Revisiting the Journal of Discourses

In LDS Perspectives Podcast’s first doubleheader, they present an episode covering the discrepancies between the shorthand versions of speeches of early LDS Church leaders in Utah and their published versions. First, Russell Stevenson interviews Gerrit Dirkmaat about the research he and LaJean Carruth did comparing the shorthand notes of George Watt to some of the speeches in the Journal of Discourses.


The authors examined hundreds of sermons and sometimes they varied by hundreds of words. Dirkmaat points out that when one is talking about doctrine, words matter. While the essence of these speeches are similar in the shorthand and published versions, the words used vary greatly.

The Journal of Discourses have historical and religious value, but Dirkmaat urges members to be careful quoting specific passages and to realize that in most cases, there is know way to know the specific words used.

LaJean Purcell Carruth has an unusual skill: she can read the shorthand of George Watt, the transcriber of the speeches contained in the Journal of Discourses, his private printing venture. Over the past thirty years, she has learned his distinctive style — the unique upturns and curves he made in his notations. As she transcribed his notes, she noticed that they varied — sometimes greatly — from the printed versions of the same speeches. She wrote a poem about what she noticed:

There was a man named George Watt,

Who could improve Brigham Young, so he thought.

So he took out words here,

And he added words there,

And his accuracy was not what it ought.

LaJean Purcell Carruth©

LaJean expounds on what she has learned about the speaking styles of early religious leaders. They spoke extemporaneously and without notes and were more prone to engage in speculative theology than current leaders.

She emphasizes that Brigham Young was a powerful speaker. He cared about the people, and they knew that he cared about them. When George Watt changed Brigham Young’s words, he changed what Brigham Young said about himself. She feels the real Brigham Young has been lost to us as we view him through his discourses printed in the Journal of Discourses.

In her research, she discovered that the “one drop” phrase attributed to Brigham Young by Wilford Woodruff did not exist in the original shorthand transcription of George Watt and other statements relating to the priesthood and temple ban varied as well.

LaJean shares with Laura Harris Hales what she has learned about Brigham Young from the words left out of the Journal of Discourses and other important speeches.

Be sure and check out the resources mentioned in this podcast at LDS Perspectives Podcast.

10 thoughts on “Revisiting the Journal of Discourses

  1. Fascinating.

    LaJean indicates Brigham had a stroke in 1842. Is there any specificity in that record as to when in 1842 the stroke occurrred? We see in Clayton’s journal that Joseph believed that two others (Thompson and Knight) had died for their transgressions, and that he prayed mightily over Brigham for a transgression and suggested Brigham would have died but for these intercessory prayers. It seems a mild stroke would support Joseph’s belief that Brigham had been in danger of death.

    I look forward to the “new” Brigham Young LaJean’s transcriptions promise to give us. And I look forward to being more careful when I include comments from the Journal of Discourses.

  2. Clayton may be enigmatic, but the question is whether the mention of Brigham’s 1842 stroke gives any other specifics. 1842 was an eventful year, so any further specificity would be illuminating.

  3. I date the stroke at about 1842 by connecting pieces of information together – he did not specifically say 1842, and not what time of the year. He did not tie it to any event or reason.

  4. I love LaJean’s explanation of Brigham Young and look forward to reading her transcription of Watt’s shorthand. I took a course in Pittman shorthand at LDS Business College in my youth and retain just enough to marvel at the work she has done. I truly feel that this has been a calling.

  5. Thanks LaJean! Which talk was that in? I thought I would find “1842” so was searching the talks that have been posted at for that set of numbers.

    I got caught up reading John Taylor’s remarks of June 27, 1854, the tenth anniversary of the martyrdom. My initial reaction was “Oh, good, great great grampa wasn’t involved in the weird sordidness of 1841-1842.” Because he refers to spiritual wifery as though it is just another name for what Joseph Smith was teaching. But then I recalled that John was the one who corrected William Smith’s 1845 sermon where William proclaimed the acceptability of spiritual wifery, where the ladies pulled their handkerchiefs over their faces in disgust. And I paid more attention to how John’s 1854 speech clearly draws a line between Bennett’s sordid heresy and the pure principles of what Joseph had taught.

    I now see John’s speech as aimed in part at the unknowable portion of the audience who had heard about spiritual wifery and involvement of those who had repented. For these, to proclaim spiritual wifery a horrible heresy would be to condemn the repentant at a time when the illicit intercourse previously associated with spiritual wifery had effectively been eliminated among those in Deseret.

    John includes himself in the group with Brigham Young and Heber Kimball, who were referred to in the April 1842 General Conference rebuttal of the grossly distorted version of the Martha Brotherton tale. John claims that this group learned about the New and Everlasting Covenant from Joseph Smith “shortly after” they returned from England. But from the perspective of many years, a mere six months could reasonably be considered “shortly after.” As precedent, we have Joseph mentioning that he received a letter about Bennett shortly after Bennett was baptized, with evidence suggesting that the letter arrived no earlier than late January, nearly four months after Bennett’s baptism. And Joseph’s “shortly after” was from the perspective of less than two years.

    John’s sermon is important as it likely informed the way Helen Mar Kimball and Emily Partridge would later report their observations.

    Helen suggested that her father learned about plural marriage in 1841 after returning from England, a date I challenge, given that Helen’s youth at the time means she would be unlikely to have known in 1841 that such a thing was happening. But a Helen who had covenanted with Joseph would reasonably assume John Taylor meant the summer of 1841, hearing this sermon.

    Emily Partridge would write as though Sister Durfee’s 1842 query about spiritual wives was simply a reference to plural marriage. Emily is one of those who had heard about spirituals and spiritual wifery without being personally involved. John Taylor’s 1854 sermon gave her “permission” to consider that the 1841/42 rumors about spirituals and spiritual wifery were just part of the plural marriage doctrine she was formally introduced to in 1843.

    In analyzing the number of “plural wives” Mormon men covenanted with in Nauvoo after Joseph’s death, I observed that the vast majority of “polygamists” covenanted with only one woman other than their legal wife. That other woman was often an orphan or a female relative of either themselves or their legal wife. But with Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, and John Taylor, each covenanted with dozens of women other than their legal wife prior to leaving Nauvoo. Though John is less active in this than his two fellow apostles, he is far more active in this than the next most “married” man on the list. This tends to place John in the company of Brigham Young and Heber Kimball when it comes to spiritual wifery and plural marriage during Joseph’s life.

    As to the 1854 account being more expansive regarding the events of June 27, 1844, I did not find that it was as helpful as John’s comments on September 22, 1844. That affidavit included John’s statement “Not possessing any power to move, I felt myself falling outside of the window…” This, when paired with the physics of musket balls, makes it impossible that a ball to John’s watch reversed his fall and propelled him back inside the room. The most logical non-miraculous force changing John’s trajectory would be Joseph Smith. John’s 1854 remarks have incorporated his belief in the miraculous watch into his memories as fact, rather than as speculation. The September 22, 1844 affidavit can be found at

  6. Hi Pat,

    I think I remember you talking about learning Pittman shorthand. I think that must be why I was surprised to hear LaJean and Gerrit refer to it as a “dead” language, as it were.

    On the other hand, anyone who has done indexing knows that interpreting handwriting requires more than mere familiarity with the standard alphabet.

  7. After listening to this podcast I am very interested in reading all of the transcripts of Brigham’s speeches. I have long felt that too many have been (mis)judging him based upon what we think he said. He was a remarkable man.


  8. I’m reminded of Orson Scott Card’s definition from Saintspeak (1980):

    Journal of Discourses — A mammoth collection of speeches by General Authorities in the nineteenth century, containing many doctrines that were never taught in the Church. As a safety measure, it was once suppressed by the Church, for several once-bright people had gone mad trying to make all the old-time apostles’ statements fit within the same gospel. Today, however, there is no fear of ill effects from publishing the Journal of Discourses, for only Fundamentalists, anti-Mormons, and historians ever read it.

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