Brigham Young biography portrays a great leader and an unpleasant man

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) Closing the book after reading, “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” the new biography by George Mason University religious studies professor John G. Turner, published by Belknap Press of Harvard University (here), causes some swirling emotions for this Latter-day Saint reader. From reading Turner’s fantastic — and it is by far the best that has been written of Young’s life — biography, it’s easy for a faithful Mormon to agree that God called Young to the task of moving 20,000-plus Mormons across the plains to Utah territory and over a generation-plus, to set up hundreds of Mormon settlements. No man in U.S. history was ever that successful in those endeavors. On the other hand, while admiring Young’s organizational skills, I don’t much care for Brigham Young the man.

Turner’s biography portrays an often unpleasant man, with a foul mouth — his preferred cuss word was “shit” — and a spiteful, vengeful nature. He had a caustic sense of humor, which perhaps mitigates some of his casual comments that seemed to support violence. He ruled the Salt Lake Valley as an absolute dictator, and harbored longtime grudges against apostles who dared to criticize his particular beliefs, such as blood atonement, the Adam-God doctrine, and the United Order. While no evidence exists that Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, his messages to Native Americans that they could steal from non-Mormon settlers, the atmosphere of settler-animus that pervaded 1857 Utah, and Young’s successful efforts to stymie an initial investigation into the massacre, harm the image of the LDS Church’s second modern-day prophet.

Indeed, Young’s caustic tongue also inflamed a Mormon bishop to castrate a petty criminal, a Logan member. Rather than feel sympathy for the man or his mother, Young protected the ecclesiastical leader who had ordered it. And, reading accounts of murders of non-Mormons by LDS thugs Porter Rockwell and William Hickman, it seems plausible to theorize that Young ordered those deaths.

However, Turner’s book overall is not a negative portrayal of Young. It is another example of grizzly bear truth, where a great man’s life is revealed, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and faults included. The book is on the shelves at Deseret Book, and that’s appropriate because it does justice in recounting the life of the West’s most prominent 19th century colonizer. Turner describes Young’s hardscrabble existence in early 18th century New England, his strained relationship with his father, and his early religious skepticism that was finally counteracted by Joseph Smith’s new religion, Mormonism.

Before the mid-1840s, Brigham Young was known for his compassion and openness as a Mormon apostle. Turner recounts his tender, love-filled letters to his wife, Mary Angell, and the biography includes accounts of his compassionate tenure as a leader to the Mormons in England. But the murder of the Joseph Smith, the continued harassment of Nauvoo Mormons afterward, and, as important, the internal dissent that swirled within the LDS Church prior to Smith’s murder, all that changed Young. He appears to have turned into a man, a leader, determined to never let that happen again. Young mercilessly abused the LDS apostles both privately and publicly.

Young’s CEO-type behavior, though, achieved its goals. No disagreeing members of the LDS hierarchy were able to achieve the success of the Law brothers, in Nauvoo. Young’s hammering of the Saints in Utah, his public denunciations and calls for repentance, kept the Utah Mormons united in their distrust of outside influences and retained their faith in unity. His strong opposition to mining, for example, kept Utah free of non-Mormon influences for as long as Young could manage it.

Young never forgave what he perceived as disrespect, and late in his life arranged the apostles’ hierarchy so that Orson Pratt could not become church president. It was motivated by retained anger over Pratt’s efforts at independence. Young never admitted that he made mistakes. The handcart fiasco was the fault of Franklin Richards and John Taylor; the failure to enact a United Order was the fault of Erastus Snow. Private gestures of compassion and charity to apostles, severely chastened by Young, served to partially mitigate this routine abuse. Young also provided himself a great deal of wealth and luxury, while relegating many of his followers to relative poverty. He tolerated no criticism of this perceived inequality.

Young demands respect despite his human weaknesses. More than even Joseph Smith, he is responsible for the survival of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His shrewd leadership, along with help from the canny, non-Mormon lobbyist, Thomas Kane, managed to keep him as the main source of power in the Utah territory for much longer than anyone would have anticipated. Young was able to manipulate political events, wars, the seasons, weak-willed political appointees, Native American unrest, and petitions for statehood to consistently survive virtually every imbroglio with the federal government or U.S. Army. Turner recounts many incidents of Young surviving as Utah’s leader while “gentile” nemesis after nemesis left Utah as grumbling failures.

When the railroad connected Utah with the nation, Young’s power slowly decreased the last decade of his life. Perhaps to cheat the spectre of death, Young took a few young wives. He tried to re-energize support for two doctrines he had long espoused, the Adam-God doctrine and the United Order. Those efforts though were lackluster. Still revered by members, Young seemed a calmer, or perhaps just exhausted lion. One of his final acts was to dedicate the St. George Temple. Characteristically, he criticized an apostle while doing so.

Brigham Young was a great man. I revere him as a prophet. He was also a man of his times, who carried the savagery and bigotry of that era. Many of his most egregious acts can be explained, and even perhaps excused, by the understanding that he felt himself to be in a war. He believed that his existence, and that of his Gospel, was in danger. That he died as leader of the Utah Mormons was his final victory, and final sacrifice for Joseph Smith.

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18 Responses to Brigham Young biography portrays a great leader and an unpleasant man

  1. Steve Stones says:

    Be careful Doug. Your church leaders may call you into their office for making such comments about Brigham Young. Your church standing could be in jeopardy. Intimidation by fear is always a good way to control members’ behaviors. I hope you’ll come out of this okay. Let me know how it goes.

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Brigham Young saved the church Joseph Smith founded from demise. Yet in the process of doing so, converted it into something so different from what Joseph Smith founded, that in a sense one might say Joseph Smith’s church did not survive.

  3. Pingback: 1 October 2012 | MormonVoices

  4. Solomon Kane says:


  5. GIl Montano says:

    I’ve read all of BY’s sermons in the Journal of Discourses. No doubt he was a great leader and colonizer. Conversely, he was also an ignorant, semi-illiterate, absolute dictator, and tyrant, over the LDS church for 30 years who wouldn’t tolerate dissent in any shape way or form. Even his daughter, Susan Young Gates, I think her name was, admitted as much. So did his apostate wife, Eliza Ann Webb, in her book, “The 16th Wife”. He would sit a dinner table with his favorite young, pretty wife, Amelia Folsom, eating all kinds of delicious foods while the rest of his wives and children ate plain, coarse food and watched. He would have exd Apostle John Taylor for something he was innocent of, if JT hadn’t apologized. After BY died, it took JT 3 years to untangle the financial mess BY hyad created by co-mingling his personal funds with church funds. BY considered that all church funds were his own! The horror stories just go on and on!

  6. LasvegasRichard says:

    Brigham Young was a great man ??? Wow ! If this synopsis is accurate , your idea and my idea of greatness differ sharply. It amazes me that Young didn’t encounter mortal enemies . But maybe he did, which is why to my knowledge he had bodyguards.

  7. jUST A cOUNTRY bOY says:

    “published by Belknap Press of Harvard University.”

  8. Stephen Buck says:

    When and if you read this article please do so with a grain of salt. Why? Because the author insists on using exaggeration and out of context references to make an his point, I will site just one example of John Turner’s methodology to show how he twists history to misrepresent what B. Young was really like. He says: “Young never forgave what he perceived as disrespect, and late in his life arranged the apostles’ hierarchy so that Orson Pratt could not become church president. It was motivated by retained anger over Pratt’s efforts at independence.”
    The real reason Elder Pratt was moved down in the quorum (and lost his seniority) was because of his temporary apostasy, in other words other men were chosen to replace Elder Pratt and consequently they were placed ahead of him in rank when he returned to the Church. Standing in the quorum was determined by who had served the longest in that calling. Because of the troubled times the Church was experiencing the matter was over looked. Later one of Pres. Young’s councilor came to him and reminded him of the oversight. It was not because of Pres. Young’s pettiness but because of a procedural error, not corrected, that Pratt was moved down in seniority. Young did not initiate the action as Turner implies. Elder Pratt understood the reasoning and was not unhappy about the change. Young and Pratt were both great individuals that helped to move the Church out of obscurity
    You can easily see Turner is sensationalizing his book and if he would lie about this instance he would lie and exaggerate about many more.
    Talk about being petty, Turner makes a point about Young’s use of the word “shit”. Big deal Turner! The language Young used was that of a back woods man, as many persons were at the time (Pres. Young was born about 1802) and did not have a chance for the education Turner, the elitist, had. So what? Turner did you help to colonize one sixth of the land mass of the contingent USA??? It seems to sell his book Turner has to make a real villain out Young. The people loved him and his fortitude and they obeyed him willingly even though he asked them to do some very difficult things. Your calling Young on his less than eloquent language is pretty darn trivial.
    The church member certainly did not grow up in an atmosphere of fear of the man. Do you make that point in your book, Mr. Turner??

    • Erick says:

      I think it is too ambiguous to simply state that Orson Pratt was moved down because of “temporary apostasy”, without contending with the nature of that apostasy. I don’t know all of the area’s where his views differed from his higher authorities, but I do know of two areas’. First he had issues with Joseph Smith on the topic of polygamy. Second, he had issue’s with Brigham Young on the Adam-God sermons.

      • LasvegasRichard says:

        If by ‘issues’ you mean adultery , then yeah . Joseph Smith tried to move in on Pratt’s wife while he was in England. I’m pretty sure that on a personal basis, any man would not only have permanently left the church, but would have beat the tar out of him or worse. Most people are aware what happened to Brother Parley in Arkansas .

  9. Trevor says:

    Good job taking down what is being regarded by Mormon historians as one of the best Mormon biographies to be released in years. I’m sure if Turner didn’t have such a huge ax to grind, he would’ve produced a much better book, just like your interpretations demand.

    *eye roll*

  10. Trevor says:

    My comment is directed towards Stephen Buck, not Doug Gibson.

  11. Rob says:

    Trevor: What “Mormon historians” do you speak of? What is their methodology, their printing history, the trustworthiness of their work, the validity of their scholarship, their biases, etc. etc. etc. ? I’m sorry but claiming “Mormon scholars” approval means nothing to me as I do not automatically make obeisance to someone with a degree or an important sounding job title.

    I think Stephen Buck did an excellent job showing an example of where the biography isn’t completely up to snuff or suffers for one reason or another.

    • Trevor says:

      Nearly everyone at Juvenile Instructor (probably the largest online hangout for Mormon academics), for example, has been geeking out over this book since before it was even published. How about people like Richard Bushman (probably the faith’s most prominent historian) or Phil Barlow?

      Rather than assert that the book sucks, while providing no credible historians to back the position, how about finding me a single historian that has major issues with the book?

  12. Al Ace Riddell says:

    “…no evidence exists that Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre….” What?! He was given a Presidential pardon for his role in it. “No evidence?” He convicted h i m s e l f. The only mass murderer in history to get a Presidential pardon.

    • Erick says:

      Wilford Woodruff recounts Brigham Young’s sentiments on the matter in his journal. Whether he ordered the attack or not, his personal views were very unsympathetic to the fact that people were murdered. That has been a point of discouragement for me towards Young’s character.

      • Doug Gibson says:

        From page 309: regarding a visit Young made to the memorial that was placed at the MMM site, that read “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” …. “Young suggested that it should read, ‘Vengeance is mine and I have taken a little.”

  13. Dovie says:

    Brigham Young was a great leader but personally a jerk. Sounds like he was the opposite of Christ. But, hey, the Mormons have money.

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