Newly available shorthand transcriptions of nineteenth-century sermon texts

More than a few Latter-day Saints grew up in homes with one complete shelf full with the Journal of Discourses (preference of course for the black and gold volumes over those crappy blue ones). Missionaries through the years have variously been baffled and intrigued by snippets from them. Hardly anyone has actually read anything from them, though I know a couple of non-professionals who have made it through completely.

Beginning in the first years after their arrival in the great basin, the sermons of General Authorities and a few others have been recorded, first by shorthand, and then on the various analog and digital media available in the twentieth century. George Watt was one of the early and primary short hand experts in Utah. At first, he was not compensated for his transcription work, and church leaders authorized him to compile sermon reports and publish them as the Journal of Discourses in order to make a living [n1]. In the last two decades, LaJean Carruth has returned to the extant shorthand records and transcribed many sermons. This work has been featured in studies of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and an article on the Journal of Discourses [n2]

Over the years LaJean has toiled away transcribing Watt’s shorthand that is so peculiar that it is unintelligible to most experts. She has also worked on other people’s shorthand and amassed a repository of texts. Back in 2013, as I remember, the CHL released a handful of “lost sermons”—some of LaJean’s transcripts that where interesting and informative. This week, a couple of hundred more have gone live.

As LaJean and Gerrit Dirkmaat have shown, there was frequently creative editing that occurred between the original shorthand transcription and publication. In fact I have two projects that rely on LaJean’s shorthand transcripts—one on Brigham Young’s “garden cosmology” [n3] that is forthcoming in the Journal of Mormon History, and another that is under review. I’ve said before that if we are in a golden age of Mormon Studies, it is because of source criticism. This deluge of shorthand transcripts represents and important and tectonic shift in how we approach sermons, and even the type of questions we can ask. My projects would largely be impossible without LaJean’s hard work and curious talents.

Now, I’m under no delusions—I think that shorthand transcripts while wildly valuable, still function differently than mechanical and digital recording technologies. There is still a ghost in the machine that encodes, decodes, and translates. It does allow for an elusive proximity (as those of us who work on JS’s sermons will readily attest). And in the case where there are manuscript and published transcripts we can create important critical apparatuses (apparati?). Additionally, in the same collection (CR 100 912), the CHL is providing parallel column texts for 50 or so sermons. Here the new shorthand transcript is aligned with either a period manuscript transcription, or more commonly, the published text. Heavy lifting made accessible.

It is a good time to be working on this stuff. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the project.


  1. Ronald G. Watt, “The Beginnings of The Journal of Discourses: A Confrontation between George D. Watt and Willard Richards,” Utah Historical Quarterly 75 (Spring 2007): 134-48.
  2. Richard E. Turley, Jr., Janiece L. Johnson, and LaJean Purcell Carruth, eds., Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers, 2 vols. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017); Gerrit Dirkmaat and LaJean Purcell Carruth, “The Prophets Have Spoken, but What Did They Say? Examining the Differences between George D. Watt’s Original Shorthand Notes and the Sermons Published in the Journal of Discourses,” BYU Studies Quarterly 54, no. 4 (2015), 24-118. LaJean’s work will also figure prominently in a forthcoming study of BY’s institution of the priesthood/temple restriction with Paul Reeve, and Christopher Rich.
  3. This is what I call the so-called “Adam-God” “doctrine” or “theory.” All of those are in quotes because I think that they are all silly.
A good friend gave me this complete set.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I have the complete black and gold journal, a gift from a cousin decades ago who was downsizing.

    I’ve always been a little envious of LaJean. Having the skills to read that stuff and solve lots of mysteries sounds incredibly fun to me.

  2. That’s good news. Looking forward to these riches.

  3. Gary Barton Payne says:

    I’m inclined to lean on the statement Brigham Young was reported to have made. “Given all the words of all the Prophets who have ever written, I’ll take the words of the Living Oracle of God (meaning Joseph Smith at that time). We have fifteen living Prophets including one Prophet for the world.

  4. LaJean is a true gift to the Mormon historical community.

  5. This is fantastic.

  6. Bro. Jones says:

    On the one hand: super cool and I look forward for this.

    On the other: I’ve already seen the newest flavor of ultraorthodox apologetics, and its name is “That Past Leader Never Said A Controversial Thing, George Watt Made it Up.”

  7. Truckers Atlas says:

    Bro. Jones: Can you give an online example of this type of apologetic, if one is available?

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks all.

    Bro. Jones, if that is the case, then they are in for some unfortunate surprises. Because the short hand records a lot.

  9. LaJean Carruth says:

    Bro. Jones, I agree with Jonathan – I have read literally thousands of pages of the original shorthand record, include almost all of Watt’s shorthand of Brigham Young’s sermons. Much of my work is now publicly available. As he put it, the shorthand records a LOT – read it and see.

  10. Aussie Mormon says:

    I’d be interested in seeing a BCC article on some of the more interesting things that were added or omitted between the shorthand and longform versions (as published in JoD).

  11. Bro. Jones says:

    I chose my words poorly— I think the people making this argument are both grossly incorrect and uninformed, so “apologetics” may not have been the right term. I’ve seen casual online discussions dismissing Brigham Young’s views on African Americans (among other things) with the suggestion that he “really” said something milder or totally different, and George Watt was the one who supplied text that fueled racist interpretations.

    I think it’s utter bunk on many levels. Meanwhile, I’m truly grateful for the work of LaJean and others. A lot of fantastic scholarship will come from this effort, but I worry about what the “lay scholars” of the church will do with their misinterpretations of it.

  12. LaJean Carruth says:

    Bro. Jones A couple of comments on Brigham Young: my transcription of Watt’s shorthand of his 5 February 1852 speech on race and the priesthood and slavery has been available in the Church History Library public catalog (accessible to anyone) for some time, in CR 100 912, Addresses and sermons – read it for yourself and see what he really said, according to the shorthand record. I am co-authoring a book with UofU history professor Paul Reeve and attorney Christopher Rich on the 1852 Utah territorial legislature, which will include my transcript of Watt’s shorthand on the debate on slavery, as well as in-depth historical and legal background and analysis. Second: Watt’s alterations of Brigham Young’s words changed how we see him; the words he actually spoke – what he really said, according to the shorthand record,depicts a very different person than comes through Watt’s altered words in JD and DN. I far prefer him as he really spoke. I have experienced a lot of slander in my life, and know how it is to be judged and punished for what I never said or did, or never would say or do. These men, like everyone else, deserve to be judged according to their real words, as near as we can get to them, not by the re-written version. Perhaps you are aware of my “famous” poem:
    There was a man named George Watt
    Who could improve Brigham Young, so he thought.
    So he took out words here,
    And he added words there,
    And his accuracy was not what it ought!
    In defense of Watt: we are deeply, deeply indebted to him for his shorthand record, so much of our history would have been lost if he had not reported the shorthand he did. And, while understanding is not excusing, it is important to understand that ideas of historical accuracy were very different then than now. I have transcribed sermons by multiple writers, Quaker sermons, the John D. Lee trials, parts of the memoirs of Joseph Smith III, journals, court reports, and compared them to a contemporaneous transcript when such is extant, and know that an accurate 19th century transcript is a very rare item. He was following the norms of his day. So while I work earnestly to bring out correct transcripts, and sometimes get frustrated at what he did, especially how he changed Brigham Young, I am very thankful for his tremendous contribution to our history.
    I invite you and anyone else interested to look at some of Brigham Young’s sermons in parallel columns, just released, especially ones for which Watt’s transcript is extant, and see for yourself how Watt changed things as he transcribed. And get to know Brigham Young from his real words, what he actually did say, according to the shorthand record, which is by far the most accurate record we have.

  13. Wondering says:

    LaJean, It seems the February 1852 BY speeches are not available on=line without requesting digital access and its being granted. I don’t understand what the standards are for granting access or, if available to everyone, why it should be necessary to require an access request rather than simply making them available on-line as are others. Can you offer any insight on that?

  14. LaJean Carruth says:

    Wondering: Most of them are not, pending publication, but Brigham Young’s speech on February 5, 1852, is – I just checked, without logging in. Here is the link (sometimes these links work better on Firefox and Chrome than Explorer, I do not know why.)

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