The Cursing of Mormon Lawyers

December 18, 2006 | 19 comments
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Cursing, it would seem, forms something of a theme in Mormon legal history. Not only was it a way of dealing with unsolved crimes, but it also seems to have been used as a way of controlling frivolous litigation. In 1856, Brigham Young delivered a particularlly blistering sermon denouncing lawyers. Speaking of the law courts, he thundered, “It is a cage of unclean birds, a den and kitchen of hell, and I am going to warn you of it.” And warn he did. In particular, he was hard on:

[T]he lustful, wicked, cursed, hellish appetites of professed brethren, in striving to cheat their neighbors, by employing lawyers to deceive or lie for them, which are synonymous terms in the eyes of justice, and by bringing in witnesses to screen the guilty and deceive a jury, whereby they are liable to give a wrong verdict.

And so Brigham cursed the lawyers (and their clients it would seem): “Men who love corruption, contention, and broils, and who seek to make them, I curse you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Lest one think that this was a simple case of cussing or rhetoric, Brigham went on, “I curse you, and the fruits of your lands shall be smitten with mildew, your children shall sicken and die, your cattle shall waste away, and I pray God to root you out from the society of the Saints.”

Ever the pragmatist, however, Brigham was not content to sit on his hands and simply leave it at his prayers. Faith without works, for Brigham, was dead. For example, during one of his frequent trips south his wagon became stuck in the sand. One of the accompanying brethren asked, “Brother Brigham, should we pray?” Brigham supposedly responded, “We prayed this morning. Let’s get out and push.” Having cursed the lawyers in the morning, Brigham also did a bit of pushing. He reported:

I sent Thomas Bullock to take your names; I wanted to know the men who were coaxing hell into our midst, for I wish to send them to China, to the East Indies, or to where they cannot get back, at least for five years. . . . [W]e will send off the poor curses on a mission, and then the devil may have them, and we do not care how soon they apostatize, after they get as far as California.

It is hard to tell whether or not Brigham followed through on this threat. It is worth noting, however, that before this sermon was given Brigham had sent one of Utah’s earliest lawyers — Hosea Stout — on a mission to China. Furthermore, in 1856, a short time after Brigham delivered this sermon, Zerubbabel Snow (pictured here), a Mormon attorney and the apparent object of Brigham’s ire in this sermon (he all but names Snow) was sent on a mission to Australia, where he remained until 1859.

On the other hand, upon returning to Utah, the Mormon-dominated state legislature appointed Snow to be a judge in Utah county.

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19 Responses to The Cursing of Mormon Lawyers

  1. Russell Arben Fox on December 18, 2006 at 3:33 pm

    “On the other hand, upon returning to Utah, the Mormon-dominated state legislature appointed Snow to be a judge in Utah county.”

    Considering the extent of Brigham’s curse, I suppose that pretty much explains all of the rest of Utah Valley’s and Utah Lake’s environmental history right there.

  2. a random John on December 18, 2006 at 3:52 pm

    I find it interesting that Brigham announces in public that sending someone on a mission is a good way to get rid of them for a time. It would be funny to hear current church leaders take the same attitude, though I am sure some parents of missionaries think exactly as Brigham did.

  3. danithew on December 18, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Send all the lawyers into exile, as missionaries. Interesting perception of a problem and interesting solution.

    But why would you have people you despise act as official representatives for the Church?

    Then again, Brigham Young can do whatever he wants. I wouldn’t have tried to tell him otherwise.

  4. General Nonsense on December 18, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    Well before we get all down on the guy and his lawyer opinions, he did provide a way for them to gain some respectability:

    “I am now taking the liberty of discharging a duty I owe to the lawyers in telling them what their duty is. They read the law; they do so or should understand the law of the United States, of the states and of the territories and cities in which they live, and whenever they have an opportunity of telling people how to live in a way to avoid litigation, it is their duty to do so.

    Then, if they wish to get a living, instead of picking people’s pockets as is too commonly the case, let them have their stores, and bring on goods and trade, buy farms and follow the healthy and honorable profession of farming, and raise their own provisions, and stock–and when their services are wanted in the law, give as freely as we do the Gospel.”

    Of course, I am not sure whether the paid CES instructor program was in existence when he was touting this free giving of the gospel.

  5. j.a.t. on December 18, 2006 at 5:45 pm

    Isn’t it interesting that a lot of church employees (from SLC and BYU) get sent on missions in their late 50′s early 60′s and have to retire early? Is it a way to clean up a department or let in new change or simply get rid of an old wind-bag that’s annoying everyone? Convenient that mission presidents and sr missionaries are called at the “peak” of their leadership and capabilites, yet are considered past their peak in their office.

    I knew of a church employee who was using the church resources in his care to improve his personal home. Fired? Nope. Sent on a mission*.

    *Disclaimer: I’m saying IT HAPPENS, not that it is the standard. The standard is a wonderful loving sr. couple.

  6. Mark B. on December 18, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    First of all, j.a.t., senior missionaries are called only upon submission of recommendations by their bishop/stake president. If the couple doesn’t start the process the paperwork never goes to the missionary department, and they don’t go.

    So, it’s only mission presidents who might fit your conspiracy theory.

    And, how many is “a lot”? How many BYU employees, for example, do you know that got called in their late 50′s? How many of them retired, and how many came back to work? (The one BYU prof I know best, my father, retired and then served a mission. He didn’t go back to teaching when he returned.)

    I’d suggest putting the “Disclaimer” in red across the entire text of your comment.

  7. Matt W. on December 18, 2006 at 6:05 pm

    My Wife’s Mission President was a Younger Man, a Lawyer, and never a Church Employee. He was called to the Seventy after serving as mission President I think. Legrand Curtis Jr. (Not sure which Quorum of Seventy).

    Truman Madsen served as a mission president in the midst of teaching at BYU.

    Oh, and from sad experience, church people who have taken advantage of the church for their own personal financial gain are excommunicated.

  8. Chance on December 18, 2006 at 6:08 pm

    Is that why it is the ‘J. Reuben Clark Law School’ and not the ‘B.Y. Law School’?

    Yes…I’m joking. Please do not read too deeply into my shallow posts.

    BTW, ditto what Mark B. said. j.a.t., I hope what you said was in jest, because you look pretty sorry otherwise.

  9. S. P. Bailey on December 18, 2006 at 8:16 pm

    So Nate … would you say that BY is subject to your criticism of Hugh Nibley (raised here at some point in the past three years or so (sometimes bloggernacle time and content all seems to blend together)) that lawyer-hate is easy to maintain in the absence of actual understanding of the profession? The quote provided in No. 4 makes me wonder.

  10. Nate Oman on December 18, 2006 at 8:51 pm

    The difference between BY and HN is that BY learned from experience. At the end of his life he called promising young men (most notably Franklin S. Richards) to become lawyers. His successors continued the practice, and my great, great grandfather was called by Wilford Woodruff to study law at Cornell.

  11. J. Stapley on December 19, 2006 at 1:37 am

    I just happened upon a cogent remark of Brigham Young in a letter he wrote to his son John W. in 1866:

    We had quite an influx of lawyers into the city of late. Like the birds of prey they snuff the carcass from afar. (Letters of Brigham Young to His Sons, pg 81.)

  12. j.a.t. on December 19, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    Chance,
    Just b/c we’re anonymous bloggers doesn’t mean that one has to throw etiquette out the window.

    Mark B. We both are speaking anecdotally, me from my experiences knowing “a lot” of people coming from situation X, and you knowing “a lot” of people coming from situation Y. Have I also known a lot of Y’s? Absolutely. I’m surprised that my experiences, albeit different from yours, were dismissed in an environment of discourse. Strange. Why so dispelling instead of querying? Since neither of us knows all of the missionaries and/or mission presidents called, isn’t it possible that we could simply be describing entirely different people from different perspectives? That’s why I put a disclaimer on my comment having stemmed from my experiences, not ever wishing to label your parents or friend or a dear mission president that someone loved and admired. Obviously I stepped on some toes, and my apologies.

    Also, I am aware of the process by which sr. missionaries, mission presidents and temple presidencies etc. are called and sent on missions. I also have known sr. missionaries who have been ‘called’ on missions and asked to submit the paperwork. They go voluntarily, but there are various degrees of volunteerism. In the words of Radar O’Riley in M*A*S*H* to Col. Henry Black, “Um Sir, you kind of volunteered me rather quickly there, Sir.”

    Might I suggest that human nature might not be clearly black and white, and that there might be imperfect saints as works in progress? God doesn’t call perfect saints on missions; he calls mortals. There ARE very high standards for missionaries young and old, but the standard is the lowest common denominator. I concur with Danithew who suggested that it wasn’t just a problem BY was addressing, but also a solution in sending out aggravating saints to go work in the mission field for a while. Missions are for the missionaries too!

    Matt W. Looking at the Deseret News every week, don’t you think Truman Madsen’s experience is an exception not the rule? Your adjective “sad” well describes experiences in which church membership is affected by unethical financial stewardship. And yes, there are vigilant processes and severe consequences associated with misappropriation. However it does happen and we’re probably being naive if we think we are catching it 100% of the time. And so what if we did? I don’t think it would change the status quo much. Whether we’re talking about people who have been dipping into petty cash or weasely lawyers, BY’s solution to put them to work might still be a pretty good idea.

  13. Chance on December 21, 2006 at 11:54 am

    j.a.t.: Just b/c we’re anonymous bloggers doesn’t mean that one has to throw etiquette out the window.

    My point exactly.

    If you are posting queries about this issue, T&S is (or should) obvioulsy (be) the wrong forumn. To address these queries with anyone but the source, in the manner that you presented them (anomously on a random blog), is purely gossip.

  14. Nate Oman on December 21, 2006 at 12:01 pm

    j.at.: I actually think that it is fairly common for BYU profs to get called as mission presidents. I can think of two or three that I personally know who have been called pre-retirement. Obviously, most mission presidents are not BYU professors and most BYU professors are not mission presidents, but there are a lot of BYU professors who have been mission presidents.

  15. Matt W. on December 21, 2006 at 12:25 pm

    j.a.t.- I am not sure how this ties to BY’s purported program of putting them to work. If someone steals finances from the Church, it is probably ill advised to put them in charge of a mission, where they have direct access to large amounts of Church moneys.

  16. j.a.t. on December 21, 2006 at 4:15 pm

    Matt W.
    True . . . things have changed a great deal from BY’s good ol’ days of sending missionaries out w/o purse or script. Wouldn’t it be different though to send out a missionary or couple vs a mission president? Missionaries have allocated living stipends an no access to general funds. That would be relatively safe.

  17. Matt W. on December 21, 2006 at 4:27 pm

    fairly true, but as things have changed, gone also are the days when missionaries are sent out without first volunterring via application first (outside of Mission Presidents). There may be outliers to this, but none that I am aware of.

  18. grego on December 23, 2006 at 10:01 pm

    #2: Is sending Elder Benson to Europe current enough?

    Anyway, maybe that’s why Asia gets the 70′s it gets? (Sorry, just thinking in particular of one grouchy old man…)

    I love Brigham and his ways!

  19. C Bass on June 29, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    If I had the same life experiences that Brigham Young did with lawyers I would have had the same attitude. It\’s good to know that today there are so many good LDS attorneys.