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John Turner on Brigham Young

Historian John Turner reflects on his biography of Brigham Young nearly 10 years after its publication.

Historian John Turner reflects on his biography of Brigham Young nearly 10 years after its publication. He is currently working on a biography of Joseph Smith that many expect to be the most significant contribution since Richard Bushman wrote Rough Stone Rolling.

How has Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet been received?

I was incredibly gratified by the book’s reception. It received many complimentary reviews from both faithful Latter-day Saints and non-Mormons. There were a few dissenting views, but I regard those in much the same way that Brigham regarded dissenters.

How well did John Turner get to know Brigham Young?

Great question. That’s the tricky thing about history, even when one writes about a figure so incredibly well documented as Brigham. So many of those sources do not provide an intimate encounter with the man.

Take, for instance, his hundreds of sermons. Do those published records reflect every word that he spoke? Of course not. Sometimes he and his clerks edited his sermons for publication. In some instances, there are shorthand notes, but those aren’t word for word either.

Or take his letters. In most instances, clerks drafted letters, which he signed and sometimes revised. That being said, there are some very intimate sources, such as his early, handwritten journals, and, on occasion, some handwritten letters, such as some to his sons.

But as a historian who primarily works with written texts, I always remind myself that we do not have direct access to the experiences of others. We only have narratives.

With all of those qualifications, I felt that I got to know Brigham well enough to have a clear sense of his personality: his sharp wit and sense of humor, his perseverance, his creative mind, his adaptability, his faith, and his combativeness.

Why did Brigham Young go through a softening of his rhetoric?

This is the passage you have in mind:

“After the setbacks of the 1850s, Young learned to restrain his rhetoric and tolerate the presence of Gentiles and ex-Mormons in Utah… In large part because of the trauma of Joseph Smith’s death and Young’s own fear of a similar end, however, he could not understand any other way to lead the church until the final decade of his life.”

John Turner, ‘Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet’

Again, I think it’s essential to understand that the experiences of the early-to-mid 1840s left a deep imprint on Young’s personality and leadership style. But as I say here, Young does alter his approach—somewhat—toward the end of his life. He remained blunt in his criticism of church members who did not embrace his vision for the United Order economic plan, for instance. And there are ongoing political confrontations with U.S. officials, dissenters, and non-Mormon economic interests.

Still, I do give Young credit for adapting to fresh challenges. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 accelerates these changing circumstances. Brigham Young is 67 years old at this time.

How might Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet be different if John Turner were writing it now?

Except for a few very minor errors that careful readers brought to my attention, I wouldn’t change anything of significance.

What remaining mystery about Brigham Young would John Turner most like to see answered?

I don’t know that it’s a mystery, but a curiosity. I would love to have a first-hand glimpse of the ways that Brigham interacted with his first wife, Miriam Works, who died a few months after they were baptized into the church.

Brigham describes very touching scenes of caring for his ill wife and taking care of their children amid grinding poverty.

How does John Turner think Brigham Young would feel about his biography?

I don’t think he would like it very much. While it would be considerably less interesting, I wouldn’t want someone to write a warts-and-all biography about me either.

Why did so many Saints love and follow Brigham Young?

That’s easy. For thousands of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young was the missionary who brought them into the church. This was true of some individuals in the northeastern United States, but even more true in England.

Then, for those Saints who followed him to what became Utah, Brigham was the individual who had saved the Church in its darkest hour.

Many other things endeared him to Church members.

At times, he displayed an intense spiritual fire, whether that manifested itself in speaking in tongues or through his discourses.

He could be also incredibly down to earth. He danced with the Saints in the Nauvoo Temple and at Winter Quarters.

It irks me that a few critics thought I did not answer this question in my biography! While I did not reiterate the above on every single page of the book, I spent a fair amount of time providing precisely these sorts of explanations.

Did John Turner underestimate negative Latter-day Saint responses to ‘Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet’?

As far as I’m concerned, history isn’t about climbing on a moral pedestal to pass judgments on people of the past. Sure, all of us have moral reactions to actions and ideas, both positive and negative, and I’m saying that those never intrude.

But that’s not my goal.

Sure, Brigham Young had character flaws. Or, to put it another way, he engaged in some behavior and rhetoric that cannot be squared easily with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It makes me reflect on what it means for someone to be a prophet in different traditions. Muslims generally regard prophets as free from at least major sins and free from failure and ignominy.

But that’s not the biblical understanding of prophets or anointed leaders, and David isn’t the only example. Look at Noah’s drunkenness, Abraham’s blundering lies about Sarah, or even Joseph, who reduces people to a state of slavery. And those are the heroes!

Latter-day Saints, likewise, maintain that their leaders are fallible and also that they will not lead the church astray. The question is simply the extent of their fallibility.

How will John Turner’s experience ‘Pioneer Prophet’ influence the way he writes a biography of Joseph Smith?

When I select a book subject, I immerse myself in the relevant sources for a few years. I try my hardest to let those sources steer my thoughts and conclusions.

That’s what I did for Brigham Young, and I will do the same for Joseph Smith.

Further reading

Brigham Young FAQ

By Kurt Manwaring

Editor. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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