Brigham Young: Man of the Spirit


One of the recurring themes in non-Mormon biographies of President Brigham Young is the idea that he was not a very “spiritual” man. Such interpretations, however, not only misrepresent his character, they also totally disregard the evidence, both published and unpublished, that refutes such a stereotype. For example, throughout his life Brigham Young had personal experience with many of the divine gifts of the Spirit.

One of the spiritual gifts that President Young experienced at various times was speaking in tongues. On the day when he first met the Prophet Joseph in November 1832, the new convert surprised the group he was with by speaking in tongues. Joseph Smith proclaimed that Brother Brigham spoke the language of Adam on that occasion. 1 Like all gifts, however, speaking in tongues is not intended for too frequent display, and Elder Young did not often manifest this gift during his many years of proselyting among the peoples of America and Europe. Nevertheless, there were times when the Spirit moved him to do so. 2 Utah pioneer Jesse W. Fox also bore testimony that on one occasion President Young was blessed to converse with the Indians of Utah in their native language. 3

The ancient prophet Joel prophesied that in the latter days “your old men shall dream dreams.” (Joel 2:28.) This is one of the scriptures that the Angel Moroni repeated four times to Joseph Smith in 1823, and it is a prophecy that found fulfillment in the life of Brigham Young. There are recorded dozens of dreams of Brigham Young that he felt had given him personal comfort, as well as insight and revelation for the conduct of his ministry. While on missions away from home, he had dreams concerning his family’s welfare that proved to be completely accurate upon his return. 4 As the Saints prepared to leave Nauvoo for the western wilderness of America, Brigham Young related a dream in which he had seen “in the west many beautiful hills. & barren & valley skirted with timber.” 5 President Young’s dream of the Salt Lake Valley was so detailed that Elder George A. Smith of the Council of the Twelve recognized Ensign Peak from the description that had been given. 6

President Young not only dreamed dreams, he was also a visionary man. At conference on 6 April 1862 he said: “I have had visions and revelations instructing me how to organize this people so that they can live like the family of heaven.” 7 Before the Church was expelled from Missouri in 1838, Elder Young had a vision of the scattering of the Saints, and their eventual return to establish the New Jerusalem. 8 One of the most solemn experiences of his life occurred on 17 February 1847 when, as he related it to Willard Richards two weeks later: “I actually went into Eternity last Wednesday week, & came back again.” In this vision he met with Joseph Smith and was shown the premortal existence of the spirit children of God. 9 Five months later, while standing in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah, President Young saw in vision the six-spired Salt Lake Temple, and he later said: “I have never looked upon that ground, but the vision of it was there.” 10 He also publicly testified that by vision he had learned how to govern the Saints, had seen the destructions upon the wicked, and had been shown “the organization of the kingdom of God in a family capacity.” 11

In one of the modern revelations, the Lord said that although not all have the same spiritual gifts, some people are blessed by God to have “faith to heal,” and some are given the gift of “the working of miracles.” (See D&C 46:11, 20–21.) On 26 November 1839, while en route to England to fulfill a mission, a violent storm buffeted the ship on which Brother Young traveled:

“I went upon deck and I felt impres in spirit to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus for a forgiveness of all my sins. And then I set to command the winds to sees [cease] and let ous [us] goe safe on our Jorney. The winds abated and Glory & ouner [honor] & prase be to that God that rules all things.” 12

In a marvelous manifestation of the gift of healing, Brigham Young administered to a woman in southern Utah who had been paralyzed by a stroke, and “she was instantly healed and walked home unassisted.” 13 President Young did not often speak publicly about his special experiences of the spirit, but on 12 October 1856 his first counselor Heber C. Kimball told the Saints that President Young had received ministrations of Jesus Christ, Michael, Elijah, Moses, and the ancient apostles. 14 As he neared the end of his own mortal ministry, President Young told the Saints on 18 May 1873: “I have had many revelations, I have seen and heard for myself.” 15

In his role as apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ it was Brigham Young’s right to receive revelation for the benefit of the Saints.

While on a mission in England in 1840, Elder Young received a revelation about the law of celestial marriage, which he mentioned to no one until he received confirmation from the Prophet upon his return to Nauvoo that the revelation was of God. 16

After the death of Joseph Smith, there was confusion among some people as to what the Saints should do, but by revelation Brigham Young as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles knew what to do. On 24 August 1844, the Quorum of the Twelve was presented with “two revelations that President Young take such measures as may seem best to him to gather men & means to this place to complete the Temple.” 17 As the anti-Mormon mobs grew more threatening to the continued presence of the Saints in Nauvoo, Brigham Young sought guidance from the Lord. On 24 January 1845 he recorded in his diary: “I inquaired of the Lord whether we should stay here and finish the temple. The ansure [answer] was we should.” 18 Moreover, Elder Young received a revelation that in conducting temple work for the dead, males should be proxies for males, and females should be proxies for females, instead of the earlier practice of an individual acting as a proxy for either sex. 19

As the Saints prepared at Winter Quarters for the journey to the mountains of Utah, Brigham Young wrote the revelation published as Section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and during the trek of the first pioneer company, on 28 May 1847, he wrote another revelation. 20 Furthermore, when he established the United Order in 1874 it was in response to the following revelation: “Thus saith the Lord unto my servant Brigham, Call ye, call ye, upon the inhabitants of Zion, to organize themselves in the Order of Enoch, in the New and Everlasting Covenant, according to the Order of Heaven, for the furtherance of my kingdom upon the earth, for the perfecting of the Saints, for the salvation of the living and the dead.” 21

He sought continually to be receptive to the voice of the Lord, and he repeatedly affirmed that the Saints could regard his published sermons as scripture to them. 22

One of the most dramatic manifestations of the power of the Spirit upon Brigham Young while speaking occurred on the occasion after Joseph’s death when many members of the Church assembled at Nauvoo to hear Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young speak. On 8 August 1844 President Young wrote in his diary:

“I arose and spoke to the people, my hart was swolen with compasion toards them and by the power of the Holy Gost even the spirit of the Prophts I was enabled to comfort the harts of the Saints.” 23

On this occasion the power of the Spirit was so great upon Brother Young that many in the audience testified later that he was transfigured before their eyes.

One of the earliest recorded descriptions of this event was written in February 1846 by George Laub: “Now when President Young arose to address the congregation his voice was the voice of Bro. Joseph and his face appeared as Josephs face & should I not have seen his face but herd his voice I should have declared that it was Joseph.” 24

Another operation of the Spirit in the life of Brigham Young was that of prophecy. He did not seem to feel this was his special gift, and he sometimes said that his counselor Heber C. Kimball had more of this gift than he. 25 Nevertheless, there were occasions when President Young was greatly moved by the spirit of prophecy. In 1846 as the Saints struggled with sickness in their mid-winter departure from Nauvoo, President Young prophesied that the apostles who seemed near death with illness would be strong in health once they had settled in the place to which the Lord would lead them. Such was the case. 26 On one occasion, President Young also gave a prophetic blessing to a young poetess, saying that her gift would flourish if she stayed close to the Church, but would die within her if she departed from the Saints. Despite a brief career of artistic brilliance, the young woman married a nonmember, departed the Church, and her poetic gift dramatically departed. 27 In a prophecy affecting many persons, Brigham Young promised the members of the Mormon Battalion that they would not have to shed blood or engage in battle during their march into enemy territory in 1846–47. Although the Battalion penetrated enemy territory and captured their strongholds, neither battle nor bloodshed was necessary. 28

In the conduct of his ministry Brigham Young was confident in the Spirit of the Lord, but was unwilling to exalt his spirituality in the eyes of men. Most of his spiritual experiences he related only to trusted associates. When one of them publicly proclaimed that President Young was the “man like unto Moses” spoken of in scripture, Brother Young chastized him with the wry comment: “I think I am the great man that none of the prophets ever thought of or spoke of.” 29 President Young sought only to do the will of God as he knew it without seeking the praise or honor of men. He especially did not want to appear to be competing in spirituality with the Prophet Joseph Smith. Their missions as leaders of the restoration were different, and Brigham Young was satisfied with magnifying his calling as the Lord revealed it to him. At October conference 1864, President Young quipped: “I have never said that I am not a Prophet; but, if I am not, one thing is certain, I have been very profitable to this people.” 30

And so he had. During the more than forty years of his apostolic ministry, he had led the Saints through proselyting, mobbings, sufferings, emigration, privation, and colonization, to the security of settlements, chapels, and temples in the mountain west of America. On 29 August 1877 Brigham Young lay on his deathbed. His last words were: “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” The friendship of two prophets, seers, and revelators was about to be renewed.

[illustration] Illustrated by Parry Merkley

D. Michael Quinn, an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University, serves as the high priests group instructor in the Emigration Ward, Salt Lake Park Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1:296–97; Manuscript History of Brigham Young, September 1832.

  2.   2.

    Charles C. Rich diary, 24 April 1836, and Wilford Woodruff Journal, 29 December 1846, Church Archives.

  3.   3.

    Statement of Jesse W. Fox in Junius F. Wells papers, Church Archives.

  4.   4.

    Brigham Young 1837–45 Journal, 11 June 1840, Church Archives.

  5.   5.

    Willard Richards Journal 6 November 1846, Church Archives.

  6.   6.

    Journal of Discourses, 13:85.

  7.   7.

    JD, 9:269.

  8.   8.

    JD, 11:17.

  9.   9.

    Willard Richards Journal, 28 February 1847.

  10.   10.

    JD, 1:133.

  11.   11.

    JD, 7:205, 9:269, 18:244.

  12.   12.

    Brigham Young 1837–45 Journal, 26 November 1839.

  13.   13.

    Roberta Flake Clayton, Pioneer Women of Arizona, p. 198.

  14.   14.

    JD, 5:205.

  15.   15.

    JD, 16:46.

  16.   16.

    JD, 18:241.

  17.   17.

    Willard Richards Journal, 24 August 1844.

  18.   18.

    Brigham Young 1837–45 Journal, p. 89, 24 January 1845.

  19.   19.

    JD, 5:85.

  20.   20.

    Willard Richards Journal, 28 May 1847; Wilford Woodruff Journal, 27 August 1860.

  21.   21.

    JD, 17:154.

  22.   22.

    JD, 9:140–41, 13:95, 264–65; Deseret News, 2 February 1870, p. 616.

  23.   23.

    Brigham Young 1837–45 Journal, p. 48, 8 August 1844.

  24.   24.

    George Laub 1845–46 Journal, p. 91, entry after 23 February 1846, Church Archives. For earlier, though less explicit descriptions of this event, see D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” Brigham Young University Studies 16 (Winter 1976): 212.

  25.   25.

    JD, 1:132–33.

  26.   26.

    Willard Richards Journal; and Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 19 April 1846.

  27.   27.

    Susa Young Gates papers, Utah State Historical Society.

  28.   28.

    Willard Richards Journal 18 July 1846; Daniel Tyler, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War, p. 118.

  29.   29.

    Wilford Woodruff Journal, 8 March 1857.

  30.   30.

    JD, 10:339.