Mistranscription in the JD

In Mormon historical and doctrinal discussions, it is not uncommon to hear doubts voiced about whether such-and-such quotation by so-and-so General Authority as reported in the Journal of Discourses was accurately transcribed or not. In my experience, this happens most frequently in discussions of the Adam-God Theory, but there are other examples.

It’s not hard to guess why it occurs to so many Churchmembers to invoke this sort of argument. After all, Mormons often have “mistranscription” on the brain. We have visions of corrupt and conniving scribes, removing or reworking crucial sections of the Biblical text (even if reading 1 Nephi 13 so literally has gone out of fashion with some). We imagine that the Prophet Joseph literally restored some of this corrupted material (at least those of us who haven’t adopted the Midrashic interpretation of the JST). And Mormon Studies nerds know that the King Follett Discourse comes in multiple versions, and we can’t be sure who, if anyone, really transcribed it correctly. So with all the scary stuff in the JD, why not just assume some portions were written down wrong? This would make for a much easier ride through the minefields of LDS doctrinal history.

But I’m just not buying it. It’s not clear to me what basis there is for assuming that significant mistranscription is going on in the JD. The fact that the Church has distanced itself from some of the doctrinal content of those volumes, or the fact that the JD was not officially published by the LDS Church, is not an argument that the text fails to report accurately what various Mormon leaders actually said.

I have yet to see an example of the “mistranscription” assertion applied to the JD that isn’t accompanied by a weak apologetic argument concerning the substance of the supposedly disputed text. This may reflect nothing more than my ignorance, however. So I ask you: Are there any examples of textual mistranscription in the Journal of Discourses that seem compelling? If so, what are they?

Aaron B


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Aaron, I believe this does in fact represent your ignorance. Frankly, you’re making a surprising argument here: “I don’t believe people when they say there’s been a mistranscription, because I think they’re just serving an apologetic agenda.”

    Wouldn’t the burden of proof be on you, at least initially, to do more than just cast apersions?

  2. I think you just flipped off a truckload of rednecks, brother (my update of tilting at windmills). On its face, the suggestion that an absolutely enormous compilation of talks published long before modern editorial or stenographic standards were in place is accurate in a rigorous way is absurd.

    The more reasonable question would have to be in the specifics, so I would urge actually interrogating specific controversies (how many are there beyond Adam-God?). I would never accept the crux of an argument that depended on a delicate textual analysis of the JD, just as I would reject such an argument from the History of the Church or similar document compilations from that period or earlier. These sources are useful as supportive evidence or to generate hypotheses, but you’d violate historical standards if you didn’t require substantial corroboration.

    I’m sympathetic to your aim, but I don’t think your argument as phrased is particularly helpful to it.

  3. Does the JD provide accurate transcriptions? Sometimes, maybe, possibly, probably, not always.

    Was “Adam-God” taught by Brigham Young and others? Yes. We know this because we have more than just the JD (diaries, letters, editorials).

  4. An instructive example would be the parallel versions of the transcriptions of the KFD, available here.

  5. I think it’s reasonable to claim that the broad contours of the JoD contents were in accord with the wishes of Brigham Young, etc. Brigham Young has a definite history of really going after publications on church themes — whether official church publications or not — that went outside what he saw as the lines (for the most famous example, consider the debate regarding Orson Pratt’s The Seer). So I imagine that any major deviations in the JoD would have called forth wrath, Millennial Star denunciations, etc.

    On the other hand, word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence accuracy is certainly not guaranteed. But, the most important point is this: almost every controversial or difficult element in the JoD is (a) present in various speeches, not just one; (b) evident in diaries of listeners; (c) apparent in other convergent sources such as minutes of church councils.

    In summary, I agree with Aaron’s conclusion that arguments about mistranscription in the JoD are usually part of a feather-weight apologetic on some topic, and in those contexts should uniformly be rejected. The JoD is probably not accurate to the original speeches by 21st century standards, nor even perfectly accurate to Brigham’s doctrinal will. But major themes in those volumes are generally consistent with supporting documents, so it’s always right to react with suspicion when someone makes a theological or historical argument based on the claim that some important concept in the JoD is really just a mistake.

  6. I am in sympathy with your plight, but I think it’s rather understood that all writings from back then cannot possibly transcribed correctly.

    Even the Bible after all these centuries is not fully transcribed correctly, let alone compiled as originally delivered. Following Barker, Smith’s and Cross’s leads, the Bible is a rewrite document, not one that survived telling originally what happened to Israel.

    The Book of Mormon itself is not so transcribed perfectly. Royal Skousen’s magnamnous work has shown this clearly.

    Now, all that said, I have found that the JD’s are a wonderful source of stimulating ideas, and I don’t hesitate to use them as I can.


  7. Julie M. Smith says:

    This isn’t the JD, but here’s three different ways that a statement from Joseph Smith was recorded:


    Now I will translate a little: The kingdom of heaven hath power and authority, and by that they take or enter legally and lawfully the kingdom of heaven.

    The rendering [of] the texts is: The kingdom continueth in authority or law, and the authority or legality (which belonged to John) took it by force, or wrested it from the Jews to be delivered to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.

    The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the kingdom of heaven continueth in authority until John. The authority taketh it by absolute power. John, having the power, takes the kingdom by authority.


    So I am sympathetic to the problems to transcription, but I also think you can get the gist of what the Prophet was saying here, and so it seems to me that apologetic use of the mistranscription argument would be fairly weak.

  8. A large body of the sermons in the Journal of Discourses were published in the Deseret News. You’ll notice that the Church did not cite the Journal of Discourses in the Wilford Woodruff manual.

    Comparing the folks that took notes at Joseph’s discourses to the stenogrophers of the Journal of Discourses isn’t a fair comparison. That said, I think Steve and Sam make the important points.

  9. Steve, you say, “Wouldn’t the burden of proof be on you, at least initially, to do more than just cast aspersions?” I wonder if you could clarify this? To some extent, Aaron’s making the point that the JoD exists as historical evidence and that rejecting some aspect of it requires at least some credible counter-evidence. Doesn’t it seem as if the burden of proof actually lies with the person who wants to refute existing historical evidence, i.e., the JoD?

    But, if you are instead referring to Aaron’s statements about the intentions of people who make mistranscription arguments, that’s a different point and I agree.

    Sam MB, same point: while the JoD may be (almost certainly is) somewhat noisy evidence, it is nonetheless evidence. Shouldn’t we really demand some specific reason for rejecting what it says, rather than making a blanket assumption against it?

  10. RT, I guess there are two ways in which I declare Aaron anathema and dust my feet off at him:

    First, he’s just being lazy. He (like myself) has only looked at third-hand (maybe second-hand) sources, and so any real questioning of transliteration from him is just repeating gripes he’s heard elsewhere, just as I am parroting apologia.

    Second, yes — primarily I am referring to his statements about the intentions of those who make mistranscription arguments. Pure bollocks on his part, but a fun discussion nonetheless.

  11. In retrospect, I think I was a bit unclear. Let me clarify a few points:

    Steve, I’m not saying that people who say there’s been mistranscription in the JD are “lying” for apologetic purposes. (Is this what you mean by my supposed statements regarding their “intentions”?). Quite frankly, I’ve never run across an argument from anyone who says we “know” there’s been mistranscription because of such-and-such evidence. As far as I know, such people don’t exist, so I can hardly be casting aspersions upon them and their motivations. What I have frequently encountered is the “Well, that’s probably/possibly/likely mistranscribed because, you know, we don’t really know for sure that it wasn’t.” And this in a context where the speaker doesn’t like what he’s reading or hearing from the JD, but doesn’t have a collection of compelling apologetic weaponry at hand. Thus, he or she goes for the easy out of saying “Well, gee, maybe Brother X never really said Y or Z anyway.” I think this is a true example of laziness, rather than what I’ve done. But, to be crystal clear, if there is any documentary evidence to suggest that such-and-such section of the JD was mistranscribed, I’m certainly open to hearing about it. I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand as lazy apologetics. But I’ve yet to hear such an argument in any context.

    Note that I’ve run across the type of argument I’m complaining about from numerous Churchmembers over the years, and I’ve also seen it made in General Authority literature. (Mark E. Peterson’s Adam: Who Is He? is probably the worst example). So I’m not just pulling this out of my *ss.

    Sam MB, perhaps you’re right that I didn’t phrase things as well as I should have. I’m certainly not trying to argue that all 26 volumes of the JD are necessarily completely accurate in every way. It would be a silly thing to maintain that, wouldn’t it? But I do think those who want to disparage its contents in specific contexts need to engage in more than wishful thinking (I think you agree). And wishful thinking is all that’s ever on offer.

    Aaron B

  12. While some mistranscription in the JD is inevitable, I think the explanation is indeed relied upon all too often in sweeping controversial teachings under the carpet. For instance, if we are to cite inaccurate transcribing to explain away the Adam-God doctrine, insisting that Brigham Young didn’t really meant what it sounds like he meant, we have to assume that the JD were pretty drastically mistranscribed.

    In the case of Adam-God, we have a number of other sources that substantiate many of the details that the JD attributes to Brigham Young. At least in the case of this doctrine, it appears that the JD was not so inaccurate as to significantly distort the import of Brigham’s teachings.

  13. O.K., I just reread my post and realized that my third paragraph does make it sound like I think we should assume every jot and tittle in the JD is accurate unless we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This was an unfortunate way to phrase things. So to reformulate:

    I’m not so naive as to believe the JD is a perfect transcription of all the discourses it contains. I do believe that the fact that it probably isn’t totally accurate is not a license for us to assume that its mistakes correlate at all with our preferred readings and/or our doctrinal commitments. I do think that those who wish to cast doubt on specific passages need to do better than to offer up this weak assumption.

    Aaron B

  14. Ardis Parshall says:

    During the Brigham Young era (the period I’m most familiar with), speeches of the First Presidency and apostles were routinely taken down by reporters – early talks were taken down by multiple clerks who then compared notes and reconstructed the speech; as time went on and Geo. D. Watt trained more shorthand reporters, the speeches were taken down verbatim (allowing for human error, of course).

    Although routinely recorded, the notes were NOT routinely transcribed. When a talk was wanted for publication, the reporter would make a longhand transcription, AND THE SPEAKER HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF REVISING IT before publication. That point is usually overlooked by historians. (That habit is not limited to Mormons — when the speeches of the Peace Commissioners given in Provo at the resolution of the Utah War were published without the speakers’ having had the opportunity to review and revise, the speakers were angered and refused to accept them as official reports. And then there’s the handling of congressional speeches today…)

    There are a very few speeches available today in both the reporter’s longhand and in published form, which lets us compare the kinds of revisions that were made. Most of those revisions, in my observation, were to remove colloquialisms to make a speech sound more literary, and the handwriting is usually that of someone like Elias Smith or Albert Carrington, preparing copy for the Deseret News, rather than that of the speaker. That isn’t to say that doctrinal points weren’t clarified or corrected – I don’t have a wide enough experience to speak to that.

    Many of Geo. D. Watt’s Pitman shorthand records of unpublished speeches are filed in the church archives today. They are not available for scholarly use, however; the reason given when I’ve occasionally asked about specific talks that we know were given but not published, is that they were never revised by the speaker and so may not accurately represent what he wanted to teach.

    For what it’s worth.

  15. Thank you, Ardis! That was a refreshing quaff of perspective.

  16. Does this argument get invoked very often these days? I remember encountering it when I first learned about Adam-God (esp. by Mark E. Petersen), but one need not look hard–especially with the internet, and now the publication of the Spencer Kimball biography–to find out that for that particular issue the argument doesn’t work. I would think most other issues would be tame by comparison.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Re: Ardis’ comment, didn’t BY once say something to the effect that you could take anything he said as scripture, provided he had had the chance to review it first? (Badly paraphrasing.)

    I often put on my apologist’s hat, but I would never make an argument based on supposed mistranscription in the JD. It reminds me of the old crutch you used to hear where people would just assume that some Bible passage must have been mistranslated, without really having the faintest idea. I agree that a JD mistranscription argument (as in Adam-God) is pretty weak stuff.

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    I didn’t even think to mention how some of us also do this with the Bible, Kevin. I actually grew up in a household with a parent who would use this crutch everytime they couldn’t immediately make sense of a Biblical passage. (And now you all understand why this irritates me so…)

    Again, my initial post makes it sounds like I think the idea that there are any transcribing mistakes in the JD is totally implausible. This isn’t what I meant, though I guess it is what I wrote. But Kevin, RT and others better set forth what I wanted to say. As an apologetic device, this tendency (invoking mistranscription without real evidence) ought to be jettisoned forthwith.

    Aaron B

  19. 14. The proof-before-publish pattern persists: ever listen to a tape/CD of a contemporary GenCon talk while reading its text in the “Ensign?”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,683 other followers