James Adams. Part 3. Textual Landmarks. Conference Primer.

Part 1 is here, part 2, here.

As you watch General Conference this weekend, appreciate it for some of the textual certainties. And you never know what you may hear.

Four source texts for Joseph Smith’s funeral sermon for James Adams are the reports of James Burgess, Gustavus Hills, Willard Richards and William Staines. The Richards and Hills reports were used (in 1855) to produce the manuscript history of the church (the entry is in the hand of Robert Campbell).[1] Hills’ manuscript apparently no longer exists, but it was published in the Church magazine of the day, the TImes and Seasons.

The length of the sermon (the time it took to deliver it) is not known, but it may have been shorter than the two + hour speeches Joseph Smith often gave at this period. Weather may have been a factor, it was unseasonably cool at the time and this together with the general sickliness in the city probably contributed to a lower than normal attendance.

The manuscript history can be shown to contain a number of passages that are not based on any of the known sources. For some sermons of Joseph Smith, compiled from sources for the history, evidence exists on how and precisely when this compilation was done. This is not the case for the Adams sermon.[2]

In one segment of the Adams sermon, Joseph comments on what is apparently the preexistent state of man, and the Hills report suggests that Smith refers to rules of salvation being fixed in the premortal state. If so, this would be characteristic of Smith who made similar statements elsewhere.[3] The ms history modifies the Hills report as indicated by the text in red:

The organization of the spiritual and heavenly worlds, and of the spiritual and heavenly beings, was agreeable to the most perfect order and harmony–their limits and bounds were fixed irrevocably, and voluntarily subscribed to in their heavenly state by themselves–and was by our first parents subscribed to upon the earth–hence the importance of embracing and subscribing to principles of eternal truth by all men upon the earth that expect eternal life

The added portion brings two elements to the text: it pushes the agreements referred to firmly onto humans and back into preexistence and places an earthly Adam and Eve as subscribing to them, presumably in proxy for all mortals. While Joseph does with some frequency speak of premortal councils and agreements by premortals, the apparent attempt to keep some of the original sense of the Hills report is done in a way that is suggestive of original sin doctrines.[4]

The Staines report adds some text which while rather lurid, has elements which fit some of Joseph’s remarks elsewhere:

the Lord God himself had all the business he could atten[d] to[,] some of his time was taken up in keeping back the spirits coming upon the earth before their time[,] that many were so anxious that some were hovering over the brothels [and] providing a body got made[,] the spirits might enter into it [5]

Assuming Staines’ reminiscence reflects a statement by Joseph, one can see a kind of logic in it. The spirit world was not necessarily all that great for us lower beings. The idea that spirits could jump the gun on mortality will be appreciated by you free will advocates out there.

Finally, the most famous quote from the Adams sermon, the one most often found in 20th century Mormon literature perhaps, is this one:

Could you gaze in heaven 5 minutes you would know more than you possibly can be read all that ever was written on the subject[6]

Unfortunately, the statement is not attested in the other sources. However, the Hills text probably reflects it in a different form:

Reading the experience of others, or the revelations given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God, Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience in these things through the ordinance of God set forth for that purpose

What’s the point? Sure you can pick your favorite statement of Joseph, but remember, you’re really picking your favorite reporter, and that’s a different thing altogether. Want more? Just wait around for a year or two, and you’ll get more than you could possible stomach.[7]


[1] For some reason, the ms history does not credit Hills in its version, though it most certainly used it. Instead, Richards gets all credit.

[2] Clerks who were assigned to this kind of work did not always distinguish in their work records exactly what they were doing, even though by this time the office journal of the historian had become a kind of time-card stamp.

[3] See for example his 1842 letter which appears in part in D&C 128, and sermons of June 11, 1843, May 12, 1844, August 13, 1843, October 5, 1840 and April 7, 1844.

[4] By analogy of course. Original sin may exist in Mormonism, but only for a moment.<grin> The Richards report seems to reflect the original Hills report here.

If men would acquire salvation they have got to be subject to certain rules and principles which were fixed by an unalterable decree before the world was, before they leave this world

[5] Staines’ report was given long after the sermon and thus its overall reliability is in question. Compare Brigham Young (July 1855):

The spirits which are reserved have to be born into the world, and the Lord will prepare some way for them to have tabernacles. Spirits must be born, even if they have to come to brothels . . . and will say “Let me have a tabernacle, that I may have a chance to be perfected.”

This picture of spirits and bodies while not as chaotic as the Staines version, was part of the rhetoric surrounding and justifying plural marriage. If Joseph was trying to promote polygamy, he was doing it sub rosa.

[6] Willard Richards text.

[7] What I mean is, my book may actually be finished by then.


  1. Thanks for this, WVS; fascinating stuff. The second senetence in your last paragraph is of great importance.

  2. This is excellent work, WVS. It is interesting to see how some of our beliefs have come about.

  3. n7 – yay.

    Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience in these things through the ordinance of God set forth for that purpose

    I think this is pretty consistent with JS’s general tenor regarding the temple liturgy.

    BY rocked the whole tabernacling of spirits groove.

  4. I hope your book is the new SS lesson manual! This is great stuff!

  5. Great fun. Reminds me of that last dance in Moulin Rouge, before boy sees girl with the duke. Something about Buenos Aires.
    A complex way to communicate images of hierarchy.

  6. Thanks, Ben, Mark. J., yes it fits with his more extensive remarks in that direction.

  7. Steve, I don’t think that will happen. Sam, oh my.

  8. WVS,

    I’m excited for your book.

    Though challenging to the search for the ‘original’ text or what was really said, the fact that there are so many sources to work with is fortunate. People doing more ancient things rarely enjoy such wealth.

    What I find most interesting about the Staines report and your note to it–besides the notion of spirits being totally deparate for incarnation–is that there is a specific time for each spirit to descend. This may not be astrologically determined, as in the stuff I am used to reading, but it would appear that the celestial machine is still ticking.

  9. It must have been interesting to listen to Joseph and try to piece together a coherent theology from the bits and hints he gave at any one time. It is much easier for us to put them into a theological context given all that has been said since then. On the other hand, it is simultaneously challenging for us to avoid imputing something to Joseph that he really did not mean. A prime example, as you have pointed out, is the common miscontextualization of his teachings on the “high priesthood.”

%d bloggers like this: