Two King Follett Sermon (Text) Traditions

The two most influential texts of Joseph Smith’s “King Follett Sermon” are those arising from the 1850s church historians, and the B. H. Roberts 1909 Improvement Era text. Currently reprinted (by church organs like Deseret Book) versions of this sermon are based on the Roberts text. The 1850s text was the survivor text from the 19th century. The other text traditions from that century fell out of usage in church printings before 1900. Aside from accidentals and Roberts’ changes in a small part of the text, his main textual alterations involved the addition of footnotes.

The King Follett Sermon was not printed in volume 6 of the Roberts’ edited History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1912. The sermon had been removed at the direction of President Joseph F. Smith at the last moment. The removal constitutes an important episode in the history of the sermon, but a full understanding of the issues would require too much space here.

The sermon was restored in the 1950 revised edition of the history, but it was not based on the sources used in the surrounding text of the history (which itself is based on a 19th century episodic printing in England rather than the manuscript of the history itself). Instead, the 1950 edition used Roberts’ text, as did the earlier 1938 container Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

The Roberts tradition was created by him as a way to both counter rising prejudice about the accuracy of the sermon “report” itself and to place Roberts’ interpretive comments before church readership. It failed somewhat in the former purpose and succeeded eventually in the latter. The story here is a long and complex one and leads to obscure corners of Mormonism. [1]

As a sort of straight-forward comparison between the two text traditions, i.e., the church’s manuscript history text (ca 1855), and the 1909 Roberts text, I draw your attention to a preliminary parallel here. The two texts are expressed in variorum [2] fashion, showing how various editions of the text have changed through different printings of the sermon in the 19th and 20th centuries (beware, this text is just a draft and is not complete or completely correct -moreover, not all 19th and 20th century printings involved these two text traditions -also(!) Roberts’ footnotes are not displayed). The odd abbreviations are explained as follows:

DN : Deseret News (ca 1856)

MS2: Millennial Star (ca 1860)

JD: Journal of Discourses (ca 1860)

CON: The Contributor (ca 1890)

GM2: Third manuscript version of KFS by Jonathan Grimshaw (ca 1855) and as it was slightly edited again, as it appeared in the manuscript history of church. GM2 was founded on an earlier (and secondary) printing of the sermon in Nauvoo in 1845

IE: The 1909 Era text (= R1)

R2: Liahona the Elders Journal (ca 1911)

R3: 1913 version of the 1909 text publ. by Roberts

R4: 1938 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith

R5: ca 1950 revised ed. of History of the Church

R6: edited version of R5 appearing in the Ensign magazine (ca 1971)


[1] I don’t mean to imply that Roberts was motivated by personal prestige. He clearly felt that his comments placed the sermon’s text within the boundaries of Joseph’s intent and current church teachings. A significant portion of church leaders eventually agreed.

[2] A variorum essentially allows the reader to reconstruct any edition of the text observed by the footnotes.

6 Responses to Two King Follett Sermon (Text) Traditions

  1. ricke says:

    Very interesting. I’m looking forward to reading the draft. J. Stapley had some material on this topic too over at

  2. J. Stapley says:

    WVS, This is very impressive work. That PDF comparison represents a tremendous amount of labor and we are all beneficiaries. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    In my review of the textual history, I missed the Improvement Era edition, which is where I imagine the Liahona version came from.

  3. W. V. Smith says:

    Right J. The 1909 text is represented in all later instances of the sermon.

  4. Robert Harrison says:

    Dear friends,

    Is there anywhere in the commentaries on the King Follet discourse where Joseph Smith says that mothers will not have their children to bring up in the resurrection. If there was some misunderstanding in this statement was it cleared up by Wilfred Woodruff?

    I hope that you will not mind me asking this question on this site, but it was the only one I could find where I might find the answer. Regards Robert Harrison

  5. Robert Harrison says:

    A very intereting write which has given me thought for further reading. I think that that members of the church should be made aware of the true discourse spoken by Joseph Smith.

  6. W. V. Smith says:

    Robert, the question of what Joseph Smith said about the resurrection of children is a complicated one. Reminiscent accounts of Joseph’s remarks on the matter conflict. Contemporary reports suggest that Joseph taught that children are resurrected as children, but remain children in stature. Joseph F. Smith was uncomfortable with that. He charged that the KFS report was unreliable and sought testimony from several former Nauvoo residents who claimed Joseph said resurrected children would grow in stature after the resurrection.

    The truth appears to be that Joseph may have held various views on the matter. You can find further information on the issue here and here.

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