Magazine | October 29, 2012, Issue

The Mormon Moses

Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, by John G. Turner (Belknap, 512 pp., $35)

If a magnetic, irritable, and occasionally horrifying Moses were the main character in a quite bloody western, watching it might be something like reading this new biography of Mormonism’s second prophet.

“A leader who understood himself as following in the footsteps of the ancient biblical patriarchs could not readily function within the U.S. territorial system,” John G. Turner deadpans, and the remark conveys in miniature this book’s value and its fairness. Turner, a professor of religious studies, offers an unflinching account of Young’s life “within the context of mid-19th-century American religion and politics,” yet evinces throughout a sympathetic understanding of the way Young and the Mormon pioneers saw themselves: as a chosen people delivered by God from their persecutors and led to a latter-day Zion.

The story, in broad outline, is this: Mobs brutalize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Missouri and Illinois (in one gruesome detail, Young’s brother witnesses a massacre of Mormons at Haun’s Mill and recounts that afterward, when a child of ten or so was found hiding, a vigilante “presented his rifle near the boy’s head and literally blowed off the upper part of it”); Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum are murdered; Young assumes the presidency of the church and in 1847 leads it to what will become Salt Lake City; Mormons colonize much of the Great Basin and parts of California and the Pacific Northwest; Young becomes Utah’s first territorial governor, then clashes so defiantly with federal authorities that President Buchanan sends in the Army; Young backs down just in time to avoid a war and a trial for treason; Congress, still leery of his power and disgusted by Mormon polygamy (Young was married to more than 50 women at once; the church would later embrace monogamy), makes various attempts to exert federal control; but through a combination of good luck and political adroitness, Young rules his ecclesiastical kingdom largely unhindered until his peaceful death at age 76.

Turner’s portrait is of a man both great and greatly flawed. The manner of Young’s selection as church president by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (of which he was a member) nicely displays the more indomitable facets of his personality. A few of the twelve — led by Orson Pratt, with whom Young often sparred — thought that the apostles should be joint leaders of the church after Smith’s death. But Young, already de facto leader and wishing to assume Smith’s title, overcame the opposition with a remarkable performance:

As the discussion proceeded, Young grew animated and “full of Spirit & Shout,” interspersing his arguments with shouting, singing, and hollering. . . . “S**t on Congress,” he rebuffed Pratt’s not overly shrewd comparison of [Young’s] position to that of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. . . . Young ended by recounting a dream in which “a personage” came to him, enabled him to contemplate the planets, and “said he could show me in two minutes that the system is correct.” “I bel[ieve] the L[or]d God will give me revelations as plain as he ever told Joseph,” he concluded before the council voted [unanimously to make him church president].

Young could be playful and jolly. He sang “songs of Zion” in unknown tongues and was fond of music and dancing. On one occasion he held a dance for the Saints in their temple at Nauvoo, Ill. — something that would be unthinkable in today’s Mormon temples, although not in the churches where Sunday worship services are held — and another time he remarked that “whoever goes to hell I’ll warrant you won’t hear fiddling or have dancing. All music is in heaven, all enjoyment is of the Lord.” A man of physical vigor who delighted in leading the Mormon exodus, he “would have maximized his own personal pleasure,” Turner speculates, “if he had spent his entire adult life as a Methodist circuit rider, Mormon missionary, or trail guide.” And he had a wit. Acceding to President Buchanan’s truce conditions, by which he was pardoned of crimes he felt he had not committed, he joked: “If a man comes from the moon and says he will pardon me for kicking him in the moon yesterday, I don’t care about it; I’ll accept of his pardon.”

#page#But the trauma of Smith’s lynching, which had been set in motion by Mormon apostates, made Young intolerant of dissent, and his theological teachings (in the main rejected by his successors) put a premium on vengeance. Beginning in the mid-1850s, Young preached a doctrine of “blood atonement.” He

warned that the death of Jesus would not absolve all sins. “[T]here are transgressors,” he explained, “who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them.” . . . In a chilling perversion of the golden rule, Young suggested that killing people before they had the opportunity to forsake their salvation “is loving our neighbor as ourselves.”

Such sermons incited extrajudicial murders, ordered by lower church authorities, of Mormon apostates and “Gentile” “enemies,” as well as the castration of a young man suspected of sexual impropriety — all of which Brigham Young defended. (Which did not dissuade the castrated youth’s mother from marrying Young some years later.) Although Young knew that a group of Mormons, again acting on the instructions of local leaders, had massacred a Gentile wagon party — men, women, and children old enough to be witnesses — at Mountain Meadows, they remained in his good graces. Turner finds the evidence compelling if not dispositive that on two occasions Young authorized murder himself. And on a third occasion, when Mormon settlers clashed with Ute Indians near what is now Provo, Young’s initial forbearance quickly gave way to “I say go and kill them.” He even supposed this command to fulfill a prophecy of Joseph Smith and held nightly prayer meetings as the butchery ensued.

These and like details may trouble Mormon readers unfamiliar with anything but the church’s sanitized presentations of its history. Yes, it was a wild West. And yes, Young’s actions must be understood against the background of prior injustice toward Mormons. That suspicion begets suspicion and violence, violence — that Smith’s death leads to Young’s iron-fisted rule, and Haun’s Mill to Mountain Meadows — is a central lesson of this history. But the difficulty for a believing Mormon is that he cannot understand such events in purely human terms. He must find a way to accept Young as a “prophet, seer, and revelator.” So what to do when the prophet is evil?

I have no good answer, but I can suggest two directions in which to think. First, maybe God chooses prophets more for their openness to divine influence than for their accomplished saintliness. (Young was unquestionably devoted to his God: “My religion is true,” he said to a territorial governor as his eyes filled with uncharacteristic tears. “I love my religion above all things else.” And he did mellow out: The incendiary rhetoric stopped, and he tried to prevent Mormon settlers from harming Indians during later tensions.) If God takes people as they are and molds the malleable, in brutal times we might expect some brutality even from holy men.

Second, maybe God chooses some prophets because they meet an exigent need. Brigham Young was an astute and worldly man whose gifts were perfectly suited to ensuring the survival of a church and the unity of a people that faced existential peril. A Mormon may believe that Young was the inspired temporal steward of eternal truths of which he was not fully worthy, the sometimes-sinful bearer of a genuine prophetic mantle.

Similar difficulties confront non-Mormon Christians. If it was wrong for Young to kill the Utes, what shall we say about poor Jericho? If murder by firearm is contrary to God’s will, how Satanic is the stake? Believers may not feel the force of these dilemmas acutely, because they are set in either a distant past or, for those disinclined to Biblical literalism, a quasi-mythological realm. But the problem is no less real in the former case, and the scripture no less appalling in the latter.


So let me end with two wider morals of Young’s story. The first is that the importance of the individual conscience can hardly be overstated. It is common among conservatives of a certain stripe to deplore the post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment elevation of the individual in relation to ecclesiastical authority and the social structures in which it is embedded, but to study 1850s Utah is to grasp almost palpably the danger of cooperation between religious and secular power in a regime that lacks a robust respect for the individual. Moreover, the conclusion that you should defer to authority, tradition, or revelation is still and always your conclusion: The individual mind and conscience is the domain in which judgments are made (as opposed to coercions enforced) about how much autonomy the individual mind and conscience should enjoy.

Second, we should acknowledge that there is danger in the idea of a God who breaks into history in particular ways (this is sacred, that is not). The idea expresses itself triply in Mormonism: As for all Christians, God as Christ redeems a fallen mankind; as for Jews, God sets apart a community of the chosen; and perhaps uniquely among major religions, God speaks through a prophet today. The common denominator is that certain situations, relations, and events are superordinate to the remainder of life: We are lost without Christ; society is Babylon if it isn’t Zion; and wisdom is foolishness unless it issues from oracular lips.

The antithesis is what we might call an “Eastern turn” in spirituality: a detached acceptance of life, unconditionally and in its totality, as sufficient on its own terms, and a corresponding eschewal of any attempt to discern the unfolding of a divine plan or to articulate the nature of that which gives birth to what Chinese sages called “the ten thousand things.” It is possible within such a framework even to dissolve the fear of death, which is part of why Vedanta and some strains of Buddhism, for example, are no mere humanisms; but this is said to depend on direct experience of your identity with a suprapersonal mode of being rather than on propositional belief in a deity.

Now the danger of the Eastern turn is that if you endue your merely personal interests and desires with a suprapersonal import, you may feel licensed to do whatever you want, however destructive or self-destructive. Hence the Eastern stress on egolessness. But the Western danger of projecting your merely personal interests and desires into your concept of a manifest God, and thereby yoking them to an absolute authority, is just as real. And it is not removed so much as transformed by deference to tradition, authority, or community, for all can be repositories of chauvinism and bigotry (which is to say elite and collective selfishness), and can even catalyze mass psychosis.

So my point is not that Christians should find a guru, any more than that Buddhists should get baptized. Religions flourish only if they speak some kind of profound wisdom, and wherever they do it ought to be respected. But Brigham Young and the history of early Mormonism can help us see the wisdom in this: “Stop listening for a voice from above. There is one already part of you; it tells you to be unafraid and love one another; and that is quite enough.”

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