How should we know? Ask him yourself!

guestMormon 16 Comments

Today’s post is by Wade Nelson.  I served my mission in Quebec in the mid 1970’s and hate to admit it but spent more time studying Church history and doctrine than I did teaching the Gospel. I was a lousy missionary. Our Mission President was Wayne Owens a Neal Maxwell protégé who was very lax with rules and our work regimen. Incidentally my companion during those years was Lyn Jacobs who was to become an associate of Mark Hoffman. Jacobs acted as front man for Hoffman in the 1980’s and was the individual who sold the Church the Salamander Letter so as to deflect attention from Hoffman. He has always claimed he knew nothing of the forgeries

We got our hands on a copy of Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? the Magnum Opus of Jerald and Sandra Tanner. We spent many more hours than we should have going over their material, concerned and surprised by their revelations as well as amused by the amateurish and almost childish presentation with the underlining for emphasis.

Then a member gave me a copy of Letters of Brigham Young to his sons. To me this volume represents the apex of Mormon Scholarship during the Arrington years. True history at its best with original source documents unvarnished and unexpurgated. Brigham Young uncorrelated as it were.

The letter that caught my eye of course was that of President Young to his son stating that they should both give up tobacco. His son was leaving to preside over a mission in England and his father suggested that they both give up its use. Naïve nineteen year old that I was I wrote to the Ensign and asked why a Prophet of God would admit to using tobacco years after the Word of Wisdom had been made a commandment.

The First Presidency replied by letter with a somewhat caustic tone that told me that it had been dictated by President Kimball. First questioning the authenticity of the letter and apparently unaware that the Church had published the book itself, they stated that they had no idea why Brigham Young would use tobacco.

“If you want to know why he used tobacco, they stated, you will have to wait until the next life and ask him yourself!”

Fortunately I did not have to wait until the next life. As many know it was Arrington himself who later wrote that tobacco was used as an anesthetic related to dental pain.

The episode has always been instructive to me for 3 reasons.

Firstly in those years some church leaders were relatively open to the kind of questions the Church History Department was in presenting in that material. President Kimball et al did not attack me for asking although the book was certainly withdrawn. I am also aware that Davis Bitton has stated that some were upset by the publication and thought it an egregious error.

Secondly sometimes church history questions do have easy answers. I know that is not always the case but I will always be one who believes that the Church is better off to face difficult questions than to hide and obfuscate .

Thirdly some questions have no answers at least the kind of answers that will satisfy us.

Why did Joseph Smith and Heber Kimball pressure Kimball’s 14 year old daughter into marrying the Prophet?

Why did Samuel slay Agag and the Amalekites so viciously in I Samuel 15?

How should I know? Ask them yourself!

Comments 16

  1. I have a copy of the Letters book, and am rather fond of that story. I also like the one in Hosea Stout’s journal about making the rounds at night (as a sheriff or something) and then hitting the tavern on the way home. Good stuff. For the WoW issue, at least, people ought to be aware that it wasn’t until much later that it was considered a “commandment.” Once I found that out, Brigham Young Jr. or Joseph Smith drinking wine didn’t bother me anymore.

  2. Even in the D&C it says “not by way of commandment”. Of course, I wouldn’t try that excuse in your next temple recommend interview.

  3. Wade, very interesting.

    I think this is a very good example of where the LDS Church has become too brittle for the information age.

    As it turns out, the WOW wasn’t officially declared a “commandment” until the 1850s, but even then “commandment” didn’t mean you had to obey it for a temple recommend. So it was more like not drinking Coke or planting a garden is today.

    As polygamy was on it’s way out, the LDS church was suffering a crisis of identity. The seating of Reed Smoot became the crux of the LDS Churches attempts to collectively forget about and replace polygammy as the defining characteristic of the LDS Church in everyone’s (Mormon and Non-Mormon) minds.

    A change like this is very difficult and the LDS Church really could have fallen apart at this point if it hadn’t been handled so skillfully by Joseph F. Smith.

    Two big changes took place that became a source of identify for the LDS church to replace the loss of polygamy in our culture. The first was the word of wisdom was ramped up and eventually became part of the temple recommend. I think it’s a mistake to underestimate what a powerful culture identifying thing the word of wisdom really is.

    The second was the cannonization of the First Vision and Joseph Smith history in general. Up to that point (remember this is the early 20th century) the First Vision had played little role in the LDS Church, though it was not unknown. By going back to the roots of the LDS Church’s founding the LDS church was able to identify with Joseph Smith’s earliest revelations which both allowed continuity of cultural identity as well as not being at odds with Protestant American (oppressive) legal power of the time.

    (In case you are wondering, this all comes from Kathleen Flake’s excellent book.)

    It’s interesting that we did so well in changing our collective memory about the word of wisdom for the sake of saving the Church that people are actually concerned about Brigham Young using tabacco and even the leaders of the church had no idea whatsoever that there had been a change in our understanding and the purpose of the Word of Wisdom.

    In many ways the “you’ll have to ask him yourself” answer makes sense and since they sincerely didn’t know what I just outlined, there wasn’t much else to say.

    I believe a good many of the issues we face with Church history have similar historical contexts that, if we could but ask them, would resolve themselves without much trouble.

    Others, perhaps not, but we may have not acted much differently under the same set of circumstances.

    When it comes to history, sometimes you just have to not judge the people since you don’t know the real context in which they lived.

  4. Flake’s work is well-done, I agree.

    Also, was the letter signed by the First Presidency or by the secretary? i know that an inquiry about BOM geography had to be responded to TWICE because Watson misspoke re: the location of Cumorah.

    Finally, in giving context, however, I have also found that it’s necessary that we leave room for divine providence. I’m not taking the hardline position where we need to interweave the mind of God with every decision, every incident. But the brilliance of Bushman is that while he doesn’t produce a hagiography, he nevertheless clears the air sufficiently to allow providence a meaningful place at the table of opinion.

  5. Great comments, all around. There was an article in BYU Studies about Brigham Young’s relationship with the Word of Wisdom not too many moons ago. It’s worth reading. Brigham gave up chewing tobacco twice. Late in life he would still carry around a plug in his pocket, take it out, and speak to it: “I’m the boss, not you.” (or sth. like that). Good stories there.

  6. There was a very comprehensive overview of the history of the WoW printed in Life on Gold Plates blog at: A few highlights for newcomers: coffee was on the pack list for the Westward trek, the “ratification” of the WoW in 1851 was by vote (not by additional revelation), BY used to chew tobacco to ease the pain in his teeth, but best of all is the great J. Golden Kimball story at the end of the article.

  7. About that WoW question note Pt Packer’s conference talk The Spirit of the Tabernacle from 2007:

    “In 1908 in a general conference, President Joseph F. Smith read section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants—the Word of Wisdom. Then he, both of his counselors, and the President of the Twelve all spoke to the same subject… Then a vote to accept it as binding upon the members of the Church was unanimously passed.”

    Then one could argue that it wasn’t a must do commandment for Brigham Young but only a general rule akin to our ‘Don’t watch TV on Sundays’. The question should be why the church hasn’t modified sec 89 to reflect that binding vote of 1908.

    Imo we should take a lot of care when passing judgment on past historical events and people, especially for Joseph Smith and his followers who were starting a new religion and lived almost constantly in conflict with the greater area community. Plus Joseph did all this in his twenties and thirties?

    They deserve more leeway than, say, recently retired politicians.

  8. Carlos,

    If what Packer says is true then why did the First Presidency and Twelve continue to need spittoons in their offices in the temple in 1912? Chewing gum? Hay fever?

    As for giving them leeway. Why do we have the right to sit in judgment over such petty issues? Why would a person even care if they chewed tobacco, drank beer, coffee, tea, or smoked a pipe? I don’t see how doing any of these things has anything to do with a Prophetic calling. If anything Young’s letter to his sons about tobacco is good, decent advice from a father to his sons. I gave my son similar advice on numerous occasions.

  9. Joe,

    I didn’t know about the spittoons. Never heard of that one so I can’t say why. Only maybe guess that they could have considered smoking as a WoW issue but not chewing?? don’t know, really.

    “Why do we have the right to sit in judgment over such petty issues?”

    I don’t believe we have a ‘right’ per se just a right to study history as a subject of interest. And in that study I believe we need to be careful and give these folk the benefit of the doubt or some leeway during the analysis, since we only have and know a very small fraction of what their daily lives were like, since we only have some journals or newspaper clippings or letters etc. And I agree that the letter seems to be good fatherly advice. I don’t see a problem here with what you believe and what I wrote in 9. All I pointed out was that the WoW became a formal commandment to follow after 1908 according to President Packer.

  10. Carlos, there are at least 2 other “Carlos” who post here with some regularity, Yours Trully and a “Carlos JC”. I suggest a Last name or some initials to keep people from confusing all of us.

  11. #13

    Sorry, I’m CarlosJC in #11 & 9. I hadn’t seen you around for a while so I got lazzy. Or maybe I should use my real name???? No, too risky with SLC looking in.

  12. The issue is only a problem in the modern LDS Church, where prophets are considered to be almost perfect. Anything that makes them look blemished is a testimony problem for some if not most. Thus all the efforts to cover up the warts or explain things away as “medicinal use.” Who cares?

  13. Concerning the WOW and other “commandments” as they were introduced via the Restoration…let us not forget that commandments are given of a loving heavenly Father to “benefit” His children, not subjugate them. God is motivated only by pure love…so in 19th Century context, living the “outward” Word of Wisdom required a piecemeal abandonment from its well intrenched spartan culture, line upon line, here a little and there a little, God knowing we would eventually get there. And so we see with hind sight things are very different today. Who could have foreseen the negative societal and individual effects of addiction, but a prophet of God! Tobacco is such a small part of the Word of Wisdom, but the perfect precursor for banishment from a loving God who knew all too well the future “banes” 20th & 21st century “…conspiring men in the last days…” would bring to bear…

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