The conversation over the propriety of monuments glorifying those who fought for slavery has begun hitting home for me. Two editorials in the Salt Lake Tribune1 recently argued about whether Brigham Young University should undergo a name change due to Young’s involvement in legalizing slavery of American Indians and those of African descent in Utah and instituting the priesthood ban. As an alumnus of that university, it’s made me think.
Long-time readers of the blog know that I’m big fan of genealogy and family history. One difficulty in researching ancestors is that you often come across details that make people… uncomfortable. In writing about the life of my ancestor, Mormon pioneer Theodore Turley, I’ve consistently caused problems by assuming descendants know about his excommunication. Most descendants who participate in the family organization are active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They take great pride in his involvement in early church history, his faithful missionary efforts, and his involvement with the settlement of various communities in California and Utah. Thing is, he and his son-in-law, Amasa Mason Lyman, became heavily involved in the short-lived Godbeite movement in the late 19th century. This movement protested Brigham Young’s heavy-handed economic control and religious authoritarianism. Theodore even led the branch of the “Church of Zion” in his hometown of Beaver, Utah.2 He was excommunicated 12 June 18703 and died 18 August 1871 before the Godbeite movement fizzled out.
Family members have responded with shame or panic at this information. Some descendants have opted to make mention of Theodore Turley anathema. Others have sought to explain his actions as the result of impaired thinking. He likely had erethism or “mad hatter disease” due to frequent exposure to mercury in his mining ventures, they argue.
On the other hand, there are cousins who complain about our emphasis on Theodore’s activities in the Church. Some who are generations removed from church membership find it off-putting. Others who’ve been ostracized by their own families for leaving the church are affected more deeply. Those who find actions of church leaders in Nauvoo disturbing aren’t thrilled reading about Theodore’s close friendship with Joseph Smith or his early involvement in polygamy. And then there’s Theodore smearing William and Wilson Law during the Nauvoo Expositor hearings and his possible involvement in counterfeiting with other church leaders. How could anyone look up to this man?
As I’ve been digging into criminal activities around Nauvoo, trying to figure out Theodore’s involvement in counterfeiting, I discover similar conflicts with other figures. Men like Edward Bonney and Return Jackson Redden were clearly involved with criminal gangs and committed crimes for years, but they also seem to have accomplished some great things. Are they good or bad?
And now we return to Brigham Young. I don’t like Brigham Young; however, he was undoubtedly the greatest influence on Utah history, for good and bad, from his arrival in the valley in 1847 until his death. He was the first governor of the state, not to mention the head of a territory-wide theocracy. Utah’s annual founding day celebration, the 24th of July, commemorates when his company entered the valley and he declared, “This is the right place.” The fact that an academy and, later, a university is named after him shouldn’t surprise anyone. But through his influence a lot of people were hurt. What’s the best way to honor their memories? Would eliminating Brigham Young’s name from the university help?
Most people know that the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has a “Ute” as a mascot. Where many sports teams and universities chose to eliminate American Indian mascots out of respect, the Ute Indian Tribe and the University of Utah pursued a different approach. The Tribe allows the university to use their name in return for greater cultural awareness and education (to all incoming university students) about the history of the Ute Indian Tribe and other American Indians. In turn, the university supports the education of Ute Indian students and provides funding for Tribal educational programs.
I don’t know if Brigham Young University should change its name, but I do know that BYU students need better education about Brigham Young and the history of the land. They should know about the American Indian communities that inhabited the land for hundreds and thousands of years and what happened to them after 24th July 1847. They should know about the free and enslaved African-Americans that came to Utah in the Mormon migrations and the lynchings that occurred in the state as late as 1925. They should know about the Chinese community that came here with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. They should know about the Japanese Utahns that were interned at Topaz. They should know why we have annual Greek celebrations in Salt Lake. They should know why Mormons began calling the southern portion of the state Utah’s Dixie, and how in the 20th century the area began to embrace symbols of the confederacy.
The vast majority of students at Brigham Young University are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Examining the history of Utah provides a valuable lesson on how Mormon communities have historically interacted with those of other ethnicities (whether in or out of the faith) and communities. As the students “enter to learn” and “go forth to serve,” perhaps they can learn from the successes and missteps of past church members to better prepare them for the future.
1 Tasi Young, “Time to Change the Name of BYU,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12 June 2020; Hannah Seariac, “University Should Still be Named for Brigham Young” Salt Lake Tribune, 16 June 2020.
2 “Correspondence from Elder A. M. Lyman,” Mormon Tribune (name later changed to the Salt Lake Tribune), 18 June 1870, p. 1, col. 1, GenealogyBank.com.
3 “Local and Other Matters,” Deseret News, 29 June 1870, p. 1, col. 3, DigitalNewspapers.org; “Progress of the Movement in Beaver,” Mormon Tribune (named later changed to the Salt Lake Tribune), 25 June 1870, p. 3, col. 2, GenealogyBank.com
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
I believe there is great danger in obscuring our past whether we are a religion or nation. This is how totalitarian states come aboutt. We should not glorify the failures and sins of those that went before us. But let’s not forget from whence we came. Let statues and names be what they are: lessons in learning.
The last thing LDS leaders want to do is to deal with “uncomfortable” history that relates to the Church or to Utah. And with Correlation more or less running the publishing business of the Church, there is a strong institutional mechanism to shut down any official discussion of such subjects.
The Bible actually gives a reasonably balanced account of “uncomfortable ” history and leaders’ weaknesses.
Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Adam then blamed Eve who blamed the serpent. (Genesis 3)
Noah became drunk after he left the ark and had planted a vineyard. (Genesis 9)
Abraham lied twice about his wife Sarah, each time claiming that Sarah was merely his sister. (Genesis 12 & 20)
Lot had an incestuous relationship with his two daughters. (Genesis 19)
Jacob played a trick on Isaac in order to get the birthright blessing. (Genesis 27)
Aaron built a golden calf for idol worship. (Exodus 32)
Miriam had a bout of leprosy as punishment for gossiping about Moses’ wife. (Numbers 12)
Moses was not allowed to cross into the Promised Land because he was disrespectful to the Lord when he drew water from the rock at Meribah. (Numbers 20:8-12)
Gideon made an “ephod” out of the gold won in battle, which caused the whole of Israel again to turn away from God. (Judges 8:26-27)
Jonah at first refused to go to Ninevah. So he was swallowed by a whale. (Jonah 1)
David sinned with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 11)
Solomon worshiped the gods of his wives. (1 Kings 11)
Elijah was depressed and asked God to let him die. (1 Kings 19)
Job cursed his own birth. (Job 3)
King Hezekiah showed his treasures to the ambassadors from Babylon. Isaiah then prophesied: Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord. (Isaiah 39)
Zacharias was struck dumb because he doubted the angel Gabriel’s message that he, Zacharias, would be the father of John the Baptist. (Luke 1)
Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven demons before Jesus cleansed her. (Luke 8:2)
Martha complained to Jesus that her sister Mary was unhelpful with housework. (Luke 10:38-42)
Peter denied knowing Christ three times. (Mark 14)
Nathaniel questioned: Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46)
Thomas doubted that Jesus had been resurrected. (John 20)
Saul (Paul) held the coats of the men who stoned Stephen. (Acts 6)
John Mark left Paul and the other missionaries who were traveling to Asia Minor, and he returned to Jerusalem. This caused a break between Paul and Barnabas some time later. (Acts 13 & 15)
For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.
For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, explains that God deliberately chooses human prophets whose mortal nature is apparent, so that people will not ascribe the miracles they perform to themselves, but rather to
There are other universities in America named after controversial religious leaders (Oral Roberts, Bob Jones, etc). Though these men are long dead, these institutions have never been able to fully distance themselves from the unsavory reputations of their respective namesakes. This is precisely why changing the name of BYU is long overdue.
Great, thought-provoking post Mary Ann! History (not just Mormon history) can be complex. We are all combinations of good and bad.
Memorials are only partly about remembering history, and also largely an expression of what we value today. Consider, for instance, the difference between memorials of Hitler vs memorials of Holocaust victims. Same logic applies to the broader conversation about *who* from the civil war and reconstruction era is raised up. Funny that the south isn’t riddled with memorials to the first wave of elected black legislators (many of whom were lynched). I see Brigham Young memorials as less severely bad than confederate ones, because it’s much more plausible that the intent was to remember something other than his approval of slavery. But I can also tell you that his name on my resume is a big liability. It’s consistently clear that job interviewers note it, raise an eye, and continue with extra scrutiny. Let’s be honest with ourselves here: outsiders definitely associate Brigham Young with racism, cultish theocracy, polygamy, colonialism, and increasingly with homophobia as well (in context of BYU). They never think ‘modern Moses who made the desert blossom as a rose’!! Finding a way to redefine those connotations is… well… probably harder than redefining the way ‘Ute’ is used.
Marrissa, I agree with your point about negative association with Brigham Young vs Ute. One hesitation I have, though, is the risk of church leaders actually changing the name and then leaning back saying, “There! We fixed the problem. Stop bugging us.” The Ute Indian Tribe didn’t want people to just ignore them, so they used the Ute mascot as a way to bring attention to their cause and educate.
When the priesthood ban was reversed, it was huge. But church leaders didn’t apologize, they didn’t disavow their past justifications (until 2013), and they allowed the racism to fester until finally it brought them bad publicity in 2012. I don’t want church leaders to ignore the underlying issues yet again. I have no problem getting rid of statues, and I support changing the name of the Smoot building. What I *don’t* want is Brigham Young’s actions to be ignored and swept under the rug.
Mary Ann– oh, we definitely agree that renaming the BYUs wouldn’t be sufficient by itself 🙂 And I don’t think we disagree that quite a few other anti-racist actions would be more impactful. Just thinking about how, given the bulk of evidence that he was very discriminatory in many arenas, and that it was not a small part of his life or legacy, calls for renaming will not be possible to wait out. The more arguments against renaming are given, the more advocates for renaming will conclude that indeed, his memorials do represent a collective sense of comfort with / tolerance for / defence of his racism now. And that process can only serve to reinforce the very negative reputation he has outside the church. I’m also thinking that, as an extra perk, renaming would likely also help me and other alumni professionally.
First, let’s be absolutely clear: a church that refuses to apologize for anything (see: Oaks, D.) is not renaming its flagship university.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Salt Lake decides to do on the advice of the PR staff. After whom would the university be named? Do we go with notable LDS scholars? Popular figures in church history? Famous contemporary Mormons?
Would people accept any general authority who served during and/or supported the priesthood ban? Probably not…which eliminates all of the GAs through Thomas S. Monson (and would probably require rechristening most of the buildings on campus as well).
Given all of that, a few possibilities in the unlikely event that this happens:
10. Elijah Abel University
9. Porter Rockwell University
8. LaVell Edwards University (really, isn’t that pretty close to the reality every fall anyway?)
7. Steve Young University (saves money on changing Y mountain and the football helmets)
6. Philo Farnsworth University
5. Brandon Flowers University
4. Orson Pratt University (for the abbreviation alone)
3. Harmon Killebrew University
2. Leonard Arrington University
1. Jeffrey Holland University
Yes, I know–no women among these ten options. Let’s face it: this hypothetical is already WAY out there….Jane Manning James University would never make it past the first committee meeting.
[For the humor impaired, this post was not meant to be serious. As Sergeant Hulka would say, “Lighten up, Francis.”
DJ, yeah, what I would like it to be named is a fun thought experiment. Jane Manning James U would make it past my committee! But you know, it doesn’t have to be named after a person. What about Deseret U? There was historically a University of Deseret, where Karl Maeser worked before directing BY Academy (later BYU), and which BYA replaced. One can imagine a lot of possibilities drawing inspiration from land, animals, geologic formations, or symbols associated with Utah. It wouldn’t be hard to find one that also had ties to either education programs associated with BYA/BYU or Mormon history/ ideals more broadly. (Aspen Grove, Alpine, Sego Lily, Granite, Beehive).
The University of East Provo, The School of the Prophets, The University of Zion, Zoobie University?
I actually do like the Karl G. Maeser and Deseret suggestions.
Brandon Flowers University has my vote.
Does this mean BYUI can go back to being Ricks? Because I’m still mad about that. 😉
Thank you for this thoughtful post. I love this line:
“As the students “enter to learn” and “go forth to serve,” perhaps they can learn from the successes and missteps of past church members to better prepare them for the future.”
I regularly have to remind myself – people, like organizations, are complex. Regular discussion of both good and bad in our history seems like the right medicine to help overcome our fear that acknowledging any perceived failures and sins counts as “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed.”
Paul Delos Boyer University. Named after BYU’s first (and so far only?) Nobel Prize recipient.
Hugh B. Brown
Astrid S Tuminez
BYUI should go back to Idaho High School.
Lots of people are wasting a lot of subsidized money going there
Saraph Young University–she was the first woman to vote! And you could keep the Y on the helmets and the Mountain.
Could someone please tell me a little more about the recent series of youtube videos from a gentleman named – Brett McDonald?
As an alum of both BYU and the University of Virginia, I find it interesting to see how both universities handle the controversial past of Brigham and Young and Thomas Jefferson respectively. At UVA, there’s a lot of open examination and inquiry about the complexities and contradictions of TJ. He’s viewed as both brilliant and flawed and both opinions are expressed openly by the university community. At BYU, on the other hand, criticism of Brigham Young is almost unheard of (at least it was back in the late 80s when I attended).
I understand that Brigham Young was an LDS prophet so there’s a natural tendency to ignore his flaws. But if we want to face Mormon history honestly we have to emulate what’s going on at UVA with respect to the past.
Because we refuse to learn from the past, we will continue to repeat it. We can’t handle any infallibility of leaders, so their every whim and wish is our command. The endless drumbeat of obey obey obey is still heard every general conference. We’ve replaced our personal conscience with that of our leaders’ instructions, and we’ve replaced our own ability to hear and follow the spirit with what our leaders say the spirit says. Frankly, this was how Brigham Young got away with many of his worst atrocities. His power was largely unchecked, and he threw his weight around plenty. He was incredibly racist to the point he would have made the KKK blush, and his view on women were likewise problematic.
Uh, Boyer is BYU’s Nobel Prize recipient? I thought the university where the academic works WHEN he or she receives the Nobel is the one who gets to claim him or her. Boyer got his undergraduate degree from BYU, but he was employed by UCLA when recognized by the Nobel Prize committee. He was also an atheist and humanist later in life and was never a devout Mormon, so that suggestion, while well intended, would probably be nixed by a church that prefers a bigot and bully as flagship school namesake.
As I see it, there are 4 options when it comes to problematic monuments and namesakes:
1) Leave the statues and continue to teach a false, simplistic narrative.
2) Remove the statues, call it good enough, and teach whatever version of the narrative you can get away with under a changed symbol (would depend largely on the new symbol)
3) Keep the statues, revise curricula significantly to tee up deeper discussions of the problematic aspects of that leader and history.
4) Remove the statues, revise curricula significantly to tee up deeper discussions of the problematic aspects of that leader and history.
Statues and naming can and do create a framework for discussing history, but ultimately, the story that is told is going to reflect the current values of the organization. The current values of BYU are highly problematic when it comes to Church leaders and Church history and frankly to deep discussions that can lead to questions and doubts. Given that Brigham Young was a mix of “good” and “utterly terrible,” it’s a tough call, one made tougher by the Church’s whitewashing of its own history from day one.
I think the Church can live with #1 (if only the members would allow it), and could also live with #2 (Deseret feels like the best solution as it points to the “good” Brigham Young did, sounds a little academic, and is certainly uniquely Mormon). I don’t believe the Church has the stomach for #3 or #4, but if it did do #3, I suspect #4 would follow.
Maybe there is a fifth option:. Build more statues, either to celebrate individual people or classes of people. If nothing else, it will employ some artists and give pigeons a place to rest and poop.
For example, a statue remembering the Chinese who built the railroad, or the Japanese who lived at a relocation center. Denmark got its first statue honoring a black woman in 2018 — and the back story is certainly worth a read — google Queen Mary Statue Denmark. I like statues and monuments because they invite observers to inquire — I am okay with others building a statue that doesn’t cater to my interests.
If statue of Brigham is kept could it have a sign explaining that the statue is honouring his church and political leadership, but he was also a racist, and white supremacist. That he had 27 wives but was not respectful of women. That he believed his sperm contained very small copies of him, that just needed to be incubated by a woman to birth.
Deseret or rocky mountain uni sound good to me.
It’s far past time to rename Dixie State University! Named after the South to highlight the cotton production in that area, it has a long and blatant adoration for confederate and southern culture and everything racist that entails!!!
Sadly, I don’t think the students there will push for it, but they should be going bezerk at this point.
Going back to your main question- dealing with difficult history, at what point will we as saints in our arrogance and pride admit, and (dear Elder Oaks) apologize and repent for the fact that we got it wrong. Our whole understanding and treatment of the black community and persons was wrong. And no, we weren’t just blinded by the time, the Quakers were right In 1688 when they became abolitionists- the Shakers got it right. After serving as key stations in the Underground Railroad, Quakers were forced to move west. We got it wrong and stood on the wrong side of history and failed a test of love, the golden rule, brotherhood and equality. We failed politically and historically, but more importantly, we failed on a spiritual Level and even sinned and perpetuated false doctrine that not only deprived and harmed our fellow man, but eroded our vision of mankind’s divine nature, our neighbor, and our very relationship with God. We got it wrong. What’s no less than tragically epic to watch, is the light of truth that at certain points, shone among us as some got it right. But the struggle has been long and overwhelmingly wrong.
And this legacy continues to impact us today. For example, during the Syrian Refugee Crisis, the largest refugee emergency of the century that stirred racist push-back from several countries including the US, only one of the 40ish General Conference talks addressed the spiritual call for charity and help, and it was from a lowly 70. We supposedly started a big refugee initiative where all saints were instructed to help immigrants and refugees, but that fizzled pretty quickly didn’t it? How many LDS sources spoke of World Refugee Day On June 20th? Wasn’t your Facebook page plastered with awareness, action opportunities, information about the even more pressing need under COVID? No? Neither was mine. Went by without a whimper.
Geoff-Aus: 27 wives? you’re about 50% correct