The Journal of Discourses is a 26-volume series of sermons by Latter-day Saint pioneers like Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Orson Pratt. However, the accuracy of the published transcriptions is questionable. Bruce R. McConkie even attempted to publish a shorter 10-volume edition that removed what he viewed as false doctrines. In this interview, LaJean Purcell Carruth says that most of the discourses contain significant unauthorized changes—and rarely represent what was actually said.
What is 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.
What time period is covered by the discourses?
The Journal of Discourses was published between 1854 and 1886. The first volume included an endorsement by the First Presidency, along with encouragement to purchase the books. From 1860 on, the Church itself published the Journal of Discourses, and George D. Watt received a salary for his work.1
Is the Journal of Discourses an authoritative source of doctrine?
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.2
How do sermons recorded in the Journal of Discourses differ from modern general conference talks?
Modern general conference talks are carefully prepared weeks ahead and approved. Sermons published in the Journal of Discourses were almost all given spontaneously (it was almost considered a lack of faith to prepare beforehand: one was to speak as directed by the Spirit).
Many speakers would start out by saying that they did not know what they would speak on or what they would be led to speak. Also, the published versions of these sermons differ—at times significantly—from the original shorthand record.
As I’ll explain below, what was published was very often different from what was said.
These sermons are personal opinions, often based on years of study, experience, and thought, but spontaneous, personal opinions. Since they were not prepared in advance, they were not read or approved by others. They were the speaker’s opinions and thoughts, directed, in various degrees, by the Spirit. They do not have the same authority as a modern conference address, and are not statements of church doctrine.
How many Journal of Discourses volumes are there?
There are 26 volumes in the Journal of Discourses, including hundreds of sermons and other items.
How were pioneer discourses recorded prior to the invention of audio recording?
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.
The extant shorthand records are the closest we have to what Brigham Young, John Taylor, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Pratt, and others actually said—and how they really spoke.
Who were the most prolific recorders of early Latter-day Saint sermons?
George D. Watt was the most prolific reporter of early Latter-day Saint sermons. Other important reporters include John V. Long, David W. Evans, Edward Sloan, John Irvine, Susa Young Gates, and others.
Did they have a standard process for producing long-hand versions of their initial shorthand notations?
Each reporter would transcribe his or her own shorthand. A large collection of longhand transcripts, mostly by Watt but also by other reporters, is available online here.
How closely do the published sermons in the Journal of Discourses match the actual words spoken?
It varies greatly, but I have learned that an accurate, contemporaneous transcription of 19th century shorthand documents is rare. Their ideas of accuracy were very different than ours, and they transcribed with far less accuracy than we would wish.
In my extensive work transcribing Latter-day Saint sermons, Quaker sermons, court proceedings, letters, journals, and other items, I have found that almost all 19th century transcriptions differ from the original shorthand—often significantly.
This is important, because 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.3
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.
Where do scriptures in the Journal of Discourses come from?
A significant portion of the scriptures included in the Journal of Discourses are transcriber or editorial additions, without any reference to the scripture in the shorthand record. In reading sermons, many scriptures seem as if they do not belong—as if they were “plopped in,” because they were.
I have put a large number of sermons in parallel columns with shorthand, longhand transcript (when it is extant), and the Journal of Discourses, side by side for comparison. Over 50 of these are now in the Church History Library public catalog.
At what point did transcribers typically make alterations?
Study of these and Watt’s extant longhand transcripts4 clearly shows that most alterations were made at the time of transcription.
Sometimes Watt would transcribe a word or passage correctly, then cross it out and write his own words, or just cross out what he had written, or add content.
Is there any evidence that the additions were requested or approved by the speakers?
No, none. It is obvious from the extant longhand transcripts that George Watt added material as he transcribed. Many additions are in the line of text, as he transcribed his sermon. Others are inserted, in his hand. There is no evidence that any speaker requested additions or approved them.
Are there any instances in which the text of the Journal of Discourses is almost completely different than what was actually spoken?
Yes, many. There are a tremendous number of instances in which the Journal of Discourses differs completely from what was said, according to the shorthand record.
For example, on October 6, 1865, Heber C. Kimball said, according to the shorthand record (punctuation added for readability):
Every man has got to govern himself, as President Young said last Sabbath. He says to this people, live your religion. Today is the day, this hour is the hour for you and me to live, live in a way to live forever.
As I said to Brother John Young, the patriarch, he made mention to me. Says he, Brother Heber we are bound to live a good while. Yes, says I, John, we shall live forever, if we lay the foundation for forever, we never shall die, worlds without end. There is no end to worlds, nor to this world; there is no end to you nor to me, if we lay the foundation for it.
However, Journal of Discourses 11:143 renders this passage in fewer than 20 words:
Every person should learn to govern himself and live in this world so as to secure life everlasting;”5
Almost all published sermons differ from the original shorthand, but some more than others.
The accuracy of a transcript often deteriorated as the sermon progressed. For example, the last parts are usually transcribed less accurately than the first section. It is very, very common for these differences to be significant.
Do we ever misunderstand Brigham Young today based on faulty transcriptions of his sermons?
Yes, the alterations in the words of Brigham Young’s sermons altered the depiction of the man, his very personality as we have come to know him, based on what he did not say.
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.
Watt often changed the pronoun identifying the person who spoke. For example, when Brigham Young said “I,” Watt would change it to “you”—or to another pronoun. Thus many statements Brigham Young made about himself were altered to appear that they referenced others. Sometimes you even see humble statements he made about himself changed to read as accusations of others.
Watt also changed many of Brigham Young’s questions to statements. Those modifications obscured his intent, making him come across as accusatory when in fact he was quite understanding.
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.
For more information on this, see Preached vs. Published.
Are there any published sermons from early Utah history that don’t have corresponding shorthand?
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.
What methodology did LaJean Carruth use to recover an accurate understanding of the actual words spoken in pioneer sermons?
I am a professional transcriber of manuscripts written in Pitman and Taylor shorthands and the Deseret Alphabet, at the Church History Library.
I typically read the manuscripts from color scans, which enlarge the script. I type out each transcript, then meticulously proofread it, reading the shorthand again, and correcting my transcript as needed. A large body of my work has been verified by two of my students.
What types of changes did LaJean Carruth most often see after transcribing the shorthand sermons?
Watt would change questions to statements, which often changed Brigham Young’s speech from understanding to accusatory. He changed names and content. He deleted content and added content. He added scriptures.
Some of the alterations were made in the process of publication. For example, there is a difference between the longhand transcript and the version in the Journal of Discourses. But the parallel column comparisons clearly show that most of the alterations were made at the time of transcription.
Are there any sermons from early Utah history that have yet to be transcribed?
Many, a great many. I am continuing to work on them. I have transcribed a significant portion of George D. Watt’s extant shorthand, and am working on the shorthand of John V. Long and David W. Evans. There is plenty still to do.
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- Read George D. Watt’s 1851 Journal
- Brigham Young on Joseph Smith’s Translation Efforts in the Journal of Discourses
- Scholar Finds a New Brigham Young Revelation
- The Impact of the Utah War on Brigham Young’s Rhetoric
- What’s in the Relief Society General Board Minutes?
Journal of Discourses resources
- Preached vs. Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies (Part 1 of 3)
- Preached vs. Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies (Part 2 of 3)
- Preached vs. Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies (Part 3 of 3)
- The Beginnings of the Journal of Discourses: A Confrontation Between George D. Watt and Willard Richards (Utah Historical Quarterly)
- In Brigham Young’s Words: Gerrit Dirkmaat and LaJean Carruth (Latter-day Saint Perspectives)
- Early Sermons of Church Leaders Found in the Journal of Discourses and Other Early Publications (Interpreter Foundation)
- For detailed information on the history of the Journal of Discourses, see Ronald G. Watt, The Mormon Passage of George D. Watt, First British Convert, Scribe for Zion (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press), p. 125-140.
- “Journal of Discourses: Overview.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
- For an in-depth discussion on inaccuracies in the Journal of Discourses, see, Gerrit Dirkmaat and LaJean Purcell Carruth, “The Prophets Have Spoken, but What Did They Say?: Examining the Differences between George D. Watt’s Original Shorthand Notes and the Sermons Published in the Journal of Discourses, “ BYU Studies 54:4, 2015.
- See here for a large number of original longhand transcripts.
- See here for the complete sermon in parallel columns.
5 replies on “What’s Really in the Journal of Discourses?”
Are there plans to publish a more complete and historically accurate version of the Journal of Discourses once the manuscripts have been transcribed? I would love to get my hands on a set of the Journal of Discourses. After reading this, I want to make sure that what I am getting is as close to the original sermons as possible.
I doubt it, since most of the original short-hand notes for the JD seem to no longer exist. However, what does exist is evidently being posted/published slowly but surely, as transcriptions are completed. See:
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 todays meaning. Endorsed sounds like a pretty powerful word and especially from the First Presidency. Interesting to think about.
This is a very complex issue. First, George D. Watt’s position was a job, not a calling; he was not called and set apart. Ideas of accuracy were very different in those days than they are now; I have transcribed many shorthand documents that were already transcribed soon after they were written, by the reporter, and almost all those transcriptions differ from what the shorthand said. Sometimes writers seemed to have just started writing, with only passing reference to their shorthand.
Watt acted according to the times he lived in – we all do, to some degree. His longhand transcripts show many places where he would correctly transcribe the material, then cross it out and rewrite it.
There is very limited evidence that Brigham Young may have reviewed a few of his early sermons, but most he did not. There is no evidence that he directed the changes, at all. Watt acted on his own.
The translation of the Book of Mormon was completely different: it was an assignment from God, though Moroni, and was translated by the gift and power of God; it is scripture, sacred, and had to be correct. Most of the talks in the Journal of Discourses are the equivalent of sacrament meeting talks, which may be inspired, but which are not scripture; they were words spoken spontaneously by the speakers, usually with little if any preparation or forethought.
Watt, like everyone else, had agency; when he chose to incorrectly transcribe, or omit parts, or add text, or rewrite, he was using his personal agency. I deeply appreciate what he did in reporting all the shorthand and his efforts to publish it, but the record shows he used his agency to change the words that were spoken, and we need to be aware of that. The original shorthand record is the closest record we have to what was actually said.
I like the things pointed out. My position too is a job and I receive guidance from the Spirit often to make changes in the work I do. I’m sure Watt often prayed and asked for the Spirit before he started any of his Church related work as most of us do. As I’ve pointed out in other places shorthand is an art form. The translation of my shorthand versus someone else’s can be different but transcribed the same or different. Especially when taught from different parts of the country from different teachers. I had fun translating my mother’s shorthand letters to me on my mission for two years. I also like the idea that these Brethren spoke spontaneously, meaning that often they would like people do today from the pulpit, will correct themselves as they go. Making transcribing difficult to some degree having to make corrections as you go. Are there error’s, I’m sure of it, there are errors in the Scriptures so why not. But it is hard to fathom that all those writings went out without any correction for all those years of different publications and read and quoted by many Apostles and Prophets of the Church. You would think that if any false doctrine were in those writings that someone would have been inspired to react to it. Maybe that’s why McConkie wanted to write about it but was instructed by the Prophet to leave it alone. Thanks for your work on the project it makes for a great discussion and fun to think about the actual people back then.