I strongly, strongly disapprove of the teachings of the prophets and it is all John A. Widstoeâ€™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 Smithâ€™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 Josephâ€™s thinking. There are a couple of complete sermons, but mainly it is just an odd mishmash of Josephâ€™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 Youngâ€™s sermons. Still, TPJS is perhaps a uniquely disorganized book.
My theory is that the book appalled the orderly, chemistâ€™s mind of Elder John A. Widstoe, one of Joseph Fielding Smithâ€™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 — Widstoeâ€™s reaction against Joseph Fielding Smithâ€™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 Brighamâ€™s sermons in the Journal of Discourses you will know that he never achieved anything like the organizational clarity of Widstoeâ€™s rendition of him. Brigham was much messier, and Widstoe is clearly cleaning him up.
The next set of â€œteachingsâ€? 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. Widstoeâ€™s son-in-law, and his work follows Widstoeâ€™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 donâ€™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 â€œThe King Follett Discourseâ€? is reduced to a set of â€œquotes.â€?
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 prophetâ€™s speech. Alas, Widstoe was ultimately a scientist rather than a preacher, so order and rationality beat out rhetoric and oratory.