Journal of Discourses/As doctrine and one of the "standard works" of the Church
Was the Journal of Discourses one of the "standard works" of the Church?
George Q. Cannon described the Journal of Discourses as a "standard work" of the Church:
The Journal of Discourses deservedly ranks as one of the standard works of the Church, and every rightminded Saints 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.'
- Is the Journal of Discourses a "standard work" similar to scripture?
- Does the Journal of Discourses demonstrate what members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supposedly "really believe" to be official doctrine on subjects that have been considered to be either controversial or touchy by members of the Church? 
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responds to these questions
"Journal of Discourses," Gospel Topics (lds.org)
The Journal of Discourses is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a compilation of sermons and other materials from the early years of the Church, which were transcribed and then published. It included some doctrinal instruction but also practical teaching, some of which is speculative in nature and some of which is only of historical interest.
First, it should be noted that the Journal of Discourses has never been published by the Church. When published serially in magazine form it was done privately by George Watt. According the the Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry "Journal of Discourses":
After 1852 Watt transcribed Church conference addresses for the Deseret News. But because the News was not generally available outside central Utah and because Watt received little pay for his work, he proposed to publish privately and sell sixteen-page semiweekly issues of the Journal of Discourses containing selected sermons of the General Authorities. The sale of these to the Saints at large would enable Watt to earn a living with his shorthand skill. He was supported in this proposal by Brigham Young, who authorized him to print his sermons.
Regarding the Journal of Discourses being considered a "standard work of the Church," it is important to note that in 1855, the "Standard Works" of the Church included the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Voice of Warning, O. Pratt’s Works, Key to the Science of Theology, Pearl of Great Price, Spencer’s Letters, Hymn Books, "And a variety of Periodicals, Debates, Defences, Tracts." Today's definition of "standard works" comprises only the four volumes of scripture: Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price.
The bind that critics find themselves in is that they want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to use sources written or derived from faithful Mormons and LDS Church leaders in order to maximize the shock value of what they present; but they also can't resist the "the Church hides and/or manipulates its history" claim.
In this case, the two approaches run at cross-purposes, and cancel each other out—the Church has not hidden the Journal of Discourses, but neither has it made its contents binding upon members. Even less has the Church made the (usually distorted or removed from context) claims of critics binding upon members—our doctrine is for us to declare and interpret, not the critics.
Thus, the critic must insist that the Church had (in the past) treated the Journal of Discourses as binding doctrine on the level of scripture and that this has been hidden from the modern member. Neither claim is true.
This is another good example of where fundamentalist critics (whether religious or secular) try to impose their mindset on the Church and its members. Critics cannot understand how the Church can have prophets that are not infallible—they assume either that these men must not be prophets, or that members must regard them and their every utterance as infallible. Neither conclusion is correct.
History of the Journal of Discourses
The Journal of Discourses is a twenty-six volume set of sermons given by the early members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was published in England between the years 1853 and 1886. Its purpose was not unlike the modern Liahona magazine, in that it made the public sermons of Church leaders readily available to members who lived outside the United States.
It also served the purpose of creating an income for George D. Watt who served as an official transcriber of the public sermons of the First Presidency and the Twelve, and publisher of the Journal of Discourses. A letter from the First Presidency was included in the first volume recommending that the Saints support Watt by purchasing a copy. Watt was later replaced as the publisher by David W. Evans, who was followed by George W. Gibbs, secretary to the First Presidency.
Question: Is the Journal of Discourses a "standard work" of the Church?
Answer: No, not according to the Church's current definition of "standard work."
Critics are often fond of pointing out that George Q. Cannon described the Journal of Discourses as a "standard work":
- The Journal of Discourses deservedly ranks as one of the standard works of the Church, and every rightminded Saints 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.'
Critics use this paragraph to argue that the Journal of Discourses was once an official, binding publication upon members of the Church. This is a good example of the fallacy of equivocation—the argument relies on the fact that modern members of the Church do not use the term "standard work" in the same way that 19th century members did.
Joseph Smith, for example, said a Church hymnbook would "be a standard work." A "standard work," then, was a book often used or a typical reference work. It did not mean that the work was canonized scripture—which is how modern Church members use the term. The Journal of Discourses was—and is—extremely valuable. It was not, however, without error. It was not without the opinion of leading brethren. And, it was not a work which defined doctrine that was elsewhere undefined or undescribed in LDS scripture.
This use is clear in a variety of Church publications in the 1800s:
- Thomas D. Brown, [for sale] Millennial Star 11. 6 (March 15, 1849): 96. “This [pamphlet, Voice of Warning] is now a standard work, having been long tried and approved, and I would earnestly recommend all who wish to do good to lend it to the honest enquirer amongst the first of our books. How many now in the kingdom of God give thanks because they read the ‘Voice of Warning?’
- Editorial [Orson Pratt], “A Word of Counsel to the Churches,” Millennial Star 12.4 (February 15, 1850): 57-59. “We strongly recommend all the officers to supply themselves with the Book of Mormon, Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and all other standard works, inasmuch as they have not already done it; and strive to acquaint themselves with the doctrines and laws of the church; and we can safely say, that no officer is capable of fulfilling his duties without the knowledge contained in these books (59).
- Editorial [Orson Pratt], Millennial Star 12 (August 15, 1850), 252:… except for ‘bills of Meetings, lists of the standard works of the Church which [the branches and conferences] may have on hand for sale, and conference minutes,’ any manuscript containing the ‘doctrines or sentiments of the Latter-day Saints’ that is intended for publication should first be sent to the British Mission presidency for approval [Crawley, 2. 157]
- “Australian Mission,” Elder Augustus Farnham, Sydney, Australia, July 25, 1853. Millennial Star 15. 47 (November 19, 1853): 766-767. President S. W. Richards…. We wish you to forward us more of O Pratt’s works complete and bound, 200 more Hymn Books, 100 Books of Mormon, 100 Doctrine and Covenants, more Voice of Warning, and Spencer’s Letters, 100 O. Pratt’s work on Celestial Marriage. You may depend upon us forwarding the money as speedily as possible. I have no doubt, that when these books come to hand, they will give an increased impetus to the work here, and it will require a constant and regular supply of the Standard Works to keep up with the movement. We hope you will be able to supply us with them. (767)
- Broadside by Parley P. Pratt, Millennial Star 17. 20 (May 16, 1855) announcing the “Mormon Book Depot, and General Agency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the Pacific Coast. PARLEY P. PRATT respectfully announces to the public, that he has established an Office and Book Depot in San Francisco, Cal., near the corner of Dupont and Sacramento Streets, where will be constantly on hand and for sale the Standard Works of said Church, among the most noted of which are the following, viz.--Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Voice of Warning, O. Pratt’s Works, Key to the Science of Theology, Pearl of Great Price, Spencer’s Letters, Hymn Books, And a variety of Periodicals, Debates, Defences, Tracts, &c., &c. San Francisco, March 2, 1855.” It also indicates that he is in correspondence with LDS in foreign countries, and can provide works in French, German, Danish, Spanish, Italian, Welsh. (319).
Question: How did nineteenth century leaders view the Journal of Discourses?
Answer: They considered the scriptures the only source of official doctrine.
Statements by LDS leaders show how they saw the material published in venues like the Journal of Discourses. President George Q. Cannon (source of the "standard work" quote used above) explained that the scriptures are the only source of official doctrine, coupled with later revelation to the prophets that has been presented to the Church and sustained:
- I hold in my hand the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and also the book, The Pearl of Great Price, which books contain revelations of God. In Kirtland, the Doctrine and Covenants in its original form, as first printed, was submitted to the officers of the Church and the members of the Church to vote upon. As there have been additions made to it by the publishing of revelations which were not contained in the original edition, it has been deemed wise to submit these books with their contents to the conference, to see whether the conference will vote to accept the books and their contents as from God, and binding upon us as a people and as a Church.
Brigham Young also noted:
- Brother Orson Hyde referred to a few who complained about not getting revelations. I will make a statement here that has been brought against me as a crime, perhaps, or as a fault in my life. Not here, I do not allude to anything of the kind in this place, but in the councils of the nations—that Brigham Young has said "when he sends forth his discourses to the world they may call them Scripture." I say now, when they are copied and approved by me they are as good Scripture as is couched in this Bible, and if you want to read revelation read the sayings of him who knows the mind of God, without any special command to one man to go here, and to another to go yonder, or to do this or that, or to go and settle here or there.
Brigham Young made it clear that his previous statement should not mean that anything he said was scripture, but only that which he had the opportunity to correct and send to the Saints as scripture.
Reliability of the Journal of Discourses
One might assume, based on how critics quote the Journal of Discourses, that it is something to be shunned, and generally ignored. It does in fact have some errors in it. However many of these errors can be attributed to the fact that the discourses given by the brethren were not always reviewed by them for errors (many gave their sermons impromptu, especially Brigham Young). This of course makes it much more difficult to determine the intent of the speaker. Such things as puns, sarcasms, and emphasis on different parts of a sentence (which can often change the meaning of a sentence) are very difficult to detect when reading sermons that would not have taken into account an audience who would never hear the discourses. In many instances, the General Authorities would give into speculation in their talks. An example of very obvious speculation is provided in a quote by Orson Pratt:
- I do not know what the Lord will hereafter do with this people; I have not myself a sufficiency of the spirit of prophecy to understand all the events of the future; and I doubt very much, whether there is an individual in this Church that does know; but we do know as far as the things of the future are revealed; and we may know many things by dreams and visions, but when it comes to principles, and to what the Lord will do with this people, I doubt very much whether there is an individual in the world, that knows the changes and variety of scenes through which this people will be called to pass.
- But if the Saints act wisely they may set an example before them that will do them good, and if there is any good or righteousness in them, an upright, holy example will bring it out. All this will take place, and there are many here that will live to see those things, and I rejoice that there is but a comparatively little time for those things to be accomplished.
If the first half of the quote was cut off, the passage would have a very different tone. Orson Pratt would appear to have an authoritative tone which could leave the reader rather perplexed. However, as we know, no one knows when the Second Coming will occur, and with this knowledge, it is clear to see that Orson Pratt is speculating.
But at times, early General Authorities would speculate about more weighty matters, and would reach into the foggy realm of unsure doctrines, just as most Latter-day Saints do from time to time when contemplating the Church’s principles.
While the General Authorities in our day are much more careful not to share their personal beliefs in public discourses, the General Authorities in the early time period were less careful. After all, practically everyone was a member of the Church in Salt Lake City and surrounding areas at that time period. They would not need excuse themselves when speculating as Orson Pratt was careful to do in the quote above. This makes it more difficult to detect when the Brethren were not speaking about the true and established principles of the Church, and were speculating instead. And in these instances, the reader who has a sound knowledge of the Church’s doctrines and a sure testimony will have no difficulty in dismissing these quotes as speculation.
However, some of the writings of the Journal of Discourses are more disturbing, and are not excusable as private interpretation. One of the more common is Brigham Young’s Blood atonement. Quotes such as these often become disturbing because the reader does not understand the time period, or has not read the surrounding passage to get a grasp on context.
Examples of anti-Mormon quote mining in the Journal of Discourses
- Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005). 15. ( Index of claims )
- George Q. Cannon, introduction to 8th volume of Journal of Discourses.
- Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 164. off-site
- George Q. Cannon, "Comments," Millennial Star 42 no. 46 (15 November 1880), 724. (10 October 1880, General Conference).
- Brigham Young, "Texts for Preaching Upon at Conference—Revelations, etc.," (6 October 1870) Journal of Discourses 13:264-264.
- Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 3:15.
- Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 3:16-17.