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for people who care about the West

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.