Preaching, Rhetoric and Mormons
April 6, 2012 1 Comment
[Cross posted at BCC.]
With the recent conference, many Church members saw what has become the pinnacle of Mormon Preaching: The General Conference Address. But is it really representative of the Mormon sermon? I say no. In my paltry experience, Mormon preaching is much more like classical Methodist homily than the considered rationalist stuff you might get from an Anglican pulpit. General Conference preaching is very carefully scripted. No off the reservation speculation, no fire and brimstone to speak of, no getting lost in the rhetorical moment allowed, much. (I think Church presidents have their leeway and there is descent evidence for that.)
Paul Welsby, in his Sermons and Society (1970) offers that preaching is generationally specific. It probably doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that, but it’s worth noting. In Joseph Smith’s era, things were more free-wheeling from the central Church pulpit. On the other hand, you had to be prepared for public correction. Orson Hyde learned this. Joseph Smith sometimes coached prospective preachers. “This is what you talk about, and here’s how you do it.” Naturally they never enjoyed Smith’s freedom, but still it had an unscripted feel.
In the 19th century the range of rhetorical style was wide as the Pacific. You had Emerson, Henry Beecher, Frederic Farrar (I’m counting the Brits here) on the intellectual side and thousands of more home-spun brethren (and sisters) on the other with venues ranging from purely tractate to spur of the moment speaking-in-tongues.
Evolution! How did it play out in 19th century preaching? Answer: it didn’t. That’s right. Straw Man. Even Charles Kingsley, both priest and scientist, found little to object to in the theory and even less to preach about (of course it can be argued the Kingsley’s understanding of Darwin’s writing was not very robust). Farrar and Beecher, both of intellectual stripe, found nothing in Darwin to preach about, for or against.
That brings up another interesting issue: who told preachers what to preach? Surely this is partly environmental, right? And as Mormons often touted, Protestant preaching topics were many times subject to congregational whim rather than the other way around. Mormon preachers were generally inexperienced. “Not Trained for the Ministry.” This is only partly true of course. They trained each other — a scripturally motivated practice, right? But Mormon preachers observed that they took the Holy Spirit for their guide. This would certainly be claimed by many others, but the Mormon association with canonical breech perhaps made this seem more extreme. Individual accounts however bear witness to the experience of Divine aid both in preacher and listener. And this was all about being unscripted. Indeed, there is still, outside of the Conference Center, a distinct preference, even requirement for, extemporaneous remarkage among at least visiting authorities to local congregations.
It’s often asserted that Joseph Smith was not the prominent preacher of the Church in early years. Based on actual reports though, I’d say at least by the mid 1830s he is in fact the most revered of preachers in Mormonism. Rigdon may have been a powerful orator (it doesn’t really come through in the written accounts I don’t think) but Smith, for obvious reasons I think, was looked to for instruction, possibly even new revelation in his oral communiques. For Mormons, that was a signal quality, for Protestants in general, probably a frightening one. It’s an important aspect of “lived religion” and one I want to address a little in another post: how did congregations, especially Mormon ones experience sermon delivery. I think there is something to be gained there by looking at Protestant counterparts. Happy Easter folks. Listen to them sermons.
 Huxley and Hooker waged a bit of a war on the priests, but it was a one-sided argument methinks. Moreover, science in general seems to be a topic of very little importance from the pulpit in 19th century America, and Britain too. If Natural Selection arguments were better understood at the time though, it may be that they would have stirred the sleeping giant — they certainly did in the 20th century. Peter Bowler’s Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons (2007) doesn’t really make any sense (contrary to his claim) in the 19th century.
 I’ve been there when newbie Area Seventies have been raked over it by a GA for having written out a talk. A word to the wise people. (grin)