John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet is an excellent book. An important book. And a deeply inconvenient book.
Brigham Young holds an interesting place in the lives of Latter-day Saints. At the same time we celebrate his leadership of the Twelve following Joseph’s death, his leading of the Exodus West, and the firm establishment of the building blocks undeniably leading to the longevity and survival of the Church, it is quite generally understood that, doctrinally, quotes by Brigham Young should often be taken ‘with a grain of salt’. That he was very opinionated, liked to speculate, and often was very confusing. Mixed with some wince-worthy quotes about race, and the role of Adam, this is generally all that most members know about Brigham Young. The larger than life epic high points make it easy to digest that he ‘said some weird things’, and then we move on.
John Turner’s biography does for Brigham Young what Richard Bushman did for Joseph Smith in his groundbreaking Rough Stone Rolling. Turner presents everything you’d heard about the Prophet, adds a lot more details you probably didn’t know, and nuances both with necessary context often removed from isolated antagonistic anecdotes or hagiographic prooftexts.
While I completed the Joseph Smith volume with some new and surprising (to me) information, I also found stirred within myself a powerful and strong respect for Joseph as an individual. A new world – a new paradigm – was opened up to me, and I began a roller-coaster journey of exploring the nature of scripture and revelation. The Joseph Smith papers has greatly helped flesh this out, as has additional volumes such as Staker’s Hearken O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, and Sam Brown’s In Heaven As It Is On Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. These have broached very difficult questions concerning the nature of prophets, revelation, and scripture, and have been helpful friends on a journey of discovery, introspection, and a renewed – and in some ways readjusted – commitment to my Faith.
I expected the same sort of reaction while reading Turner’s Brigham Young book, but, initially, something else happened.
One of the review blurbs on the cover is this quote by Richard Bushman, which I think is a precisely accurate expression as to how I would explain this book:
“The story Turner tells in this elegantly written biography will startle and shock many readers. He reveals a Brigham Young more violent and coarse than the man Mormons have known. While lauding his achievements as pioneer, politician, and church leader, the book will require a reassessment of Brigham Young the man.”
Turner, who unlike Bushman is not LDS, is nevertheless extremely and somewhat surprisingly generous to Joseph, and to Brigham. I noted several occasions where my experience has shown that many other authors would have taken easy potshots, and illustrated less than generous conclusions. Turner is very quick to refer to other works of scholarship on more nuanced figures and persons and events rather than to make strong value judgments on his own. (In the afterward, he thanks, among others, accomplished LDS scholars Jonathan Stapley and Sam Brown as being cultural guides of sorts. I’m familiar with their work, and their influence is very apparent in the text.)
It is Turner’s very clear generosity that makes many of the more uncomfortable and explicit aspects of Brigham Young’s life (foul language, politics, death threats, racial views, apparent apathy to murder) when presented, even more discomfiting than they may have been otherwise.
Brigham Young, by necessity, went beyond Joseph. Elements that Joseph only envisioned and began, Brigham brought to pass – Namely the in-the-open living of the concepts of Dynastic Family Chains, and a completely independent Kingdom of God in the West. Not only was Brigham a designated and authoritative spiritual guide, but he was also a temporal King in very deed. He had an earthly Kingdom he felt a duty and obligation to protect as his stewardship at all costs. In the context of frontier America, especially on the cusp of the Civil War, this was not an easy, nor a ‘clean’ job.
Turner did a fantastic job contextualizing – and to the degree possible, normalizing – the rough and tumble, harsh and bloody nature of the Antebellum West, and its related politics. Such a milieu can be extremely difficult for us 21st Century Americans to really and truly grasp. I’m still working at grasping it. It truly was a different world – and Brigham Young was not only a firm resident in this world, he was viewed as particularly radical within it.
If you’re seeking to ‘like’ Brigham more, I don’t think this book will be the best tool to accomplish that. As Bushman said, you will see a more violent, course, and angry individual than most have come to expect.
What I do think I beneficially gleamed is understanding. Understanding – it is important to stress – is very different than justification. Without feeling the need to support or condone all that Brigham did, I feel that perhaps I understand more clearly this powerful leader’s perspective, why he felt he needed to do and say the things he did, and perhaps see more clearly the goals he felt were the ends by which nearly all means were justified.
Brigham was fiercely loyal to his people, and to what he understood as his stewardship and responsibility for the survival of a literal and divinely appointed Kingdom of God. While we may find his broad ideals admirable, we can – and most, I believe, will – still find many aspects of his approaches to life’s challenges deeply troubling. And certainly not as things they could see being said and done by, for example, Thomas S. Monson.
As I neared the end of the book, what I found most fascinating was not the details of the life of Brigham himself, but what our reactions to him and his life reveal about our deeply held views of God’s personality and character. Many of the attributes we may find naturally repugnant in Brigham Young’s doings are attributes and actions that have traditionally been ascribed to God for millennia, and are found in our scriptures.
God, as presented throughout the scriptural records, was understood and presented as being willing to deceive (1 Kings 22:23), condoning extrajudicial killing and massacres (Numbers 31:17–18) , being inconsistent in his sometimes subjugating (see nearly all laws in Leviticus treating women as property)/sometimes exalting positions on women (see praise of Deborah, Esther), being discriminatory by lineage, employing fiery and harsh rhetoric (see Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), etc. These were popular divine attributes part and parcel of admitting the Ultimate Sovereignty of God.
An encounter with an undiluted Brigham Young is a powerful reality check for our understanding and approach to the scriptural records of God.
Joseph Smith took the once-upon-a-time nature and views of Ancient Prophets and Living Scripture, and demanded that we confront them and wrestle with them as a present and practical reality. I see Brigham Young doing much of the same for traditional – and scriptural – expressions of the deeds and sayings of God. If confronted with the Old Testament’s Yahweh in our present reality, as he was literally presented in that record – in broad strokes, would we see him as a Loving Fatherly King, or a Deviant Tyrant? Would we respect him out of love, or out of the Fear of Retribution? Just as there were some who saw God through both lenses, it is fascinating that the same can be applied to Brother Brigham. The relationship between the Saints and Brigham was just as complicated as the relationship between ancient Israel and their God.
To me, Brigham fulfilled his role as revelator, not in telling us about God, but by revealing how we all truly do feel about the actual ancient, traditional, scriptural expression of God.
While Jesus was sent as a presentation and revelation of the God Who Is, I suggest that Brigham presented a contrasting revelation of the God who the religious world actually claimed to love and worship and adore. While providing extraordinary, necessary, and perhaps miraculous temporal and practical services to the Church and its members, I find the strength in the broad strokes of Brigham’s spiritual ministry to be that he created a sharp contrast which made the ministry of Jesus shine even brighter. His life, most likely unknown to him, was a living parable. In a fascinating way, Brigham’s life and theology paved the way in later years for a strong and lasting reformation of the LDS relationship with and view of the attributes of God.
We can read the Old Testament and declare, authentically and rightfully, “God did great and wonderful things,” note some inspiring tender moments, and still be incredibly disturbed at the implications of God’s nature based on his actions, leading it to be hard to love and have Faith in God as he is presented there. While I do believe in God, I believe that a progression of light and knowledge that has come into the world has revealed the inaccuracies, misunderstandings , and misrepresentations of key aspects of His personality and attributes as understood and expressed by the ancients.
I believe that Scriptures and Prophets are inconvenient by design. I believe what we learn from our interaction and confrontation with their lives and teachings is generally far more beneficial and conducive to growth and coming to know God than the correlated sum of their words and teachings alone.
The existence and daily lives of the first pair of true Modern Prophets – Joseph and Brigham – messily and inconveniently demand that we – Mormons as well as those who are not – confront and revisit our perceptions and paradigms of the Divine.