The Mormon Reformation in Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

By November 5, 2012

The Mormon Reformation is a period in LDS History that has long been of interest to scholars working in the field. Paul Peterson, Leonard Arrington, Thomas Alexander, D. Michael Quinn, Will Bagley, Paul Peterson, and others have all written about the reformation and have grappled with its cause(s) and meaning(s). In the interest of full disclosure, a chapter from my recent book Shakers, Mormons and Religious Worlds (Indiana University Press 2011) also addresses the subject of the Mormon reformation. John Turner takes a turn as well in his new biography of Brigham Young. Turner’s material on the reformation represents a fine synthesis of some of the most recent work on the subject, and as such it has value beyond the descriptive function.

Turner, drawing on my own work, argues that the reformation was, at least in part, a “spiritual crisis created by Young and Jedediah Grant,” rather than a response to new or particularly severe religious declension (264). Turner goes well beyond my own arguments in some intriguing and helpful ways. In fact, Turner makes the astute observation that Young’s early reformation rhetoric might very well have “become one of his many jeremiads save for the corresponding efforts of Jedediah Grant” (255). Turner covers all of the familiar topography: the harsh sermons, the suspension of the sacrament, the process of catechesis and rebaptism, increased plural marriages, the public confessions, and the thorny issue of blood atonement. All of these subjects are treated with remarkable efficiency, and Turner’s conclusions are generally moderate and mainstream. He manages to dig up a few new sermonic gems from the reformation, something that I had believed to be impossible. I am particularly fond of his citation of a sermon in which Young accused the Mormons of keeping “their brains below their waistbands” (254).

Turner carefully, if briefly, examines the range of effects that the reformation’s rituals and rhetoric had on the Mormon faithful. He pays special attention to the link between reformation rhetoric and violence in Utah in the mid-1850s. Turner observes that Young’s “blood atonement” rhetoric was not “spontaneous hyperbole” but rather an issue of long-standing (at least ten years) interest to Young (258). This is an important point for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it demonstrates that the reformation did not spawn blood atonement rhetoric, but it did bring into public discourse in a way that led to decidedly horrifying actions. Particularly disturbing is the case of Thomas Lewis, a young Welsh convert living in Manti, Utah, who had been arrested for assault, who was castrated in October 1856 while in custody. Lewis’s mother wrote to Young seeking an explanation and received instead Young’s rather philosophical view that he would rather see a child dead than guilty of such horrendous crimes. Although somewhat murky, it seems as if the local bishop had a hand in orchestrating the castration. Turner also discusses a similar, and more famous, case of the Potter-Parrish murders that occurred in Springville, Utah. This crime, which claimed the lives of three individuals, was also apparently planned and approved at the ward level. Young denied any knowledge of the plans in both cases, but seemed less than shattered by the bloodshed. Violence incubated by reformation rhetoric, ordered by local church authorities, and tacitly approved of by Young thus foreshadowed, in miniature, the horror of Mountain Meadows. I was somewhat surprised that Turner did not underscore this point more forcefully, but it remains an obvious implication nonetheless.

Not all of the results of the reformation were as ghastly as the Lewis and the Potter-Parish cases. Tuner points out that, for many, the reformation resulted in genuine, and sometimes very dramatic, spiritual experiences. Waves of charismatic manifestations, including glossolalia and heavenly visions, were experienced in Manti. Turner describes these as “spiritual ecstasy of the kind that Young had often experienced in Kirtland” (263). This is an interesting point, and one that needs further exploration. Is it possible that the reformation was, at least to a degree, a response to Young’s feeling that the drama of the Kirtland era had passed? The possibility is an intriguing one and suggests the possibility of future work dealing with the collective memory of spiritual experience in Mormon history.

There are a couple of issues that I think are less well handled than the rest of the reformation material. Turner makes a link between American vigilantism and the blood-atonement attacks, but does not develop the point. Less successful is Turner’s attempt to use the reformation as a vehicle to highlight the infamous careers of Porter Rockwell and Bill Hickman. Rockwell and Hickman are best understood as exemplars of a certain type of frontier figure rather than as windows into the particular events of the reformation.

Turner’s treatment of the Mormon reformation is very much like the rest of his book: densely packed, demonstrating a mastery of primary and secondary sources leaning more heavily toward synthesis, and hinting at tantalizing avenues of interpretation that he apparently lacked the space to pursue. In many ways, the most lamentable thing about the book is the lack of depth that is the result of a publishing world that is pushing for ever-briefer books. Given the limitations imposed by his publisher, Turner shows a marked gift for both historiographical summary and interpretive insight.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. thanks for the insights, Taysom. I particularly found the spiritual upside of the reformation to be particularly interesting. I know Peterson gets on that a little, but the reformation is typically cast is such dire light (and understandably so), that it is easy to overlook that bit.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 5, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

  2. I agree. I think it was a real strength of this chapter, and he shared material that I had never encountered before

    Comment by SC Taysom — November 5, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

  3. Thanks, Taysom. I was anxious to hear your thoughts on this, and appreciate your review.

    Comment by Christopher — November 6, 2012 @ 9:06 am

  4. Taysom, thanks for this. Have you had any serious pushback on your Reformation thesis?

    Comment by David G. — November 6, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

  5. Thanks guys. David, the reformation chapter is by far the most divisive of anything in the book. The reviews reflect this division. Some of the scholars think it’s great others think it pushes too far and ignores too much. If I were to write the book today, I would probably nuance the argument a little, but not much. I think it has served to further the conversation, and I am proud of that.

    Comment by SC Taysom — November 6, 2012 @ 5:50 pm


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