General Question: What of Group Editing?

I think most Latter-day Saints accept as normative the idea that Church publications which are often published say under an approval banner of the First Presidency are actually group projects, or documents authored by a person or group and then edited by some group of people (see manuals). This kind of thing goes back a long way. For instance the well-embedded Godhead document of 1916 (“The Father and the Son. A Doctrinal Exposition of the First Presidency and the Twelve.”) was a Talmage production, but with editorial changes by the FP and Q12. In other words, a group production.

Different Saints seem to categorize this kind of thing in different ways.[1]

For example, a lesson manual is regarded by some as nearly comparable to scripture, while others view them as having a lower ranking.[2]

A letter from the First Presidency read over the pulpit is usually not scrutinized for hints about who may have authored the missive. In actual fact, it may have been composed by a staff member in some cases. Does this devalue the production in some way? It’s universally assumed that such letters pass under the eyes of the signatories, but I think there are examples where this has not been the case. James R. Clark’s series Messages of the First Presidency was produced with the idea that those messages (letters, etc.) were in some way tantamount to revelations (see the author’s introduction).

The place of scripture in Christian tradition and among Mormons in particular is a related and perhaps somewhat touchy subject. Leaving aside the question of biblical texts, their authorship, evolution and editing, what of modern Mormon scripture? I feel sure that some fairly large fraction of Latter-day Saints think of the revelations published in the Doctrine and Covenants as dictations of the voice of God or angels. Does the evident editing that took place with those revelations make that position run aground? I refer to the landmark facsimile edition in the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers.

A perusal of Revelation Book 1 in that volume won’t leave much doubt about the considerable editing that took place in the effort to publish the Book of Commandments. They were in some respects a committee production, based of course on Joseph Smith’s originally dictated forms. Does that effort, which continued to a lesser extent in later editions, devalue the contents? Or perhaps a better way: does editing dilute scripture? Improve it? Distance it in meaningful ways from its source? Or is such editing always inspired, as valuable as the original form? Does that depend on the edit and editor? What of things like footnotes, or headnotes or verse divisions?[3]

Orson Pratt’s selections of material for the 1876 Doctrine and Covenants add another layer to this. Some of the (presently) most quoted passages of the Doctrine and Covenants come from those Pratt additions. Should we consider the sources of such things, or are they now beyond reproach or consideration? Does even doing that diligence constitute a sign of diminished faith, or could it create a problem for the Church?

Finally, and you know I have to say this, what about sermons? Early sermons, particularly Joseph Smith’s have a certain cachet among many Church members. Most of them, all of them in their current versions, are the result of multiple editorial hands. But it does not end there. A study of early Utah sermons shows that even those taken down by shorthand are only of approximate accuracy in most cases, even dubious confusing accuracy in some cases. The editorial process certainly distanced the final published versions, when they were published, from their oral archetypes.

What about those editors and editions? Is it all just one symphony of Divinely inspired textual evolution toward perfection? In other words, are our texts getting sanctified?

A quote commonly attributed to Joseph Smith, “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” is so frequently mentioned in Church discourse that one almost hesitates to drill down in that vicinity. But just to begin that, this is not really a quotation at all. Its base text is found in the Journal of Wilford Woodruff, but the form is fairly different there. Moreover, the context of the statement is nearly always ignored. Is this edited version in its usually stated isolation a correct representation of what Joseph meant? And now I’ve got to go to Costco.

[1] An acquaintance of mine, a son of an apostle, views the general handbook of instructions as a kind of suggestion box. In his service in the Church I’ve noted that he more or less moves with a fair amount of freedom. When someone points out the deviation from handbook policy he indicates the reason for his ignoring it by reference to its lower level production environment. I don’t know how he feels about the latest incarnation. Of course there are limits to this kind of thing even for him.

[2] Knowing the inner workings about such productions may tend toward a reduction in viewed reliability or usefulness. Or does it?

[3] We often find Christian apologists diminishing or effectively ignoring doctrinal divisions in the fold as they might style it. Do Mormons play the same game for such things? Do errors really matter? Even Bruce McConkie was not too hyped on headnotes, footnotes and bible dictionaries.


  1. wondering says:

    Very interesting questions.

    Although I disagree that “most Latter-day Saints accept as normative” any of this stuff. As far as I can tell, most members haven’t thought about these issues at all.

    (FWIW, I’d like to know who wrote the Proclamation on the Family….which may or may not “qualify according to scriptural definition as a revelation,” according to one of the proclaimers:)

  2. Hmm, those are some really interesting questions. I’ll have to prioritize getting my hands on the Revelations and Translations volume.

    Out of curiosity, do you have a reference for that study of early Utah sermons? I’d like to take a look at that sometime.

  3. “I’d like to know who wrote the Proclamation on the Family.” Indeed. I’ve heard a story that gives it context and authorship, but I’m not happy sharing it because I no longer remember either my source or the name of the author (NOT even a 70), though I have some general description.

  4. When it comes to First Presidency letters read over the pulpit, I’d be hard-pressed to believe that the First Presidency actually wrote the letters, although I’d assume that they at least look over them before giving approval for the signature to be stamped. (I also doubt that they physically sign most of what is signed by them.) For example, the letter issued each year around election time is really just the same letter sent again and again. I take the First Presidency’s supposed-authorship to be a stamp of approval than anything.

    When it comes to manuals I have no issue with them being written by a group. Sermons are another matter. I believe that each one is written by the one who gives it, but I can think of several cases where editorial changes have been made before publication. Personally, it doesn’t bother me, even when it is a dramatic change (such as the now-infamous talk by Pres. Packer). I believe that our church leaders are inspired, but I also think that God is quite okay with letting them goof up at times. Imperfect men and women are, by definition, not infallible.

  5. I’m generally interested in how the editors viewed the documents (e.g., the case of those who edited the Doctrine and Covenants).

    Original sources and contexts are most important for me, personally, to understand meaning. However, what modern people do with texts isn’t necessarily related to original context or meaning.

  6. Uh, Ben, not really righteous of you to tempt folk with that. Figure it out!

    JB, the study is my own, but you can get a taste of what’s going on here by looking at the appendix to Mark Staker’s volume Hearken, O Ye People.

  7. I agree, J. about original sources to an extent. And of course what modern people do with texts in the Church is often excused or motivated by Nephi’s dictum (which, ironically, is usually decontextualized itself). Whole industries are built out of that.

  8. WVS,

    A quote commonly attributed to Joseph Smith … is so frequently mentioned in Church discourse that one almost hesitates to drill down in that vicinity.

    And ironically enough, that simple quote has caused endless grief and frustration for missionaries and members alike when, paired with statistics about changes to the BoM, it is thrown in their faces by antagonistic parties. It seems so odd that we would cling to a phrase which has so very, very little upside and so very, very much downside.

  9. That’s a very good point Scott B. If the story were understood as widely as the money quote, maybe we would get past that. Always the historian’s dream.

  10. Alright WVS, enough with the teases. Explain the context and story or link to it already.

  11. Woodruff wrote this (Nov 1841):

    Joseph Said the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any Book on Earth & the key stone of our religion & a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than any other Book.

    The statement was inserted into the completed ms history of the Church sometime in the mid 1850s. The context was a missionary who had faced some criticism of the BoM textual imperfections in England. Hyperbole? Maybe a little, but the point seems to have been the BoM’s clarity and correctness of teaching, not its grammar and conformance to British standards.

  12. “And now I’ve got to go to Costco.” It’s like lying down on your bed after thinking about the endless nature of time and space. Thanks WVS.

  13. Welcome, Tod.

  14. When I first read this, I thought you were going to talk about

  15. Royal Skousen notes that the “corrections” to the BOM text prepared by Joseph (and I suppose others who helped him) do not show the same remarkable consistency and coherence as the original text. Paraphrasing Skousen, the “corrections” do not show the same inspiration as the original. I have wondered about the corrections to the D&C in the same light.

  16. Kent, that’s interesting. The translation part made me chuckle a little.

  17. ricke, I replied to your longer comment on this over at the other blog. But Skousen’s take is interesting here. The question about how this applies across the board is a tough one I think. And it brings up again the question as to whether signing off on something is the same as an unfiltered prophetic declaration. The ground here is not terribly firm I think.

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