Episode 158: Ronald K. Esplin, other historians discuss the upcoming Brigham Young Papers project and the prophet’s life and legacy

Church News podcast features historians sharing what they have learned by studying Brigham Young’s letters, journals

Brigham Young served as the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in other governmental positions from 1844 to 1877. As a result, sorting through the library of his written word, images, lectures, journals and other documentation is a mammoth task.

Still, the scholars at the Brigham Young Center are set to tackle this task with the upcoming Brigham Young Papers project.

This episode of the Church News podcast features Ronald K. Esplin, director of the Brigham Young Center and of the Brigham Young Papers project. He is joined by his fellow contributors, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat and Brent M. Rogers, who also worked on the Joseph Smith Papers project.

Together, they give a look at the life and legacy of the Prophet Brigham Young, as well as a peek into the immense undertaking of the upcoming project.

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Ronald K. Esplin: One of the things that I’ve learned from studying the life of Brigham Young is the importance of priesthood keys. He believed that Joseph had received the keys of the apostleship from Peter, James and John. And later in Nauvoo, Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve received those keys. Because of those keys, he had a responsibility to step up when Joseph was gone.

And in late Nauvoo, there’s one example of that that is especially telling to me. After Joseph’s death, the Quorum of the Twelve knew that they were going west, but they knew that that was not going to happen until they had finished the temple and endowed the Saints. And you can see in the journals that Brigham Young is absolutely committed to the temple and that he is, in fact, the one that conveys to us the temple ordinances that Joseph had taught to him and the Quorum of the Twelve, because in his heart of hearts, he was somebody who believed that the Lord would oversee.


Sarah Jane Weaver: This is Sarah Jane Weaver, executive editor of the Church News, welcoming you to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Brigham Young served as the second President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1844 to 1877, as well as in other governmental positions. As a result, sorting through the library of his written word, images, lectures, journals and other documentation is a daunting task. But the scholars at the Brigham Young Center are set to tackle this task with the upcoming Brigham Young Papers project.

This episode of the Church News podcast features Ronald K. Esplin, director of the Brigham Young Center and of the Brigham Young Papers project. He is joined by his fellow contributors, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat and Brent M. Rogers. Gerrit is an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, and a Joseph Smith Papers editor. Brent is managing historian in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who also worked on the Joseph Smith Papers. Welcome, all of you, to the Church News podcast.

Gerrit J. Dirkmaat: Thank you for having us.

This painting is the oldest surviving visual image of Brigham Young, circa early June 1841. This portrait was painted by an unknown artist, likely in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during Brigham’s stay in the city on his return to Nauvoo from Great Britain. | Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, thank you so much for coming in. I want to start with Ron and have you tell us how this project came about.

Ronald K. Esplin: On the 27th of June of this year, we published the final volume of the print edition of the Joseph Smith Papers, 22 years minus one day from its official approval by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Joseph Smith’s papers were extensive — are — and if we took all of the letters that survived from his incoming and outgoing correspondence, we’d have over 600 letters. With Brigham Young, there are over 10,000 outgoing letters and more than 30,000 incoming letters.

We understood — even though as scholars, we had hoped to take this great machinery that had done the Joseph had papers and just move it over to Brigham — that that wasn’t realistic. Neither Church leaders nor department leaders of the Church History Department were interested in committing to something that would have been hundreds of volumes, if done on the same scale as Joseph, and take many, many years. We therefore got cooperation from the Church but decided we must do this on the outside with an outside foundation. So the Brigham Young Center Foundation was formed with private funding, with donors that are interested in helping make this information available. And our task is to publish a small part of it, including the journals, which we begin with now, and have the mass of his written corpus available online with transcriptions.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and Gerrit, tell us what the journals teach us about Brigham Young.

Gerrit J. Dirkmaat: They are great insight into a long period of his life. The early parts of these journals are from when he’s a relatively new member and when he’s going on early missions for the Church. And, you know, Brigham demonstrates with his journal-keeping that he’s about as consistent as maybe I am in keeping a journal, that it is not always, it’s not every day. And of course, he’s keeping his journals for himself. I mean, he doesn’t know in 1834 that he’s going to be the President of the Church. So they contain notations to himself and short and brief entries, things to help him understand what his travel was and what he did.

And then also some insights into some of his preaching endeavors. When you’re trying to understand a person from the past, one of the most effective things you can do is go to their own diaries and journals, because, for the most part, these are created without people believing that they are writing a press release. They think that what they’re doing is creating a notation for themselves, and so you get personal insights and reflections that you might not get otherwise. I mean, a great way to maybe think of it is, if anyone has ever served a mission and they write a letter home to their mom, they might not tell their mom everything, right? They probably, you know, they’re really sick, but they tell their mom, “Oh, I have a little bit of a cough,” you know. In their journal, they might be a little bit more expressive of how they’re really thinking and feeling.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and what we do know of Brigham Young, as far as the general public, is that he’s a great colonizer, he moved the entire population of the Church to the Salt Lake Valley. But maybe what all of us have not seen is what kind of writer he was. Brent, could Brigham Young spell?

Brent M. Rogers: He could, in his own special way. Very idiosyncratic, very creative spellings, you can almost hear him sounding out the words as he’s writing them in his early journal. And so, this first volume of journals has his earliest writings in it. And so when we think about what we can learn from somebody from their personal writings, this is the earliest we get to see from Brigham Young.

And so we get to see him as he grows and changes and develops and becomes the Church leader who ultimately, you know, takes the Saints west and ultimately colonizes this vast western territory that is Utah and the Great Basin today. And so, to be able to get a firsthand, inside look into Brigham through his own writings, through his own creative spellings, through the things that mattered to him in those moments, which were his family, preaching the gospel and helping people. And you see that throughout these journals, and you get to see as he grows and develops.

One of the things that is, I think, really fascinating about some of his notations and entries is he writes down some scriptures that he teaches from, and so we can go back and read those scriptures and try to get a feeling for the understanding, what Brigham was trying to teach people in a particular city or a particular town while he was there. And so a lot of the early ones focus on gathering and trying to bring the Saints together. But there are also passages that are focused on Christ. And so you see Brigham as somebody who is focused on the Savior and His gospel.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And Ron, what insights did you gain as you looked at these early, early journal entries?

Ronald K. Esplin: Brigham, not being well educated, not being a native writer, would never have written a journal but for the impulse to share the gospel. He said that when he was baptized, the fire was in him, and he felt if he did not preach and speak, he would be consumed. And it was an effort to record those missionary journals that caused him to put pen to paper. We see in the early journals a man who at first had to stay near his neighborhood because his wife was ill and he was taking care of family. And after the family was well taken care of after her passing six months after their baptism, he goes as far as he can to give the great message of the gospel to as many people as he can and records the steps along the way and the people he met and the towns he visited. And you can just see his enthusiasm for sharing the gospel in these early diaries.

“The Brigham Young Journals, Vol. 1” features the early Church leader’s pre-Utah journals and provides glimpses into his life and ministry, as well as Church history. | The Brigham Young Papers


Sarah Jane Weaver: And Gerrit, all of us write journals, or we try. And, you know, I have a few journals that have a few entries, and then years go by. Was that the case for Brigham as well? Were there some sporadic periods where he wrote more than other periods?

Gerrit J. Dirkmaat: Yeah. In fact, it’s actually fairly similar to the way Joseph Smith kept his journal, in the sense that it was starts and stops; it was flurries of entries, especially related to his missionary efforts. And most of what we have in this first volume of Brigham Young’s journals are journal entries that he wrote himself or, they call, holographic entries, meaning it’s him writing it, but just like Joseph, eventually he gets to the point where he will employ scribes to keep his journal for him. Once he does that, you start to get much more information that’s added in, as you have a professional scribe that’s in there.

So you do have fits and starts, things that you wish, “Oh, I wish he had made a journal entry that day, because I know something important happened that day, but he didn’t record it.” And then you have other insights that come that you might not know about were there not an entry in his journal about that specific topic. So I think yes; you know, if anyone’s, you know, beating themselves up about missing a day in their journal, I mean, frankly, only Wilford Woodruff gets to really criticize anyone about keeping their journal every day. So you do see that particular aspect of human nature.


Brent M. Rogers: One part that we would love to know more about is Brigham Young’s Zion’s Camp experience. He’s keeping a journal through the period, but we don’t have any writings from him on that expedition. We do have some really vital writings from him on his first two missions with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. They do go as a quorum together to the eastern United States in 1835, and Brigham Young does a really good job of recording the people he’s teaching, the different groups of people he’s teaching to; Native Americans, there are mentions of other people of color, Black people that he’s teaching in the eastern United States, the number of people that get baptized, whether they’re men or women. And so you can do sort of a statistical analysis of the varieties of people that he’s teaching, and also who is converting to the Church through his writings, and then also with his mission with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to England from 1839 to 1841.

He’s an avid record-keeper during that time in talking about all of the different aspects that go into preaching and teaching in a foreign land. And we get a lot of insight into what that mission looked like, how it operated because of Brigham Young’s writings, what it took to get the Book of Mormon and other Church materials printed in England. So you have the gap with Zion’s Camp, but you have these amazing records from his missionary efforts with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that flesh out an understanding of how the gospel is spreading and growing. And so, that’s an example, to add on to Gerrit’s point about you get some fits and starts, but some really wonderful and even magical understanding of Brigham Young in those moments when he’s teaching.


Ronald K. Esplin: And Sarah, maybe I could just provide an overview of what this first volume contains. It contains the three personally handwritten or holographic journals that Brigham wrote. It contains one secretary’s journal or clerk’s journal. And these are all the pre-Utah diaries of Brigham Young. So anything before 1850 is in this volume. Now, the three handwritten volumes are not only hit-and-miss in terms of how often he’s writing, but he moves from one volume to another. And it’s very —

Sarah Jane Weaver: Like we all do.

Ronald K. Esplin: And it’s very difficult; as a scholar, I had access to them many years ago, but sorting them out was tough. We’ve taken them apart, put them back together chronologically, and then we fill the gaps with bridge notes, or editorial notes, that help you understand what’s going on between the gaps. So we have a narrative that begins with his baptism — when he first puts pen to paper with his first missionary journal in 1832 — and ends with the end of the Nauvoo era, when he’s involved with the endowing of thousands of Latter-day Saints in the Nauvoo Temple. And because we’ve got material that fills some of the gaps and we can put these four journals together in a narrative form, readers have a really good understanding of Brigham Young’s earliest life and mission and service.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and as a Church member, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate the historical context to each of these journal entries. Can you give us some examples of some specific journal entries and how this context actually helps us understand exactly what was going on?


Ronald K. Esplin: I’d like to give one of the early Nauvoo entries that’s a very cryptic one-liner in his diary but has a great backstory. And that’s: In early 1845, he’s writing very little in his diary, but he pauses at one point and writes, “I inquired of the Lord, ‘Should we finish the Nauvoo Temple?’ The answer was, ‘Yes.’” Now, that’s important. We can look at that and say, “Wow, he’s got confirmation that he’s doing the right thing.” But the backstory makes it even more interesting. He had vowed with the Quorum of the Twelve that their highest priority was to finish the temple, no matter what. If it took a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other, they would finish like the ancient Hebrews did their temple. And now he was asking the Lord, “Should they finish it?”

Why would he do that? Because just before this, he had received hard news that several of the apostates — high-leveled members of the Church earlier — were out stirring up the anti-Mormons in the community, saying, “You must drive them from Nauvoo before the temple is finished. If you do not, they are so committed to the temple, but all hell can’t break them loose.” Now, Brigham is viewed as a man who was willing to do whatever it took to get things done, and he spoke militantly. He said, “Let the very noise of our preparations be enough to protect this people.” And he spoke very violently occasionally, but he was not a violent man. And when it came to contemplating the prospect of presiding over violence, he went to the Lord and said, “Really? Even if it means violence, must we finish the temple?” The answer was, “Yes.”


Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow. Well, and Gerrit and Brent, I’d love you to do the same thing. Is there a passage in these early journals that are meaningful? And then, can you help us understand why they were so important?


Gerrit J. Dirkmaat: Boy, there are so many, but maybe one that might be of interest to Latter-day Saints is — of course, part of this journal covers the succession crisis that takes place after Joseph is murdered. And many people don’t know a whole lot about what’s going on with that. I think that’s something maybe we kind of brush over a little bit when we’re talking about our Church history. But in his journal, he’s going to record his interactions with Sidney Rigdon. Of course, after Joseph was murdered, one of the people who claims that they should be the leader of the Church, the guardian of the Church, is Sidney Rigdon. Sidney Rigdon had been a member of the First Presidency and claimed, therefore, that he had the right and power to lead the Church.

And not only does the journal reveal, you know, how the membership of the Church is going to choose Brigham Young, knowing that he’s the rightful successor, but you also get this reflection of why it’s so important to Brigham Young that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles leads the Church and not Sidney Rigdon. In one of his journal entries, he is having a conversation with Sidney Rigdon. He’s trying very hard to bring him back into the fold. And Sidney Rigdon says to him that the Church had not been led by the Spirit for a long time. Well, Joseph had just been murdered, so this was not a commentary on how Brigham and the Quorum of the Twelve were leading the Church. It was a commentary on what Sidney Rigdon thought of Joseph Smith.

And one thing you get from Brigham Young as overriding in his personality more than almost anything else is an absolute and desperate devotion to the Prophet Joseph Smith. And so part of the reason why it’s so important that Brigham Young wins that battle against Sidney Rigdon is that Sidney Rigdon has already telegraphed that were he to become the leader, some of Joseph’s teachings he considered to be false. And so I think there are several insights you get, especially from the later journals, of how desperately Brigham Young wants to follow what it is that Joseph taught. If it was popular, we’re going to do it. If it was unpopular, we’re going to do it. If it was hard, we’re going to do it. Easy, we’re going to do it — whatever it is that Joseph taught. And in fact, at one point, Brigham will say that “To carry out Joseph’s measures is sweeter than honey to me.” And this is really the measure of the man at the time of this crucial crisis in the Church.

Pages of the earliest journal entries written by Brigham Young. Left, an entry from April 9, 1832. The entry on the right is dated April 30, 1833. | Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow. And Brent?

Brent M. Rogers: Mine might not be as interesting as Ron’s and Gerrit’s; they had really, really good examples there. To me, some of the meaningful things — I’ll give maybe two examples. One is a little more mundane in that. One way that we’ve been able to flesh out Brigham Young’s life and experience is just by tracking his steps, you know; he might just make an entry, you know, “Walked 14 miles between,” you know, “Town Y and Town Z.” Well, we try to give a sense of what those towns looked like and maybe what the terrain looked like. And I had a new appreciation for Brigham walking between some towns in western New York when I was out there this summer and seeing some of the steep inclines and the hilly terrain, and just to be able to walk 14 miles in a day of that kind of landscape is — wow. That gives me a new appreciation for the devotion that he had to go from town to town and to continually and with the health and strength — he doesn’t always have the health and strength, as we see at various times in the journal, but during those times, to go between those towns and to walk 14, 15 miles in adverse conditions, to preach town by town, to me is a meaningful look into his life.

And then the other example that I would give is he writes about a dream that he has. He’s in England, serving a mission with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He had left his family, his wife Mary Ann, who had just given birth to their daughter Alice days before he left in September of 1839. And he writes a journal entry while he’s in England about a dream that he has about his family, and it’s a very sweet and tender dream that he has, and he — in the writings, you can tell how much he loved and missed his family. And not just in that moment, but you see mentions of that throughout the journal of how he felt about his family.

And we were able to contextualize and annotate some of those things, to say, “Hey, Mary Ann and Brigham were able to keep in a bit of contact as they wrote letters back and forth. And here’s some of the contents of those letters that talk about what’s happening for Mary Ann as she’s experiencing life without Brigham and taking care of her children and working the land to provide for them. And here’s what Brigham is experiencing as he receives those letters and how he feels in his writings back to Mary Ann.” And so we’re able to write about some of those things in our annotation to help provide a little bit more of an insight into Brigham and his experiences.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And I’d love to hear even more about what you learned about Brigham personally. You know, in recent years, we’ve often as a society viewed historical figures through a modern lens. And because you’ve had the opportunity to view them through the time where they actually lived, tell us what you want us all to know about Brigham Young.

Ronald K. Esplin: One of the things that I appreciate these journals for is the detailed information and feeling it conveys about Brigham Young’s commitment to the temple. After Joseph’s death, the Quorum of the Twelve knew that they were going west, but they knew that that was not going to happen until they had finished the temple and endowed the Saints. And you can see in the journals that Brigham Young is absolutely committed to the temple and that he is, in fact, the one that conveys to us the temple ordinances that Joseph had taught to him and the Quorum of the Twelve before his death.

A number of men and women were endowed under Joseph Smith’s direction, before Joseph Smith’s death, but it’s Brigham that put that all together in a form that could be conveyed to the Saints in the endowments in the Navajo Temple of thousands of Latter-day Saint men and women before they went west. Brigham is really the connection between Joseph and the temple that makes it possible for us to have the temple experiences we enjoy today, the way that Joseph had envisioned them and revealed them and restored them. Brigham’s commitment to the temple not only was to the Nauvoo Temple, but it was, throughout his life — including seeing that, just before his death, he was able to finish a temple quickly in the desert in the south of Utah, in order to write down for the first time all of the temple ordinances and initiate in a dedicated temple work for the dead, which could only be done in Nauvoo and then later in St. George, under Brigham Young’s direction.


Gerrit J. Dirkmaat: I would just add to what Ron has said, that the reality of being a Latter-day Saint is that the doctrines that we view, many of us, to be the most precious are doctrines that we have because Brigham Young refused to cast them aside after Joseph Smith was murdered. Many of us don’t think of doctrines like work for the dead as being a controversial doctrine. But you can actually see how controversial it is, first in the fact that other Christians don’t accept it as being true. But even after — just in examining the other denominations that form after Joseph is murdered, there are multiple different people who claim to be the new leader of the Church. And one of the things that quickly fades away from each of these other offshoot groups is this idea of baptisms for the dead, temple work, endowments, washings and anointings — these aspects of things that Joseph had revealed but we’re pretty new and different to Christians of the 19th century.

It was much more comfortable to not embrace these, what someone might see as a radical doctrine. But we have those doctrines — doctrines like eternal sealings, doctrines like progression to become like our Heavenly Father — because Brigham Young knew that Joseph Smith had taught them, and whether or not they were popular was not the deciding factor in whether or not he was going to maintain them. Our legacy of faith is kept alive by President Young because he very doggedly maintained these doctrines and these revelations, not just the easy and the popular ones. I mean, I’m sure it’s not popular to leave your home yet again in Nauvoo and march 1,500 miles over a mountain range to settle next to a salty lake. That’s not a popular thing. And in fact, There are people who hope that that won’t happen. But Brigham Young knows that Joseph Smith had already said, “We are leaving the United States, we are moving to the Rocky Mountains,” and that is going to be the deciding factor for him.

So, hopefully Latter-day Saints can realize, first and foremost, that for someone who has tens of thousands of documents, sermons, letters, journal entries, minutes — and I could call the roll on and on — thinking that you understand that person because of a brief meme on an Instagram is just not a very accurate representation. Or maybe someone might consider to themselves, “How would you feel if historians 200 years from now got a hold of your cellphone, and they got a hold of one of your text strains, and that’s all they knew about you, and then they said that’s all there was to know about you?”

How many of us would be willing to turn our cellphones over for that purpose, right? I mean, the reality is people are complex. They have good days and bad days. They have highs, and they have lows. They have times when things work out well and things when they don’t. They have things that they regret. And Brigham Young, like all of us, is a sinner who is trying through the grace of Christ to come back to God. And he is desperately trying to lead other people that same direction.

Daguerreotype of Brigham Young, circa 1846.
Daguerreotype of Brigham Young, circa 1846. This is the earliest known likeness of Brigham Young taken from life. The daguerreotype is attributed to Lucian R. Foster. | Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


Brent M. Rogers: Well, how do you follow that, Gerrit? That’s well said. I guess, yeah, for me, I would just add that as I’ve worked on the Brigham Young journals, and as I’ve got to know and understand Brigham and his experiences and his history more, I see a very human person, a very complex and wonderful individual who is much more inclusive and caring and devoted to the gospel of Jesus Christ than maybe people today would give him credit for. There are things that Brigham Young has said and things that he has said that I don’t understand why he said them or what they mean. But I have got to know this Brigham Young as I’ve studied his journals and his papers and the context surrounding them.

And what I see is somebody who is more than that little sliver that people often talk about him as. He could be, as shown in some of his later teachings, people get certain lines from a Brigham Young discourse, and they say, “Oh, he was a cold-hearted and violent person,” and that’s just not true. When you get to read Brigham in his own words and when you get to see him in a more holistic way, you see somebody who is inclusive and caring and is devoted to the gospel and wants to share that gospel message with others. He makes every effort possible to bring people unto Christ.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, Brent, I have heard several of the Brethren talking about the Joseph Smith Papers project say the more they read about Joseph Smith, the better he looked. The more they studied, the more they learned, the more they appreciated him. Is the same true for Brigham Young?

Brent M. Rogers: I think so. I think as you really — with an eye towards understanding and not towards detracting — try to look at somebody’s life and really try to understand them in their time, in their place and in their context, you have an appreciation for what they’re actually trying to do and not trying to pick apart by one little quote in one line — I think the way that Gerrit explained that with the, you know, one text thread where, you know, I wouldn’t want to be judged on my worst day. And to be able to really know somebody throughout their life — and in the journals, Volume 1, it’s most of Brigham’s early life all the way through the time that he becomes the second President of the Church, and you get to see his growth and development as a person and as a disciple. And as you get to know what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, I think you have a better appreciation and understanding of who he was, and you see those really positive aspects of him.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I want to shift a little bit, because all three of you worked on the Joseph Smith Papers project. What did you learn during that 20-year process that is actually helping you as you sort through and delve in and try and figure out what to make public from Brigham Young’s papers and letters and journals and everything else? And so, how did the Joseph Smith Papers project help define the aspects of this project, Ron?

Ronald K. Esplin: Because we all worked on the Joseph Smith papers and ended up being part of something that has stood the test of time — 20 years now, in some cases — we wanted to do for Brigham the same quality of work that we had done for Joseph. And I think all of the people that are involved in this project in this volume learned the ropes working on Joseph. We know the sources. We know the actors of this early period. All of them are during the Joseph Smith period, except for the last two or three years. And I think we have the opportunity to apply everything we’ve learned on Joseph to the early Brigham Young and do the same quality of work. And as I look at the final volume, that these two brethren and one of their colleagues is not with us today, Andrew Hedges, produced, I say to myself, “If we set out to do for Brigham what we did for Joseph, this first volume is a success.” I think we’ve done it. They have done it.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and on a recent Church News podcast, we had Gail Miller come and talk about sharing so much of her resources to make that Joseph Smith Papers project possible. How are we funding this Brigham Young project?

Ronald K. Esplin: Right now, this is funded by some private foundation. The Brigham Young Center Foundation is a 501(c)(3) foundation, and we welcome donations. We hope the Brigham Young family will help us. We hope many Latter-day Saints will help us. But our major funder is another private foundation that has given a lot of money to make it possible to this point. And in 2024, we intend to expand that and get our resources to the point where we could have wonderful scholars like we have today but employ them more than part time on top of their other work, and that requires a great deal of funding. And we only have modest funding at this point. But what we’ve been able to produce with part-time scholars working several years with wonderful funding from dedicated people on the side, I think, is a very worthy first effort.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And I am interested in why the three of you dedicated so much of your life and your career and your studies to looking and learning more about Brigham Young. And, Ron, let’s start with you. But what was it about Brigham Young that made you want to focus your studies on him?

Ronald K. Esplin: It is interesting that three of the four of us involved in this volume all wrote dissertations on Brigham Young, even though we also spent many years on Joseph Smith. And I knew when I left my undergraduate work at the University of Utah to go east to the University of Virginia for graduate school that I was going to come back to the West to write a dissertation on Brigham Young, and I don’t know where that came from. I’ve not been able to recover it. I knew when I went east, I was coming back to the West for Brigham. And indeed I did. And coming back to the West allowed me to get connected with Leonard Arrington and the Church archives and spend five years creating the Brigham Young collection out of the vast holdings of the early pioneer Church historian’s office and bringing it together in an organized manner.

And that was the beginning of our understanding of the vastness of the Brigham Young collection, compared to anybody else in the history of our faith. And it was the opportunity to bring those together that allowed me to do a dissertation on the early life of Brigham Young from primary sources, some of which had not been used before. And each of my colleagues, for their own reasons, ended up writing a dissertation on Brigham Young, and I think they may have had some of the same inspiration. And maybe they have a little more concrete idea of where it came from. I just know that I knew in 1969 that I was going to write a dissertation on Brigham Young, which I did a decade later.

An image of Brigham Young during his years as the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow. Well, and Brent and Gerrit, I’d love to hear your experiences as well.

Gerrit J. Dirkmaat: I did not intend to write a dissertation on Brigham Young. I actually went to school intending to write a dissertation on military history, was what I intended to study. It’s kind of a gap between military and religious history, I guess. And what happened is in the course of one of researching a paper on the American Civil War, I came across some of the letters that were written about Utah, the Territory of Utah, during the American Civil War and its occupation by the Union Army. So even though Latter-day Saints had declared their loyalty to the Union, even though they had sent troops to fight for the Union, the government still mistrusted and distrusted Latter-day Saints, and so they sent an army to occupy the territory.

And that led me to researching more about it, and what I ended up focusing on was how the federal government had treated Latter-day Saints differently than they had other American citizens and almost treating them as if they were a separate and a foreign entity. So I ended up writing about the last couple of years of Joseph Smith’s life. And then, of course, it’s Brigham Young that is going to really set the tone for these interactions with the United States federal government in the first years after that. So if you would have asked me when I first went into graduate school, would I be writing about Latter-day Saint history? The answer would have been no. And I do feel that there was many aspects of inspiration that brought me there. I’m very grateful that I did. I wouldn’t trade what it is that I’ve been studying and writing about for anything else. It has been both personally and very spiritually rewarding to do that.


Brent M. Rogers: Well, I’m a convert to the Church, and part of my investigative process has involved history and understanding the historical aspects of people in the Church. And I have been fascinated by understanding Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and those early Latter-day Saints. And so for me, as I got into graduate school and things, I wanted to study Latter-day Saint history as part of my study of the American West. And Brigham Young is a figure of monumental importance in the history of the American West. And so this foundational figure leading this religion in the desert in the West and how that had implications for national politics was what I started to really investigate for my dissertation. And so I looked at how Utah Territory influenced the politics as we headed to the Civil War.

And most of the time, when people focus on that period, they think about Kansas Territory and the problems of slavery and how to handle the expansion of slavery and enslaved people further west. Well, there’s a lot of territorial dynamics and geopolitical dynamics that go into that question that Utah actually has quite a bit of impact on. And so Brigham Young, being a foundational figure in those conversations, in leading to what ultimately becomes the Civil War, was what I studied for my dissertation. And so, for me, as you know, looking at Brigham from that political discourse, you see a very different Brigham Young.

And so, as I’ve been able to understand him and get to know him better, I just feel like for me, it’s a labor of love to get to know and give this person the time and energy and opportunity for him to tell his own story and not have political pundits and people who see him in a sliver of his life tell his story.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and — so, if you could share just one thing about Brigham that you have gained, where you think, “Wow, I really now have an understanding of who he is,” what would that be? Just one thing in the simplest form.

Gerrit J. Dirkmaat: I mean, his love of other people is very evident. He takes very seriously the idea that loving your fellow man is the demonstration, the other testimony of Jesus. And when you read his last entries before they leave Nauvoo, I mean, this is a time of crisis. They believe an army is coming that’s going to prevent them from leaving, that’s going to arrest or perhaps kill people. You have mobs that have already been killing people in the Nauvoo area, burning houses and barns and driving Latter-day Saints into the city. And they believe that if they don’t leave right away, that they will not be able to leave.

And yet the members of the Church are so desperate to receive their endowments that you have Brigham Young for the last several weeks of this last journal that we have, essentially sleeping in the temple so that he can give endowments to as many members as possible. And at one point, you know, he even says, “That’s it. We’re done.” And as he tries to walk away from the temple, all he sees is dozens and dozens and hundreds of people lined up, still trying to get their endowments. And he talks about his heart being moved by compassion and wanting to go back in, and he does. He goes back in and reopens the temple to go give them their endowments.

I think you see someone who is desperate to defend the gospel and the Prophet Joseph Smith but also desperately loves other people and is someone who’s a work in progress, like we all are, but someone who has, at his heart, a kind nature.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And Brent?

Brent M. Rogers: I would just add very similarly that he has a care and devotion to his family and to the gospel and the Savior, and that’s something that really stood out to me as I had the opportunity to work on this volume of Brigham Young’s journals.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And Ron?


Ronald K. Esplin: Brigham Young’s known often from his rhetoric and hyperbole. And he used some of that purposely. Occasionally, he allowed that his tongue maybe got a little bit out of control. But for the most part, he used it purposely. It masks who he really was, because in his heart of hearts, he was somebody who believed that the Lord would oversee, and that if the Latter-day Saints did all in their power, they could not fall short, for they were on the Lord’s errand.

And in late Nauvoo, there’s one example of that that is especially telling to me. B. H. Roberts, the pioneer-historian, wrote about this area and called it the greatest period of prayer in the history of the Church, where Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve met together in prayer circles, a form of prayer they had been taught by Joseph and which they would teach the Latter-day Saints in the temple. And through their prayer circles, they sought the Lord’s intervention — not that the Nauvoo Legion would protect Nauvoo, but that prayer and God would protect Nauvoo. He told the Latter-day Saints, “Come, build a temple. Leave your fields, if you must. The Lord will see to the harvest.” And they did. They didn’t spend as much time in the field as they should have and could have. And yet the harvest was spectacular, and the prayers were answered. And I think Brigham never doubted that that would be the case. He felt he had the Lord’s promise.

Ronald K. Esplin photographed in his office in Salt Lake City.
Ronald K. Esplin while working on the Joseph Smith Papers project, photographed in his office in Salt Lake City on March 20, 2008. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News


Sarah Jane Weaver: And I think that’s a good place to wind up. We have a tradition at the Church News podcast: We always ask the same question, we always give our guests the last word. And so we’ll start with Brent and then go to Gerrit and end with Ron, and have each of you share what you know now, after studying the journals of Brigham Young and compiling this great work that reflects so many of his personal reflections.


Brent M. Rogers: What I have learned is to give people the benefit of the doubt and to be more considerate of people’s experiences. I think seeing Brigham Young as he grew and developed in his understanding of the gospel, and in his understanding of revelation, and in his understanding of being a disciple, and what that meant to him, and what that meant to his family, and how he was able to take that message of his understanding — not a man of learnedness, you know; not a man of education — but his ability to speak by the Spirit and his efforts to study the gospel and to teach people was at the center of his life during this period. And to put Christ in the center and to move forward with that dedication, to see him in that role, has been something that has impacted me as I’ve studied Brigham Young’s early life.


Gerrit J. Dirkmaat: There’s so much I could say. I think studying Brigham Young’s early life and also having studied some of his later life, to me, one of the things that really comes across is that Brigham Young made his decision of belief once. He didn’t make it over and over and over again. He didn’t make it and then, “Well, we weren’t able to redeem Zion, so I guess Joseph must not be a prophet.” He didn’t make it, and then, “Well, the Kirtland Safety Society didn’t work out, so I guess Joseph must not be a prophet.” Brigham Young had the Holy Spirit tell him that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. And after that, he believed that Joseph was a prophet, even when he didn’t understand what it was that Joseph was teaching, even when events from the outside, one could very easily say, “Well, Joseph, why did you have people go to Missouri? Couldn’t God have told you that we were going to be driven out of there?” Those aren’t the kinds of questions that Brigham Young asked. He comes to know that the prophet is the prophet.

And then he puts his money where his mouth is. He completely devotes his life to spreading the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. And that doesn’t mean that he understood everything all at once. I mean, it’s a great story to reflect and remember that when Joseph Smith first received the vision in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76, that was such radical doctrine, so opposed to traditional Christianity, that many people left the Church over it. And when Brigham Young got that doctrine, he said, “I didn’t reject it, but I could not understand it.” And that aspect of his character, where he then prayed and read and prayed and studied, he said, “until the Spirit, I could teach them that it was true” is something that I think I’ve been able to incorporate into my own life.

If you only follow the Prophet when the Prophet just so happens to say everything that you already believe, well, that’s not really following the Prophet. The whole point of having a prophet is to lead you places that you wouldn’t go otherwise. That’s why God calls prophets. And Brigham Young fully embraces this idea. God has called Joseph as the prophet, and I’m going to follow him. If it’s easy, if it’s hard, if it makes sense, if it doesn’t, I’m going to follow what the Lord wants us to do through His prophet, Joseph.


Ronald K. Esplin: One of the things that I’ve learned from studying the life of Brigham Young — especially in the early years, but throughout his life — is the importance of priesthood keys. He believed that Joseph had received the keys of the apostleship from Peter, James and John, and that he and his fellow Apostles received those same keys. He believed in the coming of Moses, Elijah and Elias in the Kirtland Temple, and that Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith received those keys. And later in Nauvoo, Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve received those keys.

He believed that because of those keys, he had a responsibility to step up when Joseph was gone, because only he and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve possessed all of the keys. They possessed more than that; they had been Joseph’s closest defender and disciple and student in learning the doctrines of the kingdom. But learning the doctrines alone was meaningless if they didn’t have the keys and the power behind them, and Brigham believed that they held the keys. When he went to the Lord and said, “Should we finish the temple?” He knew he had the key to know the mind and will of God and receive an answer.

As the Doctrine and Covenants says in Section 124, in the promise to Hyrum about that key, the knowledge to ask and receive an answer. And he did receive an answer, not just then, but over and over again. The Saints were worried when Joseph was gone. “What about Revelation?” Brigham didn’t promise a new body of written revelation, although he did have revelations, and he wrote one or two that the Church isn’t very familiar with. But he did promise that revelation continues. The keys are with us. The heavens are open. We receive and will know and will be led by the mind and will of God. And that’s what gave him the confidence to do what he did in Nauvoo and beyond.


Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News executive editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen; and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channels or with other news and updates on the Church on

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