“A Peculiar Case”: litigating the semantics of believe vs. know?

Byron W. Brown

Byron W. Brown

This is a story from our family history that I am now understanding with new eyes, thanks to historical context provided by Brad and Daymon’s History of Correlation posts (part 1, part 2).

One of my family’s favorite family history personalities is Byron W. Brown. He spent his early childhood in Kirtland, OH, then emigrated to Utah, then helped shepherd subsequent wagon trains. There are wild stories of his buffalo wrangling adventures and suspense-filled stories of his participation in Utah’s Black Hawk War. One reason we have such copious information about him, compared to others in our family of that time, is that he had ample free time to write while he served out a federal sentence for perjury.

During the late 1880s, when the federal government was very active in prosecuting polygamists, Brown attempted to get himself seated on a federal grand jury. Brown was never himself a polygamist, but as a devoted member of the church he could try to ensure a sympathetic voice was present on the grand jury. As part of jury selection, he was asked if he believed in polygamy, and he said that he did not. This resulted in him being tried for perjury, where in his defense he said that he had a knowledge, not mere belief, that polygamy was a true principle. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison and a $1000 fine. After serving 16 months, a new US President took office and pardoned him. His own account of the events is as follows:

About this time it was thought best to select some good reliable men and try and get them on the grand jury, so that our bretherin would not be indited on more than one charge at a time. So I was asked if I would go and try and get on a grand jury.

So I finally agreed that I would go, altho I did not like to go because I knew I should have to say I did not believe in poligamy. But I maintained that believeing and knowing was too different things and I knew that it was a correct principle and I did not believe it. So I went and when the attorney asked me if I believed in poligamy I said no, but the judge, jury and all was against the saints, and they wer deturmined to convict all those that belonged to the Mormon Church. So I was chalenged of and did not set as a juror.

When I came home, some of the people thought it was awful for me to say that I did not believe in poligamy. And one evening while I was visiting around as a teacher, Joseph Emfy said how could you say that you did not believe in poligamy, and I said knowing and believing was two different things. So he, Emfy, went and told some apostates what I had said. So David Evans, a son of Bishop David Evans, went to work and had me indited for purgery and had me arested and tride and as the judge and jury was all against the Saints, of course I was convicted and sentenced to serve three years in the penitentiary and pay one thousand dollars fine. This took place in the fall of 1888.

We appealed the case and took it to the Supream Court of the Territory (it had not become a state at that time) and the judges wer all appointed by the President of the United States, and Grover Cleveland was a rank democrat and all the judges and U.S. marshalls wer doing all they could to hurt the Mormons. So the Supream court affirmed the decision of the lower court. So on the 26 of March 1889, I went to the penitentary and comenced to serve out my sentence of 3 years.

I, however, served 16 months and 6 days. At the expiration of that time President Cleveland’s term of office had expired and a Republican president had been elected in his sted. And so soon as my case could be got before him, he telegraphed me out and I came out on the first day of August. It was my birthday also. … My brother O.C. Brown came up to the peniteintary with his buggy and took me to S.L. City, and at his house, my wife was in waiting for me. I tell you we wer a happy couple.

This is the story as my family has known it for years. It has amused me when Bloggernacle debates of using “I know” vs “I believe” in Testimony Meeting flare up, because I want to say, “Don’t you know that the federal courts have ruled that there is no difference!”

However, I have recently found that Utah Territory Supreme Court Justice Judd saw the case slightly differently. Mormon History buff Ardis Parshall of Keepapitchinin turned up source documents about this story that my family had not seen before. In particular, the Utah Digital Newspapers archives contain several stories about Brown’s trial that were carried in the Deseret News, Provo Daily Enquirer, Ogden Standard and Utah Journal. Justice Judd, as recorded in the Provo Daily Enquirer (22 February, 1889; emphasis added):

…when he [Brown] was approached reprovingly by members of his church for giving the testimony he did, he asserted a belief contrary to his testimony, and undertook to explain that it was past belief and was actual knowledge. It is unnecessary for us to consider this claim, for he testified that “he believed it was wrong,” and the jury was justified in finding that he had made the claim in bad faith.

So, alas, it appears I can no longer claim that the know/believe distinction has been litigated in federal courts. But I am finding it very interesting how closely these events coincide with concepts being discussed in the first two posts of Brad and Daymon’s series on Correlation. In particular, the notions of court intrusion into the mind, questions of what constitutes religiosity–belief in the mind or bodily practice, the degree to which deception can be morally acceptable, an environment where statements to friends can make their way to spies and lead to criminal prosecution, and back-and-forth about standards of evidence are all in play in this story. In making these connections, I found especially fascinating a contemporary editorial from the Ogden [Semi-Weekly] Standard (27 February 1889). The editorial strongly objects to Brown’s conviction and mounts a defense of the mind as a space untouchable, even unreachable, by courts of law:

Now the condition of a man’s mind is incontestably his own property and can only be reached outwardly by means of some solemn conjuration by means of which his conscience is appealed to; when no such conjuration is placed upon him he does not perjure himself when he speaks falsely, he merely lies, and this per se the law does not punish. The great question then is, considered legally, was every presumption in favor of the defendant employed in the case? If he had sworn to both statements, it would be perjury; but does not swearing to one and not to the other leave the matter in a doubtful situation? Can a jury properly say, when the law is fairly given to them, that the facts which Brown testified to under oath were not true, when not opposed with anything more than mere statements? How could they tell on which occasion he lied?

This vigorous defense of Brown’s lying stands in contrast to the fact that Brown “was approached reprovingly by members of his church for giving the testimony he did” (or as his account says, “some of the people thought it was awful for me to say that I did not believe in poligamy”). This provides some nuance to the generality that all good church members of the time were fluent in, and approving of, an intricate system of linguistic deception. Of course, however pervasive the system and culture, there would be those not comfortable with some or all manifestations of it. (Or perhaps these were not very “good” church members, after all they did divulge Brown’s statements to apostates, who turned him in to the authorities.)

The only thing that doesn’t particularly resonate with my reading of Brown’s journals is the notion of a stifling atmosphere of paranoia and fear. Perhaps because these events were recorded later (a more stable time?), or perhaps just because of the kind of man Byron was, the overwhelming emotion one gets from his writing is one of exuberance and joie de vivre. I sometimes have a twinge of envy of just how perfect a match his personality was to the times and circumstances he lived in. Frankly, I can’t picture him living in today’s American society. He was born to love wrangling buffalo and the law, and he was fortunate enough to get to do it. (May we all be so lucky.)

* The post title, “A Peculiar Case,” is taken from the headline of the Ogden Standard article of 27 February 1889.


  1. Antonio Parr says:

    I have no wise observations that will elevate your post to a new level. However, it was so interesting and so enjoyable to read that I had to at least respond with a “well done” and “thank you.”

  2. I agree that for many people “believe” and “know” are synonyms. 2 comments:

    1) I was once taught that precision of speech reflects precision of thought. To “know” something, in my point of view, is a much stronger statement than to “believe” something. Conflating the two reflects more lazy thinking than anything else.

    2) If “believe” and “know” truly mean the same thing, why don’t more bishops, stake presidents and GAs use “believe” in their testimonies and talks. It seems that they all say they “know”.

  3. Brava, Cynthia. This was excellent.

    In addition to the history and the interesting commentary, I loved this line: “This provides some nuance to the generality that all good church members of the time were fluent in, and approving of, an intricate system of linguistic deception.”

  4. Terrific story and addition to the discussion, Cynthia. Family histories are often a gold mine of interesting stories. Thanks for sharing.

  5. My defense of the “believe” vs. “know” is looking at the Brother of Jared. When talking to the Lord about touching the rocks, he tells the Lord he “knows” that the Lord is all powerful, etc (Ether 3:4). Vs. 9, the Lord tells him that Br. of Jared saw finger of the Lord b/c of his faith. Then vs. 15 the Lord says “for never has man BELIEVED in me as thou hast”. Then a follow-up in vs 19 saying that Br. of Jared no longer had faith, he had knowledge.

    So, if belief is strong enough to see the Lord, but it does not become knowledge until after the viewing, then I’m content to say “I believe” instead of “I know”. Maybe a grass roots effort could

  6. Family history posts are often the best! Thanks.

  7. sorry, somehow I posted too soon. Anyway, just a thought that if enough people start saying “I believe” in their testimonies, it won’t sound so strange anymore.

    And a small note that the song “I Believe in Christ” doesn’t say “I know Christ is true”

  8. This difference actually came up in my class today. A student was trying to explain how he knew his moral system was true (I’m assuming he was Mormon). I just noted that know there meant believe because, otherwise, what’s the point of faith.

  9. Great post, Cynthia and very interesting data with which to probe recent conversations. Thanks.

  10. Cynthia,
    When you are lying for the Lord, is anything out of bounds? Certainly the difference between belief and knowing in the case of Byron Brown was a matter of trying to skirt the law by splitting the letter.

    How about Paul Dunn? He was helping the Lord by telling inspirational stories he knew were as false as Byron knew that the difference between knowing and believing was nil.

  11. StillConfused says:

    I think that he did commit perjury and was rightly sentenced. Polygamy was illegal. Lying about its existence equated to two crimes.

    When religious people say that they “know” something, I take that to mean that they believe it very strongly. Or that they are copying what other people say.

  12. It would appear that Brown was trying as best as he could to navigate a legal minefield, at the request of someone else in authority, to try and get him on the grand jury. Based on what has been discussed in the Underground/Correlation posts, Brown was hoping to create a distinction between “knowing” and “believing” that would allow him to pass the scrutiny of the prosecutors, but allow him freedom of conscience about not lying. It would really be helpful to know who asked him to apply to the grand jury. Was it a bishop, or an Apostle in hiding?

    It’s not clear that the distinction was either accepted by other members of the church, or whether they were mostly trying to cooperate with the federal officers. I don’t particularly think that comparing this incident with Paul Dunn’s stories is either helpful, or appropriate (ie, I find Elder Dunn’s storytelling less defendable).

  13. A dude getting convicted of perjury because he claimed that he didn’t “believe” something on the grounds he “knew” it and was past belief =/= legal proof that believing and knowing are the same thing.

    If anything, it’s a comment on the definition of believing. That is to say, if you “know” that the state tree of Utah is the Blue Spruce, does it or doesn’t it mean that you also “believe” that the state tree of Utah is the Blue Spruce? The courts seemed to believe that yes, knowing necessitates believing: if you know something, you also believe it.

    It doesn’t go both ways however, because you can believe things that you don’t know (e.g. that the state tree is an Aspen).

    So really, this doesn’t have much to do with the meanings of words that people use in their testimonies.

    Mr. Brown probably just took Alma 32:34 and ran with it, confusing the exercise of faith with the notion of belief.

  14. linescratchers says:

    In the past, I’ve mentioned to very intelligent people that I “know” the Church is true, but of course I must make certain qualifications about the definition of “know.”

    When I did that, I FELT different. Something within me changed. I realized I had neutered the term. Definitions aside (and maybe I’ve been conditioned this way, but maybe not), I just think “know” FEELS better than “believe.” Maybe it helps me fulfill the commandment to hope.

  15. Stephanie says:

    Fascinating indeed.

  16. We should honor our right to stand up in open court and say: “I didn’t do it!”‘ and not go to jal for saying it.

  17. Re: the familiarity of early Mormons with linguistic deception. The discussion brings to mind this bit from JM Coetzee:

    “If there is such a thing as honest toil, then Petrus bears its marks. A man of patience, energy, resilience. A peasant, a paysan, a man of the country. A plotter and a schemer and no doubt a liar too, like peasants everywhere. Honest toil and honest cunning.”

  18. What a great history to have, and even more fascinating in light of the recent conversations. Cool. Thanks for sharing.

  19. SVB, when making nonsequitur comments, is anything out of bounds? Certainly references to Paul Dunn should be. Good grief.

  20. 19. Cynthia — Good grief, indeed!

    And thanks much for the OP. Very cool story.

  21. Sounds like Mr. Clinton was in good company when he said his answer depended on what the definition of “is” is…

  22. Classy, Mike.

  23. Lorin Hansen says:

    From one point of view, belief is a much stronger position than knowledge. “Believe” comes from the Germanic word for “love” (lieben, belieben). One can “know” something and have contempt for it. But it is a more positive feeling to know and also to love something. I sometimes like to puzzle members by telling them I not only know, more than that, I BELIEVE.

  24. Cynthia L. says:

    That is interesting, Lorin. Thanks.

  25. There’s such tremendous complexity in this post. I’ve been giving it some thought, though I cannot write it all here.
    An article length treatment is really required, here, Cynthia. So much reported speech, thought, and power in play makes the mind dizzy. If you continue to work with these materials, you need to distinguish all the networks in which the reports (of reports) circulated, and thence reconstruct the movement of a man forced to defend polygamists by covert means (on a jury), who was then himself written upon by rumor, newspapers, and, finally, the words of a judge (and a president). And he wasn’t even a polyg! Such expansion is really remarkable, and demands a much longer treament.

    The fact that one should spend 16 months in prison for stating what one believed about belief, i.e., that belief and knowing are different, and so, not being asked about ‘knowing’ honestly reported to not believe in Polygamy, shows the raw power of the Court. They imposed, with the newspapers, rumors, and so on, a norm concerning belief that Mormons didn’t fit, and when confronted with the fact of diversity, simply tossed Mormons in the pen. What do these words mean, anyway, ‘belief’, ‘think’, ‘feel’, other than to effect alignments in social relations?

  26. Most philosphers would agree with Brown, by the way, and so he really didn’t perjure himself, that is, speaking contrary to the oath of honesty by answering with what he knew to be false. He was guilty only when we apply foreign standards to Mormons. This was colonialism at its most culturally insidious (though not personally deadly, of course).

  27. Cynthia, one more thing:
    By the time Brown is back in court, he is no longer only a person, but also a record, a published article, and so on. His body, of course, goes to prison, but other parts of ‘him’ circulate, and then run up against real Power. These other ‘browns’ are used to speak for him, against him, alongside the rumors of what he reportedly said to his ward members. There’s really rich possibilities, here, which historians, anthropologists, and others would be greatly interested in.

  28. one more: Brown’s life shows how culture change happens, rapidly, because non-conformists, when made public and known, can be erased from society, their contrariness simplified into ‘perjuror’.

  29. Cynthia L. says:

    Daymon, thanks for your response! I have been very much looking forward to your thoughts. We should correspond about this?

  30. What intrigues me is that Brown, not being a polygamist, had such a powerful testimony of Polygamy. Was it not the understanding at that time that only polygamists would recieve Exaltation? Non-polygamists seemed to be in some kind of limbo. When did a shift in perception occur about this concept?

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