Alt Sunday School — Teachings of the Prophet Brigham Young, Part 1

By: Stephen Marsh
May 4, 2012

A series of alternate Sunday School lessons should include, for the year on the Doctrine and Covenants, some of the more significant teachings of Brigham Young.

I thought of that as I was listening to a friend of mine who was serving on the board of a JRCLS chapter.  She came into a meeting of the board.  A man entered, sat down at the table, said some trite, hostile and demeaning things about women, belched, stood up and left. The chair apologized for the boorish behavior, but the female attorney found that thereafter she really did not feel welcome.  I’ve known other professional women who have had similar feelings about their reception at Church.

My thought was that the people acting that way would do well to be acquainted with the teachings of the prophet Brigham Young.  Since he was so complex, and his significant teachings were more than a single topic, I’d like to propose several alternative Sunday School lessons, of which this is one.

 alt=After all, Brigham Young had a good deal to say on ecology, stewardship over natural resources, and, of course, egalitarianism.

It is easy to think of that when reviewing that he encouraged a group of women to send women to Paris to study art, and another group to send a member to the East Coast to be trained as a medical doctor.  However, it was more than just art or the healing sciences, he was much more broadly egalitarian than that.

“As I have often told my sisters in the Female Relief Societies, we have sisters here who, if they had the privilege of studying, would make just as good mathematicians or accountants as any man; and we think they ought to have the privilege to study these branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but that they should stand behind the counter, study law or physic [medicine], or become good book-keepers and be able to do the business in any counting house, and this to enlarge their sphere of usefulness for the benefit of society at large (DBY, 216–17).

(Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young.)

In that context, it should be remembered that the first female state senator in the United States was a woman in Utah who ran for office against her own husband and won. She was Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon who trained as a medical doctor at Michigan.  Of course she was a Democrat and her husband was a Republican.

With Brigham Young’s support, Utah granted full voting rights to women in 1870, 26 years before becoming a state (and about seven years before his death on August 29, 1877).  The federal government took those rights away, though they were reinstated in 1896.

Brigham Young preached a number of sermons and wrote on the subject of the equality of women and their ability to do anything a man could do.  He felt that “The sisters in our Female Relief Societies have done great good. Can you tell the amount of good that the mothers and daughters in Israel are capable of doing? No, it is impossible. And the good they do will follow them to all eternity.” (DBY, 216)  And he did not limit that to the typical “mother’s day” women on a pedestal, doing good by raising children who will have an impact.  He preached it in concrete, practical terms.

While in most states at the time, women were not considered fit to be educated, vote or practice law, Brigham Young felt that women should be educated, they should have the vote and that they should be able to practice law.  While there is no record of his thoughts, I also suspect he would have considered women capable of knitting (at one time knitting was considered to be damaging to women’s brains as too difficult).

He was also egalitarian as to manual labor, not considering himself to be above it or that those who did manual labor were entitled to anything other than respect.

It would be well for the next time that we study the modern church if we could have a lesson that focused on egalitarian principles.  On women being equal to men in a very real sense, that manual labor is worthy of attention, respect and detail, that all are alike unto God.

Do you feel that the modern Church remembers and honors Brigham Young’s teachings?  How would you raise and teach a lesson on egalitarian principles?  What can we do to educate the boorish, the insensitive and those blinded by the traditions of men so that they can overcome the glaring lack of manners, education and doctrinal understanding that some display?  What else  do you think we need to be reminded of that Brigham Young taught?

14 Responses to Alt Sunday School — Teachings of the Prophet Brigham Young, Part 1

  1. Bonnie on May 4, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    I really appreciate this. “Broad-minded” is not usually the first adjective that comes to mind when we think of Brigham. And I REALLY appreciate your discussion of manual labor. We never hear that! I’m a believer. I’m honored to be on sabbatical from administrative work and to be a landscaping contractor. I love my fingers in the dirt and the feel of aching muscles after a day of busting sod. I love working to create environments of beauty and seeing changes. I love fixing fences so that they stand straight and strong, building trellises that support honeysuckle and roses, and designing sprinkler systems that will keep everything beautiful so efficiently. We ARE meant to engage with this world and make it a better place. I love that about BY. Nice thoughts!

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  2. Martin on May 4, 2012 at 4:50 PM

    This post probably won’t get many comments, but I quite liked it. Yes, I think we need to be reminded of what Brigham Young taught.

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  3. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 4, 2012 at 5:01 PM

    Guess most people figure that we do not need any reminders on egalitarian ways — maybe if I had titled the post Brigham Young and Feminism?

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  4. prometheus on May 4, 2012 at 7:21 PM

    Intriguing, I had never seen that BY quote before.

    I have often wondered, in a what if kind of way, what would have happened if the egalitarian beginnings had managed to survive, with this kind of openness to women and with the full acceptance of blacks as practiced by JS.

    Perhaps we could have been the leaders in eliminating -isms instead of lagging behind the curve……

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  5. GBSmith on May 4, 2012 at 7:23 PM

    People remember stories about some of the weird stuff but haven’t had the chance to see what the full extent of the task was he took on and what he accomplished. He never stopped trying to make something work and make something happen. Arrington’s biography is a great resource.

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  6. Bonnie on May 4, 2012 at 10:18 PM

    Prometheus, I’ve been playing with the “what-ifs” in my mind lately too, wondering if this corporate church, retrenched and conservative served purposes that were ultimately more important (and it was therefore led by God) or if it was a natural evolution and we’re working our way out of it and back to a more egalitarian way. Is the church intended to lead in issues of equality, or are there more important things? I’m curiouser and curiouser. What I do know is that I would have loved to live in Brigham’s time. So much work to do! So many people doing it! He was quite a leader, and his hyperbolic warmth and generally genial outlook combined with his call-it-like-it-is pragmatism … really appeals. So refreshing in an era of gray dishwater political correctness. Bah.

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  7. Mormon Heretic on May 4, 2012 at 10:38 PM

    I think more liberals should quote Brigham Young’s egalitarianism. It might soften his harshness on some other issues.

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  8. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 5, 2012 at 6:52 AM

    Ah, Brigham Young is a great person to raise in connection with the “corporate” church. His problems with Emma, were, at their heart, the result of not having a corporate church.

    The same is true of the conflict between Brigham Young’s heirs and the church over property.

    We often fail to see the purpose and value of a corporate church as an entity.

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  9. FireTag on May 5, 2012 at 9:26 AM


    I often have suspected that it was the broad willingness of church members (not necessarily the individual prophets) to let inequality toward race and sex come to dominate more just tendencies that has tipped the path of history into a less desirable Plan B in which the “gentiles” have to learn obedience through the things we suffer. The words of Jesus in Bountiful imply that modern gentiles in the Western nations ALWAYS get grafted onto the leadership of the Lamanites, one way or another. Right?

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  10. prometheus on May 5, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    “We often fail to see the purpose and value of a corporate church as an entity.”

    True enough, Stephen. I wonder, though, what the church might look like if we adopted a more Buddhist-like philosophy. Make the teachings of Joseph Smith and the scriptures the leader, as it were. (According to my rather limited understanding of Buddhism, anyway.)

    Perhaps there is a middle ground to be found somewhere, that enjoys the benefits of both approaches.

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  11. prometheus on May 6, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    “The words of Jesus in Bountiful imply that modern gentiles in the Western nations ALWAYS get grafted onto the leadership of the Lamanites, one way or another.”

    Right, Firetag. It is also worth noting that Jacob 5 involves a lot of pruning and digging about, implying that we are missing the point of a lot of what Mormonism should be about.

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  12. hawkgrrrl on May 6, 2012 at 6:56 PM

    Great post. It makes me wonder where the sexist barefoot and pregnant rhetoric originated if not with the guy who had 52 wives. Huh.

    I think one aspect that drove this egalitarian thinking is that they were isolated in the west, essentially nation building on their own. Many hands make light work. No one can be exempt from any type of work for the society to flourish. Only when there is abundance and privilege do we have the luxury of boxing people in and restricting their choices.

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  13. Bonnie on May 6, 2012 at 8:35 PM

    #8 Stephen M – THANK YOU! The corporate church has its downfalls, but I kind of wonder if it wasn’t the best vehicle to accomplish needed aims at this stage of the kingdom’s development.

    #12 Hawk – I agree. The downfall of prosperity. We don’t talk in SS about the fact that equality is one of the first casualties.

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  14. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 7, 2012 at 12:23 PM

    Excellent comments — thank you.

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