Review: Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith

Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith.
by Thomas G. Alexander
The Oklahoma Western Biographies Book 31, University of Oklahoma Press, 2019
xxiii + 416 pages, Bibliography, Index.
Hardcover, and ebook (Kindle).

Thomas G. Alexander is well known to readers of Latter-day Saint history. He is the author of a number important works, perhaps most prominently his Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930, recently republished by Greg Kofford Books in a third edition. Alexander, now retired, was a long time professor of history at Brigham Young University, and Transition was originally intended to be part of the Arrington “new church history” series when he was church historian.

The Oklahoma Western Biographies series publishes short biographies written from published sources. This volume should not be confused as a mere rehash of familiar widely known material. It is a work of careful research that employs the best of recent primary source scholarship such as The Joseph Smith Papers along with published diaries and other scholarly work.

Alexander begins with Young’s early life that involved some remarkable challenges including his father’s invitation to leave home and make his own way at 16. Young’s family and extended family were often deeply religious and their encounter with Mormonism in its formative years is a great story. The book moves quickly in two chapters to Young’s positioning as head of the church and the trek to the Mountain West. The Massacre at Mountain Meadows forms a prominent place in the book and its narration is careful and compact, a masterful summary of a complex and tortured story. The book is worth its price for that alone.

Brigham is known for his polygamy and his preaching, and each has a chapter devoted to those topics. The chapter on polygamy is particularly concise and useful, though by it’s nature it is not comprehensive.

While Alexander is a devoted Latter-day Saint, his treatment of Young largely avoids any hagiographic tendency. Young’s blemishes and contradictions are on display and not excused but his strengths and accomplishments appear with equal honesty. It is an even-handed useful volume for any reader interested in Young’s life and written with a general audience in mind rather than the scholarly market.

Young’s life has been the subject of a number of writers including Leonard Arrington, and John Turner’s more recent biography. The present book certainly has scholarly overtones but it is different in purpose and to some degree intended audience. The reader won’t find footnotes or endnotes, and the usual apparatus typical of a University Press volume (there is a useful bibliography). The advantage is a smooth narrative and ease of quotation. But the reader won’t find assertions and quotations argued and cited explicitly. At some points, I especially disliked this in the chapter on Young’s preaching. it is sometimes hard to discover where Young’s thoughts end and the author’s begin. It is clear that both exist, but it is not always easy to see where the junctions exist nor how to assign analysis of claims, etc.

As a whole, I appreciated the book and it is written by an accomplished, proven scholar. I recommend it for anyone interested in this key nineteenth-century personality.

Comments

  1. Terry H says:

    Thanks for this brief review. I’ve talked about this one in other venues. Alexander (who I don’t believe I’ve met) is always important reading for those who want to know more about LDS history. This book is the most readable of his books yet. The series is designed to appeal to a more general reader. He makes Brigham so accessible in this by (as stated above) pointing out his strengths and weaknesses in an honest way. I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

  2. Thanks Terry H.

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