Loved this quote from Jedediah M. Grant, in a letter to the editor of the New York Herald, 1852:
I can’t undertake to explain Brigham Young to your Atlantic citizens, or expect you to put him at his value. Your great men Eastward are to me like your ivory and pearl handled table knives, balance handles, more shiny than the inside of my watch case; but, with only edge enough to slice bread and cheese or help spoon victuals, and all alike by the dozen one with another. Brigham is the article that sells out West with us – between a Roman cutlass and a beef butcher knife, the thing to cut up a deer or cut down an enemy, and that will save your life or carve your dinner every bit as well, though the handpiece is buck horn and the case a hogskin hanging in the breech of your pantaloons. You, that judge men by the handle and sheath, how can I make you know a good Blade?
As a lifelong Mormon, and a graduate of the university that bears Brigham’s name, I feel like I know his life story pretty well. My going-in impression is that of an almost Old Testament god-like figure: a “demanding leader, harsh disciplinarian, ruthless in his requirements” but also just right — trust him, follow him and you’ll do well. My impression of Brigham Young is little changed after reading this biography, but it brought to my attention some of the qualities that made him such a successful leader. He was the right man for the time.
Some of the little vignettes from the bio that I found interesting:
- Coming from a strict, Bible-thumping family, Brigham learned early on to master self-mastery. One of his longtime struggles after the Word of Wisdom was with chewing tobacco. He used to keep a plug in his coat pocket, and occasionally take it out, declare to the plug that he was the boss, not it; and then replace it back in his pocket. Neat example of his grit and willpower.
- Neat story: when Brigham, Heber C. Kimball and George A. Smith were traveling to an eastern port prior to their mission to Great Britain, they were all sick. Early on, they collected $13.50 in donations. For the rest of the journey, they took stages and regular meals, but they money never ran out. At the end they tallied up their receipts and figured $87 had been spent en route.
- Story of some of his daughters entertaining their boyfriends in the parlor one evening. They had arranged books around the lamp so it was rather dark. Soon Brigham enters, surveys the scene. Quietly removes the books, then addresses the kids: “The girls will go up to bed. I will wish the gentleman a good night.” How many of those guys must have wet their pants in fear at that moment…
- Brigham, the practical prophet. “The highest inspiration is good sense – the knowing what to do, and how to do it.” I think a lot of times, Brigham’s prophetical “inspiration” was just doing what he thought was the right thing to do. Either he was so “in tune” with God that he received constant revelation, or perhaps constant revelation wasn’t required much of the time, because God knew that Brigham would do what he Himself would do. Isn’t this what is meant by acquiring the mind and will of God?
- Brigham’s opinion was that a lot of the Bible is figurative … it was what people could understand. Women did not literally come from Adam’s rib; that’s like something you would tell a child.
- Brigham never prepared notes or rehearsed for any of his sermons. Pretty amazing.
- Mountain Meadows – Brigham repeatedly tried to encourage officials to investigate and put the offenders on trial, but convinced it was kept in limbo in order to be used as a talking point against him and the “bloodthirsty Mormons.”
Brigham’s legacy to his people, per Arrington:
- Self-sufficiency in all things; independence from Gentiles
- Cooperative institutions (tithing, PEF, colonization, United Order)
- “Temporal salvation” – church and man should be active in improving temporal conditions as well as spiritual. Kingdom of God is like the soul being the combination of body + spirit; really impossible to divide and remain what it is intended to be. (Reflected in the mingling of his personal accounts with those of the church … but that was also influenced by an anti-bigamy law that limited church property to $50,000)
- Attitude that Mormonism embraces all truth, wherever it is found
- His own strong personality; almost a legendary figure in his own day and certainly now
I thought I should learn some more about my newly adopted state.
Mormons were key players in the early history of California (the history of U.S. California, that is), primarily via the Mormon Battalion and the immigrants from the ship Brooklyn. During the 1850’s however, official activities all but ceased until the twentieth century. The lack of emphasis on California settlement was partly due to the Gold Rush. There was a lot of interest in California and thousands were flocking to the state; the Mormons could never be a majority and control their own destiny like they could in Utah. Another reason was the fallout due to polygamy, announced in 1852, and the subsequent Utah War – the Church had more pressing concerns at the time than trying to encourage California growth. Indeed, the official policy everywhere, up until around the turn of the century, was that of gathering – missionaries went out into the world, but always encouraged their converts to emigrate to Utah.
With all that in mind, it is no wonder that Brigham Young didn’t think too highly of California. (Although, interestingly, he did call several on “gold missions” early in the Gold Rush to get money for the struggling Church.) When Sam Brannan excitedly told Brigham Young about the wonders of California in 1847, Brigham said, “Let us go to California, and we cannot stay there over five years; but let us stay in the mountains, and we can raise our potatoes and eat them; and I calculate to stay here.” Even though the climate and terrain was tougher, there wasn’t competition in Utah from other immigrants. The Church had found its place of refuge. I get the impression that Brannan probably never understood why Brigham wanted to stay in Utah. But then again Brannan seems to have had other motives at heart than furthering the success of the Church. He’s an interesting character.
Some more from Brigham: “Our feelings are in favor of that Policy <encouraging settlement in “Western California” (vs “Eastern California” = Utah) >unless, all the offscouring of Hell has been let loose upon that dejected land, in which case we would advise you to gather up all that is worth saving and come hither with all speed.” (after beginning of Gold Rush and the unsavory characters it drew to California)
“…hell reigns there, and that it is just as much as any ‘Mormon’ can do to live there, and that it is about time for him and every true Saint to leave that land.” (1857)
I haven’t written much yet about the twentieth century history that this book covers… “The church in California grew and grew.” There we go. Really, there is just too much going on to coherently follow anything in the ~100 pages of this book devoted to the time period. Some interesting snippets, but I didn’t get any impressions beyond growth.
Today is an auspicious day to write about “Rough Stone Rolling.” Joseph Smith, the star of the show, was killed by a mob of vigilantes one hundred and sixty-seven years ago, June 27, 1844.
Growing up as a Mormon, I’ve been hearing about Joseph Smith since before I can remember. As such, the general outline of his life is pretty familiar. Even still, Bushman’s biography did fill in an awful lot of details – a lot of things about Joseph that aren’t generally known throughout the church. They’re not specifically suppressed by any means, but they just aren’t simple or applicable enough to a Sunday School lesson. Kind of like in Joseph’s own time –missionaries frequently did not feel the need to mention Joseph at all – their message was primarily the restoration of spiritual gifts from the ancient Christian church. Today the Church is similar – the message Joseph preached is more important than the man himself.
Joseph did an incredible work in his relatively short life, even if you completely disbelieve his claims of prophecy and revelation. I think Bushman did a good job giving unbiased treatment of his life. He presents the revelations, visions, and other supernatural claims just as Joseph and his contemporaries recounted them without interjecting his own opinions or beliefs.
Joseph wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. There’s the “money-digging” of course; kind of silly and ludicrous to us in our time, but not so much in the supernatural mixture of magic and religion that permeated New England culture in the early nineteenth century. He tried out many different business schemes throughout his life and exactly none of them succeeded. Although not entirely his fault, the failure of the bank Joseph helped to set up in Kirtland was the main impetus for dissent among church members there and forced him from the city. He sometimes had a short temper. During Zion’s Camp he had a series of squabbles with his cousin Sylvester Smith. One that stuck in my mind: Sylvester threatened to kill one of the camp dogs, Joseph threatened to whip Sylvester if he did. They were both pretty nasty to each other.
The Missourians and other mobbers persecuted the Mormons out of fear of fanaticism. They were wary of the ever-growing numbers of converts streaming in from other states and even foreign countries, all claiming allegiance to a man who claimed to speak for God. Who could predict what he may preach and what atrocities his “blind followers” might commit in the name of God? Fear bred suspicion, then hatred and violence. It’s ironic that the Missourians were right in one regard – in the kingdom of God, the laws of God are higher than the laws of man. Many of the Saints would have followed Joseph’s revelations to the death, if required. Later on in Utah, many men practiced plural marriage, were arrested and thrown in jail. They would rather be disobedient to the law of the land than disobedient to the will of God.
Speaking of plural marriage, that’s probably THE most interesting, not-really-taught-in-Sunday-School item about Joseph Smith that Bushman’s biography sheds some light on. Perhaps because of Emma’s efforts at white-washing history after Joseph’s death, or due to the church’s reluctance to associate itself with the renounced practice, the historical record gets a bit murky. But Joseph did marry several women, the vast majority in just a few years in Nauvoo, and generally in secrecy. Joseph had twenty or thirty or so plural wives. Some of them were already married to other men! (That one was news to me.) Many of these marriages were in name only, but there’s evidence of at least a few being fully consummated. Some wives actually lived in the Smith household at different times, but Emma always ended up kicking them out. It seems like she tried to understand and accept the practice, but never could. Joseph ended up marrying many of his wives without informing Emma at all.
Why did Joseph practice polygamy? A weighty question that I truly don’t know the answer to. (Well, I take that back, I do know why – because he felt God commanded him to do it. And whatever God commands to do is right.) On the face of it, looking back from our day and age, it looks like nothing more than adultery, bigamy, and lecherous behavior. (I was going to write “lecherousity” but I’m not sure that’s a word.) Indeed, this was almost invariably the first reaction of those early Mormons who were introduced to the doctrine by Joseph. All had to take time out, pray, and gain a personal assurance that it was from God. Joseph himself described an angel with drawn sword standing above his head, threatening him with his life if he did not practice and teach the doctrine.
I’ve heard and give some credence to the idea that polygamy was necessary to quickly “raise up a righteous posterity” and create, in just a few generations, a solid, cohesive society of members committed to each other, their families, and the church. Whatever the reasons though, I wonder if the main reason Joseph practiced polygamy as he did was more to set the example for other church leaders than for anything else. It was a struggle for the Apostles and others to accept the doctrine when taught by Joseph himself; imagine Brigham Young trying to sell it in the midst of the confusing succession crisis that followed Joseph’s death….
Through it all I get the impression of Joseph as a man trying to do what he thinks is right. He was convinced of the veracity of his revelations — although “convinced” is the wrong word since it may imply a period of uncertainty; Joseph never doubted that his revelations were from God. They were real to him and it was not even possible for him to question. All he could do was choose to obey or not. He chose obedience and placed his trust in God, and tried as best as he could to carry out His will.
The Biography of Thomas S. Monson
First of all let me state that the subject matter, the life of Thomas S. Monson, current prophet and President of the LDS Church, is indeed incredible and inspiring. Countless experiences told in this book are a witness to his constant devotion to Jesus Christ and to helping others and also to his amazing people skills.
However, although I recommend the book and a study of its subject, I have some minor gripes with the author/publisher/editor.
First, I think that I have heard at least half of the stories in the book before in President Monson’s General Conference talks over the years. I guess that is not surprising though. He once told a reunion of Sixth-Seventh Ward (where he served as a 22 year old bishop) members “Your lives are my sermons.” Well, President Monson’s own life is also frequently the source for much of his talks. I guess it is nice to have all those stories collected in one place, though.
The book could have used a bit more editing to enhance the overall flow. I’ve referred to the book’s “stories” and that is sometimes how it comes across — a collection of stories, each followed by a “moral to the story” such as “and that’s how Tommy learned that you shouldn’t judge another person because he picks his nose” etc. (Although I don’t recall that specific sentence being present in the text, maybe you get my drift.) I felt like the format kind of got a bit old, although the stories are all, as I mentioned, very good and inspirational.
Along with flow, maybe the printer Thomas Monson’s eagle-eye could have been useful in finding some grammatical errors. I thought the misquote of Winston Churchill on p. 280 “From Stettin to [should be in] the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent” was particularly unforgivable as it is such a famous quote. It offends my sense of geography as well! Maybe the presence of such errors reflects a rush to get the book out before Christmas and rake in the the profits from the $34.99 price tag. (Although I shouldn’t complain – I gave the book to someone as a present and then immediately borrowed it for the initial read through… hehe.)
Moving on, another inexplicable point is the lack of a clear description of President Monson’s father’s activity in the Church. I believe he was a member (although some of Tommy’s uncles were not) but not active very much for the majority of his life. But the book never says this. You have to pick up clues, like the fact that Tommy was baptized and ordained in the priesthood by other men (duties traditionally done by the father, if worthy). I don’t pass judgement or think prying into family affairs is appropriate, but in a definitive biography this seems very important because I am interested in President Monson’s upbringing and how his father’s (in)activity in the Church affected him, if at all. Sadly the book seems to avoid the issue for some reason.
Besides the portions on President Monson’s early years, the best part of the book deals with his many years of work helping the church in East Germany as it struggled for rights and recognition under the communist government. The book repeatedly describes how, although suspected of subversion and persecuted, the Church slowly gained the trust of government officials by being gracious and always following the letter of the law. But then there follow some incredibly cheesy lines in the chapter “The Wall Comes Down” reveling in how the Church somehow brought down the East German government. The contrast between the two sentiments was a little jarring.
One instance sticks in my mind as an example of Thomas S. Monson’s attitude. He joined the Naval Reserve during World War II, and stayed active in the following years. The Korean War was brewing, and if he were to be called up he darn tootin wanted to go as an officer. He worked hard and eventually was offered an Ensign’s commission. However, he had just been called into the ward bishopric, and bishopric meeting was held on Monday evenings, at the same time as his Naval Reserve commitment required. Apparently both were inflexible to changing times, so Tom was forced to choose one or the other. He went to his friend and former stake president, then Apostle Harold B. Lee. Elder Lee heard him out, then advised him to turn down the commission and completely resign from the Naval Reserve. Even though the commission was something he had deeply wanted and seemed like a good idea in the eyes of the world, Tom did as Elder Lee prophetically suggested. The Lord had different plans in mind than a military career – he was called as bishop a few months later. Then into a stake presidency, then mission president in Canada, then an Apostle. Humbly following wherever the Lord called is a hallmark of President Monson’s life.