Author: Thomas C. Alexander
Title: Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith
University of Oklahoma Press, 2019
Reviewed by Doug Gibson, Oct. 2019
Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith follows a more comprehensive biography a few years back from John Turner, “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. (Reviewed here)
Alexander’s biography, despite not being as detailed as Turner’s biography — as part of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series, it lacks footnotes, for example — is a very valuable historical and biographical resource, offering insights and accounts of Young’s time in Utah that may surprise readers.
The book moves rapidly through Young’s life until events after Nauvoo, then it settles down into a much more detailed account of the Mormon prophet’s life in Utah. Early in the book, Alexander provides life passages that underscore both Young’s learned stances and philosophies on life. For example, he was amicably turned out of his home by his father at age 16 with the admonition to make his way in the world. Also, as a young man, Young was a more radical Methodist, insisting on baptism by immersion and a believer in talking in tongues. In fact, he joined the more radical Reformed Methodists, writes Alexander. For a while, early Mormonism included talking in tongues, of which Young participated in.
As mentioned, the meat of the biography is Young’s 30-year tenure as ecclesiastical leader in Utah — and for a while governor — although he retained political power even after having to accept territory leaders sent by Washington D.C. Readers who are accustomed to hearing that Young was a forbidding autocrat who brooked no dissent or disobedience from church members will be surprised by Alexander’s account. Not infrequently, church members ignored Young’s advice. Some examples: Some members Young would call — from the pulpit — on missions chose not to serve; some members called to colonize new towns would either not go or return home after a short spell; some merchants would refuse Young’s admonitions to not sell or trade with out-of-state, or non-Mormon, merchants; some of Young’s ecclesiastical opinions, notably blood atonement and the Adam-God Doctrine, were disputed by members and high church leaders. The latter never gained acceptance, the former appears to be a possibly misunderstood remnant of the Mormon Reformation only.
However, this is not to intend that Alexander’s biography is a harsh critique of Young.It’s no hagiography either. Alexander notes Young’s strong personality and organizational skills. He managed to settle hundreds of colonies through Utah and the rest of the Intermountain West. He retained great loyalty and devotion among members of the Mormon Faith during his tenure. Although he made his share of mistakes, he was enough of a diplomat to endure severe hostility from Washington D.C., non-Mormon territorial leaders, military officials, and dissident Mormons within Utah. His stature, diplomatic skills, and relationships with allies, such as non-Mormon Thomas L. Kane, occasionally assisted his efforts to sway U.S. officials to ease tensions. It’s clear that without Brigham Young, the Utah Mormon Faith would likely have splintered apart.
Young had a caustic tongue, and was a strong, talented public speaker who spoke off the cuff a lot. Alexander acknowledges that his rhetoric caused problems. The author accurately notes that Young did not order the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but points out the sharply inappropriate remarks Young made at the site,, talking about revenge being taken. Alexander writes that Young, for years after the massacre, urged federal officials — to no avail — to speed their slow investigation.
Alexander does a great job describing the tension and dangers that swept through Utah during the Utah War in 1857 and the later Black Hawk War. The former inspired a palpable fear in Utah. Salt Lake City was emptied at one point. A tragic error by Young that allowed a Native American ally to be killed by Mormon settlers exacerbated the already deadly Black Hawk War. In both cases Young learned from mistakes, having the presence of mind to negotiate and make concessions in order to achieve peace, however uneasy it may have been.
Young had an idealistically contradictory viewpoints of Native Americans. Believing them as meant to be part of the restored gospel, he wanted to keep them close to settlers. This clashed with the goal of obtaining more land and resources for settlements. These conflicts flared into violence, with Young sometimes sanctioning the deaths of Native Americans. At the same time, he was angry at settlers who dealt harshly with Native Americans. Eventually, Native Americans were moved away onto reservations, with monetary promises from the federal government that were largely reneged on.
Young’s discourses are covered well in the book. On issues, he was progressive for his times on women’s role in society. He supported suffrage; Utah territory provided the vote to women. He also routinely granted divorce to women who requested it. Despite his own limited education, he implemented a strong education system, including BYU, University of Utah and LDS Business College. He also strongly supported the arts in Utah society, favoring concerts and stage productions. In fact, he called church members to be in the arts, prompting (appropriate) complaints that they needed to be paid for their time and efforts,
The book provides familial details of Young’s family life among his many spouses and children. In the Beehive and other houses, daily family spiritual time was mandated. Alexander notes Young’s occasional chagrin that some family occasionally missed those spiritual hours.
His final years, as Alexander notes, were accompanied by increasing health problems. One of his final public acts was the dedication of the St. George Temple. Too weak to stand during the ceremonies, Young was carried throughout the building and spoke seated. He also did a lot of church reorganization in the final years, including ranking apostle leadership by ordination rather than age.
Alexander’s biography is relatively easy to read. There’s much more than I summarized. I was surprised by some of the details of Young’s mind and life that I learned from the book. The Young depicted, while flawed as any other man, is both pragmatic, eager to learn more, and learned from his mistakes.
Young was struck ill in the summer of 1877 and died soon afterward. According to Alexander, although his health was poor many today believe he died of appendicitis, which was not diagnosed as such in that time.
Parts of the biography that stand out are the accounts of the Utah War, the Mormon Reformation, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath, the Black Hawk War, a section on Young’s discourses, and accounts of the prophet’s family life.