Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Brigham Young on evil

0--BrighamYoung1Given how strict and narrow George Reynold’s views were in last week’s “sermon,” I thought I would provide a different view, from someone who is often assumed to be as strict as the views Reynolds expressed. Instead of urging members to concentrate on the scriptures and avoiding literature written by others, Brigham Young teaches in the text below not only that we should “study evil,” but also that the Lord knows all about Hell because he is aware of what is happening there.

From the text below, it is not hard to assume that Bro. Brigham not only encourages the study of evil, but its presentation in literature. How can evil be studied if it can’t be seen or presented? His reaction, apparently colored by an overly strict upbringing (in his view, at least), is that children need to experience life, and that the more we know about everything, the better. Here is what he said:

“¦ Now, brethren and sisters, receive the exhortation and counsel of brother Snow, and profit by it; and employ the rest of your lives in good thoughts, kind words, and good works. “Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?” says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.

I make these remarks to lay the foundation for principle in the minds of the people; and if you do not yet understand what I would be at, I will try to illustrate it still further. For example, we will take a strict, religious, holy, down country, eastern Yankee, who would whip a beer barrel for working on Sunday, and never suffer a child to go into company of his age–never suffer him to have any associates, or permit him to do anything or know anything, only what the deacon, priests, or missionaries bring to the house; when that child attains to mature age, say eighteen or twenty years, he is very apt to steal away from his father and mother; and when he has broken his bands, you would think all hell was let loose, and that he would compass the world at once.

Now understand it–when parents whip their children for reading novels, and never let them go to the theater, or to any place of recreation and amusement, but bind them to the moral law, until duty becomes loathsome to them; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents.

If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practice evil? No; neither have I told you to practice it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.

Still further. When I was young, I was kept within very strict bounds, and was not allowed to walk more than half-an-hour on Sunday for exercise. The proper and necessary gambols of youth having been denied me, makes me want active exercise and amusement now. I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the highway to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it. I shall not subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will tend to expand their frames, add fire to their spirits, improve their minds, and make them feel free and untrammeled in body and mind. Let everything come in its season, place everything in the place designed for it, and do everything in its right time. And inasmuch as the Lord Almighty has designed us to know all that is in the earth, both the good and the evil, and to learn not only what is in heaven, but what is in hell, you need not expect ever to get through learning. Though I mean to learn all that is in heaven, earth, and hell. Do I need to commit iniquity to do it? No. If I were to go into the bowels of hell to find out what is there, that does not make it necessary that I should commit one evil, or blaspheme in any way the name of my Maker.

Do you not suppose the Lord is there, and knows all about it? I am satisfied of it. If He is not there, when the wicked inhabitants of the earth begin to inquire where they shall flee to escape from His presence, they will find a hiding place in hell. If the wicked wish to escape from His presence, they must go where He is not, where He does not live, where His influence does not preside. To find such a place is impossible, except they go beyond the bounds of time and space.


From Organization and Development of Man,
a discourse by President Brigham Young
delivered in the Tabernacle, February 6, 1853.
In Journal of Discourses, v4, p. 90-96.

I have to admit, I don’t know at all how to square this with the suggestions of others, from Reynolds (and probably earlier) to Elder Boyd K. Packer, who have clearly worried about the presentation of evil and urged Church members to avoid it. But I think the above provides some nice balance to the discussion, and may be helpful the next time I have a discussion with someone about ‘R’-rated films and literature.

In the mean time, I’ll ponder on how to study evil without letting it influence me to do evil.

18 thoughts on “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Brigham Young on evil”

  1. I found this most intriguing. I think there are a lot of people in Mormon Culture who would benefit from this perspective. I could name a couple of people who find it morally suspect to have any book in their house that wasn’t published by Deseret Book, for example.

    I am reminded of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who wasn’t allowed to stay up or have candy or do anything fun when he was young. Consequently, upon attaining the throne he kept ungodly hours, ate sweets until his two front teeth fell out, and practically bankrupted the kingdom by building a ton of elaborate castles.

    I wouldn’t use this sermon as an excuse to consume blatantly inappropriate media, but I would use it as an example to those who would accuse college level English teachers who assign Tennessee Williams of moral degradation.

  2. Great post, Kent!

    Brigham seems to be bouncing off a previous sermon by “brother Snow” (Lorenzo?), almost even rebuking it.

    I would be most curious to read what “exhortation and counsel” Brother Snow was exhorting and counselling just prior that got Brigham to reach for the nearest clue bat.

  3. Lee, I noticed that also, but my very brief look didn’t turn it up. Unfortunately, not every discourse was recorded in 1853, and I suspect bro. Snow’s was one of them.

    FWIW, I suppose it could also have been Erastus Snow (without looking to see where he was in 1853).

  4. This message resonates deeply with me. I know a great deal of it is about raising children and not literature, specifically… I’m a homeschool mom. A lot of the women I associate with do homeschool in order to “shelter” their children. Recently, one of the moms who is offering an art history class in our “mom co-op” sent out a survey to parents, asking if we’d rather she kept nudity out of it. My reply was, no way. I want my kids to learn about art. If we skip over nudity, how do they learn about the greeks, or the earliest sculpture which had to do with fertility goddesses, etc? I want my kids to feel safe and I do want to introduce them to concepts as they are capable of handling the repercussions and theological discussions that result, but I don’t want my kids to be hemmed in and kept from the beauties of the world. I was outvoted. I didn’t put my kids in the class.

    In writing, I also utterly agree with this. We must explore the things we are most afraid of exploring. Usually those things are the things that eat at us and drive us (unconsciously, if we don’t acknowledge them). WE think about the biggest difficulties that church members struggle with today–pornography, depression and other mental illnesses, cognitive dissonance regarding gender… if we could only explore our own feelings about these things more fully, and have free discussions. IF only we could feel free to explore them through art and writing, perhaps we would come away with a much more wholistic, healthy view of our own gospel. Fear is absent in the presence of faith… if we are motivated to eschew the difficulties in life because we fear we’ll fall into them, then our faith is pretty dang weak.

  5. Sarah: for some reason your comments end up being put in moderation. It doesn’t like that’s something we specifically set up (nor would we — we like it when we post!). I’m not sure why that’s happening, but just so you know: it’s nothing personal. If I can figure out what’s going on, I will let you know. It’s somewhat possible that you were wrongly listed as a spammer by Askismet, which is the spamblocker that most WordPress sites use. -Wm

  6. I finally just got around to reading this and I have to say that I worry that people are going to take this out of it’s historical context. Brigham Young is talking about letting your kids play outside on Sundays and letting them read books other than the scriptures. He is NOT talking about R-rated films, pornography, or a great deal of other vices known to our current era. I think it’s worth remembering that a lot of Latter-day Saints in Brigham Young’s era were still working with fairly Victorian mindsets–you know, the kind where you bind your baby and hang it on the wall because you don’t want the child to accidentally feel any pleasure in human touch because all human touch is “evil.” To my way of thinking (and I am 100% certain that so, so, so many of you will disagree with me on this) you can study evil–i.e. be aware of it–without participating in it. And part of the way you do that is through avoiding it. I now have a four-year-old climbing on my lap and tugging my hair and screaming, so this comment is now finished. . . but I worry, Kent, that you think you have to square this with modern prophets. Modern prophets trump old Journal of Discourses sermons every time.

  7. Laura,

    just wanted to make sure that by “explore” I don’t mean participate, in the sense that I think LDS people should view and write pornography. To my way of thinking, it’s more about what you allow your characters to experience in the course of your story. For instance, you might have a main character who struggles with pornography and detail some of the pain/feelings/cycle of addiction involved in that.

  8. Laura, while I agree that we have to be careful not to project today’s views on to what Brigham Young says, I’m not sure that I agree with your statement completely.

    I do think that Bro. Brigham is saying that you can “study evil”¦ without participating in it,” but I don’t think that your characterizing “study evil” as simply “being aware of it” is quite what he was getting at. I think he meant that you need to understand it fully, not just be aware of it.

    I also agree that Modern prophets trump previous prophets (IMO, this is quite well established in Mormonism). But I also think we are supposed to use our own brains to understand what we are taught, not just follow it blindly. [I’m not trying to suggest that is what you are doing, I’m talking theoretically].

    In the end, this is about the same issue which Mormon culture has argued about repeatedly — how does evil get portrayed (and even studied) without leading to the loss of the spirit that our leaders today warn us about. And for many of those in the audience of A Motley Vision — who strive to create literary works — this is a critical issue.

    In any case, I find it fascinating that Brigham Young said this, given the times he was in.

  9. In the end, this is about the same issue which Mormon culture has argued about repeatedly — how does evil get portrayed (and even studied) without leading to the loss of the spirit that our leaders today warn us about.

    As well as the related issue: Do we seek after everything that might be good (even if we’re sometimes wrong) or do we avoid everything that might be bad (even if we’re sometimes wrong)?

  10. Katya,

    I personally tend to air on the side of giving everything a chance. But then, there are times I run into stuff that’s not good for me, and even sort of get slightly caught up in those kinds of things. For instance, I ‘tried out’ the Stephanie Plum series because I love serial mysteries. And I got hooked, even though I did feel like the crappy stuff was too much, and not balanced enough by good writing/fun character development. So… I could probably use a little bit more of the “avoiding something bad.” Or at least, allow my will power to overpower my curiosity more often when really, I know it’s not redeeming enough to justify the content 🙂

  11. >17.

    I’m not a risk taker by any stretch of the word, but I deeply appreciate my omnivore friends who recommend things I might otherwise miss out on.

    Ultimately, I think we need both approaches in a healthy community, but culturally we tend towards erring on the side of shutting things out, which I find perennially frustrating.

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