Joseph Smith, Sermons, and Lived Religion

From the late colonial period to the time of Joseph Smith, important forces were at work that changed the nature of preaching. Most sermons in the late colonial period were read. Whether from small briefs carried into a pulpit, scribbled notes on a quarter sheet of foolscap, or carefully fleshed out thoughts in tempered script, preachers expanded from their notes or read word for word, but in general followed a written pre-planned text. There is a paper trail there.[1]

In fact, a dividing issue among late colonial preachers involved reading versus hearing. And although that division dissolved somewhat over the next forty years in favor of spontaneity, the printed sermon was hugely popular among preachers of the early 19th century. There are mountains of them that survive and that is just the tip of the iceberg. With billions of pages in print by the time of Joseph Smith’s first vision, one wonders about their effect. While you can find them in libraries now, they are sparsely represented. The tract sermon lined the outhouse in effect.

The problem is the nature of sermonizing. It is very obviously an aural experience, but also a visual one and in some cases, a visceral one. Given the reports of listener impressions that do exist, we see that people like the great Methodist George Whitefield and other spellbinders are lost to us. Gardiner Spring, in his 1850 book, The Power of the Pulpit, lamented:

When you read [his] discources, you can scarcely be persuaded that he was the prince of preachers; and that the author of those printed pages was the man who collected 20,000 hearers on the open field at Leeds . . . . You read his sermons, but the preacher is not there. That voice, at a single intonation of which a whole audience has been known to burst into tears, is not there. That instant communication between living speaker and his hearers, which creates so powerful a sympathy, is not there.

As Dawn Coleman has observed, “texts of most 19th century sermons come off as uninspired theological position papers.”[2]

I’ve remarked before on the division between Joseph Smith’s sermons and those of his Protestant contemporaries. It was not that Smith preached in a unique format. He preached indoors and out, to large and small crowds. His sermons, with few exceptions were extemporaneous, but the most popular of preachers in the period were those who at least appeared to speak spontaneously and with sincere drama (overstating things, these were Baptists and Methodists). The interesting part here is that Smith’s sermons survive while comparatively little of the unnotified stuff from his contemporaries does.

Preachers who found a rationalist approach lacking, sometimes felt impressed in the pulpit to expand from any prepared text, as their feelings or impressions directed. In terms of lived religion, these were the sermons that impressed, evoked emotion, fashioned stunned silence, and deployed the facsimile of inspiration. I say facsimile, in reverence to what these preachers themselves thought. The idea of inspiration in the pulpit was a touchy subject. Hence, listeners often dithered in description of even the most evocative of sermons. Invariably, words like “seemed” or “near” or “as if” are deployed to place at least some distance between actual prophetic inspiration and the experience of the sermon. Clearly, all this is connected to the preacher in particular. Some preachers had a reputation for placing the backslider or skeptic in such an emotive framework that they could not help themselves in the moment. Some congregants would purposely stay away from churches because they could not avoid being brought to tears by a certain preacher.[3]

How did Mormon preachers fit in? Some were, if not at the top of the American heap, higher than others. Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon had some reputation for exhibiting power in their sermons. But it was not the theological content that made the difference here I think. Rigdon’s words could invoke a pathos that might draw a tear from the most hardened critic.[4] But we don’t remember them now. And that is not just because he burned his Nauvoo bridges.[5]

Do Joseph Smith’s sermons distinguish themselves in any important ways here? As noted, Joseph preached extempore. That is certain, and in this he held a common position with the most revered preachers of Protestant America. It was not the staid sermon reader who drove congregations to emotional heights. Physically, Joseph was not so imposing as his brothers or father, all of whom were significantly taller. Vocally, no one seems too impressed by his diction, way with words, or abilities in expression (see: “great green lubberly fellow”). Some fraction of his listeners thought him self-important. He occasionally referred to himself in the third person. His subjects were driven by biblical texts but often as sugar to make the medicine go down. His preaching developed to a certain extent by instruction on religious matters, but more particularly on Church issues of governance. It was in the latter way that his eventual style developed. Joseph was reverenced, not as someone who could bring you “near” to God, but someone who could bring you face to face with God. Joseph did not praise others in his sermons. His funeral sermons are mostly devoid of the pathetic. He used them as platforms (in a way somewhat contrary to Calvinists of a previous generation with threats of damnation) to publicize his heterodox doctrines of God, man and the temple.

This brings us to an interesting question. Who were Joseph’s mentors? The devotional answer might name people like Moroni. Granting that, is there evidence that he took from mortals in terms of topic, style or delivery? As far as delivery is concerned, I see Joseph as a somewhat frustrated cross between Congregationalist and Methodist. He didn’t locate his verbiage in Rigdon’s Baptist mentors, but he did use them for contrast and reference. Joseph’s method often employs a logic that is attractive to the converted. And he is not afraid to hunt for a reason-backed approach to his points. At the same time, he claims vision and revelation as foundational. Scripture finds its place as support to that, reinterpretation may be necessary, but this is done mostly without violence to the Word. His nineteenth century editors at times seem to emphasize what violence there is, for their own purposes. But to the point: did Joseph model himself in terms of preaching after anybody in particular? I think not. He is pretty freewheeling, borrowing topic and text from a variety of sources and persons. He was an eclectic preacher and teacher, who hoped to bring something new and different to pulpit and audience. His was a mixture of Logic and Faith. He was not unfamiliar with some of the great preachers of the era and the past. His speaking gives evidence of the reasoning of past generations, but often it is turned on its head. But it was not so much style that impressed his congregations — it was the contextual content.


[1] The change in the nature, content and delivery of sermons really accelerates after the war (of 1812). The balance of Protestant sectarianism, its voyeuristic relationship with Catholicism and its horror of its own inherent diaspora all play into Mormon sermons and relationships with America at large.

[2] In A New History of the Sermon vol. 4. (Brill, 2010). Whitefield was a product of the 18th century, but the principle still holds. Think of the more universally appreciated sermons in your own congregation.

[3] I don’t want to convey the idea that we are overburdened with a surfeit of sermon reviews in the period. In fact this kind of information is very difficult to come by. It normally requires the most intense kind of research among primary sources with a characteristically low yield. In terms of existing studies in the genre, there just aren’t very many. I think I’ve got 4 or 5 in my head and that ranges from the 1940s to the present.

[4] And of course he could inflame a group as well. Salt in the wound if you will.

[5] There are several good Rigdon ms sermons. But beyond historical interest, their content is comparatively unremarkable. Surely this defies their status of the moment. On the other hand, Rigdon is unappreciated in current Mormonism except as a bad example. One has the impression that if it could have been done, his name would have been rubbed out of the historical record like new pharaohs chiseled away the names of preceding dynasties. Sort of like the SBC erasing that darn liberal discourse of a hundred years ago.

3 Responses to Joseph Smith, Sermons, and Lived Religion

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Lots of stuff to think through here. There was that bit I sent you a couple of weeks ago, which suggested that at least some Mormons situated their preaching in contrast to both the older hell-threatening and the by then older “new measures.” I guess I hadn’t thought about that idea much. If you look at the topics noted in the diaries of Mormon evangelists you see consistent themes, but perhaps they also learned simmilar methods of delivery.

    I guess I have sort of thought (without much critical thought to back it up) that JS’s sermonizing developed as a means of contrast and revelation common among the missionaries. That is, I don’t imagine him trying to invoke a feeling of conviction and regeneration. Instead, he preaches anticessationism, or restoration, or justification for the churches existence. Did he and the other missionaries.

    • WVS says:

      Yes, I think JS’s preaching was memorable not for its presentation, but its groundbreaking content and emphasis. Authority, hell, temple, cosmology, all things that many Saints had high regard for and his style developed differently than others as it came out of a teaching mode rather than the preaching most Protestants found moving. I think.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Commenting from my phone, sorry for the crappy syntax.

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