[Part 1] This post covers Chapter 2 through 4 of John G. Turner's Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Harvard Univ. Press, 2012). Topics covered in this fast-paced section of the book are Brigham's early preaching as an LDS missionary, his call to the Twelve and mission to England, followed by his return to Nauvoo and initiation into polygamy as practiced under Joseph Smith.
Brigham Young was a down-to-earth sort of fellow. He trained as a craftsman, not a minister. He was as interested in religion as the average American of his day, but nothing really prepared him for the life of an intinerant Mormon preacher, which was essentially what he became upon joining the LDS Church in 1832. Turner perceptively links the LDS practice with the Methodists, except that Methodists sent out intinerants who were, to some degree, trained for the job, whereas Mormons sent out anyone who would accept the call, largely untrained and generally uneducated.
My sense is that Mormons learned on the job. It was, you might say, hands on training for a preaching ministry. As training, it was not systematic, but it was relatively effective. Those with a knack for preaching picked up skills, learned scripture texts to use, and found ways to connect with their audience of folks much like themselves. Over time, Brigham became an effective preacher and leader by jumping into preaching and leadership. It was the Mormon way. It still is: we don't train our missionaries, we don't train our bishops, we don't train our General Authorities. It's amazing the Church functions at all, much less with the fair degree of organizational effectiveness it generally musters for the many ambitious tasks it undertakes.
[Quick note to those under 30: Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both practiced polygamy and had a couple of dozen wives each. If this is disturbing news to you, click here for a friendly introduction to the topic and come back after you have upgraded.]
Chapter 4, "New and Everlasting Covenant," is where it starts to get interesting. Turner spends several pages reviewing the practices and doctrines introduced at Nauvoo by Joseph Smith, including plural marriage. Like others, Brigham Young came to accept the doctrine, and soon became an enthusiastic practitioner. His first plural wife was Lucy Ann Decker, sealed to Brigham on June 14, 1842 (she was 20). About three dozen more were added before Brigham departed Nauvoo for the West in February 1846. That much many Mormons are aware of. It's the unfiltered details that Turner provides that some may find troubling:
- "At the time she became Young's first plural wife, Lucy Ann Decker was already the wife of William Seely, whom she had married at around the age of fourteen" (p. 94).
- "It is also uncertain when Mary Ann Young [Brigham's existing first wife] learned of her husband's entrance into plural marriage. Early plural marriages — such as many of Joseph Smith's as well as Heber Kimball's first polygamous sealing — often took place without the consent of the first wife" (p. 94).
- "Young's early plural marriage proposals apparently did not disrupt his own domestic life; however, the spreading practice of polygamy contributed to ecclesiastical turmoil with the church" (p. 96).
- "Orson Pratt alleged that Smith had proposed to his wife, and Smith had married Marinda Hyde while her husband, the apostle Orson Hyde, served a mission to Palestine" (p. 98).
And so forth. Turner is not unfair to the LDS practice or to Brigham. He notes, "Much like the seventeenth-century Puritans, the Mormons strictly confined sexuality within marriage but affirmed it vitality within such confines. Mormon polygamists extended such reasoning to plural unions." (p. 96.) Turner also discussed the theological context in which LDS plural marriage was practiced:
Whether Smith was motivated by religious obedience or pursued sexual dalliances clothed with divine sanction cannot be fully resolved through historical analysis. In Nauvoo, he gradually and carefully revealed an elaborate theological edifice surrounding plural marriage. In keeping with church teachings on baptism, Smith insisted that only marriages eternally sealed through the church would bind couples in heaven. ... Smith envisioned the creation of a great chain of humanity, with kinship ties cemented by rituals of sealing that God was obligated to honor. Celestial marriage then connected these families together, leading to the creation of ecclesiastical and familial kingdoms that would persist into eternity. Smith's logic created a strong incentive for male church leaders to take additional wives. (p. 89.)
The idea that polygamy created turmoil with the Church becomes clearer in later chapters. Commentary on the topic of polygamy generally focuses on the personal motivations or difficulties of the participants on a personal level. There isn't as much discussion about the difficulties it caused the Church as a whole, starting in Nauvoo and extending pretty much to the present day. It's surprising the Church was able to survive this self-inflicted wound, much less hang together as an organized body of believers as Brigham in 1846 led the Saints across Iowa, then in 1847 across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the Great Basin. Stay tuned.