There are characteristics about the prophet Brigham Young that might be disconcerting or discomforting to people in today’s day and age.
In a new video, Jennifer L. Lund and Matthew J. Grow of the Church History Department discuss some of these concerns, sharing their insights about Brigham Young as a prophet and as a man.
One of the most important things in trying to understand the prophet is to first understand the context of his culture, said Grow.
“He was a man of the frontier,” he said. “And at that time, the frontier could be a pretty rough, pretty violent place. And at the same time, he grows up in a religious culture in which the preaching is often times very over-the-top, very excessive, at times militant. Brigham Young once said his preaching was like raining pitchforks down on the people. And the intent was to get their attention—to call them to repentance, to help them improve their lives—but the effect can be pretty rough on people.”
In some respects, Brigham Young was ahead of the times when it came to matters like race—he called one black Latter-day Saint missionary one of the best elders of the Church, and on another occasion he stated that color didn’t matter—but there are other times where the prophet said things that today’s world would recognize as racist, Grow said.
But understanding the time period, when even anti-slavery advocates were opposed to things like interracial marriage, puts things into perspective. So while Brigham Young was “a prophet . . . clearly led by revelation,” he is still “a product of the times in which he lives,” said Lund.
Brigham Young’s main mission was to help build a Zion community and to bring people together in righteousness, Grow continued.
“One thing that really impresses me about Brigham is how he could make other people feel valued,” he said, acknowledging that his children also felt very connected to him. “He made them feel like their concerns were important, that they were important, that God loved them, that the prophet recognized what they were doing to build the kingdom.”
From responding to people’s letters to visiting them on his travels, Brigham Young showed personal care and attention to those he interacted with. He also approved and supported some women going to the East Coast of the United States, which was unusual at the time, said Grow.
The prophet also recognized his weaknesses.
“One of the things I’ve really appreciated about Brigham Young is his desire to improve himself and in particular to master his temper, something which he struggled with all of his life,” said Lund.
Looking at the past with a historical lens doesn’t mean we can’t form judgments about it, added Grow, but understanding the context can help.
“A British novelist once said, ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.' And so when we’re a historical traveler to the past, we have to attempt to understand that culture," Grow said. "That doesn’t mean that we have to accept the bad things of that culture or that we can’t condemn things in that culture, but we have to at least try to understand that culture.”