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Brigham Young’s Early Religious Life and Conversion in Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet

By: Christopher - October 16, 2012

I suspect that most readers of John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (and consequently, most readers of this roundtable) are interested primarily in the final thirty years of Young’s life, or at least some aspect of it. It was during that time, after all, that the most obviously exciting, controversial, and significant events in Brigham Young’s own life and the church that he led occurred; it was during that time that Young became the pioneer prophet the book sets out to describe and analyze.

I can thus hardly blame anyone who quickly skims the chapters describing Young’s upbringing, conversion, and early years as a Latter-day Saint in a hurry to get to Young’s assertion of leadership in the wake of Joseph Smith’s death, his involvement in plural marriage, his violent rhetoric and role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, relationship with other strong-headed personalities both in and out of the church, or his views on race, to name just a few intriguing aspects of his later life. But for those who have not yet read the book, I offer this simple piece of advice: Take the time to read the early chapters and to appreciate what Turner has accomplished therein.

Turner’s biography not only provides the most complete narrative of Young’s early life that in turn provides crucial (if sometimes paradoxical) context for Young’s later role as one of the nineteenth century’s most infamous civil and religious leaders; in twenty-one short pages he offers a fascinating glimpse into one family’s religious journey from mainline Protestantism to reform-minded evangelicalism and finally to Mormonism that speaks to issues and interests beyond Brigham Young and his life, including especially the economic, familial, and religious anxieties of this particular time and place (upstate New York in the first decades of the nineteenth century).

That Turner is able to accomplish this is a testament to both his immersion in the secondary literature of the last several decades and especially to his deft use of primary source material in reconstructing Brigham Young’s early life and his journey into Mormonism. An earlier biographer relied almost entirely on later reminiscences from Brigham Young in documenting his early religious wanderings and conversion. Whatever the relative merits of the rest of his 1985 Brigham Young: American Moses, Leonard Arrington’s claim that “the most definitive and reliable source on Brigham’s encounter with religion and Mormonism is his own recollections, as contained in his sermons published in the Journal of Discourses” is terribly problematic, and resulted in a superficial overview of Young’s early life.[1] Instead of haphazardly pasting together select statements from Young’s later sermons about his early religious life and conversion to Mormonism, Turner takes on the inconsistencies of those later reminiscences, comparing them with other first and second hand accounts, and embedding the events described thoroughly in the religious world of early nineteenth century New York State. The result is a more complex and more accurate account of Brigham Young’s early religious sensibilities and suspicions, his time as a Methodist, and his conversion to Mormonism. Not merely prelude to his embrace of Latter-day Saint religion, Turner’s analysis stands on its own as both interesting and useful, providing readers with a sense of the historical contingency that accompanied Brigham Young’s pre-Mormon life.

Like Joseph Smith, whose own religious wanderings and fleeting attachment to Methodism as a young man bear some similarities to those of his eventual successor as president and prophet of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young’s early life offered no hints that he was destined to become one of the most widely-known and controversial religious figures in American history. Indeed, his early years were largely unremarkable, as he struggled to find either secure financial footing or religious satisfaction. Brigham’s four brothers, by contrast, each found some fulfillment in evangelical religion; each took up itinerant preaching, as did their brother-in-law John P. Greene. That is not to say, though, that Brigham found little of substance in the revivalism of the day. As Turner explains, “Despite his retrospective critiques,” the evidence suggests that “as a young man Brigham took evangelical claims seriously,” insisting, for example, upon baptism by immersion when he joined the Reformed Methodist Church (15). While his older brother Phineas, for example, appears to have experienced not only Christian conversion but also Wesleyan sanctification while a Reformed Methodist, the spiritual satisfaction Brigham longed for did not arrive until his introduction to Mormon preachers and their message.

I was particularly struck by the nature of the Young family’s conversion to Mormonism. As Turner details, “for the Youngs, religion was very much a family affair” (17). Bequeathed a legacy of “robust belief in supernatural phenomena” (10) by both maternal and paternal ancestors, Brigham Young’s parents and their children were “inclined toward backcountry evangelicalism,” spending time as members of the Methodist Episcopal Church before eventually uniting with the upstart Reformed Methodist Church, an offshoot of the MEC that insisted on a more robust spirituality that accepted and expected revelatory dreams and visions and embraced some spiritual gifts in an effort to rescue “the true spirit of religion” (15-16). In just a few pages, Turner is able to provide a fascinating and detailed glimpse into the evangelical milieu in which Brigham Young and his siblings were raised—a newly-pluralistic religious world in which churches actively competed for converts. Turner is especially adept in describing Methodism’s appeal and the specifics of the schismatic Reformed Methodist Church. Building on the work of Larry Porter, Turner provides a rich portrait of this small Wesleyan sect and its role in preparing the Youngs to accept Mormonism.[2]

So what of Brigham Young’s conversion itself? While he would emphasize throughout his life “the role of rational reflection in his conversion” (“I reasoned upon revelation,” he famously quipped), Turner persuasively shows the centrality of charismatic religious promise and experience to Young’s Mormon conversion. In Mormonism, he finally found “the direct connection with the divine that had eluded him during his youth and early adulthood.” It was this combination of “considerable reflection and illustrations of supernatural power,” then, that convinced Brigham Young. “Mormonism,” Turner explains, “satisfied a skepticism rooted in both rationality and deeply ingrained Biblicism and because the elders who witnessed to him displayed spiritual gifts that surpassed anything he had known in Reformed Methodism” (26-27).

In contrast to his brother Phineas, who tried to reconcile Mormonism to Methodism for some time after first reading the Book of Mormon and only gradually came to fully accept Mormonism, Brigham Young’s conversion represented a more sudden shift in religious identity. He was baptized, confirmed, and almost immediately ordained and sent to preach. He also experienced for himself the spiritual gifts that signified for him the truthfulness of the Mormon message. It also represented a significant turning point in Young’s life more generally. As Turner argues, “Before his baptism, Young deferred to his brothers’ spiritual leadership, and he rarely spoke or prayed aloud at religious gatherings. Now he became an effective and sometimes combative public speaker, surpassed his older brothers within the church hierarchy, and took the place of his father as the patriarchal leader of his family” (30).

I do wish Turner had fleshed out this point a little more fully. Was it the abrupt and perhaps unexpected nature of Young’s conversion that triggered this change (especially in contrast to his brothers’ more gradual acceptance of Mormonism)?[3] Turner might also have addressed more directly the importance of family to religious conversion more generally. It seems to me that for many early converts to Mormonism (like the Youngs), religion was a family affair, as husbands, wives, and children often joined the new church together. Was this true of evangelical religion, which is often portrayed as a more explicitly individualistic experience, and if not, what was it about Mormonism that attracted families instead of individuals? Those aren’t criticisms, though; merely additional questions raised by the early chapters of John’s provocative book. Here’s to hoping those early chapters receive the close reading they deserve.


[1] Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press [first Illinois paperback edition], 1986), 19.

[2] See Larry C. Porter, “The Brigham Young Family: Transition between Reformed Methodism and Mormonism,” in A Witness for the Restoration: Essays in Honor of Robert J. Matthews, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Andrew C. Skinner (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 249–80. Contrary to Young’s later insistence that he took the lead in bringing his family into Mormonism (“I claim all of you as the fruit of my labors,” Young told his siblings in 1845), Turner rightly points out that Young’s older brother Phineas “appears to have been the family member who most quickly and eagerly embraced the new faith[.] … As in the family’s conversion to Reformed Methodism, Brigham initially held back, following the lead of his brothers” (28).

[3] Interestingly (to me anyway), I’ve surmised elsewhere that the sudden nature of other early Mormon conversions actually played a role in the converts’ eventual departure from Mormonism. I’m not sure whether Brigham Young’s experience foils that thesis or simply represents an aberration.



24 Comments

  1. Great job, Christopher! Readers who skip the first part of Turner’s book miss out on some very interesting and important discussions.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 16, 2012 @ 10:01 am

  2. Thanks, Christopher. I appreciate the summary and review.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — October 16, 2012 @ 10:57 am

  3. I’m particularly interested in Young’s personality. By all accounts, he seems to have been one who stubbornly clung to his own beliefs. His insistence on baptism by immersion when he joined the Methodists indicates a trait which the Saints and others would see grow exponentially by the time he led the Mormons.
    I am eager to read this book.

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — October 16, 2012 @ 10:58 am

  4. Great job, Christopher. You point to an important balance in a biography: how does one deal with both this specific case of conversion, and how much does one deal with the larger cultural lessons it tells? I think Turner handles it very well, as you aptly explain. A great first entry in the roundtable.

    Comment by Ben P — October 16, 2012 @ 10:58 am

  5. I haven’t read it yet, but would be interested to see how much the author mentions Lorenzo Dow Young, Brigham’s brother in regards to his conversion. I recall reading several stories in some autobiographical collections about Lorenzo’s early spiritual experiences which include a dream of seeing the afterlife (and receiving a testimony of Jesus) as well as having a dream where Jesus came to Lorenzo in a carriage and asked where his brother Brigham was. Lorenzo initially saw it as a sign that Brigham would die, but later took it as evidence for his calling as a leader in the church

    Comment by Bob Lloyd — October 16, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  6. Thanks, everyone.

    Bob, Turner alludes to “Lorenzo’s visions” and briefly describes one such “heavenly vision” in 1826 in which his deceased mother and sister appeared to him (p. 17). He also notes that Lorenzo was the only Young brother to remain unaffiliated with any church prior to his conversion to Mormonism.

    Comment by Christopher — October 16, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

  7. Thanks for the review, Christopher. And I completely agree that this is a striking contrast to Arrington’s treatment, which I think significantly mischaracterizes this early context and experience. I’m also a huge fan of your work on early conversion, Christopher, and consequently like your additional questions. For a while I have been noodling the quasi-congregational impulse of the Reformed Methodists in contrast to early Mormonism (though that is certainly more of a contrast with the Mormonism of even a few years later).

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 16, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

  8. Thanks, Chris. This is a great way to start off the roundtable. I really enjoyed Turner’s discussion of glossalia and how the Mormon variety fit into the broader landscape of religious experience.

    Comment by David G. — October 16, 2012 @ 8:40 pm

  9. “In contrast to his brother Phineas, who tried to reconcile Mormonism to Methodism for some time after first reading the Book of Mormon and only gradually came to fully accept Mormonism, Brigham Young’s conversion represented a more sudden shift in religious identity.”

    I need to do some fact checking, but I recall reading that Brigham Young was not a “sudden convert”. If I recall correctly his brother Phinehas first introduced him to the Book of Mormon in 1830, but Brigham did not become a convert until 1832, after studying everything out carefully. That does not seem like a sudden shift in religious identity to me.

    Phinehas Young was actually baptized a couple of weeks before Brigham, so it would seem that their spiritual odyssey from Methodism to Mormonism took about the same amount of time.

    Glenn

    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — October 16, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

  10. Thanks, J. Let’s chat more about RM’s “quasi-congregationalist impulse” sometime.

    David, I agree. I wish I had more time and space to discuss Turner’s excellent second chapter and appreciate you bringing up his discussion of glossolalia. It is quite good and deserves attention.

    Glenn, I’m not seeing where I called Brigham Young a “sudden convert,” and don’t believe I did so. Let me clarify what I meant in the paragraph you quote from, though. Once Brigham Young gained a spiritual witness of Mormonism’s truth (a conclusion that took some time and much thought, as you note), he jumped headfirst into the work. Given his rather cautious attitude toward religion prior to this point, his enthusiastic embrace of Mormonism did, in fact, represent a sudden shift. By his own admission, he experienced in Mormonism what had eluded him in Reformed Methodism, and it represented a significant change in his religious experience and identity.

    Phineas, by contrast, believed the Book of Mormon to be true upon reading it, but “continued to preach, trying to tie Mormonism to Methodistism, for more than a year.” Because Phineas had previously experienced conversion and spiritual gifts, his transition from Methodism into Mormonism was more smooth and gradual. It was not until he met fellow Reformed Methodist and prospective Mormon convert Solomon Chamberlain, who told him of the need for a new church, that he concluded that the two “had no connection and could not be united,” and that he “must leave the one and cleave to the other” (Miriam Maxfield, “A Compiled History of Phinehas Howe Young,” typescript, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, 6).

    Comment by Christopher — October 16, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

  11. Chris, Thanks for the clarification. I can agree with those comments.

    Glenn

    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — October 17, 2012 @ 12:16 am

  12. Excellent, Chris. Through Turner I’ve come to find BY’s family’s conversion to Mormonism much more useful, in some ways, than that of Joseph Smith. It illuminates, as you say, much about contemporary religious grappling, associations, and conversion experiences. The best way to get at these issues is through a real engagement with Methodism.

    Comment by Ryan T. — October 17, 2012 @ 1:26 pm

  13. Chris — I wonder what you thought of Turner’s argument (pg. 75ish) that what separated Mormonism from other forms of radical Christianity in Britain was not its acceptance of spiritual gifts but its doctrine (adult baptism, gathering, priesthood, etc.)

    Comment by Amanda — October 17, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

  14. Nice work, Chris. Turner’s take on the British mission was particularly useful. As a point of contrast and cohesion in his later leadership.

    Comment by WVS — October 17, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

  15. One thing that is fairly consistent in Brigham’s life, from his conversion up until shortly after his arrival in Utah, is the presence of charismatic gifts of the spirit in his worship and devotion(most notable is the gift of tongues) This despite Joseph’s somewhat passive discouragement. I would have liked Turner to explore the issue a little bit more…. but I realize that his bio was probably not suited to deal with these types of theological issues.

    Anyway, I did appreciate the attention Turner gave to Brigham’s development of fierce devotion and love for Joseph. Well done on Turner’s part.

    Comment by Sione — October 17, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

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  17. Thanks, everyone. Good comments all around.

    Amanda, I mostly agree with John on that point, though I admittedly don’t know enough about British evangelicalism and radical Christianity during the period in question. What do you think?

    Comment by Christopher — October 18, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  18. Wonderful review Chris! Methinks the familial conversion within Mormonism (in contrast to RM) was probably influenced by the familial conversions of the Smiths and the Whitmers as the foundational group of the original church. Families that more or less ventured forth together into a new religious experience.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — October 18, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

  19. Err… SENTENCE FRAGMENT!

    Comment by Tod Robbins — October 18, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

  20. Since my fortay is Native-LDS history….i’m saddened by Turner’s lack of work on this aspect, which if you are talking about BY’s pioneer legacy to the Great Basin and colonization of the west, you can not ignore this aspect of history, which I believe he does for the most part.

    Yes, he does mention the Book of Mormon and some Church doctrine, the Fort Utah experience, the Utah Black Hawk War, and some other mainstream ideas which have been discussed by many others, but he does not introduce much of anything else (sad when considering how much history is left out, and i know that may be due to his lack of knowledge or understanding, or lack of caring, or restrictions by publishers, or lack of space, i don’t know and can only assume). And as such he falls into the same trap that many historians of LDS history, ignore that part of history. Native-LDS interaction has had a larger impact on Euro-American LDS life than most given credit for.

    Comment by Mr. Smallcanyon — October 19, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  21. Mr. Smallcanyon: Like I mentioned the other day, we’ll have a post dedicated solely to Turner’s treatment of Mormon-Native relations and western settlement. Let’s try not to hijack Chris’s post, though.

    Comment by David G. — October 19, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

  22. Corey, yes. Let’s try and keep comments on-topic please.

    Comment by Christopher — October 19, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

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