LDS Discussions Blog
The Transfiguration of Brigham Young (June 30, 2020)
One of the most difficult issues for both critics and apologists is that no matter how much evidence we have, we can never know exactly what happened since we were not actually there - and in many cases no first hand witnesses were there, either. This is why apologists will often use the phrase "we can not know everything" or "we'll get the answers in the next life."
Is it possible Joseph Smith's First Vision happened in 1820 as he stated, with both God and Jesus appearing to him? Did he just confuse the different accounts when he originally said he saw just one personage and later changed it to seeing both God and Jesus? While we have a lot of evidence to look at the First Vision accounts, we can't say for sure because only Joseph Smith knows what really happened, so we can only go off of what he wrote about the event.
The same issues arise with the priesthood restoration. As we document on the priesthood timeline, the story changes as the church evolves, and as such it is impossible to know exactly what happened. Did Peter, James, and John bestow the Melchizedek priesthood to Joseph and Oliver, or was that late addition an attempt to bolster their authority during a time of crisis in the young church?
All of these miraculous stories are impossible to know for sure, because no one was filming them, taking photos, or, in most cases, writing them down when they actually occurred.
As I've studied the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I've been fascinated with researching biblical scholarship to try and understand how everything fits together. It recently struck me just how important the 'Transfiguration of Brigham Young' is to understanding church history because we can see how it evolved from the accounts written on the days around the event until about ten years later when the story actually took hold.
It's not just the story that is so fascinating, but the evolution of the miraculous nature of it. So before I get into this in more detail, I want to give a brief overview of the 'transfiguration of Brigham Young' and what the actual history says about it.
After Joseph Smith died, there was no clear succession plan left behind to proclaim the next prophet of the church. Thus a meeting was convened as both Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young both felt they should lead the church moving forward (Rigdon as the prophet, Young as the leader of the twelve). As told in LDS history, the following happened: "Brigham Young, a man fiercely loyal to the Prophet Joseph Smith, current President of the Twelve and later to become known as the “Lion of the Lord”, takes the stand. Suddenly, the people arise "en-masse to their feet astonished." One eyewitness later remembered, "it appeared that Joseph had returned and was speaking to the people." As Brigham Young commences speaking, hundreds in the audience believe "in every possible degree it [is] Joseph’s voice, and his person, in look, attitude, dress and appearance [it is] Joseph himself, personified." (ldsanswers.org) This is a crucial moment in LDS history, because the church split off into many factions following Joseph's death, with all of the living witnesses following Emma Smith to form the Reorganized LDS church due to their belief that polygamy was not from God. This moment is used to explain why Brigham Young was truly chosen by God to lead this church, why this is the true and living branch of God's church, and that Brigham Young was truly a man of God.
What History Tells Us:
This story suffers from the same problems that Joseph Smith's First Vision, priesthood restoration, polygamy revelation, and so many others do: Nothing was written down about it happening this way at the time. With regards to Brigham Young, this is even more problematic because we have so many letters and journals from the day the meeting took place not to mention newspapers and church records from leaders. And yet not a single mention of this miraculous event until at least 7 years later, when allusions began to surface in journals such as Emily Hoyt's diary.
Richard Van Wagoner discussed this evolution in an article for Dialogue, as he documented that journals from the days surrounding the meeting discuss the event, yet fail to mention the transfiguration on every instance. He notes that "the legend is now unsurpassed in Mormon lore, second only to Joseph Smith’s own account of angelic ministrations and his “first vision" and that "when 8 August 1844 is stripped of emotional overlay, there is not a shred of irrefutable contemporary evidence to support the occurrence of a mystical event either in the morning or afternoon gatherings of that day." (Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Volume 28, No. 4, Winter 1995)
Van Wagoner continues in this research to note that "the paramount dilemma with retrospective transfiguration recountings is why so many otherwise honorable, pious people recalled experiencing something they probably did not. A rational and likely explanation for this faulty group memory is that a “contagious” thought can spread through the populace to create a “collective mind." This is a very important point to remember when reading about Joseph Smith and the witnesses, who have details evolve over time and tend to fall in line with the "collective mind" as they got older. In other words, people tend to believe a story the more they tell it, regardless of the accuracy.
LDS Answers argues that "within a year of the “transfiguration” the miracle had been referred to several times" although they provide no sources. Again, this was covered in both Nauvoo newspapers along with notes from many leaders of the church. The idea that they missed such a miraculous event is requiring you to suspend all common sense. If they had proof that it was recorded, they would not only present it, but it would be front and center in every lesson that explains why Brigham Young was the chosen successor to Joseph Smith.
Wilford Woodruff wrote seven pages in his journal on this day, and not a single mention of any transfiguration, change in voice,or any other miraculous event. Parley P. Pratt wrote about the day in his autobiography which was finished in 1856 and not a single mention of anything miraculous happening. In addition, there are writings from that day from Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards, with not a single mention of any miraculous event.
One diary has been used by church scholars to prove it was mentioned at the time - a diary written by George Laub. But as Van Wagoner discovers, “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.” In addition, they have since found the original diary, and it contains no references whatsoever to the transfiguration of Brigham Young.
In a talk during General Conference in 1869, Apostle Orson Hyde said this to the church: "We went among the congregation and President Young went on the stand. Well, he spoke, and his words went through me like electricity. “Am I mistaken?” said I, “or is it really the voice of Joseph Smith?” 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 Discourse 13:181)
The problem, of course, is that Orson Hyde wasn't in Nauvoo that day - he arrived five days later as confirmed by the journal of Wilford Woodruff. Hyde's account has been used in church lessons often, even though the history has been available for decades that it could not have possibly happened.
Why It Matters:
The transfiguration of Brigham Young is the central story of why Brigham Young was chosen to lead after Joseph Smith's death. Even LDS Answers concedes that point: "If the Lord miraculously transfigured Brigham Young’s appearance, Brigham Young was divinely sanctioned as Joseph Smith’s successor. If this transfiguration never took place, the very foundations of our LDS faith and history are weakened."
And this leads to the reason I believe that the transfiguration of Brigham Young is one of the most important events to understanding church history - it gives us an evidence based path to see how myths can grow from the most ordinary events. We can look at the tangible, contemporary evidence to see that this event never happened, and yet years later it was spoken of as undeniable fact that gave members a spiritual witness that were not even present.
Even as I worked on the chapter-by-chapter review of the church's Saints book, I was stunned to see that the transfiguration of Brigham Young is still being treated as fact today. From Saints:
"Seven years later, Emily (Hoyt) recorded her experience of watching Brigham speak to the Saints, testifying how much he looked and sounded like Joseph on the stand. In the years to come, dozens of Saints would add their witness to hers, describing how they saw Joseph’s prophetic mantle fall on Brigham that day."
If you read this paragraph knowing the history, you can see what the church is trying to accomplish: They present the account as proof to members that the event happened, but they note that it wasn't written down until seven years later so that if critics point out the absence of contemporary evidence, they can claim they mentioned it was not a contemporary account. Furthermore, the account cited in Saints of Emily Hoyt seven years later is a bit different than the actual event is now described:
"But the God of heaven who had said it was his business to provide for the saints, sent President B. Young home just in time, and clothed him not with "the mantle of Elijah," but the spirit and power which had rested on Joseph. I was an eye, and ear, witness. The manner of reasoning, the expression of the countenance, the sound of the voice thrilled my whole soul... I knew that Joseph was dead. And yet I often startled and involuntarily looked at the stand to see if it was not Joseph. It was not, it was Brigham Young and it any one doubts the right of Brigham to manage affairs for the Saints, all I have to say to them is this: Get the spirit of God and know for yourselves."
Again, this account does not say that Brigham Young looked and sounded like Joseph Smith unless you make those assumptions to fit the later narrative, but that his speech (compared to Sidney Rigdon's) gave her a spiritual confirmation that Brigham Young should lead the church because it felt like he was ready to lead it as Joseph Smith did. It was not until after this account that the story grew to Brigham actually becoming transfigured to look and sound like Joseph Smith, and as we detailed above even church leaders spoke of the story when they were not there. It certainly does not fit with the description from Saints that he looked like Joseph Smith - if he did why did Emily mention that she needed to look at the stand to make sure it was not Joseph? Just to be clear, Saints claims that Emily testified of "how much he looked and sounded like Joseph on the stand," yet when you read the actual account she states that she looks up at the stand to make sure he doesn't look like Joseph Smith. It might seem like splitting hairs, but it is important to seeing how this event went from an ordinary speech to one of the most miraculous events in church history.
One last comment I want to make on the Emily Hoyt entry is this: history is written by the winners. There was a lot of infighting among the different branches of the Mormon church after Joseph's death, and while the Brighamite branch was the largest in numbers, all of the branches were fighting for the claim of authority to be Joseph Smith's church. Many of these entries are written with the hindsight that they followed Brigham Young and thus needed this branch to be the one 'true and living church.' That's not to say they are fabricating stories (although some clearly are, as we noted above), but that we tend to frame our memories with hindsight after many years in order to convince ourselves and others that we made the right choice. As Emily notes in her diary: "Sydney Rigdon made a speech and claimed to have authority to leave the church, others had similar claims. None appeared reasonable to me."
In other words, Emily's (and others who wrote this far after the fact) experience is shaped not just by the event as it happened, but by seven years of members talking about why they followed Brigham Young instead of the other break-offs during the succession crisis. This also helps to explain how this story began to grow from this point to also claim that Brigham Young looked like Joseph Smith and even talked with the same "hissing “s” resulting from Joseph’s broken tooth."
And this is exactly how miraculous stories evolve: First there is an ordinary event that is a pivotal moment in the history of a person or group, then the details of the story begin to develop some supernatural elements, and then as it is told and retold the story leaves the realm of possibility and becomes a true miracle.
This is not an uncommon experience throughout history. Just take this evolution of the story of the transfiguration of Brigham Young and look at the following important stories in church history:
-The First Vision was first written about in 1832, twelve years after it was claimed to happen. Even setting aside that Joseph Smith never mentioned the First Vision to his family or friends during those twelve years, in the next six years the story would evolve from one personage (a common experience around Joseph Smith's milieu) to both God and Jesus appearing to Joseph Smith. We cover this evolution in our First Vision Overview that detail the evolution of the story along, how it compares to other people's experiences around Joseph Smith, and the reasons why Joseph Smith made the changes.
-The priesthood restoration was retrofitted and evolved in the same way as the First Vision. As we cover in the priesthood restoration timeline, the original 1829 revelation does not mention the multiple priesthoods nor does it contain any mention of Peter, James, and John. In fact, there is no development of the Melchizedek priesthood until years later, and Joseph Smith does not even introduce a 'high priesthood' until 1831. Five years later Joseph Smith changed the original 1829 revelation to include the miraculous event of Peter, James, and John bestowing the Melchizedek priesthood to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. In just five years, this story went from a revelation about baptism to a miraculous event with Peter, James, and John conferring a high priesthood to Joseph Smith, which elevated his status in the church above all others at a time when members were questioning Joseph's authority.
-The four gospels of the New Testament were written between 30 and 80 years after the death of Jesus, being told by different communities through oral tradition before being written down. When you look at how stories changed in early church history, it becomes easier to understand why biblical scholars have determined that the miraculous events in the Bible are not historically accurate, and how some stories were even added in by later scholars such as the woman taken in adultery in the gospel of John or the Long Ending of Mark, which incidentally enough is included in the Book of Mormon.
-The first five books of the Old Testament were written hundreds (or thousands) of years after the events are told to have taken place. The Adam and Eve story was not even known to the earliest prophets of the Old Testament as the story was not written until around 600 BCE when the first five books were compiled - this is made clear by noticing there are zero references to Adam and Eve in the early books of the Old Testament. When you think of how long these stories were told orally and passed down from generation to generation, it's easy to understand why the global flood myth resembles the earlier flood myth of Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Tower of Babel story resembles both earlier Sumerian and Assyrian myths. Keep in mind that both of those stories in the Bible need to have literally happened for the Book of Mormon's truth claims as historicity to be true.
The point of detailing these events is that you can see throughout history how miracles often develop long after the events happened. With most events, there is no contemporary writing to compare to, but with the transfiguration of Brigham Young not only can you see that the event became miraculous without ever taking place, but that some members of the church claimed to witness it when not even present for the event.
The transfiguration is a pivotal event in church history, and it is not backed up by even a single contemporary account written on the days around the event. We even have leaders such as Orson Hyde lying about being there in General Conference, which only casts further doubt on other miraculous stories from the early days of the church. As Van Wagoner sums up in his article, "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.”
And, again, this is why I believe the transfiguration of Brigham Young is possibly the most important event to understanding church history. For most events, we do not have contemporary accounts or witnesses beyond the ones making the claims, but with this event we have documentation of the event from many sources who do not mention any miraculous event taking place. This event shines a light on how miracle stories are both created and cemented, and it is pivotal to understanding how these stories can grow within groups and communities in such a short time.
Once you understand how miracles and important historical events can be both backdated and invented in just a matter of years, that knowledge can be applied to other areas of church history where the same process happened such as the First Vision, priesthood restoration, and the Bible as a whole which impacts the Book of Mormon, Abraham, and Moses as well due to their reliance on the literalness of Biblical stories.
When I began doing the deep dive into church history, I was shocked to learn about the issues with the history of the Book of Mormon translation, the backdating of the revelation on polygamy, and how Joseph Smith changed the Charles Anthon story to backdate the fulfillment of prophecy. But when you look at how the transfiguration of Brigham Young was created within a community, everything made a lot more sense. Suddenly all of the changes we find within the history of Mormonism can be better understood, because we can see how these stories evolved as the needs of the church and their leaders changed.
While the implications of the transfiguration of Brigham Young might make us feel uncomfortable, they really do help all of these other issues make sense. We should all be more interested in discovering the truth, no matter how difficult it is, than preserving a lie. Don't take that advice just from me, but from Apostle James Talmage: "The man who cannot listen to an argument which opposes his views either has a weak position or is a weak defender of it. No opinion that cannot stand discussion or criticism is worth holding."
I hope that as you read about the transfiguration of Brigham Young that you also look at our other posts and essays about church history, because it really does help to better understand why so many of these pivotal stories evolved in the years after they were claimed to have taken place. The transfiguration helps not just to illustrate why they changed, but why communities are so willing to embrace myths in order to strengthen their beliefs and testimony even if they are not based in reality, and I think that's a lesson that is applicable to many areas of life today.
We've mentioned on many other posts how difficult it is to take in this new information, and we understand how painful it is to process. Please email us anytime at if you would like more resources to learn about these issues or if you are looking for people that you can safely talk to as you continue your faith journey.