The reason this whole topic of plural marriage has assumed cosmic meaning in the minds of our Fundamentalist brothers and sisters is because of Brigham Young’s advocacy of this while leading the church. Brigham Young is a pretty thin reed to lean upon when it comes to doctrine, and I mean any doctrine. His utility to the Lord did not include his ability to teach, but his ability to lead, colonize and organize. He was a genius in these areas. Doctrinally, however, he has proven to be problematic.
Inside the church, he has been referred to as a man whose statements were “made in the absence of revelation.” His position on priesthood ban for those of African blood has been denounced and abandoned. His teachings on plural marriage have been abandoned. His doctrine of Adam-God has been called a “false theory.” His doctrine of annihilation of the spirits of evil beings has been renounced. However, Fundamentalists do not respect the same tradition as those who are faithful LDS members. Therefore, for those who stake their salvation on his teachings, I want to use Brigham Young’s own words to help them see how thin a reed they lean on for establishing the central importance of plural marriage for exaltation.
Brigham Young’s ordination to the apostleship was “not complete” according to those who ordained him, “till God has laid His hands upon [him]. We require as much to qualify us as did those who have gone before us; God is the same. If the Savior in former days laid His hands upon His disciples, why not in the latter days?” (DHC 2: 196.) Twenty-four years later he informed the saints this had not happened. He thought that perhaps “when [he] had lived to be as old as was Moses when the Lord appeared to him, that perhaps I then may hold communion with the Lord.” (JD 7: 243.) In 1863 he reaffirmed that no such visit had taken place, but he still hoped if he lived to be eighty it might. (JD 10: 23.) So, although he held the apostleship as an office in the church, his ordination to that office was conditioned on an event he explained had not been consummated by the Lord’s confirming ordination. How much confidence should that give you when considering his teachings?
He hesitated to call himself a “prophet, seer and revelator,” but allowed others to associate those titles with him: “[After putting the motion for himself to be sustained as ‘Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,’ the President remarked:] I will say that I never dictated the latter part of that sentence. I will make the remark, because those words in that connection always made feel as though I am called more than I am deserving of. I am Brigham Young, an Apostle of Joseph Smith, and also of Jesus Christ. If I have been profitable to these people, I am glad of it. The brethren call me so; and if it be so, I am glad.” (The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, Vol. 3, p. 1347.)
He explained he was not a visionary man: ” I am not going to interpret dreams; for I don’t profess to be such a Prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel; but I am a Yankee guesser[.]” (The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, Vol. 3, p. 1306.) He considered himself “called of Joseph” and not of the Lord: “I do not want to skip Joseph, Peter, Jesus, Moses and go to my Father in Heaven. All I ask for is to be guided by the spirit of Joseph, then let others be governed by their head, or priesthood. Joseph enjoyed the priviliges which I never thought I had. Joseph was called of God. I was called of Joseph.” (The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, Vol. 2, p. 1108.) Is being “called of Joseph” a sufficient basis for you to trust the man with your eternal salvation?
Even when Joseph gave him the assignment to finish the Temple rites, he remained uncertain about how this would be accomplished. Ultimately, he concluded that whatever he did would be fixed by the resurrected Joseph Smith during the Millennium: “AfterJoseph comes to us in his resurrected body he will more fully instruct us concerning the Baptism for the dead and the sealing ordinances. He will say be baptized for this man and that man and that man be sealed to that man and such a man to such a man, and connect the Priesthood together. I tell you their [sic] will not be much of this done until Joseph comes. He is our spiritual Father. Our hearts are already turned to him and his to us. This [is] the order of the Holy Priesthood and we shall continue to administer in the ordinances of the kingdom of God here on Earth.” (The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, Vol. 2, p. 1034.) Temple rites would require Joseph, not President Young, to fix the seals.
On matters affecting eternal salvation, I would not rely on a “Yankee guesser” who considered himself “called of Joseph” and not called of Christ, to give you what you need for salvation. As I have explained in Passing the Heavenly Gift and this blog, his insistence on plural marriage as a condition of being saved is not warranted by the language of Section 132.
Brigham Young explained how church leadership was not affected by who held office. His theory was that anyone could be elected, and as long as the followers prayed for them things would go perfectly: “Take any man in this kingdom, and if the people say that they will make him a President, or a Bishop, or elect him to fill any other office, and the faith of the people is concentrated to receive light through that officer or pipe laid by the power of the Priesthood from the throne of God, you might as well try to move the heavens as to receive anything wrong through that conductor. No matter whom you elect for an officer, if your faith is concentrated in him through whom to receive the things which he is appointed to administer in, light will come to you. Let a presiding officer or a Bishop turn away from righteousness, and the Lord Almighty would give him the lock-jaw, if he could not stop his mouth in any other way, or send a fit of numb palsy on him, so that he could not act, as sure as the people over whom he presided were right, that they might not be led astray.” (Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, Vol. 3, p. 1379, November 29, 1857; the talk can also found at JD Vol. 6 beginning on p. 93.) Of course, this theory did not work. As an example, Bishop Warren Snow was elected to be Bishop in Manti, but was involved in stealing tithing. Brigham Young sent traveling Bishop A. Milton Musser, then also Orson Hyde, to review records. They found between $5,000 and $8,000 of tithing missing, a substantial sum in those times.
Though he explained this theory, I do not think Brigham Young believed it at all. Had he believed it, he would not have challenged Sidney Rigdon’s claims to lead following the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum. If “any man in this kingdom” could lead, then why not Sidney? If “light will come to you” through any such man, then why not Sidney? The argument was between Sidney (who claimed revelation) and Brigham Young (who claimed to have “keys”). As a result, the debate required the church to choose between Sidney’s claims based on revelation and accept Brigham Young’s administrative “keys” as the source. Brigham Young’s leadership theory (that anyone could lead if prayed for by the membership) would have allowed the church to have both if Sidney were sustained. But Brigham Young’s insistence on having control in his quorum forced a vote by the Nauvoo Saints. The vote resulted in abandoning revelation in favor of administrative “keys” –a choice which has affected church history ever since.
This initial vote established power in the Twelve, but within three years Brigham Young found it cumbersome. He had trouble getting consensus, and John Taylor and Parley Pratt opposed him on many issues. On December 1849 he got another vote making him church president and allowing him to organize the First Presidency, an easier administrative group to control.
Once Hyrum and Joseph died, and Brigham Young succeeded in getting elected as church President, the church operated under his leadership for nearly three decades. President Taylor’s entire presidency was in exile, avoiding Federal prosecution. Wilford Woodruff compromised on the plural marriage teaching for statehood, and his presidency was thereafter affected by debate about the propriety of that decision and what it meant for the church.
It was not until the 1900’s that the church was not in the grip of a conflict brought about by Brigham Young’s presidency and teachings. By that time the mold had been set, and the form put into that mold had hardened. It doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself “Fundamentalist” or mainstream, we are all caught inside the pattern established by the Yankee guesser and the immediate aftermath. Do you want to trust your eternal welfare to him? Do you trust that man so much that you will allow his pattern to control your belief in the restoration?
I think the church has reacted poorly to the dilemma created by this man’s teachings. They have denounced his major contributions, and have cast aside many other of his teachings and practices. Those who have remained devoted to these doctrines believe what they hold dear came from a reliable source. But remember, even he rejected the idea he was a “Prophet, Seer and Revelator” because he was only an apostle of Joseph’s. The church was right to say recently that he spoke “in the absence of revelation” because that is what he did.
The mistake Fundamentalists have made is not in believing in the system, but in trusting a man. He is no more worthy of your confidence than Lorin C. Woolley. The revelation you trust is carefully composed, and defines “the eternal marriage covenant” as between one man and one wife. That is all you need for exaltation. Brigham Young’s excesses on this matter are no more trustworthy than the value of another Yankee guesser. He did what he understood. But his understanding is and was flawed. This is why the church has rejected his teachings on the core of his beliefs: plural marriage, Adam-God, priesthood ban, potential annihilation of damned souls, blood atonement, kingdom of God as earthly institution, etc. There are good reasons for the doctrinal disfavor between him and the same church he led for three decades. Turning to Lorin C. Woolley to preserve Brigham Young’s legacy is not improving your state. It is modeling a flawed model.
Despite this, to his credit, Brigham Young never invented visitations, claimed more for himself than that he was a “good hand to have around” and denied he was visited by the Lord. These statements reflect a great deal more credit on Brigham Young than the embellishments made by Brother Woolley reflect on him.
I do not fault Fundamentalists for these problems. They were created by the elected President successor to Joseph and Hyrum. He held the office, and he taught what he taught. But that does not make him right before God. Members of the LDS church should be the first to have charity for this circumstance. We should be willing to forgive this devotion to Brigham Young’s teachings because they originated with a man who was, after all, elected to lead the church for three decades. The church refused to abandon wives when it abandoned plural marriage, and Fundamentalists who would return should not be required to tear apart their families. They should reject the doctrine, and stop teaching it to their children. But the church is so very sensitive about this issue that we don’t share the same attitude.
I personally believe this problem is cured by ceasing the practice, but leaving existing families intact. I believe those who do this will be welcomed in Zion., but those who continue to advocate and insist this is fundamental to salvation itself, I don’t think will be welcomed. The conditions that are required to allow it are not met, and cannot be met by the Fundamentalists. They should recognize this and repent.