Like the Puritans of New England, the early Mormons were compulsive diarists. Both indulged in a kind of spiritual bookkeeping. Awakened to a new life in the gospel, but hardly changed from sinner to Latter-day Saint overnight, Mormon converts were preoccupied, sometimes morbidly, with their salvation and anxious about God’s purposes. Anyone interested in what William James called “the varieties of religious experience” finds such personal narrative fascinating, despite often the trivia and repetition, or possibly because of them, because they betray a pattern of concern and values significant to the behavioral scientist, however disappointing to the historian, who would like more chronicle and less introspection, more “life and times” in the flesh, less whining of the spirit. Mormon diaries fall somewhere between St. Augustine and Boswell: they abound in concrete, often unconsciously colorful detail about the daily round at the same time they search the corners of the soul.
William Clayton’s journal of his labors in the Mormon congregation at Manchester in 1840 and of his emigration to Nauvoo with the second company of Mormons to leave England, is typical and a happy choice to start Peregrine Smith’s Classic Mormon Diary Series. There is a ready-made interest in Clayton as the man who kept the journal of the first pioneer company and wrote “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” Now in Manchester Mormons (an apt and catchy title), we go back beyond these landmarks for an eyewitness account of Mormonism’s earliest activity in England and the scene at Nauvoo. It is a pristine period, Joseph Smith’s era, the age of Primitive Mormonism before the schisms, as yet unconditioned as Mormon memory would be by the Exodus and the saga of settlement in the West. It is a time when the Mormons, to paraphrase what Edmund Burke once said of the Americans, were still in the gristle, not yet hardened in the bone. The diary is dotted with the names of the makers and shapers of the early movement, the proselyters, the future pioneers, the rising prophets of Mormondom—Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, and Brigham Young, Clayton’s contemporaries in England, and, in America, Joseph Smith himself. In the hands of the editors, trained historians Allen and Alexander, the diary grows in interest and significance as they put England, Manchester particularly, and early Mormon doctrine, practice, and expectation in context.