Complicating sermon texts

One of the most important developments in the last fifteen years in the study of Mormon History and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been an increase in critical approaches to sources, particularly towards sermons of church leaders. Dean Jesse and Howard Searle did a lot of the initial work on Joseph Smith, with the Joseph Smith Papers editors, and our own Bill Smith cracking things open widely most recently. We still use texts of Joseph Smith’s sermons, but we do so carefully and with qualification. I think most people now find it unacceptable to quote a Joseph Smith sermon from the History of the Church as if it were a faithful rendering.

As discussed earlier, LaJean Carruth has been doing a lot of the hard work on the shorthand records that were part of the process of translating the oral sermon texts of the Territorial period into published transcripts. In her last write-up in a series of three, she has shown what sorts of disparities there are between the short hand records, and longhand transcripts, and published transcripts. She notes multiple categories of changes, all of which should inform our careful approach to these texts. Go and read it.

There should be no qualifications in our appreciation for LaJean’s work, but there are important considerations for its implications, and our paths forward. For example, I do not think we should categorize the Deseret News sermon transcripts, or the Journal of Discourses as inherently unreliable and consequently unusable. This is not, for example, a grand apologetic key that demonstrates that Brigham Young never said those crazy things. I would like to outline some of the important issues that I see stemming from LaJean’s work:

Frequency of Divergence
LaJean has shown common edits that shorthand professionals made while preparing transcripts. First, I think that we need to be extremely careful and not situate the shorthand record as an infallible record of the oral text. I think there is work to do understanding how the recorders translate the oral text into a shorthand record. I also think analyses of sermons determining, perhaps on a quantitative level, what types of changes recorders made and at what frequency they made them will be extremely valuable. How much of the published texts are representative of the shorthand record? Are there ways of predicting which portions of published texts are significantly edited, constructed or redacted?

Published Sermon Texts vs. Personal Content Audits
With thousands of people keeping diaries and writing letters, one often finds “content audits” of sermons in the archive. For a particularly surprising sermon in 1852, I am aware of three or four individuals that wrote down what appear to be quotes of the sermon in their personal papers. As historians we use these documents as evidence. The work on JS sermons here is exemplary, and informs us that these audits are generally second order topical summaries, with key words. These are useful, but, I would argue, are generally less faithful to the oral texts than published sermon transcripts. And hallelujah when we have multiple witnesses to a sermon.

Published Sermons as Evidence
I believe that published transcripts remain important evidence when treated in aggregate. I’m not likely to view a quote from the JoD as being an exact representation of words spoken. However, If there are a dozen published sermons that represent a church leader teaching a thing, and that thing is also documented in the shorthand records and in content audit summaries, then we can largely accept that the published texts are representative of the teaching. For example, the following is a footnote that I include in a forthcoming article on Brigham Young’s cosmology. I made a claim that BY taught a thing, and I have broken the footnote evidence into categories:

  • Brigham Young, Sermon, October 9, 1859, transcripts of George Watt’s shorthand record by LaJean Purcell Carruth, Church History Department, Pitman shorthand transcriptions, 2013–2020, digital images of transcripts, CR 100 912, Church History Library (hereafter CR 100 912). Compare with Brigham Young, October 9, 1859, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London and Liverpool: LDS Booksellers Depot, 1854–1886), 7:287. Note that the Journal of Discourses diverges significantly from the shorthand.
  • See also, sermons, April 17, 1853, and July 10, 1853, transcripts of Watt’s shorthand by Carruth, CR 100 912 (cf. Journal of Discourses, 2:124, 1:352)
  • Council Meeting Minutes, June 22, 1856, 4:00 pm, Silvia Ghosh transcript of long hand notes and shorthand by Thomas Bullock, Historian’s Office General Church Minutes, digital images of manuscript, CR 100 318, box 3, folder 11, Church History Library (hereafter CR 100 318)
  • Brigham Young, Sermons, February 27, 1853, August 14, 1853, August 17, 1856, September 21, 1856, July 19, 1857, June 27, 1858, July 31, 1859, January 12, 1862, April 17, 1870, September 17, 1876, in Journal of Discourses, 1:118, 1:275, 4:31, 4:54, 5:53–54, 7:57–58, 6:346, 9:149–50, 13:136–37, 18:234
  • February 2, 1860, Brigham Young Office Journal, Book D, Brigham Young Office Files, digital images of manuscript, CR 1234 1, Church History Library
  • Sermon, November 25, 1860, in “Tabernacle,” Deseret News, November 28, 1860, 312.

Here we have eleven published transcripts for which shorthand is not extant that document a teaching. Even without the other categories of evidence, this would be very strong evidence that BY taught this thing. The combination with the other materials is, I believe, overwhelmingly conclusive that he did indeed teach this thing. I’m skeptical of the idea that scribes systematically inserted ideas otherwise unattested into the sermons of church leaders.

This is all to say that things are getting more complicated. This is good. Reality is complicated. And thanks again to LaJean for helping us appreciate that.


  1. Article in JMH?

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Yep. Early 2021.

  3. Is there a fairly definitive version of the King Follett discourse?

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Roger, that is a question with a complicated answer. My response is that one should always approach the teachings of the KFD in aggregate, looking at how the individual witnesses represent it. That being said, Bill Smith has a forthcoming book on the sermon that includes a sort of critical text. In other words, we should typically say things like JS taught xyz, and not JS said “xyz.”

  5. Late to the party but adding for the record: the question of how the publisher sermon texts relate to the original sermon is one very important thing. Once those sermons are published, regardless of that relationship, they enter the community and become primary texts for shaping discourse and belief. At that point, in one sense, it doesn’t matter what was actually said because what is published becomes the community’s memory. So it’s not always a question of either/or.

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