The Church’s Portrayal of Brigham Young
by Mike Parker
In January 1998 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints introduced a new curriculum for men’s Priesthood and women’s Relief Society classes: Lessons would be taught by gospel subject using selected statements and teachings of latter-day prophets. The first two years (1998-1999) focused on President Brigham Young. The Church-published instruction manual for this period was Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young.1
The manual is composed of “extracts from Brigham Young’s sermons to the early Saints,”2 arranged topically. Twenty-four works are cited as source material,3 although the majority of the quotes appear to come from John A. Widtsoe’s Discourses of Brigham Young.4
An April 1998 news story by Salt Lake City Associated Press correspondent Vern Anderson reported complaints that the manual claimed Brigham Young did not practice polygamy.5 Anderson’s story begins with confusion over and criticism of the manual:
Valeen Tippetts Avery, a professor of history at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, had never met the perplexed young woman who came knocking at her door.
Newly married to a Mormon, the student had been reading up on the faith and attending Relief Society, the church’s auxiliary for women. She was confused now, and someone had suggested she talk to Avery. “Dr. Avery,” she said, “I just got the new Relief Society manual, which is about Brigham Young, and he only has one wife.”
Avery, a Mormon who knew the pioneer leader had 55 wives, couldn’t explain why the lesson manual being used since January by male and female church members in 22 languages paints America’s most famous polygamist as a monogamist.
But she had some advice.
“The Mormon church is trying to say to the new people coming into the church, as well as to the larger American society, that there was nothing questionable in the Mormon past,” Avery told the woman. “And if you want answers to these kinds of sticky questions, you’re not going to find them inside accepted Mormon manuals and doctrines.”
The AP story was immediately picked up by secular and sectarian critics of the Church and used as proof that the Church was covering up embarrassing historical facts.6 A review of the manual itself, however, reveals that it does not claim Brigham Young “only has one wife,” nor does it “paint [him] as a monogamist.” In fact, it primarily concentrates on Brigham’s teachings, and only briefly touches on his personal life.
Brief biographical information on Brigham appears in a one-page “Historical Summary.”7 Chapter 1, “The Ministry of Brigham Young,” also has some biographical data, although it almost exclusively focuses on his conversion, missionary experiences, calling to the Quorum of the Twelve, and colonization and leadership of Utah. The Historical Summary and Chapter 1 both mention his marriage to and the death of his first wife, Miriam Works,8 and his subsequent remarriage to Mary Ann Angel.9 Other than that, they do not discuss his marriage relationships or family life.
In Chapter 23, “Understanding the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage,” two instances of the term “wives” were modified to “[wife],” with brackets included to notify the reader of the editorial change. Since the statements did not refer to Brigham’s own wives, but were part of his counsel to men regarding their marriages, the edited reading is easier for today’s Latter-day Saints, none of whom are married to more than one wife.
The next manual in the instructional series–Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith–includes this clarifying statement in the “Historical Summary” of President Smith’s life:
This book is not a history, but rather a compilation of gospel principles as taught by President Joseph F. Smith. However, in order to put the teachings in a historical framework, the following list is provided to summarize some of the milestones in his life that have most immediate relationship to his teachings. This summary omits some important events in his personal life, including his marriages (plural marriage was being practiced in the Church at that time) and the births and deaths of his children, to whom he was devoted.10
This explanation, which is almost certainly directed at detractors of the Brigham Young manual, clarifies that the purpose of the series is not biographical or historical, but didactical. Other Church publications that are historical discuss the subject of plural marriage and its practice among the Latter-day Saints in the nineteenth century.11
The Brigham Young manual and the manuals that followed it include selected teachings on selected subjects that have application to subjects of concern to today’s Latter-day Saints. They do not teach history, but how to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite the complaints of its detractors, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not engaged in a cover up, nor is it attempting to hide an “embarrassing past.”
1 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), viii + 376 pp. As of the date of this essay (August 2003) the Church has since produced three other volumes in the series, covering the teachings of Presidents Joseph F. Smith (2000-2001), Harold B. Lee (2002), and John Taylor (2003).
2 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, v.
3 Ibid., 360-361.
4 Discourses of Brigham Young, selected by John A. Widtsoe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1941).
5 The story was put on the AP wire and subsequently published by many newspapers. In this paper I quote from “Absence of Polygamy In LDS Manual Stirs Controversy,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 5 April 1998, C3.
6 One example includes Jerald and Sandra Tanner, “Covering Up Mormon Polygamy,” Salt Lake City Messenger 94 (August 1998). The Tanners begin by referencing the Anderson story, and then expand upon it by claiming the LDS Church is trying to cover up not just polygamy, but also the Law of Adoption and Joseph Smith’s plural marriages to young women.
7 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, vii.
8 Ibid., vii, 2, 3.
9 Ibid., vii, 4.
10 Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000), viii. A similar statement appears in the coursebook for 2004, entitled Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant:
“This book is not a history, but rather a compilation of gospel principles as taught by President Heber J. Grant. The following chronology provides a brief historical framework for these teachings. It omits significant events in secular history, such as wars and worldwide economic crises. It also omits many important events in President Grant’s personal life, such as his marriages and the births and deaths of his children.” [Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2002), viii.]
11 See, for example: The Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (Religion 324-325), 1981, pp. 327, 333-34, 361-363; and Church History In the Fulness of Times (Religion 341-343), 1989, pp. 256, 424-425, 440-441. Scripturally, Doctrine & Covenants Section 132 and Official Declaration 1 remain as canonized statements regarding plural marriage.