Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet
John G. Turner
Belknap Press, 2012
512 pp., $35.00
Stephen H. Webb
A Many-Sided Man
His expansive rhetoric was reflective of the wide open spaces of the West, and his ecclesial leadership depended on big gestures and dramatic performances. Turner admits as much, pointing out, "His public discourses were often crude, rambling, and full of bluster, but in private [he was] a different man." Young's positions on the issues of his day were pragmatic and thus constantly changing, so selective quotations can make him look as bad or as good as any historian wants. Turner quotes him generously to show just how hard he is to pin down. We will probably have to await much more archival work and a comprehensive analysis of Young's personal correspondence to round out an accurate portrait of his personal character.
On the controversial aspects of Young's career, Turner is even-handed. About the most notorious incident during Young's life, Turner writes, "A heinous crime executed after careful deliberation and subterfuge rather than in the heat of any battle, the Mountain Meadows Massacre testifies to the extreme levels of anxiety, hatred and avarice present in 1857 Utah." He finds no evidence that Young ordered the massacre but does say that he "bears significant responsibility" for announcing a policy to not discourage Indian attacks on emigrant wagon trains, a policy that might have led the murderers to presume his support.
Turner is also insightful about Young's attitude toward race. Young could sound more tolerant and progressive in his speeches than he was in his practices. The reason for the inconsistency had to do with the Mormon view of the afterlife. "Perhaps most fundamentally," Turner writes, "a church that emphasized forging links between the generations and eternal sealing between its members would not find it easy to incorporate black Americans within this ecclesial family." Other Protestants had the option of imagining a segregated heaven or reducing eternal life to a matter of disembodied souls experiencing peace and harmony. For Mormons, this life continues into the next; indeed, any intimacy shared in this life will be magnified in the afterlife. Young's vision of every person as an equal link in a chain of family connections stretching back to Adam did little to unchain blacks from the humiliation of racial prejudice.
Young ruled with a strong hand, but Turner shows how his legacy of centralized power permitted the church, in the decades following his death in 1877, to renounce polygamy in 1890 and abandon theocracy in order for Utah to become a state in 1896. He welcomed hard times, firmly believing that only fierce struggles with trials and tribulations could turn individual Mormons into a people with their own enduring character, but he also died a wealthy man who wanted his church to amass treasure as a defense against its enemies. Whether the Mormon people can be both peculiar and prosperous is a question he left for later generations to answer.
Stephen H. Webb teaches theology at Wabash College. His most recent book is Jesus Christ, Eternal God: Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter (Oxford Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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