John Turner on Brigham Young

John Turner’s well-known biography Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Harvard University Press, 2012) provides one of the most well-rounded and in-depth look at the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It remains today one of the definitive biographies of an incredibly complicated man and leader.  Recently, Kurt Manwaring sat down with the author to discuss the book after eight years of time to reflect on the volume and on the prophet it discusses.  What follows here is a co-post, with excerpts and commentary on the interview.  For the full effect, however, I recommend going over and reading the interview here.

In the interview, Turner discussed some of his thoughts about his biography on Brigham Young.  He noted that he was “incredibly gratified by the book’s reception,” including many complimentary reviews across the board.  He noted that there were “a few dissenting views, but I regard those in much the same way that Brigham regarded dissenters.” When asked if he would write the book differently today, Turner stated simply that “I wouldn’t change anything of significance,” just “a few very minor errors that careful readers brought to my attention.”  He also stated that Brigham Young probably wouldn’t “like it very much,” but noted that he (Turner) “wouldn’t want someone to write a warts-and-all biography about me either.”  Overall, John Turner still seems happy with how the biography turned out.

One aspect of his biography that I appreciated was that I felt like I got a better glimpse into the character of Brigham Young.  Kurt Manwaring asked John Turner “how well do you feel you got to know Brigham Young?”  I felt like this question got at the process by which Turner was able to deliver a deeper look into the personality of Brigham Young and the challenges historians face in this regard when dealing with an individual who has a lot of documents available to draw upon:

That’s the tricky thing about history, even when one writes about a figure so incredibly well documented as Brigham. So many of those sources do not provide an intimate encounter with the man.

Take, for instance, his hundreds of sermons. Do those published records reflect every word that he spoke? Of course not. … Or take his letters. In most instances, clerks drafted letters, which he signed and sometimes revised. That being said, there are some very intimate sources, such as his early, handwritten journals, and, on occasion, some handwritten letters, such as some to his sons.

But as a historian who primarily works with written texts, I always remind myself that we do not have direct access to the experiences of others. We only have narratives.

With all of those qualifications, I felt that I got to know Brigham well enough to have a clear sense of his personality: his sharp wit and sense of humor, his perseverance, his creative mind, his adaptability, his faith, and his combativeness.

It’s difficult to capture a person in writing, especially someone from the past that you’re accessing through documents.

Now, not all of Young’s personality as portrayed in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet was positive.  With it being a wart-and-all biography, we get to see the darker side of President Young.  As Julie M. Smith noted in her review on Times and Seasons back when the book first came out: “This book is a real treat, but it might completely destroy your testimony if you can’t handle a fallible, bawdy, often mistaken, sometimes mean, and generally weird prophet.”[1]  In the recent interview, John Turner shared some of his thoughts about this side of Brigham Young:

Sure, Brigham Young had character flaws. Or, to put it another way, he engaged in some behavior and rhetoric that cannot be squared easily with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It makes me reflect on what it means for someone to be a prophet in different traditions. Muslims generally regard prophets as free from at least major sins and free from failure and ignominy.

But that’s not the biblical understanding of prophets or anointed leaders, and David isn’t the only example. Look at Noah’s drunkenness, Abraham’s blundering lies about Sarah, or even Joseph, who reduces people to a state of slavery. And those are the heroes!

Latter-day Saints, likewise, maintain that their leaders are fallible and also that they will not lead the church astray. The question is simply the extent of their fallibility.

Even though Turner is not a Latter-day Saint, his reflection on what it means to be a prophet or anointed leader gave me some thoughts to chew on when considering our leaders (past and present).

Along those lines, one of the issues reviewers brought up about Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet was that they felt like didn’t always give a good explanation for why people liked Young or chose to follow him.  Kurt Manwaring gave Turner a chance to explain his feelings on why so many Latter-day Saints loved and followed President Young, to which Turner replied:

For thousands of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young was the missionary who brought them into the church. This was true of some individuals in the northeastern United States, but even more true in England. Then, for those Saints who followed him to what became Utah, Brigham was the individual who had saved the church in its darkest hour.

Many other things endeared him to church members.

At times, he displayed an intense spiritual fire, whether that manifested itself in speaking in tongues or through his discourses. He could be also incredibly down to earth. He danced with the Saints in the Nauvoo Temple and at Winter Quarters.

Turner went on to express frustration that reviewers felt this his book lacked in this regard, stating that: “While I did not reiterate the above on every single page of the book, I spent a fair amount of time providing precisely these sorts of explanations.”

I can see where Turner is coming from, and I personally walked away from the book feeling like he balanced showing how deeply religious Young was and why he was respected and loved, while also showing that he was flawed and probably someone I wouldn’t like to be around.  One of my favorite assessments of Young in the biography was Turner’s statement (drawing on the words of Richard Burton that “his followers deem him an angel of light,” and “his foes a goblin damned”): “Many of Young’s close associates experienced both the angel and the goblin.  Young excoriated fellow church leaders in public, then salved their wounds with private tenderness.  Living with those contradictions, many of his followers craved his approval even as they feared his fury.”[2]  Brigham Young was both an angel and a goblin at times, and Turner tried to show that balance.

Now, there’s more in the full interview.  For further thoughts on what Turner is still most curious about with Brigham Young, changes in Young’s rhetoric over time, and how his approach to research for a forthcoming biography on Joseph Smith will be similar, head on over to Kurt Manwaring’s site here.



[1] Julie M. Smith, “Book Review: Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John Turner,” 10 September 2012, Times and Seasons,

[2] John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 303.

9 comments for “John Turner on Brigham Young

  1. I thought the biography of Young was fascinating. Much preferable to the sugar-coated biographies we often get about our Church leaders. I came away with a respect for Young and yet a pretty fair certainty that I wouldn’t have liked him personally or enjoyed living in his pioneer kingdom.

  2. FWIW, I had a similar reaction to some people on Julie’s thread when I read the book, thought it’s been some time, so my memory isn’t fresh. It didn’t feel like it was a warts-and-all history so much as a warts-and-more-warts. To be sure, it was really well written and probably the best BY history I know of (though there’s a more recent one I haven’t read from OU). Furthermore, I hate hagiography–I’ll take my prophets as real humans with real human frailties. But it almost felt like the author had a list of “hot topics” that had not really been dealt with much since the church opened its vaults to historians, and so he was going to hit them. As a result, the reader was left wondering why *anyone* would follow BY, in spite of the fact that tens of thousands of people did. The author noted in the Manwaring interview that he did talk about such things, so maybe my memory is just hazy. But that was my meta takeaway at the time.

  3. I read the book several years ago. My reaction was that it is a warts-and-all history, perhaps best summed up by Turner’s concluding summary: Brigham did many great things, but he damaged the lives of people in the process, and even destroyed some people.

    I think that is a fair assessment, and is a welcome antidote to our Church culture of hagiography. It might be upsetting to some people, but I can much more readily accept BY as a warts and all prophet, than the airbrushed portraits of him usually fed to the faithful. A cuddly, nice, and avuncular old man could have not accomplished what BY did.

  4. jimbob–The biography from OU Press is called Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith by Thomas Alexander. Its part of the Oklahoma Western Biography series. Although it doesn’t have notes (one feature of the series), it is readable and scholarly. I think this is Alexander’s best book (and I really appreciated his Mormonism in Transition from University of Illinois AND his Wilford Woodruff from Signature). Its for sure his most readable and he did some original work on this one. I think its a good companion to Turner’s book.

  5. For what it’s worth, I wrote a review on the Alexander biography about a year ago that gives my feelings about that book (

    Thank you for pointing that out Gary Bergera. It sounds like we’re several years out from seeing it based on Turner’s comment in the interview with Kurt Manwaring, but I’m interested in reading that biography when it comes out.

  6. I had an impression similar to jimbob’s. I’m sure Turner did mention some redeeming qualities, but that was drowned out by the faults. The overall impression is of a theocratic tyrant corrupted by his own power, critical of the slightest faults in those around him but unable to handle the slightest criticism. I find the “Hey, I did mention a positive trait right there at the bottom of page 283!”)* defense inadequate. An author has to take responsibility for the overall impression his book conveys.

    I also agree with jimbob that the author’s choice of topics dictated the outcome. He provides a fair treatment of topics like polygamy, race relations, blood atonement, the Adam-God theory, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. But he barely touches on major emphases of Young’s life and of that era of church history, like temple construction and the founding of educational and artistic institutions like what would become the University of Utah and BYU, and the Salt Lake Theater. So his choice of topics dictates his outcome, and is only in some instances related to the things that had the biggest impact on people’s lives at the time.

    *Not an actual citation. I pulled it off the shelf and briefly flipped through it for a real example of something positive about Young but didn’t find one.

  7. I seem to remember reading a review of Turner’s book when it came out that talked about how it needed to be read in companionship with Leonard Arrington’s biography, Brigham Young: American Moses, to get a full picture of Brigham Young. Philip Barlow’s name comes to mind as the reviewer, but I haven’t found the actual review when I looked for it, so I’m not sure on that. Regardless, I think that is a good approach to take. Perhaps jimbob’s feeling that “the author had a list of ‘hot topics’ that had not really been dealt with much” is accurate, but frequently those were hot topics that Arrington tended to skirt a bit back when he was working on his biography. And, if I remember correctly, Arrington’s work covers more of the reasons people followed Brigham Young and the major emphases that Travis points out as being less emphasized in Turner’s book. So, I feel like when taken together, they give you a better picture of Brigham Young than either one does alone.

  8. Turner’s biography provides a great picture of Brigham Young’s culture and well situates him within his context. It fails to provide an adequate biography of Brigham Young. I look forward to a satisfactory biography of Brigham Young some day that will be well-rounded and capture the depth and breadth of BY. Any reading of Brigham Young by others, Arrington, Esplin, England, Porter & Black’s Lion of the Lord, etc. will see gaping deficiencies in Turner’s bio. Even though it was mostly even-handed, it had numerous instances of poorly biased interpretations and glaring omissions. I recommend Turner’s biography, but only in combination with other published material on BY. As it is now, I consider Turner’s book grossly overrated.

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