The Value of a Sermon Critical Edition. Part 2.

[Cross posted from BCC.]

In part I, I tried to lay out a few of the issues surrounding the problem of recovering a sermon delivered in the period of early Mormonism and what that might mean. Part of this problem is contiguous with subjectivity (mental events) vs. objectivity (external events) at several points in the process of delivery, perception and recording. This in turn is connected to the technical problem of recording sermons in the era. Discussing this results in a rehash of some things from part I but what the heck.

Joseph Smith’s sermons were recorded frequently by accident. That is, by random listeners who left a sentence or two or a paragraph or two in journals or notebooks which just happened to be preserved in a way that eventually allowed for access by Mormon historians and eventually by historians of Mormonism.

That is a problem with this process: it was fragmentary. Two-hour speeches reported in 3 or 400 words or maybe much less? Not so robust as we might wish. These kinds of reports lead to an obvious conclusion. One should be cautious in claiming that the words they report are in fact Joseph Smith’s words. This is especially important for reports that appear in notebooks and diaries where the sermon accounts are reports constructed some hours or days (weeks or months) following the event. The likelihood that such reports represent a large fraction of the exact words of the speaker with any degree of certainty is small, in general.[1] Whether they are accurate summaries of ideas is another question, but it seems inadvisable to throw caution to the winds here. I will look at this in a later post.

Before Joseph Smith died, his secretary Willard Richards had laid out a plan to record Smith’s history, had been the primary keeper of Smith’s diary after December 1841, had written significant portions of that history himself and managed others who did likewise. After the journey to Utah, where much of the raw data ended up, the history writing process turned in earnest to reconstructing Joseph’s sermons. Clerks in the Church Historian’s office attempted to fill in the record of those sermons by collecting and then fusing various reports of a sermon into a single text. The process went forward under the direction of Richards’ successor, George A. Smith, a cousin of Joseph Smith. These reconstructions were naive, using criteria that might be shocking in light of more modern standards.[2]

The 1850s versions of Joseph’s sermons would eventually form the standard for understanding what he said. The form of the history itself encouraged the idea that these reconstructions were done under the direction of or even created by Joseph himself. While the participants in this process were naturally quite aware of the procedures, when they left the scene, there was little if any internal evidence to place those creations in their proper perspective. Church literature partook of the published record and that put the history produced in 1855-6 in a place of confidence its producers didn’t necessarily share.

The quality of source materials used in the 1850s for Joseph Smith’s sermons varied widely and the array of materials was more limited than what is presently available in a number of cases. Those source materials also varied in value from sermon to sermon.

For example, Wilford Woodruff began recording Smith’s sermons in earnest in the Nauvoo period (1839-1844). His reports are sometimes the only ones available for a given occasion. Woodruff’s reports are of varying value, but his journal accounts are often fleshed out versions from memory, at times supplemented by notes taken at sermons. Where alternate accounts are available, they show that Woodruff occasionally paraphrased, expanded and omitted. The Woodruff reports no doubt represent Joseph’s remarks in the large but their distance from the archetypes appears to be variable. Much the same criticism may be rendered with respect to others who reported multiple instances of Joseph’s sermons. This represents a technological problem, not an ethical one.

In part III we will consider other aspects of the reporting process.

[1] In Mormon settings, one often hears the dictum: “I don’t remember what he/she said, but I remember how I felt.” I think this often represents at least two things – laziness, and possibly a merciful God. Ok, I’m being a little mean. But words are important.

[2] For example, source value judgements could be tempered by the hierarchical status of the recorder. Moreover, the clerk reconstructions could be edited by Church leaders who were not present at the sermons. Such editing could be offered based on personal historical experiences (possible), but doctrinal views at the time of editing may be in play, and the resulting archetypal distance might be considered irrelevant by those editors in any case. One can understand this idea on the basis of several impulses. For one, consider Dallin H. Oaks’ conference address in October 2010.

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