Alex Beam: Review of John G. Turner's "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet"

Roundup: Books

Alex Beam, a columnist for The Boston Globe, is writing a book about the death of Joseph Smith.

For a young religion, Mormonism seems to have more history than it knows what to do with. The church’s founding fathers were outsize, operatic characters: the prophet Joseph Smith, who believers claim received and translated “The Book of Mormon,” and his successor, Brigham Young, who “preserved a church and created a people,” according to this new biography by John G. Turner, an assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University.

But until he met Joseph Smith, Brigham — the Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, call both Smith and Young by their first names — was a 29-year-old transient nobody in upstate New York who “lived on the economic margins of his society,” and wasn’t particularly religious. He relished the sense of community he found among the Mormons and was much moved by his early encounters with Smith (“He took heaven . . . and brought it down to earth,” Young recalled). Yet half a lifetime later, that unlettered ex-husbandman ruled over a theocratic empire as large as France. Turner calls Young “the greatest colonizer in American history,” who established Mormon outposts in present-­day California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming.

Young was indeed “maddeningly unpredictable.” He swore like a sailor and prayed like a saint. He alternately made peace with Indian tribes and massacred them. He couldn’t decide whether dancing was sinful; he permitted it one week and forbade it the next. Turner is a good writer in possession of a great story. “Brigham Young” is a landmark work, written by a Gentile, as the Saints call non-Mormons, with the active cooperation of the church. If Young could make the Saints dance, I wished at times that Turner would make this double-barreled, all-American story sing. That said, Turner more than compensates for his stylistic formality with exhaustive research, excellent judgment and an abiding sense of fairness....

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