Sunday, March 3, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Chptr 1

The late Peter G. Mode, formerly Assistant Professor of Church History in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, opened his encyclopedic entry on Mormonism by introducing the Prophet Joseph Smith as being "of neurotic, superstitious parentage..."1  John G. Turner's introduction of Brigham Young's heritage is a bit more subtly stated, but ultimately mirrors Dr. Mode when noting that the Prophet's ancestors, "bequeathed to their descendants a robust belief in supernatural phenomena" (pg 10). This assertion follows shortly after discussing Brigham's great-grandparent's house as being haunted. Leading up to this sensationalistic portrayal of his ancestor's basis underlying their religiosity, Turner focuses on the Young family's perpetual state of poverty. All of this is preliminary, however, to his focus on their membership and participation in Methodism.

It would seem that attention given to Brigham's Methodist background, the largest American Christian church in the 1830's,2 would be a change in tone; this assumption, however, would unfortunately be incorrect. Turner's discussion of Methodism focuses on the fringe factor associated with rural or frontier Methodist sects. The moral values associated with Methodist Christianity are given minimal attention while the charismatic nuances are emphasized, perhaps excessively. "Methodist camp meetings became famous--infamous, to their critics--for singing, shouting, collapsing, and other wild manifestations of spiritual power." The more intelligent community, according to the author, imposed a religious class division that looked unfavorably upon this brand of Christianity. "Both Enlightenment-era skeptics and more rationally inclined members of the clergy hoped that "enthusiastic" forms of popular religion would wither away..." According to Turner, it was this religious faction (the Reformed Methodists) that the Young family embraced, which he describes as "a rugged faith that emphasized direct encounters with God and ecstatic manifestations of the divine" (pg 11-12).

Friendlier voices have similarly observed and discussed the Methodist background of many early LDS converts.3 Christopher Jones noted that charismatic tendencies held an attraction for early LDS converts with Methodist backgrounds,4 but he also provides a broader spectrum of Methodist theology that Turner excludes from his biography. Jones quotes early 19th century Methodist Episcopalian preacher, George Cookman, who defined Methodism as, "a revival of primitive New Testament religion....It is a revival of the vital, fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. It is a revival of the original New Testament organization....It is, above all, a revival of the missionary spirit..."5 Richard Bennett noted that this offshoot believed that "the true church had apostatized."6 These descriptions can be appreciated by Latter-day Saints familiar with Mormon ideology regarding the reformation as an inspired religious shift towards restorationist paradigms. It also demonstrates that the faith of these converts were multi-faceted, rather than the nearly one-dimensional portrayal represented by the author. By subjectively placing Brigham Young in the middle of a superficial climate, the author does the reader a disservice for his shallow penetration of what was actually meaningful to the larger-than-life Prophet.

It seems that John Turner had difficulty in reconciling Brigham Young's character during this early stage of life. Although he doesn't pass up the opportunity to point out that Brigham would later speak in tongues (pgs 30-32 - Chapter Two), lending credence to his narrow depiction of the charismatic heritage and rugged faith embraced by the future prophet, he then quotes Young as saying that the wild manifestations, the "rolling and bawling and thumping" at Methodist camp meetings, "had no effect" upon him (pg 15). Two pages later, Dr. Turner notes that Young's previous skepticism of evangelical revivalism, that which consisted of "shouting, screaming, jumping and falling...", did not deter him from embracing "one of its more radical manifestations" (pg 17). What exactly does he mean by "embrac[ing]" this radical version of Christianity? Exactly how committed and participatory was Brigham Young? And if Brigham was not significantly influenced by the charismatic tendencies of this sect, why place so much emphasis on these particular religious characteristics?

Larry C. Porter notes that Brigham's brothers were active Methodist preachers, including Joseph and Phineas Young (Reformed Methodist), and John Young, Jr. (Orthodox Methodist).6 Why didn't Brigham follow suit? Turner acknowledges that Brigham, like his brother Joseph, believed that "there is not a Bible Christian in the world...," and the religion they joined was "the religion they liked" (pg 18). This direct quotation seems to oppose Turner's previous assertion that Brigham "took evangelical claims seriously," and that he "carefully thought through his conversion [to Methodism]" (pg 15). Considering that the future prophet was adamant that he be baptized by immersion, like the Baptists were doing, and apparently not a consistent practice among Methodists, it seems to be an exaggeration for Turner to say that Brigham "embraced" this religious sect, and that he was "converted" to it. A more sound explanation, based on the context of his own autobiographical statements, is that Methodism appealed to him more than any other religion at the time, although he may have been somewhat more conservative in relation to its more pronounced charismatic tendencies.

I do not doubt that Brigham Young carefully considered his decision to join with the Methodists, but the term conversion is loaded with implications. The author's take on Brigham's character development depicts somewhat of a roller coaster ride. Yet if you stay close to what Brigham Young actually said and did, then a more grounded character emerges. Does it make more sense to focus on pentecostal-like behaviors of Methodist converts because Brigham Young later spoke with the gift of tongues, or does it make more sense that Brigham recognized the need for a restoration of primitive Christianity, the primary message of Mormonism, especially when the "rolling and bawling and thumping...had no effect" upon him? Consider Brigham's own experience in finally converting to Mormonism, an experience that Turner decided to exclude from his narrative.
If all the talent, tact, wisdom, and refinement of the world had been sent to me with the Book of Mormon, and had declared, in the most exalted of earthly eloquence, the truth of it, undertaking to prove it by learning and worldly wisdom, they would have been to me like the smoke which arises only to vanish away. But when I saw a man without earthly eloquence, or talents for public speaking, who could only say, "I know, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is a prophet of the Lord," the Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminated my understanding, and light, glory, and immortality were before me. I was encircled by them, filled with them, and I knew for myself that the testimony of the man was true.7
I am unclear as to why this most pertinent of candid autobiographical reflections is not included in the biography. This is not to say that Turner excluded similarly relevant quotations, but his entire chapter is filled with charismatic undertones, giving the impression that Brigham Young's spirituality was essentially based on sensationalistic factors. The current of his narrative continues through the author's introduction of Joseph Smith, whom he identifies as a "farmhand, treasure-seeker, and visionary..." (pg 20). Here Turner makes sure to include the caricature persistently applied to Joseph Smith by his critics, namely, the notion of the latter-day prophet being a "treasure seeker." It is stated matter-of-factly, without any discussion of its merits or references to appropriate sources.8 By the time Brigham Young met Joseph it was something that Joseph hadn't participated in for at least six years. Continuing with Joseph and the restoration, Turner briefly discusses the Book of Mormon and selectively identifies passages that lend towards a largely unbalanced portrayal of its contents and message, including the Lamanites being cursed with a skin of blackness, and Moroni's emphasis on miracles. Turner asserts that in the years ahead, "Smith's followers would attract both converts and derision for their practices of divine healing, speaking in tongues, and ongoing revelation" (pg 22).

As a biographer, Turner should have put more thought into providing his narrative context, and should have been more objective in discerning what was meaningful in this cultural setting. He mentions absolutely nothing of Book of Mormon soteriology, the most pervasive subject throughout the book, and he treats Joseph Smith in terms of controversy and notoriety, stating that a "surprising number of men and women accepted his prophetic claims" (pg 24). If it is surprising, then it is also clear that Turner lacks sufficient depth with respect to understanding Joseph, the nature of his claims, and the culture in which he emerged. He also demonstrates a lack of understanding Brigham's conversion to Mormonism, using terms foreign to Latter-day Saint vernacular which are laden with dramatic inferences. He notes that Brigham joined after having "spiritual ecstasy" and experiencing "supernatural power" and "ecstatic manifestations" (pgs 26-27, 12). However, I suppose that I might be judging too harshly on this subject, considering that Turner is describing these events from an outside perspective. One should not expect a fully accurate portrayal when the author cannot relate to the spiritual confirmation experienced by Mormon converts. Although, it is for this reason that I again emphasize that the best an outside biographer can do is interpret the conversion experience without the ability to fully sympathize with such. Accordingly, the depth that is gained with similar spiritually converting experiences can never be properly understood by the uninitiated.
On a side note, I suppose that I could be critiqued for pretending to understand Brigham Young better than Turner because I share the same spiritual testimony of the restored gospel, but lack the ability to fully understand Brigham's experiences in being an Apostle, President of the Church, husband to multiple wives, and father of numerous children to those wives, Governor, colonizer, temple builder, etc. This critique would be accurate, however, the same would go for John Turner. We do the best we can based on our limited understanding, and as nobody can achieve a perfect understanding, any attempt will be short-sighted; however, my main critique of Turner is his one-dimensional portrayal of Brigham Young's religiosity, despite the subject's own autobiographical reflections. I take for granted the value of those sentiments and try to understand his actions in relation to the context of his culture. I personally feel that Turner failed in this regard.

Where Turner succeeded was in providing future biographers with ample references for further investigation, and he also summarized Brigham's ultimate conversion in fairly accurate terms (after providing misleading background information). He stated that Brigham, "converted because Mormonism satisfied a skepticism rooted in both rationality and deeply ingrained biblicism and because the elders who witnessed to him displayed spiritual gifts that surpassed anything he had known in Reformed Methodism" (pg 27). In Brigham's own words, he stated:
When I undertook to sound the doctrine of "Mormonism," I supposed I could handle it as I could the Methodist, Presbyterian, and other creeds of Christendom, which I had paid some considerable attention to, from the first of my knowing anything about religion. When "Mormonism" was first presented to me, I had not seen one sect of religionists whose doctrines, from beginning to end...were [not] so deficient...that when I tried to tie the loose ends and fragments together they would break in my hands. When I commenced to examine "Mormonism," I found it impossible to take hold of either end of it; I found it was from eternity, passed through time, and into eternity again.9
This autobiographical account hardly reconciles with Turner's previous scenario, wherein the speaking of tongues and spiritual ecstasy accounted for Brigham's religiosity. Clearly the future prophet was a man with a sense of deep, penetrating thought, and subject to the humble voice of the Spirit. However, perhaps Turner may have been correct in assessing that prior to Mormonism, "there was nothing in Brigham Young's life that foreshadowed any sort of success, let alone greatness" (pg 20). For that reason, Turner should be focusing on those particular strengths of Mormonism that most appealed to Brigham Young which transformed him into the leader that he would become, not just the controversial and sensational characteristics that critics tend to focus on. A good biographer should be able to  penetrate the shallow and superficial caricatures reflected by Brigham's critics, and he should be able to provide Latter-day Saints with an accurate cultural setting from which the subject emerged.

1 Peter G. Mode, "Mormonism," A Dictionary of Religion and Ethics, ed. Shailer Matthews and Gerald Birney Smith (New York: The MacMillan Compay, 1921), 295
2 J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of Protestantism (New York: Facts on File Books, 2005), 553
3 Larry C. Porter, "The Brigham Young Family: Transition Between Reformed Methodism and Mormonism," in A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Andrew C. Skinner (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 249-280; Christopher C. Jones, "We Latter-day Saints are Methodists": The Influence of Methodism on Early Mormon Religiosity (M.A. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2009), available online here; also see Christopher C. Jones, "Mormonism in the Methodist Marketplace: James Covel and the Historical Background of Doctrine and Covenants 39-40," BYU Studies Quarterly 51/1 (2012):67-98
4 Jones, "Mormonism in the Methodist Marketplace," 84-85
5 Jones, "We Latter-day Saints are Methodists", 73 (emphasis removed).
6 Richard E. Bennett, A Study of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Upper Canada, 1830-1850 (M.A. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 1975), 35-36, as cited in, "The Brigham Young Family: Transition Between Reformed Methodism and Mormonism," online here.
7 Brigham Young, "March of Mormonism, etc.," Journal of Discourses 1:90
8 Marvin S. Hill, "Money-Digging, Folklore, and the Beginnings of Mormonism: An Interpretive Suggestion," BYU Studies 24/4; Richard L. Anderson, "The Mature Joseph Smith and Treasure Searching," BYU Studies 24/4; Ronald W. Walker, "The Persisting Idea of American Treasure Hunting," BYU Studies 24/4; also see Nibley's, "The Myth Makers" in Hugh Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, 19 Vols., ed. David J. Whittaker (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], Brigham Young University and Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1991), vol. 11; online here; additionally, see Richard Lloyd Anderson's book review, entitled "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reexamined," FARMS Review 3/1 (1991):52-80  
9 Brigham Young, "Saints subject to temptation, etc.," Journal of Discourses 2:123


  1. You mistakenly call Christopher Jones Christopher Smith.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out - I have corrected it throughout the post.