October 21, 2008

Joseph Smith's Advice on Teaching

George A. Smith
August 12, 1855

About one week after the first saints entered the Salt Lake valley in 1847 President Brigham Young designated a spot for the Temple. Next to this plot the settlers constructed an open-air bowery composed of poles, adobe, and a rough roof of branches. In 1849 the structure was strengthened and enlarged with canvas awnings. In 1851 an adobe tabernacle was on the spot, the "old tabernacle," and a similar bowery attached, as pictured. In these buildings the saints gathered for conferences, sacrament meetings, and other meetings. The open air was nice in the summer, and even in rain storms and windy weather they'd sometimes meet in this bowery. On some occasions they'd end meetings early based on the loudness of the wind preventing the speaker from being heard.
Many of the discourses I've blogged, including this one, were delivered therein. With that in mind, here is the introduction of this discourse from George A. Smith:
It used to be, in the days of the Prophet Joseph, a kind of common adage that "Mormonism" flourished best out of doors, and although we struggled hard at the time that the brethren undertook in Missouri to build a hewed log house that would cost about $1200, yet that tried the faith of many, and was more than we accomplished before the Saints were driven from Jackson County, and we failed to erect a building big enough to hold the Saints previous to the death of the Prophet. At the time of his death we were still trying to build a Temple, but all our exertions only resulted in our having to go out of doors for room enough.
Interestingly, Joseph Smith wasn't involved in building one chapel during his life. Meetings were held in homes, and at Nauvoo in a large grove next to the Temple. His concerns revolved around the Temple. The Bowery was used until 1867 when the "Great Tabernacle" was completed.1
George A. Smith, cousin of the Prophet, was baptised in 1832 at age 15, marched with Zion's Camp at age 17, and by 1835 he became a Seventy. Around this time he was called on several missions. He discussed some of the advice his cousin Joseph gave him before he went into the field:
When I was first called upon by the Prophet to go and preach the Gospel, I received a little good advice, which I have endeavored to profit by ever since, and that too, to the best of my ability. In the morning, as I was about to start on my first mission to preach the Gospel, I waited upon brother Joseph, and asked if he had any advice to give me.

"Yes," said he, "George A., preach short sermons, make short prayers, deliver your sermons with a prayerful heart, and you will be blessed, and the truth will prosper in your hands."

I was a boy of seventeen at the time, and I called this [conversation] my college education; I however took a second degree, calling upon father Joseph Smith, who was the Patriarch of the Church, and as I was about starting, he said, "One word of advice George A., whatever you do, be careful to go in at the little end of the horn, then, if you increase, though be but a very little, you are sure to come out at the big end; but if you go in at the big end, you are certain to come out at the small end."

Ever since that time I have applied it, and thought often of the old gentleman's counsel, and I have found it to be very correct.
Preaching the gospel is a serious endeavor, and anxiety or zealousness may lead some to try to be impressive or pound the doctrines home with academic alacrity. Pres. Henry B. Eyring mentioned this tendency:
Because we need the Holy Ghost, we must be cautious and careful not to go beyond teaching true doctrine. The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of Truth. His confirmation is invited by our avoiding speculation or personal interpretation. That can be hard to do. You love the person you are trying to influence. He or she may have ignored the doctrine they have been taught. It is tempting to try something new or sensational. But we invite the Holy Ghost as our companion when we are careful to teach only true doctrine.

One of the surest ways to avoid even getting near false doctrine is to choose to be simple in our teaching. Safety is gained by that simplicity, and little is lost...We can teach even a child to understand the doctrine of Jesus Christ. It is therefore possible, with God’s help, to teach the saving doctrine simply (Henry B. Eyring, "The Power of Teaching Doctrine," Ensign, May, 1999).2
George A. then related an experience in Kirtland involving Sidney Rigdon, considered by some to be the best Mormon preacher in the early years of the church's existence:
At that time Elder Sidney Rigdon, our great preacher, (the perfect comber of all the sects,) a man that could bring to bear all the big, jaw-cracking words of the English language, and who could fill up the interstices with quotations from other languages, and bring all to illustrate the Gospel of Christ, and to contrast it with the errors of the different sects to which he had formerly belonged, I remember seeing him get up to preach when there were present Professor Seixas3 and several other learned gentlemen who were on a visit to Kirtland, and President Rigdon wanted to show himself to the best possible advantage.

I discovered his error when he first began speaking; I saw that he was in his high heeled boots, and at the commencement he soared so far above his subject that he could not get down to it; his whole discourse was a constant series of efforts to descend to a style requisite to illustrate the simplicity of the Gospel, the natural result of his commencing on too high a key-the difficulty and trouble was that he commenced on too grand a scale to carry it through successfully.

Now if he had commenced to preach to those learned men the first simple principles of the Gospel, and then, as the Spirit had opened up things to his mind, have gone into the more advanced principles, he might have succeeded as he desired, but he got up with the intention of showing his great big self, and began at the big end of the horn.
Teachers speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost won't be as concerned with how they appear, or what others think of them when more concerned with speaking truth as directed by the Spirit.
Now when we present ourselves to a congregation of people, the first thing should be plainly and simply to communicate to them the first principles that we receive, in the best possible manner. But what is the best way to communicate them to the inhabitants of the earth? Shall we select the greatest jaw-cracking words in the English language, and from other languages, or shall we use reasoning the most abstruse and mysterious?

The best method is to select the best and simplest way in our possession, and you will find that to be the most successful method of proclaiming the Gospel. You may note it when you will, in men that go forth to proclaim the truth, and you discover that the man who has the fewest words communicates his idea to the people, as a general thing, in the plainest manner.

When a man uses ten or fifteen superfluous words to convey one simple idea, his real meaning is lost, he reaches beyond all the rules of grammar and rhetoric, and his idea, which, had it been clothed with simple and appropriate language, might have been good, is lost for want of more suitable words. It is like Massa Gratian's wit-"two grains of wheat hid in three barrels of chaff."
Just to make sure his point wasn't lost, George A. closed with an example typical of his preaching style:
It is my advice that our Elders should study brevity in all their discourses and communications to the people, and that they should speak in the plainest and simplest manner; for if they were to do this-speak so that the unlearned can comprehend, then the learned will be sure to understand, unless they have got their ears so twisted that it is vulgar for them to listen to common conversation; they are like the young gentleman who had just come from college and was desirous of making a considerable show, so when he stopped at a country hotel, he gave the following orders to the ostler- "You will extricate the quadruped from the vehicle, stabulate him, donate him an adequate supply of nutritious aliment, and when the Aurora of man shall illumine the celestial horizon I will award thee a pecuniary compensation."
The lad went into the house to the old man, crying-'Landlord, there is a Dutchman out here; I can't understand a word he says, do come and talk to him yourself.' (Laughter.)4

Now if he had said-'Unharness the horse, water and feed him, and I will pay you for it in the morning,' he would have been understood by the ostler (JD 3:23-28).

For more on the various meeting houses in use and the "Great Tabernacle," see "The Great Tabernacle: A Building of Purpose and Spirit," Ensign, Apr. 2007, 24.
[2] B.H. Roberts once spoke of the importance of accuracy in teaching, noting that the closer to truth we are, the better the Holy Ghost can manifest a witness to what we taught. I need to find the source on this statement, however.

[3] Professor Seixas referred to Joshua Seixas of the Hudson Seminary. In 1836, Joseph smith hired Seixas to teach Hebrew at the school of the prophets in Kirtland. More than 30 students formed the first class, and soon the group swelled to include four classes. Joseph Smith was faithful in attending and mentioned his studies often in entries now found in the History of the Church. (For more, see Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound p. 272).
[4] Occasionally, as in this case, the transcriber would include an audience reaction such as "laughter."
Orig. posted 9/27/07.


poulsen said...

Great post.
I think more people should take this principle into account when studying the Book of Mormon. God surely understands this and while guiding the translation would have applied it to the translation into the English language by avoiding the use of obscure or litle used meanings for words. I often think that one of the reasons for choosing Joseph Smith to carry out the translation was his "lack of a formal education" in order to insure that the Gospel in its fullness would be available to all without the need for a degree in theology in order to understand it.

It amazes me how many people look for obscure meanings for words in order to give meanings to the text that support their personal views but are in opposition to the plain meaning of the text based on simple common English. This is especially true of those who want to justify their view of the geography desctobed in the Book of Mormon.

Larry P

poulsen said...

Should be described not desctobed

BHodges said...

Larry, thanks. I think the Book of Mormon does indeed present us with interesting possibilities in terms of what the words mean. I tend to follow a dynamic translation that included some tight elements (like the spelling of names on the first or early instance) and things like that, but in regards to much of the text I see it filtered as translation into phrases with which JS would have been familiar.

So how much meaning can we assign even the word "Christian" as applied towards the end of the book of Alma? That word carries so much more, and differently so, than it would have for the ancient Lehites, and what was the exact underlying nature of the original word?

I think your point about plainness in the BoM text is interesting and deserves a close look by anyone interested in understanding the record.

Ardis Parshall said...

I just ran across the "preach short sermons" piece by George A. Smith and thought it would make a good Keepa piece. In Googling around to see how well known it might be, I discover that you've already posted it, B! Don't know how I missed it last October, because I usually read LOGP.

Oh, well -- great minds and all that, even if one of those minds is extremely slow.

BHodges said...

Indeed, great minds!

I still haven't heard back on my recent request, by the way. I faxed it in last week, so hopefully sometime soon. I've been so darn busy with work and school I haven't had a moment to blog!

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