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?