Brigham Young is justly known as a great practical leader. Observers in his own day and since have commented on his versatility, judgment, and common sense. After visiting him in the 1850s, the French traveler Jules Remy concluded that few men “possess in so high a degree as he does, the qualities which constitute the eminent politician and the able administrator.”1 A few years later, American Fitz Hugh Ludlow wrote that Brigham Young enjoyed the “great American talent of uncornerableness” to a degree “which I have never seen surpassed in any great man of any nation.” Brigham could never, Ludlow went on, “be put into a position where he is at the end of his resources.”2
However, only a few observers perceived that Brigham Young’s success rested less on practical skills than on faith in God and inner strength. Brigham Young’s faith centered on a few core principles: God reveals his will to men, Joseph Smith was God’s spokesman and prophet, and God intervenes in the affairs of man. He led boldly because he was certain of his direction and his destination.
Brigham Young’s approach to life and leadership was simple: “My religion is to know the will of God and do it.”3 Daily he sought to learn the Lord’s will for him now—what his duty was today. Once he saw his responsibility, he marshalled all his resources to do it. “When I think of myself, I think just this—I have the grit in me, and I will do my duty any how.”4 This determination to do his duty complemented a bedrock faith that if one was on the Lord’s errand and did everything in his power, God would do the rest.
He had not always had that confidence. His life as a young man, before he encountered the gospel, was gloomy. He believed in God but could not find him, and he often doubted his own purpose. But his conversion and baptism into the Church at age thirty, after many months of investigation and introspection, transformed him. With “fire in [his] bones,”5 as he later said, he suddenly faced the world with weighty new goals and with a faith in God that experience only increased.
Brigham put his faith to the test in Zion’s Camp in 1834 and came away with greater confidence in Joseph Smith, in God, and in himself as God’s servant. He did so again in 1840–41 by serving with the Twelve in Great Britain under extremely difficult circumstances. The experience transformed Brigham Young and his fellow Apostles into a powerful team.6 Upon their return, the Prophet assigned the Twelve new responsibilities, and during the next three years, he counseled them at every opportunity.
The 1844 murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith thrust Brigham Young into a new leadership role. Still mourning, reluctant to try to fill the Prophet’s shoes, Brigham Young nonetheless knew what was required. He and the Twelve stepped forward without delay because it was “our indispensable duty” to do so.7 His actions in those first months, and then when leading the Saints to the security of the Rocky Mountains, demonstrate that he saw himself as simply employing God-given talents to accomplish the charge left him by the Lord and the Prophet Joseph.
Following Joseph Smith’s death, Brigham Young was absolutely clear about priorities: first, the Saints must finish the Nauvoo Temple and receive the endowment there. Then they must seek a new home, the prophesied place of refuge in the West. For President Young, these goals required resolute attention. Indeed, so contagious was his enthusiasm that the pace of construction on the Nauvoo Temple increased dramatically under leadership of the Twelve.
Ironically, such rapid progress inflamed enemies who, fearing that it might be impossible to drive the Mormons from Nauvoo after they finished their beloved temple, vowed to drive them out first.8 Faced with the probability of violence, in January 1845 Brigham Young momentarily hesitated; should they finish the temple even if it meant bloodshed? His diary records the answer: “I inquired of the Lord whether we should stay here and finish the temple. The answer was we should.”9
Confirmed in his course, President Young pressed forward with iron resolve. In May, the capstone was laid and the Twelve announced that endowments would begin in December, a timetable they kept. Brigham talked tough throughout this period, partly to intimidate enemies and prevent bloodshed. “We would rather suffer wrong than do wrong” was his motto,10 and his faith that the Lord had dictated the direction and would oversee the outcome allowed him to act boldly.
Despite commanding the largest military force in Illinois, President Young declined to unleash the Nauvoo militia when violence finally broke out in September 1845. Instead, he and his fellow Apostles turned to intensive, special prayer, launching what historian B. H. Roberts called “par excellence the period of prayer in the church.”11
With work on the temple progressing amid a tense peace, in the spring of 1845 President Young turned his attention to the West. Joseph Smith had spoken privately of “a place of safety preparing … away towards the Rocky Mountains,” to use the 1840 words of Jonathan Dunham.12 Only weeks before his martyrdom, the Prophet had commissioned the Twelve to seek that place of refuge.
President Young found it no sacrifice to leave home and temple, for he knew that the destiny of the Saints lay not in Nauvoo but in the West. There, he believed, they would become a mighty people; there they could build in safety new homes and a new temple. Believing this, when mobs attacked settlements around Nauvoo in September 1845, President Young used the occasion to publicly announce the long-planned migration.
A major concern for Brigham was finding the right place. After frequent fasting and daily prayer in his room in the temple, he saw in vision the right spot and felt he could recognize it. His mind at ease, he was now ready. One month later, Brigham Young and the first company of Saints crossed the Mississippi River, though it was still winter. Once on his way, President Young seemed drawn westward as if by an unseen hand. “Do not think … I hate to leave my house and home,” he wrote his brother Joseph from the Iowa prairies. “No, far from that.” To him, “it looks pleasant ahead,” he wrote, “but dark to look back” toward Nauvoo.13
The Iowa experience, nonetheless, proved difficult, and for a time it seemed that the whole Church was mired, both literally and metaphorically, hub-deep in the spring prairie mud. Moving thousands of Saints hundreds of miles took far longer and consumed more resources than even Brigham Young had imagined. The experience overwhelmed him, drained him, and forced him to grapple with his limitations. (He lost so much weight that his clothes no longer fit.) Exhausted physically and emotionally, Brigham understood more than ever the need for God’s intervention. And he longed for Joseph to counsel him and to reassure the people.
As Brigham Young left his bed on the morning of 17 February 1847, illness seized him so suddenly that he was unable even to return to bed and “fainted away, apparently dead.”14 Only those who die and go through the veil could know how he felt, he said two weeks later, adding that “I know I went to the world of spirits.” However, it was not given him to remember immediately the details of what he saw there: “All that I know, is what my wife told me about it since. She said that I said, I had been where Joseph & Hyrum was” and that “it is hard coming back to life again.”15
Once revived, Brigham Young fell asleep and dreamed, and when he awoke, he recorded what he had seen. “In my dream I went to see Joseph,” he wrote. Finding Joseph sitting by a large window looking “perfectly natural,” Brigham took him by the hand, kissed his cheeks, and asked him why they could not be together as before. Joseph arose from his chair, looked at Brigham, and spoke in his usual way: “It is all right.” Brigham protested, but Joseph replied: “You will have to do things without me a while and then we shall be together again.”
Brigham then addressed Joseph as his mentor and asked for counsel. The advice was direct and simple: “Be sure to tell the people to keep the spirit of the Lord.”16 Brigham then turned and saw Joseph in the light, “but where I had to go was as midnight darkness.” Because Joseph insisted, Brigham “went back in the darkness” and awoke.17
Though Brigham Young spoke frequently of this in the weeks before heading for the Rockies, he did not elaborate on its meaning. Undoubtedly, it buoyed his spirits and provided still more evidence that he was on the Lord’s (and Joseph’s) errand. Though still burdened by the demands of leadership and the magnitude of the challenge, he was at peace.
That peace was not always shared by those closest to him. Two weeks after President Young’s illness and vision, his brother, Joseph Young, called on him in his office and “stated that he thought 100 lbs Provisions”—the announced minimum for the trek west—“very little for each Pioneer.” Some months before, he had told Brigham that getting the Saints safely across Iowa would require as great a miracle as Moses leading the children of Israel through the wilderness. Should they now expect a second miracle? With so little, he insisted, any mishap at all could endanger the whole enterprise. For Brigham Young, that amount—all they could expect to obtain—simply must do. “Brigham replied he wanted all to stay here, who had not faith to go with that amount.”18 Though not foolhardy, President Young was realistic. After doing the best they could, the Saints had no choice but to depend on the Lord for the rest.
President Young faced the challenge with such unwavering confidence because he knew the plan was not his own. As he told the Saints nearly ten years later, “I did not devise the great scheme of the Lord’s opening the way to send this people to these mountains.” Who did? “It was the power of God that wrought out salvation for this people,” he insisted.19
From the moment that Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley, he had a focused sense of mission about what the Saints must do there and a firm conviction that, through the Lord’s protection, they would be privileged to do so.20 He foresaw that if they lived worthily, they would never be driven from there.21 This faith sustained him and informed his decisions throughout his long tenure as civic and Church leader in Utah.
In 1857–58, President Young’s faith was put to a severe test as thousands of U.S. troops marched to Utah as an “escort” for Alfred Cumming, sent to replace Brigham Young as governor. Some have argued that Governor Young should have immediately sought a political solution. Logically, compromise and accommodation seemed the only policy that might preserve peace.
President Young felt otherwise. Missouri had taught him what enemies can do when backed by military authority. Confident that if the Saints did all in their power, the Lord would prevent disaster, Governor Young declared martial law and mobilized the territorial militia to do everything short of bloodshed to slow down the advancing troops. Grasslands and supply wagons were burned, provisions and cattle confiscated, and the advance units harassed day and night. Still they came—until the timely arrival of heavy snows forced the army into winter camp near Fort Bridger, roughly a hundred miles from the Mormon settlement in the Salt Lake Valley.22
That did not end the challenge, of course. By spring, soldiers wanted revenge for a miserable winter. Facing a renewed and perhaps even more dangerous threat, Brigham Young ordered his men to prepare to oppose the army, but added the promise that “not a gun will be fired, not a man slain.” One of his commanders, a man who viewed President Young as the Lord’s mouthpiece, replied that “he knew it was true but he did not believe a word of it.” Given the circumstances, bloodshed seemed inevitable.23
Even as troops advanced toward the city, Brigham Young and governor-designate Alfred Cumming, aided by Thomas L. Kane, the non-Mormon friend of the Saints who had risked his life to reach Utah in the winter, concluded a peaceful accord. Without incident, the army marched peacefully through a deserted Salt Lake City to an isolated encampment thirty miles away. U.S. Army Captain Jesse Gove summarized the toll of the Utah War: “killed, none; wounded, none; fooled, everybody.”24 Everybody except Brigham Young, who, throughout, had an inner assurance that the encounter would not result in calamity.
President Young’s leadership was not flawless, of course; in mortality, no one’s is. “There are weaknesses manifested in men that I am bound to forgive,” he said on one occasion. “I am right there myself. I am liable to mistakes,” he continued, but “I am where I can see the light. I try to keep in the light.”25 The promise he felt was not that he would make no mistakes or always know what was best but that, in the end, God oversees the essentials. He quickly abandoned what did not work well for something that might work better, but his direction and his destination remained unchanging. Long-term goals based on revelation provided the consistency that informed his day-to-day decisions and gave him the confidence to press forward regardless of the obstacles—or even the errors.
Such certainty sometimes made Brigham Young appear stubborn and inflexible. A few months after the peaceful resolution of the Utah War, President Young visited Governor Cumming. Concerned that they had narrowly averted disaster, the fair-minded governor cautioned Brigham Young to refrain from provocative or rash acts in the future.
“With all due respect to your Excellency,” the President interrupted, “I do not calculate to take the advice of any man that lives in relation to my affairs.” Though not spurning friends and counselors, during such crises, in God alone would he trust. “My religion is true,” he told the governor solemnly, “and I am determined to obey its precepts while I live.” He would, he insisted, “follow the councils of my heavenly Father, and I have faith to follow it, and risk the consequences. …
“You may think strange of it,” he concluded, “but you will yet see that I am right.”26