American West Brigham Young

Brigham Young and Latter-day Saint Faith

Thomas Alexander is the author Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith (University of Oklahoma University Press, 2019).

Thomas Alexander is the author Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith (University of Oklahoma University Press, 2019). His book precedes another contribution from the press about the relationship between Brigham Young and Jim Bridger.

Who is Thomas Alexander?

I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Utah State University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Berkeley.  I was the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University at the time of my retirement after 40 years of teaching at Brigham Young University.

I have also taught at Utah State University, University of California at Berkeley, University of Nebraska at Kearny, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and the University of Utah.

 Who is Richard Etulain? How did Thomas Alexander meet him?

Richard W. Etulain is a professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico.  He is editor of the Oklahoma Biography Series.  He asked me to write a biography of Brigham Young for the series he edits.  I met Richard through the Western History Association.

What made Leonard Arrington such an influential mentor?

I took classes from Leonard Arrington, and he asked me to do research for and with him.  I started working for him while I was in graduate school at Utah State.  When I went to Berkeley, he asked me to work with him in the summers. He and I co-published a number of articles on Utah’s Defense Department installations. 

After he was appointed Church Historian and director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, he asked me to serve as assistant director. 

He lived in Salt Lake City and spent most of his time in his service as Church Historian.  Nevertheless, he came to BYU at least one day each week. He taught classes there, and we consulted on the activities of the Redd Center.

Working with him on articles helped to establish me as a publishing historian. I remember him as a kind and caring associate, mentor, and colleague.

What does Thomas Alexander mean when claims to “carry two traditions” in the writing of Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith?

I carry a religious tradition from Jerusalem through New York, Missouri, Nauvoo (Illinois), and Salt Lake City as an active and believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I carry a secular tradition from Athens through the scholarly community to Utah State University and the University of California at Berkeley. 

Both of these traditions influence my thinking and analysis of evidence.  I do not believe that any scholar can be “objective” in the sense that that term is used in the scholarly world.  I believe that those who think they are “objective” are self-deluded at best. 

I believe, however, that the most important characteristic of a scholar is honesty, and I try to achieve that objective in my research and writing.

What are some common misunderstandings about Brigham Young?

Some of the common misunderstandings are that he was a tyrant.  We have too much evidence that associates and members of the church disagreed with him and that they did things that he had told them not to do. 

There are some scholars who take the absurd position that nothing important or tragic could have occurred by church members that he did not approve.  He was also generally very kind to family members rather than a bully in dealing with his family.

He did not order the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  There is no evidence that he did so, and in fact, the currently available evidence leads to the conclusion that he did not.  Moreover, as early as 1859 he tried to make arrangements to bring the perpetrators to justice.  He actually sent apostles to let them know that they most stand trial, and at least three of the major leaders hired attorneys in the belief that they would soon go to trial.  Federal officials torpedoed his efforts.

How did Brigham Young’s attitude towards violence change over time? Why?

During the Reformation of 1856-57, Brigham Young preached Blood Atonement. After the Utah War he began to preach peace and love, and he urged other leaders to do so.

After he had good information about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, he tried to bring the leading perpetrators to justice, but he could not do so.

How is understanding of Brigham Young warped if one focuses only on negative aspects of his character?

Those who consider one or another of the acts or talks of Brigham Young that take place at one time or another should recognize that he was an extremely complex man. His views on many subjects changed over time. 

In attempting to understand him, you must take the changes into consideration as well as something he may have said or done at one particular time.  

What are some of Brigham Young’s most positive attributes?

  • In general, he was a kind and generous leader.  He generally treated his associates and others with kindness. 
  • He was an excellent public speaker.  The British explorer, Sir Richard Burton recognized that. 
  • He had an undying commitment to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and he tried in all he did to promote its interest. 
  • He was a brilliant colonizer.  Scholars have recognized this. 

What would his first wife, Miriam, have thought of Brigham Young if she were able to observe him at the height of his status in Utah? What would the typical Utahn of the time have thought of Brigham Young?

I don’t know what Miriam would have thought.  As for the typical Utahn, most considered him a capable and inspiring leader. Anti-Mormons like Patrick Edward Connor and William Drummond hated him. 

What are some of the most pressing unanswered research questions about Brigham Young?

Why did Brigham Young wait so long to excommunicate John D. Lee? And why did he secure the reinstatement of Isaac Haight four years after he was excommunicated?

What event from Brigham Young’s life would Thomas Alexander most like to see?

The events associated with his conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What are Thomas Alexandar’s Top 5 essential books about Brigham Young.

  1. Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses
  2. John Turner, Brigham Young Pioneer Prophet
  3. Dean Jesse, The Letters of Brigham Young to his Sons
  4. Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre
  5. Richard F. Palmer and  Karl Butler, Brigham Young: The New York Years; William P. MacKinnon, ed.  At Swords Point (2 volumes.)

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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