Accuracy of the Journal of Discourses

One of my ongoing dreams is to be able to afford a full set of the Journal of Discourses as part of my collection of Latter-day Saint books (though given the price tag,  it probably won’t happen any time soon). In any case, the Journal of Discourses holds an interesting place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It is not an official Church publication, contains a lot of statements that aren’t regarded as doctrinally sound today, and its accuracy is questionable, but it is also one of the primary sources through which we access the words of earlier Church leaders.  In a recent interview at From the Desk, LaJean Carruth (a professional transcriber of manuscripts written in Pitman and Taylor shorthands and the Deseret Alphabet at the Church History Library) discussed some of her findings from transcribing the original shorthand records behind some of the sermons published in the Journal of Discourses.

In the interview, Carruth shared an introduction to the Journal of Discourses:

The Journal of Discourses began as a private venture endorsed by the First Presidency. George Darling Watt reported the proceedings of Sunday sermons, general conferences, and other meetings in Pitman shorthand. He then transcribed many of these for publication in the Deseret News. He was not paid for this work, and had a large family to support.

It was suggested that Watt publish transcriptions of his sermons in England, and use the profits from this transcription for his family’s support. This publication was called the Journal of Discourses. …

The Journal of Discourses was published between 1854 and 1886.  …

It is not an official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and is not an authoritative source of church doctrine. …

There are 26 volumes in the Journal of Discourses, including hundreds of sermons and other items.

So, it is not an official publication of the Church, but an important record that was primarily the initiative of George D. Watts.

The series does have some issues with accuracy.  The shorthand records are the notes taken during the time the sermon was given.  As Carruth notes, before audio recording became commonplace, “Shorthand was the only way to record a discourse verbatim. Many kept notes, or minutes, but it is not possible for a person to write longhand fast enough to write every word spoken. Pitman shorthand, published in 1837, was the first shorthand that allowed a writer to make a verbatim record of a person speaking.”  After making the record during the sermons, however, “Each reporter would transcribe his or her own shorthand.”  During the process of that transcribing, however, edits would be made: “often the words that were published in the Journal of Discourses were not the words spoken. Rather, they have been altered—or simply added by the transcribers. Unless the words have been verified from the original shorthand record, it is not safe to assume that they were the words actually spoken.”  For example:

When Brigham Young said “heart,” George D. Watt would change it to “mind,” changing the meaning, moving from the realm of the spirit to the realm of the intellect.

Watt and others added words—even long passages—that have no content whatsoever in the shorthand record, and differ in style from the rest of the sermon.

They also deleted words and phrases that were there. For example, Watt often deleted passages where his shorthand was difficult to read, but he and others also deleted passages with no apparent reason. They rewrote what was there. …

Study of these [transcripts] and Watt’s extant longhand transcript clearly shows that most alterations were made at the time of transcription.

This seems to have been done without approval from the speakers (“there is no evidence that any speaker requested additions or approved them”) and even changes some of how we view the speakers (“Brigham Young—as he really spoke, according to the original shorthand records—was a powerful speaker. The alterations removed much of the power of his words, and depicted him in a way that his actual words, according to the shorthand record, did not. … Brigham Young’s actual words, according to the shorthand record, present a much kinder, more thoughtful man than what we have in the Journal of Discourses”).  That is why Carruth’s work is so important in unearthing the original records of these sermons and documents.

That being said, I suspect we won’t see a critical edition of the Journal of Discourses anytime soon.  As LaJean Carruth noted in the interview:

The original shorthand is not extant for most of the sermons published in the Journal of Discourses and elsewhere. It was apparently discarded after transcription.

We do not have the original shorthand for any sermons in the Journal of Discourses reported by Edward Sloan or John Irvine, only a small amount by David Evans, and maybe one or two by John V. Long.

We have a much larger collection of Watt’s shorthand. But even then, the original shorthand for most of the published sermons is not extant.

While there is still plenty of transcribing to do, much of what is published in the Journal of Discourses does not have the original notes present to check against.

For more information on this topic, head on over to From the Desk to read more of the interview.  It has lots more information, including examples of differences between the transcript and the shorthand notes, more information on what changes were made to Brigham Young’s speeches, and a fun poem about George D. Watt’s edits.

7 comments for “Accuracy of the Journal of Discourses

  1. Thanks Chad, very helpful. I’m lucky to have a set courtesy of my father, imported at some expense in the 1970s, and occasionally quoted from, albeit without the benefit of these qualifications.

  2. It sounds like Watt’s was called to this position, perhaps even set apart. If so you would think he would have had the Spirit with him to perform such a task. And if he had the Spirit of revelation for this calling he would be able to make corrections even on the fly by direction of the Spirit. And I would also think that he would get approval for anything that he submitted to be published. And if any of the Brethren read it after it was published and had a problem with it, wouldn’t they have reached out for correction if it changed the meaning. I look at Joseph Smith’s process of translating the Book of Mormon in the same light. I guess it all comes back to “a private venture endorsed by the First Presidency” and how that translates to today’s meaning. Endorsed sounds like a pretty powerful word and especially from the First Presidency. Interesting to think about.

  3. That’s a lot of “ifs” to bear the weight of your argument JDoutt. It feels a bit like circular reasoning (i.e., “I believe the JD is true, so these things must be true to excuse the documented inaccuracies”).
    A calling is no guarantee of the Spirit, as is probably indicated by Watt’s apostasy later on. It also doesn’t seem to be that his work was carefully reviewed before publication (correlation was still a century away).
    Endorsed could range in meaning. It seems to me that they said they were okay with him publishing rather than saying they endorsed what he published.

  4. I appreciate the discussion. I don’t believe I introduced nearly as many “if’s” to the discussion as were already provided in the findings. And points I brought up were not as well studied as others. To believe that all those writings went out without any correction for all those years is hard to fathom. Even the Brethren, you would of thought, would have been alerted of false teachings going out to the public by the Spirit after all those years. After decades of republishing it and Prophets and Apostles quoting from it.. you would of thought something would have been done sooner. It’s just an interesting thing. These Brethren spoke from the hip at the pulpit with no written documents to look at, I’m sure they made corrections while they were speaking. And Pitman handwriting is not an exact science either. So using shorthand, an individual art, to record live speeches that the speakers were correcting themselves from time to time would of course result in some irregularities on the part of what they were writing down. My meaning in shorthand for what someone said versus someone else’s meaning could be slightly different as well. That happens all the time. Are there error’s, I’m sure of it, there are error’s in Scripture, so why not. But from what I can see it was actually “endorsed”, and back then that was probably more powerful a word in meaning than it is today. There is more good from all this than not. Just fun to think about.

  5. LaJean Carruth left some great thoughts on response to your comment over at From the Desk too.

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