Book Review

John G. Turner, Brigham Young Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge: Harvard Press, 2012)

One area I enjoy studying is American religion. If like me, you are a fan of Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling then I want to recommend the book Brigham Young Pioneer Prophet by John Turner. Turner is a Religious Studies professor at George Mason University and has written an intriguing and insightful book on the Lion of the Lord. Young, who the Smithsonian has listed as America’s second most important religious leader, is a truly remarkable man no matter your religious beliefs. In this hefty 499-page volume, Turner chronicles Young’s life from his early days to his young adulthood as a Primitive Methodist searching for religious truth. Once introduced to the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, Young became Smith’s biggest defender and most faithful follower. Young sacrificed much in his life to follow the man he considered a prophet, from missionary service in three nations to the ill-fated Zion’s Camp march to redeem the Saints in Missouri. 

The narrative spends a great deal of time covering Young’s biggest sacrifice, that was having to accept the principle of plural wives, yet when Young finally does accept it he will become its biggest defender. For me where the real value picks up is where Bushman leaves off at Joseph’s death. Turner chronicles the divisions in the young faith after Joseph’s assassination and how Young was able to not only take charge but eventually lead the majority of the Saints to Utah. Today most members see the mantle of the prophet as easily going to the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, as it does today, but that was not the case with Young.  Joseph had not left instructions for a successor and Young had to convince the Saints to follow him. Turner puts a great deal of Young’s claim to leadership on his knowledge of temple ordinances. Unlike Sydney Rigdon, Joseph’s second in command, Young had been officiating in the temple and made the temple the basis for his authority. Though started under Smith, it was under Young that the saints really became temple going people.

Turner spends the rest of his work detailing Young’s leadership from Nauvoo to Utah and his growing power once there. He ran Utah as a theocracy, doing all in his power to keep gentiles out who might threaten his Kingdom of God. Like with Bushman, Turner does not hide the warts with Young. He was far from a perfect man and at times could be very heavy handed. Unlike many academics, Turner’s treatment of Young is completely fair in his details. I was especially impressed with his treatment of Mountain Meadows. Turner does not place the blame at Young’s feet, as most non-Mormons tend to do, but he does fault him for the aftermath. I especially found his twilight years interesting as Turner describes Young trying to set up communal leaving in small towns across Utah. He had seen the worst of capitalism and hoped by embracing more communal living that all could live equally and not need outside capital from gentile investors.

My favorite aspect of Turner’s book, like Bushman’s, is that the events do not happen in a vacuum.  The events of Young’s life and that of Mormonism were presented along with the history of the American people and time.  He discusses Mormon theology next to more traditional Protestant beliefs and also puts Mormon struggles in context of American history.  As someone who does the same with my own writing, I found his book informative and entertaining.  This is not a light read, but for anyone interested in Religious history I highly recommend this book  

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