What Are The Best Books?

At Meridian Magazine today, I read a column entitled “Reading the Prophets in Context” written by the respected Mormon historian, Davis Bitton. And in it he includes a valuable list of the standard compilations that have been made from the sermons of each of the Presidents of the Church from the time of Joseph Smith down to the present. But he does more than that, he asks us to consider what goes into such compilations and what we might be missing by failing to read the full text of the sermons from which they are compiled. He comments on our current reading in Relief Society and our Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and groups. How did the committees that compiled these works decide what to include, and what to leave out? I think this is a valuable article. The list of standard compilations alone is worth the effort to read this article. He also points the reader to The Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley which is the collected conference sermons of President Hinckley since he became president of the Church in 1995. There are already two volumes in print, and each sermon is included in its entirety, not merely a few snippets. Also, he points the reader to The Words of Joseph Smith published in 1980 edited by Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook. I have owned two copies in hardback of this work, and it is undoubtedly the most important book and one of the most interesting reads I have run across in the last twenty years. And while sadly it is now out of print and almost impossible to obtain, the same material is going to be published some time in the future as part of The Joseph Smith Papers which even now is being prepared for publication by the Church Historians Office. Also, it is available electronically on Deseret Book’s GospeLink website, and on the CD-ROMS that have come out in recent years. It is on my LDS Collector’s Library ’97 from the now defunct Infobases.

For those of you who might find it useful, I have a page on my Zion’s Best website that links to all of President Hinckley’s conference sermons on the official Church website. I haven’t updated it to include his sermons during 2005 and the conference we just had in 2006, but I will get to that in the next day or two. In the meanwhile, the rest of his sermons are there, and they might be useful to you until you can get a copy of the Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley mentioned in Brother Bitton’s article.

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5 Responses to What Are The Best Books?

  1. Jim Cobabe says:

    John, thanks for elaborating. We are in agreement about the value of study-in-depth. It opens a perspective that is sometimes missed in class time at church. Alas, I wish we could formally engage in such pursuits.

  2. Jim, I have gone back over my original post with a fine toothed comb looking for anything that even hints of criticism of our correlated study materials, and I cannot find a thing. I would be surprised if I did because I love our correlated manuals. They are probably the best manuals we have ever had in the Church as texts for our Melchizedek Priesthood classes. I just happen to agree with Davis Bitton that there is a lot to be gained from studying the whole sermon. When the prophet prepared that sermon, he did it under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and planned it out as an integrated whole, the same way we do when we prepare talks for Sacrament Meeting. When we study the whole sermon, we get the full development of the idea that the prophet was trying to communicate. I just happen to love reading sermons. It is a good thing too. We have a whole lot of them to read after every Conference. And I don’t think the prophets want us to just read bits and pieces of them

    Consider President Hinckley’s First Presidency Message in this month’s Ensign. It is a marvelous article about the nature of the Godhead. Some months they have put in little paragraph long excerpts, not much longer than sound bites on a variety of diffferent topics, all of them from President Hinckley. Now I like the little sound bites a lot, but the fully developed article was even better. I just loved it.

    I don’t think that praising the original sermons is in any way being critical of the manuals that chose a selection as our current RS/PH manuals do. The Signaturi think that something underhanded is afoot by leaving stuff out. I think that is just silly. But there is no reason for us not to read the whole sermon if we have the time and are interested in what the prophet was getting at when he gave the original sermon.

    The CES train the seminary teachers to teach the scriptures differently from the Sunday School. They call it sequential teaching of the scriptures. They teach that inspiration went into not only what the prophet said when he wrote the original work but into the order in which he presented the material. In a full sermon like the Sermon on the Mount or King Benjamin’s address, an idea is being developed through a serious of steps. And each step depends upon the others for the understanding that the speaker wants to convey. Let me give you an example from a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting years ago.

    I was assigned to speak in Sacrament on the topic of tithing. And I organized the talk to introduce the subject by talking about the relative scriptures, and then I planned a section of the “body” of my talk to focus on the penalties that accrue from failing to obey the law of tithing. During the second part of my talk, I intended to devote an equal amount of time to elaborating on the great blessings that would come from paying tithing. Finally, it was my intent to summarize and bear my testimony.

    Well, for some reason, I got so long winded that I ran out of time while I was still focused on the horrors of not paying tithing. And I had to just skip the blessings part. After I sat down, I realized I had completely ruined my talk. Half a talk just wasn’t right. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I’m sure that was the case for many of those who listened to my talk. The talk needed both parts to be whole and true. Just talking about penalties for disobedience without talking about rewards for obedience simply wasn’t right.

    Now I’m not suggesting that anything like that is a problem with our RS/PH manuals. I’m sure they are much more carefully planned out than that. I only use the example to show how valuable it can be to hear the whole talk. Snippets and excerpts are fine, but sermons are good too. I did not mean to imply that anything was inappropriate about the way our manuals are prepared. Rather I was saying how rewarding it can be to read the whole talk just like we do when we go back over the Conference issue of the Ensign every six months.

  3. Jim Cobabe says:

    John, I trust that you are faithful to the paradigm you adopted for this blog. But while I agree with the substance of your editorial, it treads uncomfortably close to criticism of the products of church correlation — a popular rant of so many of the outspoken liberal, testimony-challenged self-styled intellectuals in the church. A peculiar sort of paranoia in this crowd is expressed in the form of feigned concern that the selective editing process of church correlation commitees in producing study material constitutes a secret conspiracy. It basically revisits the Signaturi complaints about “santized history”.

    While I find little to criticize in the aspiration to study long and deep into source material, I recognize that few have the luxury of time to devote to such pursuits. And I emphasize the primary importance of not neglecting foundational material, particular in the standard works and modern-day prophetic counsel. If you are spending time looking for editorial defects in the Wilford Woodruff study guide, I’d say you’ve missed the point altogether. Get back to the iron rod, before it is too late.

    Contrary to common insinuation, there is nothing wrong with church-correlated study materials. Indeed, I think church members in general should invest their first interest in these materials. If we have time to pursue secondary interests, fine. But let us first attend to the curriculum. Those who find only the time to spend with this will garner greater rewards than those who heed distractions from the jeering crowd in great and spacious building

  4. Thank you. I’ve got an older edition of the LDS Collector’s Library (I’m not sure what year) and I’m going to have to look for The Words of Joseph Smith. I put off buying a copy until I had more money … sigh …

    You have some wonderful and valuable posts on your blog.

    Thank you.

    LDS Collector’s Library ‘97 from the now defunct Infobases

  5. A great post, John. I agree with you and Dr. Bitton that we can learn a lot more by reading complete sermons and newspaper articles (which are especially prominent in this year’s Woodruff manual) than by looking only at snippets. For people interested in looking at the Woodruff material in its original textual setting, Justin Butterfield has an ongoing project of providing blog posts with links to as many of the original sources as are currently online.

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