Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Lessons Learned From Brigham Young

In today's tumultuous times, there aren't a lot of things the "True Believing" Mormons and the "Liberal" Mormons agree on (at least as far as they're willing to admit), but I have thought of one recently.

They both avoid Brigham Young like the plague.

Brother Brigham makes TBMs very uncomfortable. In spite of the momentous volumes of his sermons found in the Journal of Discourses and being the namesake of three Church-operated universities, he's probably one of the least quoted-from latter-day prophets. After all, he's the guy who made some unsavory comments about Blacks, was married to about 1,000 women (why won't polygamy just go away?!), and believed there were moonmen roaming our crescent friend in the sky. TBMs are very sensitive to anti-Mormon literature, and anti-Mormon literature without quotes from Brigham Young is like a pizza without cheese. Brigham is talked about in hush tones throughout the Church; his name comes out every so often when talking about the westward trek, then carefully locked away back into the sacred vaults of Mormon history.

LMs also seem to have a bone to pick with Brigham Young. His succession of Joseph Smith as head of the Church is dubious at best, and it seems he cornered himself into running errands of "lying for the Lord" a few too many times. Coupled with his social views, which often reflected the culture in which he lived, he's got at least three strikes against him. This "yankee guesser" is certainly not leaned upon as the spiritual-minded teacher Joseph Smith (for all his admitted shortcomings) was.

Which is too bad.

In 1994, FARMS published Hugh Nibley's 13th volume of collected works, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints. After an impressive run of literature many consider to be his best--Approaching Zion, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass, and Temple and Cosmos--Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints often gets forgotten in deference to these more prominent works.

Which is also too bad. Because this one might just be his best. (Or at least second to Approaching Zion.)

Nibley, one of the select group of men I could categorize as both a TBM and an LM, is not afraid to take on Brigham Young. He put up a solid defense against Ann Eliza Young's 19th Wife in his piece "Sounding Brass," and this time enlightens the reader with an array of material, borrowing heavily from the archives, weaving together a shrewd narrative which not-so-tacitly condemns the traditions of modern Mormon culture. Nibley sheds light on several forgotten teachings of the Lion of the Lord, many of them in contradistinction to the culture of corporatism and compliance with combat permeating the modern LDS Church and its members. Suffice to say, President Young would be as ashamed at the modern state of things in Mormonism than anyone in our little neck of the Bloggernacle.

Allow me to share some of which I've learned from Nibley and Young in this journey down a road of damning topics the modern Saints would rather ignore--mankind's (and, by sad extension, Latter-day Saints') contempt for the environment, their warped view of the political sphere, their trust in material goods and riches, their thirst for vengeance (typically unfolding in bloody and unnecessary wars), their aversion to non-careerist education, and their settling for management over leadership.

Nibley stated in 1967, "For some years I've been collecting material on Brigham Young, and now have a collection of pretty well everything Brigham Young ever said on anything." Turns out the resulting compilation has tons of eye-opening stuff. Let's explore a few topics the book touches on (all quotes are from Brigham Young, unless otherwise noted):

Environmentalism (and Humility)
Mankind has a sacred duty to be good stewards of the earth the Lord has so kindly let us borrow. Not exactly regarding the environment, this quote shows Brigham's attitude of humility which would lead to a proper perspective in viewing the world the Lord has bestowed upon us:
It is seldom that I rise before a congregation without feeling a child-like timidity; if I live to the age of Methuselah I do not know that I shall outgrow it. There are reasons for this which I understand. . . . This mortality shrinks before that portion of divinity which we inherit from our father. This is the cause of my timidity.
This reminds me of my favorite quote from Nibley (and, considering I maintain a blog devoted solely to quotes from Nibley, this one must be strikingly astute), who said, "Humility is not a feeling of awe and reverence and personal unworthiness in the presence of overpowering majesty--anyone, even the bloody Khan of the Steppes, confesses to being humble in the presence of God. Plain humility is reverence and respect in the presence of the lowest, not the highest, of God's creatures."

For years we've been conditioned to view humility as a feeling we should have towards God, towards the great men, towards the finest things life has to offer; but in fact, it is when we show humility around the "least of these" (Matt. 25:40) that we are exercising our true portion of divinity God has given us.
Always keep in view that the animal, vegetable, and mineral kindgoms--the earth and its fulness--will all, except the children of men, abide their creation--the law by which they were made, and will receive their exaltation.
[Our work is] to beautify the whole face of the earth, until it shall become like the Garden of Eden.
It's simple, really. Nature operates as it should, humans being the one exception. With the scriptures, however, we've been given a guidebook on how we can operate according to our celestial potential. It is by establishing Zion, a godly society designed to live in harmony with nature, in which its inhabitants are thoroughly thankful for the gifts they've been blessed with, and share freely with all. Yet we refuse God's way; taking, taking, taking, all the while oblivious to the negative effects we have on the other kingdoms of the earth. Why? Because of our lack of faith in him to provide. "Consider the lillies of the field," spoke the Savior, "how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin . . . O ye of little faith . . . take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? . . . Your heavenly father knoweth that ye have need of these things . . . Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:28,30-33).

Politics has its purpose in the world, but all too often, we turn it into a showy parade of insipidity, rhetoric, and hero worship, turning it into a religion itself. We Mormons went nuts over Mitt Romney (me included), a man who despite consistently rejecting key tenants of his faith throughout his business and political career, was expected by many of us to be the savior of America.

Brigham succinctly expressed the ironic Mormon view of politics when he said:
As for politics, we care nothing about them one way or the other, although we are a political people.
No asterisk for if a Mormon happens to be running for President. He also aptly observed:
Every government in the world has the seeds of its own destruction within itself. Why? Because the kingdoms of the world are not designed to stand.
Man-made systems are doomed to fail, regardless of how much we may be head over heels for an Obama or a Romney. As long as the Constitution--its principles are inspired of God--is rejected by those we vote into office, the edifice will eventually all come crashing down. But on a positive note:
This is my country. I am a native-born American citizen. My father fought for liberty we ought to have enjoyed in the States, and we shall yet see the day when we shall enjoy it.
...Someday. He explains how:
The Priesthood of the Son of God, which we have in our midst, is a perfect order and system of government, and this alone can deliver the human family from all the evils which now afflict its members, and insure them happiness and felicity hereafter.
Sounds an awful lot like Zion. But I don't think the Utah legislature counts as the perfect order Brigham was talking about.

Our test on this earth is find out what is the object of our worship--God or mammon. Taking Brigham's teachings in context, it is clear which side he knew we needed to be on:
We are organized for the express purpose of controlling the elements, of organizing and disorganizing, of ruling over kingdoms, principalities, and powers. And yet our affections are often too highly placed upon paltry, perishable objects. We love houses, gold, silver, and various kinds of property, and all who unduly prize any object there is beneath the celestial world are idolators.
As believers in our eternal nature, we should be the last to fall victim to such idolatry, yet we see it all around. It is ubiquitous in western culture, and Mormons certainly aren't immune to it. Bemoaned Brigham in 1862:
While we should be diligent and industrious . . .we should not suffer a covetous and grasping spirit to take possession of us. It is lamentable to see the ignorance manifested by many of this people in that respect, for no man who possesses the wealth of wisdom, would worship the wealth of mammon.
Things didn't improve. In 1874:
Have we separated ourselves from the nations? Yes. And what else have we done? Ask yourselves the question. Have we not brought Babylon with us? Are we not promoting Babylon here in our midst? Are we not fostering the spirit of Babylon that is now abroad on the face of the whole earth? I ask myself this question, and I answer, Yes, yes, . . . we have too much of Babylon in our midst.
What is the general expression through our community? It is that the Latter-day Saints are drifting as fast as they can into idolatry, drifting into the spirit of the world and into pride and vanity. . . . We wish the wealth or things of the world; we think about them morning, noon and night; they are first in our minds when we awake in the morning, and the last thing before we go to sleep at night.
Contrast these words to the teachings of our modern prophet, whose best-known statement in regards to money so far has been, "Let's go shopping!"

Ever since the inception of Christendom, Christians have been fighting with their own teachings on retribution and vengeance, and in so doing, fighting with their brothers and sisters they are supposed to be loving unconditionally. Said Brigham:
No man ever did, or ever will rule judiciously on this earth, with honor to himself and glory to his God, unless he first learn to rule and control himself.
Today, we preach similar principles, but mainly in the Law of Chastity arena. And how to avoid beer. Yet we don't seem to care about whether our politicians show the same self-discipline when carelessly waging war on our enemies.
Don't be limited in your views with regard to your neighbor's virtue, but beware of self-righteousness, and be limited in the estimate of your own virtues. . . . You must enlarge your souls towards each other. . . . As you increase in goodness, let your hearts expand, let them be enlarged towards others. . . . You must not be contracted, but you must be liberal in your feelings.
War always stems from a false sense of self-righteousness--the good guys (us) versus the bad guys (them). This attitude is the antithesis of the gospel, one of progression, of an "increase in goodness." That progression leads to more acceptance of others' faults, not less. How easy can it be to fall into this trap of diagnosing the condition of our brethren while ignoring our own?
An individual . . . with [an] abhorrence of evil [joins the Church]. . . . He sets himself upon the watch to detect the failings of others, deeming that he is doing God a service in being so employed [for God and Country], and thus is he decoyed into the occupation of the great master of evil, to be the accuser of his brethren. And during the time thus occupied by him, he considers himself actuated by the purest of motives, arising from a detestation of sin. . . . Yet mark the subtlety of Satan in thus leading men into a false position. Such a course, in the first place, probably arose from the purest of motives, and perhaps the individual was instrumental in rectifying some error; he feels a satisfaction for having done so, his self-esteem is gratified, and ere he is aware, he is seeking for another opportunity of doing the same, . . . continually set[ting] himself up as being capable of sitting in judgment upon others, and of rectifying by his own ability the affairs of the kingdom of God.
We may have enemies (even Jesus grants this), but we are not to judge them and not to seek vengeance on them. If we do, we are ignoring the essence of the gospel--agape.

Learning for the sake of learning is what we should be aiming for (it is a good of the first intent--inherently good, as Nibley writes), not the track of selfishness and careerism Western Civilization has devolved into.
Every art and science known and studied by the children of men is comprised within the Gospel.
"But this does not mean," Nibley interjects, "as is commonly assumed, that anything one chooses to teach is the gospel--that would be as silly as arguing that since all things are made of electrons, protons, neutrons, etc., whenever anyone opens his mouth to speak he gives a lecture on physics. It means rather that all things may be studied and taught in the light of the gospel."
If an Elder shall give us a lecture upon astronomy, chemistry, or geology, our religion embraces it all. It matters not what the subject be, if it tends to improve the mind, exalt the feelings, and enlarge the capacity.
"Improving the mind" was a consistent theme in Brigham's talks. And he didn't invoke it so that we could be more prepared for the "real world" or so that we could establish a career, he invoked it so that we would be more prepared for the eternities. Joseph Smith taught that "a man can be saved no faster than he gains knowledge." Intelligence, not just righteousness, is essential to progression.

I can't leave the topic of education without including a few of Nibley's more current musings, which are highly critical of the impertinent culture of the pursuit of recognition (listen to me, I have a PhD) and the discrepancy of assessment (it's all about the grades) adumbrating our colleges and universities. He wrote:
What is the main weakness of our students? Undoubtedly the desire for recognition rather than interest in what they are doing. They are decidedly degree-seeking rather than knowledge-seeking. Eager to be successful, they want to rush into production without any foundation. The gospel is only for the honest in heart, we are told; to others it shows an infinitely exalted but also remotely distant goal for which they have not the diligence to work or the patience to wait, but whose allure they cannot resist. So they anticipate the goal, sometimes in forms and ceremonies (we take our academic ritual in deadly earnest), sometimes by cultivating an invincibly cocky self-confidence, and sometimes in mental and emotional crackups. We want to be rewarded and recognized for our study, and that is not a proper motive for learning.
In the grand scheme of things, we humans don't really know all that much. But it's the attitude that matters. Displaying his classic wit, Nibley observed:
It is better to be ignorant and interested than ignorant and not interested, and there's no third alternative here.
Our modern world has undergone a "fatal shift," as Nibley put it, from those who could be considered pure "leaders," to those who simply "manage."

First and foremost, coercion has no place in leadership, and Brigham was quick to point that out:
No person has a right to say to another, "Why do you eat wheat bread, corn bread, or no bread at all? why do you eat potatoes, or why do you not eat them? why do you walk, or why do you sit down? why do you read this or that book? or why do you go to the right or the left?" . . . If the Elders of Israel could understand this a little better, we would like it, for the simple reason that if they had power given them now they manifest the same weaknesses in the exercise thereof as any other people.
The sovereignty of a people must be preserved for them to be properly led. This is what the war in heaven was about, yet many modern Mormons seem to favor Lucifer's plan in practice. Much like the Pharisees, we insist on strict observance of the rules, which are given as not only commandment but constraint, to be deemed "worthy" of all the goodies the ChurchTM has to offer. And it is our "leaders" whom we allow to foist such an antichrist concept on us, led themselves by corporate handbooks rather than the Spirit.

Speaking of the Spirit, Brigham hit on its integral role in the leader-to-follower relationship here:
Do you know whether I am leading you right or not? Do you know whether I dictate you right or not? Do you know whether the wisdom and the mind of the Lord are dispensed to you correctly or not? . . . I have a request to make of each and every Latter-day Saint, or those who profess to be, to so live that the Spirit of the Lord will whisper to them and teach them the truth. . . . In this there is safety; without this there is danger, imminent danger; and my exhortation to the Latter-day Saints--Live your religion [and you'll know for yourself].
Amen! To anyone who says there is safety in following the Church, or the brethren, or even the stakes of Zion, point them to this quote. There is safety in one thing and one thing only--the Lord. For it is "by the power of the Holy Ghost" that we "may know the truth of all things" (Mor. 10:5). The great leader understands that it is his deference to the Holy Ghost (the true leader) that makes him a great leader, not by usurping power unto himself.

One may think that following the Spirit will lead to a dull monotony. That all of this peace, conservation, and consecration of material goods will be boring. Not so. The spirit of Zion--and any good leader who wishes to establish it--embraces differences. Unfortunately, Mormonism has transformed from a liberal religion of independent inquiry to a monolith of mediocrity. That was never its intent. To close with Brigham one final time:
Man's machinery makes things alike; God's machinery gives to things which appear alike a pleasing difference. . . . Endless variety is stamped upon the works of God's hands. There are no two productions of nature, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, that are exactly alike and all are crowned with a degree of polish and perfection that cannot be obtained by ignorant man in his most exquisite mechanical productions.
There is too much of a sameness in this community. . . . I am not a stereotyped Latter-day Saint and do not believe in the doctrine . . . away with stereotyped 'Mormons'!


  1. Great post, Dan. Sadly, we already have a generation of members who don't recognize the name of Hugh Nibley, at least that's been my experience. If the GAs want to quote someone other than each other in general conference, I wish they'd go back to his words. When he was alive, he was widely quoted and wildly popular, but it seems the greatest Mormon scholar in our lifetimes is already slipping down the memory hole.

  2. I just shared a Hugh Nibley's a clip from "Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift" on Facebook yesterday.

    I must say, what a powerful concluding paragraph to Nibley's commencement speech:

    "In a forgotten time, before the Spirit was exchanged for the office and inspired leadership for ambitious management, these robes were designed to represent withdrawal from the things of this world—as the temple robes still do. That we may become more fully aware of the real significance of both is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."

    As always, he gives us so much to ponder on, and like a good prophet, speaks truth to power. The Church™ would have done well to learn from this speech but I don't think we've learned (at least collectively) the lessons Hugh Nibley was trying to teach us.

    Boyd Jay Petersen (who you probably already know is Hugh Nibley's son-in-law and biographer) commented on my Facebook post because I had also mentioned the "there is too much of a sameness in this community" quote.

    He told me that Nibley pulled that "quote out of context. So when I mention it (which I do lots!) I always say 'as Hugh Nibley paraphrased BY.'" :)