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Looking at the Prophet Anew (Brigham Young edition)

How we understand and view President Brigham Young as the second prophet of the Restoration is often in a much more negative light than how the Prophet Joseph Smith is viewed.  In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Chad Orton discusses some of why that is and offers additional thoughts on how to view the man who led the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as they colonized the Great Basin region.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview – a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion.

President Brigham Young, circa 1870

Much of the interview centers on the book that Chad Orton co-authored entitled 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young: A New Approach to a Remarkable Man (Deseret Book, 2008).  Early on in the interview, Orton explained the non-traditional approach that was taken in writing that biography:

40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young is subtitled, “A New Approach to a Remarkable Man.” Unlike traditional biographies that largely look at their subject chronologically, i.e. from birth to death, 40 Ways is a topical biography. Each chapter—and there are 40 of them—focuses upon a major theme or event from his life.

For example, one of the chapters talks about how faith was one of Brigham’s predominate characteristics. Stories from the 1830s to the 1870s have been brought together into one chapter. In a traditional biography they would have been interspersed throughout multiple chapters and would have only been brought together through an index search.

In addition to featuring standalone essays, each chapter is also relatively short. This was done so that if someone only had ten minutes, they would still be able to learn about an aspect of Brigham’s life and personality.

We tried this new approach in part because Brigham, sadly, does not enjoy the best reputation among Latter-day Saints. He is the prophet that Latter-day Saints love to hate and hate to love.

This is so different from how Latter-day Saints largely view Joseph Smith. With Joseph it is, “JOSEPH SMITH IS A PROPHET, but . . .” With Brigham it is “Brigham Young is a prophet, BUT . . .”

One hope we had in approaching him in this new way was that individuals might see him in a new light and better appreciate what a truly remarkable man he was.

Orton worked to offer different point of views than the often negative views taken of Brigham Young.

Those negative views result from a few different places.  Orton explained his perspective on them:

A lack of correct information regularly leads to misunderstanding. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there about him. A second, somewhat related problem, is that many individuals believe they “know” Brigham and have closed their minds regarding him.

Concerning the first problem, too often Brigham has been defined by his critics and enemies rather than by his friends and associates and his own personal records.

While some of the stories that are told have a basis in fact, a number of stories were created out of whole cloth by individuals with personal agendas. Many of these stories have been repeated so often that even some scholars have ignored their training and have chosen not to vet their accuracy. As a result, a regular view that people have been presented of him is a distorted view, not unlike a funhouse mirror.

Regarding the second problem, many Latter-day Saints approach Brigham like the five blind men approached the elephant. They grasp hold of one aspect of him and think that is representative of him while rejecting other perspectives that would present a more complete picture.

For many individuals, the one aspect that they believe to be the accurate portrayal of him is that of an individual with an abusive tongue and an abrasive personality. Frequently this belief is based upon a story they have been told, some of which are true, others of which have grown in the telling.

In fairness, it should be noted that Brigham was not without his faults and at times he could be his own worst enemy. He could have a sharp tongue—which he admitted was his greatest weakness—and he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, privately or publicly.

Additionally, he was trying to teach new converts and inexperienced Church members what was expected of Saints and felt that in order to get their attention and have them remember and act upon what he was trying to teach that he figuratively needed to make it rain pitchforks. Sometimes the words associated with this “pulpit personality,” especially when taken out of context, can be harsh or shocking.

What Latter-day Saints understood at the time, but is largely not understood today, was that along with his hard-speaking, law-giver temperament, Brigham regularly manifested a soft side that differed from this pulpit personality. They also knew from first-hand experience that many of the other stories about Brigham that people embrace today were also not an accurate reflection of the man.

So, Orton suggests that misinformation or a lack of complete information informs the often negative views that are taken of the Lion of the Lord.  The last little bit, cited above, reminds me of something John Turner said of Brigham Young: “Many of Young’s close associates experienced both the angel and the goblin.  Young excoriated fellow church leaders in public, then salved their wounds with private tenderness.  Living with those contradictions, many of his followers craved his approval even as they feared his fury.” (John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet [Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012], 303.)  There were both negative and positive aspects of the man, and both sides need to be kept in mind.

The interview discusses a number of different items and accomplishments from Brigham Young’s life.  For example, five of Chad Orton’s favorite stories about Brigham Young were shared.  A couple of these were as follows:

A woman asked Brigham to remove her name from church records. In his response Brigham noted that there was no record of her ever being baptized so she didn’t have to worry that her sins had ever been remitted. …

[One] occurred during one of his yearly visits to the Saints. While stopping at Erastus Snow’s house, Snow’s young daughter told Brigham that he had eyes just like her pig’s. Upon hearing this, Brigham asked the child to take him to the pigpen so he could see this pig that had eyes just like his. …

Finally, another visitor to Brigham’s office who believed in phrenology commented on a painting of Joseph Smith hanging on the wall, stating that it didn’t show the characteristics of a great leader.

In response, Brigham acknowledged that Joseph wasn’t a natural leader, but he received everything he needed to be a leader through the enlightenment of the spirit. Brigham then added that that was his own situation as well.

These stories demonstrate different sides of President Young as he tended to the needs of the church.

One of my own favorite fascinations from President Young’s tenure as president of the Church was the development of the Deseret Alphabet.  Chad explained the history of that alphabet as follows:

Brigham was an innovator who thought big and regularly looked to see if things could be done better. Like many who think big, not all his ideas were as successful as he hoped. A prime example was the Deseret Alphabet.

Many individuals gathering to Utah had to learn English as a second language, which is not always easy given the fact that some letters can be pronounced more than one way. Brigham tried to make it easier to read and learn English through the creation of the Deseret Alphabet.

Rather than 26 letters, the Deseret Alphabet consisted of 38 symbols, each of which had a distinct sound. While a few works were published using the Deseret Alphabet, for this plan to succeed, it required a widespread adaptation not only within and without Utah, but that never occurred.

While the Deseret Alphabet was less than successful, that was not the case with other of Brigham’s innovations, such as how the Saints were gathered to Utah. Between 1847 and the completion of the railroad in 1869, Brigham regularly looked at better ways to do things.

It was a fascinating, if largely unsuccessful, endeavor to innovate to meet the needs of Latter-day Saints.

A humorous example of the Deseret Alphabet

In any case, there is a lot more to learn from reading the interview with Chad Orton over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.  I definitely recommend heading on over to do that, since I’ve only been able to hit a couple highlights in this co-post.

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