During early years of Church history, the phrase "ashes of a rye straw" was used in several talks. Doing a basic search in the Journal of Discourses shows me 15 references to it (9 of them from Brigham Young). I suppose because many members of the Church were farmers (or very familiar with it), this pronouncement made sense to them and was, more or less, common phraseology. There are some contemporary works that comment about rye ashes being used as an herbal treatment for healing. Perhaps that is the meaning also when used by the early Saints. Just for purposes of being complete, this phrase was last used in a General Conference talk in 1931 by Elder Sylvester Q. Cannon (son of George Q. Cannon); he quoted Brigham Young on the doctrine of tithing - different story than the one below.
|Brigham Young; c. 1870|
On October 7, 1864, George Darling Watt (G.D. Watt: First baptized convert in the British Isles - 1837 - and secretary to Brigham Young) took stenographic notes of the following talk given by Brigham Young in the bowery on Temple Square:
The brethren who have spoken have been disposed to speak concerning the testimony they have within themselves of the truth of this Work. It made me think of a circumstance in the history of Joseph Smith, in which I was an actor, relating to a few men in Nauvoo who sought to make it appear that the printed word was all in all, and immensely superior to the living testimony of the Holy Ghost in the believer, and to the power of the living Priesthood. I attended one of their meetings, which was held in Joseph's house, arose to speak, and took for my text, "ye Saints of Latter days, I would not give you the ashes of a rye straw for every word that is contained in the Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, so far as their efficacy is concerned to save any man, independent of the living Priesthood of the Son of God, and the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the heart of the believer." [Journal of Discourses 10:339-340]
More information on this meeting is found in the book, Remembering Joseph: Personal Recollections of Those Who Know the Prophet Joseph Smith, by Mark L. McConkie (published in 2003 by Deseret Book). I believe this piece of the text is found on the accompanying CDROM with the book (I pulled it off the LDS Collectors Library application):
I recollect one Sunday evening Joseph came to my house at dusk, and said, "I want you to go to my house and preach." I told him that I loved to go to meeting, but did not want to go to his house. I knew what was going on. I knew that Hyrum and William Marks, and William Law would be there to operate against the Prophet Joseph, and therefore I told Joseph I would rather not go to his house. Finally, he said to me, "Brother Brigham, if you do not go with me, I will not go home to my house tonight." I concluded I would go with him, so I did up my evening chores, and we started for the Prophet's house. By the time we got there, the meeting had commenced. Hyrum had opened the meeting, and was preaching, when we went in. We went into the old log house. Hyrum had the stand by the fire place without any fire in it. We came up and sat on a board close to the stand. Joseph sat with his hands over his face all the time Hyrum was talking, and he preached and preached and preached, like a person trying to pour water out of a dry well. I will refer to his character as a preacher, and you that knew him and heard him will understand it. When we had held a two hour meeting, then Hyrum would get up on the stand to speak on the Word of Wisdom. He was a positive man; and I have know him to talk an hour and a half and two hours on the Word of Wisdom, when I did not see any particular utility in it. At this meeting in Joseph's house Hyrum worked hard. He took the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and said he, "That is the law which God has given us by which to build up His Church and Kingdom in the last day and anything more than these is of man, and is not of God." When he sat down, Brother Joseph, with his hands still over his face, and nudging me with his elbow, said, "Brother Brigham, now come, get up." I got up, and previous to getting up I had become pretty well charged with plenty of powder and began. My lungs were not so weak as they are now. I could talk then so as to be heard a mile. I felt like a thousand lions. I took the books and laid them down one by one beginning with the Bible, and said, "there lies the Bible, there the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, the revelations God has given through Joseph for the salvation of the people in the 19th Century, yet I would not give the ashes of a rye straw for these three books so far as they are efficacious for the salvation of any man, that lives without the living oracles of God." That was my text, and I think that before we got through the congregation was perfectly satisfied. I showed them that if we did not have the living oracles we were no better than the sectarian churches of the world. After I got through, Hyrum arose and made a handsome apology, and confessed his wrong which he had committed in his excess of zeal, and asked pardon. ... Yes, and a good many others were there, and heard the lion roar.
The point of the discourse by Brigham was that the scriptures were fine; however, without a living oracle of God, they are incomplete. Reading this paragraph from Brigham reminds me of the talk by Hugh B. Brown called Profile of a Prophet; I'll quote a few relevant paragraphs:
“Well, then, if He could speak, and if He loves us, then the only other possible answer, as I see it, is that we don’t need Him. We have made such rapid strides in science and we are so well educated that we don’t need God anymore.”
And then he said—and his voice trembled as he thought of impending war—“Mr. Brown, there never was a time in the history of the world when the voice of God was needed as it is needed now. Perhaps you can tell me why He doesn’t speak.”
My answer was: “He does speak, He has spoken; but men need faith to hear Him.” [Hugh B. Brown: Profile of a Prophet]
Combining Brigham's two references of this meeting together, he said that two things were necessary for the salvation of man (besides the scriptures):
- Living oracles
- Testimony of the Holy Ghost in the heart of the believer