I’m going to briefly argue for the general importance and contemporary relevance of the Journal of Discourses. But first, let me say:
My grandpa (Max Olsen) is a very good man. He spends his time visiting family, reading, working in the temple, and helping his wife run the (figurative) family hotel. I have wonderful memories of visiting him and my grandma (Elma Anderson Olsen) throughout my growing up years – they have enriched my life in countless ways. I nearly put my Grandpa in an early grave when as a small boy I managed to get myself lost for several hours on a very crowded beach in California. Watching him read his oversized scriptures while listening to classical music helped inspire my love of both. I first became interested in Isaiah as a boy when he went through an extended Isaiah phase in his own study. He and grandma helped convince Erin while we were courting that maybe my family would be a good family for her too. And his home remains a favorite family location – Sabbath day observance feels incomplete without a good gospel discussion or political debate with my grandparents.
On one of these recent visits Grandpa surprised me by passing on to me a chunk of his library, including a full set of the Journal of Discourses. Though unexpected and excessively generous, Grandpa was simply carrying on as he always has – imparting to me the powerful legacy of our family and religion.
There are several ways of thanking him – several ways of taking up and projecting and pressing forward into that heritage. I’ve decided that one way I will do so (which is surely among the most enjoyable ways) is by reading and writing about my forays into these discourses.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Journal of Discourses, I recommend this brief blip from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and this review of George D. Watt’s (chief stenography and editor of the JD) recent biography. In brief, it contains 1438 speeches from General Authorities, mostly from 1852-1886 (a quarter of them are from Brigham Young, and another third of them are by John Taylor, Orson Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, and George Q. Cannon). In some respects they are the bane of an institutionalized church: the speeches were mostly given off the cuff, faced no editorial board either before or after, nor even a review by the author before publication, were recorded by skilled stenographers but before contemporary and more rigorous techniques, and have no centralized or organizing theme more specific than Mormonism and Mormon life in the latter half of the 19th century (which means we get everything from “pure doctrine” to advice on agriculture), and above all else, they are a constant reminder of the mortal and unsystematic nature of the unfolding of a divinely appointed gospel dispensation. Some of these sermons are the perennial favorites of anti-Mormon critics on account of their sometimes eccentric, heterodoxical, and occasionally downright absurd quips, which lend themselves very well to mockery and polemic attack. Perhaps on account of these last two facts, the Church itself has rather dramatically shifted its opinion concerning their inherent worth. These volumes began as perhaps the most self-endorsed and officially lauded publication since the Book of Mormon and have more recently descended to a status characterized by quick dismissal.
But they are also an absolute treasure trove – an undeniable wealth of Mormonism. The Journal of Discourses is surely among the greatest cultural and theological inheritances of the Mormon world. For my first post, I simply want to argue for their continued relevance in this sense.
We’ve seen a significant maturing in the church vis-à-vis our history in recent years. I’m personally convinced that we’ve obtained a healthier outlook on our history – more open, candid, human, and ultimately more faithful. There’s a tremendous amount to say about this. But I’ll simply say that I think it’s healthier because we’re more comfortable in our own skin and because our honesty and rigor now matches the standard demanded by both our faith and our society’s understanding of history. Most of all, however – and this is why I say our new stance is ultimately more faithful – we are able to take up and own our history, embrace it, live it, and faithfully experience in a way not previously possible. Collectively there is no disconnect, no closed closets, no self-alienation with regard to our history. Instead we’re able to see the mortality of our history and all of its players, which mortality acts as something of a foil, accentuating the divine elements of our history. This allows us to authentically situate ourselves with regard to that history, and I believe, more powerfully feel the divine in our present.
I don’t think we can yet say the same thing concerning our theology, but I’m hopeful that we soon will be able to. I think that as a people we’re proud of and conversant in our basic doctrines and our somewhat bland repetition of them; and we’re particularly comfortable with the facile way in which we situate our theology with respect to Christianity and Judaism. In personal discussions or individual study we also thrill at the depth and profundity of our cosmology, ritual, and practice. But, publicly at least, we’re much more reserved about the “deeper” details and theological esoterica of our past, and we usually fail entirely to recognize the development of our theology – preferring to ignore the awkward record (e.g., the full contents of the JD) and instead imagine a sort of revelation ex nihilo formation. This lack of comfort and fluency is coupled with our worry concerning individuals’ ability to faithfully digest all the lumps that went into the creation of our present notions and understanding. (Part of our having no systematic theology is our having no settled approach to or consensus concerning just what is doctrine; though almost everyone has a ready answer to explain what really counts as doctrine, though these answers themselves are wonderfully diverse.) I believe that these, together with the JD being our critics’ favorite source for citations, are the real reason we tend to shy away from it.
This is something worth dwelling on for a moment. We bristle with indignation when our critics throw “past” doctrines from the JD at us, when our fundamentalist brothers and sisters tout them and their prominent appearances in the JD, we mourn when loved ones discover and can’t cope with what they find in the JD, and we squirm uncomfortably when more neutral sources cite it or reference certain “doctrines” found therein (for instance, the Associated Press and the NY Times both mentioned blood atonement just this past week). A good deal of what was once central Mormon theology now lives as nothing more than a thorn in our collective side – it’s a tool of our enemy, an embarrassment of our past, a confusion to our present, and a danger to our less firmly rooted loved ones.
Twenty years ago the same thing might have been said concerning our history. Without a similarly mature understanding of their nature and development, one could have the same problem with scripture (just think of Paul’s repugnant chauvinism or Abinadi’s trinitarian confusion). This, I’m claiming, is an unhealthy and self-conflicting way to experience our theology – just as it would be an unhealthy and self-conflicting way to experience our history or scripture. I also want to claim that, much like our history, this unhealthy approach to our theology generally and the JD specifically (wherein is contained so much of what is today “common sense” Mormonism, the “deep doctrine” of Mormonism, and the confused heresies from a less clear time) is entirely unnecessary and almost entirely a phenomenon of our culpable neglect.
Now is when I give the throat clearing disclaimers in order to pre-empt the flurry of comments I can see coming: No, I don’t think we ought to somehow endorse every theological idea put forth in the JD (anymore than I suggest we endorse all historical actions taken by our general authorities). No, I don’t think the JD is more edifying or ought to replace scripture study. And no, I’m not advocating that everyone needs to study and be conversant on the ins and outs of the JD.
But collectively, we ought to be. And our present negative relationship to forty years of powerful sermons out of which was developed a great deal of what we still consider foundational, is at best pathetic and at worst tragic. More to the point, it’s unhealthy. I’m convinced that a more open, candid, human, and ultimately more faithful approach to our theological development – much of which is publicly (sometimes glaringly) on display in the JD – is something that is needed (and something that I think will inevitably happen). It’s not so hard to read some of these discourses and see why it is that non-Mormons simply shake their head at us, baffled that we can consider these men prophets, seers, and revelators. This is as it should be – we ought to be candid and a little empathetic to their perspective, able to digest and positively react to and engage in constructive criticism. But if we can’t at the same time marvel at the divine, revelatory communication therein, and know something of how to faithfully communicate such a perspective , then we’re missing out on our powerful and divine heritage, and we’re (perhaps unwittingly) sustaining an unhealthy self-alienation – one that serves as the fertile soil for the thorns cited above.
One more thing to say on this: it’s not merely a matter of the JD. Despite our thoroughly correlated contemporary style, we still have significant (occasionally glaring) oversights where the mortality of our institutions and leaders is on public display (Dave recently blogged about one of these). I think the two scenarios – our competence and comfort in faithfully incorporating the glory and finitude of the JD and our competence and comfort in faithfully incorporating the glory and finitude of our present – are related. Both are a matter of having eyes to see not just the mortality, but what that mortality highlights: the gradual growing together of the earthly and heavenly Zion.