Keeping a journal is perhaps one of the few areas where the advice given to the general membership of the Church and that given to aspiring writers is similar. Still today we occasionally hear the advice from the pulpit, usually in the context of how this will improve our spiritual lives. In contrast, writers have traditionally been given the advice to keep a journal in order to improve their writing and provide material for their creative lives.
Unfortunately, at least in terms of Church members, I suspect this has been one of the most ignored pieces of advice to come from Church leadership. Any historian of Mormonism will tell you that, even among Church leaders, diaries and journals are few and far between. And even when they exist, the events that we see as important now, were too often not seen as important in the diaries and journals of participants. Alas, I am, myself, guilty of this failure.
Wells can perhaps be forgiven for his focus on men in this article, given that it appeared in The Contributor, the organ of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (equivalent of the LDS Church’s Young Men’s organization today).
By Junius F. Wells
THE practice of writing, either for preservation in private journals or publication in current periodicals, is one that every young Elder in the Church should be encouraged to adopt and follow throughout life. Among the earliest instructions of the Prophet Joseph Smith to missionaries, as they were about to start upon their missions, was a powerful admonition “to keep a journal.” The Twelve Apostles were instructed to do so when they were first sent out, and this counsel has ever been enjoined upon missionaries and other official representatives of the Church for more than fifty years.
The object is to gather information and put upon record the dealings of God with His children as they are observed in the ministrations of His servants in these latter days. The great advantage to an Elder in keeping a journal of his travels and ministry is apparent, when we consider the opportunities he has to see the interesting places and persons of the world, to meet the various classes of society and observe the customs which distinguish them, to ruminate about the scenes of historical value and gaze upon the curious collections which scientific studies and research have contributed for the information and education of our race. As in all after life allusions to these will appear in the press and in conversation with intelligent people, knowledge of them to a greater or less extent should form part of our education. We only engage in gathering this kind of intelligence, when upon missions, incidentally. It is not the main purpose of our pilgrimage to foreign countries, but the purpose that takes us abroad gives us the opportunity to collect a useful fund of information upon all these things, while not lessening our usefulness in preaching the word and administering the ordinances of the Gospel.
Another very excellent reason why a journal should be kept by every Elder is that they may have, for convenient reference, lists of all the people they meet and become acquainted with. This is of peculiar value to us, from the fact that the Saints whom we labor among abroad are continually gathering to Zion, and we expect to meet them all again sometime; but unless we record their names and occasionally look over the history of our dealings with them, in most instances, not only the history but the names will pass from memory and leave us in that estranged condition which causes us to meet dear friends and brethren, who have ministered to our comfort when we were far from home, as strangers. There are of course exceptional instances where Elders have such excellent recollection of names and faces that they never forget, but these are far from common. We have observed and heard of many occasions where the failure to recognize the immigrating Saints, who were well known in foreign lands, has caused them bitter disappointment and pain. This would be avoided in a very great degree if journals were carefully kept and occasionally, in after years, read over to “stir up our minds by way of remembrance.”
In regard to what should go into a missionary’s journal, there ever will be great difference of opinion. The journal, if it is faithfully kept, will be the best biography of the man who keeps it that could be written. It is sure to contain characteristic sentiments enough to afford a perfect index, at least, to the character of the writer. Thus the daily journals of President George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff are altogether superior to any kind of “Life” or “Biography” that could be written of them. But sometimes young Elders fall into a habit of recording unimportant matters in their journals. We recollect seeing a journal in which the following entry was regularly made every day for five years: “I arose this morning and ate my breakfast, after which I”-then followed an account of the day’s labors. That sentence repeated so often, if compiled, would fill a volume of itself, and was entirely unnecessary, as the presence of anything else, whatever, upon the page would indicate all that it tells. Many journals are merely railway time cards and distance tables, reiterating what every guide book contains. So far as this disposition to record time and distances relates to the personal travels of the writer, it is a good feature of his journal. It becomes quite an interesting summary to foot up the miles traveled while upon a mission or for a given number of years. But we consider that next to the faithful record of actual missionary labors, the journals of young Elders ought to be filled up with their intelligent observations of the people, scenes and objects of natural and artificial wonder which they encounter. Suppose the journals of our missionaries contained this class of matter, if they were compiled, they would form an encyclopedia of rare utility and interest. As they are kept, no doubt, the curious would be entertained for months in their perusal.
The habit of writing in a journal grows upon one and becomes a source of much pleasure. We have sometimes heard smokers of tobacco give as a reason-no man can give an intelligent reason for smoking-for indulging in the habit, “that his pipe had become a companion with which he communed and it became a great solace and comfort to him in that capacity.” Now while we cannot say much for the company such an one keeps-a hot, stinking, murky, puffing thing, both offensive and injurious-the idea of companionship which the settled habit suggests is true, and carried in another direction is very delightful, particularly in the direction of a daily journal. We are acquainted with a distinguished official of the Church, who enjoys his daily communion with his journal with all the pleasure and none of the injury that the smoker does with his pipe.
The journal may become in addition to a charming companion-if it is a charming journal-a silent monitor, a guide, a friend to succor and to save. President Woodruff once remarked in this connection, that, “So long as you keep your daily journal and write down the things you do, there is not much danger of your doing much that is wrong.” How true to the mark this observation strikes us. Go! look over your lives, and in nearly every case the mistakes, the wrong doing, the blots, will be found wanting in that period which was recorded in your journals.
From this practice of reviewing the events of each day, the memory becomes strong, particularly in its grasp of names and dates, and the habit of keeping things in order and of pursuing with method whatever occupies our time will naturally ensue. This bears a rich reward in the increased power to do; for by method one may accomplish twofold, perhaps ten-fold what the erratic worker can possibly find time to do.
Many are the reasons that might be named for urging missionaries to keep journals, but at home they will say they do not apply. It becomes insufferably irksome to chronicle the every day humdrum affairs of routine home life! Let us consider a moment what might legitimately go into a home journal that will be of interest. Firstly, the morality of the habit of writing down our acts; then the benefit to the mind in reviewing them at the close of each day, and the pleasure of a confidential companion. These ought to be sufficient, but to make the matter worth recording, if we do not find it in “arising in the morning” and in “eating breakfast,” perhaps if we will take into consideration the natural objects of interest about us, as of animal life, scenery, the people we meet, etc., we may find some entertainment and possibly develop rare powers of observation that will lead to special studies and enable us to do something in the interest of science or art that will be worth the labor, and do good to our fellow men.
The advantage of a journal to one who writes for publication is hardly to be calculated. It not only supplies him with data, but it cultivates the art he has chosen, and is a wonderful help to him when the labor of writing is required but the spirit to write is dormant. His journal then is a treasury from which he may draw in the hour of need. There are journals written in youth that have been, to some of the world’s greatest writers, the source of information, and their mainstay and principal helper in advanced years. So may we all find our journals, if we keep them faithfully now, and write down in truth the things we learn and do to-day.
The Contributor v.4 (April 1883)
I’m not sure I agree with Wells’ suggestion that “The journal, if it is faithfully kept, will be the best biography of the man who keeps it that could be written.” I’m not even sure this would be true of the best writers—often the day-to-day is quite mundane, and most readers would prefer something that concentrates on a higher level. Wells’ comparison of the habit of smoking with the habit our journal keeping is fascinating, and perhaps tells us more about Wells and the time in which he wrote than anything about keeping a journal.
I like the statement “The journal may become in addition to a charming companion-if it is a charming journal-a silent monitor, a guide, a friend to succor and to save.” This idea is, I think, the most attractive reason for keeping a journal–the idea that it will have real utility for us today.
And, in the last paragraph, Wells addresses a literary reason for writing a journal: “It not only supplies him with data, but it cultivates the art he has chosen, and is a wonderful help to him when the labor of writing is required but the spirit to write is dormant. His journal then is a treasury from which he may draw in the hour of need.”
I must admit that I don’t know how much the advice to write a diary or journal is given today — I suspect that the advice given is more along the lines of simply finding ways to write, regardless of where and what form. In a sense, perhaps, there isn’t much difference between writing in a diary and writing some piece of creative fiction each day — both are writing and both provide practice for the writer. Writing creative work may be better practice, but writing a diary is, perhaps, simpler and requires less preparation of a narrative structure, I would think. I’d be very interested in your comments about how common the advice to write a journal is today, and how it might help creative writing.
It seems to me that writing a journal today, at least for those of us in the first world, should be easier than ever. Laptops and smart phones put writing tools at our disposal 24 hours a day. Yet I suspect the frequency that even writers write in journals is no different than it was in Junius F. Wells’ day. After all, it is really about time and priorities, and not the tools, isn’t it?
[FWIW, a quick search on worldcat and in the Church's archives online shows no journal or diary from Junius F. Wells available. Too bad.]