Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review: Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John Turner


Some of my favorite books on Mormon history have been biographies of the LDS church presidents. It's fascinating to me to see how their personalities shape the church. It's clear to me that God does call his prophets to lead the church at the opportune moments for their particular skills and their particular approaches to things. Joseph Smith's expansive vision of God's work, Brigham Young's intractable tenacity, Wilford Woodruff's pragmatism, Gordon B. Hinckley's media-saviness, etc. have all helped the Kingdom of God move forward. A friend of mine has a goal to read a biography on every single U.S. President. Based on her goal, I have in my mind a goal to read good biographies on each of the church presidents.

So far I have read:
Joseph Smith-Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman
Brigham Young-Brigham Young: American Moses, by Leonard Arrington
David O. McKay-David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, by Greg Prince
Gordon B. Hinckley, Go Forward With Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, by Sheri Dew (This one ends when President Hinckley becomes the church president, but that's okay because I was alive for all of President Hickley's tenure as prophet.)

To-read:
Spencer W. Kimball-Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, by Ed Kimball
Wilford Woodruff-Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet, by Thomas Alexander

I haven't really been working on this (I have plenty to read right now for my own studies, thank you very much) so if any of you have any suggestions on biographies for church presidents, I'd love to hear them.

In any event, I saw with interest that a new biography on Brigham Young had come out from Harvard University Press. I was intrigued based on my experiences with the above biographies that I have read. I also knew that it was by a non-Mormon, and it's always good to get outside views on events.

Before I get into the review itself, I'll just say that I want a scholarly article on the picture the dust jacket uses:

Who's the woman there? And who scratched her face off? Another wife? Brigham? An overzealous historian? Fascinating possibilities. Anyway, on to the review!

John Turner does a fantastic job of using his nearly unfettered access to the church history library in SLC to paint a more complete picture of Brother Brigham than any previous biography, and that includes Leonard Arrington's biography. This is interesting because Arrington actually was the church historian at the time he wrote his book. I suppose the library wasn't as well organized then as it is now. (I've heard nothing but positive feedback about how professional the library is these days. The church historian's office has made fantastic leaps in the last decade, helping produce a vast collection's availability to aid scholars in their work on Mormonism.) And Turner's book certainly does a great job of getting into the various details of Brother Brigham's life, showing us the man who was thrown suddenly into the role of church leader, and what he did with it. I particularly think that Turner's thesis about where Brigham Young got his hard edges in leadership style is likely accurate. Turner points to the few years after Joseph Smith's death as the shifting point from Brigham's personality from a follower to a leader . . . and definitely a more "iron fist" kind of leader than Joseph. Why more iron fist? Because, in Brigham's mind, Joseph was too soft on dissension, and that's what eventually got him killed. Brigham had no desire to become a martyr himself.

Now, whether Joseph died because he let dissenters run rampant is true or not, I think that Brigham himself thought it true, and that's why he was more of a dictator than Joseph was. Turner's discussion of how Brigham shifted during the three or so years after Joseph's death has convinced me. Living for that much time under armed guard, afraid for your life, sneaking in and out of the temple . . . such a prolonged experience would have an affect on anybody. I think that Turner is right in pointing out Brigham's leadership style is one result of this, shall we say, trauma. And Brother Brigham's more iron-fist approach to leadership is certainly not one that we've been taught readily in our church. Turner's biography paints a, well, shall we say . . . saucier kind of Brigham than your average sunday school manual. Is that a bad thing?

Well, that depends. I'm no fan of hiding the truth. I think, in the long run, that telling the truth is good. I think too often we LDS treat our history like all the Mormons were completely saintly and never made a single error, even though the Doctrine & Covenants itself directly contradicts that (namely, the parts where the Lord says that the saints have sinned, but I digress). So it's a problem when some poor Mormon discovers that church history wasn't all hugs and puppies, and their testimony, largely based on incorrect assumptions of prophetic infallibility, flies all to pieces. So I think it's nice that we learn about Brother Brigham's saucier side. It pre-empts such testimonies flying all to pieces.

However.

There is a right way to discuss these things, and a wrong way. I discovered inklings of Brother Brigham's saucier side in Arrington's biography, discovered Joseph Smith's failings in Rough Stone Rolling, and learned of internal conflicts and dissension among the higher leaders of the church from Greg Prince's biography of President McKay. These were all okay to me, because they were written by believing Latter-day Saints who had found some way to reconcile such-and-such a piece of church history with their testimony of the restored gospel. They showed the inner workings of the church by way of the lives of its prophets, and that's very useful and interesting. Contrary to what you might have learned in primary, the governance of the church is not all by divine fiat. Sometimes there are even debates and disagreements about which actions to take. (Unsurprising, if you think about getting any two people ever to agree on everything, let alone three, or twelve, or fifteen.)

I think that Turner discusses these things the wrong way. Upon finishing the book, I thought to myself, "why would anybody follow this Brigham Young? He's kind of a jerk." I'm not the only one with this criticism of the book. And I've actually had several opportunities to meet Turner (which is why I finished the book during this time of intense study for me, I wanted to have it finished by the last time we would meet), and so at one of them I asked him that question. Why did people follow Brigham? He admitted to me and the others in the study group a few weeks ago that he felt he could have handled this question better. He pointed out three things, specifically, that Brigham had done before he became the de facto church president, and later actual church president, that garnered him a lot of good will from the members. First, many of the church members were from the British Isles, and Brigham had led the British mission. So many members of the church had fond memories of him as the leader of the missionaries that brought them into the church. Second, he finished the Nauvoo temple and endowed thousands of Mormons before they abandoned the city. The sheer amount of man-hours this took would have staggered anybody but the firmest believer. Brigham Young was a believer, and it showed to the people that he worked tirelessly for in the temple. Third, he was the "American Moses" who dragged a despondent group of church members from their Nauvoo the Beautiful to the middle of nowheresville, Mexico, to create a civilization literally out nothing in a sparsely-populated desert wilderness. He worked hard to preserve the church and to get its members to safety. So, after doing these three things he had garnered a lot of support and a lot of good will from the members.

But since Turner admitted to me, personally, that he didn't make this connection clear, I can still criticize the book on this point. Largely the Brigham the biography portrays for the last half or so of the book is a ruffian, ruling with an iron fist and lording it over all the people of Utah, fighting with the federal government, condoning courses of action that seem outright appalling in retrospect, and getting in theological spats with some of the other apostles (namely Orson Pratt). He mellowed out towards the end of his life, but for a good chunk in the middle of the book Brigham comes across as a very unsavory character. And here's where John and I part company.

In all of his book there is no hint that  Brigham was actually inspired at all. This came as no surprise to me, as I was not expecting Turner to think of things that way. What I did not expect, and what did surprise me, was the effect it had on me, a believing Mormon, in reading the work. I just felt that it was lacking . . . something. You know, maybe the fact that Brigham actually was a prophet. That he actually was inspired by God. That he was called of God to lead His church, and that he was the right man for the job at the time.

President Boyd K. Packer once said "There is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work." In the more scholarly circles of the church (especially the arrogant ones that I really don't actually like) he's gotten some flak for saying it. Actually, he mostly gets flak for some of the other things he said in that speech, which you can go dig up if you want. However, unsurprisingly, on this point he is absolutely right. Turner's biography does not feel, to me, like an accurate, objective history of Brother Brigham. I also wish that Turner had focused more on the development of the church, as the other biographies I have listed here do, but that's more of a scholarly quibble. This is a biography, and a pretty narrowly focused one at that. But in missing even the idea that Brigham was a leader because he felt he was inspired, or that others felt he was inspired, the biography misses much of the point of Brigham Young's life. One of the new catchphrases of Mormon history is to show it "warts and all." This biography misses the "and all" portion.

So, while this is not a scholarly point at all (but this is not a scholarly review) I feel that I did not receive a stronger testimony of Brother Brigham from reading this book, like I did from reading the Arrington biography, which I actually read on my mission, no less! The biographies I mentioned above of the other LDS church presidents similarly strengthened my testimony of the Latter-day work of God.

And maybe because I did not feel the Spirit while reading this book, there are a few incidents in Brother Brigham's life that I feel I do not have a good handle on. Many Mormons have this idea of a "shelf" where you put items or doctrines or statements or historical facts that you don't know what to do with on. Polygamy, for example, is on the shelf for many Mormons. That will be explained, they hope, more thoroughly in the next life, but for now it's on the shelf, gathering dust, because they don't know what do do with it and can't get a handle on it. For some people, the shelf collapses eventually because they have added too much to it.

I don't have much of a shelf. I've learned through experience that most of these "problems" sort themselves out over time and study and prayer. My shelf gathers dust, because there are no permanent items on it. (Things that do show up on the shelf are usually easily dismissed by the idea that prophets are not infallible. Hence, many of these items have a "shelf-life" now measured in nanoseconds, for me.) But after reading this biography, there are a few items on my shelf, and they might remain there permanently. I won't get into the details, but there you have it. I finally have items on the shelf that I expect will remain there for some time.

In the end, then, I do not recommend the biography for believing Latter-day Saints. The Arrington biography, Brigham Young: American Moses, should suffice if you want the more historically accurate, yet still faithful, point of view.

Overall grade (scholarly point of view): 90.

Overall grade (believing Mormon point of view): 40.

P.S. End notes are still the devil. I HATE having to flip to the back of a book to see the citation and discussion!

8 comments:

nathalia said...

I have never read any of these books, but after reading your reviews, I want to revamp my Christmas wish list to include all these books + some TIME to read!

Anonymous said...

You don't recommend it for believing LDS? Are believing latter day saints unable to handle historical biographies?

Melanie said...

Thanks for this thoughtful review. I've had it in my mind that as soon as I finish reading all of the US President biographies, I'll do church president bios...although it's going to take me forever to do the USPs, so maybe I should start on the LDSPs now.

Now if only someone would set out to write bios of all of the prophets' wives (or in the case of Brigham, prophet's wives). I may have just found my calling in life.

Carl said...

Anonymous @3:50. Arrington's book is a historical biography. So are the others that I mentioned that I do recommend. So it's not that believing LDS can't handle historical biographies, it's that not all historical biographies are equally good for all purposes people read them for. In this case, I would hope that they would want to read a biography such as this to gain increased understanding about the early church, but I think the amount that they would gain is not worth the amount of effort required.

Also, nobody is free from bias, and in this case I think not having a testimony or seeing the hand of God anywhere (Turner doesn't really even mention a lot of LDS beliefs regarding leaders of their church, even if they hadn't yet fully developed in Brigham's time) makes Turner have a bias that makes this more for scholars than for believing members. Plus, as I mention, it focuses so narrowly on Brigham that it doesn't address church development issues like those other biographies do, so members looking for that will be disappointed.

Melanie, you noticed that was you that inspired this goal of mine, eh? I don't know that someone will ever do a bio on ALL of Brother Brigham's wives, but I know someone tried to for Joseph Smith's, but just in one volume. I had to put it down because it was so dry, but maybe your time spend scouring old archives for journals of missionary wives will have better prepared you for Todd Compton's book.

Kevin said...

I suggested to Carl a book on John Taylor:

Last Pioneer: John Taylor

http://www.amazon.com/Last-Pioneer-Taylor-Mormon-Prophet/dp/1560851155/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1355906347&sr=1-1&keywords=john+taylor+saints

Ben said...

Nice review. I started the volume, and had to put it down to focus on other things, but hoping to kill it off over Christmas.

Unknown said...

Carl,
Having just recommended Turner's biography for my book group (women from our ward plus a nonmember friend), I was interested in your comments. Though I found certain statements and actions in this biography of Brigham unsavory, from what I have read elsewhere, and heard from family lore, they did not surprise me. Brigham was living in an entirely different time and culture. Some of his coarse language may even have endeared him to certain followers. His polygamous relationships and at times aggressive (even violent or dictatorial) stance may seem irreconcilable with our current sense of a prophet, but are mild compared to behaviors of Old Testament patriarchs.

I was planning to suggest for the readers in our group, that they begin reading Turner’s book with the epilogue. One criticism I have of the biography is that its focus on details, though interesting, leaves readers who are not already aware of the broader outlines of Brigham’s life and contributions without the ballast to counterbalance the negative details in this biography. I was planning to share some from Eugene England’s Brother Brigham with our reading group (England admits in his preface to loving Brigham.) This collection of topical essays, though not a comprehensive biography, provides some of what is missing in the Turner book. I will also suggest Arrington’s biography as an alternative to read prior to our discussion. In the meantime, I want to re-read Arrington as a comparison point to Turner’s work.

Off topic, I received a lovely Christmas card today from you and Susan. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Carl,
Having just recommended Turner's biography for my book group (women from our ward plus a nonmember friend), I was interested in your comments. Though I found certain statements and actions of Brigham in this biography unsavory, from what I have read elsewhere, and heard from family lore, they did not surprise me. Brigham was living in an entirely different time and culture. Some of his coarse language may even have endeared him to certain followers. His polygamous relationships and at times aggressive (even violent or dictatorial) stance may seem irreconcilable with our current sense of a prophet, but are mild compared to behaviors of Old Testament patriarchs.

I was planning to suggest that readers in our group begin Turner’s book with the epilogue. One criticism I have of the biography is that its focus on details, though interesting, leaves readers who are not already aware of the broader outlines of Brigham’s life and contributions without the ballast to counterbalance the negative details. I was also planning to share some from Eugene England’s Brother Brigham (England admits in his preface to loving Brigham.) This collection of topical essays, though not a comprehensive biography, provides some of what is missing in the Turner book. I will also suggest Arrington’s biography as an alternative to read prior to our discussion. In the meantime, I want to re-read Arrington as a comparison point to Turner’s work.

Off topic, I received a lovely Christmas card today from you and Susan. Thanks.