A Voice in the Wilderness

The 1888-1930 General Conference Sermons of Mormon Historian Andrew Jenson

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Reid L Neilson, Scott D. Marianno
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reid L. Neilson and Scott D. Marianno offer a peculiar collection of documentary sources on the development of the Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints in their book A Voice in the Wilderness: The 1888-1930 General Conference Sermons of Mormon Historian Andrew Jenson. The book is primarily a documentary sourcebook about the life and work of Jenson, yet it is intended to be more than that. It is peculiar for a number of reasons. Spanning the eras from 1888 to 1930, and only including the sermons of church historian Jenson, the collection functions as a resource for individuals curious about Latter-day Saint recordkeeping. It is a peek into the institutional structure and growth of the Church at the turn of the 20th century. It is an example of general conference sermons and suggestive as to whether or not people listened to them. More than anything else, the book is a starting point in what Neilson and Marianno characterize as a “reconsideration of the cultural impact of general conference and its capacity to draw boundaries around Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice” (5).

The collection is unique given Jenson’s often assigned place in the overflow sessions of conference. Other sources have examined the rhetoric and content of the general conferences, with Gordon and Gary Shepherd’s A Kingdom Transformed: Early Mormonism and the Modern LDS Church, 2nd Ed. (University of Utah Press, 2015) figuring most prominently. This volume, however, reflects on the peripheries of the conference event. Twenty of the twenty-eight included sermons originated in overflow sessions of the conferences. These sessions competed with more high profile speakers in better accommodations. Noting this disparity, Jenson himself quipped on one occasion that “unless we are endowed with an unusual degree of the Spirit of the Lord, and thereby draw your interest, it may be a hard matter to keep you here” (254). These overflow sessions, in conjunction with Jenson’s extemporaneous speaking manner, depict an “improvisational and spontaneous” style of sermon that Neilson and Marianno believe “were often delivered outside official ecclesiastical structures by laymen seeking to add converts to the kingdom” (13-14). They also note how Jenson himself gave thousands of these types of sermons to members of the church around the globe.

Yet this collection suggests that this impromptu speaking style permeated even the general conferences of the church and worked toward the creation of a new “Mormon collective consciousness” and identity (38). As mentioned above, the collection offers insights about the effects of the general conferences on its members, especially as the modern church today reinforces the importance of conference addresses as “a form of quasi scripture” (20). It identifies Jenson as one of the early proponents in understanding the Latter-day Saint institution as necessarily global and inclusive of all nations, and it once more hones in on the progressive era as a critical period of change for religions in the United States. Although the collection is small—and the analysis brief—A Voice in the Wilderness offers a glimpse of the many possible research avenues contained within the massive documentary collection of the biannual general conferences of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alan J. Clark is Instructor in Philosophy at Utah Valley University.

Date of Review: 
July 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Reid Neilson is Assistant Church Historian and Recorder and Managing Director of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Scott Marianno is a Historian/Writer for the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


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