the stand a bout 6 or 7 thausand People Present we tried Br Sidney Rigdon and Cut him of[f] from the Church and Samuel James [Joseph H.] Newton G[e]orge Morrey [Morey] John Forges and som others, we ware over 6 ours on the stand the congration was well satisfyde. Rigdon and his party held a meeting in the morning and concluded not to make enny defence

9 September 1844 • Monday

Monday 9 [Sep] I visited the sic[k] Br J[ohn]. P. Greene P[arley]. P. Pratt and others

What do the entries reveal about Brigham Young’s personality and character?

Brigham Young’s journals give you a front-row seat to his thoughts and actions. You get an inside look into the prophet by reading his creative spellings. And you see the things that mattered most to him, such as family, preaching the gospel, and helping people.

Brigham was deeply devoted to his family, the gospel, and the Savior. His love of other people is evident in these journals. He takes very seriously the idea that loving your fellow man is the demonstration, the other testimony of Jesus.

When you read the last journal entries before the Latter-day Saints leave Nauvoo in a time of crisis, Brigham is at the Nauvoo Temple night and day to provide the Saints their religious ordinances.

That’s not the person who emerges through these journals.

The members of the Church are so desperate to receive their endowments that Brigham Young essentially sleeps in the temple for the last several weeks documented in his last journal so he can endow as many members as possible.

When he tries to close the temple so that he can advance movement to the Rocky Mountains, he sees hundreds of people lined up waiting for their endowments. His heart is moved by compassion—and he opens the temple so they can receive the ordinances.

In these journals, you see someone who defends the gospel and the Prophet Joseph Smith. You see someone who desperately loves other people. And you see a person who is a work in progress, like we all are, but someone who has, at his heart, a kind nature.

People tend to make Brigham Young a caricature and maybe say, “he was a cold-hearted and violent person.” That’s not the person who emerges through these journals.

When you get to read Brigham in his own words—and see him in a more holistic way—you find somebody who is inclusive and caring, someone who is devoted to the gospel and wants to share that gospel message with others. He makes every effort possible to bring people unto Christ.

What might surprise readers about religious teachings in the journals?

There are not a lot of specific religious teachings described or even mentioned in the journals. Early on, once he truly grasps its importance, he teaches about the gathering of Israel and the blessings promised to the children of Israel.

At other points you see he teaches about the importance of prayer. He teaches about the Book of Mormon and the role of Joseph Smith as Prophet. He teaches the things that he learned from Joseph Smith, whether through revelation or prophetic discourse, and Brigham holds true to them. He was deeply committed to the faith taught by God, Christ, and Joseph Smith.

How does Brigham Young’s testimony of Jesus Christ surface in the journals?

These journals document Brigham Young’s faith in the Restoration. They also document his faith in the mission of Joseph Smith, the man Young viewed as the Lord’s prophet who opened the windows of Heaven and showed us the way back to our Father with the aid of His Son.

He saw in the Book of Mormon another testament of Christ’s life and mission—and believed in its message of redemption enough to feel compelled to share it with the world.

You can feel that sadness.

In Great Britain, he went to great lengths to publish a British Edition of the Book of Mormon so that the British Saints could also have access to the book and its message more readily. His missionary-focused entries from 1832-1845 prove his unwavering commitment to his faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel.

The testimony is in the action—and you see throughout his journals that Brigham Young is focused on the Savior, learning and teaching the gospel, and giving devotion to his family.

What are a few of your favorite entries?

Brigham Young’s record of the mission of the Twelve to the British Isles is personally meaningful and deeply interesting to both of us. The same can be said for the entries immediately after learning of Joseph Smith’s death, and Young’s account of meeting with the Saints for the first time in Nauvoo in early August 1844.

But my favorite entries deal with the temple—especially when Young and the Twelve pushed to complete the temple and endow the Saints before leaving it behind on their exodus West. In ways that not many Latter-day Saints understand, Brigham and his quorum members preserved the teachings and ordinances that Joseph Smith revealed in Nauvoo. These entries in Young’s journal tell part of that story.

One specific entry on 11 June 1840 highlights Brigham’s love for his family. He writes about a dream that he had after dozing to sleep on a rainy, unpleasant day. He’s in England, serving with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He had left his family, including his wife Mary Ann who had given birth to their daughter Alice days before he left in September of 1839.

In his dream he embraced his daughter Elizabeth in his arms and kissed her “2 or 3 times.” He then mentions that his wife, Mary Ann, told him that he needed to support his family as they were struggling with him having been gone for so long. It’s a very sweet and tender dream. It also shows the weight that he felt leaving his family for so long and to have to fend for themselves in his absence. You can feel that sadness and tell how much he loved and missed his family.

When will the second volume be published?

Work on Volume 2 is in process but without a firm estimate for publication. The scholars preparing these volumes all have other primary responsibilities, making these journals an “after hours” project. Thus, another volume will not be finished before 2025.

The second volume opens with a couple of small post-Nauvoo records written in the 1840s. It will then present office journals and travel records kept on some of Young’s journeys, from spring 1850 through 1856. There will be four volumes total.

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About the interview participants

Ronald K. Esplin is a prominent Latter-day Saint historian with close ties to the Brigham Young Center. He serves on the center’s Board while also functioning as a Director and General Editor. Esplin earlier served as Managing Editor of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. He holds degrees from BYU, the University of Utah, and the University of Virginia, and was president of the Mormon History Association from 2006 to 2007.

Brent M. Rogers is a Member of the Executive Council of the Brigham Young Center. He holds a PhD with an emphasis in nineteenth-century US history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and serves as the Managing Historian for the Joseph Smith Papers. He is currently working on a biography of Vienna Jaques, one of two women mentioned by name in the Doctrine and Covenants. His book-length study of Buffalo Bill Cody’s relationship with Latter-day Saints will be available in March 2024.

Further reading

Brigham Young journal resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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