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  • The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane ed. by Matthew J. Grow and Ronald W. Walker
  • Nathaniel Wiewora (bio)

Brigham Young, Thomas L. Kane, Mormonism, American West

The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane. Edited by Matthew J. Grow and Ronald W. Walker. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 568. Cloth, $35.00.)

Thomas Kane and Brigham Young were not natural friends. Kane was a Philadelphia Democrat born into a wealthy family. He had a reforming spirit, and he was constantly weak from illness. Kane opposed injustice and inequality, whether in the form of religious persecution, slavery, or capital punishment. Throughout his life, he also sought religious fulfillment, but Kane never found comfort in institutional religion. Young was his mirror opposite. Born into rougher circumstances, this Mormon leader lived his life on the edges of society. Young embraced an upstart faith, preached it to the ends of the earth, and assumed the mantle of leadership after the death of its founder, Joseph Smith. When all seemed lost, he acted vigorously, organizing a migration of thousands of Mormon pioneers to the Great Basin, where he oversaw the establishment of a theocratic order.

Somehow these two unlikely individuals became confidantes and trusted allies. Meeting first in the 1840s, they sent hundreds of letters to one another over the next three decades. Matthew Grow and Ronald Walker have compiled nearly a hundred of these missives in a richly edited collection. Perfect for graduate or undergraduate seminars in the history of American religion or the American West, this vast correspondence shows a friendship built upon strategic interest and real affection. Kane and Young constantly pined for more time together, and as the editors powerfully argue through their collection, the letters reveal much about the history of Mormonism and the American West.

Over the course of Kane and Young's correspondence emerges a contingent, uneven, and varied picture of the construction of Mormonism in the West. Young encouraged settlement directly through the creation of institutions, like the Perpetual Emigration Fund, and an increasingly organized mission system. Establishment of the Latter-Day Saints in the West also occurred as part of a negotiation with the federal government. [End Page 385] Threats of police action from Washington, DC, forced Young to curb his statehood ambitions by limiting the geographic territory of Utah and a name change from Deseret. While activities in Washington put up one barrier to the success of Mormonism in the West, the letters between Kane and Young conclude that local events, like crop failure, played as significant a role in influencing the specific paths and direction of Mormon settlement.

Grow and Walker also have shown definitively the importance of Kane to the strategies, successes, and failures of Mormonism's western settlement and the entire movement. Kane acquired Young's attention in the 1840s through his sympathetic portrayals of the plight of Mormons. Over time, Young began to rely upon the well-connected Kane for legal and political advice. One of their chief topics of correspondence involved the most successful way for Utah to obtain statehood. Advising Young to first follow the path of Texas—skipping territorial government and going straight to statehood—Kane undertook an intense lobbying effort to convince Congress to admit Utah as a state. As the historical situation changed, Kane later advised Young to take different tacks. The editors make it clear that Kane additionally played a significant role in making the church less personal, and more institutional. Under the leadership of Brigham Young, a substantial amount of the church's property legally belonged to the Mormon leader. As Young realized that he was nearing death and needed to protect the church's property from the government and his own heirs, he enlisted Kane to draw up a will that would disentangle his personal business dealings from church-owned property. Through Kane's legal advice, Young divested himself of many properties, including Temple Square.

The correspondence between Kane and Young also shows how communication can obscure as much as it reveals. The editors of this collection have used a wide variety of other primary...


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pp. 385-387
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