Brigham Young and the American Experience: A Conversation with Historian
Thinking in Public
September 27, 2012
(This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated)
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
He’s been described as an American Moses, Bringham Young, perhaps the second most famous figure in the history of the Mormon Church, and one of the most important figures in American religious history. We’re going to be talking about him today with Professor John Turner, Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University. He earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame. His first book, Bill Bright and the Campus Crusade for Christ, explores the history of American evangelicalism since 1945, specifically using Campus Crusade as a lens through which to analyze evangelical efforts to restore American politics and education to their Christian roots. His second book, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, is a biography of the second president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, published by Harvard University Press. I’m pleased to say today my guest on Thinking in Public is Professor John Turner.
Professor Turner, welcome.
Turner: Thank you. I’m happy to be on with you.
Mohler: I think the obvious question to ask someone who did a Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame, and is a graduate also of a Presbyterian theological seminary, has written a book on Bill Bright, is: How in the world did you get to Brigham Young?
Turner: Well my study of Bill Bright and evangelicalism was an attempt to explore my own religious heritage and background and by the time I was done with that I wanted to do something different. And I’ve been fascinated by Mormonism for some time. I grew up outside of Rochester, New York, so Mormonism in a sense is local history if you grow up there. And I had a few good Mormon friends when I was in graduate school, and I found the history of Mormonism intriguing. And, for me, the best way to learn about something new is to research and write about it, so I plunged into Mormon history, discovered that Brigham Young was a fascinating figure, not just in terms of the history of Mormonism, but in terms of 19th century American history more broadly. I didn’t think that any existing biography really gave him his due and got far enough underneath the surface, so I took the project on.
Mohler: Well I’m glad you did, and, by the way, Barbara Tuchman, I saw in an interview published not too long ago, although long after her death, she said that she did not pursue a Ph.D. in history—even though she wrote many bestselling works of history—and she said she didn’t so do so because she didn’t want to be ruined as a writer. And I have to say that you hold a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in history, but you have retained the ability to write. I’m going to read a sentence back to you, which I think captures the power of the book in many ways. You write: “The field of Mormon histories is a hall of mirrors full of distorted and incomplete reflections of nearly any event.” That’s an amazing statement, but you certainly demonstrate it throughout the nearly 400 pages of this book.
Turner: Well I did try to write it in a way that ordinary people without history Ph.D.’s would enjoy it, and I think I was more successful with that than I was honestly in my first book. And when you’re in graduate school you get trained to engage in all sorts of scholarly debates that may not interest outsiders, but I didn’t want to stifle the drama and the color of Brigham Young’s story or the story of his church. And you’re right about the—I’m glad you brought up the hall of mirrors statement. So much of the history of Mormonism is either written by faithful insiders, much of which can be very good history, but creates certain difficulties, or it’s been written by sometimes embittered former members of the church or people who are very much opposed to the church, and I came at it more as, you know, as someone without any particular background with Mormonism and I think that helped me to some extent.
Mohler: Well I need to say that I think a discussion like this presents any of us, all of us, with a fairly significant intellectual challenge in terms of both integrity and just reflection, and that is that I’m an evangelical theologian very much committed to Orthodox Christianity, so when I come across a figure like Brigham Young, I am automatically interested, but I already know enough to be concerned. And, by the way, just a few weeks ago, as a matter of fact, I read a book—I should say reread a book—that I had read sometime back, American Moses, by Leonard Arrington on Brigham Young, and was reminded of what a titanic figure he was, and so, to the best of my ability, at least here in the first part of the conversation, I want to talk about Brigham Young the way you present him, especially in the early part of your book, in terms of his historical context. And, by the way, I want to say one of the reasons why I think this book, your second book, as you mention it compared to your first, might be more accessible to the reader is partly because I think biography almost always is.
Turner: That’s absolutely true.
Mohler: This is more explicitly a biography, but let’s put Brigham Young in his context. First of all, if you just had to describe Brigham Young and his historical significance, what would you say just as kind of the first paragraph in a wiki explanation of who this man is and why he matters?
Turner: Sure. Well, first of all, he salvaged and stabilized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just after Joseph Smith’s death and its possible collapse. And then, secondly, the figure responsible colonizing and settling a large swath of the American Mountain West and Southeast, and then, third, one of the US governments most vexing political opponents in the mid-19th century.
Mohler: And that raises a host of issues. Reading the Arrington biography, and, by the way, Arrington’s an insider, as you well know in the Latter-day Saints Church, you know immediately, just upon reading that book, that Brigham Young is a titanic figure without whom the story of America can’t be told, much less just of the Mormon people and the LDS Church, but in your biography, you historical work, you take that a good bit further. And I want you to explain some of what it means for us to understand Brigham Young as a creature of his geographical, cultural, and historical context. What you provided—and, I have to say, as someone who considers himself pretty well versed, in terms of American religious history, your tracing of such things as reformed Methodism and the theological and spiritual context of Western New York State there in the 19th century, I think that’s really invaluable because, I have to tell you, reading your book, it struck me at several points that Brigham Young could have turned out to be a Methodist evangelist. He could have turned out to be, for that matter, a founder of a whole new faith all on his own, just given the context of his times and the way he thought.
Turner: Oh, yes, I think he in many ways was very much like the early Methodist circuit riders and that’s really what’s replicated during his early years as a Mormon. I tried very much to think about him as a figure of the 19th century and simply present him that way. He grows up amid an environment of intense evangelical pluralism. There are also a lot of other religious groups on the horizon, and he has a Methodist conversion when he’s a young man, when he’s around 22, and he ultimately ends up disillusioned for whatever reason—I didn’t have the historical evidence to definitively explain this. His conversion to Methodism ultimately leads him disillusioned and despondent. He doesn’t feel a sense of assurance about his salvation. And he ends up, I think, somewhat depressed about it, but he had tasted what we commonly refer to as restorationism through the reformed Methodists. They were looking for the restoration of at least elements of New Testament Christianity. They practiced divine healing. There’re some scattered reports that they may have spoken in tongues. They tried to found a communitarian settlement, and so Brigham Young was attuned to think about Christianity that way. And then when Joseph Smith comes along with a much more thorough-going restoration of what he calls “all ancient truths,” I think Brigham Young is naturally interested.
Mohler: Let’s talk about the influence of so many of the different intellectual and spiritual currents of that day. For instance, you had this intense Millennial expectation, a great eschatological consciousness, and you had a widespread distrust of Orthodox Christianity, especially there in the burned-over district of northern and western New York State. The aftermath of the Great Awakenings had led to a great deal of skepticism and almost a form of an anti-supernaturalism, but especially as related to church authority’s creeds and confessions and, as it turned out, even the Scriptures, such that you had so many variant and, frankly, judged by Christian Orthodoxy, heretical movements emerge out of this period, and Mormonism was just the most successful of these.
Turner: Well, and I think that environment is partly a product of the American founding and the jettisoning of state establishments of religion, so you have a truly competitive religious marketplace. And I think in our minds this is something that we often celebrate that it’s freedom, it’s religious freedom, and it certainly was, but I could understand that for people growing up in the early 19th century it could also be something that was confusing and perplexing. And you wouldn’t necessarily know which source of religious authority to trust and Brigham Young seemed to feel very much that way, and I guess the irony that after all of that he ultimately decides to place all of his bets on the religious authority of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon and the church that Smith founds.
Mohler: So let’s lead these two lives into intersection: Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. And, first of all, we better explain at what point—Joseph Smith—what point he had reached in terms of his own self-understanding and development of what became his effort at restorationism, the Mormon Church, which he just called the Church of Christ at the beginning, and eventually called the Latter-day Saints. Where was Joseph Smith in terms of that development when the lives of Smith and Brigham Young intersected?
Turner: Okay. Well they intersect in 1832. They don’t intersect until after Brigham Young converts and is baptized into the church. Joseph Smith has a pretty clear sense of his prophethood by that time. He translated and published the Book of Mormon in 1830; he dictates revelations to his followers, which are also regarded as Scripture; and then he later on produces several additional works of Scripture. He’s calling on his followers to gather together, and so Brigham Young goes to a town called Kirtland in Northeastern Ohio where Smith is, and they immediately hit it off. They’re both from impoverished, rural, mostly uneducated backgrounds, and I think they have a lot in common in that respect.
Mohler: But Young was particularly drawn to Joseph Smith’s vision of a restored Christianity, a restored church. He appeared immediately drawn out of, perhaps, his frustration or lack of fulfillment in his other spiritual experiments, and he became, well, a Mormon among Mormons to say the least in terms of his embrace, a very faithful disciple of Joseph Smith.
Turner: He does. Actually, I attribute his decision to convert to his experience of seeing a group of Mormon elders, or missionaries, speak in tongues. I mean, most of us associate speaking in tongues with early 1900s Pentecostalism, but it was fairly common among 1830s Mormons. And so he converts and then I think he sees Joseph Smith as the prophet of the church he has joined, and he absolutely has a fierce loyalty to him. A lot of Joseph Smith’s other followers question him and fall away from him later in the 1830s and early 1840s, and Brigham Young does not, and that’s a main reason why he ascends through the church hierarchy and is in a position to lead the church after Joseph Smith’s murder.
Mohler: One of the insights I certainly gained by reading your book, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, is the extent to which—and I mean this not as an insult to Mormonism, but rather as an observation of the history as you lay it out—how it, frankly, developed in the most amazing way with its doctrines and teachings coming along at what is a theologian has to describe as basically an ad-hoc revelation. You know, here and there more a word from Joseph Smith and later from Brigham Young himself, and, at the same time, these are remarkably at odds with Christian Orthodoxy.
Turner: Well you’re right in several respects. Mormonism as of 1830 would have been an idiosyncratic form of Protestant restorationism; by the early 1840s, it’s an entirely different animal. New understandings of human beings, new understandings of God, new sacred rituals and ordinances, and, you’re quite right about Joseph Smith, he had a certain kinetic energy about him, in terms of relationships, ecclesiastical leadership, and doctrine, and that accelerates toward the end of his life.
Mohler: Well he comes up with these doctrines and the other thing that I found incredible, just to observe in terms of your recitation in telling of the tale, is, quite frankly, you can see influences that come into Joseph Smith’s life that have nothing to do with Mormonism, per se, and the next thing you know they do. The influence in terms of the three different kingdoms, or heavens, of Swedenborg or, frankly, the rituals and paraphernalia of Free Masonry, these things entered Joseph Smith’s life and the next thing you know they’re in the bloodstream of Mormonism as well.
Turner: That’s quite right and Joseph Smith didn’t really hide the fact that he was finding what he considered to be truths in all of these different places. He was someone who surveyed the religious and cultural and intellectual landscape of his time, took truth where he found it, refashioned it into something new, so that’s quite a good characterization of how he led the church.
Mohler: And how do you as a historian account for the original revelation that Joseph Smith claimed? I’m not asking you to speak as a theologian, but as a historian. What do you do with that? What do you do with this relatively uneducated young man from Vermont, now in New York State, who talks about a revelation, a language known as Reformed Egyptian, and an amazing—let’s just put it this way—an amazing text.
Turner: That’s a great question. If I were writing a biography of Joseph Smith, I would have had to spend more time grappling with this question, but the problem is somewhat inescapable. You have this mystery almost of how an uneducated farmhand could create this text. Whatever you think of the Book of Mormon, that’s a surprising thing for Joseph Smith to have done if you don’t attribute it to supernatural events. I think what I did was I just attempted to report the evidence from both Smith’s supporters and detractors at the time. I didn’t want to make the book an assessment of Mormon truth claims.
Mohler: And I respect that, but, at the same time, some of it’s just inescapable in terms of even having to account for how Mormonism was received or not received at the time.
Turner: Sure. Well I think a couple of things come to mind. First of all, if I accepted those truth claims, I wouldn’t be an outsider. So, you know, I obviously come from the position of somebody who ultimately does not, but, as the same time, I can see how Smith’s claims made sense to at least some Americans back in 1830. You know, it was an era of prophets, of new messages about God, new religious movements, restoration of ancient truths, so what seems entirely outlandish to many Americans today, and seemed too outlandish to a good number back in 1830, nevertheless seemed credible and made sense to a lot of people at the time.
Mohler: It’s really interesting you put it that way because I’ve been a student of Mormonism for a very long time and, as a theologian, an historical theologian, rather than as an historian per se, but it has struck me that I think that I’m on fairly safe ground when I say that I’m not certain if Joseph Smith believed what he taught, but I’m absolutely certain that Brigham Young believed what Joseph Smith taught. And that’s still a mystery to me as to how that happens, but you seem to reflect the same thing. In fact, you write, “It seems obvious that Young was sincere in his faith;” you don’t write that about Joseph Smith, a more complicated figure. And, as you say, you weren’t writing about Smith, you’re writing about Young, but the very fact you’re writing about Brigham Young leads you also to point to what an incongruous figure he was. For instance, in one sentence you say this: “Within a Protestant American dedicated to monogamy, monotheism, and Jacksonian democracy, Young advocated the plurality of wives, a plurality of gods, and a unity of power.
Turner: It’s pretty audacious, isn’t it?
Mohler: Actually, I think that’s a quintessential sentence, but, yes, that puts the picture of Brigham Young in the 19th century in an absolute encapsulation. I mean, there he is, standing against virtually everything that the establishment stood for and, yet, eventually building a Mormon empire there in the Mountain West.
Turner: Well and, you know, in a sense it’s both antithetical to America in the 19th century and, on the other hand, it’s also quintessentially American to audaciously chart your own path and fly in the face of the accepted authority of your day, so it’s both at the same time. There’s a bit of a paradox there.
Mohler: It’s true that the story of America cannot be told without telling the story of Brigham Young, but you can’t talk about Brigham Young without talking about Mormonism, and you can’t talk about Mormonism without talking about both theology and history. That’s what makes the discussion we’re having today with this historian so important and so interesting.
Professor Turner, in your depiction of the life of Brigham Young, you deal with him as a man, as a religious leader, as a political leader, frankly, as a military leader. He held so many different roles, and not all of them equally well, let’s just kind of trace this a bit. How in the world did he seize control of Mormonism after the murder of Joseph Smith? Because even though he would be one of the likely candidates, he’s by no means, I would say, even looking at the immediate days after Joseph Smith’s murder, he’s by no means the most likely person to take control.
Turner: Well there were a number of claimants to Joseph Smith’s prophetic mantle, if you will. In many ways, Brigham Young ultimately is the man who’s best positioned to succeed Joseph Smith partly because of his fierce devotion to Smith; partly because he is at the center of Smith’s ritual development in the early 1940s, so he can tell church members that under his leadership they can complete the temple they’d been building in Illinois and receive blessings that had been long promised to them. Some of the other potential leaders were not as close to Joseph Smith that way and I think that gives Young a big advantage.
Mohler: If I were a sociologist—I just, by the way, completed a manuscript on a book on leadership, so this is on my mind, but if I were purely a sociologist and my worldview was entirely secular, I would look to Brigham Young as a model of how to consolidate power and also as a model of how to do so—and you indicated this—by what I would describe as a sacerdotal kind of leadership. In other words, there were blessings that could only come at least by the teaching of Brigham Young and by the acceptance of those who believed him. There were blessings that could only come to the entire Mormon people and through them to the entire human race if he indeed was seen as the leader.
Turner: That’s absolutely correct, and shortly after he assumes leadership of the church, the Latter-day Saints in Illinois complete that temple. Under his leadership, thousands of people pass through the endowment ceremony. He expands the practice of plural marriage. So you’re quite right about the sacerdotal elements of his leadership, and, then, I think he earns the lasting respect of most church members for his leadership during the exodus to what becomes Utah. And there are very rough aspects to Brigham Young’s personality and leadership, but the fact that he was able to accomplish those two things—building that temple in Illinois and getting the church to Utah—those accomplishments earn him a great deal of good will and respect among his people.
Mohler: Well you mentioned the rough spots and we would not have time to dwell on those, but, unlike the other preceding biographies of Brigham Young, you, with very rich documentation, go into some of the most controversial areas of his leadership. And I want to deal with some of those in just a moment, but, first, I was convinced by reading your book, along with two or three other recent works on Mormonism, that I had miscalculated the role of plural marriage in that entire theological scheme. I understood from the very beginning that it was to populate, in an earthly sense, the people that would become the seeds for the population of celestial beings in the ages yet to come. I also understood how that would work both prospectively, that is, in terms of having more children, and how it also worked backwards in terms of you add that to the baptism of the dead and you’ve got a way of working history both ways. That’s very convenient. But what I didn’t really recognize was the extent to which that became a very crucial issue in terms of leadership. And you make a point that I’ve not seen anyone else make and that is you compare it to slaveholding in the American South. The entire American South, before the Civil War, was committed to slavery, but actually very few people owned slaves. And Mormonism at least in terms of the era of Brigham Young who was very much committed to plural marriage, but very few Mormons actually had the kind of number of wives that Brigham Young had.
Turner: That’s quite right. Probably, maybe 25% of Mormon men were polygamists at the height of the practice. I thought the comparison to slavery in the American South was rather apt. I wish it had been original to me. I footnoted the work of another scholar named Ben Bennion, but in many ways it’s a polygamist society even though only a minority of Mormon men are practicing polygamy. And so it has great social significance, a very large political significance, and it does have a very large spiritual significance as well, not just in terms of propagation, raising up seed, but also in terms of securing salvation, also in terms of assembling a large familial kingdom on earth that will persist for eternity.
Mohler: Absolutely, and you have a central role in the Mormon cosmology for the United States of America and, of course, for the indigenous peoples here, a very twisted and unusual story and theological accounting there. You also have a commitment to family values that, frankly, exceeds that of biblical Christianity. There’s no sense in which you would find Mormons following the way Jesus spoke about the one who must leave mother and father, if necessary, for the sake of the kingdom, but what you have also with plural marriage is just, again, sociologically speaking, you’ve got an enormous power base of those who are your own children, your own relatives, and beyond. One of the things you deal with is the fact that the very earliest and then continuing practice of the Mormons when it came to Joseph Smith’s vision, in terms of plural marriage, and Brigham Young’s, and you document this reluctant, but then very avid agreement with it. You have, and I’m confused by this, I’m still confused by it, I’d have to say. I still don’t understand the function of marrying women who already had husbands to these—sealing them to other Mormon men. Can you unpack that for me?
Turner: Sure. Well, first of all, I don’t think it was a terribly wise decision. It created a lot of strife for Joseph Smith and to a lesser extent for Brigham Young. The Mormon Church still teaches that to have eternal significance a marriage must be sealed under the authorities of the church. It’s still in the church’s doctrine and covenant, you know, one of the works of Scripture, that’s referring to one of Joseph Smith’s revelations. So earlier marriages, which had not been sealed in that manner were regarded as not really valid and Joseph Smith in the early 1840s is sealed to a number of women who already had husbands. Some of them were faithful members of the church. Brigham Young does the same thing. It’s not quite as explosive under Brigham Young, but there’s a sense in the 1840s, in particular, that the bonds, you know, the traditional bonds, are just being thrown off and those sorts of relationships can almost be refashioned. I think things settle down a bit by the time the Mormons meet Utah, but it’s a time of pretty intense flexibility in that respect.
Mohler: Well, Professor, I have to tell you again, it just doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re going to affirm something like plural marriage, which is going to be sufficiently controversial, not to mention illegal, and to be that counter-revolutionary over against the larger culture, then to add to that the fact that you’re not only having plural marriage, but you have the sealing of persons of marriage to Mormon leaders who are already married to other men. That seems to me to be a point at which the entire Mormon enterprise could have collapsed under the weight of internal dissention and external oppression.
Turner: Well it almost does. It’s a major factor that leads to Joseph Smith’s murder. It creates dissention within the church. You have an oppositional newspaper of Mormon dissenters spring up and after Joseph Smith orders the destruction of that newspaper, he’s arrested. And it’s in that context that he’s murdered. So it was extremely toxic and risky and explosive. Under Brigham Young, things do stabilize a bit. He does have marriages to women who are already married; sometime it’s at their behest. You know, he has a lot of religious and economic status and so sometimes women very much want to be married to him.
Mohler: There are so many twists and turns to this tale, but eventually, following the logic of Joseph Smith’s original claim to revelation, even the Book of Mormon, the cosmological tale which includes this expansion, and North America playing a very crucial part in the eschatological vision, you had this Westward movement, and it just seems to come. I mean, you’re the historian, but it sure seems to come at just the right time in terms of American history: the Mexican War, President Polk’s expansion to the West, even the eventual development of the Oregon Trail, and all these things. And, all of the sudden, you end up with this empire of Mormonism there in the Salt Lake Basin. It’s an amazing story.
Turner: It is a truly amazing story, and you’re quite right that it is almost just about the only time that this might have been feasible. The problem is that as the United States was beginning to assert its sovereignty over that new territory gained in the war against Mexico, that necessarily leads into a confrontation and clash with this Mormon Kingdom that Brigham Young establishes in Utah.
Mohler: And it is a Mormon Kingdom. I mean, he is a military leader. He has own militia. He is a territorial governor and on-and-on: he is the First President of the church; he is the prophet of the church. There’s virtually no area of life in that region that he did not control or orchestrate. And, you document in your book, what others, I have to say again, especially writing about Brigham Young previously, really do not point out and that is he’s tremendous antipathy towards the government of the United States. He really saw his new empire as a separate nation from the United States.
Turner: Or at least almost a separate nation. I think his initial emotion as the Mormons are leaving Illinois is that this is a country that has rejected us; this is a government that has failed to uphold our rights. Mobs have stolen our property; this government didn’t do anything to redress that situation, and so it has really cut the tie. And then I think he starts to see these issues very much through the lens of popular sovereignty in the 1850s that even as a territory the people of Utah should be left to govern their own affairs. They shouldn’t have outside non-Mormon officials and judges thrust upon them, and so he is pretty hostile to outsiders when they come to Utah and interfere with his ability to control the politics and economics of the territory.
Mohler: Well, when push comes to shove, you write on page 206 of your work, “By the end of 1852, Brigham Young had accomplished the utterly improbable: nearly 20,000 Latter-day Saints occupied Great Salk Lake City and its series of settlements stretching from San Bernardino in California to Northern Utah. Each year companies of the saints added thousands of Mormons to the territory’s population,” and then later in the paragraph you say, “Even more remarkably, Young achieved this growth, prosperity and stability while openly espousing theocracy and polygamy. He did so without producing any challenge from the US government.” And then at the end of this page you say, “It could not so last.” It didn’t last.
Turner: No; I think the fact that the Mormons were able to establish this nearly separate kingdom and then Brigham Young as appointed governor and when some officials come out, they clash with him. Go back to Washington, tell everybody in Washington how terrible Brigham Young and the Mormons are and he’s left in power. It gives him almost a false sense of security and so for the rest of the 1850s, he kind of thumbs his nose at Washington and its soldiers and officials at several points.
Mohler: And judges.
Turner: Yeah, and the US government finally decides to send an army with his replacement to Utah, and it nearly precipitates a war between Mormon Utah and the US Army.
Mohler: We talked about plural marriage and polygamy a bit. You deal very explicitly in your book with Brigham Young and the question of blood atonement. Play that out for us.
Turner: Well Brigham Young began teaching in the early 1850s that some sins were so grievous that the blood of Jesus would not atone for them and, instead, those individuals needed to atone for them with their own blood, and that in those circumstances it would perhaps be merciful for others to kill them. A pretty chilling preaching and, you know, a lot of people have debated whether or not this is just rhetoric, whether or not this is something that was actualized in Utah. I think for the most part it actually was rhetorical. Brigham Young liked to scare people at certain points. I think there were times when he authorized acts of violence, but I don’t think he was doing it for the sake of saving the souls of the sinful. I think it was really just, you know, those things were done for other reasons.
Mohler: And to be fair, vigilante justice in the West was hardly restricted to the Mormons, but what seems to be unique is the theological justification for it.
Turner: It is a shocking theological justification, and then it’s quite a perversion of the Golden Rule. I tend to see that primarily has rhetorical. You know, he talks about blood atonement quite a lot during something called the Mormon Reformation, which is an intense season of preaching along those lines. And he talks about how adulterers, for instance, deserve death in that matter. And then when people confess their sin, you know, he’s prone to just say, “Don’t do it again.” There is some extralegal violence in Utah that I think Brigham Young authorizes. Some of that you can just place in a context of violence in the American Midwest; other episodes I think are a little bit more unique to Utah.
Mohler: And you document those very well and I think very dispassionately, very honestly, with an historian’s judgment. I want to ask another question along those same lines because central to the cosmology and the theology of Mormonism is an understanding of race. And this has to do not only with African Americans in the United States by means of the slave trade and the institution of chattel slavery, but also the indigenous American peoples. Joseph Smith accounts for these in the Book of Mormon and in subsequent revelations. How does that play out in terms of when the Mormons arrive and establish their empire there in the Salt Lake Basin?
Turner: They find that for the most part they have the same problem as other white Americans going to the West. There’s a conflict over land and resources and so there was a stated desire and expectation that they could go to the
West and convert what Mormons saw as lapsed Israelites. That’s ultimately the way they understood Native peoples.
Mohler: You need to explain that just a little bit. In other words, the Lamanites, who became the American Indians, were understood to have been originally Jews, who were the evil tribes that triumphed over the good tribes and then would have to be saved.
Turner: Exactly; descendants of this family of Ancient Jews that came to the New World. And you’re quite right they were a wicked tribe of people. They eventually wipe out, you know, kind of the other half that has actually become rather wicked by that point. But, you know, in a nutshell, they’re lapsed Israelites.
Mohler: And you can see them by their skin pigmentation. In other words, the curse upon their sinfulness is their dark skin.
Turner: Exactly, and there’s an expectation that their skin will whiten if they return to the faith, and especially that their offspring will become more white. And, you know, the Mormons aren’t exactly the only Americans who view the Indians in that respect. There are others who believe them to be the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and things like that, but it is a distinctive Mormon belief in terms of the story of the Book of Mormons.
Mohler: Okay, so as a Christian theologian looking at this, I need to make a couple of observations. Number one, in terms of a racialist ideology that was turned into theology, the Mormons are not unique. You have horrible, horrifyingly embarrassing theological statements and arguments and explanations made by American Christians about the curse of Ham and about the inferiority of African Americans and dark-skinned people and all the rest, and, quite frankly, I can’t have this conversation without saying just how horrifying those things are and how long was the biblical interpretation behind this and how ruinous was the result. And, yet, none of the Orthodox Christian churches had the elaborated theology that Joseph Smith produced or claimed by revelation that actually provided the narrative for all this. And then, in a brilliant article just recently in the New York Times, you point out—and I has a theologian, I have to say, I saw that article as just a piece of genius, frankly—you point out it’s really about the claim to revelation because the Christian churches have had to repent of wrong beliefs, but given the understanding of the ongoing role of the prophet, the Latter-day Saints church doesn’t apologize for holding this theology in the past.
Turner: That’s correct. You know there’s almost two separate issues to the way that Mormons view Native Americans or Indians and the way that the church as viewed and treated black people over time, but, you’re right, there’s really an issue in ecclesiology here in terms of where the church is today on these issues. The church no longer teaches that all Native Americans or necessarily any Native Americans are the descendants of the Lamanites. That belief has more or less gone to the wayside. I think on a popular level there probably still is some belief along those lines. The church now, as you would have gleaned from that article, accepts people of African descent as full members, but it doesn’t repudiate what it taught and practiced before 1978. And it sounds almost like nitpicking because the church has apologized for past racism, but it is true that if you believe in ongoing revelation it’s hard to criticize prior prophets explicitly.
Mohler: And, again, I want to be very clear: we all have a lot to apologize for here and so this is not to isolate Mormons as the only ones who have a responsibility for racism here. It is to point out that, to me as a theologian, the key issue here is that for Christians, Orthodox Christians, the humbling and humiliating realization was a misuse of Scripture and abuse of Scripture that was corrected by Scripture, and this is very different in Mormonism.
Turner: Well it is different. I think, you know, that Brigham Young’s opinions about black people while very repugnant and stated very vehemently, they are not really outside of the white, American Christian mainstream as of 1850, but because he stated his opinions with prophetic authority, it made it more difficult for the church to back away from them later on. And then you have a policy that has to be changed by revelation instead of simply by recognition of error and repentance.
Mohler: Well what we’re talking about here is the ongoing claim to revelation that the church continues to make today. In other words, the First President of the church today has just as much prophetic authority as did Brigham Young.
Turner: That’s true; though the way the church leaders exercise that authority has changed quite a lot. You have Joseph Smith who issues an abundance of written revelations; Brigham Young who does that occasionally, but not often; and it’s become a much more rarer practice.
Mohler: Well you might say the same thing about the infallible claim of ex-cathedra declarations by the Roman Catholic papacy. They have become less frequent, but no less authoritative.
Turner: That’s right.
Mohler: And when you look at what happened in 1978 when the first presidency of the church, the First President Spencer Kimball, simply completely reverses the policy on Aaronic priesthood, it’s not like a minor modification. It had been closed to African Americans; he absolutely opens it to African Americans. That, quite frankly, would make Catholic popes pause in terms of the sense that there’s almost no illustration even in ex-cathedra declarations of the pope where there is a direct 180-degree turn.
Turner: Well, and the ecclesiology has certain practical advantages in that the membership of the church makes that change very quickly and without resistance.
Mohler: Now as you look to the story of Brigham Young and its end, it did not end in the way that anyone could have predicted from the beginning. I mean, here you have a relatively uneducated young man whose father and grandfather were hardly success stories in terms of America, in terms of even providing for their families. You talk about a young man who even by the time he was 30 was really insignificant and no one would be talking about him now, but you can’t really tell the story of America in the 19th century or America in terms of its current shape now without talking about Brigham Young. Looking from the vantage point now of 2012, what is the continuing importance of this story for us?
Turner: Well I think first and foremost is the creation of a Mormon region of the country, which you certainly wouldn’t have had without Brigham Young. Secondly, the church has changed so much from Brigham Young’s era. I mean, compare Brigham Young and Mitt Romney, for instance. Brigham Young could swear a blue streak, had multiple wives, used violent rhetoric, you know, he even chewed tobacco and drank tea for goodness sake. And so the church has changed tremendously and it’s moved away from some of his policies and theological ideas, but he instilled in his people a strong ethic of perseverance, hard work, obedience, self-sufficiency, all of which are still values that animate Mormonism today, and in some ways they’re values that still animate the United States as a whole.
Mohler: In your final paragraph, you write this: “To most church members Brigham Young was the church’s earthly savior following Smith’s death, an indispensable protector and benefactor. In the opinion of many other Americans, he was a treasonist heretic. Many who became better acquainted with him modulated their opinions, but among Utah’s non-Mormon population, Young often inspired both fear and loathing and many church members trembled before him on occasion as well. He preserved a church and created a people, but that success damaged and even destroyed some lives. Brigham Young died with few apparent regrets about his choices and decisions. In his 45 years as a Latter-day Saint, Young dedicated himself to Joseph Smith, boldly challenged religious, political, and economic conventions, and shaped, as far as was possible, for as long as was possible, the Mormon people in his self-image.” Now the key question to me is to what extent do the Mormon people continue in Brigham Young’s self-image?
Turner: Well I think those values that I just mentioned are part of Young’s legacy. I think in many other respects the church has evolved away from Brigham Young’s leadership. Now he wanted economic unity and, you know, the church abandoned that. He identified Adam as humanity’s god; subsequent church leaders move away from that. I think in terms of Mormon self-understanding, he’s still very much in the center. The story of the Mormon pioneer is still a central part of Mormon self-identity and self-understanding, at least in the United States. So he’s still very much a central figure of the church, even though that church didn’t ultimately embrace all of his ideas and policies.
Mohler: John Turner is the Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University. His new book is Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, published by Harvard University Press. Professor Turner, what’s your next project?
Turner: I’m not sure yet. I’m contemplating a biography of John Brown. Also, thinking of whether or not I want to do more writing on Mormonism, but right now I’m recovering from having written this book, and taking some time to think about the future.
Mohler: Well we are in your debt for writing it, and I did appreciate the conversation. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.
Turner: My pleasure.
Mohler: There is no question that you can access certain questions by means of historical biography better than other means, and that’s why those who are interested in theology or philosophy or the history of the ideas need continually to turn to biography in order to understand the historical context and the contour of the actual person. That’s also why, if you’re just interested in biography, you need to read biographies that take ideas and beliefs seriously as John Turner does in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.
A conversation about Brigham Young raises a host of issues. To both the historian and the theologian, those issues appear almost unending. As a theologian I’m most interested in dealing with Brigham Young or with anyone else whose impact was primarily theological. My main interest is in looking at how they either aided the church in coming to know the truth or how they are to be judged over against the standard of Christian Orthodoxy. But, before turning to that, I think it’s important to recognize that what Brigham Young represents to us first is a very classic example of what the sociologist or historians would describe the nature of religious leadership. When you look at Brigham Young, you’re looking at someone who obviously had a great deal of equipment to lead, but his leadership cannot be separated from his claim to be a prophet and eventually the First President of the Latter-day Saints Church; from his claim to ongoing revelation and to what is theologically described as a sacerdotal leadership. In other words, there was a sacramental understanding of what he could do, rights that he had privileged access to, through which others hoped to be blest. That is a very unique understanding of religious leadership, but it’s also in itself starkly at odds with the biblical or New Testament understanding of Christian leadership, which is not invested with that kind of sacerdotal responsibility and is not to be primarily charismatic in terms of its nature. And, furthermore, in the story of Brigham Young, you have, as John Turner so well-documented, the intersection of so many different worlds—the military, the economic, the political, the theological. Brigham Young was a territorial governor. He tried to create what was nothing less than a theocracy there in the Salt Lake Basin, so just looking at it in terms of the question of leadership, there is no doubt that Brigham Young deserves the credit that John Turner gives him for consolidating and, indeed, perhaps even salvaging Mormonism after the death of Joseph Smith by murder. But then also his rather incredible leadership achievement in taking this group of rather impoverished Americans across the nation’s center section, going all the way into the Mountain West, against all kinds of adversity, and eventually establishing what amounted to a Mormon empire. And, again, John Turner reminds us that empire continues to this day. It is not geographically under the control of the Mormon Church, but from San Bernardino, California, all the way to the Salt Lake Basin and beyond, there is incredible Mormon influence in this part of the country that continues. The land dotted by temples and, of course, also by Mormon institutions and Mormon communities, and, especially, in places like Utah, communities that continue to bear names that find their rootage in the Book of Mormon.
Reading Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, as an evangelical theologian, as a believing Christian, the first thing I noticed is the theological content. This book thoroughly documents the fact that Mormonism as a system of beliefs is directly attributable, first of all, to Joseph Smith and the spiritual context of his early adulthood and youth, and the fact that you can trace how Mormonism is being developed as a theology as it develops, just as it moves along. And, of course, as you’re watching that, you’re seeing its incredible divergences explicit, intentional divergences from Christian Orthodoxy, to the very point that you end up with a divinization of human beings. You end up with plural gods. You end up with a god who had a body. You end up with a god who had a consort, who reproduces. You end up with Jesus Christ being the one who is reaching a point of divinization towards which we also should be aspiring. You look at the entire corruption of the Christian Gospel, the rejection of Christian Orthodoxy, and then you measure that over against the success of Mormonism as a movement, and evangelical Christians have a lot to learn here. Some of it’s very humbling. Part of it is the realization that there are many people who are looking for what Mormonism teaches. That is the kind of shock that comes to any of us who recognize the plurality of worldviews and religious systems and how many people are drawn to these variant systems. Every one of them could be explained, to some extent, by what it appears they meet in terms of individual and community needs, and Mormonism provides a narrative for people. Mormonism provides an eschatological vision. Mormonism defines the family in such a way that it is of eternal significance along with marriage. It defines the United States of America in such a way that it is rightly described, “The American Religion.” You cannot have Mormonism without the United States of America, without North America as a continent, and without the American story, but what you also see in this, reading this book as an evangelical, is a world of warning to all of us concerning the nature of religious leadership and concerning the ongoing claims to revelation, concerning the deviations in Christian Orthodoxy, because what we note at many points along this story is how it could have been otherwise. As I said at the very beginning of this conversation with John Turner, looking at the story of Joseph Smith is one thing, but looking at Brigham Young, it’s easy to have seen that he could have become a Methodist circuit rider at some point. He had that in his background in terms of his Methodist identity or, at least, his familiarity with a variant of Methodism. You could see that especially there in the burned-over district, as it was called, of western New York State. Young men like Brigham Young and Joseph Smith could have gone in virtually any direction and they could have found their way into the history of Christianity in the United States instead of the history of Mormonism, but that is not just an interesting observation, it’s also a sobering assessment because we recognize how easy it is to deviate from Christian Orthodoxy in what might appear at first to be a rather slight deviation, but over time becomes, of course, a massive defection from Christianity.
Another observation that comes by reading Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet is the importance of historical context. Again, you can’t have Mormonism as a story without the place and the time that it emerged, and the particular era in American history of Westward expansion and even the Mexican War and the expansionist vision of President James Polk and things like that where, you all of the sudden realize, under different circumstances—just 20 years earlier or 20 years later—none of this would have happened. At least it wouldn’t have happened in this way. And you basically come to see the opportunistic character of many off-shoot religious groups; Mormonism being an example of them. And you also come to understand, once again, the tenacity of this kind of theology, this kind of narrative. It’s also a sobering realization, one that humbles the evangelical Christian to understand our absolute dependence upon the revelation of God found in Scripture and the incredible danger of deviating from it; the danger of investing leadership with charismatic expectation; the danger of investing leaders with too much power; the confluence of the secular and the sacred, of the power of the state and the power of the church. You also see the danger of mixing patriotism and theology in a very unhealthy mix and, for American evangelicals, it’s easy to see the civil religion, indeed, the Manifest Destiny, you might say, of the Mormon theology. But if we are not careful, sometimes American evangelicals can sound frightenly similar in terms of putting America as if we’re in the center of the biblical narrative. In every way I can imagine, it’s a good exercise to read Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by Professor John G. Turner.
Thanks again to my guest, Professor John Turner, for thinking with me today. Before I close, I want to make sure you know about the first annual Expositor’s Summit, a conference taking place on the campus of Southern Seminary October 30th and 31st of 2012. The theme of this conference is “Peaching in a Post-everything World.” Please join me, along with John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, Russ Moore, and others for this important conference. We look forward to seeing you there. For more information, visit sbts.edu.
Thanks for joining me today. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.