July 1, 2007

Journey Through the Journal

I wish to give you one text to preach upon: "From this time henceforth do not fret thy gizzard" (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:1).

Colloquialisms such as this kindled my interest in the Journal of Discourses (JD), a 26-volume compilation of sermons from 19th-century LDS leaders. This site includes a series called "Journey Through the Journal" a historical, doctrinal cultural commentary of the JD.1 Few members of the Church of Jesus Christ have time (or perhaps even the interest) to read all 1,438 sermons given between 1854 and 1886. Additionally, the JD has suffered in reputation due to the speculative or unfamiliar ideas expressed by some early Church leaders. These are often quoted by critics of the Church as bona fide Mormon doctrine. In 2007 I concluded a blog of the more interesting or profitable parts would be a good project, especially given the attention given the volumes by critics and the comparative lack of attention by the average Church member.2 I hope to provide faithful explanations of the cultural, historical, sociological and doctrinal background of some of these sermons. Some posts deal largely with historical matters, others are geared more towards applying some of the teachings of these early prophets and apostles to our current situation. I am aware of the danger in equating current LDS concepts to those of the earlier brethren, and I make efforts to explain differences and similarities, including adaptations in the views on various doctrines or policies.

The JD is largely a product of its time: a Utah Territory, a struggling and growing Church torn between exclusion from and assimilation with America; where politics, religion, agricultural advice, homespun parables and ethics were all mixed together in various instruction from LDS leaders. Accuracy is an issue, we have to rely on the stenographers themselves because no better method of recording was then available. Speakers took the scripture seriously when it said "Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man" (D&C 84:85). It was deemed a sign of true religion; discourses being delivered “by the Spirit”. Most of the sermons follow the loose train of thought of the speaker with no real structure. The scattered nature of many of the discourses led one observer to describe them as “strange ramblings”.3

For these reasons among others, the LDS Church holds the JD to be non-binding:
The Journal of Discourses is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints… It includes practical advice as well as doctrinal discussion, some of which is speculative in nature and some of which is only of historical interest...

Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some transcriptions. Modern technology and processes were not available for verifying the accuracy of transcriptions, and some significant mistakes have been documented. The Journal of Discourses includes interesting and insightful teachings by early Church leaders; however, by itself it is not an authoritative source of Church doctrine.4
Because Church membership is generally encouraged to give priority to the Standard Works (the LDS canon of scripture including the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) the JD has taken on somewhat of an apocryphal status. Still, I am reminded of the counsel given to the prophet Joseph Smith when he asked if the Apocrypha should be included in his inspired translation of the Bible:
There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men...Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom...(D&C 91).
Thus far my reading of the JD has been beneficial; the sermons reveal interesting, often uplifting information, and give insight into what the early Saints might have heard over the pulpit. I want to express my faith in the restored gospel by emphasizing the scriptural and socially relevant selections from the JD in addition to exploring the early days of the restored Church.

In Journey Through the Journal posts, quotes from the JD sermon the post is based upon appear in red; quotes from all other sources are in green. I try to maintain the accuracy of the actual JD with minor corrections of spelling. This blog is not intended to be a comprehensive work, but to explore interesting and uplifting (sometimes simply boring historical) teachings from former days.

As for my method, when dealing with historical sources I try to be mindful of the responsibility and nature of the process of selection. James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle described the everyday view of history:
"History is what happened in the past."...[This view] supposes that historians must return to the past through the surviving records and bring it back to the present to display as "what really happened." The everyday view recognized that this task is often difficult. But historians are said to succeed if they bring back the facts without distorting them or forcing a new perspective on them. In effect, historians are seen as couriers between the past and the present. Like all good couriers, they are expected simply to deliver messages without adding to them. This everyday view of history is profoundly misleading...
History is not "what happened in the past;" rather, it is the act of selecting, analyzing, and writing about the past. It is something that is done, that is constructed, rather than an inert body of data that lies scattered throughout the archives.5
I largely subscribe to their views on that subject; I believe that the "noble dream" of objectivity is practically impossible.6 As Davidson and Lytle explain, "historians generally deal with probabilities, not certainties," and like them, I "leave you to draw your own conclusions" after I have related my own.
For better or for worse, historians inescapably leave an imprint as they go about their business: asking interesting questions about apparently dull facts, seeing connections between subjects that had not seemed related before, shifting and rearranging evidence until it assumes a coherent pattern. The past is not history; only the raw material of it.7


The drawing is Brigham Young preaching in the Mormon Tabernacle, from the Daily Graphic, April 16, 1873. George D. Watt, stenographer and English convert to the LDS Church recorded sermons in a form of shorthand for the Deseret News and received permission from the Church to publish the sermons in England. His publications were later bound in book form as the Journal of Discourses (see Ronald G. Watt, "Journal of Discourses," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 2). Watt did 't record all the sermons or publish every volume of the JD himself. For more on Watt, see Ronald G. Watt, "Sailing the Old Ship Zion: The Life of George D. Watt," BYU Studies 18 (Fall 1977):48-65; "The Beginnings of The Journal of Discourses: A Confrontation Between George D. Watt and Willard Richards," Utah Historical Quarterly 75:2 (Spring 2007), pp. 134-148.

For more regarding critics of the Church citing the JD, see "Quote Mining." Context is an important issue, and I try to apply sound historical method in exploring the circumstances behind the sermons. See "Contrasting Attitudes: Keeping Things in Context."

Davis Bitton discussed the trends of early Mormon preaching in “‘Strange Ramblings’: The Ideal and Practice of Sermons in Early Mormonism,” BYU Studies (2002) 41:1, p. 4-28.

LDS.org, Gospel Topics: "The Journal of Discourses," accessed November, 2007, no longer available.

See Davidson, Lytle, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, 3rd ed. McGraw-Hill, (1992) xvii, xxi. Read the full chapter here.

For more on this concept, see Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Davidson, Lytle, op. cit. xxx-xxxi.


Lance & Caetie said...

You are a good writer man! Nice flow. I can't wait to read!

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks, Lance, my main man.

Pallas Athena said...

Just stumbled across your blog. I always enjoy sitting down with The Journal of Discourses and reading a sermon or two. Definitely one of the best parts of my library. I look forward to checking out some of your commentary.

BHodges said...

July '07-August '08 in the archives are mostly JD posts. Let me know if you see any you like, and thanks for dropping in.

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