King Follett and Clouds of Meaning

We’ve just experienced the Mormon preaching festival. That is, general conference! In addition to inspired teaching, it gives the outside world a chance to experience some of the variety of Mormon address. And besides, I’ve been toiling over chapter 7 of the book, rewriting, rethinking some, and redoing other. This represents mental suds rising to the top of my brain-glass.

Texts are always encased by interpretation. Generations come and go, and interpretation floods over texts, at least those that rise to surface (paradoxically), via unearthing by graduate students or rediscovery by the public, or just constant devotion, etc. Scripture is no exception, and everyone, not just Nephi, deploys a kind of rationalization with circumstance and inspiration to come up with a correlated understanding, whether that be official, communal, familial, or even “backlistial.” Among Mormons, Joseph Smith’s sermons are quite often seen as doctrinal in some sense, a sense I won’t attempt to make precise.

Joseph Smith did little writing himself, preferring the mechanisms of oral text, dictating written text or merely the approval of ghost-written policy, poetry, politics or history.

So what’s the point of the title?

King Follett died in an accident March 9, 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois. Follett was a long-time Latter-day Saint and friend of Joseph Smith. On April 7, 1844, Joseph delivered an address to comfort Follett’s family and generally others of the Latter-day Saints who had similar loss. In it, Joseph promoted both a kind of (wildly heretical) ontological assurance and a compensatory atonement theory that, along with its divine anthropology, sought to unite the Saints in feeling and hope over their spiritual and physical journeys.

Aside from the content, I find this sermon in particular a fascinating example of how, historically, we Latter-day Saints have treated our texts. Now, it is true that much of that story is a story of elites, something like the makings of revolution, where the public voices of a few and the influence of others in the background, determine what a movement or people becomes. There is of course, a more subtle reversal of this process, where the rank and file take founding text and see in it their own lives or possibly their own counterexamples. In any case, these texts become, from the moment of creation, a cloud of meaning and portions of that cloud somehow become the text for us all.

At least some of that meaning is derived from, reacts to, and then guides, redaction (this dynamic is clearly visible in the internal dialogue of Mormon scripture for example). In the case of King Follett, the stages of redaction are interesting and reflect Joseph’s reticence to write, the inability of listeners to record the oral archetype, the nature of antebellum perception of Sermon Event, and the internal Mormon understanding of text. Most importantly, valorization of purpose trumped valorization of fidelity to source. None of this is particularly unusual or rare even today, in certain contexts. Here, briefly is how things fall out.

1. There was a sermon event on Sunday, April 7, 1844. Two official clerks left fairly robust reports of the proceedings along with some sympathetic and critical witnesses who left us reports of varying length.

2. The sermon itself was a part of the April conference in Nauvoo and the two clerks left us unprecedented detail for the entire conference experience from the 5th to the 9th of April.

3. One of these clerks was assigned to prepare the conference reports for publication. He did this by combining his own report with the other official report and created in the process, the first published record of the April 7 sermon. Unfortunately, the combined manuscript record is not extant, so we don’t know what that intermediate text may have looked like in relation to the first imprint.

4. Almost immediately the sermon event was tagged by its current name: the King Follett Sermon -KFS (or address or discourse). We don’t have enough data to seek a cross-section of listener reaction, and given the large audience (10,000+?) in the open air, probably only a fraction heard the complete remarks but it was surely influential and continued for the next century and a half to generate joy, curiosity, skepticism, criticism, applause, and commentary within and without the LDS church.

5. Redacted versions of the sermon appeared in print three times following its delivery, within a year. It was the third redaction that formed the base-text for what most Saints now consider to be the King Follett Discourse, Sermon, whatever (I’ll used KFD from here on). That edition probably came from the pen of the prolific William W. Phelps.

6. When the Mormons arrived in Utah, the church records came with them and apostle and former private secretary/historian for Joseph Smith, Willard Richards, established the first newspaper, The Deseret News only a few years after the Saints arrived. Richards was a moving force behind the writing and publication of Joseph Smith’s history and after his death, his successor carried on that project. A part of the writing of Joseph’s history was the reconstruction of his sermons and KFD, given its apparent fame, deserved special treatment. Consequently, clerks were assigned the task of collating a fusing available texts, manuscript and print to create a longer, and perhaps better, account of the sermon. Fortunately, a fair bit of their efforts were left behind in preliminary (what I call intermediate) texts. Examining these intermediate texts, it becomes clear that the clerk initially responsible for the task used the Phelps text as his beginning, modifying it with some of the available unofficial manuscripts (these included a report constructed from notes by Wilford Woodruff and copied into his journal along with Richards’ own brief notes of the sermon).

7. After further redaction and editorial expansion by the new historian George A. Smith, the new fusion text became the “official” version, and with a few important exceptions, the text that reappeared in imprints through the years.

8. The next major edition of the sermon appeared in 1909 in the midst of controversy over the 1855 text’s accuracy and reliability as a doctrinal source. The reasons for the controversy are not so important here, instead what is important is that the 1909 imprint provided a new text tradition, one that eventually made its way into such books as History of the Church(c1952) and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith(1938).[1]

This is a very abbreviated view of the history of a wonderfully uniting and polarizing text that can’t do justice to the complexity of context, motivation and culture that wound around it, changed its meaning, and continues to do so.

The point I originally intended to make was something about the transition from Phelps to the first and second 1855 fusion attempt (definitely warm fusion), but now I’ve run out of space and you let me. I guess there’s a part II coming up.

[1]It’s the footnotes, dummy!


  1. I trust you’re familiar with Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated
    Text,” BYU Studies 18/2 (Winter 1978), 1–18?

  2. I am indeed.

  3. Mormon preaching festival? Not sure if I want to read the rest of the post now.

  4. Jack, I invite you not to read it!

  5. “a wonderfully uniting and polarizing text”

    Man is that the case. I think I have gotten in more philosophical debates over this text then any. And it doesn’t help that isn’t canonized and says things you would have never guessed if you only has the Book of Mormon to go off of. So it brings us together to polarize us quite well. :)

  6. Joseph, it does give us something to talk about, doesn’t it? Our present discussions are small potatoes compared to what went on a hundred years back.

  7. I really appreciated the link to Lycurgus Wilson’s Outlines of Mormon Philosophy. As a mathematician it probably didn’t escape your attention that the first three chapters were entitled: Space Time, Matter. As interesting as I found the exposition, such material was probably better covered here:

  8. Jeff, Lycurgus played an interesting if small role in KFD history. And thanks.

  9. Joshua B. says:

    For whatever reason this reminds me of Twain.

  10. Joshua B. says:

    Edit: have to add context. Follett gets people rallied up and reminds us (well… me) Heaven could be interesting if I’m thinking about how boring that place could be.

  11. Don’t forget the consolidation work done by the scribes in Salt Lake such as Jonathan Grimahaw ( or for more context ) These scribes in the historian’s office did much of the consolidation that we know are familiar with, KFD included. In fact, in Jonathan Grimshaw’s case, completing the KFD consolidation was his last act as an active member if the church. He immediately thereafter “honorably” left and went back East with nary a mention of his Mormon experience. I pont this out only to give some indication of the number and breadth of hands that some of these documents traversed in getting to the form we know them today. Jonathan, husband of my 4xgreat aunt is just one of many in this chain. Because of this it might be said that anything but the broadest strokes can only be relied upon to truly be of Joseph. In the details there are compromises, omissions, false emphasis, and generally a lot of other voices trying their best to recreate the voice of Joseph. Thus, any arguments over the fine points are effectively moot.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    Love this stuff, WVS.

    Wonko, just a heads up that WVS is also the author of the Grimshaw article you linked to.

  13. Since it’s been Conference Wordles week over at Keepa, I read the title and idly wondered if WVS was going to include a word cloud. I got that reading of the title stuck in my mind, so here’s a King Follett Discourse word cloud. And, as always, I do appreciate your work on all these texts, WVS.

  14. wonko6x9 says:

    I noticed that WVS wrote those articles within seconds of posting. Guess I’m kinda slow. It is a good read. I think it gives an interesting and different take on what life was like for some of the saints. I am far less judgmental about the saints who threw in the towel after reading his story. I don’t know how I would have dealt with that circumstance. Here is hoping that I never have to find out.

  15. Wonko, if you’ve got more information on the Grimshaw’s I’d love to hear it. Thanks for dropping by.

    Thanks, J. and Amy T.! Wordcloud for KFD. Awesome. But which KFD?? (grin)

  16. In the end, much of the info I have is based on your articles. I found a copy of his Journal ( ) while doing genealogical research. It broke through a nearly 100 year old brick wall on Hannah Topham ( ). Through Jon’s wife Eliza and several other items, including her obituary, I was able to break through a difficult barrier. Jon and Hannah had a, let’s call it strained, relationship. In the end he kind of washed his hands of her. I can’t say he was wrong in doing this either, though I really only have one side of the story through his writings. Whatever the case is though, for not being a “leader” in the traditional sense, he sure both exemplified and participated in and influenced much of the early church through his writings. It is too bad he wasn’t a better farmer :)

  17. Ha. Funny question, WVS. I started out at BOAP, but couldn’t use the comparative text (or whatever you call it) so I went to Google, which brought up a Catholic doctrinal site, where the commenters were gasping at the audacity of the content of the KFD, and someone linked to the text from the Ensign, so I used the 1971 Ensign version. : )

  18. I have a Grimshaw document that I suspect might be new to Bill. Sending, in 3 … 2 … 1 …

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