As a young Mormon attending Sunday School, the teachers often had a quite a lot to say about the times of Brigham Young and what he did. Strangely, they never seemed to want to quote the second Mormon prophet and America’s most famous polygamist. I may have been too young at the time to question the reasons for this, but as I got older and actually read some of the things the man said, I learned the reasons behind it.
When I first read some of the actual quotes of the man, I was almost convinced that these things had to be said by Anti-Mormon groups simply trying to make the Mormons look bad. Blood atonement is one thing, but even in the Nineteenth century, no one would have believed in Quaker moon men. (A story circulates about similar beings residing on the sun, but I think I’ll discount that one.)
However, it is not just the things that he said. While Brigham Young is a truly American Religious Character, in fact, he can be described as the P.T. Barnum of religion, the historical record also shows him to be quite an evil man. He may or may not have been responsible for the Mountain Meadow’s Massacre which has haunted Mormons for many years.
After the assassination of Joseph Smith, Young rose to power and told the Mormons to head out West. His skills as an organizer cannot be denied and at least by announcing “This is the place” when heading into the Salt Lake valley, he showed at least a basic understanding of terrain that is easily defended. In 1850, he would become Utah’s territorial governor, but the relationship between the Utah government and the government back in Washington were never on good terms and events like the Utah wars probably led to the paranoia among Mormon settlers in the Utah valley that caused the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
One of the major relations for the poor relationship between the Utah and Federal governments was that Young in 1852 openly announced that the Mormons were practicing polygamy. As far as new theology goes, little that Young introduced remained part of Mormon doctrine, except for the ban on blacks holding the priesthood. Blood Atonement and the Adam-God doctrine simply stand out as theological curiosities which few people of the Mormon faith believe today.
Exactly how many Mormons were killed under blood atonement may never be known and his stance on polygamy may be an embarrassment to the current leadership trying to overlook that it’s still in the doctrine while only publicly stating that it is “behind us now.” No doubt Mark Twain was not entirely impressed with him or the doctrines as a chapter in his book Roughing It bears the title “Brigham the King.” Twain, commenting on Utah culture at the time said that the Book of Mormon was “chloroform in print” and “upon seeing the Mormon women, I became convinced that polygamy is such an act of charity that no Mormon man ought to be condemned for practicing it.”
Brigham Young may still be revered by the Mormons, but for the most part they keep many of his more controversial quotes quiet. Rumors of foreign manuals editing his quotes to say “wife” instead of the plural the man actually used circulated several years ago. For his part, Young ensured the Mormons would continue to exist, but many of his actions could not be considered good by modern standards.
Roughing It. Mark Twain.
Journal of Discourses. Deseret Books.