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.
The reputation for being un-American was based on more than distaste or prejudice. On September 11th, 1857, with Young already facing the prospect of war with the US government, Mormons from the Utah Nauvoo Legion massacred a wagon train of civilians bound for California. About 120 men, women and children were slaughtered.
The question of whether Young was complicit in the Mountain Meadows Massacre became a subject of national debate. People were outraged that this was a white-on-white massacre, a rare occurrence in the history of the US. That the crime was not the result of the heat of battle but had been a calculated and planned act, writes Turner, “testifies to the extreme levels of anxiety, hatred, and avarice present in 1857 Utah”.
Much of the subsequent history of the Church of Latter-day Saints has been an exercise in trying to shake off these excesses. So it is ironic that Mitt Romney, the most famous face of contemporary Mormonism, is more often criticised for not being interesting enough – a bland and pampered son of privilege, his critics argue, prepared to say anything to get elected. In short, Romney might need to show a few more qualities of the roughly hewn but formidable Brigham Young.
The character who emerges from Turner’s elegantly written and well-researched biography is a man for whom the word “protean” might almost have been invented. He became one of the foremost colonisers of American history, leading the Mormons on a perilous journey to the Great Basin and laying claim to approximately a sixth of the western United States. “We are the soul and the mainspring of the west,” he declared with some justification in 1870.
Young faced down federal attempts to curtail Mormon autonomy in general and on controversial issues such as plural marriage in particular. In doing so, writes Turner, “he brought many of the key political issues of mid-19th-century America into sharp relief: westward expansion, popular sovereignty, religious freedom, vigilantism, and Reconstruction”.
Within his own community he ruled with the proverbial rod of iron, often berating his followers, even the apostles of the church, in expletive-ridden tirades from the pulpit. The Mormon faithful often left church feeling as bemused as Ann Romney looked when watching Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair at last month’s Republican national convention.
For all Young’s roughness in appearance and language, and though lacking the natural charisma of Joseph Smith, Turner shows the second prophet to be a shrewd and subtle politician. In a stand-off with James Buchanan, the 15th president of the US, Young exercised great strategic and tactical insight about when to dig in and when to trim. The result was a tacit compromise in which the governor of Utah, Alfred Cummings, admitted that the way he “got along well enough” with Young and the Mormons was “by minding my own business”.
Academic histories of Mormonism, such as John L Brooke’s prize-winning The Refiner’s Fire, have often ended up at the centre of fierce debate. Turner attempts to sidestep controversy by adopting a measured and even-handed tone. Clearly he admires Young as a historical figure, but he does not do so uncritically. Judgments are nuanced and well supported.
Only very occasionally does his approach seem anodyne for such a controversial and visceral figure. When discussing Young’s complicity in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Turner concludes with two perfectly balanced paragraphs outlining the case for and against Young but ultimately stops short of telling us what he thinks. By this stage he has built up our trust, and, as readers, we want his judgment even if it goes beyond the available archival material.
Turner’s story never drags, partly because the tale itself is so fascinating, but also because he writes with clarity and energy. He slyly contrives to set the reader thinking about contemporary political issues and comparisons, such as the observation that Young always believed it was “better to be passionate than proper”, but without ever mentioning or even alluding to the current Republican candidate for the presidency.
Readers of this fine book, for the next few weeks at least, are unlikely to have Mitt Romney out of their minds. The result of the US presidential election will determine the rest. For Romney it will either be Hail to the Chief or something closer to the sarcastic quip made by Young about the endless bestsellers that attempted to debunk Mormonism: “Well, we are a curiosity, ain’t we?”
Richard Aldous teaches history at Bard College, New York, and is the author, most recently, of Reagan and Thatcher