The Journal of Discourses is often quoted by non-Mormons as proof of Mormon doctrine. In actuality, however, it is an unofficial source and cannot be taken as doctrine. Much of what is included is speculative—the opinions of Brigham Young, rather than actual canonized doctrine. Unfortunately, many who use the book as “proof” of doctrine don’t understand how doctrine is canonized in the church, how Mormons determine current teachings, and the role of a prophet.
The Journal of Discourses contains talks given by Brigham Young in the 1800s, as well as other types of discourses and prayers. He did not write the book. Listeners recorded the talks using shorthand that was then transcribed and published. The purpose was to get his talks to people in Europe who were Mormon. Brigham Young gave approval to the project, but it was carried out for profit by individual Mormons, not by the Church. Brigham Young was never asked to look over the transcriptions and did not validate the transcriptions, nor did he give approval for any specific discussion or talk to be included.
In modern times, researchers have uncovered many transcription errors. In addition, not all talks were formally given to members in General Conference. Some were funeral talks. Some were prayers. Some were reports from missionaries. They were given in a variety of settings for various reasons. While they may have historical value, they are not meant to serve as proof of doctrine. General Conferences were different in those days—more informal, less official, and often included questions from the congregation.
Aside from the obvious problems of mistranslation, people who rely on the journal do not understand how Mormonism operates. It is very difficult for outsiders to understand another person’s faith, which usually has many complexities.
For Mormons, revelations is an ongoing process. Brigham Young is not still the prophet and we react to him the same way we react to Moses. Both were great prophets, but what they taught was not the final word in God’s plan for us. Each prophet added to our body of knowledge concerning the gospel. Sometimes what one prophet taught contradicted what another taught. Jesus taught a higher law than the one Moses taught. He also instructed his apostles to avoid teaching the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Later, however, Peter received a vision telling him that nothing of God is unclean and he was to take the gospel to anyone. Does that mean Jesus was prejudiced or taught false doctrine? No, it meant it was now time for the next step. This is why we still need prophets today—God never meant for knowledge and progress to end with the last word in the Bible.
So, although Brigham Young taught the gospel, it was the gospel as God wanted it taught at that time. Today, many things have changed as we become better prepared for the next step. What you hear Brigham Young teaching was for his generation, not ours.
In addition, it is important to understand how Mormon doctrine becomes canonized. First, the prophet approaches God with a question. If he receives a revelation in response to the question, it is presented to the apostles for a sustaining vote—which means they will also be praying, providing a layer of protection for the church. Next, it is presented to the membership of the church. Many things Brigham Young said were not the result of revelation, were not presented to the apostles, and were not put to the members for a sustaining vote. This means they are not canonized doctrine.
Then what are they?
They are opinions. God gave us great intelligence and the ability to think and to reason. He has never seen a need to tell us everything at once, and so there are many things about which we know nothing at all. Where there is no canonized doctrine, each Mormon is free to make his or her own decision. That decision, even when spoken by a prophet, does not make it doctrine. It makes it opinion. Even a prophet is allowed to have and to speak opinions. Today, most prophets and apostles are more careful to distinguish between official doctrine and opinion, due to the advent of faster mass communication. You will often hear a talk prefaced as being the opinion of the speaker only, or hear a leader say the he personally believes something. This was not the case in earlier days, when leaders focused on the audience right in front of them, who were aware of the context of the discussion and knew what was opinion and what was not.
Journal of Discourses is an interesting historical document (although one that is not always accurate) but it must never be quoted as official unless the writer can also site an official doctrine from the most recent leaders.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.