When Brigham Young died 101 years ago, on August 29, 1877, he was the leader of an empire of 350 towns and cities blossoming in the desert, and he was the prophet—the literal spokesman of God—to over 100,000. He had led the Church through the dark days following the martyrdom of the prophet Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum. Brigham had directed the exodus of thousands of Saints over a distance of 1,400 miles to build a civilization in the wilderness. He was a great orator and missionary. He fostered the development of the arts, founded universities and academies, and served as a territorial governor.
These achievements of the second prophet of this dispensation are generally well-known among the Latter-ay Saints. Less well known to some, perhaps, are the circumstances of Brigham’s early life and of his conversion to Mormonism.
At the time he first encountered Mormonism, Brigham Young had gone to school no more than eleven and a half days. Instead, his mother gave him and her other children what little schooling she could at home. She taught him to read, and his father taught him from the Bible.
Brigham’s parents were devout, puritanic Methodists. He responded to their strict piety by neither adopting nor totally rejecting it. Instead, he developed a remarkable independence that led to careful and long consideration before he made his own religious commitments. Later he could reflect on that early experience with mature insight:
“When I was young, I was kept within very strict bounds, and was not allowed to walk more than half-an-hour on Sunday for exercise … I had not a chance to dance when I was young, and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the highway to hell, if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it. I shall not subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, read novels, and do anything else that will tend to expand their frames, add fire to their spirits, improve their minds, and make them feel free and untrammeled in body and minds.” (Journal of Discourses, 2:94; (hereafter cited as JD.)
In his youth Brigham learned to economize and to work hard. He was apprenticed to a chairmaker and housepainter. By the time he was 18, Brigham was skilled and mature enough to go into business for himself. He set up a small woodworking shop. He established himself as a skilled artisan who is still famous in western New York state for the beauty of his stairwell decorations, fanlight doorways, door frames, stair rails, louvered attic windows and fireplace mantels.
He stated, “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 employ me, as to attend to the service of God’s worship on the Sabbath.”
Brigham’s search for a true religion was a long one. He, like Joseph Smith, did not join his parents’ religion. He visited the meetings of different churches and settled on being a moral, hardworking, loving husband and father. It seems clear however that Brigham was not able to be satisfied with merely a moral, hardworking life. He must have yearned for spiritual and emotional fulfillment, and for some response to nagging questions about life’s meaning. Wherever he lived he joined groups of independent seekers of truth, as did many early converts to the restored church. Brigham’s brother, Phineas was the leader of such a group and was given one of the first copies of the Book of Mormon by the Prophet’s brother, Samuel Smith. Because Phineas felt responsible to his little religious society to expose any such things “invented to lead people astray,” he read it carefully. But he could not find the errors he expected, and when he appeared before the group the next sabbath, most likely with Brigham present, he “had not spoken ten minutes in defence of the book when the Spirit of God came upon me in a marvelous manner, and I spoke at great length on the importance of such a work, quoting from the Bible to support my position, and finally closing by telling the people that I believed the book.”
Phineas lent his copy of the Book of Mormon to his father, who thought it “the greatest work he had ever seen,” then to his sister Fanny, who declared it “a revelation.” Fanny passed it on to Brigham Young who was more reserved.
“I examined the matter studiously for two years before I made up my mind to receive that book … I wished time sufficient to prove all things for myself.” (JD, 3:91, 8 August 1852.)
On another occasion Brigham explained this reserve:
“Upon the first opportunity I read the Book of Mormon, and then sought to become acquainted with the people who professed to believe it … I watched to see whether good common sense was manifest; and if they had that, I wanted them to present it in accordance with the Scriptures … when I had fully meditated everything in my mind, I completely accepted it and not until then.” (JD, 8:38, 6 April 1860.)
After about a year and a half, he was finally moved to action. He was visited by a group of Mormon missionaries from Columbia, Pennsylvania, one of whom sat him down and bore his testimony to him:
“When I saw a man without eloquence, or talents for public speaking, who could only say, ‘I know, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is a prophet of the Lord,’ the Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminated my understanding, and light, glory and immortality were present. I was compelled by them, driven with them, and I knew for myself that the testimony of the man was true … My own judgment, natural endowments, and education bowed to this simple, but mighty testimony … It filled my system with light, and my soul with joy.” (JD, 1:90 13 June 1852.)
Brigham was baptized in Mendon on April 15, 1832 in his own little millstream behind his carpenter shop by that same missionary whose testimony had so influenced him.
Education is a good thing, and blessed is the man who has it, and can use it for the dissemination of the gospel without being puffed up with pride. (JD, 11:214.)
This people have embraced the philosophy of eternal lives, and in view of this we should cease to be children and become philosophers, understanding our own existence, its purpose and intimate design, then our days will not become a blank through ignorance, but every day will bring with it its useful and profitable employment. God has placed us here, given us the ability we possess, and supplied the means upon which we can operate to produce social, national, and eternal happiness. (JD, 9:190.)
Every art and science known and studied by the children of men is comprised within the gospel. Where did the knowledge come from which has enabled man to accomplish such great achievements in science and mechanism within the last few years? We know that knowledge is from God, but why do they not acknowledge him? Because they are blind to their own interests, they do not see and understand things as they are. Who taught men to use electricity? Did man unaided of himself discover that? No, he received the knowledge from the Supreme Being. From him, too, has every art and science proceeded, although the credit is given to this individual, and that individual. But where did they get the knowledge from, have they it in and of themselves? No, they must acknowledge that, if they cannot make one spear of grass grow, nor one hair white or black without artificial aid, they are dependent upon the Supreme Being just the same as the poor and the ignorant. Where have we received the knowledge to construct the labor-saving machinery for which the present age is remarkable? From Heaven. Where have we received our knowledge of astronomy, or the power to make glasses to penetrate the immensity of space? We received it from the same Being that Moses, and those who were before him, received their knowledge from; the same Being who told Noah that the world should be drowned and its people destroyed. From him, too, has the power to receive from one another been bestowed, and to search into the deep things pertaining to this earth and every principle connected with it. (JD, 12:257.)
The religion embraced by the Latter-day Saints, if only slightly understood, prompts them to search diligently after knowledge. There is no other people in existence more eager to see, hear, learn, and understand truth. (JD, 8:6.)
No matter what your circumstances are, whether you are in prosperity or in adversity, you can learn from every person, transaction, and circumstances around you. (JD, 4:287.)
The education of our children is worthy of our attention, and the instruction of the Elders from this stand. It is a subject that should be thoroughly impressed upon the minds of parents and the rising generation. (JD, 13:262.)
See that your children are properly educated in the rudiments of their native language, and then let them proceed to higher branches of learning; let them become more informed in every department of true and useful learning than their fathers are. When they have become well-acquainted with their language, let them study other languages, and make themselves fully acquainted with the manners, customs, laws, governments and literature of other nations, peoples, and tongues. Let them also learn all the truth pertaining to the arts and sciences, and how to apply the same to their temporal wants. Let them study things that are upon the earth, that are in the earth and that are in the heavens. (JD, 8:9.)
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.
Every accomplishment, every polished grace, every useful attainment in mathematics, music, and in all science and art belongs to the Saints, and they should avail themselves as expeditiously as possible of the wealth of knowledge the sciences offer to every diligent and persevering scholar. (JD, 10:224.)
Our education should be such as to improve our minds and fit us for increased usefulness; to make us of greater service to the human family; to enable us to stop our rude methods of living, speaking, and thinking. (JD, 14:83.)
I am happy to see our children engaged in the study and practice of music. Let them be educated in every useful branch of learning, for we, as a people, have in the future to excel the nations of the earth in religion, science, and philosophy …
Let the children in our schools be taught everything that is necessary with regard to doctrine and principle, and then how to live; and let mothers teach their daughters regarding themselves, and how they should live in their role, that they may be good wives and good mothers. Let the sisters study economy in the labor and management of their homes. (JD, 12:122–123.)