Seers and Stumbling Blocks: John Turner’s _Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet_

For those Latter-day Saints uninitiated in the intricate details of Mormon History, John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet would be a complete shock to the system. Most Mormons are aware that Brigham Young was a man who many took offense to because of his frank talk, combative tongue, and indomitable will. However, many are less aware of how truly radical and assaulting he could be in his most extreme moments. Condoning and covering up (if not authorizing) moments of extreme violence. Deeply disturbing racial and gender prejudice. And his language! I’m not just talking “damns” and “hells” here… sensitive Mormons will be shocked to find a prophet of God using profanity, vulgarity, and racial slurs that they would wash their children’s mouths ten times over for using (and these were often speeches he gave in public! Or in letters that were meant for the President and Congress!).

Fortunately, I do know my Mormon History well enough not to have an honest and forthright biography like this shake the foundations of my belief system. I was familiar with the vast majority of the events and context of the history (and also knew enough to recognize moments when Turner was abridging information and knew which”side” he was taking in certain thorny historical debates). Having been the research assistant and co-writer on a play about the Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre, not to mention the writer of a number of other Mormon History plays that included Brigham Young as a character, I had to get to know Brigham Young pretty intimately. My persistent interest in and study of Mormon History really does make it hard for people to surprise me (I love it when antagonistic anti-Mormons try to shock and rattle me with Mormon history facts and I can tell them, “I know. And did you also know that…”).

So that background helped me in the more disturbing episodes of the very informed journey that Turner brings his readers on. However, Turner, capitalizing on the new opportunities that the Church’s more freeing attitude about its history and archives have afforded, did bring me to depths even my amateur Mormon historian experiences hadn’t made me aware of.  There were times that I had to stop, digest what I had read, and do an internal check on how it fit into my belief system (and if there was anything in that belief system I had to modify as a consequence). There were times that I was disturbed by what I had read and had to backtrack through my mind and heart and fortify my faith by connecting it to other just as real facts and context that were part of the fabric and tapestry of Mormon History. But those kind of facts can rub the soul raw after a while and leave you feeling sensitive.

A lot of the dark moments, however, can be chalked up to Brigham Young being a man of his historical time and place. The 19th century was not a time of great understanding for race, gender, or the pursuit of non-violent peace. Any person who expects even prophets not to be very flawed individuals subject to the context of their surroundings and upbringing hasn’t read their Bible lately. But even with that liberating attitude in hand, Brigham Young is sometimes a hard pill to swallow, and was so even for (and often especially for) his contemporaries, including many fellow Mormons, apostles, and future presidents of the Church. But the brilliant thing about Turner’s “portrait” of Brother Brigham is that in order to deepen the shadows, he also turns up the light.

For example, in the days during the Kirtland Temple dedication there was a literal Pentecost came upon the Mormons and many saw angels, spoke in tongues, had visions, and saw Jesus Christ. Although I was very aware of the miracles (and controversies) of the Kirtland period, I had not known to the extent that its dynamic Spirit of miracles and revelation had also particularly touched Brigham Young. In a moment that pleasantly surprised me, Turner (who is not actually a Mormon) filled in this gap of my understanding about Brigham Young’s spirituality:

Was it an endowment of power for Brigham Young? Did he see the Savior? Young was reticent when he reminisced about the temple dedication and assemblies, usually emphasizing the temple’s arduous construction rather than his own experiences of the supernatural. He once affirmed that the Kirtland temple ordinances were “accompanied by the ministration of angels, and the presence of the Lord, Jesus.” Twenty years after the fact, Young told Wilford Woodruff that he witnessed “a circle of about 40” angels “dressed in white robes & caps” in the temple’s upper story: “many personages did appear clothed in white & frequently went to the windows & looked out so that the Brethren in the street could see them plainly.” At the very least, Young claimed glimpses of heaven (p. 47).

In my mind for a long time, I had sketched the image of Joseph Smith as the truly visionary prophet, while Brigham Young being was called more for his pragmatic skills and grit (especially when it came to establishing the Saints in the Western United States after such long decades of persecution and drivings). Although I still hold to that view somewhat, Turner helped expand my understanding of just how connected to spiritual gifts Brigham could also be, in addition to his practical gifts.

Although I knew that Brigham had spoken in tongues on occasion, I didn’t know to what extent he had employed the gift (even during times when other leaders in the Church were discouraging that particular exercise of spirituality). Although I had read a few of Brigham’s more visionary dreams, I found his consistent preponderance upon his dreams and his attention to them another fascinating revelation of the book. And it was exciting reading about Brigham fulfilling a prophecy Joseph had pronounced upon him after Joseph had seen a vision of Brigham in the Southwest preaching the Gospel to Native Americans in their own language:

 As the meeting continued, Young showed one way in which he was different than other white American “Big Chiefs.” The Mormons in attendance sang two hymns, and Young then gathered the Utes into a circle for a sermon. At the close of his sermon, Young spoke in tongues, and the Utes responded that they understood his words . Young now rarely spoke in tongues, the practice so fundamental to his first ten years in the church. That he did so in front of the Ute chiefs suggests that the church president felt unusually strong emotions–or an unusually strong sense of the divine–at the meeting. Joseph Smith had a vision in 1835 that Young would speak to hostile Indians in the Southwest in their own tongue. If Young believed that Smith’s prophecy was now being fulfilled, he kept such thoughts to himself. The following month, 126 Indians were baptized into the church, probably with little understanding of the religion they publicly embraced (p. 214).

There were even moments where Turner made me reconsider some of what I thought to be Brigham’s outlandish beliefs. The Adam-God theory that Young espoused about Adam being a god who made himself mortal (Christ being Adam’s Father, and Elohim being Christ’s Father), thus making Adam humanity’s god, never quite sat well with me. It caused great conflict between Brigham Young and members of the Twelve Apostles (especially Orson Pratt), and most members of the Church were very reticent to accept it. Nearly all of Brigham’s modern successors in the Presidency of the Church have rejected the belief outright. For example, LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball said in the 1976 General Conference, “We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the Scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.”

Although Turner certainly shows this rejection of the theory in the Church and the controversy it created, he also shows Brigham’s passion in advocating for this speculative theology. Seeing the context around it and the energy and spirituality that Brigham infused in it, it made me respect the theory more, and see value and truth in certain dimensions of it, although whether or not I could ever actually accept it wholesale is a whole other question.

Again, with John Turner being a non-Mormon scholar who teaches at the University of South Alabama, Turner’s openness about Brigham Young’s spirituality and sincere faith is especially refreshing and revealing. There is no insinuations of Brigham acting as some sort of posturer or deceiver here. But that sword of openness cuts both ways and since he isn’t Mormon he feels no obligation (or fear of discipline from the Church or nervousness about ostracization from his culture) in writing about Brigham’s very serious, and very human flaws. It is a very balanced book that way, and does for Brigham Young what Richard Bushman’s excellent Rough Stone Rolling did for Joseph Smith… it shows that our leaders in Mormonism, despite their moments of visions and connection to the Divine, still get put back on the earth like the rest of us and have to blunder and strive their way through life.

Again, it is important to understand with Brigham Young that he was put into a particularly unique time, situation, and place. Turner understands this in his analysis of the complexities, controversies and contradictions found in Brigham Young. There are a number of pressing issues in Mormon History under Brigham Young that he expertly analyzes.

The race rhetoric during this period before the Civil War was intensely bad and Brigham Young was subject to that when he reversed Joseph Smith’s previous policy and denied blacks the priesthood (which would have long lasting ramifications in our Church). He was acting upon an erroneous belief held in common with most other Christian Churches of the time, but lasted longer with us Mormons because of the emphasis as a culture we place on the utterings of prophets, a trust which a later revelation from Spencer Kimball showed may have been misplaced when the Church abandoned the racist policy in 1978 and Church leaders have subsequently rejected.

For example, as my own interjection, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in an interview with PBS about the folklore surrounding that policy, “One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. … I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. … They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong.”  It was a racist legacy that Brigham passed down from the folklore and beliefs of his time, and the Church is now in better harmony with its own scriptures concerning the matter.

Although Brigham’s often contradictory attitudes towards women morphed and at times progressed into something almost progressive for his time, as his interactions with women increased (he was married to enough women to at least get a better taste of some of their talents and circumstances!), yet he said and did many things that still plague and frustrate Mormon feminists who want to be seen as equal human beings.

Brigham’s relationship with the Native Americans was complex, and marred by some bad decisions which were inflicted upon an already misused and abused people. But Brigham was actually much better than most of his white contemporaries in this regard, being led by the Mormon belief that the Native peoples of the Americas are of the house of Israel which led to a much more compassionate and empathetic attitude, despite some serious missteps.

Brigham saw Democracy fail in America and saw his people killed, raped, and driven from State to State. This culminated in the exodus to the Western United States, where the Mormons still couldn’t get complete peace and had an army sent after them. Especially after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith (which Turner places great emphasis on in the shaping of Brigham’s subsequent psychology and choices), Brigham is seized upon with a siege mentality that is fed by paranoia and fear. Consequently, he fostered an isolationist attitude from the rest of the world which led to many conflicts with the U.S. Government and its officials and created a nearly literal theocracy in Utah. The government had failed the Mormons, so the Mormons were going to govern themselves by the principles of their religion. Once burned, twice shy… and the Mormons had been burned a lot.

Since Joseph Smith, Brigham’s spiritual mentor, was butchered because (as Brigham saw it) Joseph was too compassionate and accommodating to dissenters and gentile outsiders, Brigham took a much harder line of control than Joseph Smith had in the Church. Brigham Young demanded much more exact obedience and sacrifice… he was a lot less patient with dissenting opinions… he was much more reactionary… he was often violent in his rhetoric to those he saw as threats to the safety of his people, as well as threats to himself. Joseph was willing to lay down his life for his people. Brigham was not.

Repeatedly, Turner quotes Brigham Young saying that he was not going to lay down his life like Joseph Smith did, and would not have gone to Carthage for his people like Joseph Smith had, but would have let them fend to for themselves. It was a revealing attitude and showed just how rattled Brigham had been by Joseph’s death and the subsequent attempts on Brigham’s own life in Illinois, which he expertly dodged. Brigham did not have the same sense of self sacrifice that Joseph did and saw no use in throwing his life away. Many of his later reactionary decisions were informed by this attitude and were transferred in his decisions in protecting the Church and its members.

Brigham was not patient with opposition and swiftly cut off dissent. He felt he had seen how dissent in the Church had led to the death of Joseph Smith and he was not going to be tolerant of that. Brigham would rather fight than die, would rather run than die, would rather kill than die, so the fight or flight reactions he often showed in dealing with the U.S. government, with dissenters and apostates, with “gentiles” in the Utah Territory, is made apparent in Turner’s book. Where Joseph Smith peacefully accepted death, Brigham with his characteristic grit hung onto life. Although I connect with Joseph Smith’s attitude much more on this (and with Joseph in general), Turner helped me understand Brigham’s perspective and how it led to many of his decisions that I have struggled with over the years.

Turner explores all of the above issues and events and much, much more, with a deft sense of insight, compassion, fairness, honesty, and discernment. In showing both Brigham’s heights and depths, in showing his flaws as well as the divine spark within him, in showing why God could choose him and people reject him, Turner does an incredible job of balancing the glories and the controversies. In doing so, although Turner is not a Mormon himself, he helped strengthen my own belief that the “truth will set you free,” as Christ taught. In knowing more of the truth about Brigham Young, I feel that I not only understand Brigham better, but that I love him better. I’m not as quick to condemn him nor glorify him, but more willing to look him straight in the eye and see a flawed, beautiful human being with dark earth in his body and a divine light in his soul. I see a man. I see, as he and Joseph believed about all of us, a potential god. I see fear and I see love. I see a seer and a stumbling block. I see myself. And in seeing myself more clearly, I see God more clearly.






3 thoughts on “Seers and Stumbling Blocks: John Turner’s _Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet_”

  1. Thanks for this review. I particularly appreciate you noting that you had to pause occasionally to see how the presented information fit into your belief system. This is a vital process. True faith is built upon truth. We hamper the Lord in blessing our lives when our faith is based on culturally induced inaccuracies. We have nothing to fear from the truth. As you note, the key to understanding religious history is context and perspective.

  2. Thank you for your review of the Turner biography. It does sound like a useful and interesting book, but I hope that the actual book is more positive than this review. I fear that (in some ways at least) it might turn out to be a kinder, gentler version of Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History”– another attempt to explain away a prophet of God. I can’t help but wonder what spiritual details of BY’s life were missed or misunderstood. I liked “Brigham Young: American Moses” by Arrington but it seemed to peter out into impersonal distance after the exodus to Utah. I’d like to know more about the last 30 years of Brigham Young’s life.

    I read a lot, but I am cautious about what I read. I loved “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling”. It felt great even before I read it. On the other hand I have not been able to bring myself to look at “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism”. I am rather curious about it, but it just doesn’t feel right for me at this time. I feel much more positive about this biography of Brigham Young.

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