I suspect that most readers of John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (and consequently, most readers of this roundtable) are interested primarily in the final thirty years of Young’s life, or at least some aspect of it. It was during that time, after all, that the most obviously exciting, controversial, and significant events in Brigham Young’s own life and the church that he led occurred; it was during that time that Young became the pioneer prophet the book sets out to describe and analyze.
I can thus hardly blame anyone who quickly skims the chapters describing Young’s upbringing, conversion, and early years as a Latter-day Saint in a hurry to get to Young’s assertion of leadership in the wake of Joseph Smith’s death, his involvement in plural marriage, his violent rhetoric and role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, relationship with other strong-headed personalities both in and out of the church, or his views on race, to name just a few intriguing aspects of his later life. But for those who have not yet read the book, I offer this simple piece of advice: Take the time to read the early chapters and to appreciate what Turner has accomplished therein.
Turner’s biography not only provides the most complete narrative of Young’s early life that in turn provides crucial (if sometimes paradoxical) context for Young’s later role as one of the nineteenth century’s most infamous civil and religious leaders; in twenty-one short pages he offers a fascinating glimpse into one family’s religious journey from mainline Protestantism to reform-minded evangelicalism and finally to Mormonism that speaks to issues and interests beyond Brigham Young and his life, including especially the economic, familial, and religious anxieties of this particular time and place (upstate New York in the first decades of the nineteenth century).
That Turner is able to accomplish this is a testament to both his immersion in the secondary literature of the last several decades and especially to his deft use of primary source material in reconstructing Brigham Young’s early life and his journey into Mormonism. An earlier biographer relied almost entirely on later reminiscences from Brigham Young in documenting his early religious wanderings and conversion. Whatever the relative merits of the rest of his 1985 Brigham Young: American Moses, Leonard Arrington’s claim that “the most definitive and reliable source on Brigham’s encounter with religion and Mormonism is his own recollections, as contained in his sermons published in the Journal of Discourses” is terribly problematic, and resulted in a superficial overview of Young’s early life. Instead of haphazardly pasting together select statements from Young’s later sermons about his early religious life and conversion to Mormonism, Turner takes on the inconsistencies of those later reminiscences, comparing them with other first and second hand accounts, and embedding the events described thoroughly in the religious world of early nineteenth century New York State. The result is a more complex and more accurate account of Brigham Young’s early religious sensibilities and suspicions, his time as a Methodist, and his conversion to Mormonism. Not merely prelude to his embrace of Latter-day Saint religion, Turner’s analysis stands on its own as both interesting and useful, providing readers with a sense of the historical contingency that accompanied Brigham Young’s pre-Mormon life.
Like Joseph Smith, whose own religious wanderings and fleeting attachment to Methodism as a young man bear some similarities to those of his eventual successor as president and prophet of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young’s early life offered no hints that he was destined to become one of the most widely-known and controversial religious figures in American history. Indeed, his early years were largely unremarkable, as he struggled to find either secure financial footing or religious satisfaction. Brigham’s four brothers, by contrast, each found some fulfillment in evangelical religion; each took up itinerant preaching, as did their brother-in-law John P. Greene. That is not to say, though, that Brigham found little of substance in the revivalism of the day. As Turner explains, “Despite his retrospective critiques,” the evidence suggests that “as a young man Brigham took evangelical claims seriously,” insisting, for example, upon baptism by immersion when he joined the Reformed Methodist Church (15). While his older brother Phineas, for example, appears to have experienced not only Christian conversion but also Wesleyan sanctification while a Reformed Methodist, the spiritual satisfaction Brigham longed for did not arrive until his introduction to Mormon preachers and their message.
I was particularly struck by the nature of the Young family’s conversion to Mormonism. As Turner details, “for the Youngs, religion was very much a family affair” (17). Bequeathed a legacy of “robust belief in supernatural phenomena” (10) by both maternal and paternal ancestors, Brigham Young’s parents and their children were “inclined toward backcountry evangelicalism,” spending time as members of the Methodist Episcopal Church before eventually uniting with the upstart Reformed Methodist Church, an offshoot of the MEC that insisted on a more robust spirituality that accepted and expected revelatory dreams and visions and embraced some spiritual gifts in an effort to rescue “the true spirit of religion” (15-16). In just a few pages, Turner is able to provide a fascinating and detailed glimpse into the evangelical milieu in which Brigham Young and his siblings were raised—a newly-pluralistic religious world in which churches actively competed for converts. Turner is especially adept in describing Methodism’s appeal and the specifics of the schismatic Reformed Methodist Church. Building on the work of Larry Porter, Turner provides a rich portrait of this small Wesleyan sect and its role in preparing the Youngs to accept Mormonism.
So what of Brigham Young’s conversion itself? While he would emphasize throughout his life “the role of rational reflection in his conversion” (“I reasoned upon revelation,” he famously quipped), Turner persuasively shows the centrality of charismatic religious promise and experience to Young’s Mormon conversion. In Mormonism, he finally found “the direct connection with the divine that had eluded him during his youth and early adulthood.” It was this combination of “considerable reflection and illustrations of supernatural power,” then, that convinced Brigham Young. “Mormonism,” Turner explains, “satisfied a skepticism rooted in both rationality and deeply ingrained Biblicism and because the elders who witnessed to him displayed spiritual gifts that surpassed anything he had known in Reformed Methodism” (26-27).
In contrast to his brother Phineas, who tried to reconcile Mormonism to Methodism for some time after first reading the Book of Mormon and only gradually came to fully accept Mormonism, Brigham Young’s conversion represented a more sudden shift in religious identity. He was baptized, confirmed, and almost immediately ordained and sent to preach. He also experienced for himself the spiritual gifts that signified for him the truthfulness of the Mormon message. It also represented a significant turning point in Young’s life more generally. As Turner argues, “Before his baptism, Young deferred to his brothers’ spiritual leadership, and he rarely spoke or prayed aloud at religious gatherings. Now he became an effective and sometimes combative public speaker, surpassed his older brothers within the church hierarchy, and took the place of his father as the patriarchal leader of his family” (30).
I do wish Turner had fleshed out this point a little more fully. Was it the abrupt and perhaps unexpected nature of Young’s conversion that triggered this change (especially in contrast to his brothers’ more gradual acceptance of Mormonism)? Turner might also have addressed more directly the importance of family to religious conversion more generally. It seems to me that for many early converts to Mormonism (like the Youngs), religion was a family affair, as husbands, wives, and children often joined the new church together. Was this true of evangelical religion, which is often portrayed as a more explicitly individualistic experience, and if not, what was it about Mormonism that attracted families instead of individuals? Those aren’t criticisms, though; merely additional questions raised by the early chapters of John’s provocative book. Here’s to hoping those early chapters receive the close reading they deserve.
 Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press [first Illinois paperback edition], 1986), 19.
 See Larry C. Porter, “The Brigham Young Family: Transition between Reformed Methodism and Mormonism,” in A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Andrew C. Skinner (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 249–80. Contrary to Young’s later insistence that he took the lead in bringing his family into Mormonism (“I claim all of you as the fruit of my labors,” Young told his siblings in 1845), Turner rightly points out that Young’s older brother Phineas “appears to have been the family member who most quickly and eagerly embraced the new faith[.] … As in the family’s conversion to Reformed Methodism, Brigham initially held back, following the lead of his brothers” (28).
 Interestingly (to me anyway), I’ve surmised elsewhere that the sudden nature of other early Mormon conversions actually played a role in the converts’ eventual departure from Mormonism. I’m not sure whether Brigham Young’s experience foils that thesis or simply represents an aberration.