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Guest Post: President Hugh B. Brown’s Most Famous Statement

By: Gary Bergera - February 07, 2012


One of the best-known, most famous of General Authority statements is Hugh B. Brown’s admonition to BYU students during a May 13, 1969, campus-wide Devotional that “We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.” Brown, at the time, was First Counselor to Church President David O. McKay. Few other “official” statements articulate so succinctly the Church’s commitment to freedom of the mind.

Does it, should it, matter that President Brown never actually spoke those words?

As delivered, President Brown’s speech, “An Eternal Quest: Freedom of the Mind,” included the following:

You young people live in an age when freedom of the mind is superseded and suppressed over much of the world. We must preserve it in the Church and in America and resist all efforts of earnest men to suppress it. For when it is suppressed, we might lose the liberties vouchsafed in the Constitution.

Preserve , then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition.

Dissatisfaction with what is around us in not a bad thing if it prompts us to seek betterment. …

As subsequently published in the LDS Church News and in BYU Speeches of the Year, this portion of President Brown’s address reads:

You young people live in an age when freedom of the mind is suppressed over much of the world. We must preserve it in the Church and in America and resist all efforts of earnest men to suppress it, for when it is suppressed, we might lose the liberties vouchsafed in the Constitution of the United States.

Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts. One may memorize much without learning anything. In this age of speed there seems to be little time for meditation.

Dissatisfaction with what is around us is not a bad thing if it prompts us to seek betterment. …

It’s long been known that speeches are sometimes edited, even censored, after they’ve been delivered. What’s a little surprising is realizing that speeches are also sometimes edited before they’re delivered, or are edited as they’re being delivered, then expanded later for publication. (I can’t help wondering if this means every quotation from a published speech should now be double-checked against an original recording of the same–a frustrating, potentially annoying, complication to research.)

In the case of President Brown, does it matter that he never actually spoke the famous words with which he has been associated as long as they subsequently appeared in the published version of his address?

–o–

Recording of speech from BYU Speeches of the Year
Transcription of speech from elsewhere on the BYU site



12 Comments »

  1. I would think (there I go thinking again) that the published version of a speech has the approval of the speaker, to the extent they have editorial input in the publication, and certainly the publisher, as a second chance to correct or enhance the spoken word. In this case, whoever was editing the Church News at the time (Thomas S. Monson?) and the editors of BYU Speeches of the Year, at least tacitly approved the content for their publications and that seems more definitive.

    It would be interesting to know what input Pres. Brown had with regard to the additional language. Was it in his notes and he decided at the podium not to say it? Or was it an afterthought to further expand his ideas? While interesting, I’m not sure how important that is because we have the final version that he and any editors, who would be fairly well authorized for the church and the school, thought it should be.

    [Oh, and when I first saw the heading of this guest post, I thought it was his 1963 statement on Civil Rights.]

    Comment by Grant — February 7, 2012 @ 7:24 am

  2. I am happy to disregard what Boyd K Packer said in the October 2010 general conference in favor of what was published. The latter is a more reliable indicator of the Church’s position. Similarly with Hugh B. Brown–the published version must be a more reliable indicator of the Church’s position. And unlike the Packer edit, the changes strengthen the speaker’s message. Perhaps we should attribute the quote as follows: “According to BYU Speeches of the Year, Hugh B. Brown said…”

    Comment by Last Lemming — February 7, 2012 @ 7:43 am

  3. Interesting question. Does it matter?

    The last time I spoke, the previous speaker ended five minutes before the meeting was supposed to end. Normally I would have cut my talk to from the 15 to 20 minutes I was asked to prepare to five minutes, but darn it, I prayed long and hard over the talk and had had strong impressions about what the members of the ward needed to hear (grief and mourning and depression and the plan of salvation and the resurrection), so I cut as much as I could cut and still say something cohesive, and during the last five minutes of the talk I listened for the rise in noise that means that people are done with the meeting, done with the speakers, and poking their kids to prompt them to interrupt the speaker. The noise level never rose, so I finished the talk in ten minutes. (And then spent the hour during Sunday School talking with people who approached me, needing to discuss the subject further.)

    That’s a long way to say that the printed version of my talk was much different than what I actually said. I left out half of the material and added a couple of lines while I was speaking. If I was given to publishing my sacrament meeting talks, that talk would read quite differently than what the congregation heard.

    Comment by Amy T — February 7, 2012 @ 8:49 am

  4. And, one more comment:

    The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through his Words (Ronald White, Jr., 2005) is an exploration of Lincoln’s speeches: the writing, the delivery, and the subsequent editing for publication. If you’re interested in the difference between spoken and written words, that is a fascinating look at the topic, and a very good read for anyone who thinks that they might ever need to speak in public.

    Comment by Amy T — February 7, 2012 @ 8:52 am

  5. Fascinating post and interesting comments. Good catch, Gary! I would love to know more about how that wonderful line made it into the published version. (To me, so long as the printed version was approved by President Brown, it’s no big deal that he never actually spoken the line.)

    #4 Re: The Eloquent President as being “a very good read for anyone who thinks that they might ever need to speak in public.” That would be pretty much every member of the Church, right? . . . says the fellow who was asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting in a few weeks . ..

    Comment by David Y. — February 7, 2012 @ 10:04 am

  6. President Brown was trained as a barrister, and it showed in his extraordinary public speaking. It’s altogether possible that the sentence in the published speech was in his prepared text, but that he chose for some reason to delete a few words as he gave the speech.

    Maybe he remembered as he stood there in the Field House that he had to have lunch with President Wilkinson shortly afterwards, and didn’t want to get him too riled up.

    (And I’m wondering what I thought was so important about my trigonometry class at Provo High, just across the street, that I didn’t cut class to go hear Pres. Brown.)

    Comment by Mark B. — February 7, 2012 @ 10:08 am

  7. A good reminder that oral texts and written texts don’t always mach up. I have been hoping for a long time for an analysis of nineteenth century of sermon reporting, but it is good to remember that it isn’t simply a question for the distant past.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 7, 2012 @ 10:15 am

  8. At least in this case we have both the transcription, and the recording. Assuming, as did Grant and others above, that the transcript was edited with Pres. Brown’s approval, I would believe we are safe in quoting the statement as an accurate representation of Brown’s intent. This becomes even more significant when you realize that many more people will encounter this talk in printed form than those who heard it in real time, or would take the time to listen to it via BYU’s website.

    But if I look at the different versions of the King Follett Discourse of Joseph Smith, we have a much more complicated situation determining what was said and meant. It’s not so easy to parse the details there in the absence of a recording, or of an edited transcript approved by Joseph Smith and published concurrently.

    Thanks for pointing this out, Gary. I was not aware of the difference between the talk as presented and the talk as printed.

    Comment by kevinf — February 7, 2012 @ 10:28 am

  9. I think I’m glad that if the key line was part of only one version, it appeared in the printed text. If it had been given in the oral delivery but not in the printed version, we’d have been treated to 40 years of conspiracy theories about who “ordered” President Brown to censor his remarks, and why, and what it all meant for freedom of thought in the Church.

    As long as it worked out the way it did, it doesn’t matter to me that the line is missing from the oral delivery — printed speeches in Conference reports and elsewhere (um, Congressional Record, anyone?) are seldom a verbatim record of the happenings at a meeting. This is how President Brown wanted his speech to stand, so there it is. (Not that I’m not curious as to how and why this came about, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 7, 2012 @ 10:29 am

  10. Where are Pres. Brown’s papers? It seems that there might be a copy of the text among them, and someone could find it, see what’s written on that page (are the words just as they were later printed? or did he make some changes by hand in the typewritten text? or, did he simply make the change on the fly as he delivered the speech? and, one final “or” did he add the words after the speech was delivered to be included in the printed version?).

    Good luck ferreting that out, dear ferrets!

    Comment by Mark B. — February 7, 2012 @ 10:44 am

  11. .

    We are safe assuming those are still his words though, yes? That’s how I interpret this.

    Comment by Th. — February 7, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

  12. There are three talks that you are involved in:

    The one you prepare.

    The one you give.

    And the one you wish you had given.

    Comment by Zelph — February 8, 2012 @ 5:19 am

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