Question: How did nineteenth century leaders view the Journal of Discourses?

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Question: How did nineteenth century leaders view the Journal of Discourses?

Early Church leaders 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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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


  1. George Q. Cannon, "Comments," Millennial Star 42 no. 46 (15 November 1880), 724. (10 October 1880, General Conference).
  2. Brigham Young, "Texts for Preaching Upon at Conference—Revelations, etc.," (6 October 1870) Journal of Discourses 13:264-264.
  3. Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 3:15.
  4. Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 3:16-17.