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Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet Formato Kindle
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One more comparison with Joseph Smith--for many years, Brigham Young: American Moses had served a role much like Joseph Smith: The First Mormon of (at least for believing Mormons) the standard--possibly even definitive in the minds of some--biography. Though Arrington  did achieve a much more effective treatment of Young--using a wealth of uncatalogued contemporary source chaos discovered by Michael Quinn--the result failed to provide a picture of the "man." One left the book without feeling that his thought and drive had been reached. In addition, most of the rough edges of both Young's life and contemporary Mormon history were filed down if not ignored. As Turner notes in his preface, only Arrington could claim "unfettered" access to the Young papers, yet more needed to be done. From the notes and source list, it is clear that Turner did in fact enjoy a friendly and helpful relationship with the staff at the Church History Library. The fortunate consequence is a thoughtful analysis of the rich mine of pertinent documents (journals--both private and clerical, letters, minutes and sermons--even many existing only in shorthand format )
Turner begins his narrative with a concise look at Young's early life (aside: I am not a fan of Mormon biographies that spend an inordinate amount of time on the subject's early life--not why I'm reading), pointing out his unstable home life following his father's remarriage and his discontent with his religious milieu. Turner gives a brief overview of the translation and impact of the Book of Mormon, noting that its influence was driven more by its mere existence than by content at that point. His discussion of Brigham's slow transition into Mormonism features a strong point of his approach--though he notes Young's reminiscences of this time, he points out that Brigham likely overstated his role. Turner recognizes the value of later recollections but carefully weighs their reliability.
Chapter two, "The Tongues of Angels," contains one of the high points of Turner's narrative--a discussion of Young's religious surroundings (particularly the more pronounced expressions of spiritual gifts) and his participation therein. Though the stereotypical view of Young is as a pragmatic mover and shaker, Tuner draws out his charismatic and even enthusiastic side. The story of him speaking in tongues upon meeting Joseph Smith is well-known, but Turner shows that this facet of Young's character would emerge periodically throughout his life. Another welcome aspect of the narrative is obvious in this section (notably so in his discussion of the Kirtland Safety Society fiasco)--Turner walks the fine line between providing context while not allowing his primary subject to recede into the background. I'm always irritated to read a biography that is really a period history with a biographical glaze.
The Nauvoo era always seems to be a minefield for historians--how does one treat such a chaotic and dualistic time? In discussing it with friends, I've remarked that--depending on who you associated with--Nauvoo could be two very, very different places, one for "inner circlers" and one for regular citizens. The narrative for this period is superb--his discussion of polygamy especially so. For example, he balances Young's well-known desire for the grave immediately after hearing of the new doctrine with an 1849 statement that, after a fuller hearing of the matter with Joseph, he was "filled with the Holy Ghost" to the point of "lightness." A similarly temperate discussion of the succession crisis evidences Turner's dispassionate style--he summarizes the purported transfiguration of Brigham Young thusly: "Whether or not they experienced something miraculous in the meeting, for some Mormons their sense of Young as Joseph's successor grew quickly."
In the uncertain days before the exodus from Nauvoo, Turner brings out Young's notoriously mercurial disposition--when greeted by people on the street with the ritual handclasps from the newly introduced endowment, Young abruptly shut down the ceremonies. His temper is also evident in the heated discussions surrounding the attempt to reconstitute the First Presidency at Winter Quarters. For those with a distaste for scatological language, consider yourselves warned!
The chapter entitled "A New Order of Things" is another particularly impressive section, especially when dealing with Young's many plural wives. It is fascinating to hear their voices as the realities of polygamy were being worked out. As was generally his nature, Young seems not to have been terribly warm and fuzzy in his relationships with his wives. Augusta Cobb Adams proved to be quite the formidable opponent when disagreements arose--she repeatedly requested to be sealed to another husband, preferably Jesus Christ himself, but she accepted Joseph Smith as an acceptable alternative.
Various "sticky" issues throughout the 1850s are ably treated by Turner. He discusses the evolution of racial beliefs and policies, noting that Young as a product of his times "fostered a policy of exclusion that his successors saw little choice but to perpetuate." Turner is similarly thorough in his treatment of Indian relations, noting that initially Young complained of "many Elders [who] have prayed to be among the Lamanites and now they want to kill them." Following numerous encounters with the different tribes in the region, Young finally stated that "my natural disposition and taste it loathes the sight of those degraded Indians." Turner's analysis here is broad and temperate and serves as an excellent overview of the origins of the priesthood ban as well as a check against simply summarizing Young's Indian policy as "it's cheaper to feed them than fight them."
Throughout the narrative, Turner maintains the effort to provide a rounded picture of Young. His discussion of several doctrinal principles is an important part of this endeavor. He treats Young's exposition of Adam-God teachings (those who cling to the "the sermon was not reported accurately" defense might want to apply the X-acto remedy on these pages) and his thoughts on "eternal increase" concisely and effectively.
From the friendly confines of theological speculations, Turner proceeds to what is probably the climax of Young's life, the dark days of the Utah War and Mountain Meadows Massacre. To set the stage, he recounts the testy relations with territorial officers and several suspicious deaths like those in the Aiken party. After reviewing the evidence in an even-handed matter, Turner concludes on Young's "likely complicity" in the matter. As is the case throughout the narrative, Turner intersperses interesting details--here, he notes several odd dreams of Young's that the heavy stress effected. Drawing on important recent surveys of the matter (particularly Bill MacKinnon's), Turner chronicles Young's march to the edge of the precipice and the inevitably inglorious retreat therefrom. Turner's concise account of the massacre concludes that "there is no satisfactory evidence that Young ordered the massacre" and that "there was no good reason for Young to order a massacre with the potential to focus the full fury of the American government on Utah" but, in the end, "Young bears significant responsibility for what took place."
The narrative seems to lose steam slightly after the events of 1857-58--this is probably largely so because Young's life never again reached the same fever pitch as earlier. Another discussion of his wives is particularly interesting--Turner notes the rethinking that Young went through, citing his daughter's assessment that, in later life, Young set out to "correct what he esteemed to be a mistake of his early judgment." Several other important events are covered such as Young's appointment of his sons as apostles and counselors, the ongoing legal battle with Ann Eliza Webb and the John D. Lee trial. One can feel Young's life winding down with a few last-minute efforts at kingdom building such as a renewed zeal for United Order principles and the building of the St. George temple.
Simply put, Turner's treatment of Young's life is a landmark in Mormon biography. Everything that a serious student of Mormon history could want is here: careful and extensive research, balanced analysis and polished, crisp writing. The acknowledgments give a clue as to his method--clearly Turner had numerous readers along the way and it paid off handsomely. Turner avoids common "outsider" errors about the intricacies of Mormon society and historiography. By interacting with scholars, both veteran (Will Bagley, Bill MacKinnon) and up-and-coming (Matt Grow, Sam Brown), Turner has ensured his narrative draws on the finest research available. It is a testament to interest in Mormon history that such an excellent biography will find wide readership due to its publication by a major press such as Harvard University. Both author and publisher are to be commended for a very valuable addition to the field.
 I refer to Arrington as the stated author though, as Gary Topping has noted, it was (in true Arrington form) a collaborative effort involving Richard Jensen, Ron Watt, Becky Cornwall, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Ronald Walker, Ronald Esplin, William Hartley, Dean Jessee and undoubtedly others. See Leonard J. Arrington: A Historian's Life, 161.
 The unsung hero responsible for transcription--LaJean Carruth--has provided key assistance in several recent gems such as Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith's Ohio Revelations (Staker) and Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (Givens/Grow).
The book is similar to many other biographies I have read in this: The dramatic is always going to overshadow the ordinary. Brigham Young was President of the Church for 30 years, or about 11,000 days. Since you can't (and shouldn't) get all of that into a biography, what are you going to focus on? Brigham Young hitting the roof is always going to get play, other days not so much. What's the ratio between days of drama and days of quiet, effective administration, counsel and Christian service? Little covered is Brigham's relations with his numerous children. By all accounts there was peace in his homes -- or did all his children run for cover whenever he came into view? There is a book (out of print) of BY's letters to his sons which is a nice counterpoint to the Brigham more often portrayed here. And Pres. Young must have preached a sermon or two on Jesus Christ and His Atonement.
The danger of waywardness of the church in any age is a recurring religious theme. Exhibit A: The Old Testament. (How would a biography of Jeremiah make him look?) Exhibit B: The Epistles of Paul. Paul was continually anxious over the rebelliousness and contention among Christian converts -- it was an uphill slog all the way. In this regard, members of the LDS Church might also want to reflect on Enos 1:23 in the Book of Mormon -- how would you like to attend any of THOSE uplifting sermons? Although conditions were less extreme, Brigham Young had similar worries and I appreciate Turner's pointing out the opposition BY faced from those with their own business and political agendas, a point Hugh Nibley continually made. What's most important is this: After 30 difficult years Pres. Young left the church with a solid Priesthood leadership structure(oddly, the critical 1877 reorganization is not mentioned)that would endure and would be loyally followed by the vast majority of the Saints. They were (and are now) happy to be Mormons. Why? Converts who had never heard Joseph Smith, Brigham Young or any Apostle continued to sacrifice to come to Utah after hearing the testimonies of ordinary members. The Holy Ghost was testifying of something to somebody.
I appreciate Turner's success in situating BY in the nineteenth century. Pres. Young frequently made conscious use of hyperbole to drive home his point (don't slack on the commandments) in a way common for his time but not ours. Turner's discussion of the Mountain Meadows Massacre seems fair to me. It was a horrid event that can't be whitewashed away. Plural marriage is covered in detail, but not salaciously.
Considering the sheer weight of responsibility on BY's shoulders for those 30 critical years, with so many pressures and needs coming from all sides, it is clear to me that Brigham Young was the right man in the right place. What a load to carry! Future Presidents didn't need to be like him in personality. BY had to draw a line and stick to it, and his sticking to it was vital to the survival of the church.
I didn't sense a hidden agenda in this biography; it is not anti-Mormon literature but is skewed in the way an outsider is bound to report on a group he/she is not a member of. Indeed, the book is quite fair within its parameters and Turner is to be credited for this--but LDS church members have different parameters and always will.
Brigham Young was a mass of contradictions, a misogynist on the one hand and, at times, a proto-feminist on the other. Like most of his contemporaries, he believed blacks were an inferior race, and yet he frequently displayed considerable compassion and generosity towards those in his employ. To his credit, Turner goes to great pains to ensure that the reader refrains from hasty judgments. To the extent possible, he tries to get us to see Brigham through the prism of the 19th Century, not with the hindsight of the 21st.
Perhaps Young's greatest flaw--one that almost destroyed him on more than one occasion--is that he rarely engaged in introspection or second-guessed his own decisions. He was quick to find fault in both his friends and adversaries, but he seemed incapable of discerning "the mote in his own eye" or admitting that he was responsible for a scheme or policy that went awry. Like many other ecclesiastical leaders of his and other churches, both then and today, he was sometimes wrong, but never in doubt. Sadly, his arrogance and stubbornness sometimes resulted in pain, suffering, and even death, for his friends, opponents, and innocent bystanders.
My only criticism of the book is that it was too short. I felt there was so much more about this man that I would like to know. But, to be honest, no matter much additional material Mr. Turner had included in this biography, I'm not sure I am capable of fully comprehending Brother Brigham, a man for whom the phrase "larger than life" is truly apropos.
Turner shares documentary evidence from Young's life that is not that flattering--Young swore profusely, carried grudges, and was heavy handed. Even so, as a faithful Mormon, I ask myself, "Could any other prophet have held the Mormon Church together during the tumultuous mid- to late-1800s?" I do not think so. Young, as evidenced by Turner's excellent work, was a product of his environment which we do not now live in. Young's rough exterior, in part molded by his environment, allowed him to lead a group of early pioneers and fashion them into flourishing communities. Despite Turner's conclusions that Young successfully lead a massive group of people, some current members of the Mormon Church might not like this biography because it gives us Young's successes and a lot of his failings--this book is Young unplugged, warts and all.
At times, as I read this book, I disagreed with some of Turner's summations and arguments, but at least his points are backed with good scholarship. Turner is not a Mormon, and he does not have an ax to grind--this book is NOT anti-Mormon vitriol. As a member of the Mormon Church I applaud Turner's effort and appreciate the fact that he took enough interest in Young to write a reputable book. Turner tackles the tough issues of Young's life extensively: familial discord, Indian policies, political intrigues, rival Mormon Church rivals, Adam-God Theory, Mountain Meadows Massacre, and polygamy. For instance, despite Young's endorsement of polygamy, and persistence in living its laws (55 wives), Young confessed that he did "not know such a man" that can satisfy every single wife (p. 381). I find comfort in Young's struggles and weaknesses that are on display in this book: God, according to Young, accepted his efforts, therefore there is hope for me.
There is one thing I wished Turner had done: a small chapter on Young's teachings about Jesus Christ and His gospel. Toward the end of the book Turner noted that Young's words spirituality sustained the Mormons (p. 406), but that was not a point which reoccurred in the narrative of the book. If a least a few references to Young's belief in Christ's life and example were included, then this book would have given a more well-rounded view of Young's personality and passions. But again, I think that as far as history goes, Turner did a nice job of relying on the documents and letting them tell the story of Young's life.
Finally I refer you to Turner's responses to questions about this book. At Juvenile Instructor: A Mormon History Blog (Nov. 27, 2012) Turner noted why he wrote the way he did, confessed to some minor historical date mistakes, and included this very true insight: "I love the field of Mormon history for many reasons. The rich sources. The voluminous scholarship. Most of all, I love the fact that so many people care about the Mormon past. This has some downsides. It makes the field contentious and testy. . . . Such contention, however, is more than outbalanced by the passion that so many individuals bring to their writing and to conversations about Mormon history. That passion is contagious."
I agree with some of the critiques that there is a lack of spirituality in the book and I say that to mean the spiritual influence that Young exhibited. Many times the author focuses on those that opposed Brigham and forgoes mentioning the majority of church members that were loyal to the prophet and his decisions. These statements make it look like there was much dissent when it was in reality very small. The book doesn't always focus on the bad though and much credit is due the author for writing about Brigham the man. I am much better able to understand Brigham in the context of the times in which he lived and how and why he responded to the various difficulties he encountered.
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