Of Curious Workmanship
by Edgar G. Snow, Jr.
BYOB: Bring Your Own Brigham
[p.87] After what seemed like a brief hiatus from mainstream Mormon thought, Brigham is back! Of course he’s always been there, but it seems nowadays it’s easier to choose the right mutual fund than it is to choose the right Brigham Young biography, or collection of his teachings. Myself, I’ve always welcomed a heaping helping of BY Even the slender slice of the 1998-99 Relief Society-Priesthood manual is as tasty as a Marie Callender rhubarb pie.
My ward’s Oprah-knock-off book club just swallowed a big bite of Brigham by reading Leonard Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses. Everyone ate their fill and were satisfied. To prompt discussion, I briefly reviewed several biographies of President Young for the group, as well as books about his teachings. My [p.88] favorite is Arrington’s version, a Brigham so real you could shake his hand, warts and all, and even eavesdrop on him chiding a Saint “betimes with sharpness,” although in a couple of places the biography tries, perhaps, to be a bit too “objective” for its national audience, perhaps slighting Brother Brigham on occasion. For instance, President Young is criticized for sending Hosea Stout on an unsuccessful mission to China, only to return and find his wife and infant son no longer among the living and virtual strangers occupying his home (American Moses, p. 195). Why Brigham should bear the blame for this, I don’t know, especially since Stout’s diary is free of any finger pointing (Brooks, On the Mormon Frontier, 2:498). But in spite of a few very minor blemishes, it’s hard to imagine any BY biography or collection of essays surpassing this one, and there are many on the market now, none of which stands on Arrington’s vast documentary yet sympathetic understanding of its subject.
Another version of BY can be found in Preston Nibley’s classic Life of Brigham Young, which I picked up at a High Priests’ book sale a couple of years ago for a mere $8.00. This is the Brigham of Latter-day Saint legend, a flawless bronze statue smelted into print. For me, it’s an intriguing read, revealing who we used to be and what we used to think as a people. No difficult top-[p.89]ics are broached, the man’s great achievements are displayed, and, in the main, I can’t disagree with the nostalgic results.
Now if you criticize Arrington’s and Nibley’s versions of BY as less-than-lively reads, you can’t say the same for Stanley Hirshson’s The Lion of the Lord, a copy of which I bought from the University of Tennessee library in my law school days for 50 cents. Trust me, it’s worth every nickel. It’s an absorbing read. Stylistically, Hirshson is to Brigham Young what Fawn Brodie is to Joseph Smith: smooth. But in substance, the comparison would be unfair to Ms. Brodie. Compared to Hirshson, Brodie would be Gerald Lund. Hirshson openly admits that his biography is mainly based on Eastern newspaper stories about Brigham and Mormonism, rather than primary archival materials (Lion of the Lord, pp. ix-xi). Hirshson rarely rises above his function as a nineteenth-century newspaper clipping service. I recommend it as a great read about some other guy named Brigham Young.
For BY’s teachings, in addition to the RS-P manual, you can also choose from Elder John A. Widtsoe’s classic The Discourses of Brigham Young and the unexpurgated collection of sermons The Essential Brigham Young. If you read them all, you’ll get a wide-angle lens shot of President Young’s thought and inspiration.
[p.90]And now, free of charge, I’ll end this essay by giving a Brigham Young quotation quiz, with an obligatory list of ten items. You make the call: did he say it or not? You’ll find the answers below.
BRIGHAM YOUNG OR BOGUS?
10. “Many of the brethren chew tobacco, and I have advised them to be modest about it. Do not take out a whole plug of tobacco in meeting before the eyes of the congregation, and cut off a long slice and put it in your mouth to the annoyance of everybody around. Do not glory in this disgraceful practice. If you must use tobacco, put a small portion in your mouth when no person sees you.”
9. “Let me give you some examples of which I speak. Take my wives … Please!”
8. “Moses made the Bible to say his wife was taken out of his side—was made of one of his ribs. As far as I know my ribs are equal on each side. The Lord knows if I had lost a rib for each wife I have, I should have had none left long ago …”
7. “Zipper … bad. Button-fly … Good.”
6. “The name of Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, shall be spoken with reverence by wise men through the ages, and the learned ones of the world shall bear [p.91] his great name continually. And there shall arise in the midst of the rocky mountains a Jethro in these last days who shall bring forth black gold from the earth, even slippery treasures to confound the usurers. He shall tend a cement pond.”
5. “Now, I do not think that anybody wants to slay you, unless it be your wives. The servants of the Lord do not want to do it; but if the women want to slay you, I do not know that we can help it, as we did not have to slay you to have you take wives.”
4. “I want my coffin made of plump 1¼ inch redwood boards, not scrimped in length, but two inches longer than I would measure, and from two to three inches wider than is commonly made for a person of my breadth and size, and deep enough to place me on a little comfortable cotton bed with a good suitable pillow in size and quality … and the coffin to have the appearance that if I wanted to turn a little to the right or left I should have plenty of room to do so …”
3. “Moses made the Bible to say that ‘Jacob tied his ass to a tree and walked two furlongs.’ I believe most of you today would think that to be impossible.”
2. “If you want a remedy, a rope around the neck taken with a jerk would be very salutary. There are courts of law and officers in the Territory. Appeal to [p.92] them … If you are innocent, you may safely do the same; if you are guilty, better try the remedy.”
1. “I sometimes think God must enjoy humor, and that he won’t be strict in reckoning with a humorist.”
10. Brigham. See JD 8:361.
9. Bogus. An unspoken desire, perhaps.
8. Brigham. See American Moses, p. 197.
7. Brigham. Not an exact quote. In fact, zippers weren’t invented until 1893. BY didn’t care much for britches that buttoned in the front, though.
6. Bogus. The original transcript of the so-called “Jethro Prophecy,” aka the “Cement Pond Prophecy,” written by Porter Rockwell, is in my possession, which I purchased from Mark Hofmann in 1982. An exact replica of this prophecy, beautifully reproduced on simulated parchment with fake burnt edges, suitable for framing, can be ordered for only $11.95. The first 1,000 orders will also receive matching replicas of the “White Horse Prophecy” and the “Little Yellow Dog Prophecy” FREE. To order, call1-800-JETHRO-P.
5. Brigham. See American Moses, p. 199.
4. Brigham. See Deseret News, 5 Sept. 1877.
[p.93]3. Bogus. Come on! The patriarchs rode on camels!
2. Brigham, responding to a guilt-ridden likely participant in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. See American Moses, p. 281.
1. Brigham. Essential Brigham Young, p. 241. Amen Brother Brigham. Amen.