Print Culture and Orality in Early Mormonism

Working through the Funeral Sermon book, trying to put together a real draft, I’m attempting once again to write an introduction (presently designated as Preface). I’ve written large chunks that have been (and no doubt others that will eventually be) discarded. This post is stuff on the chopping block, but it has some important features that deserve some discussion I think. So I am dumping it on you all. No doubt it is terribly boring stuff, but that’s the nature of the beast. What follows was just an initial draft, so I don’t claim a serious stake in it.

[Cross posted at By Common Consent.]

While the sermon moved to a more valued position in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith’s sermons were still oral events. Even when versions of oral archetypes reached print, any perceived content of the archetype was largely re-communicated orally. Circulation of Mormon print was relatively small compared to membership in the first thirty years of Mormonism. The distribution of Joseph Smith’s teaching as a whole remained small for many years beyond that point and Mormon teaching remained an oral culture within established congregations. Preaching from the pulpit appealed to the written word, but that preaching itself was rarely recorded. This points to one of the primary problems with the historic understanding and study of early Mormonism. That study, in my opinion, requires a thorough rethinking in light of oral culture versus print culture.

C. C. A. Christensen painting of Joseph Smith preaching. "Did he smile when he said that?"

C. C. A. Christensen painting of Joseph Smith preaching. “Did he smile when he said that?”

The ways in which early Mormons thought about their religion and their prophet are deeply impacted by the gap between oral archetypes and the eventual print encoding of those oral events. To that end, I believe that the emerging disciplines exposing the power of oral culture must make its way into the study of early Mormonism in some fashion for that study to move beyond the bounds of blind focus on manuscript and imprint. For present Mormonism, the distribution of church teaching via the printed word is important for regulation and uniformity. Nevertheless, oral teaching still forms a vital part of the backbone of church expansion and internal communication. As the church becomes a third world presence, issues at the boundary of orality and scripture will become ever more important as the unique Mormon texts face translation within regions where orality has great importance. Within Mormon texts, even the most fundamental—the Bible and the Book of Mormon—orality studies may eventually play a larger role in the way those texts are understood both in their own internal contexts and how those contexts interface with their present deployment in the LDS tradition.

The Latin and German panels for opening verses of Matthew chapter 4 in Joseph Smith's ca. 1600 AD polyglot New Testament. A result of Gutenberg's innovation.

Gutenberg’s movable type enterprise marked a paradigm shift in the world of scholarship and beyond. Without exaggeration, it changed virtually everything. Reliability and permanence moved away from oral traditions and agreements. Much of the ancient status of persons who stored culture through memory was wiped out by movable type in only a generation (a western prejudice obviously). Print culture began to dominate scholarship, and the elements of modern text criticism were funded by the new currency of that scholarship. All this created a now invisible fault line in perception. That fault line refracted the questions of culture through text, and the result was that study of culture, history, and scripture became text-based, largely ignoring the influence of the world before print.
John Taylor devalued oral tradition.

John Taylor devalued oral tradition, and a certain unwilling protege did the same.

In text studies, inconsistencies, repetitions, and various oddities were seen as literary problems. The methodologies that formed in this environment were flawed in fundamental ways when they were applied to texts that originated in cultures that were oral in nature. Even in early Mormonism, it is clear that text was still in the service of an oral culture and even now that oral culture is highly valued in Mormon communication. Future examinations of Joseph Smith’s sermons await the application of tools like Performance Criticism that will surely challenge some of the assumptions of past scholarship of early Mormonism. In the present volume, the use of text scholarship is apparent, but I have also tried to point out ways in which orality has some impact on historical assumptions and studies of early Mormon sermons. The new tools that work at the boundary of orality and “scribality” will have deeper impact as they are eventually extended to the earliest text-based traditions of Mormonism, a work that will link powerfully with the study of Mormonism as lived religion.

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