Brigham Young/Beliefs related to science and education

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Brigham Young's beliefs related to science and education

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Question: Did Brigham Young actually teach that the sun and the moon were inhabited?

Brigham Young speculated that the moon and sun were inhabited: he was clearly expressing an opinion

Brigham Young taught that the moon and sun were inhabited,

So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain.

Brigham is clearly expressing an opinion, and there is no evidence that he is making a prophetic declaration concerning extraterrestrials. He even goes out of his way to indicate that this is what he "rather think[s]," and asks his congregation to consider what they think. He also says that he would want to know if an idea he has is false—even including his religion. These are not the sentiments of a man convinced he must be right by divine gift of prophetic omniscience.

It is particularly ironic that Brigham's remarks were focused on the fact that no one knows much about anything, and so humility is appropriate on most questions. Critics have taken this wise stance, and have tried to invert Brigham's intent—changing him from an advocate of humility before the unknown into a doctrinaire know-nothing who is certain of absurdities. The critics might do well do follow Brigham's example.

Brigham Young made the following statement in 1869:[1]

It has been observed here this morning that we are called fanatics. Bless me! That is nothing. Who has not been called a fanatic who has discovered anything new in philosophy or science? We have all read of Galileo the astronomer who, contrary to the system of astronomy that had been received for ages before his day, taught that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of our planetary system? For this the learned astronomer was called "fanatic," and subjected to persecution and imprisonment of the most rigorous character. So it has been with others who have discovered and explained new truths in science and philosophy which have been in opposition to long-established theories; and the opposition they have encountered has endured until the truth of their discoveries has been demonstrated by time...
I will tell you who the real fanatics are: they are they who adopt false principles and ideas as facts, and try to establish a superstructure upon, a false foundation. They are the fanatics; and however ardent and zealous they may be, they may reason or argue on false premises till doomsday, and the result will be false. If our religion is of this character we want to know it; we would like to find a philosopher who can prove it to us.

The context for Brigham's remarks, then, are that new ideas and truths are often mocked or rejected by those who cling to older ideas. And, were he to have such an idea, he would want to know.

He then says:

We are called ignorant; so we are: but what of it? Are not all ignorant? I rather think so. Who can tell us of the inhabitants of this little planet that shines of an evening, called the moon? When we view its face we may see what is termed "the man in the moon," and what some philosophers declare are the shadows of mountains. But these sayings are very vague, and amount to nothing; and when you inquire about the inhabitants of that sphere you find that the most learned are as ignorant in regard to them as the most ignorant of their fellows.

Brigham goes on to speak about inhabitants of the moon. In context, his point is clearly that no one;&mdasheven experts—knows very much about the universe. There are many things (such as whether the moon is inhabited) about which no one of his day could speak clearly.

It then becomes very clear that Brigham is expressing his personal views, not laying down divine truth from on high:

Brigham's point remains that no one knows very much about such things

So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain.

Brigham is obviously expressing his opinion, but his point remains that no one knows very much about such things. To reject a novel idea simply because it is new—such as Mormonism—is irrational. All true ideas were once new, and treated with suspicion.

William Herschel—the preeminent astronomer of his generation and the man to discover Uranus—was also firmly of the belief that the sun was inhabited.[2] One author wrote:

Herschel was not a raving amateur. A gifted astronomer, he discovered Uranus, and was the first to realize that sunlight included infrared light as well as visible light. His sister, Caroline, became famous in her own right for discovering comets, so he did not lack for intelligent conversation. He just had his own theories. Herschel believed that life existed on every celestial body in the universe. He was aware that the sun people saw was too hot to support life. He just assumed there was something underneath that burning atmosphere. When he observed sunspots, he believed that they were openings in the atmosphere, or perhaps mountains, and that if people could get a close look at the planet beneath, they would be able to spot signs of life. Herschel was not alone in his beliefs - as more information on the sun turned up, astronomers speculated on how it would affect life on the surface of the sun, and what kind of life might survive in those environments.[3]

Church publications did not shy away from embracing later scientific findings on the matter

Church publications did not shy away from embracing later scientific findings on the matter:


Desert News noted:

Proof that the Moon is not Inhabited.

“Dr. Scoresby, in an account that he has given of some recent observations made with the Earl of Rosse’s telescope, says: ‘With respect to the moon, every object on its surface of 100 feet was distinctly to be seen; and he had no doubt that, under very favorable circumstances, it would be so with objects 60 feet in height…. But no vestiges of architecture remain to show that the moon, is, or ever was, inhabited by a race of mortals similar to ourselves….. There was no water visible….”[4]


“As there is no air nor water on the moon, but very few changes can take place upon its surface. There can be no vegetation and no animals, and although many astronomers have brought their imaginations to bear upon this subject, and have given us descriptions of the beautiful scenery upon its surface, and have even peopled it with inhabitants, we have every reason to believe that it is as barren and lifeless as an arid rock."[5]

Question: Did Brigham Young claim that too much education was damaging to children?

Brigham was giving instruction on the building of schools

Brigham said:

Concerning the Education of Children I will say that not withstanding the drivings of this people I do not believe that you can go into any City in the world & pick up 100 Children promiscusly and put them by the side of our Children that are as well educated as the same number of our Children gathered up promiscusly in the Territory of Utah. There are some people & Countries who force & whip their Children into an Education but we should never Croud & force the minds of our Children beyond what they are able to bear. If we do we ruin them for life. I would rather my children would spend their Early life sliding down Hill, skating, riding Horses till they were 20 years old & not go to school one day than to clog & force the mind while young with intricate studies. It strains & cripples the mind for life & ruins the man. You never see a child that is Confined while young to Close rooms & hard study & followed up to manhood that ever becomes a master spirit or qualifyed to transact difficult business in after life (emphasis added).

Brigham was highly in favor of education; he was not, however, in favor of "whipping," "forcing" or "confining" young minds and bodies "beyond what they are able to bear"

In this sense, he was well in line with what educational thinkers and reformers of the 19th century were saying: the historian Kenneth Gold has pointed out, the early educational reformers were also tremendously concerned that children not get too much schooling. In 1871, for example, the US commissioner of education published a report by Edward Jarvis on the "Relation of Education to Insanity." Jarvis had studied 1,741 cases of insanity and concluded that "over-study" was responsible for 205 of them. "Education lays the foundation of a large portion of the causes of mental disorder," Jarvis wrote. Similarly, the pioneer of public education in Massachusetts, Horace Mann, believed that working students too hard would create a "most pernicious influence upon character and habits....Not infrequently is health itself destroyed by over-stimulating the mind." In the education journals of the day, there were constant worries about overtaxing students or blunting their natural abilities through too much schoolwork.

The reformers, Gold writes:

strove for ways to reduce time spent studying, because long periods of respite could save the mind from injury. Hence the elimination of Saturday classes, the shortening of the school day, and the lengthening of vacation—all of which occurred over the course of the nineteenth century. Teachers were cautioned that 'when [students] are required to study, their bodies should not be exhausted by long confinement, nor their minds bewildered by prolonged application.' Rest also presented particular opportunities for strengthening cognitive and analytical skills. As one contributor to the Massachusetts Teacher suggested, 'it is when thus relieved from the state of tension belonging to actual study that boys and girls, as well as men and women, acquire the habit of thought and reflection, and of forming their own conclusions, independently of what they are taught and the authority of others."[6]

For an extensive analysis of Brigham's positive views on education, see Hugh W. Nibley, Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints (Vol. 13 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by Don E. Norton, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1994), chapter 15-16. ISBN 0875798187. direct off-site direct off-site


  1. Brigham Young, "The Gospel—The One-Man Power," (24 July 1870) Journal of Discourses 13:270.
  2. " 1795 [Herschel] published one of his most extraordinary papers, 'On the Nature and Construction of the sun', with the Royal Society, suggesting that the sun had a cool, solid interior and was inhabited by intelligent beings." [Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (London: Harper Press, 2008), 199.]
  3. Esther Inglis-Arkell, "Astronomers once thought there was life on the sun," io9. (20 December 2013)
  4. Deseret News 6 (1856): 134d.
  5. ‘Quebec,’ “The Moon”, Contributor 1/9 (June 1880): 193-5, from page 195
  6. Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2008), 253–254.