Guest Post: Joseph Stuart Recaps John Turner’s BYU Presentation

By September 16, 2012

[From JI’s good friend Joseph Stuart.]

Before getting to my summary, many thanks to Brian Cannon, Jessie Embry, and the Charles H. Redd Center for making Professor Turner?s visit possible. It is incredibly difficult to bring open forum speakers to BYU; their efforts (and the Redd Center?s funds) made the biography and the visits possible.

Now, to the notes?

Turner?s argument took shape in the juxtaposition of two stories:  The English mission (1840) and an early ?trial? in 1849.

1840: Brigham was at Manchester, England, and nearly 40 years old, a convert of only 8 years. He was now the President of the Twelve, and was leading the Church’s mission to England and had “exactly one wife.” After six weeks in England, there had been scores, even hundreds of converts. One night, while visiting a family, HCK and BY sang and spoke in tongues. BY was disappointed that the Manchester Mormons had not yet received the Gift of Tongues. After English holiday that celebrated Pentecost, the English Saints wanted a display of the religious gifts present in Acts 2. In his diary, Brigham Young said that he and Parley Pratt talked for ?some time about the necessity of the Saints having the spirit of God.” The Saints tried to display ?gifts,? and one Brother Green ?almost spoke in tongues? (Turner quipped that the words were on the ?tip of his tongue? and ?tongue tied?). Brigham then spoke and sang in tongues, and many English Saints followed, one woman being able to speak in 7 different languages.

Speaking in tongues was central to Brigham Young?s conversion, agreeing to be baptized after hearing Elders speak in tongues, and Young himself stood and spoke in tongues at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. Turner remarked, ?I would be more than willing to pay the price of a Book of Mormon Musical ticket to hear Brigham sing, wouldn?t you??

Turner also related a dream that Brigham had about his daughter, Elizabeth, where she repeatedly asked him to come home and kissed Brigham many times, saying that Brigham needed to take care of his family. Turner mentioned that Brigham took dreams seriously as a means of revelation, and that he suffered from homesickness on his many missions, writing long letters to his family while he was away. Brigham also wrote long letters to his fellow Apostles, though their writing and speaking abilities far outstripped his own. In this way, he gained the love and respect of his fellow apostles.

Turner began both lectures by explaining the guiding insights that guide most of the book: Brigham Young?s trust in spiritual gifts (especially the gift of tongues and healings) in both Reform Methodism and Mormonism. Turner hadn?t expected this affinity for spiritual gifts, associating tongues especially with 20th Century Pentecostalism.

Turner then skipped forward to 1849: The Council of Fifty were deliberating the fate of Ira West, a petty ?thief and swindler.? West had apparently promised Brigham Young at a previous legal proceeding that if he got into trouble again he would forfeit his head. West, in his own defense, made a strange plea for mercy, saying ?I don’t remember promising my head to Brigham Young, but if I get caught again, my head shall go.” One member of the Council thought that West should at least lose his ears. They decided to excommunicate West and fine him $100. After a public shaming, where no Saint stepped forward to buy West?s release for $100, Brigham felt that there had been too much mercy towards West and similar petty transgressors. The Council of Fifty deliberated over West?s fate: Erastus Snow favored public execution. John D. Lee thought he should be killed privately.[i] After reaching the decision to let him go, Brigham Young told a crowd of Saints: there is no sin in killing West. Said that West had incurred worse “curse than the negro.? Brigham then said if West and another transgressor were brought to him, he would show that the Saints that he had the “moral courage” to take off his head. The Tribune reported that Ira West was murdered.[ii]

It is interesting that in the light of his own troubles with mob rule, Young turned to extra-legal justice with the lack of state government. Utah didn’t have vigilantism like took place in California, Nevada, or Missouri, but Brigham condoned extra-legal violence at times, and boasted “I cannot be implicated in any of them.” He once said “there has been a great deal done, quite a number killed, and a great many more who ought to have been.”

How do we get from 1840-1849? How do we get from the missionary extraordinaire to a man who fought for beheading a petty thief? Turner said, “if Brigham Young was anything, he was a devoted follower of Joseph Smith.” Brigham vowed not to fall to the same vulnerabilities of Joseph. In short, Young was determined not to become a martyr. Turner shared a quote from the August 1844 meeting where many Saints later claimed they saw Brigham ?take on the mantle of Joseph.? Brigham told the Saints at Nauvoo that if he had been by Joseph?s side in June, he wouldn?t have allowed Joseph to  be arrested only to become a martyr, vowing to “see [the government] in hell first.” [iii] Young spent the next 18 months telling the Saints to finish the temple. In the face of mob violence, Brigham grudgingly agreed to move west. Young lived in the temple for safety as well as to administer ordinances, and started carrying a weapon on him. Brigham?s personality changed because of his experience; he  demanded more of his followers and became hyper-sensitive to criticism. He still had the same spiritual fire he had possessed in England, and his prayers were commented on as powerful and sincere. Like all men, he was shaped by his experiences, and never fully overcame the trauma of the Nauvoo years.

This explains his attitudes in Utah. Even small aberrations and acts of dissent were seen as mortally dangerous to the Church as a whole and to Young individually. John D. Lee wrote that Brigham was known to stop apostasy on the spot. Because of Brigham?s fierce expectations of loyalty, he would act vindictively, but in Turner?s estimation ?experienced less than 10% of the persecution that Joseph had.?

Later, When Buchanan sent the Expedition, Brigham reacted out of the terror he had known in Missouri and Nauvoo. He whipped up sentiment against Gentiles that could have led to the annihilation of the Mormons. One hundred fifty five years ago, this atmosphere led to Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Was Brigham responsible? It?s hard to say. [The key piece of evidence is the letter from September 1857, instructing Church leaders in Southern Utah ?not to meddle with the immigrants?leave them alone.” Southern Utah leaders debated the attack at Mountain Meadows, probably showing that Young didn’t order it; it would not have been debated if they had direct orders. Young incited the hatred that made Mountain Meadows possible, obstructed investigations of Mountain Meadows and harbored those responsible. Turner opined, “for BY, everything was secondary to preserving the Church and himself.” Investigations would have created further trouble for the Church. Brigham Young continued to enjoy the loyalty of John D. Lee and others who participated.  He reacted in a cold, callous manner when interviewing John D. Lee to understand the Mountain Meadows attacks, speaking as if the emigrants deserved it. In short, Young didn?t fire the gun, but his rhetoric and the atmosphere of panic he created may have loaded the bullets.

Brigham Young is hard to understand with modern sensibilities, but it also explains his successes as a Church leader. He did not back down in the face of difficulty, would change course for his people, was able to keep the people together after Nauvoo. That he emerged from Nauvoo as more harsh and more violent is only part of his personality. He was still the spiritual leader he had been in the English mission, but assumed new roles as ?Defender of the Faith? and ?Defender of the People.?

[i] Turner then said, ?John D. Lee?s decision-making was always a little faulty,? succeeding in making the first Mountain Meadows joke I have ever heard.

[ii] Turner has since found out that West lived out the rest of his life, later moving to Arizona. He asked that I add this footnote for clarification.

[iii] This may have inadvertently ostracized Emma Smith, who encouraged Joseph to turn himself into the authorities.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Joey.

    Comment by David G. — September 16, 2012 @ 9:14 pm

  2. Thanks for this. I had intended to be there, but medical and university obligations prevented. It’s a terrific book.

    Comment by WVS — September 16, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

  3. Thanks for the recap. The idea that Nauvoo was such a trauma to BY is a really interesting insight, I think.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 16, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  4. I heard one lecture in an American West Seminar, and one for the general public. In the seminar, he talked more about the gift of tongues and mountain meadows, because it’s what student questions were on. In the public forum, it focused far more on BY the person, and the events that made him the person he is, arose more.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 17, 2012 @ 12:33 am

  5. Thanks for the recap, J. The juxtaposition of spiritual gifts and violence is an interesting one.

    Comment by Nate R. — September 17, 2012 @ 7:01 am

  6. He gave a very similar presentation at Benchmark, and it was quite good. I think he had the correct answer to the question of “[how did BY inspire followers if he was so rough]” by suggesting a) he was often quite inspirational to his people, who loved his sermons and charisma, and b) his violence was to the end of protecting their community, and in many respects he was reflecting the views of the majority, who supported him as their protector. Brigham Young wasn’t the only person who was changed by the murder of Joseph Smith.

    Comment by smb — September 17, 2012 @ 7:47 am

  7. Thanks for the report, Joey. What sort of reception did Turner get? Any pushback from folks uncomfortable with his general portrayal of BY?

    Comment by Christopher — September 17, 2012 @ 10:34 am

  8. I second Chris — at the lecture I went to, people asked about how he would respond to the Times and Seasons review, specifically, the suggestion that this book would challenge and destroy people’s faith. Did that question come up at the BYU presentation?

    Comment by Amanda HK — September 17, 2012 @ 11:48 am

  9. Chris and Amanda: The short answer is “no.” There weren’t any questions about testimony, or the book’s impact on matters of faith.

    A more nuanced answer: I’d say that the reception was generally good. There were several people who were expecting more of a “let’s talk about Brigham Young and all the fantastic things he did,” but I think they were those who went for extra credit for a class. The questions from the audience were generally very good, thoughtful and articulately stated. If anyone would like to see the Q&A parts, I’d be happy to share with them. It’s too long to post here.

    **Personal opinion alert: Anyone who showed up to any of the lectures should have known that this wasn’t a book intended for teaching from the pulpit. There are much worse episodes of violence and violent rhetoric than the Ira West case, Turner told me he purposefully shied away from more shocking cases for his presentations. I think Turner’s objective, to write an objective appraisal and interpretation of evidence into a readable narrative, didn’t focus on the sensational for sensation’s sake: he used them to draw out conclusions and make sense of a very complex man’s life. If folks had concerns that Turner was a “testimony-wrecker” because of his carefully constructed appraisal, it isn’t Turner’s fault: it’s unrealistic expectations placed on Brigham Young and Church leaders in general.

    Comment by J Stuart — September 17, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

  10. Thanks, Joey. That’s interesting. I also largely share your sentiments more generally.

    Comment by Christopher — September 17, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

  11. Thanks for the summaries. I just picked up the book over the weekend and look forward to reading it. Hearing that John deliberately shied away from using more controversial/sensational examples speaks to me of his commitment to objectivity.

    I would be interested in the Q&A parts. If you click on my name it will take you to my blog where you can send an email. Thanks so much.

    Comment by Kurt — September 17, 2012 @ 11:50 pm

  12. Chris and Amanda: Here’s an important note from the last question at the Varsity Theatre Lecture:

    Turner: “I tried to give an accurate and even-handed portrait, but have to acknowledge that not everyone will like every part. Try to tell the truth as best as it could be understood, but that not everyone would appreciate or understand everything.”

    Comment by J Stuart — September 18, 2012 @ 2:11 pm


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