New Brigham Young biography difficult, worth reading

06.04.2013 | The Maxwell Institute

This post is a mini-review of John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Other reviews, some positive, some less than positive, have already appeared on various blogs over the past few months. The editor of the Mormon Studies Review anticipates that a full review of the biography will appear in this December’s volume.

The New Era’s June issue includes an article called “Balancing Church History” by Elder Steven E. Snow, the Church’s new Historian and Recorder. In an effort to inform Mormon youth that Church history can be muddier than they might expect, Elder Snow explains that “people in our history were regular people like us, many of whom did extraordinary things. While they were all seeking for perfection, they weren’t perfect. Those early Church members had their difficulties and struggled with things just as we do today.” Although he offers no specific examples, he candidly explains that Mormon ancestors “were human and made mistakes. There are sad or confusing episodes in our history that we seek to understand better, but some of [our] questions might not be answered on this side of the veil.” Mormon leaders, including Joseph Smith, aren’t exempted from imperfection, since “[a]ll prophets have challenges and difficulties,” and even sometimes offend others.

Importantly, Elder Snow recognizes that the Internet has “put all kinds of information at our fingertips—good, bad, truthful, untruthful—including information on Church history.” He invites readers to read critically, seeking to understand historical contexts. More importantly, he encourages readers to seek competent authors:

Look for sources by recognized and respected historians, whether they’re members of the Church or not.

Elder Snow doesn’t name any historians, but his admonition brought to my mind John G. Turner, a professor of religious studies at George Mason University. Turner isn’t a member of the LDS Church, but he invested considerable time and effort to understand the Mormon past in order to write a new biography of Brigham Young.

Somewhat in the line of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Turner’s book is a careful, critical overview of Young’s life that pays attention to the wider historical context in which Mormonism developed. But as Bushman seems to suggest on the book’s back cover, its contents may be more difficult for practicing Mormons to digest. This is a muddy history:

The story Turner tells in this elegantly written biography will startle and shock many readers. He reveals a Brigham Young more violent and coarse than the man Mormons have known. While lauding his achievements as pioneer, politician, and church leader, the book will require a reassessment of Brigham Young the man.”

For all his pragmatic simplicity, Brigham Young was a complicated man—perhaps different from the prophet whom contemporary Mormons might learn about in seminary or Sunday school classes. Brigham was alternately stingy and generous, saintly and foul-mouthed, bluntly bold and selectively secretive. Turner has done an admirable job trying to capture Brigham’s complicated nature by paying attention to his personal letters, journals, sermons, and other primary sources made fully available to him by the LDS Church History Department. Turner is a sympathetic outsider to Mormonism who isn’t afraid to highlight Brigham’s sincere religious devotion as manifested in prayers, letters, and recollections on one hand, or Brigham’s brash, sometimes dangerous rhetoric preached in pitchforks from the pulpit on the other.

The book covers Young’s pre-Mormon life, his conversion, his penchant for speaking in tongues, his missionary work, the succession crisis, his crucial role in sustaining temple work, planning the Mormon exodus, a little about his family life, and other matters.  Turner pays more attention than past biographies do to Young’s theological views. He spends a good amount of ink on teachings most current Mormons aren’t familiar with, as they faded quickly after Young’s death. But he avoids overemphasizing things like blood atonement and Brigham’s Adam/God teachings by also examining Young’s vision for economic and political salvation—Brigham’s was a practical faith with eternal implications. Turner adroitly and frankly discusses the controversial subject of polygamy without descending into prurience. He does well to situate polygamy theologically in Young’s thought, but also examines the practical outcomes of the Mormons’ peculiar institution. We see Young performing wedding ceremonies, granting or denying divorces, giving advice in a variety of circumstances, courting, marrying, divorcing, and moving families from place to place. Turner lends more attention to Young’s wives than any previous biographer. He also devotes considerable space to difficult topics such as Young’s complicated and sometimes embarrassing approach to racial issues, as well as the problematic lead-up to and aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Shortcomings? Of course, any biographer of such a controversial figure, faced with mounds and mounds of contradictory sources, may be tempted to spend too much time playing history detective. Turner sometimes resisted this urge, but there were times when I wish Turner hadn’t punted on certain claims made by Young or others, or regarding aspects of Young’s evolution as a leader. For example, Young underwent a shift between the 50s and 60s from being a brash, challenging, and publicly acerbic leader to a more temperate and PR-savvy fellow, although he retained a dash of fire for the rest of his life. Turner traces such changes but doesn’t do much to explain them. He also doesn’t discuss Young’s relationship with Mormon apostle Amasa Lyman, which would have provided a good opportunity to examine Young’s views on the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Lyman was accused of teaching heresies in regards to Jesus and was ultimately excommunicated. Perhaps the book’s biggest lapse comes in the final pages when Turner breezes past the ecclesiastical reorganization Young executed shortly before his death that helped shape the face of modern Mormon Church in a big way. I wanted to know what contributed to the reorganization and what Young hoped to accomplish by it. The concluding chapter left me feeling like the book stopped short. I would’ve enjoyed some analysis of Young’s legacy. In fact, the most common criticism expressed in blog reviews is that Turner needed to do more to explain why Latter-day Saints believed Brigham was really a prophet.*

Such problems aside, Turner manages to include plenty of interesting discussions of Young’s family life, business enterprises, ecclesiastical responsibilities, and pastoral efforts. Through this book, many non-Mormons will meet a Brigham Young they never knew—and so will many Mormons. In fact, Turner said his work wouldn’t have been possible without all of the Mormon scholars—professional and amateur—who dig into Mormon history with such passion. The collegiality of the Mormon studies community, even in the face of some interpretive differences, contributed to the quality of the book. The collegiality is apparent in an excellent panel discussion published last year at the Juvenile Instructor Blog in which a number of students and scholars assess aspects of the biography. Turner’s included response addresses mistakes and shortcomings in the book in addition to answering some of the panelist’s questions about the production of the book.

There is no question that it won’t appeal to all LDS Church members, but by reading such a book, members might become better acquainted with some of the more difficult aspects of Church history. While Elder Snow’s New Era article encourages readers to balance historical investigation with the devotional exercises of praying and reading scriptures, it also emphasizes that history should remind readers of their own limitations while providing imperfect but inspirational examples for emulation. Turner’s book is a reminder that Mormon forebears—including prophets—“were human and made mistakes,” and that “there are sad or confusing episodes in our history that we seek to understand better.”


*Readers might benefit by supplementing this book with others, including Ronald W. Walker’s Wayward Saints: The Social and Religious Protests of the Godbeites against Brigham YoungWilliam W. Slaughter and Chad M. Orton’s 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young: A New Approach to a Remarkable Manor Leonard J. Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses.