- - Saturday, August 10, 2013


By Ed Breslin
Regnery History, $24.95, 242 pages

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) may represent the only genuine born-in-America religious faith that is strong, vital and growing, both here and throughout the world. Yet beyond former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s political resume and chance encounters with the Book of Mormon in Marriott hotels, most of us non-Mormons know very little about this church that attracts the allegiance of great numbers of healthy, productive families, contributes significantly to the national economy and has written a remarkable chapter in American history. Nor are the Mormon leaders who played a major role in our country’s historic westward expansion always given their due. In this highly readable biography of Brigham Young, written in lucid and fast-moving prose, Ed Breslin sets out to remedy that deficiency.

“Brigham Young was the quintessential American.” Born in Vermont in 1801 to a family that moved frequently, usually westward, he had only 11 days of formal schooling, but a practical, working education that equipped him as an accomplished traveling carpenter, joiner, blacksmith and builder. His religious affiliation was Methodist until he read the Book of Mormon around the time of its publication in 1830, and in 1832 joined the new church, founded by Joseph Smith, who became its president. Young moved up through its leadership ranks, and three years after Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in Carthage, Ill., in 1844, became its president.

“The murder of Joseph Smith was the galvanizing moment in the life of Brigham Young, one of Joseph Smith’s closest colleagues and most ardent followers,” Mr. Breslin writes. He would lead the Mormons “with iron resolve for nearly three decades, during the time they established their church — and settled Utah — with remarkable energy and courage.”

From Utah, its message carried by missionaries, Mormonism spread throughout the country and the world. “Today, global membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints numbers about [14] million. Smith drew the plans; he was the architect. Young grew the organization; he was the builder.” Among the most impressive accomplishments: He planned and supervised the extraordinary exodus of an estimated 70,000 Mormons from jumping-off points in Illinois, Missouri and Iowa to Utah, some of them traveling by wagon, others by foot, with hand carts — a feat of logistics that would do credit to any five-star general.

He went on to found settlements in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, California and Wyoming and, for a brief time, hoped to establish a Mormon-governed State of Deseret, including substantial portions of those states as they exist today. He served for two terms as governor of the Utah Territory and its first superintendent of Indian affairs, during which Utah prospered. Among its firsts was the Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institution, thought to be the nation’s first department store. He established the Mormon Tabernacle Choir before the structure itself was completed, and laid the foundations for the state’s excellent universities, one of which bears his name.

He was also a supporter of women’s suffrage — and perhaps ironically, a practicing polygamist. This, Mr. Breslin thinks, was one of Brigham Young’s “serious failings,” exhibiting “very questionable judgment in following Joseph Smith’s lead on polygamy — after all, Brigham at first recoiled from it, [saying] he had never so wanted the comfort of the grave as when faced with the prospect.”

But Joseph Smith was the prophet and leader, and Brigham Young no doubt felt duty-bound to comply with his leader’s dictum. At any rate, a decade after Young’s death, the church withdrew support for the practice, and today polygamy is cause for excommunication.

Other flaws: “His lapse in judgment, in combination with James Buchanan’s gross stupidity, led to the Utah War,” a poor excuse for a war, also called “Buchanan’s Blunder,” fueled by unfounded fears in Washington of various kinds of plots and rebellions, and exacerbated by Young’s “impetuosity and foolhardiness in fomenting war fever and fear of outsiders.” These failings, Mr. Breslin thinks, led directly to “the atrocity of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

Nevertheless, writes Mr. Breslin, “Charged with many nearly superhuman responsibilities, he discharged them admirably. And as a colonizer, he has no peer in American history.”

“What Brigham Young and the Mormons have accomplished in the last [183] years is impressive. Indeed, some of their accomplishments are monumental, not least their works of Christian charity and benevolence extended to millions of disadvantaged people worldwide.”

This, concludes Mr. Breslin, “and everything else that the Latter-day Saints have accomplished, was brought to reality largely through the drive, resourcefulness, energy, vision, devotion, faith, grit and genius of this one man, Brigham Young.”

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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