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.
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.”
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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.