Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith, a Review

Back in June, Clark Goble mentioned that he was going to write a review of Thomas G. Alexander’s new biography Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith. It’s one of many misfortunes among the great losses of Clark passing away that we never had the opportunity to read the review he was planning on writing about the book. As a direct result of Clark’s discussion of the biography, I read the book and thought I might share some thoughts.

Thomas G. Alexander was the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University. Along with an illustrious career in teaching, he has published several works that are important to Latter-day Saint history, including the groundbreaking Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints 1890-1830 as well as Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff and Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History.

Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith was written by Alexander as a part of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series—a collection of short biographies written from published sources. The biography is a fast-paced overview of Brigham Young’s life, covering key events from his childhood, his conversion to the early Latter Day Saint movement, and onward through his time as the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The heaviest emphasis is on his time in Utah Territory, both during his tenure as territorial governor and afterwards. Although it is light on citations (part of how the series is set up), it is well-researched and well-written.

In reading previous biographies of Brigham Young, I walked away from Leonard Arrington’s Brigham Young: American Moses feeling like I had a good understanding of what Brigham Young did and went through. After reading John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, I felt like I knew what Brigham Young was like as a person better than I did after reading Arrington’s biography. Given the fast-paced nature of Dr. Alexander’s work, it felt more like the former to me, with the focus being on the events that Brigham Young went through and the decisions he made rather than his inner workings. Alexander picked his battles on what he focused on, passing quickly over some areas of Brigham Young’s life to focus on others, particularly those where new insights could be shared. This was particularly true about the period of Brigham Young’s life between his conversion to the Church of Christ and the time that he was leading the Church from Salt Lake City. I suspect, however, that this was more due to the nature of writing a smaller biography on a big subject than anything else.

Thomas Alexander spends a lot of time and effort in this biography to rebut things ranging from common misconceptions to portrayals of significant events by other historians. Some of this was relatively minor things, such as the fact that there were whole copses trees in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 (not just one tree) and that the Salt Lake Valley is properly considered a dry summer temperate climate, not a desert. Others were less trivial. One that he brings up repeatedly is that the Latter-day Saints weren’t as quick to follow Brigham Young’s every word as is often portrayed—he did not have absolute authority and often only prevailed in implementing his policies through sheer persistence. On the notable topic of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Dr. Alexander goes to lengths to explain why the blame for the incident should be laid squarely on the shoulders of Isaac Haight rather than Brigham Young. He also suggested that the lack of immediate justice for the massacre was more the result of federal appointees who were so anti-Mormon they refused to accept the cooperation of Church leaders in the investigation than a cover-up by Brigham Young. It might just be me, but felt like it was unusually common throughout the book to come across moments of “this is what is often said” followed by “but this is what seems to have really happened.”

While Thomas G. Alexander is a Latter-day Saint, he doesn’t give Brigham Young an easy pass. One topic in particular that stood out to me in this biography was the failings of President Young’s policies towards Native Americans. In effect, Young tried to encourage Anglo-Americans and Native Americans to live side-by-side. While he encouraged the Latter-day Saints who were of European descent to share food and resources with their Native American neighbors, he also encouraged his fellow immigrants to settle on lands used by Native Americans for generations, effectively taking away their economic base. When this ended in warfare with the Utes, Brigham Young continued to bungle his handling of the situation, resulting in tragedies. While he doesn’t go easy on Brigham Young, the author does take the time to point out what Brigham Young did well. One part I especially enjoyed was a chapter talking about how Brigham Young used his sermons and cosmic stories to inspire the Latter-day Saints to live the gospel. Overall, Alexander has written an even-handed portrayal of Brigham Young, showing both areas where President Young did well and ones that he did not.

In summary, I felt that Thomas Alexander’s Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith is a well-written, even-handed and readable introduction to the life of a controversial and influential man. While it is not as in-depth as some other biographies, it provides a good overview of the subject and some new insights and research. It is definitely worth taking the time to read and is a good starting place for learning more about the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

2 comments for “Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith, a Review

  1. I loved Turner’s book for the complex portrait it painted, so I’m glad you’re clear about this new volume not offering much by way of primary source work.

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