Speaking at a conference recently in northern Indiana, a stake president urged his Latter-day Saint congregants to rely on the Holy Spirit when they spoke in church meetings. Rather than read or memorize talks, they should discern in the moment what the congregation needed to hear, and speak extemporaneously
I took notice of that because in March, a visiting authority spoke at multiple conference sessions in my own stake (a regional cluster of congregations) in Salt Lake City, telling us repeatedly that he had no prepared remarks. He was instead relying on the Spirit to prompt him in the moment to say what we needed to hear.
Was this a simple coincidence? Or were both men responding to some instruction filtering through the ranks of church leadership?
There is little or no evidence that Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ever spoke from a prepared text. If he had, such texts would likely have survived along with so much else preserved in the record, and historians would not be dependent on the fragmentary notes preserved in the diaries of listeners.
Perhaps Smith’s model of extemporaneous speaking set the pattern for his followers — or perhaps general Mormon disdain for the supposed lifelessness of written prayers bled into a similar distrust of written sermons. In any case, 19th-century Latter-day Saints generally followed the pattern, whether in the smallest local meetings or in the largest conference gatherings, of speaking as the Spirit moved rather than from prepared texts, or even notes.
Those of us who study past sermons could take as our patron saint George D. Watt, an 1837 British convert to the faith who brought his exceptional skills in Pitman shorthand with him when he emigrated to the U.S. Through his work, beginning in the early 1850s, we have the words of hundreds of sermons.
John M. Bernhisel, early Utah’s nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress and a Latter-day Saint, well might have preferred that Brigham Young had broken with tradition and prepared the sermons he gave in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Keenly aware that the most fiery and flamboyant lines from Young’s extemporaneous speaking were doing Utah no good when they appeared in Eastern newspapers, Bernhisel pleaded with the church’s second president to be more careful. Could he not save some topics for private meetings, and speak in more measured terms when strangers were present?
Bless his heart, Young tried. At least once. Maybe only once. Young spoke from a carefully prepared text at one Sunday morning meeting in 1856. He reined in his natural emotional tendencies and gave a sermon that should not have caused any worries for Bernhisel in Washington. But Young couldn’t help himself. That afternoon, he gave a second speech in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, on the same topic as his morning sermon, this time giving way to his usual colorful language and condemnation of a world that would not accept the gospel truth as Young declared it. Like so many other speeches, this talk added to the Eastern conviction that Utah was an unruly, if not rebellious, territory.
Speaking without preparation remained a hallmark of Latter-day Saint sermonizing throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century. I see traces of this in the diaries of missionaries, who recorded that they “occupied the time” at a meeting “with great liberty” — meaning that they were at no loss for words and felt that they had been inspired to deliver their message. (I know it was a common figure of speech, but still I cringe when I read that a speaker “occupied the time,” hoping, for the sake of any listeners, that he had done more than merely fill time.)
While members, whether young missionaries addressing tiny congregations or top leaders speaking to thousands at General Conferences, made it a point of honor to speak “according to the Spirit,” the tendency in the 20th century turned toward teaching young people how to prepare effective talks. Sunday school children learned to deliver 2½ minute talks, theoretically prepared by themselves but probably most commonly ghostwritten by their parents. Whatever the source of their words, Latter-day Saint children began to grow up with the expectation of knowing beforehand what they would say. Teenagers were formally instructed in the art of public speaking in their Mutual Improvement Associations and had frequent opportunities to deliver talks in gatherings of their contemporaries. Congregations appointed speech directors to coach young people, who participated in churchwide speech festivals. Whether speakers always prepared, or prepared adequately, for Sunday sermons, the pattern of preparation was firmly established.
Regardless of the expectations taught to children and youths, speakers from the upper tiers of the faith’s leaders continued to speak “by the Spirit” through the first half of the 20th century. Sometimes, I suppose, judging from the published transcripts of many such talks, the Spirit had something to say on a great many topics, jumping from one to another without fully developing any one theme. At other times, especially when working with gifted speakers or those who had a wealth of personal experiences to draw from, the Spirit was seemingly more organized and moved logically from point to point, delivering memorable sermons.
Beginning in the 1930s, when General Conference sessions were broadcast by radio, and especially in the 1950s when television airings became routine, the faith’s general authorities began to deliver prepared sermons, timed to fit media requirements. (That is, most of them did. As recently as 1982, apostle LeGrand Richards, who addressed us in the Missionary Training Center, still was speaking extemporaneously in a rapid-fire series of admonitions and stories, stopping abruptly, almost in midthought, when his allotted time was up.) With the needs of interpreters to give simultaneous translations, the prepared text seemed to be a fixed expectation.
Or so I thought, before hearing two authoritative speakers recently instruct their congregations to avoid preparation and to rely more heavily on inspiration in the moment. If that is to become the expectation going forward, I can only hope that inspiration prompts speakers to remember that it isn’t easy for many of us to attend church. We still need speakers to do more than “occupy the time” — and to give us a definite message to help us make it through the coming week, whether that message comes in the moment or whether the Spirit inspires purposeful preparation.
Ardis E. Parshall is an independent research historian who can be found on social media as @Keepapitchinin and at Keepapitchinin.org. She occasionally takes breaks from transcribing historical documents to promote the aims of the Mormon History Association’s Ardis E. Parshall Public History Award.
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