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The prophet and the reformer

Brigham Young is well known in history as the founder of Salt Lake City, the first governor of the Utah Territory, and a leader in the Latter-day Saint movement. Thomas L. Kane, on the other hand, is not quite as known; he was an attorney born in Philadelphia. However, some would say Kane is the most important non-Mormon in the history of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

Over the course of more than 30 years, these men corresponded on matters both personal and political. We sat down with Matthew Grow and Ronald Walker, co-editors of The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane, to learn more about these two men, why their letters are important, and what these letters reveal about American history.

How did the correspondence between Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane begin?

Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane first met in July 1846 after Kane had traveled to the Mormon refugee camps in Iowa to visit the Mormons who had been forcibly expelled from Illinois that year. Intrigued by the Mormons’ sufferings, Kane had drawn upon his family’s extensive political connections to assist a Mormon representative in Washington, D.C., in persuading President James Polk to commission a regiment of Mormon soldiers for the Mexican-American War. He then traveled to the Mormon camps to help raise the regiment and soon met Young, the forceful leader of the Mormon emigration. Kane soon became deeply impressed by the Mormons’ sincerity and concerned about their long-term prospects for peaceful coexistence within the United States. Encouraged by Young, who saw him as a potential ally, Kane began to envision a permanent relationship with himself as the Mormons’ self-appointed defender to the nation. Their correspondence began in August 1846, shortly before Kane left the Mormons’ camp to return to his native Philadelphia.

Why are these letters important?

The correspondence between Kane and Young reveals the strategies of the Latter-day Saints in relating to American government and culture during the crucial decades when controversy over the “Mormon Question” was a major political, cultural, and legal issue. The Kane-Young letters demonstrate the campaigns against the Mormons as well as the shifting tactics taken by the Saints in response. Kane’s position as the Saints’ unofficial lobbyist and image-maker on the East Coast additionally demonstrates how debates over Mormonism intersected with other national controversies over the development of the west, popular sovereignty, American Indians, government of the territories, and the sectional crisis. Indeed, with its focus on national concerns and the Saints’ relationship with the federal government, the Kane-Young correspondence illustrates that the “Mormon Question” was a major national issue that can be fully understood only within the context of these other national political debates of the mid-nineteenth century. In addition, the correspondence gives insight into most of the major controversies surrounding the Latter-day Saints between the late 1840s and the late 1870s.

What kinds of things were they writing about?

While the men also shared observations regarding American politics and news of their families, their correspondence centers on news relating to the Mormons’ political, legal, and economic challenges in the Utah Territory.

What do these letters reveal about the men?

Young and Kane are a study in contrast. While Young was born into poverty, Kane was born (in his own words) “with the gold spoon in my mouth, to station and influence and respectability.” While Young was regarded as a prophet by his fellow Mormons, Kane was a religious skeptic. They were in many ways an odd pair: the pragmatic prophet and the quixotic reformer, the millenarian who spoke in tongues and the skeptic of organized religion, the Yankee from humble origins and the aristocratic Pennsylvanian. Even their writing styles show their differences; Kane’s sentences can be learned, polished, and sometimes written in a complex manner. In contrast, Young’s style is more direct and pulsates with energy.

Nevertheless, for three decades, Young relied on Kane, 21 years his junior, as his most trusted adviser outside of the Latter-day Saint community. As a result, Kane became the most important non-Mormon in the history of the Latter-day Saints. At the same time, Young deeply influenced Kane’s life. Kane’s wife Elizabeth commented that both men “had great magnetic power” and “each influenced the other strongly.”

What do these letters reveal about the history of the Mormons?

The correspondence opens a window into the inner workings of the new religious movement. Historians cannot understand such events as Utah’s troubled history with the national government, leading to the celebrated “Utah War” of 1857-58, without studying these letters. Nor can they understand Mormon efforts to build an ideal social order, which included their celebrated polygamy. For almost thirty years, Young and Kane talked and maneuvered, planned and plotted. No one can fully understand nineteenth-century Mormon history without reading this material.

Image Credit: “Utah” by Moyan Brenn. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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  1. […] volume The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas Kane with an interview on their blog with the co-editors, Matthew Grow and Ronald […]

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