The Journal of Discourses – Mere Opinions or Eternal Truth?

By Bill McKeever

To see the Journal of Discourses for yourself, visit jod.mrm.org  

For some incredible Journal quotes, go here.


If there is one area where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excels, is has to be the ability to have recorded an enormous amount of what LDS leaders have said. The Mormon Church has literally hundreds of thousands of handwritten manuscripts, printed documents, and personal papers that allow modern-day readers a glimpse into the thoughts and beliefs of Latter-day Saint leaders of the past. Much has been made available for public scrutiny while scores of documents are stashed away in the LDS Church archives, probably never again to see the light of day.

The genesis of the Journal

One of the more popular collections of LDS sermons would be the Journal of Discourses. The Journal (also known as the JD, or JOD) was the dream child of an English convert named George D. Watt. Watt was a clerk for Brigham Young and was proficient in the art of Pitman shorthand. His skill led to his being commissioned by the church to faithfully record the words of conference sermons that would later be published in the church-owned Deseret News.

However, Watt wanted the messages of LDS leaders to go far beyond the limited subscribers to the Deseret News. His desire was given the blessing of the First Presidency who issued the following statement on June 1, 1853:

“Dear Brethren. — It is well known to many of you that Elder George D. Watt, by our counsel, spent much time in the midst of poverty and hardships to acquire the art of reporting in Phonography which he has faithfully and fully accomplished; and he has been reporting the public sermons, discourses, lectures, &c., delivered by the Presidency, the Twelve and others in this city, for nearly two years, almost without fee or reward.

“Elder Watt now proposes to publish a Journal of these reports, in England for the benefit of the Saints at large, and to obtain means to enable him to sustain his highly useful position of Reporter. You will perceive at once that this will be a work mutual benefit, and we cheerfully and warmly request your co-operation in the purchase and sale of the above named Journal, and wish all the profits arising therefrom to be under the control of Elder Watt.” [signed] BRIGHAM YOUNG, HEBER C. KIMBALL, WILLARD RICHARDS” (Messages of the First Presidency 2:119. This message is also found in the beginning of volume one of the JD).

The Journal began as a 16-page semi-monthly publication and though it was considered a private operation, it was produced in the LDS Church printing office in Liverpool, England. Today the JD comprises 26-volumes covering a period of around 35 years. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism notes that “in all, the collected Journal of Discourses contains 1,438 speeches given by fifty-five people, including Presidents of the Church, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, members of the seventy, and sixteen other speakers. Brigham Young gave 390; John Taylor, 162; Orson Pratt, 127; Heber C. Kimball, 113; and George Q. Cannon, 111. Twenty-one people gave a single speech, and the rest gave from 2 to 66 speeches” (2:769).

When Watt first produced the Journal, there seemed to be no question that what was recorded was the actual words and beliefs of men chosen by God to lead his latter-day church. In his introduction to the first issue, Watt proclaimed,

“It affords me great pleasure in being able to put in your possession the words of the Apostles and Prophets, as they were spoken in assemblies of the Saints in Zion, the value of which cannot be estimated by man, not so much for any great display of worldly learning and eloquence, as for the purity of doctrine, simplicity of style, and extensive amount of theological truth which they develop.”

Some of the “purity of doctrine” in this first volume includes Brigham Young’s infamous Adam-God sermon. This conference message was preached on April 9, 1852 and can be found in its entirety on pages 50-51. It also includes Brigham’s threat of unsheathing his Bowie knife against apostates who do not “clear out” (p. 83). Volume one also includes Jedediah M. Grant’s sermon titled “Uniformity.” In this August 7, 1853 message Grant taught that the reason Jesus was persecuted was because “he had so many wives” (p. 345).

For years Latter-day Saints were encouraged to purchase a set to enhance their understanding of Mormon truth claims. As late as March 21,1963, the church-owned Deseret Book placed an ad in the Salt Lake Tribune with a banner that read “The Voices of Prophets!” The ad was offering a set of the Journal for a discounted price of $100, telling members that they “should take this opportunity of owning the written words of remarkable teachings from the LDS pulpit. To the clear and vigorous exposition of Latter-day Saint doctrine is added the unmistakable authority of divine inspiration.”

That same year, Axel Andresen, the assistant manager of Deseret Book, firmly stood by the contents of the Journal when he responded to an inquiry made by a Mr. H.C. Combes of Lebanon, Oregon. Andresen wrote, “In having in your library the 26 volumes of the ‘Journals of Discourses’ (sic), you have a library containing the sermons of the Presidents and Apostles of the Church. If anyone tells you that the sermons found therein are not recognized by the Church, they know not what they are talking about.”

Andresen went on to point out that

“Deseret Book Company, being the only Church-owned book store, would not distribute literature on the Church, particularly anything as important as the Discourses of the Presidents and Apostles of the Church, without the approval of the Church” (Letter dated June 12, 1963).

Who was in charge?

Often overlooked by many of its LDS critics is the fact that most of the volumes of the Journal were edited and published under the direct auspices of men who were either currently serving as a general authority or would later become one. The names are a veritable who’s who list of Mormon leaders and include such men as Franklin Richards, Orson Pratt, George Q. Cannon, Amasa Lyman, Daniel H. Wells, Brigham Young, Jr., Joseph F. Smith, and Albert Carrington. It would be difficult to prove that any of its publishers were appointed without the blessing, or at least the knowledge of, the First Presidency. Can we really believe that such men would print something about the church that was not believed at the time?

When Orson Pratt printed things in The Seer that Brigham Young disagreed with, he was soundly rebuked. We do not find this happening with the publishers of the Journal of Discourses. Even if a Mormon could find things that slipped past the publishers unnoticed, it would be just as ludicrous to assume this would invalidate the entire set of the Journal as it is ludicrous for a Mormon to assume that Young’s disagreement with Pratt nullified every issue of The Seer.

Except for volume one, every volume of the Journal comes with a publisher’s preface. Many of these statements go out of their way to inform the reader that what they are about to read is esteemed as truth. For example, the preface to volume two was written by Franklin D. Richards. He said,

“The Second Volume of the Journal of Discourses needs no recommendation to make it interesting to every Saint who loves to drink of the streams that flow from the fountain of Eternal Truth. It is made up of the choicest fruit that can be called from the tree of knowledge, suited to the tastes of all who can appreciate such delicious food.”

Topics covered in volume two:

  • Jesus was married at Cana (p.82).
  • Curse on Blacks to be removed after all whites have had privilege of receiving the Priesthood (p.143).
  • There are as many Gods as there are millions of worlds and their particles of matter (p.345).
  • If Joseph Smith asked for the wife of a man of God, he would gladly give her to him (p.14).

Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt served as editor and publisher of volume three. In his preface he says this volume contained the “principles of the Gospel of salvation delivered to this generation through the Apostles and Prophets of the Most High, by the power of the Holy Ghost.” He went on to say,

“These Discourses as they successively reach us from Zion, show to those who have the spirit of discernment that the Lord’s power is increasing among His people, and that He is purifying and bringing them nearer to Him by chastisements, while at the same time He is blessing them with a continual development of the pure principles of eternal life, in proportion as they yield obedience to His requirements.”

Topics covered in volume three:

  • Men were created to become Gods (p.93).
  • It is OK to put a javelin through an adulterous wife (p.247).
  • Adam was made from the dust of an earth, not this earth (p.319).
  • Only when a woman “secures to herself a glorious resurrection” is she worthy of her husband’s full love (p.361).

When George Q. Cannon became a Journal publisher, he was a newly appointed apostle. He would later serve as counselor to Presidents Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Lorenzo Snow. Few would doubt his loyalty to Mormonism or his understanding of LDS belief. In his preface to volume eight he wrote, “The Journal of Discourses ranks as one of the standard works of the Church, and every rightminded 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.'”

Topics covered in volume eight:

  • Those who deny that God sent Joseph Smith are “antichrists” (p. 176).
  • The Garden of Eden was in America (p.195).
  • The Book of Mormon lands are in the United States (p.67).
  • God begot Jesus as humans are begotten by human fathers (p.115).

In volume eleven, Mormon Apostle Brigham Young, Jr. said in his preface, “The Journal of Discourses is a vehicle for doctrine, counsel, and instruction to all people, but especially to the Saints. It follows, then, then, (sic) that each successive volume is more and more valuable as the Church increases in numbers and importance in the earth, and its doctrines become more abundantly developed and are brought into practical exercise by his peculiar people. No Saint can afford to do without these precious precepts until they are able to exemplify them in their daily lives and conversation.”

Topics covered in volume eleven include:

  • The only men who become Gods must practice polygamy (p.269).
  • Brigham’s God is eternally progressing (p.286).
  • LDS Prophets authorized to dictate about everything (p.298).
  • Curse of God on those who dictate against polygamy (p.211).

In volume twelve Albert Carrington made the following remark, “Each discourse in this the XIIth volume of the ‘Journal’ commends itself to thoughtful perusal, being plain, practical, and of much worth to all who desire to keep pace with the progress of truth.”

Topics covered in volume twelve include:

  • Noah’s ark built on American continent (p.338).
  • Angels, not God the Father or Jesus, appeared to Joseph Smith in first vision (p.334).
  • Brigham insists he never gave a wrong word of counsel (p.127).
  • Hot soups considered as injurious as tobacco or liquor (p.223).

In none of the prefaces found in this 26-volume set will you find the same words of caution as we hear some Mormons offering today.

The vilified Journal

Despite these accolades, we find that some of its biggest critics today are Mormons themselves. Many Latter-day Saints are quick to downplay its significance by insisting that the Journal is not “doctrine” or that much of its contents are nothing more than the mere opinions of the speakers.

Insisting the Journal is not an “official” publication, an article on lds.org states that content in the Journal was “sometimes inaccurately” transcribed. Of course, the article is not specific regarding where these alleged errors can be found. However, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism notes that in all, “twelve people reported sermons for the Journal of Discourses.” These included David W. Evans, an associate editor of the Deseret News. Evans succeeded Watt as the main reporter for the JD from 1867 to 1876. Another included George F. Gibbs, a man who held the position of secretary to the First Presidency of the Church for 56 years. Even one of Brigham Young’s daughters, Julia, is credited with recording one of her father’s sermons (2:769, 770).

Misinformation regarding the Journal does not just linger among the average LDS layperson. For instance, Stephen Robinson, a popular professor at Brigham Young University and co-author of How Wide the Divide, attempted to soft-peddle the differences between his faith and that of mainstream Christianity by claiming that teachings in the Journal were actually exaggerated. He wrote:

“However, in an understandable backlash against mainline churches who drove them from their homes and from the United States, many nineteenth century Saints chose to distance themselves from traditional Christians and to exaggerate any differences that did exist. In this distancing ‘orthodox’ anti-Mormons have been only too happy to assist. Thus, much of the sermons and other homiletic material from the late nineteenth century recorded in the Journal of Discourses (which is not a part of the LDS canon) has a distinctly different flavor that the LDS Scriptures themselves of similar homiletic material from the late twentieth century” (p. 68).

On the same page he said, “During my lifetime, and especially during the last decade, the instructions to members have consistently run along these lines; Never mind the Journal of Discourses; return to the Scriptures, stick to the standard works.”

Yet page 48 in the 2009 edition of the LDS Church manual Gospel Principles states that the inspired words of the living prophet are supposed to be accepted as scripture by Latter-day Saints. While a Mormon such as Robinson might argue that the Journal contains the words of dead prophets, it cannot be overlooked that when their words were spoken, these men were very much alive and very much believed!

What evidence can Robinson supply that proves that men like Brigham Young, John Taylor, Orson Pratt and others were purposely exaggerating their beliefs just in order to distance themselves from the rest of Christianity? He offers none in How Wide the Divide.

Folks like Robinson may claim that members are to ignore the Journal, but the fact remains that they are often quoted in modern LDS Church publications, including correlated manuals.

The Discourses of Brigham Young

If the Journal of Discourses are really not reliable, why did Mormon Apostle John Widtsoe use them as a primary source for his 1925 book entitled Discourses of Brigham Young? In his preface, Widtsoe makes no effort to hide the fact that the Journal played a significant role in his book. In the preface he wrote:

“This book was made possible because Brigham Young secured stenographic reports of his addresses. As he traveled among the people, reporters accompanied him. All that he said was recorded. Practically all of these discourses (from December 16, 1851 to August 19, 1877) were published in the Journal of Discourses, which was widely distributed. The public utterances of few great historical figures have been so faithfully and fully preserved. Clearly, this mass of material, covering nearly thirty years of incessant public speaking could not be presented with any hope of serving the general reader, save in the form of selections of essential doctrines” (p. vi).

A 1997 priesthood manual entitled Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young cites literally hundreds of quotations from Widtsoe’s work, so in essence the LDS Church is still endorsing the Journal since the great majority of Widtsoe’s compilation was taken from it.

Conclusion

It would seem that Mormons who willfully declare the Journal to be unreliable fall into one of two camps. Either they are honestly ignorant of how and why these sermons were preserved and therefore have no authority to speak on the matter, or they are purposely being deceitful.

It appears obvious that one of the reasons a Mormon may wish to distance himself from the Journal is because it contains information with which he may personally disagree. I too am glad that discerning individuals recognize that the Journal contains some bizarre notions that should not be believed. However, Mormons who hold to this conclusion cannot escape the fact that they are also being intellectually dishonest if they extol such spokesmen as prophets and apostles of God while being fully aware that they taught things that are considered blatant heresy by their church today. Sadly, that is the double standard many Latter-day Saints choose to employ.

If LDS leaders really feel that the Journal is unreliable they need to quit quoting it and admit to their members that Mormon prophets are quite capable of leading the church astray. The fact that the church has yet to offer an official statement denouncing the Journal also tends to speak volumes.

For a look at other historical issues related to Mormonism, please click here.


See Also

  • jod.mrm.org
  • Journal of Discourses (Mormon Literature Database) – images of each page
  • Scriptural Index to the Latter-day Prophets – includes textual database of the JoD
  • JournalOfDiscourses.org – good repository of JoD speeches, but not always available
  • Message from First Presidency
  • George Q. Cannon – “Read the discourses of the first Presidency and the Twelve, and you will see that they are filled with revelation, with light, with knowledge, with wisdom, and with good counsel unto this people. … There has not been a single minute that this people has been left without the voice of God.” Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 345
  • Brigham Young – “We do not wish incorrect and unsound doctrines to be handed down to posterity under the sanction of great names, to be received and valued by future generations as authentic and reliable … Errors in history and doctrine, if left uncorrected by us who are conversant with the events, and who are in a position to judge of the truth or falsity of the doctrines, would go to our children as though we had sanctioned and endorsed them.” Millennial Star, vol. 27, p. 659 (1865)

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