Brigham Young: American Moses (by Leonard Arrington, first published in 1985) captures the unusual personality and able leadership of the controversial second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church). Although I did not find Mr. Arrington’s text to be fascinating, the stories about Brigham Young were noteworthy, and I feel I better know the man’s life story.
Brigham Young was a complex man, leading his people to a “promised land” after much tribulation. Because of his influence and style, he established a new society in the midst of a desert. He was loved by the people, and when he called on them to leave their new homes to settle in a new part of the territory, they obeyed him more or less without hesitation (for examples, see chapter 11). He also served them and did things like stop the wagon train for one injured person, for whom he designed a hammock bed so no one would have to be left behind.
“With his gentle kind manner,” wrote Lucy’s grandson, “he won the love of Lucy and her posterity forever.” (page 158)
Yet, despite the fact that I revere him as a prophet for his day, I don’t think I would have liked meeting Brigham Young. He was opinionated and strong-willed, saying ridiculous things like this (and I chose this because I thought my fellow readers would appreciate the ridiculousness of it):
Novel reading appears to me to be very much the same as swallowing poisonous herbs. It is a remedy that is worse than the complaint [i.e., to increase one’s desire to read]. (page 397)
And then for another example. Although he obviously loved his wives (of which he had many) and tried his best to provide for them and have a happy home, he also asked one of his wives to sit up each night to make sure the house did not catch fire. There is no mention of him doing so himself. At any rate, there are a number of reasons why I don’t think I would have liked meeting Brigham Young. I’ll stop listing them here.
Despite the complicated and interesting person that was Brigham Young, I felt that Brigham Young: American Moses falls short of being spectacular. I’ve been struggling to put my thoughts on this book into words for weeks, and then Teresa wrote a post about nonfiction that works. Reading her comments helps me see why Mr. Arrington’s biography did not work for me. Teresa’s points were these:
- The author is a writer.
- The book has a clear, narrow focus.
- The book makes an argument, has a clear point of view.
- There’s a story.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a biography, so maybe I am just out of practice in reading the genre. Please take these criticisms with that in mind. Although Mr. Arrington was obviously a capable writer, he appears foremost as the professional historian that he is. Further, the only story in the book is the chronology of Brigham Young’s life. The book seems to have no argument, and the only focus is, again, on President Young’s chronology. This, to me, is a shame. I was fascinated by the stories that were included, and I only wish it was all pulled together into a more cohesive and interesting format.
As a whole, then, Mr. Arrington avoids controversy and the intriguing historical context as Professor Bushman, the author of the biography of Joseph Smith I read, did not. That is not to say that controversy is necessary to make a biography interesting, but that because Brigham Young had such an interesting personality and complicated life, it may have benefited by a bit more opinion. If only Professor Bushman wrote a biography of the other prophets! His was so wonderful.
It was two years ago that I read Mr. Bushman’s biography about the first Latter-day prophet, President Joseph Smith, so it’s about time for me to read about the second, the enigmatic President Brigham Young. Reading this biography did strengthen my beliefs in the doctrines of the Mormon religion, for, despite the apparently abrasive personality of Brigham Young, the church still survived the twenty-five years of his presidency, and has only grown since then. There is no doubt in my mind he was the necessary man to lead the church in his era, despite the fact that I probably would not have liked him.
I hope I find a more satisfying biography of President Brigham Young and the other prophets in the future, for there is still much to learn.