Brigham Young and Social Responsibility

Brigham Young

This photograph of Brigham Young is believed to have been taken in 1851, on his fiftieth birthday.

Some people are content to accept life as it has always been. But others, glimpsing visions of what life could be, are never satisfied until they have done everything in their power to transform those visions into realities.

Brigham Young was such a man. Converted to the gospel at age thirty-one, he was filled with a vision of possibilities, all centering in the establishing of the kingdom of God on earth. For him, this kingdom was no imaginary dream, but a physical possibility, a new way of life, a new pattern for society. And he allowed this vision to work upon his mind until it became—to borrow a phrase from Jeremiah—like a “burning fire shut up in [his] bones” (Jer. 20:9).

“I feel like shouting hallelujah, all the time,” he remarked, “when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet. … We have power to continue the work that Joseph commenced [building up the kingdom of God], until everything is prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. This is the business of the Latter-day Saints, and it is all the business we have on hand” (in Journal of Discourses, 3:51; italics added).

This “business” of building the Kingdom of God influenced his goals, his life, and ultimately his eternal destiny.

Brigham’s furniture lathe

Brigham’s furniture lathe.

Fortunate indeed is the man or woman who can be obsessed by such a goal, as was Brigham Young. For him, no sacrifice seemed too great if it was purposeful, especially if that purpose was the upbuilding of God’s kingdom on earth. The pursuit of this goal uprooted him from his life as a carpenter in Mendon, New York, and set him in motion, never to settle down until he established his home—and the headquarters of the Church—on the opposite side of the continent, in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah.

An ornamental doorway

An ornamental doorway in a farm house in Sugar Hill, New York, that Brigham helped build. The windows are an example of Brigham’s skill as a glazier. (Photograph by Longin Lonczyna, Jr.)

Baptized in snowy weather during the early spring of 1832, Brigham Young was confirmed at the edge of the water and ordained an elder in his home two miles away before the clothes were dry on his back. And before that year was over—an important year involving the death of his first wife and his initial meeting with the Prophet Joseph Smith—Brigham Young was out in the snow again, this time in an effort to share his new-found orientation to life with his friends in Canada.

In the cold of December, Brigham Young and his brother Joseph set out on foot for Kingston, upper Canada. This journey was to take the two young elders over a distance of 400 kilometers in snow knee deep with a thick layer of mud under it. Only those who have trudged through snow into mud can really appreciate the arduous task that these two missionaries underwent. To add to their discomfort, nearly ten kilometers of this journey was on ice—ice so thin that it bent beneath their feet, allowing the water to seep in until it was “half a shoe deep.”

For two months the missionaries labored in that area and baptized forty-five souls. Anyone who has seen his own inadequacies will appreciate knowing that missionary work was not an easy task for Brigham Young. He considered himself “about as destitute of language as a man could well be. …

“How I have had the headache, when I had ideas to lay before the people, and not words to express them; but I was so gritty that I always tried my best” (in Journal of Discourses, 5:97).

Another year and another mission passed before Brigham Young could finally settle his little family in Kirtland, where he drew close to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Twenty more souls came into the kingdom through his efforts as a result of a second mission, and he then led them to Kirtland, much as he would later lead the westward trek of the Saints. Once he had settled in the quiet little town of Kirtland in northern Ohio, Brigham Young began to learn about Zion, the dwelling place of the pure in heart, from the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Another major sacrifice for the cause of Zion came in 1834, as Brigham accompanied Joseph Smith on the march of Zion’s Camp. Word was received in Kirtland that the Saints in Missouri had been driven from their homes by mobs and that help was needed. An appeal was made to the brethren in Kirtland. Joseph and 205 others answered this plea for help. Force would be met by force. Those who marched knew that death might await them on the other end of their 1600-kilometer trek.

Cape and telescope used by Brigham

Cape and telescope used by Brigham while crossing the plains.

Brigham’s generation was acquainted with long walks, but nothing like this march. President Young later talked about walking month after month with blood in his shoes as he worked as a missionary, but even missionary work was nothing compared to the intensity of this march, day after day, in the heat of the early summer.

As the march proceeded, exhaustion resulted, patience became short, and tempers flared. Finally, the dreaded cholera hit, with its terrifying cramping and sudden death. Two years before that time, North America had experienced a major epidemic of cholera, and its symptoms were well known—diarrhea, spasmodic vomiting, and painful cramps, followed by dehydration that left the face blue and pinched, the extremities cold and dark, and the skin on the hands and feet puckered.

Death could follow in a day, even in an hour, and sometimes the victim would just keel forward as if hewn down by an axe. Some members of Zion’s Camp attempted to flee, but Brigham Young remained. Joseph Smith listed Brigham’s name as one who was most active in caring for the sick and burying the dead.

Not long after his experience with Zion’s Camp, Brigham Young was called to be a member of the first modern Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, organized in 1835. With the new calling, Brigham experienced many changes and felt the weight of added responsibilities. But his goal in life remained constant: to continue the work that Joseph had commenced, until everything was prepared for the coming of the Son of Man.

Two scenes from Brigham Young’s apostolic years give an insight into his continuing dedication to this goal. Both are from the year 1839.

The first occurred in February. Joseph Smith was imprisoned in Liberty Jail, and Brigham Young was directing the affairs of the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve. The problem at hand was to move the Saints from Missouri to Illinois. Few persons were well equipped for the move; many were destitute, and in their haste to leave, the temptation to run for one’s own life was strong. But in Brigham Young’s mind, this was not a course of action for true Saints of God. Surely society would never endure unless men could learn love, compassion, and concern for each other.

Accordingly, a meeting was called and a covenant drawn up, stating in effect that the signers would never leave until they had aided all of the poor to leave with them. Brigham Young and his family, accompanied by the family of Heber C. Kimball (Elder Kimball having remained in Missouri), set out in the cold February climate, with their wagons aimed toward Illinois, in one of the strangest processions in the entire Mormon emigration experience.

After traveling as much as thirty-two kilometers across the frozen Missouri plains, Brigham would stop, establish a temporary shelter for his wife and five children, and then retrace his journey to its point of origin. There he would load up some of the poor and destitute Saints and return to his family. In this way he actually covered three times the distance of most of his fellow travelers. Later, at the ending of their journey—Quincy, Illinois—an impressive meeting was held. The Saints in Quincy learned that fifty families were still in Far West and were too poor to leave. They pulled together once more, offering to sell what little they had left—their hats, coats, and shoes—to raise funds for this movement. Brigham Young comments:

“We broke bread and partook of the Sacrament. At the close of the meeting $50 was collected in money and several teams were subscribed to go and bring out the brethren. Among the subscribers was Widow Warren Smith, whose husband and son had been killed at the massacre at Haun’s Mill. She sent her only team on this charitable mission.”

Through these experiences and many others like them, Brigham Young was buoyed up in his conviction that people can be drawn together in love, that they do have the ability to create a more Christian society founded on love and concern for others.

A second scene from that same year, which depicts the determination of Brigham Young to sacrifice everything to the upbuilding of the kingdom of God, took place between September 1839 and February 1840 and involves his mission to Great Britain.

Engraved gold cane head

Engraved gold cane head, a gift to Brigham.

Our focal point concerns his journey to New York. The time had arrived for the Twelve Apostles to leave for a special mission. But Brigham Young, like so many of his brethren, was sick with what appears to have been malaria. Aching in all the parts of his body, he managed somehow to struggle out of his bed in Montrose, Iowa, and to dress for his journey. Having no coat of his own, he used a quilt from the cradle as a makeshift wrapping. All of his children were feverishly ill in bed. His wife was also ill and in need of help with her little ten-day-old baby. The Mississippi River was only 165 yards away, but Brigham could not even walk to its banks. A neighbor drove up with a wagon, and President Young crawled in. Met at the river, he was rowed to the other side, where Israel Barlow transported him by horseback to the home of Heber C. Kimball in Nauvoo. There he collapsed and was not able to continue for four days.

Eventually the time for departing arrived, and the missionaries left, moving eastward as best they could. President Young rode in the back of a wagon. Those who have felt the discomfort of flu can well imagine how one might feel being jostled across the countryside between Illinois and Indiana. Four months later, Brigham arrived in New York City—well at last, but not beyond hardships. In Brooklyn, New York, while boarding a ferryboat, he fell somehow and, landing against a large iron ring, dislocated his left shoulder. While two of his brethren held him firmly against the deck, Parley P. Pratt took hold of his hand and pulled, with his foot against Brigham’s side. Agonizing though this ordeal was, Elder Young guided the bone back into the socket with his right hand. Then he passed out and was not able to dress himself for several days.

Others may have become discouraged and dropped out long before that point. But Brigham Young would never give up when the establishment of God’s kingdom was involved. He carried on, boarded the ship, and was seasick most of the way to Britain. So emaciated was he upon arriving in England that his own cousin, Willard Richards, did not even recognize him.

Part of Brigham’s wardrobe

Part of Brigham’s wardrobe—a pair of pants believed to have been purchased by him in England, a top hat, sheepskin boots, and a cane.

After months of strenuous missionary work, he returned home to his family. His sacrifice had been acceptable to the Lord. Upon arriving back in Nauvoo, Elder Young received this commendation:

“Dear and well-beloved brother, Brigham Young, verily thus saith the Lord unto you: My servant Brigham, it is no more required at your hand to leave your family as in times past, for your offering is acceptable to me.

“I have seen your labor and toil in journeyings for my name.

“I therefore command you to send my word abroad, and take especial care of your family from this time, henceforth and forever. Amen” (D&C 126:1–3).

Architectural rendering of the Salt Lake Temple

This architectural rendering of the Salt Lake Temple, by William Ward, hung in President Young’s office for more than twenty years.

Such was Brigham Young’s preparation for the prophetic role. After Joseph Smith was martyred, Brigham Young led the Saints to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. In 1847, at age forty-six, he was sustained as the second President of the Church. Under his leadership, the Latter-day Saints made the desert blossom like the rose. They explored and settled a great wilderness; established towns and cities; built homes, chapels, and temples; planted, irrigated, and harvested crops; built industries, commerce, and transportation systems. They taught their children the principles of the gospel and sent missionaries to far places of the earth.

The Beehive House

The Beehive House, where President Young lived and had his office.

Not once, but many times, Brigham Young literally placed his life on the altar in his drive to establish God’s kingdom, this Zion on earth. All else in life was subordinated to that goal; he believed in it with all of his heart. Because of this preparation, he was the ideal person for the Lord to choose in encouraging others to join in the development of the ideal society. His dedication to Christ was complete. As prophet of the Lord, he commented in later life:

“I have Zion in my view constantly. We are not going to wait for angels, or for Enoch and his company to come and build up Zion, but we are going to build it. We will raise our wheat, build our houses, fence our farms, plant our vineyards and orchards, and produce everything that will make our bodies comfortable and happy, and in this manner we intend to build up Zion on the earth and purify it and cleanse it from all pollutions.

“Let there be an hallowed influence go from us over all things over which we have any power; over the soil we cultivate, over the houses we build, and over everything we possess; and if we cease to hold fellowship with that which is corrupt and establish the Zion of God in our hearts, in our own houses, in our cities, and throughout our country, we shall ultimately overcome the earth, for we are the lords of the earth; and, instead of thorns and thistles, every useful plant that is good for the food of man and to beautify and adorn will spring from its bosom” (in Journal of Discourses, 9:284).

In short, community planning for Brigham Young was not just the establishment of cities and orchards. It was the establishment of a fit abode for angels, a bit of heaven on earth. Education, music, and the cultural arts were to play a dominant role, and he anticipated the time that the Zion in the western United States would be a showplace for all peoples of the world, who would come to gain from our example.

A four-sided desk

A four-sided desk made to Brigham’s specifications. It was often used by him and his counselors.

His dream in many aspects is still unfulfilled, because many of us fail to comprehend its significance. One is tempted to ask of our generation, “Where in the Church today are the men, women, and youth with a Brigham Young-type of dedication to this same dream?” Hopefully the answer is, “Right here, in our own ward, in our own branch.”

Brigham Young Highlights, 1801–1877





June 1: Born in Whittingham, Vermont.



Mother dies; Brigham begins to earn his own way in life, eventually becoming a carpenter.



October 5: Marries Miriam Works.



Baptized; ordained an elder. Wife dies. Brigham meets Joseph Smith; serves short-term missions in U.S. and Canada.


32 33

February 18: Marries Mary Ann Angell. May–June: Acts as captain in the march of Zion’s Camp.



February 14: Ordained a member of the first modern Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.



Serves a mission to Great Britain.



June 27: Joseph Smith is martyred. August 8: Brigham leads the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.



Leads the exodus of the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley.


45 46

January 14: Receives section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants. July 24: Enters Salt Lake Valley with the first group of Saints. December 27: Sustained as President of the Church.



June 15: Becomes governor of the Territory of Utah.



April 6: Lays the cornerstone for the Salt Lake Temple.



June 11: Released as governor after an eight-year term.



October 6: First general conference is held in the new Salt Lake Tabernacle November 11: Institutes a general Sunday School organization December 8: Reinstitutes Relief Society.



Railroad comes to Utah. November 28: Establishes a general organization for young women.



June 10: Establishes a general organization for young men.



April 6: Dedicates the St. George Temple, the first temple in the West. Gives new emphasis to the proper organization of the priesthood.



August 29: Dies in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Brigham Young(click to view larger)

Another photograph was taken in 1876, when he was seventy-five.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett; photographs of artifacts by Jed Clark, Ron Read, and Matt Reier

[illustration] Joseph Smith listed Brigham’s name as one who was most active in caring for the sick in the 1600-kilometer, cholera-stricken march to rescue Saints from Missouri mobs.

[illustration] Recovering from a fever and physically weak, Brigham first saw the Salt Lake Valley from the back of Wilford Woodruff’s carriage. He is reported to have said, “It is enough. This is the right place.”