Your Sunday Brunch (Not a Mother’s Day Post) Special, #12: Sermons, Their Impact, and Joseph Smith

No, not a Mother’s Day post. Just some thinking out loud here. Ignore without peril.

Preaching in America during the long eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and more especially the antebellum period, makes a fascinating study (says I). Gauging the impact of those sermons among listeners and downstream is especially interesting. However, doing that can be challenging and requires considerable detective work especially in considering immediate impact. Ideally, there would be surveys to consult, reported interviews with listeners and so on. But those instruments were not really known in the sense that we use them today. There are a few items that can give us a peek at what people thought about their preachers. However, with one or two exceptions, these are not massive contemporary collections of data. Instead, we have personal accounts in diaries, memoirs, and the like. Pursuing such things for the occasional brief comment on one or another preacher can consume years and those discoveries rarely cluster around one particular minister. Given all the surviving texts of early American sermons it is rather startling how little we know about how they were received.[1]

In examining Joseph Smith’s sermons, there are sources to consider in trying to understand impact. They are often cluttered by hagiography or dismissive sarcasm but they do exist. Extracting a picture of the immediate personal impact of one of JS’s sermons? Not an easy problem, maybe an impossible one. However, we can consider other kinds of data and other kinds of problems. In particular, what about long term sub-institutional impact?

For example, were these sermons republished? Immediately? Were they reprinted over a long period? Redacted in some way? Did they become encyclopedia material in the sense that they helped define him or even Mormonism?[2] That has to count for something in the scheme of things. Naturally, if we don’t hone in on sermons, there is a wide swath of material that qualifies in the definitional scheme. But that’s not what we’re about here.

The question of long term impact is not really a question about the sermon experience, which is essentially subjective, and in any case, impossible to duplicate. (Today you can get closer with video tape but even then the immediacy and environment are not there.) The corpse of the antebellum sermon, if it survives at all, is the sermon text.

In the large, sermon texts existed in wonderful variety in Joseph Smith’s America. These may or may not represent actual sermon deliveries. And even if they do, these resulting tracts or sometimes book – ish collections hardly qualify as strict word-for-word narratives or minutes. Indeed, tractate preachers waxed verbose and/or eloquent – even if homespun. I cannot emphasize enough the point that you cannot really narrate a sermon. The little data that we have in the bag on sermon delivery shows the futility of a text in this regard. Preachers had delivery mechanisms and styles, characteristic approaches to material, and preferred, often habitual body movements and voice modulation, etc., etc., etc. Listeners might find the package thrilling, inspiring, disgusting, overwhelming, riveting, compelling, ridiculous, warm, boring, or just silly but it was frequently a little divorced from content. A text is merely a faint image of what was going on from the pulpit. And texts edited by the preacher himself no doubt only marginally reflected the actual delivered oral-text. Even trained reporters did not leave behind complete authentic texts (in more ways than one).

Joseph Smith became, in his later years, what I would call a good plain preacher. His style seems to have evolved from a forced role of correction-instruction and less so perhaps, apologetic. Many of his contemporaries in and out of the Church took other routes, but his advice, when reported, seems to push against the theatrical, the vivid, I’ll say, contrived. I don’t mean this in a demeaning sense – Mormonism itself has had many prominent preachers with stark stylistic patterns – some unconscious, but some surely motivated by a desire to captivate an audience – probably in the hope of impressing the message. It is the case I think, (I’m drawing on my own limited experience here) that few prominent preachers (or speech makers in general) speak in public the way they do in friend to friend encounters. There is nearly always some level of artifice.[3]

In the end, Joseph Smith’s sermons were both different and similar to Protestant homily. He approached familiar topics in a repetitious way in many cases but still his sermons were often driven by the need to explain himself or translate if you will, some experience or principle, something that most preachers probably considered as their own path. Topically, his sermons were often unusual compared to contemporary Protestant preaching and several are still used as boundary markers between Mormons and (other) Protestants. American Protestant preachers were no strangers to political speech and Joseph engaged in this too. But the black regiment? No.

Much of his preaching revolved around idiosyncratic readings of the book of Hebrews or the gospel of John, say. He often did “take a text,” that well-trodden Protestant trajectory, though he frequently just pretended to do so.[4] His sermons were generally extemporaneous and most often his scriptural quotations suggest both deliberate and accidental errors (but remember, we are looking through a second-hand lens here). Did he memorize large blocks of text to mix and match as occasion or Spirit demanded? Not really. He was no George Whitefield in that regard. And he didn’t have the option of the itinerant who might deliver the same address over and over again, in the next town and the next (though he did a little of that too). He often had the same core audience, Sunday after Sunday. So he did deliberately try to vary his subject matter. But it nevertheless moved within certain orbits, topically, for the most part. At least that is what the data suggests to me.

Since Joseph Smith didn’t deliver from a written text, did he edit reports of his remarks? Well, sometimes, it appears. But by far those reports that existed during his life were not published and weren’t subject to his personal review for various reasons. Of those where he took a crack at editing, he didn’t do too much with it. He was not a writer and produced most documents that can be traced to him via dictation. In fact, he was preaching all the time you might say.[5] And what about his unrecorded sermons? We have some hints of those, and surely some of them were important for at least dinner conversation. In spite of the riches of sermon records in antebellum America, most preachers had this in common with Joseph Smith: their sermons were often unwritten either by themselves or their listeners.[6] There was simply never any corpse. You know what the law says about that. And do we wish that were otherwise? Would it have answered some lingering questions on any number of issues? Perhaps.

In Joseph’s case there are hints of things that address matters like “first vision,” “priesthood restoration,” “resurrection” and so on. Too bad. But as the Johannine redactor observed, you can’t have everything.

[1] John Quincy Adams is a good example of someone who reported, though not in extenso, his thoughts about preacher and sermon. It was often pretty scathing. Hence fun to read. Adams didn’t like exegesis. Greek? Boring – Adams would not have been a fan of someone like Frederic Farrar. He preferred a little drama and freedom at the pulpit. It is somewhat unfortunate that we don’t survey listeners at General Conference (ahem, more than BCC readers). I can see the COB’s point of view here, but I would love this kind of data. After all, I’ve been the subject of it for many years as a professor.

[2] A fun related thing is this: how did JS’s sermons meet an evolving Mormon discourse/theology? This is a subtle question and a very interesting one to me. Among the mighty men and women who make such a question even viable: Franklin Richards, Eliza R. Snow, B. H. Roberts, Edwin Parry, Joseph Fielding Smith. Still, I would estimate that in the ward of my youth, less than ten percent of members were in any way familiar with JS’s sermons through one channel or another. I expect the percentage is higher now by virtue of things like the recent RS/PH manual on JS.

[3] Sermons in modern Mormon public events like the General Conference, are usually carefully crafted texts, not really representative of the sermon-making of the 19th and early 20th century. On the other hand, post-delivery editing has been common among Mormons since the 1850s. We were, and are, not that different from the contemporary status quo.

[4] In saying that, I’m not trying to pigeon-hole what Protestants did. There is magnificent variety there. But I don’t have 400 pages and I’ve already exhausted most people already.

[5] Boswell: required. For the uninitiated, great care has to be taken with JS docs that appear in first-person viewpoint. By far most of that literature was not produced either by dictation or approval. The Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham are notable exceptions. He clearly had some editorial work going on there and let’s not forget the D&C. Times and Seasons editorials from March 1842 through the summer may contain some of his own writing or dictation. Some of the fanciful spelling there may reflect Joseph but perhaps it was just poor work by his assistants and press boys. Accepted spelling was still a bit fluid in 1840 too.(g) I should note here what might be an uncomfortable fact given the way we have treated Joseph Smith’s materials in the past – Approval is not the same as Production. (Think: Tom Clancy.)

[6] In terms of reporting, JS was miles ahead of the typical preacher in one sense. The fact is, if a preacher didn’t self-report by either pre-delivery notes/text or post-delivery tract, then his sermon usually vanished without a whimper. JS didn’t make notes (with an exception or two) and he didn’t post-publish. In a very unusual paradigm, his system did this, in both formal and informal ways.


  1. Meldrum the Less says:

    What happened? Where are our preachers filled with the spirit of prophecy after the manner of Joseph today?

    Can you, with a straight face, point me to General Conference?

  2. The spontaneous dynamic Joseph Smith followed was one of the (but not the only) revivalist ideals. Partly based on the promises of the New Testament, it was never the only way. General Conference performs a service that is both like and unlike that of early meetings. I believe there is a lot of “struggling in the Spirit” for those who give those addresses. Just as it was in the days of JS, the listener is both judge and beneficiary. Moreover, JS returned to various topics with some frequency and clearly had axes to grind and agendas to press. And his fellow Mormon preachers? Nothing particularly to shout about based on the remaining ashes we have to sift. Was this the golden age of Mormon preaching? My guess is you might find it pretty humdrum.

  3. Meldrum the Less says:

    My first ancestor reportedly brought the tar bucket when they damned near killed the Prophet. When he showed up to preach the next day, said ancestor also showed up to finish the job. Somehow the preaching of Joseph Smith caused this no-nonsense frontiersman to convert to Mormonism. Perhaps a story with a strong dose of literary license, but it still says something about the preaching of the day.

    I’m all for struggling with the Spirit. But can’t we lower the dose of barbiturates at GC just a little bit?

  4. As a side note as per your footnote, I wouldn’t be surprised if the research division did evaluate sermon reception. But who knows.

  5. J., I wonder how they would do this?

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