Sidney Rigdon, the Manuscript History of the Church and Making Sermons Texts.

In 1844, Mormonism was in for its biggest historical moment so far: the death of Joseph Smith. The headquarters of the Church was Nauvoo, Illinois and it was bursting with converts from the US and the UK. These people had some basic familiarity with the movement’s history, but they didn’t have the experience, they weren’t insiders, they hadn’t been part of those heady days of revelation upon revelation, revelations of all kinds and spectra. That deficit was addressed at the April General Conference. President Sidney Rigdon stood to preach to the very large open-air crowd. I’m not going to try and tell you everything he said. He spoke for a long time. What we are about here is, how do we know (some of) what he said?[1] Two clerks had been assigned to take minutes, William Clayton and Thomas Bullock. Both were capable longhand reporters, and they had somewhat complementary styles. This complementarity can serve us well. I’ll give you an example (without the intrusive sics). Here is Clayton’s version of some of Pres. Rigdon’s address:

. . . . He next referred to his inability to make the congregation hear but he would try. They circumstances by which we are now surround points out the principles of his discourse “Behold the church of God of the last days” is his text. He does not know that he can find it in the Bible. He does not think it nesessary to have Paul make a text for him he would make a text for himself.[quill runs dry]

In 1830 the church met together in a room 20 feet square – and began to talk about the kingdom of God as tho. they had the world at command, although they have not many people they had big feelings. They then knew that the Church would become as large as it now is. they began to talk like men with authority and power. They looked upon the men of the earth as grasshoppers. They felt as big then as they ever will till the day of God Almighty – They saw by vision the Church of God a thousand times as big as it is now. and when men would come in they would say we wanted to upset the government although they was not enough to meet a woman with a mile pail . . .

Here is Bullock’s version of the same bit:

I hardly promise myself lungs to make this congregation hear me – I shall do the best I can and the greatest can do no more. the history of this church which I have known from its infancy – my text is Behold the Church of <Jesus> Christ <in the last days > – I can make a text for myself as well as Paul- I recollect in the year 1830 I met the whole <church> of Christ in a little old log house about 20 feet square near Waterloo – <we> talked with great confidence and talked big things altho but few- knew 14 years ago that it would be as large to day as it is – we were as big then as we shall ever be. if did not see this people- we saw it thousands larger. the people thought we were going to upset the government altho we were not enough to man a farm . . .

It would take too much space to really go at this, but just take a look at the last portion of each report. Clayton has the thing about the woman with a milk pail, Bullock has the thing about manning a farm. For a couple of reasons, I think the two reporters wrote different portions of the sermon, i.e., I think Rigdon may have made BOTH the remark about the milk pail AND the farm. Bullock “condensed” now and then, but mostly he just left things out. Clayton on the other hand seems to paraphrase on the fly at times. It is sometimes hard to tell whether he or not he does it in a given text. In these cases there is always a level of suspicion in terms of what a reporter is doing. I’m usually pretty suspicious in that I tend to see condensation/summary/paraphrase first (when two sermon reports differ), but given these two guys, I think we’re on safe ground.

Just to close this out, here is the way the Church Historian/clerks of the 1850s resolved the differences.

I hardly promise myself lungs to make this congregation hear me, I shall do the best I can, and the greatest can do no more. – The circumstances by which we are now surrounded points out the principles of my discourse – the history of this church which I have known from its infancy: my text is, ‘Behold the church of God of the last days.’ I do not know that I can find it in the Bible: I do not think it necessary to have Paul to make a text for me: I can make a text for myself; I recollect in the year 1830, I met the whole church of Christ in a little old log house about 20 feet square, near Waterloo, N. Y. and we began to talk about the kingdom of God as if we had the world at our command; we talked with great confidence, and talked big things, altho we were not many people, we had big feelings; we knew fourteen years ago that the church would become as large as it is to-day; we were as big then, as we shall ever be; we began to talk like men in authority and power – we looked upon the men of the earth as grasshoppers; if we did not see this people, we saw by vision, the church of God, a thousand times larger; and when men would come in, they would say we wanted to upset the government, although we were not enough to well man a farm, or meet a woman with a milk pail;

The strategy here is a pretty a good one: use Clayton to expand Bullock. This leads to a little speculation about what the historians used in their reconstruction. Did they take the raw data that we have here and then create the history account, or did they have something more? I think it is quite possible that they did have something more. I think they had a ready-made text. (tease)

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[1] Among the sub-genres of American Protestant preaching was the historical sermon. Many churches had links to their communities that went back to the beginning of settlement, or at least many years in the past. Every once in a while, on the anniversary of some important event or perhaps a communally recognized day of founding, a preacher would engage the community in a recital of past events. This sometimes savored of patriotism, or perhaps reverence toward some important family. Often however, the sermon detailed events in the life of the community church itself. Rigdon’s sermon is the latter type. Years later out in Utah, Church Historian George A. Smith engaged this practice a number times.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, WVS. Do we know which scribed worked on this under GAS? And do you have a bead on how the various scribes approached this type of work?

  2. We don’t have too much data in the global sense as far as scribes are concerned. But based on the cases where there is significant data, it appears scribes were on their own for drafting sermons texts. Most were reviewed by at least the historian (but not necessarily in great detail). Some were heavily edited and several rewrites occurred, usually by the same scribe, but not always. For this sermon, I don’t know who made the initial 1850s draft, but it’s possible he, or they, were working from a MS done by Thomas Bullock in Nauvoo. Bullock did the final minute draft of the April 1844 sermons, but the MS is missing. Part (but not Rigdon’s sermon) was published however, and that might give some clue as to whether the 1850s clerks were working from Bullock’s MS or a new reconstruction.

  3. I have the pitman shorthand notes of Thomas Bullock of an August 8th 1844 sermon by Sidney Rigdon. It is my understanding that they have never been transcribed. Does anyone on this forum know anyone that can transcribe them?

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