Debunking that Quote about Brigham Young’s Greatest Fear

Brigham_Young_by_Charles_William_Carter

The greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.” – Brigham Young

This quote is probably familiar to many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have participated in online discussions about the church.

Faithful members have had it thrown in their faces by dissidents and detractors on numerous occasions. Dissenters see it as a powerful sound-bite in support of the notion that members of the church must be continually vigilant that the fallible leaders of the church do not lead the church astray.

And as a soundbite it is reasonably effective. But there is one problem: Brigham Young never said it. The quote is completely spurious.

Like everyone else, I took the quote’s accuracy for granted. But, having recently had multiple people cite it in response to my blog posts, and having seen it played like a trump card in past discussions, I became curious. I didn’t question its authenticity. But where did it come from? When did Brigham Young say it? What was the context?

So I decided to look into it.

The Cited Sources

Several of the online citations of the quote attribute the source to two issues of the Deseret News, one published in December 1857 and the other in February of 1862. Fortunately, the University of Utah has digital copies of the weekly editions of the Deseret News from mid 1850 through the end of 1889 available on their website. So I was able to take a look at PDF images of the actual newspaper pages cited as sources for this quote.

Deseret News December 9th, 1857, 317 (PDF)
Deseret News February 12th, 1862, 257 (PDF)

Here are my own transcripts of the relevant sections of Brigham Young’s words from these original sources. Please forgive the length of these excerpts, but it is crucial to provide ample context for the relevant selections.

December 9th, 1857:

“I will liken the Bishops to some of those side pipes laid down to conduct the gas. Take a joint of one of those pipes up, which, in the comparison, we will call a Bishop, and how are the inhabitants of that ward to receive the light? Place him to one side, despise his counsels and how are you to be taught? Will you teach each other? You are not called to do it in that capacity. Your bishop is laid down by the master workman as the conductor of the Holy Ghost to you, if you put that conductor out of its place the connection is broken between you and the fountain of light. If you see a Bishop and his ward in contention and confusion, you may understand that the pipe or conductor which conveys the light of that people is out of its place. Instead of the Bishop’s being wrong and the people right or the people wrong and the Bishop right, they are all wrong; there is little or no right there.

Take any man in this kingdom and if the people say that they will make him a president or a bishop or elect him to fill any other office and the faith of the people is concentrated to receive light through that officer or pipe laid by the power of the priesthood from the throne of God, you might as well try to move the heavens as to receive anything wrong through that conductor. No matter who you elect for an officer, if your faith is concentrated in him through whom to receive the things which he is appointed to administer in, light will come to you. And let a presiding officer or a bishop turn away from righteousness, the Lord Almighty would give him the lock-jaw, if he could not stop his mouth in any other way, or send a fit of numb palsey on him so that he could not act, as sure as the people over whom he presided were right, that they might not be led astray.

[…]

If we are one and are concentrated in the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ and through the chain and thread drawn out for us to follow up, we will find the fountain head, and then, if I should ask this people to pray for a certain thing, they would pray for it, but do they now? No, they pray for everything else. I have made that request until I am tired of making it. Many will pray for this, that and the other different from what I had advised them only twenty minutes before. Their faith is not concentrated, as I have frequently told you, though they are improving and will come to a knowledge of the truth.

The First Presidency have of right a great influence over this people, and if we should get out of the way and lead this people to destruction what a pity it would be. How can you know whether we lead you correctly or not? Can you know by any other power than that of the Holy Ghost? I have uniformly exhorted the people to obtain this living Witness each for themselves, then no man on the earth can lead them astray. It is my calling and office to dictate in the affairs of the church and kingdom of God on the earth. That is what you have chosen me to do for many years with br. Heber and others for my counselors, two of whom have passed behind the vail, and I now have a third, br. Daniel H. Wells who is as good a man as ever lived. You have asked me to tell the people what to do to be saved–to be the mouth of God to this people. Does your faith agree with your profession? Let me continue to exhort you, until you can train your hearts, your feelings and your affections to such a degree that when I ask you to pray for a certain object, you can think of it when you go home.”

February 12th, 1862:

“I will say a few words in regard to your belief in being led, guided and directed by one man. Br. Jackman has said that our enemies hate the fact of our being led by one man. Thousands of times my soul has been lifted to God the Father, in the name of Jesus, to make that verily true in every sense of the word, that we may be led by the man Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith the Prophet. You may inquire how we are to know that we are so led. I refer you to the exhortation you have heard so frequently from me. Do not be deceived, any of you; if you are deceived it is because you deceive yourselves. You may know whether you are led right or wrong, as well as you know the way home, for every principle God has revealed carries its own convictions of its truth to the human mind; and there is no calling of God to man on earth but what brings with it the evidences of its authenticity. Let us take a course that leads to the perpetuity of the natural life which God has given us, and honor it. Should we pursue this course faithfully, and never bestow one thought for the life that is to come, we are just as sure of that immortal life as we are of the life we now possess. This, in fact, is the only way in which we can be prepared to inherit that more glorious life.

What a pity it would be it we were lead by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are lead by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purpose of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders did they know for themselves by the revelations of Jesus that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves whether their leaders are walking in the path the lord dictates or not. This has been my exhortation continually.

Br. Joseph W. Young remarked this morning, that he wished the people to receive the word of the Lord through his servants, be dictated by them, and have no will of their own. I would express it in this wise: God has placed within us a will, and we should be satisfied to have it controlled by the will of the Almighty. Let the human will be indomitable for right. It has been the custom of parents to break the will until it is weakened, and the noble, godlike powers of the child are reduced to a comparative state of imbecility and cowardice. Let that heaven-born property of human agents be properly tempered and wisely directed, instead of pursuing the opposite course, and it will conquer in the cause of right. Break not the spirit of any person, but guide it to feel that it is its greatest delight and highest ambition to be controlled by the revelations of Jesus Christ, then the will of man becomes godlike in overcoming the evil that is sown in the flesh, until God shall reign within us to will and do of his good pleasure.

Let every person be fervent in prayer, until they know the things of God for themselves and become certain that they are walking in the path that leads to everlasting life; then will envy, the child of ignorance, vanish, and there will be no disposition in any man to place himself above another, for such a feeling meets no countenance in the order of heaven.”

As you can clearly see, the oft-cited quote appears nowhere in these excerpts. While, on a superficial level, some of the phrases in these sources do appear to express similar ideas to those of the quote, the words of the pithy soundbite are not found in the cited sources at all. The phrase attributed to Brigham Young doesn’t appear to have ever been spoken or written by him.

Some will be tempted to argue that even if the quote itself is a fabrication it represents an accurate distillation of what Brigham Young was saying in these passages– that the quote is fake but accurate. But the more extensive selection and context of what President Young said in these original articles seem to contradict that explanation. We’ll discuss the specifics momentarily.

But first, where did the spurious quote come from?

The Real Source

A little more digging and I was able to trace what appears to be the source to an address delivered by the apostle Harold B. Lee to the Seminary and Institute of Religion Faculty at Brigham Young University on July 8th, 1964, entitled “The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator”.

The address is cited multiple times in official church education manuals, but there isn’t a transcript on lds.org. However, I was able to find a transcription in the online files of a religion professor at BYU-Idaho:

The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator (PDF)

Again, I apologize for the lengthy excerpt, but context is key to evaluating the accuracy of the quotation. Here is the passage from the address in which Elder Lee quotes Brigham Young:

I think as someone has rightly said, it is not to be thought that every word spoken by our leaders is inspired. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote in his personal diary: “This morning I…visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that ‘a prophet is always a prophet;’ but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they read and write. Now you keep that in mind. I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator– please note that one exception– you may immediately say, “Well, that is his own idea.” And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard church works (I think that is why we call them “standard”-it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false, regardless of the position of the man who says it. We can know, or have the assurance that they are speaking under inspiration if we so live that we can have a witness that what they are speaking is the word of the Lord. There is only one safety, and that is that we shall live to have the witness to know. President Brigham Young said something to the effect that “the greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.”

Brigham Young said something further on this. He said, “It pleases me a little to think how anxious this people are for new revelations.” I remember Brother Widtsoe used to tell us about being asked at a conference, “How long has it been since the Church received a revelation?” Brother Widtsoe stroked his chin thoughtfully and he said, “Oh, probably since last Thursday.” That startled his interrogator. However, there are many written revelations that are not in the Doctrine and Covenants. To return to what Brigham Young said on revelation:

It pleases me a little to think how anxious this people are for new revelation. I wish to ask you a question: Do this people know whether they have received any revelation since the death of Joseph, as a people? I can tell you that you receive them continually. It has been observed that the people want revelation. This is a revelation; and were it written, it would then be written revelation, as truly as the revelations which are contained in the book of Doctrine and Covenants. I could give you a revelation upon the subject of paying your tithing and building a temple in the name of the Lord; for the light is in me. I could put these revelations as straight to the line of truth in writing as any revelation you ever read. I could write the mind of the Lord, and you could put it in your pockets. But before we desire more written revelation, let us fulfil the revelations that are already written, and which we have scarcely begun to fulfil.

In other words, what he is saying is that when we are able to live to all the revelations he has given, then we may ask why we are not given more.“

So there it is. The quote in question, word-for-word as it is often cited. But the first thing that stands out is that Elder Lee prefaces these words by saying “President Brigham Young said something to the effect that…” In other words, he was offering a rough paraphrase of what President Young said. That is what the idiomatic phrase “something to the effect that” means. In contrast with this rough paraphrase, almost immediately afterward Elder Lee cites a lengthy word-for-word quote from Brigham Young. So Elder Lee clearly never intended the words in question as a direct quote or the ideas to be a precise summary.

In other words, the quote was never a quote at all.

At some point the words from Elder Lee’s address were picked up out of their context and mistakenly attributed to Brigham Young as if they were a direct quote instead of a rough paraphrase. From there the ‘quote’ was passed around until it entered into the catechism of dissident Mormon folklore as a useful slogan.

Fake But Accurate?

Let’s return now to the notion that the ‘quote’ may be fake but that it is nevertheless an accurate distillation of what President Young was teaching in the cited sources. It is true that a cursory reading of specific portions of these texts could lead to such a conclusion. But with closer examination within the context of the sources, the assertion falls apart.

At least among those who have cited this ‘quote’ in discussion with me, great importance has been given to the fact that President Young apparently said that this was “the greatest fear” that he had concerning the members of the church.

But in the source material, President Young doesn’t use the word “greatest” at all. The word “greatest” is a hyperbolic interpolation from Elder Lee’s paraphrasing.

The passage to which Elder Lee was probably alluding is in the February 1862 source.

What Brigham Young actually said was “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are lead by him.

First, notice that, contrary to Elder Lee’s paraphrase, President Young didn’t use the first person to refer to members accepting or praying about “what we say”. He spoke more genericly in the third person of members confidence in “their leaders.”

Dissidents have derived from Elder Lee’s rephrasing an idea that each time prophets and apostles say something their words should be up for re-evaluation and separate confirmation. But that isn’t what Brigham Young said. He spoke only of a more broad inquiry to God regarding whether their leaders are lead by Him.

Secondly, President Young’s fear is expressed in relative terms, not absolute. When he said he is “more afraid” he is comparing his fear to a previously discussed fear. But what is the antecedent fear to which he is referring?

President Young prefaces these remarks saying, “I will say a few words in regard to your belief in being led, guided and directed by one man. Br. Jackman has said that our enemies hate the fact of our being led by one man.” And then he immediately precedes the sentence in question with the words, “What a pity it would be it we were lead by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that…

In other words, Brigham Young was relatively more concerned about the members following their leaders without gaining their own testimony than he was concerned about the possibility of the church being lead astray by its leaders.

Additionally, I want to suggest that, based on the wider context, the sentence “What a pity it would be it we were lead by one man to utter destruction!” should be read not as an expression of President Young’s own sentiment, but as an somewhat sarcastic imitation of the refrain of the enemies of the church who criticize the fact that it is guided by one man (in their estimation to utter destruction), which is the claim that he is addressing. In context, the exclamation point seems to lend itself to this interpretation. This reading also seems to me to be in keeping with Brigham Young’s style of oratory.

In the rest of the source text, he elaborates on this fear that the members not “settle down in a state of blind self-security” and “reckless confidence” in their leaders. He never says it is his “greatest fear”, but it is clearly among his concerns. However, since he is less concerned that the members will be lead astray by their leaders than he is concerned about this, the reason for being concerned about “reckless confidence” in leaders cannot be because they might be lead astray.

His concern appears to be more sophisticated and philosophical than that. He disagrees with the notion that members can be saved by simply following blindly, not because the directions given by apostles and prophets might be wrong, but because following the directions simply mechanically, for extrinsic reasons, undermines their purpose.

If the members obey only because it is their culture or tradition, or because of fear of social consequences, without a personal testimony that they are guided by God through their leaders, then the obedience fails to contribute sufficiently to their salvation and eternal progression. This teaching seems similar to what the prophet Moroni wrote in the Book of Mormon when he said, “For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.” (Moroni 7:6-7)

Likewise, Brigham Young’s concern seems to be that obedience without testimony cannot produce righteousness. He compares such obedience to the way children had their wills broken by parents in order to produce compliance (a practice that he clearly opposes).

Brigham Young wants righteous members, not just mechanically obedient members. That seems to be the substance of his fear.

So to suggest, as dissidents do, that Brigham Young’s words here are meant as a warning against being lead astray by the leaders of the church depends on taking the quote completely out of context. In context, he was explicitly saying that he was less afraid of that than he was of the members following mechanically purely for extrinsic reasons without gaining a personal witness that the church is lead by God through His prophets.

Turning now to the December 1857 source, we can also see some sentences that could suggest the possibility that the First Presidency of the church could lead the members astray. In particular the paragraph that begins, “The First Presidency have of right a great influence over this people, and if we should get out of the way and lead this people to destruction what a pity it would be. How can you know whether we lead you correctly or not?

We can hypothesize that the first person language in Elder Lee’s paraphrase came about by mashing up this language from 1857 with the “fear more” language from 1862.

But, again, the wider context of President Young’s remarks gives greater clarity to what this statement means. His teaching is more complicated and sophisticated than the quote suggests when presented out of context.

Earlier in the same sermon, President Young addresses more specifically the issue of members disagreeing with their local Bishop. He allows for the possibility that a bishop might be wrong, but interestingly he places blame partially on the members for not placing enough confidence in their bishop as the conduit for God’s direction to their congregation. He goes so far as to say that if the members had the right kind of faith in their Bishop and the Lord, that God would in fact not permit the Bishop to lead them contrary to His divine will.

So when President Young speaks of what a shame it would be if the First Presidency were to go astray and lead the people to destruction, he is commenting less about the real potential for the prophet and his counselors to lead the church astray, and more, by extension from what he has just taught about bishops, insinuating (perhaps somewhat passive-aggressively) that if the church were to subjunctively be lead astray, it would be because the members of the church collectively failed to have sufficient confidence and faith in the Lord and the First Presidency as the authorized conduit for his will to the church as a whole.

This reading is bolstered by the fact that the First Presidency statement in question is sandwiched in the middle of a missive on how when he, as the prophet, asks the membership to pray for something, they don’t remember to do it. And how he hopes that they will eventually train themselves to the degree that one day they will reach the point where when he asks them to pray, they will remember to do it when they go home. So clearly his focus is more on increased obedience and increased confidence in church leaders based on a personal witness from the Holy Ghost that they are directed by God.

So to characterize the statements in this source, as dissidents do, as teaching that the members should be continually vigilant against false direction from the prophet and apostles relies on taking the statement out of context.

The “Fake but Accurate” argument doesn’t seem to be viable.

The Paraphrase in Context

So what about Elder Lee’s address, from which the fictitious quote is derived?
Dissident members of the church want to use the quote to justify their rejection of some teaching or practice taught by the living prophet and apostles or to agitate for changes. The irony is that even in the context of Elder Lee’s paraphrase the way in which dissidents want to use the quote doesn’t really hold up.

Elder Lee clearly lays out the possibility that some church leaders might be wrong on one thing or another. But in his statement he clearly makes a distinction between the prophet who holds the keys and other church leaders. In fact, that is the whole point of his sermon. He is warning against those, even leaders in the church, who teach things that deviate from the standard works and established teachings of the church. And he is warning against conflating those things said by prophets as their private opinion and those said in their capacity as prophet or apostle. So his warning clearly is directed more at evaluating a bishop, stake president, or general authority who teaches something contrary to established, clear doctrine and not at the possibility that the established teachings of the prophets and apostles could be wrong and can be disregarded as their own opinions.

In other words he is saying that if a general authority were to come hold a meeting in your area and teach that having an abortion is not a sin or that acting on same-sex attraction is not a sin, you can disregard his teaching as his own opinion because it runs contrary to the standard works and the established teachings of the church.

What he is not saying is that members of the church can disregard established teachings of the prophets and apostles on topics like abortion and same-sex attraction as just their own opinion.

Not only that, but in his more extensive quote from President Young, Elder Lee affirms that we need to live up to the revelations we already have before we go asking for new ones.

So those who cite Elder Lee’s rough paraphrase of President Young in defense of their rebellion against the teachings of the living prophets contradict both the spirit and the letter of Elder Lee’s message.

Concluding Thoughts

To conclude, I’d like to point out some irony and inconsistencies raised by debunking this quote.

Those who are most likely to have cited this ‘quote’ are also likely to self-identify as Intellectual and Liberal. Many routinely sneer about faithful True Blue Mormons who, in their estimation, base their beliefs on proof-texts, unexamined Mormon cultural constructs, folklore, and superficial understanding of their own history and doctrine.

But Intellectual or Liberal Mormonism is just as susceptible to liberal proof-texting, unexamined liberal cultural constructs, their own set of folklore, and their own tendentious reading of history and doctrine– as I think the examination of this quote demonstrates. It isn’t superior. It is just another interpretive framework.

The other irony here is that the intellectual Mormons who tend to use this quote tend to have strongly negative feelings about both President Young (who they view primarily through a lens that magnifies racism) and Elder Harold B. Lee, who later, as President of the church, instituted the Correlation Program that many of them routinely revile as if it were the source of all they hate in the church. Many seem to largely reject both these prophets.

So when they cite these quotes, it is not because the necessarily afford any real weight or authority to the source of the quote. But they know that the more believing, faithful members with whom they are discussing do give these men’s words great weight because they consider both to be prophets of God. So at a certain level, their citation of these quotes in order to justify their rebellion to the faithful is disturbingly cynical.

In any case, I hope that this essay has established not only that this particular quote is not only fake, but also that it inaccurately represents the teachings of the prophet to whom it is attributed and that it will no longer be cited to defend rebellion against the teachings of our living prophets.

 

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3 Responses to Debunking that Quote about Brigham Young’s Greatest Fear

  1. Wow. Nice research — I enjoyed this.

  2. Great work! It brings to mind a misconception surrounding the Joseph Smith quote about him not approving of an old man being called up for an error in doctrine, and how that made us like the Methodists. For one thing, the error was a small detail of eschatology in the Book of Revelation. For another, Joseph’s objection was to bringing the man before the High Council–not to his being corrected:

    I have seldom spoken from the revelations [of John]; but as my subject is a constant source of speculation amongst the elders, causing a division of sentiment and opinion in relation to it, I now do it in order that division and difference of opinion may be done away with, and not that correct knowledge on the subject is so much needed at the present time.

    (Emphasis mine.) In fact, this quote in context ends up undermining the dissident narrative, as I think your example does as well.

    Below is, I think, the most perceptive and important part of your post:

    So when they cite these quotes, it is not because they necessarily afford any real weight or authority to the source of the quote. But they know that the more believing, faithful members with whom they are discussing do give these men’s words great weight because they consider both to be prophets of God. So at a certain level, their citation of these quotes in order to justify their rebellion to the faithful is disturbingly cynical.

  3. Your intentions are good enough, and good job doing your research. But I think there is a better way to approach this.

    The best approach I have seen to this general topic is Joseph Fielding McConkie’s articles on teaching (e.g. Becoming a Master Teacher), which are easy to locate via google. They are great because rather than apologizing for Brigham Youngs statements, they hit at the core of what he was really getting at. We are supposed follow our leaders by coming to a spiritual knowledge by which we could have stated the same truths for ourselves independently. That is where they are trying to LEAD us, to come to the same testimony and knowledge they have.

    Yes, Harold B Lee’s principle is true, as is Brigham Young’s statements. Honestly I don’t have any objection to Harold B Lee’s summary of Brigham Young’s statement. That was what Harold B Lee understood Brigham Young to be teaching, and I have no beef with anything Harold B Lee or Brigham Young believed. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about that if they weren’t either. You are right that in days of greater wickedness, like today, such a principle gets used as a means for rationalization. It is intended only to be applied in the context of genuine asking, seeking, and knocking for spiritual knowledge. Instead people want to use it to supplant gospel principles with babylonian thinking. But honestly, I would rather stand by a true principle even if it can be easily abused by others, than let go of it.

    There are lots of good things Satan can abuse, but which I believe in. As an example I would use the sacred intimacy that exists between husband and wife. Sex is tremendously abused by the adversary to bring about evil ends. But I still believe it has its exalting place in marriage, and am thankful for the gift of a body. I don’t want to abandon something good just because the adversary leads many to misuse it. Actually, what good thing does he not like to abuse? I am glad I can speak, and tell the truth, even though that same means allows men to lie, blaspheme, swear, and the list goes on.

    Never back down from a true principle, and if prophets of the past believed it, don’t back down from it just because it isn’t what you expected. The master builder knows how to build best.

    And no, the principle in question is NOT that we should be listening to the brethren deciding what to discard. General conference is like a river of light and truth we can hardly take in as it is poured out upon us, and if we let go of that, we are missing the point. But if we think it is poured out upon us without and obligation for us to grow into the like knowledge ourselves, we are mistaken.

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