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.