PROVO, Utah — As remarkable a leader as he was, Brigham Young's phenomenal qualities stem from the fact that he was "transformed" by the restored gospel of Christ, said Ronald K. Esplin of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Church History at BYU.
Brother Esplin, who spoke July 6 at BYU, delivered the second in a series of lectures, "Brigham Young, Prophet, Colonizer, Patriarch: the 200th Anniversary of His Birth." President Young was born June 1, 1801. Future lectures will be given by Ronald W. Walker, Sept. 7; Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Oct. 19; and Larry C. Porter, Nov. 16.
Brother Esplin cited a book published in the 1930s by a German scholar who concluded that had Brigham Young not been a Mormon, he would have been a great man, that the Church held him back from reaching his potential.
"Brigham Young would have laughed at that," Brother Esplin said, "because he believed all the day long that he was what the gospel made him, what [Joseph Smith's] teachings and example offered him, and what God blessed him with."
Having set out many years ago to determine what kind of leader Brigham Young was and how he became who he was, Brother Esplin said he is convinced Brigham would have remained in New York, "an honest, God-fearing craftsman, poor, respected by his neighbors, a good Christian gentleman, but uneducated, unrefined, unable to ply his abilities, whatever they were, on a broader scale.
"Unable for a lot of reasons, partly because he was locked up inside himself emotionally, partly because he was timid."
All of that was transformed by the message of the restored gospel, Brother Esplin said. Brigham was among the first to receive that message and gained access to the Book of Mormon through the missionary journey of Samuel Smith, the first in this dispensation.
But even after his father and brothers were baptized, Brigham still held back, Brother Esplin said. "He held back because if it were true, which he genuinely hoped and prayed it was, he knew it would demand of him his greatest efforts."
But his eventual baptism, Brother Esplin noted, transformed him. "Brigham said, 'The first speech I ever gave was when Brother [Eleazer] Miller called us together and he said, "Brother Young will now speak to us," and I spoke for 90 minutes, because the Spirit was within me. It was like fire in my bones, and I knew if I did not speak I would be consumed.' "
Brigham Young was transformed again, by Joseph Smith's example, Brother Esplin said, recounting the experience of Zion's Camp and Brigham's words: "I would give all the gold in Geauga County [Ohio] for the opportunity to travel with Joseph Smith night and day and learn at his feet."
Brigham was again transformed through service as a young apostle, Brother Esplin said. Though Brigham and his longtime companion, Heber C. Kimball, were "the lowest of the low" in the quorum, just ordinary men working with their hands while nearly all the others had some claim to education, refinement, accomplishment in life, he learned a lot, Brother Esplin added.
Thus, he was ready for greater service when he returned from his mission to England. At that time, an adjustment was made in Church government that put the Twelve next to the First Presidency in managing the affairs of the Church, Brother Esplin noted.
Having had Joseph Smith's valedictory charge to the Twelve (though at the time they didn't view it as such) that they would be the ones to bear off the Kingdom, Brigham Young was prepared as president of the quorum to step forward and lead the Church after the martyrdom of the Prophet, the speaker explained.
"And he was bold!" Brother Esplin explained, recounting Brigham's promise to the people that if they would vote for the Twelve, the apostles would direct all things aright, "and if you do not, we will raise up a people who will."
"He understood they had the keys, the commission, the responsibility to move forward," Brother Esplin said. "And, of course, the saints understood as well, and they did get the endorsement of the saints, and they did move forward."