Church History department managing director Matthew Joseph Grow defended Brigham Young in his Education Week overview of “Saints,” Volume 2.
Recently, Brigham Young has been under attack by many who think his actions were racist, sexist, authoritarian, violent and more. There was even a petition created asking for Brigham Young University to be renamed.
Because Brigham Young is a central character to “Saints,” Vol. 2, Grow defended Brigham and his reputation while still trying to accurately display the complex figure he was.
Grow said Brigham suspended the Relief Society, then later reinstated it while also strongly supporting women’s education and right to vote. Brigham praised the first Black members of the church as being the most faithful elders in the church, yet also announced the priesthood and temple restrictions for Blacks. Brigham sought peace with the Native Americans, but many violent acts occurred under his leadership. He also had dozens of wives which created political and social tensions for him and the Church.
Brigham was the leader of the Church for over three decades and left behind hundreds of journal entries, writings, observations from others, and transcripts of revelations and speeches. These many records create an overflowing amount of conflicting information on him.
To help Church members wade through all the evidence and history, Grow outlined three keys to understanding “Brother Brigham.”
The first key is knowing the people loved Brigham because he was one of them. Grow talked about how Brigham insisted on engaging with everybody and actually being interested when he talked to people.
Many of those who dislike Brigham try to paint him as a “thoroughly unlikeable person,” Grow said. In reality, Grow said he was a loving and caring leader who didn’t just “lead from the pulpit,” but led the Church from all over their territory. The people didn’t call him President Young; they chose to call him Brother Brigham, which Grow said is significant.
Grow pointed out that the church gladly followed Brigham’s lead. “When we hear some people’s perception of Brigham as an authoritarian, harsh leader who cared little for those around him, we don’t know why people would follow him across the street. But they followed him across the country. They went where he asked them to go,” Grow said.
The second key to understanding Brigham, Grow said, is to recognize that his involvement in plural marriage was motivated by what he understood to be the law of God at the time. Brigham went through “a trial of faith” when first learning he had to practice plural marriage. But by the end of his life, Grow said Brigham learned to see the blessings that came from it and consistently put his family first.
Brigham’s final testimony before his death did not occur in General Conference or in front of a large congregation. Instead, “it came as a father helping his daughter in a moment of crisis,” Grow said.
The last key to understanding Brigham Young deals with knowing that he was a spiritual leader as well as a practical leader.
Grow discussed the huge importance Brigham put on the temple and on temple work throughout his whole life. He helped finish and dedicate the Nauvoo temple before moving the saints out of Illinois. He systemized and organized the temple ordinances and ceremonies and oversaw the construction and dedications of five pioneer-era temples.
Grow said he hopes through “Saints,” Vol. 2, readers will see Brigham as a man who cared deeply for the saints and took his responsibility as prophet seriously. He was a man who grew in faith, intellect and knowledge and learned throughout his life by relying on personal revelation.
“If we only looked at what Brigham Young said in 1845, we would miss the growth and we would do him an injustice. We need to allow room for historical figures to grow and learn and mature,” Grow said.
“Saints,” Vol. 2 is part of a four-volume history of the Church that will be “rigorous in its history, transparent in its approach to topics, written in a style that is accessible and pleasing to read, and faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Grow said. Grow is part of the team of historians writing these books.
He said he hopes these four books create “a great panorama of faith and teach the church how God has guided and directed in the latter days.”
The five themes of the book are the global Church, the gathering, restoration of truth, challenges and the temple. With a focus of an expanding global Church, “Saints,” Vol. 2 focuses on telling the perspectives of native Latter-day Saints around the world, not just the perspective of the American missionaries called to serve in Europe and the South Pacific, Grow said.
Grow said the series is intended to reach the “rising generation” of saints to help fortify their faith through the stories of covenant people taking the gospel to the world.