Nate R. teaches American History to 8th graders and community college students in Colorado Springs. His MA Thesis on slavery in Utah won the MHA’s Best Thesis prize in 2008. His transcription of Joseph F. Smith’s Hawaiian diaries, titled “‘My Candid Opinion’: The Sandwich Islands Diaries of Joseph F. Smith,” is coming out in June.
In summer 2005 I was working as a researcher/writer for the Education in Zion Exhibit at BYU when the exhibit director, philosopher C. Terry Warner, called me into his office. He had been putting a lot of thought into it, he told me, and had decided to assign me to do the background research for one of the permanent Exhibit features: an overview of the life of Joseph F. Smith (EiZ is housed in the Joseph F. Smith Building).
I recognized immediately that this would be a high-profile, high-stakes assignment, so immersed myself in all things JFS—at least, those that were readily available at BYU. One of the impressive sources that came up in my search was the DVD-ROM compilation Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church, completed in 2002 (see Scott Kenney’s review of Selected Collections here). The entire Joseph F. Smith Papers housed in the LDS Church Archives are available on five discs of the collection (26-30) and I couldn’t believe my luck to be able to rely on material generated by JFS himself. The most to which any researcher had had access for quite some time was Scott Kenney’s notes on the collection, compiled under Leonard Arrington’s tutelage (so, ages ago—in 2001 Kenney expanded on his notes to produce the first original biographical work on JFS since 1984, an article in Sunstone).
The diaries that JFS kept during his first mission to the Sandwich Islands quickly drew me in. I had been raised on the myths of the first mission—the call as a fifteen-year old, the “dream of manhood,” the unbreakable bond with a Hawaiian “ma,” and the return journey that found JFS proclaiming himself a “true blue, through and through” Mormon to an unruly crew of bandits (see this blog for a typical use of the story). So naturally I looked for the reality behind these stories as I examined the diaries for potential use in the Exhibit. Yet two unexpected things came of my initial reading of the diaries: I discovered many historical “gems,” or JFS stories that are generally unknown, and I really struggled to decipher much of Joseph F.’s writing. Though the diaries were available electronically, I felt that they could be much more accessible.
I began transcribing the Sandwich Islands diaries after I left EiZ to start graduate school, not really knowing what shape the final project would take. After securing publication permission from the Church Copyrights Office in 2008, I approached Gary Bergera at Signature Books, recalling that Signature had published Kenney’s transcription of Wilford Woodruff’s extensive journals years ago. Gary suggested I shape the diaries something like those in Signature’s “Significant Mormon Diaries” series, and that I try to get permission to publish select portions of additional JFS diaries, including some that are rumored to be held by the Office of the First Presidency. So, I went for it—and got rejected. Although disappointed, Gary and I both felt we should move forward with the Sandwich Islands diaries project, so I began annotating the diaries and working on an introduction to them for publishing by the Smith-Pettit Foundation. After a couple years of editing, annotating, revising, and searching for supplementary materials, the project was finally finished—and is coming out this month.
As I reflect back on the project, there are a number of things I think are significant to point out about the Sandwich Islands diaries and what can be gleaned from them. I’ll try to limit myself here to things that aren’t discussed in the fairly thorough introduction I wrote for the transcription (available for purchase here).
To begin, the diaries are both substantial and insubstantial. They span a 22-month period in Joseph F. Smith’s life that has been heretofore only cursorily examined by historians. JFS catalogs daily the thoughts, feelings, and activities that influence him. Numerous new stories come to light—like the crazy fight between JFS and a companion (the companion actually calls JFS a “Damn Shit-ass” and strikes him—and you’ll never guess what starts the fight!); the comforting dream in which Brigham Young counsels JFS to stay in the Sandwich Islands, following a series of depressing events; JFS reacting angrily to confrontations with ministers of other faiths, and JFS’s sometimes racist, sometimes loving relationship with the native Hawaiians. Traditional myths of the mission are debunked by an examination of the diaries; for example, JFS recorded nothing resembling the “Dream of Manhood,” in which he visited his mother (Mary Fielding Smith), father (Hyrum Smith), and other deceased church leaders in an ethereal realm. The apparent real occurrence of this dream was much later, on the night of January 12, 1862, when JFS was in the British Isles serving another mission.
And yet, other questions are left unanswered. The diaries begin in January of 1856 and end in October of 1857—leaving unaddressed the entire period from the original call as a missionary in April 1854 to December 1855, and the remainder of the journey home (October 1857 to February 1858). Two earlier volumes of diaries kept by JFS were destroyed in a fire in 1856, so we will never know whether they contained a record of his relationship to Ma Manuhii, traditionally believed to be his Hawaiian “ma,” or many of his other early experiences. And JFS stopped keeping a diary on the return voyage, likely because the tedium of the Pacific passage provided little fodder for the budding diarist. So we will never know what exactly happened in the “True Blue” incident, when JFS reportedly stood up to a band of ruffians who, according to later retellings, swore up and down that they would kill any “blankety-blank” Mormon they came across.
Even with these inherent weaknesses in the diaries, I think they are a great snapshot, if nothing else, of Joseph F. Smith’s mindset as a young man. He seems a sponge, constantly reading, constantly writing, constantly getting frustrated at those who don’t see the world as he does. I’m sure that successive historians will find much to discuss in the Sandwich Islands diaries, and may even update my own transcription. I had to take some liberties in interpreting Joseph F.’s handwriting, which caused at least one problem I didn’t catch until the transcription had already been sent to press. For example, after a Sunday meeting on June 29, 1856, following a difficult stretch of trials, JFS wrote that he “was made to rejoice, for the spirit bore testimony to me of the work of the Lord.” When I did the original transcription, I rendered it “refaice” instead of “rejoice” and interpreted it JFS’s strange way of saying he was made to repent. But while reading through JFS’s later British mission diaries, I saw the same word again—and realized my mistake, too late to correct!
All in all, it has been a rewarding project. I look forward to feedback from those who care to examine the transcription. Next in store: tackling the British Mission diaries of JFS, assuming the Church grants me permission to work on them!