10 questions with Thomas Alexander

We’re happy to have an other of our co-posts with Kurt Manwaring with 10 questions with Thomas Alexander. Thomas Alexander was the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History at BYU. Alexander has had an illustrious career teaching at Berkeley, University of Nebraska, University of Utah and more along with 40 years at BYU. He just wrote the new Brigham Young biography Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith. I bought my copy last month but just started it a few days ago so I can’t say too much about it yet. This is the second recent Brigham Young biography with John Turner’s biography having come out in 2012. Alexander was rather famous in LDS history circles for his extremely well regarded and influential Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints 1890-1830. When he wrote that this transitionary period was very understudied. He is also one of the authors of the Historical Dictionary of Mormonism and the author of Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History along with many other books and papers.

Concerning whether he can be objective given his Mormon background Alexander wrote:

I carry a religious tradition from Jerusalem through New York, Missouri, Nauvoo (Ills), and Salt Lake City as an active and believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I carry a secular tradition from Athens through the scholarly community to Utah State University and the University of California at Berkeley.

Both of these traditions influence my thinking and analysis of evidence. I do not believe that any scholar can be “objective” in the sense that that term is used in the scholarly world. I believe that those who think they are “objective” are self-deluded at best.

I believe, however, that the most important characteristic of a scholar is honesty, and I try to achieve that objective in my research and writing.

While I’ve not yet finished reading Alexander’s take on Brigham Young to contrast it with John Turner’s, the question of objectivity seems to arise whenever a Mormon writes about our religious history. Particularly in relation to somewhat controversial figures like Young it seems hard to avoid the religious issue. Bushman faced the same thing with his Rough Stone Rolling with some suggesting he couldn’t escape his biases with either Vogel’s early Smith history or even Brodie’s held up against Mormons writing history. I think it unfortunate that some assume a believer can’t be objective (or that somehow a non-Mormon avoids bias).

The old philosophical distinction of Jerusalem vs. Athens is interesting as well. In a sense all Mormons have to balance those two inclinations when doing scholarship of any sort. Clearly Alexander is aware of the tension but feels that honestly engaging with the evidence is possible and that he is objective.

Regarding misunderstandings of Brigham Young, Alexander writes:

Some of the common misunderstandings are that he was a tyrant. We have too much evidence that associates and members of the church disagreed with him and that they did things that he had told them not to do.

There are some scholars who take the absurd position that nothing important or tragic could have occurred by church members that he did not approve. He was also generally very kind to family members rather than a bully in dealing with his family.

He did not order the Mountain Meadows Massacre. There is no evidence that he did so, and in fact, the currently available evidence leads to the conclusion that he did not. Moreover, as early as 1859 he tried to make arrangements to bring the perpetrators to justice. He actually sent apostles to let them know that they most stand trial, and at least three of the major leaders hired attorneys in the belief that they would soon go to trial. Federal officials torpedoed his efforts.

Alexander also noted how Brigahm’s views on violence changed.

During the Reformation of 1856-57 Brigham Young preached Blood Atonement. After the Utah War he began to preach peace and love, and he urged other leaders to do so.

After he had good information about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, he tried to bring the leading perpetrators to justice, but he could not do so.

Brigham’s role in Mountain Meadows is, of course, controversial. Scholars like Alexander or Ron Walker and Richard Turley think Young was not guilty. Others such as Will Bagley blame Young for both the massacre and the coverup. While I suspect Alexander will largely follow Turley with respect to the history of the massacre, that is one part of his biography I look forward to. It’s worth noting that John Turner, himself a non-Mormon, wrote that “the existing evidence suggests that Young did not order the crime.”

Alexander, speaking of the most unanswered question regarding Young, says it is,

Why [Young] waited so long to excommunicate John D. Lee and why he secured the reinstatement of Isaac Haight four years after he was excommunicated.

You can read the full interview up at 10 Questions. When I finish Alexander’s biography I’ll be putting up a review.

7 comments for “10 questions with Thomas Alexander

  1. Thanks Clark! I look forward to your review of the new biography.

    I thought it was interesting that Dr. Alexander talks about Brigham Young trying to bring the perpetrators to justice and the government frustrated his efforts. My impression from the histories I’ve read was that while Brigham Young probably didn’t arrange the massacre he did actively work to cover it up. I look forward to seeing what he has to say about that in the biography once I get my hands on it.

  2. Walker and Turley have a book coming on the trials and coverups that includes a lot of data people didn’t have before. So I suspect Alexander is drawing on their research.

  3. I have appreciated Alexander’s work for decades (since Mormonism in Transition). This is by far his most readable and accessible book to the general reader. Its excellent, although there aren’t as many sources since the Western Biography series by University of Oklahoma is meant to be mostly based on secondary literature AND foregoes detailed sourcing in either footnotes and endnotes. This lack of notation is NOT the main reason its so enjoyable to read (its the writing!) I also appreciated his acknowledgment of the challenge in this setting with the recent change in referring to members of the Church.

  4. Yeah, I love Mormons in Translation but it’s prose isn’t the most readable in some ways. While I’ve not got far yet in his Brigham Young, it does seem like it flows much better.

  5. Clark – any word on when the expected follow up volume to Walker & Turley’s MMM is set to come out? I had originally thought it was coming out 10 years ago, and with the passage of time and Walker’s death 3 years ago, I was beginning to think the project had been abandoned.

  6. He and one of the coauthors were recently interviewed. I think on the Gospels Tangent podcast.

  7. JT—Rick Turley told me they’re in the process of trimming the book, but we still have a decent wait.

    “The ‘sequel’ has been drafted but is way too long, and Barbara and I are currently doing what my editing professors used to call “drowning your babies”: cutting precious paragraphs on which we have lovingly doted,” Turley said.

    “Once we get the manuscript trimmed to the proper level, then we need to submit it to the publisher,” he said. “Most university presses take between a year and eighteen months to complete their vetting, editing, and printing. So I think we’re still a couple of years off from public availability.”

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