Brigham Young, Studying Evil, and Living in a Bubble

Brigham Young, Studying Evil, and Living in a Bubble September 11, 2016

A real character study in making bad decisions.
A real character study in making bad decisions.

I originally wrote this about 10 years ago, reposted it five years ago, and since I mentioned it in Church today, thought it merited a repost.

I enjoy Orson Scott Card’s books. I know some people who think that he portrays too much evil in them. OSC has his own robust defenses of this (cf. A Storyteller in Zion), but I thought of it when I came across these comments by Brigham Young.

Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?” says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.- Journal of Discourses, 2:34. (BTW, there’s some good new scholarship on the JD.)

Study evil? These remarks fascinated me, so I ran some searches and looked up the context. I found that President Faust quoted these words at least twice in his teachings.

Brigham continued.

I make these remarks to lay the foundation for principle in the minds of the people; and if you do not yet understand what I would be at, I will try to illustrate it still further. For example, we will take a strict, religious, holy, down country, eastern Yankee, who would whip a beer barrel for working on Sunday, and never suffer a child to go into company of his age, never suffer him to have any associates, or permit him to do any thing or know anything, only what the deacon, priests, or missionaries bring to the house; when that child attains to mature age, say eighteen or twenty years, he is very apt to steal away from his father and mother; and when he has broken his bands, you would think all hell was let loose, and that he would compass the world at once.

Now understand it, when parents whip their children for reading novels, and never let them go to the theatre, or to any place of recreation and amusement, but bind them to the moral law, until duty becomes loathsome to them; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents.

If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practise evil? No; neither have I told you to practise it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.- Journal of Discourses, 2:34.

Brigham reiterated these ideas nine years later at the dedication of a new SLC theater in 1862.

“My son,” says the Christian father, “you should not attend a theatre, for there the wicked assemble; nor a ball-room, for there the wicked assemble; you should not be found playing a ball, for the sinner does that.” Hundreds of like admonitions are thus given, and so we have been thus traditioned; but it is our privilege and our duty to scan all the works of man from the days of Adam until now, and thereby learn what man was made for, what he is capable of performing, and how far his wisdom can reach into the heavens, and to know the evil and the good.

It is written in the Scriptures, “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” Is there an evil thing upon the earth that he does not fully understand? There is not…. The Lord understands the evil and the good; why should we not likewise understand them? We should. Why? To know how to choose the good and refuse the evil; which we cannot do, unless we understand the evil as well as the good. I do not wish to convey the idea that it is necessary to commit evil in order to obtain this knowledge.

Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it.

The Lord knows all things; man should know all things pertaining to this life, and to obtain this knowledge it is right that he should use every feasible means; and I do not hesitate to say that the stage can, in a great degree, be made to subserve this end. It is written, “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” Refuse evil, choose good, hate iniquity, love truth. All this our fathers have done before us; I do not particularly mean father Adam, or his Father; I do not particularly mean Abraham, or Moses, the Prophets, or Apostles, but I mean our fathers who have been exalted for millions of years previous to Adam’s time. They have all passed through the same ordeals we are now passing through, and have searched all things, even to the depths of hell.

Is there evil in the theatre? in the ball-room? in the place of worship? in the dwelling? in the world? Yes, when men are inclined to do evil in any of those places. There is evil in persons meeting simply for a chit-chat, if they will allow themselves to commit evil while thus engaged. –Journal of Discourses, 9:242-243.

Brigham makes several interesting points, I think.

  1. We should not create such a filtered or strictly controlled life for our children that they go wild once they live on their own. (I’ve seen this at all three Universities I’ve attended, though less so at BYU.)  They need to learn to develop their own internal restraints, so that when all external parental restraint is removed, they do just fine.
  2. God knows and understands the evil as well as the good. We thus have a duty to understand evil, its consequences and effects.
  3. It is not necessary to sin or practice evil to acquire this knowledge. Elder Faust notes in connection with Brigham’s comments “It is not good practice to become intrigued by Satan and his mysteries. No good can come from getting close to evil. Like playing with fire, it is too easy to get burned…My principal reason for choosing this subject is to help young people by warning them, as Paul said, ‘lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.” (2 Cor. 2:11.)’” In the Strength of the Lord: The Life and Teachings of James E. Faust, 415-416.
  4. Fiction, in the form of novels or theater, can provide this understanding of good and evil and the effects thereof. Historically speaking, I believe novel reading was considered to be very trashy and have little redeeming social value, so Brigham is a bit edgy here.

I like this. Though I currently have no children, I plan to impose on my children such fictional horrors (to teenage boys, at least) as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Why? Because they show contrasting characters in a realistic way. Austen deals with personal choices about integrity, honesty, and character. We see the negative effects of greed, infidelity, shallowness, and deception, temptations much more common than rape or murder, which seem to be the standard fare for much TV and film. Her characters are three-dimensional and complex, another failing of much fiction today.

Certainly, as appropriate, I will watch more troubling fare with my children and discuss the choices and situations the characters face. If my children sneak in the occasional R-rated movie, as I suspect many of us did as teens, I’d much rather watch it with them and discuss it. Certainly, some provide more entertainment than thought, but historical films in particular such as Glory (9th grade history) are excellent studies in good, evil, and character, and can be highly edifying.

Reasonable parents can differ on this, I believe, but I can imagine some “acceptable” tv shows/movies failing to depict the consequences of actions (James Bond rarely experiences negative effects of his killing and sleeping around, but they’re “just PG-13”) while other “unacceptable” tv shows/movies do a fantastic job of this. If you want to see the potential effects of taking or selling drugs, for example, you’re going to need to watch something that depicts that, like Requiem for a Dream or Breaking Bad.

Given Brigham’s reputation as an iron-fisted religious dictator, what I found most interesting is his insistence that we not be so strict or limiting as to drive people away from the Gospel. There comes a point where increasing discipline or standards results in diminishing returns. Surely Brigham was not advocating a gospel free-for-all or sampling sin, but simply living the gospel and being acquainted with evil as well as good.

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