Fornication Pantaloons (updated)


Can we all agree that this is an abominable Gentile fashion? Because Brigham Young certainly can.

For the last year or so, the last page of The Atlantic  has been a column called “The Big Question,” where various notable people answer a question posed by the magazine. In September, it asked: “What is the most significant fashion innovation in history?” In Jennifer Barnett’s mind, the runner-up was buttons down the front of men’s pants in the 1830s. Which is how this question ties into Mormonism: Barnett says that this innovation “prompted Brigham Young to denounce them as ‘fornication pantaloons.'”

I had two reactions when I read this. The first was that those two words, put together, may be the greatest phrase in the history of clothing. The second, though, was skepticism. That sounds like too good a story to actually verify. 

So I tried to verify it. And one of the first sites I came across was Greg Call’s exploration of this same question eight years ago, when the New York Times also attributed “fornication pantaloons” to Brigham Young. Neither he nor his commenters were able to verify the phrase; apparently, they discovered, it was popularized by a couple books on the history of jeans and of fashion. Though the former cited the latter, the latter didn’t cite anything. Their sleuthing ultimately decided that it was based on something Heber C. Kimball said, misattributed to Brigham Young.

Eight years later, the internet has lots of additional documents on it. And, it turns out, there’s a decent reason to attribute it to Brigham Young: the Mormon Expositor.

I don’t know much about the Mormon Expositor; it is surprisingly Google-proof. It only published a single issue in 1875. Wilfred H. Munro claims that it published discourses, the language of which was so coarse that they weren’t recorded in the Journal of Discourses.[fn1]

And, on its front page, it quotes Brigham Young, in an undated and unlocated sermon, as condemning Gentile fashion. In relevant part (for our purposes), he (allegedly) says:

There are those fornication pantaloons, made on purpose for whores to button up in front. My pantaloons button up here (showing how), where they belong, that my secrets, that God has given unto me, should not be exposed.

Did Brigham Young actually say this? I kind of hope so, because it is tremendously awesome. Of course, I’m not sure how credible a source the Mormon Expositor is, and the lack of specificity as to where and when it was delivered makes me at least a little skeptical. But, eight years after the first exploration, the internet (with a massive assist from the Library of Congress) has provided a real live 19th-century source for the best phrase ever, “fornication pantaloons.”[fn2]

Update: Over at Keepapitchinin, Ardis has posted the scan of the full “issue” of the Mormon Expositor, and some additional commentary/background. Did Brigham Young say “fornication pantaloons”? Maybe, but, it appears, the attestation is weak at best.

[fn1] p. 9

[fn2] In context, it’s almost certain that his objection was less sartorial, and even less a matter of public morals, than it was an objection to the Utah Saints adopting Eastern fashions and purchasing from the Gentiles (and thus draining money from Utah).


  1. In honor of BY, today I shall don my Levis button-fly Fornication Pantaloons- even more scandalously, as a woman! So awesome.

  2. The fact that “Mormon Expositor” is practically google–proof is an important point. It was not a real newspaper, but a single “issue” tract that was printed in newspaper format, filled with other dubious “news.” Think of it as a 19th century Onion prequel.

  3. Ardis, I figured as much. Still, even if Brigham Young didn’t say it, he certainly should have!

  4. (My interest, honestly, was mostly to see if the phrase came out of whole cloth in the 20th century, or if there was a way to tie it in to the 19th century and Brigham Young, even if dubiously.)

  5. Beep beep.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    This is fun stuff. And that old post from Greg was sure a walk down memory lane.

  7. “My pantaloons button up here (showing how), where they belong, that my secrets, that God has given unto me, should not be exposed.”

    So awesome. I could see Colbert saying that. Well played, C19 version of The Onion.

  8. This post makes me so happy. Ardis’s revelation makes it better. All is right and just in the world.

  9. Just read the entire Expositor; thanks for the link. Its use in The Atlantic and NYT is reminiscent of the Chinese media republishing a story from The Onion about North Korea.

    Besides Brigham Young, the people named may not mean much to many people, but it is interesting to note who was being lampooned.

    Jeter Clinton had recently been one of the parties in a case that made its way to the United States Supreme Court involving city efforts to clean up Salt Lake City’s growing red light district. You can google “Clinton v. Englebrecht, 80 U.S. 13 Wall. 434 434 (1871)” to see the case, and it looks like the case was explained in detail by Dale Goble in a chapter to the book Law in the Western United States. The whole chapter is available on Google Books and gives a good summary of the tensions and conflicts that show up in the Mormon Expositor.

    And the report of the Woolley excommunications in the Thirteenth Ward? Can’t imagine how accurate that is, but we recently discussed another Woolley/Thirteenth Ward Excommunication over at Keepa. (Heber J. Grant Recalls Two Excommunications)

  10. Huh. So (a 19th century caricature of) Brigham Young doesn’t put on his pants on just like the rest of you.

  11. I’ll be sure to use this phrase while acting in my duty to enforce the Honor Code (which, like the TSA, brooks no attempts at humor). True Cougars only put on their pants in the way practiced and endorsed by Brigham Young himself.

  12. If anyone is interested, a quick search on the US Trademark Office’s website shows that “Fornication Pantaloons” is available. Better hurry if you want to open up the best darn jeans shop in City Creek.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m a little confused. BY says his pants buttonned, but just in a different way than the fornication pantaloons. So how did Pseudo-Brigham’s buttons work? Were they on the hip instead of the front, perhaps?

    In any event, I’m with Pseudo-Brigham. I normally can’t buy jeans at a clothing store, because I’m too big, so I ordered some Levi’s a couple of months ago. I hadn’t been careful in looking at the style, and they were button fly. The buttons are a pain; I much prefer a zipper. Indeed, I would argue that the buttons work at cross purposes to easy opening of the pants, whether for fornication or otherwise.

  14. At the risk of sacrilege, I am pretty sure that any fornication danger stemming from button-fly jeans would be completely negated by one-piece garments. Take that Satan!

  15. Dry heave.

  16. I had heard that it was Heber C. Kimball who coined the phrase “fornication pants.”

  17. This is marvelous.

  18. I’m a big fan of the button fly.

  19. JKC, in the comments to Greg Call’s post that I link to in the OP, J. Stapley finds where Heber C. Kimball said hermaphrodite pantaloons. Because the Mormon Expositor wasn’t available online back then, and because, as Ardis points out, BY saying fornication pantaloons can’t be found anywhere but the ME, that was the best guess back then for the provenance of the phrase.

  20. No wonder everyone gets so upset about women wearing pants to church…

  21. This is the best blog post. From now on, I will refer to button-fly jeans as fornication pantaloons, because a possibly misattributed GA quote is better than none.

  22. Tracy needs to cross-stitch another pillow. Precedent has been set, so it must happen.

  23. For those who weren’t around back in 2010 to see the greatest picture ever posted in the history of the internet, right here at BCC:

  24. MargaretOH says:

    As much as I enjoyed this, “Brigham Young’s God-given secrets” are a thought I wish had never entered my consciousness.

  25. it's a series of tubes says:

    Ray, my eyes can never unsee what they have now seen. It burns!

  26. Bro. Jones says:

    Ardis, thanks for posting the scans of the issue. Two questions:

    1) Kind of random, but I’m really intrigued by some of the headlines that use a sans-serif typeface. I haven’t seen a lot of that in documents from this time period. Do you think that might suggest an even later publication date, or have you seen a lot of text like that in contemporary documents?

    2) Do you think the name “Mormon Expositor” is a dig/reference to the “Nauvoo Expositor” or just a coincidence?

  27. Abercrombie & Fitch could definitely market these. They might have to use the anglo-saxon phrasing, though.

  28. In the 1860s, US Navy sailors adopted the button-up flap on the front of their dress blue uniforms. I bet he was horrified! :-)

  29. Mormon Soprano says:

    This is the most entertaining post – and comment stream – I’ve read all week! :) Who says Mormons aren’t funny? I like thinking of Brother Brigham demonstrating how his pants buttoned, in true stand-up comedian style. Although, it seems J. Golden Kimball would have been the best source for this one!

  30. I didn’t think it was possible, but Brigham Young just became a lot less sexy to me.

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