Losing the Context — Preaching in Early Mormonism

The institution of Mormonism has generally prized parts of, or all of Joseph Smith’s literary production. Joseph wrote little himself, seeing that as a kind of separate duty, tasked nearly exclusively to more capable hands. When a document-driven history began to emerge in the late 1830s, Joseph was a driving force, but rarely a contributor beyond supplying those relevant documents.

Joseph’s preaching was likewise not self-reported unlike most of his fellow Protestants who dared to leave examples of their sermons. The billions of pages of sermons printed by Christian publishing houses in antebellum America may be seen as fighting the good fight of either conversion, reconversion, strengthening the faithful and occasionally, responding to the unfriendly environment of establishment in earlier times.

Joseph’s sermons had some resemblance to this corpus of seething righteousness and most importantly, they quite often responded to critiques of things like the frightening “gold bible,” other new revelation, the needs of church discipline and government, and especially after 1838, discerning more carefully the meaning of God’s relationship to man.

Early church documents, some extracted from larger works, are best seen as responses to the religious environments they originated in, environments mostly unfamiliar to established Mormonism. Documents like Doctrine and Covenants section 20, the Articles of Faith, or Joseph Smith’s revelations speaking to the Bible, ought to first be seen as situational in nature. They placed Mormonism among the denominational faith statements of the time. In a way, this Mormon “creed” may be seen as both reaction and purposeful contrast to then present Protestantism.

Taking Joseph’s statements, or even the Book of Mormon, out of that setting without acknowledging it, seems ripe for paradox. In fact I think we instinctively know that as a people. Many find that the good old Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith is filled with odd sword thrusts against invisible adversaries, fighting foes that seem irrelevant or worse, mysterious.

Providing context for those earliest sermons and texts at least reduces some of that frustrating puzzlement. Also, it helps to reduce the fears of my fellow ward members regarding my fascination with early Mormon texts. I’m not really suffering from Turrette when I stutteringly blast my way through an explanation of early British–American Masonry, the rise of the ancients, the impact on Joseph Smith, and so on and so forth. Sure, they still shake their heads and wonder what’s wrong with me, but at least they know I’m safe and basically harmless when I spout off in class once a quarter or so.

Context is what we’re about around here.

6 Responses to Losing the Context — Preaching in Early Mormonism

  1. J. Stapley says:

    So, they have a context for your context.

  2. ricke says:

    Yesterday, our Sunday School lesson was on following the prophet. Many of the verses from the D&C that we read in class and the stories that the teacher told (e.g., Symonds Ryder and TB Marsh) would have benefitted from some context. On the other hand, I find that many class members are uncomfortable hearing about historical context because it undermines confidence in their personal interpretations of the scriptures.

  3. WVS says:

    That’s a good point ricke. Often those personal interpretations are mortared with bits and pieces of literature or oral memory that make it nearly impossible to revise an opinion. They have become identified as “testimony” perhaps.

  4. n8c says:

    I really liked this. thanks. I’m personally looking forward to JSP documents 1. I’m very hopeful that this will make the context you have come to love in church history more available to other church members. And published by the church, sold at DB so they might not even be suspect if you quote from it! 🙂

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