Reviews – History’s Apprentice: The Diaries of B. H. Roberts, 1880-1898

The Diaries of B. H. RobertsThe Deseret News, Dennis Lythgoe
As a twenty-five-year-old LDS missionary in rural Tennessee, B. H. Roberts recorded his self-doubts in his journal, labeling his “misdeeds” with his talents, “on the small order.” He wrote: “I have made attempts to accomplish something in various directions, but ‘miserable failure’ is written across the face of each of them.”

Roberts, who was destined to be a legend as a politician, theologian, scholar and historian—as well as a member of the First Council of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—was much too hard on himself. According to John Sillito, editor of History’s Apprentice, a newly published collection of Roberts’ journals, which he kept from his twenties to his forties, he “remained dissatisfied with himself and occasionally suffered bouts of depression.”

For most LDS readers, Roberts will be best remembered for his seven-volume Comprehensive History of the LDS Church—but he was much more diverse than that in his writings, his interests, and his major impact on the early development of Utah.B. H. Roberts, Deseret News Archives Roberts was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, although he was denied his Congressional seat because he was a practicing polygamist. (He had three wives and was the father of fifteen children, so his descendants are numerous.) And because he was a Democrat, he occasionally differed from other LDS authorities, most of whom were Republicans.

Roberts wrote, among other things, a biography of John Taylor; a three-volume theological study entitled New Witnesses for God; a six-volume history of Mormonism; “Studies of the Book of Mormon”; and “The Truth, the Way and the Life.” Because he was a man of letters, he was active in keeping a journal for much of his life.

Sillito, who is Archivist and Curator of Special Collections and Professor of Libraries at Weber State University in Ogden, and a respected and prolific scholar, has devoted an immense amount of time to assembling and editing these diaries. He has included an erudite introduction, numerous informative notations about the diaries, many wonderful photos of Roberts and members of his family, a useful index, and a set of maps designating the areas where Roberts lived.

In doing so, Sillito has made a remarkable scholarly contribution for which he should be complimented in the highest possible terms. This is an enormously impressive work—especially the diaries themselves—exhibiting all the hopes, dreams, fears and feelings of a great man as he lived a difficult but productive life. Anyone with any level of interest in Mormon history will devour its contents—and learn a great deal in the process.

One excerpt from the numerous entries may whet the appetite of the potential reader:

March 13, 1893: Am now 36 years of age—one step down from the summit of my life so far as time is concerned, that is if we count 70 years as the time allotted to man. I shall not live that allotted time. Before that time I shall doubtless “Lay me wi’ the inglorious dead, forgot & gone.” But these sad thoughts aside—thoughts which ever come whenever I think upon this subject, I hope that I shall live long enough to do much more than has yet been done by me. Alas! how little one can accomplish! How like a dream is life in which things seem like shadows that flit about one almost as unstable as the summer clouds which come & go one scarce knows how. I cannot peer much into the future, I wish I could do so more. How I wish I knew where I would be next year at this time and what would be accomplished between now & then.

Journal of Mormon History, Davis Bitton
Diaries are usually utilized by family members, historians, and a few devotees. The general reader doesn’t rush to purchase and read the diaries of anyone. Realizing these hard facts, the present publisher limits this edition to five hundred copies. These B. H. Roberts diaries thus join others in the same series. I applaud the effort.

There is much to commend in the patient editorial work of John Sillito, archivist and curator of Special Collections at Weber State University. He has carefully used brackets when inserting anything, even a punctuation mark, not found in Roberts’s original handwriting. In a good decision, Sillito has standardized the dates of the individual entries, square brackets letting the reader know that this slight transformation is the work of the editor, not Roberts.

A tedious but necessary task for editors of diaries is identifying names. Again Sillito has done a workmanlike job. We cannot tell where he got the information for each separate name, but the introduction (xlii) lists his main sources.

A section of contemporary photographs, mostly portraits, and the five maps in another section are helpful features of this work, attractively presented. A photograph of Roberts and his missionary companion Joseph Ford in 1882 is thus identified, but with this addition in the caption: “Notice the string tie to Roberts’s hat that has fallen across his forehead.” Even with a magnifying glass, I see a small, unobtrusive line but not a “string tie.” A portrait of Roberts and his wife Margaret in the 1920s is accompanied by these words: “Notice the clothes pin in Margaret’s hat.” I think it is a hat pin. These are slight matters.

With information drawn mainly from Gary Bergera’s edition of Roberts’s “autobiography” and from Defender of the Faith by Truman G. Madsen, Sillito’s introduction provides an overview of Roberts’s life. Much is left out, but this is, after all, a summary. To help those who may be unfamiliar with Mormon usage, a glossary discusses terminology (vi-ix). Only in the discussion of the “ward” do I find statements that seem wobbly.

Roberts, as we are told, was “never far from alcohol” (xiv). But how serious was this drinking problem? Its roots are in a generation when total abstinence was encouraged but not insisted upon. How often did he imbibe and how much? On September 28, 1881, he wrote: “Spent the day in studying Scripture. I feel bad because my old weakness stil is not overcome” (13). The editor’s footnote tells us: “Roberts likely refers to his life-long struggle with alcohol. At the same time, he struggled with depression and severe headaches, all of which may have been related—alchohol being a medication for headaches.” Two years later on September 20, 1883, Roberts wrote: “I suffered much from headache, and at Knoxville I took a dram of Rye whiskey—the first I ever took while on a mission. It deadened the pain in my head” (142). To judge from the diaries, this problem was by no means a central obsession of his life. His record of industry and accomplishment year after year and his ability to preach in a way that inspired people should at least serve as a counterweight on the other side. Missionaries like Henry D. Taylor, who served under his directions, living in the same home and spending many hours in his company throughout the day, had enormous respect for him, suggesting that he kept the problem in check.

Sillito notes that missionary service in England brought Roberts “close to culture and ideas which were unavailable in Davis County.” He and other missionaries obtained “a broader, if not always enlightened, worldview” (xvi). Isn’t that “not always enlightened” a bit supercilious?

Roberts was a missionary in the South, but was not “enlightened” apparently, for our editor wishes that Roberts had “paid attention to the social conditions in Tennessee and elsewhere while he was laboring there” (xviii). Could it be that he saw things pretty much as all Caucasian Americans did at the time? Their own lives on the line, Mormon missionaries were often themselves the targets of the Ku Klux Klan.

My queries and quibbling notwithstanding, the introduction does a reasonably good job of what the editor wished to do. But just how significant is this record? Ideally it would tell us a great deal about Roberts and about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during his lifetime. After all, he was a lively character, one of the Seven Presidents of Seventy from 1888 to his death in 1933, and personally involved in many of the larger events of his time.

In the interest of accurate billing, I must point out that these are not the diaries of B. H. Roberts for the nineteen years from 1880 through 1898, as the book’s title might suggest or as a prospective reader might presume. According the table of contents, they are instead diaries for 1880-87, 1890-93, and 1898. There is nothing for 1888-89 or 1894-97, all important years for Roberts and the church.

Even within the years here represented, the coverage is limited. Entries for 1890 begin on November 3, leaving out the drumbeat of increasing pressures that led to the Woodruff Manifesto. Entries for 1893 end with June 24. Thus, we read of Roberts’s preparing an article to deliver at the Columbian Exposition (303), its approval by the First Presidency (305), and his preparing a paper to be delivered by Emily S. Richards (307). But we miss out on Roberts’s own frustrating experience in Chicago, where he attempted to have Mormonism included as a “world religion.”1

The year 1898 is briefly touched upon, but coverage ends on February 5. Thus, we miss out on Roberts’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives and the subsequent hearings that made him a national celebrity.2 No one can blame John Sillito for these gaps. He has edited and published the diaries available to him. I merely wish to underscore what is and what is not included.

Among the valuable inclusions are the following. A wonderful entry on the grandeur of English scenery, August 8, 1887, ends: “I certainly hope the result will be to refine this rather cross grained nature of mine, which is sorely in need of such influences” (199).

The busy life of this young General Authority in 1890 shows him editing a newspaper, speaking at political rallies, writing on several projects at the same time, and commenting on other individuals. Introspection is found on November 8. Having failed to enjoy “liberty” in his preaching that day, Roberts blames the coldness and indifference of the people but worries that part of the fault might rest with him (206). On December 11, the last entry for the year, he writes a moving prayer, including these words: “Help thy servant to keep the path direct, neither turning to the right or left. And in as much as thou wilt enable me to sustain my family I will devote myself to the ministry to the extent that Thou wilt give the ability to do so. . . . Here is my hand lead me wheresoever Thou wilt and I will gladly follow” (218).

The chapter for 1891-92 is a retrospective account of some events in those years (and some valuable paragraphs about 1890) written by Roberts in early 1893. At a stake conference on June 3, 1893, Roberts urged local leaders to make these meetings interesting and for the people to support them with faith. “Time will come,” he continues, “when the work will be so extensive that Apostles will rarely be seen at Stake conferences” (303). A list of such examples could go on and on.

In short, despite gaps, these diaries preserve many details and valuable perspectives. As always, they should be supplemented and controlled by other primary source materials. Even as they stand, they tell much about B. H. Roberts and the years covered. Both John Sillito and his publisher deserve commendation.

1. See Davis Bitton, “B. H. Roberts at the World Parliament of Religions,” Sunstone 7 (Jan. / Feb. 1982): 46-51. 2. Davis Bitton, “The B. H. Roberts Case of 1898-1900,” Utah Historical Quarterly 25 (Jan. 1957): 27-46; revised in Bitton, The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 150-70.