Preaching, Rhetoric and Mormons

With the recent conference, many Church members saw what has become the pinnacle of Mormon Preaching: The General Conference Address. But is it really representative of the Mormon sermon? I say no. In my paltry experience, Mormon preaching is much more like classical Methodist homily than the considered rationalist stuff you might get from an Anglican pulpit. General Conference preaching is very carefully scripted. No off the reservation speculation, no fire and brimstone to speak of, no getting lost in the rhetorical moment allowed, much. (I think Church presidents have their leeway and there is descent evidence for that.)

Paul Welsby, in his Sermons and Society (1970) offers that preaching is generationally specific. It probably doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that, but it’s worth noting. In Joseph Smith’s era, things were more free-wheeling from the central Church pulpit. On the other hand, you had to be prepared for public correction. Orson Hyde learned this. Joseph Smith sometimes coached prospective preachers. “This is what you talk about, and here’s how you do it.” Naturally they never enjoyed Smith’s freedom, but still it had an unscripted feel.

In the 19th century the range of rhetorical style was wide as the Pacific. You had Emerson, Henry Beecher, Frederic Farrar (I’m counting the Brits here) on the intellectual side and thousands of more home-spun brethren (and sisters) on the other with venues ranging from the purely tractate to the spur of the moment speaking-in-tongues.

Paul- Not the Guy you Want to Debate. JS's Preaching Idol. Except for the voice.

Evolution! How did it play out in 19th century preaching? Answer: it didn’t. That’s right. Straw Man. Even Charles Kingsley, both priest and scientist, found little to object to in the theory and even less to preach about (but it can be argued the Kingsley’s understanding of Darwin’s writing was not very robust). Farrar and Beecher, both of intellectual stripe, found nothing in Darwin to preach about, for or against.[1]

Farrar - A lot more liberal maybe than Talmage knew.

That brings up another interesting issue: who told preachers what to preach? Surely this is partly environmental. And as Mormons often touted, Protestant preaching topics were many times subject to congregational whim rather than the other way around. Mormon preachers were generally inexperienced. “Not Trained for the Ministry.” This is only partly true of course. They trained each other — a scripturally motivated practice, right? But Mormon preachers observed that they took the Holy Spirit for their guide. This would certainly be claimed by many others, but the Mormon association with canonical breech perhaps made this seem more extreme. Individual accounts however bear witness to the experience of Divine aid both in preacher and listener. And this was all about being unscripted. Indeed, there is still, outside of the Conference Center, a distinct preference, even requirement for, extemporaneous remarkage among at least visiting authorities to local congregations.[2]

It’s often asserted that Joseph Smith was not the prominent preacher of the Church in early years. Based on actual reports though, I’d say at least by the mid 1830s he is in fact the most revered of preachers in Mormonism. Rigdon may have been a powerful orator (it doesn’t really come through in the written accounts I don’t think) but Smith, for obvious reasons, was looked to for instruction, possibly even new revelation in his oral communiques. For Mormons, that was a signal quality, for Protestants in general, probably a frightening one. It’s an important aspect of “lived religion” and one I want to address a little in another post: how did congregations, especially Mormon ones, experience sermon delivery. I think there is something to be gained there by looking at Protestant counterparts. Happy Easter folks. Listen to them sermons.


[1] Huxley and Hooker waged a bit of a war on the priests, but it was a one-sided argument methinks. Moreover, science in general seems to be a topic of very little importance from the pulpit in 19th century America, and Britain too. If Natural Selection arguments were better understood at the time though, it may be that they would have stirred the sleeping giant — they certainly did in the 20th century. Peter Bowler’s Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons (2007) doesn’t really make any sense (contrary to his claim) in the 19th century.

[2] I’ve been there when newbie Area Seventies have been raked over it by a GA for having written out a talk. A word to the wise people. (grin)


  1. Just to clarify: on footnote one, when you say “contrary to his claim” about Bowler, do you mean that Welsby is makes claims about 19th century preaching on evolution or that Bowler does? I ask because, if I remember Bowler correctly (and it has been a while since I read it), he indicated that 19th century religious thinkers were generally okay with the idea of evolution by the time Darwin was published, albeit more in the Lamarckan/progressive sense, and that it wasn’t until 20th-century genetics and neo-darwinism that systematic religious opposition really started. I think that’s what you’re saying too, and that Welsby is making claims contra Bowler – is that right?

  2. Poor editing by me; feel free to read “is makes claims about” in the voice of a voice of a cheesy Swedish accent.

  3. Bowler! I think the passage I’m recalling right at the front of the book, but I don’t have it in front of me.

  4. Maybe the reason speakers in wards are so often given a conference address upon which to base their talk is to keep us away from speculation and unscripted utterances. Fortunately, that advise is not followed strictly enough to make most sacrament meetings quite as predictable and dull as General Conference.

  5. This is sort of related, but my Bishop told me the other day that whenever someone talks politics up at the pulpit, or even alludes to it he privately talks with them afterward. He says it has no place there. I happen to agree.

    I find that a bold delivery of a bold address can rouse one’s faith exponentially, but I also think because a person is more quiet and reserved does not mean they are not giving a great talk. I dated someone who used to preach on Temple Square when the spirit struck him, and he did interest people and stir them, but that was all he could do. By and large he was all flash and no substance. I do say that with a great deal of affectionate remembrance though. Gotta love that bold worship…

  6. Really interesting stuff, WVS. Again with the awesome captions. I’ve also seen GA’s tell Stake leaders that they need to speak extemporaneously.

    My reading of non-published sermon accounts in 19th-century Utah suggests to me that the hope was to speak at “liberty,” or with “great liberty.” It seems that this was meant to be the freedom to extemporaneously speak coherently and with ease was viewed as a gift of the spirit. I have almost zero experience with the twentieth century though.

  7. Yes, I think the “liberty” meant that the words seemed to flow without pause to reflect, etc. I think our “by the Spirit” slogan dominated discourse then.

    EOR, that’s interesting. It is not of course determinative for the 19th century.

    I think the urging to prayerfully prepare for the GC, is an effort by pass the predetermined text, casting it in the role of scripture, and we all know what Nephi thought about that.

  8. This idea of scolding subordinates for not speaking extemporaneously is interesting. Why does general conference get a pass? Does it not matter as much if revelation does not flow as easily in general conference? Or does speaking extemporaneously improve deniability after the fact if needed?
    I personally feel like most if not all sacrament meeting talks should be written down, mostly because I don’t see very many well-planned, thoughtful sacrament meeting talks. I know lots of good people who feel otherwise, who prefer off-the-cuff, emotional outpourings.

  9. “… whenever someone talks politics up at the pulpit, or even alludes to it he privately talks with them afterward. He says it has no place there.”

    Dang right. Leave it in the Gospel Doctrine class where it’s usually found.

  10. Casey, I’ll check Bowler when I get back in town in a week.

    Romni, I think GC bows to the exigencies of TV, timing, and correlation.

  11. That’d be great – I read Monkey Trials as well as his longer history of Evolution a few years back, but I can’t remember which arguments came from Bowler and which came from other sources, and all my books are packed away for a move :/

  12. Clinton Bartholomew says:

    “It’s often asserted that Joseph Smith was not the prominent preacher of the Church in early years. Based on actual reports though, I’d say at least by the mid 1830s he is in fact the most revered of preachers in Mormonism.”
    I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind expanding on this comment. How powerful of a preacher was he in the early years, particularly before 1831 when Rigdon came on the scene? We know from the Book of Mormon that he could articulate fairly complex religious interpretations of scripture and that the church was definitely spreading slowly but well in New York prior to Kirtland. While it understandable that Rigdon would have been more practiced, doesn’t this suggest a relatively robust exhortation ability on the part of Joseph early?

  13. Early accounts suggest that JS neither looked nor acted the part. Revelations name Cowdery and then Rigdon as spokesmen. But by 1833 at least, JS was not only held in some awe, but a hierarchy was in the works that placed JS at some theological distance from others. That and the charisma of prophethood made most members seek for the next development in the corpus of divine knowledge. And who knew but it might come at that next Sunday sermon.

  14. Romni and WVS, far more than TV and correlation is translation.

    Let’s face it – the oration of the translators are lackluster even after they’ve had advance time to translate and go ove rthe talk.

    If we let the English speakers loose and forced the translators to follow along (at the current skill level), it would likely make GC not worth watching outside of America.

  15. I checked Bowler. The quote I was thinking of is on page 4. It is not that Bowler doesn’t realize there is a difference with the 19th century. It’s the degree of difference that he seems to fail to understand. Like the difference between 20 and 1.

  16. Quayle, the translation issue is an interesting one and plays out in other areas too. Especially our scriptures.

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