Latter-day Saints imagine Brigham Young as a commanding theocrat, who mobilized a crestfallen and beleaguered people after the death of their prophet-founder, who led them on an epic exodus across the Plains to what they hoped would be a Zion in the West, who battled a hostile government, and whose fingerprint was on every move — from their arrival in the Great Basin to his death in 1877.
This image of the “Lion of the Lord,” as he was known, sits atop monuments, stands on statues and graces a university named for him.
In today’s 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, believers know little of Young’s many sides — tender, stubborn, willful, racist, yet profoundly religious with a great love for the temple.
They also fail to fully grasp the fact that even as a fledgling faith, Mormonism already was becoming a global religion — with missionaries culling converts from Scandinavia to South Africa, New Zealand to Samoa and many places in between.
The freshly released “Saints 1846-1893: No Unhallowed Hand,” the second book to emerge in the church’s four-volume official history, aims to provide a clearer and more complex view of its past and its cast of characters, including Young.
“What we wanted to do with ‘Saints’ was to write a history that would be totally accurate, that would integrate the most recent and up-to-date scholarship, but would also be very, very readable and with an audience not [just] of educated Latter-day Saints or those who were really interested in their history,” says Matthew Grow, managing director of the church’s History Department. “But anyone should be able to engage with these books.”
The goal was to “tell the history as it was and show people’s lives as they were with all the complications and tensions and difficulties that life entails,” Grow says on The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, “but also all the triumphs and really positive things as well.”
To James Goldberg, a Utah-based writer, “Saints” represents “a seismic shift in how Latter-day Saints are approaching our history.”
Goldberg, who was a contributing writer on this volume and has assisted with its accompanying global histories, sees three eras of Latter-day Saint historical writing.
In the 19th century and into the early 20th, Mormon history was “passed on mostly through oral tradition,” he says. “People who had participated in the foundational experiences just told their stories, and others retold those stories in turn.”
With the rise of 20th-century mass communication technologies like radio, TV and film, Goldberg says, “we started packag[ing] the history more and more for those media. … Writers compressed the story into a simple heroic arc with leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young acting not only as historical figures but also as mascots for Mormon virtues of righteousness, spirituality and industry.”
The rise of the internet toppled that thinking.
“Once people had a way to hear from multiple voices, we developed a thirst for complexity and authenticity,” he says. “We didn't believe in (or, quite frankly, find ourselves interested in) the mascot versions of early saints.”
Mormons “got tired of heroes,” Goldberg says. “We wanted real people.”
“Saints” is full of them.
‘Laboratory of discipleship’
One of the supreme tests a new religion faces is whether it can successfully pass the faith to a second generation.
That was still unknown when Mormon founder Joseph Smith was gunned down by a mob on June 27, 1844, in Illinois, leaving his mournful followers bereft and unsure about the future.
This volume opens on the morning of Oct. 8, 1845, at the church’s General Conference, where thousands gathered on the first floor of the still-unfinished Nauvoo Temple.
The room grew quiet as the founder’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, stepped up to the podium and, the book says, “spoke with a power beyond her feeble 70-year-old body."
The volume details how the saints got to Utah, how they built Salt Lake City and, eventually, a state, while establishing outposts in the Pacific, Europe and Mexico.
“That's one of the core differences between this volume and the first volume: As the LDS Church grows, the story is reaching out into different cultures, trying to tell a story of what this faith meant in different places,” Goldberg says. “These books do their best to introduce you to a wide range of people, to let you connect to their varied experiences and voices.”
There are more stories about women, American Indians, immigrants, slaves and non-Americans.
There are polygamy raids and trials, broken marriages and secret letters, but also seances and dissidents (some who launched the Mormon Tribune-cum-Salt Lake Tribune). It also sees the first attempt at ending polygamy, with the so-called 1890 Manifesto.
“Instead of treating early Saints as mascots for our present values, ‘Saints’ invites us to see our history as a giant laboratory of discipleship,” he says. “People try different things. Sometimes beautiful things happen. Sometimes things spin out of control and people who want to be good end up doing something terrible.”
Consider the story of Susa Young Gates, one Brigham Young’s many children, who pops in and out of the overarching narrative.
Susie, as she was known, had an unhappy marriage to Alma Dunford. He was physically abusive and had a drinking problem (yes, the Word of Wisdom was not fully enshrined as the faith’s health code back then).
She would divorce him but lose custody of her daughter Leah to her ex-husband. She later married Jacob Gates and gave birth to 11 children, only four of whom lived to adulthood. She was the first editor of the Young Woman’s Journal and became a prominent suffragist.
Gates rebuilt a new and good life, Goldberg says, “over the rubble of the life she thought she’d have.”
Readers will learn more about prominent figures they may think they know, Angela Hallstrom, a writer in the History Department and literary editor for the series, says on "Mormon Land."
Joseph F. Smith, who became the faith’s sixth “prophet, seer and revelator,” she says, is “introduced as a young man who is in many ways suffering after the death of his mother."
His father, Hyrum Smith, brother of church founder Joseph Smith, she says, was "martyred" years earlier.
Joseph F. Smith was sent to Hawaii on a mission “as a very, very young man,” Hallstrom says. “We get to see him grow up.”
The writer also mentions Latter-day Saint general authority B.H. Roberts’ response to the Manifesto.
“He was very troubled,” she says. “He learned about it on a train. He saw somebody with a newspaper article and read it...[Roberts] was traveling with some apostles at the time and some of them were a little bit more aware.”
The volume also addresses some of the most controversial episodes in the faith’s history: the origins of the church’s priesthood/temple ban on black members, the horrific slaughter of 120 men, women and children known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, and the saints’ role in pressures that led to the Bear River Massacre.
“The hardest questions in our history aren’t about whether this or that historical claim is true,” Goldberg says. “The hardest question is how people motivated by profound spiritual experience get so blinded by the moment again and again.”
Even modern-day Mormons, he says, “need to ask ourselves that question.”
The race rift
It was 1852, and the Utah Legislature was debating the issue of slavery in the territory.
Young did not want slavery to become widespread in the region, the book recounts, “but several Saints from the southern U.S. had already brought enslaved people into the territory.”
The Latter-day Saint prophet may have opposed slavery, but he shared the view of most Americans that “black people were suited for servitude.”
In a speech to lawmakers, Young “declared publicly for the first time that people of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood,” the book says. “Brigham echoed a widespread but mistaken idea that God had cursed people of African descent.”
Apostle Orson Pratt took the opposite position.
“Shall we take then the innocent African that has committed no sin,” he asks, “and damn him to slavery and bondage without receiving any authority from heaven to do so?”
Meanwhile, over in South Africa, Mormon missionaries “focused their efforts primarily on the city’s white inhabitants.”
Unlike some previous official histories, Grow says, “Saints” shows the human side of church leaders.
Young is a “misunderstood figure in a lot of ways,” Grow explains on “Mormon Land.” “People see him as a very pragmatic leader, who was sometimes difficult to like for how he drove people.”
There are elements of truth to all of that, he says. “But the saints loved Brigham Young. And you have to understand why they loved him.”
The first volume of “Saints,” ends with the building of the Nauvoo Temple. This one finishes with the completion of the iconic Salt Lake Temple in 1893, as if to say: Mormonism not only passed on the faith to the second generation; it was here to stay.