Stemmata for the Funeral Sermons of Joseph Smith

Here’s an example for one of the funeral sermons.

Preaching event at the top. Arrows represent text dependence.

This particular sermon was published in full a comparatively large number of times. The more times in print the more complicated the variorum. In this particular case, one excerpt has appeared (just in recent years) over a hundred times in Church conferences and literature. That is rather unusual and somewhat odd, given the earth shaking stuff you *could* come up with. The stemma reveals the most influential editor: MS2. It is not always easy to identify the real editor of published Church documents and in the typesetting era often more than one set of hands dealt with a given text like this one. Complete texts of Joseph Smith’s sermons tend to be published by the Church at large during in a cycle very similar to this one. Aside from reprinting certain standard imprints like Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and a few independently published versions of the sermons, new “official” imprints stopped after 1952.

Reference frequency to the funeral sermons in Church literature forms an interesting pattern that I may write about again at some point.

A more puzzling but related point is the effect of these sermons on individual lives. As a collection of authoritative documents the entire sermon corpus has had its ups and downs. As policy statements, they were troublesome in some ways. While modern Church leaders have considered them, they have rarely been seen by most as coercive in matters of policy or procedure. But if so, then they were still seen as creating issues that had to be addressed. One easy example is the relation between seventies and high priests.[1] Another is the nature and status of Relief Societies.

Following the typical pattern of founding documents, their context and production became less and less important over time.[2] This is aptly illustrated by the stemma itself. Successive editors rarely (never) found occasion to return to source documents or even editions preceding their immediately preceding base text. Indeed, you can easily see the inflexion point at the center of the stemma with “MS2.” This is the second Millennial Star version and something like Noah, every later edition stems from it. This bottle-neck is shared by virtually every Church printing of the Joseph Smith sermons. On the other hand, without pressing the issue with the Church at large, Church leaders shared a certain caution about the accuracy of the sermon-texts made available by the post-Nauvoo mid-century editors. Two important examples here: Junius F. Wells, editor of The Contributor A Mormon periodical active during the 1880s and 90s. In volume 3 (1882) of the serial, Wells ran a series he called “Sermons and Writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” Aside from the question of “writings,” Wells extended a cautionary note on the nature of the texts and was careful to explain that they were not perfect transcripts in any sense. The other was Joseph F. Smith, president of the Church from 1901 to 1918. JFS was quite suspicious of the sermons in terms of being standards of doctrine and was somewhat leery of the following the sermons had gained over the last two decades of the 19th century. He held a number of cautionary meetings (private leadership meetings) over some sermons and was the subject of a few letter-writing campaigns over some of them. Ironically, it was his son, Joseph Fielding Smith, who promoted the 1850s edited sermon-texts as reliable documents.

With the current emphasis on a simplified approach to teaching materials along with a focus on the (latest!) conference addresses as operational/moral direction, the sermons of the 19th century form a library of phrases with widely varying time-and-circumstance-dependent (even negative) value. The days of Church periodicals printing JS’s sermons in toto are probably over. But you can always get your fix at the Parallel Joseph.

[1] As a student I recall being asked by some local Church leaders to respond to rumblings over a transition in student stakes. Counselors in bishoprics were not, as a matter of policy, going to be ordained high priests. This caused some feelings among members and they were looking for some kind of textual authority that would open the door to such policy. Thus, this is the reverse of the tension noted above. Make a change, find a justification based in JS.

[2] As far as the whole documents themselves, the perceived value is difficult to judge.

4 Responses to Stemmata for the Funeral Sermons of Joseph Smith

  1. ricke says:

    With regard to the sermons, this is very insteresting. On the other hand, it seems that the D&C itself is similarly problematic: There are many places where the current practice of the Church differs from what is described in the revelations. Personally, I don’t see what the big issue is – we believe in current revelation, and the leadership can make changes as necessary. That’s pretty much all the justification that Spencer W. Kimball gave to the last Presiding Patriarch when that position was eliminated: “You believe we can make changes, don’t you?” However, I’m sure that actually acknowledging a deviation from earlier prescriptions is not something the Church relishes. I, for one, am looking forward to your definitive collection.

    • WVS says:

      I think any issue here results from the wish/hope/belief that consistency reigns as long as things are translated correctly. (grin)

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Regarding official texts: I’m trying to remember, but it seems to me that the recent Teachings manual was mostle from HC, with the RS sermons from the RS minute book. Were there other sources with that?

    • WVS says:

      Yeah, I think HC was the go-to source for quotations. If the manual had been written today, perhaps this would be different? For the RS sermons, I think they quoted HC, Willard Richards, Snow minutes and even recollections.

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