Beliefs Columns Faith Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

No, Brigham Young did not say that single men over the age of 25 are a menace to society

When I drafted the singles chapter of The Next Mormons, I threw in a line, attributed to Brigham Young, that Mormon culture has a saying that a single man over the age of 25 (or 24, or 27, depending on how the person who is quoting it first heard the saying) is a “menace to society.”

I have heard this mentioned at church. It’s also quoted in the rom com The Singles Ward. It’s a thing.

But when I was fact-checking the chapter I couldn’t find it in the Journal of Discourses or in John G. Turner’s outstanding biography of Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet. So I emailed John to get the scoop, and he responded that it is “very, very unlikely that Brigham Young said this.”

For starters, John said, it’s not in Young’s collected discourses, which you can check out here. I duly downloaded all five (!) volumes of The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young and sure enough, I could not find it. This set includes every known published or unpublished sermon, speech, or discourse of Young’s from 1832 to 1877, so if he ever said it in public, it would be in there.

Second, John noted, Young never used the word “menace” as a noun in his lifetime. (He did use it several times as a verb.)

In fact, the phrase “menace to society” didn’t become prevalent until after Young’s death in 1877.

This was easy to verify. According to a WordWizard search into the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest usage of “menace to society” occurred in the New York Times in 1884, the Chicago Tribune in 1890, and the Wall Street Journal in 1893. WordWizard found a couple of earlier instances of “menace to,” but not the full phrase “menace to society.”

All told, this precise wording is all but impossible given the time period. So the next time someone winds up for the pitch in church by saying, “You know, Brigham Young said that a single man over the age of—” you can just cut them off right there. There’s no credible historical evidence Young ever uttered those words.

That’s not to say that Young wouldn’t have agreed with the gist of the statement, however, even if the words themselves came later. Here’s something he said on the subject of single men in 1868:

I will give each of the young men in Israel, who have arrived at an age to marry, a mission to go straightaway and get married to a good sister, fence a city lot, lay out a garden and orchard and make a home, and especially do not forget to plant a proper proportion of mulberry trees. This is the mission that I give to all the young men in Israel.

So, not only an expectation for hasty marriage but also for a “proper proportion” of mulberry trees so young couples can raise their own silkworms. Bar = raised.

Young didn’t hold much truck with young men who said they couldn’t afford to get married. As part of a General Conference sermon in 1869 about industry and self-reliance, he humblebragged on what it felt like to support not one but multiple wives, as he did.

A great many ask me how many wives I have, but to tell the honest truth I never thought enough about it to stop and think . . . . I suppose I have a dozen or fifteen that I am taking care of, perhaps a few more, I do not know, and I care nothing about it. I try to do good and try to save the people, and I say do not let a lady come to destruction.

Lest you fear he was overly critical of single men, here’s some great news. He also found fault with women! (This was true whether they were single or married.) He called out women who were idle, women who carped on men, women who lived for the fashions of the world, women who didn’t wash their children in his exact prescribed manner, etc.

And people who did not raise their own mulberry trees were simply beyond the pale.

Young didn’t single out single men for judgment; he had more than enough censure for everybody. We are all, to paraphrase him, a menace to society in one way or another.

 


Related post:

St. Francis didn’t say that. (Or Thomas Merton. Or Buddha. Or C. S. Lewis.) Where do we get these fake religion memes?


 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

26 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • It isn’t so much what Young did or didn’t say that bothers me, but that his words seem to be treated as Gospel by Mormons. With all due respect, what difference does it make whether or not he said young men over whatever age are a menace to society? The notion is preposterous on the face of it.

  • The power of myth is astonishing isn’t it? Brigham Young “said” this when i was a young man and will again when my grandson is twenty something.

  • In this case, Young has a point. From what I’ve read, one of the advantages monogamous societies have over those that practice widespread polygamy is the destabilizing impact that large numbers of unmarried men can have.

  • Check out Lions…What happens to the juvenile males…oh, wait, Hill City too.

  • I duly downloaded all five (!) volumes of The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young and sure enough, I could not find it. This set includes every known published or unpublished sermon, speech, or discourse of Young’s from 1832 to 1877, so if he ever said it in public, it would be in there.

    Did you find in those five volumes any mention of the Mountain Meadows Massacre that took place in Utah sometime during the mid 1800’s? Dozens of men, women and children–even babies, from a covered wagon train from Arkansas headed West, were killed, because one of the men had refused to let go of his pretty wife so she could join the harem of a Mormon man back in Arkansas. The massacre took place with the apparent approval of Brigham Young, although the research doesn’t show that he actually participated–just a group of his henchmen who at the time, were also members of a territorial militia charged with keeping the area safe. Young was later spotted driving around in a fine new Calistoga covered wagon drawn by a team of beautiful horses, all of which had belonged to one of thos who were massacred.

    Ms. Reiss, if you want to tell us who/what is a menace to society, how about researching that horrible event, which was originally brought to light by a female Mormon scholar and researcher whose research was published about 15-16 years ago? I’d love to know if Young ever acknowledged his part in that horrible event, or repented of it and made restitution to the communities back in Arkansas, where this group of people came from. To me, that’s about the minimum I would expect from the leader of what today is a large religious denomination.

  • That all depends of how those “large numbers of unmarried men” are spending their time. If they’re working hard to earn the money to buy a farm (Amish, Hutterite and Mennonite young men) or getting a good education so they can have a well-paying job to support their families when they eventually marry (present-day young men) those are all positives that will always be welcomed by their communities.

    If they’re hanging around on street corners dealing drugs and looking for the chance to rip someone off, those are definitely activities that have that “destabilizing impact” you mention here.

  • That is good stuff to know.

    If you’re heading off west in a covered wagon and happen to be in possession of a pretty wife admired by a polygamous Mormon, keep you guard up.

    There is a wealth of information on the incident and aftermath, and the citations in these point towards much of it:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baker%E2%80%93Fancher_party#Siege_and_massacre

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Meadows_massacre_and_Mormon_theology

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Meadows_massacre_and_Mormon_public_relations

  • It didn’t matter if you “couldn’t afford” to marry- she was expected to have multiple children, work to support herself and those children often without her husband present because he was off with the new wife/pursuing a new wife or on a mission (and pursuing a new wife as one of my ancestors did- returning home after two years in Mexico with a new wife and baby…guess he forgot to get my great-grandma’s permission based on her journal entries. Boy did he go from “my beloved husband” to “my husband” quickly.

  • Actually, there is a lot of political science work that shows that societies with large numbers of unmarried men tend to be violent and less stable as a result. It’s a major concern in China and India where female infanticide has resulted in millions of men without any prospects for marriage..or even dating. Polygamous societies also suffer from the (artificially created) lack of females- with the added benefit that women tend to become tightly controlled objects that established males use to control younger, less established males. I doubt the small numbers of unmarried males (and females!) we have at any given time in the US represent any “menace” to society.

  • I think that you are making a big do about a historical occurrence that has been thoroughly researched, written about and admitted to by the LDS Church during the last century. You write this comment like it is still some undisclosed scale and that isn’t the case. Mormons have written about it and non-Mormons have written about it. Do you know of actual evidence, not gossip and hearsay, of parts of the events untold?

  • Whether George Q. Cannon or Brigham Young made that offhand remark in a conference talk, WHY it’d find such traction to shape LDS society, especially young adults in their own comedy of dating rituals, escapes me. No wonder Conference talks get so bland…any General Authority would be mortified to see his candor go viral with today’s telecommunications; look how what either Brother Cannon or Brother Brigham intended as a candid remark, and they had the cajones to do it, with just the telegraph and the printing press.

  • That’s the problem, earning enough money to pay for a wife. In heavily polygamous societies, those wives are EXPENSIVE — like, going-to-college-at-Yale expensive. There is no way for many men to earn that kind of money, so they’re left with doing whatever it takes to get the cash, accept one of the leavings, or go without. Of those three options, two have destabilizing impact on society.

    As well, how are those men going to be acting out while they’re trying to earn that money? They aren’t going to be involved in raising a family, to they have more free time on their hands. The result tends to have a strong resemblance to inner city gangs.

    As a side issue, heavily polygamous societies are also where women usually have few rights, and often marry VERY young — early teens isn’t uncommon. No surprise, since they’re treated like commodities rather than people.

  • Here-Here!

    Even some non-grumpy old guys with money, big smiles and “pickles in their pockets” have been known to be a menace as well, particularly with nubile young girls!

  • Actually, the Mountain Meadows Massacre cannot be attributed to Brigham Young. The whole reason that President US Grant appointed a federal commission to investigate the massacre in the 1870s was to determine if Brigham Young ordered it. President Grant blamed Brigham Young and the Mormon Church’s Utah War of 1857 for the subsequent Civil War. According to President Grant’s perspective, if President Buchanan had not botched the Utah War so badly with the Mormons making a mockery of the US Army, there never would have been a Civil War. The Utah War took place at the same time as the Mountain Meadow Massacre. Brigham Young was able to stop Union troops from invading Utah without any casualties on either side. Even when Young eventually capitulated and “surrendered” to the Union troops, the Mormons dictated where the Feds would put their fort and Young never spent a day in jail. The extensive federal investigation in the 1870s failed to produce any written evidence or any witnesses willing to tie Young to the massacre. Blame fell entirely on Brigham Young’s personal envoy to deal with the Francher Wagon Train that was eventually massacred and John P. Lee alone was put to death for the massacre. However, Young died later that same year (1877), apparently due to the stress of the Federal investigation.

  • President Ulysses S. Grant appointed a Federal commission to investigate the Mountain Meadow Massacre. He wanted clear evidence by which to accuse Brigham Young of a capital crime. President Grant blamed the Civil War on Brigham Young and the Utah War of 1857, which made the US Army look weak enough to the South to provoke their rebellion against the Union. The Presidential commission failed to find any written evidence or live witnesses that could tie Young to the ordering of the massacre. It was blamed entirely on the personal envoy of Brigham Young who oversaw and conducted the massacre. Descendants of John P. Lee still maintain, without written evidence, that their ancestor was only following the orders of Young when he orchestrated the massacre. But on the other hand, the Utah War, fought at the same time was conducted without any human casualties either among the Mormons or the 3000 US Army troops that tried and failed to invade Utah for close to a year.

  • Actually, my friend I. Ray, I’ll stand by the good research of the female Mormon scholar who broke this whole thing wide open, although you’ve provided us with a good piece of secular history that I won’t discount in any way.

    According to the research, John P. Lee was one of Brigham Young’s henchmen (or “persons of hench,” to be politically correct.) How hard was it to become the fall guy for the big honcho leading the Mormon church!

    Interesting contribution. Thanks.

  • Chances are that Brigham Young ordered the massacre but my point was that a motivated presidential commission wasn’t able to prove any such thing back when people were still alive to witness it.

ADVERTISEMENTs