Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

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Overview

Brigham Young was a rough-hewn craftsman from New York whose impoverished and obscure life was electrified by the Mormon faith. He trudged around the United States and England to gain converts for Mormonism, spoke in spiritual tongues, married more than fifty women, and eventually transformed a barren desert into his vision of the Kingdom of God. While previous accounts of his life have been distorted by hagiography or polemical exposé, John Turner provides a fully realized portrait of a colossal figure in American religion, politics, and westward expansion.

After the 1844 murder of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Young gathered those Latter-day Saints who would follow him and led them over the Rocky Mountains. In Utah, he styled himself after the patriarchs, judges, and prophets of ancient Israel. As charismatic as he was autocratic, he was viewed by his followers as an indispensable protector and by his opponents as a theocratic, treasonous heretic.

Under his fiery tutelage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints defended plural marriage, restricted the place of African Americans within the church, fought the U.S. Army in 1857, and obstructed federal efforts to prosecute perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. At the same time, Young's tenacity and faith brought tens of thousands of Mormons to the American West, imbued their everyday lives with sacred purpose, and sustained his church against adversity. Turner reveals the complexity of this spiritual prophet, whose commitment made a deep imprint on his church and the American Mountain West.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
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…Turner is on the side of good history, and he generally negotiates the many tripwires in the Saints' story…with aplomb.
—Alex Beam
Books & Culture

[A] magnificent new biography...[Turner's] book should establish him as one of the best religious historians of his generation. Turner had unfettered access to Young's papers, and his keen eye for social context makes this book an excellent introduction to the story of Mormonism as well as an essential addition to the history of the American West. It should also do for Brigham Young what Richard Lyman Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling did for the Mormon prophet: make the case not only that Young was one of the most fascinating people of the 19th century but also that his importance in American history can no longer be overlooked. Indeed, some of that history will have to be revised to fit this "pioneer prophet" into its narrative...Turner's prose is so smooth and his interpretations so balanced that I suspect Mormonism's defenders and detractors alike will flock to this book...Turner is not a member of the Mormon church, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable.
— Stephen H. Webb

Cleveland Plain Dealer

[Turner] provides an admirably balanced account of this complex man, and his little-understood and frequently reviled faith...When finished with this superb biography, readers will find [Brigham Young] less of a curiosity but still fascinating.
— Alan Cate

Boston Globe
In his richly researched new biography of Brigham Young, John G. Turner not only profiles the man who brought the church to Utah, but also satisfies both high-minded and lowbrow curiosity about this most American of religions.
Irish Times

Young's life is admirably chronicled in this fine new biography…The character who emerges from Turner's elegantly written and well-researched biography is a man for whom the word 'protean' might almost have been invented. He became one of the foremost colonizers of American history, leading the Mormons on a perilous journey to the Great Basin and laying claim to approximately a sixth of the western United States…Turner shows [Young] to be a shrewd and subtle politician…Turner's story never drags, partly because the tale itself is so fascinating, but also because he writes with clarity and energy.
— Richard Aldous

New York Times Book Review

Brigham Young is a landmark work...There is no aspect of Young's fascinating life that eludes Turner's scrutiny.
— Alex Beam

Salt Lake Tribune

A major accomplishment that, more than any past treatment of Young, situates the protean prophet squarely in the context of his turbulent times. Turner is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and brings to Young an emotional objectivity and distance that greatly benefit his profile of the 19th century Mormon leader and colonizer...Turner unflinchingly tackles the full spectrum, warts and all, of Young's multifarious personality and life...For Turner, no topic is off-limits, too controversial, too intimate. He exhibits a healthy skepticism and curiosity that are as bracing as they are salutary...He is balanced, insightful, sympathetic, even occasionally affectionate. Turner's Young is a far cry from the (take your pick) superficial, cartoonish, angelic/devilish caricatures of most popularized portrayals. He is a fully rendered, flesh-and-blood, flawed-but-earnest human being who sincerely believed he had been "called" to govern God's new covenant people as heaven's representative. The biography adds much to both our understanding and appreciation of Young.
— Gary James Bergera

National Review

Turner 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...Turner's portrait is of a man both great and greatly flawed.
— Jason Lee Steorts

Christian Century

A comprehensive biography of Young and his times...It is an exceptional work...We can learn a lot about the development of Mormon theology from Turner's book, far more than can be gleaned from previous biographies of Young...Turner is at his best when he is placing the elements of Young's life within the main contours of broader 19th-century America...Those who want to know more about Mormonism's birth and growth will want to get a copy.
— Edward J. Blum

The Scotsman

[An] exceptionally well-researched and endlessly interesting biography.
— Stuart Kelly

Booklist (starred review)

Turner's broad historical perspective clarifies why Young's ecclesiastical successors have still felt the man's influence—even after abandoning polygamy. An impressively detailed portrait of a controversial giant.
— Bryce Christensen

New Yorker

A definitive biography of Mormonism's greatest activist and apostle.
— Adam Gopnik

Daniel Walker Howe
In this superb new biography, Turner's strong narrative, human insight, knowledge of context, meticulous use of sources, and sophisticated appreciation of Mormon theology combine to create an account of his larger-than-life subject that is at once informative, judicious, and profoundly engaging.
Ken Verdoia
Turner provides a searing portrait of a leader at his most determined and—at times—ruthless in defense of his religion. A provocative and compelling view of one of the most elusive, yet influential, figures in our nation's westward expansion.
Richard Bushman
The story Turner tells in this elegantly written biography will startle and shock many readers. He reveals a Brigham Young more violent and coarse than the man Mormons have known. While lauding his achievements as pioneer, politician, and church leader, the book will require a reassessment of Brigham Young the man.
William Deverell
Inextricably tied together by bonds of fate and faith, Brigham Young and Mormonism rose as one in nineteenth-century America. It is that America, as well as that man and that religion, that Turner explores and explains so well in this wonderful book.
Philip L. Barlow
Turner's treatment of the complex Brigham Young is unsentimental, cogent, critical, and fair. It takes its place alongside Leonard Arrington's magisterial American Moses as the essential, mutually challenging portraits of one of America's greatest colonizers and religious figures.
Booklist (starred review) - Bryce Christensen
Turner's broad historical perspective clarifies why Young's ecclesiastical successors have still felt the man's influence--even after abandoning polygamy. An impressively detailed portrait of a controversial giant.
New Yorker - Adam Gopnik
A definitive biography of Mormonism's greatest activist and apostle.
Books & Culture - Stephen H. Webb
[A] magnificent new biography...[Turner's] book should establish him as one of the best religious historians of his generation. Turner had unfettered access to Young's papers, and his keen eye for social context makes this book an excellent introduction to the story of Mormonism as well as an essential addition to the history of the American West. It should also do for Brigham Young what Richard Lyman Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling did for the Mormon prophet: make the case not only that Young was one of the most fascinating people of the 19th century but also that his importance in American history can no longer be overlooked. Indeed, some of that history will have to be revised to fit this "pioneer prophet" into its narrative...Turner's prose is so smooth and his interpretations so balanced that I suspect Mormonism's defenders and detractors alike will flock to this book...Turner is not a member of the Mormon church, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable.
Cleveland Plain Dealer - Alan Cate
[Turner] provides an admirably balanced account of this complex man, and his little-understood and frequently reviled faith...When finished with this superb biography, readers will find [Brigham Young] less of a curiosity but still fascinating.
Irish Times - Richard Aldous
Young's life is admirably chronicled in this fine new biography…The character who emerges from Turner's elegantly written and well-researched biography is a man for whom the word 'protean' might almost have been invented. He became one of the foremost colonizers of American history, leading the Mormons on a perilous journey to the Great Basin and laying claim to approximately a sixth of the western United States…Turner shows [Young] to be a shrewd and subtle politician…Turner's story never drags, partly because the tale itself is so fascinating, but also because he writes with clarity and energy.
New York Times Book Review - Alex Beam
Brigham Young is a landmark work...There is no aspect of Young's fascinating life that eludes Turner's scrutiny.
Salt Lake Tribune - Gary James Bergera
A major accomplishment that, more than any past treatment of Young, situates the protean prophet squarely in the context of his turbulent times. Turner is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and brings to Young an emotional objectivity and distance that greatly benefit his profile of the 19th century Mormon leader and colonizer...Turner unflinchingly tackles the full spectrum, warts and all, of Young's multifarious personality and life...For Turner, no topic is off-limits, too controversial, too intimate. He exhibits a healthy skepticism and curiosity that are as bracing as they are salutary...He is balanced, insightful, sympathetic, even occasionally affectionate. Turner's Young is a far cry from the (take your pick) superficial, cartoonish, angelic/devilish caricatures of most popularized portrayals. He is a fully rendered, flesh-and-blood, flawed-but-earnest human being who sincerely believed he had been "called" to govern God's new covenant people as heaven's representative. The biography adds much to both our understanding and appreciation of Young.
National Review - Jason Lee Steorts
Turner 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...Turner's portrait is of a man both great and greatly flawed.
Christian Century - Edward J. Blum
A comprehensive biography of Young and his times...It is an exceptional work...We can learn a lot about the development of Mormon theology from Turner's book, far more than can be gleaned from previous biographies of Young...Turner is at his best when he is placing the elements of Young's life within the main contours of broader 19th-century America...Those who want to know more about Mormonism's birth and growth will want to get a copy.
The Scotsman - Stuart Kelly
[An] exceptionally well-researched and endlessly interesting biography.
New Republic - Jackson Lears
[A] strong and authoritative biography.
Standpoint - Jeremy Black
Fascinating...Young very much emerges with his faults manifest in Turner's impressive biography. At the same time, [Brigham Young] takes Mormon studies forward, avoiding the pitfalls of apologia and polemic.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Mike Davis
John G. Turner's new biography of Brigham Young...portrays a social experiment, the most ambitious in American history, that until Young's death in 1877 explicitly rejected the core values of Victorian capitalism: possessive individualism and Darwinian competition.
The Nation - Chris Lehmann
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.
Choice - D. Liestman
[Turner] presents a very thoughtful, well-contextualized account of a complex and contradictory religious leader who was profane as well as pious and powerful. The book traces the development of an aimless young man who became the prophet and president of a sprawling theocracy. Turner offers a fair consideration of Young...This well-researched, readable biography will satisfy all but the most partisan reader.
Library Journal
Previous biographers of Brigham Young have used epithets such as "American Moses" and "Lion of the Lord." However, what Turner (religious studies, George Mason Univ.; Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ) demonstrates here is that Young cannot be reduced to saint or tyrant; he was bold, brave, crude, petty, visionary, manipulative, creative, charismatic, kindly, and much more besides. Turner presents Young as a family man navigating the complexities of polygamy, as a leader moving large numbers of people across the Great Plains, and as a politician negotiating enough independence for the Mormons from the U.S. government that he could build the kingdom of God as he saw fit. Turner was given unprecedented access to the LDS church archives and he makes full use of them and other sources, as well as providing a cogent interpretive context. It is easy to forget Young's significance in American history, but at a minimum it needs to be remembered that he is responsible for settling a vast swath of the West. VERDICT There aren't enough superlatives for this book. It will remain the standard biography for a long time. Because of its thorough documentation, academics will take it seriously, while general readers will appreciate its clarity of prose and argument.—David Azzolina, Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
Sprawling life of a larger-than-life character in the history of the American West. Brigham Young was Joseph Smith's lieutenant in spreading the newly coined doctrine of Mormonism and his successor on Smith's murder. Young carved a homeland out of the Utah wilderness, which was heavily settled by inconvenient Lamanites, as the Mormons called Native peoples. As Turner (History/Univ. of South Alabama; Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America, 2008) capably demonstrates, Young's successes were the fruit of a driving ambition that sometimes manifested itself in ruthlessness. Turner writes carefully--a good tactic, for Mormon history is an always-fraught topic--of Young's rise in the early hierarchy, including an episode in which he "confronted Smith and his two counselors in the church's presidency…about their lingering grievances," divisions that might have yielded a schism had not Young also been a skilled strategist. Dissent was a constant companion in Young's life, and Turner, to his credit, does not shy from noting that fact. Moreover, the author looks at the various strains of Protestantism, "ecstatic" and otherwise, that fed into early Mormonism, drawing particularly on Methodism in the British Isles, where Young worked as one of the church's first missionaries. Some of the resulting ideas, blended with Smith's own, were unusual in the religious landscape of the time. Of interest--and potential controversy--is Turner's attention to Young's many wives, who were not always happy with the arrangement and some of whom cut their ties with him; it's not exactly Big Love, but there's some high drama in the text. Drama also prevails in the passages related to the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre and the subsequent execution of Young lieutenant John D. Lee, who insisted that "Young and other church leaders had selected him as their ‘scapegoat.' " A scholarly yet thoroughly readable historical/biographical study, of considerable interest to students of 19th-century American history and religious revivalism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674049673
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/20/2012
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 482,227
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

John G. Turner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Alabama.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Five: Prophets and Pretenders



On 25 January 1846, Young adopted eight couples, including loyal followers Albert Rockwood, John D. Lee, and George Grant. As with Young’s own children, they were sealed to Miriam Works, with Mary Ann again serving as a ritual proxy. “[T]he Spirit of allmighty god attended the administration & filled our hearts to overflowing,” Young described the emotions of the day, “& many wept for joy that were adopted into my Family.” “Brigham kissed all his children,” recorded Thomas Bullock. George Laub, who alongside his wife was sealed to John D. Lee, recorded that Lee promised “to doo unto them as he would unto his own children,” and adopted children covenanted “to do all the good for his upbuilding and happyness.” Nearly two weeks later, several additional sons and daughters joined Young’s family as adopted children. In a departure from the customary practice of having adopted children sealed to a man’s first wife, Augusta Adams Young stood next to her husband as the adoptive mother, perhaps as a sign of Young’s favor following their resealing.

Amid the feverish pace of ritual activity, many church members—perhaps even including Brigham Young—probably did not understand the implications of the sealings and adoptions at the temple altar. It was a liminal time for Latter-day Saint family relations, as Smith’s plural marriage revelation and the temple rituals disregarded both Protestant convention and civil marriages. The sealings reshaped Mormon families and connected them in new ways. In one case, Young ritually adopted Robert and Hannah Pierce, parents of his plural wives Margaret and Mary Pierce. His parents-in-law became his spiritual children. In some instances, a sense of impermanence and flexibility remained, as parties continued to refashion their family connections. James and Mary Woodward—she was the passenger in Young’s omnibus carriage the night it foundered on a Nauvoo bridge—were both sealed to Brigham Young as his adopted children in early February. Two days after Mary became Young’s adopted daughter, she married her spiritual father. Sometime after she moved to Nauvoo with her husband, Mary had complained in a letter to Young that James “abused” her and asked Young for her “release from worse than death.” Hearing whispers of Nauvoo polygamy, she hoped Young would make her his wife. Perhaps aware of Mary’s desire, James may have requested the ritual adoption as a way of avoiding losing his wife. During the press of temple work, ,Young had little time to reflect on the future consequences of the ceremonies. He and his increasingly unwieldy family would have to wait to work out exactly how the temple sealings would shape their earthly futures.

As the washings, anointings, and sealings proceeded, Young and top church leaders decided to leave Nauvoo sooner than planned, having received false advice from Governor Ford that the federal government would intervene to arrest church leaders on the counterfeiting charges and prevent the Mormons from crossing the Rocky Mountains. Simultaneously, Young heard rumors that Ford intended to declare martial law under “mob militia” led by General Hardin, who, Young surmised, “will no doubt renew those writs that had been isued for the 12 & others & thereby commence harrassing us again.” Ford did not plan to arrest Young or other church leaders, but he did want to hasten the departure of the Mormons and, with them, his biggest political headache. Young, though, feared arrest for understandable reasons. Given ongoing mob activity in Hancock County, he expected the mob to kill him if he was arrested. By February 2, Young grew desperate in his anxiety to abandon the City of Joseph. “It is my opinion,” he told a clerk, “that if we are here 10 days that our way will be Hedged up ..we want to be 500 miles from here before they are aware of our move.”

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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Prologue 1

1 A New Creature 7

2 The Tongues of Angels 29

3 Acts of the Apostles 55

4 New and Everlasting Covenant 80

5 Prophets and Pretenders 110

6 Word and Will 144

7 A New Era of Things 175

8 One Family 207

9 Go Ahead 230

10 The Whirlwind 265

11 Let Him Alone 301

12 The Monster in the Vale 338

13 The Soul and Mainspring of the West 372

Epilogue 408

Notes 415

Acknowledgments 487

Index 490

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2013

    The facts were well researched but the entire dialogue had a ver

    The facts were well researched but the entire dialogue had a very negatively slant. Any statement can be worded with a positive or negative attitude and it was apparent that even the good done by Brigham Young left you with a nasty taste in your mouth. It did not come across as unbiased or neutral. Very disappointed.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 29, 2013

    Great book, honest in it's evaluation of a very controversial fi

    Great book, honest in it's evaluation of a very controversial figure without bias for either the Mormon or Gentile points of view. Great read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2012

    I would love to see this as an ebook. The reviews from both Mor

    I would love to see this as an ebook. The reviews from both Mormon, exMormon, and never Mormon scholars of this book all give it fantastic reviews.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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