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Random Reasons Why I Like Brigham Young: Two

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 19, 2009

Forgive me; somehow it slipped my mind that I had started this series. Back to it, then –

Brigham Young was a man of, we might say, decided opinions. We might easily say something much stronger than this – many people have, with good reason. He was excitable – get him in the pulpit, or provide him with an audience in his office, or even have him dictate a letter rather than scratch it out by hand, and he was apt to let his tongue and his temper run away with him when he condemned adultery, apostasy, and marrying outside the faith. There is no shortage of scandalously temperamental, righteously indignant, temperamentally outspoken sayings – however you want to characterize them – that create the public impression of Brigham Young as a dictatorial, harsh, judgmental, overbearing man.

Those are the quotations people love to trot out. These quotations hardly reflect the full man, though.


Reason Two:

I like Brigham Young because he preached fire and brimstone … but then he practiced mercy.

Story 1:

Brevet Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe, with about 325 soldiers of the U.S. army, spent the winter of 1854-55 in Salt Lake City before marching on to California. While the record reflects mutual respect and even cordiality between senior Mormon and senior military leaders, the record also provides abundant evidence that lesser officers and men preyed on the women of Salt Lake City, too many of whom willingly responded to flattery, novelty, and uniforms. One junior officer even targeted a member of Brigham Young’s own household; if his vulgar letters to a friend at home are to be believed, he achieved a considerable degree of lewd success before the couple was found out and separated. When the army moved on in the spring, as many as 100 women – girls, some of them, only 13 and 14 years old – left with them, to the disgust of the Mormons.

After they had gone, Brigham preached about such men who “would creep into your houses, and try to coax your wives and daughters away from you. What for? Was it to make them more honorable, to give them a better character in the midst of the inhabitants of the earth, sustain them better, and make them more comfortable, and acknowledge them? No – they wanted to prostitute them, to ruin them, and send them to the grave, or to the devil, when they had done with them.” About the women who had accompanied them, “If any wish to go to California to whore it, we will send a company of them off; that is my mind, and perhaps some few ought to go, for they are indeed bad enough. … If they want women to go to California with them, we will send a company of the same stripe, if they can be found, and then both parties will be suited to and for each other. I would rather follow her to the grave, and send her home pure, than suffer my daughter to be prostituted. I will not suffer any female member of my family to be polluted through the corruptions of wicked men.” (JD 2:322)

And yet …

In 1856, Thomas Stayner, an English convert, wrote to Brigham Young about his daughter Elizabeth, who had gone to California with the soldiers. “I have had several letters from her of late, in which she expresses a wish to return here to see her Parents … I should feel much obliged if you would assist me in this (to me) serious business. Knowing a word from you to some person there, would have so much avail in recovering our (at present) lost child in getting her to this place where we might exercise Parental Council and care and where she may be again taught the ways of the Lord.”

Did Brigham Young counsel the parents to forget their daughter, curse her as a fallen woman, say she was better off dead or in California? No, he wrote immediately to Elizabeth, encouraging her to return “to your much afflicted parents who feel like extending their kind and parental care for your benefit.” What’s more, he wrote to Orson Hyde, who would be returning to Salt Lake City that spring: “I received an urgent appeal from Brother Stayner, father to the Miss Stayner, who accompanied the troops to California in the spring of 1855. He says that his daughter desires very much to return, and wished me to devise some way by which that event might be accomplished. I have written a line to her about it.” He asked Hyde to “find a way for her to return to her much afflicted parents, trusting that you will furnish it.”

In the end, Elizabeth Stayner decided to stay in California, where she married and raised a family. Brigham Young, though, had done what he could to smooth her return to Utah and to Mormondom, had she chosen that path.

Story 2:

In the same summer, after the army had left taking so many women and girls with them, John Taylor’s daughter Mary Ann went to her mother to tell her that she wanted to marry James S. Drummond (not the infamous judge William Drummond of 1857, but an unrelated clerk in a general store at Salt Lake). John Taylor was away in New York that year, on a mission as emigration agent and publisher of the newspaper The Mormon. Sister Taylor gave her permission for the marriage, yet both mother and daughter knew that John Taylor would be greatly angered by his daughter’s marriage outside the faith.

They were right, evidently: Mary Ann went to California with her husband. The next year, she wrote to her father:

I scarcely know how to write, things are so changed scince I last saw you but I suppose you have heard all. Mr Drummond has writ[t]en to you some time science but as yet recd no answer, I hope dear Father you will not deny him one, he is very anxious to hear from you, as well as my self[. N]othing would give me more pleasure than to hear that you were not angry with me … my Husband is a very good man and kind to me

Mary Ann reminded her father of something he already knew:

do not think that I went against the counsel of Brigham[. H]e asured Dear Mother that you would had you been here Done the same thing

And she was right in saying she had not disregarded Brigham’s counsel. At the time of the marriage, Brigham had written to John Taylor to explain the situation and to ease the father’s burden the best he could:

In regard to Mary Ann, your daughter, marrying Mr Drummond, and my counsel upon that subject, I wish to make a few remarks.

She seemed determined to go with the gentiles, and keep their company, regardless of the remonstrances of her friends, and when Sister Taylor came to me to know what should be done about it, I told her that if he wanted to marry her, and she was a daughter of mine, I should let him do so, and I believe yet that it is much better for her to do as she has, than to do like some others that I could mention.

I do not believe that a faithful Elder as you are, and have been, will lose their children; when she has experienced enough of the world, she will be glad to return, and perhaps bring her husband with her, He is a very good looking man, and has been very highly recommended by Judge Kinney, who states that he is of a good family, and respectable character

I do not know to what extent Mary Ann and her father were ever reconciled. She stayed in touch with her family, naming her first child after her mother; letters to and from Mary Ann were carefully preserved by her brother George.

Story 3:

Margaret (“Maggie”) Curtis, who married B.H. Roberts, wrote about an incident involving her older brother, Theodore:

In the course of time my brother, in harmony with the custom of our Church, respecting its young men, was sent to England on a mission.

All men are not equal to bearing the strain that a mission imposes upon them, most of them win their fight for their faith when brought in contact with the world, but it pains me to say that my brother was not among those who thus succeed. Of a keen intellectual temperament, he read widely before and while on his mission and paid much attention to the works of historians and philosophers, some of whose works make for doubt rather than for faith. This resulted first in doubts, then in unfaith, which he frankly confessed to his mission associates. In this frame of mind, of course, he was unsuited for the work of a missionary and the authorities of the British mission advised his return home, but in their unsympathetic policy towards him, furnished means for his fare only to New York. Here he landed without friends or money. In a short time he was stricken with typhoid fever. He wrote me of his condition.

Maggie wanted to bring her brother home and begged her father to send the means for Theodore to buy a ticket. He refused. After praying for a way to get him home, Maggie went to see Brigham Young. He was not home; she waited for his return, but returning in the company of others, he did not see her standing near his door and the young girl was too shy to call out to him. She was still lingering near the door, wondering what to do, sometime later when Brigham came out to look at the sunset.

Courage came to me and I spoke to him. Doubtless noting my distress he led the way into his office and then I told him the whole story. He quickly remarked, “The brethren should have paid his passage back to his home, where he started from.”

I said, “Yes, but perhaps you do not know that he has lost faith in our Church and its message to the world.”

“That makes no difference,” he said, “they should have sent him home.”

He asked me if I had any money. I told him no but I had a fine set of furs which I would sell if we could find a buyer. Then he inquired if my father had the means. I said, “Yes, but he refuses to send it to him.”

He said, “Go and tell your father to come to me, now, this evening [putting his hand tenderly on my shoulder], and don’t suffer any more. Money shall be telegraphed to your brother this night, and I promise you that he shall live, and come home to you. When he lands here, bring him to me.” The money, supplied by my father, was telegraphed that night and in due time my brother arrived in our city, thin, weak, and pale.

Although he was older than I was, I felt that I must take his mother’s place. So I urged him to go with me to meet President Young. An interview was arranged. Upon entering this great man’s presence, my brother received a most hearty welcome. The president shook hands with him, called him by his given name – Theodore. – it was like a father welcoming home his son. The interview that followed I cannot write, language fails me. The gentle admonition, his encouraging words, his blessing upon my brother came form the divine spirit in Brigham Young’s soul.

Theodore Curtis eventually regained his faith, sometime after he was welcomed home by his president.

Brigham Young could preach the gospel in unmistakable terms and call sin what it was … but if you were one of his people, if you wanted to come home – even if you had not yet returned to the church, as none of these three young people had – he wanted you home.

And that’s one more reason I like Brigham Young.



39 Comments »

  1. Amen.

    Comment by Wm Morris — August 19, 2009 @ 8:26 am

  2. Those are three wonderful stories. I’m glad to have read them as a welcome distraction from thesis-writing. Aren’t prophets great? I just showed a new member the video of President Monson wiggling his ears and he loved it because of the prophet’s charisma.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — August 19, 2009 @ 8:52 am

  3. Great stories, Ardis. I’m liking him more all the time.

    Comment by kevinf — August 19, 2009 @ 8:56 am

  4. I love coming here and reading stories I’ve never heard before — and would probably never come across elsewhere. Please, keep them coming!

    Comment by Tamary — August 19, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  5. These are great stories. Brgham seems to be an eminently practical man, and well aware of the intricacies of human relations as well as the gospel ideal. The examples given confirm to me that God suits the prophet to his times. (Can you imagine the gasps if Pres. Hinckley or Monson gave a public talk with the line “If any of your daughters want to go to California and whore it, let them go…”?)

    Also, the work piecing together the letters in the first story is mind-boggling.

    Comment by Clark — August 19, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  6. A wonderful example of the scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants “reproving betimes with sharpness….afterwards showing an increase in love.”

    Thank you again, Ardis!

    Comment by Allison — August 19, 2009 @ 9:15 am

  7. Thank you for your appreciative words. I wonder how many bloggernacle “enemies” would find themselves very good friends if we could look past the bombastic public statements and know each other for who we are? Brigham is no different.

    A word about my methods, since Clark recognizes the work —

    When I started doing family history, I went about it backwards. Instead of targeting the records most likely to tell me the date Grandma was married, I looked at every record that seemed remotely connected to the right general time and place. That way, I ran across things I never would have known to hunt for: an affidavit naming the guest list, a newspaper listing the wedding presents, all kinds of fun and unexpected and unsearchable details.

    When I moved into Mormon history, I went about researching the same way. I’ve never been particularly good about asking a question and then zeroing directly in to the documents with the answer. Instead, I have to read — and transcribe — as broadly as possible, including material that seems absolutely irrelevant to anything that a historian might want to know. Then, thanks to the magic of text searching, once I recognize that a story exists, it’s a relatively simple matter to search for, say, “Stayner,” and turn up forgotten trivial documents in my files that seemed meaningless when I picked them up.

    All the best stories, the untold ones, at least, seem to come together by picking up a stray detail here, and a stray detail there.

    I really *am* glad that you like these stories.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 19, 2009 @ 9:20 am

  8. That’s a fascinating approach (the usefulness of which you demonstrate almost daily). Thanks for providing a glimpse in to your methods, Ardis.

    I’ve liked Brigham Young ever since reading his discourse urging the Saints to eat more poultry and fish — I just loved the practical, detailed, reasoned approach he took and the tying in of the mundane ways of living in to the enterprise of building Zion. Certainly that can be taken too far, but Brigham Young’s ability to combine administration with ministration is impressive.

    Comment by Wm Morris — August 19, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  9. Wonderful!

    Comment by Eric Nielson — August 19, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  10. Lovely stories. I particularly like the last one.

    Comment by Researcher — August 19, 2009 @ 9:45 am

  11. Yes, these anecdotes really impress.

    The part that got me the most was in the episode involving the missionary leaving his mission after a crisis of faith. Brigham says the following to the concerned sister:

    “Go and tell your father to come to me, now, this evening [putting his hand tenderly on my shoulder], and don’t suffer any more.”

    This is treble charity – not only is Brigham helping the abandoned missionary to come home, he’s soothing it over with the father, and he is calming the tormented heart of the missionary’s sister.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    (Oh, and was anyone else as bemused at how a young girl could go and stand near the Church president’s porch and get an audience about a personal concern? That she even “got in” — especially considering how things are in the Church today — boggles my mind and further impresses as to Brigham’s kindliness.)

    Comment by Hunter — August 19, 2009 @ 9:53 am

  12. Wonderful!

    Comment by Edje — August 19, 2009 @ 10:10 am

  13. I have no difficulty liking Brigham, but like the others here I very much appreciated these wonderful stories.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 19, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  14. Fantastic Ardis. I’d been anxiously awaiting the next installment and it did not disappoint.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 19, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  15. Thanks again, Ardis. Once again I am reminded of my blindness in trying to paint particular people with broad strokes, and how the complexities of character can so easily be missed.

    Comment by Bro. Jones — August 19, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  16. This is really incredible. Thank you. Since my membership, my understanding of Brigham Young has always felt complicated. These vignettes really help.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 19, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

  17. Thanks Ardis. That last story brought tears to my eyes.

    Comment by Rob — August 19, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  18. I’m with Rob.

    But I’ve always liked Brother Brigham. Maybe I’d have felt differently if I’d been on the receiving end of some of his barbs.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 19, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

  19. I always liked Brigham Young too, but these kinds of stories (and there are many) deepened my respect for him. He was fearlessly devoted to doing what he saw as necessary to build the kingdom, but shrewd and kind whenever he saw that was called for. In terms of what he accomplished, he was just about perfect as the Lord’s choice for church leadership during those times. He probably wouldn’t have the patience for what’s required in these times. But occasionally I think I could use a good old Brigham Young motivational speech.

    I enjoyed this post.

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — August 19, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

  20. Thanks, Ardis for telling Mary Ann’s story. I think that it has important insights into both Brigham Young; John Taylor; Leonora Taylor and even George, who is one of my favorite people and editor of the original Keepapitchinin.

    All three stories are good reminders of how we should treat each other. Today it seems that we live in a world of judging our neighbors and pointing out their faults.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — August 19, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

  21. Thanks, Ardis

    Comment by queuno — August 19, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

  22. BY, having been one of the first missionaries in England, travelling without purse or scrip, and relying totally on the Lord, knew what that missionary was going through.

    Ever notice how the vast majority of General Authorities today are former mission presidents?

    Comment by Bookslinger — August 19, 2009 @ 6:42 pm

  23. @Jeff, #20 – I agree — we live in a world that is quick to take offense. The early church leaders gave some pretty intense (and public) chewing outs, and I’m amazed at how well the members were often able to receive it.

    Comment by Dane — August 19, 2009 @ 11:13 pm

  24. I loved these stories, Ardis. One of the things I dislike most about my job is that the internet filter blocks Keepa, so I only get to read your blog in the little time I have at home. It amazes me how you can piece together a story based on seemingly unrelated documents. You do wonderful work.

    The more I learn about Brother Brigham, the more glad I am of two things: first, that he was in place to lead the Church after Joseph. I am convinced that were he not so identified with polygamy, he would be recognized as one of the greatest men this country has ever seen. Second, that he was not the Prophet of my time–I’m not sure how he and I would have gotten along.

    Comment by CS Eric — August 19, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

  25. Thanks, Ardis.

    Comment by S. Taylor — August 20, 2009 @ 8:25 am

  26. Excellent, Ardis. I love the softer side of Brigham, and you are right that it is more often than not completely ignored. Also an heartfelt thanks for the work you do and your methods (#7). It isn’t easy, but your intimacy with the context is outstanding and tremendously valuable.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 20, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  27. Wow. Great stuff.

    What I think about is what a burden Brigham must have had. I am sure he knew his words were often sharp. I am sure he knew some would misunderstand and take an extreme position because of his seemingly extreme preaching. But I think he knew the duty he had. I think he was the Prophet the Lord needed at that time. But when push came to shove he certainly knew mercy. But what a burden to worry that your words might lead to some being uncharitable or extreme and yet knowing that you must declare the truth boldly despite those consequences. A lesser man would have crumbled with such demands. And yet he had such a heart. Who knew?

    Comment by daveescaped — August 20, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  28. I have saved this in my queue and shall return, but wanted to say thanks for continuing, Ardis.

    Comment by BHodges — August 20, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  29. I love this side of Brigham Young – a side too often overlooked. When are you going to write your biography of the man?

    Comment by Alan — August 20, 2009 @ 3:58 pm

  30. Maybe I should be like Edje and his thesis at Juvenile Instructor — write it one chapter at a time, in full view of the bloggernacle.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 20, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  31. I loved this post. It was wonderful to read. What a man he must have been, to be able to settle an entire people in that barren valley and have them prosper in every way possible. We read so many negative things about him, it’s nice to have this to hold up.

    I think you probably have the best job ever.It would be my dream job, I think! How fun.

    I think you should write a book along the lines of this post. I’d sure buy it.

    Comment by floridagirl — August 21, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

  32. I thought Lt. Col. Steptoe and company spent the winter of 1854-1855 encamped a few miles south of Stockton. Am I wrong?

    Comment by Mark D. — August 22, 2009 @ 1:35 am

  33. Steptoe and his men reached Salt Lake City on 31 August 1854 and the bulk of them spent the winter encamped in a downtown barracks (the detail at Stockton had charge of the unit’s hundreds of animals that had to be pastured somewhere remote from town; there was a lot of traveling of officers because they had the specific assignment to investigate the massacre of JWGunnison and his men near Fillmore, but the main camp was downtown). The 1854 Christmas Day riot occurred in downtown Salt Lake, too. They didn’t leave town until spring 1855.

    floridagirl, I kinda think of it as a dream job, too. If it’s what you would do if you didn’t have to earn a living, then “work” is one long play date.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 22, 2009 @ 8:08 am

  34. Ardis, I finally caught up to this in the queue and enjoyed it. Well done.

    Comment by BHodges — October 9, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

  35. PS- where’s the footnotes?

    Comment by BHodges — October 9, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

  36. BHodges,thanks. But you’re confusing me with Juvenile Instructor, I think. :)

    (Really, I hope eventually to write this material up in a more formal publishable form; in the meantime, I try to guard some of my sources a little. A determined researcher could find most of them, after being tipped off to their existence, but I don’t want to make it too easy for someone to scoop me with my own stuff. James D’Arc’s program notes for the showing of the Corianton movie, for instance, used without attribution two stories he knew only because I furnished a newspaper clipping to Randy Astle for his BYU Studies article, and because D’Arc read one of my 2005 Tribune columns about O.U. Bean — I don’t like to be cheated that way more than I can help, especially when one of my stories was mangled as badly as the Bean one was in the program notes. If I posted sources, it would be harder to claim the work as my own.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 9, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  37. Knowing about your work on Corianton, I read the program notes with the expectation that your name would appear. I was surprised when I didn’t see it.

    Comment by Justin — October 9, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  38. Thanks, Justin. Besides the clipping about the Broadway show, and the Bean-in-court story, those notes are the first time I knew that D’Arc accepted my well-documented evidence that the movie had actually been released to the public. In all of our email (which I have carefully kept, and some of which will appear in my published history), he insisted that the movie had never been seen by anyone but investors. Those program notes would have been very different — and very wrong — without the appropriation of my research, and yeah, my name should have appeared.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 9, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  39. This is the first time I’ve come across this anecdote about Theodore Walter Curtis. Unfortunately, Theodore Walter left the church a 2nd time–this time, turning his back on a wife and young sons, too–so his descendants don’t have much information about him. In fact, BY specifically counseled Theodore in a letter to stay in Utah. (This was one of my mom’s favorite family stories to tell, since the moral of the story was that Theodore W., who went ahead and defied the prophet, died in Boston, broke and alone…) One thing I always liked about BY is that he signed his letters to Theodore W. with, “Your Brother”, this coming, I now learn, even after Theodore’s first apostasy. I am extremely interested in learning the source you quoted by Margaret “Maggie” Curtis. (Maggie attended BY’s school and also boarded there in 1867.) Thank you!

    Comment by Susan — January 2, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

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