William Law’s Amazing (and Suspect) Diary

One of the most fascinating figures during Mormonism’s Nauvoo sojourn is William Law. Joseph Smith made him a counselor in the First Presidency during that period, making him one of the most powerful men in the city. He was also one of the most noteworthy individuals who objected to Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. His increasing opposition resulted in him being released from his ecclesiastical position and excommunicated from the Church. In response, he was involved in publishing the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper that aimed to expose all of Smith’s secret activities. The Mormon Prophet’s order to censor the paper and destroy the press led directly to his imprisonment in Carthage Jail, where he’d eventually be killed.

In 1994, Mormon historian Lyndon Cook published William Law (Grandin Press), a volume that included, among other things, Law’s “Record of Doings at Nauvoo in 1844,” a diary that covered these eventful months. From its very first word, the document contains everything a historian would want. “Fearful and terrible, yea most distressing have been the scenes through which we have past, during the last few months,” Law wrote on New Year’s Day. His candor was incredible and the passion was palpable. “Through our religious zeal we harkened to the teachings of man,” he bemoaned, “more than to the written word of God.” Law was incensed that Smith had seemingly misled him, and began wondering whether he could preserve any fragments from the rubble that was once his Mormon faith. “What my feelings have been I cannot relate, various and painful at times almost beyond endurance.” What was meant to be “sacred” could now only be described as “poison’d arrows in my bleeding heart.” Entries from later months offer a first-hand view of Nauvoo’s rollercoaster ride, giving tantalizing details about schemes, confrontations, and even death threats. It almost seems too good to be true.

And in fact there are some reasons to believe that may very well be the case. No Mormon scholar currently has seen the actual manuscript. Word is Cook got access to a transcript via the family–some say the 1844 journal was one of several volumes–and never saw the holograph. And though some booksellers have claimed to have had, at one point or another, a line on the collection, it has yet to surface.

Could this significant document be forged? It’s possible. It wouldn’t be the first time it has happened in Mormon history. But there are at least some hints of its veracity. Internal cues seem consistent with the period of its alleged creation. And more importantly, documents from Leonard Arrington’s papers collection at USU provides evidence that such a journal might exist. In December 1978, while he was Director of the History Division, Arrington wrote a letter to Leilani Law, a descendant of William, alerting her that Cook, “a teacher of Church history at Brigham young University,” was working on her ancestor. While doing research in Wisconsin he learned that the family historian contained “William Law memorabilia, including a diary.” However, it was made known that they wanted to keep the papers “confidential.” Arrington and Cook also heard, however, that Leilani had also seen the diary and, given that she was a convert to the LDS faith, she might be more willing to work with the Church. “Our interest is based upon a sincere desire to understand William Law, his feelings about Mormonism, and any statements he made about Joseph Smith,” Arrington assured her. (Leonard Arrington to Leilani Law, December 4, 1978, LJA Collection, USU Archives.)

Apparently she was indeed interested and gave Arrington a call several weeks later. This is an excerpt of his report of the conversation:

I received a telephone call this morning from a Lonnie Law, to whom we had written a letter some weeks ago asking for information about the diaries and letters of William Law that she had seen. They were in the possession of her husband’s grandfather, who, I think, was a son of William Law. She said that when my letter came she had thought to reply to me privately but her child knew of the letter and said, when they were eating dinner, “Mamma, are you going to tell Daddy about the letter about Grandpa?” So she told her husband about my letter and he told her not to do anything about it. She felt, however, that she needed to respond to the letter, and he is now gone on a trip, and she was making the call from a friend’s, who is a Latter-day Saint that lives near her in California. The friend urged her to make the call to me (“Lonnie, do you know who that is that signed that letter? That’s the Church Historian!”) so she felt obligated to make this call today…

Lonnie said that her grandfather had five or six letters of William Law written at the time, that she could have read these letters but did not do so – she was more interested in reading the diary, but her husband had read the letters. Her husband’s name is Don. She says her husband told his father not to give or sell the diary and letters to anyone and so he hadn’t done so. Lonnie said that the grandpa and grand[ma] were coming to visit them in California within the next three weeks and she wanted to know if I would give her any instruction. She would be glad to do anything I instructed her to do. I told her that I would not counsel her to violate the spirit of her husband’s feelings by doing anything underhanded, like making a copy of the diary and letters if they wouldn’t permit her to do so. I told her to take advantage of any opportunity that they might offer – if they would permit her to copy it or to read it again and note down the dates and entries or anything else, for her to certainly take advantage of that. She told me that in any case if she learned anything more than what she told me in this conversation this morning she would telephone me and inform me…

She said the family – her husband’s father – also refused to say anything to anybody about the documents they had. They didn’t want to be involved in any controversy with the Church. They wanted to keep hands off. They were good people and didn’t want the family name to be involved in any way – didn’t want the Law things published. They felt (feel) it was William’s difficulty with the Church and leave it at that. Don’t involve them. (Arrington Diaries, February 5, 1979, USU Archives)

The journal entry features everything: the hope of a previously undisclosed yet crucial document, the fear of an upset spouse not willing to become attached to the Church, and a brave recent convert to the LDS faith conspiring to disregard her husband’s orders. Once again, the story nearly seems too good to be true.

Arrington’s diaries never again mention Lonnie Law or her ancestor’s documents. The diary falls out of the discussion completely. The LDS Church Archives never received the donation. Yet Cook eventually gets some form of access, draws from it in a 1982 article, and fifteen years later publishes a transcript of it as part of his William Law volume, without much explanation. There were indeed a number of clandestine transcriptions of significant documents floating around during the decade–most notably William Clayton’s–but it was at times impossible to determine what was real and what was fake. (And remember, a certain Hoffman figure was at work between those two dates.) If this is a gripping narrative, there are still plenty of holes to the story.

So is the published document trustworthy? Even if it is indeed based on an actual holograph, it is impossible to compare it to the original. Apparently even Cook couldn’t even compare the transcript to the original. The published version has strikethroughs throughout the text–were those by Law, or a later redactor? Law’s descendants certainly seemed anxious to protect their ancestor’s reputation. And Arrington’s conversation with Lonnie Law make it clear she was interested in presenting a particular image of her great-grandfather, one in which he was a true believer genuinely flummoxed by polygamy. Could she, or someone else in the family, have molded the text to reflect their views? Were any portions cut out? It seems odd that a man would pen such a personal, reflective, and meticulous diary for only six months of his life, having not written anything before or since. It’s puzzling.

But the document is too juicy to ignore. The experts at the Joseph Smith Papers Project, who know the intimacies of this period better than nearly anyone, decided to make “limited use” of Law’s diary in their annotations. They justify this based on “internal evidence,” a conversation with Cook, as well as Arrington’s records mentioned above (JSP: Journals, Volume 3, page 491). And despite my serious reservations, I’m tempted to make more than “limited use” in my Nauvoo project because his voice would be so central to the story. I mean, there’s a reason the diary seems too good to be true. But this is merely one example of the fraught nature of the historian’s craft, where documents can be simultaneously exciting and perplexing. Turns out we have more in common with detectives than commonly thought.

Also, if you by chance have access to the William Law collection, hit me up!

(My thanks to Robin Jensen and Tom Kimball for helping me understand the document and its story. Any inaccuracies are likely my fault. If you know more, please share details in the comments.)

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Gary Bergera says:

    Great write-up, Ben. Can you say anything about attempts by the JSP people to locate the original?

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    1. Benjamin Park says:

      Thanks, Gary. I’m afraid I don’t have much details beyond that they attempted to reach out to relevant parties, but only had a discussion with Cook.

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  2. H. Michael Marquardt says:

    Thank you Ben. As I understand the “Record of Doings at Nauvoo in 1844” came from a typed copy. It is not clear whether it was a diary or an article that was intended to be published. The strikethroughs of Wilson Law’s name is of interest. The typed copy is not a line-by-line transcription and from what I have heard years ago the copy has not been compared with an original document. In fact the original may no longer be in existence. The Joseph Smith Papers are careful when they use it which is not too often. Maybe we can learn additional information on the typed copy from Lyndon Cook.

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  3. Robert says:

    Thanks for the interesting explanation. As a non-historian-average-guy-in-the-pews, several years ago I started looking for source documents to demonstrate (actually, trying to win a debate with my mother-in-law) that polygamy originated with Joseph Smith. I had grown up assuming this was just obviously true. I was fairly shocked at how hard it is to make that case with historical source documents. There is so much that may have been forged/changed/created after-the-fact. It seems impossible to determine what documents are authentic. I had assumed the William Law diary was generally a solid peg in the “Joseph = Polygamist” argument. You seem to be telling me not to put too much weight on that peg. If not William Law, what do you consider the best/most reliable documentary evidence that Smith was a polygamist?

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    1. Benjamin Park says:

      There are still plenty of contemporaneous documents that prove polygamy’s existence in JS’s day, but the revelation recorded on July 27, 1842, for the Whitney family is perhaps the most important. The CHL has digitized it, I’m pretty sure.

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      1. Robert says:

        Thanks! Do you have any information about the validation of that July 27 document or the letter of Aug 18, 1842? How do you historians decide a document like that is authentic and not a Hoffman-style forgery?

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      2. Benjamin Park says:

        Sorry for the slow response. There are a number of factors–internal cues, external consistency, handwriting analysis, etc.–but perhaps the most important is provenance. Who held possession of the document all these years? When it comes to the July revelation, it was held in the Whitney collection for a long time, which enables a chain of ownership that is hard to dismiss.

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