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).
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.