The Journal of Discourses is a collection of sermons and discourses delivered by Mormon prophets and apostles in the 19th century. There are 26 volumes, which contain 1,438 sermons given by 55 church leaders.
Throughout the history of the Mormon Church, it has been common practice to keep accurate records. Therefore, when a Mormon leader gave a discourse, notes were commonly taken and then it would often be published in the local newspaper. However, these sermons were typically not written out before they were given so the only notes available would be those taken by a reporter or stenographer which were often written in short-hand. These short-hand notes would then be reviewed and the text of the original discourse would be pieced together.
You can imagine, then, that the text of the discourses is not perfect. In fact, there could be some significant mistakes. I’d encourage you to do a test for yourself. Have a friend get a piece of paper and then read out of any book for about 10 minutes at normal speed. Don’t slow down, don’t repeat yourself–just talk as if you were delivering a sermon in front of hundreds of people. It’s likely that your friend will struggle significantly to accurately transcribe your words–compare it against the book and notice the discrepancies. Even those who were trained in short-hand to take notes from oral dictation could not get it perfect. Nonetheless, it was the best method available at the time.
In addition, as I mentioned when explaining what is not Mormon doctrine–not everything said by a Mormon leader is considered to be doctrine. Though they are inspired men and women of God, they still have their own opinions and interpretations.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has offered this official position on the Journal of Discourses:
“The Journal of Discourses is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a compilation of sermons and other materials from the early years of the Church, which were transcribed and then published. It includes practical advice as well as doctrinal discussion, some of which is speculative in nature and some of which is only of historical interest. … Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some transcriptions. Modern technology and processes were not available for verifying the accuracy of transcriptions, and some significant mistakes have been documented. The Journal of Discourses includes interesting and insightful teachings by early Church leaders; however, by itself it is not an authoritative source of Church doctrine.”
You might wonder why I even mention the Journal of Discourses. The reason is because critics like to “cherry-pick” quotes from it. In other words, they will take 2-3 sentences from one sermon and declare that it is Mormon doctrine! Now that you understand what is considered Mormon doctrine and what is not, and also the background of the Journal of Discourses, you won’t be easily fooled by these deceptive tactics.