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Historians size up Mormon Moses: Brigham Young

Published January 2, 2014 8:51 pm

Brigham Young • He could be brash and bullying, forgiving and fearful, practical yet visionary.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The LDS Church recently acknowledged that its former ban on blacks being ordained to the all-male priesthood likely originated with Brigham Young, the faith's charismatic and controversial president from 1847 to 1877.

The newly released essay argued that Young, successor to Mormon founder Joseph Smith, was influenced by the racism of his times. For those knowing little about this modern Moses — who led his band of believers in an arduous cross-country trek to Utah and tried to create Zion in the West — it may be easy to dismiss the LDS leader as a tyrant or a bigot. The reality, scholars say, is much more complex.

We asked two Young biographers — Ronald W. Walker, a Mormon historian and retired Brigham Young University professor, and John G. Turner, an outside researcher and author of "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet" — to assess the man and his contributions. Here are their comments.

What do you think were Brigham Young's strengths?

Walker • Thomas Kane, the Mormons' great friend and benefactor, called Brigham "an eccentric genius." This captures the man. He was larger than life with the extraordinary gifts of command. His religious devotion was unquestioned. He hoped that Mormonism would transform society. Creative and innovative, he was unshackled by tradition, which he hated. He was the second pillar of Mormonism, after founder Joseph Smith. He led his followers through one crisis after another.

Turner • Brigham was tenacious and persistent. If he couldn't accomplish what he wanted at the moment, he would set it aside and come back to it. He was willing to change course when faced with failure. The Mormon pioneer trek [under his leadership] was remarkable. No deaths and no mutiny. His colonization of the Great Basin was extraordinary in its planning and cohesion. His overriding goal was that the people be united, be of one heart and mind. The Mormon sense of collective purpose was unusual in the history of the West.

I also found his preaching to be inspiring. There was a lot of spiritual power in his sermons. He was filled with fire and dreams and theological speculation. People could find that pretty transfixing.

What were some of the man's weaknesses?

Walker • Temper and tongue. His second and third thoughts were usually his best, after things simmered down. His pulpit manner, while encouraging his followers, could offend outsiders and even helped to encourage frontier violence.

Turner • Brigham's overheated language was a constant. On almost any topic you can find him saying things in the most extreme terms — on blacks, women and dissenters, for example. He would always provide a juicy quote.

He was pretty impatient with complainers. He had high energy when he was younger. During the first 15 years he was in the church, he was constantly on missions. He had very little money or resources while walking across upper Canada. He didn't think people should grumble about pulling handcarts. In his mind, he had given everything to the church and expected everybody to do the same.

Why was his approach to dissenters so harsh?

Turner •I think Brigham was traumatized by Joseph Smith's murder and the atmosphere of fear in Nauvoo [Illinois]. To me, that explains Young's behavior in the last two decades. He was fearful of being assassinated like Smith was. He was absolutely resolved to protect himself and the church and not allow that to happen again. He thought Joseph was not a good temporal leader, but was far too tolerant of dissent and factionalism. That's why he was determined to stamp it out.

Walker • Brigham withdrew from public life several times because he feared for his life. He believed dissenters were responsible for much of the trouble around him, and he could react harshly. However, one of the things that biographers have not fully captured was Brigham's kindness. His hand was open to those in need, Mormons and outsiders.

How would you describe his approach toward American Indians?

Turner • There were times when his policy toward Indians produced considerable bloodshed, but at the height of the Black Hawk War, he was talking to a group of people ready to exact vengeance on Indians and he told them to remember that it was the Indians' land first. That was pretty remarkable, given that a lot of other Easterners wanted to exterminate the Indians.

Walker • Young hoped that the Indians might adopt the white man's culture and spent a great deal of time and church resources to gain this goal. He avoided fights with the Indians. Scores of his letters to Indian leaders show his kindness and as well as his belief that it was "cheaper to feed the Indians than to fight them."

What about his attitude toward blacks?

Walker • He was a man of his times. He accepted the racial attitudes of the 19th century. He was a part of it.

Turner •Take, for instance, Young's insistence that interracial couples who had children deserved death. Among white people, such thoughts were widespread.

How would you describe his attitude toward women?

Walker • By modern standards, his record was mixed. He believed that men should lead. Yet he encouraged women to take part in public life and to educate themselves. Mormon women were among the first to vote.

Turner •Early in his presidency, he often spoke disparagingly about women. Toward the end of his life, he allowed the revival of the Relief Society. Women like Eliza Snow and Zina Huntington achieved great influence because Young's approach evolved.

How would you sum up the man?

Turner •Brigham Young made some incredible mistakes in his dealings with the U.S. government, and he sometimes was cruel toward fellow church members. At the same time, his energy, his creativity and his accomplishments were legion. I also cannot imagine the church becoming what it is today without Brigham Young.

Walker • There were several Brighams. One of them is the pulpit Brigham, who could be severe and harsh but also extremely kind, charitable and sweet. He could also be forgiving. He knows how to work with men, despite their faults, and repeatedly overlooks what you and I would think were faults in others that deserved punishment. He was a complex guy, which is often true of people who are exceptionally gifted. The man had will. He had energy. He was remarkably pragmatic when he had to be. He was an incredible figure on the American stage. I can't imagine the church surviving without him.