Conference Prep #2. Pulpit scripture and canon Scripture

This is the second post in a series on General Conference. Part 1 is here. The followup post is here.

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.[1]

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.[2] 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).[3]

Another theme (#2) developed from the idea that there *was* a Mormon canon (eventually called “the standard works”).[4] 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.[5] A nearly identical rule was in place among Puritans. Preaching or even “revelation” would come only “in and according to” the canon.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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”[9]), 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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?

[6] For example, John Cotton, A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace. (3rd ed. London, 1671): 178.

[7] I think this really depends on the instance. I’ll come back to this point in a later post.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.


  1. natebergin says:

    You might add that force of repetition also contributes the the hierarchy of status. Certain scriptures, like some of those uncomfortable ones D&C 132 are never quoted, and some are constantly quoted. Some sermons by prophets get picked up by other general authorities and repeated over and over, giving them a lot of power. If you only hear something once, it usually is as good as having never heard it at all.

  2. Really cool post and I’m looking forward to the next one.

    Both canonical scripture and pulpit scripture fall into one of four categories with me, in order of weight: direct revelation (stuff directly spoken by God, the Savior, or angelic beings), words of inspired men (prophets/apostles expounding on doctrine), poetic revelation (eg. most old testament prophecies, John’s revelations), and words of uninspired men (eg., histories in the old testament written and analyzed by unenlightened scribes). The first category seems extremely rare, the third category is of dubious value (to me, anyway), and the fourth is often necessary for context but can be downright wrong. Over the pulpit we get categories two and four. Personally, I see no difference between pulpit scripture and canonical scripture, except for the fact that canonical scripture contains vastly more direct revelation.

    I find it odd when people say things like “Well, the Proclamation on the Family isn’t canon — the church hasn’t voted on it”. So what? The question is whether it’s category one or two and whether there’s any four thrown in. Whether the church votes on it or not has no impact on it’s truth, just on how much it gets referenced in church.

  3. I loved this post.

    I think there’s an additional category of texts that needs to be thrown into the pile here, but I’m not sure whre it fits? Many GA’s, including prophets, have written books on various gospel subjects. For better or for worse, some of these have reached mythological and almost “scripture” status, including ‘The Miracle of Forgivenss’ and ‘Jesus the Christ’. I had a Bishop once who kept a huge stack of paperback copies of ‘The Miracle of Forgiveness’ in his office. He handed these out to sinners like party favors (and even named his son Spencer!) Some of the ideas in these books are horribly prejudiced, outdated, and outright wrong (the chapter in MoF entitled ‘Crime Against Nature’ comes to mind), yet many members/leaders quote them like scripture and consider them such. I think these works have as much potential for good (or harm, as the case could be) as anything spoken at General Conference.

  4. Martin:

    I’d argue it does matter (re: Family Proclamation), or else our own scripture wouldn’t give us instructions on how to add to our canon.

    The principle of voting in and adding to our scripture is supposed to be a great part of the restoration. The fact that we’ve gotten away from it and, instead, rely heavily on pulpit scripture is, to me, unfortunate. Pulpit scripture might be great, and cool, and inspired, but those things are largely left to the wind if not canonized. Seriously, you can quote as many old school talks as you want (70s, 80s, etc.) but if the idea isn’t still being promoted today, then it’s of no consequence to me [at least that's what leaders generally say - new Presidents and all]. In 10-15 years if the proclamation to the family merely remains a proclamation that isn’t given over to the vote of common consent to be added into our canon, then I’d argue that it wasn’t really that important after all.

    I view these addition procedures as putting our money where our mouths are… if we really believe in revelation and inspired words, and especially in the case of the proclamation, if we go so far as to issue “proclamations” that end up getting printed without end by Deseret Book and others, then put it to a vote in general conference where the membership can vote on it being scripture.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    WVS, coming to this very late, but I deeply enjoy the canon of canonical discussion. We desperately want to rank and classify everything we hear, don’t we?

  6. Yes, it is a constant background in Church. Synchronize.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    natebergin (#1)’s point is interesting but suggests that Edgar Guest and CS Lewis are now canon.

  8. Love this stuff, WVS.

    In practice, I think that the written cannon isn’t terribly important. What is important is the tradition of interpretation of the cannon. The D&C for example is completely anachronistic if we were to use it literally. The entirety of our current Church structure is pretty well outside of the text. But oral instruction or limitedly published instruction is ephemeral. Hence the primacy of handbooks. I believe that handbooks are the real standard.

  9. I agree J, the handbooks are the standard in governance, but internally the FP and Q12 can agonize over D&C passages when they want to do something administratively. So the canon is not dead in that sense, just sleeping.

  10. Steve, I think C. S. Lewis has made a run.

  11. That would make sense as the FP and Q12 are recognized as the stewards of the interpretive tradition. That they would see themselves in such a role and take the original revelations seriously makes sense. But, like the recently published interviews with Elder Packer about the role of the Seventy show, extra-canonical tradition is prime.

  12. Agreed. The same thing is manifest in both canonical and extra-canonical text flow through time.

  13. natebergin says:

    Thank you Steve, I love that Edgar Guest is now in the cannon! I’ll keep pushing for Khalil Ghibran, but so far only Elder Holland has quoted him.

  14. Knob (#4), I think you have greater faith in the votes of the church membership than I do. Realistically, if the FP and Q12 were to put it up for vote, it would pass, with the vast majority never giving it serious thought (not to mention prayer). My point — I’m not sure are functionally any different from common consent. I tend to agree with Martin [i.e, The question is whether it’s category one or two and whether there’s any four thrown in.]


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