The Transfiguration of Brigham Young: Mormon Folklore?

By Sharon Lindbloom

For a two-part Viewpoint on Mormonism that aired July 21-22, 2016, click here  Part 1  Part 2  

When Joseph Smith died in June of 1844, the Mormon Church faced a succession crisis. Mormon historian Richard S. Van Wagoner explained,Brigham_Young_by_Charles_William_Carter

“Despite frequent kidnaping and assassination attempts, Joseph Smith established no firm policies regarding presidential succession in the event of his death. The resulting confusion threw the prophetic transition into turmoil. He simply had not expected to die at thirty-eight. Never given to full disclosure to any man or woman, the prophet’s public and private statements between 1834-44 suggested at least eight different methods for succession, each pointing to different successors with some claims to validity.” (“The Making of a Mormon Myth: The 1844 Transfiguration of Brigham Young,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter 1995, 4)

Many people vied for the office of President of the Church left vacant at Smith’s death. The two main contenders, however, were Sidney Rigdon (First Counselor in the First Presidency) and Brigham Young (President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles). Church members were divided and argued over the identity of Smith’s successor. A special meeting was called in Nauvoo for August 8, 1844 to decide who would lead the floundering church. Sidney Rigdon spoke and made a case for his ascension to the office of President. Then Brigham Young spoke in behalf of The Twelve. It was then that the miracle occurred.

“If Joseph had risen from the dead and again spoken in their hearing, the effect could not have been more startling than it was to many present at that meeting, it was the voice of Joseph himself; and not only was it the voice of Joseph which was heard, but it seemed in the eyes of the people as if it were the very person of Joseph which stood before them. A more wonderful and miraculous event than was wrought that day in the presence of that congregation, we never heard of. The Lord gave His people a testimony that left no room for doubt as to who was the man chosen to lead them. They both saw and heard with their natural eyes and ears, and the words which were uttered came, accompanied by the convincing power of God, to their hearts, and they were filled with the Spirit and with great joy. There had been gloom, and in some hearts, probably, doubt and uncertainty, but now it was plain to all that here was the man upon whom the Lord had bestowed the necessary authority to act in their midst in Joseph’s stead. On that occasion Brigham Young seemed to be transformed, and a change such as that we read of in the scriptures as happening to the Prophet Elisha, when Elijah was translated in his presence, seemed to have taken place with him. The mantle of the Prophet Joseph had been left for Brigham. … The people said one to another: ‘The spirit of Joseph rests on Brigham’: they knew that he was the man chosen to lead them and they honored him accordingly.” (George Q. Cannon, circa 1864, quoted in Van Wagoner, 14-15)

Except that they didn’t.

As Mr. Van Wagoner points out, on August 8, 1844 the Latter-day Saints chose a group of men, not one man, to lead the church when they voted in favor of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles as their leading authority. Brigham Young was not sustained as the President of the Church until December 1847, and this was not without opposition and argument. The historical facts actually suggest that Brigham Young was not chosen to lead the church that day, for one week later, on August 15, the Twelve published an epistle that said,

“You are now without a prophet present with you in the flesh to guide you. … Let no man presume for a moment that [Joseph Smith’s] place will be filled by another; for, remember he stands in his own place, and always will.” (Times and Seasons 5 (15 Aug. 1844): 618, quoted in Van Wagoner, 14)

Furthermore, history also suggests that there was no transfiguration on August 8 to guide the people toward God’s will in the matter. According to Mr. Van Wagoner, “no known contemporary record supports a supernatural occurrence” at either the morning or afternoon August 8 meetings, but there are plenty of accounts from later years that mention Brigham Young’s transfiguration.

“The earliest detailed accounts of a purported transfiguration did not begin to surface until long after the Saints were settled in the Great Basin. The fact that no account was included in ‘Joseph Smith’s History,’ completed in August 1856, or in The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, completed before his 1857 death, suggests that the myth was not fully developed by this period. The first public reference to a ‘transfiguration’ may have been a 19 July 1857 statement by Albert Carrington before a huge gathering of Saints that ‘he could not tell [Brigham Young] from Joseph Smith’ when Young ‘was speaking in the stand in Nauvoo’ during the 8 August 1844 convocation. . . Retrospective retellings of a ‘transfiguration,’ in a variety of forms, can be found in dozens of sources, yet no two seem to agree on precise details.” (16-17)

Some who later claimed to have witnessed the transfiguration were not actually in Nauvoo on August 8, 1844. John D. Lee said he saw and heard a strong resemblance in Brigham Young to Joseph Smith “at that time,” but he did not arrive in Nauvoo until August 20. In 1869 Orson Hyde, an apostle of the Mormon Church, described the famous August 8 meeting and his participation in it. He said,

“We went among the congregation…he [Brigham] spoke, and his words went through me like electricity…This is my testimony; it was not only the voice of Joseph, but there were the features, the gestures and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham.” (Journal of Discourses 13:181)

Mr. Hyde’s testimony is astonishing – because he was not in Nauvoo on August 8, but rather arrived in the city five days later.

One contemporary account of the transfiguration of Brigham Young was found in the diary of Mormon George Laub, thought to have been written in 1846. Mr. Van Wagoner explains, “This small tan-colored leather diary, which has misled many scholars, has now been determined to be a copy of the original by Laub himself, with additions.” The original diary has also been discovered, and it contains no reference to Brigham Young’s transfiguration.

Mr. Van Wagoner sums up,

“Apostles Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, and Wilford Woodruff, all of whom made 8 August 1844 entries in their diaries, make no reference to an epiphany. Such an event, had it truly transpired, would have stood at the apogee of world history, a physical metamorphosis unsurpassed except for the transfiguration and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet neither the Times and Seasons nor the Nauvoo Neighbor, local newspapers owned by the church, mention such a wonder. Neither do the 1844 and 1845 accounts of Jedediah Grant and Orson Hyde, specifically written to refute Sidney Rigdon’s robust challenge to the Quorum of Twelve’s succession claims.” (22)

The transfiguration of Brigham Young is but another Mormon myth used to undergird the validity of a church that has no solid foundation. Mormons (as well as those investigating Mormonism) might do well to consider the words of Seventy B.H. Roberts:

“…since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated … might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies.” (quoted in Van Wagoner, 24)