Question: Is the Journal of Discourses a "standard work" of the Church?

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Question: Is the Journal of Discourses a "standard work" of the Church?

The Journal of Discourses is not a "standard work" according to the Church's current definition of "standard work."

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. 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.'[1]

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.

A "standard work," at that time, was a book often used or a typical reference work

Joseph Smith, for example, said a Church hymnbook would "be a standard work."[2] 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).

It should be noted also that the Journal of Discourses has never been published by the Church

Also, 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.


  1. George Q. Cannon, introduction to 8th volume of Journal of Discourses.
  2. Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 164. off-site