Newly released Spencer W. Kimball diaries shine a light behind the scenes of modern Mormonism

The former LDS president’s writings offer a peek behind the curtain of the 1978 priesthood/temple revelation and his relations with church leaders.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Camilla Kimball, at the Peter Whitmer Sr. farmhouse in Fayette, N.Y., in 1980 to commemorate the sesquicentennial of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Spencer W. Kimball, despite being ordained an apostle just shy of his 50th birthday in 1943, never expected to live long enough to be president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Much of his adult life was filled with health problems, including a series of heart attacks and a malignancy of the throat and vocal cords. When he spoke in General Conference, he wore a miniature microphone attached to his cheek so his raspy words would be carried to television and radio audiences. Yet the man known for his work ethic and dogged determination persisted and presided over the global faith from 1973 until 1985, one of the most consequential decades in Mormon history.

Even before his voice problems, Kimball knew the power of the pen in expressing his thoughts. He started his first journal when he was 10 years old and compiled over 34 volumes of diaries as an adult. It is a personal papers collection rarely matched in Mormon history, an eyewitness account of the church’s rapid evolution from a regional denomination to a global faith. And on Wednesday, Feb. 15, the church announced it had digitized the entire corpus and made it available to researchers.

The church has been increasingly open about its 19th-century collections, as embodied in the award-winning Joseph Smith Papers project. Other notable initiatives include the Eliza R. Snow discourses, the Emmeline B. Wells diaries and the assorted documents related to the first 50 years of the women’s Relief Society.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Historical photos of Eliza R. Snow, left, and Emmeline B. Wells. On Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022, the Church History Department announced the publication of the diaries of the two prominent Latter-day Saint women.

Yet similar archival projects have not addressed the 20th century. Even accessing the physical collections in the Church History Library is much more restricted for documents after 1900. This has resulted in histories of the modern church being more sporadic and less grounded in primary sources, at least when covering the institution’s leaders. (There are a few exceptions: Individual access predicated on familial relationships has resulted in important biographies of influential leaders like J. Reuben Clark and David O. McKay.)

The release of Kimball’s diaries and correspondence — a collection that covers roughly 10 linear feet of archival space and resulted in more than 28,000 digital images — is therefore a crucial and necessary addition.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Spencer W. Kimball’s journals contain the 1960 visas from his passport.

When Kimball surprisingly succeeded the younger and more energetic Harold B. Lee as the church’s head prophet, seer and revelator in 1973, few expected him to bring much reform.

“The new president is not likely to change Mormon views on the family or race,” posited Time magazine. But America’s then-raging culture wars made uncomfortable discussions on both topics unavoidable. Protesters, both within and without the faith, picketed the church over a policy that restricted Black men and women from priesthood and temple rites; they also alleged the faith’s patriarchal structure relegated women to second-class members. Kimball could not help but react to the changing times.

As it turned out, the soft-spoken prophet would be forever remembered for deciding, in 1978, to revoke the racial restriction, a move that was celebrated across the globe. And yet during these same years he presided over a retrenchment on gender roles, including backing an anti-Equal Rights Amendment that dragged the church into the religious right’s new political coalition — in which it still remains today.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A page from Spencer W. Kimball’s journal when he was 11 years old.

The newly released sources shed further light on these important moments. Because the journals are scrapbook-style and include numerous newspaper clippings, they also provide insight as to what Kimball and other Latter-day Saint leaders were reading and responding.

Most of the journal entries are brief, bordering on curt, and often bland. They are also inconsistent: He has no entries for the days surrounding his appointment as an apostle, for instance. Yet there are plenty of moments where he fleshes out entire scenes, like when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gathered after Lee’s death to reorganize the First Presidency. The soon-to-be prophet played the organ while they sang “Come, Let Us Anew,” and then delivered remarks that began, “I had hoped this day would never come because of my limitation.” The anecdote fleshes out stories of Kimball’s humility.

The entries also add important details to other events. For instance, after releasing the statement announcing the end of the racial restriction, it records how “the telephone started to ring and rang continuously the balance of the afternoon,” as members and nonmembers “called from around the world to learn if what they had heard on the radio and TV was true.” (Sadly, similar details do not seem to be included in the months leading up to the momentous decision.)

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Spencer W. Kimball writes in his journal about saying goodbye to his family and leaving for the Central States Mission.

At times there are intriguing comments concerning other church leaders. One eagle-eyed sleuth already discovered a passage that adds details to the character of Russell M. Nelson, the 98-year- old current president of the church. According to the diary, Nelson approached Kimball in early February 1979 asking the prophet to write a foreword for a forthcoming book about Nelson’s life.

Or rather, as a later diary entry made clear, to approve a foreword Nelson had already written that would appear under Kimball’s name. The foreword spoke of Nelson’s “perfect family,” “sweet spirituality,” and “skill as a surgeon,” and noted that “long will his children and their posterity honor this great man.”

Kimball apparently approved the foreword, though there is a bracketed quip in his diary that it was “a fulsome foreword for a man to write about himself!!” (Historians for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stated Friday that this comment was added later by Kimball’s son Edward Kimball, and not Spencer W. Kimball himself.)

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson smiles at his office in the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on April 13, 2022.

Readers will notice that certain passages in the diaries, especially those that deal with temple matters or confessions from average Saints, are blanked out. This is in keeping with the church’s policy to censor material it deems sacred or confidential.

Currently, to access the digital images, researchers must sign in through a free church account. The explanation given is that the collection contains copyright material, like newspaper clippings, which make full public access impossible. Transcribing all the noncopyright material and making it available on its own in a more accessible fashion, like with their other digital projects, would take major work. I hope the church does it, however. This is a collection worthy of wide engagement.

The Kimball diaries are a landmark release for the field of Mormon history. May it lead to many more.

Benjamin E. Park is an associate professor of history at Sam Houston State University and co-editor of “Mormon Studies Review.” His books include “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier,” which won the Mormon History Association’s Best Book Award, and “DNA Mormon: Perspectives on the Legacy of Historian D. Michael Quinn,” an edited volume released by Signature Books in December 2022. His next book, “American Zion: A New History of Mormonism,” will appear with W. W. Norton/Liveright in January 2024.