From the Archives: Brigham Young on Joseph Smith’s Last Mistake

By March 27, 2009

The following comes from a meeting of a “Special Council” held in Salt Lake on 21 March 1858. It is evidence, among other things, of Brigham Young’s contrarian streak. I’m sure it raised eyebrows 150 years ago, although probably not as many as it would raise today:

I will deviate from my subject a little, and say a few words with regard to br. Joseph that some, perhaps, have not undrestood. If Joseph Smith, jun., the Prophet, had followed the Spirit of revelation in him he never would have gone to Carthage. Do you understand that? A great many do, and some do not….[Joseph] said ‘I can see life and liberty and salvation in that course [fleeing Nauvoo and heading west], but if I return to give myself up, it is death and darkness to the full; I am like a lamb led to the slaughter,’ and never for one moment did he say that he had one particle of light in him after he started back from Montrose to give himself up in Nauvoo. This he did through the persuasion of others. I want you all to understand that.
With regard to myself I cannot say what I will do. I do not know precisely in what manner the Lord will lead me, but were I thrown into the situation Joseph was, I would leave the people and go into the wilderness, and let them do the best they could. Will I run from the sheep? No. Will I forsake the flock? No. But if Joseph had followed the revelations in him he would have ben our earthly shepherd today, and we would have heard his voice and followed the shepherd instead of the shepherd following the sheep. When the shepherd follows the sheep it reverses the natural order, for the sheep are to follow the shepherd.

I find this interesting on many, many levels. I personally doubt very seriously that Joseph Smith ever said what Young attributes to him. I think it tells us a great deal about Brigham Young’s difficult position that he maintained in the Shadow of Joseph, even 14 years after Joseph’s murder.

Other thoughts?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I have no idea why I capitalized “shadow.” Although it does sound like the title some cheesy Deseret Book historical novel.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 27, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

  2. Thanks for putting this up, SC. I think is especially interesting since this was near the conclusion of the Utah War, so it could be read as Brigham possibly justifying the idea of fleeing himself if negotiations break down.

    Also, this reminds me of JS’s sermon in Nauvoo where he said if those at Haun’s Mill would have listened to him, they never would have been killed. I guess this type of rationale is a way to justify wrongly death while still holding to the infalibility and protection of revelation.

    Comment by Ben — March 27, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  3. Ben, I think the Utah War connection is very strong here, too.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 27, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

  4. I’m sure the Utah War timing is what matters. He said something very similar earlier in the war, not about Joseph but about not caring what course others might take, but he himself would burn his property to deprive the mob/army of its use.

    SC, do you see any indication in those minutes of anybody suggesting negotiation or surrender to the army, perhaps suggested as a way of saving the people? Or do the minutes just throw this in without a context?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 27, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  5. I just heard this for the first time at a BYU Political Science lecture last week on the politics behind Joseph’s martyrdom. The professor painted it as a parallel to the death of Christ when he was left all alone to complete the atonement; the choice to give up his life had to be all Joseph’s, without the help of divine guidance. So at least some people today are using it not to raise eyebrows, but rather to strengthen similarities between the life and death of Jesus and Joseph. I thought it was a bit forced, and as you say it’s pretty doubtful that the quote is accurate, but very interesting nonetheless.

    Comment by austin — March 27, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

  6. That was the spin given in a political science lecture? The very fact that the professor presented the story in such a theologically-laden context–one that does not necessarily seem dictated by the story itself–suggests that there exists a certain discomfort with the narrative qua narrative. ETA: But I give points for creativity, for sure.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 27, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  7. There are other sources to support this. It has a lot to do with the fight against Emma and the Smith boys contextually, as BY always blamed Emma for blaming JSJ of desertion over his flight from Nauvoo.

    I, predictably, also believe that this plays into Providential narratives of survival, which are rampant in earliest Mormonism. Martyrology is only one of the explanatory frameworks for premature death. Another, used commonly by early Mormons, is the punitive Providence model (think cholera epidemic on Zion’s Camp, e.g.), which BY applies to figures standing at the earliest origins of the distinct RLDS movement in this speech. Emma and her friends killed JSJ just as much as the Carthage Greys, according to BY’s narrative. This then becomes a potent image of the wages of apostasy.

    Incidentally, I found this in a footnote from a draft of my martyrdom chapter:

    Quinn 1982, 77 adduces nearly contemporary evidence from Brigham Young and Stephen Markham that Smith believed his followers were wrong but bowed to their wishes nonetheless. See also ?Speech of Heber C. Kimball, Delivered June 1st 1845,? Times and Seasons 6:14 (1 August 1845): 987, where Kimball claims that ?they gave themselves up because the people said they were cowards,? as well as History of the Church 7: 120-1.

    Comment by smb — March 27, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

  8. Oh, and #1, I love cheese (the fermented dairy product), so be careful what you associate it with.

    Comment by smb — March 27, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  9. That is a bit scary, whether it was in a polisci lecture or a religious ed class. Comparing the death of Jesus with the death of JS is always tricky theological ground.

    I seem to remember Quinn using this quote Origins of Power, and it was in a bit of a sensational tone. But it’s been several years since I read it, so I don’t recall exactly Quinn’s angle. And I agree that this seems to be a reconstruction that sheds a lot more light on the 1858 context than on JS’s 1844 thoughts. The whole second paragraph is BY ruminating about what he would do if he were in that situation.

    Comment by David G. — March 27, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

  10. Yeah, I just ate some great cheese cake from the Cheesecake Factory, so I second #8.

    Comment by David G. — March 27, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

  11. Back in my teenage years (40 years ago), I heard about Joseph Smith crossing the Mississippi in June 1844 and getting ready to flee west to avoid arrest. As the story goes, while still on the west bank (or perhaps on the Mississippi itself), he received a letter and small delegation from the Saints, accusing him of deserting them at a time of danger and asking for him to return. Reportedly, he said, “If my life is of no value to my friends and family, it is of no value to myself”, and turned around and went back to Nauvoo and, ultimately, his death.

    I don’t know if that story is apocryphal or not, but if there’s truth in it, it sounds like it’s what Brigham is referring to. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — March 27, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

  12. But I give points for creativity, for sure.

    I definitely give it something.

    Comment by Ben — March 27, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

  13. austin:

    Who gave that lecture?

    Comment by Chris H. — March 27, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

  14. His name is Brent Gilchrist, a professor in the political science department. It was a good lecture overall about all the wrangling between Whigs and Democrats to win the Mormon vote since it was about as big as Chicago, with some especially interesting history about the specific complaints William Law had with some of Joseph Smith’s decisions as mayor of Nauvoo. The only really sketchy part was about this quote.

    Comment by austin — March 28, 2009 @ 3:03 am

  15. Sounds like a BYU prof trying to increase his “brings the gospel into the classroom” rating on the review.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — March 28, 2009 @ 8:23 am

  16. David,
    Quinn cites a part of it but, iirc, he takes the account at face value and uses it to bolster his argument that Smith was in a state of abject depression at the time of his arrival at Carthage.

    sorry about the cheese thing. And it’s fascinating how the punitive Providence and the martyrdom models are applied at different times to the same events.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 28, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  17. Steve, that’s my memory too.

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2009 @ 9:47 am

  18. Interesting post and conversation, SC.

    Josh Probert’s research on BY’s shifting attitude towards assuming the title and role of “prophet, seer, and revelator” is probably relevant here.

    Also, if I’m not mistaken (and please correct me if I am, austin), Gilchrist’s lecture was not a class lecture, but rather a lecture on campus open to anyone interested in attending.

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

  19. I’ve wanted to see Josh’s work on this for some time. Do you know if he has plans on publishing it anywhere? I just came across an 1857 description of a BY sermon in the Martineau journals where he is instant that no one call him President Young. Reminded me of this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 28, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  20. Chris, I’m not familiar with Probert’s work on that subject but it sounds interesting. I am convinced that Young’s doctrinal innovations (such as Adam God) and his frustration at the resistance to those innovations among many church members were rooted in his ambivalent relationship with Smith’s memory. In other words, despite his many protestations to the contrary, I think he vacillated between not wanting to be thought of as the prophetic successor to Joseph and a desire to be thought of as a visionary.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 28, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  21. Josh’s paper will be published in the proceedings from the Summer Seminar where he initially presented it. Anyone know what the timetable on that is?

    I wish Josh would revise and expand it into something larger, as I think its an important topic. It would actually be good to have someone like you, SC, or you, David, read over his paper and critique it from a memory studies theoretical point of view.

    J, I don’t remember if Josh included that quote from the Martineau journals, but that exactly the sort of thing he looks at. Let’s hope the proceedings get published sometime soon.

    SC, though I know much less about the subject than you and Josh, I think you’re right. If its not too presumptuous, I’ll humbly plug my own work here. Richard Holzapfel and I have a forthcoming paper that addresses in part how John Taylor dealt with these issues during his presidency.

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  22. Christopher, yes, that’s right. It was a lecture put on by Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science organization on campus last Thursday night, open to anyone.

    Comment by austin — March 28, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

  23. Sometimes I wonder if we overdue the “memory in context” stuff. Particularly if we try to place ourselves outside of the paradigm. That is, wasn’t Brigham Young in a better position to remember what JS said 14 years earlier than we are to know Brigham Young’s motivations?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 28, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  24. Steve, while I am not as quick as some to argue that a certain memory is a complete invention to support a later argument, I think we can show that the context of BY’s statement is certainly coloring and shaping how he’s narrating the event he’s describing. What he chooses to emphasize and deemphasize are things that memory theory can illuminate.

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  25. “wasn?t Brigham Young in a better position to remember what JS said 14 years earlier than we are to know Brigham Young?s motivations?” Not necessarily, but your question does a nice job of illuminating the important, and often occult, operation of a priori theoretical orientations in the historical enterprise. In other words, one’s answer to the question you pose will heavily influence how one reads and interprets any textual traces one may happen upon.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 28, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

  26. Good points. I just meant to say that just because a memory served a particular situation needn’t invalidate its validity.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 28, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  27. Yours is a valid point though, Steve. When methodology deteriorates into ideology, then real violence is done to both “facts” and “interpretations.”

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 28, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

  28. Also, when it comes to Brigham’s memory of the event, we should remember that he was on the east coast when the events leading up to the martyrdom happened, so at best he just heard it from someone who was there.

    Comment by Ben — March 28, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

  29. Hehe, SC, aren’t all facts just interpretations?

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

  30. My answer to that depends on my mood. Sometimes I’m more convinced of my “facticity” than I am at others.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 28, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  31. Steve and David G (#16 and #17):

    My copy of Quinn is at home, and I agree with Steve about Quinn’s use of the Young statement to talk about Joseph being in a state of despair. Quinn also uses it to give some qualified support to William Marks’s 1853 and 1865 statements about Joseph reversing his doctrinal stance on polygamy in the last few weeks of his life–saying in effect, “I thought this would be a blessing to mankind, but I find that I was wrong.” I see this as a plausible explanation, at least. Personally,I tend to believe Marks’s account–he certainly upset Joseph Smith III by telling this story (at a time when he served with Joseph III in the RLDS First Presidency). Perhaps Marks was just trying to redeem Joseph to the part of his RLDS audience who knew Joseph was involved in polygamy, too.

    Comment by David Howlett — March 30, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

  32. Interesting. I had forgotten that Quinn used it that way, but it rings a bell. Thanks, David

    Comment by David G. — March 30, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

  33. One of the things Joseph Smith had said is that when reading the scriptures [history] people want to drewss it up as something it is not. Applying too much symbolism, too much complexity, and too many levels to something that is simple and meant to be simple is an error worse than a simple ill deduced conclusion of the face value of an event.
    Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, knew they had to get away and seperate themselves from the Saints if the saints were to find some rest from persecution for a time. By going west and preparing the way, they could have made the eventual westward migration of the saints much easier. However, the people did not understand this. They wanted Joseph with them and thought his “abandoning” of them was too terrible to comprehend. Those inclined to think on the selfish motives of one’s actions would jump quickly to the conclusion that they were being cowards. They were not, of course. They were trying to remove the flame from the tinder to prevent the fire from growing worse. The worst they had to fear were not from the “Lamanites” [Missouri and illinois natives merely caught up in the anti-Mormon hype] but from the “disaffected Nephites” those who had fallen from their testimony and had become so embittered by their loss that they focused thier hatred on Joseph nad his brother, the most visible faces of Mormonism of the time. Unfortunately for them there were many who had not fallen but still did not understand, that when they accused Joseph of cowardice, that they, in effect, killed him there. They would rather he stay and face what was inevitable, thinking he would escape as he had done so many times before. When reasonable though ill-inspired people make wicked choices, the Lord will take from them the greatest of blessings so as to try them a little longer, refine them a little more. All too true as to what happened in ensuing years. The same happened during the time of Enoch, Moses, Samuel, Lehi, and the Lord Himself. The lord sends us these prophets to teach us and open our eyes to something new. But when we begin to doubt, to resisit, and to push back against thet which he has given to us as though we know better, as though we know sufficient to counsel the Lord or his Prophets, he will pull back the blessing from us, bring upon us a season of trial, and refine us further. Those of us who repent and return humbly to Him are so much the better for it. There is no bringing back Brother Joseph, though. We must wait till the end for that.

    Comment by Mark W. Gardner — March 7, 2010 @ 5:22 pm


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