Brigham Young’s Teenagers

Last week’s firestorm about raising children reminded me of a speech I heard by Leonard Arrington, in which he told a story about the Brigham Young household. [1]

At a time when Brigham Young and his wives had many daughters of courting age, the daughters asked their father for permission to have some young men over to the house for a social evening in the parlor.  He gave his consent, and even agreed not to set a time when the evening had to end, but said it could continue “as long as the lamps were not turned down”.  He then went upstairs to bed.

A few hours later, he realized that the downstairs parlor was entirely too quiet, and went to investigate.  He was not well pleased.  The young people had indeed obeyed the letter of the law.  They had not turned the lamps down; they had instead taken books off the shelves and stacked them around the lamps, thereby obscuring the lamps’ light and creating a darkened room.  His daughters and their beaux had also rearranged some of the furniture to allow for each couple to have a measure of privacy on a sofa or divan.  President Young stood on the staircase in his nightclothes, holding a candle while surveying the scene of debauchery that was spread before him.  

Arrington reported that Brigham put an end to the evening by stating:  “The young women are now excused to go upstairs to their rooms.  The young men are now excused to go to their homes.” 

Moral of the story # 1:  No matter how many rules you lay down, people will find a way around them.  This goes double, or maybe even triple, for teenagers.  It is much more productive to focus on principles.

Moral of the story # 2:  No matter how much trouble you are having with your kids, you should be grateful you don’t have as many teenagers as Brigham Young.


[1]  Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have a reference.  This post is my way of asking the smart people around here if they have ever heard of this story and where it might be documented.  I am also curious to see how accurate my memory of the story is.


  1. This reminds me of when students at BYU went to Las Vegas, got married to have sex, and then annulled the marriage at the end of the weekend.

  2. Wow, Brigham’s daughters were practically like the Bush twins. A Victorian TMZ moment if there ever was one.

    As far as rules and principles, I agree– there’s no one that sniffs around rules faster than me in any environment. But present me with principles of ownership and I’ll govern myself with better diligence than any compulsive edict can summon.

    I try to teach my daughter the freedoms and privileges that come with responsibility. My wife and I are extremely permissive because, so far, our 11-year old hasn’t given us a reason not to be. But as teenhood is stampeding closer, I try to prep her for the rebellious years: Don’t rock the boat, I tell her. Do what is asked and you’ll get your sleepovers and newly-released DVDs and trips to Abercrombie. Fight us, ignore us… and watch it all go away. I let her know the power is hers. She owns the outcomes. It’s not like it’s a choke-chain (or so I tell myself); she really is a sweetheart and hasn’t balked yet. I just want her to come to terms with the idea that ownership has its rewards… and consequences.

  3. It must not be true because I’m sure Brigham would have actually castrated the beaus in question rather than ask them to go home…

  4. “No matter how much trouble you are having with your kids, you should be grateful you don’t have as many teenagers as Brigham Young.”

    Amen, and Amen. 4 is plenty – 8 if you count the ones that just lived with us for a while.

    #3 – Yeah, that thought struck me, also.

  5. hawkgrrrl says:

    You know what they say about the bishop’s kids!

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, MattG, that’s classic!

    This reminds me a little bit of the sparking lamps they had at Nauvoo. When the lamp went out, the boy had to go home, so the father would put more or less oil in the lamp depending on how much he approved of the suitor.

  7. Reminds me of the fireside that the General Young Men’s President (Dalquist?) gave us last year at Youth Conference. He told us that he had a disagreement with his daughter once, and that she left for her room and slammed her door. She turned on her stereo and blasted her music really loudly. He went to speak to her, and he heard the lyrics “You are not alone.”

    I’m also a teenager, but even I wonder what kind of parent I’ll end up being. The lesson I learned from his talk (that even General Authorities have daughters who slam doors) really makes me feel a bit more confident.

  8. #3-
    I don’t know. There have been times when I’ve surveyed the damages (and my kids are young, so the damages aren’t really “moral” as they are physical, i.e. “why-is-there-permanent-marker-on-the-wall!?!”) and something inside of me just breathed calmness. I think the calm scares my children more than the rage does, too, because they aren’t sure if the rage will show up later. I wonder if Brigham would agree…?

  9. “This reminds me of when students at BYU went to Las Vegas, got married to have sex, and then annulled the marriage at the end of the weekend.”

    #1 Is this true or a rumor? I’ve heard this, but I wonder. If true, then how many individuals participated?

    I can’t imagine this was a trend until it was discovered, that is, if true to begin with.

  10. I’m not one of the smart ones, but…

    Clarissa Young, one of Brigham Young’s daughters: On Sunday evenings the older girls were permitted to entertain their beaux in the parlor. The oldest members of the group became rather famous as the “Big Ten,” because there were just that number who seemed to have grown up about the same time. There was only the one large parlor for them to entertain their young men in, and twenty did seem a large number when there were only four corners, so, one evening, the happy suggestion was made that some semblance of privacy might be obtained by turning down the coal-oil lamp that stood on the table in the center of the room. A second thought was that the light might be more effectively dimmed by placing a barricade of books around it. The main idea, anyway, was to get rid of the light, so everyone lent a hand, and soon there was but one shaft of light that played upon the ceiling where no one minded it. The couples then went back to their chairs and the sofa, which seemed so much more cozy in the semidarkness.
    Jack M. Lyon, Jay A. Parry, and Linda R. Gundry, eds., Best-Loved Humor of the LDS People , p.67
    All went very well for a time until the door slowly opened, and there stood Father with a candle in his hand. He gave one look around the room and then walked to the table where he removed the books one by one until the proper light shone forth on faces that would have preferred the darkness for a different reason now. Then turning to the very much subdued group, he said, “The girls will go upstairs to their rooms, and I will say good night to the young men” (Spencer, Brigham Young at Home, 33-34).

  11. Curse you Kyle and your references!

  12. Kyle’s reference makes the story that much better, because it shows that Brigham was going to personally say good night to the young men, rather than just let them go.

    I would hate to have that talkin to….

  13. KyleM: Thank you!

  14. non-mormon-observer says:

    curious to know what happend to the post by Norbit about people “snitching” on other members of the church?

    Strange to see it has been taken off the blog – is there a reason?

  15. Does anyone think that this incident could have been the catalyst for the “blood atonement” doctrine?

  16. Nice pull, KyleM. Back in my day, we used courting sticks and bundling to keep teenagers in line.

    Photos of the “Big Ten”:

    No. 1

    No. 2

  17. Hubba hubba.

    Awesome, Justin. And I will note in passing that apparently the Young family did not share the view of modesty that is prevalent today, that young women who have not received the endowment should dress as though they had.

  18. n-m-o:

    I’ve emailed you.

  19. If I were a student at BYU and I wanted to have sex, that sounds like a good plan. I know that’s totally ungrammatical, but it still sounds like something I’d think of. And do. What could the church do to you?

    I heard a story about Brigham Young’s family once that seems to reflect on this topic. His favorite wife wanted to re-make all their daughters’ clothes so they could be in style. And he said no. And she did it anyway. And he said, “How can I expect the members of the church to do what I say when I can’t even get my own family to listen to me?”

  20. Annegb, I can’t remember all of the details, but I think that the church and or BYU did take action against the students in the Las Vegas incident although I don’t know what it was.

  21. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the entire thing I heard was urban legend, including the punishment.

  22. I can add a fun detail to the Las Vegas weekend marriage story. The way I heard it, it involved Family Home Evening “moms” and “dads” in singles wards (obviously). After that incident, the name of the calling was changed to FHE “group leaders” so as not to suggest that the Church thought you ought to pair up temporarily.

  23. RE: the Las Vegas weekend marriage story

    I don’t know if anyone carried that idea out, or how many did, but I do know that the concept was floating around Provo/Orem some 20+ years ago. Back in 1985-85, when I was single (post-divorce) and living in Orem, a woman I dated (we were both in our early 30s) told me that the last guy she had dated had made just that proposition to her. She dropped him after that. ..bruce..

  24. As for the teenagers — my wife and I raised 9 of them (10 if you count our ‘semi-adopted daughter’, a young woman (daughter of a family friend) who came and lived with us for an entire school year) over a 20-year period.

    There’s a reason my beard is gray. ..bruce..

  25. Is it me, but are the dresses those girls are wearing not technically “modest” by modern standards?

  26. Mark Brown says:

    J. no, it’s not just you. see my comment 17, e.g.

  27. Not sure how I missed that comment, Mark…cheers, though.

  28. It’s hard for me to imagine those Young ladies canoodling in the dimly lit parlor.

  29. I thought a marriage could only be anulled if it was unconsumated…?

  30. mondo cool says:

    Is it me, but are the faces those girls are wearing not technically “gorgeous” by modern standards?

    No wonder they wanted the lights down low.

    Excuse me for the cheap humor, but, seriously, have our standards of beauty changed or are people better looking these days? Has anybody else noticed in their “old family photos” that our ancestors were short on modern beauty?

  31. Mondo,

    I recall Mark Twain recalling that he always thought polygamy was awful, until he passed through Salt Lake City, and saw the Mormon women. After that, he said any man is a saint who would marry more than one of them.

  32. mondo cool says:

    Yes, I remember the Twain comment. Did you read his “110 Tin Whistles”? One of Twain’s funniest.

  33. I think modern styles, haircuts, and products contribute a lot to what we perceive as our modern standard of beauty. (These girls need a day at the spa…)

    Tracy, I think you’re technically correct, but perhaps standards/laws have changed. I have heard of some instances in the Catholic church where a couple couldn’t get a divorce, but they were granted an annulment, even after some years of marriage, children, etc.

  34. That’s funny- I actually thought the girls were rather pretty looking. You need to remember, they didn’t use cosmetics or hair products- how many of us look photo-worthy without our modern accoutrements? I think they’re lovely.

  35. I was at BYU when the ‘Marriages’ happened and my Bishop worked in the Honor Code office. It happened. I believe there were even articles about it in the paper.

  36. OK, give the young ladies a break. Awaybackthen photography required staying absolutely still for quite awhile. (Factoid, anyone? 5 minutes? 10?) Start smiling and see how long it takes til you lips and cheeks start aquiverin’.

    Regarding modesty, what’s a little shoulder to the unendowed?

  37. Jami, I wish the adults at the stake dances I attended as a young man were as cool as you. Most of them would have called the cops if a young woman showing that much shoulder and cleavage had tried to enter.

  38. My filter must have air-brushed that cleavage away. All I’m seeing is shoulder and collarbone. Well…and 10 girls.

  39. Oh, to be sure, it wasn’t shoulders that were to remain covered. It was the ankles.

  40. Marriages in Utah that are consummated can be annulled if they are less than a year.

  41. mondo cool says:

    When Daguerreotypes were first developed, exposure times could take up to an hour. But, chemical processes improved by 1850 so that they were usually under a minute for most processes. Then glass plates with a colloidal/silver medium were introduced which improved the processes further but the habit of remaining still without a smile persisted – still a good idea. We can assume that the photos referenced in #16 above were taken between 1860 – 1875. Careful comparison between the two show that they are indeed two different photos – notice the finger of the girl on the right – apparently taken within a short time of each other. Flash pans were introduced around that time also. Who knows what method was used?

    Maybe we can re-introduce this whole thing again to get our teenagers to sit still for an hour – while awake.

  42. Some information about the photos is available here.

    Also: BYU’s copy can be seen here.

  43. and just imagine life before orthodontics! no wonder everyone was photographed with closed lips.

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