A Smattering of Brieviews, part 2: Turner

John G. Turner has just published (the Belknap imprint of HUP, no less!) a biography of my third-great-grandfather (by Zina DHJSY, the spirited exemplum of the complexities of plurality), Brigham Young. This fascinating, readable book, which I have watched grow from early drafts into an excellent monograph, has already sparked some discussion and controversy among practicing LDS. (It has already been extremely well received among readers outside the LDS community.)
The book is a balanced, contextualized portrait of a controversial, strong-willed, rough-hewn, intermittently quite bellicose figure. I will defer the BCC review of the book to the excellent Brad Kramer and want here to only wonder whether we as LDS have finally reached our “naughty popes” phase. All religious traditions (indeed essentially all substantive conglomerations of human beings) have tricky parts of their history that generally represent the combination of human failing and cultural shifts over time.[1] Calvin’s Geneva was not a terribly hospitable place for heresy, there are a handful of deeply embarrassing popes, and don’t even get me started about Catholic vs. lapsed Catholic[2] in the British Isles. Despite these spotted histories, the relevant traditions have expanded, grown, and accommodated the failings of past leaders. We as LDS may have much to learn from those traditions which have been able to see in the continuity of the Church its power and authority. We as LDS also have traditions that may be particularly useful to solving this problem, not least the notion that priesthood authority creates a continuous chain that can bind us as humans to Eve and Adam and all of us to God through Christ, a divine authority that is greater than any individual and certainly greater than any of our foibles. I personally think a fruitful avenue for apologetics will be elaborating an approach to human history that embraces the strength and beauty of the LDS tradition while also finding useful techniques from Catholics and Protestants whose heroes and antecedents similarly fail the standards imposed by current society.

[1] Note that general coarseness and bellicosity or orthodoxy that resulted in internally sanctioned murder have been markers of human society for millennia. Major religious traditions have not been immune from this characteristic of human society.
[2] I’m teasing. I have great admiration for the Anglican tradition and only wanted to draw attention to the fact that, for all its richness and beauty, Anglicanism per se arises from complex political and nationalistic maneuvering within the body of Christ, as well as religious impulses leading away from medieval Catholicism.

PS, John is a great guy in person as well, and he’ll be doing a reading/event at Benchmark on 32d S and Main in SLC at 6pm tonight. Should be a great event.


  1. Thanks, Sam. This is a fascinating book. I give some of my thoughts on it, and ways Young’s life and Presidency can perhaps be effectively and uniquely explored by LDS in the context of a revelation of our response to traditional and ancient narratives of God over at Improvement Era: http://bit.ly/Nnand8

  2. Wonderful thoughts Sam. I remember Bushman giving a talk on Hugh Nibley and pointed out Nibley rarely used Joseph Smith’s character as truth of the work but would point out there are ways to see this work is a beautiful and genuin diamond despite the fact that the plowboy who gave it to the world was a rascal. I think this is a healthy approach.

  3. I know a fair number of LDS who point to the naughty popes as evidence that the Roman Catholic Church was in complete apostasy and had lost God’s authority and imprimatur.

  4. “All religious traditions have tricky parts of their history”

    Yes, but we might want to acknowledge why history can be particularly tricky for Mormons: because Mormons are continually taught that the church is literally led by Jesus Christ, and that all actions by top church leaders represent the will of Jesus Christ.

  5. Christopher says:

    Good stuff, Sam. I’m about halfway through and am thoroughly enjoying it. We’ll have a roundtable on the book over at JI in the next month or so, as well.

  6. wondering (#4)

    In what sense is history particularly tricky for Mormons? Roman Catholics are also taught that the Pope is the representative of Christ and also infallible.

  7. Papal infallibility is pretty central to the belief structure in fact. It is one of the reasons Catholicism has started to take a right turn since Benedict became Pope. You know what they say, when in Rome…

  8. John did a great job at Benchmark tonight. Look for the video of it on youtube soon.

  9. I think catholic infallibility is a bit more complex.

    I like to frame these sorts of things in terms of family and the realization many of us eventually have that not everyone is perfect.

  10. Stapley: right.

  11. benchmarkbooks says:

    Here’s the link to the YouTube video from the event at Benchmark: http://bit.ly/PLARSj

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