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Random Reasons Why I Like Brigham Young: One

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 08, 2009

A recent post at BCC drew a plea (comment 67 and others) for positive stories about Brigham Young, from a reader who was finding it difficult to like the man. I don’t have any trouble liking him. While acknowledging that he was flawed, especially in the area of diplomacy with non-Mormons, I know him as a generous, affectionate, loyal man, a true shepherd to a people who returned his affection in countless ways. This knowledge comes not from any of the biographies that have been written about Brigham Young, but from an intimate knowledge of his interactions with his flock, from reading his sermons (not just the inflammatory sound-bites that authors luv luv luv to quote, but entire sermons, read as sermons with the same respect I give to sermons today), and through the personal writings of family members and the other Saints who know him best.

So I’m embarking on a series of posts about why I like the man. These reasons truly are random, presented in no particular order. They are idiosyncratic to me, and they may not be the most important reasons, or the reasons that mean the most to me (those reasons may turn out to be too personal for me to share here, knowing as I do that anything positive said about Brigham Young will be sneered at, not by Keepa’s regular readers but by an outside faction whose hatred of Brigham Young is beyond reason).

Reason One:

I like Brigham Young because he was a hands-on leader. He involved himself in any project where he thought he had something to offer, and in the minutiae of people’s lives, because he cared. His hands-on nature has sometimes been described as “micro-managing,” as a failure to delegate or to trust his subordinates, as meddling. To me, though, his advice – both sought after in some cases and unsolicited in others – is a great evidence of his enthusiasm for life, his affectionate awareness of the course of hundreds of personal lives, and his commitment to building the Kingdom of God, whether that building took the form of Sunday preaching on a Book of Mormon theme or concern for the right way to store wheat so that it would feed a Saint whose work that day was to dig a canal.

The only time I have ever worked for a large and almost faceless corporation, a newly minted MBA who knew nothing about our product and even less about people was hired to supervise the small group of writers and teachers of which I was a part. His adamant refusal to allow us to acquaint him with the professional librarianship skills we were developing in our large pool of part-time workers was uniformly interpreted by those workers as contempt for them and their efforts. Those of us who had to work closely with him saw other examples of his self-centeredness: When the offices were to be painted over a weekend and we were requested to clear the walls and move furniture into the center of the rooms, he refused. Such manual labor was beneath someone of his position and credentials (“I didn’t go to school to be a moving man!”), and he insisted that his subordinates move his furniture as well as our own.

I came to Brigham Young with that other man’s example still irritating me like sand in my sneakers. How different Brigham Young was! Manual labor, especially when it came to his specialty of woodworking, was something he enjoyed doing and teaching to others. As long as he could work with his own hands, he did; when affairs of the kingdom robbed him of any time to spare with a plane or chisel, he still took an interest in such work and offered advice. He never forgot that he had been a workman, and he never, to the best of my knowledge, ever said “This is beneath me.”

Benjamin Ashby was a member of Brigham Young’s 1848 pioneer company (the same company that brought my own family to the Valley). He recorded:

On[e] morning on the Loup Fork where we had campt Our team was the last to leave the ground and I had just started when the staple droped from the yoke[.] I was obliged to take of[f] the yoke to fix-it[.] Bro Young was just going out of sight over the hill upon his coach[.] in a few miniutes he was by my side and assisted me to replace the staple and yoke the oxon and get under weigh [way] again[.] In a few days he sent me to get the staple which was Brooken [broken] mended by the Blacksmith

In the same company, a woman’s leg was broken when she fell under the wheels of a wagon. She suffered considerably thereafter from the jolting of the wagon in which she rode. It was Brigham Young who cared enough and had skills enough to relieve her pain: He studied the situation, then rigged up a bed for the woman suspended from the bows of the wagon. With that means of independent suspension, she was spared most of the jostling from the uneven, barely broken road.

Brigham Young takes some flak from modern writers for the level of detail in his 1855 letter detailing the proposed construction of handcarts. Every part is described both as to dimensions and to the type of wood that would be strongest or most flexible or otherwise most appropriate for the individual part. Yes, we can consider that micro-managing … or we can recognize that Brigham Young was a carpenter who had specialized advice to offer.

Recalling his teenage years in 1860s Salt Lake City, Josiah Gibbs, soon to become an open apostate and virulent anti-Mormon writer, wrote in response to an unflattering 1903 appraisal of Brigham Young in the Salt Lake Tribune:

As a boy, the writer hereof was well acquainted with Brigham Young, and during several years in the capacity of carpenter’s apprentice, was in his employ. His democratic nature was such that often he would take the planes from the embryo carpenter, and in a kindly and sympathetic manner, teach the youngsters how to “joint” flooring and to do other work on the Salt Lake theater. Brigham Young was ever within easy reach of his people, and especially so to the young. It was not his “virile, sensuous nature” that drew his young acquaintances to him, but the feeling that Brigham Young was their friend.

Micro-managing the construction of the theater floor? Or generously teaching his skills to the next generation of craftsmen?

A bridge built across the Jordan River in Salt Lake was constructed in the same manner as the curved trusses of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. The beams for those trusses were laid out on the ground and assembled before being raised over the river. The construction site for those “pre-fab” elements was behind the Tithing Office (the block next to Temple Square, where the Church Office Building is now). Because Brigham Young’s home and office were on the same block, the work went on in full view of his windows, and sometimes he would call advice to the workmen, or walk out to see their progress. Depending on his attitude, and depending on the attitude of the workmen, this could have been incredibly annoying, or else very welcome attention from a caring leader. If the workmen shared Josiah Gibbs’s appreciation of Brigham Young’s “sympathetic manner” and his willingness to impart his skills, this “interference” would have been appreciated by the workmen, something to reminisce about, as Gibbs did.

In later years, when Brigham Young’s age as well as his duties prevented much direct involvement with construction, he still maintained an interest. In 1872 his clerks read to him a clipping from an Illinois newspaper discussing how workmen there had solved a problem of echoes in their newly constructed courtroom. A letter was immediately dispatched:

If not asking too much, I would be thankful for some information on the subject, (for the benefit of our Tabernacle, a building 250 by 150 ft. 60 ft. high, with self supporting roof,) such as the size of your courtroom, where and how the wires are placed, and any items likely to aid us in making a trial of the plan; particulars of the shape and style of building also.

If not convenient to attend to this personally, would you oblige me, either by handing this to the proper person, or giving me his address?

I haven’t found a response by the editor, or other “proper person,” but probably one was received, because Tabernacle workmen did experiment with a system of wires (I can’t describe it) in an effort to solve acoustical problems in the Tabernacle. And later, when another paper printed another article about acoustical difficulties in a large building in the East, Brigham Young sent a letter detailing Mormon successes for the benefit of workmen in that case.

Unsolicited advice? Yes. Meddling micro-management? Well, you could characterize it that way. But having been exposed to an opposite example, I appreciate Brigham Young’s willingness to be involved. None of these examples hint at any increase in Brigham Young’s power, or any glory to him personally – rather, they all exemplify sincere interest in the success of various projects, and a willingness to involve himself in mundane tasks for the betterment of all concerned.

I like Brigham Young for that.



39 Comments »

  1. I am so so so excited about this new series Ardis! I love Brigham Young as well. Once a descendant of his (not in short supply here in Utah) was talking to a friend about me and the friend was surprised that a woman would like Brigham Young. Whah?? I proceeded to tell him why I love Brigham Young, that he was a good man and a good father, and why he has every reason to be proud that he is a descendant.

    Comment by Meghan — July 8, 2009 @ 8:11 am

  2. Thanks for this. Like the BCC poster, I too am in need of some positive stories about BY. This post delivered!

    Comment by Bro. Jones — July 8, 2009 @ 8:23 am

  3. This sounds like a great series. Count me in as another fan of Brigham Young. He was a complex, brash, even confrontational character, but also amazingly skilled and caring and curious and visionary.

    Comment by Researcher — July 8, 2009 @ 8:27 am

  4. Ardis:
    From what my wife tells me, singing in the Tabernacle to this day (or at least 10 years ago) has a unique set of acoustic challenges to it. Guess the wires didn’t work as well as would be liked.. Maybe if they were radiated…

    Comment by Matt W. — July 8, 2009 @ 8:37 am

  5. Thanks Ardis. I like Brigham Young also.

    I would also like to see some of the theological guru’s of the ‘nacle thoughtfully engage some of his theological ideas (which I have a hunch are underrated).

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 8, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  6. I’m also a big Brigham Young fan, though wasn’t always so. He was involved because he had to be. Can you imagine how the poor Saints would have survived in establishing so many settlements in the desert without a strong leader? I cannot.

    I imagine he didn’t always enjoy the things he did, but did them because they needed to be done. That’s a sign of a great leader. Many people didn’t like Reagan’s cowboy diplomacy, but most now realize he did wondrous things to bring democracy to hundreds of millions of people.

    And it is too easy to focus on the 4 or 5 difficult Brigham Young events, and ignore all the great things he accomplished and taught along the way.

    Comment by Rameumptom — July 8, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  7. Thank you, Ardis. Given the difficult assigment he had, I’m sure Brigham Young was the man for the job. All the same, there are so many negative stories told about him that it will be helpful to have a repository of positive reflections. Looking forward to reading…

    Comment by ricke — July 8, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  8. The back on forth at BCC started with a comment about Brigham being so very different in leadership style from Joseph. I think both were heavy-handed and abrasive at times. But, so were many religious and political leaders in the 19th century.

    It sometimes seems like we like to ask the question “Who do you like more, Joseph or Brigham.” Sort of like “Who is you favorite President?” or “Who is your favorite Beatle?” However, we likely would not be discussing this at all if there had not been both Joseph and Brigham.

    Comment by Chris H. — July 8, 2009 @ 10:15 am

  9. Looking forward to readng reasons 2, 3, and so on. Ardis, as a historian and Brigham Young admirer, do you have a recommendation for which published biography gives the most accurate portrayal of Brigham Young. (Hopefully the answer will not contain the name ‘Tyrone Powers’ :-)

    Comment by Clark — July 8, 2009 @ 10:25 am

  10. I’ve always liked his forthrightness. Thanks for giving me more reasons to appreciate the man.

    Comment by Tracy M — July 8, 2009 @ 11:05 am

  11. I love Brigham Young. I believe his extreme love and loyalty to the prophet Joseph Smith says more about the man than the many volumes that have been written about him. I can’t wait to read what else you have to say about this great man.

    I am also interested in seeing the response to the challenge issued by #5. I agree that his theological ideas have been underrated.

    Comment by In The Doghouse — July 8, 2009 @ 11:08 am

  12. Thank you for this series, Ardis. I truly detest President Young, and your affection for him has been inspirational. I’ve been holding tight to the Susa and the big cat story for awhile. I look forward to overcoming my prejudice.

    Comment by Jami — July 8, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  13. Most have reflected my feelings about Brigham Young as a complex, charismatic, leader. I have read elsewhere about his carpentry skills, and it is obvious that his attention to detail was a big portion of who he was. Yes, he could be critical and abrasive at times, but for over 30 years, he probably felt the weight of the whole welfare of the church on his shoulders. After rereading Arrington’s “Great Basin Kingdom” last year, I came away with new respect for Pres. Young on many levels, and recognize him as a prophet. He had flaws like any other man, but managed to rise above them in his pursuit of the calling that was thrust upon him.

    Thanks for this series. I am looking forward to the rest of the posts.

    Comment by kevinf — July 8, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  14. This is a well needed and welcome series, Ardis. It is inspiring on many levels and maybe I’ll poach a little bit, if you don’t mind.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 8, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  15. Thanks Ardis. I’m a huge Brigham Young fan, and these tidbits are awesome!

    Comment by Rob — July 8, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

  16. Am very glad at the reception this is getting. I should say that the series was prompted not only by Dan’s comment at BCC, but also by something Jami wrote in an earlier post about Brigham Young, something about starting to like Brigham Young after having seen a new side to him in that story. Some of the posts I have in mind may seem exceedingly trivial parts of the man’s career, but isn’t that how your likes and dislikes of people you know in real life are formed? by the day-to-day behaviors and language?

    I like Arrington’s writings on Brigham Young the best of those currently available, but very often Arrington’s writing, even in a biography, seems more concerned with economics issues than with biography. I don’t think Brigham Young yet has the biography that he needs, at least not one that shows him the way I think I know him, and especially not one that lets us peer into his interior life. The available biographies all seem very much tied to the surface — he went here, he did that, he said this other thing. None of them really let us understand why he was or why he acted as he did. In my opinion.

    I know there are several biographies in the works, and maybe we’ll get what we need among those. I’m a long way from being ready to write it, but if I live long enough, and my eyesight lasts long enough, I’d like to try my hand at my own version, because nothing I’ve read captures the man I think I know.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 8, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  17. Oh, and of course, J., you can use anything on Keepa in any way you want to.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 8, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  18. This is a great post and like everyone else, I look forward to the series. (and I have always loved Brother Brigham)

    Comment by Brother Matsby — July 8, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  19. Great stuff Ardis. Already looking forward to the next one.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 8, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  20. Ardis, WRITE IT, WRITE IT!!! Your opinion counts!

    Comment by kevinf — July 8, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  21. Thank you for this post. Not only does it illuminate an aspect of Brigham Young’s personality I hadn’t thought about before, but I also like the reminder that we can interpret a person’s actions and words in a positive or negative way, depending on how we choose to view them.

    Comment by Tamary — July 8, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  22. If the potential BY biography is in the same vein as this post, it’ll be awesome.

    I love the way the actor portrays Brigham in the series of Church History films created about 10 years ago (these appear on the Church History DVD set).

    Brigham was just a solid guy from the very beginning.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — July 8, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  23. I love Brigham Young, too! The things I like most about him were his love of learning and exhortation to all the saints to learn as much as we possibly can about everything there is.

    I also love his recognition of the abilities of women, and his desire for women to work in many different ways in order to contribute most to the community. He wanted women to be lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers, accountants, etc. etc. all the learned professions. I love that women had the vote in Utah before the USA took it away again. This faith in the good sense and intelligence of women made a world of difference to the development of Mormon society and to the US at large as well, I feel sure.

    I love that he was an egalitarian, that he didn’t put on airs of aristocracy, but remained a forthright simple person.

    I also love his love of Joseph, and loyalty to him and his work. He recognized the simple truth of the restored gospel, and didn’t seem to let squabbles or political factions sway his mind. I love that he was so steadfast and trustworthy.

    I’m excited about this series. Can’t wait to read the rest.

    Comment by Tatiana — July 8, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

  24. Ardis,

    This is a wonderful and very much needed post/series in the bloggernacle.

    Comment by Scott B. — July 8, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

  25. Yea, Ardis!!

    (Do you know in the early days on the internet, long before the 14.4 baud modem, that “me, too” posts were considered bad form because other people had to pay for the bandwidth you were using to say nothing. True story.) ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — July 8, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

  26. Wonderful start, Ardis, to what I am sure will be an excellent series. Having grown up in New England I feel it safe to say that Brother Brigham has all the earmarks of a traditional Yankee. He is at times blunt, outspoken, droll, sarcastic and utterly frank and candid in expressing his views.
    One of the events that I hope that you will include in your series, is Brigham’s sense of being totally overwhelmed my the magnitude of the responsibility he took upon himself when he decided to lead the Saints to the Rocky Mountain west as Joseph had prophesied. Brigham knelt in prayer and beseeched his Heavenly Father’s help in fulfilling this epic task. In answer to Brigham’s prayer, God allowed the Prophet Joseph to appear to Brigham and to counsel and assure him that all he had to do was to “follow the Holy Ghost”. Brigham then shouldered the responsibility for the lives and welfare of all the faithful Saints going west and never laid that burden down until he drew his last breath. After Kirtland, Zion’s Camp, Missouri, and Nauvoo Brother Brigham was a totally committed Latter-day Saint until the day he died. The Faith was inculcated into every fibre of his being and held fast there by his faith in the Saviour, His Father in Heaven, the Gospel, and the Restored Church. If Brigham’s flaws caused any harm, he will have to answer for it just as we will have to answer for ours. But isn’t it wonderful that even a flawed man can arise to greater heights than he ever could simply by being a faithful diligent member of the Kingdom of God? If the Kingdom can so fully transform Brigham perhaps with concerted effort, it can do the same for me.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — July 8, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

  27. Ardis,

    In “the world”, Brigham is mostly vilified, generally by those who are more interested in grinding their axe, than telling Brigham’s true story. He deserves a careful and honest biography by someone who isn’t inclined to pull punches, but who also has the heart and insight to explain why he is worth loving,… and respecting.

    If it is done right, it will draw fire from all sides. Hazardous as the task may be, you can do both.

    Sounds like its time to make a new Brigham biography a serious project.

    Comment by Jeff T — July 8, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

  28. In the late 70s I took a graduate course from Eugene E. Campbell on Utah/Mormon history. He said one of the great qualities of Brigham Young was his memory for names and details about others. For example, in his travels to southern Utah Brigham might encounter a wagon traveling in the opposite direction and greet it. Brigham would know the driver’s name, that the driver’s wife gave birth to a child six months ago, and that the wife was having difficulty in recovering her health after the birth. Brigham would converse about all these issues to the surprised but impressed driver. Such encounters were random, but Brigham had the ability to make general members of the Church feel important and special. Brigham’s memory had the capacity to build loyalty.

    Comment by S.Faux — July 9, 2009 @ 12:23 am

  29. Brigham Young “was the squarest man to do with in Utah, barring none” said Alexander Toponce, freight superintendent for Russell, Majors and Waddell during the Utah War. Toponce stayed in the West and established a freighting firm of his own that continued until the 1940’s, headquartered in Pocatello and later Ogden.

    From “Reminiscences of Alexander Toponce: Written by Himself”, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

    Comment by Curt A. — July 9, 2009 @ 9:12 am

  30. Sorry, goofed:

    “to do business with”

    Comment by Curt A. — July 9, 2009 @ 9:16 am

  31. Sounds like its time to make a new Brigham biography a serious project. (27)

    All in favor of Ardis taking on this project…

    It’s so fun to assign large, multi-year projects to other people, but who better to take on such a project than you, Ardis? You have the materials, the understanding, the writing skills, the fan club… Now all you need is an agent. (Any volunteers?) (And a lot of extra time, but that’s just a minor detail, isn’t it?!)

    Comment by Researcher — July 9, 2009 @ 9:22 am

  32. Re: “All in favor”

    [raising hand]

    Comment by Hunter — July 9, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  33. Not only was your post valuable to me, but the material it has drawn from your loyal public. So thanks again, Ardis.

    Comment by S. Taylor — July 9, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  34. Re: Biography of Brigham Young by AE Parshall
    Tracy, Jeff and I have already discussed this and say “Hear, hear!” We both agree that your writing is first rate, straight forward and sensitive, and your background unique.

    Comment by S. Taylor — July 9, 2009 @ 12:30 pm

  35. Re: “All in favor”

    [raising hand]

    Ardis, you dictate, i’ll transcribe.

    Comment by ellen — July 9, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  36. Absolutely wonderful, Ardis. Outstanding. Like you, my deep appreciation for Brigham came by getting down to primary sources to see what I could see. I am still engaging in that journey, though at a slower pace than at first. I look forward to more of this series.

    Comment by BHodges — July 9, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

  37. When you told me you were going to write this, I had no idea you were planning a multi “volume” experience. I should have known you better than to think you would put together a listing, or a listing with a few explanatory paragraphs. You continue to amaze me with you knowledge and your writing style.

    Comment by Maurine — July 10, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

  38. In a recent reading of Fred Woods’ Las Vegas Mission history, A Gamble in the Desert, which credits Ardis Parshall in the acknowledgments, I was impressed by the level of attention Brigham Young gave to the mission with his letters and responses to the mission president, especially considering that that mission was one small thing of all the things that Brigham Young was dealing with at the same time.

    Comment by John Mansfield — July 12, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

  39. As someone who is usually a day late and a dollar short when it comes to participating in comments around the ‘nacle, I LOVED your post!

    Thank you for all you do, Ardis.

    Comment by Brian Duffin — July 14, 2009 @ 8:02 am

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