Reviews – The Last Pioneer: John Taylor, a Mormon Prophet

The Last Pioneer: John Taylor, a Mormon ProphetBookwatch
Written by Samuel W. Taylor (John Taylor’s grandson), The Last Pioneer is an extensive biography of John Taylor, a Mormon prophet and the third president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who lived in the 1800s and was responsible for developing the Mormon communities in Utah and the American west after the death of Brigham Young. Drawn from his personal letters and speeches, his diaries and the memories of those who knew him, The Last Pioneer provides a vivid and fascinating account of a unique religious and community leader’s life, vision, beliefs, and struggles on the American frontier.

The Washington Post, Fawn Brodie
Joseph Smith, first prophet and founder of the Mormon church, and Brigham Young, the colonizer who took the Mormons west and rooted them permanently in the Great Basin, are well known to Americans. But John Taylor, the third in the remarkable triumvirate which was responsible for the establishment and longevity of polygamy in the United States—a practice far from dead today—remains unknown. Samuel W. Taylor, his grandson, an essayist and novelist known for his gentle wit and ironic teasing of his own people, has written a sympathetic but also massive and powerful life story that deserves to “pass through the Zion Curtain”—that is, to reach a wide, non-Mormon audience.

John Taylor, born in Liverpool in 1808, was converted to Mormonism in Canada, and quickly became a key leader, active in organizing the astonishing successful Mormon mission to Great Britain. He was present at all the crises of Mormonism: the financial ruin in Kirtland, Ohio; the ugly expulsion from Missouri; the mob murder of Joseph Smith (Taylor took four musket balls in his own body trying to protect his prophet); the exodus west; the coming of the federal army to Utah; the death of Brigham Young; and the final federal anti-polygamy persecution which sent Taylor into hiding like a common criminal.

More than that, he was an intellectual, an able editor, as well as a missionary organizer, and was respected by Brigham Young as “a mighty man.” He was also Young’s liberal antagonist, foe of the “numbered ballot” which identified every voter, critic of the savage punishment of dissenters and apostates, and of Young’s consolidation of every aspect of Mormon economic life in what was America’s only real theocracy.

But Taylor was not a dissenter. He had followed Joseph Smith blindly, even concurring with his denunciations of the anguished Saints who first publicly exposed Smith’s secret polygamy in the Nauvoo Expositor in 1844. For over ten years, Taylor lied for his church by denying that polygamy was being practiced at all, though he himself had taken ten wives before the exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846.

The lying violated his better nature: he was relieved when Young decided to end the cover-up by formally admitting to the practice of polygamy in 1852. Sam Taylor relates this history as it really happened, a salutary charge from past accounts of this virile pioneer and third president of the Mormon church.

In describing his grandfather’s life, however, Taylor had to find a platform, both literary and intellectual, for his own position on some major Mormon controversies. He could have written a definitive biography, properly footnoted, which would have been a notable addition to Mormon scholarship, the history of the west and of American civil liberties. But he chose instead to write an historical novel. This gave him the liberty of creating scenes that are often poignant and moving, but it deprived him of historical perspective and judgmental summing up. Where so much honest, informative, and original historical material has been marshaled, it is to be regretted that the author chose the novel, albeit with sporadic footnotes, as his vehicle.

John Taylor is the novel’s hero, and we see his life through his own eyes, sharing in his suffering, fanaticism, and ecstasy. Though he publicly admitted only seven marriages, he married at least seventeen women. One bore him a son when he was seventy-two; at seventy-nine, hiding from federal marshals intent on jailing him for polygamy, he married a woman fifty-nine years his junior. Her father performed the ceremony.

This is a man’s book: only a Mormon male could have written it. There is little in it of Sam Taylor’s familiar pungent humor and leavening irony. His grandfather’s spirit is in charge.