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”. 
For these reasons among others, the official stance of the Church has declared the JD to be non-binding. 
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.
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)
“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).