The Value of a Sermon Critical Edition. Part I.

[Crossposted from boap]

The reconstruction of a sermon is a task we cannot perform. Even as we contemplate it, many imponderables arise.

Are we reconstructing the experience of some person who heard the sermon? Or perhaps the sound that arrived at a certain location in the sermon’s venue? What of the environment during the address? How about changes in volume, tone, inflection, pitch (and were these intentional or environmental)? The speaker’s body movements, facial expressions, pauses, speed of delivery. All these things and many more could be observed by a listener and may be intentional on the part of the speaker in conveying the message of the speech act. Do we seek to determine what was “in the mind of the speaker” or what was in the mind of a listener or listeners? Are those ever in sufficient alignment that completion of one task completes the other?

Standing decades or centuries away form the sermon means we are frustrated in attempting to find the archetype of the sermon-act. The complexities are enormous and their unraveling is beyond us. So when we speak of reconstructing a sermon, we are not implying that there is any hope of actually accomplishing that, even if we clearly define what we mean by it. Indeed, making a definition of such a project would doom it from the start.

So, what can be done? In the end, relatively little. But if we contract our expectations sufficiently, we may, in the right circumstances, be able to do something.

When we use the words “critical edition” with respect to a sermon, and of course this is all about Joseph Smith’s sermons, we could mean any number of things. First, we should probably exclude the important but usually unascertainable data – meaning most of what is mentioned above: eyewitness experience, external environment or mental states. What’s left? The actual words formed by the speaker. How does that relate to the excluded items? We can only guess, possibly piecing together some evidence to argue for one position or another.

Finding the actual words delivered in a sermon offers little challenge in the day of electronic recording and storage. However, retrieving a sermon from the past, the long past, involves scaling some rather high barriers. We have now moved a considerable distance from our original and rather fanciful idea to something concrete which shows promise of realization.

First, we should again be clear about what we are trying to accomplish: we want to create a written text which approximates as closely as possible the actual words used by the speaker on the occasion of the speech. This is one notion of critical edition or critical text. It has been the provence of biblical studies for many years but much broader textual theory as well and there is both historical and practical precedence for molding the idea to fit the project.

In our case we have a fairly rich collection of documents which claim to report a given sermon and which have varying “value” in the reconstruction idea. That value system is partly a ledger of priorities. Was a document produced while the sermon was being given? Was a document produced by a typically reliable reporter? If a document was produced after the fact, how much time had passed? Was a document reviewed and perhaps corrected by the speaker? (this last could be problematic for purposes of accomplishing the goal of reconstructing what was said, rather than what the speaker desired or later desired to say.) Other more nuanced judgements may be rendered to rank the usefulness of source texts.

Some of the classical rules for reconstructing ancient texts will not apply directly to the case of Joseph’s sermons, simply because of the relative richness of high value independent sources. But some examples are:

The best reading is one that is supported by the most manuscripts.
The best reading is one that is supported by texts created for the purpose of reporting the speech.

Some other rules can be useful, but have to be employed with discretion. Mostly this is again because we have high value independent sources. A few other canonical rules that may be useful include:

The best reading is one that clearly matches the speaker’s known style.
The reading which runs counter to scribal habits is the best reading.

Fenton Hort, of Westcott and Hort fame used the word “probability” in describing text judgements. I think both the word and the idea are useful in describing a procedure and presentation for Joseph’s sermons. The idea is simple but it does run counter to many common types of presentations and formulas. The advantage is its clarity of dependence in source rich environments. It essentially hides little or nothing from the reader, while still making clearly evidenced judgements.

Coming back to the title of the post: what is the value of a critical edition? In our case I think the answer depends on several issues which I will discuss in part II.


  1. “we want to create a written text which approximates as closely as possible the actual words used by the speaker on the occasion of the speech. ”

    What does this mean? What about delivery, etc.? How do we account for meaningful pauses, dramatic emphasis, physical gesticulations, etc. in a critical text?

  2. Those probilities are part of why I look forward to your treatement so much WVS. It is one thing to go through the various texts, but something else to recognize when Bullock is doing something out of the ordinary.

  3. Steve, all those things could be critical to the understanding of what happened. Moreover, there are intangibles at play. The “feeling” in the crowd, etc. But usually we are ignorant in that regard. Bare words, and that in an imperfect way, is what we have.

  4. J., that is a part of what a critical text may do, or at least suggest. Going further requires different kinds of text analyses, and maybe a little prayer.

  5. But WVS, bare words can still go a long way towards describing the intangibles. I think of WW’s notes on sermons, which frequently include references to such items…

  6. I’m going to look at these issues a little more in the next part. Reactions to speeches are an important part of trying to understand what happened, to be sure. Much of what seems influential at the time, is lost *through* time. Lorenzo Dow’s sermons were certainly powerful, but reading reports of those sermons must be a very weak shadow of what was going on.

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