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Religion Today

May 14, 1998

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Valeen Tippetts Avery, a professor of history at Northern Arizona University, had never met the perplexed young woman who came knocking at her door.

Newly married to a Mormon, the student had been reading up on the faith and attending its women’s auxiliary. She was confused now, and someone had suggested she talk to Avery.

The young woman, Avery recalled, had just received a new Relief Society manual about Brigham Young. ``And he only has one wife!″

Avery, a Mormon who knew the pioneer leader had 55 wives, couldn’t explain why the lesson manual, used since January by church members in 22 languages, paints America’s most famous polygamist as a monogamist.

But she had some advice.

``The Mormon church is trying to say to the new people coming into the church, as well as to the larger American society, that there was nothing questionable in the Mormon past,″ Avery told the woman. ``And if you want answers to these kinds of sticky questions, you’re not going to find them inside accepted Mormon manuals and doctrines.″

The absence of any mention of polygamy is just one complaint leveled at the manual, the first of a series based on selected teachings of presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

``Homogenized pap,″ snorts Will Bagley of Salt Lake City, a historian of 19th century Mormonism from Salt Lake City. ``I think it really shows a contempt for the intelligence of the members.″

``Whoever compiled the manual is extraordinarily embarrassed by the church’s second president,″ says Ron Priddis of Signature Books, an independent publisher of Mormon-related works.

``It’s a religious tract, not history,″ scoffs historian Nancy J. Taniguchi, of Cal State-Stanislaus.

``This isn’t about Brigham Young. It’s about what somebody in the church Correlation Department thinks is Brigham Young,″ says Glen Hettinger, a lawyer, Mormon and amateur church historian in Dallas.

The barbs, say church officials, are unfairly aimed at a work that never was intended as a portrait of the colorful, controversial colonizer who brought the Mormons west to establish a theocratic empire. Instead, they say, it is a selective compilation of Young’s teachings on those gospel topics that church leaders consider relevant today.

``We’re introducing Brigham Young to a church member throughout the world who is not familiar with the historian’s perspective,″ says Craig Manscill, chairman of the writing committee that produced the 370-page work. ``So it’s not a biography. It’s not a history.″

Rather, the focus was the gospel of Jesus Christ ``as taught through the mouth and sermons of that great president of the church,″ says Ronald L. Knighton, managing director of the church’s Curriculum Department.

Within months of assuming the church presidency in March 1995, Gordon B. Hinckley urged updating of the curriculum of adult male priests and of the relief society. Both had always been separate.

Soon, a writing committee was formed, using ``Discourses of Brigham Young,″ a 1954 compilation of Young’s teachings by Apostle John A. Widtsoe, as the primary source for a new priesthood manual. A few months later, when church leaders decided the manual would be used by both men and women, they added women to the writing committee.

Widtsoe’s work, winnowed from hundreds of Young speeches in the multivolume ``Journal of Discourses,″ sanitized the rough-and-ready frontier prophet for modern audiences. Widtsoe eliminated many of the cantankerous, contradictory, humorous and hyperbolic rantings for which Young was known, and widely beloved. He also eliminated doctrines Young espoused that the church no longer did.

Polygamy, which church founder Joseph Smith secretly established as ``the new and everlasting covenant of marriage″ and which Young publicly championed, was dropped 13 years after his death in 1877 and appears nowhere in the Widtsoe index or the new manual.

Also missing are Young’s theories that Adam was God the Father and that Eve was just one of God’s wives, the rest having been left in other worlds. Blood atonement was another casualty.

Worse than a glaring lack of context, though, say critics who have closely compared statements in the manual to Young’s sermons, are misrepresentations of his ideas.

``I’d say that about 10 percent of the quotes are overtly lifted out of context, with about another 10 percent that are more subtly altered,″ Priddis says. ``In addition, about 5 percent have been abbreviated to avoid offense regarding race, nationality, gender and so on.″

Bagley is perhaps the most disdainful of the new manual, which he sees as a misguided attempt to pass Brigham Young off as a 20th century Mormon, as ``this defanged creature.″

The ill-considered result, he says, is ``Brigham Young as Gordon B. Hinckley.″

Knighton acknowledges the work as ``a cut and paste of doctrine,″ but ``not to misrepresent or try to interpret.″

``We’d ellipse occasionally as the brethren would counsel. Most of those ellipses, or many of them, came from the First Presidency’s reading,″ he says. ``But it was not an intent to capture full discourses.″

The absence of polygamy _ even in a chronology of Young’s life that mentions his first wife _ should not be surprising, Manscill says, because the church dropped the practice in 1890.

``Was it in the material that we reviewed? Oh, it was there. And did we ellipse in certain places? Of course we did,″ he says, ``But we were following what our leaders had asked us to do.″

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