How We See the Preaching of Past Eras – Joseph Smith’s Sermons. A Thought.

I gave fair warning that I would dump semi-discarded bits from my attempts to write an introduction to the Sermon Book. Since we’ve just been through a lot of preaching over the past weekend, now seems a good time to continue the torture. I think this may be applicable to the individual sermons we heard over the weekend in several senses. You may judge.

The cultural gulf that separates current Mormonism from an understanding and appreciation of its past is deep, and just as in any faith tradition, fully bridging that chasm is impossible. In the end, we can only see the past through the lens of the present. However, this does not require us to be satisfied with unexamined expression, terminology and epistemology. To understand early Mormonism is a much wider problem than understanding Joseph Smith or his momentary expressions on a Sunday morning. It is to understand the larger picture of idea, reason, belief, and the cloud of concerns that attended a life nearly two centuries ago in America. On the other hand, few people understand themselves in such broad terms even at their most introspective (something that usually means dwelling on regrets, incomplete tasks, missed opportunities or other “what ifs”). The events and perceptions of a life are packed with the immediate pressures of the day and the intrusion of memories triggered by those events.

There is no doubt that Joseph Smith saw himself writ large in history, but as his sermons show, it was often the news of the day that drove their topics and messages: the death of an esteemed friend, the concerns of a village transitioning to a city, the present theology of rising temple walls, and the pressures of an underground denial of the sacredness of Victorian marriage ethics. We may see connections to events decades before, links to partly formed theological expressions and figures of the deeper past but we are besotted with our own impure logic if we think we understand the present act via the distant shot-pattern of blasts from the past. But perhaps the vague watercolors we paint from the documents and letters and preserved private partial musings of those who lived their lives and religion out of our ken may bring new meaning to our present lives.

With the publication of Joseph Smith’s papers in process, it seems an appropriate time to focus on certain of his important public speeches in a somewhat broader way. Perhaps such a study will be useful in drawing a clearer picture of the words and thoughts of an important American figure and how those words and thoughts have been transformed in their flow down to the present time.



  1. More torture, please.

    Do you find that sermons we hear today (as opposed to Joseph’s) acknowledge less explicitly the topics of the day?

  2. If that’s torture, bring it on.

  3. Hunter, I think sermons (and perhaps modern forms of religion in general) are more responses to changing cultural and political values rather than shaping them out of some unchanging base of values, epistemology, or texts. Of course, that’s not exactly how any given preacher may see things.

  4. Thanks. I think this is a very astute observation, and a reason that the documents, especially the Articles of Faith have been so important to me.

    Both of my parents were converts, so I don’t have any “blood in the game” in regards to church history, as my cousins who have a prophet for an ancestor used to remind me and my siblings. I don’t know if that makes it easier for me to look at church history and see church leaders in context of my ancestors, and what they were doing at the time. It at least always made my cousins mad.

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