16 December 2012


John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2012.

It’s always tricky analysing character from still photographs, especially from sepia Victorian ones, when posing could take so long the posees – or maybe poseurs – were often physically held up by discreetly placed props or braces. There was no way you could grin for the camera for hours on end. Judging solely by photos of Charles Dickens you’d think he never cracked a smile in his life.
So although when one stares into the face of Brigham Young on the jacket of this biography by John G. Turner one is tempted to think of him as a short-tempered despot, his narrowed, watchful eyes betraying incredible arrogance and the temperament of a right bruiser, one might experience some doubt that this image is just an illusion created by the tedious photographic process of the day.

But for once the camera doesn’t lie. It appears that Young, the legendary Mormon leader who established Salt Lake City, was indeed a short-tempered despot, whose narrowed, watchful eyes betrayed incredible arrogance and the temperament of a right bruiser.

Turner’s book is a dense, often tough read, the sheer weight of detail tending occasionally to deaden one’s response. It is very much a researcher’s book – and there can never be too many of them where the vexed history of Mormonism is concerned – but perhaps it lacks that mysterious authorial talent of flow. Nevertheless, it is a landmark book, though not, one suspects, one that will find its way onto the average Mormon’s bedside table.

In many ways, Young’s story is the classic American dream. So illiterate his scribblings look like the average facebook postings – urging his first wife not to expose ‘my poore righting and speling’ - and originally so poverty-stricken he lived on the edge of starvation for years, he ended as the ‘new Moses’, leading his people to the Promised Land, wealthy and unashamedly paunchy with good living. Indeed, his last days saw him the Compleat Patriarch, lord of all he surveyed (which included over 40 wives and nearly 60 children, but more of that later).

It all began not with a vision of Young himself, but with that of his friend and leader Joseph Smith (see following review), who ‘discovered’ (or perhaps wrote) and ‘translated’ (or perhaps ditto) the Book of Mormon, allegedly the ‘Bible’ of the New World and the sacred text of the new religion of the Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons.

Having always been a religious seeker, Young’s devotion to Smith and his cult was total. He even blazed the trail as missionary to England, where he was horrified by the plight of the workers in the Industrial north. (He was to say repeatedly in future years that American poverty was bad – and he should know – but the English took it to a whole new level of living hell.) Incredible though it may seem to those familiar with the crusty and frankly dangerous old dictator of later years, while on his English mission Young was gentle and humorous. He was also markedly successful, and after his return to the American east, thousands of British converts flocked to swell the Mormon ranks.

In those early days, he was a devoted husband – and to just one woman, too. However, his devotion to Smith, though there were minor upsets, was to remain largely unwavering even through the serial baptisms of fire that tore through the path of early Mormonism. He was by no means blind to Smith’s faults – which were many and colourful – but once on the path to eternal glory there was no stopping either of them. 
$3 banknote issued by the
'Kirtland Safety Society' in 1837
Setting up an enclave at Kirtland, Ohio, the Mormons also set up their own bank – well, they printed their own money, anyway. That did not have a good ending. They also built a temple in 1836, where the blatantly Masonic secret rituals of Mormonism were practised (both Smith and Young became Masons during the Kirtland era). These included ‘sealings’ – or marriage ceremonies, not just for life but for all eternity. The only problem was that in order for a good Mormon man to enter the top-level heaven he had to be ‘sealed’ to as many women as possible. Women could only get in as a plural wife. Original wives had to agree. Most did, though Emma Smith was not, shall we say, a great fan of polygamy, and Brigham (possibly for that reason) was never a great fan of hers.

(Young claimed to have a ‘glimpse of heaven’ at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, but only many years later. He never mentioned it at the time.)

After Smith’s death at the hands of an angry mob in 1844 Young came into his own as leader. Now the Brigham Young of history became defined by his defence, even encouragement, of violence towards Mormons’ enemies, declaring that they should ‘be ready to slaughter all that come’. As the now famous wagon trains left for what became Salt Lake City, Young became ‘Lion of the Lord’ – or to the more friendly Native Americans, simply ‘Big red-headed chief’. Neither Emma Smith nor Joseph’s mother chose to follow Young on his ‘new Moses’ trek, which was probably a very good thing for all concerned.

It was a horrendous time. Disease, starvation, hostile locals – of one sort or another – and occasionally even brutal indifference from Young himself meant that the journey to the Promised Land could be seen through the prism of history as little short of another Burma Railway for a good many of the Mormon faithful.

It was this time, as Turner points out, that produced the ‘Narrative of suffering that appealed to non-Mormon sympathizers’ – and still has that Wild West/cowboys-and-Indians appeal today.

Inevitably, the reality had little in the way of Hollywood glamour: throughout this ‘growling, grumbling, devilish, sickly time’ there were challenges to Young’s authority, which was foolish, pointless and dangerous as he wouldn’t have any of it. If those who murmured against him weren’t satisfied with his status, then he would – telling phrase – ‘slap them with revelation’. For the one great PR coup of Mormonism is that every leader from Joseph Smith onwards is believed to receive direct revelation from God. Young included. Sometimes, his divine information was received with ‘quiet unease’, such as his declaration that Adam was the father of Jesus. This appears to have been dropped from modern Mormon theology. Perhaps God was having an off-day when he shared this with Young.

But if the people didn’t accept the slap of revelation there was always just the slap.

One of the most controversial aspects of the religion was the emergence, during the early pioneering days, of a group of fundamentalist hit men, known as the ‘Daneites’, who sorted out in a markedly terminal fashion any real threats from among the flock. Although still a matter of debate, this book does provide some evidence that Young not only knew about them but also sanctioned what is by any real standards, a bunch of Mormon jihadists. Apparently the Daneites still exist.

No one can doubt that Young was a master organiser. Against staggering odds he led his people to the Promised Land where despite all that nature and the American Government could throw at them, they flourished. He crowed, as he surveyed his flock of 20,000 in the mid 1850s, ‘It will be Mormondom all over!’, adding in case of doubt, ‘I am boss in this valley…’

His pugnacity could know no bounds. While his attitude to the local Ute tribe was contradictory, to say the least, he was happy to go on record saying ‘I say go and kill them!’

And when his men slaughtered a ‘Gentile’ (i.e. non-Mormon) wagon train, including women and children, it seems – although this is a controversially grey area – he sanctioned laying the blame on the Indians. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is one of several sticking points for the Mormon believer, whose usual response is to ignore it, a position greatly encouraged from the highest authorities in modern Salt Lake City.

Young also instigated as actual Mormon doctrine, ‘Blood Atonement’, which meant that certain sins were so evil that even Jesus’ own blood sacrifice could not redeem them. The only way to save their souls was to spill their blood – in ways that left one in no doubt that blood had indeed been spilt. For this reason criminals in early Salt Lake were beheaded. A few were castrated, if their crimes were sexual.

Joseph F. Smith with his family: wives,
sons and daughters, and their spouses. C. 1900.
Given that Young declared ‘I do not care how many [wives] are sealed to me, nor who’ and that the U.S. Government eventually reacted with horror against polygamy, decrying that under Young’s leadership ‘ a mother and her daughters are allowed to fulfill the duties of wives to the same husband’, it might be deemed rich that he of all people was so hard on ‘sexual crimes’.

To him adultery was punishable by at least castration, and often by death. Inevitably the thought occurs that one way not to commit adultery was to marry the person involved. And make no mistake, women were throwing themselves at their Leader, though they might find themselves woefully neglected and they and their offspring condemned to real poverty after the spiritual glamour of their ‘sealing’ with Young became a distant memory.

Polygamy became a major issue when the U.S. Government sought to impose its laws on the errant ‘Zion’ in Utah and indeed without renouncing plural marriage Utah could never become a state. Many of the many, many wives met to show support for the practice, but more pragmatically it was the coming of the railways that spelt the beginning of the end for Mormonism as an isolated, self-governing theocracy – without polygamy (officially).

And, now in his increasingly rickety old age, the new Moses found himself adapting, calming down, becoming ‘ more cantankerous than fearsome’.

There were scandalous divorces and even a show trial for the Mountain Meadows’ massacre – though 12 pages went missing from Young’s account of the event and have not been recovered. And in the end, when Mormonism’s second ‘Prophet, Seer and Revelator’ finally left this vale of tears for the top-level heaven to await all his wives (be careful what you wish for, Brigham), it truly marked the end of an era. He had succeeded in becoming the American Moses. He had become an instantly-recognised name in American pioneering history. He had presided over the foundation of a new city and a new state in the name of his religion, and the desert had indeed ‘blossomed as a rose’.

But was Brigham Young also a conman – or, arguably worse, a complete and utter credulous fool? From the beginning he was totally in thrall to Joseph Smith, the farm-boy who created Mormonism – and God knows, there are questions enough about him… -- Lynn Picknett.


  1. Small correction: the last picture is of Joseph F. Smith and assorted wives and Smithlings, not Brigham Young.

    1. Thank you. I have corrected the caption.