May 7, 2008

Brigham Young: "A monument of the Lord's work"

On the preaching of Brigham Young* 
Brigham Young  
August 17, 1856

When missionaries returned from the field Brigham Young or another leader would often request them to speak to the congregation to deliver a missionary report.1 On Sunday, August 17, 1856 the request was extended to brothers Merrill and Clinton. After their words Brigham stood and commented on their preaching, giving some insight into what he expected from those (including himself) who speak in a Church setting. Apparently, Brother Merrill had made a comment on not being an eloquent or long-winded preacher. Brigham responded:
I am satisfied that there is greater wisdom with many who say but little, than there is with those who talk so much; as for the multitude of words, they are but of little consequence, the ideas are of far the greatest importance.
The kingdom of our God, that is set up on the earth, does not require men of many words and flaming oratorical talents, to establish truth and righteousness. It is not the many words that accomplish the designs of our Father in heaven, with Him it is the acts of the people more than their words; this I was convinced of, before I embraced the Gospel.
Brigham may have been convinced of that before he embraced the gospel, but back then he was not convinced he was cut out to be a preacher.
Had it not been that I clearly saw and understood that the Lord Almighty would take the weak things of this world to confound the mighty, the wise, and the talented, there was nothing that could have induced me, or persuaded me to have ever become a public speaker. I did think, and I now think, that I am personally as well acquainted with my own weaknesses as any other mortal is with them, for this is my fortune, my good fortune and blessing, and I am ready to acknowledge that it is more than many have got. I am of the opinion that I know and understand myself, about as well as any person can know and understand me; yet I may think that I know my weaknesses and incapabilities to the fullest, while others may see weaknesses that I do not.
Still I am so constituted that when I discover my weaknesses I bear them off as well as I can; and I say to all people, if you discover that I falter, when I do the best I can, what are you going to do about it?
When I first commenced preaching, I made up my mind to declare the things that I understood, fearless of friends and threats, and regardless of caresses. They were nothing to me, for if it was my duty to rise before a congregation of strangers and say that the Lord lives, that He has revealed Himself in this our day, that He has given to us a Prophet, and brought forth the new and everlasting covenant for the restoration of Israel, and if that was all I could say, I must be just as satisfied as though I could get up and talk for hours.
If I could only say that I was a monument of the Lord's work upon the earth, that was sufficient; and had it not been for this feeling, nothing could have induced me to have become a public speaker (JD 4:20-21).

Preaching ran in Brigham's family, but it doesn't seem to have been part of his repertoire before baptism. His older brothers Joseph and Phineas, in addition to brother-in-law John P. Greene, had done some itinerant preaching. Brigham may have been the least likely among them to become a preacher; and though he credited God with his ability to preach ("I opened my mouth and the Lord filled it"2 he explained, referring to the first sermon he delivered one week after his baptism) and though he spoke more than one hour on that occasion, he felt inadequate to the task.
When I began to speak in public, I was about as destitute of language as man could well be...How I have had the headache, when I had ideas to lay before the people, and not words to express them; but I was so gritty that I always tried my best.3
Brigham said he felt his conversion to the gospel so fully that he wanted to
thunder and roar out the gospel to the nations. It burned in my bones like fire pent up, so I [commenced] to preach the Gospel of life to the people...Nothing would satisfy me but to cry abroad in the world, what the Lord was doing in the latter days...I had to go out and preach, lest my bones should consume within me.4
This fire continued to burn for the rest of Brigham's life.

The weekly Sunday afternoon service at the Bowery or in the Old Tabernacle served as the "leading mechanism for education, entertainment, spiritual rejuvenation, and intellectual stimulation in pioneer Utah," and was typically concluded by a sermon from Brigham over an hour or more. Nearly all of these discourses after 1850 (over 800), in addition to many given in various settlements throughout the Utah Territory, were recorded by stenographers and published in the Deseret News and later in the Journal of Discourses. Perhaps because he was never formerly trained as a speaker and rarely used prepared notes, Brigham's sermons are usually weak in organization and follow his stream of thought in what Leonard Arrington described as an "informal talking-things-over with his people."5 Still, he is said to have held the attention of an audience for three hours or more. Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal:
Attended meeting. Heard Brigham Young speak. Could have listened to him all day.6
He believed he spoke as moved by the Spirit and thus, "as the wind listeth," would cover an array of topics switching back and forth without hesitation. In one sermon he could cover such diverse topics as irrigation, the atonement of Christ, Indian relations and prayer. He spent time responding to critics, commenting on current news, rebuking, encouraging, quoting scripture from memory-- all usually with an air of confidence and optimism. Because he did not believe the Bible to be infallible he would sometimes interject his own speculations on doctrine.7 Often he would add a personal experience or a humorous anecdote- sometimes funny, sometimes wounding.

During the tense decade of the 1850s many of his sermons reflected a Zion versus Babylon mentality, and late in the decade turned to harsh hyperbole and fiery rhetoric.8 As relations with the US government relaxed, and the Saints became more acquainted with taming the Utah desert, the "master of bluff and fiery speech in the 1850s became a practitioner of the relaxed fireside talk of the 1860s."9

Overall he conveyed a unique blend of idealism and pragmatism, faith and works. I believe Brigham Young, as a "monument of the Lord's work upon the earth"10 can be visited any time by reading his words. Rather than being a monument like a simple stone marker or statue, Brigham stands as a monument in the form of a great building with many rooms, each containing a glimpse of Brigham's view of eternity. The most fruitful choice may be for each to investigate by reading some full discourses.

Still, even in searching each room and hallway, one is likely to feel there is more there than words- even Brigham's words- can express.
Language, to convey all the truth, does not exist. Even in the Bible, and all books that have been revealed from heaven unto man, the language fails to convey all the truth as it is (Brigham Young, JD 1:112).
*I've been troubled by this particular sermon for weeks. I started JD 4 with a surge of energy, excited to be moving on, but ran directly into this giant road block. The trouble is the sermon is expansive and remarkable; difficult to break into pieces to analyze without corrupting the whole or leaving something important out. I have been attempting to make my posts smaller, as I feel the average blogger looks for a quick read. I was half-tempted to just post the whole sermon and leave it be (you can read it here) but there is too much in it for me to not make some comments. So I'll make an effort to cover the rest of it over the next few posts in a series called "Implicit Confidence in God."  

On February 24, 1856 Brigham had similarly invited a Brother Hovey to speak to the congregation, and mentioned some reasons he did so:
I asked brother Hovey to preach today, and to frankly express his feelings as they really existed, that I might have a chance to understand some of his “Mormonism.” I wish to see the Elders get up here and manifest their spirits, and speak as they feel when they are alone in their meditations. Let us know how you feel, and what you think. We can form some kind of an idea how a man feels by looking at him, but if you wish a man to portray himself faithfully you must get him to talk, and I will insure that the organs of speech will show out the true state of the mind, sooner or later, and reveal the fruit of his heart. No man can hide it if he is allowed to talk; he will be sure to manifest his true feelings (JD 3:237).
JD 13:211 Brigham believed in preaching by the Spirit, or in other words, as the Holy Ghost prompted him. He believed that without the Spirit, his preaching would be futile:
Who can give them words of eternal life? It is not in the power of man to do it; but when the Lord gives His Spirit to a person, or to a people, they can then hear, believe, and be instructed. An Elder of Israel may preach the principles of the Gospel, from first to last, as they were taught to him, to a congregation ignorant of them; but if he does not do it under the influence of the Spirit of the Lord, he cannot enlighten that congregation on those principles, it is impossible (JD 1:3).
JD 5:97  

JD 1:313-314. In this particular quote I follow Leonard Arrington's editing. In the sermon, Brigham Young is talking specifically about not gathering to Jackson County, but instead serving a mission. 
Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, 196. Here I combine my thoughts on Brigham's sermons with Arrington's, as found in Brigham Young: American Moses, 196-198; 300-301. 

Woodruff Diary, 24 October 1851; as found in Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, 197.  

For example, see "Obscure thoughts on Adam." In my reading of JD I've encountered several instances where Brigham mentions an opinion or speculation that seems foreign to my present experience in the Church. It is not uncommon for critics of the Church to seek out such quotes and hold them forth as though they represent the most important aspects of Brigham Young's thought. (For a discussion on this method see "Quote Mining.") At this point I have read a good number of Brigham's sermons (though not near the whole 800+). Overall I have found his testimony to be overwhelmingly consistent with current teachings of the Church on the fundamental aspects of Christ, His atonement, sharing the gospel, becoming educated, using talents, avoiding apostasy, and many other principles. His pragmatism is often emphasized, I believe, largely due to the pragmatic miracles he accomplished in the exodus of the Saints, and building the gospel up in a Great Basin Kingdom. While these endeavors were always underscored by emphasizing faith in God, I have been surprised by the amount of time Brigham spends bearing testimony on the spiritual aspects of the gospel.  

Brigham could be quite blunt in his sermons. On Sept. 16, 1855 he railed against Saints who were being greedy with their property and not paying off their debts to the Church.

I want to have you understand fully that I intend to put the screws upon you, and you who have owed for years, if you do not pay up now and help us, we will levy on your property and take every farthing you have on the earth. I want to see if I can make some of you apostatize; I will if I can, by teaching sound doctrine and advocating correct principles; for I am tired of men who are eternally gouging their brethren and taking the advantage of them...(JD 3:6).
In August of 1856 he explained:
When I rise before you, brethren and sisters, I often speak of the faults of the people and try to correct them; I strive to put the Saints in a right course and plead with them to live their religion, to become better and to purify themselves before the Lord; to sanctify themselves, to be prepared for the days that are fast approaching. I do this oftener than I speak of the good qualities of this people, and I have reasons for this which, perhaps you would like to hear (JD 4:21-22.
For more, see "Preaching pitchforks from the pulpit."  

Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses, 301.  

If I could only say that I was a monument of the Lord's work upon the earth, that was sufficient; and had it not been for this feeling, nothing could have induced me to have become a public speaker (JD 4:20-21).

Brigham believed he had much to learn:
But I am proud to say of my religion, I have studied it faithfully for twenty-two years, day and night, at home and abroad, upon the rivers, and upon the lakes, when traveling by sea and by land; have studied it in the pulpit; from morning till night; whatsoever might be my pursuit, I have studied it with as close an application any college student ever did any subject he wished to commit to memory; and I can say I have only just got into the A B C of it; it leads the vision of my mind into eternity (JD 1:39).


Kristen said...

Eek I would have left the church if I was ever asked to speak in front of B. Young.

Don Kauffman said...

I think I would have enjoyed listening to Brigham's rambling sermons. I always loved hearing President Hinckley speak off-the-cuff. His free-form, multi-topic addresses were always great.

LifeOnaPlate said...

kristen- Don't be scared; Brigham was usually gracious to other speakers. He was agreeing with the other speakers in this case, or essentially telling them not to worry if they don't feel like the best preachers.

don- Agreed. There is something that catches me when a speaker is extemporaneous. It seems more engaging and spontaneous. I wish Gen Con. could be more spontaneous, but also recognize the benefit in having prepared texts, especially in regards to translators throughout the world.

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