Brigham Young had several different ways he spoke, and I always found them useful in understanding prophets.
They were logic, speculation, revelation, by authority and pastoral. He had two styles, prosaic and hyperbole.
Foundations of Speaking: logic, speculation, revelation, authority, pastoral
Logic, the “pure kenning” speeches are the most famous (or infamous).
The interesting thing about those is that he was extremely open about the logic – and those who disagreed with him were remarkably free from retaliation, though they would sometimes challenge him on whether or not he was speaking by revelation (which is how I learned about the use of logic without any spiritual basis – Brigham Young was more than clear when he was speaking from unassisted logic).
From logic we get his public addresses about the value of pigs, how everyone should own one, and how everyone should eat them – and other talks about how no one should eat pig meat and how he was unwilling to eat donuts fried in pig fat. His position changed a good deal on pigs. He also spoke on his thought that there were men living on the moon and on the sun and how that had nothing to do with revelation and everything to do with pure logic. He also addressed the Utah legislature on race issues in a hotly contested debate, but his authority was logic, not revelation or inspiration.
Like Joseph Smith, he cherished an audience who was attuned to the spirit and would speculate on a point and attempt to listen to the feedback from the spirit that he received, adjusting and approaching the same point over and over again. Often those talks are dramatically different in view point. They make interesting comparisons.
For example, on his repentance/restitution talks, some verge on 12 Step “being willing to be willing” and others are “make complete and total restitution, including giving up your life” and everything in-between. Taken in isolation they can lead to some real conflicts in trying to figure out his meaning. Taken as speculation, circling around an uncertain center point, they point directions without conclusions.
His speculation was often coupled with revelation. He claimed by revelation that the name “Adam” was actually a title that had been, and could be, used by many different individuals. We have a great deal of speculation from him as he tried to determine what that meant and how it could be applied. It is surprising, though, how little of what he preached he actually claimed had a basis in revelation.
He also claimed by revelation that women were equal to men, but that at the specific time and place he was in they were not equal because men had not given them the opportunities for learning and experience that were due women. He then applied logic to conclude that since women were not equal to men a number of theological points should be made.
Directive or speaking by authority.
His authority directions are interesting. In the Utah colonization, given how slender their financial resources were and how desperate the circumstances, unified action was critical to avoiding disaster. He became very directive over time, especially as to people keeping their word. He tried to give specific and direct instruction.
His most famous directive story involves a rail road line that was competing with the one he was involved in. The locals (Mormons) had decided the deal wasn’t good enough and were backing out. The outsider (non-Mormon) appealed to Brigham Young. In the end, after all the arguments, Brigham Young asked only one question of either group, after they had both talked until they were talked out. “Did you give your word?” He followed that with “Then keep it.”
He felt very strongly a responsibility to keep the saints from starving to death or otherwise being destroyed.
The pastoral addresses were rarely recorded, but show an interest and a care in others. He also was a strong proponent of the environment and was often cited for that point by Robert Redford and Hugh Nibley.
One constant theme he had was taking joy in the pure physicality of life and the natural world. Plays, theater, music, physical exercise and exertion, he felt all of these merited respect and had value.
Styles: prosaic and hyperbole
Prosaic style — his private face.
A good example of prosaic addresses can be found in his pastoral letters (such as those to his sons). To many who have read Brigham Young otherwise, these are almost boring by comparison. They are very prosaic.
Hyperbole — his public face.
As for the hyperbole, we know it was a style he was using because he complained a number of times that his audiences liked hyperbole and refused to listen to him unless he used the style. From that it is also clear that he was speaking in hyperbole rather than direct literalism (that is, he was exaggerating what he was saying, and the exaggeration was intended as exaggeration and expected to be understood as exaggerated by his audiences).
What I learned from studying the variety of foundations and expressions of Brigham Young
First, it struck me just how much of what he thought and concluded and believed was the result of pure logic – and just how free he felt to change his mind whenever his conclusions were the result of pure logic. His pure logic addresses are also useful because they are the source of the most push-back – people felt free to disagree and argue with him on points of pure logic (or why there was such freedom in some of the Utah legislature debates).
Second, it struck me just how willing he was to tolerate push back on pure logic discussions. I think we all benefit from tolerating push back and acknowledging when we are working from logic and not more.
Third, it gave new meaning to the D&C verses that state “teach nothing but repentance to this generation” – about how speculation can affect the way people deal with things when they don’t understand the place speculation and exploration can have. It also highlighted to me the importance of recognizing speculation and acknowledging it (I love the talk by Joseph Smith where he talks of how he respects the patience of an audience that will let him speculate and not rise up and sting him to death for the mistakes that will lead him to make).
I think if we accepted how much of what we personally believe is the result of logic or speculation and brought ourselves not to be quite so attached to our conclusion from logic and speculation we might be more open to being taught more by God.
I’ve heard the catch phrase “strong opinions, loosely held” recently, and liked it.
- I wonder how many of our readers have read Brigham Young using those lenses I have described.
- How many use those to look at other discussions?
- How many use tools like that to look at their own beliefs?
- What useful things have you gotten from studying Brigham Young?