10 questions with Thomas Alexander

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

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic background?

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 you meet him and what kind of influence has he had on you?

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.

‘Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith’ (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019) is the latest volume in the Oklahoma Western Biography series.

What made Leonard Arrington such an influential mentor? What are some of your most vivid memories of him?

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.

10 questions with Gary Bergera

What do you mean when you say you “carry two traditions” in the writing of Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith? Why is it important to explain that upfront?

I carry a religious tradition from Jerusalem through New York, Missouri, Nauvoo (Ills), 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.

The five sons of John and Nabby Young by Charles Roscoe Savage. From left to right: Lorenzo Dow Young, Brigham Young, Phineas Howe Young, Joseph Young, and John Young. This work is in the public domain in the United States and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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 subject 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. 

Brigham Young, circa 1867-177. Credit: L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, BYU. This work is in the public domain in the United States and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

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

Why he waited so long to excommunicate John D. Lee and why he secured the reinstatement of Isaac Haight four years after he was excommunicated.

If you could go back in time and observe any event from Brigham Young’s life, what would you most like to see?

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

Make a list of your Top 5 essential books about Brigham Young.

Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses;

John Turner, Brigham Young Pioneer Prophet;

Dean Jesse, The Letters of Brigham Young to his Sons;

Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre;

Richard F. Palmer and  Karl Butler, Brigham Young: The New York Years;  William P. MacKinnon, ed.  At Swords Point (2 volumes.)

This interview is made possible through the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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