Reviews – In the President’s Office: The Diaries of L. John Nuttall, 1879-1892

In the President's OfficeDeseret News, Dennis Lythgoe
L. John Nuttall acted as a temple recorder to LDS Church President Brigham Young, then as private secretary to Presidents John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff.

In that unique role he traveled often with LDS Church presidents, attended hundreds of meetings, answered private correspondence and overheard many conversations, which he recorded in his diaries.

It’s not surprising that the editor and the publisher consider Nuttall’s diaries to be one of the most significant in 19th-century Mormon history. Hence, “The Diaries of L. John Nuttall.”

Nuttall served as a missionary in Great Britain, then as a bishop and stake president in Kanab, and also became heavily involved in financial decisions concerning church property, including Brigham Young’s estate. Finally, church leaders called him to stay in Salt Lake City permanently, a decision he accepted, although he preferred living in Kanab.

As a polygamist, Nuttall lived underground for at least six years, beginning in the 1880s. He was bothered by long absences from his family, including his 18 children, and he suffered various health problems: a face rash, which he treated with sour cream and stewed cranberries; a stomachache he treated by drinking “about a wine-glass full” of squeezed carrot juice. Nuttall also had a strong aversion to the sedentary life of office work. When President Woodruff suffered abdominal problems, Nuttall waited on him, shaved him, kept his journal and attended to some of his office duties.

He also served in a number of community capacities such as a regent of the University of Deseret and as an incorporator and stockholder of the Deseret News.

He died at the age of 70.

Most of Nuttall’s diaries and papers reside in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections of Brigham Young University, while his work regarding the First Presidency can be found in the LDS Church archives.

Nuttall was most often likely to write in his diaries about business dealings, political maneuvering and church-leadership decisions. The editor calls the 28 diaries “a rich cache,” especially with regard to the activities and business of the church’s First Presidency.

This is important because the papers of the First Presidency are still unavailable to researchers — and Nuttall was the only secretary to the presidency who kept a diary.

Nuttall portrays John Taylor as “strong-willed and demanding,” but who also had a “warm and personable side” and displayed “kindheartedness, generosity and compassion.”

Nuttall’s diary is very important for understanding the atmosphere and discussions that led to the Manifesto issued by Woodruff, which banished the practice of polygamy in 1890.

The diaries demonstrate that Nuttall was a devout Mormon who took all his offices and callings in the church as a sacred trust. He prayed frequently and considered his life to be primarily a spiritual undertaking.

Jedediah Rogers and Signature Press both deserve kudos for shepherding such a dynamic work to publication.

Journal of Mormon History, Stephen C. Taysom
The depth and breadth of published primary sources widely available to interested readers remains one of the most appealing aspects of the field of Mormon studies. The treatment offered by Jedediah S. Rogers of L. John Nuttall’s journals, co-winner of MHA’s Smith-Pettit Best First Book Award, makes a useful contribution to this growing body of materials. Nuttall, a Liverpudlian convert to Mormonism and a nephew of John Taylor, began his work in the LDS Church administrative world in 1877 at age forty-three, assisting Wilford Woodruff with the systematization of the temple endowment. Following the death of Brigham Young, Nuttall became secretary to Young’s successor, John Taylor, and eventually to Wilford Woodruff. Rogers’s abridgement of the diaries covers the rocky period from 1879 to 1892.

Nuttall’s diaries open a window onto these turbulent years of LDS history when the church faced increasing external pressure to abandon plural marriage, wrangled over the proper role of political parties in Utah, struggled for statehood, and weathered internal quarrels within the highest echelons of church leadership over such issues as the succession of Wilford Woodruff to the church presidency.

Nuttall is a rather terse diarist, and readers should not expect to find many lengthy entries or much extensive commentary. Such a style can be frustrating to the reader who wants to know more. In June 1884, for example, Nuttall records that he assisted John Taylor in “comparing the temple ordinances with the Bible & the new translation as found in the Pearl of Great Price” (152). Nuttall says nothing about what led to such an endeavor, nor does he comment on the conclusions they reached. Even a topic of such profound significance as the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890 (Nuttall was a polygamist himself) receives only a clinical summary of the main points: “We receiv[e]d a telegram from Prest Woodruff containing a declaration or manifesto from him in regard to the recent report of [the] Utah Commission … in which he denies their statements and declares himself as willing to obey the laws of the nation on that subject & to advise the members of the church to do likewise” (418). No doubt this circumspection reflects Nuttall’s role as an observer of the hierarchy in which he felt more comfortable recording information than commenting upon events.

There are one or two notable exceptions, however. Occasionally we are afforded a glimpse into the unscripted and private world of LDS authorities, as when Joseph F. Smith said he would rather be sent to “Vandiemen’s Land” (the Australian penal colony in Tasmania) than accept his new calling in the First Presidency (338). Nuttall also notes with satisfaction another conversation he had with Smith in 1889, in which Smith recounted a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve at which apostles Moses Thatcher and Heber J. Grant disparaged Nuttall for being “officious.” Smith assured Nuttall, however, that he had defended Nuttall’s honor to the apostles. In response, Nuttall sounded an unusually personal tone in his diary, describing Smith as “a true friend,” “a noble character,” and an “honest and true man” (378).

Nuttall also occasionally reflects with emotion on darker themes. John Taylor’s declining health and eventual death profoundly impacted Nuttall, and his entries on this subject are significantly more intimate and less formal than usual. Nuttall notes with great tenderness, for instance, that Taylor spent a good portion of his final days deliriously mumbling “to remember, to remember” in the presence of many of his wives and friends. Taylor’s death also provided Nuttall with an opportunity to display his indignation at the treatment of polygamists by government officials. In fact, Nuttall blames Taylor’s final “failure in health” on the “close confinement and inactivity of [Taylor’s] body” occasioned by his years of hiding from federal officials (218). Nuttall’s sensitivity to what he viewed as unjust persecution provides the emotional touchstone for much of the personal material that makes it into the journals. Nuttall himself spent years in hiding and describes being “overcome” with emotion when he is finally reintroduced to some of his children in 1891 (468).

Although Nuttall deals frequently with the topic of plural marriage, he offers little in the way of theological reflection on the practice. More common are entries relating to requests for permission to marry additional wives and brief notations about the government’s various legal efforts to curtail polygamy. A more prominent thread that runs through the tapestry of Nuttall’s record is the rapidly increasing institutional and bureaucratic nature of Mormonism in the second half of the nineteenth century. On nearly every page, Nuttall’s diaries highlight the development of the burgeoning church bureaucracy that would become so central to Mormonism in the twentieth century. Nuttall handled voluminous requests for everything from second anointings and temple recommends to divorces.

These diaries also witness the increasing challenge of managing human resources in a growing church. A notable example involved the process of staffing temples. Prior to the dedication of the Logan Temple, Nuttall recorded a meeting in which John Taylor decided that temple workers, both at Logan and St. George, would be called from the general membership of the church to sacrifice their time and resources “the same as we do with our missionaries to the earth” (143). While such a development may appear pedestrian, it is in fact an important marker of the increased emphasis on the temple as a constant, rather than an occasional feature of Mormon religious life—a mark of modern Mormonism that dates to the final quarter of the nineteenth century.

Rogers provides a superb introductory essay that demonstrates his broad familiarity with the complex political, social, and religious worlds that form the backdrop for the diaries. Moreover, Rogers deftly foregrounds the most significant contributions of the diaries, something helpful for those readers who would prefer not to read through the entire volume from start to finish. The work is annotated copiously and scrupulously, and the use of footnotes instead of intertextual editorial marks spares the reader unnecessary distractions. Some readers may be disappointed to find that Nuttall’s earliest and latest diaries are not included in this published version. The limitations of space no doubt precluded the reproduction of the entire Nuttall corpus, but Rogers is to be commended for selecting material from the years that saw the most dramatic events unfold.

Despite the generally excellent editorial work and the significance of the subject matter, several factors may limit the book’s popularity. First, the Nuttall journals have been available to researchers for many years at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at Brigham Young University, and excerpts have been published in other venues, most recently as part of the 1998 Signature Books-produced New Mormon Studies CD-ROM. Specialists in the field of Mormon studies are therefore likely to have already encountered the Nuttall diaries elsewhere. Second, nonspecialists may find Nuttall’s style lacking in drama and narrative flair and may find more attractive such famous and chatty contemporary diarists as the voluble Wilford Woodruff. Nevertheless, the publication of the most significant of Nuttall’s diaries in a single and superbly edited volume represents an important moment in the study of nineteenth-century LDS history, and it should be welcomed into the libraries of institutions and individuals serious about Mormons studies.