“Mind Your Own Business!” My Review of John Turner's “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet”

I need to be careful in writing this review; I've written a few reviews in the past of newly released Mormon books and after the novelty of these materials wore off I'm stuck with a permanent record on the Internet of my enthusiastic approval of what eventually was shown to be rather flawed materials. So I'm more than a little concerned that I'm more excited that I'm among the first to read and enjoy the new biography of Brigham Young than the text itself should allow, but with that explanation out of the way let me get to the enthusiastic review that I might someday regret!

I've called this book the “sequel” to Dr. Richard Bushman's biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling. Of course, biographies can't technically have sequels as they usually cover a person's entire life, but the ideals of Bushman—-to present Smith as a full human being with needs, desires, and biases—-are present in Turner's book. Turner isn't setting out merely to relate the dates and events in Young's life but in puzzling out why Young made many of the decisions he did through his life.

Turner spends the first few chapters covering Young's childhood and life before and after converting to Mormonism. Much of this information is familiar to those who have read RSR, but it is interesting to look at Joseph Smith from an outside point of view. In RSR Bushman attempted, as a good biographer should, to discern the context for Joseph's decisions and actions in a way that made sense. Once removed from this position of being inside Joseph's life, however, Smith's actions in Kirtland and Nauvoo take on a surprisingly reactive spin. Smith is difficult to predict, and his anger and public lashing out often catch his followers off guard. Young and other early Mormons believe in Smith as a prophet, but it is difficult to keep up with a man who is constantly reacting to the circumstances surrounding him in ways that are sometimes successful and sometimes dangerous failures.

The majority of the book, however, is focused on Young's activities leading a portion of Smith's follower's to the Great Basin and establishing a theocratic government in what became western America, a government that Young ruled strongly. There is much to be said for Young's strengths and weaknesses, all of which are displayed as his power grows to its height before the United States extorts its influence over the territory by sending the infamous Johnston's Army to put down a supposed rebellion which leads to the slow decline of Young's influence over the Great Basin.

Turner's account is difficult, but fair. He doesn't turn a blind eye to Young's failures and problems, but he's quick to point out when a particularly unflattering story comes from a biased source and is willing to make concessions for Young's behavior in light of the rest of Young's life. Turner isn't interested in presenting Young as a man who was always inspired (though he frequently spoke of God's divine revelations guiding his decisions) nor is he interested in displaying Young as a dangerous villain of the West.

In the end, Young comes across as a tough man to follow, who demanded total obedience to God and to himself as the leader of God's people. He was rude, profane, racist (even for his own day), and fiercely independent. He was frequently violent in his rhetoric and when this rhetoric caused actual violence to occur he frequently turned a blind eye to it. He encouraged entertainment, activities, and fun, but cautioned strongly against indulgence and pride. Neither a revolutionary nor a patriot, his only devotion was to his people and his own independence, supporting whatever cause and whatever party that would enable him to continue leading his people without interference.

Of course, for some even acknowledging that Young had faults might be too much, but even I as a post-Mormon found the biography difficult at times, far more than I found Bushman's biography. Young had a constant flair for violent threats and ruled more often through fear of hellfire, damnation, and even earthly punishment than I ever expected. Some apologists might attempt to sweep away his rhetoric by pointing out that he never really followed through, but even if you explain his constant references to decapitations, hanging, and other various forms of violent death for apostates and other sinners as mere hyperbole and grandstanding, his rhetoric had real effects on real people as some took his advice to heart. Of course there is the famous Massacre at Mountain Meadows, which Turner covers in good detail (for those who are wondering he adopts the stance that Young probably didn't order the attack, but he certainly wasn't bothered much by it and was complicit in the poorly attempted coverup), but there are other examples of violence in the book where Mormons were inspired by Young's words and attitude to action. Turner doesn't hold back from discussing some of the deaths for which Young is ultimately responsible through either his rhetoric or even his explicit orders.

Turner's thesis for Young's attitude make a lot of sense (and is aided by statements Young made to much the same effect). Young, a devout and stubbornly loyal follower of Joseph Smith, saw how Joseph's habit of attempting to resolve dissent after it occurred ultimately led to his death; in response, Young saw the solution was to prevent dissent and disloyalty from occurring in the first place. Instead of trying to win back dissidents and apostates, Young instead did everything he could to keep his people in line and to scare others away who might steal souls from his flock. For Young, the ends of maintaining the Church and its doctrine and people (as well as the safety of his own person) justified the means.

Those familiar with some of the exposés of the nineteenth century might be disappointed in Turner's discussion and occasional dismissal of their merits and biases, but in my own estimation while Turner subtly rejects some of the more entertaining conspiracy theories and stories of Brigham's Utah he maintains his scholastic integrity by alerting the reader to the multiple viewpoints about some of these issues. Young is exonerated by Turner from poisoning Samuel Smith by virtue of not being present at Nauvoo and not yet having enough influence to orchestrate it. Also Young's 1877 death, while sudden, is given its proper view as the result of Young's advanced age at the end of a number of years of badly failing health and Turner doesn't even bother to mention later suppositions of arsenic poisoning. Interestingly, Turner also does not quote Young as crying “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” upon his deathbed, implying to me at least that this part of Young's traditional story is mythical. The castration of Thomas Lewis is mentioned, but the sensational claim that it happened because he was pursuing the same woman as Manti Bishop Warren Snow is rejected as Lewis's violent actions in the community are more than enough to explain the vigilante actions against the young man. Turner doesn't fail to acknowledge Young's approval of the action, however.

There is an amazing amount of information within this book that will be new to nearly anyone who reads it. This review is getting long enough, so I'll attempt to summarize some of the interesting things I personally was struck by after I'm done. For the average Mormon who is unprepared for it, this biography would probably be worse than a kick to the gut. Even as a post-Mormon, I was unprepared for Young's views on blacks, his violence, his foul language, and his strong rejection of the United States. Here's one quote that has many of those views together from near the end of Young's life after his political power had greatly faded:

“I have a proposition to make to [senators Aaron] Cragan [sic], Wade and all such men,” he wrote William Hooper, Utah's congressional delegate, in 1868, “when my old niger has been dead one year, if they will wash their faces clean they may kiss his ass.” As Congress debated the Collum Bill, Hooper politely encouraged Young to restrain his rhetoric. (pg. 362)

In the end, I'd predict that the majority of apologetic response to the book will center on Turner's responsible discussion of Young's Utah in the context of an America that struggles with its treatment of other minorities such as Catholics and blacks. Turner makes fair comparison of Mountain Meadows with other atrocities and massacres committed by Americans against blacks and native Americans, and is quick to point out the prevalence of vigilante justice and “Vigilance Committees” throughout America. Yet if the response by believers to the darker points of Mormon history continues to be the cry that such points are ordinary in the rest of America it continues to drive the sense that the rest of the Mormon history, too, might be ordinary and I'd wonder if such a response doesn't set the stage for wondering why such an ordinary faith with an ordinary history deserves to be treated as an extraordinary religious movement. Mormonism, wherever it is now on the scale of normalcy, was not ordinary to begin with and its history, both positive and negative, is not ordinary. Brigham Young continually declared many things “in the name of the Lord” (for example, “it is the mind and will of God,” he declared [in 1870], “that the Elders of Israel should take the Utah Central Rail Road Bonds.” pg. 353) and he presents a picture that will not be easily swept under the rug by simplistic appeals to “everyone else did that sort of stuff, too”.

Turner pretty much writes what I'd consider an unintentional review of how most believing members will probably want to approach his book while wrapping up the end of chapter 9:

Moreover, for many church members, the sheer accomplishment of Young's early church presidency—-the thousands of Saints brought to Zion and the ongoing settlement of the Great Basin—-covered his missteps and faults and sustained his leadership during times of economic, spiritual, and political tumult. (page 264)

Yet by the end of his life, Turner relates that Young's hold on his followers had begun to fade as many either quietly rebelled against his calls for obedience or simply left in disaffection. Young's influence over Utah had faded with the coming of the railroad and as the United States government took ever-stronger steps towards federal control of the territory, and his followers had grown tired of many of his distinctive doctrines, such as Adam-God, and these doctrines soon disappeared after his death. I find it interesting that we seem to be occupying a position in Mormon history that presents an odd mirror to the last days of Brigham Young: a Church that had previously enjoyed decades of impeded authoritarian control through correlation has found itself losing members who are now chafing under the prolonged authoritarianism and the advance of the Internet and which is no longer in control of either its history or its message. Turner himself is not a Mormon (though that's not to imply that a Mormon would have somehow done a better job; Turner is fantastic), and the fact that his biography of Mormonism's second prophet will probably be the go-to book for Young for years to come speaks volumes about the Church's power and ability to speak for itself.

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, by John G. Turner. Harvard University Press, 2012. 499 pages.

Okay, here's some of the interesting tidbits I read. They're presented without sources and just represent little things I noticed while reading. By no means are these all of the interesting things; this book is full of all sorts of amazing things.

#Mormon #BrighamYoung #Biography