“This is the place.” And this was the man.

Brigham Young Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner (Harvard University Press, 2012, 512 pages)

Brigham Young Cougars running back Paul Lasike (33) celebrates his touchdown with Brigham Young Cougars tight end Richard Wilson (18) in Provo Friday, Sept. 28, 2012. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

I was recently watching Notre Dame play its seventh game of the season, a season in which they are undefeated. The team they were playing was beating them. I was concerned, of course, until Notre Dame turned things around and went on to win. The team they faced was among the toughest they had played this season, especially the defense, and they almost were handed their first loss of the season.

The team they played? BYU — Brigham Young University.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited Salt Lake City and saw the Temple precinct that is found amid a large, thriving city with a beautiful skyline, a population of 200,000, and a metropolitan area of more than 1 million souls. The influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints (the Mormons) on the area is still evident: it is hard to find a restaurant on Sundays, you can’t buy beer in kegs (you have to buy kegs elsewhere and bring them in, and you risk being fined), and BYU (in not-too-distant Provo) is one of the country’s premier universities.

Salt Lake City was first imagined by Brigham Young in 1847 when he led hundreds, and eventually thousands of his fellow Mormons from Illinois to the Great Salt Lake, an area where only a few tribes of Utes (from which the territory gets it name) lived, dismounted and said, “This is the place.”

Today, it is a state with an anticipated budget surplus of $400 million and home to the BYU Cougars, the collegiate team that almost took away Notre Dame’s winning season. Bless their hearts.

John G. Turner’s biography of Young is a fascinating and very readable account of the life of the man who, perhaps even more than Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, is responsible for the fact that Mormonism is thriving with over 12 million adherents worldwide, a number that continues to grow.

Yet the man himself is a study in contrasts. He could be soft-hearted, easygoing, and kind; yet he could also be intransigent, demanding, and cruel in his role as President of the church and governor of the Utah territory. He was renowned for his kindness towards women and children, yet was suspected of condoning the massacre of 120 immigrants from Arkansas who had crossed into his territory. He had scores of wives, and towards the end of his life fell in love with a much younger woman to whom he displayed great tenderness; yet he stood up to the United States government, threatening war with his Nauvoo Legion should they attempt to encroach on his territory. He was one of a kind, the kind of man who could lead men, intimidate them, and impose his will on a nation.

Turner, who teaches religion at George Mason University, has written a biography of Young that is probably the best to date, and will certainly deserve the title definitive. Young was a poor man seeking guidance in the “burnt-out” district of northern New York State when he encountered a religion started by Joseph Smith, Jr.  It provided Young with a spiritual certitude he has been seeking, and he was baptized into Smith’s religion. He later met the Prophet, who was chopping down trees with an axe, and a friendship developed that would change both their lives forever, and ultimately change the history and demographics of the United States of America (and bring about a pretty good football team to boot).

Turner explains the attraction to Mormonism that both set it apart from the Protestantism of Young’s day and which may explain it’s longevity among the worlds religions. The three ways it differed were in Smith’s teaching of his own prophetic calling, the belief that prophecy continues today, and its insistence on “the gathering.” “The gathering” is a teaching that salvation is found in the Kingdom, in a community made up of families, and this stress on family is perhaps the most telling thing about Mormonism yet today. Protestants see salvation as an individual thing, Mormons see it impossible outside of the family and the extended family that is the church. It is the role of the church to “seal” those relationships by its ceremonies, the nature of which are known only to Mormons and the dispensation of which occur only in a temple.

Young possessed a trait which many good Mormons share: a fierce loyalty to the person and memory of the prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. who was shot dead by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. Smith’s death was facilitated by an internal dispute among the Mormons over polygamy, and this dissension led to Smith’s being jailed in Carthage where a mob was able to get to him. Dissension, after Young became the leader, was something he would come down hard on.

There are those who think of Mormonism not as a religion but as a cult. While reading this biography, I couldn’t help drawing some parallels between Brigham Young, who led his people away from a very real danger in Illinois and Missouri, where they were attacked, killed, and persecuted, to a safe kingdom far away; and Jim Jones, who led his followers out of California, where he perceived a threat, into the jungles of Guyana. Jones and Young both sought to create a communitarian kingdom on earth.

Yes, Young and Jones both led their people to a “safe place” away from threats. However, for Young and the Mormons the threats were real. Government on the frontier was by mob rule, and even the governor of Illinois was helpless to deal with that situation. (Far worse, the governor of Missouri actually issued an extermination order against the Mormons). Secondly, Jones led his people into a jungle where they could be protected–but from which they could not safely escape. His objective was to keep them, control them, and eventually he killed them. Young’s kingdom was one in which people were allowed to thrive, and from which people could go if they chose to. He felt his church was stronger without those who did not believe, so he stood in no one’s way. And Jones wasn’t interested in simply a communitarian flock, but a communist flock. Socialism was Jones’ true religion, to which he recruited wearing the sheep’s clothing of a Christian. Young’s communitarianism was merely a means to an end, which was to bring about the salvation of his people according to the vision of his prophet and the teachings of scripture. Eventually, Young dropped the economic aspect of this, focusing instead on the spiritual.

I might add that Jim Jones was motivated by self-aggrandizement, lust for power–and eventually by drug-induced paranoia; Young by an unshakable faith in the truth that his prophet had revealed.

But the biggest difference is that, while Young may have threatened to go to bloody war to prevent the incursion of the United States into his territory; and while he may have threatened all sorts of heinous things to control his flock; and while he may have tried to encourage his flock to deed their property to the church; in the end, he would relent to common sense. He thought it better to save the flock than subject them to more bloodshed, so he made his peace–as difficult as it was–with the United States, which eventually granted Utah statehood. And, he never pushed his flock beyond what they would accept. If he tried, most of them would just wait it out until he realized that his attachment of their property wouldn’t fly. Then he would go on about worrying about their souls and their communal salvation.

While “There but for the grace of God” Young might have been like Jones, in the end he was a very different man driven by a very different angel (or devil, as was the case with Jones). As for Mormonism, if religion is–as etymology suggests–a striving to “reconnect,” then Mormonism surely falls easily into that category due to its rituals designed to connect all of mankind , from Adam to the Saints who live today, in the celestial kingdom for all eternity.

This book is among the most enlightening in terms of its discussion of the Mormon faith that I have read. Turner talks in detail about the problematic prophecy of polygamy, and explains its connection to the “sealing” of relationships on earth. It fits neatly into the theology of Smith which is so different from mainline Protestant teaching so as to cause many to say it isn’t “Christian.” Mormons disagree. In any event, the practice was ended among mainstream Mormons, removing the last barrier to statehood for Utah.

Joseph Smith has been called many things, and the jury is still out as to whether he was a prophet called by God or a snake-oil salesman who sold faith instead of lineament. Young has likewise been excoriated as well as praised (critics sometimes referred to him as “Bringem Young,” because of his supposed harem). But the most fascinating thing about both Smith and Young is that the church that Smith founded in 1830, and which Young led to Utah in 1847, is not only still functioning, but is thriving. Meanwhile, where are the Shakers? Where are the Millerites? Mormons might tell you that the proof is in the pudding, that God had to have a hand in it in some way.

Turner’s biography is among the best I have read, and makes it immanently clear how a man with a vision and with faith can create something in this world not only for himself, but for all who choose to share in that vision. Millions worldwide are still sharing in that vision. Turner gives him to us with all his strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions.

If Young were alive today, I have no doubt that he would be down on the line with the coaches pushing the BYU Cougars beyond their limits and reminding them that they are playing not just for themselves, but for the Kingdom.

I’ll root for them. Unless, of course, they are playing Notre Dame.

For more about Mormons, see an earlier review on this blog of The Mormon People.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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