The weather on Saturday, 1 September 1877, matched the mood of the Saints. Heavy clouds “bowed thickly down from the skies,” shedding “gentle but copious tears.”1 Two days before, President Brigham Young had died at age 76 years, 2 months, and 28 days. He had presided over the Church 33 years, first as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and then, for three decades, as Church President.
Early in the morning, President Young’s body was taken to the Tabernacle on Temple Square. There a coffin draped with white wool cloth and wreathed with flowers was placed for a final viewing. During the next 25 hours, day and night, an estimated 25,000 people—a fifth of the Saints living in Utah Territory—passed his remains. Many people had come on special trains.
During the next day’s funeral services, Elder George Q. Cannon, a member of the Twelve, spoke with great feeling. President Young had “been the brain, the eye, the ear, the mouth and hand for the entire people of the Church,” he said. Yet Elder Cannon believed that even this praise did not do full justice to the man. “The time will come,” he predicted, “when the Latter-day Saints will appreciate him as one of the greatest prophets that ever lived.”2
Growing Up. Brigham Young was born on 1 June 1801 at Whitingham, Vermont, just over the Massachusetts border. He was the ninth child in a family of five boys and six girls. Shortly before his third birthday, the Youngs moved to upper New York state, where their hard struggle for life continued.
Weakened by coughing and consumption, Brigham’s mother, Abigail (“Nabby”) Howe, died when Brigham was 14. His father, John Young, loomed larger in his memory. Though Brigham accorded him the virtues of integrity, work, and love for children, his ways were as stern as the Yankee countryside.
Brigham was kept within strict bounds. He was permitted to walk no more than half an hour on Sunday, and the suggestion of fun was out of the question. Later, he could not remember hearing “the enchanting tones of the violin” until he was 11 years old and then thought himself “on the high way to hell” if he stopped to listen. Having been denied youthful pastimes, as an adult he would seek “active exercise, and amusement.”3
Like many frontier lads of the time, Brigham had little formal schooling. His primary curriculum was the Bible, read with his family around the hearth. “I went to school eleven days, after I was twenty-two years old,” he said, “which was the most schooling I ever had.”4 When Brigham was 16 years of age, his father suggested that it was time for him to earn his own living. He then began to clothe and feed himself. After a series of jobs in upstate New York, he established roots at Mendon. There, on rented land, he built a “nice water wheel, and turning [lathe], and every thing necessary for making up furniture.”5 By trade, he had become a handyman and craftsman.
For him, work was a religious undertaking. “I have believed all my life that, that which was worth doing was worth doing well,” he later explained, “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.”6
Seeking Truth. Religious influences had been a part of his life from youth: his father and grandfather were “strict religionists.” Consequently, Brigham had been taught to reverence the Bible, return to neighbors something as trifling as a pin, and render good when injured by others. From youth, he believed in the Bible. Yet he delayed joining any denomination, despite pressure from clergymen. “Some one of you may be right,” he remembered thinking to himself, “but hold on, wait awhile! when I reach the years of judgment and discretion I can judge for myself.”7 Yet it was not simply a question of postponing judgment until he grew older. In his independent mind, none of the churches matched the pattern of Bible Christianity found in his New Testament.
“I would have given worlds if I could have known the truth in my childhood,” he said.8 Frequently attending neighborhood religious revivals, the boy found strong passions but not the religious substance he desired. These revivals seemed to make the people “crazy” with emotion, but when the camp meetings were over, he said, they were “all about nothing at all.”9 Because he did not join a church, his neighbors called him an “unbeliever,” and “I was pronounced an infidele [sic] by professors of religion.” The charge greatly upset him. “I would have been willing, if an highway had been cast up, to have walked on my knees around the world, if, by doing so, I could have found a man who would have told me the things of God.”10
When he finally made a profession of Methodism at the age of 23, it was with uncertainty and on his own terms. While the denomination did not provide him with all the religious answers he was seeking, he explained, he had joined in the hope that he might “lead a better life,” wanting to “be as moral as I possibly could.”11 At his request he was baptized by immersion, although local Methodist church elders did not believe in the form and sought to discourage him from using it.12
He later recalled that he was “just as good a Methodist” and as “devoted” as any professing Christian could be.13 Yet as he approached 30, he seemed frustrated and emotionally depressed, not fully satisfied with himself or his religion. He was “gloomy and desponding.” Everything had “a dreary aspect”; even the most beautiful scenery at times seemed veiled with “a shade of death.”14 His early business dealings added to his despondency; he felt that he could “scarcely trust any one.”15
It was at this time that he found the gospel. Even before the Church was formally organized, a missionary had tried to convert the extended Young family, but Brigham’s brothers told the missionary to leave them alone.16 When Brigham finally received a copy of the Book of Mormon in the spring of 1830, he approached the book without much enthusiasm, supposing that he could measure Latter-day Saint doctrines “as I could the Methodist, Presbyterian, and other creeds of Christendom.” To his surprise, he found that it was substantive. He weighed the matter for a year and a half, looking at it “on all sides” and reasoning “month after month.” His investigations intrigued him, compelled him, and led him on.17
While he was not impressed by the outward look or intellect of the LDS missionaries, he could not ignore the truths they taught him and the Spirit that attended their teaching. “I could easily out-talk them, though I had never preached; but their testimony was like fire in my bones.”18
Brigham Young was baptized on 15 April 1832 in his own mill stream and afterward was ordained an elder.19 His despondency immediately lifted. It was as though he had been given a new life. Excited about the gospel, he wanted to share his discovery. With his brother Phineas, who also had joined the Church, he went to Canada as a missionary, traveling 250 miles in deep snow that sometimes covered “a foot of mud.”20 The two men baptized 45 people. This was just the beginning. During the next seven months, Brigham Young helped establish a dozen congregations in the northeastern United States.21
Soon he was in Kirtland, Ohio, to begin a remarkable 11-year friendship with the Prophet Joseph Smith that lasted from 1833 to 1844. Brigham Young matured as he accepted the Prophet’s direction and filled a series of important Church assignments. These included marching with Zion’s Camp (an attempt to reclaim the Saints’ lost lands in Missouri), accepting a call to serve as a latter-day Apostle of the Lord, and helping build the Kirtland Temple. Elder Young also directed the Saints’ forced evacuation from Missouri, led the Twelve Apostles’ mission to England, and, under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith, played a leadership role in Nauvoo, Illinois. When the Prophet was killed in 1844, Brigham Young became the chief Apostle and thus leader of the Latter-day Saints.22
He was 43 years old at the time. By all accounts, his presence was commanding. Somewhat over five feet eight inches tall (above average for the time), he had a light complexion, blue eyes, and sandy, almost auburn, hair. Then there was his mouth. “His lips came together like the jaws of a bear trap,” remembered an acquaintance much later. They seemed to convey “great mental energy and indomitable pluck,” a reporter wrote in 1871.23
But it is not for his physical appearance that he is remembered. Church members and others soon sensed this was no ordinary man. With his wide-ranging interests, creativity, practical shrewdness, ability to assess character, sense of detail, ability to inspire religious devotion, and talent to make things happen, President Brigham Young had few equals. More than 120 years after his death, his ministry continues to affect the Latter-day Saints. He helped shape our heritage in many ways.
Establishing Succession. The death of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844 left many Saints wondering who should be their new leader. While the Twelve were aware that the Prophet had conferred on them the keys of the kingdom, even some of them seemed unsure what they should do. Into this uncertainty stepped President Young. When he heard the news of the Martyrdom, he was despondent, but soon a revelation came to him “like a clap of hands” that the keys of the kingdom were still on earth.24 He returned to Nauvoo from the East, arriving on 6 August 1844. Some 48 hours later, in one of the most important meetings in Church history, he successfully persuaded the assembled Saints that the Quorum of the Twelve should guide the Church. “I magnified my calling,” he later said of this event, “& scarce a man stood by me to brunt the battle.”25
Just as important was the precedent of reorganizing the First Presidency, which President Young helped to establish three years later. Some of the Apostles preferred the cumbersome procedure of having the Twelve make each executive decision, but President Young understood that such a system was neither scriptural nor a proper long-term solution.26 During the summer and fall of 1847, he worked to convince his fellow Apostles of the need for a First Presidency, which quorum had been introduced earlier by revelation through Joseph Smith (see D&C 107:22). He brought the matter to a head in November. “When duty prompts me I mean to do it let consequence be what they may,” he said. On 5 December, the quorum unanimously accepted his proposal.27
Evacuating Nauvoo. After the Prophet Joseph Smith was killed, mobs tried to expel the Latter-day Saints from Illinois. Another leader might have defended Mormon rights by using the Nauvoo Legion, the well-trained local militia of perhaps 5,000 troops. “We could fight our way clear,” wrote Elder John Taylor in an editorial noting the Legion’s military power. But “we will suffer wrong rather than do wrong. … The gospel whispers peace.”28 Instead of becoming embroiled in bloodshed and escalating violence, President Young and the Saints left their homes and started west.
Preserving the Church in Iowa. From the beginning of their evacuation of Nauvoo, which began in February 1846, the Saints encountered nearly insurmountable difficulties. Poor roads, bad weather, mud, scant supplies, and disobedient Church members seemed to threaten the very existence of the Church. During this crisis, President Young maintained a constant vigil; it was reported that he slept with “one eye open and one foot out of bed.”29 His energy, firmness, good humor, and organizing skill helped save the Latter-day Saints from disaster on the Iowa plains. It was one of the young Church’s gravest crises.
Leading the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley. From the early years of the Church, the Saints had talked about establishing settlements in the American West, and on 6 August 1842 Joseph Smith predicted that they would “become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.”30 This recorded prophecy, however, does not provide a specific location. Thus, when President Young prepared to lead the Saints from Nauvoo, he fasted and prayed to learn the right location. Also, studying the question in his own mind, he examined maps, exploring reports, emigrant guides, and travelers’ accounts.31
Another person, interested mainly in wealth, might have led the Saints to the fertile lands of Oregon or California. But President Young was motivated to find a place to “make Saints,” where the Saints could keep “the commandments of God without being persecuted and driven by mobs.”32 The guidance to settle in the Salt Lake Valley was spiritually confirmed a number of times. In describing one of those occasions, Wilford Woodruff, who was with President Young when he first entered the Salt Lake Valley on 24 July 1847, later said that President Young “was enwrapped in vision for several minutes. He had seen the valley before in vision, and upon this occasion he saw the future glory of Zion and of Israel, as they would be.” After this vision passed, he said, “‘It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.’”33 The Saints had been successfully led to the prophesied place preserved “in the top of the mountains” (Isa. 2:2; Micah 4:1).
Establishing Community Ideals. On 22 August 1847, a month after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, President Young and Elder Heber C. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles formally asked the few Saints there some important questions that helped shape the Church. Were the new settlers going to be motivated by narrow personal profit? (President Young used the phrase “devilish hoggish.”34) Or were they willing to act as a group and help each other?
Members responded by formally pledging to serve each “man, woman, and child” and not simply themselves. They also agreed to settle on the land differently than most western settlers of the time: Homes and gardens were to be placed on village lots, with agricultural fields and livestock nurtured outside of town up to several miles away. The Saints would learn, play, and worship together as part of a close-knit community. This settlement pattern, which scholars have called “the Mormon village,”35 encouraged such values as unity, cooperation, equality, and neighborliness. These values continue in LDS wards and stakes throughout the world.
Gathering Church Members to Zion. The 17th-century Puritan migration to North America brought to New England more than 20,000 souls. In contrast, under President Young’s leadership, three and a half times that number arrived in Utah, mainly from the British Isles and northern Europe. Unlike the prosperous Puritans, a large number of LDS immigrants needed financial help with their journey. During some years, the Latter-day Saint community spent as much as $800,000 in goods, services, and cash to aid the travelers—one of the largest Church programs of the time.36 President Young personally showed his support by freely donating his own means and by greeting many of the newcomers himself. This Church migration has been described by leading American historians as “the largest and most successful group immigration in United States history” and its immigrants as the “best prepared pioneers in the West.”37
Zion Building. Under President Young’s leadership, about 360 towns were established. But Brigham Young was more than founder of towns and cities. He wanted to change lives. “Suppose we had the power to take the poor and the ignorant, the low and the degraded who are trodden under foot by the great and the powerful among earth’s inhabitants, and bring them together and purify them and fill them with knowledge and understanding and make a nation of them worthy of admiration?” he once asked.38
The question was not idle speculation. It outlined the purpose of Zion building. President Young wanted every man, woman, and child busily employed. He wanted them learning and growing. He wanted them to experience such things as drama and music. He encouraged the personal growth of Church members, many of whom had been disadvantaged in their European homeland. He wanted to bring about a social transformation.
President Young set a personal example. Even after becoming the leader of the Church, he remained uncertain about his own talents. In fact, he said he wondered until he was 45 if he had the “knowledge, sense, or ability enough to enable me to associate with the men of the world.”39 Yet his Utah office journal, kept after the Saints arrived in the West, shows how wide-ranging his self-education became. He was interested in the microscope and the telescope, and he studied phonography (today we would say “stenography”). He learned about smelting and iron making. On occasion, President Young and other Church leaders gathered in his office and discussed such topics as naval armaments, Nevada statehood, national politics, the making of molasses, or the production of rosin and turpentine.40 Along with these interests and activities, he continued to improve his skills as a craftsman. He created one of the Salt Lake Theater’s elaborate chandeliers from a wagon wheel.41
Preaching the Gospel. One way President Young tried to improve the Saints was by the spoken word. An able speaker, he used such 19th-century rhetorical devices as anecdotes, dialogue, humor, repetition, and exaggerated language to hold the attention of his pioneer audiences. Often his message was practical: the Saints should do their duty and improve themselves. On other occasions, clerks used such phrases as “richness and intelligence” and a “heavenly manner” to describe the spiritual power of his speaking.42 President Heber J. Grant, who as a young boy had often heard President Young preach, believed that the pioneer prophet’s “wonderful capacity … to inspire those who heard him preach” was perhaps his greatest contribution to the Church.43
Counseling the Saints. Despite his sometimes chastising words from the pulpit, a bond grew between the Church leader and the Saints. If the people loved him, he once reflected, it was because he loved them so deeply. “There is not a father who feels more tenderly towards his offspring, and loves them better than I love this people,” he said.44 He enjoyed mingling with the Latter-day Saints during his tours of the outlying settlements. On these occasions, he and other Church leaders traveled from settlement to settlement, “encouraging, motivating, and informing the people; listening to them and learning from them; and blessing them.”45 Thousands of letters passed between the Saints and their leader, and still more thousands of men and women came to his Salt Lake City office for advice. No Saint and no personal matter seemed too unimportant.
Administering the Kingdom. President Young thought the task of administering the affairs of the kingdom was “one of the simplest things in the world.”46 “Teach the people true knowledge,” he said, paraphrasing Joseph Smith, “and they will govern themselves.”47 Further, President Young led his people with a deep sense of God’s will. “I tremble not, I fear not, neither do I care for the insults of the world, for the Lord is my bulwark.”48 It was his rule “to live so as to know my business and understand my duty, and to do it at the moment without a long study.”49
French observer Jules Remy noted that while the Church leader made decisions slowly and seemed in no hurry to act, once “the time of action arrived,” President Young would work “with an energy which stops only at success.”50
Some found the key to President Young’s executive success in his ability to judge character; he understood how people “were fitted to his use, and building them in the wall of his design as a mason lays the stone, he brought the most heterogeneous elements into harmony, [and] taught a Babel of tongues to talk Mormon with one accord.”51
Clarifying Priesthood Duties. Hoping to leave succeeding generations a strengthened Church, during his final year President Young hurried to complete what one historian called “the single most important priesthood analysis and redirecting since the priesthood restorations of forty-eight years earlier.”52 The growing number of settlements in the Intermountain West required new and more localized wards and stakes. Moreover, President Young hoped to create a younger and more vigorous local leadership. He also wanted the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, six of whom had been presiding over stakes, to assume a larger role in Church administration.
To meet these and other needs, President Young more than doubled the number of wards in the Church: 140 were added to the already existing 101. Sixteen new stake presidents were called as 7 new stakes were added to the existing 13. President Young also examined the seniority of each member in the Quorum of the Twelve and confirmed that Elder John Taylor should be the quorum’s president (Elder Orson Hyde and Elder Orson Pratt had lost their earlier seniority because of a time of disaffection in Missouri and Illinois many years before).
During this reorganization, President Young defined the duties of the Apostles, seventies, high priests, and elders “with plainness and distinction and power.”53 The First Presidency also issued an important “circular letter” containing instructions on two dozen items, including the new requirement that the Church’s worthy young men should receive the Aaronic Priesthood.54 Before that time, young men had not generally been ordained to the priesthood.
Finally, just months before his death, President Young presided over the dedication of the St. George Temple. In establishing the first house of the Lord since Nauvoo, he was able to set in order “the priesthood and the ordinances for the redemption of the dead.” He thus realized “one of the greatest objects of his life.”55
It was a life that had been spent in service to the Lord and those he was called to lead, but he did not look back on his service as burdensome. “I hear people talk about their troubles, their sore privations, and the great sacrifices they have made for the Gospel’s sake,” he once said, perhaps reflecting on how the teachings of the Church had changed his own life. “It never was a sacrifice to me. Anything I can do, or suffer in the cause of the gospel is only like dropping a pin into the sea.”56
President Young once compared real life to the theater and a succession of actors who performed on the Utah stage. “One generation passes away and another comes on to occupy their places,” he said. Until meeting in a yet future day in “our Father’s Mansions,” he hoped that he and the Saints would “act well our parts” so that in the theater of life “we may draw down the applause of him who rules, directs and governs all.”57
Thousands of Latter-day Saints who knew and loved Brigham Young would have willingly applauded his own indomitable efforts in behalf of the kingdom of God on earth.