Mormonism owes its continual rise much more to Brigham Young, the man who led the incipient movement across the Plains, than to Joseph Smith, who began it all with talk of angels and gold plates.
At least that's how Utah researcher Richard Van Wagoner sees it after spending the past 15 years compiling every known Young sermon and discourse from 127 sources.
Van Wagoner sought out original transcripts, rather than the LDS Church-sanctioned Journal of Discourses , in which Young's words were edited and polished. He also found speeches and statements recorded in other people's journals.
"Brigham seems to me to have been more solid and stable, less flamboyant, and superior in terms of organizational abilities," says Van Wagoner, an audiologist by training for whom Mormon history is an avocation.
The result of his digging is The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young , a five-volume work recently published by Salt Lake City's Signature Books. Signature printed only 325 copies of the set, which runs nearly 3,200 pages and costs $500.
Readers now can assess Young for themselves, Van Wagoner says, by searching the index for statements on dozens of topics.
They can find Young's "Adam is God doctrine," or his statements about "Black-hearted Republicans," blood atonement, the Civil War ("providence of God"), East Temple ("whiskey street"), Mother Eve (a "Daughter of Adam"), Martin Harris ("possessed a wild, speculative brain"), American Indians ("all the Indians on this Continent ... are of Israel"), Jehovah ("God the Father"), Jesus ("Father Adam's oldest son"), plural marriage ("has always been practiced [in the Celestial Kingdom] and always will be"), slavery ("divine institution").
The volumes also provide a fascinating look at Young's self-perceptions. He once commented that "there is not a man in this house who has a more indomitable and unyielding temper than myself." He added elsewhere that "never have I hurt any person ... except with this unruly member, my tongue."
Van Wagoner learned that, despite Young's lack of education, the LDS Church's second prophet was well versed in the King James Bible, even memorizing significant portions. In his own words, Young was "a Bible student from my youth." He noted that he never took "thought beforehand of what I should say" when delivering a speech, yet he cites hundreds of extensive biblical passages when doing so.
According to an entry in the journal of Wilford Woodruff (the fourth LDS prophet), it was Young who first offered the couplet: "As we now are, God once was and as he now is, we shall be if we continue faithful." That sentiment usually has been attributed to the fifth LDS president, Lorenzo Snow, who apparently learned it from Young.
As Van Wagoner worked on these transcripts, his esteem for Young grew.
"Brigham's facility with language and ability to address complex issues on the fly rank him among the most able preachers," Van Wagoner says, "and, as Utah's governor, most talented politicians of the day -- just as capable, I think, as any U.S. president of his time."
Ronald Walker, who is toiling away on a biography of Young, applauds Van Wagoner and Signature for the massive undertaking -- although the retired Brigham Young University historian cannot afford his own copy of the set.
"Reading the discourses is one of the starting places one must make to capture the real Brigham," Walker says. "But they must be read side by side with his letters that no one has really looked at. A softer, more pastoral, sweet man appears in the letters than in the pulpit."
Any search for the hidden mystery of Young has to be multifaceted, Walker says. "To really do the job right, you have to look also at how people interacted with him. Then you begin to get a picture of the complex, contradictory guy Brigham was."