Bigger than Life Prophet: Review of John Turner’s B.Y. Biography

BYPPDuring his life, Brigham Young was among the most hated and feared men. Even some of those who supported him didn’t always get along with his irascible personality. National newspapers often portrayed him as a portly womanizer on the verge of destroying the progress of a modernizing civilization. International opinion agreed, although they saw him as the result of an upstart and untamed United States. The Mormons, along with Brigham Young, were seen as a force to be reckoned with or an unspecified moral doom would be the result. Many generations later he is still mocked and derided with the same images started in Eastern newspapers. Among current Mormons his image is rough, but strong as his statues in Utah. Both believers and detractors have made him into an legendary icon of opposing saint and sinner visions.

The biographer John G. Turner hoped with his book to slice through the competing images of a man who was either a hero who built half the Western U.S., or committed every crime imaginable. Like most things Mormon it wouldn’t be an easy task. Turner believed Stanley P. Hirshson’s The Lion of the Lord relied too heavily on Eastern newspaper accounts, and Leonard J. Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses slanted too positive as a loyal follower of the religion. He wanted to use more first hand accounts and reminiscences to build a better biography that accepted both the good and the bad about the man. With some reservations the book succeeded.

Stylistically it reads almost like a companion to Richard L. Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by giving the participants benefit of the doubt through their own words. Nothing seems to have been written to try and undermine or explain away spiritual experiences. There are some differences in subject treatment. Turner doesn’t focus as much on the theological developments and teachings, except where there is a direct connection to events. He uses theology to try and understand why Brigham Young or his followers behaved a certain way, while Bushman sometimes went off on a theological or philosophical tangent. In no way does this take away from the whole of the book, but sometimes it can feel like unexplored gaps remain. Considering that the biographer is a non-Mormon it probably is for the best. Even if he has a decent and mostly unobjectionable understanding of Mormon theology. Very few Mormon readers should be offended by doctrinal treatments, although certainly have a few disagreements with interpretations.

Considering the use of personal journals and reminiscence without much criticism, the first half of the book could have been written by a competent Mormon biographer. The biography starts out describing Brigham Young’s grandparents, parents, and then his own birth and life as a young man. It was a rather typical treatment that could be done for any person of interest. Nothing remarkable is told that would give away his future destiny. The known history of Brigham Young receiving The Book of Mormon from family members, his conversion, and eventual first meeting with Joseph Smith Jr. is told direct and without incredulity. In fact, any spiritual experience is allowed to stand on its own for the reader to decide to believe or not. If it happened or not is besides the point compared to what it meant for the person’s directly involved. Probably the most unexpected moments were when critical opinions were challenged by the inclusion of others. As an example, a contemporary former Mormon was quoted as saying the Kirtland Temple visions were inspired by heavy drinking. This was followed by a quote from a response by another former Mormon who said there wasn’t enough drinking to account for the spiritual events. It was even noted that the same was said in the Bible about Pentecost. This wouldn’t be the only time a pseudo-apologetic stance would be taken.

Despite the occasional foray into sympathetic treatments, the biography paints a far from perfect picture of Brigham Young or the Mormons. The book is not for those who are easily troubled by messy history or hold leaders of the Church on high pedestals. The Mormons are not always seen as innocent bystanders whose neighbors do everything bad and they nothing. Sometimes the Mormons apparently did some vigilantism of their own by burning down a few houses, or run people off land. In return, the neighbors did far worse not equal to a few crimes that the law could have handled if there was fair treatment. Brigham Young is not represented without his own tyrannical activities during the Utah years of leadership. Nowhere is the “Danites” or “Avenging Angels” mentioned as organized culprits ready to do Joseph Smith’s or Brigham Young’s bidding, but a few Mormons took it into their own hands to mete out frontier or religious justice. Instead of chastisement and excommunication, Brigham Young is often quoted that he didn’t approve and yet wouldn’t disagree with what happened after the fact. The biography does assert that at least a few executions or physical abuses were ordered by Brigham Young for extra-legal reasons. None were done directly by his own hand.

Of course, mention of Mormons and violence could not go without a discussion of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This is yet another instance where there is an insistence Brigham Young had no direct hand in what happened. The opinion of those then and now that put the order to kill an immigrant caravan directly on him is brought up and quickly dismissed. Yet, his war-like rhetoric preparing for an invasion by U.S. forces possibly created a circumstance where a massacre became inevitable either from or toward the Mormons. Once it was done, the lack of actions by Brigham Young to bring those involved to justice or even Church discipline is seen as accessory after the fact, or at least approval. It is left open the possibility he was afraid doing anything would cause more trouble within and outside than covering it up, although a poor excuse. He decided punishments or pardons; and there were more guilty parties than John D. Lee who was the only one executed for the crime.

The reason for harshness toward his enemies is explained by the murder of Joseph Smith and the following turmoil. Turner continually brings up the theory that Brigham Young was afraid of the same fate, and would do anything to avoid an early violent death. He is quoted as saying that if it came to it, he would run away and go into hiding with or without Mormons following him. Although a man who didn’t like to be told what to do, during his leadership he demanded obedience and loyalty. He saw how trusting and forgiving Joseph Smith could be and how it got him killed by apostates. Because of that, almost any opposition was quickly trampled in public even among the closest associates. That caused rifts between him and other Church leaders, but they respected him for more congenial treatment in private.

Polygamy is treated much more as a religious devotion than deviance. Some abuses are noted, and there is a fascination with shared husbands. Still, the practice is presented as an extension of religious beliefs associated with building dynasties. The women are no more or less enthusiastic as a whole to be part of the marriage unions. Especially after public notice, some women begged and succeeded in becoming part of Brigham Young’s family. They saw within him a chance to be an influential member of Mormon society. There were still hardships, jealousies, and divorces to strain the institution. But, it also gave opportunities for independence and personal growth. Regardless of the moral or emotional questions, the idea woman were slaves to men’s appetite is disregarded as mostly untrue and sensational. A disgruntled woman could leave the marriage with as much difficulty as any monogamous relationship.

Unlike many discussions of the United Order where it was a success story that became a failed experiment, in the biography it never worked. The more Brigham Young tried to make it work, the more it failed. When he was around the Mormons put up a good front. Once he left for other places during his travels, the community went back to the usual way of doing business. He became frustrated no one seemed to be trying and as usual blamed his closest associates. They silently took his criticism and shrugged their shoulders. It was one of his biggest regrets that the United Order couldn’t get off the ground, although it produced the first and longest running Western co-operative retails knows as Z.C.M.I. There were too many poor who saw prosperity opportunities in other ways.

The vastness of topics covered by this book is too much to review or go over in a short space. Once the book enters Utah it becomes a more harsh treatment of Brigham Young. That doesn’t mean the soft and religious aspects of the man are ignored. They just become more spread out as his leadership responsibilities expand and he becomes a public figure. That is more than can be said about other biographies that see him as an oddity or cruel despot. To reiterate, the book is not for those who have a nascent faith in the Church or simplified understanding of its history. It can be absolutely as shocking as Brigham was for people in his own lifetime. For those who are less prone to becoming upset by unfamiliar aspects of Mormonism, it is a fascinating look at a man who is as controversial now as he was then. In fact, the reader might come away appreciative of this prophet’s spirituality and theological knowledge. For those who believe that corporate leadership replaced spiritual charisma and miracles during the early 20th Century, Turner claims it was Brigham Young who changed the leadership style. It would have been nice to read more about how today’s Mormonism as implied by the epilogue was shaped by the prophet, but that subject was hardly covered. There is enough for anyone to decide for themselves.

14 thoughts on “Bigger than Life Prophet: Review of John Turner’s B.Y. Biography

  1. Interesting review. My own thoughts:

    The biography does assert that at least a few executions or physical abuses were ordered by Brigham Young for extra-legal reasons. None were done directly by his own hand.

    I don’t recall Turner asserting this. Can you give some cites?

    Although a man who didn’t like to be told what to do, during his leadership he demanded obedience and loyalty.

    I think Turner shows that Brigham could be very humble and conciliatory; and he paints an interesting picture of a Nauvoo-era Brigham who is desperate to show Joseph Smith that the Q12 can be trusted in spite of the apostasy of many quorum members. But I agree that Turner presents Young as perhaps even traumatized by Joseph’s death, and determined that he won’t be betrayed to his death in the same way (he believed) Joseph was. His determination to quickly de-fang potential rivals, I think, might play into the priesthood ban. In such discussions much is made of William McCary’s marriage to a white woman; less of his building a competing branch of sixty former Mormons in Ohio within a two-month timespan (as I recall, Turner does mention the latter). I rather suspect Young probably made some statements (inspired or otherwise) primarily to debunk McCary’s authority claims, and from there the thing took on a life of its own.

    I really like the biography generally; but the one question I think it leaves inadequately answered is how, during the Utah period, Young managed to attract and hold the loyalty of his people on such a deep level (bordering on adulation in many instances) in spite of his . . . err . . . gruff public persona. Ardis Parshall’s “Random Reasons Why I Like Brigham Young” series over at Keepapitchinin makes a nice supplement.

  2. JimD, he mentioned the harsh punishment of Thomas Lewis, and the Parish-Potter murders. According to Turner, they were ordered by Brigham Young to be punished for different reasons. A less favorable and detailed review can be read at Mormon Interpreter. Interesting enough it doesn’t refute Brigham’s involvement:

    I agree with you that he really didn’t explore how, in his later and more abrasive years, Brigham Young could have elicited so much loyalty and awe from Mormons in general. He didn’t ignore it existed, but never sought to explain more than saying once that they appreciated his defending them. Like you said, he did portray that in private he was more humble and conciliatory toward individuals. He also didn’t explain much of how the prophet contributed to modern Mormonism or even how he is viewed by the faithful today. Bushman is more thoughtful about Joseph Smith in his biography, although they both read similarly.

  3. I followed the link to the Interpreter review. Many years ago I saw the movie ‘Brigham Young’ starring Dean Jagger with Vincent Price playing the part of Joseph Smith in a very sympathetic portrayal. Dean Jagger joined the church as a result of his experience. Since I was born three years after the movie was made I cannot be certain how old I was when I saw it but I do remember that even as a child I found it’s fictional treatment puzzling. Even then I knew there should’ve been more than one wife involved. I accepted Brigham Young as a necessary and designated leader, but I couldn’t really say I liked him. But then I didn’t like Paul very much either. I believe they served a very similar function. With experience I came to value both men for the very qualities that many find distressing. I will use the analogy of a captain of a ship caught in the storm. The hand on the helm must be sure. Orders must be given with more concern for accuracy and utility than the possibility of offending the feelings of the crew. I will predict that as the Gospel comes under threat in the latter days we will witness another leader who won’t hesitate to call us to repentance and demand loyalty. The leadership are already being accused of being mean and backward. It will get worse.

  4. Jett, please contact me so I may communicate in private. If you can’t read the email address associated with this comment, it’s at the top right column of my blog.

  5. In my mind, and perhaps in the mind of Joseph Smith (D&C 128:17), the unfolding restoration was to leading up to its climax: temple ordinances for the living and the dead, performed in temples. By 1846 it was abundantly clear that such would never come to fruition while the Mormons remained anywhere near U.S. society: 2 completed but abandoned temples, another 2 begun but abandoned, and one never started after its site was dedicated. Without the temporal salvation of the Saints in a place isolated from the civilized nation, that part of our religion which flavors everything else would would never be realized. Brigham was that temporal savior.

    We had so many great leaders in, or working their way toward, the upper echelon of Church leadership in those years. They were simultaneously cantankerous, idiosyncratic, and spiritual. They could move into a group of Saints and organize them into a wagon train, or into a settlement, and after berating them, inspire them to do it in their Sunday preaching. They were indefatigable. Nothing is too hard for the Lord and He could have raised anyone of them up to become President of the Church at that time. But, he didn’t. He chose the one unique man who already possessed all the leadership qualities, then and there, to perform the task, and had the dedication to the cause to do it.

    As for any on Brigham’s unsavory traits or acts, I believe Moses had him beat. After his crime, Moses had “40 years” in the desert to figure things out before his ministry began and God talked to him face to face. Still he struggled. Brigham never had the luxury of the desert to which he could retreat: the closest he came to it was upon the plains of Iowa, with 10-12,000 Latter-day Saints strung out across hundreds of miles in various states of starvation and begging him for direction. The Church was at its lowest and most precarious state in its history, and representative of many bad times yet to come. God could have sent a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night to guide it, but He didn’t. Brigham was already there.

    There is a tendency in the Church to underrate Brigham’s religious teachings: a mistake Some of his beliefs no longer hold place in our LDS theology, but that is a very minor part of a vast amount of teaching he imparted to the Saints. One can pick up virtually anywhere in his letters, sermons, etc. and quickly see, with an LDS view: this man was speaking with authority, He was a Prophet. We tend to gloss over D&C 136 today. However, at the time it was given it could be said to be the most important revelation the LDS had ever received.

    Without Joseph and Brigham both, I just cannot see a viable Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint today. Joseph revealed, and Brigham ran with it. Our Church for the last 100+ years has been spreading ever outward. However, without that early retreat, that “40 years” of gathering to the desert to build our Temples, develop its theology and practice, and to solidify as a people, we would have been decimated long ago. Thank you Brigham! I am an unabashed believer, and as such I can unabashedly declare that Brigham was integral to my salvation and that of my family for nigh on 170 years now.

  6. I also second what Stephen Wight said.

    My own simple observations. I purchased the Turner book when it came out and read it in a couple of days. My personal review would not be as diplomatic as Jettboy’s. I think Turner quietly and surreptitiously did what he could to paint a negative picture of Young, and I believe he did it to specifically counter Arrington’s portrait.

    I’m quite aware of the contemporary stylistic obsession with nuanced, complex characters. And I don’t deny that is what we are as human beings. I just didn’t like some of the tonal and presentational aspects of what Turner offered.

    Personality clashes between top church leaders is nothing new. John Taylor sustained Young as prophet, but couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him. David O. McKay could never accept J. Reuben Clark’s leadership over him for decades before McKay succeeded to the presidency. There are numerous other examples.

    For an entirely different take on Brigham, I would highly recommend Hugh Nibley’s “Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints”, based on Nibley’s near-obsessional reading of Brigham Young addresses (both within and without the Journal of Discourses) as well as some vignettes of Brigham’s personality. Nibley’s treatment gives a more fully fleshed out Brigham Young, as well as humorous episodes.

  7. IMO, God doesn’t call people because of their shortcomings, He calls them because of their abilities, and their openness and ability to work with God, do His will, and _gain_ the abilities that God wants to give them.

    The more I learn about my own foibles, flaws, and shortcomings, the more I’m amazed that I was even called of, and expected by, God to do some things…. and, the more sympathetic I become to flawed leaders at all levels of the church, from Home Teacher to Prophet.

    I think there are several over-arching principles in play:
    1. God can’t wait for perfect people to show up. There just aren’t enough of them. God makes do with what/who is available.
    2. If you’re good at “A” and bad at “B”, God can still call you for “A”.
    3. If you’re bad at “B”, God can still call you for “B” and _give_ you the skills/abilities, or train you. If the Holy Ghost can teach someone a language in an instant (gift of tongues), then He can teach you or capacitate you in anything.
    4. Youth have priority. Suppose that a bishop might not be the best bishop for the adults in his ward, but maybe the Lord put him there because he would be the best bishop for the youth.
    5. You might think you aren’t, or someone else isn’t, up to the job, but then everyone else who is available might be worse. Brigham was alleged to have said something like this when he wondered why he was called as the prophet, or maybe it was as an apostle.
    6. Sometimes a leader is called to _test_ people, not serve them. Corrolary: those people don’t “deserve” a better leader.
    7. Sometimes the people involved don’t really need a better leader, they can do just fine with a less-than-perfect bishop/whatever, and the better man was called where he was more needed (see Youth above).
    8. For callings with a public face, maybe it is the non-members/investigators who are being tested, as a filter, to see if they will accept the gospel humbly, in spite of obvious shortcomings of the gospel messenger. (An 80 year old man has to be be taught by 18 to 20 year old missionaries before he can join the church.) A frail prophet may even be such a humility test to those who are already members. The Lord tries His people. There were those who stumbled over President Benson’s frailty. As the “warts and all history” comes out about past leaders, some even stumble today.

  8. I read the book when it first came out and was impressed by its historical accuracy. I was unimpressed by the author’s ability to get at the heart of Brigham with all the historical minutiae. Upon reading it one would be left thinking “how on earth did this man manage to accomplish what he did?” All history is composed of an infinite number of facts and every historian is left to paint his/her portrayal with the facts he chooses to report. I am wondering why it is, reflecting now a few later upon the book, that I remember Brigham’s urological concerns as much as his leadership abilities? That is the kind of book it is. It painted a historical caricature, giving equal weight to matters of insignificance.

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