|Brigham Y oung: Western Prophet|
Brigham Young Pioneer Prophet
by John G. Turner
Published by Belknap Press of Harvard University
The rise of Mormonism is a pretty amazing ride. We're talking a about a major religion that didn't exist until the mid 19th century, that was founded by a con man (sorry but true!) , in up state New York, and whose initial followers were a bunch of illiterate failed farmers. BOOM. 2013- you are talking 14 million followers all over the world and even a Republican Party Presidential candidate. An NBA basketball team? The winter olympics? What haven't the Mormons managed to accomplish in their short history as an American and then World religion?
The Mormon religion is pretty much the most American thing to happen in America in American history. America is about freedom of religion, and you can't get any freer then a putatively Christian faith that embraced polygamy into the 20th century. Now, I'm no expert in Christian theology but if you ask me the whole traditional definition of marriage seems to be a pretty big deal.
It's unforunate that Mormons are so hooked up to the conservative Republican world view because if you squint your eyes the Mormon story has a decidely counter-cultural vibe. It's easiest to understand that perspective if you understand the religio-cultural millieu that Mormonism emerged FROM- in the same way that understanding an Artist requires understanding their originating "scene" or "movement."
To put it bluntly, mid 19th century religion on the fringes of the United States of America was freaky- all night revivals, snake handling, speaking in tongues, quasi magical and 100% magical practices like using a diving rod for treasure hunting, the whole lot of it. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism was in it up into his eye balls and it is quite apparent from any part of the founding of Mormonism, from the way the Mormon scripture was "revealed" to Joseph Smith to the substance of the revelation to the practices of Mormonism, like speaking in tongues.
I'm focusing on the the speaking in tongues practice because Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet is remarkable for the documentation of the prophetic aspect of Brigham Young's half century long leadership of the Mormon Church. Young was well documented as being someone who would speak in tongues on occasion, and he wasn't shy in making prophetic revelation when the circumstances required it.
Brigham Young took over for Joseph Smith as the leader of the Mormon Church after Smiths untimely demise at the hands of an angry mob. Prior to that he had been a trusted inner circle adviser within the hierarchy of the Mormon Church. Like almost all of the initial generation of Mormons Brigham Young emerged from obscurity and only his later success in life has enabled scholars to learn of his background. It is quite clear from the correspondence that Young left behind that he never quite got the hang of conventional orthography and and/or spelling- eventually he just used a scribe which testifies to his lack of formal education.
Young came from a religious family and several of his brothers were already working as preachers in other Christian denominations when Young was converted to Mormonism. After conversion, Brigham Young was the leader of the initial Mormon campaign to convert people in the British Isles- it was there that he "made his bones" and also formed relationships among the emigrants that would form a crucial part of his power base after the move to Utah.
The early Mormon Church travails in Illinois and Missouri are well documented in existing biographies of Joseph Smith, so it isn't until after Smith exists stage left that Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, picks up steam. The first real must read portion of Brigham Young is the emigration from Missouri to Utah, a complicated logistical task that was carried out with aplomb by Young. After that you get the establishment of the Mormon Kingdom of Deseret and a stand-offish, borderline hostile relationship with the United States that Young bore primary responsibility for. Young was not so the President of Deseret (this would be modern day Utah, Nevada, some of California, Idaho and parts of Arizona) as he was the Prophet/King/Dictator for life. It might suprise some to learn that the Mormons had their own standing army and, in the 1850s almost went to War with the United States in a conflict historians commonly call The Utah War (WIKIPEDIA)
Within that conflict comes the episode of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where a bunch of fired up Mormons murdered a wagon train full of Western Settlers in essentially cold blood. This white-on-white mass murder of innocent civilians is wholly unparalleled in United States history and the accurate telling of the story has been prevented by a century of Mormon Church attempts to cover up how it really went down. Brigham Young takes the position that Young had no active role in the Massacre but generated the emotional charge that led to the attack. Youngs demagogic behavior created the conditions leading to the massacre, and if he hadn't have incited the Mormon settlers to "defend" their homeland from the 'invading' US Army the innocent settlers would have never ever been caught up in the cross-fire.
Finally you've got Brigham Young and polygamy. And.... what's interesting about the Mormons and polygamy is that it was not part of the initial composition of Mormonism. In fact, it was something that Joseph Smith came up with AFTER he had attracted followers and was regarded as a living prophet. It certainly seems like an idea he came up with on the fly so he could bang teenagers and have adulterous affairs. Young was an early "convert" to this aspect of Mormonism and indeed he practiced it with gusto prior to the Mormon removal to Utah- entering into "sealings" with more then a dozen women. Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet is at its most rewarding when it gives the reader insight into these women.
It's astonishing that Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't made a movie about Brigham Young when you consider that back-to-back films of his (There Will Be Blood & The Master) have covered geographical and thematic territory that overlap nicely with the life of Brigham Young. So what do you say PT Anderson? Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet directed by Paul Thomas Anderson? It has an Oscar winning ring to it- just look at Lincoln. The best thing is you don't need to buy the rights to the book.