B.H. Roberts saves the King Follett Discourse from obscurity

07 Jun

J. Stapley, in his fascinating history of the King Follett Discourse, describes how some leaders of the LDS Church began to look upon that sermon with suspicion, and how B.H. Roberts single-handedly preserved it within the history of the Church, against the opposition of some of his fellow brethren:

The twentieth century brought different challenges. As the Church hierarchy struggled to divest itself of no-longer-favored pioneer theologies and systematize Mormon thought for the modern age, the KFD
again became a source of controversy.

B. H. Roberts, a member of the First Council of the Seventy, was one of the leading pioneers of Mormonism’s new theology. At the turn of the century, he prepared a multi-year curriculum of study for the Seventy’s
quorums entiled, Seventies Course on Theology. In many ways Roberts, who worked in the Historian’s Office and was familiar with Joseph’s early teachings, tried to synthesize Joseph Smith’s teachings with the pioneer theological expansions that remained popular. …

Subsequent to the theological course work, Roberts was involved in the preparation of two serial publications. The first was Roberts’s preparation of the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1902-1932). The second was a recurring feature in Americana,
a periodical published by the National Americana Society, in which he published forty-two-page installments between July 1909 and July 1915 and which were ultimately aggregated into Roberts’s Comprehensive History of the Church as the centennial history of the Latter-day Saints in 1930.

In 1911 Roberts was preparing volume 6 of the History of the Church, which covered the KFD, and his serialized writings in Americana also referenced some of Joseph Smith’s teachings during the same period. In one article for Americana, Roberts relied heavily on the KFD and the Book of Abraham to systematize
Joseph’s teachings that the existence of humanity is eternal. However, when the reading committee, consisting of the two councilors in the First Presidency, reviewed it, Roberts’s ideas were deemed not
acceptable. Anthon Lund, First Councilor wrote in his journal:

[August 25, 1911] Today we had Bro Roberts read his
article on the Philosophy of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Bro. Penrose
made a splendid speech on eternalism opposing the view of Bro. B.
Roberts who holds that intelligences were self-existent entities before
they entered into the organization of the spirit.

[August 29, 1911] Bro. C. W. Penrose and I listened to Bro. Robert’s
reading his concluding chapter on the prophet Joseph Smith. We got him
to eliminate his theories in regard to intelligences as conscious,
self-existing beings or entities before being organized into spirits.
This doctrine has raised much discussion and the inference on which he
builds his theory is very vague. The Prophet’s speech delivered as a
funeral sermon over King Follett, is the basis of Bro. Robert’s
doctrine; namely, where he speaks of mans eternity claim. Roberts wants
to prove that man then is co-eqal with God. He no doubt felt bad to
have us eliminate his pet theory; but if so he didn’t stick on
retaining any of the verses of words we asked. (4)

Three months later, Roberts published the version of the KFD, which he had prepared for volume six of the History of the Church in the Liahona/Elders’ Journal: B. H. Roberts, ed., “The King Follett Discourse: The Kind of Being God is; the Immortality of the Intelligence of Man,” Liahona/The Elders’ Journal 9 (December 5, 1911): 369-379 and 380-382 (PDF Transcript). The Liahona was the organ of the Central States Mission and this printing of the KFD was fundamentally based on the HJS. Minor differences in sentence structure are evident in the comparison (PDF) which I produced to contrast the versions. This printing included not a
few typographical errors, but the largest differences in Liahona version are the omission of the section on child resurrection and the addition of Roberts’s footnotes, which frequently cite the scholars that Stan discussed in his MHA presentation.

The First Presidency learned of this printing, and was not pleased. They wrote on December 28 to Joseph A. McRae of the Central States Mission:

Do not print or circulate any more of the King Follett Sermon without hearing from us. (5)

The following week the First Presidency wrote McRae again with an explanation:

On receiving notification that a large number of copies
of the Liahona were being printed & circulated containing what is
known as the King Follett Sermon, as it has since been corrected and
interpolated, with notes added, we sent the following telegraph:

…When the sermon was first published it did not receive the revision
or sanction of the Prophet Joseph, who preached it, and it was reported
from the impressions obtained by four different persons who heard it,
neither of whom was a shorthand writer.

There are some points in the sermon which appear to be in direct
conflict with revelations accepted by the Church as divine. Some
portions of the original report have been expunged from the version
which appears in Liahona; there are some interpolations also which have
been made without authorization. Then there are footnotes added
introducing ideas not warranted by the text, which state plainly that
the original report is evidently incorrect in some particulars. Such a
doubtful production we think is not proper to publish as authentic. For
these reasons we sent you the dispatch referred to. (6)

Later that month Apostle George Albert Smith wrote to the Central States Mission President:

I have thought that the report of that sermon might not
be authentic and I have feared that it contained some things that might
be contrary to the truth.. . . Some of the brethren felt as I did and
thought that greater publicity should not be given to that particular
sermon. (7)

It is uncertain with which revelations, the First Presidency felt the KFD was in tension. However, there is no question that they sought to prevent the sermon’s circulation. When volume six of the History of the Church
was released later that year, it was mysteriously missing the pages (302-317) which included the KFD. T. Edgar Lyon addressing the 1973 Mormon History Association gave a wonderful account of Roberts’s

One day–as nearly as I can figure out, it must have been
the summer of 1913 when I was somewhere around ten years of age–I was
sitting at a table interleafing office forms when a rather stocky man
with a dark mustache came in. My father turned and said, “What can I do
for you, B. H.?” And the reply was, “Dave, I want you to print a
pamphlet for me.” He handed him a manuscript. It was the manuscript of
the King Follett discourse. He said, “I completed reading the page
proofs of volume six of The History of the Church, Period I. The book
went to press. Shortly before it was put on sale, I received a call to
tour the mission, and I was gone for three months or so. When I
returned I found on my desk a leather bound copy with my name stamped
in gold on the sixth volume. I flipped it open and put it up on the
shelf. A Sunday or two later I was speaking at stake conference, and I
referred to the King Follett discourse. Somebody came up and asked me
if that were in print. I said, ‘Of course it is.’ ‘Well where?’ ‘It’s
in the sixth volume of the documentary history.’”

Roberts went on to say that during afternoon session of
conference–and we used to have two sessions in those days–the man
handed President Roberts the book and said, “I have looked through it
and I can’t find it.” Roberts replied, “I know it’s in there because I
wrote it.” He turned to the place where it should have been, but the
sermon wasn’t there. Sixteen pages had been left out of the book.

Well, Brother Roberts said when he got back in Salt Lake City he
went to the bookstores and looked at the copies. The King Follett
discourse was not in them! When he asked what happened to it, he
learned that some of the brethren were not persuaded that the King
Follett discourse was authentic. Now I don’t know what the brethren
meant in those days, but Brother Roberts did, and he said that he felt
very unhappy about it! “David, I want you to print 10,000 copies of
this sermon, and please hurry it through the press. I want to take them
to the stake and mission conferences and give one to every member of
the stake presidencies and high councils and bishoprics, and presidents
of the missions and the branches. I’ll give this wider circulation than
that book will ever get. (8)

This pamphlet staid in publication and for sale at Deseret Book until the 1960’s. Apparently, Roberts’s persistence won the day. When the now President George Albert Smith asked Robert’s to publish the Comprehensive History of the Church in 1930 it included the material that had been struck from the Americana article. (9) Moreover, when the History of the Church was republished in 1950 the missing pages were included

Taken from Splendid Sun » A Textual History of the KFD, Part II

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Posted by on June 7, 2008 in History



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