40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young: A New Approach to a Remarkable Man
William W. Slaughter, Chad Orton
Deseret Book, 2008
Brigham Young. Few names in Utah or Mormondom stir more varied or powerful reactions. Ask people to describe him and you will hear, “Prophet,” “Liar,” “Rescuer,” “Murderer,” “Hero,” “Criminal,” and the list could go on. A good friend of mine, an older woman and very faithful Saint once said to me, “Brigham Young may have been a prophet, but he was also a complete jackass.” My mother, who is one of the most conservative Latter-day Saints you will ever meet and who sings “Follow the prophet” as loudly as any one you will ever hear, has told me many times of the hard life that her grandparents had in Price, Utah. She would often conclude the stories of their lives and her visits there by saying that she doesn’t know if she can ever forgive Brigham Young for sending their ancestors to settle Utah’s barren hinterlands.
With these kind of feelings out there, even among the “faithful” Latter-day Saints, a book like 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young is bound to stir up some controversy, and hopefully, plenty of good discussion. One of those debates may be whether or not this book really constitutes “A New Approach to a Remarkable Man,” but more on that later.
40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young is divided into forty chapters, one chapter per “way.” Some of the ways are just lists, including: chapter four, “Brigham Young Chronology,” chapter eight, “In the Context of His Time” (lists territorial, national, world and other LDS leaders during his lifetime as well as Popes, Archbishops of Canterbury, states in the Union, and US populations), and chapter nineteen, “Brigham Young Family” (a list of all his wives, their other husbands where applicable, and his children). Several chapters are biographical, some discuss his theology and ideas, and others his personality and traits. It would be hard to cover everything in the book in this review, so I am going to cover a few of the possibly controversial subjects along with some of the fun ones.
Chapter eighteen is, “Brigham As Polygamist.” This is one of those may or may not be new chapters depending on what kind of church related books you normally read. I remember being taught on my mission to say that Brigham had nineteen wives, his last being the “apostate” Anna-Eliza Webb. Some books go farther and list Anna-Eliza Webb as his 27th wife, but in 40 Ways Orton and Slaughter list 56, with the “27th Wife” actually coming in at number 53. One item that many “average” readers will find most surprising is that the book briefly discusses Brigham’s involvement in polyandry, including two polyandrous sealings that occurred in Utah. In one of these the LDS husband was present at the sealing. The chapter is a brief seven pages so don’t expect an in-depth discussion of the topic, but it does provide a good summary of the doctrine and Brigham’s involvement in it.
Another chapter sure to stir some feelings is 29, “The Dark Cloud: The Mountain Meadows Massacre.” As with polygamy (and all of the chapters) the discussion is brief, in this case eight pages. It starts with quoting a few statements by those who, in Brigham’s time, felt that he was involved in the massacre. Then it lists six common arguments given by those who believe that he was involved including: to get the company’s possessions, revenge for Missouri and Illinois, to avenge Joseph’s and Hyrum’s deaths, anger over the murder of Parley Pratt, fear in response to (supposed) threats by the company, and “a reported attempt by apostate Mormons to escape Utah by joining with the company.” (p 189) The rest of the chapter is spent defending Brigham’s innocence mostly by quoting his own statements from the Journal of Discourses and ending with an attack on some of the evidence against him, especially John D. Lee and William Bishop’s “Mormonism Unveiled.”
One more controversial topic that is covered is “Blood Atonement” (covered in chapter 24 “A Hard Spoken New Yorker With A Soft Side”). According to Orton and Slaughter, Brigham’s talk of blood atonement was just rhetoric and hyperbole. They quote statements where Brigham supports or even calls for the use of blood atonement, for example: “If you want to know what to do with a thief that you may find stealing, I say kill him on the spot, and never suffer him to commit another iniquity.... That is what I wish every man to do, to put a stop to that abominable practice in the midst of this people,” and “What shall be done with sheep that stink the flock so? We will take them, I was going to say, and cut off their tails two inches behind their ears; however, I will use a milder term, and say, cut off their ears.” (p. 154) To make their point they then add more from the latter quote, which they claim that most detractors of Brigham leave out of their discussions. “But instead of doing this, we will try to cleanse them; we will wash them with soap,” and then quote the following, “There are some things that Brigham has said he would do; but has never happened to do them; and that is not all, he prays fervently, to his Father and God that he may never be brought into circumstances to be obliged to shed human blood. He never has yet been brought into such a position.... The genius of our religion is to have mercy upon all, do good to all, as far as they will let us do good to them."
Speaking of “The Reformation” and its relation to blood atonement they state, “Taken in context, his comments seem designed to give the unrepentant pause about the need to repent to forestall people from committing such sins, rather than being a call for immediate action.” (p. 156) They conclude this section with Brigham’s advice to George Q. Cannon that, “offending members should be carefully looked after and attended to but not dealt rashly with.” (p 157) Along with the more serious fare there is a good helping of the fun and humorous stories about, and quotes by, Brigham. Chapter 26, “Fun Facts,” relates many of these. Before 40 Ways I never knew that Brigham had a watch that had his name spelled out in place of the traditional times of day. Also included is the story of the time that he said that President “Zachary Taylor is dead and has gone to hell,” and his later “recanting” of that statement. One story relates that he spent years trying to repay a three dollar debt. Another tells of a sustaining that would not happen in a modern General Conference. Said Brigham, “The first name I shall present to you is that of Brigham Young, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If any person can say that he should not be sustained in this office, say so. If there is no objection, as it is usual in the marriage ceremony of the Church of England, ‘Let them for ever afterwards hold their peace,’ and not go snivelling around, saying that you would like to have a better man, and one who is more capable of leading the Church.” (p. 172) Other fun chapters include, “Family Man,” “Brigham at Play,” “Famous of His Time,” and “Brigham as Seen by Others.”
Now to the statement at the end of my first paragraph, does this book contain, “A New Approach to a Remarkable Man?” I doubt that historians, scholars, or those who read books by Signature, The University of Utah Press, University of Illinois Press, the University Of Oklahoma/Arthur Clark Company or any presses similar to these will consider the information in this book “new.” However, those whose reading and studying comes mostly from Deseret Book, Covenant Communications, Gospel Doctrine and other “official” Church literature and similar publications will definitely find “new” information and “approaches” to Brigham Young.
The ultimate question for me then is, would I recommend this book? The answer is yes, I found it enjoyable and informative. I am very curious to see what kind of reception it will get, and how it will affect people’s views of Brother Brigham. Will my friend look at him as more or less of a “jackass?” Will my mother finally be able to forgive him or will her feelings be reinforced? More liberal readers will likely think that it does not go far enough; many conservative readers will think that it goes too far. I say good. I like a healthy debate. I hope that many LDS pick up this book, especially the more conservative ones. I hope that they read it and I hope that they discusses its contents. If enough of them read it, especially the ones who go to Gospel Doctrine, it may make the Church History Lessons a lot more interesting than in years past.