Joseph Smith’s Sermons: MHA 2018

One of the sessions at the Mormon History Association this year (Boise, Idaho, June 2018) focused on a new volume from Oxford University Press titled, Foundational Texts of Mormonism: Examining Major Early Sources. (edited by Mark Ashurst-McGee, Robin S. Jensen, and Sharalyn D. Howcroft) One the chapters was written by yours truly, “Joseph Smith’s Sermons and the Early Mormon Documentary Record.” Since I think this volume deserves a continuing readership I’ve decided to post my talk at the panel session—based of course on my chapter in the book. I hope it tempts you to add the book to your Mormon text library. I’ll be reviewing some of the other chapters in the book from time to time. I hope this will intrigue you enough to take a look for yourself.


Tuesday, December 12, 1848, was an intensely cold day in Great Salt Lake City. Heavy snow had fallen the previous evening and would continue again that night. In the evening, available members of the 30th quorum of seventies met at the home of Joseph Cain. The brief minutes read,

Opened by Singing & Prayer
A Sermon was read that was preached by the prophet Joseph Smith on the Death of King Follet some good exortations were given by Brethren after which the meeting adjourned

The minutes raise important questions regarding practice in these early isolated church venues and more importantly, there is the reading of a sermon. Unfortunately, nothing regarding the “good exortations” is revealed, but lingering in the air are questions about the reading text. Where did it come from? Was it manuscript or imprint? Why was it selected? Was it considered a kind of Standard Work—in the 19th-century sense—by listeners? Some of these questions can be answered, others only guessed at. Other questions surrounding this event provide structure for my remarks here, such as why this sermon was recorded in the first place, how was it recorded, who recorded it, was there more than one attempt to record the sermon that was eventually read to the 30th quorum that night? Did the 30th quorum hear just one of these hypothetical multiple accounts or “audits” or did they hear a redacted version that incorporated more than one of those hypothetical audits in some way? These questions can lead us down many theoretical paths, which would require more time than I have, and more patience than you probably have. Let me focus our energies by considering just a few examples. This will allow the introduction of important textual tools of classification and relationship to archetype, that is, the relationship to an original aural event of an oral sermon.

Early Mormon preachers shared many of the difficulties facing others of their Protestant brethren and sisters. Oral sermons of that time, as opposed to those that started life as written texts, are only known today by audits. That is, through someone who wrote down what a preacher said [did!]—an auditor who reported in writing. As Mormonism grew, it produced both oral and written preaching, the latter mostly by pamphleteering. Joseph Smith himself wrote little and with a tiny fraction of exemptions only wrote sermons within a few dictated letters meant as instruction. Early Mormon experience laid down strict rules about the value of oral preaching: that is, it was almost never valuable at all except in a very ephemeral sense. The long story there would take us too far afield so I will apologize here for making those of you who are interested read my chapter in Foundations.

The way that the Mormon oral sermon snuck back onto the canonical playing field was through Joseph Smith’s laid out church polity: that is, church council structures. Those structures and their functions gradually took the place of that wonderful early Mormon culture of just asking Smith to fund a revelation for every single question: should I do my laundry in this stream or that one? It was almost that simple. The council structure built in a decision procedure and generally pushed individual questions back onto the individual and fed questions of broader import into the council machinery. And the council provided discussion and sometimes quandaries that still had to be resolved by a dictated divine communication. But more and more often, those answers were defined by instructional discourse. That is, preaching derived out of what was classically known as the “visitation sermon.” Church of England bishops directed such sermons to priests and/or vicars of a given parish. These sermons were quite often extemporaneous, and Mormon council teaching followed that pattern and the same pattern of recording such instruction either by notes left by the bishop or audits done by one or another vicar or parish secretary for possible future reference. Smith himself regarded such Mormon council instruction/decision rendering as revelation in similar status to say his dictations from a seer stone and he saw the failure to record such renderings as tantamount to sin. Indeed, he opined that much important revelation had been lost out of such sin. The value system was trying to take a hard right turn.

That is a very short version of how at least some Mormon oral preaching regained status as written record and in some cases the status of canon itself. In fact, Smith’s production of dictated revelation diminished in parallel to the rise of Mormon visitation sermons if you will. As Mormon church conferences were structures also drawn from Protestant practice, especially Methodism, they functioned essentially as larger format councils. Church discipline was carried out in conferences, questions were resolved, impromptu assignments made, policy settled, etc. Hence preaching in conferences, especially instructional preaching for that venue was also subject to record keeping. It is largely because of such evolution and the ethos that came with it, that we have many of Smith’s sermons in one form or another. Pew auditors, or in other words average Mormon listeners like Martha Coray, or Wilford Woodruff, or William McIntire, took courage out of that ethos and a private devotion and produced important, if nearly always abbreviated, audits of Smith’s words.

Did Smith consider audits of his sermons to be important? Almost surely the answer is, it depends. Was he addressing an important question that deserved preservation? Probably not always, in his mind. But sometimes yes, he was, and there was planning if not composing and even post-event editing and re-dictating as the April 1843 conference events show. The hope to stop having to continually step into the Heraclitean Stream made purposeful recording ever more desirable. At other times the event is not clear in that regard. Almost surely it is the case that not every report of Smith is of equal perpetual value for posterity. He could speculate with the amateur science and for lack of a better term, sociology of the day. His cosmology was primitive in many respects, his medical understanding as poor as any typical backwoods boy. His Wittgensteinian “picture” was in many ways as antebellum as any. But in surviving audits, his preaching can be in a class with any of his revelations, protologically, eschatologically, Christologically, and theologically.

As noted already, Smith rarely self-audited. Gradually he developed a corps of clerks who were devoted to reporting with varying fidelity what he said. With some regularity late in his life, multiple contemporary independent audits exist for the same sermon event. I use event here to point to a sermon as aural, visual, physical experience—nearly impossible to completely relate as text. Because of the technology (ink bottles, quill or metal pens), and the anthropology of auditors, these audits of the same event can be startlingly different. And that plays into a serious problem for later historians. An example is one of Smith’s sermons delivered at the October 1841 church conference in Nauvoo, Illinois. I will note two audits of this event, one by the clerk of the conference and one by another auditor. I’ll quote what appears to be the same part of the sermon from both. First from the clerk:

President Joseph Smith, by request of some of the Twelve, gave instructions on the doctrine of Baptism for the Dead; which was listened to with intense interest by the large assembly. The speaker presented “Baptism for the Dead” as the only way that men can appear as saviors on mount Zion. The proclamation of the first principles of the gospel was a means of salvation to men individually, and it was the truth, not men that saved them; but men, by actively engaging in rites of salvation substitutionally, became instrumental in bringing multitudes of their kin into the kingdom of God.

Now the second audit:

Saviors shall come up on. Mt Zion &c – . what is it & To preach only? No. In every dispensation something else to do besides preach to all– neglect the Baptism for the dead.– Could that man enter into the fullness of his rest? [illegible] cannot be saviors of man upon any other principle that be re[ce]ving revelation of all the things To trace our family by gene[a] olo[g]y & Rev[elation]– 1st principles of the Gospel no more to the B[aptism] for the Dead. then the dim[me] st Star is to the Glo[r]y of Yonder Son. All the kindred from the days of Adam dow[n] upon that princ[i]ple. Universalism is nothing.

I love the last auditor’s last sentence: Universalism is nothing. It is important in understanding Smith I think. But this kind of thing shows the rags and riches of Smithian lore. We have two longhand reports, evidently, the first one refined in some way and then published, the second the raw audit of an apparent eyewitness but clearly laced with compression and insertion by the auditor. Often we only get one witness text per sermon if we are lucky. Here we have two, and the numbers can get juicily larger than that.

All of our textual possessions here are the result of some form of preservation of longhand audits. Longhand audits are quite different from those of later Utah Mormon sermons known through shorthand audits. And that can be tricky ground in itself. I don’t have time to discuss that but it is useful to begin a comparison of good longhand reports with competent shorthand reports. Moreover, this was sometimes the source of a little snarky drama among some Utah historical clerks. A good place to start in comparing shorthand audits to longhand audits is Wilford Woodruff. We owe Woodruff a debt for capturing many sermons in his longhand journal that otherwise would be unrecoverable—dissipated into the acoustic background.

I want to come back to journal sermons in a bit, but for the moment consider Woodruff’s report of a September 1852 funeral sermon by LDS apostle Orson Pratt. Pratt was tapped to deliver the sermon over the remains of two deceased Mormon missionaries who had died while preaching in Britain nearly ten years before. Their bodies had been exhumed and brought across the great plains to Utah with the first group of Perpetual Emmigrating Fund pioneers. They were to be reburied in Salt Lake City, at least partly out of deference to one of Joseph Smith’s sermons in April 1843 where Smith had declared that being buried with fellow saints and loved ones was full of eschatological desirability. Woodruff was not Pratt’s only auditor. Pittman shorthand expert, and early British convert George D. Watt also transcribed a portion of his shorthand audit. The difference in length alone is astonishing. In Woodruff’s report, Pratt’s introductory remarks take less than a short paragraph. In Watt’s English transcription Pratt’s discomfort with being called out for the sermon goes on for several pages. Talk about bad sacrament meeting form!

This suggests the question: how should we treat longhand reports? And how important/useful are they in capturing the archetypal event? As before, the answers are complex. To help understand the picture in terms of audits of Joseph Smith’s sermons I want to appeal to theory both in terms of longhand methodology and auditor purpose. First, auditor purpose.

From the Middle Ages and before, Christian theologians and preachers either left behind written sermon notes or texts, or at times assistants and students created notes of those events. New England Puritans had similar habits, either by appointment or through spontaneous laity audits—which, as Meredith Neuman’s work on Puritan preaching has helpfully typologized, fall into three general categories. First are aural audits, where the auditor (that is, the person making a record of the ser¬mon, perhaps an assigned clerk or secretary, or a spontaneous reporter in the pews) attempts to reproduce during the sermon an archetypal oral text (and there are important caveats in such practice). Next are content audits, where the auditor reports impressions during or after the sermon, possibly recalling some words or phrases from the event but alloying them with personal impressions or even critiques and expansions or purposeful deletions. Finally, structural audits occur when the auditor lays out the logical progression and structure of the sermon. Structural audits are often produced after the sermon event, based perhaps on notes taken regarding how a topic is dissected by the preacher or how a passage of scripture is divided and subdivided in the preacher’s analysis.

These three manuscript categories not only help us understand Puritan sermons but also provide some theoretical contours for the methods used in creating Joseph Smith’s public record of preaching. The trick is applying them to any given audit. That requires further information derived from diverse but related fields of scholarship involving wide and narrow contexts and knowledge of any given auditor’s praxis and the documentary analysis derived from the written text. Assuming we can do this work, then Neuman’s classification may help us assess how to understand any given audit and in the case of multiple audits, understand the relative value of each. For example, aural audits are usually closer to the archetype than content audits. There are complicating narratives here however if we include authorial intent both from preacher and auditor. In the case of the October 1841 sermon above, the second audit seems to qualify as aural audit. The first report is clearly a content audit.

Theory can also help in understanding questions beyond intent. Audits of Joseph Smith’s sermon’s in particular fit within a larger class of note-taking strategies, something carefully analyzed by textual scholar Ann Blair. Blair’s work on note-taking and medieval texts is useful in understanding other measures of distance from archetype. At its most elementary level, this involves simply observing (if possible) where a given audit fits in a possible chain of audits created by a given auditor, or by her readers, of a given sermon. In other words, did the audit start from notes created during or perhaps after a sermon, and then was it recopied and perhaps redacted in that recopying? The latter is apparently a frequent occurrence in general and with Smith in particular. The initial audit would be classed as “first order” and subsequent versions as second or higher order. Generally speaking, we might judge that higher order audits are more distant from the archetype, though that can be problematic for several reasons. As an example, Wilford Woodruff’s surviving audits are nearly always higher order audits. George D. Watt’s transcriptions of his shorthand audits are (at least) second order audits, and as Dr. Lajean Carruth has shown, are sometimes rather liberal content audits as well. Thus, the interface between order and audit typology is also important in helping to create some analytical structure among the audits of a given sermon.

As an illustration of these ideas, I will consider another sermon of Joseph Smith, this time an instructional sermon to missionaries about to leave for Great Britain and given in the summer of 1839 (probably July 2, 1839). I single out three texts from Wilford Woodruff for the same sermon, and one from Willard Richards. These are

1. a daybook entry by Wilford Woodruff (this one is hypothetical).
2. an entry in Woodruff’s journal,
3. an entry in a small book kept by Woodruff, called a “Book of Revelations,”
4. a report of the sermon in another notebook, this one kept by Willard Richards.

The first text, the daybook, is not extant. This makes the relationship between the last three texts a more interesting problem. There is evidence that Woodruff kept on–the–spot–notes in daybooks, and later expanded/transcribed these notes in his journals. Text #2, Woodruff’s journal entry, was perhaps derived from such a missing daybook.
I will read a brief excerpt from the journal audit:

Ye are not sent out to be taught but to teach.
Let every man be Sober be vigilent &
let all his words be seasoned with grace
& keep in mind that it is a day of warning
& not of many words.
Act honest before God & man.
Beware of gentile sophestry such as
bowing & scaping unto men in
wholm you have no Confidence.

This is in Woodruff’s typical brief style and it is difficult to measure how much is content audit, how much is aural audit. For my purposes, I will count it as content audit though that is an important discussion. In this audit of Smith’s preaching, various passages from the New Testament are entangled. Then the report supplies text from Smith’s revelation of August 30, 1831 and adds the early Mormon boundary term, gentile, to locate the text.

Next, I will read text #4, the audit of the same sermon in the Willard Richards notebook. Richards’s text untangles the New Testament passages to form a straight-forward listing from the epistolary literature:

Ye are not sent out to be taught but to teach [1 John 2:27]
Let every word be seasoned with grace [Col. 4:6]
Be vigilant, be sober [1 Pet. 5:8]
It is a day of warning and
not of many words [from Smith’s own August 30, 1831 revelation]
Act honest before God and man. [2 Cor. 8:21]
Beware of gentile sophestry
such as bowing and scraping
unto men in whom you have no confidence.
Be honest open and frank
in all your intercourse with mankind [1]

Richards’s audit is at least third order. Richards created his audit some months after Woodruff. Richards’s text, aside from capitalization and a few punctuation marks, matches text #3, taken from Woodruff’s Book of Revelations and was likely copied from it.

The form of the journal text, #2, compared to the Book of Revelations notebook, #3, and Richards’s copy of that notebook, #4, suggests to me that the Woodruff notebook is more order-distant from the archetype than Woodruff’s journal entry. Moreover, the form of the Woodruff notebook text signals it as fair copy. The question is, what did it copy? Woodruff apparently kept notes for later journal entries in small daybooks. As noted, a daybook entry for this sermon, text #1, is not extant. The journal text seems more likely to reflect the daybook notes of the sermon, while the notebook text seems to suggest further redaction.

Apart from the difficult question as to whether one audit is “better” than the other, both the Woodruff journal and the Richards notebook are distant from the archetypal event along several axes. Given that the Woodruff journal appears to have less redaction than the Richards text, it ranks closer to aural event. Woodruff’s journal is a second order text, Richards’s text is third order. Whether Woodruff’s Book of Revelations text is 2nd or 3rd order is not decided but it is likely a content audit.[2]

At the beginning of this paper, I mentioned the question of where the 30th quorum got their reading text on that January evening of 1848. I turns out it was an imprint though by that time it was not a completely trivial question even to identity which sermon it was—though that might seem obvious at first. To remind you, I’ll recite the minutes again:
Opened by Singing & Prayer
A Sermon was read that was preached by the prophet Joseph Smith on the Death of King Follet
some good exortations were given by Brethren after which the meeting adjourned

I can state with some certainty where I think they got their text, but I’m not completely certain. Even saying “certainty” here requires considerable textual work. As we speak, I’m trying to write a book about that particular sermon partly as the subject of text theories. You see what might happen from the discussion today. Thank you.

[1] The material in brackets in this excerpt was added by me. None of the auditors cited the passages although they presumably recognized them.

[2] Some of the Book of Revelations text appears to be first order. See for example, here.


  1. Terry H. says:

    Thanks for this. The book is excellent, BTW, and deserves a wide readership.

  2. Kristin Brown says:

    Impressive. I had no idea there were so many types of audits. Thank you for posting. I am grateful for the work being done to preserve these sermons.

  3. Terry H. And Kristin, thanks.

  4. Well I am left with almost all questions. I suppose that’s the point—a teaser sort of entry.
    Is there a different progression or process for the canon, the sections of the D&C? Or some yes and some no? There are sections that have the appearance of a written construct from the beginning, and others that appear like blessings or otherwise aural events somehow recorded.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    This is pure gold, and I can’t wait for the book. Sorry I missed MHA; this would have been wonderful in person.

  6. Thanks, J. Christian, those are great questions. D&C sections have wide variations.

  7. Glenn Thigpen says:

    Sort of reminds us, well at least me, the value of living oracles for guidance and doctrine. Carruth’s work on the Journal of Discourses was a revelation to me.

    Great additional information and insights. Thanks.

  8. The Book was an amazing read, thank you.

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