Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #83: Orson F. Whitney on sincerity and oratory

OFWhitneyPerhaps the most widespread literary art practiced among Mormons is oratory. The three or four weekly sermons given in every LDS congregation, usually by members of that congregation, sum to a formidable amount of practice at public speaking. And while the average active member may speak in church once every few years, local leaders certainly get plenty of practice. I don’t know if prayer should be considered a literary art or not, but if not, then oratory is likely our most commonly used art form.

All this leads, I think, to the need for practical suggestions on how to give better talks in church. The following extract, from the end of the first part of Whitney’s 5-part 1926 Improvement Era article, contains his advice for practitioners of oratory.


from Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy

by Orson F. Whitney


A word of counsel to those who would become orators: Beware of affectation. Do not put on what you cannot honestly wear. Don’t try to be eloquent. No man was ever truly eloquent when he tried to be. No speaker ever convinced his hearers by a display of emotion that was not genuine. Express what you feel, but don’t allow your feelings too much latitude. Don’t pound the pulpit. It adds nothing to your force of delivery. Shake off mannerisms, but above all be natural — be yourself. Don’t copy the errors of those whom you have taken as models. Their mistakes are not worth perpetuating. If they were great, it is not because of such things, but in spite of them. Their admirers have something to forgive.

Lord Chatham was a great orator, but his oratory had faults. It was more or less theatrical. Carried into Parliament on a litter, and supporting himself with crutches while speaking, as he warmed to his theme he seemingly forgot that he was lame, and flung his crutches aside, creating a tremendous sensation. But no man could do that now. He would be laughed at, deservedly.

Another great orator, also an Englishman, made himself ridiculous by punctuating an impassioned period with a dagger, thrown upon the floor of the House of Commons; an anachronism that might have passed muster in the days of Demosthenes, but which even the sham-loving Eighteenth Century could not tolerate.

Speaking of things theatrical, note how the style of acting has changed in the past fifty or sixty years. How stilted and unnatural it was, both in act and in utterance. Now all is changed. The Spirit of Truth, pouring into the world at the opening of this Gospel dispensation, has reasserted itself, has made or is making “all things new.” Today is recognized, perhaps as never before, the truth of the saying: “The perfection of art” — especially dramatic art — ‘”is the highest imitation of nature.”

While oratory is not acting — is not imitation, yet the orator can profit by the experience and by some of the methods of the actor. A minister inquired of one: “Why is it that words spoken from the stage are so much more impressive than those uttered from the pulpit? What is the secret of your success?” The actor replied: “We dare to pause.”

There’s a great deal in that. Pausing is as necessary in speaking, as punctuation is in writing. If you doubt it, mark the difference between the speaker who, upon arising, waits a moment with his eye fixed on the audience before beginning, and the one who starts to speak immediately upon taking the stand. The one invites attention; the other indifference. The use of cadences — the rise and fall of the voice — and the avoidance of monotonous droning, is another point worth considering.

The truly great orator is a man of burning earnestness, intent upon his matter more than his manner, which, cultivated, will take care of itself. He does not fish for applause, nor pose for dramatic effect. He is a despiser of vain show and cheap heroics, which appeal to the shallow, but never to the profound.

How much buncombe and bombast was there in the divine Author of that divinest of all orations. The Sermon on the Mount? The world, with all its thundering declamation, its pompous posing and theatrical ostentation, has never reached, and by such means never will reach, as high a standard of oratory as was raised by that simple, unaffected, earnest soul, Jesus the Nazarene. Who comes nearest to him in spirit, in speech, and in manner of delivery, will be the greatest orator of the future.

Improvement Era, v29 n5,
March 1926, p. 403-404


In addition to the usefulness of Whitney’s advice, there is, I think, a theoretical implication that arises in his remarks. In his attempt to distinguish between oratory and drama, Whitney suggests that the two have different purposes and  that the techniques of drama therefore should not be used in oratory.

Unfortunately, Whitney isn’t specific about what the differences are. Instead he relies on what might be called a foundational principle of good literature–sincerity. In drama, at least, Whitney seems to define this as the “imitation of nature,” while in oratory, he talks of “earnestness” and of being “intent upon matter more than manner.”

Sincerity is often, I think, hard to identify and to determine in literature. Nor am I sure where it fits into a literary theory, since it is more a transitory quality of the author that somehow appears in the work than a clear technique. My impression is that it is also more linked to the moment and to culture than to the actual words. Still, it seems undeniable that sincerity, whatever it is, is needed in literary works.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #83: Orson F. Whitney on sincerity and oratory”

  1. Am I reading correctly that Whitney saying that the move to naturalism in acting is due to the restoration of the Gospel?

    That’s an interesting claim.

  2. .

    I’ll repeat that to actor friends.

    But I agree that the greater the sincerity, on average, the most successful the sacrament-meeting talk.

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