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Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet
Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet
John G. Turner
Belknap Press, 2012
512 pp., $35.00

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Stephen H. Webb


A Many-Sided Man

The life and legacy of Brigham Young.

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None of this could have been predicted based on his early life. Young was born in Vermont in 1801. His family moved to rural New York looking for prosperity but found destitution and misery instead. His mother died when he was a teenager and after that he was on his own, which forced him to develop the independent streak he demonstrated throughout his life. He was nearly thirty and, in Turner's words, "with no prospect of obtaining capital" when the Young family became acquainted with the Smith family. "When I saw Joseph Smith," Young later recalled, "he took heaven and brought it down to earth; and he took earth, and brought it up." Like Smith, Young was not comfortable with the plethora of competing Christian traditions clamoring for his attention. The audacity of Smith's Book of Mormon lit his imagination on fire. "I found it impossible to take hold of either end of it; I found it was from eternity, passed through time, and into eternity again." For the rest of his life he never faltered in his confidence in the story Smith claimed to have translated from golden plates.

Smith sent him to England "without purse or scrip" to "preacht as opertunity presented" (Young was always embarrassed about his poor spelling and bad grammar). In London he took in the tourist sights and began showing his genius for organization. The mission was a great success, with hundreds sailing for America and thousands more to follow over the years. "Down the road," Turner writes, "Young would be well positioned to lead those British emigrants, as many possessed memories of his spiritual leadership in England."

Turner points out that Young's leadership style before Smith's death was collaborative and deferential, traits that would change dramatically when Young became Smith's successor. Young was outside Boston when he heard about Smith's assassination. He had already assumed a prominent role in the church's ritual of proxy baptism for the dead, and he married more women in Nauvoo than anyone else, including Smith. What really helped him rise to the top of the Mormon hierarchy after his return to Nauvoo was his ability to divert the loyalty that many Mormons had to the Smith family into a complex variety of new family bonds and social contracts that coincided with his own political interests.

Smith left behind a number of secret rituals, increasingly speculative theological propositions, and a worldly ambition that knew no bounds. Young, who was at his best in leading the Mormons out of Nauvoo and into Utah, was determined to make Mormonism an earthly success. He was comfortable with power and exercised it without hesitation or compunction. "Always cognizant of the events that led to Joseph Smith's death," Turner observes, "Young took no chances with anything resembling disloyalty." When his authority was threatened, he often resorted to sharpening his millennial rhetoric by denouncing the United States and predicting its imminent demise.

Like Smith, Young was constantly looking for rituals that would tie the Mormon community together. "Men will have to be sealed to men," he proclaimed in 1859, "until the chain is united from Father Adam down to the last Saint." He was also always coming up with quixotic schemes to make the Mormon church more financially solvent. He even tried to create a unique phonetic alphabet for the Latter-day Saints.

Evidence that he tried to out-speculate Smith lies in his theological teachings on Adam, which were much maligned in his lifetime, even within Mormon circles, and are neglected today. Young begins with the idea that if Christ is a second Adam, as Paul claimed (1 Cor. 15:45, 47), then Adam must be a kind of first Christ (Rom. 5:14), at least in his pre-fallen state. For Young, this means that Adam had a hand in organizing this world before he became a member of it, and thus Adam can be called "our Father, our God, and the only God we have to do with." Needless to say, Young was not a systematic theologian, and he could get carried away by the power of his own rhetoric. The same speaking skills that enabled him to connect with every stratum of society led him to overestimate his ability to splice church doctrine.

If Young had a preferred rhetorical trope, it would be hyperbole, and this is the one topic that I think Turner could have tried harder to plumb. Young's public speech was often not intended to be taken literally. Take, for example, his advocacy of blood atonement for capital crimes, which Young presented as "a form of spiritual charity." Turner writes that, "In a chilling perversion of the golden rule, Young suggests that killing people before they had the opportunity to forsake their salvation 'is loving our neighbor as ourselves.' Young's comments were not spontaneous hyperbole." While it is true that Young promoted this doctrine off and on for several years, he was an inveterate, as well as spontaneous, exaggerator.

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