The Succession Crisis in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

By October 18, 2012

[Another installment in the roundtable on John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.]

If the first few chapters of Turner’s excellent biography narrate the foundations of Brigham Young’s Mormon experience, as Christopher outlined Tuesday, then it is the chapters surrounding Young’s assent to the Church’s top position (chapters 4-6) where the pioneer prophet’s dominant image comes into view. The period of succession following Joseph Smith’s death in 1844 used to be one of the dominant topics in Mormon historiography in the 1980s–led by scholarship from D. Michael Quinn, Ronald Esplin, Andrew Ehat, and partly spurred by the Hoffman-forged Joseph Smith III ordination document–but has since faded to the periphery in many ways. Since the topic’s heyday, a general narrative has taken prominence: Joseph Smith left, at least publicly, a very ambiguous plan for what would happen when he was gone, leading to a handful of quasi-legitimate succession claims. Brigham Young, this narrative generally says, gained the largest number of adherents in the wake of this “crisis” due to his Nauvoo ecclesiastical duties, temple activities, and, especially, his sheer will. While there are several problems with this framework–and Rob Jensen outlined some of them here–it is still quite formidable for most purposes, especially when focusing on the leading figures. (Focusing on the average saint during the period is a completely other matter.) Turner’s Brigham Young, along with Terryl Givens and Matt Grow’s Parley P. Pratt, offer important nuance to this narrative and, importantly, extends the analysis by showing the broader ramifications of what went on between 1844 and 1847.

Perhaps the best example of Turner’s departure from past Brigham Young scholarship is his admission that Young recognized, to a certain extent, that his authoritative claims were indeed in doubt, and this tension is poignantly played out in the anxiety Young clearly felt during the period. The Brigham Young that comes through in these chapters is a paradoxical figure that is, on the one hand, confident in his authoritative claims and, on the other, convincing himself of those claims while trying to convince others. Theorists have often pointed out how the position of anxiety and ambiguity often leads to overzealous decisions and an overemphasis on issues that are in actuality in question. (See: election campaigns.) One of Turner’s major theories in the book–that Young learned the lesson from the dissent surrounding Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and utilized a heavy hand ever since–finds its roots in this section. At every step, Young is speaking from a point of uncertainty, and his decisions and actions are dedicated to a single purpose: centralizing power within the Quorum of the Twelve and, later, his position as President of the Church.

Following the institutional history so richly provided by Ron Esplin’s recent work, as well as the Nauvoo theological developments aptly outlined by Samuel Brown, Turner does well to tease out Young’s slow rise to prominence in the years preceding 1844. The increased duties given to the Quorum of the Twelve following their British mission and the theological and ritual expansion Smith offered in 1842-44 created a new church structure that, for the first time, placed the Quorum of the Twelve at the center of the Church’s ecclesiology. While in hindsight these events’ significance seems clear, Turner rightly notes how this was mostly at a private rather than a public level. As a result, Smith’s moves created an insider/outsider discourse that made the Twelve’s succession rights still in question. Young’s authoritative position, then, was clear to him and his immediate confidants, but debatable to the thousands of Saints who had no idea these developments were taking place. Such was the reason for anxiety, and Turner aptly demonstrates the gulf between private and public understanding that Young had to bridge during these tumultuous years.

According to Turner, three goals dominated Young’s actions in the year immediately following Smith’s death, which he saw as central to his succession claims: the completion of the temple, the political autonomy of the kingdom of God, and the spread of plural marriage. The first of those three goals has been well-covered in Mormon historiography (especially in Ehat’s unpublished thesis), and I’ll deal with the second topic shortly, but I want to spend some time on Turner’s take on polygamy. Richard Bushman’s magisterial Rough Stone Rolling, as great as it was, can be legitimately accused of avoiding the topic of polygamy. (Though sophisticated, it is problematic to devote only twelve pages to a practice that touched everything in Joseph Smith’s final three years.) Such an accusation cannot be levelled against Turner. Amanda Hendrix-Komoto will likely speak to this more (and more sophisticatedly) in her contribution to this roundtable, but I must emphasize how impressed I was with how Turner dealt with such a tricky subject. The expansion of polygamy during these years was part and parcel with Young’s succession claims: he saw the spread of plural marriage as both the hallmark of Joseph Smith’s legacy he was meant to continue, but also a way to build interconnected webs designed to buttress his expanding kingdom. This sacerdotal kingdom, to use the apt phrase of Sam Brown, was the object and result of both polygamy and adoption, and the central hinge upon which Young’s authority pivoted. Such ideas have floated around in Mormon history, but have never been presented in such a sophisticated way as here in Turner’s biography.

But Young did not have much time to focus on working out the details of plural marriage or temple ordinances (though he certainly dedicated as much time to these causes as he could). Rather, with the assumption of authority came an increase in temporal responsibility–something the Twelve’s duties in the early years of Nauvoo certainly prepared him for, but in no way were equal to. Leading a church that was under fire both from within and without caused numerous problems, and Young was forced to confront both legal and extralegal threats, eventually leading to the Church’s migration west. While Turner’s handling of what went on in Nauvoo is tremendous–his ability to juggle numerous topics from money counterfeiting to legislature disputes to vagrant crimes is commendable–I wonder if he too often lost sight of what Young was forced to do outside of Nauvoo; namely, how he handled the tremendously large and ever-growing number of Saints found in the eastern states as well as Great Britain. Givens and Grow’s recent work on Parley Pratt showed how successful the Twelve were at reclaiming the commitment of many away from Mormonism’s epicenter through their handling of the press and networks. While these people are not the center of Young’s life, I was left wondering how Young saw, handled, and, eventually, won the large number of Mormons who had no experience with Young’s leadership. But this is an obviously small quibble, and should not be pushed too far.

What I found powerful in this section–and, at times, wished Turner could have expanded on–was the larger ramifications of the decisions made during the succession period. Beyond Young’s leadership style of constantly being wary of dissent and schism, which again should be recognized as one of Turner’s major theses in the biography, Mormonism’s treatment of blacks and women are also deeply affected by what went on while Young battled Rigdon and Strang. Turner does an excellent job in pointing out the broad ramifications of specific policy shifts–ramifications that last for a long time after the 1840s, including some that last until today. As dynamic and fluid these events were, their repercussions proved solid and foundational.

Another virtue of Turner’s treatment is how he continues the anxiety over succesion even after Young leaves Nauvoo and starts the journey west. Unlike Arrington before, this biography shows that the debates over succession are still at the forefront while moving across Iowa and stationed in Winter Quarters. The continued pestering of Strangites, the new dissentions amongst his closest followers, and the quixotic encounter with William McCary (which deserves special attention, though I’m sure Max Mueller will deal with it in his contribution to this roundtable on race) keep bringing Young’s authority into question and require his position to be reaffirmed. This was not a quick ordeal, but a lasting and dynamic debate with broader significance and for a longer time than previous treatments of the succession have depicted.

The apex of Young’s authoritative zeal came in Winter Quarters, when Young faced opposition from schismatic groups as well as bickering within the Quorum of the Twelve. Young’s rhetoric was especially harsh here, including, at times, the threat of decapitation to those who went too far out of line. (Turner rightly notes that this was, indeed, mostly rhetoric, and when people actually offered their heads(!) he merely told them to repent and all would be well.) But the winter of 1847-48 shows the powerful swing of Young’s leadership and emotions and offered a fitting conclusion to his push for succession authority. After a few months of harsh words and even harsher threats, January 1848 found Young becoming comfortable with his position and confirmed in his position. He had successfully lead a group out to Utah; he had succeeded in convincing the rest of the Quorum of his being elevated to President of the Church; he had seen most schismatic claims fall to the wayside. It was then that he received his only revelation later canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, known colloquially as “The Mind and Will of the Lord.” Importantly, the way Turner narrates this section of the book–especially the end of chapter 6–is indicative of his successful approach throughout the entire text: a keen eye to narrative, a sophisticated use of sources, an unflinching look at the complexities of the situation, and an appreciation for Young’s accomplishments.

Even if there aren’t any extremely novel interpretations added to the field of Mormon succession studies (such shouldn’t be the focus of a project like this, after all), and even if Turner’s larger argument of how these debates reveal antebellum America’s deep tensions of religious authenticity (a provocative and, I think, true theory that never received enough attention to be successful), Turner’s story succeeds in adding nuance and presenting the entire saga in a responsible and readable way. For that, it should be looked at as an important reference for the topic.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Succession Crisis


  1. If nothing else, it should help us see that succession was not the clear cut thing we’ve been told it was. In fact, it seems to me that presidential succession continued to be a challenge for the church through the remainder of the 19th century.

    Comment by Aaron — October 18, 2012 @ 7:17 am

  2. Nicely done, Ben. Thanks!

    Comment by Christopher — October 18, 2012 @ 9:46 am

  3. Agreed that this was a very strong section. One of the things from Julie’s review that threw me for a loop was her critique of the term “chief priest.” I thought Turners use of that term and discussion surrounding it, was one of the best contributions of the book. This idea of a priestly role and Young’s primacy both liturgically and cosmologically are key, as you have outlined.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 18, 2012 @ 10:13 am

  4. Thanks, Ben. I look forward to seeing what you and Robin produce.

    Agreed with Stapley on Julie’s critique of the “chief priest” language. I suspect that if one reads Turner’s language as reflecting New Testament usage, then yes, it could be seen as negative. But if read as simply a reference to Young as the head of the temple complex, which is how I think Turner intended it, then it puts into perspective a key aspect of Young’s succession claims–that the 12 held the keys to administer temple rites.

    Comment by David G. — October 18, 2012 @ 10:37 am

  5. While reading Turner’s treatment of the succession question, I spent a lot of time in D. Anderson’s book “The Nauvoo Endowment Companies.” I asked myself why dissension did not completely undo the Church at at time? In my opinion things were much worse than Kirtland or Missouri as far as dissidents and confusion were concerned. So what held things together? Of course many variables contributed to the preservation of the Church but I don’t think we can overemphasize the important role the Temple and its attendant blessings had on both Brigham and the Saints. Surely the theological notions embedded in the Temple ritual helped them to see things in “terms of yesterday and today.” The Temple helps us transcend the temporal and approach eternity so that “even though we might settle for less, Heavenly Father won’t, for He sees us as the glorious beings we are capable of becoming.” (Wirthlin 2007) And the Saints received those ideas under the direction and hands of Brigham Young. They received those blessings in conjunction with singing, dancing, music, speaking in tongues, and feasting. I think both the power in the Temple and Brigham’s authority in the Q12 bound the Saints to him by by virtue of the priesthood and because of love.

    Some may consider this frothy emotional appeal, but I think when we situate the succession question within the context of Brigham’s focus on continuing polygamy, Temple ritual, 2nd Anointing, and adoption we can make a fairly simple case for the powers of the priesthood being the number one reason for Brigham’s success.

    Comment by Sione — October 18, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

  6. Good insight, I likewise thought the positioning of Brigham Young as a chief priest figure holding the keys to temple ordinances helps explain how he navigated the succession crisis.

    Are you sure you have the dates right in the second to last paragraph? I think you are referring to the meetings at Winter Quarters after BY had returned from Utah when he re-established the First Presidency, strategically isolating opposition of Orson Pratt with Parley not present. That would have been January 1848 and the prior reference should probably be “winter 1847-48”. Another fascinating discussion in the book that was new to me.

    Comment by warno — October 19, 2012 @ 1:59 am

  7. Warno: thanks for the correction. I’ll blame this on writing that paragraph around 2am…

    Comment by Ben P — October 19, 2012 @ 10:09 am

  8. Nice work, Ben.

    Comment by Ryan T. — October 19, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

  9. […] talked about that here). This builds on the anxiety that Ben noted during the succession crisis (here), further offering nuance and complexity to the image of an arrogant and confident Lion of the […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Mountain Meadows Massacre in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet — November 8, 2012 @ 11:19 am


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