Brigham Young: Prophet, Pioneer . . . Environmentalist?

AndrewMormon 18 Comments

Although Brigham Young is one of the most well-known Presidents of the LDS Church, perhaps second only to Joseph Smith, it seems most Mormons are completely unaware of his passionate beliefs about caring for the Environment.

We owe Hugh Nibley an enormous debt of gratitude for collecting Brigham’s teachings about the Environment and publishing them in his 1972 essay, “Brigham Young on the Environment”. When a home teacher shared the essay with me several years ago, I was shocked to read statement after statement by Brigham Young that one would expect to hear from a radical environmentalist, and I quickly discovered my need to repent and abandon my laisseiz-faire attitude toward the Environment.

What follows is my humble and feeble attempt to briefly summarize Nibley’s lengthy essay for those who haven’t come across it before:

It is staggering to consider the vastness of Brigham Young’s environmental stewardship. He had the task of settling hundreds of thousands of square miles of virtually untouched wilderness. And in the process of founding hundreds of communities in that pristine environment, he had to confront serious and delicate questions about how to care for the Earth while making it a more livable environment for mankind.

Fortunately, Brigham Young’s concept of environmental stewardship was the polar opposite of his contemporaries like Buffalo Bill, whose glorying in man’s domination and mastery over the Environment left a wake of rotting buffalo carcasses hundreds of miles long. By contrast, a New York Herald writer who observed a Pioneer Day celebration held in a canyon outside Salt Lake City in 1860 noted that after the last wagons had left the campground, one man stayed behind “to see that all the fires were extinguished”. That man was Brigham Young.

Contrary to the beliefs held by some Christian circles, Brigham dismissed the notion that man’s degradation and pollution of the Earth was something that would be swept away as if by the wave of a magic wand upon Christ’s return: “Not many generations will pass away before the days of man will again return,” said Brigham. “But it will take generations to entirely eradicate the influences of deleterious substances. This must be done before we can attain our paradisaical state.” Thus, Brigham placed squarely on man’s shoulders the responsibility for protecting and restoring the Earth’s natural purity, and intimated that would be a principal labor for God’s people to accomplish during the Millennium.

Brigham’s deep reverence for the Environment was rooted in four of his theological beliefs:

First, that the Earth is mankind’s eternal home, and not just a place we occupy temporarily before we’re transported to some other eternal heavenly realm: “Our business is not merely to prepare to go to another planet,” he explained. “This is our home.” “We are for the kingdom of God, and are not going to the moon, nor to any other planet pertaining to this solar system. . . . This earth is the home he has prepared for us, and we are to prepare ourselves and our habitations for the celestial glory in store for the faithful.”

Second, Brigham’s respect for the Environment sprang from his observation that the Earth is not only a source of food, shelter, and fuel, but also a source of joy and spiritual knowledge:

It is one of the most happifying subjects that can be named, for a person, or people, to have the privilege of gaining wisdom enough while in their mortal tabernacle . . . and understand the design of the Great Maker of this beautiful creation.

Fields and mountains, trees and flowers, and all that fly, swim or move upon the ground are lessons for study in the great school of our heavenly Father . . . .

Third, Brigham’s concern for the environment was driven by his belief that the spiritual and temporal are not separate, but are inextricably intertwined. Accordingly, he saw spiritual and physical pollution as one and the same:

You are here commencing anew . . . . The soil, the air, the water are all pure and healthy. Do not suffer them to become polluted with wickedness. Strive to preserve the elements from being contaminated by the filthy, wicked conduct and sayings of those who pervert the intelligence God has bestowed upon the human family.

Keep your valley pure, keep your towns as pure as you possibly can, keep your hearts pure, and labour what you can consistently, but not so as to injure yourselves. Be faithful in your religion. Be full of love and kindness towards each other.

Fourth, Brigham’s views on the Environment were shaped by his belief that the Earth belongs to God, not to man, and that mankind has only a temporary stewardship over God’s creation to determine who will merit an eternal earthly inheritance in the next life: “Not one particle of all that comprises this vast creation of God is our own,” he explained. “Everything we have has been bestowed upon us for our action, to see what we would do with it—whether we would use it for eternal life and exaltation or for eternal death and degradation.”

Brigham’s deep reverence for the Environment gave him a special understanding about what it truly means to “improve” or “develop” land. While the terms “improvement” and “development” usually mean the realization of financial profit from a parcel of land, for Brigham, beautification was the principal goal of land improvement:

[Our work is] to beautify the whole face of the earth, until it shall become like the garden of Eden.

There is a great work for the Saints to do. Progress, and improve upon, and make beautiful everything around you. Cultivate the earth and cultivate your minds. Build cities, adorn your habitations, make gardens, orchards, and vineyards, and render the earth so pleasant that when you look upon your labours you may do so with pleasure, and that angels may delight to come and visit your beautiful locations.

Brigham believed the beautification of the Earth could best be accomplished, not merely by multiplying mankind’s numbers, but by planting, growing, and multiplying the vast variety of flora and fauna found upon it: “The very object of our existence here is to handle the temporal elements of this world and subdue the earth, multiplying those organisms of plants and animals God has designed shall dwell upon it.”

When it came to the question of how much land to develop, Brigham’s response was to use as little as necessary to satisfy our needs, and he had a strict definition of human need. Speaking to a congregation, he once explained:

[O]ur real wants are very limited. What do we absolutely need? I possess everything on the face of the earth that I need, as I appear before you on this stand. . . . I have everything that a man needs or can enjoy if he owned the whole world. If I were the king of the earth I could enjoy no more.

When you have what you wish to eat and sufficient clothing to make you comfortable you have all that you need, I have all that I need.

I do not desire to keep a particle of my property, except enough to protect me from a state of nudity.

In response to the idea that environmental degradation was a necessary sacrifice for the modern conveniences afforded by industrialization, Brigham offered a retort that bordered on contempt for the creations of man as compared to the Creator’s handiwork:

The civilized nations know how to make machinery, put up telegraph wires, &c., &c.; and in nearly all branches they are trying to cheat each other. . . . They have been cheating themselves for the golden god—the Mammon of this world.

[They think it wonderful to] dwell amid the whirl of mental and physical energies, constantly taxed to their utmost tension in the selfish, unsatisfying and frenzied quest of worldly emolument, fame, power, and maddening draughts from the syren cup of pleasure.

[Having] obtained the promise that he should be father of lives, in comparison with this, what did Abraham care about machinery, railroads, and other great mechanical productions?

Central to Brigham’s views on the Environment was his ardent belief that to waste is to sin. He urged the Saints to be strictly conservationist in their daily living:

It is not our privilege to waste the Lord’s substance.

Never let anything go to waste. Be prudent, save everything.

Everything, also, which will fertilize our gardens and our fields should be sedulously saved and wisely husbanded, that nothing may be lost which contains the elements of food and raiment for man and sustenance for beast.

One of the more striking aspects of Brigham’s views was his unconditional reverence for the life of all God’s creations, including even those creatures whose survival comes at mankind’s expense. While today a monument stands in Temple square expressing gratitude for the flocks of seagulls that devoured the hordes of grasshoppers that ate the Mormon settlers’ crops, Brigham had a different attitude toward those creatures that most would consider “pests”:

Last season when the grasshoppers came on my crops, I said, ‘Nibble away, I may as well feed you as to have my neighbors do it; I have sown plenty, and you have not raised any yourselves.’ And when harvest came you would not have known that there had been a grasshopper there. Pay attention to what the Lord requires of you and let the balance go.

According to present appearances, next year [1868] we may expect grasshoppers to eat up nearly all our crops. But if we have provisions enough to last us another year, we can say to the grasshoppers—these creatures of God—you are welcome. I have never yet had a feeling to drive them from one plant in my garden; but I look upon them as the armies of the Lord.

More than anything, Brigham’s love of nature grew out of his love for God, for he saw the Earth as God’s loving creation:

We should love the earth. We should love the works which God has made.

Let me love the world as He loves it, to make it beautiful, and glorify the name of my Father in heaven. It does not matter whether I or anybody else owns it, if we only work to beautify it and make it glorious, it is all right.


All quotes above were taken from Hugh Nibley’s essay “Brigham Young on the Environment.” See here to read the essay in full.

Comments 18

  1. Excellent quotes. Wish we heard more like these from modern leaders more frequently. I am glad for the emphasis on provident living which often goes hand in hand with reduce/reuse/recycle philosophy.

  2. We can all give thanks to Nibley for bringing out this marvelous language from our second prophet. We have to search within and to God to gain new eyes to appreciate His grand creations.

  3. Last time I visited the Mormon fort at Pipe Spring National Monument, the tour was given by an American Indian ranger who railed on and on about how the pioneers had overgrazed the area two or three times, with the result that the former grassland had become desert.

    Re: Brigham’s “I have all I need” — well, yeah. He died a multimillionaire, in an age where that really meant something. He lived in a sumptuous house. Easy for him to say. See also Al Gore and various Hollywood environmental scolds living in massive energy-sucking mansions and jetting all over the world for pleasure, while demanding that I cut down on how many squares of toilet paper I use.

    “Contrary to the beliefs held by some Christian circles, Brigham dismissed the notion that man’s degradation and pollution of the Earth was something that would be swept away as if by the wave of a magic wand upon Christ’s return….”

    I hear that line more often used to ridicule “some Christian circles” far more often than I hear it from those circles themselves. If there are really “Christian circles” which really do think we can just pollute the crud out of the earth, because Christ will come with activated carbon filters in his wings to clean up the mess, I must not run in them. Very often, I see environmentalism used as just one more stepladder by which people satisfy their satanic impulse to elevate themselves morally above others.

    My particular hobbyhorse is land preservation. I confess I prefer wild space to subdivisions (even as I recognize that people have to live somewhere). “Woe to those who join field to field, and house to house, that there is not a place that a man can be alone on the earth.” But that preference is balanced with other values I hold, such as the notion that it is unjust to require a handful of people to bear burdens to benefit others who pay none of the cost.

    The point is not to dispute that Brigham Young held a conservationist ethic. He did, and expressed it in some profound ways. The point, rather, is that there is environmentalism, and then there is environmentalism. Brigham Young’s environmentalism was absolutely not modern deep-ecology style environmentalism (which views man — particularly European-derived man — as a cancer on the earth, and would go into absolute conniptions about Brigham Young’s personal replenishing the daylights out of the earth), or watermelon environmentalism (“green on the outside, red on the inside” — environmentalism as license for control freaks to do what they naturally want, i.e., to boss others around). Brigham could be a truly humanist environmentalist — balancing the needs of people with those of nature — because he worshipped God, in whose image man was sacredly made, and not Gaia. “Let all things be done in wisdom and order.”

  4. Post

    Did anyone call Brigham Young a “modern day environmentalist”? But even if anyone had . . .

    How would you characterize this anti-technology, anti-modern-machinery bent from Brigham Young?:

    “The civilized nations know how to make machinery, put up telegraph wires, &c., &c.; and in nearly all branches they are trying to cheat each other. . . . They have been cheating themselves for the golden god—the Mammon of this world.

    “[They think it wonderful to] dwell amid the whirl of mental and physical energies, constantly taxed to their utmost tension in the selfish, unsatisfying and frenzied quest of worldly emolument, fame, power, and maddening draughts from the syren cup of pleasure.

    “[Having] obtained the promise that he should be father of lives, in comparison with this, what did Abraham care about machinery, railroads, and other great mechanical productions?”

    With the exception of the reference to Abraham, these paragraphs sound awfully similar to the anti-technology, anti-modern machinery rhetoric you’ll find on “modern day environmentalist” websites.

  5. Andrew, Brigham Young had the Church build and own the Deseret Telegraph system — as far as I can tell, the only instance anywhere in American history of a church-owned public utility — and served as its President, with general authorities filling out the board of directors. (Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom.)

    From the New York Times, back in the 1860s:

    “….BRIGHAM YOUNG yesterday opened books for subscription to the capital stock of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. He hopes “that all who feel able to take shares in the stock of a Company engaging in so great and useful an undertaking, and one so highly beneficial to our isolated Territory, will promptly avail themselves of the opportunity for so doing.”

    The Church itself built the Utah Central Railroad, to connect Ogden with Salt Lake once the Union Pacific reached Utah, and extended the Utah Central/Utah Southern lines down through Sanpete Valley and Milford. If Brigham Young meant to have the Church adopt an anti-technology Luddite stance (as if he were some early Tolkienite laying siege to Eisengard), he had an odd way of showing it. The man could industrial empire-build with the best of the robber barons, and I say that with admiration.

  6. Thomas, just goes to show that no matter what position someone might take on an issue, one can always find a Brigham Young quote to support it. 🙂

  7. Robert Redford was able to quote at length from Brigham Young on the same subjects.

    As for the overgrazing, the survey they did on carrying capacity was in a time of very high annual rainfall. A period of drought followed that and they had to adjust. It is amazing just how high on the mountains the bulldozer crews went to stop erosion.

  8. Cool post Andrew. BTW, who is this Brigham Young character? “Happify”? “Syren cup”? “Sedulously”? “Emolument”? Seriously, could anyone even understand this guy? I know I’m not a lawyer, or an English major, but I do read a lot, and I don’t think I’m an idiot, but I had to look up at least three words in his quotes, and I still can’t figure out what the heck a “syren cup” is.

  9. Re: Brigham Young’s apparent change of mind on railroads and the telegraph, this may have been a case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” What is the date of the quotes in the OP?

  10. Thomas, here are the citations in the original article for those statements re telegraph, railroad:

    49. MS 22:741.

    50. MS 20:218.

    I’m not even sure what “MS” refers to as it is not defined in earlier the citations. I know JD is Journal of Discourses, but MS? I must profess my ignorance.

    Perhaps it refers to Millennial Star?

  11. “Radical environmentalist”? Here is what you might hear from a “radical environmentalist”:

    -Human beings are a blight on the planet. All evidence of human activity should be erased.

    -Humans should curtail their numbers; preferably, they should be eliminated.

    -Humans should stay completely out of virgin territory and never settle land that is currently unsettled.

    I have heard each of these sentiments (and many others) expressed by environmentalist acquaintances. If Andrew believes that President Young spoke like a radical environmentalist, then Andrew does not know any radical environmentalists (or perhaps badly misunderstands President Young’s words).

    I do agree that President Young’s strong conservationist bent, and Brother Nibley’s highlighting of that attitude, stand in contrast to the attitude of many in the Church. We would do well to learn from these men.

    But radical environmentalists they most certainly were not.

  12. Post


    I’m not too interested in getting into a “my definition of ‘radical environmentalist’ can beat up your definition of ‘radical environmentalist” debate.

    I might just suggest you consider that the definition of an environmentalist evolves over time, and of course, didn’t even exist in BY’s day, but how would you characterize him as compared to his contemporaries like Buffalo Bill, and those who lauded him, who gloried in the senseless slaughter of buffalo just for kicks? Certainly, when compared to his contemporaries, his sensitivity to environmental concerns was radical.

    Personally, I don’t really care much about labels, and I’m not invested in them. I’m no “radical environmentalist” myself. I don’t even know that I consider myself an “environmentalist,” mainly because I don’t even know what that term is supposed to mean anymore. I don’t believe in anthropogenic global warming, actually, I think it’s quite a scam. On the other hand, I buy energy-efficient light bulbs, turn out the lights, avoid buying 8-cylinder cars, grow a lot of vegetables and fruits, watch nature shows with my kids, hate pollution, and don’t like it when people can buy coastal property and develop it into exclusive hotel resorts. Does that make me an environmentalist? I don’t really know and I don’t really care.

    Likewise, feel free to label BY’s teachings about environmental stewardship however you want.

  13. @#16 Andrew: I agree with everything you wrote. I live in an area where “radical environmentalist” is not a casual label, but a living, breathing entity. Just wanted to make it clear that President Young’s conservationist bent and feelings of stewardship over the earth bear little resemblance to the beliefs of actual radical environmentalists.

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