I have some continuing interest in antebellum American sermon culture and this post examines some legacies of early Mormonism on the topic of sermons. Protestants of the era inherited an ongoing question over the status of the pulpit. Where do sermons fit into the rule of faith? The issue was most touchy in the more severe “Bible Alone” strains of Protestantism and one can see the same concern in Protestant debates over creedal statements and confessions or the likes of the Book of Common Prayer. On the other hand, even though the early Latter-day Saints were liberals regarding “revelation,” the relationship between pulpit and scripture in Mormonism was a curious one and bore a resemblance to that cautious calculus surrounding the subject among conservative Protestants.
As a setup for what’s coming, let me observe the obvious: early Latter-day Saint preaching and literature shows that the new movement was always painted on a biblical canvas. With the occasional exception in early imprints and manuscripts, when the word “scripture” appears in that literature it refers to the KJV Bible. It may also refer to a kind of urtext of the Bible, one that Joseph’s bible translation effort sought to reveal, in part. (By urtext, I don’t mean an actual ancient text necessarily, I mean the “scriptures . . . even as they are in mine own bosom” [D&C 33:20] – a few examples: D&C 6:27, D&C 20:11 and Joseph Smith’s 1843 remarks on the demise of Lorenzo Barnes.
Focusing on some early revelations, two passages given roughly a year apart may be in tension:
1 Behold, I say unto thee, Oliver, that it shall be given unto thee that thou shalt be heard by the church in all things whatsoever thou shalt teach them by the Comforter, concerning the revelations and commandments which I have given . . .
4 And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the church, thou mayest do it . . .
5 But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but by wisdom; [D&C 28]
The background is familiar to most Latter-day Saints but I’ll look at it for moment.
Joseph’s revelations (consider D&C 8, 18:1-5) might be seen to open the door to others to add their own canonical extensions. In August 1830, one such believer, Hiram Page, began contributing revelations. At a September Mormon conference, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation above which not only focused on Page, but Oliver Cowdery, second in command in the early church. The revelation formalized a hierarchy of value in religious expression. Important in the new movement, Cowdery was now no longer to “write by way of commandment” though he could render authoritative work from the pulpit. The meaning was clear: the written canon was Smith’s domain, while Cowdery’s work would be preaching. That preaching, stamped as ephemeral, could not really have the force of the canonical – by definition it was local and would not be written. At best it could propagate by word of mouth. Both culture and revelation within early Mormonism situated the sermon in much the same place it occupied in the parent faiths of early Latter-day Saints — important as exhortation — but clearly not within the canonical boundary (possibly Joseph Smith excepted).
The second passage of interest here, and as I said, somewhat in tension with the previous one, is from D&C 68:
1 My servant, Orson Hyde, was called by his ordination to proclaim the everlasting gospel, by the Spirit of the living God, from people to people, and from land to land, in the congregations of the wicked, in their synagogues, reasoning with and expounding all scriptures unto them.
2 And, behold, and lo, this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood, whose mission is appointed unto them to go forth—
3 And this is the ensample unto them, that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.
4 And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.
D&C 68:4 and other prophetic imperatives led to a tradition that the pulpit could yield scripture. But what kind of scripture? I mean was it Scripture (i.e., on par with the Bible), or was it Cowdery’s “oral scripture?” History offers two answers.
One is the LDS theme (#1) that made the pulpit into a source possibly SUPERIOR to written canon (LDS canon was a developing idea itself at the time).
Another theme (#2) developed from the idea that there *was* a Mormon canon (eventually called “the standard works”). That theme categorized pulpit scripture as lower caste. Scripture with a small “s,” while the standard works were Scripture as canon, to be used as a measuring rod (as the name implies) for all other rules of faith or “scripture.” Any pulpit scripture in this scenario is subject to being measured by the written canon. A nearly identical rule was in place among Puritans. Preaching or even “revelation” would come only “in and according to” the canon.
I can understand the latter theme. It makes good sense from the point of view of generational stability (think Luther and Lehi). And the person many people identify with pulpit Scripture, Joseph Smith, was ever floating biblical justification/interpretation for his declarations. Whether this attempted consistency was often adaptive lubrication could be a point of discussion I suppose.
The General Conference of the Church has become the premier source of pulpit scripture, with a trend setting justification arising in recent times from Harold B. Lee’s remarks (April 1973) during his tenure as Church president. Other pulpit scripture(?) (outside of the conference center so to speak), even sermons given by general authorities under most circumstances, has lesser stature and is not even supposed to be recorded or distributed (the question of recording of sermons is a closely related issue/barrier and its genesis is important in light of D&C 28 above – but that is another post).
This internal structure of pulpit scripture is fascinating and seems somewhat related, at least in degree of emphasis, with a number of other (sometimes conflicting) movements, like correlation and the press toward “world religion” status.
In spite of the Lee/Kimball/et al. declarations, or paradoxically because of them in a way, pulpit scripture is still ephemeral. It does get used in proof-texting internal LDS discussions but to what effect? Pulpit scripture is by its nature a temporary fix (pun intended). When the next conference rolls around, that seems to set the agenda for the following 6 months.
Theme 1 has not really died however. Another trend connected to both theme 1, theme 2 and pulpit scripture in general, styles the living prophet(s) as superior to dead one(s). Not in terms of their contributions or historical impact perhaps, but in terms of how their pronouncements (or less formally their pulpit scripture) are to be weighed (a perusal of Mormon sermon literature shows that LDS Prophets rarely quote their uncanonized predecessors for example). There is paradox lurking here with theme 2: if a living prophet’s words are superior to the dead prophets, that can’t really be confined to just post-Joseph-Smith-dead-LDS-prophets. (Indeed, large parts of (LDS) canon began either internally or externally as pulpit scripture anyway – assuming you believe canon *has* history).
Now I realize that I have left out lots of things here, like extempore speech vs. prepared speech (ala “Lectures on Faith”), etc. I’ll cover this a bit next time.
Where do speeches fit in your own canonical rankings? Pulpit scripture vs. standard works.
Any opinions or examples here people?
I’m going to follow this up with something on one of Mormonism’s most interesting pulpit scriptures. But first, more stuff on sermons coming up next.
 The point was unity. Adopting creedal statements shrouded potential prismatic speech under a restrictive umbrella, making even denominational differences seem less divisive. An early rector of Yale college illustrated what is still the common criticism of the Confessions: governing by confession (creed) meant that “the Scriptures cease to be a Rule to [us] and [the] opinions and determinations of others are substituted in the room thereof.” The fact that the sermon might do the same thing on a local scale (or if published, on a larger one) was not lost on everybody. Quakers complained, “all expounding of Scripture is adding to it.” “Why all these sermons,” one critic asked. Why not just read the Bible Alone? On the other hand “canon” as “measure,” has to measure something, doesn’t it? Of course canon could be turned on itself – a practice alive and well among all sorts of critics. Yeah. Lots of fun here. See David F. Holland, Sacred Borders. 26. Brigham Young’s July 24, 1853 sermon is a really interesting read (JD 1:233f. Start in about p. 237). I recommend it.
 See Robin Scott Jensen, “‘Rely Upon the Things Which are Written’: Text, Context, and the Creation of Mormon Revelatory Records,” MLIS Thesis, Univ. of Wisconsin-Milw., 2009. 159ff.
 By superior, I mean it could trump the written word. This is infused with Joseph’s notion that language is imperfect and all expression is subject to revision. Brigham’s idea is parallel. On several occasions he repeated an experience involving Hyrum and Joseph Smith, where Joseph vouched for Brigham’s claim that the living prophet was superior to the written Mormon canon – i.e., Bible, Book of Mormon, D&C. One example is Journal of Discourses 10:339f (An expanded version of the story is found in Elden J. Watson, “Addresses of Brigham Young” vol.5 p.49.) Also compare JD 13:95, not a recital of the story, but important in parsing Young’s views, I think.
 This begins to solidify about 1880 with the canonization of the Pearl of Great Price. There are lots of references to this idea and it is clearly normative in today’s Mormonism. It may be argued that there is an internal hierarchy in the written canon – an idea that echoes Luther. I won’t touch on that here. There is something ironic about the idea of LDS canon: it opened the Mormons to a reapplication of a favorite argument of Deists like Tom Paine when he observed that there was nothing so strange as determining the revelatory status of a text by a vote of human beings. Another problem with Mormon canon is Joseph Smith himself. While early revelations seemed to be clearly defined experiences, later communications could be more difficult to classify: was a given oral (or dictated) declaration Scripture, scripture or merely thinking out loud? On the terminology “standard works,” the term was originally used in a broader way than currently. The current more restricted usage probably begins to come on line about 1900. The use of the term signals a textual trend. The very forms of the Mormon books of scripture would gradually alter to become mimics of the KJV editions in use by Latter-day Saints: short verses, double column pages, footnotes, similar bindings, etc.
 This is essentially the Protestant idea (except the canon flow was stopped up with the Bible (KJV) in the conservative wing). One could argue that this is the heritage of Joseph F. Smith and James E. Talmage. There are lots of references here too. (Richard Bushman sees it as normative Mormonism for example.) Joseph Fielding Smith is a key source (for example, Doctrines of Salvation 3:203). On balance, the two themes find their homes in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. A sub-theme eventually developed in Mormonism very reminiscent of say, the Disciples of Christ: if an idea is not mentioned in the “standard works” it must be irrelevant to salvation and perhaps even theologically dangerous (this was my mother’s response to my speculative ideas – it permanently scarred me – like Scott B.). Bruce R. McConkie stated a version: “The answers to nearly all important doctrinal questions are found in the standard works or in the sermons and writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. If they are not found in these sources, they probably are not essential to salvation and may well be beyond our present spiritual capacity to understand.” (Regional Rep. Seminar, April 1981.) Among some Protestants, this is the “regulative principle” or what might be called the “hermeneutic of silence.” True religion should insist on what Scripture explicitly demands, but devalue anything not found in Scripture. Popular among early Campbellites, they eventually gave it up along with the hope of Protestant unification. A little hyperbolic maybe, but you get what I’m saying, right?
 For example, John Cotton, A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace. (3rd ed. London, 1671): 178.
 I think this really depends on the instance. I’ll come back to this point in a later post.
 Recent post-general-conference practice has involved a take-turns mutual training sequence among groups of general authorities. Presumably this increased consensus among the various groups and provided background for later top down training. This view of things may suggest that pulpit scripture in Mormonism is ephemeral for another reason: it is driven by the needs of a changing society. This was a charge made against the Bible itself by all the canon expansionists of the 18th and 19th century. However I think scale is important here.
 Not JS’s sermons, but sermons none the less, and they became canonical, for awhile. The LoF were rarely quoted in Utah and never extensively. With irony, an exception was Talmage who used them some in his first version of the Articles of Faith.