Brigham Invites a Kiss

I love Brigham Young. I really do. He was a great man by just about every measure. My appreciation for his finer qualities, however, doesn’t blind me to his weak spots.

One weak spot was his unwillingness – perhaps it was inability – to control his bluster and play a diplomatic game with politicians. Secure in his multiple roles among the Saints in Utah, he simply saw no need to consider how his words and actions played in Peoria.

John M. Bernhisel, Utah’s non-voting delegate to Congress, was the consummate gentleman and diplomat. It fell to Bernhisel to mediate between his associates in Washington and his leader in Salt Lake City. Over and over, he respectfully suggested to Brigham that sermons meant only for the ears of Saints in Utah not be published in the Deseret News where they could be scrutinized and criticized by hostile Easterners. He urged Brigham to consider how his demands would be seen by presidents and cabinet members. When petitions and memorials forwarded by Brigham and the Utah Legislature were so inflammatory that they were more harmful than helpful, Bernhisel simply did not submit them to Congress.

In 1854, Bernhisel found it necessary to report to Brigham that mountaineer Jim Bridger had come to Washington, following his expulsion from Fort Bridger. Bridger had fled from his property in 1853 when a posse of Mormons led by Sheriff Bill Hickman had come to arrest him for selling liquor and weapons to the neighboring Indians. (The Utah Legislature, with jurisdiction over Fort Bridger, had recently outlawed those sales; Bridger, however, having had no input into the change in law, continued his longstanding practice of such sales.) Bridger’s account of the expulsion was, well, enhanced for his eastern audience. Wrote Bernhisel,

James Bridger arrived in Washington January 5th and is here still, telling marvelous stories about his being driven from his home in the mountains, where he had been for thirty years, his fort taken possession of, his property taken or confiscated … that a posse of one hundred and fifty men came to his fort last [year] to take him, that a member of the Church had made affidavit that the authorities of Utah or of the Church had sent a number of men to pursue him on the plains to murder him &c &c. … These gross exaggerations and misrepresentations are the cause of the attempt to curtail our boundaries, so that he will be without the jurisdiction of Utah.

I have been requested by members of Congress to write to the people of Utah, and say to them to avoid all difficulty if possible with mountaineers and all others not members of the Church, because everything of the kind redounded to our injury.

Brigham did not appreciate Bernhisel’s advice. Even more, he did not appreciate the acceptance Congress accorded the claims of Jim Bridger. Brigham dictated a long reply to Bernhisel, his frustration mounting as he proceeded. I can almost hear his voice growing louder and louder:

[Y]ou wish me to keep you posted in such matters transpiring here as would be likely to create any stir there; and still again, you write that “I have been requested by members to Congress to write to the people of Utah, and say to them to avoid all difficulty if possible with mountaineers and all others not members of the Church, because every thing of the kind redounded to our injury.” Of course I shall, & do endeavor to keep you informed in all subjects which I deem of interest or importance, but it would pass the bounds of the most visionary dreams of men of sense to imagine that a man of Bridger’s appearance, ignorance, & folly, (to use no more plain, & strictly correct terms) could have any influence with the professed wise men of our nation, & if he has, it only goes to prove how many characters are at Washington who prefer lies to the truth, & what will you do about it?

In regard to “difficulty with mountaineers &c”. I defy the world to prove that we have not invariably used all persons within our borders with more courtesy, leniency, & forbearance … than any other people ever have under anything like similar circumstances …

Knowing this, & knowing the invariable loyalty of this people under those numerous trying scenes they have been called to pass through, & then comparing all this … with the excitement that can be raised among men who pride themselves upon their judgment … gives me perfect assurance that the wisdom of the wise men of our nation is folly. They would doubtless be pleased to have us allow horse thieves, adulterers, ravishers, delinquent tax payers, in short, law breakers of every grade roam at large in our midst, without so much as our saying why do ye so, & even bow & scrape to them, & invite them into our houses, & say to them you are good & true men, ay, gentlemen, for fear they might write, or run to Washington, & then, O, dear! “what a long tail our puss has got.”

Please say to all who advocate such policy, “Kiss my ass, damn you.”

When you have finished laughing, please note that this wonderful phrase appears only in the rough draft of the letter. The letter as it went out, as it appears in the archived letterbooks, as you will find it everywhere but in the notes of oddballs like me who get our kicks from sifting through the lesser-used detritus of long-dead file clerks, replaces these words with the boring line, “Please say to all who advocate such policy, that we cannot well prevent fools from exhibiting their folly.”

30 comments for “Brigham Invites a Kiss

  1. Huh. I really thought “kiss my ass” was a locution that only emerged in the 20th century. Shows you what I know.

    I don’t think any of our current apostles and prophets could manage a sincere “damn you!” Maybe Elder Packer. Certainly not President Hinckley, though. We make nice, we Mormons do.

  2. How this could have been left out of the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church book I cannot fathom.

  3. Here we see the beginning of Mormon’s love of euphamism. ‘That we cannot well prevent fools from exhibiting their folly’ doesn’t have the punchiness of ‘fetch,’ but we had to start somewhere.

  4. Ardis,

    Brigham is on the cusp of new language usage here. According to my trusty OED, American “ass” for British “arse” is first used in 1860. The first attestation for “ass” in a derogatory expression seems to be 1930.

    “Arse” ( = “the fundament, buttocks, posteriors, or rump of an animal”) however goes back to c1000 although I’d need to know Middle English to figure out when it was first used for the human arse (at least as early as 1704 though).

    I don’t see “ass kissing” until 1973.

    This is all from the OED. Someone should check an American dictionary.

    Anyway, thank-you for letting me say “arse” at T&S.

  5. “According to my trusty OED, American ‘ass’ for British ‘arse’ is first used in 1860. The first attestation for ‘ass’ in a derogatory expression seems to be 1930….I don’t see ‘ass kissing’ until 1973.”

    And this letter was dictated in 1854? This means, depending on how you look at it, Brigham was either 6, or 76, or nearly 120 years ahead of the times. Dude! That’s proof of prophecy right there. I hope to soon see this in all those “proofs that this is the true church” lists, right after the one about how Joseph Smith successfully prophesied the Civil War.

  6. Alas, brethren and sisters, I just don’t know that you can credit Bro. Brigham with prophetic powers in his use of the term.

    For all we know, he was speaking of that same humble animal of the famous limerick

    [Which] was not round and pink
    As you probably think,
    But was gray, had long ears and ate grass!

    [On a barely related note, the real problem with India’s renaming of cities is that the first line of this verse just doesn’t work when you replace “Madras” with “Chennai”.]

  7. I liked this part best: …horse thieves, adulterers, ravishers, delinquent tax payers…

    Brigham at his communitarian best.

  8. Ardis, from a fellow oddball:

    This is great. Thank you! It really does give you a good picture of the man.

    It has been ages since I looked at the Journal of Discourses, but am I incorrect to remember that Heber C. Kimball used some similarly salty language from the pulpit in general conference? I remember thinking, “Well, now I understand where J. Golden gets it from”.

  9. And in fairness to BY, we ought to note he admitted that one of greatest struggles in life was mastering his temper and his tongue. Let those who have never felt like saying the same thing cast the first [expletive deleted].

  10. “Let those who have never felt like saying the same thing cast the first [expletive deleted].”

    The word you’re looking for there, Mark, is “cow pie.” Very good for games of Frisbee while walking the plains, when dry. When wet, not so much.

  11. Ardis, a couple of weeks ago I was reading hearings before congressional committees conducted on the Mormon question conducted in 1870. One witness — the editor of the newspaper in Corinne — introduced in evidence a number of transcripts of BY sermons in which he does a lot of “damn them” and “they can go to hell” etc. from the pulpit. There was one Senator who went on at some length about how shocking it was that such things were said from the pulpit, etc. etc. Either Hooper or Bernheisal was at the hearing, and I can imagine him sitting there rolling his eyes at both Brigham and the Senators.

  12. This post is simply delightful. Heber was fairly modest in his public swearing. From a 1857 discourse:

    I want to tell some of my feelings here to-day, in a few words, relative to brother Brigham. I call him brother, because he says if I call him President, he shall call me President; and just as sure as he does, I am as flat as a pancake. I shall only call him President before the Saints, in his calling—I was going to say before our enemies; but, damn them, they shall never come here. Excuse me, I never use rough words, only when I come in contact with rough things; and I use smooth words when I talk upon smooth subjects, and so on, according to the nature of the case that comes before me. (JD 5:160)

  13. I’ve got to add my favorite bit of early Mormon swearing, from _The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt_. He is telling about his and WW Phelps’s escape from the mobs:
    “At the time we were separated in the heat of the pursuit, Mr. Phelps made his escape much in the same manner as myself. He was at first closely pursued, but at length he out distanced them all, and, once out of their sight, he struck directly into the road, and rode on toward Illinois. He had proceeded a few miles on his way, when he was suddenly surrounded in the darkness of the night by a company of horsemen who were out in pursuit of the prisoners. They immediately hailed him, and cried out, “Say, stranger, G__d damn you, what is your name?” He replied in the same rough and careless manner, “You damned rascals, what is yours?” On finding he could damn as well as themselves, they concluded he could not be a Mormon, while his bold and fearless manner convinced them that he was not a man who was fleeing for his life. They then begged his pardon for the rough manner in which they had accosted him, “Oh, you are one of the real breed. By G–d, no damned Mormon could counterfeit that language, you swear real natteral; hurrah for old Kentuck. But whar mought you live, stranger?” He replied, “just up here; you mout a kno’d me, and then agin you moutn’t. I think I’ve seed you all a heap o’ times, but I’ve been so damned drunk at the fourth of independence, I hardly know myself or anybody else, but hurrah for old Kentuck; and what about the damn’d Mormons?” What about `em? egad, you’d a know’d that without axin’, if you’d a seed `em run.” “What! they are not out of prison, are they?” “Out of prison! Yes, the damn’d rascals raised a flag of liberty in open day, and burst out, and down stars right in the midst of the public celebration, out rassling the damn’d jailer, and outrunning the whole town in a fair foot race. They reached the timber jist as they war overtaken, but afore we could cotch `em they mounted their nags, and the way they cleared was a caution to Crockett. We tuk one on `em, and seed the other two a few feet distant, rushin’ their nags at full speed, but we couldn’t cotch `em nor shoot `em either; I raised my new Kentucky rifle, fresh loaded and primed, with a good percussion, and taking fair aim at one of their heads only a few yards distant, I fired, but the damn’d cap burst, and the powder wouldn’t burn.” “Well, now, stranger, that’s a mighty big story and seems enemost onpossible. Did you say you cotched one on `em? Why I’d a tho’t you’d a kilt him on the spot; what have you done with him?” “They tuk him back to prison, I suppose, but it was only the old one. If it had been one o’ them tother chaps we would a skinn’d `em as quick as Crockett would a coon, and then eat `em alive without leaving a grease spot.”This interview over, the horsemen withdrew and left Phelps to puruse his way in peace.”

  14. “I never use rough words, only when I come in contact with rough things; and I use smooth words when I talk upon smooth subjects,”

    I’m going to have to remember that one–a fine rationalization.

    manean: That’s $49.99 to my paypal account. Thanks.

  15. The “following” comments, Mark? Are you prophesying testimony-increasing posts to follow #23?

  16. Ah, all you folks who believe the OED. The clear light of dawn has brought back happy (?) memories of AP English class with dear Mrs. Virginia DeHart, and the good times reading the more earthy parts of Canterbury Tales (which I’m sure Mrs. DeHart would have preferred us to skip over quickly).

    It was in The Miller’s Tale, when Absalom, the hopeful (but hopeless) lover of Alison, sought a goodbye kiss from her. But, in the dark of night, she offered him through the window “the other cheek” so to speak, which led first to confusion (“well he knew a woman hath no beard”) and then to revenge.

    So, “inviting a kiss” came hundreds of years before Brigham, even if the OED couldn’t find an instance of the specific words, and, to Mrs. DeHart: See I really did pay attention and put to good use the stuff you taught us.

  17. Heh, heh, heh … I’ve sat back enjoying your comments, many of which mirror my delight and disbelief when I first spotted that phrase, lined out as it was, with its correction. I still wonder whether it was the clerk or someone else in the office who suggested to Brigham that he might want to rethink that line (who would dare?), or whether it was Brigham himself, after hrumphing a bit and cooling down, who decided it had better be done.

    Thanks to Ronan who checked the OED (did they rely for their attestations only on published materials which might be less likely to reflect spoken vulgarity, or did they use manuscript material too?), and hey, you’re welcome! anything to enhance your visit to T&S from that other blog.

    Thanks to J. for sparing me the effort of running a search of the Journal of Discourses, and to Margaret for that delightful contribution. And who would think that the same Brigham Young letter could elicit Mark B.’s limerick AND his reference to Canterbury Tales??

    And for everybody else who just joins me in laughing, isn’t history fun?

  18. It seems that Pres. McKay wasn\’t too far removed from BY– at least in spirit. In a Sunstone review of Prince\’s biography David O. McKay, this equally entertaining (and enlightening) comment surfaced:

    \”On a concluding note, the following incident, which occurred too early in McKay’s life for inclusion in Prince’s biography, may shed some light on McKay’s sense of humor, his commitment to the Church, and his private view of dissent— attributes that may be of interest to McKay’s future biographers. In late November 1944, Benjamin L. Rich (1878—1968), a Salt Lake City lawyer and son of early twentieth-cen¬tury Church leader Ben E. Rich, wrote to Morrill Farr, his cousin, in Los Angeles. Farr (1885—1949), grandson of early LDS convert and pioneer Lorin Farr, had asked Rich’s advice on how best to go about formally leaving the Church. Rich responded:

    \”Get a piece of heavy bond paper or parchment, legal size and indite a communication to your bishop, ad¬vising him that you desire to have your name removed from the rolls of the church and asking that you be excommunicated therefrom on the grounds of apostasy. This letter you should sign in your full name as Morrill Newton Farr in durable ink and have it acknowledged before a Notary Public who should affix his seal and the expiration of his com¬mission. Then take the letter and stick it up your ass. That is the only way I know by which a grandson of Lorin Farr and a son of Newton Farr can get out of the Mormon Church. If I can advise you further on any ecclesiastical procedure, do not hes¬itate to ask me because I know most of the answers.

    \”Some four months later, McKay, seventy-one years old and second counselor in the First Presidency was sent a copy of Rich’s letter and rushed to congratulate Rich: “Your directions on the procedure he is to follow are so direct, and to my mind so appropriate, that I am considering the advisability of sending a copy of it to each Bishop in the Church. I think every descendant of our Mormon Pioneers who contemplates with¬drawal from the Church should be given a copy of your ‘procedure.’”

  19. Ardis’s essay about BY’s language, including his [self-expurgated] “Kiss my ass, damn you” comment in his 1854 letter (about Jim Bridger and the Green River mountaineers) to Dr. John M. Bernhisel, Utah Territory’s Delegate in Congress, produced some interesting (amused and I supposed shocked) reactions (above) that have, in turn, gotten me to thinking. Funny as this frank, off-the-cuff comment strikes many of us today, it came within a context of violence in the Green River district that was not without deadly consequences as discussed in my forthcoming “JMH” article ” ‘Lonely Bones’: Leadership and Utah War Violence.” More of that later if there’s an interest.
    Someone remarked that they were surprised at how contemporary (modern) the above phrase by Brigham Young seems. I was struck the same way when I first read it five or so years ago, as I was also by other BYisms like “looking out for number one,” which I always assumed came right out of New York City of the mid-20th century. And there are others. What I’ve come to realize in reading a lot of letters and diaries of the mid-19th century is that Americans of the Vicrorian era were a lot less buttoned-up than we think. As just noted, this realization often comes when one stumbles on profanity which we’ve somehow thought was an invention of WWII barracks life. For example, in trying to defend his [badly tarnished] reputation and independence while in protective custody of the U.S. marshal at Fort Douglas, UT in 1863 (and under indictment with BY for murder), William Adams (“Wild Bill”) Hickman wrote a letter to Lewis Robison, the Nauvoo Legion’s quartermaster general and BY’s man at Fort Bridger, asserting that he indeed was “not an a– wipe.” In September of 1854 U.S. Army 2d Lieut. Sylvester Mowry wrote to a pal in Providence, RI from Great Salt Lake City to describe Heber C. Kimball’s Sunday admonition to Mormon women to avoid fraternization with the troops of the visiting Steptoe Expedition of which Mowry was then a part. Surprising to me, Mowry then went on in the letter to editorialize by commenting: “The whole looked very much as if he [HCK] and Brigham were afraid we were going to f–k our way through the town. Perhaps we shall.” Mowry continued in the same letter to report that “Many women rebel against the plurality wife system. Brigham’s daughter [in law] among others. She says Salt Lake City needs only to be roofed in to be the biggest whore house in the world.” Just before Christmas in December 1861 BY delivered a discourse on “health” that was so salty that it was never published in either the “Deseret News” or “The Journal of Discourses.” But a non-Mormon present, the Overland Stage Company’s rough-hewn assistant treasurer Hiram S. Rumfield, took down the text as delivered almost verbatim and sent it home to his wife in Tiffin, Ohio, for her edification. (That report now resides in the Yale Collection of Western Americana in Connecticut.) When Mrs. Rumfield circulated Hiram’s letter to relatives across the country, one scandalized aunt in Savanna endorsed it and sent it back bearing the comment: that she was shocked that Hiram had to endure such vulgarity at his post in Salt Lake. (Hiram’s bigger concern at the moment was keeping Indian arrows out of his expressmen on the Salt Lake to Sacramento run.) On many mornings BY began the day by striding across the street to the Church Historian’s Office to dictate the content of his dreams of the prior night. Some of these dreams — recorded by a clerk or by Apostle-Historian George A. Smith — were occasionally filled with accounts of BY’s experiences in the outhouse, one of which Will Bagley described some years back in a “Trib” column. The one that I recall had BY being attacked while occupied in the outhouse by a rather aggressive widow.
    So the Victorians weren’t always as serious or pruddish as we think they were. Even the Indians of the period were witty, as with those in southern UT who witnessed George A. Smith remove his spectacles, hair piece, and false teeth before washing up after an arduous, dusty journey and dubbed him something like “Man-Who-Comes-Apart.” Much to my amazement, I discovered that some of the Anglos of the period were even practical jokers. My favorite prankster had nothing to do with UT or Mormonism but was U.S. Army Lieut. George Derby of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. During the Mexican War Derby’s practical jokes so enraged the chief of engineers back in D.C. that he punished Derby by rusticating him to America’s newly acquired hamlet of San Diego, Calif. Derby’s orders were to build a dam for the San Diego River and was handed extremely loosely crafted operational orders/directions. Upon arrival Lieut. Derby got promptly to work and constructed — at a cost of thousands — a proper wall. But instead of running perpendicular to the flow of the river (as traditional), he built it parallel to the stream bed, thereby accomplishing nothing but bestowing on San Diego a handsome, useless structure. When the chief became aware of this whimsy, he was enraged and tried mightily to haul Derby before a court-martial, a punitive gambit that failed when Derby, playing the role of barracks-lawyer, noted the permissiveness of his orders’ as drafted by the chief himself. Derby later started writing Mark Twain-like newspaper stories under the pen name John Squibob, Esq. which President Lincoln liked so much that to relieve tension during the Civil War he used to begin cabinet meetings with his reading of the latest Squibob Paper while guffawing and slapping his knee, a performance that shocked some of his more, er, Victorian cabinet officers. I wonder how Lieut. Derby and Brigham Young would have hit it off.

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