Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, by John G. Turner

Five stars (of five)

Turner tackles the ominous task of constructing the life of a 19th century historical figure, where documents are scattered and deteriorating. Add to that, the fact that the figure in question was a President of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Church and the scarcity of documents only increases as the veil of secrecy falls. This biography of Brigham Young is not only thorough, but also shows Young as being a man of multi-facets. Turner presents Brigham Young in three distinct (yet interconnected) personas: Young the prophet, Young the leader, and Young the politician. Turner is also able to shed light on the early days of the LDS Church, looking into its distinct beliefs, while leaving open a great debate in which the reader can engage, should they desire. Filled with quotes and pulling on scattered and sometimes elusive texts, Turner does Brigham Young and the LDS Church a great service in this biography, perfect for the curious reader.

Turner opens his biography noting that Young was not born into the LDS Church, nor was it his first religious community. Growing up on the fringes of the Methodist movement in New York, Young took his religious following seriously as he moved towards a more evangelical belief system. Crossing paths with Joseph Smith, Young became a follower and helped found the early Mormon movement, working to expand its growth. Young became an early prophet (small-p) by presenting Smith’s words and insisting on the gospel-like visions and writings of the early Smith life events. Young went so far as to push the movement West, into Illinois, as well as overseas by opening Mormon Church philosophy in the United Kingdom. While he missed his ever-blossoming family, Young felt passing along the Word more important than simply spending time with his wife and children. He prophesied wherever and whenever he could, all in the hopes of ensuring any who could hear Smith’s words did so. Young counselled so far as to delving into the Indian reservations in hopes that the ‘red man’ could see the light. Young would speak in tongues and was able, though scarcely, to convert many. Turner does posit that many likely had no idea what they were getting into, but that is not uncommon at this time when white-red relations were at the forefront. This prophet role undertaken by Young led to his rising in the movement and eventually leading the LDS Church in the mid-1840s.

With the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, Young rushed to take the empty chair left and lead the Church. While this was not met without controversy, Young filled the void and acted as the seemingly only alternative, letting LDS saints see that he would guide them into the Promised Land. Turner argues that he did so, acting as an American Moses, taking the LDS Church from Illinois after it became vilified, and chose Utah to settle. Under Young’s leadership, an expansion of the Smith teachings of baptism of the dead and plural marriage grew exponentially, but also a keen focus on rooting the church with temples and other permanent structures. This allowed the Church to flourish in an American Territory not yet established and, Turner loosely argues, Mormonising Utah for the future. Young’s leadership led him to be recognised by the President of the United States and Young became a conduit from the Gentiles (Mormon belief) to the Mormons, especially in Utah. This leadership would pave the way for Turner’s third view of Young; the ever-evolving politician.

Young assumed the role of Governor of the Utah Territory in 1851, juggling his leadership of the Church with economic control over the Territory. At this point, Young took to the pulpit and rallied for Mormon-favoured judicial appointments and a hands off approach to running the Territory. Young could liaise directly with those in positions of power and try to push for favourable decisions. This was not always possible, or at least Turner leads the reader to believe that Washington dug in its heels on certain occasions. Mormon beliefs fed nicely into the slavery movement and kept blacks subjugated, while also promoting polygamy on a regular basis. Using the Dred Scott decision in the Supreme Court, which argued that the federal government could not regulate slavery in the states or territories, Young pushed for its extrapolation onto polygamy. He argued that it was the Territory’s right to choose how to live, especially as there was no law forbidding it. Later, as Young was forced to hand over the gubernatorial reins, he sought to create the State of Deseret, an enlarged version of what is now Utah, but was refused by Congress. Young’s clashes with Washington solidify his political stances, as do his repeated sermons from the pulpit. As with any religious group, leaders are inherently politicians of some form and cannot divorce themselves from this. That Young wore both hats as a Church and political leader simultaneously only personifies an already well-held belief.

Turner also uses the biography of an early member of the LDS Church to enlighten readers into some of the practices undertaken by Mormons. Citing both baptism of the dead and plural marriages, Turner argues that both Smith and Young pulled support for these acts from Scripture and that they were only following what God sought them to do. While this may seem weak in the 21st century, at the time it was surely quite plausible and people accepted it, at least many within the fold. There were some who could not stomach plural and celestial marriages, which Turner shows repeatedly throughout the book, but the belief of the followers is supported by the ever-evolving religious movement the LDS Church became. The reader will likely marvel at the arguments and may even drop a guard for a moment, allowing an open mind to synthesize the beliefs. Young’s personal arguments about Adam being GOD fell on many deaf ears within the LDS Church, but Young did not become discouraged. He used the catch-phrase many leaders who present controversial beliefs present to the flock: “you are not yet ready for this, but one day you will come to accept it.” Even still, there was a schism in the LDS Church, with a reorganisation movement, led by Joseph Smith III, son of the Prophet. Smith sought to tame some of the beliefs that Young espouses, much to the latter’s chagrin. It began showing that there were cracks in the movements and that the beliefs Young professed might have been too intense, even for the religiously famished to stomach.

Turner’s presentation of the LDS Church and its tenets leaves the door open for debate by the larger academic and lay populations. Is the LDS Church a cult? A religious movement? A third fork in the pathway of Christianity? I will not lay out answers for these questions here, for I want all readers to have the chance to form their own opinions. Turner’s presentation of the facts is quite neutral and offers both mud and clean water as it relates to the Church and Young. It is the reader who must take up the cause, using this book as one of numerous sources to fuel their arguments. I must, however, rhetorically ask, as Turner does in his preface: for a group desiring a better understanding of themselves after decades of vilification, why are key documents kept hidden and opposition scorned so heavily? What is hidden behind that curtain, oh great Wizard?

Kudos, Mr. Turner for such a refreshing look at a man I knew so little about, telling his story in a clear and open fashion. Balancing one’s views is surely difficult, but you keep on the narrow path with few issues at all.