Brigham Young and Modern Mormonism
Mormonism is a nickname for the practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sometimes when people who aren’t Mormon want to witness to Mormons or to talk about their church, they get all tangled up in Brigham Young. They quote him extensively as if he were the current prophet and then wonder why Mormons aren’t really interested in their conversation. In this article, we’ll explore Brigham Young’s relationship to the modern Mormon Church.
Brigham Young was born in 1801. When he was fourteen his mother died and he began to support himself. In time, he would become a carpenter. He and his first wife became Mormon in 1832, a few months before she died, leaving him a single parent. In later years, he would tease LDS (Mormon) women by telling them he could probably keep house as well or better than most of them. It took him two years of study after his family obtained copies of the Book of Mormon to decide to join. He was looking for a church that more closely matched the New Testament church set up by Jesus than did the one to which he currently belonged and would not join until he was certain it was true.
In 1835, the Mormons organized the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who functioned as did the apostles in biblical times, and Brigham Young was ordained to be one of these original apostles. Although today, apostles gain seniority based on when they became apostles, all the original apostles were called at the same time, so seniority was based on age. For that reason, when Joseph Smith was murdered, Brigham Young became the new prophet.
The Mormon Church was young and new and functioning in a time that is not like ours. It is important to remember this when looking at things Brigham Young said. It is also important to understand the role a prophet plays in the Mormon church, so let’s start there.
In the Bible, we see God provided the world with a series of prophets, not just one. Each one added new things to the gospel. Some commandments were given just for their own time, such as building an ark or traveling to the promised land. Other laws were preparatory laws, meant to be a step towards a higher law. The Law of Moses is an example of this. We don’t practice the Law of Moses today, but it prepared us for the higher laws Jesus would introduce. From this, we see that God is looking at His church in a longer-range view than we are. We see things only in terms of our life. God looks at His church as an entity to be built line upon line, step by step.
Jesus’ teachings that when the Law of Moses was fulfilled we would move on to a higher law did not in any way undermine Moses’ role as a true prophet. Moses taught God’s law—for that time in history. Each prophet took us a little closer to the fullness of the gospel, but God’s followers had to learn to recognize the difference between practices and doctrine in order to understand why things sometimes changed.
Today, Mormon beliefs include an acceptance that God has not retreated and abandoned us, leaving us with no guidance to prepare for the Second Coming. The Bible never said God would never restore prophets to the earth. He said, in fact, that He would do nothing except through His prophets. Each prophet today, as in Biblical times, teaches God’s word according to eternal principles, the needs of the current day, and our place in the progression of revealed truths. This last is, remember, demonstrated in the Bible as teachings were gradually added to our knowledge of truth.
Today, we live in a world where something a leader says can be instantly transmitted around the world. Mormon leaders, like everyone else, have learned to be more specific in explaining what is official and what is not. If you visit LDS.org, the official Mormon website, you’ll see a few sections, such as the blog, clearly described as non-official. Apostles sometimes preface remarks given to non-LDS groups as being their own opinions, not as official LDS statements. In the early days there was less expectation that every word would be preserved and so leaders were more casual in their talk. Because the church was new and there was so little revealed, people often asked Brigham Young questions that did not yet have an official answer. Where God has not spoken, we are free to come to our own conclusions based on our understanding of the gospel. Even a prophet is allowed to have opinions, and so, Brigham Young would sometimes offer an opinion. In the actual setting, people probably understood the difference, but today, many people mistakenly believe that if he said it, it is official doctrine.
General Conference, the semi-annual meeting of the Mormons, was also different then. While today it is very formal, in those days it was not. People could ask questions and get impromptu answers, a combination of revealed doctrine and personal opinion. Some of these answers and talks were recorded in the Journal of Discourses. While interesting to read, the Journal is not official doctrine. It is not a compilation of Brigham Young’s speeches. It is a compilation of notes taken in shorthand by others when he spoke. Brigham Young did not review these transcribed notes or correct them or clarify. Today, when a talk is given in General Conference, each speaker is allowed, on Monday morning, to review the actual talk given and make corrections. This allows them to alter any opinions that appeared to be given as fact or to correct the unclear or incorrect statement that invariably slips in when one is speaking. This was not done then, and the Journal of Discourses was never vetted for accuracy or monitored to be certain that what was said is what was meant. Therefore, Mormons do not quote the Journal of Discourses when sourcing official teachings. They are used only to back up official statements or for personal interest.
When looking at Brigham Young as a source of official Mormon doctrine we must remember several things. Mormons believe in following a living prophet, not a dead one. This concept was clearly taught by Jesus every time people tried to use the Law of Moses to overthrow what He was teaching. He was the living prophet in addition to being the Savior, and it was His words they needed to follow. Mormons today also follow first the teachings of the living prophet. When quoting Brigham Young, it is important to then go forward to see what the most recent statement on the issue is. God has always treated his gospel as an ongoing course of study and learning, not a static one. Otherwise, Adam would have been the last prophet. It is the most recent statement that is the official one on canonized doctrine.
Canonized doctrine means doctrine that has been made official. Not all Mormon beliefs are equal. Some are official canonized doctrine and are those that affect our eternal salvation. These are really the only ones Mormons are interested in. Everything else is just interesting at best. Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? How do we know what is true? What do we have to know and do to return to God? What is the Plan of Salvation? These are the questions Mormons focus on.
However, these tend not to be the questions outsiders talking about Mormonism focus on. Instead, they often get sidetracked by things that are not official doctrine at all. Some things are simply speculation, more commonly believed in the past. Some are no more than insider jokes mistaken by outsiders as doctrine. Some are fringe things that simply aren’t important to us. If it doesn’t impact our ability to be saved and to return to God, it isn’t that important to us and Mormons pretty much don’t care today whether those things are true or not.
It’s also important to remember that everything credited to Brigham Young was not really said by him or was said in a different context. While we honor Brigham Young for his significant contributions to the Mormon Church in extraordinarily difficult times, and we do study his words, we do not consider him the current prophet. To find out what Mormons really believe, you need to look at the church today, not how it was in the 1800s.
If you’d like to know what parts of Brigham Young’s teachings Mormons do focus on, it can be enlightening to read a book that was taught in Mormon classes a few years ago. Mormons have been studying the words of past prophets and the manuals are considered appropriate research materials. Reading this can help you to understand the contributions Brigham Young made to the church and the parts of his teachings that apply to modern times. It will become clear that he is honored and respected and that we teach much of what he taught today. We know he was a prophet for his time, just as Thomas S. Monson is the prophet of ours. However, we do not consider him the current prophet, any more than we build our entire church on the teachings of Moses.
Read Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young
However, to get official and current teachings, you need to study the teachings of Thomas S. Monson, the current Prophet.