Multiple Brighams: Brigham Young in Mormon Memory

By October 30, 2007

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.]

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Intellectual History Memory


  1. David, I’ve also heard the “Brigham Young said many things” narrative throughout my life. I am surprised that it shows up as often as it does in academic settings.

    I think I maintain two contrasting narratives of Brother Brigham in my memory – the “he said many things” narrative and another presented in the Church-produced film, Mountain of the Lord. In a fictional dialogue with the visiting reporter from back East, Wilford Woodruff reflects on Brigham Young, and says, “he was right. He was always right.”

    I’m not sure how I reconcile this paradox or why those two narratives dominate my memory of Brigham Young. On a perhaps related note, Kathryn Daynes commented in a recent lecture that regardless of what people say about Brigham, no one can deny that he knew everything about everyone in his Deseret. She quipped, “There’s a reason they called him ‘Brother Brigham.'”

    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2007 @ 12:59 pm

  2. I am actually really grateful for Brigham’s idiosyncrasies and especially for his no-longer-favored doctrinal innovations. It gives us a great analytical tool for modern questions.

    I have heard the “Brigham was a great organizer, and that is what the Lord needed” perspective a lot.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 30, 2007 @ 2:07 pm

  3. Do you mean doctrinal innovations like the ones discussed here?

    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2007 @ 2:16 pm

  4. Chris: That is a great example of the tensions that exist around BY’s image.

    Stapley: I would say that BY’s doctrinal innovations are only sometimes useful to understand modern problems. I haven’t seen many people use his thoughts on miscegenation to solve modern conundrums.

    Comment by David Grua — October 30, 2007 @ 2:17 pm

  5. he he. David, I think that his thoughts on miscegenation are quite useful when dealing with ideas such as prophetic fallibility.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 30, 2007 @ 2:32 pm

  6. I love the fact that Brigham Young is so often credited with being a great organizer and colonizer, when in fact many of his organizational and colonial endeavors were total disasters — and when other people were certainly also involved in planning and administering the successes. But it’s equally true that this formulation badly understates the theological vigor and creativity of Young’s thought. There’s a great essay by Eugene England on this in his “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” collection. In fact, it seems that it might be possible to argue that Young’s organizational endeavors are at least as important for their theology as their practical effects — the United Order, for instance, has shaped Mormon identity and thought at least as much as it enhanced survival odds during the 19th century (although it may have also done that, especially in particularly arid and borderline settlement areas).

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — October 30, 2007 @ 2:32 pm

  7. It is interesting to me how comfortable so many LDS are becoming with the idea that the priesthood ban against Blacks originated with Brigham Young rather than with Joseph Smith. It’s a very appealing idea in many ways (for Mormons trying to reconcile the idea that it was an error with their conception of prophetic authority). If it began with Brigham Young, then people are more comfortable with the idea that it was a mistake. But it is typically discomfiting to suggest that it was an error if it originated with Joseph Smith. To me that speaks volumes about how Mormons think of Joseph Smith–The Prophet–compared to how we think of President Young–his successor.

    Comment by stan — October 30, 2007 @ 5:50 pm

  8. Stan, I completely agree. I find the same thing going on when it comes to plural marriage. There are still saints out there who, I have no idea how, have problems with the idea of Joseph having plural wives. But, they obviously have no problem with Brigham practicing it.

    It seems Brigham has in some ways adopted the “crazy uncle” type of role: he does a lot of weird things, can tell some weird stories, has a lot of weird ideas, but we still love him anyway.

    Comment by benjaminp — October 30, 2007 @ 6:01 pm

  9. Ben, doesn’t the “crazy Uncle” narrative undermine the narrative accepted by most Mormons regarding Brigham’s organizational and leadership abilities? I agree with the point Stan makes and that you second, but feel like it is tough to reconcile the “crazy uncle” narrative and the “Brigham was a great organizer, and that is what the Lord needed” narrative that J. referred to.

    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2007 @ 6:17 pm

  10. I think it’s “crazy uncle” when discussing Adam-God (which probably most LDS are not aware of) and “great organizer” when discussing exodus, colonizing, etc. I think many LDS don’t have a “crazy uncle” model in their minds at all. But they quickly develop it–or pick it up somewhere–when they learn about Adam-God theory and the like.

    Comment by stan — October 30, 2007 @ 6:23 pm

  11. Stan: I too find this fascinating. From what I understand, proving that JS did not originate the priesthood ban was part of Lester Bush’s agenda, and Mauss indicates that Bush’s article was part of what led to the 1978 revelation. It’s hard to imagine that happening if Bush had argued that it originated with JS (like Esplin did later), but somehow it’s easier to accept if BY started it.

    Ben: I’m not sure how the Crazy Uncle narrative squares with the “BY said a lot of things” narrative. Crazy Uncle, at least to me, conjures up an image of someone that is marginalized from the family. I don’t think that BY as a person is necessarily marginalized among most (white, non-feminist) Mormons, but his statements are definitely marginalized. On the other hand, the “BY said a lot of things” marginalizes the statements but not the prophetic mantle.

    Comment by David Grua — October 30, 2007 @ 6:31 pm

  12. So is he the pragmatically wise Patriarch who occasionaly lapses into the crazy grandpa when spinning theology from the pulpit?

    Comment by stan — October 30, 2007 @ 6:42 pm

  13. Stan, that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue but I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description of how most remember him.

    Comment by David Grua — October 30, 2007 @ 7:12 pm

  14. Would an “idiot savant” image work better? I guess I had in mind a “crazy uncle” who is successful in their specific skills (in BY’s case, colonizing), yet can be a little cooky when you start hearing their ideas in other topics.

    But, you are right, the title would diminish how he is viewed in the other fields. And, it might have an effect of marginalizing him, which is obviously something that doesnt happen.

    Comment by benjaminp — October 30, 2007 @ 7:16 pm

  15. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I’d like to draw attention to my second question above.

    What are the narratives that we as Latter-day Saints use to situate him in the stories that we tell others about ourselves?

    Comment by David Grua — October 30, 2007 @ 7:23 pm

  16. The “narrative” that I use to “situate” him is that he was a talented man with strong opinions. Also for the future, can we leave out big words like “miscegenation”? Took me too long to Google it to find out that it was merely racial integration.

    Comment by E.B.W. — October 30, 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  17. I grew up with a feel for Brigham that he was a very stern, strict person, “pragmatic” is a word that I’ve heard many times in “faithful” circles. I had a sense of him relying on inspiration and brute force to push the kingdom forward. With Joseph Smith, I grew up understanding that he was very close to Joseph and very highly regarded what Joseph did and taught. I had the feeling that Brigham did and taught what Joseph did. There was no having to reconcile his race/sexual teachings or anything else. He was just a great man with a distinct character. I don’t think that many of the rank and file have to reconcile anything because they’re not aware of any seeming contradictions.

    Now that I know something about these issues and Brigham Young, it’s a little harder. I’m sympathetic to some of his doctrinal innovations but not all (whereas before I didn’t know he had any “innovations”). Which were from Brigham and his environment, and which from God? Ultimately, for me, it comes down to that. In discourse with others, if they’re informed about these issues, we’ll talk about them on these terms. If not, I don’t bother. I talk about him the way I used to before I knew about these issues. Either way, I love Brother Brigham, and revere him as a mighty prophet.

    E.B.W., this is a blog devoted to the scholarly study of Mormonism, wherever possible we try to use the words the scholars use. At worst, you learned a new word.

    Comment by Jared — October 30, 2007 @ 11:07 pm

  18. David, I don’t know that we do use particular narratives to situate BY in stories we tell others about ourselves, at least not generally. Maybe my response is better phrased as a question. What do you mean by “stories that we tell others?”

    Comment by Jordan — October 31, 2007 @ 12:16 am

  19. Thanks for stopping by, Jordan. The reason I ask that question is because you can learn a lot about a people by analyzing the stories that they tell about themselves (or their past) to other people. Obviously we as Latter-day Saints can’t give other people our complete history, so we carefully choose parts that we think will convey something of our identity (tell them who we are). And it is equally informative to ask what stories are we not sharing with others, and what those omissions tell us about ourselves.

    So I agree that we don’t talk about Brigham Young much in public, except to mention the Pioneers, his role in settling the West and to defend him from accusations (like Mountain Meadows). What does it tell us about ourselves (and the place of BY in our memory) that we choose these instances from his life to share with those outside of our own circles and ignore the rest of his life?

    Comment by David Grua — October 31, 2007 @ 8:34 am

  20. David, good point. I agree that what we do not say is often as important to our narrative as what we do say. In the case of the stories we do not tell about BY I think it may have something to do with our emphasis on JS. Not only has miscegenation and polygamy been attached to BY in an attempt to clear JS (some say), but others have downplayed BY’s role (or innovation) as colonizer/city builder in arguing that BY learned what he knew from JS.

    Comment by Jordan — October 31, 2007 @ 9:16 am

  21. Jared: Thanks for sharing your experience in Texas. Now that you’ve lived in both Anglo wards and Hispanic wards, would you say that there’s any difference between how how BY’s viewed between the two cultures? (specifically I’m wondering if BY’s views on race are discussed more (or at all) among Hispanics)

    Jordan: I agree that in order to understand BY’s place in our collective memory we must also look at how we cast JS. The two must be understood together. I also think that we should look at BY’s image historically. I would argue that BY used to be much more prominent in the stories that we shared with with others, largely because of the RLDS challenge. When there were major competitors to JS’s legacy we had to explain what made us different. But as the RLDS have changed, we have changed too in the ways that we present ourselves.

    Comment by David Grua — October 31, 2007 @ 10:44 am

  22. David, honestly, I don’t find much difference between the two in my personal experience. The thing is, though these race issues are not far from the surface in BY’s rhetoric (and in some places on his sleeve), let’s be honest, how many even scratch the surface of BY’s thought? Look to the two main popular treatments of BY’s discourses/teachings, the Church Manual and Discourses of BY. There is very little to hint at BY’s racial views (You’re certainly not going to get miscegenation or the delightful decapitation statements). I don’t think you’d even know that BY was polygamist from these writings.

    So, I think there’s just too little known about BY in general discourse for there to be cultural differences in how BY is viewed. I think black converts on the African continent would feel the same largely as what I described. This probably also because discourse on BY has been and continues to be dominated by American/English Speaking constructs. What does a black African from South Africa know about BY? What the priesthood manual told him. The same for South Texas and South Provo for that matter.

    Once BY’s complexity becomes (and it will become) more common knowledge, there might be differences. For now, I think BY hasn’t been digested well enough generally for this type of analysis. I’m not just being cynical when I say it.

    Comment by Jared — October 31, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

  23. Jared, you’re probably right, at least in general. I’ve got a friend that grew up in the Mormon colonies that read all of the Journal of Discourses before he got baptized as a teen. And let’s just say that he sees BY very differently than I do. He’s far from typical, but I’d say that some Latinos (and Africans) do have more access to BY’s thought than you’re giving them credit. There’s a lot of stuff on the internet.

    Comment by David Grua — October 31, 2007 @ 12:51 pm

  24. The first time I was really exposed to some of BY’s teachings was on my mission. I wonder if that is a common place for many to be introduced to these kind of things. Can anyone relate?

    Comment by Ben — October 31, 2007 @ 1:38 pm

  25. Ben, I had a similar experience. I first heard of many of BY’s more controversial teachings on my mission, but it wasn’t until I returned home that I began to study them. What’s interesting to me (and relevant to this thread) is that the acquisiton of this new information about BY hasn’t really changed the narrative of his importance in my life at all. I’m still stuck with the competing “he said a lot of things” narrative and the “he was always right” one.

    Comment by Christopher — October 31, 2007 @ 1:51 pm

  26. […] Multiple Brighams: Brigham Young in Mormon Memory […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From The Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, Part 1 — October 21, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  27. […] We’ve discussed before the changing place of Brigham Young in scholarly discourses. For academics during much of the twentieth century, Young was far more interesting that Joseph Smith in the panorama of American history. In most of these works, Young was lauded for his organizational prowess and his intrepid leadership on the frontier. He was also seen as the savior of Mormonism, the great leader who picked up the pieces after Joseph Smith’s death. This image of Young fit the needs of American historians who, following Frederick Jackson Turner, believed that the essence of America was found on the frontier. Although academic interest in the frontier had waned by the 1980s, and with it much of the interest in Young as a frontiersman, it was in that decade that Leonard Arrington published his landmark study of the American Moses. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Multiple Brighams Redux: In the Midst of a Brigham Young Revival — July 17, 2010 @ 12:53 am

  28. I remember him as a great carpenter

    Comment by Ryan — August 26, 2010 @ 7:56 pm


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