Printing the Sermons of Joseph Smith

A comprehensive discussion of any text will often address imprints in various levels of detail. No exception here. Surprisingly, the technical details of the enterprise of printing Joseph Smith’s sermons seem to be better known for 19th century efforts than those of the 20th century. No 19th century LDS church texts focused entirely on JS’s sermons. His published Sermon-texts are scattered in various 19th century venues including magazines, newsprint, and a few books and some of these only gave Reader’s Digest versions. (In another post, I hope to address a related issue, reference to Smith’s sermons.)

Joseph’s sermons, those that made it to print status, (see here for more info) were generally somewhat liberally edited. At least this is the case for the funeral sermons, the only ones I can really completely vouch for in this regard. I should say, for the 10 sermons I treat in the book (click above on BOAP (The ….)).

It is a large undertaking to (reliably) map print variants of any text of course, (no Hinman collator usable here – see Joseph A. Dane’s The Myth of Print Culture) but an interesting pattern develops in the case of the funeral sermons, and I infer, with all the published sermons through the years. In the 19th century, editors (I use the term advisedly) were rather brazen with their editorial pens. Clauses might be eliminated or relocated and a previous imprint’s punctuation seemed to have little or no authority. Thus, accidentals abound.

When the 20th century rolled around, editors began to settle down. They became a bit more loyal to one or the other of the earlier versions, and remarkably, even if there was access to ms versions they were rarely carefully consulted. The reasons for this are manifold, but see note 1 below.

Now it is clear that early editors did not really count these sermon-texts as sacral. They were viewed, in many cases, as thoughts of JS, “sermon reasoning” as it was sometimes known, but did not carry the weight of the canonical texts and so were subject to the editorial pen, to make them shipshape, more presentable, less raw in some respects, even to roll in ideas not apparently present in the sources.[1] This was by no means a uniform attitude however. And it was clear that for long sermons, some editors got tired 2/3 of the way through and stopped worrying as much about a turn of phrase. In a sense, the new JSP volume illustrates a little of the same thing in manuscript, especially in revelation book 1.

This is saying nothing of the process of constructing manuscript versions of the sermons. George A. Smith, church historian who succeeded Willard Richards upon his death in 1854, directed the construction of many manuscript versions. Of course the critical edition will deconstruct those, and then reconstruct them.[2] The impulse of the manuscript construction of sermon-texts in the 1850s was to expand sparse accounts, remove any hint of bumpkin speech, sometimes soften the hard edge of difficult metaphysics, and obviously struggle with the problem of reproducing the ideas of a given speech, etc. (see the link above). But this is a different issue (with a different kind of complexity) than that afforded by imprints.

The imprint histories of the funeral sermons differ widely from each other. Some were reprinted several times in the 19th century, others with little repetition. Some gradually became controversial for certain statements, and others which contained the same or similar statements escaped notice. However, the 20th century saw more serious collective-printing efforts in regard to JS’s “teachings” and more generally his personal history. The Sermon-texts became less subject to editorial whim, and more objects of some reverence (or disdain!). Partly this was in the nature of technology, which brings us back to the beginning of this business: how were they published?

All the funeral sermons (those under review here I mean) appeared in the History of the Church as edited by B. H. Roberts. (six volumes printed between 1902-1912 – and then a rogue volume in 1932). The History was printed by setting type for each signature and then pressing a damp papier-mache like material into the type, making a kind of negative into which molten metal was poured to make a thin plate with the type impression. These plates (stereotype plates) could be used and reused, and were until 1946.

The History was revised (slightly) in 1948-52 and this revised edition was printed with the same plates, altered by cutting out portions to be modified and welding in the modified sections.[3] Hence, most of the sermon texts of the ca 1950 edition are identical (the printing errors, typeface and relative positioning are precisely the same) to the ca 1902 edition. Some obvious errors were corrected by this process though. For example, the title page of the 1908 first edition of volume 4 has “History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, By Him elf.” This was corrected in the revised edition of volume 4 (1949). Most of the known sermons were collected in Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1938 book Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The printing process there is interesting, but that’s another story.

[1] There are some interesting examples of this. It is not clear in many cases whether a given editor regarded a text as a reliable document. In later years, many seem to have allowed that many of these texts came from the pen of JS himself. That assurance extended to readers apparently. Remarkably, some of the more reliable of texts were ones that were painted with the brush of suspicion.

[2] These reconstructions, or “critical texts” are rather different than nearly any others I am aware of. They are constructed with transparency to the source texts. Moreover, where the text is truly ambiguous, instead of asserting one view, the reader is allowed to participate in the process (with some help from the editor on occasion). I am aware that some textual scholars may view this as a cop-out. But I believe these texts are important enough, that the reader has or should have, a stake. At least this is where I’m at now. Meanwhile, all the source texts will appear in typographical facsimile, and again in a “deconstruction” text.

[3] Nearly every page was changed in this edition (except, strangely, vols. 1 and 7) because of an editorial decision requiring the month (in which the events on the page took place) to appear at the top of the page, where only the year had appeared previously. I have not concluded my study of this process, and so some conclusions here could be changed.

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4 Responses to Printing the Sermons of Joseph Smith

  1. J. Stapley says:

    And lets not forget that a certain sermon which was strangely omitted in the in the first edition of the HC was included in the revised edition!

    I’m really excited about your project and I appreciate this discussion of some the issues at play.

  2. boaporg says:

    Yes, the omission of KFD was corrected in the revised volume 6 of 1950. Joseph Fielding Smith had much more confidence in B. H. Roberts than his father did, in spite of some of their disagreements on other issues.

  3. Eric says:

    My comment here may be largely off point, but I will make it anyway. The early church historians (those who drafted the manuscript history) were of course trying in large measure to present a text that sounded like what JS had actually said or how, in their judgment, he would have wanted his words presented, not a faithful reproduction of the manuscript sermon notes. The historians didn’t see themselves as editors, and especially not as documentary editors; they saw themselves as writing history for publication. So if the sermon notes were incomplete or cryptic, they would have JS speak in complete sentences. And if two reporters remembered different parts of the speech, these got combined into a conglomerate report. Also, though memory is frail, there may have been cases when they supplied something from their firsthand memories. Or in other cases, they may have consulted sources that are no longer available or that today’s historians haven’t consulted closely enough. Clearly, they made JS look more polished than he actually was, sometimes changed the tone, sometimes changed the substance, and so forth. But to me the changes are quite tame all in all. I have personally compared almost all of the original reports of JS’s sermons with the versions published by Roberts. Of course there was plenty of editing that editors today would never do. And there are some esp. noteworthy examples of this, such as in the Relief Society addresses and the famous “rough stone rolling down hill” example–where a few words got turned into a giant paragraph. It was typically the original Willard Richards reports that were most edited, since they were so cryptic in the first place.

  4. Pingback: Printing Joseph Smith’s Sermons – Redux In Two Parts «'s Blog

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