Contrasting Attitudes: Keeping things in context

By February 14, 2008

Guest post by BHodges.

Heber C. Kimball
June 29, 1856

Because leaders and speakers didn’t give prepared sermons or refer to notes in most cases, the discourses contain unique insight into their feelings and emotions. A good example of the differing nature of the discourses is found by contrasting a few from Heber C. Kimball.

In February of 1855 Heber recounted some experiences connected with being driven from Nauvoo, and included some fiery rhetoric:

I was reflecting, yesterday whether I had any articles left of all I had when I came into this Church, and I found that I had one chest which brother Brigham Young made and painted at my house, and my wife has a little tin trunk which her father gave her before she was married, and I have one earthen tea canister which I made about the time I was married. I think those are the only articles left of those I had when I came into this Church.

What is the reason? I have been driven from my possessions, and robbed of the things which were given me by my father and mother, and of those given to my wife by her parents…

Gentlemen, you may expect this, I would rather die, than undergo what I have already undergone in the travel from Nauvoo to this place, under the same circumstances…

When we left that city, between one and two hundred souls were attached to me, and looked to me for bread, and I had to travel to this land, when it seemed as though I could not live under the load. And President Young was in the same situation, with another company attached to him, and thus we traveled through sorrow, misery, and death.

Now, if any persons wish to begin another scrape, and desire to again break us up, and to corrupt this people, and to bring death, hell, and the devil into our midst, come on, for God Almighty knows that I will strive to slay the man who undertakes it. [The congregation said, “AMEN.”]

Taken at face value, this is the type of threat used to show the leaders of the Church were tyrants bent on killing opposition. [1] But, reading on, Heber tempered his remarks:

This people are a good people, and I love them as I love my life. But I would rather lay down my life, than to again pass through what I have already endured. I have never yet shed man’s blood, and I pray to God that I never may, unless it is actually necessary.

I have never had occasion to fight, but I have often stood, with my fire-lock in readiness, guarding the Prophet Joseph, (with brother Brigham and others) for his life was sought all the time, and that too in Kirtland, Ohio, that civilized country. I stood by him until his death, and I will stand by President Young in like manner, God helping me, and so will thousands of this people, and I know it (JD 3:160-164).

The Saints were loathe to think they would be driven from their homes once again. A few months after this discourse, in June of 1855, Heber touched on the subject again. He disavowed any desire to shed blood, still hinting that he would favor opposition by force if neccessary, but that if the Saints would “live right” it would not be neccessary to fight:

If we are to have chastenings, I say, Father let them come, and I will do my best to endure them and profit thereby. But when those times come, you will see a great many murmurers and grumblers, and they will hunt up their filth and rubbish to circulate about the Saints of God, and never go off so long as they have enough to fill their bellies. The Lord blesses those who bless His servants, and keep His commandments. If we all do this, we shall have good times, we shall be blessed, and will not be required to shed man’s blood, if we do right.

Have I ever seen the day, when I felt like shedding blood? No, never in my life; I always wished that I might not be called upon to do it. Though I will say that once in Nauvoo I was sorry when peace was declared, for I had got pretty well warmed up through the oppression of the ungodly, and I really felt like fighting (JD 3:263).

Here Heber admits his passions could get the best of him; there were times he did feel like fighting. There were times he felt that armed opposition would be acceptable if someone attempted to drive the Saints from their homes again. Contrast those two sermons with one given a year later, in June 1856. They give an interesting contrast to his former fighting words:

Do you suppose that I would cry at being compelled to leave my house? Do you wish to know what I would do with it? I would say, let the houses and everything else go.

Just before I left Nauvoo, I had finished me a good house, and when compelled to start, I told the devil to take it and stick it in his hat, and I could go to the mountains and get rich (JD 4:1-7).

It seems he had somewhat lost sight of his former fighting feelings, or at least didn’t want to emphasize them during this sermon. Circumstances drew out his feelings, which changed over time. Contrast the two statements:

February 1855:
Gentlemen, you may expect this, I would rather die, than undergo what I have already undergone in the travel from Nauvoo to this place, under the same circumstances…

June 1856:
Do you suppose that I would cry at being compelled to leave my house? Do you wish to know what I would do with it? I would say, let the houses and everything else go.

Without proper context or in isolation these quotes could be used to portray Heber as a war-hungry tyrant or a gentle pacifist. In reality he doesn’t appear to be either of those things; ultimately, he wanted the Saints to be happy and live right. He was aware of his (albeit uncommon) inconsistency, as he explained in a discourse from April of 1852:

We are not sufficiently patient; I am not so patient as I wish to be. I wish I was so patient that when a person abused me I could pass away from him, and never notice him; but sometimes I turn round and fight a little; when they shoot, I shoot too (JD 3:20).

It seems fitting to end with a quote from Brigham Young [2] mentioning his awareness that speakers, including himself, could get out of hand in their discourses at times. It is important to look at the context of the discourses, as well as the circumstances under which they were delivered, in order to get a clearer picture of the speaker:

I sometimes become excited when I talk about them, and so do my brethren.

Why? Because we are made of flesh, blood, and bones, like other men, and sometimes our feelings are warm, when we think about the conduct of our enemies.

But what do the pure principles of the Gospel teach us?

“Be still, and know that I am God, that I rule in the heavens above, and perform my pleasure on the earth, and that I turn the hearts of the children of men, as the rivers of water are turned” (March 16, 1856, JD 3:259-260).

[1]
Juanita Brooks believed some LDS leaders shared a part of the responsibility of the massacre due to such intemperate remarks. See Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, p. 219.

[2]
Brigham was also aware of the possibility that his words could come back to haunt him; though he didn’t seem too concerned about it:

“In my conversation, I shall talk and act as I please. Still I am always aware, when speaking in public, that there are those present who are disposed to find fault with this people, and to try to raise a prejudice against them; and they will pick up isolated words and sentences, and put them together to suit themselves, and send forth a garbled version to prejudice the world against us. Such a course I never care anything about; for I have frequently said, spoken words are but wind, and when they are spoken are gone; consequently I take liberties in speaking which I do not allow when I commit my sentiments to writing” (JD 2:179).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Those are some great thoughts and quotes. HCK was a great man. I often how much the more sensational claims people make about BY and the early saints would easily be tempered if we just took time to understand context and totality of message. Of course, then they would hardly be sensational.

    Comment by Doc — February 14, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

  2. Blair: Fascinating post. It’s important to note that all memory is shaped by present concerns, so I wonder what a little research into what was going on in Utah in February and June of 1855 and then in June 1856 can tell us about how HCK is drawing upon the past to inform the present. I suspect there there was of course tension with federal officials as well as possible tension with dissenters.

    (dialing Ardis)

    Comment by David G. — February 14, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  3. One possible contributing factor to the differences in the two discourses may have to do with the Reformation-era longing for the “good old days” when persecution kept the Mormons sharp and obedient. This probably wouldn’t have shown up in 1855, but it was certainly in full swing by 1856 (although there is some debate about just when the Reformation started, I usually side with Tom Alexander for an earlier date than, say, Paul Peterson).

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 14, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  4. It’s also important to note that there were different (and sometimes conflicting) narratives of persecution. Here we see HCK shaping his narratives according to two models:

    1. Persecution is a bad thing. The Saints should resist future persecutions. I believe that this narrative is influenced by both republican discourses of honor as well as religious discourses coming from the D&C that after being driven X amount of times the persecuted are justified in resisting.

    2. Persecution is a good thing. SC taps into this narrative with his discussion of the Reformation. This is more influenced by martyrological discourses that construct suffering as necessary for discipleship.

    Comment by David G. — February 14, 2008 @ 12:32 pm

  5. David: deeper historical considerations are definitely on my back-burner at the time. As Taysom pointed out, the rhetoric was in full swing during the “reformation” by 1856, and the background is important to understand. My main thrust in this particular post was to point out internal inconsistency as a warning against quote-mining, essentially.

    And a great point regarding the use of persecution narratives in sermons, as well.

    Comment by BHodges — February 14, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  6. Warnings against proof-texting are always welcome BH, and your choice of illustration is apt.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 14, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  7. Agreed.

    Comment by David G. — February 14, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  8. It may be worth looking at 1845 T&S discourse also by HCK (i think; I’d have to look) that begs God to visit bloody vengeance upon enemies while pledging to not draw blood oneself.

    Comment by smb — February 14, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  9. A good reference as well. It wouldn’t surprise me. It seems Heber had some memory of his former feelings, as he stated:

    Have I ever seen the day, when I felt like shedding blood? No, never in my life; I always wished that I might not be called upon to do it. Though I will say that once in Nauvoo I was sorry when peace was declared, for I had got pretty well warmed up through the oppression of the ungodly, and I really felt like fighting (JD 3:263).

    That sermon from 1845 sounds pretty “warmed up.” See if you can find the reference.

    Comment by BHodges — February 14, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  10. i think it’s in volume 6, which i haven’t transcribed into my files yet. i bet “vengeance” in T&S would turn up something.

    Comment by smb — February 14, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  11. I was just going over some of my notes and came across this Heber C. Kimball excerpt (which is one of my favorites), and thought it fit in with the theme of this post:

    Poor rotten curses! And the President of the United States, inasmuch as he has turned against us and will take a course to persist in pleasing the ungodly curses that are howling around him for the destruction of this people, he shall be cursed, in the name of Israel’s God, and he shall not rule over this nation, because they are my brethren; but they have cast me out and cast you out; and I curse him and all his coadjutors in his cursed deeds, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the Holy Priesthood; and all Israel shall say amen.

    Send 2,500 troops here, our brethren, to make a desolation of this people! God Almighty helping me, I will fight until there is not a drop of blood in my veins. Good God! I have wives enough to whip out the United States; for they will whip themselves. Amen. (JD 5:95)

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 15, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

  12. Stapley: I agree that’s a great quote.

    Comment by David G. — February 15, 2008 @ 10:46 pm


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