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Fun with the JoD

June 19, 2014

Today we discussed individually assigned portions of the Journal of Discourses. I’ve said before that the JoD seems like the Apocrypha. You can find fabulous stuff in there. And, well, let’s just say that exactly what it is you find can be fabulous in many ways.


I found one discourse that opens with John Taylor saying that if everyone could finally get quiet he just might be able to share something. Some record shouted responses from the audience to the speaker’s message. The extemporaneity is obvious, even in the titles of the discourses. Some have three rather unrelated subjects in the title, just depending on where the speaker ended up. Of course what is included at all is somewhat arbitrary and was contingent on whether or not the two specialists in shorthand were present, Mr. Musser and Mr. Watt.

As we each looked for references to the family, sometimes we had to dig. Richard went through most of his assigned volume before finding something pertinent. One of my colleagues found what could have been references to abortion in his, and we had a brief conversation: “Do references to infanticide mean abortion? What was feticide in the nineteenth century? Discuss.” We also saw how attitudes shifted over time. One seminarian working from volume 5 in 1857 found Erastus Snow alleging that a woman cannot get into Celestial Kingdom without aid of a husband or a proxy. Otherwise she’ll be a servant. Yet in volume 21 in 1879 I found Charles Penrose devoting nearly 1500 words to the glory of women. Here’s a nice sample:

The sisters are one with the brethren in their labors, and have duties peculiar to themselves, in carrying on the work which God has given them to do. It has been well said, that “Man is not without the woman, nor the woman without the man, in the Lord.”  And we shall find that through all eternity the sexes go together, and that the female portion of God’s children have a part and a lot in this matter as well as the male. …Every mother has a field of usefulness at home among her own children; this is her peculiar sphere. Do not let me be understood to mean that woman should be a fixture in the house, to be tied up to a table leg, or to a washtub. I think many of our sisters stay at home too much. If they would make it their business to take more outdoor exercise they would find it a relief to the monotony of household work. I do not believe that women should be tied up at home; but I say that home is woman’s peculiar sphere. She reigns there as queen.

I recognize that even parts of this may rub our 21st-century sensibilities the wrong way, but I say it’s not bad for the 1879 frontier, and it’s certainly a far cry from telling the women that they’ll be servants in the next life.

The discussion brought to mind how many times people point to the JoD as grounds for questions about the LDS Church, and understandably so. It seems to me, however, that the issue is usually less about the doctrinal correctness of a given passage in the JoD and more about how to know what is doctrine and what is not, when the Lord’s authorized servants are inspired and when they’re not, whether these contradictions are evidence of faulty revelation and therefore false prophets or not.

I won’t pretend to give a definitive answer to these more fundamental questions; I’m still working on what I think myself. But, as Terryl and Fiona Givens describe in their book The God Who Weeps, I’m glad to have a very real choice to make in those respects. I’m glad that it’s not obviously right or wrong, that I’m given the opportunity to be my own agent and to determine where I want to direct my faith, my loyalties, my actions, and my resources.

One thing I will say that I have thought about: some people thump the pulpit and decry the evil tide of relativism sweeping across our society. Others tune out declarations of essential or absolute truths, or more extreme, they see such stances as always the position of dangerous fanatics and ideologues. I think there’s something to both positions because I think there are both kinds of truth. Yes, there is relative truth. What is true for one person or in one case very often is not true at all in another scenario. What is culturally appropriate and respectful femininity in much of the Middle East simply does not apply to my friends in northern Brazil and vice versa. Is one of those ways right and the other wrong? I would say no. At the same time, there is absolute truth. Some things are so, regardless of changing contexts and trends. The trick is knowing which is which. We have to remember patience and forgiveness with one another in our process of trial and error. And we have to recognize that to forget or resist the fact that both relative and absolute truth are real can lead to destructive behavior.

Okay, I’m done.



Today’s reading

We each picked a volume from the Journal of Discourses to read through and find what it said in relation to the family.



“The theology [in the JoD] is fluid.”

“[The seminar] had a huge effect on my trajectory.” -Blair



Blair Hodges spoke with our class briefly today. He’s a graduate of an earlier summer seminar and currently manages the website for the Maxwell Institute. He told of story of a time when Richard gave a talk on Joseph Smith, and after he had finished, someone in the audience protested that Richard had not borne his testimony. Blair said that Richard’s response was that it was his testimony, that the devotion and work he put in to the scholarship was his testimony. I liked the story.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben S permalink
    June 28, 2014 10:05 pm

    Ah, Blair! That guy can crank out book reviews like nobody else. It looks like you’re running into all kinds of people I know, albeit only electronically.

    Thanks for posting.

    • June 28, 2014 11:09 pm

      Yeah, it’s fun! And you’re famous, Ben. I get extra street cred when I say I know you.

  2. Ian permalink
    June 29, 2014 1:22 am

    Regarding the story of Richard giving a talk on Joseph Smith, we had the exact same thing happen when he came and spoke at our stake, although the criticism was expressed in private and not during the meeting itself. I really like his response.

    • June 29, 2014 3:24 am

      I like it too. And I think the detail of his study and quality and precision of his writing point to how committed he is to doing the best work he can, on Joseph Smith or whatever. He’s generous with his knowledge, and he works hard so that he can be so generous. It’s a great model.

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