General Question: What of Group Editing?

[Cross posted from BCC.]

I think most Latter-day Saints accept as normative the idea that Church publications which are often published say under an approval banner of the First Presidency are actually group projects, or documents authored by a person or group and then edited by some group of people. This kind of thing goes back a long way. For instance the well-embedded Godhead document of 1916 (“The Father and the Son. A Doctrinal Exposition of the First Presidency and the Twelve.”) was a Talmage production, but with editorial changes by the FP and Q12. In other words, a group production.

Different Saints seem to categorize this kind of thing in different ways.

For example, a lesson manual is regarded by some as nearly comparable to scripture, while others view them as having a lower ranking.[1]

A letter from the First Presidency read over the pulpit is usually not scrutinized for hints about who may have authored the missive. In actual fact, it may have been composed by a staff member in some cases. Does this devalue the production in some way? It’s universally assumed that such letters pass under the eyes of the signatories, but I think there are examples where this has not been the case. James R. Clark’s series Messages of the First Presidency was produced with the idea that those messages (letters, etc.) were in some way tantamount to revelations (see the author’s introduction).

The place of scripture in Christian tradition and among Mormons in particular is a related and perhaps somewhat touchy subject. Leaving aside the question of biblical texts, their authorship, evolution and editing, what of modern Mormon scripture? I feel sure that some fairly large fraction of Latter-day Saints think of the revelations published in the Doctrine and Covenants as dictations of the voice of God or angels. Does the evident editing that took place with those revelations make that position run aground? I refer to the landmark facsimile edition in the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers.

A perusal of Revelation Book 1 in that volume won’t leave much doubt about the considerable editing that took place in the effort to publish the Book of Commandments. They were in some respects a committee production, based of course on Joseph Smith’s originally dictated forms. Does that effort, which continued to a lesser extent in later editions, devalue the contents? Or perhaps a better way: does editing dilute scripture? Improve it? Distance it in meaningful ways from its source? Or is such editing always inspired, as valuable as the original form? Does that depend on the edit and editor? What of things like footnotes, or headnotes or verse divisions?[2]

Orson Pratt’s selections of material for the 1876 Doctrine and Covenants add another layer to this. Some of the (presently) most quoted passages of the Doctrine and Covenants come from those Pratt additions. Should we consider the sources of such things, or are they now beyond reproach or consideration? Does doing that diligence constitute a sign diminished of faith, or could it create a problem for the Church?

Finally, and you know I have to say this, what about sermons? Early sermons, particularly Joseph Smith’s have a certain cachet among many Church members. Most of them, nearly all of them, are the result of multiple editorial hands. But it does not end there. A study of early Utah sermons shows that even those taken by shorthand are only of approximate accuracy in most cases, even dubious accuracy in some cases. The editorial process certainly distanced the final published versions, when they were published, from their oral archetypes.

What about those editors and editions? Is it all just one symphony of Divinely inspired textual evolution toward perfection? In other words, are our texts getting sanctified?

A quote commonly attributed to Joseph Smith, “I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” is so frequently mentioned in Church discourse that one almost hesitates to drill down in that vicinity. But just to begin that, this is not really a quotation at all. Its base text is found in the Journal of Wilford Woodruff, but the form is fairly different there. Moreover, the context of the statement is nearly always ignored. Is this edited version in its usually stated isolation a correct representation of what Joseph meant? And now I’ve got to go to Costco.

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[1] Knowing the inner workings about such productions may tend toward a reduction in viewed reliability or usefulness. Or does it?

[2] We often find Christian apologists diminishing or effectively ignoring doctrinal divisions in the fold as they might style it. Do Mormons play the same game for such things? Do errors really matter? Even Bruce McConkie was not too hyped on headnotes, footnotes and bible dictionaries.

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4 Responses to General Question: What of Group Editing?

  1. DavidH says:

    Are you saying that scriptures may be like laws and sausages, and “cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made”? http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/21/magazine/27wwwl-guestsafire-t.html

    • WVS says:

      That’s always the way with the mysterious. At least Sherlock Holmes thought so. Religion making is much more nuanced than tradition ever allows. Many take that in stride by either purposely ignoring it or by becoming more subtle in their beliefs.

  2. ricke says:

    As I’ve noted before on your blog, Royal Skousen notes that the “corrections” to the BOM text prepared by Joseph (and I suppose others who helped him) do not show the same remarkable consistency and coherence as the original text. Paraphrasing Skousen, the “corrections” do not show the same inspiration as the original. I have wondered about the corrections to the D&C in the same light.

    However, the concept of current revelation requires that we privilege the most recent utterance or view of our oracles. There must be some way to prioritize them though, for example, by date, by the level of authority of the author, by the number of authoritative people holding the view, by number of times it is repeated, etc. By such a grid, whatever BY said about Adam-God held more currency earlier than now.

    In this connection, I have a problem with something that is happening right now. A few years ago, BKP resurrected an old quote by Orson F. Whitney about the sealing of the parents being effectual on their children regardless of the subsequent behavior of the children. Of course, this seems to contradict the notion of agency for the children. And as you well know, the original idea came from a misquote by one recorder of a discourse by Joseph – which fortunately Brother Coray recorded correctly. However, because of BKP’s status, the quote has been picked up by other, lesser General Authorities and repeated to the point that it is becoming doctrine by repetition.

    I could go on, but that is definitely enough for now.

    • WVS says:

      ricke, some people would see the Whitney quote evolution to be providential: in other words the drift away from the sources is divine teleology. We hear that, right? Everything that comes from higher ranks is correct, whatever misinterpretation or misreading preceded it, or something. That plays into Skousen’s judgements regarding BoM changes. Since RS has no authoritative cachet, should we really take him seriously? I’m not suggesting I feel this way. Nibley would get the same kinds of responses to some of his stuff. Who are you to be saying such and such, etc.

      However, the concept of current revelation requires that we privilege the most recent utterance or view of our oracles. There must be some way to prioritize them though, for example, by date, by the level of authority of the author, by the number of authoritative people holding the view, by number of times it is repeated, etc. By such a grid, whatever BY said about Adam-God held more currency earlier than now.

      The interesting thing about this attitude is its paradoxical nature. It started with Brigham Young’s era in terms of living vs. dead prophets. I remember my stake president from decades back telling me that he was interviewed by Mark E. Petersen. Petersen asked him “do you have a testimony of the gospel as taught by Joseph Fielding Smith?” (JFS was president of the Church). I can see a reason for this. You want middle level managers to toe the line I suppose and much of that was (and still is a bit) motivated by the polygamy underground (Petersen was, at the time, the point-man for that). The evolution of doctrine is based on this idea. I think that was why Harold B. Lee and others laid out a kind of “grundlagen” here. “Scriptures” become the standard (works) and anything that’s said has to clear that hurdle first. Good thing we don’t look too closely there. (grin)

      But to the point. Do we as a people, I want to say reject, but that’s the wrong word, devalue group productions (say like D&C 109 or D&C 20) as compared to, ah, say a revelation with very few or no changes from the point of its dictation? (Of course, punctuation is not dictated!) Skousen seems to say we should in some circumstances.

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