John Turner on Brigham Young

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Historian John Turner reflects on his biography of Brigham Young nearly 10 years after its publication.

How has Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet been received?

John Turner: 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.

A portrait of historian John Turner
John Turner is the author of ‘Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.’ He is currently working on a biography of Joseph Smith for Yale University Press. Credit: John Turner.

How well do you feel you got to know Brigham Young?

John Turner: 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? (It’s a fascinating transition. You briefly address it in the epilogue, but it would be great if you could riff a bit more on the “why”)

John Turner: 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 you were writing it now?

John Turner: 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 you most like to see answered?

John Turner: 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 do you think Brigham Young would feel about your biography?

John Turner: 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?

John Turner: 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. 

Do you think you underestimated how Latter-day Saint readers would negatively respond to your portrayal of Brigham Young’s character flaws?

John Turner: 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 your overall experience with Pioneer Prophet influence the way you write a biography of Joseph Smith?

John Turner: 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.

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

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