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American Moses: The Story of Leonard Arrington’s Brigham Young Biography

Spencer W. Kimball had told Arrington, “I would like to see a really good biography of Brigham Young before I die.”

Brigham Young is arguably the second-most important figure in Mormon history; but until the 1970s, he had not been the subject of a definitive biography [until the publication of Leonard Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses].


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Learn more. This is an excerpt from Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History. Read the book for the rest of the story.

The book cover of Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History.
The biography of Leonard Arrington includes a chapter detailing the story behind the scenes of Brigham Young: American Moses.

Leonard Arrington’s American Moses chapter introduction

The two most recent books represented the polemical extremes. Preston Nibley’s Brigham Young: The Man and His Work (1936), despite being over five hundred pages in length, managed to avoid entirely the mention of polygamy, arguably a central theme in Young’s presidency; and Stanley Hirshson, author of The Lion of the Lord: A Biography of Brigham Young (1969)—which Leonard called “that terrible book”—managed to avoid entirely the LDS Archives.

In the early 1960s, Leonard Arrington and George Ellsworth proposed to the National Historical Publications Commission that they edit Young’s papers for publication by that organization. The commission’s prior projects had included the papers of several U.S. presidents.

We’re stuck with it. But I plan to involve all of you.

“They were enthusiastic and agreed to funding,” Leonard recalled later.

“We wrote to the First Presidency, and they declined. I think the reason was that the papers had never been studied and they were fearful that we might find things that were prejudicial, incriminating.” In the aftermath of Hirshson’s biography, the two men proposed again to the First Presidency that the Young paper be edited and published. They received no reply.

Shortly after Leonard became church historian, as noted in an earlier chapter, Michael Quinn discovered in the basement of the Church Administration Building tens of thousands of pages of manuscript material from the Brigham Young era that had sat undisturbed for over a century.

The discovery was a catalyst for a different proposal: a multivolume biography.

Leonard wrote to Wendell Ashton, then head of the Public Communications Department, “I myself would enjoy doing a biography of Brigham Young and have certain qualifications by way of acquaintanceship with materials, but my administrative duties are so onerous that I cannot see any possibility of getting to it in the next two or three years.”

Still, Leonard made his pitch to the First Presidency, receiving, in reply, instructions:

to catalog the material and then return for further discussion. Because of other assignments and the large mass of Brigham Young-period manuscripts to be examined, we did not complete the cataloguing, even in a preliminary way, until 1977, the one-hundredth anniversary of Brigham Young’s death. We then studied the materials for two years, trying to decide whether we should simply edit the papers, or at the rate of, say one volume per year, write a multi-volume biography, and, if the latter, who should write it.

“Statement on the Brigham Young Biography,” LJAHA, Series X, Box 3, fd. 1.

Spencer Kimball approved a one-volume biography, rather than the seven-volume work that Leonard had requested, and asked that Leonard be its author.

Still stung by the repercussions over The Story of the Latter-day Saints, yet eager to push forward, he confided his ambivalence to his children:

I guess what I am trying to say is that I’m not proceeding very fast to start on the Brigham Young biography. I know very well that it will create troubles for me if I get it to the stage of publication. Two of the brethren just do not want published the kind of biography which I would have to do, so maybe I’m just not in any hurry. Yet, in my bones, I know I must do it, sooner or later.

Leonard Arrington letter to his children, January 17, 1978.

The potential reaction of “two of the brethren” was not as daunting as the sheer magnitude of the literal mountain of Young manuscript material, “most of which has never before been examined.”

Leonard listed what the cataloguers had found:

  • 4 diaries in Brigham Young’s own hand
  • 29 letterpress copybooks of letters, representing about 30,000 outgoing letters
  • 6 telegraph books, representing about 800 telegrams
  • 48 volumes of manuscript history kept by Brigham Young’s clerks, representing about 50,000 pages
  • 18 volumes of minutes of meetings in which Brigham Young participated, representing about 6,000 pages
  • 9 office journals, with about 300 pages each

And, of course, there were thousands of incoming letters, diaries of those associated with him, and many other documents relating to the period—his papers as governor, his papers as superintendent of Indian affairs, the histories of the colonizing companies he sent out, and so on.

Also several hundred business records of enterprises he founded and assisted.

Leonard proposed to Kimball that the book be submitted to Alfred Knopf, which had published not only Leonard’s The Mormon Experience, but also influential and unsympathetic biographies of Joseph Smith (Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History) and Hirshson’s The Lion of the Lord.

The First Presidency approved the proposal, specifying that its members must review the manuscript before it went to the publisher, a tighter control than had been the case with The Mormon Experience, which was submitted to the First Presidency and the publisher simultaneously. Leonard contacted Knopf the same month and, according to a retrospective timeline he prepared in 1985, signed the contract in September 1979.

It took Leonard more than a decade to research and write Great Basin Kingdom. He taught during the academic year but often had summers free, and he had no administrative responsibilities.

Now, in 1979, when his time was largely devoted to being director of the History Division as it faced dissolution and the move to BYU, he faced a daunting deadline for the Young biography, for Spencer Kimball had told him, “I would like to see a really good, one-volume biography of Brigham Young before I die.”

At a History Division summer retreat a month after the First Presidency approved the project, Leonard explained his dilemma: “Brother [Homer] Durham interprets our instructions as permitting only my name as author. I have asked at various times to permit a co-author or co-authors, but he consistently takes a legalistic position on this, so we’re stuck with it. But I plan to involve all of you.”

Leonard continued to have access to the Young papers at the Church Archives.

He subsequently outlined to Martin Hickman, his dean at BYU, the divsion of labor he foresaw:

It would be impossible for one person to cover all of this material, even in a lifetime, and so I’ve had Richard Jensen working through all of the material on immigration, Carol Madsen working through the material on women, Davis Bitton working through the sermons, and Bill Hartley working through the material on priesthood activities and government. All of this is important to Church history as well as to Brigham Young’s personal history, and will eventuate in articles which may be published by BYU Studies and other magazines and journals. Ron Esplin has been studying Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve in Nauvoo, and that will form a chapter in my biography and quite possibly a separate book authored by him.

Leonard Arrington to Martin Hickman, February 17, 1981.

Because of the First Presidency approval of the biography, Leonard and his team continued to have access to the Young papers at the Church Archives. And the First Presidency alone, rather than the Correlation Committee or any other review body, including one or more apostles, would have the power to make binding recommendations regarding the manuscript.

In a letter to his children, Leonard used uncharacteristic blunt language to describe his disdain for the middle-level bureaucrats and his glee at being able to bypass them:

I do not supposed that my Brigham Young biography would be approved by those idiots in the middle management. But, thanks to Elder Durham’s switching us to BYU, I am independent enough that, while I am required to send them a copy of the manuscript, I am not required to pay attention to their suggestions. I also am entitled to personal revelation in connection with this assignment, and that revelation will be my primary guide, not the suggestions of the idiot fringe. I’m talking mighty brave, as you see, to keep up my courage.

Leonard Arrington letter to his children, April 5, 1981

With an impressive cadre of assistants doing most of the actual research, Leonard began writing on May 23, 1981, and completed the entire first draft in seven months. After having three colleagues read and critique the manuscript, he sent it to Knopf in February 1982, just one month before Grace’s death.

Because Leonard wrote for understanding, not conversion, he made Young so much more believable.

After two years of working back and forth with Knopf on revisions, he shipped the final version in the summer of 1984—minus a whimsical “Dedication” that he had written for his own amusement:

“To Elder Rameumptom J. Moriancumr who, by his stupid regulations and irritating bureaucratic pronouncements, has helped me understand Brigham Young’s impatience with self-important people of his own day, thus provoking some of the colorful language which I am delighted to reproduce in this biography.”

Leonard Arrington’s (unpublished) tongue-in-cheek Dedication for Brigham Young: American Moses.

Brigham Young: American Moses was released in the spring of 1985. While it sold well and was listed by the History Book Club, it garnered no awards outside of Mormon historical associations, and never gained the critical acclaim of Great Basin Kingdom.


Reviews of Leonard Arrington’s American Moses

Praise for Arrington

American Moses represented a major leap forward from prior Brigham Young biographies, and many published and verbal reviews made that observation the centerpiece of their critiques.

The dust jacket blurbs were, predictably, effusive:

  • “This is without a doubt the definitive Mormon History.”
  • “A work long needed . . . An important book.”
  • “An outstanding and definitive study, a very model of religious-historical scholarship.”
  • “A remarkable intelligent and open-minded official history.”

A personal relationship

One coworker, Maureen Beecher, was similarly effusive: “His Brigham Young book, I think, was his masterpiece, even better than Great Basin Kingdom, in that he developed a personal relationship with a man that he really admired.”

A believable Brigham

And Howard Lamar, an eminent historian of Western America and former president of Yale University, gave it a strong thumbs-up. “I think that Leonard’s masterful biography, American Moses, just can’t be beat. It was so full of understanding. It made Brigham so believable. No matter what he did, there was a kind of rationale to it, even very emotional responses.”

They felt they should have been listed as co-authors.

He saw Leonard’s achievement as pushing beyond the common view “that Brigham Young was a partisan of the Church so strongly that, in a sense, he couldn’t be taken seriously. Because [Leonard] wrote for understanding, not conversion, he made Young so much more believable.”


Criticism of American Moses

But other reviewers dug more deeply and, while generally giving an overall affirmative critique, took the book to task for significant shortcomings. One contentious issue was “turf”—that he relied too heavily on the research of others while giving them minimal attribution and, in one significant instance, appeared to have impeded another scholar’s attempt to write a Brigham Young biography.

Sole authorship

Although the First Presidency had mandated that Leonard be designated the author of the book, “doing the Brigham Young biography is one of the things that caused a degree of conflict between him and his staff at the Church. Some of them felt it was theirs,” that given the amount of work they had contributed, “they should have been listed as co-authors.”

One historian whose contribution was felt to be greatly underacknowledged was Ronald Esplin, whose doctoral dissertation, “The Emergence of Brigham Young and the Twelve to Mormon Leadership,” was a key component of the biography.

Jan Shipps pointed out this debt in her review published in the Journal of American History and recalled Leonard’s displeasure with the disclosure:

Leonard said, “You can give us honest reviews of the materials that we publish.” And when I gave him an honest review of his book on Brigham Young, he was so hurt! It just killed him. He was really upset! But what I did in that review was to say that a lot of it came straight out of Ron Esplin’s dissertation, which it did. Leonard said, “Ron helped me. Ron works for me.” He didn’t say, “I took all of Ron’s work and published it so he cannot publish anything.”

Jan Shipps interview with Greg Prince, December 7, 2009

Leonard’s response to Shipps did not directly address Esplin’s contribution. “Leonard told me this in the same conversation that the Brethren wanted him to put his name on everything that came out of the Historical Department.”

Impeding another scholar

Even more troubling was the suggestion that Leonard had taken measures to limit another scholar’s access to the Brigham Young papers at the same time that Leonard was working on his biography.

I am finding many things that would be better left unsaid.

According to Gene Sessions, who had been employed by the History Division before he joined Weber State’s History Department, “Arrington wasn’t letting [Dan Moorman] see the material he wanted to see. Don figured it was all selfishness. Don wanted to write the definitive biography of Brigham Young.”

Moorman’s interest in a biography predated the History Division, and he had a handwritten directive from Joseph Fielding Smith, who stepped up from church historian to church president in 1970, to prove it.

While the directive gave him access, it didn’t give him cooperation from Leonard:

Leonard refused to let him use the copying machines. He said, ‘You can see the Young stuff as long as you hand-copy it.’ So Don spent hours and hours and hours sitting in a room in the back of the archives search room. Leonard was letting other people use the copying machine, but Don couldn’t, because he was working on Brigham Young and Leonard had already announced that he was going to write the definitive biography of Brigham Young.

Gene A. Sessions interview with Greg Prince, August 7, 2001.

Pulling punches

With respect to the content of American Moses, a general critique was that Leonard had pulled too many punches. “He was just too nice a guy to get into real controversy,” commented Leo Lyman, whose hard-hitting doctoral dissertation about Utah’s quest for statehood did not stop short of disclosing church bribes to national newspapers in exchange for their support—or at least their silence.

It was not his nature. And everybody that knew and loved him knew that and accepted it. But most of us who do, don’t value that book as much as we would have a book that had not pulled punches.

Edward Leo Lyman interview with Greg Prince, October 8, 2008.

Although Shipps conceded that “Arrington includes more than enough information to fill out a ‘warts and all’ portrait that clarifies Young’s position in Mormon and American history,” there was a feeling that he had overemphasized the positive while underemphasizing the negative.

We want to tell the true story . . . without being sensational or salacious.

Assistant Church Historian James Allen said, “I think one of the criticisms of the Brigham Young biography may be that it doesn’t point out all the problems and all the negatives. He has some in there, but he was an admirer of Brigham Young, and because he was an admirer, that’s the kind of biography he wrote. But that was Leonard.”

Leonard’s son Carl agreed, noting, “I think that my dad was basically quite conservative about people’s personal lives, their private lives, as he was circumspect of his own.” And indeed, Leonard himself had noted in his diary, as he began to write the biography, “I am of course finding many things about Brigham Young that would be better left unsaid.”

Lacking inner complexity

Brigham Young was an enormously powerful and enormously complex man who presided over the LDS Church longer than any other leader in its history, and yet many readers bemoaned the lack of complexity portrayed by the biography.

Shipps was one reviewer who chided Leonard for having missed the inner complexity:

Something is missing from these pages. Where is the man more concerned with “making Saints” than with the comfort of his people, the leader who spoke in tongues and who remained a visionary long after the first flush of religious enthusiasm was past, the believer who exhibited Joseph Smith’s “seer stone” in Salt Lake City in 1857 and consecrated it during the dedication of the St. George Temple in 1877? Leonard’s Brigham offers a reasonable, straight-forward, less than authoritarian religious leader whose theology and religious life were, above all, rational. In short, here is a Latter-day Saint leader who would appeal to today’s Mormon liberals. As otherwise informative and valuable as is this work, in that area it presents a serious misreading of the life and times of the “Lion of the Lord.”

Jan Shipps review of Brigham Young: American Moses

Picking up on the same theme was Newell Bringhurst, whose own biography of Brigham Young was published a year after American Moses:

I had gotten to know Brigham Young very well, and I had done a lot of research, not only reading secondary stuff, but going through all the Donald Moorman stuff at Weber State, which gave me a pretty good feeling for Brigham Young and the complexity of him. . . . I was interested in all the family dynamics that were going on with Brigham Young, going back all the way to his childhood, and then how he dealt with the issue of his [first] wife being an invalid, and what impact that would have on the development of a personality; and the dynamics of him becoming involved with polygamy. Arrington really glossed over that.

Newell Bringhurst interview with Greg Prince, May 22, 2008.

It’s one thing to drill down into controversial aspects that are present in anyone’s life, but that was not Bringhurst’s complaint. “Arrington didn’t like confrontation. I’m not going to provoke confrontation, but I’m not afraid to deal with controversial issues. I’ll let the chips fall where they may. If people don’t like it, I won’t care. I feel we want to tell the true story, get as close to the truth as possible, without being sensational or salacious.”

One colleague who brought the matter up directly with Leonard was Floyd O’Neil, a professor of history at the University of Utah.

Not long before American Moses was published, the two men chanced to be on the same flight back to Salt Lake City, and Leonard asked to be reseated so they could sit together:

He was just about to finish his biography of Brigham. I will admit, on top of it, that I think that Brigham Young could often times be a dictator, and sometimes cruel. Very cruel at some times. . . . Then we got off onto the subject of the character of Brigham Young. While Leonard could be mildly critical, he could not go very far. I talked about some of the economic enterprises, and he said, “You may be too harsh.” I said, “All right, Leonard, let me put it down bluntly. Could you have worked for Brigham Young?” He wouldn’t answer.

Floyd A. O’Neil interview with Greg Prince, June 16, 2008.

Publicly, Young was even a more complex and controversial figure.

Mountain Meadows Massacre

Melvin Smith, who directed the Utah State Historical Society from 1971 to 1986, identified in a published review Leonard’s superficial treatment of that aspect of Young’s life, particularly the first decade in the Salt Lake Valley, when Young was both church president and territorial governor:

Young’s methods, his power, and his objectives were, during that decade, not subject to either scrutiny or challenge. During that first free-handed decade, Young’s leadership produced public endorsement of polygamy, the Reformation, the doctrine of blood atonement, treasonous political rhetoric, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. These issues receive inadequate treatment, especially the massacre.

Melvin T. Smith, Review of Brigham Young: American Moses, by Leonard J. Arrington, in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20, no. 3 (Fall 1987): 171–72.

The massacre at Mountain Meadows, on September 11, 1857, was the largest white-on-white mass murder in the history of the United States up until the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It dogged the LDS Church and Brigham Young for the last two decades of Young’s life and remained a millstone around the church’s neck until a decade into the twenty-first century.

While Leonard did not have access to all of the documents that eventually enabled a comprehensive treatment of the massacre, he had sufficient access to have allowed him to write a more nuanced account of the event and its ripples.

He said no, he was not going to deal with that.

Instead, he gave minimal treatment to it, devoted only a single sentence to the “Reformation” of 1856, which by raising spiritual fervor to a fever pitch arguably set a tone that facilitated the massacre, and completely passed over Young’s doctrine of “blood atonement,” which postulated that the shedding of blood may actually be the victim’s ticket to eternal redemption.

Writing for the RLDS John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Harold Muir took the biography to task for these omissions. While he agreed with Leonard’s assertion that Young did not order the massacre:

the charge that he knew about it shortly after it happened and participated in a cover-up is much more serious and at least merits consideration. It would be one thing to present the evidence on both sides and argue forcefully for his innocence. But Arrington makes no mention whatever of John Doyle Lee’s memoirs or Lee’s bitter claim that Young conspired in the cover-up.

Harold T. Muir, Review of Brigham Young: American Moses, by Leonard J. Arrington, in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 6 (1986): 77–80.

The omission was intentional, as Leonard acknowledged to Robert Kent Fielding, a colleague who wrote on the Mountain Meadows Massacre as well as a preceding and related event, the Gunnison Massacre. “At a symposium that I attended just before he published his book on Brigham Young, I asked him if he was going to include the Mountain Meadows Massacre in his account, and give us a good understanding and explanation of it. He said no, he was not going to deal with that, He was going to leave that for other scholars.

Adam-God

Leonard also passed over some theological issues that, while not part of current Mormon belief, were of great importance to Young—notably his doctrine of “Adam-God,” another significant omission that Muir pointed out:

The theological peculiarities, such as Adam-God worship, that Brigham introduced to Mormonism and which currently have difficulty competing in the religious marketplace are played down and almost brushed aside with the explanation that “he occasionally got carried away and expressed himself more strongly or less thoughtfully than he might have done if he had given carefully planned sermons.”

Harold T. Muir, Review of Brigham Young: American Moses, 80.

At least in the case of Adam-God, Leonard’s oversight may have been due to general ignorance of the subject. In 1979, only a year and a half before he actually began to write the biography, he wrote to his children, “At the office we held our staff meeting and Ron Esplin gave a lecture on Brigham Young and the so-called Adam-God theory. He gave an understandable explanation of the thing, which is the first time I understood what the controversy was all about.”

Adam-God, for all the emphasis that Young gave to it, did not survive Young himself as a serious component of Mormon theology.

Race and the priesthood

Much more egregious was Leonard’s slanted treatment of racial issues. Again, Muir underscored Leonard’s problematic approach:

A much more serious omission, which could only have resulted from a desire to avoid embarrassing the church, is Arrington’s failure even to touch on the exclusion of Blacks from the priesthood, a Young legacy that has caused the church more grief than any issue since polygamy. He quotes Young as telling Horace Greeley that he wanted Utah admitted to the Union as a free state, saying, “Slavery here would prove useless and unprofitable. I regard it generally as a curse to the masters.” Yet it is quite out of context to end the quotation there, for Young also told Greeley, “We consider [slavery] of divine institution and not to be abolished until the curse pronounced on Ham shall have been removed from his descendants.” Nor does he mention that Young did in fact legalize slavery in Utah in 1852, making it the only territory west of the Mississippi and north of the Missouri Compromise line to do so. Nor does he mention Young’s invitation to Southerners to use Utah as a refuge from “the domination of negroes and negro worshippers” during Reconstruction. Nor does he mention that Young, in endorsing Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policies, stated, “I do not know that there is any President who could swallow all the niggers there are, without bolting.” The above quotations are found in [Newell] Bringhurst’s biography. Although he [Bringhurst] does not dwell at length on the subject, and he does place Young’s attitude in the context of those unenlightened times, he does not avoid it as Arrington does.

Harold T. Muir, Review of Brigham Young: American Moses, 78.

Leonard was more aware than most members of the LDS Church of the history of the policy that prohibited males of black African ancestry from ordination to the priesthood. Indeed, he had been at the forefront of the paradigm shift caused by Lester Bush’s monograph on the subject. The omission of Young’s role as instigator of the policy thus was not inadvertent.

Perhaps Leonard felt that the 1978 revelation that eliminated the exclusionary policy made any discussion of it moot. However, such reasoning would also have rendered moot any treatment of polygamy, which the church had disavowed in 1890.

A more likely explanation is that Leonard simply chose to take a pass on an episode of history that was, for one who had lived through it, still to painful to deal with in print.


Legacy of Leonard Arrington’s American Moses

To be sure, American Moses was an important biography of a seminal figure in Mormon history, and certainly it was a great improvement on the several biographies of Brigham Young that had preceded it. But it never garnered the critical acclaim that remains attached, for over a half-century, to Great Basin Kingdom.


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Read the book for the rest of the story. From Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History. Copyright © 2016 by University of Utah Press. Published by University of Utah Press and co-published with the Tanner Trust Fund, J. Willard Marriott Library. Used courtesy of the University of Utah Press. Minor style changes have been made to facilitate online reading, including extra spacing, fewer citations, the addition of headers, and the more-frequent use of full names.

The book cover of Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History.
Greg Prince’s biography of Leonard Arrington also covers issues like his time in the Church Historian’s Office, the “Camelot” years, and Mark Hofmann.

About the author

Gregory A. Prince is a pathology researcher and an independent historian of Latter-day Saint history. He holds a PhD in Pathology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has published more than 100 articles in his field. Prince has also published several books and articles about Latter-day Saint history, including David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, Power From on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood, and Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History.


Further reading

American Moses Biography Resources

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