Among the featured participants at this month's Utah Humanities Book Festival is John G. Turner, author of the new biography Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, the first truly scholarly treatment of Young since LDS Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington's trail-blazing Brigham Young: American Moses in 1985.
Turner's work, published by Harvard University Press, is a major accomplishment that, more than any past treatment of Young, situates the protean prophet squarely in the context of his turbulent times.
Turner, assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and brings to Young an emotional objectivity and distance that greatly benefit his profile of the 19th century Mormon leader and colonizer.
Like Arrington, Turner, who is 38, makes extensive use of the primary documentary sources, the vast bulk of which are housed in the LDS Church History Library. (Church historians withheld only a handful of relevant sources an important gesture of cooperation in light of past distrust of non-LDS scholars.)
Unlike Arrington, though, Turner probes more searchingly perhaps uncomfortably so for some readers into the darker corners of LDS history and Young's sometimes difficult-to-grasp personality.
"How might we make sense of Young's ambiguities and complexities, his strengths and his weaknesses?" Turner asks on Page 5 "We should begin by remembering that he was a nineteenth-century man and avoid any tortured attempt to make him palatable for a twenty-first-century audience, Mormon or otherwise. ... While distinctively Mormon ideas colored his thinking, in many respects Young approached such matters as did other white American men of his time."
From that point Turner unflinchingly tackles the full spectrum, warts and all, of Young's multifarious personality and life.
For example, of Young's possible involvement in the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, Turner is both judicious and blunt: "Given [Young's] political objective of keeping the [U.S.] army away from Mormon settlements, ... there was no good reason for Young to order a massacre with the potential to focus the full fury of the American government on Utah. At the same time, Young bears significant responsibility for what took place at Mountain Meadows. ... Young fomented the hatred and anxiety that made it conceivable for Mormons in southern Utah to slaughter men, women, and children. Young's saber-rattling, militia operations, and Indian policy contributed to the most unusual mass murder in the history of the American West."
"To most church members," Turner adds, "Brigham Young was the church's earthly savior ... an indispensable protector and benefactor. In the opinion of many other Americans, he was a treasonous heretic. Many who became better acquainted with him modulated their opinions, but among Utah's non-Mormon population Young often inspired both fear and loathing, and many church members trembled before him on occasion as well. He preserved a church and created a people, but that success damaged and even destroyed some lives."
For Turner, no topic is off-limits, too controversial, too intimate. He exhibits a healthy skepticism and curiosity that are as bracing as they are salutary. For readers who may encounter a Young they are unfamiliar with, it would be a mistake to dismiss Turner as a sensation monger. On the contrary, he is balanced, insightful, sympathetic, even occasionally affectionate.
Turner's Young is a far cry from the (take your pick) superficial, cartoonish, angelic/devilish caricatures of most popularized portrayals. He is a fully rendered, flesh-and-blood, flawed-but-earnest human being who sincerely believed he had been "called" to govern God's new covenant people as heaven's representative.
The biography adds much to both our understanding and appreciation of Young.
"We may not be edified by every move they made," Arrington wrote of LDS leaders in his Adventures of a Church Historian, "but we are warmed by their humanity."
Whatever Young's shortcomings, Turner reminds us, he was a man preeminently of his times, both animated and burdened by the heavy weight of God's continuing revelation.
Gary James Bergera is managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation in Salt Lake City. John Turner will speak and field questions on Saturday, Oct. 20, at 12:30 p.m. in the downtown Salt Lake Public Library.