Joseph Smith as Preaching Platform

This is the first in a series of posts on General Conference.Part 2 is here.

During the upcoming October conference, we are likely to hear Joseph Smith quoted. I’m always curious to see what material surfaces in these contexts. It’s just that our sensibilities about texts have changed over the last 200 years and we annotate, edit and valorize reliability in ways that print cultures of the past did not do. Our Church print culture has been powerfully traditional, with one generation taking from the previous one, rarely returning to sources.

One Joseph Smith quote in particular has come up of late (I saw it on facebook a few days ago and heard it in a BYU address recently – earlier it appeared in the Joseph Smith P/RS manual and Richard G. Scott used it in an interesting way in a 1992 conference address). It goes like this:

A man can do nothing for himself unless God direct him in the right way; and the Priesthood is revealed for that purpose.[1]

One can reconstruct to some degree the source for this statement. It reads like this:

a man can do nothing for himself

It may help to look at the statement like this:

A man can do nothing for himself unless God direct him in the right way; and the Priesthood is revealed for that purpose.

The portion in red represents material added to the statement in 1856, 12 years after Joseph Smith’s death. In the mid 1850s the LDS Church Historian (George A. Smith) had his staff at work writing Joseph Smith’s history and among their duties was the task of reconstructing Joseph Smith’s sermons from a rather thin source pool. The text in red was inserted when the sermon of which it was a part was reconstructed in 1856. The source for the addition was probably the Historian himself.

George A. saw his office as authorizing the fleshing out of available materials both to properly represent Joseph Smith’s thought and perhaps secondarily to support current thinking among Church leaders. The flavor of the change here suggests a desire to remind the Saint’s of their dependence on the Twelve and First Presidency for salvific sacraments and knowledge in Mormonism. It was simply part of a consistent message of the time.[2]

Occasionally we see this kind of editing today, but it is pretty rare. There are a couple of ways to think about this. One is to essentially agree that whatever editing was done to construct these texts was divinely directed, and therefore either accurate, or if not, still expresses the correct idea, in other words they fulfill a standard of inerrancy. Of course we are all familiar with a similar concept in some Christian views of scripture. The received text is THE text. Communities certainly have the right to acclaim such rulings. But this can never create modern historical authenticity by itself. Mormonism, as much or more than other religions, values historical accuracy since its foundational faith claims are historical claims. Should that passion for accuracy extend to our history outside the core events? I think it should. Moreover, I think it has, but in a way mediated by the living history surrounding Mormonism itself. The meaning of truthful presentation in one generation evolves with the cultural standards of the age. The Joseph Smith Papers Project demonstrates that continued evolution with its devotion to fidelity to the sources along with the promise of eventual completeness of the record.

Next time: Pulpit and Canon.


[1] Manuscript History of the Church version. It appears in a slightly different way in print.

[2] While the source text doesn’t really go that direction, I think Joseph Smith’s conception of sacramentalism and revelatory stewardship could be thought of as justification for the addition. Today of course, such and addition might occur as devotional commentary. In a sense, that is what GAS and co. were doing for the most part.


  1. This is a fascinating post. Joseph was so engaged in correcting editorial inaccuracies in the Bible–and yet a decade after his death his own words are being “fleshed” out by a team of editors, “perhaps secondarily to support current thinking among Church leaders.”

    I know nothing of the context beyond what you’ve supplied above, but this seems ironic.

  2. Kyle, a later installment briefly relates JS’s preaching to his translations. So I think your comment is doubly interesting.

  3. The History of the Church as Utah midrash? Awesome.

  4. Nice post, WVS. Someone should put together a critical edition of Teachings of the PJS. :)

  5. Yes, J. JS Targum created both by JS himself and the historians – clerks. That’s one way to look at it.

  6. Not ironic, Kyle. Foreign. In many respects they were fleshing out smith as he fleshed out biblical authors. This tied into beliefs about fallen language, the nature of scripture, and the meaning of revelation.

  7. …and to add to smb’s list, as per my current research project, I’ll add emphasis on the tension of apostolic succession claims.

  8. Fantastic post WVS, looking forward to more. This quote almost makes me a believer in creation ex nihilo.

  9. Quite right, Ben.

  10. “Mormonism, as much or more than other religions, values historical accuracy since its foundational faith claims are historical claims.” I’d replace “values” in this statement with “fears”. Great post. I second the motion of a critical Teachings of the PJS rendering.

  11. it's a series of tubes says:

    “fears”, eh? Project much?

  12. Midrash, in Utah? Only the most formidable exegetical tradition in Abrahamic religions! Mais oui, c’ect bien!

    But I’m afraid that the biggest problem with finding direct quotations is that we don’t have actual recordings. Any human hand recording speeches are reconstructions of the original words at best. The original intentions tend to be lost in that process.

    But I don’t think Brother Joseph minds us editing him a little. Just look at the different records of the King Follett sermon side by side. Some statements have been reversed! (See Parallel Joseph at BOAP.

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