Juvenile Instructor is grateful for a JI-emeritus writer, Brett Dowdle, for writing this review! Dr. Dowdle is a historian for the Joseph Smith Papers Project and holds a Ph.D. in American History from Texas Christian University.
Review, Thomas G. Alexander, Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).
Despite its immense popularity, few genres of historical writing are more complex than that of biography. Those figures who tend to merit the kind of biographies that will be widely read generally carry with them a host of popular perceptions and myths that either border on demonization or hagiographic adoration. In most cases, the best biographies must ultimately find someplace in the muddy middle, displaying the complexity and humanity of the subject. Thomas Alexander’s recent biography of Brigham Young does an admirable job of finding just such a place for the controversial leader. The result is a highly readable and fast-paced biography that is approachable to both trained historians and the interested public.
While readers from a variety of perspectives are bound to criticize what they view as either Alexander’s harshness or leniency on a variety of issues, Alexander ably demonstrates many of the challenges involved in compiling a biography on Young. Between Leonard Arrington’s Brigham Young, American Moses and John Turner’s Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet, historians already have two very able treatments of Young at their disposal, making it difficult for additional historians to craft a niche in Young’s historiography. While packed with details, Alexander’s treatment of Young moves along at a quicker pace than either of the books by Arrington or Turner, making it an ideal starting place for those unacquainted with Young or those who are simply wanting to find a quick read. This is reflected in Alexander’s lack of notes and a remarkably short twelve-page bibliography. This approach has its drawbacks. Alexander’s treatment of Young prior to the Utah period feels rushed at times, and readers will have to consult other books to get a better understanding of some of the topics Alexander mentions only in passing, such as the Missouri-Mormon War. On the other hand, Alexander’s treatment of these issues demonstrates his mature willingness to refuse to divert his or the reader’s attention away from the subject at hand while discussing topics that have received able treatment from other authors. Further, while the book’s lack of endnotes will frustrate seasoned students of Young who want to dive deeper into Alexander’s research, it helps to move the narrative along quickly. Considering the vastness of the archival collections on Young, Alexander’s ability to narrate Young’s life in this way without getting overwhelmed by the source materials is a remarkable achievement.
Among the important contributions of this biography is Alexander’s demonstration of the continuity that marks Young’s life before and after the 1844 succession. At times historians have struggled to reconcile the charismatic faith that marked Young’s conversion and early experiences as a member with the pragmatism that characterized his prophetic years. While acknowledging that elements like speaking in tongues ceased to be a part of Young’s day to day religious experience, Alexander draws upon Young’s sermons and dreams to demonstrate a continuity in his focus upon a religious experience that was not wholly confined to earthly matters and pragmatic religiosity.
As those familiar with Alexander’s work might suspect, his narrative of Young hits its stride in the Utah chapters. His treatment of Young and the various struggles with federal officials during the 1850s and 1860s is masterful. Alexander’s decades worth of research into these conflicts results in an engaging narrative and some important interpretative conclusions that ought to shape the way historians consider Young in the future. Throughout the book, Alexander make’s clear that while Young was a theocrat striving to build up a religious kingdom that wielded political power, “some historians have overestimated the power Brigham Young held over the Mormon people.” Despite many assertions to the contrary, “Young’s authority extended only as far as those in the community willingly followed his advice,” (p. 104), which was never as frequent as Young hoped.
While the quickness of the narrative perhaps undermines the depth of the treatment, Alexander’s narrative deals with the many complexities of Young’s leadership. In his discussions of pioneering and many aspects of early Utah, Alexander demonstrates Young’s organizational genius. He uses the sermons to show Young’s inclination to both a down-to-earth pragmatic theology, as well as his ability to stretch Latter-day Saint minds and theology in unique—and often disputed—ways. At the same time, Alexander provides an able treatment of Young’s problematic discussions of race, gender, plural marriage, and violence. Alexander makes clear that Young’s words often led to consequences (both intended and unintended) that created deep wounds and lasting in the history of both Utah and the Church—including the bloody vigilantism of the 1850s and the longstanding priesthood restriction. Alexander thus demonstrates the variety of issues that believing Latter-day Saints must struggle with as they seek to understand Young’s prophethood.
Among the most important aspects of this biography is Alexander’s effort to carry the narrative of Young’s life forward past the 1858 conclusion of the Utah War, something that generally presents a perplexing challenge to any biography of Brigham Young. While Young’s life forms a compelling narrative up through the 1858 conclusion of the Utah War, most historians have tended to struggle with the ability to maintain interest in Young’s post gubernatorial life. Admittedly Young’s power and influence dramatically decrease along with his health in the years following the Utah War, and especially after 1870. However, Alexander reminds readers that there is still much of interest in Young’s waning years. His treatment of the conflicts with Patrick Edward Connor, the Black Hawk War, the Godbeites reminds readers why Americans continued to find Young to be a compelling figure until and beyond his death in 1877.
Considering the complexity of Young’s life and the vastness of the archival source materials on him, it is unlikely that any treatment of his life will ever merit the distinction of being “the definitive biography of Brigham Young.” Any effort to ever begin to approach any real understanding of Young will require interested students of the man to consult multiple biographies. Because of Alexander’s deep understanding of the Utah period and his ability to consider both points and counterpoints on Young, his book will find an important place among those books that must be carefully considered.