Posted by: Ascentury | Monday, 1 June 2009

So what about Brigham Young?

I realize that this post opens up a can of worms concerning “blind obedience”, etc., but I am not addressing that here. Realize that the key point is merely hypothetical, but it bears consideration.

Last October, J. Nelson-Seawright of By Common Consent wrote a post discussing recent LDS attempts to understand the enigmatic second president of the Church. I’ve since had an extended meditation inspired by his article, entitled “How Not to Understand Brigham Young”. Although the germ of this article has been written for a long time, a recent Salt Lake Tribune article has prompted me to finally finish it.

It’s true that if you read fifteen books on President Brigham Young, you’ll read about fifteen different people. From the concerned statesman and environmentalist of Hugh Nibley’s Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints to the fiery and occasionally misogynistic New England-style preacher of Discourses of Brigham Young, we seem to be presented with a man who, if not more paradoxical than many of us, at least is more openly so. (And that’s without even considering his theology.)

The themes that come readily to mind when I think of Brigham Young are:

1. Widespread introduction of polygamy.
2. Adam–God and other theological oddities.
3. Nibleyesque attitudes towards nature, education, and consecration.
4. Forceful Journal of Discourses sermons and letters.
5. Rebuke of Orson Pratt’s theology.
6. Beards.

What comes through to me is a marvelously intelligent, driven, capable leader who was not afraid to explore alternative ideas, although not always particularly tolerant of others’ attempts at similar exploration.

What can we as Latter-day Saints definitively say about Brigham Young, whether newly-converted Apostle, pioneer trailblazer, territorial warlord, or United Order-preaching patriarch?

He was a prophet of God, and that, if true, trumps all other concerns. It doesn’t mean that we take his theological speculation at face value, but that we realize that it’s okay to explore and construct diverse and divergent systems of theology. It doesn’t mean that we will understand consecration the same way he did, but that we truly try to live it. It doesn’t mean that we blindly follow any man, but that we do commit very seriously to finding the divine in what a prophet says and does.

In particular, I’d like to suggest that Brigham’s prophethood trumps the age-old chestnut of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

(I should include a disclaimer: I am, at best, an armchair philosopher, not a historian. My intent is not to argue whether or not the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred at the behest of anyone besides John D. Lee, but what influence such a revelation would have on our faith.)

From an article reviewing the recent publication concerning the massacre, we read, “Concluding that Brigham Young did not order the massacre is a nice sound bite, but [the] authors don’t make much of an effort to detail the degree to which his actions and beliefs contributed to the … factors of violence that they use to explain the massacre” (Review: Massacre at Mountain Meadows).

Anti-Mormons seem to feel that the Mountain Meadows Massacre is important enough that it can undermine our claim to the revealed gospel, and the Church seems to agree implicitly in its continual defense of Brigham’s honor. In all soberness, however, I think we should ask, “If Brigham Young were directly, personably responsible for the deaths of the settlers at Mountain Meadows, would that change anything?”

I don’t know that it should change our faith in the restored gospel one whit, or in Brigham Young’s prophetic calling.

Let’s assume that Brigham Young mandated the detention and destruction of the settlers in that wagon train. Is this really any more problematic for being modern than Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac or Moses’ drowning of Pharaoh’s army?

If Brigham saw this as incidental to the higher goal of establishing the kingdom of heaven, would he be justified? I don’t know how qualified we are to judge his heart, in that case—and we can justly argue about means versus ends. We judge the Mountain Meadows Massacre by modern standards, which is anachronistic, and prophetic slaughter is not without precedent (Elijah being the readiest example). In any case, would that destroy the work he did as a Prophet of God?

(The continual emphasis on dredging up the Mountain Meadows Massacre in any form strikes me as artificial in some sense. At worst, that leaves me incapable of sympathy for a survivor’s descendant, but I observe that tragedy outside of living memory is no longer able to outrage. Condition, yes; inform, yes; inflame, never. There are Old Testament prophets, and New Testament ones. I won’t categorize, for the most part, but Brigham Young stands solidly in the former group, methinks.)

I am not defending the tragic actions and outcome at Mountain Meadows. I am arguing that they cannot influence our faith one way or another except to the degree we allow them to do so. As I commented earlier, “Faith means accepting that truth has an ineffable, unquantifiable component.” Faith is not subsequent to or consequent on historical deeds, but on our own personal history and experience with the Spirit—and, ultimately, only that personal narrative can edify or destroy our faith.


  1. Neal,

    I completely agree with your sentiments. I think the MMM is a particularly egregious straw man.


  2. If you’ll excuse some self-promotion, I agree about MMM being a red herring and put a couple of ideas along those lines up at ABEV a couple of years ago.

  3. John, thanks for the link.

    It always seems strange to me that I can deal with something big like MMM without a second troubling thought, but have trouble accepting the inspiration of the three-hour block. The oddities of being Mormon…

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