Conference Prep #3. Or, the High Councilor’s Nightmare.

This is the third in a series of posts on General Conference. Part 2 is here. Followup post here.

In this part I’m going to focus a little more on Christian preaching in Joseph Smith’s time but first I want to take a final stab at the last post. There I briefly mentioned the thinking that the Standard Works are superior to pulpit scripture, the latter to be measured by the former. While I said that in modern times this idea might be traced to Joseph F. Smith and James E. Talmage, it had a much earlier adumbration in Orson Pratt. Pratt’s value system for Mormon doctrine pressed into service the early revelations of Joseph Smith. It seems clear that he ranked those revelations, published in the Doctrine and Covenants in Smith’s day, as superior to the innovative preaching of Nauvoo (I’m excluding private teachings). Indeed, he seems somewhat ignorant of that preaching, or perhaps saw it as speculative (see for example his discourse of Feb. 18, 1855, JD 2:338). In the internal discussions regarding doctrine among the apostles in Utah, Pratt tended to favor the written Word (as he saw it) over the cosmological declarations of Brigham Young, say. (Think: Adam.) Pratt was no exception to the rule that every generation reinterprets inherited texts to situate itself — but for him the elasticity of scripture was just not generous enough to accommodate the necessary rereading of the Old Testament and the revelations.

During Joseph’s lifetime his preaching in church gatherings evolved from a typical ministerial approach to an eclectic style characterized by allusions to his experiences with the divine, perhaps immediate inspiration, punctuated by (often unreferenced) biblical quotations and generally driven by a desire to express his expanding vision of praxis and cosmology to the Latter-day Saints.[1]

Joseph’s background in religion was infected by Methodist revivalism but he was familiar with preaching models that centered around prepared texts. To understand that background, I’ll digress a little.

Eighteenth century ministers usually followed an apprenticeship system. Prospective preachers plied their trade in a church or district under the tutelage and supervision of some experienced parson. When training was complete, the (usually) younger man was ordained in the denomination.[2] In Joseph Smith’s day a transition was taking place. The theological schools (seminaries) were coming on line. By mid-century, graduates were ubiquitous in Congregational pulpits in New England and school trained preachers were evident in the Old Northwest (Methodist itinerants were second-class citizens, but still seemingly valued as pioneers by their more staid cousins). One might choose the school that reflected one’s theological leanings. Lorenzo Snow came out of Oberlin for example.[3]

However a preacher became established, the preaching pattern was common in all quarters. The tradition of text-driven homily was old in the church, stretching back to the doctors and before[4] and it gradually developed in form in several ways, sometimes to a kind of acontextual exercise in application like we often see in the LDS pulpit exposition or a historical discussion of the text or a tangential exercise in definition.[5] Prior to the reformation, sermons were seen as a mediation between scripture (meant for the priesthood) and the laity. Archdeacon John Standish (1554) said, “The moste parte of the people be evuyll, but Christe woulde not his mysteries to be published to al people. For the comen [people] neuer vsed them well. . . [it was] not for every man to search the secrets. Christ would not [have] every one be a medler.”[6] Not exactly an “all the people as prophets” sentiment. Even so, many ministers considered themselves to be the prophets of the modern age in varying degrees.

To understand the preaching pattern among most Protestants in Joseph’s lifetime is to understand the order of the Mass. A priest delivered a (usually short) exposition of a passage(s) occurring in the Mass, just before the Eucharist (sacrament). Protestant preaching developed out of this, but gradually the sermon became much the focus of the Sabbath gathering and it could get long, whereas their Catholic predecessors were often quite brief and often skipped in fact.[7] Great 19th century examples of the New England sermon are found in the large number of books published under the title “Sermons on Important Subjects” (see note [4] for a couple of them). Published sermons demonstrated one trend in preaching, the prepared text. Preachers wrote texts directly for publishing as sermons, or they wrote their sermons, delivered them, and published them later. Such sermons were often re-delivered a number of times.[8] Early on, one of the purposes of publishing sermons, especially examplar sermons, was the control of heresy. Of course, this was not always the case. Published sermons could serve as a pulpit (pun intended) for marginal views.[9]

Another style, still growing out of the text-driven paradigm, was the extemporaneous sermon. Early Methodists made an art of it (the Wesleys, Whitefield, etc.). Sometimes partially memorized, but still deliberately following Christ’s dictum that what you should say will be given at the moment you need it, these sermons are known not by their reports, but by brief mentions in newsprint or preacher diaries (this is somewhat contrary to the Mormon pattern, the reasons for which I’ll mention). Sometimes there were completely impromptu occasions and there are lots of examples in Mormon literature of such, where the unsuspecting missionary gets up and delivers an inspired testimony or explanation. Indeed, much of the current LDS missionary effort centers around extemporaneous speech.[10]

Finally, the venue of delivery had a long outdoor tradition.[11] Echoing that tradition, Joseph Smith’s sermons were frequently delivered outdoors to large crowds.

Joseph fell out with the text-driven standard, although his early efforts show that was gradual.[12] His preaching style grew via church government. The imposition of council government took the place of the spot-market revelation. In place of dictating a revelation, council discussion and often instruction by Joseph grew into the new way. Church conferences were originally (in part) church decision councils and the record keeping imperative for such councils made them both episodes of extemporaneous preaching and recorded instruction.[13] From hence is the modern preaching system in General Conference. In Joseph’s case, his later sermons are, I think, best thought of as a part of, or at least in terms of, his translation corpus (see the second paragraph).

General Conference preaching is scripted but not exactly text-driven in the classical sense. And since the heyday of LeGrand Richards (I can still picture him putting his hand over the “end it-times up” light – this was mildly scandalous even then), we don’t see much impromptu speech in the conference center. In a way, I think that is a little sad. That said, I don’t particularly long for the days of Brigham Young. Not least for the air conditioning. But I rather like the rare off the cuff stuff. I recall one General Priesthood meeting with President Hugh B. Brown that was fun. The monocle story. I should warn you though. Having sat in the broadcast booth of the Tabernacle a few times, sometimes stuff that might have sounded like it was off-the-cuff, really wasn’t. But Elder Richards was the real thing, and those events could be spellbinding.[14]

Next up, the promised example from part two.

[1] JS’s early speaking content clearly depended on his audience. His Methodist background and later Rigdon’s presence played a role as well as his experience with the divine and the push back he saw regarding those experiences.

[2] Donald M. Scott, From Office to Profession: The New England Ministry, 1750-1850. U Penn. P. 61-4. Women followed the calling but in far fewer numbers. They were mostly behind the scenes or involved in cross-denomination charitable societies. This is not to say that they were doctrinal flobber worms. Far from it.

[3] Snow’s experience probably had an interesting interplay with the Methodist+Campbellite background of many Mormons in early Kirtland. He was an open minded bloke but also Calvinism was really not an issue at Oberlin. The seminary trained academic ministers lost adherents. The Methodists and Baptists gained.

[4] Like Ambrose and Jerome but others too. By text-driven, I mean the preacher selected a passage, say, Luke 21: 10-26 and then developed that text in any number of ways. Want to try it?

[5] For fun, check out the posthumously published, Samuel Davies, Sermons on Important Subjects. (Boston: Lincoln and Edmands, 1810). Also Charles Finney’s of the same name and any number of others. Popular title.

[6] Don’t delve into the mysteries people (i.e., Kevin)! The Word was thought to be deliberately obscure, to prevent the rabble from sullying it or putting it to some “euyll” use.

[7] Susan Wabuda, Preaching During the English Reformation. Cambridge UP. 32ff.

[8] The “Lectures on Faith” is a primary Mormon example (though they aren’t JS sermons, they did become more or less canonical). JS didn’t write down his own sermons but he did have a collection of themes to which he returned again and again after the Liberty jail experience.

[9] Sermons abound in scripture and they sometimes bash the status quo. Many of Christ’s sermons were criticisms of current religious practice/leaders. Book of Mormon personalities are often known mainly through their reported sermons (King Benjamin). The JST contains important sermon texts. It’s unclear whether these kinds of texts served as examples for Joseph Smith and co.

[10] Published reports from listener notes do exist, often deliberately taken by critics to bring to light some perceived doctrinal error. Charles Finney published his own sermons out of irritation with reporters who focused on his anti-Calvinist tendencies. (It’s not clear that he really helped himself by doing this.)

[11] You can see evidence of this in England in the “preaching crosses” scattered around. These were little wood or stone shelters with a pulpit raised up some feet from the surrounding area. A crowd assembled to listen to the parson preach when weather permitted. The most famous of these was near St. Paul’s. It didn’t survive. Outdoor preaching is fun topic (for me), but I won’t bore you.

[12] Check out some of the early reports in Minute Book 2. (Far West Record.) JS complained late in his career that taking a text in preaching was something he found too confining. (It was an acquired skill, evidenced by preaching instruction manuals of the period advising established ministers to have apprentices “exhort” rather than take a text.) Other Saints followed suit. In the relatively sparse records of preaching beyond JS, text-driven speech in Nauvoo was uncommon. See Sidney Rigdon’s rambling address in the 7 April 1844 conference, same with George J. Adams and others. The now common practice of assigning topics for speakers in local LDS congregations began in earnest in the 1970s. Reminiscent of the text-driven practice, lay preaching became an echo in some respects of the old way.

[13] A nice example is the “Record of the Twelve.” Check it out here. (Thanks to CHL.)

[14] You can get some idea of his machine-gun delivery here


  1. Awesome stuff, all around, WVS.

  2. Great post. Thank you for this.

    Question – I have always been interested in discovering what led to the development of the current structure of LDS Sacrament Meetings. Why didn’t it evolve more along the lines of Catholic liturgy (as can be said of the priesthood structure or Temple ceremony) instead of the Reformation preaching style? Why more emphasis on talking/expounding and less on ceremonial worship? Many members believe that the method of our communal meeting is set in stone and comes directly from the Lord. I don’t believe that.

  3. Michael, I think part of the answer lies in the low church heritage of Mormonism. It’s the reason we don’t use the cross much (except in very subtle ways – American Protestants during Mormonism’s early years despised the Latin cross – the Utah isolation during Protestant transition to cross-display, etc. put us out of the loop). English converts, which made up a majority of converts in the early Utah period were drawn mostly from the traditions with purposely simple liturgy. Later, I think worship patterns can be seen as boundary maintenance maybe. Other similar factors played a role. There’s also the fact that very early on revelations marked worship as deliberately unfixed in details.

  4. This is great, WVS. Also, I want to hear more stories from your time in the broadcast booth…

  5. Thanks, guys. That might be fun Kyle. Have think it over.

  6. Two thumbs way up. Probably worth noting that eyesight deterioration and other age-related infirmities may in small measure be keeping impromptu sermons alive in GC.

  7. Fun stuff.

    (Also, this post *was* certainly going to hold the honor of most-footnoted in the ‘nacle for the week, but then that conniving Kaimi had to go and out-footnote it over on T&S…)

  8. Indeed, that conniving Kaimi. Fear not, Brother Park, BCC will defend its honor. Oh yes, it’s ON. This week, look for the most heavily-footnoted Reader Question Box in RQB history.

  9. Oh boy.

  10. I have had a number of stake presidents in the last 20 years who quite purposefully avoided preaching from prepared texts. Our current one appears to keep a list of topics to address. A previous one usually spoke from no text at all (other than the scriptures). When done well with both the speaker and the hearer having the Spirit such talks are incredibly powerful. I can understand why that is not done in General Conference (translation would be a nightmare), but I love it at the local level.

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