I was reading through a recent journal article, and noticing that it cited a Joseph Smith sermon, I thought it would be appropriate to write up a brief post about the source. The author referenced Ehat and Cook’s tremendously useful Words of Joseph Smith  and in particular the George Laub account of the July 16, 1844 sermon often called the “Sermon in the Grove.” It pointed to Laub’s fascinating material as being descriptive of JS’s thought.
Now, despite its utility, Ehat and Cooks’ Words has several important flaws, and their use of Laub’s material is in particular one of them.  In their digitally released revised second edition, which included the Laub material designated by them to be concerning the April 7, 1844 sermon (KFD) they note:
Unquestionably, the date George Laub assigned to this transcript is incorrect. He did not arrive in Nauvoo until 9 May 1843, a month after the date given for the sermon (6 April 1843). Because he did not begin his journal until 1 January 1845, these notes of the Prophet’s “King Follett” sermon…were not transcribed into his journal until at least eight months after the [sermon was] delivered. This probably accounts for his error in dating this and the other sermons.
Of course, this leads to a question regarding the strict contemporaneousness of these notes. There are a number of evidences in this report, however, which suggest that it is based on contemporary notes. (For example, see the incidental note that Joseph Smith “referred to 6 chapter of Hebrews.”) Nevertheless, because the notes really are only a summary of the major points of the “King Follett” sermon, and because George Laub indicates that this account was from “memory,” the account included here is given without further annotation. 
Unfortunately, while this caution is important and also applies to the June 16, 1844 sermon in the grove (which was also misdated in the Laub document), they were further mistaken. Their texts are transcripts of a document created by Laub and which is catalogued in the CHL as MS 1983. This document was not begun in 1845. Instead it is a revised version of Laub’s Nauvoo journal created long after he had arrived in Utah. As far as I can see, the original journal, later donated to the CHL (MS 9628), includes none of these JS sermons.
Eugene England published a transcript of the same journal as Ehat and Cook in BYU Studies,  which includes a fascinating bit of text not included in the original: “In my hering & presents, Prophesyes of Joseph Smith, this being transfere[d] in this Book from the various Scraps of 1843 & 1844, as he was martred in 1844, June 27th.” It is thus possible that the JS sermon material was added from notes as well as memory sometime after he arrived in Utah in 1852. I imagine that it was much later. Also added to this later version was an account of the mantle of Joseph falling on Brigham Young.
As much as I like the content of the Laub material (it really is cool stuff), I think that we need to be extremely cautious in its use. The fact that it was written over a decade after the actual sermons and then marked with the wrong date suggests to me that any notes that Laub used were not of a high quality. Laub did not have a particular “in” or familiarity with JS. Consequently the material likely reflects much more of a Utah-era reading of the topics treated in the accounts. I think this is all the more the case as Laub’s material is typically not attested in the accounts of others.
So really, in the end, this is just another call for more and better work on document and source criticism in Mormon Studies. We really are in a Golden Age in this area. But as we have more than our fair share of documents, we have a very, very long way to go. Also, can I just say how much I can’t wait for WVS’s uber-volume on JS’s funeral sermons?
- Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UH: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980). This volume was a huge step forward and I realize that people still use the History of the Church and TPJS.
- Their citations and discussions relating to both the “Book of the Law of the Lord,” as well as the Record of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo are greatly flawed. Additionally, there is very little critical analysis of the documents themselves. A third edition of Words has been almost ready to publish for years, and may one day be available. Hopefully it will remedy these errors.
- Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, 2nd ed. rev., 1st digital ed. (1996), June 7 (2), 1844, note 124.
- Eugene England, “George Laub’s Nauvoo Journal,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (1978), 157-58.