As has been widely discussed, the priesthood and Relief Society manual for the next two years focuses on the discourses and writings of Joseph Smith. A BCC post about the manual this summer, by friend of BCC Tom, expressed the opinion that the manual is very good and that those dissatisfied with earlier manuals will be pleased by this one. In fact, I think the manual has fixed all of the weaknesses of earlier manuals except the most important one: the pervasive lack of trust in the leaders being discussed.
As Tom’s post this summer explained, this manual is a huge improvement on past manuals on many dimensions. It is far more historiographically astute, providing some critical discussions of sources and so forth. It explicitly discusses polygamy and other controversial issues in the introduction and other non-lesson materials. All in all, it reflects several giant steps forward from previous manuals in this series.
Yet, at heart, I am deeply disappointed. The reason is that Joseph Smith’s remarks are heavily edited. Three forms of editorial intrusion are pervasive. The first, least frequent, and least problematic involves parenthetical additions that clarify the meaning of various potentially obscure references or proper names. This form of editing is appropriate and helpful; it reflects no lack of trust in Joseph Smith’s ability to preach the gospel.
The same cannot be said of the other two pervasive forms of editing in this manual. The manual frequently uses ellipses to remove somehow offending words, phrases, or sentences from the middle of passages quoted from Joseph Smith. Why? Does Smith need an editor to remove false or misleading remarks from his discourse? Or is Smith simply an incompetent speaker and writer who fills his text with unnecessary and distracting marginalia? Either of these might occasionally be the case, yet in my reading of unredacted texts from Joseph Smith, I haven’t generally found them to be in serious need of such remedy. Such unnecessary, intrusive, and at least occasionally misleading revision of Smith’s words reflects profound distrust: either of his doctrinal reliability or of his ability to teach. I find this disheartening.
Of course, such distrustful editorial intervention has been a persistent feature of all the priesthood and Relief Society manuals in this series. The extent of ellipsis has varied from manual to manual, never again reaching the extent of revision found in the first manual, which focused on Brigham Young. In comparison with that manual, the Smith volume does not suffer from nearly as much deletion of words or phrases, although there seems to be more deletion than in some manuals focused on 20th-century leaders.
The third, and to me most problematic, form of editorial intervention in Joseph Smith’s remarks involves the decontextualized juxtaposition of things Smith said at different times, in different places, to different audiences, and often on different subjects — but presented in the manual as if they were contiguous and even mutually reinforcing remarks. This has been a persistent tactic throughout the series of church-leader manuals; quotations from different periods and contexts are separated only by unobtrusive endnotes, and no consideration whatsoever is given to the literary or historical situation for each remark.
The reason for this decontextualized approach may be a conviction that the gospel is identical in all times and at all places. This may well be so, but human understandings of the gospel manifestly are not. Surely Joseph Smith’s understanding grew, as they say, line upon line and precept on precept. Smith’s thought in 1830 is not always identical to his thought in 1844 — because, after all, there were more revelations and more insights to come — and juxtaposing ideas and phrases from the two periods without clarification at best obscures Smith’s beliefs at both periods and at worst confuses or misleads.
Once again, this kind of editorial intervention seems to reflect an underlying lack of trust in Joseph Smith’s ability to teach the gospel. If Smith saw connections between theme A and theme B, and saw his remarks on theme A as the most powerful context in which to present his comments on theme B, then breaking that linkage suggests that we know better how to teach his ideas than he did. When the decontextualization changes meaning, the implicit lack of trust is more severe.
Of course, publishing any selection of Joseph Smith’s words and thought will require editorial intervention: some speeches will be presented and others not, some documents featured and others obscured. Yet the kind of micro-level intervention prevalent in this manual (and, indeed, the past volumes in this series) is more invasive; it destroys the sequence, the flavor, and sometimes the sense of the original speech or document.
I am thrilled that we will have the opportunity to read and discuss Joseph Smith’s religious thought in our worship services over the next two years. Yet this will be something of an opportunity lost. Many members of the church today have probably never read a complete sermon by Joseph Smith, or indeed any complete text of Smith’s outside our scriptural canon. This lesson manual will give such members their first few direct encounters with Joseph Smith. But in most of the lessons, the editor’s voice and perspective is as distinctly present as Smith’s. I find it unfortunate that the editing of this volume has partly obscured Joseph Smith’s voice, personality, and witness of Jesus Christ.