Against the Teachings of the Prophets

I strongly, strongly disapprove of the teachings of the prophets and it is all John A. Widstoe’s fault. Now just for the record, I think that John A. Widstoe is a very cool guy. Indeed, when people ask me about my goatee, I always respond that I am simply trying to look like Widstoe. (Which as it happens, is true.) But he really set a bad precedent, in my opinion, for how we present the words of the prophets.

What I am talking about are books like The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson or The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball. The great-granddaddy of this genre is Joseph Fielding Smith’s The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. As anyone who has read this book will tell you, its organization is bizarre. It is arranged chronologically (sort of) and consists of snippets of Joseph’s thinking. There are a couple of complete sermons, but mainly it is just an odd mishmash of Joseph’s writings. Now in fairness to Joseph Fielding Smith, there was no stenographer who followed Joseph around taking down his sermons, the way that Watts took down Brigham Young’s sermons. Still, TPJS is perhaps a uniquely disorganized book.

My theory is that the book appalled the orderly, chemist’s mind of Elder John A. Widstoe, one of Joseph Fielding Smith’s then-colleagues in the Quorum of the Twelve. When you look at the second great book in this genre — The Discourses of Brigham Young — Widstoe’s reaction against Joseph Fielding Smith’s haphazard editing is palpable. DBY is extremely well organized. The chapters are arranged topically and have a clear structure. Indeed, the whole work is so well organized that one suspects that one is reading as much John A. Widstoe as Brigham Young between the covers. Certainly, if you have ever read any of Brigham’s sermons in the Journal of Discourses you will know that he never achieved anything like the organizational clarity of Widstoe’s rendition of him. Brigham was much messier, and Widstoe is clearly cleaning him up.

The next set of “teachingsâ€? books — Gospel Kingdom (John Taylor), Gospel Standards (Heber J. Grant), and Discourses of Wilford Woodruff — were compiled by G. Homer Durham. Not unimportantly, G. Homer Durham was John A. Widstoe’s son-in-law, and his work follows Widstoe’s pattern. Sermons are sliced, diced, and rearranged in topical format. By the time that G. Homer Durham had finished his flurry of editing (about 1950) the genre had more or less crystallized. Compilations of prophetic teachings were to consist of topically rearranged paragraphs from larger sermons.

There are two basic reasons that this is a bad idea. The first is that it keeps the text from ever developing any idea that is longer than a paragraph. Now there are some people who can say a great deal in a single paragraph (John Taylor, for example), but there is clearly a loss when we don’t allow them to develop any themes more complex than that allowed in half-a-dozen sentences. Secondly, slicing and dicing destroys the rhetorical context and flow of the sermons. Many of the prophets were powerful speakers who knew how to develop and organize a sermon. You lose something when “The King Follett Discourse� is reduced to a set of “quotes.�

A far better approach would be to collect sermons together and publish them whole. See how ideas are developed and how they are related together. Get some sense of the cadence and pace of a prophet’s speech. Alas, Widstoe was ultimately a scientist rather than a preacher, so order and rationality beat out rhetoric and oratory.

25 comments for “Against the Teachings of the Prophets

  1. January 11, 2005 at 5:57 pm

    Nate, there’s also the absence of historical context in these ‘Teachings’ books that makes them particularly dangerous tools in the wrong hands. Publishing the whole text is a great start; publishing the whole text in its context is what we really need, I think.

  2. Kevin Barney
    January 11, 2005 at 5:57 pm

    Any comment on the current approach to Priesthood/RS manuals?

  3. Mark B
    January 11, 2005 at 5:59 pm

    Nate,

    The just published Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley is just what you’ve been waiting for. Arranged chronologically within three broad categories (conferences, “member meetings” (as if conferences weren’t) and messages to the general public, it contains his sermons in full (or at least it purports to–I haven’t checked) for the first five years of his presidency.

  4. Keith
    January 11, 2005 at 6:05 pm

    Nate,

    First of all, stop whining about everything.

    Second, you might be interested to know that Deseret Book is printing the Discourses of Pres. Hinckley–the talks (and some interviews) in their entirety–and not just general conference, but also regional meetings and so on. (There was a similar printing, not so thorough, of Pres. Benson’s sermons and writings.) It is a better format, I agree, though sometimes for topical study, less so. Vol 1 is already out and covers ’95-99. I don’t know how many other volumes there will be.

  5. Larry
    January 11, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    Nate,

    Well put. That has always been a frustration to me. Perhaps that is why in my studies I only infrequently refer to these books.
    Among the biographies, there are only two that I felt told the real story, and those were “Defender of the Faith” and the biographies of J. Reuben Clark. Other than those, I have found most to be too sweet, so that we never get to know the man, but only what their most avid admirer thinks of them.
    This could be the problem with incomplete texts and lack of historical context as well, as Steve points out.

  6. The McConkie Mafia
    January 11, 2005 at 6:17 pm

    Every aspect of Mormon culture, administration, doctrine, congregational life, and textual compilation represents the best of all possible worlds. How dare you presume to think otherwise. You will burn in Hell for your audacious opinions.

  7. Janey
    January 11, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Kevin, regarding the Priesthood/RS manuals, my personal opinion is that they could reissue the old manuals with a new prophet’s picture on the front and no one would notice. The topics remain the same from year to year, and what each prophet said on each topic is (not surprisingly) very similar to what previous prophets said, especially if their comments get cut up into one-paragraph chunks.

    I would suggest that they make the manuals look more like the General Conference Ensign, with entire talks from a particular prophet reprinted, but the correlation committee doesn’t listen to me.

  8. January 11, 2005 at 6:23 pm

    Kieth: If you think that I am whinny, you need to get out more. I am a monotonal triumphalist compared to much of the bloggernacle. There are entire blogs devoted carping and whinning about the church. My opening line is simply an attention getter. I have to compete with deep discussions of Janice Kapp Perry and Michael McLean, after all…

    I am glad to hear about the first volume of President Hinckley’s discourses. I have actually already seen the Benson book. These are signs of progress.

  9. gst
    January 11, 2005 at 7:00 pm

    Nate, my dad’s name is Keith, so I learned this spelling rule: “I before E, except in ‘Keith.'” The exception is if one’s name is Kieth Merrill.

  10. John H
    January 11, 2005 at 7:04 pm

    Well said, Nate. There’s also some pretty egregious editing in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, but let’s not go there.

    Kevin:

    On the RS/Priesthood manuals, my complaint is in-step with Janey’s. If you read the John Taylor manual and the Harold B. Lee manual, you’d have no reason to believe they weren’t contemporaries. I’m not kidding, either. Take out the introductory stuff and the timeline, and you probably couldn’t guess which century John Taylor lived in just from reading the text. They missed a great opportunity with this format.

    That said, the manuals get too much of a bad rap, IMO. The challenge of teaching the same lesson to everyone around the world is huge. I don’t envy anyone who has to write a manual for the High Priest group in Sandy, Utah that’s also the same manual for the a branch Gospel Doctrine class in insert tiny town here, Venezuela.

  11. January 11, 2005 at 7:09 pm

    “Kieth: If you think that I am whinny, you need to get out more….there are entire blogs devoted carping and whinning about the church.”

    Almost as classy, Nate, as Kaimi’s hilarious classic.

    What’s with all the whinnying anyhow O-man? You feeling a little horse?

  12. January 11, 2005 at 7:12 pm

    I actually think Brigham’s sermons fit the format Widstoe picked rather well. As you say, Brigham was rather haphazard in his sermons. He had a bunch of things to say and he said them. Often his point was 1 – 2 paragraphs with only occasional forays into 3 – 4 paragraph points. Even within those it is often easy to distill the message down the relevant formula.

    Further, I think Widstoe was doing a service of getting the less controversial points of Brigham Young out in the public while avoiding giving the whole sermon. (i.e. avoiding the teachings that always cause apologists to cringe)

    While some people really do fit the long sermon format, most don’t. (I don’t think Joseph did, for instance, with a few exceptions like the KFD, Wentworth Letter, and a few others – all of which are in their fulness in the TPJS)

    With other figures I’m more mixed. Often they do present a more focused argument or at least presentation. At the same time just as now, a lot of what is presented is kind of extraneous. i.e. it works well in a meeting but isn’t necessary when you just want their point.

    Further when you are looking up a topic you typically don’t want to have to read a whole talk or sermon. That’s great when someone is trying to persuade you and touch upon related topics. But by and large when you just want to know their view, as I said. I think it’s quite rare that a full sermon is necessary to a point. Fact of the matter is that few talks are really making an argument. They are typically a few assertions filled in with a bit of persuasive material. Then, especially today, a poem or two or perhaps a few nicely worded quotations, for rhetorical flourish.

  13. Jack
    January 11, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    “…in insert tiny town here [Upata], Venezuela”

    I don’t know. I think, dispite the “one format fits all”, there’s a big difference between the prose of Pres. Taylor and Lee. IMO, that difference is a reflection of a difference in period and culture.

  14. Hans Hansen
    January 11, 2005 at 11:58 pm

    Guys, guys! It’s “Widtsoe”, (really “Widtsø”, if you are a true Norwegian, and pronounced “Vit-suh”), not “Widstoe”…

  15. Mike Parker
    January 12, 2005 at 1:03 am

    John Hatch wrote:
    f you read the John Taylor manual and the Harold B. Lee manual, you’d have no reason to believe they weren’t contemporaries. I’m not kidding, either. Take out the introductory stuff and the timeline, and you probably couldn’t guess which century John Taylor lived in just from reading the text. They missed a great opportunity with this format.
    That said, the manuals get too much of a bad rap, IMO. The challenge of teaching the same lesson to everyone around the world is huge. I don’t envy anyone who has to write a manual for the High Priest group in Sandy, Utah that’s also the same manual for the a branch Gospel Doctrine class in insert tiny town here, Venezuela.

    John has a point here, and it’s not just a language issue. A lot of the Church’s published materials are written for the lowest common denominator: People who aren’t familiar with Church history and don’t read. Case in point: The companion reader for this year’s Gospel Doctrine class is Our Heritage. ‘Nuff said.

    But the other thing to keep in mind is that Priesthood and Relief Society classes are supposed to focus on practical issues with personal application. In the 1998 manual it would have been interesting to see some of Brigham Young’s teachings on plural marriage or dealing with approaching federal troops, but none of those things have any application to today’s Latter-day Saints. So instead we get snippits of past prophets that have the most relevance to modern Mormons.

    It’s bland and simplistic, and that’s the essence of correlation.

  16. jonathan thomas
    January 12, 2005 at 1:11 am

    Nate,

    On TPJS, I’ve got just the cure for what ails you: For a one volume fix try Ehat and Cooks The Words of Joseph Smith (the footnotes alone make this a great book) or Faulring’s An American Prophet’s Record. If you’re looking for multiple volumes, you can’t do better than Jesse’s The Papers of JS (if or when that will ever be completed); and if you really want to get into it—context and all—you’ll just have to dig in and read Vogel’s Early Mormon Documents series. You’ll never want to read TPJS again, I promise.

    jonathan

  17. John Mansfield
    January 12, 2005 at 8:08 am

    If it is full talks you want, then give the Ensign its due. The “Gospel Classics” series there has appeared most months for a couple of years, I think. Talks have been by James Talmage, Orson Whitney, Spencer Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, Howard Hunter, Joseph F. Smith, Matthew Cowley, and Ezra Taft Benson.

    One factor that limits the “Teachings of” books is that our interest in the living prophet has led to these books appearing soon after the person begins to preside the Church. As example, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley appeared in December 1997, two years after he became Church President. So these books have become collections of the teachings of these men from the time that they were apostles.

    That’s a worthwhile thing, and it’s a nice thing to have a book of the words of the current prophet. After they have died, though, it would be nicer to have collections of their teachings from the time of their presidencies.

    In particular, does there exist a collection of President Benson’s talks To the Fathers, Mothers, Children, Home Teachers, Single Adults, etc. of the Church?

  18. Rosalynde Welch
    January 12, 2005 at 9:08 am

    I’m not sure it reflects well on me that I get far more exercised over the fact that most editions of Shakespeare indiscriminately mix line readings from any number of good or bad quartos and the folio, resulting in a bastard hybrid that neither Shakespeare nor any Elizabethan ever encountered. (But I do find the ahistorical and unrhetorical format of the “Teachings of..” to be mildly annoying, too.)

  19. JL
    January 12, 2005 at 9:48 am

    Re #5 — a separate thread about bios would be interesting. From time to time I get into a biography mood, and I’d be interested in others’ thoughts – especially about the more obscure or dated bios.

  20. Kevin Barney
    January 12, 2005 at 11:39 am

    The Spencer W. Kimball bio is widely considered one of the best of the genre of bios of presidents of the Church.

  21. John H
    January 12, 2005 at 12:17 pm

    JL:

    Almost all the biographies of the prophets are really lacking. We get mundane details about their lives with a handful of faith-promoting stories thrown in. Most don’t examine *who* these men were. It’s a shame. Here’s my list for best biographies, despite their shortcomings:

    Joseph Smith – Joseph Smith: The First Mormon – Donna Hill

    Brigham Young – Brigham Young: American Moses – Leonard Arrington

    John Taylor – The Kingdom or Nothing (bio of John Taylor, reprinted in papberback as the Last Pioneer) – Samuel Taylor

    Wilford Woodruff – Things in Heaven and Earth – Thomas Alexander (here’s one of the exceptions to the rule – a fine biography all around)

    Lorenzo Snow – The Life of Lorenzo Snow – Thomas Romney (out of print and expensive to find – Snow is one of the prophet’s who’s really missing anything remotely decent on him)

    Joseph F. Smith – I’m loathe to recommed either the biography by his son Joseph Fielding Smith (Life of Joseph F. Smith) or the Francis Gibbons biography, equally bad. Let’s hope Scott Kenney finishes his biography soon!

    Heber J. Grant – It seems we’ve hit a bad patch with the last three prophets. Heber J. served for longer than any prophet, save Brigham Young, and all we really have is a tiny biography by Francis Gibbons and some memories by President Hinckley’s father, Bryant Hinckley. Ron Walker, finish the Mountain Meadows book and get back to work on Heber! (I would highly recommed the new compilation with articles by Walker – Qualities that Count.)

    George Albert Smith – Builders of the Kingdom – Merlo Pusey (A family biography of George A. Smith, John Henry Smith, and George Albert Smith. Not bad but we still need something of substance on this sensitive, unique man who also appears to have suffered from extreme anxiety disorders and depression.)

    David O. McKay – Greg Prince’s new book will be out this year on McKay’s administration. It looks to be excellent and I think it can keep up with the hype. McKay’s missionary journals, edited by Stan Larsen, are also excellent.

    Joseph Fielding Smith – Another one for whom we’re missing a great biography. Such an interesting person who had one of the biggest influences on current Mormon doctrine, yet we’re missing anything of substance.

    Harold B. Lee – Harold B. Lee: Prophet and Seer, Brent Goates. This bio by Lee’s son-in-law is lacking in many ways, but isn’t terrible. The Francis Gibbons biography is also probably the best one he’s written. Still, we don’t know *who* Lee was, what he was like, and what drove him in his service to the Church. Reading these men, he’s just another Prophet-Automaton practically touched by the finger of God.

    Spencer W. Kimball – Spencer W. Kimball, by Edward L. and Andrew Kimball. Kevin’s right. This, along with the Woodruff biography, is the best we have of any prophet and should be the model for biographies of current Church leaders.

    Ezra Taft Benson – Such an interesting man with so many different qualities. The Sheri Dew biography has enough shortcomings that I can’t recommend it. Quinn’s article in Dialogue, republished in Mormon Hierarchy vol. 2 is good, but is hardly a well-rounded picture of Benson.

    Howard W. Hunter – The Eleanor Knowles biography is generally considered one of the worst biographies of a Prophet ever written. I haven’t even bothered to read it.

    Gordon B. Hinckley – The Sheri Dew biography is loads better than the Benson one, and I would recommend it. Still, I hope a few years after Hinckley passes away, we get a solid biography looking at him and his tremendous influence on Mormonism.

  22. John H
    January 12, 2005 at 12:26 pm

    I’d also add, if you’re looking for what a biography *should* be, here’s a few I think are the best:

    Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, by Linda Newell and Val Avery

    Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder, by Hal Schindler

    Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, by Richard Bushman

    Fawn McKay Brodie, by Newell Bringhurst

    Heber C. Kimball, by Stan Kimball

    The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt, by Breck England

  23. Sheri Lynn
    January 12, 2005 at 7:12 pm

    We are a bell-curve crowd in the Church. Some people won’t read more than a paragraph on any given topic before getting bored. I bet 90% read nothing about the lesson before getting there, so there can’t be more in the manual than what can be ready in 35-40 minutes or so.

    If we want more, there are six more days in the week and we can try to fit in more advanced study, at least in the art of yawning without actually opening our mouths….

    That said: if anyone does ANYTHING to make Relief Society last longer, I will absolutely lose what is left of my mind!

  24. Greg
    January 12, 2005 at 7:22 pm

    “a separate thread about bios would be interesting.”

    Here is our thread on the best Mormon biographies:

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/wp/index.php?p=389

  25. a random John
    January 18, 2005 at 8:59 pm

    Sheri Lynn,

    I, for one, would be more inclined to read from the Teachings of the Prophets manual if each lesson was based on a single sermon rather than a mish-mash I think others would as well, but maybe not. In any case, this would probably do some serious damage to my hobby of finding apparent contradictions in the lessons since a single talk is probably less likely to have a contradiction than what we have now. The newer books have had fewer contradictions though. More agressive editing perhaps?

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