Overview of the Transfiguration of Brigham Young
As we begin to wrap-up these overview topics, I wanted to look at one of the biggest miracles in the history of Mormonism that does not directly involved Joseph Smith: the Transfiguration of Brigham Young.
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 recorded it at the time, 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 analyze when it comes to 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 and how the story evolved against his other changes as prophet.
The same issues arise with the priesthood restoration. As we document on the priesthood restoration overview, the story changes as the church evolves, and as such it is impossible to know exactly what happened. Did Peter, James, and John restore 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? The timeline is pretty clear that the addition of the story by Oliver Cowdery was an attempt to shore up their authority, but we can never know because neither person wrote down these details until years later.
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. This not only gave Joseph Smith room to change the stories as he retold them, but gave apologists and the church the ability to use the “we can’t know everything” line to deflect from the documents we do have that point to the stories being retrofitted and, in some cases, made up entirely.
As I've covered with these overviews on 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. While it might not seem like a massive foundational event, the 'Transfiguration of Brigham Young' is absolutely crucial 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 evolved into what we are taught today.
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 what happened on that day.
The Transfiguration of Brigham Young
After Joseph Smith died, there was no clear succession plan left behind to proclaim the next prophet of the church. Due to this confusion, 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 the history of the church, because following Joseph Smith’s death the church split off into many factions, 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 prophet of God.
What the History Says Actually Happened
The miraculous story of the transfiguration of Brigham Young suffers from the same problems that Joseph Smith's First Vision, priesthood restoration, 1831 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 do have many letters and journals from the day the meeting took place along with newspapers and church records from leaders. Not a single mention of this miraculous event surfaces until at least 7 years later, when allusions began to spring up 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 the following:
"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 for the Book of Mormon, who give details that 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. Much like the retrofitting of the priesthood restoration or the Charles Anthon line of “I cannot read a sealed book” to Martin Harris, the story was retrofitted into George Laub’s journey in an attempt to give the story more credibility.
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.
Implications of the Problems with the Transfiguration Story
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."(ldsanswers.org)
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 that were not even present a spiritual witness.
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." (Hoyt, Reminiscences and Diary, volume 1, 20–21)
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 that we have covered in these overviews:
-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, 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 overview, 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 higher 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 identified many contradictions in the Gospels 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. As I covered in the Adam and Eve overview, the 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 of these examples, there are no contemporary writings to compare to, but with the transfiguration of Brigham Young not only can you see that the event became miraculous without ever being spoken of at the time, but that some members of the church claimed to witness it when they were not even present for the event.
Let me be perfectly clear: There is not a single contemporary account that talks about the transfiguration of Brigham Young ever happening, and there are many accounts that describe the event without a single mention of it happening just not from the writer’s perspective, but of anyone else that was there as well. Do you really believe that something that miraculous would go unmentioned by everyone in attendance?
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.” (Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Volume 28, No. 4, Winter 1995)
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 created, cultivated, and cemented, and it is pivotal to understanding how these stories can grow within groups and communities in such a short time.
It also shows that many members of the church are willing to lie (whether conciously or not) in order to bolster and protect the leaders of the church (along with increasing their own testimony), which helps to explain why so many early members of the church did lie such as Oliver Cowdery creating the priesthood restoration story at a time when Joseph’s authority was being challenged. Even if we give a charitable view that these members believed the story even if it didn’t happen, it shows how easy it is to create false memories that get hardened in our minds by motivated reasoning.
In the overview on backdating prophecy, it was easy to show how the Book of Mormon backdated prophecies into the text that had happened either in the Bible or in the founding of America, which was then used by the church of proof that the Book of Mormon must be true. The problem, as we pointed out, is that backdating prophecies into a text written in 1829 is not proof of being an ancient text, but proof that it was written after the events had taken place.
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.
The reason I find the transfiguration of Brigham Young to be such an important story is that the evolution of this miraculous event all took place after the church was founded and that we can see how easily it was both created, retrofitted, and accepted by members of the church. If the transfiguration of Brigham Young can be so easily established, then it becomes easy to understand why Joseph Smith was able to retrofit stories without resistance from members.
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 both created and embraced 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.
The transfiguration of Brigham Young in a lot of ways is the etiological myth for the Brighamite branch of Mormonism, much like I’ve tried to cover the etiological myths in Genesis such as Adam and Eve, the global flood, and the Tower of Babel. By creating this myth, the members who took the trek to Utah felt more assured that they made the correct decision, and they had a miraculous story that they could rally around even if it was completely invented long after the fact.
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. As I’ve said repeatedly in these overviews, when you take these problems with church history in totality, the puzzle pieces begin to fit together and we no longer have to smash them together with apologetics.
As the website LDS Answers said, “If this transfiguration never took place, the very foundations of our LDS faith and history are weakened." They are absolutely right, because once you realize this event never happened, you begin to understand just how weak Brigham Young’s place as the next prophet of God is, and it begins to show you how all of these miraculous stories could be created after the fact to create faith in a church that is simply not what it claims to be.
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." (The Intolerant Spirit, Pittsburgh Leader, November 13, 1919)
I hope that as you read about the transfiguration of Brigham Young that you also apply the implications here to the previous overviews, 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’re getting near the end of these overviews with likely just three more to go. Thanks to every who has hung with these throughout – I know it’s a lot to go through.
Next Overview Topic: Russell M. Nelson's Miracle Stories