Whatever followed the founding of Salt Lake City – whether socialist utopia or totalitarian regime – was a sociological experiment which was profoundly un-American in character, but which could not have occurred anywhere else in the world but in America. The life of Brigham Young, the lord of this particular dance, is chronicled in Susa Young-Gates and her daughter Leah D. Widtsoe’s 1930 biography, which posits a medieval Saint’s life in a Wild West setting and portrays the planting and building of a utopia. John D Lee is never named, and his 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre is briskly dealt with in a chapter rather appallingly entitled “The Indians.” Although they were driven out of every state which they settled in – and although they at one stage waged war upon the United States – the Mormon’s enterprise is portrayed as entirely American, and incongruous details – such as the occasional attempt on private property or the persistent enthusiasm for communal ownership – are deftly smoothed over:
He told them there should be no private ownership of water, thus establishing that fundamental righteous principle of community ownership of public resources. That principle was to be adopted many years later by the United States Government.
One loses count of the number of times that the stars and stripes are mentioned, fluttering over everything, from the grandest temple to the briefest campsite.
One wonders how much of this great tome of propaganda was believed by the authors and their readers. Susa Young Gates (1856-1933) was the second child of Young’s twenty-second wife, and she and her daughter were willing spokeswomen for both the Mormon establishment and a genteel fin-de-siecle feminism. Yet their biography is most revealing when it strays from the inevitable propaganda into accounts of domestic life in the Young household, which is portrayed as a simultaneously progressive and traditional “home morale.”
One encounters odd, tender vignettes of the Youngs breakfasting and praying together, from which Brigham Young emerges resembling more the Professor Bhaer of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886) than the demagogue feared and vilified by American Christians. Gates and Widtsoe claim that Young had “nineteen wives” – modern sources have variously identified twenty-seven, fifty-two or fifty-six wives, depending on whether marriage or “sealing” is considered an act of union – but the pair are near enough right to attribute fifty-six children to the patriarch. Young’s household (s) resembles a boarding school, complete with dormitories, mass catering, nurses and communal singing. One anecdote describes Young’s fifty or so children being driven to a New Year’s Day party in a “mammoth sleigh… all cuddled down under the buffalo robes on hay and all bubbling with laughter.”
Although one may chuckle at the thought of Young’s bedfulls of wives – and imagine all sorts of fantastic and colourful scenarios – the evidence suggests that the early Mormons did not take their marriages lightly. It is probably true, as the authors insist, that when first asked to expand his monogamous marriage, Young’s “natural Puritanic chastity of mind and spirit revolted at this principle.” The origins of Mormon polygamy were complex and various. Mormonism was a form of welfare – not unlike the mafia – which afforded a measure of personal and financial security to the frontier’s disadvantaged: those men and women who would have fared less well in the West if reliant upon their own resources. Converts were straightforwardly fed and housed in return for their labour, and once a Mormon, they were in little danger of being cheated out of their wages or being left to fend for themselves. The possibility of socially accepted mistresses surely provided a further incentive for potential Saints.
Yet Young conceived of his “home morale” as an ideal domestic community, a “tabernacle”, in which women together protected and cared for children. Gates and Widtsoe insist that plural marriage was a carefully considered contract and system, which the patriarch led and managed as if it were a small business, or indeed a church. Plural marriage also afforded a valuable opportunity for the Mormons – who did not import slaves or lead ambitious missionary movements – to increase their numbers, as it were, internally. To this day, Utah has the largest birth rate, and the youngest population, of all of the United States.
Tellingly, Gates and Widtsoe describe plural marriage in a chapter called, “Growth in the Church”. “The foregoing statement of authenticated fact is in no sense an advocacy of present-day plural marriage” they hasten to add. The pair begin a determined defence of polygamy – testifying to the benefits that the institution brought to those reared under it – but they qualify their argument with the message that, “the laws of the land must be obeyed. No community can exist without just laws which all must obey; and the saints had always held the law in respect.” The Saints, in actuality, did nothing of the sort. After the death of Brigham Young, plural marriage was outlawed and those practising polygamy had to choose between the umbrella of “respectable” society or an undignified underground exile. President Wilford Woodruff, despite his “revelation” that “people were no more required to enter into that order of marriage,” practised polygamy until his death. Gates seems finally to conclude that the plural marriage which raised her was ideal, but too good for this world.
“It is very difficult to paint a mountain when it towers directly above. I need perspective!” Gates protests. We do, however, derive a fair impression of Brigham Young from her biography. He is depicted as the true heir of the Mormon leadership, and in a curious scene at the end of the book, the “Prophet” Joseph Smith and the just-dead Brigham Young are portrayed as flying – presumably arm-in-arm – over the state which Young has planted and is now departing: “the wide expanse of embowered cities and towns, smiling fields and fruitful gardens, mills and factories, the homes of a quarter of a million people in the Rocky Mountains.” Yet Smith predominantly emerges from the biography as a hapless Prophet, who kicked the ball rolling with his visions, but who was martyred prematurely, leaving the Mormons stranded in a riotous Illinois. Young – with his vulgar appetite for biblical spectacle – marched his people across the American plains. Their choice of a desert for a home, although seemingly eccentric, was very shrewd; interfering settlers would, for a while, keep away from the inhospitable region, and an ingenious program of irrigation on the lands around the Salt Lake would bequeath a miraculous image of plenty arising from the dry earth.
Mormonism was as much at odds with the ideas and images conventionally associated with the Wild West, as it was with the Puritan tradition from whence it came. Western rowdy fun and rough justice, great characters and tall tales, are largely absent from The Life Story. Brigham Young was a dull man – astute and calculating, but largely wanting in humour. Gates peppers her narrative with anecdotes designed to illustrate Young’s great wit, but it is just hopeless. In one, he tells a carping Elder that he is the “official “Camp Grumbler”.” In another, he demands that letters be addressed, “Brigham Young, Painter and Glazier”, rather than a host of more flattering titles. And these are his best cracks. The funniest moment in the book comes when a territorial governor put a letter intended for Young, and a photograph intended for a friend in Washington, into the wrong envelopes, and the Mormon leader received a photograph of himself, with the message, “here is a picture of the old billygoat.”
“Brigham Young’s life was a romance; the subduing of the Great American Desert is an epic of empire building” the Senator Reed Smoot enthuses in his foreword. Yet those reading The Life Story for adventure and romance risk disappointment. The life story of Brigham Young is one of suburbia. The Mormon president strived to establish warm homes and tidy gardens – striking civic buildings and efficient public services – material comfort and, amid the lawlessness of the West, dependable social security. He succeeded, and Salt Lake City stood as a beacon of socialism, albeit one which could only be ignited by men and women with a shared appetite for a lack of excitement.