An interesting article in the Salt Lake Tribune last week reminded me of a post I did a few years ago about a non-member review of Kirtland. Kirtland is an interesting historical site because some of the attractions are run by the LDS church, and some are run by the Community of Christ. In my experience, both tour guides were very knowledgeable, but the key difference was that the LDS tour guides persisted in inserting “spiritual” experiences into the tour such as invitations for spontaneous hymn singing, testimony bearing or (whew!) moments of silence. Yet, the senior couple who took us through the site was very knowledgeable about the history of the site. They had clearly done their homework.
By contrast, the article in the Tribune was about a recent visitor to the Beehive House (Brigham Young’s SLC home) who had questions about her family’s connection to Brigham Young.
While visiting the Beehive House, however, Gifford was disappointed to learn from two tour guides that they knew nothing of her ancestors’ history. In fact, they assured her that Brigham Young had only two wives and had wed his second spouse only after the death of his first wife.
When Gifford asked for some literature on the subject, the guides gave her a Book of Mormon.
I was surprised to hear that the tour guides knew nothing about Brigham Young’s plural wives because the one time I toured there a couple decades ago, this was not the case, and Brigham Young practicing polygamy is common knowledge and not even really controversial. On the contrary, it’s probably the only thing most of my non-LDS friends knew about Mormons before they met me. How is it possible that tour guides at his home don’t know these facts?
The answer lies in a change to the approach for the church’s historical sites which are now run by the missionary department. Salt Lake City missionaries who function as tour guides in Temple Square and sites like the Beehive House are often young sister missionaries, some of whom are from foreign countries where information about early Mormon polygamy and history are not well-known (as they have been stricken from correlated teaching materials). Even if they are not foreign born, young adult missionaries grew up on correlated lesson manuals and may lack awareness of early Mormon history. Whether they lack that knowledge or not, they are given information as tour guides that has neatly redacted all references to polygamy. In Brigham Young’s home! Where he lived with his many wives! And is buried nearby with five of them!
This article was discussed in a few Facebook forums where various visitors to the Beehive House confirmed the current misinformation trend, including a few other interesting tidbits of ahistory:
- Brigham Young’s bedroom is pointed out as is his “wife’s” bedroom. No explanation is given for all the other bedrooms.
- When pressed, a tour guide assured the visitor that Brigham Young had only had two wives, and that the second one was after his first wife had already died.
- Guides explain that it was common for wives and husbands to have separate bedroom, which is not factually correct, but was certainly true in polygamous households.
- A family portrait showing Brigham with one wife and a few children is displayed, implying that’s his only wife.
- Missionaries stated that Brigham Young was home every night for family prayer.
- One guide stated that Brigham Young gathered his family in the parlour for Family Home Evening every Monday! (Family Home Evening was instituted in 1915, 38 years after Brigham Young’s death, according to lds.org).
- Another tour guide wishfully stated that Mark Twain really liked the Mormons.
- One commenter mentioned that tour guides barely spoke English, certainly not well enough to understand the types of questions they were getting, even if they had known the history.
- Someone shared that he knew a missionary who served there who had been instructed not to answer any difficult questions and only to bear testimony at the end of the tour. Despite this, she was asked very difficult questions by tourists about practices related to polygamy that she didn’t know how to answer.
- One tour guide confided that when any non-members are present on the tour, they don’t mention polygamy. 
Today, tours focus on going through the house quickly with a minimum of commentary, no mention of polygamy (or false claims that he did not practice polygamy), testimony bearing, and a plea for referral cards at the end. This sounds like missionary work, but it definitely doesn’t sound like a tour of a historical site, in which case, the tours doubtless feel like a bait and switch to both LDS and non-LDS visitors alike.
Several noted that the tours at Brigham Young’s summer residence in St. George are much better, and that the tours given at the Beehive House in the past were far better and included interesting facts about the house, one of the attractions of the tour in the first place. A few interesting facts people noted from prior tours:
- Brigham had each wife sit in the snow so he could hand carve a wooden dining chair to custom fit that wife. Children visiting the house could then sit in the various chairs to see how different each one was.
- Tours explained how work was divided in a polygamous household.
- A former tour guide shared that each guide was given the book Brigham Young at Home written by one of his daughters that was full of facts about the house.
- I recall from my tour being told that he had 27 wives and 56 children.
For anyone who wishes to know more about the real history, check out the Year of Polygamy podcast. I read a few reviews on Trip Advisor to see how the new tours are being rated. The negative reviews are all related to the lack of accurate historical information that is instead replaced by (as one review called it) “religious propaganda.”:
- “Boy I wish we had read the reviews of this place before going in. I thought we were going to get a tour of a historical house and learn some history. Instead, we were led on a “tour” by young missionaries who are on their mission. We learned precious little of the house or of Brigham Young. The missionaries were mostly interested in knowing what our religious beliefs are, and in telling us theirs.”
- “I was excited to see the house and was interested in learning about the structure and the period furnishings. Unfortunately, we got none of that. We were ushered from room to room with just, “this is a parlor” or “this is a bedroom.” When I asked whether the furniture was built in SLC or brought with them, I received a blank stare. However, we did receive information how the Book of Mormon is important in our guide’s life. Really disappointing, but at least it was free.”
- “I was surprised at how little the “sister missionaries” knew about the owner of the home: Brigham Young! Nearly every question was met with an unclear or vague answer. It was frustrating to listen to someone give a tour who knew nothing about the occupant. . . . I would have liked to have heard more about Brigham Young and his family. The tour guides knew NOTHING!”
- “Even though the age has been lowered for Mormon kids to be a missionary right out of high school, I wish they could have been provided a few days of history lessons. Everyone knows Brigham had many wives, some think over 50 so there was no reason to try to pretend otherwise. I asked about the Lion House next door, which is now a restaurant but where some of his harem lived. The missionaries said they knew nothing about polygamy. The first thing the girls showed was the wealthy possessions of this man. I asked how he became so wealthy. Brigham became governor a year or so after arriving in Utah but it was decades before Utah became a state, hence my question. The girls then led my small group outside and said the tour was concluded.”
A few reviews pointed out that the guides gave misinformation in what they saw as an effort to win converts:
- “We don’t need to be lied too, just given the facts.”
Even those with positive reviews simply liked the friendliness of the guides and the beauty of the house, but they did not receive historical information one would expect on a tour:
- “My guides were from Panama and Hong Kong, so both spoke English as only their second language.”
- “They were really nice young girls one from Hong Kong and the other from Brazil.”
From an article in the Deseret News about the new Church History Museum renovation, Kurt Graham, the museum’s curator, said:
“We want members of the church and people outside of the church who are looking for information to get a very consistent message. We don’t want them to hear one thing in the museum and then something else on the church’s internet site and something else at a historic site and something else in the Smith papers. It’s all one message. We want to coordinate that so that the real, latest scholarship we’re aware of is available in all of these venues, in all of these channels, for the public.”
This clearly doesn’t apply to the Beehive House, or at least not as it’s currently being run by the missionary department. And that’s a wasted opportunity.
As I saw at Kirtland, you can infuse accurate history with manufactured spiritual experiences; that would certainly be preferable to white-washing the entire historical narrative or replacing it with misinformation that makes ill-informed tour guides more comfortable.
 Which is fine by me – I don’t want to talk about polygamy at church any more than anyone else does! But not talking about it while giving tours of Brigham Young’s home makes zero sense.
 Too bad we can’t actually remove polygamy from history, but that would require a time machine.
 This is presumably the same Mark Twain who said “Am I a friend to the Mormon religion? No. I would like to see it extirpated. . . . If you can destroy it with a book, — by arguments and facts, not brute force, — you will do a good and wholesome work. And I should be very far from unwilling to publish such a book” and who called Joseph Smith “a man of no repute and of no authority.” With friends like these . . .
 Let’s get real. What non-LDS person is visiting the Beehive House who doesn’t already know that he had multiple wives?? Isn’t that the whole purpose of touring the house for non-LDS visitors? For a lascivious look at the inner workings of a polygamous household?