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