Mormonism's polygamous pioneer
BIOGRAPHY:An even-handed account of the life of the notorious Brigham Young comes at a time when his legacy may be about to shape US history
Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet By John G Turner, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 500pp. £25.95
ON DECEMBER 27TH, 1847, Brigham Young became president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are commonly referred to as the Mormons. “If I was to go to every man and woman and ask who is the man,” declared one of his fellow apostles that day, “they all know the man.” After Young had been confirmed as leader, the assembled Latter-day Saints joyfully clapped their hands, shouting “Hosanna! To God and the Lamb! Amen!” while the orchestra played God Save the King.
Whether Mitt Romney, a contemporary Latter-day Saint, is shortly to get his own version of this reception, with Hail to the Chief, will depend in no small part on his ability to live down – and live up to – the reputation of the second prophet. Young’s life is admirably chronicled in this fine new biography by John G Turner, an assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University, Virginia.
Questions of authenticity, Turner makes clear, were central to life in the United States of the mid 19th century. Financial institutions constantly failed. Counterfeiting of money was rife. Land titles were often bogus. This was a world in which charlatans and confidence tricksters flourished, especially on the frontier, where justice was often as rough and ready as the lifestyle.
Religion was beset by similar questions of authenticity, and with so many preachers and prophets claiming to speak for the Lord amid the heady atmosphere of the second and third great awakenings, the issues of legitimacy and genuineness, as opposed to “humbug”, were vigorously debated. Of all the new religions to emerge in the US, Mormonism was perhaps the most controversial and disputed, sometimes violently. The founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was murdered by anti-Mormon vigilantes in 1844.
The afterburn of those controversies remains to this day. For while most contemporary Christian denominations have been able to put distance between themselves and their 19th-century pasts, Mormonism is almost unique in being defined by it.
Scepticism about the revelation to Joseph Smith of ancient scriptures, which he translated and published as The Book of Mormon (“chloroform in print,” complained Mark Twain); the Adam-God doctrine and secretive temple rituals that prompted many to question whether Mormons were even Christian; popular revulsion at the practice of polygamy, which saw Young, for example, take 56 wives, 16 of whom bore him a combined total of 57 children; and a prolonged and bitter campaign by Young to keep his church and the land it had colonised in what became Utah outside the jurisdiction of the US: these all combined to give the Mormons a reputation for being strange and un-American – a tricky inheritance for any US presidential candidate.