How Not to Understand Brigham Young

It is probable that, at this point in history, Brigham Young is the most widely misinterpreted individual in Mormon history. Until relatively recently, Joseph Smith would have been a clear winner in such a contest. But as we witness the spread of the historiographical revolution regarding Smith that began roughly with the 1945 publication of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History and that seems to have entered something of a lull in the aftermath of Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, it would seem that many of the least plausible beliefs regarding Smith are waning rather than waxing. Such is probably not yet the case for Young.

Chad M. Orton and William W. Slaughter, authors of a new volume on Brigham Young entitled 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young: A New Approach to a Remarkable Man, write:

If Brigham Young is not the most misunderstood individual on the lists of the 100 greatest and most influential Americans, he likely has been the most maligned… In many regards he remains as enigmatic and vilified in death as he was in life. Few people have had so much written about them while remaining so little understood. (pg. xiii)

While I agree with the general thrust of this statement, that Young is widely misinterpreted even by subsequent generations within his own faith, this simple introductory claim is itself muddled and unhelpful as a frame for understanding the American Moses. For example, consider the twining of “enigmatic” and “vilified.” The implicit message here is that Young is disliked and condemned exactly because he is misunderstood: if only we knew him better, we could not help but love him wholeheartedly. Simply put, this is nonsense. Like all other humans, and perhaps more than most due to the scope of his actions and the socially marginal position occupied by the people he lead, Young made mistakes and bad decisions, committed sins, and had problematic personal characteristics. Because of this, it is perfectly possible to know Young as well as the historical record allows knowledge of anyone and still find things to dislike about the man.

Unfortunately, this muddled introduction is in some ways the high point of Orton and Slaughter’s approach to clarifying the life and legacy of Brigham Young. The project as a whole is completely undone by the terribly unfortunate format the authors have chosen for the volume. The text is broken into 40 mostly thematic chapters. These chapters consider a facet of Young’s life more or less in isolation from other considerations. Thus, chapter 7 shows Young embodying “faith” throughout his life, chapter 10 shows “leadership” as a theme in various historical periods, chapter 30 considers “trust” and “loyalty” as durable attributes of the man, and so forth.

This splitting of Young’s life into 40 facets has two debilitating consequences. The greater of the two is that it inadvertently reinforces the single biggest historical distortion regarding Young among present-day Mormons: the idea that Young’s life consists of a large number of separate themes which we can take or leave as we like to form our own personal devotional image of the man while leaving behind that which we dislike or reject. Thus, for example, we often celebrate Young’s achievements in leading the exodus from Nauvoo to the Great Basin while marginalizing his religious thought. The man’s physical courage and planning become a model for us all to emulate, while his ideas regarding marriage, the nature of God, the best kinds of government, God’s economy, and other themes are simply so much noise. We tell ourselves, “Yeah, Brigham Young said a lot of things, but he sure was a great colonizer!” This distortion, this fantasy that Young was a Lego man from whom we can detach all unwanted appendages without doing mortal harm to the remainder, is inadvertently reinforced by the kind of thematic treatment of the man’s life that Orton and Slaughter present.

The lesser consequence of Orton and Slaughter’s thematic approach is that it tends to produce a Brigham Young removed from the flow of history, a kind of Platonic essence of a hero rather than a real-life man pushed along by the gusts of time and human change. By presenting “Brigham as Leader” throughout the man’s religious life as a single thematic chapter, for example, the book fails to seriously consider or analyze how Young’s leadership role and style may have differed over time and in divergent circumstances. For example, Orton and Slaughter tell us that:

The Church was small enough to be an extended family, and in many regards Brigham is best understood as leader in terms of a loving father who was required to teach, instruct, and correct. (pgs. 56-57)

Such a claim may well be interpretively helpful regarding the initial exodus from Nauvoo. Yet could it conceivably be equally relevant in later years when the Saints were scattered in settlements from Mexico to Canada, and when younger members in many of the more remote areas would have had little or no personal relationship with Young whatsoever? Young’s leadership may plausibly have been equally paternalistic during both time periods, but surely paternalism functions quite differently in face-to-face relationships than in a much less personal hierarchy governing a far-flung church kingdom. Yet the authors of this volume show no interest in exploring how these changed circumstances related to Young’s leadership strategy and role, instead presenting us with a man whose approach to leadership was static in the face of social change. The loss of any real sense of development in Young after his assumption of the presidency of the LDS church is a direct consequence of the thematic organization of the book.

Beyond the devastating consequences of the thematic approach used in this volume, the book has other major limitations. First, the book is simply unreflective in its use of quotes from Young. Whatever the man said about his own life is accepted as flatly and unstrategically true. Consider a relatively harmless instance of this problem. In their narrative of his pre-Mormon years, Orton and Slaughter treat as fact a statement from Young that there was

…more or less of a gloom over my feelings from the earliest days of my childhood… until I heard the everlasing Gospel declared by the servants of God. (pgs. 8-9)

This description is taken so seriously that the authors actually give the book’s first chapter the Thoreauvian title, “A Life of Quiet Desperation.” Indeed, Young may well have been a depressive up to his conversion. The problem here lies not so much in this claim as in the evidence offered for it. Young’s retrospective account is the only evidence considered, and Orton and Slaughter seem to have given little if any thought to the form in which it was given. In fact, the account they quoted was a conversion narrative. One of the nearly universal norms of the conversion narrative genre is that it requires an emphatic account of the horrors of the teller’s preconversion life. Thus, contemporary Evangelicals, when witnessing, routinely describe with evident exaggeration the great sinfulness from which God has rescued them. Likewise, one would be wise to regard Young’s post-conversion account of the grimness of his pre-conversion life with substantial caution. Pre-conversion evidence would be far more helpful; otherwise, it is simply difficult to know how seriously to take such claims as historical data, rather than as expressions of devotion.

A far more problematic instance of the same tendency to unreflectively accept Young’s word on all matters involves the book’s treatment of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Consider the following paragraph regarding Young’s role in bringing the killers to justice:

In 1872 [Young] noted that “again and again” he had offered to help “thoroughly investigate the Mountain Meadow Massacre and bring, if possible, the guilty parties to justice” but that government officials had instead “used every opportunity to charge the crime upon prominent men in Utah, and inflame public opinion against our community.” (pg. 188)

Orton and Slaughter accept this statement, and particularly the claim that Young had for years wanted to bring the perpetrators of Mountain Meadows to justice, as a simple recounting of fact. They do not even consider Young’s strategic situation or the costs that he and his people would have been forced to pay had Young publicly remarked, for example, that he thought the killers of Mountain Meadows should be let off the hook. Indeed, at least since the publication of Juanita Brooks’s research on the Massacre, it has been clear that the historical record contains substantial evidence that weighs against taking Young at his word here. Nonetheless, Orton and Slaughter glibly present almost the whole massacre in terms of Young’s public statements.

This points to the final major weakness with the book that I will highlight in this review. Throughout nearly the entire volume, an overwhelming majority of the sources cited are Brigham Young’s public sermons or newspaper columns. This volume barely captures Young as his contemporaries (whether Mormon or non-Mormon) saw him, and it pays even less attention to the question of how Young privately saw himself. Instead, the authors are content to provide a recitation of how Young publicly characterized himself. That such an approach is superficial and inadequate should be evident. The background and resources of the two authors makes this minimal source work all the more disappointing. Orton has multiple degrees in history, while Slaughter has done graduate work in library science; both work for the church Historical Department. It is hard to imagine that these authors did not have access to better sources. That they chose not to use them is a shame.

In the end, it is hard for me to understand why this book was written or published when Leonard Arrington’s superior (and, by the way, more pleasant to read) biography, American Moses, is still in print.

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    I’m glad that Jay also completed a video review of the book. Thanks, Jay.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    Thanks for the review.

    I guess I am a little surprised that you chose to review this, however: I saw it recently in the DB catalog and assumed it was fluff and didn’t give it a second thought. Did you expect better from this book and, if so, why?

  3. Well, I think it is important to note that this wasn’t meant as a scholarly replacement for American Moses, I think; however, your write-up does highlight, perhaps intrinsic, problems with the format of historical devotional literature. I have not read the volume. If there was no discussion of BY, the man, including his flaws, then there is little to suggest that this work was intended for anything other than hagiographic consumption.

    Regarding MMM, we will of course have to wait for volume 2, but I was intrigued by a lecture given by Thomas Alexander where he outlined evidence for Young’s desire for and facilitation of the MMM prosecution.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the review, J. I appreciate you reading it so that we won’t have to.

  5. Wow. Hm. I couldn’t disagree more. I loved this book, its format, its content, its purpose. In fact, I don’t think anybody I’ve ever read or talked to understands Brigham Young better than Chad Orton does, including Leonard Arrington, Ron Walker, and Ron Esplin.

    Really, nobody should decide on the basis of this review that the book isn’t worthwhile. You’d be cheating yourself.

  6. Julie, I did expect better of the book. My understanding is that Orton is a smart guy who has access to a lot of rarely used material about Brigham Young. I was disappointed that this book uses only very familiar sources — and interprets those poorly.

    J. Stapley, the book does talk about Brigham the man, including weaknesses — but basically only in the words of Brigham’s sermons. So it does try for history, but fails.

    Ardis, that’s fine. This book may just not contain Orton’s understanding. The historiography here is very poor, although Orton may have better stuff unstated in the background.

  7. Sheesh.

    I’m glad I didn’t buy it.

  8. Perhaps there are also some positive points to this book. Because of the gross “misrepresentation” that BY has received, there are quite a few average saints who do not think too highly of BY (my wife being one of them). I know this is probably not the majority, but perhaps for these few this overly-positive view might help to soften them up to BY (we can call this the Emma Smith effect). Hopefully Ron Walker’s treatment will provide a work that satisfies both scholars and saints (same goes for Turner).

    FYI: David G. had a great post on remembering BY about a year ago.

  9. Ben, I absolutely agree that Young has an overly negative image among the Saints. In particular, our people are far too willing to brush off his sermons and religious ideas without even giving them a meaningful consideration. I’m considering a series of BCC posts were we collectively give Young’s most important sermons a close reading as a way of redressing this.

  10. Adam Greenwood says:

    Why can’t we say ‘Brigham Young said a lot of things but he was a great colonizer”? You spend a lot of time vilifying that but not any time actually explaining why that’s untenable. Aren’t we comfortable with the idea that people and things can be good in some ways and not in others? After all, we’re not creedal Christians who think that everything collapses into either heaven or hell sooner or later. We see middle ground.

  11. Adam, I don’t want to vilify Brigham Young — maybe this book, but not the man. The problem is that in rejecting his religious thought but retaining only his deeds, we entirely fail to understand both. Young’s actions flowed directly from his religious understanding — something he himself emphasized and that I think holds up under careful consideration. When we blow by his ideas without even pausing to understand them, we miss his motives in his actions, and we deny ourselves the opportunity to perhaps be persuaded by at least some of his thought.

  12. Adam Greenwood says:

    By the way, I’m not convinced that we should just discount B. Young’s ideas while embracing his leadership in other areas. I just don’t see why it would be horrible to do so.

  13. StillConfused says:

    It sounds like they didn’t put much effort into the book, instead opting for the “easy way out” by avoiding lots of research of others etc.

  14. By the way, as a positive note, I’d point out that this volume is at least 85% better than the relief society/priesthood manual about Brigham Young from a decade or so ago. But anyone who might want to read this would be better advised to turn to Arrington or wait for one of the other volumes coming in the next few years.

  15. Adam Greenwood says:

    I can see why it would be a problem to never investigate what he said. But I don’t see the difficulty in considering his views and his actions, understanding them, and rejecting the one and embracing the other.

  16. Ardis, that’s fine. This book may just not contain Orton’s understanding. The historiography here is very poor, although Orton may have better stuff unstated in the background.

    No. You misunderstand me. (And I won’t argue further; this is my last comment.) Chad Orton’s understanding of Brigham Young as presented in this book is what convinces me that he *does* understand Brigham Young as well as he does. *You* don’t understand him, I’ll wager.

    The book is what it is. Faulting it for its perfectly acceptable genre format is like faulting an atlas for not being the owner’s manual to a Subaru. And I repeat, anybody who gives this book a pass solely on this review is cheating himself of a revealing, engaging, accessible look at aspects of Brigham Young’s character that are routinely overlooked or ignored by those who keep repeating “what everybody knows” — much of which is misinformed.

  17. I’m considering a series of BCC posts were we collectively give Young’s most important sermons a close reading as a way of redressing this.

    Great idea! I can’t wait to read what y’all smart folks come up with.

  18. Adam, it’s fine to consider everything and then do whatever you want. The trouble comes in the common approach, which is not to consider the ideas, their lasting legacy, or their connection with Young’s deeds. There’s a popular stereotype of Young as a nearly mindless pioneer hero. I think Orton and Slaughter’s book, by failing to make clear the intimate connections between Young’s relatively thorough-going religious thought and his pragmatic leadership, reinforces this problem.

  19. Ben, the “we collectively” above surely includes the BCC audience — although maybe not me. So you’re certainly one of the “smart folks” here.

  20. Adam Greenwood says:

    Gotcha.

  21. I’m considering a series of BCC posts were we collectively give Young’s most important sermons a close reading as a way of redressing this.

    Please do! I would love to see that.

  22. SC Taysom says:

    Interesting review. One issue that strikes me as potentially problematic is your broad generalizations of what Mormons, as a group, believe about Young. How did you determine that “the single biggest historical distortion regarding Young among present-day Mormons” is “the idea that Young’s life consists of a large number of separate themes which we can take or leave as we like to form our own personal devotional image of the man while leaving behind that which we dislike or reject.”? This strikes me as impressionistic and difficult to prove. In your review you simply assert it, and then accuse the the authors of the book “inadvertently” reinforcing the unproven assertions about what Mormons think of Young. I’m not sure that is entirely fair.

  23. You said: “I absolutely agree that Young has an overly negative image among the Saints.”

    I suspect that you’re talking about a very narrow slice of those who are or can be called Saints.

    Most of the Saints, if they think of Brother Brigham at all, probably think of the strength of leadership in the aftermath of Joseph’s martyrdom, of his faithfulness to the Prophet (esp. in Kirtland in 1838-39), of his willingness to give his all to the building up of the kingdom, and of his extraordinary success in moving the saints from the midwest and colonizing an inhospitable land in the west.

  24. Given some things I’ve heard in conversation, I wonder how much a publisher like Deseret Book constrains or at least, heavily influences, the content and format of these books. Depending on the reputation of the author(s), I tend to chalk up some of the negatives to the publisher.

  25. Add me to the list of those who would love to see a BCC series on Brigham’s theology!

  26. In 1872 [Young] noted that “again and again” he had offered to help “thoroughly investigate the Mountain Meadow Massacre and bring, if possible, the guilty parties to justice” but that government officials had instead “used every opportunity to charge the crime upon prominent men in Utah, and inflame public opinionagainst our community.” (pg. 188)

    I think this is defensibly true statement, while not conveying the whole story. See for example my post on Alexander’s lecture that J. #3 refers to.

    I think once book 2 comes out, M@MM will be to Brooks what RSR is to Brodie. Except RSR engages prior treatments while M@MM tries to avoid doing so.

  27. Yeah, I’d lay guess that most Mormons consider BY the greatest prophet after JS.

    Isn’t there a new bio coming out on Brigham though?

  28. Clark: 3, in fact. John Turner, Ron Walker, and Will Bagley.

  29. SC and Mark, yes, this is absolutely an impressionistic thing. Because we’re talking about mass beliefs, something like survey data would be needed to really establish this. My claims are based on the views of people in my Utah ward as a teenager, religion professors at BYU, and various people in non-Utah wards since. These people routinely tell me that they don’t take anything Brigham Young said too seriously because he was a long time ago, his words seem unfamiliar, and anyway he was mainly important as a colonist and not as a religious thinker. This belief seems general enough that others have encountered it; for example, Eugene England wrote an essay in his “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” volume against this perception, which he also saw as common.

  30. Gene thought Brigham Young was the most brilliant mind of his time. I don’t understand that. I still haven’t read the book Gene wrote on Brigham. I see BY as dogged, driven, fiercely opinionated and having all of the qualities one would need to be a great colonizer. But a brilliant mind? I’d love to know why Gene thought that.

  31. Bro. Jones says:

    #23 For what it’s worth, some of us also think of Brother Brigham as the man responsible for much of the racist rhetoric within our Church.

    At the risk of painting him only in a negative light, though, let me say this: he was a complex man who deserves a complex, sensitive biography. I haven’t read the book reviewed here, but suffice it to say that some of us would have a little difficulty swallowing an entirely positive, upbeat, carefully edited biography such as this one may be.

  32. JNS, it sounds to me like you are dismissing the book because it’s not what you think is ideal in a biography. You seem to want something that adds to what you already know; you seem to want a more critical analysis that includes flaws and mistakes and sins and weaknesses.

    In your opinion, is there a place for a book that simply doesn’t share your content focus? If the authors’ intent was to counter the predominantly negative view of many by focusing on and outlining his positive characteristics, and if those authors never claimed to be writing what you personally want, and if they were true to their stated intention, can you see a good reason for someone else to read it who might not want or need what you want and need?

    Those are sincere questions. I’m concerned that often books get dismissed by many who might benefit from them simply because of the reaction of those who do not. RSR is a wonderful example of this. There are many members who might react negatively to it and recommend others leave it unread – when those others might benefit greatly from it. Do you think there might be an application of that situation with this book?

  33. Margaret, I agree that England’s position is more than a bit overstated. I also think that statements regarding Young as a great colonizer are also somewhat overstated. Young’s centralized decision-making often ended up sinking community resources into implausible projects, such as the Southern Utah ironworks, the sugar beet project, and the colonization of basically uninhabitable areas in northern Arizona. Young’s centralized leadership kept the people together in a time when they could have fragmented, but at a tangible material cost — one counted up reasonably well in Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom (since we ought to reference every possible Mormon classic in this thread, I guess).

    On the Mountain Meadows statement, by the way, my problem is not with the position but rather with the evidence. It seems plausible to me that Young was more on the side of prosecuting Mountain Meadows than not, but you have to at least make an argument. Quoting what Young said in public isn’t even the beginning of an argument.

  34. Ray, I can’t imagine an audience that would really get very much from this book. Most people who pick it up will probably leave off reading well before the end. Among other things, the piece-by-piece approach accomplishes the amazing feat of making Brigham Young boring.

  35. JNS, 34 is hyperbolic and not entirely fair to people who like to read samplers like those “daily bread” calendars you see evangelicals use. I can easily imagine people who would enjoy a thematic devotional treatment of Brigham Young by Deseret Book. I go to church with some of them.

    Someone made me review a book like this once, as I recall, and I remember wanting to denounce it but elected to try to be somewhat positive and confess that I was not its target audience.

    (Your review made perfect sense to me and likely reflects my response to the book should I read it, but we’re not the target audience.)

  36. smb, this isn’t much of a devotional book, though. If it were, I would expect a great deal more treatment of religious themes. It’s more a straight biography. This is why I have a hard time envisioning the audience.

    For what it’s worth, I have given largely positive reviews to Deseret Book devotional volumes in the past. I have no objection to such literature when skillfully executed.

  37. JNS,

    Thanks for helping me see your point on the MMM quote, it is there in your review and I missed it. I tend to agree that authors have a responsibility to alert their readers to contrary evidence and opinions (even if in a footnote). I will admit that I tend to notice such lapses when the authors get it “wrong” more than I do when they get it “right”.

    Isn’t Deseret Book culture more about presenting the truth (as determined by its authors and editors) than the arguments it takes to get there? Not saying I am a fan of that approach, ideally a book will do both well. But if I had to choose between the two, I would be more concerned about whether the book gets it right and less concerned with how the authors got there.

  38. Keller, that’s the trick, isn’t it? How can we tell if the book has gotten it right if the arguments simply aren’t made? Maybe all the interpretations in this volume are just correct. But the reader has no way of knowing that because the only evidence that is usually offered is a decontextualized quote from a Brigham Young sermon.

    Regarding whether Young ever obstructed justice regarding Mountain Meadows or the question of whether Young was really a depressive before he converted to Mormonism, I simply don’t know the right answer. My objection isn’t to the conclusions drawn in this book but rather to the superficial research on offer in support of them. Such research leaves one in the situation of having to either wave ones hands in the air in a state of uncertainty or trust the authors because they’re good people or something.

  39. Aaron Brown says:

    Virulently racist views. Adam-God theology. Open advocacy of polygamy. Assorted views later condemned by Bruce R. McConkie, among others. It’s not hard to see why Young’s thought is marginalized, dismissed, discarded by many LDS. Nevertheless, I too look forward to your upcoming series of posts, JNS.

    AB

  40. Aaron, quite. But there might be a piece or two of lingering value in there even so, he says with a hint of irony in his voice.

  41. JNS, my 36 was sanctimonious. For that I apologize. I would suggest though that we should leave space for a hemi-historical approach to devotional literature (stuff we would not recognize as devotional), which I suspect (book unread) is the approach they were hoping to take.

  42. smb, I agree that there should be a space for such stuff. The complaints articulated in the review above aren’t really about the genre of the book as about its execution.

  43. Aaron Brown says:

    Of course, one could take the “any enemy of Bruce R. is a friend of mine” approach, in which case Young suddenly seems quite palatable!

    AB

  44. Joe Geisner says:

    Jay,

    Thank you for your review. I suppose if I had read the book I would have had similar complaints.

    I don’t think Will Bagley is writing a biography of Brigham Young. If this is true I will be surprised and shocked. As for Leonard Arrington, a new biography is supposed to be out at the end of December by Gary Topping. I have heard Toppings paper at MHA and if the biography approaches the paper we are all in for an incredible treat. Topping’s paper dealt with Arrington as a biographer and he shatters many myths.

    No doubt Young is an extremely complex person and with any complex person he is controversial. Young was also the one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful man in the American West and one of a handful of the richest men in the American West. In some ways I still think he is bigger than life. For the student it really is easy to learn about Young. Because of the incredible recording keeping of his life and the openness of the Church archives we now know more about Young today than any generation since his death. Ardis has been one of the reasons we know so much about Young and I think Mel Bayshore of the church archives is an unsung hero in our quest for information. Just check out the church’s website on trail accounts. It is massive and amazing.

    I suggest a person start reading now because there is so much material. Will Bagley’s “Kingdom in the West” series in many ways fills the gap that Arrington lamented about not having a multi-volume biography for Young. You have Young on the Utah War, Polygamy, as European Travels saw him, his relationship with George Q. Cannon and newspapers, the official journal of the migration to the Great Basin, his colonizing outside of Utah territory into Oregon territory, his feelings towards California and Gold, and his relationship with the Mormon Battalion and U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. Fred Collier has done incredible work on Young’s theology with his “President Brigham Young’s Doctrine of Deity”, this is not for the faint of heart. Collier has also done Young’s Office Journal for five years, and both Collier and Elden Watson published most of Young’s address’s and Young’s manuscript history up to 1850. Gary Bergera’s “Conflict in the Quorum” details the complex and wonderful relationship of Orson Pratt and Young. Just published is David Robert’s “Devil’s Gate” about Young’s handling of the handcart scheme. Next week we will have Young and the documents related to Mountain Meadows in Bagley and Bigler’s “Innocent Blood”, and soon to follow over the next couple of years Young and Indian Relations and Young and apostates all in KITW.

    Young is fascinating and deserves the attention these and others are giving him.

  45. Word on the street is that Balgey is writing a BY bio for Knopf.

    I agree that there is a load of good stuff published on BY; I would simply add that I think Collier’s treatment of Young’s theology is far from incredible (unless we go to the meaning of not to be believed). There is a lot of work yet to do on Young’s theology. Collier’s publication of the office journal is great, though. I also believe that there is quite a bit of unpublished sermonizing that has yet to be published.

  46. Joe Geisner says:

    If I am wrong about Bagley I will be shocked. But I am wrong on a daily basis so I should not be surprised.

    Specifically what do you find wrong with “President Brigham Young’s Doctrine of Deity”?

    I suppose writing “most” is incorrect, but Watson seems to be missing only two or three address’s that have surfaced. Maybe we will see more, historians like Parshall, Bagley and MacKinnon have been scouring for them and maybe we will see more in future works.

  47. As I’ve been going through the Journal of Discourses and reading many of BY’s sermons I have been very surprised to find a different man than expected, at least as far as his preaching is concerned.

    Thanks for the write-up, and also thanks to Ardis for a contrary view.

    I’m with J. Stapley in being interested in many of Pres. Young’s unpublished sermons, etc. Still, from what I’ve seen of the published ones, I have been very impressed with the spirituality of the man I used to view as largely pragmatic.

  48. Gene thought Brigham Young was the most brilliant mind of his time. I don’t understand that. I still haven’t read the book Gene wrote on Brigham. I see BY as dogged, driven, fiercely opinionated and having all of the qualities one would need to be a great colonizer. But a brilliant mind? I’d love to know why Gene thought that.

    I think he’s brilliant, but clearly untrained. Reading a lot of his sermons reminds me of reading Emerson mixed with Mark Twain. He’ll say some really goofy stuff but the jewels are always worth the mistakes.

    While I think Mormons value Brigham a lot I think it sad that so many are ignorant of so much he did. Considering the situation he did things in it is amazing to me he was as much of a Renaissance man as he was.

    Which is not to diminish his weaknesses or mistakes. But I’d definitely call him as much a genius as Joseph. What other LDS leader comes close?

  49. I would simply add that I think Collier’s treatment of Young’s theology is far from incredible (unless we go to the meaning of not to be believed). There is a lot of work yet to do on Young’s theology.

    +++

    Young’s theology really hasn’t been grappled with if only because the underlying assumptions – especially ontological – haven’t been addressed. Admittedly it’s somewhat difficult given Young’s pragmatic anti-philosophical stance. But there’s a lot positive one can say about Young and it’s far more complex than has yet been done.

    At a minimum anyone writing on Young’s theology ought have a grounding in technical theology and philosophy.

  50. I’d add that Conflict in the Quorum has some good parts but is ultimately fairly disappointing. It doesn’t contextualize things sufficiently. (Let’s be honest – with the exception of the first chapter or two it’s largely quotations from the main sources with little interpretive framework) I’m glad it’s there and it is informative but a lot more could and must be written one day.

  51. BHodges, quite right. I think a major contemporary misunderstanding of Young is that he had little of religious value to say. Any biography — like the one under consideration here, in fact — that doesn’t illuminate Young’s religious life misses a lot of the man.

    Clark, I think a lot of progress could be made on Young’s theology even by those with relatively little formal theological/philosophical background, although such training may be helpful in some areas. But since Young himself was largely unaware of the categories of elite European religious thought, such training strikes me as not being the sine qua non of the matter. But I absolutely agree that Young’s thought hasn’t been adequately considered to date. The problem is that most treatments have been fragmentary, focusing on one allegedly shocking area of divergence from the contemporary Mormon majority at a time as if different aspects of Young’s thought existed in airtight containers. We need integrative work that puts all of the pieces together and shows how it all fits, as well as how it drives the man’s pragmatic decisions.

  52. Is there visual content in the book (photos, daguerreotypes, paintings, etc.)?

  53. Justin, yes. A section in the center of the volume collects several good images of Brigham Young and his family; other images are scattered throughout the book. The scattered images are generally interesting although occasionally of unclear relevance, as with the photograph of a collection of Native Americans in front of the ZCMI building on page 89.

    The book also has other non-narrative segments, such as a chapter that lists world leaders and other random facts from the period of Young’s life, as well as a collection of “Fun Facts” consisting basically of paragraph-length decontextualized humorous stories about Young.

  54. Gerald Smith says:

    I don’t think it is too difficult to marginalize Brigham Young. Given that the focus of his 30+ years leading the Church are, by many people, boiled down to polygamy, MMM, and Adam-God, it does become very easy to make a 2 dimensional caricature of him.
    What I’d like to see, and not having read this book yet I’m not sure if it succeeds in this, is a book that does discuss these three, but only as a part of the larger context of his life. His roles as apostle, prophet, leader, governor, carpenter, parent, husband, etc., are often forgotten or ignored. His thousands of sermons, which did not speak on Adam-God or polygamy, seem to be ignored by Saint and Gentile, alike.
    While I see the weakness of breaking a book up into themes to discuss on the man, I don’t see any easier way of encapsulating all of the various roles and ideas from this one man. Had they written chronologically, would the history and thoughts of the man been more easily displayed? Or would it have made him 2 dimensional, as have all the other history books I’ve read on him have done.

    BTW, while the world calls him the “American Moses”, I’d note that is technically incorrect. Moses never entered the promised land, but only prepared the people for it and gave the people the laws of God. In this sense, Brigham would have been the “American Joshua”, and Joseph Smith would be the American Moses.

  55. Gerald, thanks for your comments. I think your dissatisfaction with how people perceive Brigham Young is quite parallel to mine. A thematic treatment might work — but only if careful attention is paid to showing how the various themes interact.

    On the Moses/Joshua thing, I think the Moses analogy is used because of the Exodus and purification in the wilderness aspect, rather than the lawgiver component.

  56. Thanks, JNS. I assume that Orton and Slaughter wrote the chapters together. Is that correct? (Or did Orton handle narrative while Slaughter handled the visuals?)

    On a side note, I would have preferred seeing a hardcover version.

  57. Brigham Young = one of my heroes.

    Theologically, Ill take BY over Robert Millet anyday of the week.

    …no disrespect to Robert Millet, who I’m sure is a fine man and Latter-Day Saint.

  58. But since Young himself was largely unaware of the categories of elite European religious thought, such training strikes me as not being the sine qua non of the matter.

    I’d strongly disagree. I also don’t think one need only be aware of the categories of “elite European thought.” I’m not saying look for theological influences on Brigham (which frankly isn’t ultimately that interesting). Rather one should seek understanding in many areas. One interesting area that I think has been touched on at times is Liberation Theology. (Hardly an elite European category) But I think having some idea of Christology and so forth would be tremendously helpful.

    Likewise I think philosophical grounding – especially in such things as pragmatism and idealism – is very necessary if one wants to understand what Brigham was grasping at.

    The problem is that most treatments have been fragmentary, focusing on one allegedly shocking area of divergence from the contemporary Mormon majority at a time as if different aspects of Young’s thought existed in airtight containers. We need integrative work that puts all of the pieces together and shows how it all fits, as well as how it drives the man’s pragmatic decisions.

    Yes, and these fragmentary studies are also often misleading precisely because they lack that more holistic grounding. Both in terms of American culture as well as broader thought. Although I am eagerly awaiting the Masonic studies that purportedly were supposed to be coming out for some time. Joe Swick had one partially written although he reportedly dropped it once Nick Literski’s (sp? yeah – too lazy to look it up. Sorry Nick.) was doing his. I think that will be a very necessary first step.

    But eventually someone has to draw things together. (For instance I’ll lay good odds that by looking primarily from a Masonic POV Nick will inadvertently distort BY’s thought much like similar studies on Joseph and the broad area of hermeticism has done)

  59. His thousands of sermons, which did not speak on Adam-God or polygamy, seem to be ignored by Saint and Gentile, alike.

    Well there was that lesson manual from a few years ago…

  60. Clark, if you think that manual counts… Let me use its technique on your comment #58:

    I’d strongly disagree… Brigham… isn’t ultimately that interesting. Rather… Liberation Theology… would be tremendously helpful. Likewise I think philosophical grounding… [is] often misleading …, [b]oth in terms of American culture as well as broader thought… Joe Swick… has to draw things together.

  61. I think that’s more than a bit unfair to the manual. It’s not perfect but it (a) gives a taste of what BY though on many issues people likely never encountered (b) may have gotten many interested enough to read some of his sermons. (The Journal of Discourses is available online at BYU and a quick Google search would find it)

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