Adventures in the Journal of Discourses

June 26, 2010 | 16 comments
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journal of discourses

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.

16 Responses to Adventures in the Journal of Discourses

  1. Dan on June 27, 2010 at 7:39 am

    I think it would be easier to acknowledge, study, accept, and appreciate the works of the JD if not for the specter that some of the crazier stuff found therein could conceivably be considered the words of God. How divine are we to make the words of the prophets? Where does the line get drawn? The prophets themselves, over the decades, have self-innoculated themselves against charges that their words are not divine by proclaiming that their words are divine. If we are to charge that certain of their words are not divine, we are charging them as liars. That immediately puts us at a disadvantage in ANY discussion with those who do not see their words as having any issue, and we are charged with going against the prophet. Do you realize how hard it was for me to start saying President Hinckley was wrong about Iraq? How long it took? Should it take so much effort and spiritual suffering to come around to a position that one can say a prophet is wrong about something? How can one look critically at the words of a prophet and not be considered an apostate? Should it require that the prophet is dead for 100 years (as is your discussion here of the words of prophets from over 100 years ago)?

  2. Brad Dennis on June 27, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Well said. I think that we should look at the JD not in terms of it as a source for new doctrine that we could introduce into the church or our lives, but as a monument to the rich experimentation in which the church’s early leaders engaged in a quest to more fully understand and explain God’s interactions with society. Some notions gained traction and constitute our present foundational doctrine, while others slipped into oblivion (like the Adam-God theory).

  3. Bfabbi on June 27, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Very well written post. I am a historian by training, and I love church history and the Journal of Discourses. @Dan, I agree with you on some of your points. We do sustain the Prophet, but we should always seek our own witness about what they say.
    @James, I agree with you. We need to own and understand the JD. I often wonder what future generations will think about the pronouncements from the 20th Century, especially some of JFS, and BRM’s talks and writings, and I love reading and listening to them.

  4. Jon on June 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    I think this is a great post. I worked at the MTC during the initial stages of the Church’s Chat program on Mormon.org. We jumped into a whole new online world of preaching the gospel. One of he many challenges we faced was learning how to deal with people who came on the chat and brought up comments from the JD. I’m not sure how they do it now, but as of two years ago we were instructed to always make it clear that the JD was “not official church doctrine.” I always did this, but it always made me a bit uncomfortable. I have not read the JD, but I am aware that it does in fact contain a wealth of doctrines and teachings we would consider official. If any comparison can be made with how we accept our past as far as polygamy goes, I think it would be extremely healthy to be well aware of what is contained in the JD. I’ve usually had positive experiences when I am able to speak clearly and directly about the history of polygamy in the church, and I think the same goes for the JD. I feel uncomfortable just shrugging off the JD as something that is not official doctrine as if it wasn’t of great historical and spiritual value to the church.

  5. J. Stapley on June 27, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Since writing the post which you linked to, I have cometo know LaJean Carruth, who is the Church’s shorthand expert. I responded to her paper at the recent MHA conference where she highlighted some information recovered from transcribing the original shorthand. While I quite appreciate Ron Watt’s treatment of the Journal of Discourses, and I agree that it is an important and official source of Mormon sermons, LaJean has demonstrated that there are sometimes significant differences between published sermons and the shorthand; moreover, she is convinced that there simply wasn’t time to have individuals verify each transcription preparatory to publication. While there needs to be significant study to understand the contours of 19th century sermon reporting, early data suggests that there was sometimes creative expansion. Also the early data suggest that the Journal of Discourses is more reliable than the same sermons in the Deseret News.

  6. Dave on June 27, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    Very interesting, James — I look forward to your discussions. Apart from some sort of institutional definition of LDS doctrine, we also need some recognized limitations on what counts as Revelation (with a big “R”) — so we don’t have to defend every sermon, discourse, story, or quip from a senior LDS leader.

    I always find it hypocritical when Evangelicals who feel no responsibility at all for offensive, strange, or heterodox doctrine preached by their 19th-century Protestant predecessors nevertheless think Latter-day Saints should answer for every statement ever made by any 19th-century LDS leader. Heck, Evangelicals don’t even feel responsible for statements their current pastors make. I find the Evangelical approach to revelation (under various code terms, inspiration or moved by the Spirit, etc.) institutionally incoherent, but that doesn’t mean our own definition can’t be tightened up.

  7. Stephanie on June 27, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Sounds great! I am looking forward to this series!

  8. James Olsen on June 27, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Dan – this is something to which no quick comment-response can do justice. But I will say that my experience has not been the brethren declaring their infallibility (rather, it’s the membership, and usually those who have never personally known our GAs, that declare this infallibility). I’ve heard the brethren speak unequivocally about the reality of the revelation and inspiration they receive to guide the church. I’ve heard them speak just as unequivocally about their own mortality and fallibility and the reality of how difficult it is to lead this church (e.g., Pres. Packer’s oft related anecdote about walking into the dark before things get made clear). This kind of prophet – this very non-Christian, Old Testament, Mormon sort of prophet, one that is taken from humanity as opposed to one that is taken from humanity and made something more, like an angel or a robot – seems to be a hard one for most people to have faith in. People either want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend as if our prophets are not mortal or they want to place their mortality on a pedestal and claim this mortality as argument enough to deny them prophethood. It seems to me that the first step to our reconciling the difficulties of the JD, statements made by President Hinckley or any other GA, and the first step toward our being able to comfortably discuss this with others, is to learn how to use our two hands to grasp on to both the genuine mortality and genuinely-divinely-appointed prophethood our leaders.

  9. James Olsen on June 27, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Jon – very interesting perspective/experience, thanks for sharing. I obviously agree that we can and should do much more than simply `dismiss the JD sermons as “not official doctrine.” It’s not satisfying to our critics, but more importantly not satisfying to ourselves.

    J. Stapley – thank you for the historical update on transcription. I’ve heard of Carruth’s work but not been able to read any of it myself. I think that a very important part of our working out a more satisfying theological treatment of/relationship to the JD will be our doing the best scholarship we can to inform ourselves about the facts of the JD.

    Dave – yes, a conviction vs. revelation vs. Revelation distinction would be helpful in this project, but I don’t expect we’ll get anything more on this subject than we’ve already got. I take it we have a pretty firm understanding as a people that when our prophets declare explicitly that they have received revelation (something relatively rare) we take that to mean Revelation, and take it as seriously as we can. The obvious difference we have with the Evangelicals is that none of their preachers are claiming the normative status of prophet – which does make our position trickier. We also have the unique check of our own personal revelation. Maneuvering in this terrain is unfortunately not straightforward. Like our prophets, we’ve got work to do.

  10. Terry on June 27, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    OK, I admit it–I first got into the JD because I found the “strange doctrines” I had heard about intriguing, and I wanted to find out it our past leaders really said such crazy stuff, or if it was merely anti-Mormon imagination run amok.

    I found much of it confirmed, but something wonderful happened along the way: I discovered Brigham Young. Not just Brigham the colonizer, or even Brigham the prophet, but Brigham the teacher, and Brigham the man. He’s always good for a sound bite, of course, but I learned that by reading his sermons in their entirety, I felt that I knew him in all of his wisdom, wit, and wonderful complexity. To me, that is still the greatest value of the Journal of Discourses.

  11. Ryan on June 27, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    James- I really like the comment you gave about the JD how they were speeches given off the cuff and unedited, and the perspective of studying and understanding that your words portray. We are encouraged to seek our knowledge out of the best books, and yes there are books that are “not official church doctrine” that provide us with incredible knowledge and understanding. We claim the bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly, but how many of the prophets of that book performed acts off the cuff and were able to edit their own words or actions prior to them being published in the King James Version, but yet we are studying that in Gospel Doctrine this year. When we study anything we are to do it as Moroni suggests, read, ponder, and pray and if we do so we will have the treasures and mysteries of heaven open to us. If one reads the JD and I highly suggest they do please read them, ponder what those mortal men of God taught, and pray to God for a testimony of the truthfulness of the treasures therein.

  12. Thomas Parkin on June 27, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Mostly wanted to say how much I appreciate everything written in the op – what it suggests about the truth and our approach to it. Also, wouldn’t it be nice to live in a time when GAs could speak so openly and personally. It might make for endless firestorms, not to speak of media manipulation, but it would be so much more human. ~

  13. Adam Greenwood on June 27, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    I’m looking forward to this series.

  14. Dane Laverty on June 28, 2010 at 9:48 am

    My in-laws have the JD set. Browsing through them, they’re just as interesting as I’d been told. I’m certainly looking forward to your insights, interpretations, and other insolent interventions!

  15. Michael Taylor on June 30, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Fantastic introduction to what will no doubt be a very interesting series.

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 30, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I drew on the JD extensively when I was doing background research for an article on the use of Bishop Courts and High Council courts to settle legal disputes in 19th Century Utah. There were many fascinating and amusing statements, such as one of Brigham young’s condemnations of lawyers as being “a stink in the nostril of God and the angels”, as well as beautiful inspirational rhetoric, such as George Q. Cannon comparing the refreshing inspiration of the Holy Ghost to the stream-fed public water fountains along the streets of Salt Lake City. It certainly should qualify as a source of inspiration to the extent that the Apocrypha do, which we are admonished to read with an ear cocked to hear the confirming or disconfirming voice of the spirit.

    I would compare the JD to conversations held with those same inspired characters, or the reading of their correspondence, such as that compiled in the book “Brigham young’s Letters to His Sons”. We all struggle to express ourselves accurately, and it is difficult to get a complete thought out in a single sentence, especially when it encompasses the gospel. I would rather read the speculations and attempts at articulation of inspired prophets than the well-reasoned sermons of people with theology degrees (even though I enjoy NT Wright’s books immensely).

    I have understood that the Priesthood/Relief Society Manual for the two years we studied the Teachings of Brigham Young were largely drawn from the JD. Similarly for Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor. Certainly such excerpts are “approximately” canonical.

    I would tewll a non-Mormon that the JD contains many things that have been verified by successive prophets as official doctrine, and other statements that have not been so recognized, and that the concurrence of themes and insights over the years of different inspired leaders has confirmed a large body of these discourses as accurate descriptions of heavenly things, while others have been left by the wayside as not sufficiently clear to be adopted and embraced by other Church leaders. It is the old principle of “line upon line, precept upon precept”, the gradual growth of knowledge through successive refinement of revelation and reflection and articulation.

    Even in my own lifetime, I have seen Bruce McConkie struggle with the question of how the Book of Mormon contains the Fulness of the Gospel, to it being the common response to cite to 3 Nephi 27. We are still learning to articulate all we know.

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