Sprawling life of a larger-than-life character in the history of the American West.
Brigham Young was Joseph Smith’s lieutenant in spreading the newly coined doctrine of Mormonism and his successor on Smith’s murder. Young carved a homeland out of the Utah wilderness, which was heavily settled by inconvenient Lamanites, as the Mormons called Native peoples. As Turner (History/Univ. of South Alabama; Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America, 2008) capably demonstrates, Young’s successes were the fruit of a driving ambition that sometimes manifested itself in ruthlessness. Turner writes carefully—a good tactic, for Mormon history is an always-fraught topic—of Young’s rise in the early hierarchy, including an episode in which he “confronted Smith and his two counselors in the church’s presidency…about their lingering grievances,” divisions that might have yielded a schism had not Young also been a skilled strategist. Dissent was a constant companion in Young’s life, and Turner, to his credit, does not shy from noting that fact. Moreover, the author looks at the various strains of Protestantism, “ecstatic” and otherwise, that fed into early Mormonism, drawing particularly on Methodism in the British Isles, where Young worked as one of the church’s first missionaries. Some of the resulting ideas, blended with Smith’s own, were unusual in the religious landscape of the time. Of interest—and potential controversy—is Turner’s attention to Young’s many wives, who were not always happy with the arrangement and some of whom cut their ties with him; it’s not exactly Big Love, but there’s some high drama in the text. Drama also prevails in the passages related to the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre and the subsequent execution of Young lieutenant John D. Lee, who insisted that “Young and other church leaders had selected him as their ‘scapegoat.’ ”
A scholarly yet thoroughly readable historical/biographical study, of considerable interest to students of 19th-century American history and religious revivalism.