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Young and the Restless: On Brigham Young | The Nation

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Young and the Restless: On Brigham Young

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You don’t have to look very far afield to find the unquiet shade of Brigham Young on the national political scene. When the Republicans ended up fielding the first-ever Mormon presidential candidate from a major party, both the evangelical right and the secular left raised alarums about the cozy historic fraternity of church and state in Mitt Romney’s religion. More broadly, there’s the longstanding distrust that evangelical Protestants have harbored toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on theological grounds, stemming from unorthodox Mormon traditions such as plural marriage and baptism of the dead, as well as from the Book of Mormon’s many excoriations of rival Christian faiths and denominations as corrupt, unredeemed citadels of error. Finally, there’s the diffuse specter of Mormon economic power—far vaster than that of any other American Protestant denomination, and jealously quarantined from public view in the highest reaches of the Mormon Church’s rigid hierarchy. This last facet of the image of modern Mormonism overlaps discomfitingly with Romney’s similarly high-handed reticence over his own enormous personal wealth: a candidate with a net worth in the hundreds of millions who stubbornly refused to release his tax returns—like a tax-exempt church accruing vast real estate and business wealth—surely must have something to hide.

Brigham Young
Pioneer Prophet.
By John G. Turner.
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About the Author

Chris Lehmann
Chris Lehmann, an editor at The Baffler and Bookforum, is at work on a book about American religion and the culture of...

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The curious mix of folklore, suspicion and myth that still attaches to the Mormon experience stems largely from the church that Brigham Young built, once the martyrdom of founding prophet Joseph Smith in 1844 had cast the Mormon faithful yet again into the wilderness. And Young, like his sprawling spiritual empire, is easily caricatured. Contemporary Mormon believers largely embraced him as their Moses—a patriarch who delivered his people to a New World promised land, formalizing the church’s basic doctrines and observances; a staunch defender of the chosen people’s interests in the face of a hostile “gentile” culture (to use the term that Mormons cribbed from Jews to describe religious outsiders); and a tough but fair arbiter of justice. Young’s nineteenth-century detractors, meanwhile, delivered a photographic negative of this hagiographic portrait, depicting him as a money-grubbing polygamist, a theocratic tyrant, a de facto secessionist, a murderer and massacre plotter.

Like most founders of world-changing institutions (and nearly all religious ones), Young led the kind of outsize life that lends itself to these Janus-faced interpretations. The great virtue of John G. Turner’s new biography of Brigham Young—the first major study since LDS historian Leonard Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses (1985)—is the author’s stolid resistance to either version of the traditional Young caricature. Turner, a professor of religious studies at George Mason University, treats him as an exceptional spiritual figure (“a leader who understood himself as following in the footsteps of the ancient biblical prophets could not readily function within the US territorial system,” Turner drily notes), but also as an avatar of the frontier spirit of colonial conquest during the mid–nineteenth century. By settling a Utah territory that originally comprised one-sixth of the western United States, Young was “the greatest colonizer in American history,” Turner writes. And in establishing his desert kingdom in the face of sustained federal resistance, “he brought many of the key political issues of mid-nineteenth-century America into sharp relief: westward expansion, popular sovereignty, religious freedom, vigilantism, and Reconstruction.”

* * *

Like his forerunner Joseph Smith, Young seemed on paper to be an unlikely progenitor of either a New World faith or a colonial mini-empire. Raised a pious Methodist in a large, struggling family of ten siblings in the hardscrabble farmlands of western New York, Young was turned out of his home the year after his mother succumbed to tuberculosis in 1815. Like Smith, he came of age amid the intense spiritual tumult of the “Burned-Over District”—the towns of upstate New York where the Second Great Awakening initially caught fire. But like Smith, Young was also deeply skeptical of the sectarian enthusiasms unleashed by local revivals. As he later recalled the overheated denominations of his youth, “their cry was, ‘Lo here is Christ, lo there is Christ;’ no, ‘Yonder is Christ;’ ‘Christ is not there, he is here,’ and so on, each claiming that it had the savior, and that others were wrong.” Even so, Young pursued his own idiosyncratic vision of the true faith, reconsecrating himself to his childhood Methodist faith but insisting that his church administer an immersion baptism as part of his formal adult conversion, a rite characteristic of the rival Baptists.

When Joseph Smith stormed into the crowded spiritual agora of the Awakening with a new volume of Scripture allegedly transcribed from golden plates buried beneath a hill not far from Palmyra, New York, Young—together with many members of his immediate family—proved a receptive audience. As Turner notes, the gospel of the Book of Mormon was peculiarly suited to its time and place, and Smith’s message had a peculiar resonance for seekers like Young—spiritual autodidacts of humble social station raised in the experiential tenets of apostolic or primitive Christianity.

Reformed Methodists (along with many other American evangelicals, especially on the frontier and in the backcountry) and early Mormons thirsted for and expected a latter-day Pentecost with powerful and immediate demonstrations of spiritual power… In many other ways—in its appeal to Bible proofs, its expectation of an imminent apocalypse and millennium, and its stark warnings of damnation for those who refused its message—early Mormonism resembled the radical evangelical culture from which it later diverged. 

The logic of that divergence grew starker and more radical as Smith continued to experiment restlessly with new forms of worship, while also founding new settlements and modes of social organization for the rapidly expanding Mormon faith. Smith extended the prophetic dispensation of the Book of Mormon, first announcing that he was receiving ongoing and direct revelations. And as the Mormon Church journeyed west, Smith added newly revealed doctrines, such as the “eternal progression” of the individual soul into a kind of godhood in the afterlife, the “gathering” of saints in one site (eventually the Midwestern Mormon capital of Nauvoo, Illinois) and the practice of multiple marriages, which flowed, theologically speaking, from both the Mormon scheme of the afterlife and Smith’s conviction that he was recovering the true faith practiced by the patriarchs of the Bible.

When Smith’s ever-evolving spiritual vision was abruptly cut short by his assassination in a Carthage, Illinois, jail, the Mormon Church experienced much more than a leadership crisis. In losing Smith, it lost its connection to the revealed word of God, the progenitor of its worship rites, and its protector in the church’s fraught (and often violent) dealings with the gentile world.

* * *

Young was far from an obvious choice to fill this void. While he was a key member of Smith’s inner circle—known as the Twelve Apostles—and had been anointed by the prophet to “perform all the ordinances of the kingdom of God,” Young had spent much of the church’s sojourn in Nauvoo as a missionary in England. Smith had also dispatched him on shorter missions back to the eastern United States to raise funds for the erection of a central temple in Nauvoo, which would oversee the sacred rites of marriage and baptism of the dead. At the time of Smith’s death, Young was in Boston, campaigning for the prophet’s quixotic run for the presidency. He was, in short, a very capable and intensely loyal administrator—but while, at times in his mission work, Young had spoken in tongues and performed healing rites for the sick, he couldn’t begin to lay claim to the wide-ranging prophetic gifts of his predecessor.

At the same time, the badly riven church did need someone to impose order. Rival prophets had already nominated themselves as the successor to Smith’s mantle and attracted significant followings; meanwhile, disillusioned Mormons simply left Nauvoo and the church. And when Young put himself forward as the representative of the Twelve best suited to preside over the church, he was challenged by another early apostle, Sidney Rigdon, who had been one of Smith’s most trusted lieutenants in the early days after the founding of Mormonism. Both Rigdon and Young made public cases for their cause, with Young deriding his rival’s vow to speak on behalf of Joseph Smith. “Do you want the Church organized,” he asked the assembled crowd, “or do you want a Spokesman, Cook, and Bottle Washer?” Warming to the theme of his heightened spiritual authority, Young referred to the power of an “organization that you have not seen” and explained that its members alone held the keys to the church’s collective salvation. “We have all the signs and the tokens to give to the Porter [of heaven] and he will let us in.” The congregation elected by a near-unanimous vote to transfer Smith’s mantle to the Twelve—and for Young to serve as the chief leader of the new apostolate.

Young’s plea was so rousing that many in the crowd believed that he had become transfigured into Joseph Smith himself. “Not only was it the voice of Joseph which was heard,” reported George Q. Cannon, a close aide of Young’s, “but it seemed in the eyes of the people as though it was the very person of Joseph which stood before them.”

Duly vested with a new holy authority, Young immediately turned to a host of urgent earthly challenges for the church. He needed to complete the Nauvoo temple to conduct marriages and baptisms in the manner prescribed by Smith. He needed to tamp down dissent and ensure a modicum of safety for a community beset by violent mob attacks. And most of all, he needed to plan for the church’s next move west: the Illinois legislature voted to revoke Nauvoo’s city charter after Smith’s murder, and malign political neglect and vigilante mobs were in any event creating the same conditions that had forced the Mormons to flee Missouri to Illinois in the first place. After weighing a possible emigration to California or British Columbia, Young settled on the Utah territory as the new home for the church.

As he made preparations for the next chapter in the church’s American exodus, Young began exhibiting the unquenchable will-to-discipline that would characterize his leadership over the next three decades. He kept public order by grooming an informal regiment of “whistling and whittling companies”: groups of young men who would cluster around either gentile disturbers of the peace or Mormon dissenters with none-too-subtle threats of violence. “An internal inflamation [sic] is worse than an external inflamation” was how Young summed up the quasi-vigilante groups’ mandate for keeping fellow Mormons in line. At the same time, Young sought to contain the anxieties of any wavering souls in his flock by trumpeting the advent of the Kingdom of God. “Zion is right here,” Young proclaimed at the April 1845 Mormon church conference. “The millennium has commenced.”

Everything about that millennial promise rested on the emigration to Utah—an undertaking that played still more strongly to Young’s penchant for organization and enforcing group discipline. After the initial band of Utah settlers endured a brutal winter passage, the trek west went surprisingly well for the next few companies of exiles, and Young quickly rallied the settlers to the hard work of building still another new city on the American frontier. Indeed, the practical-minded patriarch seized upon the erection of a prosperous new empire in the desert as its own sort of proof text of the one true faith, just as the gift of land was a pivotal sign of divine blessing for the patriarchs of the Old Testament. “Rather than seek to persuade his followers to believe certain doctrines…Young called on them to join in the practical tasks of building up the Kingdom of God,” Turner writes.

Without a sufficient measure of prosperity and abundance, the Latter-day Saints in the [Salt Lake] valley could not properly serve as an “ensign to the nations,” encouraging and assisting Mormons at the Missouri, in the East, and in Europe to join them in Zion. Young explained that to accomplish these ends, the people would have to forgo sermons on “the glories of the eternal worlds.” Instead, he would tell them “what is wanting today”…. Through tithed labor, the church would construct public buildings. Through such co-operation, Young believed, his people would become and remain Saints.

A practical corollary to this doctrine of worldly-cum-spiritual self-help was a deep distrust of government and the gentile world at large—a sentiment that Young could air much more fully now that he was founding a community that had precious few non-Mormons within earshot. “You don’t know how I detest & despise them,” he announced to his Salt Lake Valley flock as he outlined the new community’s posture of tense toleration toward gentiles. While the Mormon faithful were obliged to permit a gentile to pursue his own preferred beliefs, Young explained, the non-Mormon “must not blaspheme the God or Israel nor dam old Joe Smith or his religion for we will Salt him down in the Lake!”

Over time, such animosity would spill over into the confrontations with federal authority known as the Mormon War of 1857. The hostilities began with an ill-considered communiqué that the Utah legislature dispatched to newly inaugurated President James Buchanan, denouncing the train of “office seekers and corrupt demagogues” that Washington had so far dispatched to govern and administer justice in the Utah territory. Now, the legislature vowed over Young’s signature that if such scoundrels continued to be appointed, the citizenry of Utah would simply “send them away.” Buchanan’s secretary of the interior, Jacob Thompson, informed a church representative in Washington that he himself had regarded the notice as a “declaration of war”—and from then on, the White House and Salt Lake City were locked in a high-stakes series of feints and counterfeints poised to erupt into an armed conflict that would find the Mormons badly outgunned. Buchanan abruptly named a non-Mormon to replace Young as the territory’s governor and sent 2,500 federal troops to Utah to oversee his installation. Young retaliated by citing the amassed troops as a prelude to the church members’ elevation into a millennial Kingdom of God. He also took to the pulpit to equate the occupying soldiers with the assassins of Joseph Smith and other Mormon martyrs, enjoining the congregation to “lift the sword and slay them.”

For all the overheated millennial rhetoric, however, Young’s practical deal-making nature won out. Even as he waxed bellicose in public speeches, he was privately choreographing a settlement with the feds via another of the church’s DC advocates, a non-Mormon named Thomas Leiper Kane. The negotiations culminated in an offer from the Buchanan administration to extend a full and free pardon for church members prepared to submit to federal authority—accompanied by an ultimatum promising swift military retribution to anyone in the territory resisting that authority.

* * *

The brewing national conflict over slavery fueled the Buchanan administration’s newfound pliability in restoring Utah to its Young-centric status quo. In other respects, though, the Mormon War harmed Young’s reputation in a manner far greater than whatever blow his vanity sustained via the negotiated peace with Buchanan. As he deliberately stoked anti-gentile hostility to a fever pitch, senior figures aligned with Young staged the horrific Mountain Meadows massacre, using the phony threat of an Indian raid to disarm and murder an Arkansas-based company of at least 120 pioneers passing through Utah, many of them women and children. One ringleader of the massacre was Young’s adopted son John D. Lee, who was executed for his role in the attack in 1877, after a long-delayed federal inquiry. Many of the other details of the massacre remain murky—and were apparently kept so deliberately, to judge by the systematic destruction of journal entries among the principals involved in the affair. There is some scattered evidence that Young discouraged the attack—chiefly a letter to another participant, Isaac Haight, the mayor and church stake president of nearby Cedar City, who was told not to “meddle” with any emigrant companies passing through the region.

Still, as Turner notes, “Young bears significant responsibility for what took place at Mountain Meadows,” because despite a series of other ugly outbreaks of vigilante violence in the territory, Young did nothing to promote restraint, let alone public peace. Instead, Turner writes that “during the early stages of the Utah War Young fomented the hatred and anxiety that made it conceivable for Mormons in southern Utah to slaughter men, women, and children.” Young had also been implicated in the murder of several other non-Mormon emigrants and merchants, chiefly on the testimony of hired killer Bill Hickman, but Turner seems inclined to dismiss the credibility of Young’s accuser, on the grounds that Hickman “had become disillusioned with Young’s leadership and more interested in mining ventures.”

The question of Young’s ultimate culpability in the massacre likely will never be settled fully, thanks to the incomplete documentary record that church leaders contrived to leave behind in the course of their cover-up. But as Young entered the twilight of his career, he tempered much of his belligerent posture toward the gentile world. In 1875, when John D. Lee was finally arrested, Young gave an affidavit about the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows attack—albeit in guarded and selective fashion, divulging “precious little of what he knew about the massacre,” Turner writes.

Young did, however, mount one last initiative to solidify the foundation of the collective Mormon economy, in order to dispel once and for all his great fear that the church’s earthly autonomy would be encroached upon by the institutions and commercial competition of the gentile world. He dubbed the campaign the United Order. Building on the success of the Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution—a commercial alliance founded in 1868 to handle everything from farm supplies to railroad construction—Young explained before an 1869 church conference that the co-op was an intermediate “stepping stone” to realize what he termed the Order of Enoch: a pooling of holy labor to bring about the Mormon community’s collective salvation, in the same fashion that God had suddenly transported a minor but clearly favored Genesis and New Testament figure named Enoch—along with his entire home city of Zion—into Heaven. “The Lord called [Enoch’s] people Zion,” Young preached, “because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness, and there was no poor among them.” And curiously, Young—the arch-pursuer of competitive advantage in his dealings with the non-Mormon world—preached a sort of utopian communism to rally the faithful behind the United Order. “In this vision,” Turner writes, 

the Latter-day Saints would consecrate their property and resources to common management, divide labor according to specialized ability, and eliminate disparities of wealth. Young sought to impress on the Saints that this was not merely an economic arrangement. “To me all labors are spiritual,” he told the settlers in St. George [Utah’s new temple site], “our labor is one eternal spiritual work.”

Young’s initiative won a mixed allegiance, at best, among the faithful. He had previously sought to revive the consecration of believers’ property during the settlement of Utah, but by then the population was too preoccupied with the challenges of sustaining themselves and the new institutional home of Mormonism to revert to the primitive church’s principles of socialist cooperation. Young’s last appeal yielded mainly a model utopian community—bearing what he no doubt appreciated as the perfect name for his dream settlement, Orderville—but it, like the many other experiments in deliberate living in the nineteenth century, soon succumbed to the competitive pressures of the dominant market order. 

Brigham Young died in 1877, not long after the United Order campaign fizzled out. His final effort to stretch the Mormon experiment back to its imagined roots in the spiritual commonwealth of the primitive church seems like a last-ditch effort to preserve the prophetic core of Joseph Smith’s Mormonism amid the sprawling (and expanding) entrepreneurial success of Brigham Young’s own brand. But Young had never been much of a prophet, and even his interest in utopian collectivism sprang more from his notion of Mormon exceptionalism—and the defensive economic measures required to safeguard it—than from any redemptive vision of the common good. Though Young preached the same gospel of universal salvation that Smith had, he was at bottom, as Turner notes, “a tribal chieftain” committed principally—and quite understandably—to securing for his people a surer footing in posterity. Try as he might to hark back to the primitive social equality of the early Christian Church—and, for that matter, the early Mormon Church—Young had set the Mormons on an entirely different path: a sojourn into the unknown wilderness of Scripture-infused capitalism. The American Moses was in reality America’s first great spiritual manager, and the religion he wrought into a new shape in the Utah desert was intended as the world’s most accomplished spiritual corporation.

In our May 22 issue, John M. Barry profiled “Roger Williams, America’s First Rebel,” founder of Providence and theologian champion of religious freedom.

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