Monday, January 28, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Prologue

Continuing where we left off, we now move into the Prologue. I should preface my continuing critique of Turner's book by noting that I certainly do not intend to be critical of his entire book without highlighting the positive as well. However, thus far Turner is simply setting the stage for the biography itself. When interesting and unique information or insightful perspectives are shared, I will eagerly acknowledge these contributions. For the time being, we really are just covering preliminary background information, and thus my concern of atmosphere looms heavily over this segment of the story.

Turner's Prologue uses a New Year's Day speech given by Brigham Young in 1877 at the dedication of the St. George Temple to introduce his character. What is striking to me is how Turner interprets the text of this speech. His preconceived notions color the atmosphere through his choice of text that he quotes and the language he employs in describing how Brigham spoke to the people gathered at the temple. Turner starts by noting President Young's emphasis on the restoration of sacred temple ordinances not exercised in full since the days of Adam, so far as any knowledge had been given. "Then," Turner sets the stage, "Young's tone gradually changed." From this point forward Mr. Turner narrows his focus solely upon his perception of Brigham Young's escalating tone and scathing remarks to the gathered saints. He points out that Brigham accused Elders of choosing hell over heaven, of choosing a dollar over salvation, and calls attention to Brigham's mention of too many Mormons being "damned fools." He continues to bolster this paradigm by using phrases such as, "Young demanded...," and "Building to a crescendo, Young upbraided...," and "Young thundered as much as his aging lungs would permit...." Turner concludes by saying that President Young was "blunt spoken, pugnacious, and sometimes profane."

In my reading of the sermon, I observed a different atmosphere than that illustrated by Turner. President Young starts by outlining his intentions, which entailed saying "a few encouraging things to the Latter-day Saints." Brigham Young clearly emphasizes by stark contrast the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of hell throughout his sermon. He asserted that members had been on the wrong side for too long and would suffer anguish if they did not repent. He said, "You may think this is plain talk, it is not as plain as you will find by and by. If you should ever go to the gates of heaven, Jesus will say he never knew you." Brigham then warns the saints to repent. "You had better stop now and repent of your sins and sin no more, while there is yet time, and before the doors are closed against you." He told them, "I want to wake you up, and if I had the power to lift the veil from your eyes and let you see things as they are, you would be astonished." Then President Young acknowledges that most members have been good Latter-day Saints. "Not but what there are a great majority of the people as good as they know how to be." In closing, Brigham Young feels to bless the people "that they may do better...," and before ending, tells the gathered saints, "God bless you."

Now while Turner quotes directly from the sermon, his selectiveness and intentional avoidance of certain aspects of the talk inform the reader of how he sees Brigham Young, or at least, how he wants the reader to perceive Brigham Young. I called attention to the softer side of what was spoken that day for the purpose of contrasting Turner's depiction. Certainly Brigham Young's emotions come through in his sermons, but this prologue specifically included those details that sustain the stereotype of Brigham Young as not only blunt, but "pugnacious, and sometimes profane." I suppose worse caricatures have been drawn, but Mr. Turner's attempt to justify his portrayal lacks depth in my opinion. He neglects to place Brigham Young in the context of his cultural setting and environment, and he apparently did not rely much on the reactions of those in attendance to base his assertions. For example, Maggie Cragun, one who was in attendance at the dedication described her experience as follows:
I went to the dedication of the temple in January 1777 [1877]. President Brigham Young was present. President Young said that the doctors had told him he had gout, anyway he was lame and had to use a cane. He was carried up into the Temple in a big chair. People thought that he would not be able to talk but he was. Just on the outskirts of town the people built an arbor for President Young to pass under as he entered town. People from far and near went out and greeted him, and then followed the procession down to the Temple.
President Young was not planning on speaking, but before the meeting was finished he spoke to the people. He raised up on the stand, and brought his cane down very hard on the pulpit. He said, "If I mar the pulpit some of these good workmen can fix it up again." He did mar the pulpit but the people did not fix it up again. They left it for a mark to be carried down through the years.
When the meeting had been dismissed they began to file out of the building. Just as it was dismissed a terrible wind began to blow. The people began to crowd one and another trying to get out the building because they thought something was going to happen. Then President Young again stood up and said, "Sit down and calm yourselves and let the devil roar." The devil did roar for perhaps two hours or more doing much destruction in its fury. It upset buggies, tore trees up, and did much damage to everything in general. The devil tried his best to discourage the people, but he had found that he had met up with a stronger opposition than he could overcome.
The Temple was filled to the utmost capacity. People from everywhere had come to witness the dedication of the first Temple. After the dedication the people were very anxious to become workers in the Temple. There was not very many temple clothes prepared, but the people worked hard and before long people were going into the Temple and doing their temple work. Those who did not have clothes borrowed them from their friends, thus making it possible for many to get their temple work done.1
Now the atmosphere and the tone from this individual, one who was actually in attendance, is a far cry from the picture painted by John Turner. There is no hint of offense in her account regarding Brigham's tone or anything to justify Turner's exaggerated epithet. While Turner's prologue certainly isn't explicit in accusing Brigham of being overbearing, intimidating, and unable to control emotion, it is hard to infer much else from his presentation. But the picture we obtain from Mrs. Cragun is one of love and veneration for the prophet, rather than fear or disdain. Even Charles L. Walker, whom Turner cites in his footnotes, recorded in his journal that Brigham, "Wished he could awaken the saints to appreciate the great and glorious dispensation in which they lived." Brother Walker further notes, expanding on Turner's excised quotation, that Brigham, "Showed the folly of the saints in giving their substance to the gentiles, to wicked and corrupt men. Said that some of this People if they had power would build a railroad to the bottomless Pit, and would send all they had and the Earth besides to the devil; rebuked such with sharpness and said we acted like damned fools..." Brother Walker also notes that Brigham's famous knock on the pulpit with his cane would "remain there as a testimony of the truth and the great power by which he spake."2

L. John Nuttall's description of the sermon adds clarity. "...President Young, although he had not been able to stand on his feet, by the help of his crutch, walked to the stand and stood and talked to the Saints by the power and demonstration of the spirit, being filled by the power of God..."  In connection with Turner's attention to Brigham Young's use of profanity, Brother Nuttall says that the Prophet "did not ask to be excused for swearing as he would swear against them, as would also the Prophet Joseph if they did not retrace their steps," referring to some of the Saints time spent mining with the gentiles. Nuttall then relates that President Young "felt to bless the Latter day Saints, and all the world." Later in the evening, Nuttall observed that "this has been the best day of my life, and desiring to have a determination to press onward in the great work of the last days, in the redemption and salvation of myself, wives, children, and the human family.  Prest. Young, not being able to walk or stand, was carried by the brethren in a chair fixed and prepared for the purpose, so that he was enabled to perform all he desired, but by the faith and prayers of the people he was enabled to stand and talk a short time."3

In presenting the description by these three witnesses of the Prophet's sermon, we can see that the facts used in John Turner's prologue are correct enough, but his presentation of the circumstances distorts how the members themselves perceived this remarkable occasion. Certainly, I have my own perception of how this event occurred, and the reader is welcome to form their own opinion from Brigham Young's talk, and the foregoing information. My intent here is to emphasize the subtlety by which John Turner has achieved his desired atmosphere, and point out that his selective quotations distorts the manner in which Brigham Young delivered this sermon. I'm sure that strong supporters of this biography may object to my review as being overly prejudiced against John Turner. I will again say that I hope this book proves worthy of its reviews. However, the material reviewed thus far has put me on the defensive because it is playing to a stereotype that I believe to be extremely short-sighted, and largely out of focus.

The remainder of the prologue goes on to discuss the rise of Mormon awareness in American culture, and acknowledges Latter-day Saint's ability to weather criticism. He points out that "There are limits, however, to this forbearance. For the Latter-day Saints, their history is sacred. Mormons venerate their ancestors who first responded to the gospel or who pioneered their way across the American continent, and their church devotes considerable resources to maintaining its historical sites, preserving its documents, and defending the reputation of its former leaders." Generally speaking, I believe that most Latter-day Saints would agree with these sentiments. He also rightly highlights that Mormons are more concerned about their founder's reputations, than the Calvinists, Catholics, or other Christian churches. Again, a notion that Mormons would likely concur. After moving from the founding of the Church to Brigham Young, John Turner notes that Brigham Young was "the greatest colonizer in American history;" a great compliment that critic and disciple could agree upon. In contrast, he also notes that Young's "siege mentality, forged in the crucible of anti-Mormon persecution," which led him to "demonize his enemies, employ violent rhetoric, and condone murders."  

If this is any foreshadowing of what is to come, or Turner's description of his understanding of the Prophet's true character, than this book is certain to be a waste of my time. Brigham Young definitely had strong opinions on any number of issues, but these blanket assertions has Turner setting the stage, casting his character, and all that remains to be done is to convince the audience. While there are other points that I take issue with in the Prologue, I will forgo commenting on anything and everything. Much of what is said throughout the remainder of the prologue summarizes Brigham Young's history, as well as that of the Church. Most of it is acceptable, in my opinion, and some of it is off target.

1 "Dedication of the St. George Temple," Interview with Mrs. Maggie Cragun; accessed online from Roots Web at; accessed on January 27, 2013.
2 Charles Walker, Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, 2 Vols., ed. Andrew Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 1:443
3 L. John Nuttall, L. John Nuttall: Diary Excerpts, ed. Ogden Kraut (Salt Lake City: Pioneer Press, 1994), 8-9


  1. I purchased and read the book, also, and I find that I substantially agree with your insight and review. In short, I was disappointed with the patina that John Turner painted Brigham Young with.

    It seems from the outset that Turner wanted to show Young's worst side in just about every context. I'm afraid that you're going to find the rest of the book just as disappointing as you found the Preface.

    1. Thanks for the comment mormonchess. That is disappointing to hear. I'll proceed onward since I purchased the book, and what good is a book review if it only gets through the prologue? :)
      At any rate, I'm worried that I'll come to the same conclusion as you. All the hype may just be about the $$$.

    2. I apologize for being the bearer of unfortunate news.