[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3] This last post covers Chapters 9 through 13 of John G. Turner's excellent Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Harvard Univ. Press, 2012). This section of the book covers events from the Mormon Reformation, the Utah War, and Mountain Meadows in 1857 through the completion of the St. George Temple and Brigham's death in 1877. Those are twenty eventful years.
Chapters 9 and 10 start with the Mormon Reformation of 1856/57. Here's Turner's account of a typical sermon:
In mid-September 1856, Young delivered a fiery sermon in Salt Lake City, forcefully condemning a multitude of sins, ranging from adultery to dishonesty to a failure to tithe. Mincing no words, he complained that some Saints kept their "brains ... below their waistbands." He warned that the "whole people will be corrupted if we do not lop off those rotten branches." At the same time, he held out the prospect of forgiveness and spiritual empowerment, calling on the repentant to repeat their baptisms and "receive the Holy Ghost and then live in it continually." Sinners could choose between repentance and flight. Otherwise, they deserved excommunication and possibly death. (p. 255.)
That sort of preaching was carried around the territory, and was often amplified by Brigham's associates such as Jedediah Grant and George A. Smith, particularly it appears in southern Utah. It is argued by some that this sort of religious rhetoric — plus the siege mentality that emerged once credible reports that a large body of federal troops were headed for Utah for purposes unknown — laid the foundation for the tragedy of Mountain Meadows. You should read the book and form your own opinion on that issue. Turner discusses Will Bagley's contention that "Young sent George A. Smith to southern Utah in August 1857 to set in motion the destruction of the Fancher-Baker train" (p. 279). But Turner himself concludes, "There is no satisfactory evidence that Young ordered the massacre; the most straightforward reading of Young's letter to Haight is exculpatory" (p. 280). Turner continues, "Given his political objective of keeping the army away from Mormon settlements, moreover, there was no good reason for Young to order a massacre with the potential to focus the full fury of the American government on Utah" (p. 280).
The troops did arrive, led by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston. Ironically, Johnston himself died a rebel against the United States only five years later in 1862, at Shiloh. Through good fortune, the diplomatic assistance of Thomas L. Kane, and the moderate course of newly appointed territorial governor Alfred P. Cumming who accompanied the troops, Brigham managed to get through the crisis without ever fighting the US Army and without any destruction being visited on Utah towns or property. The troops camped near Salt Lake City until 1861, when they headed back east to assist the federal government with more pressing matters.
Those two chapters are really the peak of the narrative; the remaining three chapter are something of a denouement. Chapter 11, "Let Him Alone," reviews Utah's non-involvement in the Civil War, one of the big disconnects between LDS history and US history. Oddly, the war propelled Mark Twain to the West and a visit to Utah, where he and his group met Brigham Young. Twain's Roughing It presents a fanciful account of that meeting, in which, after spirited conversation with Twain's brother, Brigham "put his hand on my head, beamed down on me in an admiring way and said to my brother: 'Ah — your child I presume? Boy or girl?'" (p. 301.) He was a very funny man (Twain, not Young). More striking is the account earlier in the book where Twain recalls encountering a large company of Mormons trekking across the plains ‐ tired, dirty, on foot yet pressing on. Twain himself made the trip by stagecoach. It was actually the Mormons who were roughing it.
The last two chapters, Chapter 12 and Chapter 13, show Brigham continuing to push forward with his various projects, even as his health began to fail. One that never really panned out was economic self-sufficiency. The completion of the cross-continental railroad buried the project for good. Brigham made a last-ditch push for communal (even communitarian, but not communistic) economies during the 1870s, but response from the membership was only lukewarm at best. Turner politely notes Wallace Stegner's nice comments about the Orderville commune from his book Mormon Country (p. 400).
A project that did work out and continues to be a central part of Mormonism in the 21st century was temple building. While the Salt Lake Temple was not completed until the 1890s, Brigham dedicated the completed St. George Temple in early 1877. It was the first completed post-Nauvoo temple. Turner makes scattered comments about LDS temples and temple ordinances throughout the book; collectively they emphasize the role Brigham played in developing the LDS temple liturgy. Turner notes regarding the resumption of temple ordinances in December 1845, "Neither Joseph Smith nor his clerks had recorded the ceremony, and it remained an unwritten rite for several decades. In the Nauvoo Temple, Young expanded and revised what he had learned from Smith." (p. 128.) Regarding the resumption of temple rituals in the St. George Temple, Turner writes: "Befitting a church that accepted and expected ongoing revelation, there was always a belief that church leaders could revise sacred rituals in keeping with increased understanding. Accordingly, Young spent the next two months attempting to perfect the endowment ceremony." (p. 403.) So it would appear the temple experience modern Latter-day Saints are familiar with owes as much to Brigham Young's inspired enhancements as to Joseph's inspired adoption and editing of Freemasonry's rituals.
One item worth noting is the almost complete absence of John Taylor from the narrative. He was not in Brigham's inner circle. He played little or no role in setting policy or making decisions during Brigham's tenure. Taylor proved as tenacious as Brigham when it came to defending the practice of plural marriage and resisting federal pleas for the Mormons to normalize, but the changing of the guard from Young to Taylor was no smooth transition. I'd like to find a good discussion of that issue.
So let's conclude this series. The decades following the death of Brigham saw huge changes come to mainstream Mormonism, in particular the end of polygamy and the end of animosity between the Church and the federal government. But the events covered in the book in which Brigham played a central role — the mission to England, the fall of Nauvoo and the trek across the plains, the successful establishment of a growing Mormon colony in Utah, the public practice of polygamy, avoiding open warfare with the US Army in 1857, persevering with new temple construction despite limited resources and endless distractions — were the heart of 19th-century Mormonism. Turner gives a balanced if candid portrayal of Brigham, one that mainstream Mormons should be able to read without serious difficulties. I believe this book will stand as the definitive biography of Brigham Young for a generation, as did Leonard Arrington's American Moses, published in 1985.