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.