Pioneer Prophet Roundtable: Turner Responds

By November 27, 2012

John Turner wraps up the JI’s roundtable discussion of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.

Four-and-a-half years ago, during my initial research trip to Utah, I ventured down to Provo and had lunch with Spencer Fluhman and several of his students. Among them were David Grua and Chris Jones (and Stan Thayne, I think). The Juvenile Instructor was a newborn blog at the time. So it’s a bit surreal for me to have read the topical reviews of Pioneer Prophet over the past six weeks at this blog.

I love the field of Mormon history for many reasons. The rich sources. The voluminous scholarship. Most of all, I love the fact that so many people care about the Mormon past. This has some downsides. It makes the field contentious and testy. One need only read the “letters” section of the most recent Journal of Mormon History. Such contention, however, is more than outbalanced by the passion that so many individuals bring to their writing and to conversations about  Mormon history. That passion is contagious.

Thus, you can imagine how grateful I am that so many outstanding scholars of Mormonism have assessed my biography of Brigham Young in this forum. Given the number of reviews, I am not going to respond in detail to each. Instead, here are some general responses, followed by a few thoughts on more specific matters.

First, when writing a biography of a man with such a long and multifaceted life and who left behind a veritable mountain of sources, I did have to make many strategic decisions. Several reviewers noted that the length of the book (about four hundred pages of text and another hundred pages of notes and index) did not permit sufficiently sustained interpretation of any number of given topics. Steve Taysom rather sympathetically assigns blame for this fact to the publishing  industry and to the press. As it turns out, I’m responsible for the length or brevity of the book, depending on one’s perspective. I decided at the outset not to write a 600-page or 800-page biography, partly because I didn’t want the length to scare off potential readers. I didn’t want the biography to become unmanageable and unwieldy. I also believe that limiting one’s length forces one to write and edit more carefully. Finally, I wanted to finish it.

Early in the research process, I decided to privilege certain topics: Brigham Young’s spirituality and religious thought, his plural marriages, and his political conflicts with the U.S. government. The first two above-listed topics seemed ripe for further research and writing, and I found quite a bit of new information about the political conflicts as well (for example, the 1851 “runaway” officials). Still, there were many topics that I simply felt merited relatively extended treatment: Young’s pre-Mormon religious experiences, his leadership of the British Mission, his relations with and policy toward native peoples (esp. the 1850 Utah Valley war and the Blackhawk War), his communitarian economic vision, etc.

Amanda Hendrix-Komoto’s observations about the relationship between biography and historiographical argument are important:

One of the questions that a biographer always faces is how much to focus on the life he or she is elucidating and how much to focus on an argument. Like many biographers, Turner has chosen to focus on the life of his subject. No one subject becomes the focus of his biography.  After I finished the book, I was unsatisfied. I felt like I had been presented with tantalizing glimpses into Young’s relationships with his women but they had never been fully developed or theorized. I quite simply wanted more.

Amanda is correct about my approach. In terms of the biography as a whole, I privileged the reconstruction of Young’s life in its complexity — and what that says about the development of Mormonism over its first five decades — rather than a particular argument. At one point, I considered building my narrative of Young’s life around a quest for autonomy (for himself and his church). A working title was once “Mind Your Own Business,” which Young and others sometimes referred to as the Mormon creed. I also argue that Young should be taken seriously as a religious thinker and leader, which is why I was pleased to have “Prophet” included in the final title. Finally, although I did not present this in a particularly heavy-handed way, as Ben Park notes, I see the Nauvoo years (esp. 1844-1847) as a critical turning point in Young’s life and suggest that his reaction to those traumas explains much about his subsequent leadership. Still, I was more interested in providing a fresh, fair, and fuller treatment of Young’s life than I was in advancing a single argument.

Like Amanda, I found Young’s relationships with his wives endlessly fascinating. I spent hours and hours everywhere from the Church History Library to trying to track down scraps of information about his wives, especially those who simply vanished from the story after Nauvoo. There was a great amount of information about various wives that simply ended up on the cutting room floor. One stumbling block to a fuller portrait of Young’s family relations is the fact that scores of letters from certain discontented wives ended up in his papers, while wives apparently more content with their marriages (such as Emmeline Free) wrote him rarely if ever. I also deeply regret that Mary Ann Angell did not keep a journal. In short, someone should write In Sacred Loneliness: The Sequel.

I found Janiece Johnson’s essay on the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Pioneer Prophet a very fair review of my handling of a very thorny topic. A few specific points here necessitate a response:

– I lamentably erred in asserting that Young “falsely claimed” not to know the whereabouts of his September 1857 letter to Isaac Haight.

– Janiece writes that Turner “follows Bagley’s argument that the 1 September meeting of Brigham Young and native leaders leads directly to the massacre.” I do not follow that specific argument. My argument is that the six weeks of tension, talk of fighting the army, recruiting Indian allies, talk of Indian attacks on wagon trains, etc. created a scenario in which the Mountain Meadows Massacre became conceivable. I can see how Janiece could have drawn her conclusion on this point from the sequence of the chapter, however. What I should have done is to more fully discuss Young’s mid-August 1857 sermon and his suggestion that Indian violence would follow “if they commence on us.” Young’s language is conditional, but it is also provocative. When I wrote, “Southern Utah leaders had almost certainly received word of Young’s decision to no longer discourage Indian attacks on emigrant wagon trains,” I should have been more precise. It wasn’t quite yet a decision or a policy as of 16 August 1857 (and I’m not blaming the massacre on a single sermon by any means), but it was very dangerous rhetoric. Given how quickly rumors and information tended to circulate around the Utah Territory, it is hard not to imagine that leaders in southern Utah had not gotten wind of such talk.

Many other reviewers offer intelligent suggestions. David Grua is certainly correct that I should have paid more attention to the “more subtle tools of Mormon colonialism.” It was difficult not to focus on those moments of crisis and Young’s response to them, but still, very sound advice. I also agree with Max Mueller that I should have more fully analyzed the relationship between Joseph Smith’s thinking on matters of race and that of his successor.

A number of things made it possible for me to write the biography I envisioned: extensive access to holdings at the Church History Library, my family’s willingness to summer in Utah for three-plus years, and friends in the field to give me guidance, advice, and criticism along the way. Most of all, I was helped tremendously by hundreds (literally!) of other scholars who published works and sources on all of the topics covered in this forum’s essays. We are blessed with an abundance of brilliant writers and diligent researchers in this small corner of history. It’s tremendous.

At the same time, I hope that some of my research will provide some help to future scholars. A few thoughts:

– While investigating the macabre case of Thomas Lewis, I was struck with the richness of the local Manti records during the 1856-1857 reformation. I wish someone would examine the local manifestations of the reformation in several Mormon communities. I think that could be an excellent dissertation!

– Much more work needs to be done on Brigham Young’s theological beliefs. [I thought Matt’s reflections on these sections of the biography offered some fruitful thoughts for future writing on these matters]. It is still too easy to dismiss Young as a religious thinker because his identification of Adam as humanity’s god failed to gain a lasting foothold in LDS doctrine.

– A more complete account of Young’s alleged involvement in various acts of violence awaits a future scholar.

There’s plenty of room in these and many other vineyards.

At the risk of violating all above-mentioned caution about excessive length, I thought I would mention that the documentation of Brigham Young’s life never ceases to amaze me. Last month, I read Young’s Dec. 19, 1851 proclamation of 1 Jan. 1852 as a day of thanksgiving. It was published in the Deseret News and Millennial Star. A few researchers, including Fred Collier, have noticed it. The complete text is available here at page 197.

I often discuss George Washington’s 1789 thanksgiving proclamation with my students in the context of the relationship between religion and government in the early American republic. Brigham Young’s proclamation is much more interesting! I don’t know whether Young initially dictated the proclamation, or whether a clerk wrote the first draft. The latter is probably more likely, as the Historian’s Office Journal records on 18 Dec. 1851 that “T[homas] B[ullock] read the Governors Proclamation and revis[ed] same.” In any event, the entry for the next day states that Bullock read the proclamation to the governor. It was approved and sent to the printing office.

Young, the recently appointed governor of the Utah Territory, began by praising the natural resources and isolation of the Latter-day Saints’ new home, referenced the “time-honored custom of our fathers at Plymouth Rock,” and then issued a few recommendations. These included bathing on New Year’s Day, a surprising suggestion in light of his antipathy toward the practice during the Mormon reformation. Not surprisingly, he called for the people to be united and avoid both contention and the ploys of schemers: “that all may learn the truth, and have no need of priests to teach them; that all may be well, and have no need of doctors; that all may cease their quarrels, and starve the lawyers.”

Here is Young’s closing paragraph. When the Ensign of Nov. 1971 printed the proclamation, it omitted the text after “Eternal Father.” The final paragraph, from my vantage, point, captures much of Young’s spirit, his frequent insistence that the Latter-day Saints care for their poor brethren and sisters, his love of singing, and his constant readiness to tell the people what they ought to do next.

I further request, that when the day has been spent in doing good; in dealing your bread, your butter, your beef, your pork, your turkeys, your molasses, and the choicest of all the products of the valleys of the mountains, at your command, to the poor; that you end the day in the same order, and on the same principle that you commenced it; that you eat your supper with singleness of heart, as unto the Lord, after praise and thanksgiving, and songs of rejoicing; remembering that you cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit, and be preparing for celestial glory, while the meanest menial under your charge or control, is in want of the smallest thing which God has given you power to supply; remembering that that menial is dependent on you for its comforts, as you are dependent on your God for your constant support. Retire to your beds early, that you may be refreshed, and rise early again, and so continue until times and seasons are changed; or, finally, I say to you, let the same process be continued from day to day, until you arrive unto one of the days of Kolob (where day is 1000 of our years) the planet nearest unto the habitation of the Eternal Father; and if you do not feel peace and rest to your souls by that time, in the practice of these things, and no one else shall then present himself to offer you better counsel, I will be there, and knowing more, will tell you what you ought to do next.


Roundtable contributions:

David G.: Introduction

Christopher: Brigham Young’s Early Life and Conversion

Ben P: The Succession Crisis

Amanda: “Either a misogynist or proto-feminist”: Women and Polygamy

David G.: Mormon-Indian Relations

SC Taysom: The Mormon Reformation

JJohnson: The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Max: One Family? Race and Mormonism

matt b.: Brigham Young and the Creation of Mormon Doctrine

Robin: Documenting History

Article filed under Biography Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Thanks for taking the time to respond to our several reviews, John. I think you biography is and will continue to be a resounding success in both satisfying a need for a new biography of Brigham Young and in spurring further research. Congratulations and here’s to hoping the completion of this project doesn’t mark the end of your foray into Mormon history/studies.

    Comment by Christopher — November 27, 2012 @ 10:04 am

  2. A great end to a great series on a great book. Here’s to Turner’s next project!

    Comment by Ben P — November 27, 2012 @ 10:27 am

  3. The bio is on my Christmas list and I very mucy look forward to reading it. The roundtable set of reviews and this response have been excellent.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 27, 2012 @ 10:43 am

  4. Thanks for responding, John. I really do think it’s a great biography. And I second Ben on the toast, though our cups may have slightly different fruits of the vine in them.

    Comment by Amanda — November 27, 2012 @ 10:59 am

  5. Yes, John, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I do hope you stay involved in Mormon scholarly circles. And thanks to all who participated in the roundtable–this was a fun experience.

    Comment by David G. — November 27, 2012 @ 11:13 am

  6. How wonderful to have a response posted from the author. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the recently-arrived copy at the local library.

    Comment by Hunter — November 27, 2012 @ 11:14 am

  7. Thanks John. I think I can more fully understand your perspective. And just to make sure it got through, I think you handled this thorny topic very well. Thanks for the exchange.

    Comment by JanieceJ — November 27, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

  8. John, I thought you were very gracious in your response. No book can, will, ever satisfy every reader. I assume that your book, as published, is more or less exactly how you wanted it to be. Now, in hindsight, is there really anything you would’ve handled differently? (Thanks for a great, important book!)

    Comment by Gary Bergera — November 27, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

  9. John, I’m halfway into your book. Well done! This is the most excited I’ve been for a book since RSR and I’m not disappointed! For me, not a brilliant scholar or mind like your reviewers, having a concise, yet thorough and well rounded approach to Brigham has been very instructive. It is expanding my somewhat heavy-sided-Joseph-focused approach to church history. Stick around!

    Comment by n8c — November 27, 2012 @ 3:18 pm

  10. Thanks to all the above for the kind words.

    Gary, an error I most regret is not figuring out the correct date of Brigham Young’s 5 Jan. 1852 discourse on slavery. See the discussion here:

    Otherwise, I can’t say I have any major regrets or second thoughts at this point. I’ll probably feel somewhat different a few years down the road, as future scholarship corrects certain things and illuminates things I only saw as if through a glass darkly.

    Comment by John T. — November 27, 2012 @ 3:52 pm

  11. Mr. Turner, Compared to the historians and scholars who have commented over the course of the reviews of your book, I can at best consider myself merely an enthusiast or aficionado of Mormon history. I did find your book, extremely well-written, thought-provoking and insightful. I actually finished the book, with a higher regard for Brigham than I had previously—your perspective on the impact of the martyrdom and Gentile pressures lead me to cut him more slack than I have done earlier in my unschooled Rush to Judgment. Had Mormon historians been more willing to be forthright in their treatment of Brigham over the past 100 years, those of us with unresolved conflicts about G-d’s oracles might be able to view them with greater equanimity.

    Comment by Roger — November 27, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

  12. Fine conclusion to an outstanding series of posts on an excellent book.

    Comment by Dave — November 28, 2012 @ 9:57 am

  13. “In short, someone should write In Sacred Loneliness: The Sequel.”

    Paging Jeff Johnson!

    Comment by LisaT — November 28, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  14. John, you know what I think of your effort, but let me say it again: fabulous. And thanks to all the JIers who posted. Outstanding.

    Comment by WVS — November 28, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  15. Thanks JI for the roundtable and John for the great book. For me, it stands next to The Politics of American Religious Identity as the best “page-turner” I’ve read in Mormon Studies – new insights and information on virtually every page.

    Comment by Craig M. — November 29, 2012 @ 9:46 am


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