John Turner’s recent biography of Brigham Young, besides receiving lots of praise (including the most prestigious award possible), has raised some important questions about Mormonism’s second prophet. Perhaps the most common question is some rendtion of, “Why would anyone want to follow the cold, tyrannical, and unsympathetic Brigham Young presented in the biography?” This quesition can come in two forms: first, the person questions the validity of Turner’s reconstruction of Brigham Young’s character; surely, this reasoning implies, Young couldn’t have been that bad, or else no one would have accepted him as a prophet, thus leaving the fault with the author. Second, the person could agree with Turner’s interpretation, and are therefore flummoxed over why 19th century Mormons actually chose to follow such an unlikable fellow. While I personally don’t have many problems with Turner’s depiction of the Lord’s Lion, I will leave aside the question of the biography’s success in handling this issue, since even those who disagree with Turner will probably still admit that Young would have been a tough individual with whom to get along. Thus, I’d like to reflect for a moment on the question, “why would someone follow Brigham Young?”
(First, you should go read these two wonderful accounts of Brigham Young at Keepapitchinin, because they offer a glimpse at the private Brigham that can add some context to our somewhat stodgy image of the man. Indeed, it should be remembered that Young did have a softer and merciful side that is often overlooked. Perhaps if we bug Ardis enough, she will jump-start the series again.)
I think there are several assumptions of ours that lead into this question, with different issues playing a different factor for different people. One is what a prophet was supposed to be like, especially when compared to the examples found in the scriptures. (At least, the examples we cherry-pick, anyway.) Another, related to the first, is an expectation of a typical prophetic “persona,” likely based our experience with and observance of prophets and apostles in the twenty-first century. Yet another assumption, perhaps not as common amongst the people who actually read the book and participate in these types of discussions, is the belief that prophets don’t have many flaws or weaknesses. There’s also that pesky temptation of presentism, where we place our own (often unrealistic) cultural expectations and morals on those of the past. And finally, there is the fact that we have been raised with a typical narrative and image of Young that are directly challenged by much of modern scholarship. All of these can certainly be part of why we, as modern Latter-day Saints, can sometimes have difficulty when we are faced with a complex picture of Brigham Young; I know it has certainly been, and probably continues to be, a problem with my own views and interpretations of the man.
But I think there is another problem related to this post’s question: a tendency to overlook the difference in what people in the nineteenth century both expected and wanted from a religious leader, especially when compared to today.
The religious atmosphere in mid-19th century America, especially on the frontier, was fraught with strife, dissention, and schism, as the American people were shocked with the anarchic results of religious disestablishment. For the last several decades, perhaps epitomized by the work of Nathan Hatch, historians have sometimes overestimated the extent to which Americans embraced a democratized religious practice. The liberty of the new nation, many historians believed, encouraged people to tear down social barriers and attempt to make everything egalitarian. In such a climate, success hinged on charisma, democratized power, and the potency of a message; in short, it was supposedly a mirror image of today’s religious climate, where choice dominated the spiritual marketplace, and people went (or stayed) wherever they felt most wanted and, especially in today’s culture, most free. If such a religious culture existed in the nineteenth century, why would anyone want to follow someone who claim such domineering control?
But historians have recently been challenging this image. In two of the most important religious history books of 2012, Amanda Porterfield argued that the antebellum climate fostered a distrust for American religion, society, and government, and religious thrived when they stoked those flames of fear, and Spencer Fluhman demonstrated how many nineteenth century religionists used Mormonism to highlight the dangers of religious freedom. Indeed, the religious culture from which early Mormons came screamed the dangers of democracy, not its potential. As I argue in a forthcoming article, those who followed Brigham Young clung to a leader who offered stability and control, which was, after all, what Young was all about. America was entering into a period of deep factionalism (climaxing in the Civil War), the Saints were forced from their homes and lost faith in the nation to which they offered allegiance, the frontier was a place of deep urest and turbulence, settlement in Utah introduced clashes with native populations, and there was always the threat of the federal government stepping in to take control. In this setting, Young’s centralized and authoritarian presence offered comfort in a world of chaos. What we may see as too strong a hand today might have seemed an safe anchor to Young’s contemporaries.
This dynamic took an important twist once the Church was settled in the West, and Brigham Young was tasked with unifying a disparate body of people from many different cultures and countries. One way he did this was through the construction (or amplification) of an us/them tribal atmosphere where everyone was tethered to the Church in the face of external opposition. Through his sometimes terse rhetoric, Young’s case demonstrates how a threatening “other” can be as much a consolidating influence as love and charisma. As our own Steve Taysom has shown, the stability of the faith often rested on their ability to maintain an optimal tension of firm boundaries. Young’s ability to navigate that tension, often with quotes that appear jarring to modern readers, united his followers in a foundational way. This isn’t to say that all found such an image and religious setting appealing, because there were a number of those who left when the “ideal” of Zion failed to match the reality of Utah, but it proved a potent catalyst for thousands of believers.
One final point, which is perhaps more of a half-baked idea than fleshed a out argument. I think we should reconsider the significance of Brigham Young for an average Mormon in territorial Utah, and especially for converts outside of the Mountain West. Historians have mostly dismantled the mistaken notion that “nothing happened in Utah without Young’s approval,” but a similar assualt needs to be unleashed on the idea that a person’s attachment to mormonism centered on their feelings for and connection with church leaders. If one were to convert to the gospel in 1854, for instance, how much of that conversion really depended on their opinion of Brigham Young? This is an especially salient question for the disjointed and sprawled out world of the Utah, North America, and increasingly international Mormon body, disconnected from a stable print culture and centralized correlated material that we take advantage of today. The answer, I think, will be “much less than previously thought.”
 For the sake of this post, let’s set aside the answer of, “Because he was the prophet and people had a spiritual witness of the gospel’s message.” Of course that is a significant reason, perhaps the significant reason, for many, but it was also not the only reason. This post goes more to engaging how people were able to handly his sometimes abrasive personality and rhetoric. It is also more the type of methodology invoked by scholars, where truth is “bracketed” and thus other, supporting, reasons are needed.
 Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale UP, 1989). Importantly, Mormons were one of the key players in Hatch’s narrative.
 Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago UP, 2012); J. Spencer Fluhman, Peculiar People: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth Century America (UNC Press, 2012).
 Benjamin E. Park, “Early Mormonism and the Paradoxes of Democratic Religiosity in Jacksonian America,” American Nineteenth Century History (forthcoming).
 There has been some great work done on Brigham Young’s rhetoric that more fully fleshes out this point. See, for instance, Ronald W. Walker, “Raining Pitchforks: Brigham Young as Preacher,” Sunstone 8 (May-June 1983):5-9.
 Stephen C. Taysom, Shakers, Mormons and Religious Worlds: Conflicting Visions, Contested Boundaries (Indiana UP, 2010).
 For those who did not agree with the vision, see Polly Aird, Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848-1861 (Arthur H. Clark, 2009); Polly Aird, Jeff Nichols, and Will Bagley, eds., Playing with Shadows: Voices of Dissent in the Mormon West (Arthur H. Clark, 2011).