Brigham Young the enlightened one


In 1847, a few years after the violent death, in Missouri, of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young led the Mormons on an exodus across the desert into the promised land, a place we now know as Utah. Young, as President of the Church of Latter Day Saints, then led the colonization of Utah and parts of Idaho, Nevada and Arizona. 

He became the governor of Utah Territory in 1850, and ruled with an autocratic hand (even after he had handed over the governorship in 1858 he referred to himself as “dictator”). He may have had a hand in the Mountain Meadows massacre, and was an unapologetic racist.

But the “American Moses” also had his moments of progressive enlightenment. His thoughts about capitalism and economics, for example, lean way more towards Marx than Mitt (more about that in an upcoming story). And he was also a big proponent of education, even the type that might make Creationists cringe.

While researching Young’s economic philosophy, I stumbled across a sermon he gave in Nephi City in 1874, when most of the nation was reeling from the 1873 Panic, one of the worst economic catastrophes in U.S. history, caused by factors similar to today’s Great Recession. After blasting unfettered capitalism, he wandered onto the following tangent:

Then let there be good teachers in the schoolrooms; and have beautiful gardens, and take the little folks out and show them the beautiful flowers, and teach them in their childhood the names and properties of every flower and plant, teaching them to understand which are astringent, which cathartic; this is useful for coloring, that is celebrated for its combination of beautiful colors, &c. Teach them lessons of beauty and usefulness while they are young ... When they are old enough, place within their reach the advantages and benefits of a scientific education. Let them study the formation of the earth, the organization of the human system, and other sciences; such a system of mental culture and discipline in early years is of incalculable benefit to its possessor in mature years.

He almost sounds more like a Transcendentalist of the Ralph Waldo Emerson bent than some kind of theocratic zealot. No? He went on:

Take ... the young ladies now before me, as well as the young men, and form a class in geology, in chemistry or mineralogy; and do not confine their studies to theory only, but let them put in practice what they learn from books, by defining the nature of the soil, the composition or decomposition of a rock, how the earth was formed, its probable age, and so forth. ... In the study of the sciences I have named, our young folks will learn how it is that, in traveling in our mountains, we frequently see seashells—shells of the oyster, clam, &c. Ask our boys and girls now to explain these things, and they are not able to do so; but establish classes for the study of the sciences, and they will become acquainted with the various facts they furnish in regard to the condition of the earth. It is the duty of the Latter-day Saints, according to the revelations, to give their children the best education that can be procured, both from the books of the world and the revelations of the Lord.

He then goes on to mention a guy named John Hyde. From what I can gather, he was from London, but came to the U.S. and became a Mormon. Then he changed his mind and, on his return to London, denounced the Book of Mormon as a hoax. One piece of evidence was that the Book of Mormon has the Jaredites and Nephites riding horses in some prehistoric America and that, Hyde said, was impossible, since the Spaniards brought the first horses to North America. Young obviously delighted in proving Hyde wrong (along with all those folks who claim that wild horses aren’t native to the Americas).

I have been very much interested of late with regard to the studies and researches of the geologists who have been investigating the geological character of the Rocky Mountain country. Professor Marsh, of Yale College, with a class of his students, has spent, I think, four summers in succession in the practical study of geology in these mountain regions. What is the result of his researches? There is one result, so far, that particularly pleases me. ... they have found among the fossil remains of the extinct animals of America no less than fourteen different kinds of horses, varying in height from three to nine feet. These discoveries made Professor Marsh's students feel almost as though they could eat up these mountains, and their enthusiasm for studying the geology of the regions around Bridger's Fort was raised to the highest pitch. In their researches among these mountains they have formed the opinion that there was once a large inland sea here, and they think they have discovered the outlet where the water broke forth and formed Green River. Here in these valleys and in these ranges of mountains we can follow the ancient water line. This discovery of Professor Marsh is particularly pleasing to us “Mormons,” because he has so far scientifically demonstrated the Book of Mormon to be true.

I’ll leave that one up to you to decide.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.

Image of Brigham Young courtesy Flickr user Claire.

David Snell
David Snell
Sep 25, 2012 09:20 AM
"He M A Y have had a hand in the Mountain Meadows massacre:"??? Hellooo.... He was given a Presidential pardon for his role in the slaughter, fertheluvagod. "May," indeed!
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Sep 25, 2012 09:41 AM
David: Yes, great points. He was given a pardon. However, Young was never convicted for his role. Whether he ordered the massacre, knew about it and allowed to happen or didn't know about it until after the fact is still not clear. There is no question, however, that his inflammatory rhetoric and attitude towards outsiders and leadership style fueled the flames that led to the massacre. Thanks for commenting.
David Snell
David Snell
Sep 25, 2012 02:36 PM
Thank you for a courteous reception. What a breath of fresh air. You're clearly a gentleman, but the scholar part, well....
"Not clear?" To whom? I'll bet you're also not "clear" on whether Obama was born in the US. Face it, JT, Briggy is the only mass murderer ever to receive a Presidential pardon. Why would he accept such a thing if he was clean? If he had a case to be made for his innocence, he should have made it, instead of confessing by the back door. He was never "convicted?" – dammit, he convicted himself. It is patently delusional to believe he was so far out of the loop, so betrayed by his trusted advisers (and informers), so glaringly clueless and head-in-the-clouds that he missed this one. You should be ashamed to insist that he was as dumb as all that. JT, m'man, there are things about which there "is no question" – Briggy's complicity is one of those things.
Sep 25, 2012 02:53 PM
Take a deep breath David, you are about to blow a gasket.
David Snell
David Snell
Sep 25, 2012 03:06 PM
So much for courtesy. It was nice while it lasted. The veneer of civilization here is wafer-thin. Don't you worry about my gaskets, if you please. I could write this stuff in my sleep. It's easy to have a duel of wits with an unarmed man.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Sep 25, 2012 03:08 PM
Hi folks, just reminding you to focus your comments on the content of the article, not each other.
Thanks, Stephanie P Ogburn, online editor.
David Snell
David Snell
Sep 25, 2012 03:59 PM
Ms. Stephanie: I must say you folks have a rather low threshold for impropriety. Do you prefer that posts here should be spayed/neutered so as not to p o s s i b l y offend anyone/whomsoever? If you are going to take on "issues," you should have a thicker skin.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Sep 25, 2012 04:06 PM
David, this has nothing to do with the thickness of my/our skin, but rather, the purpose of a journalistic organization offering a platform on its website for comments. The purpose of us offering the platform to you and others who comment is to enable a substantive discussion of issues discussed in the article. Your comments started off in that vein, then veered off track. You can have as much of a substantive debate as you like, and we support that, but insulting other commenters on the website is not substantive. - Stephanie
Trent Henry
Trent Henry
Sep 25, 2012 06:28 PM
Interesting how a man's memory can stir up such passionate feelings more than a century later. That alone set Brigham apart from most men. Personally, I thought the original post was harsh toward Brigham, calling him autocratic, racist, and zealot, and in general looking with a gentle-chuckle condescending eye on his life. I would have guessed that those who don't like Young would have loved this piece.

Anyway, Mormons I have known have all been very pro-science and pro-education, so Brigham's legacy lives on, and BYU has a pretty decent geology program, among others. Guess the namesake would be proud. Few figures have as much of a legacy in the old west.
David Snell
David Snell
Sep 26, 2012 09:10 AM
SPO: I stand by my last posting, and all previous ones. This site is obviously a forum for Mormon pro-poe-ghan-da. Participation in it by people with brains is neither solicited nor otherwise required. I have opted out of receiving subsequent post on this. Kick me in the head for ever opting in.
Ben Young
Ben Young
Sep 26, 2012 01:54 PM
Dont know where to start on this one. But I will start with the last sentence: "This discovery of Professor Marsh is particularly pleasing to us “Mormons,” because he has so far scientifically demonstrated the Book of Mormon to be true." and then " I will leave that one up to you"
OK. Fine. Perhaps this will help: For the education of the author, the facts point out that the horses in NA went extinct prior to and at about the same time as the arrival of humans to the area. The native americans and the Americas as a continent- south america as well- did not have access to horses. This is well documented. So if we are to look at the facts, why does the author "leave that up to you ( the reader ) Why not supply the reader with the full information now readily accessible? The jump to conclusions that the horse fossils meant that the proto-mormons had horses was bad science back in Brighams day and to suggest as such is more than bad journalism today.
jackie wheeler
jackie wheeler Subscriber
Sep 28, 2012 02:58 PM
Wow. A guy writes about an interesting piece about a little-known but historically-significant sermon and gets spanked for not being harsh enough about its famous author! Thompson's point, it seems to me, is less about the historical or scientific records than about Young's views on economics and education. You don't have to be Mormon to see why this might be significant.

Mr. Thompson, I for one would love to learn more about your findings even if they don't fit some people's favored narrative. Like it or not, our history in the West is full of controversial figures like Young who had immense influence. They can't be ignored.

Jackie Wheeler