As sociologist Barry Schwartz has shown with Abraham Lincoln, great men and women become great not because of what they do in life, but by how they survive in memories and narratives of those that follow. Most Americans (outside of the South) remember Lincoln as a national hero that held steady during crisis, unified the country, and brought an end to slavery. But during his lifetime, and especially during the last few years of his life, Lincoln was despised by many not only in the South but also in his own party and even in his cabinet. It was not until after his death that the image of the national liberator emerged as a dominant narrative in American culture, although that image has been contested, by Southerners that see him as a tyrant as well as by civil libertarians that see his suspension of habeas corpus as a gross violation of liberty.
In much the same way, Brigham Young has been imagined in several different ways in the years since 1877. Jan Shipps in “Brigham Young and His times” traced the history of changing representations of Young. The History of Joseph Smith, written by church scribes, cast Young as rescuing the Church from disintegration following Joseph Smith’s death. Bernard DeVoto and other observers took this to mean that Young saved the Church from the follies of Smith, an image that fit well with the emerging frontier school of American history that defined historical significance as the westward movement of Americans. Shipps then described “a broad-based attempt [by scholars] to assess the extent to which Young ought to get the credit for the survival and endurance of Mormonism,” primarily by Eugene England, Ronald K. Esplin, and Leonard J. Arrington (Sojourner, 247). These scholars have presented a new image of Young not as the savior of Mormonism (because Mormonism survived in the East, albeit in a different form), but as the one that created a Mormonism “that so fully explored the implications of the fullness of the first LDS prophet’s vision that was more esoteric, more communal, and, from the standpoint of traditional Christianity, more heretical under Brigham Young than it had been during the lifetime of Joseph Smith” (Sojourner, 254).
Shipps’ article is an important exposition of how historians and journalists have imagined Brigham Young, but it does little to explore how Church leaders, ordinary Latter-day Saints, and non-Mormons have remembered him in the years since his death. It seems to me that there is no other figure in Mormon history (aside from BRM) that has so many competing images in popular discourse. Brigham Young being a Prophet has been crucial to the self-identity of the Mormons that followed him west because of the succession crisis. In perhaps equal measure, those Mormons that did not follow Young west have defined themselves as not being like the Brighamites.
In recent decades, many Mormons have been forced to deal with Young’s legacy in terms of racism, the role of women in the Church, and doctrine. “Brigham Young said many things” is a narrative that I’ve heard several times during my lifetime, which seems to function as a way for Latter-day Saints to maintain their faith in him as a Prophet while distancing his prophet-status from the things that he taught. Despite these discursive techniques that seek to maintain balance, for many Mormons they also serve as subversive narratives that challenge and contest the dominant tropes of Brigham Young as successor and colonizer.
So where does Brigham Young “fit” in our collective memory? What are the narratives that we as Latter-day Saints use to situate him in the stories that we tell others about ourselves? How do we reconcile competing images of him? Do race, gender, or region of origin influence how Mormons remember Young? Does it matter if someone is a convert or born in the covenant? How do we interpret him in relation to Joseph Smith? [Note: This post is designed to promote an interesting conversation about Young and the people that have followed him. Please keep comments within the definition of “relatively faithful” as defined by DMI Dave. Basically, don’t hijack this thread to give justifications for loss of faith or to question how Mormons can believe in Young despite the racism, sexism, etc.]