THERE HAVE BEEN at least a dozen biographies of Brigham Young written since his death in 1877, better than one every 10 years, and the amount of print devoted to Mormonism and the settling of Utah is, as one distinguished historian put it, "enormous, repetitious, contradictory, and embattled." If there is justification for yet another life of Deseret's most illustrious Saint, it lies in the hope that many of the disputed issues relating to Young's character and motivations might be resolved, that there might finally be a fair expression of attitudes too often born of tribal fidelity or scoffing distaste. Arrington gently observes in his introduction that many of his pedecessors have suffered from a personal bias in their disposition toward the gathering of Zion but points out that none of them has had full access to the wealth of materials held in the archives of the Mormon Church. Until recently that institution has been "reluctant" to assist scholars in their pursuits, and an objective appraisal of its assembly has had to wait "for the church itself to come of age."
Arrington's biography does not contribute a great deal that is not already known about the facts of Brigham Young's life, though it details events with reference to diaries, journals, and letters that have been previously unavailable. Born in Whitingham, Vermont, the ninth child of impoverished farming parents, Young learned early the skills that would later sustain him as leader of the "chosen people" in their arduous migration to the promised land -- not merely the ability to hunt and fish and trap, but to reap and sow, to preserve and economize, to rely on the family as a unit and to be reliable within it. But the Methodist faith into which he was also born was far more difficult to absorb, and true religious conviction did not come to him until, at the age of 29, he discovered a new doctrine in a text given him by his brother, Phineas -- a text called the Book of Mormon. His discipleship to its author, Joseph Smith, transformed simple conviction into a zealotry that would eventually earn him the sobriquet, "the Lion of the Lord."
The Lord's lion spent nearly 14 years east of the Mississippi (and in Europe and Canada) doing the missionary and colonizing work that seemed to infuriate Gentile communities surrounding Mormon enclaves. Persecuted and despised, the faithful moved continuously in search of a permanent home -- from Kirtland, Ohio, to Far West, Missouri, to Nauvoo, Illinois. Nauvoo they transformed in a few short years into the largest and most powerful town in the state, but their success (coupled with a certain smugness over the evidence of their obvious heavenly election) finally proved too much for their enemies. "Mobocrats," as the Mormons called them, arrested Joseph Smith on charges of treason, murdered him as he sat in his jail cell three days later, and unwittingly altered the course of empire more than they could ever have imagined. Had the Mormons remained in Illinois, the history of settlement in the American west would read very differently.
THE PROPHET'S DEATH proved, in its turn, too much for the Latter-day Saints. Brigham Young, on whose shoulders Joseph's mantle fell, proposed "forthwith" the removal "to a location west of the Rocky Mountains," where (as he said in a letter to President James K. Polk) "a good living will require hard labor, and consequently will be coveted by no other people." In February of 1846 the Mormon migration began. Leaving winter quarters at what is now Omaha/Council Bluffs, an advance party of 148 souls, "a boat, a cannon, 70 wagons and carriages, 93 horses, 52 mules, 66 oxen, 19 cows, 17 dogs, and some chickens" (it is these kinds of details that sometimes make Arrington's book a slow read) began a 1,031 mile trek along the Platte River Valley to Fort Laramie, through South Pass to Fort Bridger, and over the Uinta Mountains into the Salt Lake Valley. Young is reported (probably falsely) to have declared, "This is the place." And so, for the following Host of Israel, it would soon become.
Nearly two-thirds of Arrington's biography is devoted to the Salt Lake years -- to Brigham Young's role as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Governor of the Provisional State of Deseret, and colonizer of a region almost as big as Texas and every bit as tough. It is the account of a shrewd, practical politician and spiritual leader who could be harsh and demanding and intractable, but who was equally forthright, honest (in most matters), and tireless in his concern for the virtues of self-sufficiency and cooperation. He did not understand rugged individualism and teamwork to be competing values, and neither did those who followed his example. His own assessment of himself is perhaps the best statement of his character, though it least defines his complexity. "When I think of myself, I think just this -- I have the grit in me, and I will do my duty anyhow."
If there is fault to find with Arrington's book, it is not with his attention to detail, his documentation or his objectivity; it is, paradoxically, with his meticulous effort not to seem biased and not (as the former Director of the Historical Division of the Mormon Church) to open himself in any way to a charge of having written a company job. The result is that on controversial subjects (like, say, Joseph Smith's dubious banking practices, polygamy, the Mountain Meadows massacre) Arrington presents us with such a bland, just-give-us-the-facts-Ma'am account that he almost seems guilty of bias by evasion. Perhaps he feels that enough has been written on these touchy subjects, that they can be excused as peripheral to Young's life. For most of us, however, Brigham Young is synonymous with the Mormon Church, and one wishes on occasion that Professor Arrington had accepted more completely George Bancroft's rule for historians: present people in their terms, judge them in your own. The scrupulous avoidance of subjective opinion is not, unfortunately, an aid to dramatic narration.