Guest Post: Natalie R., “Mormon Female Adolescence, Diaries, and Religiosity

By October 28, 2012

When I started my research project on adolescent Mormon women from the late 1860s to the 1920s, I was met with questions from a few people asking me something along the lines of ?Do those sources exist?? Despite the growth of scholarship on the lived experiences of adolescents and children in the last few decades, there is, unfortunately, still some uncertainty about finding these ?elusive? sources created by children and adolescents. Thankfully for my research, I embraced this doubt as a challenge that has proven to be successful.  There are a number of diaries written by young women  in the archives, and there have already been quite a few scholarly articles centered on these diaries. (Just a note: I use diary and journal interchangeably.)

Of course, not all of these journals were full of the ?juicy? material that many stereotypically believe fill a teenage girl?s diary. Some contained a few sparse entries over several years whereas others were full of daily material about church activities, romantic interests, and family interactions.  With each journal, I wondered what motivated these young women to record their activities and/or thoughts.  For the purposes of this piece, I am only focusing on a few diaries from the late-nineteenth and very early twentieth century. I hope to share more findings as I delve into sources from  the 1910s and 1920s.

Writing in a journal was promoted by LDS church publications and leaders in the late-nineteenth century. In 1867, seventeen-year-old Mary E. Perkes of Hyde Park, Utah wrote in the first entry of her journal: ?I was reading in the Juvenile Instructor that it would be good for this generation to keep a journal.?[1] The Juvenile Instructorarticle from January 1, 1867 simply titled ?Keep A Journal? urged boys and girls to write in a journal for two reasons. One, it would serve as a record for later generations:

How pleasing it would be to you and your children, thirty, fifty, or eighty years hence, to sit down and read what took place around you in your childhood and youth!…But the object is not so much to get you to keep a journal while you are young, as it is to get you to continue it after you become men and women, even through your whole lives.[2]

This first imperative for journal writing was directly related toward the theological importance of recording family history. Secondly, journal writing was linked to the creation of scripture: ?If men had not kept a journal in former days, we should not now have any Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants or any other book.?[3] Not only was keeping a journal necessary for later generations to read about their ancestors but it was also necessary to continue the written religious record.  Both of these reasons point to the idea that journals should and would be written for potential readers.

Young women also recounted that their parents urged them to keep a diary.  In 1886, Martha T. Cannon, plural wife of George Q. Cannon, gave their sixteen-year-old daughter Amelia a new diary and advised her to write ?nothing foolish in it.?[4]  Eleven-year-old Mary Bennion of Taylorsville Utah started a blank diary?a gift from her father?in January 1901.  Nearly fifty years later, she wrote in the cover page of the same journal: ?He said we should write in them every day, all the work we did, and all the meetings we attended, and the church duties we had.? [5]  These parental and church urgings to keep a diary were not that far from mainstream American trends concerning young women and diaries in the late-nineteenth century. Historian Jane Hunter comments that parents and other authoritative figures promoted diary writing for young women as a method to avoid selfishness and conform to the family and society. [6]  Diaries were not supposed to be strictly private musing meant only for the eyes of the diarist but as a record that parents, other family members, and acquaintances may read.

Parents of young women supposedly grew concerned that young women would use a journal to embellish details or create an imaginary world. Two stories in the late-nineteenth children?s publication St. Nicholas featured young women, who after misusing their diaries, renounced them and stopped using them altogether.  In one story by Margaret Eckerson, the father of a twelve-year-old girl claims ??there is a vast difference between jotting and doing.?[7]  The words of this fictional father did not fall too far from Martha T. Cannon?s exhortations to her daughter Amelia against writing something ?foolish? in her journal. It is unclear whether Martha T. Cannon was concerned that Amelia?s diary would not be fit for reading or that she would use her diaries to make up stories about her life. Nonetheless, it is highly suggested that Mormon parents, like their mainstream American counterparts, wanted their daughters to keep journals to improve self-discipline.

Many young women used their journal as a space to develop their own voices. Jane Hunter surmises that young women did not use dairies to completely retaliate against their parents? best efforts ?but as a way of discovering?or constructing?the self within? their families.[8]  Passages from seventeen-year-old Amelia Cannon?s diary reveal how she balanced her identity as an individual and as a family member. In 1887, she and her sister Hester stopped attending public school and took up work in the Juvenile Instructor office, which was then owned and edited by George Q. Cannon. About this decision, Amelia wrote: ?We shall start to earn money next Spring?Oh, I shall be so glad. I don?t like to be dependent upon my parents.?[9]  Even though she was in effect working for her father, her Juvenile Instructor position allowed her some semblance of independence from her parents and her family. Later in 1887, while her father was forced into hiding on the underground, Amelia recounted how her family would meet in secret on Sundays for prayers. After prayers, she would play music for him until a guard would come to escort him back to his hiding place fifty miles away. She wrote: ?I always have to play on the piano for him in the evenings. Papa is so found of music. I have had to perform so much on Sabbath evenings that I have used up all of my prettiest pieces.?[10] Looking at these two anecdotes side by side illuminates how young women like Amelia Cannon attempted to define herself as an individual outside of her family while simultaneously sustaining her position as beloved daughter and family member.

Extending from Jane Hunter?s assessments, I wonder how Mormon adolescent women like Amelia Cannon used their diaries as a space to formulate their religious identities.  References to church attendance, Mutual Improvement Association (MIA) meetings,  and family prayers amongst other rituals and traditions fill the pages of young Mormon women?s diaries. In an 1886 entry, then sixteen-year-old Amelia Cannon confessed that during mutual meetings at the Farmer?s Ward that when she and the young women were supposed to be reading the Bible ?we would all put our heads together and tell ghost stories.?[11] She admitted that it had a ?demoralizing effect? on her and resolved to preserve Sunday as a holy day and refrain from amusements.  Mary Bennion?s diary was less introspective than Amelia Cannon?s and some days read as an iteration of her daily chores. However, her diary takes a slight turn when she reaches nineteen and finally graduates from the Relief Society Nurse Program. At the commencement exercises for the program, each graduate received a blessing.  Mary recalled ?I stayed and listened to the blessings given to a number of the girls. Each one was so appropriate that I was strengthened in my faith by hearing them.?[12] This passage reveals a rare glimpse into Mary Bennion?s thoughts about her religion. While she may have mostly used her diary as a space to recount her and her family?s daily activities, she also relied?albeit in rare occasions?on it to express some of her feelings of faith.

Considering young women?s diaries as a space for religious development is not without problems. The various reasons for beginning and continuing a journal influenced not only what and how a young women wrote about her religion but also how she wrote about her day-to-day activities. If the journal was intended for a reader or not also affected how a young woman wrote. Yet, to disregard a young woman?s diary is to undermine a significant source for the way that young women approached and cultivated their religiosity.

[1] W.W., ?How to Keep a Journal.? Juvenile Instructor 2 (January, 1 1867): 5.

[2] Mary E. Perkes, ?My Journal.? MSS 435. Special Collections & Archives, Utah State University, Logan, Utah.  Thanks to Jonathan Stapley for pointing out this source to me.

[3] Ibid, 5 ? 6.

[4] Amelia T. Cannon, Journal (1886-87), quoted in Davis Bitton ??Heigh, Ho! I?m Seventeen?: The Diary of a Teenage Girl? in Nearly Everything Imaginable: The Everyday Life of Utah?s Mormon Pioneers, ed. By Ronald W. Walker and Doris R. Durant (Brigham Young University Press, Provo: 1999), 329.

[5] Mary Bennion, Journal (1901-1906). Ms 0251. Bennion Family Papers, Box 4. Special Collections, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[6] Jane H. Hunter, ?Inscribing the Self in the Heart of the Family: Diaries and Girlhood in Late-Victorian America,? American Quarterly 44 (Mar., 1992): 52.

[7] Margaret H. Eckerson, ?Jottings Versus Doings,? St. Nicolas 6 (Feb. 1879): 282 quoted in Jane H. Hunter, ?Inscribing the Self in the Heart of the Family: Diaries and Girlhood in Late-Victorian America,?57.

[8] Hunter, 53.

[9] Amelia T. Cannon, Journal (1886-87), quoted in Davis Bitton ??Heigh, Ho! I?m Seventeen?: The Diary of a Teenage Girl,? 335.

[10] Ibid, 337.

[11] Ibid, 332.

[12] Mary Bennion, Journal 3 (1908-1909). Ms 0251. Bennion Family Papers, Box 4. Special Collections, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I really enjoyed this post, Natalie; although the idea od anyone reading anything I composed as an adolecent is a bit terrifying. It also reminded my of something that hasn’t been mentioned in the “In the Archives” serise, namely bumping into and riffing with other fellow researchers. I was glad to have bumped into you last time I was at the CHL.

    Here you are bringing in an analytical framework that I am not that familiar with, and so I appriciate the primer.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 28, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

  2. Fantastic stuff, Natalie. I still have vivid memories of being encouraged to keep a journal when I was a teenager, and I remember whenever I’m around EFY kids at the BYU bookstore (EFY is a popular week-long camp for teenagers) they are always looking for journals.

    Comment by Ben P — October 28, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

  3. It’s very sobering to have someone tell you he/she just read some letters you wrote 30+ years ago because the person to whom you sent them deposited his/her collection in a public repository a few years ago. I have to admit that it’s made me a little more cautious about what I write ostensibly privately. Turns out the Internet’s not the only place where nothing dies … 🙂

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 28, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

  4. Very interesting. I have a young woman’s diary from the 1890s and I’ll have to go back and re-read it with this in mind.

    Comment by Amy T — October 28, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

  5. What an interesting approach to diary writing. I wonder to what extent these purposes changed over time. Did earlier Christians use them for the same reasons?

    Comment by Amanda HK — October 28, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

  6. This is a fascinating post, Natalie. Thanks for posting. Do you know the literature on the genre of letter-writing? I don’t know that kids were specifically encouraged to correspond, but I occasionally see post scripts of letters written by children to other children. And I know that women were encouraged to write letters as a way of bettering themselves. I’m wondering if there is literature that compares the encouragement of writing journals and similar encouragement for letter writing.

    Gary, I don’t want to derail this post too much, but privacy rights for third party individuals is an important discussion for archivists and there has been much written on this topic. See here and here for instance.

    Comment by Robin — October 28, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

  7. I often wonder how trustworthy diaries and journals are as to the facts that they recount.I have seen instances where a person recorded fictional or fantasy material in a diary. They turned out to be situations or events that the person wished had happened or fantasized had happened rather than real events. How does anyone differentiate between the two decades later?


    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — October 28, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  8. Fascinating. Thanks, Natalie. I remember as a teenager and as a missionary sporadically writing in a journal, but I was never very consistent. As a venerable professor at BYU, Richard Anderson, once told me: “Historians are the worst historians of themselves.”

    Comment by David G. — October 28, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  9. Gary and Robin, yes, privacy concerns are very important to consider when approaching documents that have been marked as “private” or “persona;.” It is something I am taking into heavy consideration as I peruse letters, diaries, or any other documents classified as personal by the creator. Thank you for the links, Robin.

    Also, I am just delving further and further into the genre of letter-writing and its historiography. I will have to look at letters between children a bit more.

    Comment by NatalieR — October 28, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

  10. Ben, how interesting that EFY kids were looking for journals. After spending a few weeks this summer in the archives at BYU, I became more and more fascinated with EFY as a space for social interaction for adolescents.

    Comment by NatalieR — October 28, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

  11. Glenn, this is also on my mind quite a bit as I approach different documents. Surprisingly, and as far as I can tell, the scholarly work I have read about journal writing has not directly taken on this question. However, I have to surmise that if a person takes the pains to write something it does contain some personal importance that highlights something about the historical moment. And it goes without saying, that journals are not the only historical documents that may contain fictions.

    Comment by NatalieR — October 28, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

  12. Amanda, The Juvenile Instructor article is the first time I have seen such a direct connection I have seen made between journal writing and the creation of scripture. I really am interested to see how early Christians approached what we know as journal writing. I am noticing discernible differences between the journals from the 1860s and 70s and the early-twentieth century.

    Comment by NatalieR — October 28, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

  13. Early Mormon diaries are saturated in self conscious scripture making.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 28, 2012 @ 9:56 pm

  14. I think EFY experiences would be fascinating grounds for research. At least, I found watching EFY-ers this summer fascinating, especially as non-Mormon.

    Natalie, your work sounds great.

    Comment by Saskia — October 29, 2012 @ 5:13 am

  15. Robin (at 6), Thanks for the suggestion. It looks like an interesting book. What struck me in finding copies of letters I’d written decades earlier now available publicly wasn’t so much “privacy” concerns as it was questions of audience. Natalie touches on this in her post. I wonder how many people today, say, participants on this particular thread, maintain a diary, and if so, for whom and why it is created, and to what extent questions of audience determine and frame what one decides to record. If this is too much of a derailment, please feel free to ignore.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 29, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  16. Gary, I, for one, think you bring up a good point. I think the danger in reading diaries is that we tend to assume they are an act of self-disclosure and thus, is somehow more honest than other types of writing. What Natalie’s post shows and your comment shows is that diaries are much about self-construction as they are anything else. As a result, we have to consider the issue of genre and of construction as much with diaries as anything else.

    Comment by Amanda — October 29, 2012 @ 9:57 am

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