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Mormon on the Mount

Brigham Young: American Moses
By Leonard J. Arrington
(Knopf, 522 pp., $24.95)

According to the publisher’s blurb, this biography sets Brigham Young “squarely in the American mainstream.” Professor Arrington, a veteran Mormon historian, asks why Young—a kingdom-builder as bold as Sam Houston or John C. Fremont and far more successful—has usually been portrayed as either a “lecher” or a “tyrant.” In the first place, he suggests, Americans were puzzled by, and suspicious of, a theocratic system whose “bottom line was not cash but the souls of men.” Reactions had to cool. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the proper designation for Mormonism) itself had to come of age. And second, in the process scholars had to wait until the vast body of Mormon source materials was sorted out and made available.

Arrington says that there could easily be six volumes of biography, dealing respectively with Young as husband and father, as church president for 30 years, as six-year governor of Utah Territory, as superintendent of Indian affairs (another six-year appointment), as founder of over 300 settlements on the Great Basin, as semi-collectivist entrepreneur, and as expounder of Mormon doctrine. In fact, there is a good case for a seventh volume, on Young’s great decade, the 1840s. In that ten-year span he served as a missionary in England; held the church together after the murder of the prophet-leader Joseph Smith by an Illinois mob in 1844; and directed the epic exodus of the faithful in 1846-48, colonizing the Great Basin wilderness and drawing in recruits and converts by the thousands from Europe and the eastern states. Arrington tries to do the whole job in a single conscientious, crowded volume.

The result is fascinating, both for what it says and for what it does not say. Brigham Young is a figure on the giant scale, Napoleonic in versatility and organizing skill. He is also, as Arrington notes, a bundle of apparent contradictions. Fiercely committed to his faith. Young was prepared to abandon the thriving settlements of Utah, in defiance of federal authority, as he had almost blithely turned his back on the Mormon metropolis at Nauvoo, Illinois. Yet he could be cannily calculating; his revelations appealed to “natural principles” of a distinctly pragmatic cast. To judge from early documents (before there were secretaries to correct spelling and style), his sense of language was rudimentary. On the platform Young could be brutally direct in rebuking subordinates. He liked to thrust with a bowie knife in order to emphasize a point. Yet his oratory, unrehearsed, jocose, and loose in form, enthralled audiences. He was by turns artful and loutish, peremptory and considerate. Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, who interviewed Young in 1859, found him impressively astute and approachable, if ungrammatical. Another observer called him a Tartuffe, sanctimoniously sly.

Brigham Young, then, is a person of exceptional interest, well worth a biography that manages to avoid the extremes of hero-worship and debunking. On the face of it, nothing would appear more commendably mainstream than the recent work of Mormon historians such as Arrington, as well as Jan Shipps and Richard L. Bushman, who neither proselytize nor fudge. Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, which is dedicated to Arrington, has fully absorbed the sociocultural investigations of non-Mormon historians. He shows no embarrassment, for example, in discussing the treasure hunting or “money-digging” craze among the Smiths and their neighbors in the “Burned-Over District” of western New York. Arrington describes the criticisms of Young within the church by dissidents such as Sidney Rigdon, “King” James Strang, and Joseph Smith’s son Joseph III. He provides appendixes listing Young’s 25 wives (27 by another count) and 57 children. He is quite explicit about such touchy subjects as the paramilitary Danite bands, and the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857. It all sounds fair, square, and aboveboard.

Still, there are problems in writing Mormon history for a Gentile culture, no matter how scrupulously the task is undertaken. Arrington and Bushman are correct in claiming that Latter-Day Saints have in fact added more than the non-Mormon historians to the body of relevant knowledge. It is also true that much Gentile testimony has been heavily biased—and of course that the Mormons were abominably treated by adjacent mobs in Illinois and Missouri. The language of contemporary Gentiles, in the main, is bitterly hostile. Francis Parkman, traveling the Oregon and California trail in the 1840s, admits that the parties of Gentile emigrants may have exaggerated the ferocity of Mormon companies who were also heading west; but he calls them “blind and desperate fanatics.” The Swiss-German theologian Philip Schaff, writing on America in the 1850s, speaks of Mormonism as a grotesque, despotic, and immoral heresy, with elements of Islam. Schaff doubted whether in his day the Utah Territory would be admitted to full statehood. {Nor was it; Brigham Young died in 1877, and Utah had to wait for admission until 1890.) “American toleration,” said Schaff, “has its limits; the separation of church and state by no means involves a separation of the nation from Christianity and Christian morality.” Ignorance and prejudice characterized much of the commentary on Young’s empire. Envy of Mormon discipline is part of the picture, together with disapproval of communitarian welfare schemes and nativist alarm at the high proportion of foreigners in Mormon settlements.

True, too, the settlements were extremely effective in comparison with the fidgety, unsupported endeavors of many Gentile emigrants. As a social system, Mormonism is in these terms a remarkable success story. In a sympathetic comparative analysis (such as that in Delores Hayden’s Seven American Utopias), Mormonism emerges as a genuine achievement in communitarian socialism. In that context, the religious idiosyncrasy that appalled Schaff can be seen as an essential and desirable armature.

The Latter-Day Saints in general, and Brigham Young in particular, may thus seem just what their chroniclers indicate: people whose sterling qualities, like those of the Quakers or perhaps of Christian Scientists, took some while to be properly appreciated by other Americans. The “mainstream” aspect of Young obviously relate to his self-madeness, unremitting industry, practicality, optimism, and folksy humor. Young the Prophet was (his pun) “very profitable” to the Mormons. “In the providence of God he has placed me to take charge of his flock, and they have been abundantly blessed under my administration.” Young’s temperament is nicely revealed in the instructions he left for his funeral. He was to be laid in a roomy casket “made of plump 1 1/4 inch redwood boards… My body dressed in my Temple clothing and…the coffin to have the appearance that if I wanted to turn a little to the right or left I should have plenty of room to do so…” Pragmatic last words!

What this interpretation minimizes is the inherent separateness of Mormonism during the formative decades. Philip Schaff was justified in asserting that by the mid-1850s Mormonism had “not exerted the slightest influence on the general character and religious life of the American people.” Mormons and Americans “do not fit together, but have a deadly hatred of each other.” In the Mormon view, all others were the outsiders, unregenerate members of a doomed civilization. President Young’s desire for statehood betokened no desire to be at one with the rest of the United States. He measured the other presidents—those in Washington, D.C.—by their policy toward the Saints. In conversation with his associates he was scathingly critical of President Buchanan. In Arrington’s cautious estimate: “One might conclude that Brigham and his followers sought to join the United States in order to be free from it.” The Mormons were in effect neutral during the Civil War. Young saw the conflict, within the frame of Mormon millennialism, as a possible sign of the breakup of the old dispensation, presaging the establishment of God’s earthly kingdom.

Before the 1860s, in short, Mormonism was what its detractors claimed: a theocracy, coupling church and state in a manner bound to offend not only rabble-rousers but ordinary sensible American Protestants. Whether the system of authority was despotic is open to debate. What does seem undeniable, however, is that Smith and Young were kings of the kingdom, or God’s vice-regents, and that theirs was a more autocratic order than was acceptable to mainstream American denominationalism. The Book of Mormon has been described as a compendium of explanations for the topics of debate current in the 1820s (for instance, on the notion that American Indians were descended from the peoples of Israel). Mosiah, chapter 29, is said to have expressed an American preference for representative as against monarchical government. Bushman, with admirable objectivity, dismissed this claim. The Mormon church of the first decades was not the mouthpiece of American democracy. Sir Richard Burton, that arrogant and eccentric English traveler, praised Mormon “aristocracy” (The City of the Saints, 1861). He compared the social structure of Salt Lake City to life in a good regiment: “The prophet is the colonel commanding, and the grades are nicely graduated down to the last neophyte or recruit.” No wonder. Burton remarked with relish, that the Mormon state within a state was so obnoxious to the “petulant fanatical republican of the New World.”

Burton, the translator of Arabian Nights, also saw nothing wrong with the practice of polygamy, which Joseph Smith had instituted. Burton, however, was almost alone among Gentiles in professing such support. Here as elsewhere, Arrington apparently seeks to reconcile his religious beliefs with his duties as a scholar. He gives the facts but little interpretative guidance. Young, that is, obeyed Smith’s revelation, dutifully sealing himself to a plurality of wives. Most of them, we find from Arrington’s appendix, were considerably junior. “In Salt Lake City,” ac cording to an old jest, “the girls all marry Young, and often.” If is hard not to think that the Mormon elders made a disastrous mistake in introducing polygamy, and compounded it by delaying the admission that it was in truth an element of Mormonism. Opposition was no doubt prurient and sometimes hysterical. But what else was to be expected from mainstream, monogamous America?

Does this mean that Mormon and Gentile historians must necessarily disagree? If you are not a Mormon, can you avoid the kind of skepticism with which Mark Twain greeted the legend of Smith, the golden plates, and seer-stones? If not, does Brigham Young fall under suspicion as either naive or duplicitous—indeed, as lecher, tyrant, Tartuffe?

Neither Arrington nor Bushman feels any great strain, one would guess, in balancing faith in Mormonism with professional objectivity. But, perhaps unwittingly, they tend to meet the dual responsibility with a somewhat noncommittal circumspection. Although they do not suppress or distort, they are apt to report rather than interpret controversial issues. It must be admitted, though, that they are not theonly academics to do this; historians as a breed are cautious to a fault, and therefore sometimes a dull lot.

Arrington’s assignment is probably less delicate than Bushman’s, because Young is a less intractable subject for biography than Joseph Smith. If we cannot swallow the tale of Smith’s dealings with the Angel Moroni (a name to delight Mark Twain), then he risks being placed among the self-proclaimed messiahs who recur in religious history, whether amiably as a Father Divine or monstrously as the Reverend Jones of Jonestown. But with Young, given the assumption that he was a sincere Mormon, a biographer like Arrington can concentrate upon the undeniable facts of the man’s career, Twainian skepticism then becomes largely irrelevant. We seek an explanation for Young’s astounding accomplishment—an inquiry that can be genuinely objective, like the open-minded way in which William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience, approached the phenomenon of conversion. Detached from the more bizarre features of Smith’s dispensation. Young becomes—in Arrington’s absorbing if understated narrative—a person whose simplicity and good humor no less than his unquestioning piety would justify comparing him with a Martin Luther or perhaps an Oliver Cromwell.

Professor Arrington does not draw such large analogies. Nor does he speculate about the links between Smith and Young. In this portrait Brigham Young is a “Moses.” But he was also of course a Peter or Paul, following a leader whose creed he had cheerfully espoused. Perhaps Young is to be seen as a consummate consolidator, the head of a second generation of leaders that is vital to the perpetuation of a new religion. No doubt too the discipline, the tithing, and the communality, which Young developed, did much to prevent the Latter-Day Saints from disintegration.

Maybe too something combative and dissident in Young, and in Mormonism generally, mattered more in the early stages than supposed Americanness. His creedal passion was certainly strong, and “primitive” in the sense of actually deriving strength from affronting the established order, and even welcoming persecution. By degrees, the Mormons seem to have perceived that they needed the United States. Young was wise enough after the Civil War to begin to move toward accommodation: a tendency to be taken further by the next two generations of Mormon leadership. The Saints were fortunate in the physical leeway America allowed them. Their social as well as religious experiments could be begun and modified with a degree of latitude, as Brigham himself could (if he wished) turn in his grave every now and then. Perhaps that is what mainstreaming ultimately signifies in the history of the United States.

This article appeared in the August 26, 1985 issue of the magazine.