Below are some comments and observations from Church leaders regarding the Journal of Discourses, an early (second half of the 19th century) 26 volume compilation of sermons and addresses by Church leaders and prominent elders. These discourses were taken down in shorthand by clerks and were given in a wide variety of places, times, and circumstances. Most were published in the Deseret News soon after they were delivered, and were later compiled into the Journal, with many editorial changes made during the publication effort. Much of the work was done by an early British convert to the church named George D. Watt, although other stenographer-clerks took over for him in later years.
While of substantial worth in providing the modern Church with an understanding of the opinions and views of the early brethren, especially President Brigham Young and some of his successors, they are not considered doctrinally authoritative, official or binding. Their collective contents have never been approved by the leading councils of the Church nor sustained by church members assembled as being binding on them, as have the scriptures. To the extent that the contents of these 26 volumes are in accord with the doctrine taught in the standard works of the church they can be profitable, but to any extent that their content might disagree with the scriptures they are not.
I have seen fundamentalist-cultists try to use this (1861) statement by George Q. Cannon to confuse readers about the status of the JD: “The Journal of Discourses deservedly ranks as one of the standard works of the Church, and every right minded Saint will certainly welcome with joy every Number as it comes forth from the press as an additional reflector of ‘the light that shines from Zion’s hill.’ . . . The Publisher” (George Q. Cannon, editor and publisher), preface). Two issues must be observed: one, at the time these volumes were being printed the term “standard works” referred to several other well-known books of Mormon theology and history besides the scriptures. It wasn’t until around 1900 that, through the influence of James E. Talmage and President Joseph F. Smith, the term came to signify only our present four books of scripture. Secondly, even if he had (which he did not) meant that the volumes should be accepted as scripture, Brother Cannon did not have the authority to so designate them.
There are a couple of perspectives that may help to provide a more thoughtful approach to the content of the Journal. One relates to its accuracy, and another to how it has been used by more recent Church leaders; both need review.
A very intriguing piece of information that has come to light is important because it could prove to have substantial implications for content and meaning adjustments for the current state of the published Discourses. Recently published research, while not exhaustive, has concluded that ambiguity is present in the wording of Brigham Young’s published discourses. It has been learned that the printed versions are simply not verbatim accounts of talks; substantial editing by George D. Watt, the stenographer, is usually present. Watt added and omitted many words while transcribing his shorthand notes, and he again did likewise when he prepared those longhand transcriptions for publication. Sometimes he omitted whole sections of sermons, amounting to thousands of words.
To help summarize, one of the authors of the linked BYU Studies Quarterly article informed me that “there are numerous, significant differences between George D. Watt’s shorthand records and his longhand transcriptions, and more differences between his longhand transcriptions and the Journal of Discourses.” Also, “The differences are clear. Watt altered the content as he transcribed—he knew what he was doing—and then further edited it after transcription.” Further, “He repeatedly changed ‘heart’ to ‘mind’, Brigham Young’s questions to statements, active voice to passive, and many of Brigham Young’s statements about himself to second or third person statements.” These conclusions are based on thousands of pages of transcribed shorthand note comparisons. And while George Watt was the responsible clerk for many discourses, other sermon reporter’s transcriptions have also been reviewed in a more limited extent and have also been found to contain inaccuracies.
Questions arise: if accurate transcriptions were available for comparison to certain controversial sections of the Discourses, would new understandings come to light—perhaps new or better renditions of confusing or doctrinally incorrect passages? One might suppose that matters could fall out either way: increased confusion (which seems doubtful to me), or greater clarity (which seems more likely). (Those wishing to know more about this work-in-progress can use the link above and here.)
Relating to this general issue, that ambiguity caused by inaccuracy is often present in these Discourses, are these entries from the diary of Arthur Winter, a clerk and stenographer that worked in the President’s Office (the Office of the President of the Church) during the administrations of Presidents John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow. He also occasionally served as a substitute Secretary to the First Presidency and as their financial clerk. It seems that while he possessed excellent shorthand writing skills himself, some of his associates in the office did not:
Monday, October 4, 1897: The 68th Semi-Annual Conference commenced this morning at the Tabernacle. President Woodruff’s health is much improved and he was able to be present. A change has been made in my labors at Conference. It has been decided by the First Presidency that the Conference minutes, verbatim, shall be published immediately after Conference in pamphlet form, and to do this it was felt that there ought to be another reporter to take part of the proceedings, and myself to take part. Brother F. E. Barker was chosen as my assistant. I reported this morning’s meeting, and he reported this afternoon’s meeting.
Tuesday, Oct. 5, 1897: Brother Barker was at this morning’s meeting, and I was at the afternoon’s session….
Wednesday, April 6, 1898: The Sixty-Eighth Annual Conference of the Church commenced in the Tabernacle this morning. There was a large attendance. All the First Presidency and Apostles were present, excepting Brother A. H. Lund who is on a short mission to Palestine. I reported the forenoon proceedings, and the afternoon was taken by Brother Jos. W. Musser.
Thursday, April 7, 1898: I found this morning that Brother Joseph Musser was not entirely competent to assist me in reporting so I concluded to take all the proceedings of the Conference myself.
Arthur Winter was a later and more accurate reporter and transcriber of sermons than George Watt.
Connected with this issue is another that needs to be noted. It was one thing for a busy clerk/stenographer to take a sermon down in shorthand (which only he and a few other specially trained employees could read) but it was another to find the time to transcribe the discourse into longhand and prepare it for publication in the Deseret News or Millennial Star or other venue. It was not uncommon for a backlog of untranscribed sermons and discourses to vex a reporter, but even more so the speaker. Arthur Winter found himself navigating such a plight:
Monday, January 13, 1896: I had a conversation with President George Q. Cannon upon a subject that I have been thinking about for some little time past. I asked his advice as to whether he thought it would be well for me to seek for a position as one of the court reporters in this city. Under the State organization there are three district courts in this judicial district, and it is proposed, according to the provisions of a bill now before the Legislature, to pay court reporters here $2000 a year, and so much per folio for transcribing the notes. In my present position I get $1800 a year, half of which is paid in tithing script. I said to him that while there were some things that were not altogether agreeable connected with my present position, still I disliked to leave it because of the pleasant associations connected with it. I said I could not very well ask for an increase of salary, because part of the work that I did could be done for $60 a month. Of course, I could not help that; but under the circumstances I thought perhaps it would be well for me to try and obtain a court position, by means of which I should receive a higher salary and thus be enabled the sooner to get out of the business of shorthand writing altogether—something which I very much desired as soon as I could do it safely. When I incidentally remarked that there were some things connected with my present position not altogether agreeable to me, President Cannon at once wanted to know what they were. I frankly told him one or two of them: one was that it was hard apparently to please some of the brethren about their sermons which I reported. They seemed to be quite sensitive, and I had fancied that some of them had feelings against me because I had not transcribed their sermons—at least, not as much as I might have done. . . . I had quite a talk with him, and I think he was surprised at what I said, and perhaps did not feel well over some of my remarks. He said he would speak to the brethren of the Presidency about the matter.
On Thursday, January 16th, President Cannon informed me that he had spoken to Presidents Woodruff and Smith about this matter, and that while they were very well satisfied with my labors they did not feel to put anything in the way of my bettering my situation, and they could not ask me to work for the Church at a sacrifice. From what he said I concluded I was at liberty to secure another position if I could, that they could not pay me a higher salary. I expect there will be an examination held to determine the qualifications of applicants for the position of court reporter, and if there is I now intend to enter.
Monday, March 2, 1896: On January 16th I wrote in this book concerning my intention to make a change in my position—to leave the employ of the Church and go to court reporting. I may here say that this question is now set at rest. In thinking the matter over still further, and acting upon friendly advice, I decided to remain with the Church as reporter, and so informed President Cannon some weeks ago. Right after that, Brother James Jack kindly suggested to the Presidency that my salary be increased, and the other week it was decided to pay me $2000 a year. When President Cannon notified me of this increase he asked me not to say anything to the clerks, lest they might be dissatisfied at their wages not being increased.
I am informed by a coauthor of the previously mentioned article that “We [the CHD] have about 230 Brigham Young sermons recorded by Watt that are not in the Journal of Discourses, though some of them may have transcriptions available elsewhere; still there is a vast amount of material that he never transcribed, also in David Evans shorthand and in John V. Long’s shorthand.” As time passes and this material is gradually transcribed and (hopefully) published by the Church, it will be interesting to see what clarifications emerge by producing the verbatim words and teachings of such earlier brethren as Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and others.
Having recognized the implications of the above, there is also the issue of extemporaneous public speaking, the standard practice for those times. In those earlier days the apostles, when called upon to speak (usually with no notice) simply stood at the podium and said what they felt the Holy Spirit guided them to say (they referred to it as having “freedom” while speaking). They rarely read previously prepared, edited, and polished sermons. This public speaking method opened the door to further error; misstatements, lost train of thought, misquoted scripture, etc.
Edward J. Brandt, a former Director of Church Correlation Evaluation, has noted: “If false doctrine or misinterpretation of scripture or prophetic statements is given [by speakers/teachers], it is usually unintentional. Sometimes we misspeak ourselves.” We might well imagine that someone/anyone, even powerful and impressive men like President Young, Orson Pratt, and Heber C. Kimball, while giving hundreds and hundreds of talks over the decades, would occasionally misspeak, contradict themselves, speculate, and theorize.
With such room for error present, one wonders whether the church authorities were able to review and correct their discourses before publication. According to the referenced article the evidence seems to indicate that while some correction was occasionally made, most discourses were simply not reviewed and approved.
Heber C. Kimball became mad enough about the published revisions of his verbatim words that he emphatically told the sermon reporters not to mess with his talks: “Do not stick in your own stuff put in words said.” President Young had the following notice published in the Deseret News:
Salt Lake City, Dec. 12, 1868
I desire the printers of Salt Lake City, who are my friends, to do me the favor to submit my remarks to me for correction before publishing them to the world.
Those who do not I shall hardly consider as friends.
(Deseret News, Dec. 16, 1868, 1.)
How much good the request did is debatable and likely currently unknowable.
A famous statement from Brigham Young that some misinterpret to mean what it does not mean, is the following: “I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture. Let me have the privilege of correcting a sermon, and it is as good scripture as they deserve. President Brigham Young (Jan. 2, 1870).”
Some have tried to use this request/notice as a way to demand and decree that every sermon ever published with President Young’s name attached to it, including everything in the Journal of Discourses and the Deseret News, should be viewed as scripture by the Latter-day Saints, then and now. Such is utter and complete nonsense and an attempt to manipulate members into thinking they need to believe everything Brigham ever said was the word of God, even if it disagreed with the scriptures and teachings of modern prophets (or was published inaccurately).
It may well be that very little of what Brother Brigham said was corrected by him before publication, thereby removing from his sermons this odd classification of “as good scripture as they deserve”—whatever that means. Both he and we know that when he preached by the power of the Holy Ghost, acting as a prophet, that what he said reflected the mind and will of the Lord for those in the audience then and was therefore a form of verbal scripture to them. However, none of his prolific teachings has ever been canonized formally by the Church except for one revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants (section 136); only that is therefore recognized as scripture for the Church.
Having reviewed these important observations, let us not become too exercised and question or dismiss the JD until we review another related fact. Many passages from the Journal of Discourses have been included in semi-official “teachings” book publications of prophets, that have then been used in the official curriculum and instructional manuals of the Church; these many particular selections have been approved by Church Correlation. Further, many quotations from the JD have also been used by the brethren in books they have written and had published. These books are not official publications of the Church, but the fact that a particular General Authority author used a quotation from the JD means that at least they themselves (and possibly an internal reading committee) felt it expressed doctrinal truth.
We can have confidence that Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Orson Pratt, George Q. Cannon, Wilford Woodruff and the other earlier Brethren knew the gospel thoroughly and taught it to the people under the influence of the Spirit and the keys of the priesthood and revelation. That the published reports may not reflect their verbatim words is unfortunate and a hindrance, but not devastating. That they occasionally misspoke or contradicted themselves or theorized/speculated is to be expected.
There seems to be a balance of positives and negatives to recognize and work with when approaching the Journal of Discourses. Hopefully, as the years pass the Church will be able to provide more and more corrected material for examination, publication, and edification. In the meantime, there is no question that these great men from our past were prophets and apostles of God that led the Church the way the Lord wanted it led during their time and season.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie told his fellow apostolic quorum members that “As I read the Journal of Discourses and some of the books by our predecessors, I am impressed with the thought that we are more united in doctrine and preach less that is false and questionable than did those who went before us in this dispensation” (Bruce R. McConkie Correspondence, 1984). He also said: “We are all mortal. We are all fallible. We all make mistakes. No single individual all the time is in tune with the Holy Spirit, [when] I . . . get concerned [is] when some person or group picks out false statements and makes them the basis of their presentation and theology and thus ends up having a false concept of the doctrine, which in reality, was not in the mind of the person whose quotations they are using” (Bruce R. McConkie Correspondence, 1981)—sound thoughts for all to ponder.
From Determining Doctrine:
Mark E. Petersen quoting Joseph F. Smith:
That…errors were made by reporters who recorded sermons of the brethren of that day is well attested. As one case in point, we provide the following statement made on October 7, 1903, by President Joseph F. Smith:
“I want to call your attention to an important matter. There is being printed in circular form now by unauthorized persons a sermon delivered years ago by President Brigham Young on the question of High Priests and Seventies, that is not correct. When I was presiding over the British Mission some years ago, this sermon was printed in the Deseret News and when it came to Liverpool, Charles W. Nibley and Henry W. Naisbitt were laboring with me there assisting me in publishing the Millennial Star. They had the form set up ready to print and brought me the copy and I said, `That discourse cannot be printed in the Star.’ `But,’ said Brother Nibley, `is it not the sermon of President Brigham Young?’ `Perhaps it is,’ said I, `but it can not go in the Star.’ Then these brethren took up a labor with me to convince me that I had no business to interfere with President’s discourses. I said, `It makes no difference, that discourse is not true as it is before you, it does not state the truth, it is not true, it is contrary to the word of the Lord and it can not be put in the Star.’ Next morning I heard a rap at the door and when I asked what was the matter, this was long before daylight, and when I went to see, lo and behold it was a cablegram from President Brigham Young, commanding me not to publish that discourse in the Millennial Star, and it never was printed, by the authority of President Brigham Young.” (quoted in Daily Journal of John M. Whitaker, p. 95, in files of Church Historical Department.) (As cited in Adam: Who Is He? [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976], 17.)
Mark E. Petersen recounting testimony from the Smoot hearings:
During the Reed Smoot investigation, President Charles W. Penrose was quizzed concerning the reliability of the Journal of Discourses, and he too admitted mistakes had been made by reporters, asserting that some of those volumes contain sermons “the authenticity of which has been disputed.”
As taken from the official record, his testimony reads as follows. The lawyer questioning him was Robert W. Tayler.
“Mr. Tayler. There were publications known as the `Journal of Discourses?’
“Mr. Penrose. Yes.
“Mr. Tayler. They were published by the church?
“Mr. Penrose. I think they were published by George D. Watt and J.D. Long, originally, in Liverpool, England.
“Mr. Tayler. In the interest of the church?
“Mr. Penrose. Of course they were all supposed to be in the interest of the Church, but I don’t think the Church published them. I am not sure about that.
“Mr. Tayler. Have you ever heard the authority of that publication questioned? . . .
“Mr. Penrose. In what way do you mean? . . .
“Mr. Tayler. Can you answer the question—the correctness of the publication?
“Mr. Penrose. Do you mean the correctness of its contents?
“Mr. Tayler. Yes.
“Mr. Penrose. Oh yes, there are some things in there that have been disputed.
“Mr. Tayler. That is, disputed by the persons who spoke them?
“Mr. Penrose. Oh, no; disputed by others. . . . We did not regard these books as authorities, only as works of reference, sometimes, to give the ideas that these men maintained on these subjects. . . . I may add to that, Mr. Tayler, if you will allow me, that there are some sermons published in the Journal of Discourses the authenticity of which has been disputed—for instance, some of the sermons attributed to Joseph Smith, the prophet. They were taken down at the time in longhand and have been published in the Journal of Discourses and there have been disputes as to their correctness.” (Reed Smoot Investigation, vol. 2, Dec. 20, 1904, pp. 440-42. Italics added.) (As cited in Adam: Who Is He? [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976], 18.)
Spencer W. Kimball:
Many budding apostates follow the pattern progressively. They allege love for the gospel and the Church but charge that leaders are a little “off the beam”! Soon they claim that the leaders are making changes and not following the original programs. Next they say that while the gospel and the Church are divine, the leaders are fallen. Up to this time it may be a passive thing, but now it becomes an active resistance and frequently the blooming apostate begins to air his views and to crusade. He is likely now to join groups who are slipping away. He may become a student of the Journal of Discourses and is flattered by the evil one that he knows more about the scriptures and doctrines than the Church leaders who, he says, are now persecuting him…. (Spencer W. Kimball, “That You May Not Be Deceived,” Address Given to the Brigham Young University Student body, November 11, 1959, 5-7.)
Paul H. Dunn:
[Cross posted at truthwillprevail.xyz]
The Journal of Discourses and other prophetic writings are delicate, because oft-times you have a prophet, particularly in yesteryear, who is speaking personal opinion which today gets quoted as “thus saith the Lord.” (Paul H. Dunn, “Truth or Speculation?” Transcript of unpublished address given at Provo MTC, 1990, 2-3.)