Book Review: The Prophet and the Reformer

The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane is a collection of letters between the famous Mormon leader and the East coast abolitionist and reformer Thomas Kane, but (perhaps to the chagrin of hard-core historians) it’s also a helpful summary of events and personalities surrounding the exodus from Nauvoo through the end of the Utah War. It’s difficult for a casual reader of history to provide a review of a collection like this, because while I have general familiarity with the time period and I am familiar with Young, Kane and several of the other people involved, I have no expertise with the source documents and no ability to say: yes, this is good history. Will that stop Steve in his review? Surely you jest.

Kane came to know the Saints in 1845, as camps of Mormons, now exiled from Nauvoo, were huddled without clear direction of next steps. Kane swiftly became of the most important political allies of the Church. It was Kane who helped solicit the US government to let the Mormons temporarily live on Omaha land, at Winter Quarters. He soon approached President Polk (along with Elder Jesse Little) with an offer: a volunteer battalion of troops in exchange for government aid on the Saints’ journey west. Thus the Mormon Battalion was formed, the only religious military unit in US history. Kane soon paid dearly for his association with the Mormons, falling gravely ill while visiting them in 1846. Kane, already a pale, frail man, would be weakened for the rest of his life — but he would also remember the hospitality of those Saints who tended to him. For much of the rest of his life, Kane would be an ardent supporter of the Mormons in Washington, D.C.

Matt Grow and Ron Walker, both historians with excellent pedigrees working on the Joseph Smith Papers, have compiled in this volume the personal correspondence between Kane and Young, from 1846 through to Brigham Young’s death in 1877. The letters range thematically from genuine personal matters of health and family, to updates on either front of the Utah War (Salt Lake and Washington), to the political machinations of a territory not yet become a State. Throughout the letters ring two very distinct voices: Kane, a well-bred Easterner and politician, with florid prose, and Young, the American Moses with blunt tongue and direct manner. With the benefit of hindsight and better access to records, we can compare the letters of the two men (and their suspicions and plans) against the actual history. This can be quite revealing, for example as Young writes to Kane concerning the Mountain Meadows Massacre (for the definitive work on this topic, see Walker and Turley’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows).

For the non-scholar, I view there as being three sources of real value in this book. The first is the historical context of this time period. Grow and Walker have penned introductions to each letter as well as generalized introductions to the historical periods in the volume. The cumulative result is one of the best summaries of the Utah War and the governance of Brigham Young as it interfaced with the federal government. The focus is slightly different from a generalized textbook, in that the history is being seen solely as it revolves around these two players; that said, Young is the singular player during the entire time period, so it’s not like the narrative here is all that skewed. The second value in this book is in the messages of their correspondence: often poignant, often witty, the letters give is a vivid insight into the two personalities. Consider, for example, this message from Young to Kane. The latter had just received confirmation that the rumors were true, and that the Mormons did in fact practice polygamy. Kane, who had also just lost his brother, was shocked and wrote to Young for an explanation. Young’s reply is better than most of the showings of compassion we offer today in our church:

After reiterating the warmest sympathetic associations for the loss of your dear friend and brother, Permit me to thank you most cordially for the open, frank and candid expression of your views of and feelings on one important truth connected with my history, and the history of friends and worlds with which I associate. Your brief, explicit, and plain expression of fear and feeling, endears you to me, more than all the rhetoric of ages could have done; fear, that I am wrong; feeling, that you desire me right. These are such views as the Gods exercise, so far as knowledge permits those views to have place in their breasts.

The third valuable aspect to the book is as an exercise in viewing history as personal narratives. What sort of history do we have when we glean it purely from personal correspondence? How do these letters present a different historical view than, say, newspapers or books of the day? What is the potential for personal letters to be a viable and reliable source of history? To the casual observer, reliance on personal papers presents an inherently skewed and unreliable view of history; can we trust Young or Kane to be detached and objective in their description of events? And yet their descriptions are powerful and instructive as to the personalities of the authors, and as such give us some insights into their motivations, their priorities and their fears. We learn much from what they choose not to say. If we have external verification of facts, letters such as these may give us a living sense of history in ways that we cannot get from other sources. It is this vitality that Grow and Walker offer to the reader.

The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane (Oxford University Press, 2015) Matthew Grow and Ronald Walker, eds.

Comments

  1. New Iconoclast says:

    I haven’t read this yet, but I can’t imagine why “a helpful summary of events and personalities surrounding the exodus from Nauvoo through the end of the Utah War” would chagrin serious historians. I would think it would be an invaluable resource; as an undergraduate more than two decades ago struggling to write a reasonably coherent senior history thesis on the Saints’ pre-Civil War struggle for statehood, I would have welcomed it. (Alas, this was at a time when the Church archives were less than friendly, there was very little primary source material available, and Al Gore had not yet fully invented the Internet.)

    As it is, I’m looking forward to reading it. I always enjoy Ron Walker’s work, and this sounds like a great addition to an era of Western history/US history/LDS history that has been often neglected. Kane is frequently mentioned in cursory histories as a great friend of the Saints but with little detail beyond that. I look forward to more light being shed on his role and his relationship with Brother Brigham.

    Parenthetically, I would add that Ronald Walker is a great and humble man to meet personally. His daughter and her family lived in our ward for years (until their recent move to Colorado), and he and his wife would visit Minnesota every so often. It wasn’t for quite some time that I connected that Brother Walker with **Ron Walker, Mormon Historian Extraordinaire**. When I asked him to sign my copy of Massacre at Mountain Meadows, he reacted as if I were honoring him, instead of the other way around. :)

  2. NI, serious historians would just go read the letters. Primary sources and all that.

  3. I guess that’s what I was thinking. :)

  4. Ron Walker really is a great guy. Grow is, too. And Turley. And… well, they’re all pretty much great over there. We live in a golden age.

  5. Not bad, for a non-scholar.

  6. I’ve been trying to run a Facebook page for this book — it’s the hardest one I’ve ever tried to do. First I have to find a bit that is eloquent or funny or engaging, and brief enough for the format (the last part isn’t easy due to the 19th century rhetoric). Then I have to frame it with enough of the backstory to make it comprehensible to nonspecialists, again keeping it brief enough for the FB format.

    But while the letters don’t easily lend themselves to the brevity of a FB user’s attention span, they work very well in the book format. Walker and Grow give just enough context to tell what BY and TLK are responding to, and who the players in the current story are, without becoming tedious. That goes to support your second point, I think, in inviting the reader into the intimate personal relationship of two intriguing personalities. You see them as two individual men, not quite with all their defenses down because each had motives other than pure friendship for corresponding, but certainly more directly and personally than when they were appearing in public.

  7. Ardis, that does sound really tough! It’s just not easy to translate between the two worlds. But I agree that the book itself — or rather, the letters themselves — can potentially tell us more about the men than a standard textbook.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the review, Steve. Looks like a very interesting volume.

  9. The Prophet and the Reformer is an excellent annotated edition of the letters between these two remarkable men. I’m currently using it as a reference work and looking forward to reading it from front to back since TLK is one of my heroes.

    A small but significant portion of my project on the stories of the African American slaves in Utah Territory involves Utah territorial politics, and Grow and Walker’s brief explanations of events and personalities are more trustworthy than contemporaneous news accounts, and more accessible than multi-volume histories, since often all I need is a brief explanation of something like the burning of the Stiles and Williams law library, and there it is in footnotes on pages 314 and 319, complete with a list of sources and an indication of their reliability.

    Did I already say “excellent”? This book deserves some superlatives, both for the subject matter and for the context the editors provide. In other words, I agree with your review, Steve.

  10. Sounds like a great book! Thanks for the review. Whenever I hear quotes by BY, I’m reminded of this severely paraphrased quote from a LDS when asked why in the world he would follow BY: “Your sophisticated leaders are like a knife in a beautiful sheath with a beautiful handle, but when you pull out the blade, you realize it’s as dull as a butter knife. BY on the other hand is a knife in an old buckskin sheath with a cheap bone handle but whose blade is razor sharp.” According to Mormons back then, BY was “blunt” in his words, but sharp in his substance.