He Led His People Into the Desert

Review of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, by John G. Turner (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012)

To describe the life of Brigham Young requires a mastery of subtlety and paradox.  Over the course of his life, Brigham Young's personality and beliefs drastically shifted as he evolved from a penniless farmer on the social margins to the patriarch of a vast religious empire.  More confounding to biographers, Young's opinions and temperament seemed apt to shift on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis.  At times hot, at other times cold, mild-mannered or fiery-tempered, generous or miserly, attention seeking or deeply private, the man, much like the larger history of nineteenth-century Mormonism, defies easy categorization.

In the new biography Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, John G. Turner, religious studies professor at George Mason University, seeks to lay bare the contradictions that shroud one of the most controversial figures in American religious history.

Previous biographers of Young tend to fall in the trap that has long beleaguered the broader field of Mormon historiography: one is either pro-church or pro-academic.  It is only in the past fifty years that Mormon history on the whole has moved from an inward, institutionally-based occupation to one that engages the interest of scholars in the academy.  According to different interpretations, Young, as a stand-in for the early Mormon church more generally, is either a scoundrel or a hero, a tyrant to be castigated or an astute leader to be praised.  Even today, Marvin S. Hill's 1959 characterization of Mormonism's historiography resonates: "It would seem that the historiography of Mormonism has been plagued by too much emotion, too much description and too little interpretation." Turner's fresh look at Brigham Young self-consciously tries to avoid either polarity, presenting a balanced view of Young's life as situated within a broader context of American religion and politics.

Indeed, it is Turner's attention to the larger developments of mid-nineteenth century American life and culture that permits a nuanced picture of Young—neither villain nor idol—to emerge.  While some scholars have painted nineteenth-century Mormonism as culturally deviant, when situated amongst the diverse milieu of utopian, perfectionist, millenarian, or otherwise radical religious thought taking hold of the so-called Burned-Over District from which Joseph Smith and Brigham Young emerged, Mormonism appears far less counter-cultural than some have supposed.

As Turner describes, Young engaged in an on-again, off-again relationship with reformed Methodism as a young man but never felt fully satisfied spiritually until introduced to the teachings of Joseph Smith in 1831.  Almost immediately, Young fully embraced the hierarchy of the church, subordinating himself to his ecclesiastical superiors while taking his place as the patriarchal leader of his own family.

Turner spends the first third of the book charting Young's meteoric rise in power, describing how his decisions to engage in missionary activity and extreme loyalty to Joseph Smith insinuated him deeply with the head of the church.  With Smith's death in 1844, Young emerged as the de facto president of the church.  The description of Young's evolution as a leader brings the full complexity of his character into focus.  Upon his ascension to the position of chief priest, his fickle nature became public knowledge.

For instance, while located in temporary spiritual haven of Nauvoo, Illinois, Young wrestled with the propriety of public merriment, such as dancing and fiddling.  One day, he would be on the dance floor leading the "French Four" and encouraging young women to not only sing, but sing in tongues; the next he could proscribe those very same activities (131-2).  This sort of unpredictability characterized Young's tenure as chief priest.  As a leader, he could use mirth to build consensus and community, or he could dictate terms in absolutist manner to bolster his own unqualified authority.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of Pioneer Prophet is Turner's willingness to engage with how that type of unpredictability had an impact on some of the most controversial aspects of Mormonism's history: racism and colonialism.  As Turner points out, the vast majority of Mormon converts in the nineteenth century, even those who were foreign born, were white.  Yet, ideas about race influenced Mormon thought from the beginning and came to a head with the creation of Young's Kingdom of God in the Great Basin.  Drawing on biblical passages, the Latter-Day Saints identified peoples of African descent as cursed by God, though a number of black men attained elder status early on in the church's history.

Under Young's leadership, however, the early egalitarianism of the church quickly moved towards racial exclusivity with the institution of church policies barring black Americans from rituals and church offices.  Moreover, Young's thoughts on slavery represented the sort of confusion that he showed in other matters, though ultimately he settled on a position that "to abolish slavery it would be throat cutting to themselves (the whites) and damnation to the blacks." (225)  While Turner exculpates Young's racism as a product of its time, he does admit that the policies implemented under his reign fostered the long history of discrimination in the church.

Turner shows equal adroitness in explaining and analyzing Young's ideas about Native Americans, the "Lamanites" of The Book of Mormon.  Young espoused Smith's teachings that converted Indians would aid in the creation of a millenial kingdom and thus encouraged civilizing missions as long as it was convenient.  However, when conflicts arose between Indians and the Mormon settlers who fanned out to colonize the Utah Valley and beyond, Young had little problem with authorizing expeditions to track down and exterminate the offending Indian parties.  As Turner contends, Young's apparent waffling in this case was not the result of conflicting values, but a grim determination to a larger objective: to create a space for Saints to congregate.

Ultimately, the greatest contradictions inherent in Young's life are viewed by Turner as by-products of the social mores of the larger culture of mid-nineteenth century America or as manifestations of Young's resolve to carry on the project set forth by Joseph Smith.  The portrait of Young that emerges by the end of the book is one of a man both flexible and stalwart, accommodating and uncooperative, whose choices and positions fluctuated depending on circumstances.

Whether dealing with the United States federal government, truculent Mormons seeking his ouster, or members of his own extremely large family, Brigham Young proved dedicated to protecting and advancing the Mormon people.  Well researched and eminently readable, this biography should be of interest to specialists in American religious history as well as a general audience.