Researching the King Follett Discourse

by Jeffrey Tucker, Church History Library
14 September 2021

Find several resources available at the Church History Library that can aid your research into the King Follett discourse, a prominent general conference talk given by Joseph Smith shortly before his death.

On April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith delivered a general conference talk to approximately 20,000 people in Nauvoo; it would be one of the last public sermons he gave before his martyrdom. The sermon—often called the King Follett discourse or King Follett sermon, as it was prompted by the death of King Follett, a Nauvoo Latter-day Saint—has been hailed by historians both in and out of the Church as a landmark moment in Church history and “one of the truly remarkable sermons ever preached in America.”1 Excerpts from it frequently appear in Church materials,2 and it remains popular among Church members, historians, and others researching Church history and Joseph Smith’s life.

A few days prior to the general conference, the Nauvoo Saints had held a funeral for Follett, who had died in an accident while digging a well on his property. Joseph began his address at the conference by picking up where the funeral had left off. “[I have] be[e]n requested to speak,” Joseph began, “on the subject on the decease of Bro. Follett.”3 However, Joseph soon made it clear that he would be speaking about more than just Follett, saying that “many others who have lost friends will be had in mind this afternoon & shall speak upon the subject in general as far as I shall be inspired by the Holy spirit to treat upon the subject.”4 This “subject in general” was the nature of the human soul—and, by extension, the nature of God. It would be the first time that Joseph publicly preached the idea that God was once a man who had progressed to exaltation.5

The wide-ranging sermon touches on other topics as well. For example, Joseph emphasizes that matter—“element”—is eternal and it can be “reorganized,” but “nothing can destroy” it.6 He espouses religious freedom, telling his audience that “all laws and government ought to tolerate [religion] whethe[r] right or wron[g].”7 He also alludes to vicarious temple work when he says that “the greatest responsibility la[id] upon us in this life is in relation to our dead [...] for it is necessary that the seals are in our hands to seal our children & our dead for the f[u]lness of the dispensation of times.”8 Lastly, Joseph finishes the sermon on a personal note, using a phrase that has since become famous: “No man knows my hist[ory]—I can not do it I shall never undertake—if I had not experienced what I have I should not have known it myself—I never did harm any man since I have been born in the world—my voice is always for peace—I cannot lie down until my work is finished.”9

There were four original accounts of the sermon, taken by Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton; none is a word-for-word transcription of the sermon. Thus, when the King Follett discourse is published today, it is usually a composite of these primary sources, which fills the gaps in one account with text from another. For example, Jonathan Grimshaw, a Church Historian’s Office clerk, put together a composite version in the 1850s that was used for decades. Some historians, such as Donald Q. Cannon and Larry E. Dahl, go so far as to call it the “standard” version of the King Follett discourse, though it is hardly the only one. Thus, one of the main questions in scholarship surrounding the King Follett discourse is how to prepare the “best” amalgamation. Several of the sources below address this issue.

If you are interested in researching the King Follett discourse, here are several sources that can help:10

Recorded by William Clayton, these are original meeting minutes from the general conference session in which Joseph gave the King Follett discourse. Notes on the King Follett discourse begin on scanned page 24.

In addition to being the fourth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wilford Woodruff was a prolific journal writer, chronicling many important events that occurred in the early days of the Church. These are his personal notes, taken as he listened to the sermon.

3. B. H. Roberts, ed., The King Follett Discourse: On the Personality of God and the Immortality of the Soul of Man (Auckland: Messenger Publishing, 1912). (M230 S653k 1912?b)

For many years, the King Follett discourse received relatively little attention. B. H. Roberts, a Church leader who would eventually serve as a President of the Seventy, was one of its early champions, publishing this version of it with his notes and commentary in 1912.

4. “The King Follett Sermon,” Ensign, Apr. 1971, 13–17; May 1971, 13–17 (M205.1 E59 v. 1- 1971-).

In 1971, the Church published the version of the King Follett sermon previously featured in the History of the Church11 in two monthly installments as part of the Ensign’s “Classics in Mormon Thought” series. It was the first time that the Church had officially published the King Follett sermon in many years. This version of the sermon shows what additions (indicated in brackets) were made to the text.

5. Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies, vol. 18, no. 2 (1978), 198–208.

In this article, Stan Larson—who, at the time, served as a translation coordinator for the Church—gives a thorough explanation of the history of various versions of the King Follett discourse, as well as a discussion of what he believes are the versions’ pros and cons. Larson then presents what he feels is the authoritative version of the sermon.

6. Donald Q. Cannon and Larry E. Dahl, The Prophet Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse: A Six Column Comparison of Original Notes and Amalgamations (Provo: Brigham Young University, 1983). (M273.2 P965j 1983)

This compilation of scribes’ notes presents the different versions of the King Follett discourse in side-by-side columns, allowing researchers to compare the similarities and differences between them. It also includes the “standard” (that is, the Grimshaw) version as well as the Larson version (footnote 5 above) for comparison.

A photograph of King Follett’s property, including the well where he tragically died.

8. Gospel Topics Essays, “Becoming Like God,”

This Gospel Topics essay relies heavily on ideas taught by Joseph during the King Follett discourse, quoting extensively from the sermon. It also gives something of a postscript, showing how the ideas presented in the King Follett discourse increasingly permeated Church leaders’ teachings as time went on.

9. Accounts of the “King Follett Sermon,” The Joseph Smith Papers.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project has assembled a collection of the four original notes from Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton, taken as Joseph Smith delivered the King Follett discourse. The page also gives a brief publication history of the sermon.

10. Church History Library article index

Staff at the Church History Library often create catalog records for articles that reference Church history. These articles are not necessarily housed at the Church History Library; instead, their catalog record provides information on where the article can be found, often with an active link to the article. This is the Church History Library’s article index. Searching for “King Follett discourse” or “King Follett sermon” in the Church History Catalog brings up dozens of such indexed articles. To limit the search results to article index entries, click the Article Index filter under “Record Type” in the left-hand pane of filters, and then click the Apply button.

Top image: An artist’s depiction of Joseph Smith preaching at the April 1844 general conference.