The Essential Brigham Young

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A collection of Brigham Young’s most significant and sometimes controversial teaching and sermons.

Classics in Mormon Thought Series No. 3

April, 1992


After converting to Mormonism in 1832, Brigham Young (1801-77) quickly rose to prominence and was called to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles within three years. He personally directed the highly successful 1839 proselyting mission to Great Britain, and he was appointed president of the Twelve Apostles the following year. In 1846-47 he oversaw the epic colonization of the Intermountain West.

Self-educated and preoccupied with the day-to-day business of his widespread empire, Young rarely found time to read. But he delivered hundreds of lively, extemporaneous sermons which blended common sense with theological speculation. Such homespun treatises carried an immediacy that was absent from the philosophically-oriented studies of his ecclesiastical colleague Orson Pratt, though, at the same time, Young’s speeches could be unfocused and contradictory.

Several of the more controversial teachings that Young promulgated—Adam-as-God, divine omniscience, and blood atonement—have sparked considerable debate since they were first uttered more than one hundred years ago. “Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise,” he once asked, “when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood?”

Other favorite topics were the “personality of God,” “election and reprobation,” and “the resurrection.” His sermons usually begin in a chatty way: “I remarked last Sunday that I had not felt much like preaching,” or “When I contemplate the subject of salvation, and rise before a congregation to speak upon that all-important matter, it has been but a few times in my life that I could see a beginning point to it, or a stopping place.” Readers will find themselves drawn into the rhythm of Young’s rhetoric in the same way as his original hearers were.

Eugene E. Campbell was a professor of history at Brigham Young University until his death in 1986. He was the author of Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-1869, co-author of three works—Fort Bridger: Island in the Wilderness, Fort Supply: Brigham Young’s Green River Experiment, and Hugh B. Brown: His Life and Thought—and the co-editor of Utah’s History, contributor to The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past, as well as author of the foreword to The Essential Brigham Young. He was a founding member and early president of the Mormon History Association.

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6 reviews for The Essential Brigham Young

  1. AB Bookman’s Weekly

    This collection of 25 sermons provides an intriguing look into the life and teachings of the Mormon leader who brought the Latter-Day Saints to Utah. Covering the years 1841 to 1877, the vast majority of the sermons deal directly with the Mormons’ relocation and development in Utah. (The title of the last sermon, in fact, bears the revealing title, “The Wilderness Was Kinder to Us Than Man.”)

    The foreword by Eugene E. Campbell, past president of the Mormon History Association, reflects the charismatic and spontaneous character of Young and his sermons. He discusses Young’s influence on the society he helped establish, and some of the controversial doctrines he either created or helped promote–polygamy (and his frequent generosity in granting divorces), Adam-as-God, reprobation, et al.

    Campbell nevertheless concludes, “many Mormons today would no doubt hope that when the next major threat to their survival arises, may there be a strong man like Brigham Young to lead them to a place of refuge and safety. . . . They will no doubt be willing to live with his weaknesses because they value his strengths.”

  2. Deseret Book Club Review

    Colonist, Church leader, businessman, explorer, politician–Brigham Young was a central figure in the history of the American frontier and the Mormon church. The Essential Brigham Young compiles the teachings of the second president of the Church in their original form. The late Eugene Campbell wrote the foreword for this book and noted that Brigham Young addressed the Saints almost every Sunday and daily when on tour, often giving practical advice. On occasion he criticized the federal government, using hyperbole, sarcasm, and rough frontier humor, which is evident in this compilation. The early Saints loved his style. This wonderful pioneer thinker and theologian was a little rough on the edges, which made him all the more human. Selections include “True and False Riches,” “The Source of Intelligence,” and “Personality of God.” A truly thought-provoking stimulus for Latter-day Saints.

  3. Newell G. Bringhurst, John Whitmer Historical Society

    The Essential Brigham Young, which focuses on the ideas and teaching of the famous Utah Mormon leader, is the last work of Eugene E. Campbell, late professor of history at Brigham Young University and expert on the Mormon pioneer period. In certain respects this work is a companion volume to Campbell’s Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-1869 (1988), also published posthumously.

    However, in contrast to Establishing Zion, a basic narrative history, The Essential Brigham Young is largely an edited work made up of twenty-five sermons, selected from “approximately eight hundred” preserved in print out of the “thousands” that Young actually delivered to his Latter-day Saint followers throughout the forty-five years that he was a leader within the Mormon movement.

    Young’s sermons are preceded by a publisher’s preface announcing the volume’s intent to focus on the larger themes in Young’s thought—a challenging task since “no single wholly consistent theological system emerges from [Young’s] far-reaching discourses” (xi). Often “Young’s ideas arose spontaneously as he spoke” (xi). The preface makes the interesting disclosure that Young “never referred to himself as prophet”—a practice that stands in sharp contrast to current Utah Mormon practice, which considers all of its presidents, past and present, (including, ironically enough, Brigham Young) to be “prophets, seers, and revelators.” By contrast, throughout Young’s tenure as president “The title of prophet was reserved exclusively for Joseph Smith” (xii).

    In the preface, the author also makes some questionable assertions. In particular, he states that “Young looked forward to the time when Joseph Smith’s son David [Hyrum] would claim his place as prophet, and Young could resume his role as one of the traveling high council or Twelve” (xii). Such a statement is of particular interest to readers of this journal since it would appear to validate RLDS claims of prophetic authority. But it is highly unlikely that Brigham Young ever intended to relinquish his own position of leadership to David Hyrum or to any other of Joseph Smith’s heirs.

    The Preface, moreover, is absolutely incorrect in stating that “Young’s sympathies were with the South during the Civil War” (xiii). Actually, Young desperately sought statehood for Utah in late 1860 and early 1861—at the very moment that various southern states were seceding from the Union! Young announced, moreover, that Utah would come into the Union as a “free state”—this despite his own racist anti-black views.

    The Preface is followed by a more accurate and insightful forward written by Eugene E. Campbell. This forward reflects the late author’s own “revisionist” or moderate view of Brigham Young. Thus, Campbell steers a careful middle course between the “traditional” faith-promoting semi-official hagiographical writings extolling the unblemished virtues of the Utah Mormon leader and the equally “traditional” anti-Mormon diatribes—presenting the Mormon leader as little more than a power-hungry, lecherous, sometimes violent zealot. Campbell describes Young as a “paradoxical figure” who “deserves to be listed among the greatest American colonizers” but has “been given more credit that he deserves” (xix). Young’s “calls to colonize were not nearly as well planned as Mormons today might believe” (xxi). As for Young’s dealings with the federal government, “Young seemed convinced that federal officials were in a conspiracy to destroy his community” thereby causing the Mormon leader to express views ranging from “ambivalent to paranoid” (xxi). In general, Campbell sees Young as “a great leader . . . especially effective as a colonizer and in dealing with practical things.” But the Mormon leader, according to Campbell, left his followers “with another heritage” in that he “was responsible for expanding the practice of plural marriage in the face of federal law declaring it illegal. He fostered an attitude of antagonism toward the federal government which led to hardship and almost resulted in the destruction of the [Mormon] church” (xxvii-xxix).

    Such a “revisionist” or mixed portrait of Brigham Young clearly emerges from a careful reading of the twenty-five sermons presented in this volume. This is evident in Young’s teachings relative to the nature of salvation. On the one hand Young asserted that the Mormon “gospel” was adapted to the capacities of all persons, high or low, so that all could be saved, except for a few “sons of perdition” (129, 140). But the degrees of glory vary, and “no man or woman . . . will ever enter the celestial kingdom” or the highest degree “without the consent of Joseph Smith” (130). He even went so far as to advocate the concept of “blood atonement” for some whose spilled blood represented their only “chance whatever for exaltation” (110).

    Young asserted that the only path to salvation was through Utah Mormonism. All other sects would be damned (175), including the RLDS. “If there are any Latter-day Saints who wish to be destroyed, run after [the Smith] family, and I will promise you in the name of the God of Israel that you will be damned” (189-90). Following the death of Joseph Smith the Quorum of Twelve had “the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world” (12). Brigham Young also presented provocative teachings concerning the nature of God. On the one hand, Young viewed God as omnipotent and omnipresent: “There is no portion of space where He is not” (76). But he also ascribed to God “a body, with parts, senses, and passions, which has a location, a family, a home” (162).

    In sharp contrast to general Christian monotheistic concepts, Young asserted a set of polytheistic beliefs declaring “in the eternities of worlds, saints, angels, kingdom, and gods: In eternity without beginning I believe the gods never had a beginning, neither the formation of matter, and is without end” (87). Young also broke with traditional Christian beliefs in his teachings concerning the nature of human beings. The soul or “spirit” existed in a premortal state before entering the body at birth. When the spirit enters the body “it is pure and holy from the heavens, and could [this spirit] reign predominantly” within the human body “without an opposing force, man never would commit a sin.” However, the human body has to suffer the effects of the fall, of the sin which Satan has introduced and hence the spirit does not bear rule all the time” (145). And Young envisioned an eternal reward more glorious than mere eternal life, as the most righteous could “become gods . . . eternal fathers, eternal mothers, eternal sons and eternal daughters” (225).

    Young had a strong sense of Mormon ethnicity. Mormons were literal descendants of the House of Israel, specifically the tribe of Joseph. He held that the great majority of Mormons were “descendants of that Joseph who was sold” into Egypt, and in the last days shall “hold the keys of the last dispensation of the fullness of times” (132).

    This strong sense of Mormon ethnicity, however, caused Young to ascribe racial inferiority to those ethnic groups not of “the chosen seed” of Joseph. The condition of various darker skinned peoples including “the tawny and copper colored, the black[s]” indeed all “who are not white and delightsome . . . is because their sins and iniquities have brought a curse upon them” (195). Blacks, in particular, or “the children of Cain,” were compelled to endure the “dreadful curse” of a black skin along with their degraded status as “servant of servants” and denial of “the ordinances of the Priesthood.” “They were the first that were cursed, and they will be the last from whom the curse shall be removed” (132).

    Young was equally assertive in describing the lines of temporal authority within his community of believers. On the status of women and their place within Mormonism, he stated that “as no man can be perfect without the woman, so no woman can be perfect without a man to lead her” (22). Young, moreover, was explicit in affirming the subordinate position of women as well as children to male authority, noting: “For a man to follow a woman is, in the sight of heaven disgraceful to the name of a man. It is a disgrace for parents to follow their children.” As for ultimate temporal authority, Young asserted, “I am your leader, Latter Day Saints, and you must follow me” (113).

    In conclusion, what is abundantly clear to readers of The Essential Brigham Young, particularly those outside of the Utah Mormon tradition, is that Brigham Young guided his Utah Mormon followers toward the development of a complex and elaborate set of doctrines and beliefs inspired by a number of concepts initially suggested by Joseph Smith. But these Utah Mormon concepts were clearly distinct from those concurrently emerging within the fledgling Reorganized Church. Brigham Young’s important role in articulating such ideas has been overlooked or minimized by most scholars, more interested in the Utah Mormon leader’s other, more visible (and more glamorous) roles as western colonizer, political leader, and practicing polygamist. Thus, the twenty-five sermons contained in this volume provide an excellent introduction to such evolving Utah Mormon beliefs. As such, The Essential Brigham Young is essential reading for all serious students of Latter Day Saint studies.

  4. Carl. J. Guarneri, Journal of the Early Republic

    Although Brigham Young dominated the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during its pioneer days in the West and remains a towering figure in Mormon history, his speeches and writings are not readily accessible. The current Books in Print, for example, lists several titles by the martyred mystic Joseph Smith but none by his more earthy and long-lived successor. That should make this selection of twenty-five of Young’s approximately eight hundred known sermons particularly welcome to general readers as well as scholars of western and religious history.

    Young’s “discourses” were extemporaneous, often meandering talks given to the Mormon faithful on Sundays or while on tour through the Utah Territory, disconnected puzzle pieces of what he called “the great Gospel sermon” (57). With an artlessness that was in fact quite artful, Young wove folkish common sense, recollections of Joseph Smith, scriptural citations (surprisingly few from the Book of Mormon), and his own theological speculations into lively talks that reached frontier listeners in their own language and at their own pace. Young used these homilies for a variety of purposes: to consolidate his leadership of the church’s Twelve Apostles; to scold Mormons for straying from piety; to express blunt opinions on science, race, religion, and government; to announce church appointments and construction projects; and to explain his version of such key Mormon teachings as plural marriage (polygamy), baptism of the dead, blood atonement, and the divinity of Adam. Hence historians will find these sermons rich sources for studies of Mormon theology, western social history, and antebellum culture.

    In the main, the publishers wisely let Brigham Young speak for himself in a forceful, persuasive vernacular that combines hubris and humility, anger and affection, prejudice and curiosity, philosophical confusion and practical sense. The power of that patriarchal voice over its nineteenth-century Mormon audience—often for better but sometimes for worse—helps explain the mixture of admiration and disapproval this “American Moses” has elicited from many historians.

  5. The New Eng;and Review of Books

    This volume represents the most superb collection of the primary writings of Brigham Young which has appeared to date. The detailed foreword here gives a splendid view of the range of Young’s life and thought. For anyone in search of a Young handbook this volume should be the work of choice.

  6. Ogden Standard Examiner

    Imagine a modem Christian leader denouncing a U.S. president as “a stink in the nostrils of every honorable person.” That’s what Mormon Church President Brigham Young said of President James Buchanan in 1858. It’s only one of many controversial opinions included in a new collection of Young’s public speeches, The Essential Brigham Young, recently published by Signature Books.

    The book includes sermons that appeared in such newspapers as the Deseret News; other information was drawn from archival sources. The Essential Brigham Young is third in a series of collected writings by Mormon theologians. Previous volumes in the series include the theology of Parley Pratt and Orson Pratt. Future volumes will includes the writings of Joseph Smith, James Talmage and B.H. Roberts.

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