What did Joseph Smith’s Sermons Mean to Latter-day Saints?
October 19, 2009 7 Comments
What did Joseph Smith’s sermons mean to the Mormons? This is a large question, and one I will not answer in any comprehensive way in this post. Moreover the conclusions given here are just generalities. (The reality here is a spectrum, not a strict set of categories.) But a part of the answer lies in the idea of temporal distance.
When Joseph was alive, Saints would go to hear him preach. What did he say and what did they think of it? For the most part, we just don’t know, because the great majority failed to leave us any word.
Many Mormons, up to 1839, hailed from New England and its near environs. Preaching was a Sunday thing, or a camp meeting thing, or a revival thing. You went to receive some kind of feeling or enthusiasm perhaps. What was said tended to follow certain basic formulae. You didn’t need to report it, because it came back again.
Then of course there is the issue of literacy. Who could record the verbal messages of Smith? Many had some reading skills and the message of Mormonism depended in part on being able to read. Writing however was another story. Writing ability at the time of Joseph Smith’s early work among most frontier men was meager and in even more short supply among women in general. People wrote slowly and keeping up with a speaker was a challenge few were up to. Even in the reminiscent accounts of Smith’s remarks, we get very little detail. There is much more that could be said about this, and I already have but I don’t want to focus on it now.
Rather, I want to consider what happened after Joseph died. The most detailed record of Smith’s life is found in the reports surrounding his last few days. Church historians George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff spent considerable time, both trying to decipher Willard Richards’ cryptic notes of the period, and to collect the many conflicting and often flowery descriptions of Joseph’s last days and activities in them. The number of pages in Joseph’s history regarding this short period compared to others of similar length is astounding. Some of it they got wrong, but they were trying to be as careful as they could. The result was darn good. The point is that the effort expended in trying to leave a record of what Smith said in his preaching was small by comparison. But even then, we are not hampered a great deal with Smith’s actual conversations during these final few days of his life. What he did, what others did and what happened were the focus.
After Smith died, those competing for the Saints’ loyalty walked a tightrope. You could claim that Smith secretly left his legacy to you, claim angelic confirmation of leadership and retrenchment or carry the status quo of Joseph’s stated goals. The most successful way was the last and the apostles were in the vanguard. They felt they knew what needed to be done and they pushed the Saints to do it. For the most part they got cooperation, even Joseph-like devotion. For others, the absence of Joseph, was just too big a hole for anyone to fill. Did this extend to their preaching? Did they copy what Joseph said in their sermons? No. Nobody did. Sure, a topical study of this preaching by the apostles, what you can find of it, shows that they carried on some of the themes of Smith. But there was no slavish imitation by any means.
After the bulk of the Saints left Nauvoo, preaching in the small charismatic schisms like Thompson’s or Strang’s is not well documented. But for the Utah church, stenographic reporting became more common. We can see how people referenced Joseph’s sermons, if at all. And for the most part, the reference is empty. His friends and colleagues of former days were devoted to his ideas of temple liturgy and sealing. But for his sermons, there was little or no regard in terms of authoritative reference. There are some obvious explanations of this, perhaps most obvious was the way in which church leaders delivered their spoken exposition: they did not speak from a written text. Accurate quotation of sources was generally difficult. If reference was made to written sources, it was usually to published scripture.
Utah Mormon speakers of the middle to late 19th century did not make much of any reference to what Joseph said in his sermons. What they did make reference to was their personal interaction with him. Such stories were repeated and retold with reverence. The story of a healing, a prophetic word of advice, an event illustrating his personal kindness or wisdom were the valued messages of his life for the people who knew the people who knew Joseph. Naturally, any doctrine or practice would be grounded in the bible, Smith’s revelations or developing tradition although in early days there was considerable systematic speculation. But Joseph’s sermons were not regarded as delivering decisive doctrine in the public address of his former male colleagues.
By the end of the 19th century, the people who could relate their personal interaction with Smith were nearly all dead. It was only then or around this time, that Joseph’s sermons found more value among the Saints in general. Less so among many church leaders, who felt less sanguine about relying on Smith’s reported sermons. Ironically, they placed more value in some cases, on his so-called “writings.”
So temporal distance increased the value of Joseph’s sermons as the authoritative eyewitnesses of his life disappeared. The process continued through the first half of the 20th century until Joseph’s teachings came to be regarded by many Saints as nearly canonical. Were the sermon-texts suddenly more reliable documents? No text-critical work occurred, so from a scholarship perspective, the answer is no. What did happen was a wider dissemination. And there was a reason for that! I want to say more about this whole thing at another time. It’s fascinating, I think. Do you see this sort of thing operative elsewhere?
 See for example Agnes Coolbirth Smith’s heart wrenching letter to George A. Smith in the fall of 1846. (GAS papers, CHL.)
 A fine example of what I’m saying is found in the recent conference address of Elder Richard G. Scott. He quotes John Taylor, quoting Joseph Smith. Not in a sermon excerpt but in a personal encounter, or so it appears. Joseph’s semi-public speech rated higher, as the 1876 LDS Doctrine and Covenants showed. That a sea change was coming is represented by Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little in their Compendium of 1882. They wrote: “We consider the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Doctrine and Covenants and sayings of Joseph, the Seer, our guides in faith and doctrine. (Emphasis added.)
 It was not that the church historians of the 1850s had not publicized their edited accounts of the available sermons. They printed a number of them in several venues. But they rarely quoted them.