Making Mormon Documents Available

October 12, 2011 | 23 comments
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0--TeachingsJSCoverFollowing each General Conference I prepare a list of “Conference Books”—the works cited by speakers in the printed version of their talks. The list is always fascinating. But this time I noticed something that led me to rethink one aspect of the Church’s manuals: availability.

[For what its worth, this years’ list of “Conference Books” will be available tomorrow morning here.]

What I noticed started with the new Relief Society book, Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society. In their addresses, all of the members of the General Relief Society Presidency mentioned the new book. This included Sister Barbara Thompson, who also mentioned it when she spoke during the Saturday Morning Session. [I was surprised, however, that no one else mentioned or cited the book. Why is that?]

Then I noticed that the speakers frequently cited the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series of Priesthood and Relief Society manuals. While those manuals have been cited before, this time it occurred to me that the manuals are simply compilations of quotes from a variety of other sources; little in them is newly written. So, why didn’t the conference speakers cite the original works?

The answer is, I think, simple: availability. The reason for citing these works isn’t promotion of new instead of old. The reason is that these works are largely available to the vast majority of LDS Church members, regardless of language and location. The original sources might as well be located on the moon as far as many Church members today are concerned. They can’t get them and wouldn’t be able to get them without a large investment in learning English and a not insignificant expense (for many areas around the world) in purchasing and shipping copies of these books. So it is problematic to cite sources that so many members have no way to get if you can figure out a way to avoid it.

Understanding these issues, the manuals become a more efficient way of getting important portions of the original works into the hands of Church members. Instead of having to translate works like the History of the Church, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Gospel Doctrine, etc., the manuals simply contain the most used and useful excerpts from many of these vital works. In terms of translation, these manuals are much, much more efficient.

I know that this series has been criticized from time to time. For example, the first volume, on Brigham Young, was criticized for its failure to mention polygamy in its biographical pages. I don’t think my observation above suggests anything either way about these criticisms. Instead, this observation makes clear an important problem that we continue to face as the Church spreads into new countries and new languages: how to make the basic teachings available.

If nothing else, this observation makes the role of these manuals even more important—for many Church members they are the first, and perhaps even only, way to access documents that we, English-speakers, take for granted.

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23 Responses to Making Mormon Documents Available

  1. J. Stapley on October 12, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    I think this is right on. Particularly the teachings of Joseph Smith. The fact that it is pre-translated obviates the need for translators to enter the risky territory of parsing JS (let alone the source documents for the teachings). This isn’t to say that a nod to the JSPP would be extremely cool. It is just that it is impractical in most cases (for better or worse).

  2. geoffsn on October 12, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Fantastic observation! I’m looking forward to the list.

  3. Amira on October 12, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Thank you. When there is so much available to English-speaking members in the US, it’s easy to forget that so little is available to the majority of members of the Church. In addition, that limited availability makes it vital that those manuals meet the needs of members who need them, but it’s difficult to do that when there’s such a huge range of needs.

  4. Sam Brunson on October 12, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    It may also be that these sources are easier for the footnoters to find.[fn1] Going back basically since I can remember seeing footnoted references, Conference has referenced Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations more often than an original source. I’m pretty sure the General Authorities don’t (generally) just read through BFQ; it is a quick and easy source to cite, however.

    [fn1] I assume the GAs don’t generally footnote their own talks; I would think that would fall to someone else, like maybe the Ensign editors. I don’t know, though—there’s a stereotype out that professors use research assistants to footnote their papers, but I’ve personally drafted just about every footnote that’s ever appeared in one of my articles.

  5. Kent Larsen on October 12, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    Sam (4), what you describe is true to some extent. Early in my semi-annual Conference Books posts, Ardis commented that she saw workers in the Church History Library researching sources for General Authorities immediately before conference.

    I can’t claim to know what the motivations were behind preparing the “Teachings of the Prophets of the Church” series. But the effect certainly is that non-English-speakers and those with less robust access to older Church documents is better than it was. And I suspect that, since the Church has struggled with language and access issues for decades, some element of all this influenced their decisions.

  6. ji on October 13, 2011 at 12:04 am

    Sam, I wondered about who does the footnoting, too — but my conclusion is different — I suppose each speaker does his own, because some talks are well-footnoted and others are not — I don’t see enough to conclude that the Ensign staff is doing it all for everyone.

    Kent, Would a better title for the posting be “Making Mormon Quotations Available”?

  7. Kent Larsen on October 13, 2011 at 5:54 am

    JI (6), I don’t think your claim that some talks are “well-footnoted” and others are not is completely accurate. You may be mistaking one of the two different styles of references in conference talks for a failure to footnote well. While most talks place all references in notes that appear at the end of the talk, a significant minority put small references (to scriptures and most books) in parenthesis in the body of the text, leaving only extended notes for the end of the talk. This could give the impression you stated.

    As I stated above in comment 5, Ardis claimed at one point that the Church History Library staff researched sources for General Authorities prior to conference. I suspect that the GAs or their assistants then add these sources to the talks. I agree that the Ensign staff aren’t involved in this.

    However, another friend, who once worked at the Ensign, tells me that articles published in the Ensign ARE reviewed carefully before publication — and I suspect that often is also true of Conference talks. [OTOH, I suspect that Pres. Monson and some of the senior apostles often can do what they want.]

  8. Senile Old Fart on October 13, 2011 at 9:26 am

    A related issue, not original to me, is that footnotes to original (and somewhat obscure) sources discourage readers from considering quotations in context. A footnote referencing, say, a 19th Century Deseret News or Times and Seasons report of a conference talk – the first published reference – will keep most of us from finding the same talk in the (more) readily-available Journal of Discourses and reviewing its context.

    This allows the Teachings of the Presidents series to at as proof-text for a limited set of gospel principles that are endorsed by a current Correlation cabal.

  9. clark on October 13, 2011 at 10:19 am

    I think my one complaint was that the JS manual didn’t have the King Follet Discourse in. (Yes it had excerpts) What made this more disappointing was that about 12 years earlier it was printed in full in the PH/RS manual and made (if memory serves) a 2 week topic of study. Further most of the Wentworth Letter has its own lesson in the JS manual.

    I do agree that it’s nice these are available though. And honestly I can completely understand skipping difficult topics like polygamy. (I’d hate to think of all the ways that lesson could go horribly awry)

  10. Th. on October 13, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    .

    This is a good point. It might be generalizable. For instance, should we cite Wikipedia for something obscure we found on Wikipedia rather than tracking down the original which nonexperts could not find? Maybe we need to start doubleciting in this modern age.

  11. Senile Old Fart on October 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    “to at” = “to act”

  12. Alison Moore Smith on October 13, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Interesting angle, Kent.

    I was surprised, however, that no one else mentioned or cited the [new RS] book. Why is that?

    Because it’s a girly thing and almost no “girls” speak in conference. ;P

    I know that this series has been criticized from time to time. For example, the first volume, on Brigham Young, was criticized for its failure to mention polygamy in its biographical pages.

    I have two complaints about the books. I sent both through the church’s feedback about manuals page, but only the former got a response.

    (1) The titles often don’t accurately reflect the topic and the topic is often rather gerrymandered around a bunch of disconnected quotes. IMO, trying to teach a particular principle based ONLY on quotes from a particular prophet is unnecessarily difficult.

    (2) The biographies are (almost laughably) written to make it appear that there was only one wife and/or that the marriages were NOT concurrent. First, doesn’t EVERYONE already know about the polygamy thing? Who are we fooling? And why? Second, I firmly object to erasing these women (who did something many, many of us could never do, just to be obedient) on the grounds of us being embarrassed about the whole episode. It’s our history. Can’t we just deal with it honestly?

    Rant out.

  13. Sonny on October 13, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Alison,

    As to your second complaint that you sent to the church’s feedback system, I remember you writing about this a while back. I decided to do the same as you and wrote similar feedback (I agree with you completely). It is as if these other wives did not exist in history, at least as far as the manuals that we are all supposed to use are concerned. I did actually get feedback, which was just a once sentence response that the manuals are not intended to be a complete history, or something to that effect.

  14. Sam Brunson on October 13, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Alison, what response did you get on your first point (if you don’t mind sharing)?

  15. Kent Larsen on October 13, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    clark (9), isn’t the King Follett address kind of problematic? I mean the text generally use is based on the notes of just one of those who attended — it is a summary at best of what Joseph Smith gave. [As I understand it, the Prophet spoke for something like two hours, and the text we have wouldn’t be enough for even a half hour.]

    Many years ago a BYU Studies article tried to reconcile the notes/transcriptions of six or seven (IIRC) accounts of the address, and as a result, probably comes closer to what Joseph Smith said. But it is still too short.

    I’ve been thinking that the address is probably something that should be translated to other languages, but which source text should be used?

  16. Cameron N. on October 13, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Ben Crowder (bencrowder.net) is a BYU HBLL employee who dabbles in many things in art and literature. He started the online magazine mormonartist.net and has been transcribing old literature (books by Parlet P. Pratt, etc) into ebook/web format. I like his initiatives.

  17. Alison Moore Smith on October 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Sonny, way to go in writing! :)

    I did actually get feedback, which was just a once sentence response that the manuals are not intended to be a complete history, or something to that effect.

    I’ve heard that before. Blah.

    Brigham Young’s bio is absolutely ridiculous. It lists:

    1824: Marries Miriam Works (23).
    1832:…Wife dies (31).
    1834: Marries Mary Ann Angell.

    We apparently get bored of listing wives before reaching #3 and #4 (who were married to other men) and on up through #55 (or whatever, depending on the source).

    John Taylor married seven women and had 34 kids. His bio says, “This summary omits many important events of his life, including his marriages and the births and deaths of his children, to whom he was devoted.”

    So, yea, his wives and children are scrubbed, but it does mention:

    (1) His parents names
    (2) That he worked on his uncle’s farm when he was 11
    (3) That he worked as an apprentice to a cooper for less than a year
    (4) That he published The Meditation and Atonement in 1882

    All, apparently, more significant than his wives and kids. Just so we know where they stand. :P

    Sam, I tried to see if I still had the email. I didn’t find it easily. My recollection is that it was something along the lines of, “curriculum is determined under inspiration and with the needs of members in mind” or something. I believe there may also have been a suggestion not to use all of the lesson material in every lesson. (Duh?)

    The answer was certainly cordial, but fairly boilerplate.

  18. Crick on October 13, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I was thumbing through “Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society” the other day.

    Whereas some made an issue of the Teaching of the Presidents series for allegedly downplaying plural marriage, the Relief Society book will certainly not face that criticism as it addresses the issue and praises early sisters for being faithful both in practicing it as well as supporting its discontinuance.

  19. Dub on October 13, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    Here’s a question on a related topic. President Hinckley in the April 2005 General Conference noted that he had “just completed reading a newly published book by a renowned scholar” stating that “the various books of the Bible were brought together in what appears to have been an unsystematic fashion.”

    Any idea what book he was referring to?

  20. Ben S on October 13, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Dub- Word on the street was that it was Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It?

  21. Lucy on October 14, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    How long have you been gathering the list of conference books? Do you have a complete list since you started gathering?

  22. Kent Larsen on October 14, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Lucy, if you visit the post on AMV it includes links to all the lists after each conference (4 years worth). I have not yet consolidated them into a single list.

  23. Dub on October 14, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks, Ben.