Brigham Young and Misunderstood Mormon practices

By September 22, 2008

I recently spent some time going through nineteenth century newspaper accounts of the death of Brigham Young. One thing that I found shocking was that many of these eastern newspapers, in telling about Polygamy, wrote that Brigham had come up with the idea after he became the leader of the Church and had then attributed it to Joseph Smith. This was surprising because these same papers had little that was positive to say about Joseph Smith, but on the issue of polygamy, they seemed to “exonerate” Joseph Smith in preference to blaming Brigham. I wondered why they would “exonerate” Joseph for instituting of one of the twin relics of barbarism when they could just have easily implicated both Joseph and Brigham in the practice. Was it more important for them to implicate Brigham? If so, what does this say about how they viewed Brigham Young’s importance to Mormonism? This became even more striking to me as I began to recognize similar trends among fellow Mormons, albeit for different purposes.

Recently I have had a few conversations with friends and ward members regarding the institution of Plural Marriage. A few of them have been shocked to hear that it was instituted and practiced by Joseph Smith. They had been under the impression that the practice, if not the revelation, had been instituted by Brigham Young rather than Joseph Smith. When they learn that Joseph had plural wives, their immediate response is, “Well, he didn’t treat them like Emma, right? They weren’t wives in the full sense, right?” I don’t remember where or when I first learned that Joseph had had plural wives, but I don’t recall being as shocked at the notion as these friends have been. For me this brings up an interesting question. Are members of the Church more comfortable attributing Mormon historical practices that they don’t understand to Brigham Young than to Joseph Smith? If so, what does this say about our understanding of Brigham Young as the Prophet and successor to Joseph Smith?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Nice post, Brett. A couple of thoughts:

    In response to your first paragraph, its important to keep in mind that in the 19th century, the debate over who started polygamy was crucial to establishing the identity of various Latter Day Saint groups. It was not an agreed upon historical occurrence (as it generally is today) that plural marriage among Mormons did indeed originate with JS. That Eastern reporters came down on the opposite side of the issue than Utah Mormons isn’t too surprising.

    Regarding the questions posed at the end of the second paragraph … yes, Mormons seem to be much more comfortable ascribing the origins of no longer mainstream practices (as well as more speculative doctrinal points) to BY instead of JS. While this in part appears to be a (perhaps unconscious) effort to preserve the memory of JS as an all-but-perfect figure, it also might be partly a result of BY not seeing his standing as President of the Church in the same way he saw JS’s standing as The Prophet of the Saints. Josh Probert’s Bushman Summer seminar paper a couple of years back detailed this.

    Comment by Christopher — September 22, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

  2. By 1877, I suspect that RLDS narratives concerning the origins of polygamy had spread sufficiently that they would have influenced how these newspapers discussed the issue.

    As to ways that BY relates to JS in contemporary Mormon culture, I’d say that many Mormons feel more comfortable dismissing uncomfortable teachings and practices if they (allegedly) came from BY than if they originated with JS. Adam God (how’s your boy, Jared?;), blood atonement, vengeance oaths, etc. Polygamy I think fits in here for a lot of people. I’ve discussed some of these issues elsewhere.

    Comment by David G. — September 22, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

  3. With the possible exception of some women’s groups, I think the furor over polygamy in the 19th century didn’t really have anything to do with horror over polygamy — polygamy was merely a convenient ickiness to rally supporters to the real goal of stripping Mormons of political and economic power in Utah and other western states, leaving the spoils to non-Mormons and strengthening the Republic grip on national power. Anything, including support for the RLDS claims to status as the “authentic” Mormons of Joseph Smith’s type, which might prove a wedge to weaken Mormonism in the west, was supported by the eastern press and politicians, even if that meant pretending those editors and politicians hadn’t hated everything Joseph Smith stood for in his lifetime.

    And with regard to modern Mormonism, I think very, very few non-historian modern Mormons have any clear view of Joseph Smith. He’s this perfect, vaguely-imagined, almost-mythical god-like Apollo figure, not a flesh-and-blood man. The only time Joseph approaches human status is when we talk about his athletic prowess, and even in that case he is talked about as a near Olympian (in both senses). No marble-statue-god like the Joseph Smith of Mormon imagination could have taught polygamy, much less entered it. The idea that he actually might have treated any wife as a wife blows the mental circuits and comes close to blasphemy. IMO.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 22, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

  4. Fun post, Brett.

    I really don’t have anything else to add that the fine scholars above me haven’t already mentioned.

    Comment by Ben — September 22, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  5. Per a Missouri court in 1895:

    It is charged by the respondents, as an echo of the Utah Church, that Joseph Smith, ?the martyr,? secretly taught and practiced polygamy; and the Utah contingent furnishes the evidence, and two of the women, to prove this fact. It perhaps would be uncharitable to say of these women that they have borne false testimony as to their connection with Joseph Smith, but, in view of all the evidence and circumstances surrounding the alleged intercourse, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that at most they were but sports in ?nest hiding.? In view of the contention of the Salt Lake party that polygamy obtained at Nauvoo as early as 1841, it must be a little embarrassing to President Woodruff of that organization, when he is confronted, as he was in the evidence in this case, with a published card in the church organ at Nauvoo in October, 1842, certifying that he knew of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and that the ?secret wife system,? charged against the church, was a creature of invention by one Dr. Bennett, and that they knew of no such society. That certificate was signed by the leading members of the church, including John Taylor, the former president of the Utah Church. And a similar certificate was published by the Ladies’ Relief Society of the same place, signed by Emma Smith, the wife of Joseph Smith, and Phoebe Woodruff, wife of the present President Woodruff. No such marriage ever occurred under the rules of the church, and no offspring came from the imputed illicit intercourse, although Joseph Smith was in the full vigor of young manhood, and his wife, Emma, was giving birth to healthy children in regular order, and was enceinte at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. But if it were conceded that Joseph Smith, and Hiram, his brother, did secretly practice concubinage, is the church to be charged with those liaisons, and the doctrine of polygamy to be predicated thereon of the church? If so, I suspect the doctrine of polygamy might be imputed to many of the gentile churches. Certainly it was never promulgated, taught, nor recognized as a doctrine of the church prior to the assumption of Brigham Young.

    Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints v. Church of Christ, 60 F.937 (C.C. Mo. 1894).

    Comment by JimD — September 22, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  6. I think it’s true that probably a majority of contemporary Saints don’t understand that Joseph instituted and practiced polygamy. And I think allowing that ignorance to continue uncorrected is a big mistake. It’s a powder keg ready to blow for individuals who unexpectedly get hit over the head with the reality of it.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 22, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

  7. I didn’t know that Joseph Smith was sealed to 30 women until I read RSR a couple of years ago and the words were like a blow to the gut. Growing up in the church, I had surmised that he started the practice of polygamy, but I thought it was more of a spritual practice instead of him actually living with flesh and blood wives. It’s still hard to imagine the “Apollo” that I built up in my mind being with so many women. BY I imagined more as a social leader/colonizer prophet so I could excuse his marriages to so many women (which still seems hedonistic – It’s hard to reconcile)

    Comment by Carrie — September 22, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  8. It is sort of how many people view the priesthood ban. They prefer to believe it was “started” by Brigham Young. Of course there is evidence to support such a reading. But I think the sentiment is based in the same thread. That is that we want to “blame” discontinued practices on Brigham Young.

    Comment by BruceC — September 22, 2008 @ 9:57 pm

  9. I think another reason that many believe(d) Brigham Young was the first President of the Church to really, really practice plural marriage has to do with the notion that God instituted the practice to bring forth a large new generation to the Church. So as we think back to Brigham’s time, when they are out in the desert trying to populate the vast area called Deseret, that rationale for plural marriage seems to fit. And thus, enters Brigham who really, really practiced the principle. To fulfill this “peopling” purpose.

    I’m not saying I agree with the above, just that I can see how many can still think that Brigham was the first President to practice plural marriage. “He had to,” they think. “The Lord needed to raise up a new generation.” That thinking conveniently leaves Joseph either not practicing it at all, or just “spiritually” practicing it. And thus preserves his Apollo-like status, like Ardis mentioned, but also sort of preserves Brigham’s, too.

    Comment by Hunter — September 23, 2008 @ 1:13 am

  10. Well put by others; this also indicates the extent to which we have rehabilitated Emma. It’s easy to imagine BY as a polygamist because we don’t know his first wife’s name. We remember him vaguely as married to everyone, including Eliza and Zina in their full and decidedly unromantic glory. JSJ we remember as married to Emma, who stood by him through thick and thin as a loyal wife, so situating polygamy in that relationship is harder. It’s a much more direct assault on the Victorian nucleus and erotic loyalty, which makes polygamy that much more menacing.

    That and proto-polygamy (Daynes’s term) was pretty messy.

    Comment by smb — September 23, 2008 @ 3:42 am

  11. Thanks for your input. Good thoughts. I think we definitely have idolized the image of Joseph Smith to the point where we can’t attribute some things to him, even if nineteenth century “Brighamite” Mormons would have had no trouble doing so.

    Comment by Brett D. — September 23, 2008 @ 8:27 am

  12. Interesting discussion, and many of the comments have given me things to think about. Some of the commenters have noted that Joseph Smith has been immortalized in the minds of latter-Day-Saints, somewhat to the likes of Apollo. I think this important also to the relative light with which we hold each of his successors. In the LDS culture all Prophets are idealized, but none to the degree of Joseph Smith. All succeeding leaders were Prophets, but Joseph Smith was The Prophet (I know, this is not an original idea).

    There seems to be quite a breadth of views regarding the origin of Polygamy among the believers, from Divine to forgivable uninspired humanism. Just speculating, but I would venture that among the class of faithful LDS who 1) are unaware of the details regarding JS polygmay 2) find the concept offensive to their modern sensbilities in any right; believing that polygamy was contrived is much more pallatable and forgivable if it began with the human Prophet Brigham Young, than the Immortal Hero Joseph Smith.

    With regards to how “outsiders” viewed the polygamy issue. It would seem reasonable that BY get all of the credit, he was the one who said “forget the secrecy, if you don’t like it you can lump it”. Joseph Smith went to a great deal of effort to conceal his participation in the practice.

    Comment by Cowboy — September 23, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

  13. I have read so many comments lately claiming that most LDS probably don’t know that JS practiced polygamy that it makes me wonder who those LDS are. I don’t myself know any. Or perhaps it is because polygamy isn’t at the core of our discussions where I circulate. But we know that JS practiced polygamy.

    One observation, though. Joseph’s arrangement in Nauvoo hardly was that of the Beehive house of Brigham Young. That can probably be agreed upon. Even that story about Emma pushing Eliza R. Snow down the stairs is of dubious origin. But despite the motive that the Utah Church would have had in mid-to-late 19th century to identify offspring from Joseph’s polygamous unions, they mostly failed to do so. And some that were identified as possible offspring of Joseph have lately been disputed because those sons didn’t have his DNA.

    Even if you dislike apologetics, reading FAIR can be informative.

    Comment by Velska — September 24, 2008 @ 5:55 am

  14. Velska, are there any documented (or likely) offspring from Joseph’s plural marriages?

    Comment by John Turner — September 24, 2008 @ 10:00 am

  15. John: There have been some rumors and speculations, but no children have been absolutely verified. Ugo Perego, a DNA specialist, has been examining DNA from alleged descendents and has disconfirmed every one so far.

    That being said, that testing can only be done on descendents through a male line, and the most likely possible child, Josephine Fisher, was a female. Ugo said that we are still a ways off from being able to test her descendents, but we are progressing to that point.

    Brian Hales also believes there is another likely child that died in Nauvoo, but we will have to wait on his documentation until his (first volume) book on JS’s polygamy comes out next year.

    Comment by Ben — September 24, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  16. I’ve been craving a biography about Brigham Young along the lines of “Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling” by Richard Bushman. I think it’s time we get a real good, honest look at Brigham in his totality. Question is, who’s qualified to do it right?

    Comment by Clean Cut — September 24, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  17. Just a thought about the original issue–Wasn’t during BY’s administration that plural marriage was “officially” proclaimed?

    Comment by Steve C. — September 24, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  18. Clean Cut, there are three biographies on BY in the works right now. Between the three, you should get just what you’re looking for.

    Steve C., that is correct. BY had Orson Pratt publicly declare Plural Marriage in August 1852.

    Comment by Christopher — September 24, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  19. I think Ardis is correct that polygamy was less of a cause for national distaste of Mormonism. Wasn’t it Senator DuBois who said that the real issue was the theocracy? That aside I think this shows what a good job Joseph Smith III did in convincing people his father was not a polygamist. Much of the trials about Temple Lot and Kirtland Temple were for JSIII about who was “right” and who was “wrong” and polygamy was the main issue in the who was “right”.

    I also think our church shares responsibility when it comes to the image of Joseph Smith. I will never forget my reaction to Lyndon Cook’s article in BYU Studies about William Law. I realized that the William Law I had been taught was in fact the Joseph Smith I had been taught and vice-versa. Cook’s article is one of the two best articles ever done by BYU Studies. I highly recommend it.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — September 24, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  20. You had been taught anything about William Law? How is it that some teacher (seminary? Sunday School?) discussed William Law with you while so many people are surprised by Nauvoo polygamy, or Mountain Meadows, or other topics that actually had a lasting effect on the church?

    Begging your pardon, but are you sure you remember being taught anything about William Law before you began reading Mormon history on your own? the Expositor in general terms, perhaps, but William Law?

    And for the record, I challenge your glib exchange of William Law’s personal traits for Joseph Smith’s. I know what you’re saying, but you’re so far wrong that I won’t assent to it by silence.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 24, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  21. I first learned about William Law from Truman Madsen’s JS tapes on my mission.

    Comment by David G. — September 25, 2008 @ 8:54 am

  22. Ardis,

    I am not sure what I wrote in my comment that would illicit such an attack on me and my honesty. I realize personal attacks by you without evidence is not beyond your talents as I pointed out with your review of ?Blood of the Prophets?. This kind of ?foot stomping? by you because of my comments reminds me of your reaction to David Bigler?s excellent appraisal of the Utah War. I guess I should see this reaction as a compliment.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — September 25, 2008 @ 8:53 pm


Recent Comments

J Stuart on Book Review: Lincoln Mullen–The: “The historiographical situating was really helpful for me. Thanks, Jeff!”

Christopher on God's Blessings and Labor: “Thank you, Jared* and cc, for the correction. I've updated the post.”

Hannah Jung on Previewing 2019: Looking Ahead: “Thanks for doing this Joey! I'm excited for the new year!”

Gary Bergera on Previewing 2019: Looking Ahead: “Great summary, J. Thanks for pulling all this information together.”

cc on God's Blessings and Labor: “^^ Jared is correct. Ammon served (with me) in Minnesota. The reference to Argentina in the Vice article is for Wes.”

Jared* on God's Blessings and Labor: “FYI, this Buzzfeed article says that Bundy served in Minnesota. The article linked to above appears to be talking about someone else (i.e.…”