Brigham Young was a dominant figure in the history of the American West, and arguably the most controversial. Revered as a prophet by Latter-day Saints, as the “American Moses” raised up by the Lord to preside over their forced exodus from the Rocky Mountains and their establishment of a “Great Basin Kingdom,” he was also totally reviled by critics. , from his time until today.
Thus, writing a serious biography of Brigham Young inevitably involves addressing topics that have long been debated, often passionately. Fortunately, Thomas Alexander, Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Emeritus Professor of Western History at Brigham Young University and former director of BYU’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, is extraordinarily well qualified for the task.
He is the author of nearly 30 books on the history of Western and Latter-day Saints, including “Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930” (1986), “Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet” (1991), and “Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History” (1995). His historical writings have received numerous awards and his peers have elected him, among other things, president of the Mormon History Association; the Pacific Branch of the American Historical Association; the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters; the Utah Association of Historians; Phi Alpha Theta, the National History Honor Society; and the sons of Utah pioneers.
Now, as a volume in the University of Oklahoma Press’s Oklahoma Western Biographies series, Thomas Alexander has published “Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith.” In his preface, he specifically identifies himself as “a believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. (He also explains that his manuscript was too advanced to be changed in light of President Russell M. Nelson’s August 2018 warning about the church’s name.)
Brigham Young is sometimes hard to understand, Alexander says, because his opinions on a number of topics have changed over time. With few exceptions, he has become kinder and more tolerant of others. His compassion – a quality some will resist associating with him – can be surprising.
Critics like to note that he preached a doctrine of “blood atonement” during the Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857. In 1858 and 1859, however, following the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, he preached the need for peace and sent Apostles George A. Smith and Amasa Lyman to expose murder, blood atonement, and theft. goods of the gentiles.
Sometimes accused even today of treason and rebellion, Brigham said in an address at the Tabernacle on May 22, 1859, that although he had been “accused of having great influence” over his people, “he would please God that he had sufficient influence to compel any man who calls himself a saint to do good. Praising the American government, Brigham counseled the Saints “to be faithful and patient and not to judge themselves.” “With the help of the Lord,” he vowed to “lead them to the fountain of light.”
Speaking of the Mountain Meadows horror that was often put at Brigham Young’s feet, Alexander argues that while in retrospect we can see areas where Brigham could have done better, he bore no direct responsibility for them. On the contrary, he was appalled and literally sickened by the news.
Moreover, although Brigham has often been accused of trying to block the prosecution of those who committed the Mountain Meadows atrocity, Alexander argues that such accusations are false. Already in 1858, Brigham ordered brothers Smith and Lyman to try, during their tour of southern Utah, to determine what had really happened, and their fellow apostles Erastus Snow and Charles C. Rich joined to the investigation. In 1859, he sought federal prosecution of offenders, but was blocked by some anti-Mormon federal officials, including the U.S. Marshal and the Territory’s Chief Justice. Why? Because they feared that Brigham would be declared innocent.
Thomas Alexander’s rich portrayal of Brigham Young portrays a complex and talented man who moved in a very difficult environment. During a conversation, Alexander says that he does not know anyone who could have done better and that many would have done much worse. And, though we who watch the arena from the calm exterior can discern errors and flaws, that in no way proves that Brigham Young was not a prophet.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directsMormonScholarsTestify.orgchairsmormoninterpreter.comblog daily on patheos.com/blogs/danpetersonand speaks only for itself.