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One of the most consequential meetings in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was held in Nauvoo, Illinois, on 8 August 1844.  The Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum had been murdered nearly a month and a half before.  The Church was in crisis.  Its founding prophet was dead, and the mourning Latter-day Saints were unsure about what would happen next.  They had never before experienced the death of a Church president.  There was no precedent for a succession process.  Some had probably assumed that there would never be a need.

The mourning Latter-day Saints were unsure about what would happen next.

Sidney Rigdon, the surviving counselor in the First Presidency, had just returned to Nauvoo from Pittsburgh, where had been living.  A principal leader of the Church for many years—he even received the February 1832 revelation of the three degrees of glory (Doctrine and Covenants 76) with Joseph Smith—Sidney’s position in the Presidency certainly made him a plausible candidate to succeed the Prophet Joseph.

But the situation was complicated.  Sidney’s relationship with Joseph had become somewhat strained.  Indeed, in 1843, the Prophet had openly expressed his intention to release him from the First Presidency. However, at the Church’s general conference in October of that year, President Rigdon asked to remain in his position and, contrary to Joseph’s express wishes, the congregation agreed to let him stay.

After the vote, Joseph told them, “I have thrown him off my shoulders, and you have again put him on me. You may carry him, but I will not.” And now, with the Prophet dead, Sidney had returned to assert his right to be the church’s “guardian” or “protector.”

“I have thrown him off my shoulders, and you have again put him on me.”

Meanwhile, under their president, Brigham Young, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had also just returned to Nauvoo from various missions. They maintained their right and responsibility, as faithful followers of Joseph Smith and by virtue of the keys of authority that they had received from him, to lead the Saints he had left behind.

Sidney Rigdon rose first on that hot and humid summer day. An experienced preacher and perhaps the finest and most polished orator in the Church, Sidney spoke at length.

He was later followed by Brigham Young, the former Vermont carpenter and glazier who had ascended to the leadership of the Twelve and, in that capacity, had directed the flight of the Saints from Missouri to Illinois and presided over the enormously successful apostolic mission in England.  Brigham spoke not to claim the presidency of the Church for himself—a new First Presidency would not be organized until the end of 1847, in Winter Quarters, Nebraska—but on behalf of the Twelve.

Brigham spoke not to claim the presidency of the Church for himself.

“For the first time in my life,” Brigham said, “for the first time in your lives, for the first time in the Kingdom of God in the nineteenth century, without a Prophet at our head, do I step forth to act in my calling in connection with the Quorum of the Twelve, as Apostles of Jesus Christ unto this generation— Apostles whom God has called by revelation through the Prophet Joseph, who are ordained and anointed to bear off the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world.”

And at the end of the meeting, the decision of the Saints was unmistakably clear. Brigham Young and the Twelve had carried the day.

And at the end of the meeting, the decision of the Saints was unmistakably clear.

What had happened?

In after years, many Latter-day Saints claimed that Brigham Young was transformed before them at some point during his remarks on that day in August.  Some reported distinctly hearing not his voice, but that of the slain Joseph.  Some declared that Brigham Young had even taken on the appearance of Joseph Smith.  Many later said that, because of what they had heard and seen, all doubt about who should lead the Church was removed from their minds.  And it is a matter of historical record that Sidney Rigdon seems that day to have withdrawn his leadership claim, at least for a while.

Unfortunately, while later accounts are abundant, no contemporary records have yet been found of what has been called “the transfiguration of Brigham Young,” when “the mantle of the Prophet” fell upon Brother Brigham.  (The image of the “prophetic mantle” comes from the story of Elijah and Elisha that is told in 2 Kings 2.)  And this lack of contemporary evidence is a concern to historians, who prefer to work with primary sources that were written as near as possible to the event that they’re studying.  So it has been easy for some to pronounce the story a “myth,” a legend that grew over time.

Some declared that Brigham Young had even taken on the appearance of Joseph Smith.

The late Richard S. Van Wagoner published the most serious argument against the reality of the “mantle story” in the Winter 1995 issue of “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought,” under the title “The Making of a Mormon Myth: The 1844 Transfiguration of Brigham Young.”  In the minds of many who read it, and trickling down to many others, Van Wagoner’s article seemed to show that nothing remarkable had occurred at that August 1844 meeting.  It was just politics, just prosaic maneuvering.

“Deep in the Mormon psyche,” Van Wagoner wrote, “is an attraction to prophetic posturing and swagger.”  In fact, he said, the tale of Brigham’s transfiguration had been generated by an apostolic “propaganda mill” that built on Brigham Young’s strategic mastery, cleverness, ambition, “political adroitness,” and “physical vitality,” with which Brigham had overwhelmed the ailing Sidney.  “Not content to let the mantle of leadership pass him by, he simply wrestled it away from Rigdon.”

So it has been easy for some to pronounce the story a “myth.”

But Van Wagoner knew that his argument had a significant weakness: “The paramount dilemma with retrospective transfiguration recounting is why so many otherwise honorable, pious people recalled experiencing something they probably did not.”  His proposed solution was “contagion theory.”  As the story spread, people somehow came to believe that they had seen and heard something that they actually neither saw nor heard.

However, Van Wagoner’s problem was bigger than he had realized.  He was able to cast doubt on a handful of recollections, but there were, it turns out, far more of them than he apparently knew.

The best discussion of the topic currently available is Lynne Watkins Jorgensen’s “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: One Hundred Twenty-nine Testimonies of a Collective Spiritual Witness,” in the 2017 revised second edition of John W. Welch, ed., “Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844.”  It is also available as a stand-alone Kindle publication (https://www.amazon.com/Mantle-Prophet-Joseph-Brother-Brigham-ebook/dp/B01N3A8CVQ).  As her subtitle indicates, Jorgensen’s article gathers together fully 129 accounts, drawn from a varied multitude of witnesses and sources who testify to what they saw and heard. She also responds effectively to Van Wagoner’s specific arguments.  I cannot do Jorgensen’s work justice in this brief column; it should be read for itself.

Jorgensen’s article gathers together fully 129 accounts, drawn from a varied multitude of witnesses

Furthermore, we can’t presume that modern research has found every account that was ever given.  It’s very likely that other such narratives once existed but have perished, and that other witnesses testified orally to their experience but never recorded it in writing. It’s probable, too, that historians will continue to recover additional testimonies of the event.  (Since its initial publication in 1996, Jorgensen’s own article has substantially expanded its collection of accounts.)

I myself recently chanced upon a report of the “transfiguration” that, so far as I’m aware, was not included in Jorgensen’s article. I came across it while reading Vickie Cleverley Speek’s 2006 book “God Has Made Us a Kingdom: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons.”

In 1855, William Hickenlooper wrote to his daughter and son-in-law, who had both chosen to follow James Jesse Strang instead of the Twelve.  He explained his decision to follow Brigham Young and tried to convince them to leave Strang. “The first evidence I received that Brigham was the true successor of Joseph, was on the day when Sidney set up his claim for the presidency,” he wrote. “Brigham’s countenance, his voice, gestures and everything truly represented the martyred prophet in such a striking manner I shall never forget—I was convinced by the spirit of the Lord that the mantle of Joseph had fallen on Brigham.”

The son-in-law, S. S. Thornton, responded to Hickenlooper’s letter in an attempt to rebut it:

“I shall show by successful contradiction by your own arguments that he (Brigham Young) is an usurper, and has acted as such ever since Joseph’s death. Because Mr. Young had tried to mimic Joseph for several years before his death, and on his return from Boston after his (Joseph’s) martyrdom even went out and got a dentist to take out a tooth on the same side that Joseph lost one, to make himself appear as much like him as possible, that even his voice, gestures and likeness would seem like Joseph, and did, at the August conference, as you related, which was evidence to you that he was the man Joseph appointed, yet it is no evidence without he had come in at the gate, and been ordained, as the Lord had told Joseph before, which was by an angel.”

Strikingly, Thornton doesn’t deny his father-in-law’s claim that Brigham Young resembled Joseph Smith in both speech and appearance on that August day.  Rather, he assumes the story to be factual but tries—rather lamely, in my view—to explain it away.  This seems to indicate that it wasn’t only the Great Basin Saints who were familiar with Brigham’s “transfiguration”: At least some who had chosen to gather with J. J. Strang in the Upper Midwest were also well aware of it, already by1855.

The available evidence is persuasive that the story of Brigham’s transfiguration was being told quite early

In my judgment, the available evidence is persuasive that the story of Brigham’s transfiguration was being told quite early, and it’s difficult to imagine that so many testimonies over so long a period and from such far-flung areas emerged from a conspiracy to deceive or from a mysterious “contagion.” Something remarkable plainly seems to have happened at that meeting in August 1844.

A major argument leveled against the “mantle” story by Richard Van Wagoner is that some who claimed to have witnessed Brigham Young’s transformation weren’t even present in Nauvoo on 8 August 1844 to see it.  But Lynne Watkins Jorgensen replies that some seem to have witnessed such a transformation on other dates and in other places, and that they weren’t necessarily even claiming to have been or to have experienced it there in Nauvoo on that day.

In partial support of her response, I offer a story from Wayne Borrowman, “John and Agnes Borrowman: A Story of the West” (Las Vegas: no publisher, no date) that I think relevant.  Although it doesn’t describe a “transfiguration,” it tells of a seemingly miraculous attestation of Brigham Young’s right to succeed the Prophet Joseph that occurred nowhere near Nauvoo, and probably not on 8 August.

John Borrowman (1816-1898) was born in Scotland but was brought to Canada when he was four years old.  He converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1840 and was promptly disinherited by his father, who thereafter banned even the mention of his name.  One day in the summer of 1844, he was traveling on foot in the open Canadian prairie country with his missionary companion (and future relative-by-marriage), James Pollack Park.

“The two companions were conversing with each other and wondering if Brigham Young was really the right man for the leadership role, when suddenly they noticed a strange man walking with them.  He started to talk to them and said, “You were wondering about Brigham Young.  I want to tell you that he is the right man in the right place.”  They asked him where he came from, as they had not seen him come.  He replied, “You did not see me come and you will not see me go.”  John Borrowman made up his mind that he would certainly see him go when he did go, so kept his eyes fastened upon him.  They came to a stream, and John glanced down to see where to step.  In the instant his eyes were taken from the stranger, the man disappeared.”

Afterwards, the book relates, Elders Borrowman and Park always thought that this personage must have been John the Revelator.  Whatever the stranger’s identity, however, the story seems to strengthen the idea that miraculous confirmations were indeed being given to confused and sorrowful members of the Church:  Brigham Young and the Twelve were now the Lord’s chosen leaders.