Strange Ramblings or Spiritual Repository?

By February 6, 2008

Guest post by BHodges.

“I wish to give you one text to preach upon: ‘From this time henceforth do not fret thy gizzard'”
(Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:1).

Colloquialisms such as this kindled my interest in the Journal of Discourses, sparking a personal project to document the most interesting parts of the 26-volume work on my blog. I appreciate JI allowing me to share some of my findings here. For my introductory post, I’ll describe the purpose of my blog.

Few members of the Church of Jesus Christ have time (or perhaps even the interest) to read all 1,438 sermons given between 1854 and 1886. Additionally, I believe the JD has suffered in reputation due to some speculative ideas expressed by some early Church leaders; many of which are often quoted by critics of the Church as bona fide Mormon doctrine. The JD is largely a product of its time; a Utah Territory, a struggling and growing Church torn between exclusion and assimilation; where politics, religion, agricultural advice, homespun parables and ethics were all mixed together.

Accuracy is an issue; we have to rely on the stenographers themselves who recorded sermons in shorthand. Additionally, sermons were almost always given extemporaneously; speakers took the scripture seriously when it said: “Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85). It was deemed a sign of true religion; discourses being delivered “by the Spirit”. Most of the sermons follow the loose train of thought of the speaker with no real structure. The scattered nature of many of the discourses led one observer to describe them as “strange ramblings”. [1]

For these reasons among others, the official stance of the Church has declared the JD to be non-binding. [2]

Perhaps in part because Church membership generally is encouraged to give priority to the Standard Works, the JD has taken on somewhat of an apocryphal status. That being said, I am reminded of the counsel given to Joseph Smith when he asked if the Apocrypha should be included in his inspired translation of the Bible, that despite containing things that are “not true,” “interpolations of the hands of men,” the Spirit can manifest truth, and benefit can be gained therein (see D&C 91).

Attempting to read the JD “by the Spirit” has been beneficial to me; the sermons reveal interesting, uplifting information, and give insight into what the early Saints might have heard over the pulpit.

Many of the sermons have been quite fascinating, some strange and some spiritual, and I’ve wondered why the JD has been largely neglected by members of the Church.

The JD blog project has also made me wonder how different General Conference might be today without the aid of teleprompters. Perhaps the last of the ramblings was heard when we lost LeGrand Richards.

______________________________________________________________

[1]
Davis Bitton discussed the trends of early Mormon preaching in “‘Strange Ramblings’: The Ideal and Practice of Sermons in Early Mormonism,” BYU Studies (2002) 41:1, p. 4-28. (.pdf file)

[2]
“The Journal of Discourses is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints… It includes practical advice as well as doctrinal discussion, some of which is speculative in nature and some of which is only of historical interest. … Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some transcriptions. Modern technology and processes were not available for verifying the accuracy of transcriptions, and some significant mistakes have been documented. The Journal of Discourses includes interesting and insightful teachings by early Church leaders; however, by itself it is not an authoritative source of Church doctrine”
(from LDS.org, Gospel Topics: The Journal of Discourses, accessed November, 2007, no longer available).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Thanks, BHodges, for this summary of your project. I agree that the JD is an underappreciated source.

    I do wonder, though, how much of the Teachings of Brigham Young came from the JD? Have you done anything in terms of comparison? I seem to remember a lot of references to the DesNews.

    Comment by David G. — February 6, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  2. I’ve reached volume 4 thus far, and haven’t seen too many familiar references, other than a handful of classic Brigham quotes. So for the most part, thus far, I haven’t seen a lot of material that was put into the BY manual.

    That’s a good question, I’ll look further into it and see how they compare.

    Comment by BHodges — February 6, 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  3. So far as I can tell everything in the Teachings of Brigham Young (the old church published book – not the priesthood manual) came from the JD.

    Comment by Clark — February 6, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

  4. David G., that is because the curriculum committee doesn’t cite the JD (same for the WW volume). The same transcripts are available from the DNews or from the LDS Archives, and they cite them.

    As to the accuracy (and history) of the JD, Ron Watt’s article in last Spring’s (large PDF) Utah Historical Quarterly is imperative reading. The stenographers would have the speaker review the long hand transcripts before publication.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 6, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

  5. Clark: Yeah, the one edited by Widtsoe, right? And that’s still in print, as far as I know.

    J.: Thanks for the clarification on the citation issue.

    Comment by David G. — February 6, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  6. When I was a missionary, I found myself excited to get home and read the JD because I thought it contained many marvelous points of doctrine similar to “the mysteries of the kingdom.” Today, while I still find myself reading the sermons (and have a set on my shelf), it is more of a study in intellectual history.

    Comment by Ben — February 6, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

  7. Thanks for the update, J. Stapely. I’ll check the article out. I have suspicions that the discourses were recorded pretty accurately, and perhaps this is one reason the Church has removed the disclaimer from LDS.org for the time being.

    Along similar lines, the recent Joseph Smith manual doesn’t reference Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith; but prefers the HC references, among others, though there is overlap.

    One sermon in particular which has peaked my interest regarding its accuracy is one of the Adam/God sermons. Mark Peterson’s book on Adam references marginal notes taken by Charles Rich in his copy of the Journal of Discourses which clarify Pres. Young’s remarks. Peterson doesn’t actually quote Rich, though, he only says rich clarified the sermon because he was present when it was given. Rich’s copy of the JD is said to be in the Church Archives, so I plan on seeing what I can find out regarding that discourse.

    Comment by BHodges — February 6, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

  8. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith is an historical abomination. It isn’t just a reproduction of the HC (not that the HC is free of historiographical anomalies).

    Mark E. Peterson was grasping at straws.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 6, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  9. Come to think of it, Clark and David G., the BY manual references Widstoe’s DBY most often; though it claims to have selected portions from twenty-four sources.

    Comment by BHodges — February 6, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  10. Exactly, J. Stape. I’d like to see Charles Rich’s copy of JD myself.

    Comment by BHodges — February 6, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  11. I agree with the rest of you that JD are a fascinating relic of intellectual history and look forward to highlights. I also am not inclined to say that they are “inaccurate transcriptions” as much as they are relics of a different culture. My main problem is that I don’t get much fire in my belly about the Utah period.

    Comment by smb — February 6, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  12. I should have been more clear; the larger accuracy issue, I believe, stems from the extemporaneous nature of the discourses. Hence, we’ll have a sermon with Brigham Young recounting an experience in the school of the prophets which slightly conflicts with accounts given closer to the actual event.

    Comment by BHodges — February 6, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  13. It seems that the invocation of questions of accuracy regarding the JD is often motivated by modern distaste for the theological messiness and complexity of nineteenth-century Mormonism. In other words, if something “heretical” to modern eyes shows up, it must be a transcription error.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 6, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  14. SC: I’d agree with that. IIRC, JFS II used that trump card a lot when dealing with RLDS attacks on Adam God, blood atonement, etc.

    Comment by David G. — February 6, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  15. It’s an easy out, and not very sustainable. Occasionally I can see a potential for error if a small qualifying word like “not” is left out, but overall, I think most inaccuracies in the JD were spoken, not just transcribed incorrectly.

    I’m also interested as to why the Journal of Discourses entry has been removed from LDS.org.

    Comment by BHodges — February 6, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

  16. Taysom, I agree that Mormons grasp at the “transcript errors” quite frequently. I halfway wonder about the common view of Biblical errors and transmission predisposes that as a naive apologetic approach. I think the common view naive with respect to the Bible as well.

    Personally I think the JD provides an interesting illustration of how the apostasy could have occured. You have that distance between the original revelations and the sermons. The sermons come to replace the revelation as ‘authority’ and the errors propogate. The Church avoids that because of continuing revelation which can trump earlier texts. (Thus the relegating of most controversial stuff from all sides to the margins of Mormon history) In the ancient world that wasn’t possible once prophets were taken away and texts became the source of authority.

    That old talk by Pres. Benson — I forget the exact title – something like the 7 steps of following the prophet or something like that — is a great way of examining the JD. I use it on Mormon critics a lot.

    Comment by Clark — February 6, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  17. Clark, I believe you’re referring to ETB’s “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following The Prophet.”

    Comment by Christopher — February 6, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

  18. Blair: I didn’t see this linked at your site, but the original images of the JD have also been scanned by BYU.

    Comment by David G. — February 6, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

  19. Thanks for the link. I linked directly to this site:
    http://scripturesbeta.byu.edu/jod/jod-html.php
    because I preferred the easier copy/paste ability of the html versions. I added the scans to the margin of my blog now.

    Comment by BHodges — February 6, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

  20. Thanks for that link BHodges. I didn’t know about that. If they could add better searching that’ll be a very, very nice resource.

    Comment by Clark — February 6, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

  21. In other words, if something “heretical” to modern eyes shows up, it must be a transcription error.

    Exactly. Just as anything vaguely uncomfortable in the Old Testament must not have been “translated correctly.” 🙂

    An interpretive procrustean bed.

    Comment by Ben — February 6, 2008 @ 9:37 pm

  22. “My main problem is that I don’t get much fire in my belly about the Utah period.”

    smb, thems fightn’ words.

    “In other words, if something “heretical” to modern eyes shows up, it must be a transcription error.”

    I dealt with this very issue in class last week. When confronted with sermons from the Reformation for the first time some students immediately resort to assuming it must have been a suspect recording/transcription of the talk.

    I’m more with Bitton and the “strange ramblings.” I’m just amazed that anyone could have stayed awake through some of the JD sermons. I need a topic, a structure, and a well developed unfolding of supporting material to hold my interest. Some of BY’s talks that I’ve read change course mid paragraph and it is never quite clear what the point is. Some are real yawners too with a few zingers thrown in to revive the crowd (or in prophetic anticipation of making it into the September Dawn script).

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 7, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  23. Sorry, Paul. I’m delighted that others have the fire. I just haven’t been able to ignite it in myself.

    Comment by smb — February 8, 2008 @ 9:42 am

  24. smb, no need to apologize. I was just giving you a hard time. It’s fortunate that we all have fire for different periods/themes.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — February 8, 2008 @ 9:55 am


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