Book review: Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John G Turner

THIS meticulous study of the Mormon leader reveals a colonising, complex prophet

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John G Turner

Harvard Belknap Press, 500pp, £25

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When the Victorian explorer Richard Burton met Brigham Young, the second President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons, he referred to him as “the St Paul of the New Dispensation: true and sincere, he gave point and energy, and consistency to the somewhat disjointed, turbulent and unforeseeing fanaticism of Mr Joseph Smith; and if he had not been able to create, he has shown himself great in controlling circumstances”. Others were markedly less enamoured of the “Mormon Moses”: Young was, by his own confession, a polygamist – he had 55 wives, and had 56 children by 16 of them – and his opponents accused him of being a forger, a cheat, a hypocrite and if not a murderer then the inspiration for, and condoner of, murders. He was also, as John G Turner shows in this exceptionally well-researched and endlessly interesting biography, the greatest coloniser ever in the history of the United States of America, staking claim to nearly one-sixth of western America and founding both the state of Utah and Salt Lake City. Empire builders are rare, and even rarer perhaps are ones who wrote to their (first) wife “Plese read this and keep it to yourself not expose my poore righting and speling”.

Born in 1801, Young’s early life was one of poverty, poor to non-existent education and social disadvantage. When he died in 1877 he had established a “theodemocratic” state in Utah, and had boasted to the journalist Horace Greeley (back in 1859) he was worth $250,000.

This transformation is the enigmatic heart of the biography; in his own way, Young was a revolutionary. He encountered the Book of Mormon in 1830 and converted to the church; by 1835 he was one of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles surrounding Joseph Smith, and undertook a missionary venture to Britain in 1838. When Smith was murdered in Nauvoo, Illinois, the embryonic church could well have fizzled out. Some wanted a “regency” of the Quorum until Smith’s son could take charge; others followed Sidney Rigdon, the oldest surviving member of Smith’s “First Presidency”. Young managed to unite the majority of the Mormons, and finish building the Nauvoo Temple while all the time planning their departure for Utah.

Young’s spiritual biography is complex. He was cautious, and sometimes afflicted with a sense of exclusion from the overt demonstrations of religious ecstasy then prevalent. He eventually started speaking in tongues (even before he became a Mormon; Turner provides interesting material on his relationship to the itinerant Methodist Lorenzo Dow), but did not prophesy in the manner of Smith. His great achievement was unquestioning loyalty to Smith, which he turned into a need for unquestioning loyalty from others once he gained the presidency. He was not a subtle theologian. Some of his ideas, such as the notion that Adam was God and that Mormons would become Gods, with their own worlds to govern, seems more akin to the spirit of American individualism and entrepreneurial zeal than any humbling before the ineffable.

Making Young representative rather than anomalous is the great strength of this biography. He was certainly a racist – “I am a firm believer in slavery”, he said, as well as describing the north as the haven of the “negro-worshipper” – and the Church repealed the racist injunctions only in 1978. But large parts of America were racist. The north-western religious settlers were often paired with the South; the GOP convention of 1856 famously announced that “It is the duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery”. Polygamy, which has so vexed the Mormons, was a mutation of the increasing veneration of family as the keystone of the body politic: intelligent women, like the poetess Eliza Snow, one of Brigham’s wives, entered into it to ensure an eternity of the family. The idea of retrospective baptism for the dead fits in to the same picture of a persisting insistence on the family.

The massacre at Mountain Meadows is dealt with even-handedly, although Young does not emerge at all well from the story. In 1857, an emigrant wagon-train was apprehended on its way through Utah; a conspiracy between local Native Americans and the Mormons led to the killing of more than 100 men, women and children.

Ascertaining how much the Mormon higher echelons knew about it is difficult: pages have been removed from journals, frustrating a thorough investigation of complicity. Certainly, only one person , John D Lee, was ever tried (and executed) for the atrocity, although many more were known to have participated. One might be able to reconstruct Young’s attitude towards it from an anecdote when he saw the cross which had been raised to commemorate the attack. It read “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord” to which Young retorted that it should have read “Vengeance is mine and I have taken a little”.

The degree of paranoia amongst the early Mormons – forced out of Kirtland, harried out of Nauvoo where their prophet was murdered and now facing an encroachment from national government in the newly settled north-west, is a contributory but not sufficient factor in explaining the actions. The identification of Mormonism with Israel under Joshua certainly intensified the belief that murder was not inappropriate to defend the chosen people.

Despite Burton’s accolade, Young was a far less literary and deep-thinking apostle than St Paul, though just as intriguingly complex. Certainly his language was less exalted. On winning one of his many battles with state legislature, Young wrote “there had not been a Judge in Utah, that had been so completely taken up and set down on his arse in the mud, and had his ears pissed into as Judge Sinclair had been”. The combination of a salty, down-to-earth cunning with the most surreal and inchoate theological beliefs is fascinating, and certainly confirms Jon Krakauer’s contention that Mormonism must be read as the American religious experience par excellence.

Given that the Republican contender for the US Presidency of the United States is a Mormon bishop in the Mormon church, readers may want to glean insights from this book. What emerges is a faith which is peculiarly adaptive – the Reaganite, Brady-Bunch-ish, achingly clean-cut contemporary version is a far cry from Young’s polygamy, ideas of apotheosis and resistance to the intervention of the state. But is a cry near enough to be an echo.