Brigham Young: American Moses
By Leonard J. Arrington

Synopsis: This is a biography of Brigham Young written in 1986 by a historian respected both in the Church and out for his apparent objectivity. This book likewise takes a more-or-less objective biographical sketch of Brigham Young’s life, and could be seen as appropriate reading for both members of the Church and nonmembers.

Strong Points: This is a thorough, well-written, and enjoyable biography. It does a good job of giving the reader an expansive, well-rounded sense of who Brigham Young was, what sort of things met with his approval, what sorts of things earned his disdain, what kind of personality he had, what many of his accomplishments were, and what some of his great struggles were. A very adequate recounting of the circumstances surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre is given, and the author makes clear, based on the available evidence, that the matter was certainly not orchestrated by Brigham Young, and that he actually tried to prevent conflict. (Arrington is the type of historian that, if he found evidence to the contrary, he certainly would have presented it.) A fairly adequate discussion of Brigham Young’s complex family life and relationships is also presented, with a helpful appendix in the back of the book which helps you keep wives and children straight (a near Herculean task), although discussion of his family life could certainly have been more extensive without the book suffering for it.

Weak Points: I thought that some of the selections for topics of discussion chosen by the author were a little strange. For instance, the entire book barely makes a mention of Brigham Young’s involvement in the handcart movement that we hear so much about. In fact, handcarts are barely mentioned at all in the book. But there is an entire appendix on the details of Brigham Young’s will and how it was handled by the executors with the family. Brigham Young’s visionary dream of Joseph Smith in the Salt Lake Valley giving him guidance on his stewardship is absent. For better or worse, the reader will note that the biography is not much, if at all, concerned with the spiritual aspects of the life of Brigham Young, or the veracity of Mormonism itself.

Interesting: 4/5

Must Read: 3.9/5

Overall: 4/5

Pages: 522

Selected Quote: “Some of the fascination with Brigham is that one can know a great deal about him yet never fully understand; his personality was full of ambiguities and complexities.
“Nevertheless, certain conclusions are warranted. As a father and husband Brigham was neither dictatorial nor permissive. He set goals, tried to achieve them through persuasion, and resisted the contemporary disposition to break the wills of children. His letters to his children show him to have been affectionate, supportive, and anxious to see them develop their talents.
“As a political leader, he was astute. His correspondence with presidents, cabinet members, chairmen of congressional committees, and Thomas L. Kane reveal sagacity and discernment. He was also a person of strong determination, resolute and unwavering – some said intractable. A confident and decisive administrator, he seldom backed down in a test of wills. Not a dictator in the modern sense, he was like the driver of a coach over a perilous mountain road who would encourage the horses here, direct them there, nudge them along, and, when appropriate, apply the whip. …
“As a businessman, Brigham was scrupulously honest – he would hunt down creditors until they were paid. But like many people who have grown up in poverty, he was seldom generous in a strictly business deal. His employees had to toe the mark, his debtors must keep the money coming, and his prospective purchasers were not to expect any extraordinary discounts.
“As a church leader, Brigham showed his spiritual side – he prayed, a few times he was impelled to speak in tongues, he enjoyed the ceremonies of the endowment house and temple, and he is known to have exercised his faith and priesthood authority in healing the sick. As a religious leader he was undeniably sincere – and as president he was so confident of his own abilities that he was loath to delegate responsibility or authority.
“Perhaps the single characteristic or quality that Brigham was most proud of was one that he himself cited …. ‘When I think of myself,’ he said, ‘I think just this – I have the grit in me, and I will do my duty anyhow.’” (p. 407-408).


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