The Value of a Sermon Critical Edition. Part III.

A very short journey through some issues of witness texts:

Last time we ended up with a consideration of one well-known recorder of Joseph Smith’s sermons, Wilford Woodruff. Let’s compare him to another less prolific reporter but one who still plays an important role in the process of studying sermon-texts connected to Joseph Smith, Thomas Bullock. Bullock was a British convert/immigrant who became a clerk for Joseph Smith in 1843. An “efficient” writer, he employed an abbreviated writing style which enabled him, when he felt like it, to record speeches with some fidelity. When not assigned to attempt verbatim reports of speeches, his personal records of such events were typically quite brief. Bullock did not simply take brief notes and expand them later, he wrote as rapidly as possible in his abbreviated style and his assigned reports are very important to the enterprise of studying Joseph Smith’s sermons.[1]


Like all long-hand reporters, Bullock left gaps in his reports where speech went unrecorded. One is tempted to wish for shorthand reporting here, and it is certainly true that a skilled stenographer could often exceed the ability that Bullock demonstrated, but perhaps not by much. Shorthand reporters of the day usually used Taylor or Pitman (after 1837) shorthand methods and using these techniques stenographers could record a respectable percentage of the spoken word. We should not, however, suppose that shorthand methods solved the recording problem in the time period of Joseph Smith.

In practice, stenographers demonstrated the same difficulties efficient longhand reporters experienced. Typically, even the best reporters frequently missed words and even phrases or ended up with indecipherable junk from time to time. Many did not attempt to report every word of the speaker, merely enough to gain the sense or point the speaker attempted to make – a judgement based perhaps on the reporter’s prejudice. When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas engaged in debates in Illinois in 1858, several stenographers participated. Their surviving reports indicate that the reporter would keep up with the speaker for a while but gradually fall behind until the distance between listening and writing became too great, when the reporter would skip to the current phrase trace and the process was repeated. Thomas Bullock demonstrates a similar pattern in his surviving raw long hand reports.

A few of Joseph’s record keepers wrote rapidly enough and at the same time thought fast enough, that they could offer a more or less smooth trace of the speech. At least it may appear to be a smooth trace. In reality, it seems that some on-the-fly glosses were made as the sermon progressed, to speed the recording process. Nevertheless, the “fall behind pattern” would catch up with the “glosser” and a part of the speech would be skipped and then the report would begin again with the current part of the speech.[2]

The “accidental” reporters of Joseph’s sermons present other interesting challenges. I already mentioned the caution one should observe in using such reports in “rescuing” a text. Next time we take a very short look at textual studies in general and the evolution and divergence of the theory and how it might apply to the title of the series.[3]

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[1] Bullock was Willard Richards’ favorite subordinate in his history duties and a bond of friendship and loyalty grew between them. Bullock was a reliable man and the historian’s who supervised his work appreciated his drive for accuracy and his readable long hand style (when not in speedwriting mode). Bullock could write in such compact form that he could produce a whole missive on the blank side of a postage stamp. In one case the handwriting of one of Bullock’s texts is so tiny I had some difficulty trying to reproduce it in typographical facsimile. Just too many words on a line.

[2] Generally, this kind of long-hand form is tough to read as letters are not well-formed and sometimes differ from instance to instance often making it a bit painful to resolve a given bit of writing into an English expression. An example of “quick-thinking” in a reporter is William Clayton. In his (assigned) reports it is sometimes difficult to determine which words were Joseph’s and which may be Clayton’s glosses. There are instances of the latter I think, but also cases where Clayton is probably just quicker on the draw than other witnesses.

[3] We shall find that this evolution pushes us away from the idea of “recovery,” or at least changes the focus of critical theory from its early hopes of accomplishment. At the same time, this evolution led to divergence in what it can mean to study a text. (But think Royal Skousen for a moment.)

Comments

  1. Well, I am just glad so many people attempted to record Joseph’s sermons. I’d be interested in knowing what percentage of people who had just tried to start their own churches had multiple others try to record their every word.

    Maybe everyone of them for all I know!

  2. Great write-up, WVS. I like reading Bullock’s notes. Once you get the hang of his abreviations, it is generally fairly pleasurable to discern (unlike, for example, Willard Richards). Sometimes, for latter recording (after JS died) we have his contemporaneous quasi-shorthand and then his expansion. It is nice to be able to compare.

    RE: n1. Richards also adopted Bullock in the Nauvoo Temple.

  3. Yeah, Richards can be tough, again especially when he was hurrying. And then there are he impossible to read notations to himself. Bullock did some shorthand, but he seemed not to prefer it. I think he felt just a bit snooty about some of the new guys with steno skills.

  4. Great post.

  5. It seems tragic that Joseph’s teachings were not more completely and accurately recorded. It brings to mind his lament that many inspired decisions and revelations had been lost to memory – even in his own time.

    I suppose a similar, but greater, tragedy is that no verbatim records of Jesus’ teachings are known to exist. If it was hard for a writer to keep up in Joseph’s time, imagine the near impossibility of anyone recording Jesus’ teachings as he gave them. Maybe that is why He repeated the same sermon so many times, e.g., on the Mount, on the plain, etc. (as proposed by John Welch).

  6. I suppose a similar, but greater, tragedy is that no verbatim records of Jesus’ teachings are known to exist. If it was hard for a writer to keep up in Joseph’s time, imagine the near impossibility of anyone recording Jesus’ teachings as he gave them. Maybe that is why He repeated the same sermon so many times, e.g., on the Mount, on the plain, etc. (as proposed by John Welch).

    The issues are surrounded by a huge literature. Imagine that we could time-travel back to Palestine with a recording device. We record Jesus. A version of Aramaic. I wonder if the result might be something like the Brothers Karamazov. The saying we attribute to Joseph portrays something similar: “if you could gaze into heaven 5 minutes you would know more than by reading all that has been written on the subject” it is undoubtedly true, but ironically it may not be precisely what he said.

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