Mormon church manual paints polygamist Young as monogamist
Officials says it is not meant to be a biography of the leader
By Vern Anderson
The Associated Press
April 4, 1998
SALT LAKE CITY – Valeen Tippetts Avery, a professor of history at Northern Arizona University, had never met the perplexed young woman who came knocking at her door.
Newly married to a Mormon, the student had been reading up on the faith and attending its women’s auxiliary. She was confused now, and someone had suggested she talk to Avery.
”Dr. Avery,” she said, ”I just got the new Relief Society manual, which is about Brigham Young, and he only has one wife.”
Avery, a Mormon who knew the pioneer leader had 55 wives, couldn’t explain why the lesson manual being used since January by male and female church members in 22 languages paints America’s most famous polygamist as a monogamist.
But she had some advice.
”The Mormon church is trying to say to the new people coming into the church, as well as to the larger American society, that there was nothing questionable in the Mormon past,” Avery told the woman. ”And if you want answers to these kinds of sticky questions, you’re not going to find them inside accepted Mormon manuals and doctrines.”
The absence of any mention of polygamy is just one of the criticisms being leveled at the manual, the first of a projected series based on selected teachings of presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
”Homogenized pap,” snorts historian Will Bagley. ”I think it really shows a contempt for the intelligence of the members.”
”Whoever compiled the manual is extraordinarily embarrassed by the church’s second president,” says Ron Priddis of Signature Books.
”It’s a religious tract, not history,” scoffs historian Nancy J. Taniguchi.
”This isn’t about Brigham Young. It’s about what somebody in the church Correlation Department thinks is Brigham Young,” says Glen Hettinger, a lawyer and amateur church historian in Dallas.
Church officials say the barbs are unfairly aimed at a work that never was intended as a portrait of the colorful, controversial colonizer who brought the Mormons west to establish a theocratic empire. Instead, they say, it is a highly selective compilation of Young’s teachings on a variety of gospel topics seen by church leaders as relevant today.
”We’re introducing Brigham Young to a church member throughout the world who is not familiar with the historian’s perspective, so it’s not a biography. It’s not a history,” said Craig Manscill, chairman of the writing committee that produced the 370-page work.
Not the intent
”Those who believe that this is a historical account of Brigham Young, or an all-inclusive book of his teachings, or something to learn more about Brigham Young the man, the statesman, the great colonizer and so on – that was never the intent,” said Ronald L. Knighton, managing director of the church’s Curriculum Department.
Rather, the focus was the gospel of Jesus Christ ”as taught through the mouth and sermons of that great president of the church,” he said.
Within months of assuming the church presidency in March 1995, Gordon B. Hinckley told the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to begin updating the curriculum of the adult male priesthood quorums and of the Relief Society, both of which had always been separate.
Soon, a writing committee was formed, using ”Discourses of Brigham Young,” a 1954 compilation of Young’s teachings by Apostle John A. Widtsoe, as the primary source for a new priesthood manual. A few months later, church leaders decided the manual would be used by both men and women and added women to the writing committee.
Widtsoe’s work, narrowly winnowed from the hundreds of Young speeches contained in the multivolume ”Journal of Discourses,” had served to spruce up and sanitize the rough-and-ready frontier prophet for modern audiences. Widtsoe eliminated many of the cantankerous, contradictory, humorous and hyperbolic rantings for which Young was known and widely beloved, together with doctrines he espoused that the church no longer did.
Polygamy, which church founder Joseph Smith secretly established as ”the new and everlasting covenant of marriage” and which Young publicly championed, was dropped 13 years after his death in 1877 and appears nowhere in the Widtsoe index or the new manual.
Also missing from the manual are Young’s theories that Adam was God the Father and that Eve was just one of God’s wives, the rest having been left on other worlds. Blood atonement was another casualty.
Worse than a glaring lack of context, though, say critics who have closely compared statements in the manual to Young’s sermons, are the resulting misrepresentations of his ideas.
”I’d say that about 10 percent of the quotes are overtly lifted out of context, with about another 10 percent that are more subtly altered. In addition, about 5 percent have been abbreviated to avoid offense regarding race, nationality, gender and so on,” Priddis said.
Bagley is perhaps the most vociferous in his disdain for the new manual, which he sees as a misguided attempt ”to pass Brigham Young off as a 20th century Mormon,” as ”this defanged creature.”
Young as Hinckley
The ill-considered result, he said, is ”Brigham Young as Gordon B. Hinckley.”
Knighton acknowledges the work is ”a cut and paste of doctrine,” but ”not to misrepresent or try to interpret.”
”We’d ellipse occasionally as the brethren would counsel – most of those ellipses, or many of them, came from the First Presidency’s reading – but it was not an intent to capture full discourses,” he said.
The absence of polygamy – even in a chronology of Young’s life that mentions his first wife – should not be surprising, Manscill said, because the church dropped the practice in 1890.
”Was it in the material that we reviewed? Oh, it was there. And did we ellipse in certain places? Of course we did. But we were following what our leaders had asked us to do,” he said, ”meaning that this was the (current) doctrines.”
Ronald K. Esplin, director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University and a Young scholar, would have preferred a more historically seasoned manual. But he recognizes church leaders need to cater to first-generation Mormons who require a steady diet of basic gospel principles.
”No doubt the concerns for a worldwide curriculum are not ones that satisfy lifelong, fifth-generation Wasatch Front Latter-day Saints,” he said. ”That’s been true for quite some time and it’s probably even more true right now.”