Multiple Brighams Redux: In the Midst of a Brigham Young Revival

By July 17, 2010

We’ve discussed before the changing place of Brigham Young in scholarly discourses. For academics during much of the twentieth century, Young was far more interesting that Joseph Smith in the panorama of American history. In most of these works, Young was lauded for his organizational prowess and his intrepid leadership on the frontier. He was also seen as the savior of Mormonism, the great leader who picked up the pieces after Joseph Smith’s death. This image of Young fit the needs of American historians who, following Frederick Jackson Turner, believed that the essence of America was found on the frontier. Although academic interest in the frontier had waned by the 1980s, and with it much of the interest in Young as a frontiersman, it was in that decade that Leonard Arrington published his landmark study of the American Moses.

This scholarly emphasis on Young also included an implicit critique of Joseph Smith. Bernard DeVoto among others argued that Young was the true genius behind Mormonism, while Smith was little more than a backwoods illiterate who had few redeeming qualities. This image of Smith began to change around mid-century, with the appearance of more favorable works by Brodie and Cross, and by the 1960s and 1970s Smith increasingly was seen as a viable topic of study. Richard Bushman most readily comes to mind as representing this trend, but other scholars such as Larry Moore, Nathan Hatch, Jon Butler, Kenneth Winn, Marvin Hill, and Grant Underwood produced solid studies during the 1980s and 1990s on the Joseph Smith era. These scholars interpreted Smith in a much more favorable light just at the time that scholarly interest in Young as a frontier hero was declining. However, with this decline came an increased interest in Young’s role in originating the priesthood ban as well as his teachings such as blood atonement and Adam God.

Although contemporary scholarship reflects these new assumptions, every once in awhile I come across a statement that reminds me of these earlier thoughtworlds. A good example is a quote from Brigham Madsen, a retired University of Utah historian who wrote extensively on the Native peoples of Idaho and Mountain West history. In an interview conducted a few years ago by literary scholar Kass Fleisher, Madsen, who was trained in the 1940s at Berkeley, explained his differing views of Smith and Young:

I admire Brigham Young much more than I admire Joseph Smith. I think Joseph Smith was a scoundrel, he was a liar, he was a womanizer. I can’t say that to everybody, but he was. He started polygamy, had about forty wives. He was a scamp, a scoundrel?and yet he’s the Great Prophet. I admire Brigham Young more because Brigham Young was sincere in his belief. Joseph Smith made the whole thing up. Young was a follower of Smith, he always liked Smith, who had a great charisma. And Smith hornswoggled Brigham Young, and Brigham Young was never hornswoggled by anybody else in his life. He was a man of granite will, and hard-nosed and determined, but he believed in it. I give him credit for that. He was a very practical man. He was the one that made Mormonism. At the end of Joseph Smith’s life, if Brigham Young hadn’t taken over, Mormonism would have disappeared like every other little sect. So you have to admire him as an administrator?hard-nosed, certainly, but he created Utah, and the Mormon church. So I like him better for that reason (Fleisher, The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History, 160-61).

This statement reflects assumptions from an earlier generation of scholarship. Brigham Young here is the great frontier colonizer and the reason that Mormonism survived, while Joseph Smith lacked redeeming characteristics. These are not the views of most scholars today, whether Mormon or not, and provide a window into earlier discourses that have largely fallen out of use. Madsen is a fine historian who we are all indebted to, and I don’t mean to imply that contemporary ways of interpreting Smith and Young are necessarily superior to those of his generation; rather, I think his statement illustrates changes in historical interpretation over the last few decades.

After stagnating for almost two decades after Arrington published his landmark biography, we are currently witnessing a resurgence of scholarly interest in Brigham Young. Much of this has been fueled not by a renewed interest in Brigham the colonizer, but rather the Brigham whose violent rhetoric led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The commemorations of the massacre have produced a healthy debate over Young’s role at the meadows. Three major books on the massacre have been published by big presses (Blood of the Prophets, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, and Innocent Blood). In addition, at least two scholars are currently engaged in full-length biographies of Young: John Turner and Ron Walker (who is actually envisioning several books on Young in addition to the biography). I’ve also heard that Will Bagley and Tom Alexander are working on their own Young biographies, but I haven’t confirmed that. In addition to biographies, other works have appeared or are close to publication that deal closely with Young. Bill Mackinnon’s masterful two-volume history of the Utah War will be the standard reference work for years to come, while Bagley and David Bigler are nearing completion on their own interpretation of the war. Works by Paul Reeve, Ned Blackhawk, and Jared Farmer have highlighted Young’s Indian policies, while a major work on Young as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Utah territory is slotted to appear in the Kingdom in the West series. This renaissance in Young studies will necessitate closer examinations to ways that earlier generations of scholars understood and interpreted the man. And as in past, it is likely that this scholarship will produce new comparisons between Young and Smith as scholars produce new images of both men.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Historiography Memory


  1. Excellent summary, David. One part of the current Brigham revival is the added attention to his thought and theology. Previously, historians have been too dismissive of it while focusing on his colonization and administration duties.

    Comment by Ben — July 17, 2010 @ 7:37 am

  2. I’m looking forward to a lot of these books (and hoping I have the time to read time!) I’m especially glad people are grappling with his theology more. There’s been a lot promised over the years on this but I don’t see folks grappling with it. Putting his stated theology into “discourse” with his practices is also quite important.

    Comment by Clark — July 17, 2010 @ 11:20 am

  3. I asked Alexander at MHA if he was writing a Brigham Young volume and he said that was not the case.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 17, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

  4. Thanks for the overview. I look forward to the new books.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 17, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

  5. It’s interesting how prejudice is invested differently in different contexts. Normally, we admire genius and are wary of business. You won’t hear it argued that Thomas Edison was a greater inventor than Nikola Tesla because he was better at selling himself. No one would chide Van Gogh as lackluster because he’d be unknown today had it not been for his brother and a few sly art critics that took note of him near his death. We are suspicious of talented people who are both creative and good at business, Bill Gates is not held up as a paragon of virtue by most people. The way we idolize creativity and eccentricity while looking narrowly upon talent agencies, record labels, and greedy venture capitalists, one would think that Joseph Smith should be the brilliant, idiosyncratic rock star who was a victim of his own genius and forgivable for his weaknesses, the impractical visionary who died penniless. And Brigham Young should be the sly business tycoon who exploited the legacy, knew how to sell Smith’s image, and bask in the glory of something he didn’t create.

    Fleisher is making this ridiculously tight link between the significance of the person historically and

    Comment by Allan Wisdom — July 18, 2010 @ 11:59 pm

  6. Ben, Clark, and Edje: Thanks. I remember Bushman a few years ago asked Chris and I at a Summer Seminar party how we would “map” BY’s thought and if we thought his teachings had any impact on contemporary Mormonism. It was just party conversation, so neither of us put a lot of effort into the “mapping” question, but we both suggested that BY’s lasting legacy has been more negative: denying blood atonement and vengeance, denying Adam God, downplaying polygamy, etc. But the encounter does suggest that there is an increasing interest BY the theologian.

    J.: Thanks for confirming that. Since I hadn’t heard anything beyond the rumor, I was beginning to have my doubts.

    Allan: FYI, the quote is by Madsen. Fleisher was just reproducing the quote in her book.

    Comment by David G. — July 19, 2010 @ 7:46 am

  7. That’s a fascinating quote from Madsen, David. I don’t think I’ve ever read it before. It illustrates your point perfectly. Ironically, though, I think Madsen hints at something crucial to understanding BY (even if this point is obscured somewhat by his strained comparison to JS)—the need to take him serious as a religious figure and leader. I remember John Turner describing his project early on as a religious biography of BY, which really appealed to me. His efforts, along with those of Ron Walker and others trying to really grapple with BY’s theology, religious life, etc. will go a along way toward furthering our collective understanding of the man.

    Comment by Christopher — July 19, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

  8. Thanks David. This is a great summary. I’ve heard from a number of second hand sources that Bagley is no longer planning a biography of Brigham. That could have changed, but that was the last word I had heard.

    Comment by Brett D. — July 20, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

  9. Thanks for clarifying the rumor regarding Bagley, Brett. I was listening to a podcast he did awhile back, and he said nothing about working on a BY bio, which made me doubt the rumors which I had heard.

    Comment by David G. — July 21, 2010 @ 7:23 am


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