Brigham Young had four defining characteristics when it came to the things he said in public:
- Hyperbole. He used it as a rhetorical style, and used it as hyperbole.
- Logic. Much of what he said he would describe as pure logic or “kenning.” When asked he would state that there wasn’t any revelation to it at all, just logic.
- Needing refinement. He believed all revelation and knowledge was incomplete because all who have it are incomplete.
- Speculation. He enjoyed speculating with an audience and paying attention to where the Spirit went with him or not.
Those who knew him well were well aware of those four factors. These days we tend to ignore those factors and it leads us to not understanding him as he intended or as his listeners often did.
Brigham Young was good at it, but he complained about the fact that his audiences loved it and would just not listen to him if he did not use it. He also realized it led to audiences not taking him as seriously as he would like because they used it as a lens to view him.
These days we too often have people speaking in hyperbole but meaning it as accuracy (e.g. the current trend to call any action by “the other party” in the government as treason — something engaged in from left to right, from Mark Levine to Jay Michaelson). But in Brigham Young’s era it was an accepted (and understood) rhetorical form — of which he was a master.
Logic. Brigham Young was a big fan of the approach that people should act on their own initiative. He applied that to himself and worked things out with logic. Now that did not always make him consistent. For example, he could never make up his mind on pork. At times he is on record that every family should raise pigs and that pork and the related results of pigs should be a mainstay of diet (ham and pork), clothing (leather from pigs) and garbage disposal (feed it to the pigs). At other times he was certain that pigs and man were never meant to cross paths, to the extent of refusing to eat donuts fried in lard from pigs.
Refinement. Brigham Young believed that our understanding of inspiration and revelation was limited by our understanding, our language and our context. Joseph Smith’s father had a vision of the iron rod — except it was a rope (and had other differences of imagery). Lehi saw different things than Nephi did when they both had that same vision. The translation of the Book of Mormon, Brigham Young taught, was affected greatly by the education and knowledge and age of Joseph Smith at the time, such that Brigham Young was certain that if it had been done when Joseph Smith was older, the language and words would have been different.
He was also affected by having watched the process by which Joseph Smith received revelation and then the brethren would discuss it, think about it, and it would be refined by reflection and increased understanding before it reached its final form. We do not see that process played out in public the way it was and tend to think of revelation more as taking divine dictation rather than a process by which inspiration is refined by study and prayer (though think about the priesthood ban, David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball and how they both struggled with seeking authority from God to resolve that).
Speculation. One of the fun parts of studying Brigham Young is to debate that if he taught something, just what was he teaching? Some of his positions seem to fluctuate widely, and some of his doctrinal expansions are very inconsistent. That is because he believed that he could learn by speculating and then reflecting on how the Spirit interacted with he, his audience and his speculation. Again, that did lead to his audiences often feeling free to ignore him, and a great deal of debate about what he was really teaching. Joseph Smith also talked about how he enjoyed an audience that would let him speculate, and Brigham Young took the same joy in audiences.
Notice how refinement and speculation play into each other.
If you are going to read Brigham Young or try to understand the things he said, those are the four factors you need to apply to obtaining a better knowledge of what he was trying to say and how he said it.