Like many other Latter-day Saints, Hugh Nibley began reading full discourses of Brigham Young when the Journal of Discourses was reprinted in 1956 (volumes 1 through 19 contain more than 350 of Young’s speeches). Just two years earlier, excerpts had become conveniently available in John A. Widtsoe’s Discourses of Brigham Young (Deseret Book, 1954).
Nibley says his interest in Brigham Young was further piqued by conversations with his own grandfather, Charles W. Nibley, who knew Young personally, and by stories told by Young family members, notably Brigham’s daughter Susa Young Gates and granddaughter Emma Lucy Gates Bowen. Nibley cites some of these stories in the essays in this volume.
Eduard Meyer, a renowned nineteenth-century German historian, writing early in this century on Mormon origins, also stimulated Nibley’s interest in Joseph Smith’s successor.
As those who have read Brigham Young’s words know, the combination of his insight, articulateness, and candor is little short of stunning. Nibley calls him a “monumental figure,” perhaps (after Joseph Smith) the most prominent mind of his century:
No man ever spoke his mind more frankly on all subjects. All his days he strove to communicate his inmost feelings, unburdening himself without the aid of notes or preparation in a vigorous and forthright prose that was the purest antirhetoric. . . . [And] there never was a man more undeviatingly consistent and rational in thought and utterance. (pp. 307—8)
The Brigham Young that emerges from his discourses certainly contradicts the shortsighted image which his enemies, and all too often even Church historians, convey. Instead of the practical man of affairs, discourses reveal him as the epitome of the impractical man, an avid advocate of less-work ethic (though his accomplishments are impressive); caring not a whit for wealth, having willingly left, no fewer than five times, all his possessions except the clothes on his back (“Just keep your dish right side up,” he counseled), yet he ended his life in relative comfort. That a university should carry his name is entirely appropriate, for, as Nibley says, “No one ever thought harder than Brigham Young” or was more an advocate of general improvement of the mind and tastes—this despite only eleven days of formal education. “Yet what mastery of language! What vigorous and powerful prose! He knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he knew how to say it” (p. 486, n. 1).
There is good reason to reread Brigham Young regularly—especially on the topics featured in the four sections of this volume: environment, politics, education, and leadership. The timeliness of his counsel on these currently live topics will quickly become apparent to readers: “Brigham never gets stale,” is how Nibley puts it. Nibley himself adds insights of his own which put Brigham in perspective.
When we asked Nibley if he could be quoted as saying, “I feel like a mental midget to the side of Brigham Young,” he replied, “Yes, you can say that—and you can put it in boldface.”
Nibley’s concerns with the environment span a time period of at least twenty years—”Man’s Dominion” and “Brigham Young on the Environment” originally appeared in 1972; “Promised Lands” was delivered in 1992 to a group of lawyers. In “Man’s Dominion, or Subduing the Earth,” Nibley explores two opposing concepts of dominion—God’s versus Satan’s. God’s command to have dominion over every living thing is a call to service, a test of responsibility, a rule of love, a cooperation with nature, whereas Satan’s use of force for the sake of getting gain renders the earth uninhabitable. Brigham Young’s views on the environment direct attention to man’s responsibility to beautify the earth, to eradicate the influences of harmful substances, and to use restraint, that the earth may return to its paradisiacal glory. In “Stewardship of the Air,” Nibley reminds us of the interdependence of the temporal and the spiritual—if one is corrupted, it corrupts the other. Man must learn to distinguish between necessity and greed. In “Promised Lands,” Nibley questions the assumption that the American Indians should welcome our superior knowledge and technology.
Many of Nibley’s views on politics and war, supplemented by writings from Brigham Young, were originally published in the seventies and even late sixties, but his masterful analysis of warfare in the Book of Mormon as it relates to modern-day principles of warfare described by Karl von Clausewitz was presented at a symposium on warfare in 1989. In this section on politics, Nibley describes the combat between good and evil. He delineates our personal responsibility to be involved in political activity, but admonishes us to keep politics in its proper perspective—legitimate concerns can “too easily [degenerate] into sordid partisan competition of economic interest that can stifle the spirit of the gospel with deadly efficiency” (pp. 134—35). In this imperfect world, we are to live within the law; Brigham echoes Joseph Smith’s recommendation: “Teach the people truth, teach them correct principles; show them what is for their greatest good and don’t you think they will follow in the path? They will” (JD 12:257).
The true enemy or adversary is Satan, who promises “power and gain, backed up by trickery, violence, deception, and intimidation” (p. 192), and who exploits the two great weaknesses, covetousness and self-righteousness, demonstrated when men seek to contend, accuse, coerce, aspire, or flatter. In an observation as timely today as when he made it, Brigham Young recognizes the foolishness of identifying the enemy with outsiders: “There is not one man in this city nor in the Territory who hates the truth and the Latter-day Saints, whose influence I dread, no, not even the hundredth part, as I do a smooth, slick hypocrite who professes to be a Latter-day Saint” (JD 18:359).
Nibley’s plea, backed up by Brigham, is to renounce war as futile, to substitute trust and love for the overpowering temptation to fight, “to understand men and women as they are and not understand them as you are” (JD 8:37), to secede “not from the Constitution of the United States or the institutions of our country but from sin and the practice thereof” (JD 10:111), and to advance the work of salvation for the living and the dead. “In the end the most desperate military situation imaginable is still to be met with the spirit of peace and love” (p. 276).
Some of Nibley’s writings on education date from the seventies, supplemented by thoughts on the mass media presented in 1991 to representatives of the LDS Church Communications Department. Here both Nibley and Brigham Young exhibit strong feelings about what is or is not appropriately labeled as “education.” Both hold little stock in the professional per se, expecting that all should be experts where the gospel is concerned. Brigham’s utmost concern is the improvement of the individual mind (in every field imaginable), for the benefit of all the Saints. For Brigham, it is impossible to separate intelligence, revelation, and hard work—”if the spirit may help in earthly learning, the mind is required to operate in celestial matters” (p. 326). Nibley decries the “education-for-success” philosophy rampant today—students “have been only too glad to settle for the outward show, the easy and flattering forms, trappings, and ceremonies of education. Worse still, they have chosen business-oriented, career-minded, degree-seeking programs in preference to strenuous, critical, liberal, mind-stretching exercises that Brigham Young recommended” (p. 338). Students are too little interested in things of the mind yet are conversant in “(1) jobs and money, (2) cars, and (3) social activity—religious and romantic” (p. 374). In “Mediocre Meditations on the Media,” Nibley discusses the fulness of knowledge: “the fulness is not that infinity of knowledge stretching into the eternities which we envisage in the eternities, but the fulness of what one is capable of receiving” (p. 385). Nibley and Brigham challenge us to become educated for fulfilling the Lord’s purposes and preparing for his kingdom.
Nibley spoke in the late seventies on Brigham Young as a leader and continued to explore concepts of leadership in his now-famous “Leaders to Managers” BYU commencement address in 1983, his remarks on “Criticizing the Brethren” in 1989, and his “Exemplary Manhood” keynote address at BYU in 1991.
Clearly not sympathetic to criticism of the Church and its leaders, Nibley cites Joseph Smith, who even today is the main object of attack. Joseph places the responsibility to find out the truth squarely on our own shoulders: “Search the scriptures—search . . . and ask your Heavenly Father, in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, to manifest the truth unto you; . . . you will then know for yourselves and not for another. You will not then be dependent on man for the knowledge of God; nor will there be any room for speculation” (TPJS, 11—12). Brigham, too, delineates personal responsibility: “I have uniformly exhorted the people to obtain this living witness each for themselves; then no man on earth can lead them astray” (JD 6:100). Nibley explores Alma’s struggle with dissenters—”the same shall ye not receive into my church” (Mosiah 26:28)—and further explains: “Excommunication was the limit of their authority and is the only power to punish which the Church has ever had. It is not the same power of excommunication claimed by the Roman church, where excommunication means the same as damnation. It is for God alone to judge and pronounce a sentence of eternal salvation or damnation” (p. 419).
According to Brigham, “The leader’s business is to get people to want to do things, to place desirable objects before them, so that each will strive, entirely on his own, for that objective” (p. 459). Leadership consists of invitation rather than compulsion, of correcting one’s own faults and gaining power over oneself. Leaders are movers, shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, and have a passion for equality and a desire to escape from mediocrity, while managers are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming, dedicated to the establishment, seeking promotion, perks, privilege, power, and rank. Nibley sees in the rise of management the decline of culture.
Nibley’s respect and admiration for two great leaders of our time are a persistent theme in this volume: “I am thinking of the two greatest men of our dispensation, the one the devoted disciple and boundless admirer of the other—Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. They are practically out of reach as exemplary figures” (p. 517). Nibley’s desire is that we emulate these remarkable individuals.
This volume (as well as the entire Collected Works of Hugh Nibley) is the result of countless hours of work by many individuals: Janet Carpenter, Glen Cooper, Karen Dick, James Fleugel, John Gee, Fran Clark Hafen, Andrew Hedges, Michael Lyon, Brent McNeely, Tyler Moulton, Phyllis Nibley, Kathy O’Brien, Stephen Ricks, Matthew Roper, James Tredway, and Natalie Whiting. At Deseret Book, the work has been expedited by Suzanne Brady, Tonya Facemyer, Devan Jensen, Patricia J. Parkinson, and Emily Watts.
Don Norton Shirley S. Ricks Editors