Scans of the Wilford Woodruff Diaries have been made available on the website for The Church History Library (owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). This is a huge deal for four reasons (beyond the fact that he was an Apostle and Church President, which I walk through below.
First, Woodruff kept a diary for more than fifty years as an active Mormon. Historians have a much better idea of what happened in Mormon relationships, church meetings, and other areas because of his records. He kept meticulous track of many things, including the letters he sent, people he baptized, and more. He recorded the words of ordinary Mormons. He wrote down his visions and impressions. He doodled. In short, his diary is fascinating for anyone looking to understand how Mormonism worked in nineteenth-century Mormonism. If you don’t believe me, ask Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She says, “Woodruff’s massive chronicle is not only an essential source for the study of nineteenth- century Mormonism, it is a great American diary.”
Second, Woodruff gives us insight into how the LDS Church’s leadership worked, the personalities involved, and how decisions were made. He wrote down the words of other Church leaders, such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and many others. He was at the forefront of many of nineteenth-century Mormonism’s most important undertakings, including the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Council of Fifty, the exodus to the Great Basin, the Raids, the First Manifesto, the dissolution of the People’s Party, the end of the Law of Adoption, and Utah’s statehood. In short, if something important happened in nineteenth-century Mormonism, Woodruff saw it, heard about it, and often, wrote about it. The availability of the diaries for FREE (rather than hundreds or even thousands of dollars, the cost of the Kenney transcriptions) is a huge step forward for Mormon historians. We can now better and affordably understand what was going on in “rooms where it happened.”
Third, Woodruff’s diaries are an excellent historical accompaniment to the new Saints series, which tells a narrative, social history of the LDS Church and its members. As mentioned previously, the Woodruff diaries have been essential to nineteenth-century Mormon historiography (seriously, look at your favorite nineteenth-century Mormon history articles post-1844 and see how many times Woodruff is cited). Now, as the LDS Church works to add the voices of more and more people into its standard, didactic narrative, the average Mormon now can look at many sources for herself. Many may say, “Woodruff was an apostle! How can he be seen as ordinary?” To that, I respond he did not only interact with Church leaders. He preached and prayed with hundreds of his fellow Saints. He wrote down what they said to him. He corresponded with them. He fished with them. The diaries reveal much of nineteenth-century Mormon life and culture, particularly the way in which leaders often interacted one-on-one with parishioners, whether wearing waders or preaching about the Second Coming. Average Mormons will be able to see the world as Woodruff saw it from the comfort of their own laptops.
Fourth, this is an enormous financial and intellectual commitment by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The creation of At the Pulpit and The First Fifty Years of Relief Society highlight a commitment to openness and publicizing voices that might otherwise have been heard or were not easy to find. I applaud the use of resources to further the work of Mormon historians and the average Latter-day Saint. With the release of the Council of Fifty Minutes to the catalog in the past few weeks as well, we have plenty to be grateful for.