Friday, June 15, 2012

Review: Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner

Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet
 John G. Turner
Reviewed by Bryan Buchanan for the Association for Mormon Letters

Indulge me: picture a man neck deep in a swift river with people on both banks trying to warn him of boulders they think are in his path.  After successfully navigating his course, he exits the river to the cheers of both banks.  It happened.  His name is John Turner and he's just written a landmark biography of Brigham Young.  With an embarrassment of riches in terms of sources that would drown a lesser man and voices from both extremes depicting a tyrannical harem-master and, conversely, a gentle kingdom builder, Turner has achieved a fair and well-rounded portrait of Brigham Young. No sticky wicket (Mountain Meadows, the handcart imbroglio, Young's often testy personality, etc.) is skirted—at the same time, the reader does not get a sense that Turner is poking at them as at a sore tooth. Notoriously difficult for biographers, Young has eluded many through the years.  With "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet," Turner has done what "Rough Stone Rolling" did for Joseph Smith: combine meticulous primary source research with balanced historical craft. ...

Title:  Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet  
Author: John G. Turner
Publisher: Belknap Press, imprint of Harvard University Press
Genre: Biography
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: 512
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN10: 0674049675
ISBN13: 9780674049673
Price: $35.00
**This review was prepared from an advanced reader's copy

... One more comparison with Joseph Smith—for many years, "Brigham Young: American Moses" had served a role much like "Joseph Smith: The First Mormon" of (at least for believing Mormons) the standard—possibly even definitive in the minds of some—biography.  Though Arrington [1] did achieve a much more effective treatment of Young—using a wealth of uncatalogued contemporary source chaos discovered by Michael Quinn—the result failed to provide a picture of the "man."  One left the book without feeling that his thought and drive had been reached.  In addition, most of the rough edges of both Young's life and contemporary Mormon history were filed down if not ignored. As Turner notes in his preface, only Arrington could claim "unfettered" access to the Young papers, yet more needed to be done.  From the notes and source list, it is clear that Turner did in fact enjoy a friendly and helpful relationship with the staff at the Church History Library.  The fortunate consequence is a thoughtful analysis of the rich mine of pertinent documents (journals—both private and clerical, letters, minutes and sermons—even many existing only in shorthand format [2])

Turner begins his narrative with a concise look at Young's early life (aside: I am not a fan of Mormon biographies that spend an inordinate amount of time on the subject's early life—not why I'm reading), pointing out his unstable home life following his father's remarriage and his discontent with his religious milieu.  Turner gives a brief overview of the translation and impact of the Book of Mormon, noting that its influence was driven more by its mere existence than by content at that point.  His discussion of Brigham's slow transition into Mormonism features a strong point of his approach—though he notes Young's reminiscences of this time, he points out that Brigham likely overstated his role.  Turner recognizes the value of later recollections but carefully weighs their reliability.

Chapter two, "The Tongues of Angels," contains one of the high points of Turner's narrative—a discussion of Young's religious surroundings (particularly the more pronounced expressions of spiritual gifts) and his participation therein.  Though the stereotypical view of Young is as a pragmatic mover and shaker, Tuner draws out his charismatic and even enthusiastic side.  The story of him speaking in tongues upon meeting Joseph Smith is well-known, but Turner shows that this facet of Young's character would emerge periodically throughout his life.  Another welcome aspect of the narrative is obvious in this section (notably so in his discussion of the Kirtland Safety Society fiasco)—Turner walks the fine line between providing context while not allowing his primary subject to recede into the background. I'm always irritated to read a biography that is really a period history with a biographical glaze.

The Nauvoo era always seems to be a minefield for historians—how does one treat such a chaotic and dualistic time?  In discussing it with friends, I've remarked that—depending on who you associated with—Nauvoo could be two very, very different places, one for "inner circlers" and one for regular citizens.  The narrative for this period is superb—his discussion of polygamy especially so.  For example, he balances Young's well-known desire for the grave immediately after hearing of the new doctrine with an 1849 statement that, after a fuller hearing of the matter with Joseph, he was "filled with the Holy Ghost" to the point of "lightness."  A similarly temperate discussion of the succession crisis evidences Turner's dispassionate style—he summarizes the purported transfiguration of Brigham Young thusly: "Whether or not they experienced something miraculous in the meeting, for some Mormons their sense of Young as Joseph's successor grew quickly."

In the uncertain days before the exodus from Nauvoo, Turner brings out Young's notoriously mercurial disposition—when greeted by people on the street with the ritual handclasps from the newly introduced endowment, Young abruptly shut down the ceremonies.  His temper is also evident in the heated discussions surrounding the attempt to reconstitute the First Presidency at Winter Quarters.  For those with a distaste for scatological language, consider yourselves warned!

The chapter entitled "A New Order of Things" is another particularly impressive section, especially when dealing with Young's many plural wives.  It is fascinating to hear their voices as the realities of polygamy were being worked out.  As was generally his nature, Young seems not to have been terribly warm and fuzzy in his relationships with his wives.  Augusta Cobb Adams proved to be quite the formidable opponent when disagreements arose—she repeatedly requested to be sealed to another husband, preferably Jesus Christ himself, but she accepted Joseph Smith as an acceptable alternative.

Various "sticky" issues throughout the 1850s are ably treated by Turner.  He discusses the evolution of racial beliefs and policies, noting that Young as a product of his times "fostered a policy of exclusion that his successors saw little choice but to perpetuate."  Turner is similarly thorough in his treatment of Indian relations, noting that initially Young complained of "many Elders [who] have prayed to be among the Lamanites and now they want to kill them."  Following numerous encounters with the different tribes in the region, Young finally stated that "my natural disposition and taste it loathes the sight of those degraded Indians."  Turner's analysis here is broad and temperate and serves as an excellent overview of the origins of the priesthood ban as well as a check against simply summarizing Young's Indian policy as "it's cheaper to feed them than fight them."

Throughout the narrative, Turner maintains the effort to provide a rounded picture of Young.  His discussion of several doctrinal principles is an important part of this endeavor.  He treats Young's exposition of Adam-God teachings (those who cling to the "the sermon was not reported accurately" defense might want to apply the X-acto remedy on these pages) and his thoughts on "eternal increase" concisely and effectively.

From the friendly confines of theological speculations, Turner proceeds to what is probably the climax of Young's life, the dark days of the Utah War and Mountain Meadows Massacre.  To set the stage, he recounts the testy relations with territorial officers and several suspicious deaths like those in the Aiken party.  After reviewing the evidence in an even-handed matter, Turner concludes on Young's "likely complicity" in the matter.  As is the case throughout the narrative, Turner intersperses interesting details—here, he notes several odd dreams of Young's that the heavy stress effected. Drawing on important recent surveys of the matter (particularly Bill MacKinnon's), Turner chronicles Young's march to the edge of the precipice and the inevitably inglorious retreat therefrom.  Turner's concise account of the massacre concludes that "there is no satisfactory evidence that Young ordered the massacre" and that "there was no good reason for Young to order a massacre with the potential to focus the full fury of the American government on Utah" but, in the end,  "Young bears significant responsibility for what took place."

The narrative seems to lose steam slightly after the events of 1857-58—this is probably largely so because Young's life never again reached the same fever pitch as earlier.  Another discussion of his wives is particularly interesting—Turner notes the rethinking that Young went through, citing his daughter's assessment that, in later life, Young set out to "correct what he esteemed to be a mistake of his early judgment."  Several other important events are covered such as Young's appointment of his sons as apostles and counselors, the ongoing legal battle with Ann Eliza Webb and the John D. Lee trial.  One can feel Young's life winding down with a few last-minute efforts at kingdom building such as a renewed zeal for United Order principles and the building of the St. George temple.

Simply put, Turner's treatment of Young's life is a landmark in Mormon biography.  Everything that a serious student of Mormon history could want is here: careful and extensive research, balanced analysis and polished, crisp writing.  The acknowledgments give a clue as to his method—clearly Turner had numerous readers along the way and it paid off handsomely.  Turner avoids common "outsider" errors about the intricacies of Mormon society and historiography.  By interacting with scholars, both veteran (Will Bagley, Bill MacKinnon) and up-and-coming (Matt Grow, Sam Brown), Turner has ensured his narrative draws on the finest research available.  It is a testament to interest in Mormon history that such an excellent biography will find wide readership due to its publication by a major press such as Harvard University.  Both author and publisher are to be commended for a very valuable addition to the field.


[1] I refer to Arrington as the stated author though, as Gary Topping has noted, it was (in true Arrington form) a collaborative effort involving Richard Jensen, Ron Watt, Becky Cornwall, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Ronald Walker, Ronald Esplin, William Hartley, Dean Jessee and undoubtedly others. See "Leonard J. Arrington: A Historian's Life", 161.

[2] The unsung hero responsible for transcription—LaJean Carruth—has provided key assistance in several recent gems such as "Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith's Ohio Revelations" (Staker) and "Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism" (Givens/Grow).