Friday, March 15, 2013

Brigham Young - John Turner Review Chptr 2

I suppose my frustration with this book thus far, is based on a couple of issues that I see as significant shortcomings. First, I am bothered with the labeling of this book as a biography, especially as a definitive biography, because it has yet to provide adequate biographical information. John Turner has provided a contextual landscape, but neglected to sufficiently delineate Brigham Young's portrait within the book's canvas, at least through the first fifty-four pages. Second, Turner's hostile bias towards Joseph Smith distracts from Brigham as the primary focus in this chapter. The author's inability to appreciate Joseph for his leadership and ability to inspire and attract disciples fatally flaws his ability to comprehend, or at least articulate, why Brigham was so devoted and such a strong disciple of the restorational prophet. Additionally, on a side note, I am confused as to why LDS reviewers are treating this book as favorably as they have been. While Turner's in depth research is apparent, his selective inclusion of  information leaves the contents materially deficient and he has created an imbalanced portrayal hardly acceptable under scholarly standards. All that I can conclude thus far, is that propaganda evolves and becomes more elaborate. I will further address each of these issues in detail below.


Perhaps the best biography that I've read is Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, by Edward L. Kimball.1 Aside from the personal interest I have in Spencer W. Kimball, the author successfully utilizes a multi-faceted approach by incorporating numerous perspectives into the book. Edward, a son of President Kimball, includes commentary from the late Prophet, and from the Prophet's associates, friends, family, media, public, journals, letters, etc., until a well-balanced portrayal is provided. He successfully weaves chronology into a thematic biographical approach, discussing the Prophet's public and personal life in broad strokes with the successful integration of detailed descriptions. His array of primary sources are abundant, and his ability to objectively interpret character and events leaves little wanting. Significant church accomplishments are provided from a biographical perspective. Turner, on the other hand, has simply construed church history (in chapter 2) through foggy lenses, with portions of Brigham thrown into the mix. There are so many resources regarding  the early era of the church that it leaves the reader wondering when Brigham's involvement and role in these events will be adequately explored; instead, while we are provided with a detailed cultural setting, we only receive a skimming of the biographical surface.

Stanley Weintraub once wrote, "Among the perennial dilemmas of the biographer are the paradoxes that facts do not always add up to truth, and that invention not only furnishes teasingly attractive material for the biographer, but often has its own kind of truth."2 Such is the case with Turner and his obsession with Brigham Young and the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues (hence the chapter title: "The Tongue of Angels"). The author indicates that the gift of speaking in tongues was a "sign of delusion" and a "badge of lunacy," and makes sure to stereotype early Mormonism, noting that this gift "continued as a [uniquely] distinctive feature of early Mormon spirituality" (pg 33). In fact, Turner discusses this spiritual gift repeatedly throughout the chapter as though it were a regular occurrence common to every single LDS household. He neglects to take into consideration the  context of each occasion, and those involved in such manifestations. He doesn't seem to consider the possibility that an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon new members in the restored gospel may have been very much like the pentecost described in Acts 2. Turner states that Mormonism moved to the "fringes of American religion" (pg 30), and in his consistent imbalanced approach, excludes the fact that such beliefs were in alignment with New Testament Christianity. And this is where Turner fails to provide appropriate context - when one thinks of speaking in tongues, generally something like this comes to mind:

I'm not posting this video in an attempt to disrespect or mock those that believe in the authenticity of such. I'm posting this video, because Turner's depiction of Brigham Young's speaking in tongues is unqualified, and no Latter-day Saint would conceive of what is happening in this video as being consistent with the exercise of spiritual gifts in early Mormonism. The reason this depiction has no appeal to Mormons is because the spiritual confirmation experienced by Latter-day Saints is entirely absent in the above video. Those Latter-day Saints that have experienced spiritual gifts also know that there is a consistency in spirit between exercising spiritual gifts and that of the converting experience. Turner makes no effort to understand the difference between spiritual gifts exercised by Latter-day Saints versus other brands of Christianity, and leaves the reader to imagine a Brigham Young that may be more in line with the charismatic lady in the video.

After reading this chapter, one wonders why John Turner is obsessed with the gift of speaking in tongues. Is it something that he is intrigued by? Is it something he deplores? Shirley Leicke has noted that, "whether one agrees...or not...all biography is, in part, autobiographical. Few, if any biographers would choose a subject if the themes of that life were not interesting enough to sustain research and writing....Thus, one can assume that some aspect of the theme explored resonates deeply within the author."3 I'm not sure why John Turner puts this characteristic in the forefront, but it is certainly only one religious trait that reflects Brigham Young's spiritual gifts. However, even if it were the primary characteristic of the subject, for all the attention given to this enigmatic trait, the author still does not adequately explore this topic.

Additionally, Chapter 2 is chalk-full of assertions, with little evidence bearing support. Some examples throughout this chapter include:
  • Brigham had "customarily fierce independence" (pg 30)
  • He was a "combative speaker" (pg 30)
  • He won Joseph's respect through "ecstatic and musical spirituality" (pg 30)
  • He was "grudgingly subordinate" (pg 30)
  • Brigham converted to Mormonism because of spiritual gifts (pg 33)
  • Joseph Smith was Brigham's most "significant and formative relationship" (pg 33)
  • Brigham's leadership depended upon "continued displays of spiritual fire" (pg 40)
  • Brigham received Joseph's attention and admiration, and consequently rank in the church, through "continued displays of spiritual fervor" (pg 40-41)
  • Brigham's missionary approach was a "stubbornly biblical defense of Mormonism" (pg 47)
I'm not necessarily arguing that each assertion above is entirely inaccurate; I am arguing that Turner fails to provide sufficient examples to illustrate that his assertions have merit. In this respect, Turner fails as a biographer. He fails to bring depth and a well-rounded understanding of Brigham Young onto his pages. He fails to note what Joseph says about him, what his peers say about him, and minimally includes statements from Young himself. As a history of early Mormonism, it is highly skewed, overlooks pertinent events, and fails to capture the church in its cultural setting like Richard Bushman and others have. As a biography, it fails to capture Brigham Young's character, and is irreconcilable with the numerous autobiographical and biographical quotations from Young and his contemporaries regarding this period of his life.

For example, Turner focuses heavily on spiritual gifts as Brigham's primary attraction to Mormonism. In doing so, based on the depth of his sources and his fluidity with such materials, it is apparent that he deliberately excluded pertinent biographical data. In contrast, Ronald K. Esplin, covering much of the same time period of Brigham's life, provides significantly more information regarding Brigham's religiosity, including his piety and humility, and his search for New Testament Christianity, which he found deficient in all of the religious sects that he encountered. Further, Brother Esplin elaborates on Brigham Young's yearning for solid doctrine, which he found to be inadequate in the existing Christian churches. Interestingly, both biographers utilize many of the same quotations, but Esplin goes above and beyond that which Turner provides. For example, Turner regularly cites comments by the future prophet's siblings, but for some reason excludes a dream that Lorenzo Young had regarding Brigham's unique importance and significance, whereas, Esplin astutely incorporates this into his narrative. In fact, Ronald Esplin includes dozens of quotations by Brigham Young, as well as biographical quotations by neighbors, acquaintances, and friends, that all bear upon Young's quest for primitive, biblical Christianity.4

Esplin's material guides you through Brigham's concerns and yearnings in seeking the gospel through his conversion to Mormonism. It is a virtually seamless road map with a solid and rational approach to interpreting why Brigham Young followed the path that he took, and why Mormonism appealed to the future prophet. Turner's quotations limit the reader to feeling that the charismatic enthusiasm of religionists of this era were the sum and substance of Brigham's quest, and that this was the real basis for early Mormonism religiosity. In my opinion, Turner's understanding of Brigham Young during this phase of his life, as well as his understanding of early Mormonism, is simply shallow. Further, he neglects to focus on the primary character, resulting in a superficial portrayal, partially because he is frequently sidetracked in minimizing the character of Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith

John Turner notes that "by the time of Brigham Young's arrival, Smith had discouraged the private receipt of revelations..." (pg 32). While Joseph instructed the limited nature of revelation (i.e., " is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one, to receive instruction for those in authority, higher than themselves..."),5 Turner's statement is in flat contradiction to everything the prophet taught. In fact Joseph once taught that "No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator."6 Contrast Turner's understanding with that of Richard Bushman's:
Even though he was the seer and God's spokesman to the church, Joseph wanted his followers to experience God as he did....In an inexplicable contradiction, Joseph was designated as the Lord's prophet, and yet every man was to voice scripture, everyone to see God. That conundrum lies at the heart of Joseph Smith's Mormonism. The amplification of authority at the center was meant to increase the authority of everyone, as if the injection of power at the core energized the whole system. Although the Prophet's ability to speak for God put his supreme authority beyond dispute, power was simultaneously distributed to every holder of the priesthood and ultimately to every member. From the outside, Mormonism looked like despotism, if not chaos. On the inside, subservience to the Prophet's authority was believed to empower every member. Though he was Moses and they were Israel, all the Lord's people were prophets.7
Turner's assertion contradicts the message of the restoration, and that which Joseph continually taught throughout his ministry. The assertion from Richard Bushman should resonate with every Latter-day Saint, because this same principle continues today. The former was sloppy or careless, or uninformed and biased against Joseph Smith, the latter represents the character of the Prophet most fitting and properly interpreted in historical context with accurate precision.

Turner also alludes to the idea that Joseph Smith's vision of the three degrees of glory potentially had some reliance upon Emanuel Swedenborg. As noted by FAIR, "the charge that Swedenborg was Joseph's source is a late one, and was not even mentioned by those who disliked both Joseph and Swedenborg, and knew both works. Elements in Joseph's schema are present in the Bible, but not present in Swedenborg's model. The claim of "similarity" rests on a few superficial similarities between Joseph and Swedenborg and the Bible—and ignores the many marked differences between them."8 In this case, the author is simply adopting modern critiques of the Prophet without having any real familiarity with the argument. Throughout this chapter there are subtle jabs at Joseph Smith. Another example is Joseph's proclamation that Brigham's mission to the seed of Joseph (Native Americans) would, "open a door to all the house of Joseph," while Brigham "recorded no positive response to his brief efforts among the Seneca [Indians]" (pg 41). Without trying to interpret how this door would be opened, or otherwise commenting on the subject, the author leaves the reader the impression that this was not fulfilled in any way because Brigham did not record immediate results.

Turner launches into Joseph Smith as being temperamental, unrestrained, and even "testy" as somebody who "found fault with nearly everyone who crossed his path" (pg 43). The problem with Turner's portrayal of the prophet is that nobody could sympathize with this type of person. It lacks depth and doesn't account for why Brigham Young and many others were loyal to the prophet, especially during this time of dissension in the church. Turner can only see Joseph under one light, and doesn't bother attempting to understand why Joseph Smith, as a leader, was able to maintain devout followers, especially like Brigham Young. This continues throughout the chapter where Joseph is finally summarized as being depicted by Americans and soured Mormons as "simply another fraud in a long line of prophetic con artists" (pg 54). This assertion derives from the Kirtland Safety Society failure, in which Joseph's "predictions of Kirtland's future grandeur went unfulfilled," although Turner neglects to identify other external aspects that led to the demise of the bank and city (pg 54).9 The author seems to be unaware of the conditional nature of certain prophecies, especially prophetic blessings which are always dependent upon the righteousness of the people.

At any rate, discussion of Joseph Smith would obviously be an important part of understanding Brigham Young's character, and important relationships with those whom he associated with. However, the author's failure to grasp the strength of this relationship, which was rooted in the bond that they shared in the gospel, hinders Turner's ability to define Brigham's character. While the treatment of Joseph is substantially different than a Fawn Brodie, Dan Vogel, or H. Michael Marquardt treatment, yet his contempt for Joseph, while subtle, is apparent throughout this chapter. As previously mentioned, the negative attention given to Joseph Smith distracts from the purpose of the book in documenting the life and character of Brigham Young.

LDS Reviewers

Aside from some factual inaccuracies by Turner, such as the idea that Joseph Smith alone purchased the Egyptian mummies and papyrus (pg 43),10 the Lectures on Faith were solely prepared by Sidney Rigdon (pg 43),11 and continual use of inaccurate verbiage, such as "evangelism" (pg 44),12 I find the tone and content regarding Joseph Smith to be helplessly one-dimensional and the character development of Brigham Young to be a far cry from being even partially balanced. This isn't to say that John Turner does nothing right in this chapter. In fact, there are some instances where a harsher critic would certainly judge a situation completely differently. Turner's discussion of Brigham and Mary Ann Angell's birth of their son Joseph in October 1834, for instance, was quite favorable, considering that their marriage license was dated March 31, 1834. He gives the benefit of the doubt that "a church marriage may have preceded the license date," since the birth was roughly only seven months after the marriage date. In this case where a lack of source may impair the ability to interpret, or whether due to premature birth, or conversely, conception prior to marriage, Turner's comments are surprisingly respectful. My ultimate concern, however, is with how accurate a portrayal of Brigham Young that the author achieves, as well as the context in which the future Prophet lived and emerged. In this regard, I simply found this chapter wanting.

There should have been more discussion of Brigham's involvement, contributions, and reactions to the events in Kirtland and elsewhere. There should have been more description of the subject's interactions with others in the church and his close association with others, in particular, Heber C. Kimball. There should have been better character development and understanding as to what motivated Brigham to be loyal and steadfast to Joseph and the church. There should have been content at least as thorough as Ronald K. Esplin's treatment. In short, there should have been more. This chapter was too much history and not enough biography.

So why have other LDS reviewers been so positive? Bryan Buchanan notes that this book ranks next to Rough Stone Rolling, and calls it balanced in the treatment of Brigham Young that would satisfy Latter-day Saint and interested outsiders alike.13 Max P. Mueller, over at Juvenile Instructor, offers some criticism, but calls Turner's book  a "fantastic new biography."14 Julie M. Smith at Times and Seasons offers a more balanced review, speaking both positively and negatively on aspects of the book, but still recommends the biography as a real treat for those whose testimonies are strong.15 Craig Foster provides a more cautious review, acknowledging the depth of social and historical context provided, but ultimately identifies the same pervasive issues that I've discussed: namely, Turner's selective inclusion and exclusion of materials skews an accurate portrayal of Brigham Young.16

Richard Bushman (per the dust jacket), notes that the book will require a reassessment of Brigham Young. My thoughts on this comment would be premature at this point, so this may come up again in later posts. On the other hand, perhaps most relevant to the chapter in review, is the commentary by Christopher at Juvenile Instructor. He notes that Turner, "provides the most complete narrative of Young’s early life that in turn provides crucial (if sometimes paradoxical) context for Young’s later role as one of the nineteenth century’s most infamous civil and religious leaders."  He also notes that Turner's accomplishment in this period of Brigham's life is apparent through his "immersion in the secondary literature of the last several decades and especially to his deft use of primary source material in reconstructing Brigham Young's early life and his journey into Mormonism." Christopher notes that previous biographers have fallen short because they have relied too heavily upon Brigham Young's autobiographical reminiscences.17 While there may be truth to this claim, I still have to agree to disagree with Christopher. Turner's historical and cultural context is elaborate compared to other biographers, but his biographical information on Brigham Young is exiguous.

I have already noted that Ronald K. Esplin and John G. Turner utilized many of the same autobiographical recollections from Brigham, but Esplin uses probably twice as many quotations from Brigham, and incorporates numerous other independent and corroborative statements from early Latter-day Saints, as well as from those who opposed Mormonism. His inclusion of Brigham's later recollections provides multiple dimensions of Brigham's theological concerns that Turner never even alludes to. So the accusation that Turner's approach is better, is highly subjective, since Turner intentionally excludes pertinent information. My recommendation (as it relates to this chapter): Turner's biography will provide a great deal of context to Brigham Young's culture, but is materially deficient without reading a supplemental source like Ronald K. Esplin's treatment (referenced below).18

I don't mean to criticize those who have appreciated Turner's book, because his biography is certainly a much friendlier voice from an "outsider" than one could hope for or anticipate. I just have trouble finding agreement with a number of LDS reviewers who embrace such a skewed portrayal of Brigham Young.

1 Edward Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Sale Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2005)
2 Stanley Weintraub, "Biography and Truth," Journal of General Education 19/3 (Oct 1967):171
3 Shirley A. Leckie, "Biography Matters: Why Historians Need Well-Crafted Biographies More than Ever," in Writing Biography: Historians and their Craft, ed. Lloyd E. Ambrosius (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 2
4 Ronald K. Esplin, "Conversion and Transformation: Brigham Young's New York Roots and the Search for Bible Religion," in Lion of the Lord: Essays on the Life and Service of Brigham Young, ed. Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1995), 20-53
5 Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith, Jr. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977), 21; hereafter referred to as TPJS
6 Smith, TPJS, 328
7 Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 175
8 "Plan of Salvation/Three Degrees of Glory/Swedenborg," FAIR wiki (available online here), accessed March 9, 2013
9 Scott H. Partridge, "The Failure of the Kirtland Safety Society," BYU Studies 12/4 (1972):437-454
10 John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], Brigham Young University, 2000), 3
11 Larry E. Dahl, "Authorship and History of the Lectures on Faith," in The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective, eds. Larry E. Dahl and Charles D. Tate, Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1990), available online here
12 Joseph Smith noted that an evangelist was a patriarch. The term used may be accurate in 19th century context, but certainly not accurate in 19th or 20h century LDS vernacular. For Turner to accurately describe missionary efforts and other religious tendencies it would be more appropriate to use the verbiage employed by early Latter-day Saints in order to avoid misconception as the term is used today.
13 Bryan Buchanan, "Review: Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner," Mormon Chronicles blog (accessed on March 10, 2013)
14 Max Mueller, "One Family? Race and Mormonism in John Turner's "Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,"" Juvenile Instructor blog; (accessed on March 10, 2013)
15 Julie M. Smith, "Book Review: Brigham Young: Pioneer, Prophet, by John G. Turner," Times and Seasons blog; (accessed on March 11, 2013)
16 Craig L. Foster, "New Light and Old Shadows: John G. Turner's Attempt to Understand Brigham Young," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 3 (2013):197-222
17 Christopher, "Brigham Young’s Early Religious Life and Conversion in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet," Juvenile Instructor blog; (accessed on March 15, 2013)
18 See footnote 4 above, and see Ronald K. Esplin, The Emergence of Brigham Young and the Twelve to Mormon Leadership (Ph.d. Dissertation, Brigham Young University, 2006; originally approved in 1981), 15-34

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