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Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet Hardcover – September 20, 2012

4.2 out of 5 stars 57 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


In this superb new biography, Turner's strong narrative, human insight, knowledge of context, meticulous use of sources, and sophisticated appreciation of Mormon theology combine to create an account of his larger-than-life subject that is at once informative, judicious, and profoundly engaging. (Daniel Walker Howe, author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848)

A scholarly yet thoroughly readable historical/biographical study, of considerable interest to students of 19th-century American history and religious revivalism. (Kirkus Reviews 2012-05-01)

Turner provides a searing portrait of a leader at his most determined and—at times—ruthless in defense of his religion. A provocative and compelling view of one of the most elusive, yet influential, figures in our nation's westward expansion. (Ken Verdoia, author of Utah: The Struggle for Statehood)

The story Turner tells in this elegantly written biography will startle and shock many readers. He reveals a Brigham Young more violent and coarse than the man Mormons have known. While lauding his achievements as pioneer, politician, and church leader, the book will require a reassessment of Brigham Young the man. (Richard Bushman, author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling)

Inextricably tied together by bonds of fate and faith, Brigham Young and Mormonism rose as one in nineteenth-century America. It is that America, as well as that man and that religion, that Turner explores and explains so well in this wonderful book. (William Deverell, Director, Huntington–USC Institute on California and the West)

Turner's treatment of the complex Brigham Young is unsentimental, cogent, critical, and fair. It takes its place alongside Leonard Arrington's magisterial American Moses as the essential, mutually challenging portraits of one of America's greatest colonizers and religious figures. (Philip L. Barlow, author of Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion)

Turner's broad historical perspective clarifies why Young's ecclesiastical successors have still felt the man's influence--even after abandoning polygamy. An impressively detailed portrait of a controversial giant. (Bryce Christensen Booklist (starred review) 2012-08-01)

A definitive biography of Mormonism's greatest activist and apostle. (Adam Gopnik New Yorker 2012-08-13)

Previous biographers of Brigham Young have used epithets such as 'American Moses' and 'Lion of the Lord.' However, what Turner demonstrates here is that the three-dimensional Young cannot be reduced to saint or tyrant; he was bold, brave, crude, petty, visionary, manipulative, creative, charismatic, kindly, and much more besides. He presents Young as a family man navigating the complexities of polygamy, as a leader moving large numbers of people across the Great Plains, and as a politician negotiating enough independence for the Mormons from the American government that he could build the kingdom of God as he saw fit. Turner was given unprecedented access to the LDS church archives and he makes full use of them and other sources, as well as providing a cogent interpretive context. It is easy to forget Young's significance in American history, but at a minimum it needs to be remembered that he is responsible for settling a vast swath of the West. Turner gives him his due… There aren't enough superlatives for this book. It will remain the standard biography for a long time. Because of its thorough documentation, academics will take it seriously, while general readers will appreciate its clarity of prose and argument. (D. S. Azzolina Library Journal (starred review) 2012-08-01)

[A] magnificent new biography...[Turner's] book should establish him as one of the best religious historians of his generation. Turner had unfettered access to Young's papers, and his keen eye for social context makes this book an excellent introduction to the story of Mormonism as well as an essential addition to the history of the American West. It should also do for Brigham Young what Richard Lyman Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling did for the Mormon prophet: make the case not only that Young was one of the most fascinating people of the 19th century but also that his importance in American history can no longer be overlooked. Indeed, some of that history will have to be revised to fit this "pioneer prophet" into its narrative...Turner's prose is so smooth and his interpretations so balanced that I suspect Mormonism's defenders and detractors alike will flock to this book...Turner is not a member of the Mormon church, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable. (Stephen H. Webb Books & Culture 2012-09-01)

[Turner] provides an admirably balanced account of this complex man, and his little-understood and frequently reviled faith...When finished with this superb biography, readers will find [Brigham Young] less of a curiosity but still fascinating. (Alan Cate Cleveland Plain Dealer 2012-08-25)

In his richly researched new biography of Brigham Young, John G. Turner not only profiles the man who brought the church to Utah, but also satisfies both high-minded and lowbrow curiosity about this most American of religions. (Boston Globe 2012-09-23)

Young's life is admirably chronicled in this fine new biography…The character who emerges from Turner's elegantly written and well-researched biography is a man for whom the word 'protean' might almost have been invented. He became one of the foremost colonizers of American history, leading the Mormons on a perilous journey to the Great Basin and laying claim to approximately a sixth of the western United States…Turner shows [Young] to be a shrewd and subtle politician…Turner's story never drags, partly because the tale itself is so fascinating, but also because he writes with clarity and energy. (Richard Aldous Irish Times 2012-09-22)

Brigham Young is a landmark work...There is no aspect of Young's fascinating life that eludes Turner's scrutiny. (Alex Beam New York Times Book Review 2012-10-21)

A major accomplishment that, more than any past treatment of Young, situates the protean prophet squarely in the context of his turbulent times. Turner is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and brings to Young an emotional objectivity and distance that greatly benefit his profile of the 19th century Mormon leader and colonizer...Turner unflinchingly tackles the full spectrum, warts and all, of Young's multifarious personality and life...For Turner, no topic is off-limits, too controversial, too intimate. He exhibits a healthy skepticism and curiosity that are as bracing as they are salutary...He is balanced, insightful, sympathetic, even occasionally affectionate. Turner's Young is a far cry from the (take your pick) superficial, cartoonish, angelic/devilish caricatures of most popularized portrayals. He is a fully rendered, flesh-and-blood, flawed-but-earnest human being who sincerely believed he had been "called" to govern God's new covenant people as heaven's representative. The biography adds much to both our understanding and appreciation of Young. (Gary James Bergera Salt Lake Tribune 2012-10-06)

Turner offers an unflinching account of Young's life "within the context of mid-19th-century American religion and politics," yet evinces throughout a sympathetic understanding of the way Young and the Mormon pioneers saw themselves: as a chosen people delivered by God from their persecutors and led to a latter-day Zion...Turner's portrait is of a man both great and greatly flawed. (Jason Lee Steorts National Review 2012-10-29)

A comprehensive biography of Young and his times...It is an exceptional work...We can learn a lot about the development of Mormon theology from Turner's book, far more than can be gleaned from previous biographies of Young...Turner is at his best when he is placing the elements of Young's life within the main contours of broader 19th-century America...Those who want to know more about Mormonism's birth and growth will want to get a copy. (Edward J. Blum Christian Century 2012-10-17)

[An] exceptionally well-researched and endlessly interesting biography. (Stuart Kelly The Scotsman 2012-09-29)

[A] strong and authoritative biography. (Jackson Lears New Republic 2012-10-19)

Fascinating...Young very much emerges with his faults manifest in Turner's impressive biography. At the same time, [Brigham Young] takes Mormon studies forward, avoiding the pitfalls of apologia and polemic. (Jeremy Black Standpoint 2012-10-26)

John G. Turner's new biography of Brigham Young...portrays a social experiment, the most ambitious in American history, that until Young's death in 1877 explicitly rejected the core values of Victorian capitalism: possessive individualism and Darwinian competition. (Mike Davis Los Angeles Review of Books 2012-10-25)

The great virtue of John G. Turner's new biography of Brigham Young--the first major study since LDS historian Leonard Arrington's Brigham Young: American Moses (1985)--is the author's stolid resistance to either version of the traditional Young caricature. (Chris Lehmann The Nation 2012-12-17)

[Turner] presents a very thoughtful, well-contextualized account of a complex and contradictory religious leader who was profane as well as pious and powerful. The book traces the development of an aimless young man who became the prophet and president of a sprawling theocracy. Turner offers a fair consideration of Young...This well-researched, readable biography will satisfy all but the most partisan reader. (D. Liestman Choice 2013-02-01)

About the Author

John G. Turner is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 1st edition (September 20, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674049675
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674049673
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #418,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Indulge me: picture a man neck deep in a swift river with people on both banks trying to warn him of boulders they think are in his path. After successfully navigating his course, he exits the river to the cheers of both banks. It happened. His name is John Turner and he's just written a landmark biography of Brigham Young. With an embarrassment of riches in terms of sources that would drown a lesser man and voices from both extremes depicting a tyrannical harem-master and, conversely, a gentle kingdom builder, Turner has achieved a fair and well-rounded portrait of Brigham Young. No sticky wicket (Mountain Meadows, the handcart imbroglio, Young's often testy personality, etc.) is skirted--at the same time, the reader does not get a sense that Turner is poking at them as at a sore tooth. Notoriously difficult for biographers, Young has eluded many through the years. With Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, Turner has done what Rough Stone Rolling did for Joseph Smith: combine meticulous primary source research with balanced historical craft.

One more comparison with Joseph Smith--for many years, Brigham Young: American Moses had served a role much like Joseph Smith: The First Mormon of (at least for believing Mormons) the standard--possibly even definitive in the minds of some--biography. Though Arrington [1] did achieve a much more effective treatment of Young--using a wealth of uncatalogued contemporary source chaos discovered by Michael Quinn--the result failed to provide a picture of the "man." One left the book without feeling that his thought and drive had been reached. In addition, most of the rough edges of both Young's life and contemporary Mormon history were filed down if not ignored.
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Format: Hardcover
I am also a practicing Mormon who finds this biography both insightful and challenging. One challenge is that I don't have the time to review the clearly huge number of primary sources available. A second challenge is fundamental to examinations of the Church by outsiders: What tools are there to determine when actions are taken as a result of revelation vs. rational calculation, or to determine what the interaction is between this mortal sphere and the currently hidden, immortal one? Thus the final sentence in this biography: "In his forty-five years as a Latter-day Saint, Young dedicated himself to Joseph Smith, boldly challenged religious, political, and economic conventions, and shaped--as far as was possible, for as long as was possible--the Mormon people in his self-image." Really? That's it? You get the same perspective when, say, the New Testament church as founded by Christ is dissected by secular scholarship. Was anything beyond human effort at work here? These authors should not be expected to weigh in on revelation and should be applauded when acting in good will and being as fair as they can be (as is the case here). But the gap remains. Bearing this in mind creates balance for LDS church members.

The book is similar to many other biographies I have read in this: The dramatic is always going to overshadow the ordinary. Brigham Young was President of the Church for 30 years, or about 11,000 days. Since you can't (and shouldn't) get all of that into a biography, what are you going to focus on? Brigham Young hitting the roof is always going to get play, other days not so much. What's the ratio between days of drama and days of quiet, effective administration, counsel and Christian service? Little covered is Brigham's relations with his numerous children.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This volume will likely stand, for many years, as the best biography of Brigham Young. It is erudite, insightful, honest, fair and unflinching. Turner does an excellent job of portraying Young as a man of his time--a bold, visionary leader who believed, like so many of the legends of the American West, there was no foe or obstacle he could not overcome.

Brigham Young was a mass of contradictions, a misogynist on the one hand and, at times, a proto-feminist on the other. Like most of his contemporaries, he believed blacks were an inferior race, and yet he frequently displayed considerable compassion and generosity towards those in his employ. To his credit, Turner goes to great pains to ensure that the reader refrains from hasty judgments. To the extent possible, he tries to get us to see Brigham through the prism of the 19th Century, not with the hindsight of the 21st.

Perhaps Young's greatest flaw--one that almost destroyed him on more than one occasion--is that he rarely engaged in introspection or second-guessed his own decisions. He was quick to find fault in both his friends and adversaries, but he seemed incapable of discerning "the mote in his own eye" or admitting that he was responsible for a scheme or policy that went awry. Like many other ecclesiastical leaders of his and other churches, both then and today, he was sometimes wrong, but never in doubt. Sadly, his arrogance and stubbornness sometimes resulted in pain, suffering, and even death, for his friends, opponents, and innocent bystanders.

My only criticism of the book is that it was too short. I felt there was so much more about this man that I would like to know. But, to be honest, no matter much additional material Mr. Turner had included in this biography, I'm not sure I am capable of fully comprehending Brother Brigham, a man for whom the phrase "larger than life" is truly apropos.
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