The Gift of Tongues: The Propagation of Sermon Texts in Mormonism

Another blast from the past. It seemed appropriate.

In spite of all the talk about remembering what we feel in a sermon experience, not what we hear, as valid as that may be, it is the text that reigns supreme. Recreating a sermon is not possible. But recording the words spoken on the occasion may be valuable. From the very beginning of Joseph Smith’s career, it was the text that trumped all other things. The Book of Mormon saga places the text in the role of savior, preserver and founder of language and true religion. It was to be expected that Mormons would keep records, and by commandment.

How important is the gap between the experience of a sermon and a text of that sermon? To be sure, there is always a gap. That gap is characterized in different ways by modern textual theory but I think most of us have a sense of what fidelity means when we talk about reporting the spoken word. So, I want to discuss that fidelity just a little from a practical side. Naturally, since this is a Mormon blog, we should focus on Mormons in some sense. So, what are some things that stand between the spoken and written word? Here’s a partial list:

1. Environment.

2. Assignment.

3. Method.

4. Skill.

5. Redaction.

In nineteenth century venues, environment was dictated mostly by chance. How it effected textual fidelity is important but very hard to quantify. Assignment refers to those assigned (either by themselves or someone else) to report and Method means the technique used to record the words of the preacher. Skill defines the ability of the reporter in using the Method. Redaction can happen anytime, but mostly it took place shortly before printing.

The earliest reporters in Mormonism were unskilled longhand writers with varying concepts of what it meant to chronicle events and words. Most gave very brief accounts of devotional or administrative gatherings. Only after some years of struggle and turnover did clerks start to provide more extensive accounts of happenings in these conclaves. The culture of record keeping in early Mormonism had a value system that usually worked like this: it ranked Joseph Smith’s revelations as most important on the scale of needed fidelity.[1] Next were instructions ladled out in council meetings along with the proceedings of Church courts (which could be public conferences). Lowest in the pecking order were sermons or spontaneous testimonies. That culture began to change after 1832 and more firmly with the establishment of the high council system and the publication of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph Smith’s revelations were much less frequent by that time, but his pulpit presence was becoming more robust. Instruction moved to take the place of the formal revelation and sermon and instruction collided to form a less demonstrative and perhaps a more potently informative experience.

During much of Joseph Smith’s lifetime, officially assigned clerks kept sermon records in longhand, with some speedwriters using their own abbreviation systems. A few Saints were acquainted with the Taylor shorthand system, but none were skillful or motivated enough to create anything like word for word transcripts, however we define that elusive goal.[2]

A few years after the large majority of Mormons migrated to Utah, in 1851, men with more skill and a better Method (via Isaac Pitman and his eponymous system) were on board, like George Watt, J. V. Long, and others.[3]

One problem with these shorthand systems was their interpretation. It was an obvious fact, even with Pitman, that the ideal situation was for the reporter to transcribe a speedwriting experience to longhand as soon as possible while things were fresh. Though speed shorthand was an advantage, most reporters suffered from lag problems as well as cryptic errors. Words and even sentences might be skipped simply because it was just too hard to keep up or because Environment intervened.[4] Woodruff’s JS sermon notes may have been kept in, or partly in, Taylor, but it is clear that they didn’t closely match actual words for the most part.

The Utah situation improved in Method and Skill. Still fidelity suffered, sometimes a lot, from the Redaction that took place in the publication process. Where the original shorthand reports survive, comparing them with published reports reveals extensive editing during the process. George Watt’s hand could be heavy on the tiller.[3] Review of sermon reports by preachers in Utah just didn’t happen often, but even if it had, fidelity would still be at issue.

With the invention and use of the typewriter and recording machines, the world of Mormon sermon reporting began a long slow change to the present one of machine transcription, prewritten addresses, and a host of other things[5] including on-the-spot human translation. How fidelity works there is an issue beyond the scope of this post, but translation (the gift of tongues) is still the crux.

[1] On record keeping and the revelations see Robin Scott Jensen, “‘Rely Upon the Things Which are Written’: Text, Context, and the Creation of Mormon Revelatory Records,” MLIS Thesis, Univ. Wisc.-Milwaukee 2009.

[2] Wilford Woodruff knew the Taylor system, but based on the results he had in using it, he was handicapped both by the vagaries of Taylor and a lack of speed in its use. Method and Skill were likewise against others who knew it (Thomas Bullock used it on occasion). Translating Taylor is problematics for several reasons, not least of which are its lack of vowels and dependence on thickness of stroke.

[3] My thanks to LaJean Carruth for several helpful exchanges on these issues. She has worked extensively with Taylor and Pitman shorthand materials in the Church History Library. See for example the appendix in Staker’s Hearken, O Ye People.

[4] I’m including things like quill problems, or running out of ink, earwax, wind, rain, etc. Nauvoo experiences were often out-of-doors.

[5] The cultural shift that drove men from the ranks of commercial stenography and made women the default in the profession didn’t really affect Church recording (that’s not completely true, staffs in Church headquarters shifted in roughly the same way as commercial ones did -just slower – but that did not apply to recording GA meetings and GC). But the Method inside Church venues mostly followed the trends in America. Church reporters moved to the Gregg system (an 1888 invention that never caught on in Britain for some reason) for example. Court reporter stenotype machines were used in Church settings for a while. It was never practical to require local clerks to use such systems but some did. Courtroom reporting in the US gradually moved on to a system where the court reporter just verbally repeated testimony (“voice writing”), etc. into a device that prevented their own voice from being heard. The voice recording would be transcribed later, now using speech recognition computer software. Still, inside and outside the Church, altogether there remain billions of pages of untranslated shorthand, most of which will never return to English form. No one cares.

5 Responses to The Gift of Tongues: The Propagation of Sermon Texts in Mormonism

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Great summary. I think LaJean is doing some of the most important work around right now.

  2. ricke says:

    Very interesting. Thank you. I hadn’t heard of the Taylor system, much less imagined that WW would have used any form of shorthand.

    • WVS says:

      Taylor has some weird features that made it tougher to deal with. For example, thinkness of a stroke could make considerable difference in meaning. Turning it into English yielded something that was nearly as bad.

  3. BHodges says:

    excellent little overview!

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