The Value of a Sermon Critical Edition. Part II.

In part I, I tried to lay out a few of the issues surrounding the problem of recovering a sermon delivered in the period of early Mormonism and what that might mean. Part of this problem is contiguous with subjectivity (mental events) vs. objectivity (external events) at several points in the process of delivery, perception and recording. This in turn is connected to the technical problem of recording sermons in the era. Discussing this results in a rehash of some things from part I but what the heck.

Joseph Smith’s sermons were recorded frequently by accident. That is, by random listeners who left a sentence or two or a paragraph or two in journals or notebooks which just happened to be preserved in a way that eventually allowed for access by Mormon historians and eventually by historians of Mormonism.

That is a problem with this process: it was fragmentary. Two-hour speeches reported in 3 or 400 words or maybe much less? Not so robust as we might wish. These kinds of reports lead to an obvious conclusion. One should be cautious in claiming that the words they report are in fact Joseph Smith’s words. This is especially important for reports that appear in notebooks and diaries where the sermon accounts are reports constructed some hours or days (weeks or months) following the event. The likelihood that such reports represent a large fraction of the exact words of the speaker with any degree of certainty is small, in general.[1] Whether they are accurate summaries of ideas is another question, but it seems inadvisable to throw caution to the winds here. I will look at this in a later post.

Before Joseph Smith died, his secretary Willard Richards had laid out a plan to record Smith’s history, had been the primary keeper of Smith’s diary after December 1841, had written significant portions of that history himself and managed others who did likewise. After the journey to Utah, where much of the raw data ended up, the history writing process turned in earnest to reconstructing Joseph’s sermons. Clerks in the Church Historian’s office attempted to fill in the record of those sermons by collecting and then fusing various reports of a sermon into a single text. The process went forward under the direction of Richards’ successor, George A. Smith, a cousin of Joseph Smith. These reconstructions were naive, using criteria that might be shocking in light of more modern standards.[2]

The 1850s versions of Joseph’s sermons would eventually form the standard for understanding what he said. The form of the history itself encouraged the idea that these reconstructions were done under the direction of or even created by Joseph himself. While the participants in this process were naturally quite aware of the procedures, when they left the scene, there was little if any internal evidence to place those creations in their proper perspective. Church literature partook of the published record and that put the history produced in 1855-6 in a place of confidence its producers didn’t necessarily share.

The quality of source materials used in the 1850s for Joseph Smith’s sermons varied widely and the array of materials was more limited than what is presently available in a number of cases. Those source materials also varied in value from sermon to sermon.

For example, Wilford Woodruff began recording Smith’s sermons in earnest in the Nauvoo period (1839-1844). His reports are sometimes the only ones available for a given occasion. Woodruff’s reports are of varying value, but his journal accounts are often fleshed out versions from memory, at times supplemented by notes taken at sermons. Where alternate accounts are available, they show that Woodruff occasionally paraphrased, expanded and omitted. The Woodruff reports no doubt represent Joseph’s remarks in the large but their distance from the archetypes appears to be variable. Much the same criticism may be rendered with respect to others who reported multiple instances of Joseph’s sermons. This represents a technological problem, not an ethical one.

In part III we will consider other aspects of the reporting process.

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[1] In Mormon settings, one often hears the dictum: “I don’t remember what he/she said, but I remember how I felt.” I think this often represents at least two things – laziness, and possibly a merciful God. Ok, I’m being a little mean. But words are important.

[2] For example, source value judgements could include the hierarchical status of the recorder. Moreover, the clerk reconstructions could be edited by Church leaders who were not present at the sermons. Such editing could be offered based on personal historical experiences (possible), but doctrinal views at the time of editing may be in play, and the resulting archetypal distance would be considered irrelevant. One can understand this idea on the basis of several impulses. For one, consider Dallin H. Oaks’ conference address in October 2010.

Comments

  1. le, source value judgments could include the hierarchical status of the recorder. Moreover, the clerk reconstructions could be edited by Church leaders who were not present at the sermons. Such editing could be offered based on personal historical experiences (possible), but doctrinal views at the time of editing may be in play, and the resulting archetypal distance

  2. Jonathan Green says:

    A critical edition of Joseph Smith’s sermons seems like an important project, but I have some concerns about what you’re proposing in parts I and II.

    1. It sounds like you’re trying to re-invent the wheel. Editing Joseph Smith’s sermons is not a totally unique and unprecedented project, however. Actually, the opposite is true. Sermon editions have a long history. Why don’t you take a look at the methods used by similar projects to edit the sermons or speeches of prominent 19th-century Americans? You don’t need to develop a new theory of textual editing. You just need to find the right approach to get the project done. Biblical textual criticism is probably not the best model to follow.

    2. You’re very focused on recovering the original sermon as uttered by Joseph Smith (“the archetype”) and consequently dismissive of other published versions. But the focus on recreating a lost original hasn’t been the goal of most critical editions for some time now. Among other problems, the focus on the original utterance overlooks the complicated relationship between writing and orality. Suppose you have a case where you have Joseph Smith’s written notes from which he spoke, a contemporary transcription of the sermon, and a published sermon corrected by Joseph Smith himself. Which is the “real” version? The question doesn’t make sense. Each version has its own claim on authority. Someone studying the sermon would want to consult all three, not just one “authentic” sermon to the exclusion of the other two. And what if Joseph Smith used the same set of notes on two or more occasions? That’s a very real phenomenon in other sermons.

    3. A related problem is that you sound contemptuous of 19th-century editors. But like every other document you will use, their editions were meant to serve the interests of their time and place. The same is true of the most accurate contemporary transcription–it was meant to serve the needs of the copyist and his or her contemporaries, rather than an editor a couple centuries down the road.

  3. Jonathan, I think you may have misunderstood what WVS is doing and perhaps how Mormons tend to use Joseph Smith’s sermons. Mormons typically approach, for example, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as if it were archetypal, no? I think you are missing the historiographical dialogue in which this is occurring. Bill can speak for himself, but I know for certain that he is cognizant of the theory of the art.

  4. Jonathan, not really trying to reinvent anything. It is true that sermon editions have a long history and the various papers projects around provide a nice foundation on which to build. No way would a JS sermon edition be unprecedented. I think the Lincoln papers publications provide very interesting examples of to consider here. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and others are important. I think one difference between these efforts and one directed towards Joseph Smith concerns the way we use his statements, revelations and other texts. Fidelity (in some sense to be made clear) is certainly an issue, at least as a starting point.

    It’s important to look at other editions of JS. I don’t mean to dismiss them. It’s important to consider them for reasons other than “fidelity.”

    Your point about which is the “real” version is an apt one and in part 1, I mentioned this in passing I think – if not, it will come up again. Any critical edition would have to include not just a proposed reconstruction of the oral remarks, but the relevant data to be considered. The question of speaking notes doesn’t really arise in Smith’s case. But there are a few cases where he may have corrected or expanded notes made by a clerk. So how do we treat that? The question becomes, what are we trying to do? In terms of a Latter-day Saint audience, they may be interested in both what was actually said, and what was the speaker’s “intent” which might be judged in some degree by changes or corrections of notes. While the issues of multiple author-sources like mss or printers proofs or author re-editions are all important in trying to decide what the “real” text should be, the problem is much simpler in JS’s case and therefore more difficult in some respects.

    I’m not purposely contemptuous of the early editors (who were more interested in a kind of clear text approach). Their interests were valid and their work vital for Mormonism at the time, just different from what I’m talking about here – and as far as issues with contemporary transcriptions, I’ll say something more about that in part 3.

  5. Jonathan Green says:

    J., what Mormons may do with TPJS really doesn’t have anything to do with my comments. WVS is describing a textual editing project in ways that raise some doubts in my mind as to whether he really understands the theory and practice. The historiographical dialogue, whatever it is, doesn’t change the fact that he’s asking the wrong questions.

    WVS, to be clear, the question of the “real” version is not my point at all. The opposite, in fact. Looking for the “real” version of an oral sermon is a lost cause. It would be a mistake to make that the goal of a critical edition of Joseph Smith’s sermons. It is absolutely not the case that a critical edition would have to include a proposed reconstruction of oral sermons. That you believe this is so suggests to me that you have gaps in your understanding of textual editing.

    But please, do continue your posts and your work! I don’t mean to derail anything. I’d just prefer that your work get built on a solid foundation. Which it won’t, if you think of your primary goal as reconstructing an archetypal sermon.

  6. But please, do continue your posts and your work! I don’t mean to derail anything. I’d just prefer that your work get built on a solid foundation. Which it won’t, if you think of your primary goal as reconstructing an archetypal sermon.

    Go with me here Jonathan. I’ll get to it. It will take a while.

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