Valeen Tippetts Avery, a professor of history at Northern Arizona
University, Flagstaff, 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 Relief Society, the church's auxiliary for women.
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
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. "It
really shows a contempt for the intelligence of the members."
Embarrassed: "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.
"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,"
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.
Committee Formed: 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 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
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
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
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
The ill-considered result, he said, is "Brigham Young as Gordon
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,"
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."