Magazine article The Christian Century

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

Magazine article The Christian Century

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

Article excerpt

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

By John G. Turner

Harvard University Press, 512 pp., $35.00


Brigham Young, unlike Joseph Smith, played no role in the translation of the Book of Mormon. He never ran for president of the United States, as Smith did in 1844. And Young was not dramatically martyred, as Smith was when a mob shot him in his prison cell. But without Young, we might not remember Smith. Without Young, Mitt Romney's Mormonism might not exist to be an issue for some voters in the current presidential election.

Although best known today for the university that bears his name, this rough-and-tumble 19th-century man was one of the most pivotal figures of his century. As the primary leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after Smith's assassination in 1844, Young saw thousands of followers across the frontier, helped establish the Mormon community in Utah and throughout the West and challenged the federal government at just about every level. Now, thanks to historian John Turner, we have a comprehensive biography of Young and his times.

Several years ago, Turner wrote a biography of Bill Bright, the 20th-century founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. With Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, Turner turns to another century. It is an exceptional work. In the space it would take Robert Caro to narrate two years of Lyndon Johnson's life, Turner carries Young from a Vermont cradle in 1801 to a Utah grave in 1877. He traces Young's frustrations with the Protestant churches around him in upstate New York and tells how he turned to Joseph Smith's new church in 1832. Then Turner examines Young's ascension to power after Smith's assassination, his decision to lead the fragile church to the frontier West and his building of the kingdom in the Great Salt Basin.

From the 1850s to the 1870s, Young was consistently at odds with the federal government. Sometimes the issue was plural marriage, which the new Republican Party declared, with slavery, was a "twin relic of barbarism." Other times, the conflicts were over federal jurisdiction or non-Mormon immigrants and their economic pursuits. Through tribulations and trials, both metaphorical and literal, Young not only survived but thrived. Under his direction, Mormonism established a permanent home in Utah. It had tens of thousands of members and grew significantly throughout the 20th century.

In spite of this success, Young was pestered for 20 years as the leader of the LDS Church. National attention and infamy began in earnest in 1857. In September that year, a group of Mormons slaughtered the men, women and most of the children in a wagon train heading from Arkansas to California. Scholars have vigorously debated Young's involvement. What is clear is that he did little to bring any of the criminals to justice. It was not until the 1870s that anyone was tried. John D. Lee, Young's "adopted son," who was convicted and executed, believed himself to be a scapegoat.

After the Civil War, Mormons were under political siege by the federal government and by new immigrants. Congress, presidents and the Supreme Court attacked polygamy, while new railroads brought non-Mormon immigrants into Utah and troubled Mormon economic communalism. By the time the embattled and tired Young died, the church was soundly established, but it was still under attack.

We can learn a lot about the development of Mormon theology from Turner's book, far more than can be gleaned from previous biographies of Young. He was part of the movement of Mormonism away from traditional Protestantism as Mormons embraced sacred texts other than the Bible, such as the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, baptized people who were already dead, including George Washington, and thought of God in human forms, with a body and a wife or wives.

Turner is at his best when he is placing the elements of Young's life within the main contours of broader 19th-century America. …

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