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How do you write the biography of Brigham Young?

Brigham Young, governor of the Utah Territory and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Library of Congress

Brigham Young was a towering figure in the history of the American West, and arguably the most controversial. Revered as a prophet by Latter-day Saints, as the “American Moses” raised up by the Lord to preside over their forced exodus beyond the Rocky Mountains and their establishment of a “Great Basin Kingdom,” he has also been utterly reviled by critics, from his own time until today.

Thomas G. Alexander
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

Thus, to write a serious biography of Brigham Young is, unavoidably, to engage topics that have long been debated, often passionately. Happily, Thomas Alexander, Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor Emeritus of Western History at Brigham Young University and former director of BYU’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, is extraordinarily well qualified for the task.

He is the author of nearly 30 previous books on Western and Latter-day Saint history, including “Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930” (1986), “Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet” (1991), and “Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History” (1995). His historical writing has received numerous awards, and his peers have elected him to, among other offices, the presidency of the Mormon History Association; the Pacific Branch of the American Historical Association; the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; the Association of Utah Historians; Phi Alpha Theta, the national history honor society; and the Sons of the Utah Pioneers.

Now, as a volume in the Oklahoma Western Biographies series from the University of Oklahoma Press, Thomas Alexander has published “Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith.” In his preface, he expressly identifies himself as “a believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (He also explains that his manuscript was too far along to be modified in the light of President Russell M. Nelson’s August 2018 admonition regarding the name of the church.)

Brigham Young is sometimes difficult to understand, Alexander says, because his views on a number of subjects changed over time. With a few exceptions, he became kinder and more tolerant of others. His compassion — a quality that some will resist associating with him — can be surprising.

“Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith” is by Thomas G. Alexander.
University of Oklahoma Press

Critics like to note that he preached a doctrine of “blood atonement” during the Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857. In 1858 and 1859, however, in the wake of the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, he preached the need for peace and he sent apostles George A. Smith and Amasa Lyman out to denounce murder, blood atonement, and the stealing of gentile property.

Sometimes accused still today of treason and rebellion, Brigham said in a speech in the Tabernacle on May 22, 1859, that, although he was “accused of having great influence” with his people, “he would to God that he had influence sufficient to make every man that calls himself a Saint do right.” Praising the American government, Brigham admonished the Saints “to be faithful and patient and not to take judgment into their own hands.” “By the help of the Lord,” he vowed to “lead them to the fountain of light.”

Speaking of the horror at Mountain Meadows that has often been laid right at Brigham Young’s feet, Alexander argues that although, in retrospect, we can see areas in which Brigham might have done better, he bore no direct responsibility for it. On the contrary, he was appalled and literally sickened at the news.

Moreover, although Brigham has commonly been accused of attempting to block the prosecution of those who committed the Mountain Meadows atrocity, Alexander argues that such accusations are false. Already in 1858, Brigham instructed Elders Smith and Lyman to try, during their tour of southern Utah, to determine what had really happened, and their fellow apostles Erastus Snow and Charles C. Rich joined in the investigation. In 1859, he sought federal prosecution of the offenders, but he was blocked by certain anti-Mormon federal officials, including the U.S. Marshal and the territory’s Chief Justice. Why? Because they feared that Brigham might be found innocent.

Thomas Alexander’s rich portrayal of Brigham Young depicts a complex and talented man who was operating in a very challenging environment. In conversation, Alexander says that he knows of nobody who could have done better, and that many would have done considerably worse. And, although we who look down upon the arena from the calm outside it can discern mistakes and flaws, these by no means prove that Brigham Young was not a prophet.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.