#9- John Turner on Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet [MIPodcast]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m your host, Blair Hodges. This episode is all about Brigham Young. Brigham was a complex man. He inspired thousands of Latter-day Saints to make an arduous trek to the west after Joseph Smith was murdered, but he could also be quite a bit more coarse than most contemporary Mormons might realize. In 2012, Harvard University Press published a new biography of the Mormon prophet by John Turner. It’s called Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. The book was reviewed in volume one of the Mormon Studies Review and Turner himself wrote a piece for the upcoming issue of the Mormon Studies Review, which is slated for publication at the end of the year. John Turner is an assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University. He joined me via Skype from Germany, where he is currently working.
The Brigham biography is also scheduled to appear in an inexpensive paperback this October, so I think it’s an especially opportune time to speak with Turner about the life of this remarkable nineteenth century pioneer politician and church leader.
It’s Brigham Young on this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BLAIR HODGES: Alright, I’m here with John Turner. He’s the author of the biography of Brigham Young, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. He’s joining us from Germany today. How are you, John?
JOHN TURNER: I’m very good, thank you, Blair. I’m happy to be with you.
HODGES: I’m glad to get a chance to talk with you about the book. It came out a little while ago. It’s not brand-brand new, but I think it’s an important enough book to want to revisit again.
I wanted to start by talking about sort of the nature of biography writing in general. So how historians approach the past through particular people and biography. Is that a tricky genre for historians to work in?
TURNER: I don’t think it’s tricky in terms of being particularly difficult for historians to do it. I think it lends itself to narrative history and story telling. So any historian who likes narrative history and likes to tell stories probably would enjoy writing a biography. I think for readers, especially outside of academia, biographies are a very attractive genre of non-fiction because it has a natural narrative arc, beginning usually with somebody’s birth and ending with that person’s death.
I think within academia biography is not always as highly regarded. Biographies, especially today, I think biography is sometimes criticized as being overly focused on great men instead of on broader social trends. But I think scholars, historians, can both tell a good story within a biography and use an individual’s life, and usually the individuals that surround that individual, to illuminate larger trends about history.
HODGES: So what are some of the drawbacks of doing a biography then?
TURNER: Well I think the drawback is that any single individual isn’t necessarily going to be representative of the trends one wants to illuminate. Individuals have their idiosyncrasies and so I think being narrowly focused on an individual could lead a historian astray.
Brigham Young, for instance, many aspects of his personality reflect things about nineteenth century American culture, but you and I would probably quickly agree that he was also unusual in many ways. So one has to keep ones eyes on other ways of examining culture and history beyond the individual and find intelligent ways to connect those two.
HODGES: So Brigham Young is your particular subject then. Why did you turn to him?
TURNER: Well I wanted to write something about the Latter-day Saints and I initially thought that I would write a book on Mormons and politics after the Second World War. This was back in 2007/2008, so that probably wouldn’t have been a terribly bad idea either, given what happened afterwards. Part of my reason for wanting to do that was I wanted to learn more about Mormonism and I kind of had a little bit of an interest in the subject for a while, and sometimes the best way to learn about a subject is to research it for yourself.
Once I started doing some background reading on Mormon history I was drawn very much to the nineteenth century story. I recognized Brigham Young as a figure of obvious significance, not just for the history of the LDS church, but also for the broader story of nineteenth century American history. I didn’t find the existing biographies of Brigham Young fully satisfying.
HODGES: I was going to ask about that. You mention in the preface that the range of biographies of Brigham Young, that they range from the hagiographic to the salacious. So what are some examples of that in past biographies and some of the problems there?
TURNER: Well first of all historians are always a rather arrogant bunch because they always think previous books on their subject have somehow been inadequate and need to be updated. But for starters Leonard Arrington’s biography came out in either ’85 or ’86, so about a quarter century from when mine was going to come out. There’s been a tremendous amount of scholarship on the Latter-day Saints since American Moses‘ publication. A wealth of new sources is available. So that alone would have, in my opinion, been very good reason to write another biography of Brigham Young.
In terms of existing biographies, Stanley Hirshson’s biography, Lion of the Lord, which came out around 1969 I think, that I would put in the more salacious category of using Eastern non-Mormon newspapers to perpetuate any nineteenth century rumor about Brigham Young. I didn’t really think of that as a very credible work of scholarship.
There are older biographies such as Brigham Young the Colonizer, I think by Milton Hunter, that are perhaps a bit more hagiographic, although also having good information about the colonization of the Great Basin. I wouldn’t call Leonard Arrington’s biography hagiographic.
HODGES: And that’s basically a really sort of faith-promoting book that avoids controversial things, right?
TURNER: Yeah. I don’t think Leonard Arrington, I think he was comfortable with, in many of his publications, with what he called “a naturalistic treatment” of the past. But I did think that American Moses didn’t spend enough time on some of the things that were most controversial about Young’s leadership. So I thought there was quite a bit more to be done on quite a few topics, though it was sad that Lion of the Lord and American Moses were both already taken as titles. They are wonderfully titled books.
HODGES: I think your title’s really good. We’ll actually talk about the title in just a moment, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. But before we do that I want to dig a little bit deeper in terms of another reason why this biography came at an opportune time, and that’s just source access. Leonard Arrington obviously served as Church Historian for a time and so he had access to a lot of the records, well pretty much anything that he could personally find or have researchers find. Then those sources for a time were made less available to historians. Talk about your source access and how you managed to get information on Brigham Young using the Church History Library.
TURNER: Sure. Well over the span of a few years, the Church Archives made the entirety of the Brigham Young Papers accessible and open to me and really bent over backwards to help in many respects and made many other collections that, like you said, were perhaps previously not accessible, also made those available to me. I plunged into the project without knowing whether or not I would gain access to all of those sources. I certainly could not have written the biography the way I did and the way I think it needed to be written without being able to examine all of those sources myself.
HODGES: Was that an unusual level of access? I mean, you’re personally not a Latter-day Saint, so coming to the Church History Library, did you find it difficult to get introductions or to get access to that? Or was it a more smooth process?
TURNER: It was pretty smooth. I think there maybe was a process of getting acquainted and developing a certain amount of rapport before everything that I just described was accessible, but I was coming at this without much background knowledge of what was accessible to other people. I basically just showed up and got to work. I didn’t hesitate to ask for things. It just worked out. It probably was an opportune time because the church is more open and willing to work with outside scholars than would have been the case in the past.
HODGES: Let’s look at the book itself now and some of the things that you draw out throughout your narrative. You start the book off by obviously talking about his upbringing, his youth, the surrounding culture that he lived in, things like that. I was struck by your conclusion at the end of those introductory stories, when you said that by the time he was almost thirty years old no one might have guessed that he’d become the leader of a large new religious group. He hadn’t done anything particularly outstanding or hadn’t shown any unusual promise up to that point, right?
TURNER: That’s quite right. That would be true almost from any angle. No signs of economic success. I think he was hardworking and a very capable craftsman, but he just was finding it difficult to get ahead, moved around constantly, as did many of his other family members. I think he and one of his siblings bought some property in the late 1820s and were quickly behind on the payments, which probably sounds rather reminiscent of Joseph Smith’s own experience.
In terms of religion I think he was also a drifter that way. He had joined a Methodist church, a particular branch of Methodism, and was active in that way for some time. I think that he had been rather active informally as an Evangelist of sorts, but just had not settled down geographically, economically, religiously. That is a stark difference after his conversion to Mormonism.
HODGES: You mention Methodism. Joseph Smith also mentioned that he had been sort of drawn to the Methodists. Was there something about their interest in Methodism that helped bridge them from that tradition to this new religious movement?
TURNER: Well I think in Brigham Young’s case there definitely was. He affiliated I think with a different branch of Methodism called Reformed Methodism than Emma Hale and her family did. The Reformed Methodists I think had quite a lot of affinity with the early Church of Christ. It was very much a restorationist movement dedicated to restoring lost aspects of New Testament Christianity. In the case of the Reformed Methodists they were particularly interested in the gift of healing, divine healing, and they also experimented with communal, or communitarian living on at least one occasion.
Brigham Young was already thinking about looking for a church that reflected what he would at the time have called “Bible Christianity,” and was not fully convinced that he had found it in Reformed Methodism, went through some periods of spiritual despondency, or depression, and then when he encountered Mormon elders in the early 1830s I think in his mind he found what he had long been searching for.
HODGES: One of the interesting aspects I think of his conversion to the LDS tradition then was his interaction with the Book of Mormon. This was the church’s sort of first missionary tool. Brigham came across it through his family, and I really enjoyed the descriptions you made of his family’s relationship with the Book of Mormon, and Brigham’s relationship with the Book of Mormon, because they weren’t exactly the same.
TURNER: No. It’s a little bit hard because in all of these cases we’re really dealing with memories of those experiences from a later point; they weren’t keeping contemporary journals at the time. In Brigham’s case he encountered the Book of Mormon and I think was highly intrigued but uncertain and spent quite a lot of time thinking about the Book of Mormon, kind of mulling things over, and then really crossed that threshold of deciding to believe and be baptized when he saw a group of elders speak in tongues. For him that was a clear sign that the power of God was with this new church. After witnessing that his doubt really fell away and he moved forward and was baptized, and many other members of his family were baptized at roughly the same time.
HODGES: Of course those kind of charismatic gifts were prevalent in early Mormonism. A lot of speaking in tongues and this sort of thing. I think a lot of contemporary members of the LDS church thinking about Brigham Young, that’s not something that really would come to mind I don’t think for many church members. But you argue that it seems from the records that speaking in tongues in the sense of some sort of heavenly language, maybe as given by the Holy Spirit, played a pretty important role then in Brigham Young’s conversion. Did that carry through throughout his life, or is that something that sort of petered out?
TURNER: I think it was very important for his first ten years in the church. It was quite central I think to early Latter-day Saint spirituality as a sign of the restoration of spiritual gifts, you could say, as the Book of Moroni suggests. So he saw that as very significant. Joseph Smith went back and forth a bit on whether or not it was advisable for church members to seek that particular gift, eventually in concluding that perhaps it was not. I think it carried a possibility for disruption and a bit of contention.
For Brigham it was very important, at least through his mission to England in the early 1840s. When he was in England as one of the apostles, well as the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles leading the mission to England, he actively sought to introduce English converts to that gift of speaking in tongues because they so dearly wanted to experience that Godly power for themselves.
I think after that there’s one recorded instance from the early 1850s that I’m not absolutely sold on, and then it does fade away from Brigham’s own personal spirituality. It’s important to some members of his family beyond that and still important to quite a few Latter-day Saints in the early Utah period.
HODGES: You mention Brigham Young becoming president of the apostles, the Quorum of the Twelve. That’s a pretty significant position for a new convert to have. In this early church you saw people like Oliver Cowdery or Sidney Rigdon becoming early leaders. Sidney Rigdon had a background in preaching; he had a wonderful oratory style. Oliver Cowdery obviously helped with the translation of the Book of Mormon and was well educated comparatively. How did Brigham Young rise through the ranks in comparison with some of these other converts who seemed more likely to rise through the ranks?
TURNER: Well and his own older brother, Joseph Young, was considered more likely at first as well. I think for Brigham Young it was really two things. The spiritual fire that we’ve already been touching on, which manifested itself among other ways, through speaking in tongues, and his very much unswerving loyalty to Joseph Smith. Those two things were really responsible for him rising up within the church’s hierarchy.
He’s ordained as one of the initial members of the Twelve shortly after the Zion’s Camp march. Other church members who are on that march and question Joseph’s leadership, for Brigham Young it was absolutely confirmatory of Joseph’s leadership and God’s providence over the church.
Then as the 1830s proceed, quite a few other high-ranking church members question or reject Joseph’s leadership and Brigham doesn’t. He maybe finds one or two things a little bit difficult along the way, but his loyalty is really iron clad, which is why then I think he emerges as someone that Joseph Smith trusts whole-heartedly in the 1840s.
HODGES: Your narrative actually traces a little bit of development in Brigham Young’s thought and his relationship to Joseph Smith in particular. You mention that he had this deep loyalty for Joseph Smith, and his relationship overall over the course of their lives together, for that fifteen or so years, seems to have changed a little bit. His early view, I’m thinking of the Kirtland bank issue right here. This is where Joseph encouraged church members to invest in this banking operation. The bank ultimately failed and there were a lot of people who felt like Joseph had lost his prophetic gift or had misled them. Brigham Young at that time argued vigorously for Joseph Smith. He said that he couldn’t even entertain the possibility that Joseph Smith could be wrong in these financial matters, because that would cause him to lose all confidence in Joseph Smith.
But then in a later, in a different sermon Brigham made a different point when he was talking about the Kirtland bank. He said that if God was working through Joseph Smith, as he believed that he was, then when Joseph Smith made mistakes it really wasn’t Brigham’s business. That if God let Joseph Smith go astray, then that was between him and God. Those seem to be sort of different views. It’s almost like he couldn’t entertain the possibility of Joseph Smith making mistakes, and then later he obviously could. So it seems that he must have sort of confronted things that he viewed as being mistakes of Joseph Smith.
That’s different from Wilford Woodruff’s idea. Wilford Woodruff had this idea that he was encouraged seeing Joseph Smith’s mistakes, because he said if God can work through Joseph as an imperfect person like that then he can work through me.
So do you see Brigham’s relationship changing like that? Was that something that came out through the course of your research?
TURNER: Well I think first of all, all of those retrospective quotes are a little bit difficult to know how to interpret because Brigham Young is making those comments when he’s already the leader of the church himself. So they also reflect his views of contemporary problems and his own leadership. I think he was quite aware that Joseph Smith had shortcomings and made mistakes. He was very clear later on, for instance, that Joseph’s ability to lead the church on what he called a “temporal basis” was sometimes faulty. In particular he criticized Joseph for not taking a harsher stand against dissent within the church.
I think I’m more inclined to give credence to the quotes that say yes, Joseph made mistakes and was not a perfect leader, but I think in Brigham Young’s mind Joseph was God’s prophet, which didn’t mean infallible earthly leadership, but God’s ordained, anointed prophet and through this man I found the true church and if he slips up in some way that’s not going to question my fundamental faith in him as a prophet. So I think that’s the way that Brigham approached it. I think because he had such a strong faith in the church and in Joseph he didn’t fall away when the same setbacks caused many other people to do so.
HODGES: That seems to me to be one of the most difficult things then for a biographer to do, is to take these statements and like you said, many of them were made later on in difference contexts. So how much reliability or accuracy can you expect in a sermon where he said, “I didn’t question Joseph”? He could really be saying, “You shouldn’t question me, because now I’m in Joseph’s shoes.”
As a biographer that seems a pretty tricky negotiation to make, because you’re filling in gaps. There are multiple plausible readings there. How do you adjudicate between those? You could say he was just stating the facts, or you could say he was making this pragmatic point for that particular moment, you know.
TURNER: I mean I think through our memories we are always reinterpreting the past, but it doesn’t have to be an either/or. I mean when he’s saying, “Joseph made mistakes and I still trusted him as a prophet,” well Joseph did make mistakes, and he did still trust him as a prophet. He could also be making statements about his own leadership.
For instance, when I think he’s saying Joseph was not strict or harsh enough against dissent, he was sending a very clear warning that he wasn’t going to tolerate any. But both of those could be true at the same time.
HODGES: I think that there are several main theses that you sort of explore throughout the book. I think that’s one of them, this idea that Brigham Young took lessons from having watched Joseph Smith and what Joseph went through. The idea was that Joseph kept giving people chances, kept giving them chances, chances, and although he himself was imperfect, he would give chances to other imperfect people who some of them ended up betraying Joseph Smith. Brigham just did not want to see something like that happen.
Do you think that the murder of Joseph Smith was kind of a deep part of Brigham’s psyche as a leader going forward in that way?
TURNER: Very much. I see that as the pivot of the book, of the biography, and also, subsequent to his conversion, one of the key pivots in Brigham Young’s life. He watches what happens in Nauvoo and is personally traumatized by Joseph’s murder. Then further traumatized by the political situation going forward until they leave Illinois, very much lives in fear of his own assassination, not just while they’re still in Nauvoo, but into the 1870s, really right until the end of his life.
So I think on a very human level he did not want the events of Nauvoo to repeat themselves, both in terms of threats to his own safety and in terms of threats to the church’s future viability and survival. So I think he was absolutely determined not to allow what happened in Nauvoo to repeat itself.
The other thing I would say is that I think there is a bit of a softening of that attitude over the last ten years or so of his life, where he does feel certainly much more secure about the church’s survival, and a bit less hyper-vigilant about his own.
HODGES: What are some of the specific things, some specific actions that Brigham Young took as he was negotiating his role as leader that you saw as being different from Joseph Smith’s leadership style? This gets to some of the more difficult aspects of the book, or some of the less flattering elements of Brigham Young as a person.
TURNER: I guess one thing I’d say before getting into what you call the less flattering aspects is one of the very intelligent things he does is he decides not to imitate Joseph Smith. So I think from a very early stage he thinks of himself as a prophet and as a revelator, but he doesn’t try to lead the church in the same way that Joseph had led it, especially the way Joseph had led it in the late 1820s and early 1830s.
Brigham knows that many Latter-day Saints are hungering for a written revelation of some sort affirming God’s continued providence over the church after Joseph’s death. He doesn’t actually write, I believe he writes in his own hand in early 1847, he doesn’t write a revelation until the word and will of the Lord as they’re preparing to leave Winter Quarters.
HODGES: That’s the one that’s been canonized, right? In the LDS canon?
TURNER: That’s the one that’s been canonized. But he didn’t feel the need to imitate Joseph. He very bluntly told the people, “You might not have written revelations, but you should regard my words as scripture, the living oracles are of paramount importance.” That’s a key shift in leadership, and there are other claimants to Joseph’s prophetic mantle who do try to imitate him. I think that was very wise on Brigham’s part not to do so.
Then in terms of the less flattering aspects, I guess that returns to the question of managing dissent. He didn’t hesitate to publicly rebuke and humiliate people that he felt challenged his leadership. So Orson Pratt I think sometimes he treat pretty shabbily in terms of how they talk about him in public for many years, and it took Brigham quite a long time to move on from those sorts of clashes.
He’s very unkind to Thomas Marsh, his earlier superior in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who leaves the church and betrays Joseph in 1838. When Marsh comes to Utah Brigham publicly humiliates him in front of a congregation. So he has those moments where he really puts people in their place and is not afraid to threaten people with very dire consequences.
HODGES: So let’s explore this a little bit more then. This is another key theme of your book, sort of the religious aspect, what we would consider to be more spiritual or religious aspects of Brigham Young because the assumption that a lot of people have is Joseph was this charismatic prophetic figure who had these revelations and led the church, and that then Brigham Young took over and he was this pragmatic, hard minded man who led the Saints across the plains and helped establish all these colonies, and got the church involved in business pursuits and things, as though those were things Joseph Smith wasn’t interested in.
You kind of turn that stereotype a little bit on its head, or at least give a different view of it, and that’s one of the most fascinating parts of the book. This is that Brigham was more than a colonizing pioneer, but that he was also a religious pioneer. This is why your subtitle is Pioneer Prophet because he had a prophetic role to play.
Can you talk about the element of Brigham Young as a leader and how he fulfilled what you call a “priestly role” for Mormons?
TURNER: Sure. I agree with the premise of your question, that too often people draw that strict dichotomy between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, with one being the charismatic prophet, and the other one being maybe the bureaucratic organizer, which would maybe put it more strongly than most people would put, but I think there is that basic sense.
So I very much wanted to present Brigham Young as a spiritual figure, as a religious leader, as a theological speculator, as a priestly leader. Certainly one sees that right from the get-go in Nauvoo with the completion of the Nauvoo temple and with Brigham leading the people through the ordinances in Nauvoo. At the very end of this life you have Brigham Young dedicating the Nauvoo temple and carefully going over the performance of ordinances, and he talks about a future of hundreds of temples and he got the construction started on four by the time of his death. So that’s very significant in terms of his religious thought and leadership.
He was always very interested in theological questions, even before Joseph’s death. He travelled with a Bible dictionary and a concordance, or at least asked one time for those items to be sent to him, or something along those lines. When the apostles would meet in the early 1850s regularly in Salt Lake City they would discuss all sorts of theological topics.
HODGES: Some of those didn’t really pan out, right? You talk about, for example, the Adam God teachings. What did you make of that? Because that’s something that still puzzles members of the LDS church in terms of what Brigham Young was trying to do with that.
TURNER: The way I understand his identification of Adam as humanity’s God is he’s thinking about the way that Joseph Smith has introduced a hierarchy of divine beings. In Brigham’s mind Adam as humanity’s God makes logical sense, not necessarily that Adam is the head God or the head of the counsel of Gods, but that he is an exalted being who’s come to this earth to people it, and that therefore he is the God that human beings have to interact with. He is their father and God. I think that was important in Brigham Young’s thinking.
When he introduces it in the 1850s it meets with some resistance, not only from Orson Pratt, some Latter-day Saints find it very appealing, others do not, and I think it causes enough confusion that Brigham basically shelves it for a while and says that’s really not the most important thing, whether Adam or his father or his grandfather is Elohim, or God the Father. So he says that’s not crucial. But then he does reintroduce the idea in the 1870s, so it was important to him.
HODGES: It stuck with him. He thought enough to bring it back.
TURNER: It stuck with him and ultimately future generations of church leaders didn’t find it the most convincing interpretation of Joseph Smith’s later teachings and essentially rejected it. It’s ultimately not doctrinal.
HODGES: It’s a really interesting process you describe, because here you have the leader of the church at the time making these types of doctrinal pronouncements and you have apostles that are publicly sort of speaking against those teachings and then you have Brigham and Orson Pratt, you mention in particular, and then you have Brigham sort of going and criticizing Orson publicly, and you have these sorts of arguments.
Then you have regular Latter-day Saints who were looking on, some of them just seemed downright puzzled, some of them seemed happy to embrace these things, whether they really got what Brigham was saying. It’s really an interesting dynamic. You’d think as a president of the church that Brigham Young’s word would just be accepted, but it wasn’t though, according to you.
TURNER: I think it wasn’t the only thing that he and Orson Pratt butted heads over. It was one of several issues, I don’t even know if I’d say it was the most important, but Brigham was okay with knowing that not everybody was convinced by his teachings about Adam. He would not tolerate public opposition, but he didn’t want to turn Mormonism into a creedal religion by any means. So for him what was important was loyalty, obedience, righteous living, not belief. In a general sense I would say that belief is more important, or even more highly valued in Latter-day Saint religious culture today than it was back in the mid-nineteenth century.
HODGES: I’m speaking with John Turner. He’s the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.
One of the things that you mentioned early in the interview is that your book, biographies in general, can use historical figures to illuminate wider historical issues. Early on in the book you actually have a list of issues that the book’s going to touch on through Brigham Young: westward expansion, popular sovereignty, religious freedom, vigilantism, and Reconstruction.
I wanted to take a few minutes to talk briefly about each of these issues and how Brigham Young’s life sheds light on them. So we’ll start with the most obvious one, which is westward expansion. So how did Brigham’s actions as a leader of this church speak to the issue of westward expansion in the nineteenth century United States?
TURNER: Maybe that’s the simplest one. Obviously the Latter-day Saints were a very significant part of westward expansion. I think probably most of your listeners know a fair bit about that story. When I first learned about that aspect of Brigham Young’s life and that section of church history, I didn’t know just how extensive that line of early Mormon settlements was, stretching from San Bernardino all the way into Southern Idaho.
The sheer number of people that were crossing, often all the way from England, to Utah each year for several decades, I mean, there’s a lot of other things ramped up in that issue. Conflict with Native Americans in Utah, tension with the U.S. Government as the U.S. Government slowly seeks to exercise sovereignty over the territory that it has claimed after the war against Mexico.
So westward expansion means a lot more than just simply settling a particular region. It brought forth a whole host of issues that other white Americans going west also encountered. Sometimes Latter-day Saint history reflects commonality with those other experiences, sometimes there’s some divergences from it.
HODGES: I think the example of Native Americans is a good one to think about. How did Brigham Young’s approach to Native Americans compare with wider American approaches? The reason I ask is because it wasn’t the case that when the Latter-day Saints came to what now is called Utah, that is was just this wide open empty space. There were Native Americans here that were for the most part eventually displaced because of the immigration.
TURNER: My understanding is that the initial settlement in the Salt Lake Valley was in a buffer zone of sorts between different native groups. So that was probably fortuitous, but very quickly there’s substantial tension, namely when Latter-day Saints begin moving into Utah Valley, and moving into very fertile fishing grounds that Utes are using.
So from the start there’s all sorts of tension and conflicts between settlers and Indians, and Brigham Young initially encourages his people, “Don’t get too bent out of shape over a stolen shirt. You wouldn’t shoot a white man who stole a shirt from you, so why should you kill an Indian as retribution?” But very quickly he authorizes a very punitive and harsh military response in Utah Valley that’s very bloody and pretty grim.
HODGES: Was he trying to set a tone with that or something? Because that’s the puzzle, right? You have Brigham Young on record talking about treating the Indians kindly, there’s a paternalism to his discussion of Native Americans, but then you also have these incidents where he’s authorized militant action.
TURNER: Yeah. I mean that’s probably the harshest instance of his own leadership against Indians during his time in Utah. So it’s hard to know. I think he feels the conflict is unavoidable. The settlers in Utah Valley are very much pushing for a response. I think they’re also kind of subtly suggesting that his response up to that point has been too weak. I think he feels that when he responds he’s going to respond for maximum effect. There’s some American officials actually on the scene who are also supportive at the time. I think his Indian policy does become relatively more benevolent and humane once Latter-day Saint supremacy over Utah is more or less assured.
There’s a significant war in the mid-1860s which does question that supremacy. There’s a whole spectrum of preferred policies towards Indians on the part of white Westerners during that time after the Civil War, from exterminationists to assimilationists, to other positions. Brigham Young is certainly not an exterminationist. There’s actually a rather poignant sermon that he gives during the mid-1860s war which is called the Black Hawk War, in which he reminds his people that even though he feels that God has given this land to the Latter-day Saints, they should be mindful of the fact that it was the Indian’s land first, and that it’s also their homeland.
So with Brigham Young you get both of those sorts of responses. I think perhaps ultimately he didn’t know exactly how to proceed all the time.
HODGES: I think this also connects to another one of the themes you talk about, vigilantism. That’s something that encompasses more than just any aggressive acts against Native Americans, but speaks to the nature of justice among American citizens too. How did Brigham Young’s experiences speak to that wider national issue?
TURNER: That’s a great question. I think he’s well aware of vigilante movements, say, in California during the 1850s and so I think he can sometimes perceive the utility of extra legal popular justice. Right from the start in Utah he makes statements which encourage vigilante retribution against criminals, first of all. There are some petty criminals he in very colorful and harsh terms encourages extra legal action against in the late 1840s. That’s a relatively common pattern for Brigham Young.
Actually sorting out the details of many of these cases was one of the more vexing parts of researching the book. There are quite a few instances in which, even into the 1860s, a Gentile is killed in Salt Lake City and Brigham Young publicly afterwards essentially condones the death, and says, “I can understand if somebody was moving in on my land or moving in on my family, I wouldn’t hesitate,” basically. Determining whether or not he has approved or authorized those actions is more difficult.
HODGES: Yeah. That’s definitely one of the more difficult, or I used the term less flattering earlier, elements of Brigham Young, were those instances when even where the historical record can’t demonstrate that Brigham Young ordered particular acts of violence or orchestrated these things, at the very least there were instances in the aftermath that he definitely looked on either reprovingly, with tacit reprovement, or more overt.
You also deal with the fallout of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in a similar way. You argue that although according to your research Brigham Young didn’t order the massacre in any sense, but that he helped contribute to a climate where the massacre was possible to begin with, and then afterwards acted to protect the church’s interests even if that meant not assisting with the investigation as much as he might otherwise have, or that sort of thing. Was that a difficult part of the book to do? Because it’s a pretty loaded historical situation.
TURNER: Yes. It was a hard part of the book to do, partly because at this point there’s also a very voluminous source record about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but not always the sources one would want. So yeah, like as you said I don’t think there is evidence that exists that, as least not that we have access to, that suggests or demonstrates that Brigham Young ordered the massacre.
I think that his response to the approaching U.S. Army in 1857 and his response to the massacre afterwards have to be viewed through what we were talking about earlier in terms of his own personal fears for his own survival and for the survival of the church. When he gets word that an army is coming to Utah, for him it really is an ominous sign, and possibility of renewed mobbing and persecution.
Even so, I don’t think his actions that help precipitate the sending of that army or his response to them were prudent. His treatment of the U.S. appointees in the 1850s was often pretty shabby, and there’s a reason that many of them complained to the White House and to Congress.
HODGES: Does this get at the wider historical issue of popular sovereignty, another one of the things you say that the book can shed light on?
TURNER: Well I think so. I think Brigham certainly believed, as did quite a few other Westerners, in the principle of self-rule, and the territorial system only granted very limited self-rule. He wasn’t the only Westerner who chafed under that system, but his reaction to that is very much shaped through his experiences of persecution in the east.
On the side of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Government’s response is unlike that toward other territories because of concerns about theocracy in Utah. So it’s a very explosive and toxic situation from the start. Utah becomes a territory through the compromise of 1850 and within weeks of the first non-Mormon officials reaching the territory in the summer of 1851 there’s very bitter conflict. They’re all headed back to Washington to complain about it. Direct conflict is sort of delayed for half a decade, but the writing’s almost on the wall very quickly.
HODGES: Another issue I think that the book speaks to is the issue of women, in the place of women’s roles in the nineteenth century and how that played out in the LDS church and in Brigham Young’s life. Obviously he was a polygamist who married a lot of women. Polygamy’s a big issue. How did you decide to approach it? It seems like there was a section that talked about domestic matters, but you sort of spent just one area on it rather than breaking up the different wives according to the chronology of the book or something. Was that a difficult thing to grapple with, given the number of wives?
TURNER: Yes. It’s much easier to write biographies of people with only one spouse.
HODGES: Yeah, right?
TURNER: You know, I touched on his marriages in a number of different chapters. It was a little bit hard to know how to integrate that into the broader narrative. In some ways you have to go back and forth between his political leadership, his more overtly spiritual or theological leadership, and then his personal life.
I found it fascinating to research the marriages and the experiences of his wives, quite a few of whom were rather obscure and in many instances I was able to use sources that others had at least not made use of before and rescue some of those lives from obscurity. I couldn’t by any means fully relate them in the course of the Brigham Young biography. Many of them would make for great studies in their own right.
The marriages were fascinating because there wasn’t necessarily a pattern to them. He married all sorts of different women in terms of age, in terms of temperament, and I think he and the women entered those marriages for many different sorts of reasons. I resisted generalizing too much. I tried to incorporate as many of the fascinating stories as I could.
HODGES: One of the interesting points you make is that you could sort of mine through Brigham Young’s statements about women over the thirty or so years of recorded sermons that he gave. You find statements so various that you could either make him out to be a misogynist, or you could make him out to be a proto-feminist. So what sort of different things were you referring to there in terms of his attitudes and statements regarding the place of women?
TURNER: Well even in the 1840s he had some rather crude statements about why one should not listen to women, especially in terms of ecclesiastical leadership. Since this is a family program I won’t fully quote from all of those.
My conclusion in the book is that by the end of his life he was more open to women’s leadership. I think he was very suspicious of Relief Society shortly after Joseph Smith’s death, and makes a point of not restarting the Relief Society, but then allows its resurrection in the 1860s and promotes and encourages the leadership of women, such as Zina Huntington and Eliza Snow, and I think finds himself respecting their ecclesiastical and intellectual gifts. I think that was definitely the case in the instance of Eliza Snow.
HODGES: A more cynical view could say that Brigham Young saw a need to control women more, and decided to enlist them to help do that. A less cynical view would see him as recognizing contributions that women could make and inviting them to do that.
TURNER: Yeah. I think that’s true. You’re quite right that since Brigham Young said so many different things over the course of his life it wants you to be really wary of drawing too much conclusion from any single quote. There’s also an interesting early quote where he talks about his conception of a spiritual wife as someone who can pray and anoint the sick with oil, I believe. It’s been a while since I looked at the quote, but I think also the way that temple work is structured, there’s a clear and necessary role for women in that aspect of church work as well.
HODGES: I actually thought that you handled the issue of temple ordinances quite deftly. That’s a very difficult topic for historians to approach, especially given the contemporary LDS church’s reverence for temple rites. Was that a difficult part of the book for you? How did you navigate around what would be appropriate for you to talk about in terms of the temple?
TURNER: I think that is a tricky issue for authors. Tricky for a number of reasons. Partly Latter-day Saints themselves have somewhat different opinions about what exactly is within bounds and what’s not within bounds in terms of the extent to which one should discuss sacred ordinances.
Tricky on the other hand because that’s a very important part of Brigham Young’s religious leadership. So I didn’t think it was something that should be ignored. Just simply in terms of understanding the development of Mormon practice and belief; that’s very important. So I tried hard to discuss temples and ordinances clearly and respectfully. I’m glad you thought it was a reasonable balance.
HODGES: I’m sure it will bother some. Obviously there are Mormons like Hugh Nibley who said a great deal, and there are other Mormons who would feel uncomfortable even mentioning something as basic as that it tells a story of Adam and Eve. Did you talk to practicing Mormons to gauge sort of where the sensitivities are? How did you navigate that specifically?
TURNER: I did. I had quite a few people read the whole manuscript to begin with, and I asked a number of other people specifically to look at those sections and let me know what they thought. Like you said, there was actually something of a range of opinions. I would say the majority of people I asked to read it said this is respectful and nicely done, and I think there were a couple who said those sections make both me and probably others a little bit uncomfortable.
HODGES: In the last part of the interview we’ll come back to it, because I think it speaks to a really important issue. Let’s take a break really quick.
We’re talking with John Turner. He’s the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. We’ll take a break and be right back.
HODGES: Hey, this is Blair Hodges. First I want to thank you for listening to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m interrupting my own interview to invite you to help me out. I’m not asking for a lot, I’m just asking you to take a moment to rate this show in the iTunes store, or share a link to the episode on your Facebook wall, tweet it, burn a CD for your folks, and send up smoke signals. Let people know that you listened to this show and help us grow our audience.
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HODGES: We’re speaking with John Turner. He’s the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.
John, for the last part of this interview I sort of wanted to talk about one of the common criticisms I’ve seen of that book. That regards the question why would anybody want to follow the Brigham Young depicted in this book? Why was this Brigham Young revered, or looked to as a prophet? By your account he did some un-prophetic things. There are issues of rhetoric, or issues of decision making, or his views on blacks, some of the remarks he made about women. You talk about those difficult issues, but then you also talk about his religious innovations. You depict him as the chief priest of Mormonism. This speaks to the temple issue that we talked about earlier.
So this is a common criticism. I’m interested in your response to that because it’s something that’s been mentioned on multiple reviews.
TURNER: Well, reviews aren’t perfect.
TURNER: And neither are prophets and authors. I honestly thought that in the book I explained pretty clearly why nineteenth century Latter-day Saints followed Brigham Young. Not everybody did, but of those who followed him I think the two things that most cemented and affirmed his leadership were the completion of the Nauvoo temple and the successful pioneer trek and early settlement of the Salt Lake Valley. Those were incredibly significant accomplishments in very different ways that both affirmed his priestly and his practical leadership.
I think those sorts of accomplishments built a very deep reservoir of support so when the Latter-day Saints faced major setbacks such as during the Utah War, it was possible for people to move forward, perhaps along the lines that Brigham Young could move forward after setbacks in Ohio or Missouri.
So I think things like that explain why people followed Brigham Young. Also, it was very significant that he had led the mission to England in the 1840s. A lot of the early immigrants to Nauvoo and then to Utah were people who had known Brigham Young for many years. He had helped lead them into the church, not that he was the only significant figure during the mission. I think he had a very deep reservoir of support.
I think some of those issues that you raise didn’t trouble nineteenth century Mormons the way they would trouble twenty-first century Mormons. So yes. I mean Latter-day Saints today would never expect President Thomas Monson to talk or act the way that Brigham Young did, but that’s part of the foreignness of the past.
I actually think it’s a very healthy thing for, not just Latter-day Saints, but for human beings to get a sense of just how incredibly foreign the past is. People are strange, they seem strange, they seem different. They don’t necessarily have the same values and sensibilities that we do. That’s one of the foremost lessons of studying history and I think it’s very beneficial in many ways to always be reminded of that, and not expect people in the past to act the way we do.
Now, even putting those sensibilities aside I think there are aspects of Brigham Young’s leadership that are deeply troubling, but I don’t think it should be difficult to understand why nineteenth century Latter-day Saints followed him.
HODGES: I think this actually gets at one of the core considerations when it comes to reading a book about a religious subject like this. The practicing Mormon’s experience, feelings that non-Mormons experience as they read this, you try to strike a balance, you said, to avoid parochialism and polemicism. So how would you respond then to a Latter-day Saint reader who says, “I didn’t really like this book because he makes Brigham Young look mean. He shows Brigham Young swearing or making decisions that look bad. I don’t need to know those types of things about someone who I revere.”
Conversely, what would you say to someone who said, “Whoa, John Turner, you took Brigham Young way too seriously here. It’s a simple story of a tyrant who was interested in political control and the accumulation of wives.”
How do you respond to those types of readers?
TURNER: Yeah. First of all, you can’t control how readers are going to respond to material. People are going to respond differently. I don’t think I approached the project with any ax to grind, and so I think I presented Brigham Young fairly and certainly as best as I understood him.
I don’t know too much else to say to that, Blair. I’ve read a range of ways people have responded to the book. I think people who are disappointed with my portrait of Brigham Young, well they certainly have every opportunity or privilege of examining the evidence for themselves. It’s hardly going to be the last book about Brigham Young. Maybe there’ll be one they like better in a few years.
HODGES: Okay. Stay tuned.
TURNER: I would say in a larger sense that we should whenever we’re reading about a historical topic, as a historian when you’re researching something, and also as a reader encountering material, we always have to be willing to revise our understandings and our preconceptions, and that doesn’t mean that if you’re a Latter-day Saint and you believe that Brigham Young is a prophet that you have to stop believing that Brigham Young is a prophet because of something he said or did, but it might be necessary to have some revision of what that means.
And conversely for, like you said, if people think that Brigham Young was only a power-hungry lustful tyrant, I think the historical record’s a lot more complex as well. There’s nothing wrong with having to revise some of our conclusions.
HODGES: One last thing that I wanted to talk about, you talk about Brigham Young’s return trip to Salt Lake City that he took near the very end of his life. He took a trip to St. George, did some temple business and then came back. From what I understand, Brigham made some of the most far-reaching ecclesiastical changes to the church on the home trip, reorganizing wards and stakes and so forth, that to me seem one of the most far-reaching consequences of his ecclesiastical leadership. You touch on it in only about a paragraph. I’m basing my understanding of that trip on my recollection of Leonard Arrington’s biography. So did you look at that and just not find much to say there? Or is that just something that you decided not to pause too long on for the sake of space?
TURNER: Well the latter. I would just also say it wasn’t a topic that grabbed me as much as some of the other storylines in the book. You’re quite right about that. In general Brigham Young is a very active leader in many ways right up until his death. It’s something I could have spent more time on. I would have liked to also spend more time on his relationship with his children. Leonard Arrington’s work on Brigham Young’s economic leadership, I would have like to have had more time to fully explore his business leadership, his finances, so there were some decisions I had to make. I didn’t want to write a longer book than I wrote. It’s already something to ask people to read three hundred and seventy-five pages, four hundred pages something like that. I didn’t really want to go longer than that. So you’re quite right. That is something that I could have explored and didn’t.
HODGES: So finally, having completed the book, were you left with any unresolved questions that still haunted you for a while? Or that you still thought about after the book was completed?
TURNER: I still find Brigham Young fascinating. Sometimes I’ll have somebody send me an email with a Brigham Young quote or reference, and I think, “Oh, I should have included that,” you know, because the sources are so voluminous.
I do think to some extent Mountain Meadows remains a somewhat vexing topic. There are great books on the subject and have been for some time, but it is still kind of a vexing and troublesome topic. So yeah. But I wouldn’t say that there’s anything that keeps me up at night. I still find Brigham fascinating. I still find the Latter-day Saint history and theology fascinating. I’ve been spending more time on the latter recently.
HODGES: Yeah. Is there any specific project you’re doing now that touches on the Latter-day Saints?
TURNER: Well I’m working on a project on Mormons and Jesus Christ actually. I think actually that was one thing that I wanted to pursue. I think Brigham wasn’t especially creedal, like I said earlier. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and then subsequent leaders, you know, they bring forth teachings, doctrines, and practices that substantially diverge from what some people call mainstream Christianity. I wanted to spend a bit more time reflecting on that. That’s a ways off. Maybe we can touch base on that in a couple of years.
HODGES: Okay. John Turner, he’s the author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today.
TURNER: Thanks, Blair. Thanks for being interested in the book. That was fun.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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