Brigham Young—The Early Years


This article is based on a talk given at Brigham Young University by Elder Young [1897–1981], a great-grandson of President Brigham Young. Elder Young was a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
Dedication to gospel principles, loyalty to the Lord, and a willingness to serve, prepared Brother Brigham to be one of the great modern-day leaders and a prophet of God.

Often, when we talk of Brigham Young, we think of the man who presided over the growth of the Church for some thirty years, the man who led the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley, and the man who directed the settlement of many communities in the Southwest. The following is an overview of the early years of Brigham Young, the convert, and the experiences he had that made him a great leader.

In 1800, Brigham’s father, John Young, was living with his wife and eight children in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. He received a letter from a cousin in Whitingham, Vermont, telling him of cheap land there he could buy and establish a home. In the latter part of that year, John moved his wife and children to Whitingham, and there on 1 June 1801, Brigham Young was born.

In 1802, the Young family moved to Sherburne, New York State, where they lived for four years. Two more children were born, making a total of eleven. One of them, a daughter Nabby, died.

The history of the family during the next few years is a record of constant moving from one place to another. It was a time when men were restlessly trying new frontiers, and there always seemed to be a better place to settle somewhere else. Because of his restlessness as well as financial need, John would buy a piece of property, cut down trees, clear and develop the land, and then move on. But John was not alone. Some of his brothers and sisters and their families often moved around with him, settling down for a while, and then starting over again.

Brigham’s family never had much money. Even shoes were considered a luxury. One day, by some fortunate circumstance, he became the possessor of a pair of shoes. Brigham was used to being barefoot, so the shoes were saved for special occasions. When he went to church, he carried them until he was near the place of gathering. He put them on during the meeting and took them off as soon as it was over.

Brigham Young’s formal schooling consisted of eleven days of instruction under a traveling schoolmaster. However, his mother taught him to read, and he was a natural student and a keen observer of events and of the world around him. When Brigham was fourteen years old, his mother, Nabby Howe Young, died of tuberculosis. Brigham then hired himself out as an apprentice to learn the trade of a carpenter, cabinet maker, painter and glass worker—skills that were to come in handy in his later years when he would build cities.

Beginning His Own Career

In 1817, sixteen-year-old Brigham, with his father’s permission, began to support himself. He worked hard, and became an expert, careful craftsman. Chairs that he made still exist. He moved to Port Byron hoping to find work. There he met and, on 5 October 1824, married Miriam Works, and they had two children.

Meanwhile, John Young and Brigham’s brothers and sisters, settled in Mendon, New York. They kept inviting Brigham to join them there, and finally, in 1828, he did. There he met Heber C. and Vilate Kimball with whom he developed a lifelong friendship.

At Mendon, Brigham’s brother Phineas Howe Young, a traveling Methodist preacher, happened to stop at the house of a man named Tomlinson, one of the members of his congregation. Another guest was a young man who said to Phineas, “Sir, I have a book I should like you to read.”

“Oh,” said Phineas, “What is it?”

“It’s called the Book of Mormon. It’s a revelation from God.”

Aware of local rumors about such a book, Phineas said, “Oh, the golden Bible?”

“Some people call it that,” said the young man, “I’d like you to read the testimony of the witnesses.”

Phineas read the testimony of the three witnesses; how, with the power of God, they had seen the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and heard the voice of God declare that the translation was correct. He read about the eight men who had seen the plates and touched them, and described them to be of ancient and curious workmanship.

Phineas bought a copy of the Book of Mormon with the intent of exposing its falsehoods. Instead, after reading it, he discovered that it was true. He shared it with his father, with Brigham, and with other family members. They agreed that there was truth in what they read.

That summer, five young Latter-day Saints visited the area to share their knowledge of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Phineas welcomed them into his home, where the Youngs and the Kimballs came to hear the visitors preach.

An Eventful Decision

Following two years of investigation into the Church, Brigham was baptized in a creek that flowed through a nearby woods. It was a bitterly cold day in April 1832. Those participating in the ceremony could hardly see because of a heavy snowfall. Seated on a log, his wet clothes freezing on him, Brigham was confirmed a member of the Church and ordained an elder. He later said, “As I sat there I felt the sweet spirit of the Holy Ghost witnessing that my sins were forgiven.” His wife Miriam was baptized a week later, just a few months before her death of tuberculosis. After her death, Brigham and Miriam’s two daughters, Elizabeth and Vilate, were taken into the home of Heber and Vilate Kimball.

In the fall of 1832, Brigham, his brother Joseph, and Heber C. Kimball, traveled 560 kilometers to Kirtland, Ohio, to meet the Prophet Joseph. As Brigham and Joseph shook hands, Brigham said to himself, “I know he is a prophet.” From that day on he dedicated his life to Joseph Smith and never missed an opportunity to be in his presence.

Back home in Mendon, Brigham and his brother Joseph left in late November or early December, to walk through mud and snow and cold and wind, to preach the gospel. They found many people receptive to their message.

As soon as spring came, Brigham went alone preaching to and converting people. He went to Loughborough, Canada, where he and his brother had taught earlier. Brigham joined a group of converts and guided them some 960 kilometers to Kirtland. Then he walked back to Mendon.

That fall, in 1833, Brigham and Brother Kimball sold their properties, and moved to Kirtland to be with the Prophet. When they arrived in Kirtland, they found that many of the men were going to Cleveland, Ohio, for the winter to earn money in the city. Brigham said, “I’m not going. I came to be with the Prophet and I intend to stay.” Even though there weren’t many job opportunities in Kirtland, he did some carpentry work now and then.

But whatever he was doing, Brigham would lay down his tools to listen whenever the Prophet addressed a group or led a discussion. He never missed an opportunity to hear the Prophet speak.

In 1834, Brigham married Mary Ann Angell. She raised Brigham’s two daughters and had six more children. The two youngest boys eventually became General Authorities of the Church. Brigham Jr. was president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and John W. was first counselor to his father.

A Time of Testing

In that same year (1834), Latter-day Saints settlers in Jackson County, Missouri, were being persecuted by mobs. The Prophet organized Zion’s Camp March, a small army of 200 volunteers to go to the Saints’ assistance. Brigham and his brother Joseph joined the group. Unsuccessful in the attempt to have the Missouri government support the Saints’ claims, the prophet dismissed the volunteers and sent them back to Kirtland. The long, strenuous march, of about 1,600 kilometers, was a time of learning and a test of faith and obedience. Joseph Young later commented that he had never experienced a more severe trial of his faith.

Dedicated to the Prophet, Brigham came to his defense time and again. Even when apostasy developed in the Church leadership and there was opposition to the Prophet, Brigham, with other faithful Brethren, stood firm. Several times he took action to preserve the Prophet’s life against the apostate mob as they conspired to ambush and kill Joseph.

During these trying years, Brigham’s future leadership of the Church was being developed. For example, when the Saints were driven out of Far West, Missouri, he went among the brethren asking them to pledge everything they owned “so that we can take with us the Saints who aren’t able to go on their own, who have nothing. We do not want to leave a member of the Church behind who wants to leave.” To the credit of those men, poor as they were, they pledged their money, their cattle, their wagons—everything they owned as a group—to help the poorer Saints.

Brigham not only organized assistance, he set the example of service by driving a wagon carrying his wife, and Vilate Kimball, and their children thirty kilometers out of Far West toward Quincy, Illinois. He unloaded the wagon, set up a tent for the women and children, cut enough fire wood to last a couple of days, and then drove the wagon back to Far West to bring out another family. Then that family camped while he took his and the Kimball family on a further thirty kilometers. He returned to transport the second family over the same route. In that manner he moved his own family and the Kimballs as well as a family that didn’t have the means to leave by themselves. Similar actions were taken by other brethren so that all the Saints could leave Far West.

Having been called to serve a mission to England, Brigham and Brother Kimball were faced with a problem. They had promised the Lord they would leave for their mission from the cornerstone of Far West Temple. Despite the threats of apostates against their lives, Brigham, Orson Pratt, John E. Page, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and George A. Smith, made their way back to Far West temple site, and with a small group of loyal Saints, held a brief service. The apostles then went to Commerce (now Nauvoo), Illinois, to settle their families and prepare for their mission. Brigham got a room for his family in an army barracks across the Mississippi River in Montrose.

A Mission’s Painful Beginning

When it was time for them to leave, Brigham was so sick he couldn’t stand up. His wife, with a newborn child, was also sick, as were his children. Determined to fulfill his promise to the Lord and go on a mission, Brigham crawled out of the house and staggered to a wagon. After a painful ride to the river’s edge, and then across the river, he lay on the ground for a long time. A horseman came along and gave him a ride to the Kimball home where he found Heber also sick. The two men lay bed-ridden for a week or two, but finally determined that they had to be about the Lord’s business. They got up, arranged for a wagon to take them out of town, and said good bye to their wives (Mary Ann had come across the river to help nurse Brigham). Weakened by their illness, the two men climbed into the wagon and lay down. Brother Kimball said to Brigham, “Let’s not leave them this way.” They staggered to their feet, waved their hats and shouted, “Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah for Zion!” and collapsed to the floor of the wagon.

During the next few months they worked their way to New York. Brigham traveled in rags. The only way he had to keep warm that winter was to have an old quilt tied around him with a rope.

By February 1840, they were determined to sail, but they had no money. Brigham appealed to the local Saints. “We have come this far without money,” he said. “Now we must get to England, and we can’t swim the ocean.” The members raised $19.50 for Brigham. The Atlantic crossing cost $19.00.

In March, they sailed for Liverpool, England. The month-long trip was miserable for Brigham; he was seasick most of the time, and was unable to eat. He lost so much weight that his cousin, Willard Richards, who met him at the dock in Liverpool, couldn’t recognize him.

During the next year, Brigham and his colleagues did a great missionary work in Britain. They had 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon and 3,000 hymn books printed, started publishing the British Church magazine, The Millennial Star, and brought and estimated 8,000 people into the Church.

The experience he gained during his missionary service prepared him to be the leader of the Church when the Prophet was martyred. As president, Brigham led the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley, and brought stability and growth to the Church.

He died in Salt Lake City 29 August 1877, of peritonitis. As Brigham lay dying, his eyes seemed to be fastened upon someone in the far corner toward the ceiling of the room. And he said, “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!

Dedication to the principles of the gospel in his early years prepared Brigham to be a great prophet-leader. His goal in life was to know the will of the Lord and do it.

Bird Stew and Sugar for Supper

One winter was particularly bad for the Young family, and in early March they found themselves without food. John sent his two older boys, Phineas and Joseph, to find work anywhere to exchange for food, corn, or whatever, and he kept Brigham and Lorenzo in the cabin with him.

John Young had tapped the maple trees on his farm and boiled down the sap and made maple sugar. As they finally came to the end of their food supply, he told Brigham he was going to exchange the sugar for food. He said, “Now you stay here, Briggy, and tomorrow morning get out and work all day clearing the brush and chopping what you can. And Lorenzo, you stack the brush. It’ll take me all night and tomorrow to get there and back, but I’ll be back the next day.”

So early that next morning, strapping on his snowshoes and leaving about 300 grams of sugar for the two small boys to eat as best they could, he put on his pack and left.

Brigham and Lorenzo worked all that day, as they had promised they would, and at about four o’clock they started for home. As they were walking along they heard a robin sing. They stopped and finally located the robin on a bush some forty or fifty meters away. Brigham said to Lorenzo, “Now you watch. I’ll run around and get the gun ad we’ll have some supper.” So he circled around to the cabin and got the gun and ran back.

The gun must have weighed nearly seven kilograms, but Brigham managed to aim it. He pulled the trigger and shot it. They ran over and got the bird, skinned it and cleaned it, went to the cabin, and put the bird in a kettle on the fireplace with a little water and began to cook it. They tipped the flour barrel and beat on the bottom, catching what they could in the pan, and managed to get half a cup of flour. They thickened the stew with that and had bird stew and sugar for supper. The next night, John returned home bringing some corn meal and pork, and they were able to survive.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jerry Harston