Much has been written about Brigham Young; yet perhaps few men have been less understood by their contemporaries. Separated from his countrymen by strange beliefs and a vast distance, he was the subject of intense ridicule and slander during his lifetime.
Convinced that time would eventually assign him his rightful place in history, Brigham Young studiously ignored the malicious stories that were circulated about himself.
“I am often made aware,” he once wrote Jefferson Davis, “of the utter uselessness, and folly of seeking to vindicate my character from such foul aspersions as are occasionally raised against me; from the simple fact, that … when the vile slander is fairly refuted, and truth appears in the most incontestable manner, it is permitted to lie quietly upon the shelf to slumber the sleep of death.” 1
The mountain of false reports made against Brigham Young have been tenaciously quarried and in many cases have served as the main source of information for the biographer. Consequently, the truth about Brigham Young is still largely “upon the shelf,” so to speak, because biographers have not sought an understanding of him in the right places.
“The letters of a person, especially of one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life,” said Thomas Jefferson. Such is much of the case with Brigham Young. The voluminous correspondence that comprises a weighty part of the Brigham Young papers in the archives of the Church presents a view unsurpassed in its detail of his life. These letters vividly illuminate the character of the man who Samuel Eliot Morison has described as “among the most successful commonwealth builders of the English-speaking world.”
A select group of letters, chosen from among the countless papers of state and ecclesiastical importance, are those he wrote to members of his family. They reveal a dimension of his life, as husband and father, that has largely remained hidden from view in popular studies of him.
If among Brigham Young’s pleasures in the waning years of his life was, as he said, the thought of his children’s honorable achievements, then the groundwork for his joy had been laid years before at his own fireside.
Few men have ignited the spark of human worth and dignity in their children as effectively as Brigham Young. Through the numerous letters he wrote to his children we can see something of the relationships he established with them and get some insight into his family life. These letters to his family 2 also help us to better understand Brigham Young himself, since personality and character are best revealed in the intimate dialogue with one’s family.
Brigham Young’s family provided him with much happiness. “I do think the Lord has blessed me with one of the best families that any man ever had on the Earth,” he wrote to his wife on one occasion. Another time, after returning from missionary service for the Church in England, he noted that his joy was complete when he was able to spend, for the first time in years, an evening by his fireside with his family: “We enjoy it and feel to praise the Lord,” he wrote in his diary.
While traveling back to Winter Quarters from Salt Lake Valley in the fall of 1847, he lamented, “O that I had my family here.”
So important was his family to him that regardless of his success and accomplishments in life, Brigham felt that were he to fail in his duty as husband and father he would “[wake] up in the morning of the First Resurrection to find that he had failed in everything.”
Brigham Young’s family was prominent in Mormondom—not only because of its size, or because of his position as president of the Church and as governor of Utah Territory, but also because it stood as an example of those principles of industry and service that had long been preached as ideals of Latter-day Saint family life.
Because of numerous burdensome responsibilities of public office, Brigham Young’s personal contact with his family was necessarily limited. After frequent absences from home during the first decade of his Church membership, he was told in a revelation: “… it is no more required … to leave your family as in times past, for your offering is acceptable to me. … I therefore command you to … take special care of your family from this time, henceforth. …” (D&C 126:1, 3.) While this statement did not eliminate future absences from his family, it no doubt affected the quality of his association with them, limited though it still must have been.
Brigham Young’s family was one of the largest in the Church. Of the 46 children he raised to maturity, 17 were sons and 29 were daughters. Aside from the awesome responsibilities of presiding over the Church at a time when detail was not consistently channeled to subordinates, President Young was confronted with the daily care of a household that at its height numbered more than 70 individuals. The logistical problem alone of feeding and clothing such a number is impressive, not to speak of providing the education and training that must precede responsible behavior if children are to perpetuate traits of nobility and integrity.
The President provided for their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in a manner that is both exemplary and profound. He brought a degree of wisdom and understanding to the task of family management that contributed to a positive relationship with his children and remarkably influenced their attitudes and accomplishments in life. Several factors contributed to this, not the least of which was a paternal love and kindness, balanced with firmness and justice.
One of Brigham Young’s daughters recalled that “home was as beautiful to me as love and happiness could make it.” To his children, no other fact of their father’s life was so plainly a proof of his greatness as “his life at home and the influence which he radiated there.” His daughter Clarissa, who fondly remembered her childhood as “one long round of happiness,” wrote that her father “had the tenderness of a woman for his family and friends.”
Susa Young Gates related that although there were the usual squabbles among the children, “we were not a contentious family”; nor did the size of the family preclude a spirit of companionship and esteem between its individual members. Susa concluded that he “was an ideal father, kind to a fault, tender, thoughtful, just and firm. … None of us feared him.”
The kindness that characterized Brigham Young’s relationship with his children included a firmness “that neither humiliated the child nor lowered his own self-respect.” Discipline was mainly an educational process of example and precept: “It is not by the whip or the rod that we can make obedient children,” he stated, “but it is by faith and by prayer, and by setting a good example before them.” 3
The few instances of Brigham Young applying the “rod” to his children must be regarded within this framework: If children knew the feelings of their parents when they did good or evil, Brigham believed, “it would have a salutary influence upon their lives; but no child can possibly know this, until it becomes a parent. I am compassionate therefore towards children.” Governing a home by violence and dictatorship was contrary to Brigham Young’s convictions:
“I do not believe in making my authority as a husband or a father known by brute force but by a superior intelligence—by showing them that I am capable of teaching them. … If the Lord has placed me to be head of a family, let me be so in all humility and patience, not as a tyrannical ruler, but as a faithful companion, an indulgent and affectionate father, a thoughtful and unassuming superior; let me be honoured in my station through faithful diligence, and be fully capable, by the aid of God’s Spirit, of filling my office in a way to effect the salvation of all who are committed to my charge.”
Brigham Young taught that when children are bound to the moral law, “until duty becomes loathsome to them; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents.”
This “indulgent and affectionate” father did not lack firmness, however. During the family devotion one evening a noisy young girl “was running about and squealing with laughter.” Brigham stopped his prayer, caught the child, spanked her, and laid her in her mother’s waiting arms. He then returned to his chair where he again knelt and quietly concluded the family prayer.
Brigham Young’s adeptness as a child psychologist was demonstrated on one occasion when he was confronted with one of his small sons who, as soon as he was fed his bread and milk each day, was in the habit of knocking the dish and spoon to the floor.
“The next time he knocks the dish from your hand,” President Young counseled, “lean him against the chair, do not say one word to him, [and] go to your work.” The child’s mother did so, and the child stood by the chair for a while, looking first at his mother and then at the objects on the floor. Presently he got down and crawled to the spoon and dish and placed them upon the table. “He never tried to knock that dish out of her hand again,” said President Young.
Brigham Young’s confidence in having taught his sons a correct principle was manifest in an 1872 address in which the carelessness of children who not only played in the streets, but even dared teamsters to run over them, was the topic of discussion. “And sometimes people have to stop their carriages to save the lives of children,” he noted, adding, “if one of my boys attempts to obstruct the highway, take your whip and give him a good sound horsewhipping.” But, he concluded, “I think of a truth, that a boy of mine never did this, never.”
An important institution in the Young household was the evening devotional. No matter how busy they were, and even though “there might be wars and rumors of wars, councils and balls, meetings and dinner-parties,” all family members were expected to be there. After prayer, the family would hold council to formulate policy, plan recreational activities, or solve problems that may have arisen in the home. At these devotionals President Young would often take the opportunity to counsel and instruct his family.
A note dictated by him to his family on April 2, 1866, suggests that schooling them to meet regularly for their daily devotion was not accomplished without repetition:
“I have felt moved upon to write the following, for the perusal of my family, and to which I call their serious attention.
“There is no doubt but that my family, one and all, will acknowledge that my time is as precious to me as theirs is to them. When the time appointed for our family devotion and prayer comes, I am expected to be there; and no public business, no matter how important has been able to influence me to forego the fulfilment of this sacred duty which I owe to you, to myself and to God.
“I do not wish to complain of you without a cause; but I have noticed at prayer time that only a portion of my family has been present; some … are absent visiting a sister, a neighbor, a mother or a relative; my children are scattered all over town, attending to this or that; and if at home, one is changing her dress, another her shoes, another getting ready to go to the theater; another has gone to see Mary, and another to see Emily, and I may add, etc., etc.
“Now, I have a few words of counsel for my family, which I shall expect them to receive kindly, and obey: namely, when prayer time comes, that they all be at home. If any of them are visiting, that they be at home at half past six o’clock in the evening. I wish … [them] to be at home at that time in the evening, to be ready to bow before the Lord to make their acknowledgements to Him for His kindness and mercy and long-suffering toward us.
“Your strict attendance to my wishes in this respect will give joy to the heart of your husband and father.”
The Church historian, George A. Smith, was in Brigham Young’s home at prayer time on one occasion. After noting that quite a large number of the President’s family were there, he recalled that after a “very fervent prayer” President Young addressed his family on the subject of his and their positions in the Church. The president told his family that the eyes of the world were upon them and also the eyes of the Saints and that the influence of his teachings was affected by the example of his family:
“He said it was necessary for him to observe the word of wisdom, not only for his own sake, but his family should set examples. He wished his wives and daughters always to adopt their own fashions and to set an example and as far as possible to manufacture what they wore. He spoke on the absolute necessity of the saints ceasing to follow the fashions of the world. …”
Brigham Young’s exemplary life of personal integrity was a dominant influence for good in the lives of his children. He was convinced of the necessity of setting “an example before our children that is worthy of their imitation and highest admiration. If we do this, we shall have occasion to rejoice and be exceeding glad, for we shall have influence over them and they will not forsake us.”
Although the public press painted anything but a virtuous picture of Brigham Young, his family knew the falsity of this image. In setting himself as a reference point to designate the path of virtue and happiness this “trumpet” gave no uncertain sound. Writing his first letter to his oldest son, Joseph, on the occasion of the boy’s entrance into missionary service, he said:
“As you have grown to years of understanding you have had continually the instructions of one who has been appointed to stand at the head of God’s kingdom on the earth, the front of the battle; you have seen his energy, observed his deportment both private and public—should not you therefore eventually prove yourself a skillful general?”
Another time he advised Joseph to “keep yourself pure before the Lord—your father before you has done it and my constant prayer is that you may. With all my heart I believe you will.”
In his association with his family President Young was not given to hypocrisy. When he urged his children to be honest, they saw an honest man. For example, while living in Auburn, New York, about 1826, he had contracted a three-dollar debt from a local druggist, who, when approached with payment, could not find the note and refused to accept the money, stating that Brigham Young must have been mistaken about it. Some 40 years later and 2,000 miles removed from the scene of the incident, having heard that the note had been found, President Young dispatched his son John W. to Auburn with the charge: “I wish it settled. He [the druggist] may be dead; but his heir or heirs may be living.” 4
Brigham Young counseled his children that daily toil, however humble it may be, “is our daily duty, and by doing it well we make it a part of our daily worship.” His children did not have to look beyond their father for an example; he believed and practiced what he told them. A little over a year before his death, Brigham Young received a letter from an old friend, George Hickox, whom he had known 46 years earlier in Mendon, New York. After reporting the death of mutual acquaintances and recalling how kindly Brigham Young had been on an occasion when the writer had suffered from “fever and ague,” Mr. Hickox reported that a chair built by the Mormon leader in Mendon a half century earlier was being displayed in a forthcoming grand centennial supper in the local Congregational church. “We would be very happy to have you come and occupy it,” the writer concluded. President Young replied: “I felt amused and interested in your statement that a chair made by me would occupy a place in your centennial supper to be held next Tuesday.” He continued:
“I have no doubt that many other pieces of furniture and other specimens of my handiwork can be found scattered about your section of the country, for I have believed all my life that, that which was worth doing was worth doing well, and have considered it as much a part of my religion to do honest, reliable work, such as would endure, for those who employed me, as to attend to the services of God’s worship on the Sabbath.”
A practical philosophy of life lay at the center of Brigham Young’s efforts to educate his children. He taught that service to the Lord is more than praying and attending meetings: “We can also serve him in a life of usefulness, honesty and sobriety, remembering that it should be the object of our existence here that when we leave the world it will be a little better for our presence and labors.”
He further taught that preparation for the “life of usefulness requires diligence and effort” and that “our constant desire, should be to know how to build up the Kingdom of God, and of necessity this work calls forth an almost endless variety of talent, skill and labor.” He stressed that we cannot excuse ourselves from our duty of building up the kingdom of God, “for all of our time, all of our ability and all of our means belong to Him. It is not the privilege of any person to spend his time in a way that does no good to himself nor to his neighbours.”
Of the time allotted to man on the earth, President Young was convinced that there was none to waste. “After suitable rest and relaxation there is not a day, hour or minute that we should spend in idleness, but every minute of every day of our lives we should strive to improve our minds and to increase in the faith of the holy Gospel. …”
The more the Latter-day Saint is blessed with knowledge and talent, he believed, the more he is responsible to use his ability for “the spread of righteousness, the subjugation of sin and misery, and the amelioration of the condition of mankind.”
He taught that a prerequisite for useful service in the kingdom is a sound, practical education:
“I wish this people to pay particular attention to the education of their children. If we can do no more, we should give them the facilities of a common education, that when our sons are sent into the world as ministers of salvation and as representatives of the kingdom of God in the mountains, they can mingle with the best society and intelligibly and sensibly present the principles of truth to mankind, for all truth is the offspring of heaven and is incorporated in the religion which we have embraced. …
“… We are the guardians of our children; their training and education are committed to our care, and if we do not ourselves pursue a course which will save them from the influence of evil, when we are weighed in the balance we shall be found wanting.”
In an age when the father was frequently away from home visiting the Saints, directing the building of settlements, or helping to gather the poor, much of the responsibility for teaching the children in their early years devolved upon their mothers. The formal education of Brigham Young’s children began in a small room in the Lion House and later continued at the white schoolhouse built especially for that purpose across the street to the east. Besides the basics of reading and writing, the children were taught “strict probity of conduct.”
Brigham Young spared no effort to provide opportunities for the personal development of his children. After elementary education in the local schools, his children were given opportunity for further learning and experience in the field of their choice. Having been taught that building the kingdom requires an “endless variety of talent, skill and labor,” his children were early engaged in a wide range of activities by way of preparation.
Several of Brigham Young’s children made important contributions to the Latter-day Saint community and to the nation. His oldest son, Joseph, served many years in the Utah Territorial Legislature; Brigham, Jr., was a mission president, a member of the Council of Twelve, and a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church; John was widely known in railroad construction and financial circles, and was a counselor to his father in the First Presidency; Willard had a remarkable military career and as an engineer supervised important river and harbor improvements along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and in the Northwest, presided over two colleges, and was superintendent of Church building; Don Carlos was Church architect for 50 years and a member of the Utah Legislature; Susa Young Gates, a noted author and editor, played a leading role in state and national women’s organizations in addition to raising a large family.
Although not a complete listing, these examples are indicative of the determination and drive that were characteristic of many of Brigham Young’s children. Their accomplishments serve as a monument to a dedicated home life. 5
Only a summary of the source material consulted for this article is given here. The information about Brigham Young and his family in this article is largely derived from the Brigham Young papers in the Church Archives. These contain numerous letters written to and from members of his family. The following published works are also helpful: Susa Young Gates, The Life Story of Brigham Young (New York, 1930) and Brigham Young, Patriot, Pioneer, Prophet (Salt Lake City, 1929); Clarissa Young Spencer, One Who Was Valiant (Caldwell, Idaho, 1940). Brigham Young’s sermons are published in Journal of Discourses (26 vols., Liverpool, 1854–86).
All misspellings have been corrected.
Brigham Young also taught, “Kindness, love, and affection are the best rod to use upon the refractory. Solomon is said to have … recommended another kind of rod. I have tried both kinds on children. I can pick out scores of men in this congregation who have driven their children from them by using the wooden rod. Where there is severity there is no affection or filial feeling in the hearts of either party; the children would rather be away from father than be with him. “In some families the children are afraid to see father—they will run and hide as from a tyrant. My children are not afraid of my footfall; except in the case of their having done something wrong they are not afraid to approach me. I could break the wills of my little children, and whip them to this, that, and the other, but this I do not do. Let the child have a mild training until it has judgment and sense to guide it. I differ with Solomon’s recorded saying as to spoiling the child by sparing the rod. True it is necessary to try the faith of children as well as of grown people, but there are ways of doing so besides taking a club and knocking them down with it.” Journal of Discourses, vol. 9 (February 9, 1862), pp. 195–96.
The arrival of John W. Young in the small New York town did not go unnoticed in the local newspaper: “A son of Brigham Young, (we didn’t learn his number), was in town this morning, and called at a business house in Genessee St. to settle an account by his numerous progenitor some thirty years ago. Brigham is honest in some things, but rather slow. The debt discharged by him was, we understand, for borrowed money.” Unidentified newsclipping accompanying letter of John W. Young to Brigham Young, May 9, 1866.
See also Dean Jessee, “The Writings of Brigham Young,” The Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 4 (July 1973), pp. 273–94.