Friday, October 25, 2013
Mormon Roots of the Church: Brigham Young
But until he met Joseph Smith, Brigham — the Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, call both Smith and Young by their first names — was a 29-year-old transient nobody in upstate New York who “lived on the economic margins of his society,” and wasn’t particularly religious. He relished the sense of community he found among the Mormons and was much moved by his early encounters with Smith (“He took heaven . . . and brought it down to earth,” Young recalled). Yet half a lifetime later, that unlettered ex-husbandman ruled over a theocratic empire as large as France. Turner calls Young “the greatest colonizer in American history,” who established Mormon outposts in present-day California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming.
Young was indeed “maddeningly unpredictable.” He swore like a sailor and prayed like a saint. He alternately made peace with Indian tribes and massacred them. He couldn’t decide whether dancing was sinful; he permitted it one week and forbade it the next. Turner is a good writer in possession of a great story. “Brigham Young” is a landmark work, written by a Gentile, as the Saints call non-Mormons, with the active cooperation of the church. If Young could make the Saints dance, I wished at times that Turner would make this double-barreled, all-American story sing. That said, Turner more than compensates for his stylistic formality with exhaustive research, excellent judgment and an abiding sense of fairness.
The perennial question in Mormon history is: Whose side are you on? For over a century, the church cleaved to “faith-promoting” histories about heroic Joseph and Brigham, and the evil Gentiles who persecuted them. As recently as 19 years ago, Salt Lake’s guardians of the Saintly flame excommunicated several prominent writers and historians for what the old-line Soviets would have called “deviationist” points of view. (Some of them have since rejoined the church.)
Turner is on the side of good history, and he generally negotiates the many tripwires in the Saints’ story — the “hall of mirrors,” as he calls it — with aplomb. For example, he unflinchingly recounts the notorious 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormons and their Paiute Indian allies killed a group of emigrants from Arkansas. While he writes that Young encouraged the Indians to attack the wagon trains, Turner allows that no document directly links him to the horrific murders of 120 men, women and children. Turner does note that Young cynically billed the federal government for $3,527 worth of gifts supposedly distributed to “sundry bands of Indians near Mountain Meadow.” The gifts — steers, clothing and butcher knives — had in fact been plundered from the slaughtered settlers. What Turner calls “the dark stain the Mountain Meadows Massacre” left on Young’s reputation remains to this day.
Can a biographer be too fair? Perhaps. Turner’s judiciousness on the hot-button subject of polygamy is squishy in the extreme. He successfully explains the “elaborate theological edifice surrounding plural marriage” but overreaches when he describes Joseph Smith’s seduction of the teenage servant girl Fanny Alger as the prophet’s “first well-documented nonmonogamous relationship.” The business was more sordid than that. Their hasty coupling occurred in a barn on a haymow and was witnessed by Joseph’s wife Emma Hale Smith through a crack in the door, according to Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Emma Smith’s biographers. Turner imbues their union with a dignity it doesn’t deserve. More likely, it was “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair,” as Joseph Smith’s confidant Oliver Cowdery called it.
Polygamy loomed large in the life of Young, “probably the most oft-married man in America,” according to Turner. Young married an estimated 55 women, and at the age of 70, he endured house arrest for “lewd and lascivious cohabitation.”
Plural marriage was a serious issue — it kept Utah out of the United States for decades and was finally renounced by the church in 1890 — but it did have its light side. In January 1863, the 61-year-old Young fell in love with and married the beautiful Amelia Folsom, 37 years his junior. Predictably, the May-December love match was the subject of much gossip and caviling from Young’s many other wives. “Polygamist as he professes to be,” fumed Ann Eliza Young, restive wife No. 19, “he is, under the influence of Amelia, rapidly becoming a monogamist, in all except the name.” Well, not quite. In 1868 he married two 23-year-old women and he wasn’t done yet. His final marriage, to the already-married Hannah Tapfield, occurred four years later.
There is no aspect of Young’s fascinating life that eludes Turner’s scrutiny. Young’s theological impulses may seem off-kilter to mainstream Christians — for instance, he preached that Adam was God and the father of Jesus Christ — but Turner elucidates 19th-century Mormon theology with sympathetic intelligence. He makes no secret of Young’s espousal of “blood atonement,” the “chilling perversion of the golden rule,” which allowed Mormons to kill sinners before they were able to forsake salvation. “Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood?” Young asked. “That is what Jesus Christ meant.”
Well, not exactly.
Brigham Young was tough as nails — and soft as kid leather. “I am thankful for this hard winter,” he wrote in January of 1849, and he embraced the arid, rocky Salt Lake Basin as “a good place to make Saints.” He hated the gold rush in neighboring California. “Gold will sink a man to hell,” he preached, but he was something of a frontier dandy who ordered a bespoke watch from a London craftsman with the letters of his name substituted for the 12 hours. In 1859, he boasted to the newspaperman Horace Greeley that he was worth $250,000, perhaps $7 million today. Brigham cruised the famously broad boulevards of Salt Lake City in a magnificent carriage imported by his Eastern business agents, along with a dozen pairs “of best French kid gents gloves (goatskin, not sheepskin)” and opera glasses “nicely cased in roan calf instead of patent leather.”
When a mob killed Joseph Smith in 1844, The New York Herald confidently predicted: “The death of the modern Mahomet will seal the fate of Mormonism. They cannot get another Joe Smith. The holy city must tumble into ruins, and the ‘Latter-day Saints’ have indeed come to the latter day.” Likewise, when Young died at age 76, The Salt Lake Tribune opined that Mormonism’s “whole decaying structure will rapidly fall to pieces.” But thanks to Young, the structure has weathered the ensuing 135 years quite handily. He built it better than he knew.