Essential Brigham Young
Foreword by Eugene E. Campbell
“The Wilderness was Kinder to Us than Man” (from Talking with a Prophet. What Brigham Young Himself Said About His Successor. A Fool or a Child Could Lead the Mormons— His Views of the Spirit and Forces of Mormonism, Its Organization and Its Government—Humility the Great Virtue.
[New York Herald, ca. September 1877]
[p.239]The wilderness was kinder to us than man, and even when at the worst we had no desire to turn back. [Some have guessed that if Joseph Smith had not been very fortunate in a successor, his revelations would have died with him. Such men] know nothing at all about the revelation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It didn’t depend on Brigham Young or any other man to lead the new Israel or to bring them across the plains. A child or a fool could have done it. Do you think God sets so much store by the little difference between a man of sense, or even of genius, and a fool, as to let his work miscarry on that account? His law works forever; He would not have sent us a cloud by day or fire by night, as He did to His people old; that would not try our faith and teach us His ways. He would have given a cow to lead us, and we would have looked into that cow’s face and followed it wheresoever it might lead; or He would have caused new herbage to spring up in the trackless waste, and we would have known that the angel of the Lord, though invisible, was pressing the add sands with sacred feet, and would not fail until He led us into the promised land.
There are three things that pain me. One is to hear saints dwell on Joseph’s little shortcomings, as if it made any sort of difference what the idiosyncracies of a prophet or any other man might be, if he is all right on the main lines. That is all we have any business with. There are some people that even grace can’t haul up out of the slough of detail into the largeness of the spirit. I have no doubt that there were Israelites who refused to follow Moses because he did or did not part his hair in the middle, and some of that breed are handed down to the present time and are here with us now, and follow Brigham Young and shout, “Our servant Brigham is the lion of the Lord,” and remember it against Joseph that he went with one suspender and forgot to put on the regulation Mormon underclothes. They think that if he had had his garments with [p.240] the holes cut in the breasts and knees and elbows, he would not have got bullet holes in his body.
Another thing I don’t like is to see so many saints think I am going to live forever, and, among those who don’t go so far, that no one else will ever make as good a ruler for the Mormon people. What I just said about leadership in crossing the plains, I say about leadership here in the Valley. We were not divinely led into the Valley to be left to our own devices. The Mormon people have principles to guide them, and the Spirit. When the gold fever broke out in California, and the whole land was drunk with the lust of wealth, and the plains became a highway to the Pacific, filled with men whom greed made inhuman and monstrous, great was the passion of the saints to follow them. But they overcame it. Many of them dug in the river to drive away their desire, and worked at the public works till they fell under the strain and slept—but even then dreamt of gold, and woke up with the desire to risk all for gold. But they were heroes as well as saints, and went again to work on the public works—feeling safer there than if working at their own private business and farms. For this was what they came out to the desert to do: “To build Zion, to make the wilderness rejoice and blossom as the rose.” The worn-out and hungry gold diggers were only too glad to exchange their gold for our corn, and beef, and tanned hides, and home-made cloth, our butter, and cheese, and horses. And so we got gold, gold, gold. But we never gave up our principle for it, our principle that the earth belongs to the Lord, and that his saints must take it as an inheritance and make it blossom. No matter who is head of the church in the wilderness—that child there would make as good a head as any, perhaps better than any. For the greatest man that could be called to it must become as simple as that little child before God would breathe his spirit into him. He must be always asking, “Lord, what wouldst thou have me to do?” If an angel should come from heaven, he could not tell the people other than what we have always known—to live our own lives worthily, to bear with each other in all charity, to cultivate the earth, and to hold ourselves in readiness to go out and preach to every creature.
The other thing I don’t like is to have people watch me, or what they call my way of doing things, as if I had a fixed way, and imitate it, and even try to make me stand by it years after, when the circumstances are changed. I have had more anger on account of this than on account of any other thing, and with my best people, too, and those old enough to know better, if age counts for anything in the matter of wisdom, which is doubtful. Sometimes I think that the worst thing that can happen to a man is to grow old. His experience becomes like a solid wall around him, and he grows blind trying to look through that, and he takes his own memories for the facts of the new changing world around him; and then [p.241]if the spirit comes to reveal the truth of life to him, he tries to reconcile it with his own opinions, and that is living death; it tells in their faces, their manners, and their voices. Nothing keeps a man young and up to his times like being open to the inspirations of the Spirit.
[Some men have asked if Joseph Smith selected me for leader of the saints because of my humility.] Joseph’s words were, “For humility and obedience, I have found none like unto our brother Brigham.” These words have become for me a kind of test of men. When I see a saint full of himself, his own opinion and his own way, I find myself looking at him with the sad eyes of Joseph. It seems to me that humility and obedience are something very profound, and too deep for me. But Joseph Smith was a poet, and poets are not like other men; their gaze is deeper, and reaches the roots of the soul; it is like that of the searching eyes of angels; they catch the swift thought of God and reveal it to us, even at the risk of forgetting their underclothes and their suspenders.
I have half a dozen children by different mothers that seem nearer alike and more attached to each other than almost any full brothers and sisters I could mention. I say seem, for a great deal of the difference between people is only seeming; the real character often lies below all the seeming—and when we get at that we find many people very much alike. Take my John W. and Brigham, Jr. Could any two children of the most different parents seem more unlike, yet in all the essentials of character, truthfulness, courage, love of God, and good will to men, there is not the choice of two peas between them; and there are hundreds of the Valley boys just the same. I think on the judgment day men will be called to account for only very few simple fundamental qualities, and all the peculiarities that catch the eye and engage the attention now will be swallowed up in death. But that is no reason why we shouldn’t notice them in life, and rejoice in them, for it is only through them that we can tell t’other[?] from which.
Of all the qualities that will perish in the grave, I think humor is the best. Indeed, I’m not sure that it will not survive death, for it often hangs on to the last. I have known saints, the best of saints, too, whose last word was a joke, perhaps about not liking the prospect of their souls going naked into the other world, and before the joke was ended they were dead. Perhaps they ended it on the other side. Who knows? It is all mystery. I used to run to humor in my sermons, and next day be sorry for it; but I found years after, when I had forgotten the sorrow and the sermons, that people remembered the humor. I sometimes think God must enjoy humor, and that he won’t be strict in reckoning with a humorist. Sometimes one and another of my wives complain of a child; but when I take it in hand I find it had only been chuck full of humor. I have learned some things since my son Brigham was [p.242]a boy. He was full of practical jokes and fun, and if I should skin him to the bone that’s what I’d find. He wore moccasins and stepped like a cat and moused through the whole settlement. God forgive me for being so hard on that boy, but I acted according to my lights. I’m not saying that I know much better what to do now, but I know better what not to do. Anyway I’m but a young beginner. A man needs many wives and children before he learns how to treat one properly.
The next scourge will be the scourge of Reason, when men will go mad over trying to put the whole law and all the prophets into their little heads, like matches in a box; all cut and dry, and ready to go off by friction.