Brigham Young biographer lecture brings surprises

 

Editor’s Note: The following piece is an opinion article written by ABP staff writer, Jordan Monson. The article describes an event held at Utah State University through the eyes of a student and lecture participant.

By Jordan Monson

Staff writer

“It doesn’t actually require any courage to speak about Mormons in Alabama.  No one knows anything about them.”

The crowd chuckles, but I can see my own apprehension mirrored in several faces.  The words running through my mind: “Mountain meadow massacre. Fifty-five wives and three gazillion children.”

I am sitting in a public lecture in Old Main about Brigham Young taught by John G. Turner, only one of Young’s many biographers. The only surprise is that Turner is not a Mormon himself. He’s a history professor at the University of South Alabama.

It’s easy to see why I’m worried.  If I were to pick a poster child for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints it would not be Brigham Young.  He is revered in Mormon culture as a prophet of God and, as a Mormon, I believe that to be true.  But I know that he was far from perfect.  I bite my lip and wait for the jab to my heritage.  But it doesn’t come.  Turner talks for about forty minutes, and I can tell he knows his stuff.  He knows a lot more than me — more than anyone in the room. He has spent years researching Young’s life, and can answer any question from the crowd without even scrunching his eyebrows.

He talks about Young’s mission to Manchester, England where he preached the gospel, miraculously spoke in tongues, and gathered massive groups of converts.  At this point in his life, Young was “winsome” and “full of spiritual fire” in Turners words.  Then Turner contrasts this Brigham Young with the Brigham Young of the Salt Lake Valley years later: a man fiercely determined to stamp out dissention and keep outsiders away from the final stopping point of the saints. A man who, with the tense atmosphere he created, may have unintentionally condemned 120 people to death in the Mountain Meadow Massacre.  It’s the same man, Turner points out,  “So what happened?” What happened between Manchester and Salt Lake that impacted his character so drastically?  “Unimaginable horrors” he said.

My attention was then instantly grasped. Turner goes on to talk about the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the first modern prophet of the LDS church, and about when mobs burned down the temple in Nauvoo that the Saints had been working endlessly to complete.  Turner said that these events shaped much of Brigham Young’s temperament.

“Young was a devoted follower of Joseph Smith,” said Turner. “After his murder (he) was determined to protect the church against the men who took his life.”

Young became paranoid about assassinations, and was defensive when dealing with the U.S. government, who had not done anything to protect the first prophet or the temples.  This is something I have not considered before, that maybe some of Young’s questionable actions could be traced back to the trauma of the Saints before they made the trek to Utah.  I’m learned something new, and even better, I didn’t feel a rush of guilt, shame, or uncertainty about my religion. This is awesome!

After the lecture, Turner asked for questions and talked a bit about the process he went through to write his book, “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.”  One student asked Turner about his experience gaining access to the Church Archives in Salt Lake. Turner says that the Mormons working in the archives were very helpful, and were able to get him 98% of everything he wanted to see.

“I didn’t promise what kind of portrait I would paint,” he said, “but I wasn’t asked to.”

I raised my hand and timidly asked what kind of reception he’s had here in Utah since the book was published.

“Well I only got here late last night” he said with a smile.  Oh yeah, I thought, smiling but feeling kind of stupid.  But he went on, saving me from embarrassment, “So far you all seem like nice people. One does get angry emails, but on the whole it’s been very positive”.

I walked out of the lecture feeling good.  As a non-Mormon, Turner managed to give an unbiased look at one of the greatest prophets in LDS history, and focused more on his intriguing character than on the actions he did or did not sanction.  In a situation where many people might have seized on Young’s flaws as an opportunity to bash the LDS faith, Turner has painted an objective portrait of all the man’s facets, good and bad, and I was impressed.

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