John Turner, of GMU’s Religious Studies Department, has produced one of the most fascinating historical works I’ve read in years.  Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Harvard University Press, 2012) is much more than a biography of the father of modern Utah.  It’s a fascinating case study in the history of religion – and the malleability of human conformity.  Consider: If you wanted to found a new religion today, how would you even start?  And once you did, how would you persuade your converts to embrace alien customs that outrage the mainstream society that surrounds them?

Turner’s careful, detailed, and elegant book begins in the early years of the 19th-century.  The poverty young Brigham Young endured is all the more striking when you realize that millions of European immigrants yearned to become his neighbors.

Now forty years of age, John Young [father of Brigham] once again plunged into therigors of building a home, clearing land, and planting crops.  Despite his exertions, he never became a successful frontier farmer. The Youngs at least occasionally went hungry and could rarely provide their children with adequate clothing, let alone anything resembling a formal education. “In my youthful days,” Brigham later reminisced, “instead of going to school, I had to chop logs, to sow and plant, to plow in the midst of roots barefooted, and if I had on a pair of pants that would cover me I did pretty well.” Brigham and his siblings learned to provide for themselves. “My sisters would make me what was called a Jo. Johnson cap for winter,” he recalled, “and in summer I wore a straw hat which I frequently braided for myself.” Brigham had ten siblings. His sister Nabby died shortly after their move to Smyrna, but his four brothers and five other sisters lived into adulthood.

Turner provides a gripping tour of Brigham Young’s early intellectual “shopping” in the bazaars of Protestant enthusiasm.  But of course Young eventually meets Joseph Smith and becomes a loyal Mormon leader.  Mainstream America’s abuse of the early Mormons was no joke; they experienced the moral equivalence of exclusion and exile first hand. 

Leaving his wife and children behind in Kirtland, Brigham Young headed for Missouri… In 1836, a citizens meeting had insisted that the Mormons leave Clay County, where the expelled Jackson County Mormons had taken refuge across the river. Residents of neighboring Ray County did not want Mormon refugees within their borders, but state legislation carved two counties — Caldwell and Daviess — out of northern Ray County. Caldwell County would be a new home for the Missouri Mormons, who quickly bought out the few non-Mormon settlers, laid out a city (Far West), designated a site for a temple, and held the county’s political offices.

After Smith’s murder, as we all know, Young assumed command and led his people west to Utah in one of history’s most notable “start your own country projects.”  This soon led to standard murder and robbery of the native population, though Turner convincingly argues that it could have been a lot worst.  Mormon theology restrained Mormon brutality, but brutality there was:

[I]n late 1848 some Mormon settlers called for violent reprisals against the prior occupants of the land. Young initially rejected such calls. “A many Elders have prayed to be among the Lamanites,” he complained, “and now they want to kill them.” He reminded his restless followers that “they [the Indians] are the Children of Abraham, the descendents of Israel … the remnants of Israel.” As he would frequently repeat over the next three decades, he also told the settlers that they should not hold the Indians to white standards of morality in cases of theft. After several more months of cattle theft, Young changed his mind. In February 1849, several Mormon scouts met with Little Chief, one of the leading Utah Valley Utes. Little Chief complained about former members of his band who stole Mormon cattle and encouraged “the big white Capatan [Young] to send up some men and kill those … mean Ewtes.” Little Chief’s motivations are unclear. Perhaps he aimed to use the Mormons against his own enemies, or perhaps he simply wanted to curry favor with the leaders of the rapidly growing Mormon population. In any event, he warned the Mormon scouts that inaction would only breed more thieves. Prompted by this suggestion, Young dropped his previous inhibitions about killing Indians. He authorized an early March expedition that tracked the Indians and, after they refused to surrender, killed all of the party’s men save one sixteen-year-old boy.

Back east, Mormon polygamy fueled Americans’ doubts about state’s rights, better known as popular sovereignty:

Democrats, however much they disliked polygamy, correctly understood the Republican position on polygamy as a backdoor attempt to regulate territorial slavery. Thus, many southern Democrats opposed anti-polygamy efforts. If Congress could declare territorial polygamy a crime, why could it not prohibit slavery’s further expansion? According to Utah congressional delegate John Bernhisel, Douglas expressed his opposition “to any interference with any local or domestic institution, for the reason that if the principle were once recognized it would apply everywhere, to all religious sects, slavery, etc.” At the same time, though, the Democrats recognized that any perceived support for the Mormons would imperil the party’s doctrine of popular sovereignty. Indeed, in order to discredit Douglas’s political creed, in 1857 an abolitionist newspaper mocked the Mormons as “freaks of popular sovereignty.”

Whatever you think about Young’s divine inspiration, his poor grasp of economics was all-too-human.  Apologists will whisper of the political externalities of immigration, but it’s all jumbled together with textbook sophisms and misanthropy

…Young worried that the railroad’s impending arrival would bring a host of non-Mormon settlers to Utah and bolster the economic power of non-Mormon merchandizing houses. Young considered most non-Mormon merchants at least tacit supporters of the political and military clique that sought the overthrow of Mormon political and economic supremacy. Economic carpetbaggers, they were “[m]issionaries of evil” and the church’s “avowed enemies.” On at least one occasion, Young singled out Jewish merchants as the particular target of his contempt. “There are Jews here,” he warned in the spring of 1869. “They are not our friends. Do not trade with them. They do not Believe in Jesus Christ.

Young expected non-Mormons merchants to pursue their own self-interest, but he believed that the territory’s Mormon merchants also valued mammon more highly than the welfare of the church and its members. Like leeches, they drained an industrious and righteous citizenry of its economic blood, charging the highest possible prices for the goods they imported or otherwise obtained. “They will get sorrow,” Young warned in 1864, “the most of them will be damned.” Three years later, Young noted that one of the earliest of Joseph Smith’s revelations instructed a merchant to “sell goods without fraud,” a commandment Young accused the city’s Mormon merchants of breaking by selling merchandise at inflated prices. Young’s criticisms were not unusual in post-Civil War America. As the railroad extended the sway of city-based wholesalers and bankers across the Great West, many Americans in the western hinterland concluded that merchants and bankers profited at their expense through corrupt and cruel practices.

Knowing an economic battle loomed, Young made plans to hold as much ground as possible. The first prong of his response was a boycott of non-Mormon merchants, announced in 1865. While many Mormons failed to comply with this directive, enough toed the line to persuade twenty-three Gentile merchants to offer their stock to the church. Even so, non-Mormon trading houses continued to thrive. Walker Brothers, the territory’s largest merchandizing operation and run by former Mormons, annually cleared upwards of a half-million dollars by the end of the decade.

Turner closes with some fascinating thoughts on leadership and political slack:

Over the course of the twentieth century, Mormonism became super-patriotic, more fully reconciled to American capitalism, and in occasional partnership with politically conservative evangelicals. Once regarded as notorious sexual deviants by most other Americans, the Latter-day Saints eventually became vocal defenders of heterosexual monogamy. Especially after the church began excommunicating persons for practicing polygamy in the early 1900s, some Mormons formed splinter churches that retained what they saw as key articles of the faith as expressed by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, including polygamy. Many fundamentalist Mormons also adhered to Young’s identification of Adam as God, which Young’s successors gradually rejected. Most of Young’s ecclesiastical descendents, however, found it necessary to move away from theaspects of his vision that could not peacefully or prosperously exist within the United States.

The rapid evolution of the church after Young’s death provides an ironic testimony to the strength of his leadership. George Q. Cannon later revealed that some of his ecclesiastical associates complained that Young had “ruled with so strong and stiff a hand” that they “dare[d] not exhibit their feelings to him.” Furthermore, they alleged “that the funds of the Church have been used with a freedom not warranted by the authority which he held.”

I read many books on obscure topics, but rarely cover-to-cover.  But once I started Brigham Young, Pioneer Prophet, I had to hear the whole story.  At root, this book isn’t about Mormons.  It’s about humanity’s capacity for weirdness – and the bedrock of normality on which the weirdest weirdness rests.