It’s too easy to pick a “Mormon of the Year.” It’s just too small a pool of candidates, and thus slim pickings. (Especially when there are presidential candidates, because heaven knows you have to pick one of those.) No, the real skill comes when your list of potential nominees number the entire world except the Mormons. Here at BCC, we take on the monumental task of choosing a recipient for the Boggs-Doniphan Gentile of the Year Award; it’s a tough and thankless job, but someone has to do it. This award recognizes the non-Mormon who had the greatest impact–for good (Doniphan) or ill (Boggs)–on Mormons or Mormonism this year. The past winners are:
Just like previous years, 2012 produced many worthy candidates. Would it be Anderson Cooper, for smacking down that “Mormons-are-a-cult” preacher? Or Billy Graham, for deciding we weren’t a cult after all? Or how about Barack Obama, who had the nerve to beat Mitt Romney, our tibe’s “one mighty and strong” who was destined to save the Constitution’s loose thread? (Or something like that.) After much deliberation, and lots of fasting and prayer, we have decided to award John G. Turner, author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, the honor of possessing the 2012
Boggs/Doniphan crown. (Or is it a sceptre? I can never remember.)
The last non-Mormon to attempt a major biography of Brigham Young, Stanley Hirshson, did such a lousy job that his book remains the only recipient of the Mormon History Association’s “Worst Book Award.” So the standard wasn’t that high. But John Turner, recently hired by George Mason University’s Religious Studies Department (faculty page here), put in the time and effort to produce a marvelous biography. For four straight summers, he uprooted his family (including his wife and small child) and moved to Provo (the ultimate sacrifice!) to perform research in the mountainous collections of Brigham Young’s papers. The book has already received great praise in scholarly circles (see this phenomenal roundtable at Juvenile Instructor, the publisher’s collection of review excerpts here), though it has raised some (important) questions for some reviewers about whether all members of the Church will be ready for its contents. (Though it should be noted that particular reviewer didn’t have much of a problem with it.) Brigham Young led a tough life, maintained a rough personality (at least in public), and became involved with some difficult situations, all of which can be a shock to Mormons who only know the CES version of the “Lion of the Lord.” As Richard Bushman noted, Turner “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.” This, I think, is a good thing, because reassesments should “shock” us into a better understanding and more vigorous examination of such an important figure. During the year defined as the “Mormon Moment,” in which so much attention was paid to the faith and its history, it was important to have such a responsible resource on one of the church’s key figures.
Personally, and it seems to be a general scholarly consensus, I think Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet will stand as the definitive biography of the frontier leader for quite some time. Besides blowing away Hirshson, its depth and sophistication rivals, and likely surpasses, Leonard Arrinton’s famous American Moses. For me, Turner was at his best unravelling the intricacies of Young’s marital relations, and I often caught myself impressed at how much time he spent with Young’s wives, which is a definite break from past treatments of the prophet. (And it makes us turn a more critical eye to other biographies that didn’t approach that same standard.) But more than that, Turner’s deft attention to elucidating Young’s developing racial views, anxiety over dissent following Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, and, most importantly, his relevance to the broader historical field, both for his uniqueness as well as for his serving as mirror for the surrounding culture, are all on full display in this book. And finally, all of this is packaged in flowing prose that is both readable and engrossing. Respected religious scholar Stephen Webb, in his review found in Books and Culture, proclaimed that the biography “should establish [Turner] as one of the best religious historians of his generation.” We are certainly lucky he has shared his talents with the Latter-day Saints.
At the very least, this book should get us talking about the monumental figure that was Brigham Young. And that is a great gift.
So ladies and gentlemen, I present to you John Turner, the 2012 Doniphan Non-Mormon of the Year.