Preaching, Tradition, History

General Conference season is behind us once again. Preaching is one of the main features of conference and there is a wide variety of it there. I’ve mostly been interested in antebellum sermons, partly because of their richness in terms of redaction criticism, a characteristic shared by ancient documents. Historically, scripture became scripture by repetition. People repeating what they heard, adding explanation, interleaving bits, expansion, contraction, often assigning sources as seemed appropriate. Below is a very short example from a sermon report (a Joseph Smith sermon delivered in June, 1844 less than two weeks prior to his death) that displays some of this process. Keep in mind, redactors often have a point to make.

Original Report From 1844 Redacted Report ca. 1855
all men are liars who say that they are of the true – God always sent a new dispensatn. into the world – when men come out & build upon ot men’s foundatn. – did I build on anor. mans foundatn. but my own – I have got all the truth & an independt. revn. in the bargain – & God will bear me off triumphant – All men are liars who say that they are of the true church without the revelations of Jesus Christ and the Priesthood of Melchisedeck which is after the order of the Son of God It is in the order of Heavenly things that God should always send a New dispensation into the world when men have apostatized from the truth and lost the Priesthood but when men come out and build upon other men’s foundation they do it on their own responsibility without authority from God, and when the floods and the winds blow, their foundation will be found to be sand and their whole fabric will crumble to dust.

Did I build on another man’s foundation but my own? I have got all the truth which the christian world possessed and an independent revelation in the bargain; and God will bear me off triumphant.

The initial expansion by the redactors, “church without . . .” appeals to a signature phrase, “revelations of Jesus Christ” (no doubt the phrase was drawn from KJV Gal. 6) that was rather rare in Joseph Smith’s sermon corpus. Indeed, it does not occur at all in the better reports. However, it was a rather common phrase in Utah preaching of the 1850s era, an incomplete survey shows about a hundred instances of its use in public preaching in Utah in that period by a fairly narrow group. Without dragging it out, I think this and a few other features in this excerpt attempt to link the Smith sermon with the decade following its delivery and to make a point about revelation and its necessity for a dissenting church.

Of course the point is important in the original context of the sermon—a new church had been organized by dissenter/reformers and their work does not, unlike a number of post-Nauvoo splinters, invoke a new revelation—hence the next redaction adding flavor to the point and addressing both kinds of dissent (revealed/non-revealed)—and probably offering an “I told you so” to the dissenting church that disappeared soon after the death of Joseph Smith.

Reading scripture, thinking about tradition, and capturing history, should put one in mind of editors, and the difficulty of parsing intent in documents of the dead. It’s hard enough with the living.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Bill, who are the redactors here, and how was the original text reconstituted here so effectively? It seems very difficult to have come to that fulsome of a description given the extreme abbreviation in the redaction.

    BTW your last paragraph is gold, except that dead men take wordsmithing a little better.

  2. And in unrelated news, the talks are up!

  3. Steve, redaction by a team of clerks (Leo Hawkins and Jonathan Grimshaw) overseen by church historian George A. Smith (none of whom were present at the event itself). Under instruction to “fill out” such texts as much as possible, they were familiar with current church discourse and the material under production by the office at the time, both activities were influential in such editions.

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