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Brigham Young and the Creation of Mormon Doctrine

By: matt b. - November 24, 2012

Another in the JI’s series of review essays on various aspects of John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

One of the more common tropes in Mormon history is drawing the comparison between Joseph Smith the visionary dreamer and Brigham Young the hard-headed administrator. This is sometimes done with admiration or scholarly satisfaction – faithful Mormons might say that Brigham was precisely what the church needed when Joseph Smith’s assassination left the Mormons dazed and splintering, and sociologists of religion often describe the transition from Joseph Smith’s leadership to Brigham Young’s as a classic case of Weberian routinization of charisma. The dichotomy is also sometimes drawn with a sense of tragedy: many liberal-leaning Mormons imagine Joseph Smith’s Mormonism as a time of exciting intellectual freedom and theological experimentation, and see in Brigham Young the slow settling in of dull institutional authoritarianism and the end of Joseph’s enthusiastic humanism.

John Turner certainly doesn’t stint on Brigham Young’s authoritarian tendencies, but one of the great contributions of his biography is the serious attention he gives to Brigham as a religious man. It’s common in the US survey to treat Brigham as the functional equivalent of Sam Houston or John C. Fremont (with the added spice of polygamy), a colonizer and citybuilder, but hardly a religious innovator. But Turner gives us a Brigham Young – and hence, a Mormonism – both truly the inheritors of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo, people as committed to building a religion as a community. Brigham Young himself was, as Turner puts it, Mormonism’s chief priest as much as he was the governor of the Utah territory. Moreover, Mormonism today owes as much of its faith to Young as to Joseph. Brigham believed himself to be the conservator of Joseph Smith’s ideas, but he was as much theological innovator as was his predecessor, in his own bluff and unselfconscious way, and much of what Mormons of all stripes are proud of in their faith comes from his synthesis of Joseph Smith’s work.

Brigham Young bequeathed Mormonism two primary theological inheritances: an intense and committed materialism – which shaded over, at times, into humanism – and a devotion to the ecclesiology of the church itself.

Turner repeatedly points out that for Brigham Young there was no distinction between the spiritual and the temporal, and the notion lay at the root of his interpretation of the cosmos, just as it shaped his theocratic impatience with the federal government’s interventions in his government of the Utah territory. Young had little patience with Orson Pratt’s bloodless and theoretical theology. He disliked its method, certainly, but also objected to its content. Pratt appealed to the authority of scripture and reason, but Brigham Young preferred the authority of a living, present, and immediate oracle – Joseph Smith, ideally, but he himself would do. Similarly, Pratt’s notion of an abstract “divinity” that was a collection of attributes rather than a person offended the very fleshliness of Brigham Young’s faith. Young had seized ahold of Mormonism precisely for its concreteness, and his Zion in Utah rested more or less upon the notion that things in heaven and things in earth functioned in pretty much the same way. If Jesus called God “Our Father,” then God was, indeed, our father.

One cannot help be struck here by the ways in which Brigham Young’s Mormonism resembles that of many Mormons today: its emphasis upon the humanity of God, its demanding lifestyle, its regard for the priestly leadership of its central authorities. Mormonism’s impatience with theory, its bluntness, its disinclination to metaphor all stems from Young’s own predilections – but, particularly, the close connection between Young’s daily life running a church that was also a nation and his religious experiences. Young’s theology of God, of sealing and its relationship to salvation, of his own authority grew from his lived experience as a Mormon of the mid-nineteenth century, and so it remains for many Mormons today.

Critical to that experience was Young’s own not infrequently rough insistence upon his own authority. In this, of course, he was not so far distant from Joseph Smith, who frequently wielded the institution of the church he built to excommunicate dissenters ad preserve his own authority. But under Smith the young church rarely had time to settle and mature – always new quorums were being added, the Mormons picking up to build a new Zion, leaders being lost or overturned. It was under Brigham Young that the authority of the church leadership was regularized, and particularly with reference to establishing correct doctrine – in two ways. First, Brigham Young asserted by his priestly authority to be the final authority on such theological questions as the nature of God, thus righteously smacking down Orson Pratt with regularity. But at the same time, Orson Pratt’s rather abstruse speculations seemed unlikely to make a deep impact upon the masses of the church. Young hoped that his embrace of the Adam-God doctrine might find greater success – and yet, despite his endorsements of the theory over the pulpit, Turner notes, the theory was received with hesitancy and confusion. And it failed to survive Young’s own death. Here we see in protean form the structure of Mormon theology today – its combination of clear authority and systematic fuzziness; the unquestioned predominance of the president of the church, and yet, at the same time, the (to the academic who might appreciate greater systematization and regularity) sometimes maddening tendency of some doctrines to occasionally simply fade away. And again we come back to the interplay between belief and lived experience that may be Brigham’s greatest legacy – in both content and in method.



9 Comments

  1. Thank you very much for such a wonderful post, but am just curious about this:

    “… much of what mormons of all stripes are proud of in their faith comes from his synthesis of Joseph Smith’s work.”

    Does that include the Strangites & CoC., or just LDS & FLDS?

    Comment by FrancisE. — November 24, 2012 @ 3:07 am

  2. One aspect that I thought Turner did particularly well was note the evolution of BY’s religious life. In particular the large role that speaking in tongues played soon after his conversion and during his early days but how it all but disappeared after after the first few years in Deseret. It was interesting the the Mormon Reformation had a lot of hellfire and brimstone but not as much manifestation of charismatic gifts that were prevalent in Nauvoo.

    Comment by warno — November 24, 2012 @ 8:05 am

  3. Well done, Matt.

    Comment by Ben P — November 24, 2012 @ 9:04 am

  4. Great stuff, Matt. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — November 24, 2012 @ 9:35 am

  5. Even as a young man I always marvelled at how much the church was Brigham Young and not Joseph. Growing up in a small Latino branch where we rarely saw the prophet–no televised broadcasts–we tended to focus on the scriptures and Joseph’s life. The church magazines were not as accessible and neither were all the writings of the Brethren. When I grew up and started reading more I got a real sense that this was a “different church” then the one I grew up with. But the greatest difference was the Brighamization that I saw in the church outside of my little branch. So, I think I see more differences in the two prophets than most people, and like Turner am much more sensitive to the shifts in theology and even doctrinal emphasis. Thanks Matt!

    Comment by Ignacio M. Garcia — November 24, 2012 @ 10:47 am

  6. Totally agree, Matt. I think among church members there is the tendency to see BY as the pragmatic colonizer, and when it comes to particular doctrines, sort of the crazy uncle of church leaders. But there is a real theological cohesion to BY’s teachings and things like Adam-God or the priesthood bad that seem so discontinuous with current Mormonism are actually pretty coherent (note, I’m not arguing that they are correct) when looked at within BY’s religious system.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 24, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

  7. Great post. Not only do folks frequently overemphasize the kingdom-building BY at the expense of his religiosity (which, to him, could hardly be separated), they also tend to underemphasize those elements of Joseph’s prophethood. Some historians have painted JS as the dreamer, the charismatic free-thinker, contrasting with BY as the ruler of the Great Basin Kingdom. JS seems to have displayed characteristics closer to Young the colonizer—directing the construction of a hotel (and many other buildings), mustering local militiamen, founding banking institutions, planning cities, etc.

    Comment by BHodges — November 24, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

  8. i’ll confess to having some of the reductionist tendencies Matt describes, and very much appreciate this corrective.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 24, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

  9. Definitely Yes. What’s needed is a good book-length study of Brigham’s thought. Any takers?

    Comment by Gary Bergera — November 25, 2012 @ 12:12 pm