Preached vs. Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies (Part 1 of 3)

By LaJean Purcell Carruth, Church History Library historian
4 August 2020

In this, the first of a three-part miniseries, Church History Library historian LaJean Carruth introduces her research into the shorthand transcriptions behind the Journal of Discourses—and her surprising findings.

When George D. Watt, the first convert baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England, arrived in Nauvoo, Illinois, USA, in November 1842, he brought an important skill with him: Pitman shorthand. Pitman shorthand—or phonography1—was a shorthand method published by Isaac Pitman in England in 1837. This relatively new shorthand method used straight and curved lines, circles, and other marks to represent the sounds of words spoken, and it allowed skilled reporters to quickly record a speaker’s words verbatim.2 His skills soon found use: he began teaching classes on shorthand, and in April 1845 he began reporting speeches given in Church conferences, the proceedings of the Carthage trial,3 and other meetings.4

George D. Watt (1812–1881)

After returning to England and Scotland as a missionary for several years, Watt traveled to Salt Lake City in September 1851, where he resumed recording sermons by Church leaders in shorthand. Watt then transcribed his shorthand into longhand, editing and changing speakers’ words as he wrote. His transcriptions were published in the Deseret News.

However, Watt was not paid for his work, and he needed an income to support his family. Thus, he received permission from the Church to publish his transcriptions in England as the Journal of Discourses.5 John V. Long, David W. Evans, and other reporters later recorded sermons and other speeches in Pitman shorthand also. Each transcribed his own shorthand, editing and changing the words as he wrote, and these, too, became part of the Journal of Discourses. While much of the original shorthand and most of the original longhand transcripts were discarded after publication, some are still extant.

A sample of George Watt’s shorthand notes.

I am a professional transcriber of 19th- and early 20th-century shorthand documents written in Pitman shorthand. I have worked many years transcribing Watt’s shorthand of published and unpublished sermons, the Carthage trial, legislative minutes, his journal, rough drafts of letters, and other items; these items constitute the largest shorthand collection at the Church History Library. The papers of John V. Long make up another significant collection of shorthand reports of sermons.6 A large collection of longhand transcripts, mostly by Watt but also by Long, Evans, and others, is also in the Church History Library in collection CR 100 317.

When I began transcribing the original shorthand of sermons that were published in the Journal of Discourses, I compared the original shorthand records to the published versions; it was obvious that Watt and other shorthand reporters significantly changed the words of early Church leaders during the transcription process. (It is true that editors made some additional alterations; however, comparing the shorthand and extant longhand transcripts of Watt and others shows that most alterations between the shorthand and published text were made by the reporters themselves.) In other words, the sermons published in the Journal of Discourses and in the Deseret News often differ significantly from what speakers actually said according to the original shorthand record.7 Examples of these differences will be included in parts two and three.

I am frequently asked why Watt, Long, Evans, and others altered their shorthand as they did. In short, we don’t fully know. Ideas of historical accuracy were very different in the 19th century than they are now, and people altered records far more casually than we would today, with shorthand writers often making changes as they transcribed.8 The shorthand reporters themselves left no explanation, so we must rely on their original longhand transcriptions to give us some information.In most cases, we still do not know what the transcribers’ motives were for their changes, but we can at least see what changes were made.

For example, when we compare Watt’s shorthand to his longhand transcripts (and the resulting publication in the Journal of Discourses), it is clear that Watt made significant changes as he transcribed. He inserted words, phrases, and even extensive passages into his longhand that do not have any relation to the shorthand itself; these inserted passages’ style is often different from the style of the speaker he was transcribing. Also, comparing the shorthand transcripts and the Journal of Discourses shows that many cited scriptures were editorial additions, with no mention in the original shorthand itself. Changes to Brigham Young’s sermons thus changed the representation of his personality, not to mention his prophetic guidance.

A section of George D. Watt’s shorthand showing additions and subtractions.

Watt made many of these changes as he wrote. Sometimes he crossed out what he had written and inserted new text; this crossed-out material does not usually appear in the Journal of Discourses. When writing out his shorthand in a longhand transcription, Watt, like other shorthand reporters, often transcribed the end of a sermon less accurately than the start; perhaps he and others grew increasingly tired as they struggled to read their shorthand, and so they wrote a basic idea of what was originally recorded. He also did not transcribe some of his shorthand into longhand, including some very long passages, resulting in these sections’ absence from the Journal of Discourses. Other changes in wording, word order, and grammar appear for unknown reasons. Examples of these changes are included in parts two and three.

To help us recover an accurate understanding of early leaders’ actual words, I have collected 50 sermons delivered by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt, and others. I have created tables that highlight—aligned in parallel columns—my transcriptions of the sermons’ original 19th-century shorthand, the original longhand transcript (where it is extant), and the sermon as it was published in the Journal of Discourses.10 These sermons are now available in the Church History Catalog in collection CR 100 912 under “Parallel Column Comparisons.” More sermons will be added to this collection in the future.

Anyone studying the sermons published in the Journal of Discourses should keep in mind that almost all of them were delivered extemporaneously, without advance preparation or notes, as was then customary. Speakers presented their own ideas and experiences; at times, they seemed to be trying to figure things out as they spoke. Occasionally, Brigham Young would correct a speaker who he thought had spoken incorrectly. At the time of their delivery, the contents of the Journal of Discourses were intended to be just that: a collection of sermons for the edification of the Saints and not official statements of Church doctrine.

In part two of her series, coming soon, LaJean dives deeper into her exploration of George D. Watt’s shorthand, sharing several examples of how Brigham Young’s sermons changed between their delivery and their publication.

Top Image: Brigham Young (1801–1877)