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Book Review: Brigham Young: American Moses by Leonard J. Arrington

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As the de facto Republican candidate for President this year, Mitt Romney’s devout Mormonism has become a very hot topic of debate. Like a lot of other people in the country, I know very little about the Mormon religion, or one of its most important figures, Brigham Young. So this Vintage edition of Leonard J. Arrington’s 1985 book Brigham Young: American Moses could not have been better timed.

Young’s name is one of the most famous in American history, yet the true story of his life had been obscured by various rumors, legends, and outright lies over the years. The reasons for this are obvious. As his religion’s “Moses” figure he has always been a lightning rod. Leonard J. Arrington was a Mormon, and thanks to his appointment as the Church Historian, had full access to the vast amount of archives in Salt Lake City. But rather than write a glossed-over account of Brigham Young (1801-1877), Mr. Arrington (1917-1999), told the truth, warts and all.

It is a fascinating tale. We begin in the town of Wilmington, Vermont and in his young life, Young was a devout Methodist. He “officially” converted to Mormonism at the age of 31, two years after first reading The Book of Mormon. He devoted his life to the church, and when Joseph Smith was killed by a mob in 1844, Young began working towards taking the vacant position of President of the Mormon Church. He was finally ordained in 1847.

Young led his followers to Utah, arriving on July 24, 1847. Today, July 24 is officially recognized as “Pioneer Day,“ by the way. He founded Salt Lake City, and was appointed the territory’s first governor by President Fillmore in 1851. One of the most lasting legacies of Brigham Young’s life was the foundation of what came to be known as Brigham Young University, or BYU. The history of how the university came to be built is convoluted, to say the least, and the author takes us through it step by step.

Brigham Young believed in building, and saw the completion of a great many projects in Utah over the course of his life. There was also a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding him, which Arrington does not shy away from. There was the polygamy issue, the banning of blacks from the church, and charges of obstruction of justice, just to name a few.

As I think is clear with just these basic facts about Brigham Young’s life, he was an extremely complex man. To be honest, there is plenty of ammunition for those on either side of the fence in regards to Mormonism, and Young himself. At 522 pages, Leonard J. Arrington’s book fully examines the many different facets of Brigham Young.

The author’s balanced approach has been deservedly praised over the years. It is especially important (and relevant) because Brigham Young’s life and legacy has touched many lives. It is a nearly impossible task to separate Brigham Young the man, from Brigham Young the President of the Mormon church. The author has done an excellent job in doing so, and has certainly opened my eyes as to who this famous figure actually was.

With Romney a very strong contender for the Presidency this year, understanding the life of one of his church’s most powerful figures of all time is important. Brigham Young: American Moses by Leonard J. Arrington remains the definitive study of the man and is highly recommended.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • Greg Barbrick

    Bill – Arrington presents both sides of the story, and to someone who was previously unfamiliar with the whole situation, it seems that he does not take sides.

    As 333maxwell’s comment shows, people’s feelings about Mormons and Brigham Young can be very heated indeed.

    The point of my review was to say that (at least to me as a reader) as an author, the Mormon Arrington presents the life of Brigham Young in a sober manner, without siding with the “for” or “against” factions.

    I feel he did a very good job of it overall.

  • Out of curiosity, where does Arrington light in regards to Young’s role in the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre? It’s my understanding that this is a topic of debate among historians.

  • Young was a Charlatan and a bigot. Lincoln had to send forces in to Utah because Young thought he owned the State (of course there was an interesting turn of the weather as Federal forces approached… read up on it).

    The man had little children as his wives, and lots of them. I don’t care who you are, you can;t justify that by saying ‘it was a hundred years ago’…. real men didn’t take Child brides back then, and then in great numbers.

    He was a pervert, a deviate.. certainly responsible for causing a LOT of terror in many a young girl not only for himself, but in propagating the churches whole ‘get em young get em often’ approach.

    Some of Youngs wives wrote books that certainly will be more revealing than this book. At least for my money.

    Young was scray and gross, a child predator.