Gerrit J. Dirkmaat (email@example.com) is an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU. Andrew H. Hedges (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU. Thomas A. Wayment (email@example.com) is a professor of classical studies at BYU.
Brigham Young, second President of the Church, oversaw colonizing much of the Great Basin and beyond. He led the Church from 1844 until his death in 1877. Because of his long tenure as leader of the faith and his multiple governmental positions, such as serving as governor of Utah Territory from 1850 to 1857, the papers left by him and his associates are extensive. To understand his contributions to the Church and the United States, it is essential to make his records more accessible. At the same time, the sheer scope of the documentary record left by Young makes this effort a massive undertaking. To facilitate this effort, scholars have recently formed the Brigham Young Center Foundation, a public nonprofit dedicated to advancing the understanding of Brigham Young and his world and making the Brigham Young Papers accessible. The foundation is funded by individual donors, large and small. Given the size of the task, additional support is always welcome.
The Brigham Young Center (BYC) is the business face of the Brigham Young Center Foundation. It is an independent organization, not supported by or affiliated with the Church or the Church History Department. However, the center’s initiative relies on close cooperation with the Church History Department, which houses and owns most of the manuscripts. The purpose of the center is to facilitate quality scholarship about Brigham Young and his times. This is being done through two major initiatives. First, the center is assembling a research repository of materials that illuminate his life and work. As this takes shape, scholars associated with the center will have unparalleled access to resources for exploring, understanding, and writing about Young and his world. Second, the center is making available the papers by providing easy access to transcripts of the tens of thousands of documents created by Young and his clerks or kept in his office. Together, these two initiatives will provide the resources necessary for a better understanding of Young, the Church in his day, and the foundations of the Restoration.
Thomas Wayment, then director of the Religious Studies Center, interviewed Andrew Hedges and Gerrit Dirkmaat, two historians associated with the newly formed Brigham Young Center who are faculty members in the BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine to discuss this enterprise. The following is a transcript of that interview.
Wayment: Ron Esplin, one of the general editors of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, is working to establish the Brigham Young Center to publish the Brigham Young Papers. How many historians are expected to be involved with the Brigham Young Center?
Dirkmaat: The Brigham Young Papers and Brigham Young’s legacy are so massive that you could have twenty historians on it, and you would be able to rapidly produce work, but it would still be a massive project. There are more Brigham Young letters alone than there are Joseph Smith’s papers in total for Joseph’s whole life. So just in letters alone the scope is massive, and we aren’t even talking about Young’s sermons, nor his journals.
Hedges: We are talking about ten thousand or so outgoing letters and more than thirty thousand incoming letters, plus thousands of telegrams.
Dirkmaat: Exactly. Brigham Young wrote and received more letters than Joseph Smith had documents from his entire life, and that’s counting all the Times and Seasons editorials, the minutes of meetings Joseph was in that were recorded. We have not even broached the surface of minutes of meetings that Brigham Young was in. The center is first focusing on annotating and publishing his earliest journals.
Wayment: These are public diaries. Is that correct?
Dirkmaat: Yes. His office journals too. When he gets to Utah, there are journals that are kept not by him but by scribes. The manuscript history of Brigham Young is written very similar to the way the Joseph Smith history was written.
Wayment: So there’s a manuscript history?
Hedges: Yes. Published in the Deseret News and the Millennial Star.
Wayment: And then there are his personal letters, outgoing and incoming.
Dirkmaat: Which number around forty thousand, and that is a rough estimate and includes only letters that we have in our possession. So we aren’t even counting all the private collections of people who have a private letter of Brigham Young sent to them. These are just the ones in the Church’s purview and that are known. So if we did the kind of in-depth investigation that we did with the Joseph Smith Papers, my guess is that we’d turn up thousands more. And there are thousands of meeting minutes and probably several thousand sermons for which there is at least a partial record.
Hedges: For some we have the published version and some only the shorthand notes.
Wayment: And those are in Pitman shorthand?
Hedges: Yes, usually in the hand of George D. Watt, who would transcribe them into longhand, and then they would be published. There are some sermons where we have all three stages: shorthand, longhand, and print version.
Dirkmaat: Almost all speaking by Brigham Young is extemporaneous; he and his associates just stand up and start talking, and they rarely have any notes or script.
Wayment: So I assume there are also the public legal records?
Hedges: Yes. He was governor for seven years. He was also the Indian agent for several years, and the records associated with those positions alone are vast.
Dirkmaat: And he was then the governor of the shadow government of the state of Deseret. The way that you make a new state government is you propose a constitution and you vote on it and elect officers who are then going to immediately fill those roles if the constitution is approved by the US Congress. Multiple times the Mormons sent a constitution of the proposed state of Deseret to the Congress, which rejected it. But the leaders of the shadow government were regularly meeting, so there are administrative records, there are personal records, and we’re not even scratching the surface of legal and property records.
Wayment: So you’ve described a massive collection, larger than Joseph’s by far.
Dirkmaat: Probably even ten times larger than Joseph, I would guess.
Wayment: How do you decide what to make available officially? What will you decide to annotate and publish?
Dirkmaat: Because much of this is already available in the sense that someone can go to an archive, and they can pull up these letters and read them. This is more about making them readily available and understandable. Going to an archive and pulling up letters is just not what your average member of the Church is spending their Saturday afternoon doing.
Hedges: Exactly. The Brigham Young Center wants to make tens of thousands of these documents available so that researchers can use them.
Dirkmaat: The idea is to create something similar to what has been created for the Joseph Smith Papers at some point, where you have a website that you have these documents available and transcriptions for anyone researching Brigham Young. Along with making the documents more readily available, the center would be producing annotated scholarly works—for example, Brigham Young’s journals. I also think the vision is to eventually produce works that are of a more synthetic nature, designed to be more applicable to Latter-day Saints generally. I think that there’s kind of a dual effort there. So the idea is that we would like to eventually publish a really comprehensive biography of Brigham Young that is document based but also accessible and readable.
Wayment: So now, we understand that the diaries are one of the first projects that are targeted for print and how large are those? Is that one diary, two diaries? I understand these are the ones Brigham kept himself, in his own hand, is that correct?
Hedges: Well, that goes back to your previous question: which ones are receiving priority for scholarly examination. I think the vision of the center is to get into the mind of Brigham Young as much as possible, which we can do through his holographic diaries. That’s where we see what he’s thinking. That’s where we see how he expresses himself. That’s where we see the unfiltered Brigham. That is why the center is focusing on those diaries. Unfortunately, there are very few of those. It’s actually only three separate diaries that are in his own hand. There are four diaries that are pre-Utah, but three that are actually in his own hand. The one that Gerrit’s working on is pre-Utah. It starts in September 1844 and ends in February 1846, but it is not in his own hand. It basically ends on the eve of leaving Nauvoo, and he was already using clerks and scribes.
Hedges: There are only three holographic diaries, starting in 1832 and ending in 1845. Then there’s this transition to journals kept by clerks.
Dirkmaat: The entries in all of these journals are incredibly sporadic; this is not a Wilford Woodruff everyday-entry record.
Hedges: I’ve been researching his mission journals for 1843 and 1844. He goes back east both times, and it’s been fascinating to see how they travel. They’re walking. They’re going by stage. They’re going by steamboat— steamship on the Great Lakes. They’re going by train. You get a real sense of just what America was like and how people got around and just what it meant to be a missionary on the move back in the 1840s.
Wayment: Brigham Young has such a long career, longer than any other President of the Church. Have you gotten far enough in to see growth for Brigham Young? In a sense, we get our modern prophets for a short period of time. They come at the end of a very long and successful life. Brigham is in his forties when he takes over, and he lives quite a long time. Do we see transformation?
Hedges: I think so. Again, I’ve only worked on two years, 1843 and 1844, but it is interesting. You’ve got these missionary journals, and they’re a little dry. It’s a travel log, and then on 8 August 1844, when he’s made it back to Nauvoo after Joseph’s death and he addresses the Saints at large for the first time, it’s totally different than what you’ve had before. He talks about what he’s feeling; you can see it visually in the length of entries. For example, in April 1841 Brigham covers five days in five short lines. But as you look at the entry for the 8th of August 1844, there is a marked difference. “This day is long to be remembered by me. First time I’ve met with the Church in Nauvoo since Brother Joseph and Hyrum was killed, the occasion in which the Church was called somewhat painful to me.” Now you’ve got heart and soul. It may not be growth, but it’s certainly a new openness. It’s a different tone that you get after he takes the reins.
Dirkmaat: From that entry you get the sense of the mantle falling on him, that he feels that weight.
Hedges: And he’s willing to express it. It’s probably the same Brigham that existed on 7 August, but he’s expressing it now, and he has a sense that this is important to get down on paper. Really, over the course of thirty years I think you will see even more growth, more maturing, more wisdom, but even here you get a sense that this is a watershed moment in his life.
Wayment: I hear that the papers have uncovered a side of Brigham that doesn’t get a lot of attention.
Dirkmaat: Yes. First of all, the side of Brigham that has received any kind of attention at all is the most controversial side. Brigham Young is someone who has produced or been a part of millions of words of dialogue. The only things most Latter-day Saints know about Brigham Young is that Brigham Young led people to Utah, is accused of saying controversial things, and he had a lot of wives.
Hedges: I think that there’s a sense that we know him very well, but we really don’t—ust like there was a sense that we knew Joseph Smith, but now that we’ve systematically examined his papers we are often rewriting that part of Church history and that part of Joseph Smith’s life. With Brigham Young, people seem to feel like they know him even more, at least the parts that really count and are essential. They think they know who he is, what he said, what he taught, and things like that. But once you get into his personal papers, an entirely different Brigham Young starts to emerge that differs from the assumptions people make.
Wayment: So the Saints could really engage with this kind of broader picture of Brigham, and that is what you hope to capture?
Dirkmaat: There is something to be said about Brigham Young and Mormons. Clearly Joseph Smith is the founder of all of this—the revelation from God under the direction of the Almighty. What I’m saying is that Joseph Smith is the reason why we believe the things we believe, but Brigham Young is the reason why a Church exists in which we believe in today. It’s under Brigham Young that the Church doesn’t completely fall apart and dissipate. It’s under Brigham Young that a core central location is made, a refuge where the Church can become strong enough that it doesn’t collapse. Then the message of Joseph Smith is able to be brought to the rest of the world. In some ways, I see Brigham Young as this almost Paul-like figure in the sense that without Paul it’s hard to see how Christianity could become a world religion. Without Brigham Young, it’s very difficult to see how the Church could have survived as anything other than a scattered insignificant faith that counted its members in hundreds or thousands rather than millions.
Hedges: Brilliantly said. Brigham Young really is important to fully understand the foundations of the Restoration. As late as 1839, Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints that he had never yet had the opportunity to unfold to the Church the full plan that God had given him. The priority during the first two years in Nauvoo was first, survival, then regrouping after the Missouri calamity, and then seeking redress in Washington for the Missouri disaster. Step by step, beginning with the first temple endowments in 1842, Joseph Smith unfolded more of God’s plan. But inevitably, many details of this vision were discussed in more intimate councils and not publicly. Brigham Young and his associates within the Twelve were part of those councils. Young and the Apostles announced, even before the vote to sustain them in August 1844, their commitment to “carry out all the measures of Joseph.” They privately and publicly proclaimed that “Joseph laid the foundation and we will build upon it.” Understanding the Church under Young and the apostles provides another window into Joseph’s efforts to “establish the cause of Zion” that he envisioned and set in motion during his lifetime. Joseph laid the foundation. We’re simply building on it. That’s not just simply a catchy little way people phrase it. They really did carry out that vision. I don’t think we can fully understand Joseph Smith until we fully understand Brigham Young.
Dirkmaat: There is nobody I have ever read who is as devoted to and loves Joseph Smith as much as Brigham Young. I mean it’s an all-encompassing thing for him. He thinks that everything he is doing is exactly what Joseph would have done, what Joseph already told the leaders to do, what Joseph wanted done, and he tolerates no criticism of Joseph Smith.
Wayment: Are there enough scholars that are trained in this era, 1840s to 1880s, to work on fulfill the mission of the center?
Dirkmaat: There are multiple scholars who have engaged in this period, so you certainly could find people who would be able to engage in it and work on it, but it is a massive undertaking. There’s no reason to believe that this could not become one of the most foundational, not just Mormon history projects, but really American history projects. The American West, colonization, US federal relations—I mean there really isn’t anyone like Brigham Young in American history. There are few people who have such a disproportionate impact on the development of an entire region of the United States, it’s hard to find anyone. Essentially you’ve got to go back to the Pilgrims. When people think of the greater colonizers in American history, they don’t think of Brigham Young—at least not off the top of their head. They think of pioneers heading west and the California gold rush, but one essential aspect of that pioneer who is going west, the gold rush, and Oregon, is that Salt Lake City exists and is the waypoint of how people get to those future places west. Brigham Young does not receive the credit as a colonizer and nation builder that he does simply because he’s a Mormon. That’s just the reality.
Hedges: Right now, the limiting factor is probably resources in order to create images and transcriptions of these documents as well as make them available online.
Dirkmaat: If there’s anyone with a philanthropic inclination with resources who is looking to contribute to a project that would end up having a significant impact on people’s understanding of Mormon history, well then, this is the place! This would be much the same way that Larry and Gail Miller have contributed to the Joseph Smith Papers. Such a contribution will have a completely disproportionate impact that is going to be felt a hundreds of years from now and will still be affecting Latter-day Saints and their understanding of Brigham Young—what his contributions were to the Church, the man that he was, the prophet that he was, the failings that he had, the personality that he had—those are things that will affect our Church hundreds of years into the future.
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