Brigham Young the Yankee Moses - 1925

Books: Yankee Moses

Time Magazine book review
Monday, Jun. 15, 1925
Yankee Moses*

His Creed Was Singular, His Wives Plural The Life. Bulrushes. Long after, it was "remembered" that the heavens had resounded slightly and that a star had twinkled on June 1, 1801, when Brigham Young was born in Whitingham, Vt. Similar signals of divine pleasure are unrecorded for subsequent years when the indigent Young family drifted about western New York farms. The boy Brigham chopped, plowed, dug, sowed, lucky if in pants, seldom shod.

For its chronic religious conflagrations, western New York was then known as the "burnt over" district. Brigham lent ear to all itinerant moralizers, faith to none. Said he: "I saw them get religion all around me. Men were rolling and bawling and thumping." At 23, "to prevent being any more pestered," he became a Methodist.

House of Bondage. Then Brigham clapped eyes on The Book of Mormon, a surprising document "translated" by one Joseph Smith Jr. from cryptic gold plates evangelically supplied out of a New York hillside called Cumorah. Therein it was set forth that two tribes had shipped direct to America from the Tower of Babel. The presence of Red Indians in America "proved" this. Joseph Smith Jr. had been commissioned the Lord's special and prophetic latter-day representative to re-establish Mor- monism.

Quite convinced, Brigham hit this trail. First it led to Kirtland, Ohio. When religious competitors tarred and feathered Joseph Smith Jr., the trail led to Far West, Mo. Here loafing, slaveholding Missourians resented the presence of industrious Yankees and a singular faith, persecuted them, incarcerated Joseph Smith Jr. The trail led to Nauvoo, Ill.

Land of Egypt. Joseph Smith Jr. had broken loose and Nauvoo, with 10,000 Mormons, swelled larger than any city in the state. Smith ruled by revelations —invariably convenient ones—by hellfire threats and a genial disposition. Besides being Prophet, he was judge, mayor and general of his own militia. When he said God had told him to start up polygamy as it had been in the days of Abraham and Solomon, none dreamed that the motive was not pious procreation, though a crony of the Prophet's was a "professor of midwifery," and Smith, a handsome six-footer, had been heard to say: "When- ever I see a pretty woman, I have to pray for grace."

Brigham Young and others, scouring the U. S., England, Wales, Denmark, won many true believers and pious pro-creators, mostly women. Shiploads swarmed to Nauvoo. Returning from one proselyting campaign, Young found the Prophet shot dead by some Illinoisians who had chosen to regard him as a promulgator of "abominations and whoredoms."

Exodus. Brigham spellbound the leaderless city, seized command, sold the Mormon temple to a French Communist, led his people a dire trek westward to escape U. S. jurisdiction. By the time they reached Utah, the U. S. had taken that territory from Mexico, but Brigham settled there notwithstanding.

Sinai. Announcing that Joseph Smith Jr. had made enough revelations to last 20 years, the Yankee Moses put his faith in hard work and sermonizing. He laid out his city, instituted communal economics, established a stream of immigration from the East and Europe by steamship and handcart caravans, drove the Mormons to make their wilderness blossom as a rose with a plentiful mixture of hard sense, humor, reproach and simple sincerity. He made friends with the Indians and fenced successfully with Washington. Under him, polygamy, previously furtive, became a public duty. Men took crones and pining spinsters as well as bevies of young virgins; Mormon theology was revised to show that Christ had had at least three wives. Brigham Young, as President of the Elders, had ultimate powers of selecting and "sealing" couples; and, when he rode out with a brass band to meet new companies of converts, spiteful tongues said he sought first pick of the possible brides. This is unlikely. Artemus Ward exaggerated the size of the Young household from a count of the stockings on its wash-line. Actually, Brigham married only 27 times, had but 56 children.

Some green corn and peaches eaten in 1877 resulted in cholera morbus. Brigham died, having seen his following of 11,000 (in 1850) reach 120,000. Commercial enterprise had gained him an estate of two millions.

Significance. Mothers used to say "Brigham Young" instead of "bogey man" to scare their offspring. Now, soothed by the years, they are hardly aware that some 400,000 Mormons still revere the much-married patriarch who managed people by telling them to believe in him or "go to Hell across lots." This patriarch's works constitute the most vivid chapter in native religious history and an impressive section of the chronicle of the Far West.

The Author. Maurice R. Werner, newspaper reporter of Greenwich Vil- lage, Manhattan, came to fame in 1923 as the biographer of P. T. Barnum, circus man (who once offered Brigham Young $200,000 a year to exhibit himself in a sideshow). Hearing his work applauded, Mr. Werner dropped reporting, is now at work on a life of E. A. Poe.