Latter-day Saints imagine Brigham Young as a commanding theocrat, who mobilized a discouraged and beleaguered people after the death of their founding prophet, who led them on an epic exodus across the plains to what they hoped would be a Zion. in the West, who fought a hostile government and whose fingerprint was on every move – from their arrival in the Great Basin to his death in 1877.
This image of the “Lion of the Lord”, as he was called, sits atop monuments, stands on statues and adorns a university that bears his name.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which today has 16 million members, believers know little of the many facets of Young – tender, stubborn, strong-willed, racist, but deeply religious with a great love for the temple.
They also fail to fully grasp the fact that even as a fledgling faith, Mormonism was already becoming a worldwide religion – with missionaries slaughtering converts from Scandinavia to South Africa, from New Zealand to Samoa and many places in between.
The new book “Saints 1846-1893: No Unhallowed Hand,” the second book to appear in the church’s four-volume official history, aims to provide a clearer and more complex view of its past and its characters, including Young.
The first volume, “Saints 1815-1846: The Standard of Truth”, was published in September 2018 and has sold over 500,000 copies worldwide. Another million have read it online, where the second book is also available.
“What we wanted to do with ‘Saints’ was write a story that would be completely accurate, that would incorporate the latest and most up-to-date research, but that would also be very, very readable and with an audience not [just] educated Latter-day Saints or those who were genuinely interested in their history,” says Matthew Grow, managing director of the church’s history department. “But anyone should be able to engage with these books.”
The goal was to “tell the story as it was and show people’s lives as they were with all the complications, strains and hardships that life entails,” Grow says on the latest podcast. Mormon Land” from the Salt Lake Tribune, “but also all the triumphs and really positive things too.
For James Goldberg, a Utah-based writer, “Saints” represents “a seismic shift in how Latter-day Saints approach our history.”
Goldberg, who contributed to the writing of this volume and helped craft the accompanying world histories, sees three eras of Latter-day Saint historical writing.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mormon history was “mainly passed down through oral tradition,” he says. “People who had participated in the fundamental experiments simply told their stories, and others told those stories in turn.”
With the rise of 20th century mass communication technologies like radio, television and film, says Goldberg, “we began to pack[ing] the story more and more for these media. … The writers compressed history into a simple heroic arc with leaders like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young acting not only as historical figures but also as mascots of the Mormon virtues of justice, spirituality, and industry.
The rise of the Internet has reversed this thinking.
“Once people had a way to hear multiple voices, we developed a craving for complexity and authenticity,” he says. “We didn’t believe in (or, quite frankly, cared about) the mascot versions of the early Saints.”
Mormons “got tired of heroes,” says Goldberg. “We wanted real people.
“Saints” is full of them.
One of the supreme tests a new religion faces is whether it can successfully pass the faith on to a second generation.
It was still unknown when Mormon founder Joseph Smith was shot by a mob on June 27, 1844 in Illinois, leaving his gloomy followers bereft and uncertain about the future.
This volume opens on the morning of October 8, 1845, at the church’s General Conference, where thousands of people gathered on the first floor of the still unfinished Nauvoo Temple.
The room fell silent as the founder’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, took to the podium and, the book says, “spoke with power beyond her feeble 70-year-old body.”
The volume details how the Saints arrived in Utah, how they built Salt Lake City and eventually a state, while establishing outposts in the Pacific, Europe, and Mexico.
“That’s one of the main differences between this volume and the first volume: as the LDS Church grows, the story expands into different cultures, trying to tell a story of what that faith meant in different places,” says Goldberg. “These books do their best to introduce you to a wide range of people, to allow you to connect with their varied experiences and voices.”
There are more stories about women, American Indians, immigrants, slaves, and non-Americans.
There are polygamy raids and trials, broken marriages and secret letters, but also seances and dissenters (some who started the Mormon Tribune-cum-Salt Lake Tribune). It also sees the first attempt to end polygamy, with the so-called Manifesto of 1890.
“Instead of treating the early Saints as mascots of our current values, ‘Saints’ invites us to see our history as a giant laboratory of discipleship,” he says. “People try different things. Sometimes good things happen. Sometimes things get out of control and people who want to be good end up doing something terrible.
Consider the story of Susa Young Gates, one of Brigham Young’s many children, who pops in and out of the overall narrative.
Susie, as she was called, had an unhappy marriage to Alma Dunford. He was physically abusive and had a drinking problem (yes, the Word of Wisdom was not fully enshrined as the faith’s health code at the time).
She would divorce but lose custody of her daughter Leah to her ex-husband. She then married Jacob Gates and gave birth to 11 children, only four of whom lived to adulthood. She was the first editor of the Young Woman’s Journal and became a prominent suffragist.
Gates rebuilt a new and enjoyable life, Goldberg says, “on the rubble of the life she thought she had.”
Readers will learn about the prominent people they think they know, says Angela Hallstrom, a writer in the history department and the series’ literary editor, on “Mormon Land.”
Joseph F. Smith, who became the sixth “prophet, seer, and revelator” of the faith, she said, is “presented as a young man who suffers in many ways after the death of his mother.”
Her father, Hyrum Smith, brother of church founder Joseph Smith, she says, was “martyred” years earlier.
Joseph F. Smith was sent to Hawaii on a mission “as a very, very young man,” Hallstrom says. “We see him grow”
The author also mentions Latter-day Saint general authority BH Roberts’ response to the Manifesto.
“He was very troubled,” she said. “He learned it on a train. He saw someone with a newspaper article and read it…[Roberts] was traveling with apostles at the time and some of them were a bit more aware.
The volume also touches on some of the most controversial episodes in the faith’s history: the origins of the church’s priesthood/temple ban on black members, the horrific massacre of 120 men, women and children known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, and the Saints’ role in the pressures that led to the Bear River Massacre.
“The hardest questions in our history are not whether this or that historical claim is true,” says Goldberg. “The hardest question is how people driven by deep spiritual experience are so blinded by the moment over and over again.”
Even modern-day Mormons, he says, “have to ask themselves this question.”
The racial divide
“Saints” sandwiches the origins of the temple/priesthood ban between a story about Hawaiian convert Jonathan Napela and William Walker’s missionary service in Cape Town, South Africa.
It was 1852 and the Utah legislature was debating the issue of slavery in the territory.
Young did not want slavery to become widespread in the region, the book recounts, “but several Saints from the southern United States had already brought slaves into the territory.”
The Latter-day Saint prophet may have opposed slavery, but he shared the view held by most Americans that “blacks were made for bondage.”
In an address to lawmakers, Young “declared publicly for the first time that people of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood,” the book states. “Brigham echoed a widespread but misguided idea that God had cursed people of African descent.”
Apostle Orson Pratt took the opposite position.
“Shall we then take the innocent African who has committed no sin,” he asks, “and condemn him to slavery and servitude without receiving any authority from heaven to do so?”
Meanwhile, in South Africa, Mormon missionaries “focused their efforts primarily on the white townspeople.”
Unlike some previous official stories, says Grow, “Saints” shows the human side of church leaders.
Young is a “misunderstood figure in many ways,” says Grow on “Mormon Land.” “People see him as a very pragmatic leader, who was hard to like at times for the way he led people.”
There are elements of truth in all of this, he says. “But the Saints loved Brigham Young. And you have to understand why they loved him.
The first volume of “Saints” ends with the construction of the Nauvoo Temple. It ends with the completion of the iconic Salt Lake Temple in 1893, as if to say: Mormonism not only transmitted the faith to the second generation; it was here to stay.