Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner

I suspect that John G. Turner’s Brigham Young:  Pioneer Prophet will be the definitive biography of Brigham Young for the next few decades.  Overall, this is a good thing.

But it may also be a troubling thing, at least for some people. I wholeheartedly recommended the recent Joseph SmithDavid O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball biographies to all members of the Church.  Sure, they are a little less sanitized than we are used to, but the picture in each one of those works is of a prophet of God who had some flaws, with far more emphasis on the “prophet” part than on the “flawed” part.

This book?  Not so much.  I have serious reservations about recommending it to the average church member; if you need your prophet to be larger than life, or even just better than the average bear, this book is not for you.  I think there is a substantial risk that people raised on hagiographic, presentist images of prophets would have their testimonies rocked, if not shattered, by this book. Perhaps this is just an idiosyncratic reaction, but I felt an increased appreciation for Joseph Smith, David O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball after reading their biographies.  I can’t say the same for Brigham Young; I liked him–and respected him–less.  Much less. [ftnt 1]
Maybe that’s Brigham Young’s fault for doing some deeply creepy stuff [ftnt 2].  Maybe that’s the Church’s fault for presenting such an unremittingly hagiographic portrait [ftnt 3] of our leaders that any subsequent brush with reality feels like getting tackled. [ftnt 4] Maybe it is Turner’s fault for not giving the reader a sense of why people would have followed Brigham Young. (That is, I think, the main weakness of this book:  you are not left with any reason as to why people would have made the enormous sacrifices that were part of believing that Brigham Young was a prophet.)  Maybe it is some combination of the above.  I don’t know.

But if we choose to bracket that concern, we are left with a truly excellent book.  Turner has leveraged his access to the Brigham Young Papers into a readable [ftnt 5], fascinating biography.  The work’s main strength is how it puts into context Brigham Young in particular and Mormonism in general, based on Turner’s expertise in 19th century American religious history.  For example, he points out that belief in prophets, speaking in tongues, and angelic visions were common (page 29).  This changes the question from “what’s up with angels in America?” to “why did Mormonism survive when all of these other movements with angelic visitations didn’t?”  I think the Deseret alphabet looks a little looney today, but Turner nuances the story when he points out that “Young was not the first noteworthy American to promote such ideas” (page 249). Turner’s explanation that the kinds of attacks levied against the church were very similar to the kinds of anti-Catholic sentiment of the era (page 302) is a helpful corrective to the narrative that is sometimes promulgated that the LDS were the only Americans ever picked on for their religion.

His reading of the Mountain Meadows massacre is on par with that of Massacre at Mountain Meadows:  Brigham Young was not personally, directly responsible for ordering the massacre, but his violent rhetoric encouraged those who did (page 280).  (Further, his knowledge of the wrongdoers but lack of punishment of them led many inside and outside the church to conclude that he did not condemn their actions.)  Once again, Turner does a great job of contextualizing the situation by indicating the extent of 19th century vigilantism.  He does note that a mass murder directed at white Protestants was most unusual; African Americans and Native Americans were far more likely to be victims of this type of action in 19th century America (page 279). There are many more instances where Turner’s provision of context helps the reader better understand what was and what was not exceptional in 19th century Mormonism.

Turner, unlike the authors of the Smith, McKay, and Kimball biographies, is not LDS.  There’s actually a benefit to the Church in this:  there are many instances where we can take his explanation of the larger context of events at face value, whereas we might have dismissed it as a misguided efforts at apologetics had the very same point been made by an LDS scholar. (I realize that this is not fair.  But that doesn’t make it any less true.  Read some of the mainstream reviews of Rough Stone Rolling if you don’t believe me.)   If an LDS author wrote about Brigham Young’s early suspicions of John C Bennett (page 82), we might be a little suspicious.  When Turner explores other instances of 19th century intolerance for outsiders alongside Brigham Young’s (fairly shocking) statements about Gentiles (page 171), we have no reason to see Turner as biased. [ftnt 6]

There were a few points where I wondered whether Turner’s non-LDS status led him to miss certain things that a church member would have seen.  For example, Turner says in the introduction that “Mormons venerate their ancestors” (page 3).  That’s language that makes most Mormons bristle, but I don’t think Turner intended to offend here.  At one point, he described the early work of Joseph Smith:  “Smith and his followers spoke of the ‘restitution of all things’” (pages 23-24).  Mormons are very familiar with the phrase “restoration of all things,” but we don’t say “restitution of all things.”  Perhaps Joseph Smith did say that (once?  frequently?  always?), but I have no idea and there is no information in the text to help me figure out what is going on here. Similarly, when Turner describes early temple rituals (page 86), I can’t tell if the differences between those and modern practice are actually differences, or slight misunderstandings as to what is happening.  At one point, he refers to Joseph Smith’s political “stratagems” (page 89), a loaded word for any student of the Book of Mormon (see Alma 43:30).  He also calls Brigham Young Mormonism’s “chief priest” (page 131).  That is language not familiar to modern LDS and I wonder if he is misunderstanding (or perhaps speaking metaphorically, which is a bad move when talking about a group like 19th century Mormons who take pretty much everything literally) or if Brigham Young (or the people around him) used that title.  Another example:  he describes Brigham Young preparing the people with seven years’ supplies at the time of the Utah War and he makes the connection to the biblical Joseph and Egypt but not to the Nephites in 3 Nephi 4:4 (page 273), which is a much closer parallel because of the context of war.

I do think that his non-member status left him free to frame things in a way that most LDS historians would not.  (Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is, I suppose, up to the judgment of the reader.) For example, he regards Zion’s Camp as a physical failure but a spiritual success.  That is, I think, the standard LDS reading, but what is not standard is to summarize the event by saying that “in practical terms, Zion’s Camp was a predictable failure” (page 37) or that “by mustering an armed force to ‘avenge’ the Lord of his ‘enemies,’ Smith had associated his church in the minds of many Americans with violence and vigilantism” (page 38).  Clearly, the banking business in Kirtland was a disaster, but when you put the word “misguided” (page 49) on it, you raise some really touchy questions about who was doing the guiding. (He also calls it an “unmitigated disaster” [page 54].) But, once again, Turner’s contextualizing is helpful by pointing out that issuing banknotes without a charter was “not all that unusual” (page 49) at that time and neither were bank failures (page 52).  Again, if an LDS historian said that, I think we’d all be likely to dismiss it as being excessively apologetic.  (Turner points out that the banking debacle was the one time that Brigham Young doubted Joseph Smith, before quickly abandoning that thought.)  I also cannot imagine an LDS historian writing this about polygamy:  “Whether Smith was motivated by religious obedience or pursued sexual dalliances clothed with divine sanction cannot be fully resolved through historical analysis” (page 88).  He later describes Joseph Smith’s plans in Nauvoo as reflecting “growing desperation” (page 105).  When he writes that “it remains unclear whether Young or only lower-ranking church leaders like Turley had sanctioned the [counterfeiting] operation in Nauvoo” (page 127), he’s being, I think, fair-minded and yet not open to the accusations of soft-pedaling that an LDS writer would be.  When describing the use of handcarts for emigrants, I think the standard LDS story of the handcarts is “this was a basically good program with one big tragedy.”  Turner’s take is that this was a basically terrible idea that had a few successes before Brigham Young realized it was a bad idea and canned it (page 260).  There are other instances where an LDS author would have been nicer.  Again, whether that is a good or bad thing is in the eye of the reader.

And yet there are some ways in which Turner is extremely sympathetic to Brigham Young.  There are times when he could have made hay but chose not to.  To wit:  Brigham’s son Joseph was born eight months after his parents’ marriage license was issued and seven months after the marriage certificate date, but not only does Turner not point this out (I had to do the math all by myself!), he notes that “a church marriage may have preceded the license date” (page 36).  Similarly, Turner does not flinch from showing Brigham Young’s dictatorial side, but he usually explains it in terms of his not wanting to repeat the problems in Nauvoo by allowing apostasy to flourish and allowing enemies to get a foothold.  Turner reads Young as stamping out every indication of heresy and responding in kind to enemies in order to avoid repeating Joseph Smith’s fate.  (Page 332).  He mentions this multiple times, and he easily could have omitted this charitable explanation for Brigham’s iron fist.  Turner’s fair-mindedness also comes out in his thinking about Brigham Young and women:  he writes that there simply is no way to smooth out the conflicting evidence, given the contradictory statements he made:  “Over the thirty years of his church presidency, Young said so many different things about women that with selective quotations from his discourses one could turn him into either a misogynist or a proto-feminist.  Neither portrait is accurate”  (page 379). Turner also describes a Brigham Young who softens a little with age (toward dissenters, toward women; page 264 and 360).  It would have been easy for him to skim over these changes in Young if he had wanted to make him out to be an ogre.

So, here’s the Readers’ Digest version of my review:  this book is a real treat, but it might completely destroy your testimony if you can’t handle a fallible, bawdy, often mistaken, sometimes mean, and generally weird prophet.  [ftnt 7]

[1]  Which doesn’t mean that he wasn’t deeply awesome in some ways.  Here’s Brigham Young rejecting a man’s divorce petition:  “[you] took her for better or for worse, and had no right to ill use her, and if she shit in the bed and laid in it until noon; [you] must bare it” (page 242).  Also on the same topic:  “similarly, Young told another man that ‘if you have drawn a red hot iron between your legs and scorched yourself bear it without grunting.’ He observed that he offered such advice against his pecuniary interest, as he charged ten dollars for a certificate of divorce.”  And:  Brigham Young said that he had tried bathing every week, but concluded that he “was well aware that this is not for everyone” (page 256).

[2] Dubious financial practices?  Check (page 52). Knife fights in the temple?  Check (page 53). Making false statements?  Check (pages 59, 76, and 153).  Polyandry?  Check (pages 94, 136, 376).  Lying about polygamy?  Check (page 97). Extra-judicial violence, killing, and castration?  Check (pages 122, 186, 188, 259, 285).  Racism?  Check (pages 124, 218, 222, 362). Sexist language?  Check (page 158). Secretly ordaining his pre-teen sons as apostles?  Check (page 382). Violent rhetoric?  Check (page 349 and 350).  Foul language?  Check (pages 173, 305, and 320).  Blood atonement?  Check (pages 186 and 258). False prophecies?  Check (page 197). Paying bribes?  Check (page 369).  Major hypocrisy?  Check (page 400).  Members of the Quorum of the Twelve questioning his use of church funds and his doctrinal teachings?  Check (page 410).  (Irrelevant side note:  I don’t know why people act as if polyandry is somehow worse than polygamy;  I think they are just being sexist and don’t even realize it.)

[3] As recently as 1997, the Church was publishing materials that conveyed the impression that Brigham Young did not practice polygamy.  See the timeline here.

[4] I can see one potential bright spot here:  if we were to be more frank about the yucky parts of our history and the mistakes of our leaders, we might create a space where people who struggle with various doctrinal and policy issues today feel that they can stay in the Church.  The thinking would go something like this:  Brigham Young was comically wrong-headed in some of his comments about (for example, race).  But he was still the prophet and still led the Church.  So perhaps today, the leaders of the Church could be wrong about [insert troubling doctrine here] and still be prophets.  So maybe, just maybe, I should stick around.  Some people will see that as capitulation or faithlessness; others will see it as keeping the sheep in the fold.  Turner quotes Brigham Young as saying later about the Kirtland banking disaster, of Joseph Smith:  “He was called of God.  God dictated him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine” (page 54).  Is that an attitude that the modern LDS reader could take toward Brigham Young himself?  Or perhaps what Amasa Lyman writes about polygamy could be helpful:  “we obeyed the best we know how, and, no doubt, made many crooked paths in our ignorance” (page 156).

[5] He does have a tendency to put “and thus we see”-type sayings at the end of paragraphs.  He either stopped doing it in the middle of the book, or I had acclimated to it and it no longer bothered me.  But at first, I kept thinking, “Hey, Mormon [=the editor of the Book of Mormon], quit telling me what to think!”

[6] Of course, it is not impossible for a LDS to present herself as a credible source:  in some ways, Turner does for the 19th century what Joanna Brooks is doing for the 21st, which is presenting facts about Mormonism to outsiders in a manner more credible than most outsiders assume that a Newsroom employee, BYU professor, historian on the payroll of the church, or even just an average member is capable of doing.  I won’t dwell on the irony that people with Brooks’ or Turner’s status are able to do things to defend the church that orthodox insiders are unable to do. Make of that what you will.

[7] One more thing:  You know the picture on the cover?  It is a detail from this picture.  In the original, Brigham Young is sitting with his arm around one of his wives.  Her face has been scratched out.  Someone needs to write a book about Mormon women with this photo on the cover.

Cross-posted from Times & Seasons

1 comment:

Jones said...

Okay. One more book I MUST add to my list.
I nominate YOU to write that book about Mormon women. Or you could edit it with all your friends adding chapters. You could even let some men do some of the writing. It does need to be done.

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