Brigham Young was born in Vermont in 1801, the ninth of 11 children of John and Abigail Howe Young. He grew to manhood on the heavily wooded lands of central New York state, where his family’s home and the surrounding land became his classroom (see DNW, 22 Apr. 1857, 4). His parents were poor, he later said. “We never had the opportunity of letters [formal education] in our youth, but we had the privilege of picking up brush, chopping down trees, rolling logs, and working amongst the roots, and of getting our shins, feet and toes bruised” (DNW, 12 Aug. 1857, 4). Young Brigham worked hard to help clear the land, farm it, and help with household chores. He never forgot his father’s strict moral training or how his mother “taught her children all the time to honour the name of the Father and the Son, and to reverence the [Bible]; she said, Read it, observe its precepts, and apply them to your lives as far as you can; do everything that is good; do nothing that is evil; and if you see any persons in distress, administer to their wants” (MSS, 1853, 55). Brigham’s mother died when he was 14 years old.
By age 16 Brigham had become an apprentice carpenter, joiner, painter, and glazier. He took pride in his craft and said he considered “honest, reliable work, such as would endure, for those who employed me” to be “a part of my religion” (Brigham Young to George Hickox, 19 Feb. 1876, BYP).
At age 23 he married Miriam Angeline Works. Two daughters were born to the young couple. Brigham supported his family by making and repairing chairs, tables, and cupboards and installing windows, doors, stairways, and fireplace mantels. On his father’s farm in Mendon, New York, he constructed a home and woodworking shop next to a small stream, using a waterwheel to power his mill machinery.
When Miriam contracted tuberculosis, Brigham assumed much of the burden of her work in addition to his own. As she became progressively more bedridden, he regularly prepared breakfast for the family, dressed his daughters, cleaned up the house, and “carried his wife to the rocking chair by the fireplace and left her there until he could return in the evening,” when he cooked supper, got his family into bed, and finished the household chores (LSBY, 5). His experiences in his youth and early marriage in caring for children and managing a home taught him much about family cooperation and housekeeping. Years later he counseled the Saints on these subjects and teasingly boasted that he could beat “most of the women in [the] community at housekeeping” (DNW, 12 Aug. 1857, 4).
Brigham and Miriam joined the Methodist Church the year they were married, but Brigham continued to wrestle with religious questions. He sought a church organized according to the pattern Jesus had established, after the pattern of the New Testament with a “system of ordinances” (DNW, 19 July 1866, 3) and all the gifts of the gospel. Because of the missionary efforts of Joseph Smith’s brother Samuel, Brigham Young’s family obtained two copies of the Book of Mormon in April 1830, just one month after the book was published. Some of Brigham’s brothers and sisters read it and declared its truth, but Brigham himself did not immediately accept it (see LL, 33). “‘Hold on,’ says I. … ‘Wait a little while; what is the doctrine of the book, and of the revelations the Lord has given? Let me apply my heart to them.’ … I examined the matter studiously, for two years, before I made up my mind to receive that book. I knew it was true, as well as I knew that I could see with my eyes, or feel by the touch of my fingers, or be sensible of the demonstration of any sense. Had not this been the case, I never would have embraced it to this day” (MSS, 15:45).
Brigham Young had to know for himself. He later taught the Saints that God did not intend them “to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s sleeve” (DNW, 24 Aug. 1854, 1). “It is my duty to know the mind of the Lord concerning myself,” he told them” (DNW, 22 Sept. 1875, 4). “It is your privilege and duty to live so that you know when the word of the Lord is spoken to you and when the mind of the Lord is revealed to you” (DNW, 22 Sept. 1875, 4).
Missionaries from a branch of the Church in Columbia, Pennsylvania, passed through Mendon in 1831, preaching that the heavens had been opened and that the gospel and the holy priesthood were restored through Joseph Smith. After Brigham and other family members and friends visited the Columbia Branch, he believed he had found the religion he had long sought, but he struggled to decide if he could actually sacrifice everything for it. Then, as one of the missionaries bore testimony, “the Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminate[d] my understanding, and light, glory, and immortality [were] before me,” he remembered. He said that he was encircled and filled by them, and he knew for himself that the testimony of the man was true (DNW, 9 Feb. 1854, 4). On 15 April 1832, a cold and snowy day, Brigham Young was baptized in his own millstream, confirmed, and ordained an elder (see DNW, 2 Apr. 1862, 1). “According to the words of the Savior, I felt a humble, child-like spirit, witnessing unto me that my sins were forgiven,” he recalled (MHBY-1, 3). Miriam entered the waters of baptism about three weeks afterward (MHBY-1, 3). All of Brigham Young’s immediate family members were baptized, and they remained faithful Latter-day Saints.
In the late summer of 1832, after returning from missionary travels in the nearby countryside, Brigham nursed Miriam through the final weeks of her consumptive illness. She died in September 1832.
Brigham Young turned his full attention and energy to the Church. Anxious to meet the Prophet Joseph Smith, he left immediately for Kirtland, Ohio, with his brother Joseph and close friend Heber C. Kimball. They found Joseph Smith chopping wood with his brothers. Brigham’s “joy was full at the privilege of shaking the hand of the Prophet of God” and receiving “the sure testimony, by the Spirit of prophecy, that he was all that any man could believe him to be, as a true Prophet” (MHBY-1, 4). This marked the beginning of one of Brigham Young’s most important relationships. When he returned to New York, he gave away many of his possessions and reduced his business in order to dedicate more of his time to the Church. Assured that Vilate Kimball, Heber’s wife, would care for his daughters, he served a series of missions. He held meetings and baptized in the countryside surrounding Mendon. He also traveled into upper New York and Ontario, Canada, to preach the gospel and bear witness that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.
Desiring to obey the Prophet’s counsel to gather with the Saints, in September 1833 Brigham Young moved his family from Mendon to Kirtland. There, Brigham “had the privilege of listening to the teachings of the Prophet and enjoying the society of the Saints, working hard at [his] former trade” (MHBY-1, 7). He helped construct homes, the Kirtland Temple, and several public buildings.
On 18 February 1834 he married Mary Ann Angell; over the next 10 years, six children were born into their family. Mary Ann, Brigham recorded, “labored faithfully for the interest of my family and the kingdom” (MHBY-1, 8).
During his years in Kirtland (1833–38), Brigham learned that building the kingdom of God requires obedience and sacrifice. In the spring of 1834, he volunteered to march with Zion’s Camp, a group of 205 men recruited by Joseph Smith to take aid and provisions to the Saints who had been forced from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri. “We performed a journey of two thousand miles on foot,” Brigham recalled (DNW, 8 Oct. 1856, 2). He remembered that because of the extreme hardships and sickness “we had grumblers in that camp.” The men needed to be tutored in patience and cooperation and so, said Brigham, “Joseph [Smith] led, counseled and guided the company,” particularly the men who had “uneasy, unruly and discontented spirits” (DNW, 3 Dec. 1862, 1). The difficult journey strengthened Brigham’s loyalty to Joseph Smith and provided priceless schooling in obedience to God and His prophet (see DNW, 3 Aug. 1854, 2).
Nine veterans of Zion’s Camp, including Brigham Young, were selected to be members of the first Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at a special conference on 14 February 1835 (see D&C 18:26–32). Brigham Young was ordained by the laying on of hands and blessed “that he may go forth and gather the elect, preparatory to the great day of the coming of the Lord.” He and other members of the quorum, “called to preach the Gospel of the Son of God to the nations of the earth” (HC, 2:196), left in May 1835 for a four-month mission to the eastern states. He returned to the eastern states as a missionary during the summers of 1836 and 1837.
Elder Young supervised the painting and finishing of the Kirtland Temple. He was present when the Prophet Joseph introduced preliminary ordinances there, and he attended the March 1836 dedication services with hundreds of Saints who had made great sacrifices to build the first temple in this dispensation (see MHBY-1, 12; HC, 2:428).
Before Elder Young could fully savor the unity developed by such experiences, several dissenters became so vocal in their opposition to the Prophet that they tried to wrest from him the leadership of the Church. In January 1838 Elder Young confronted these apostates in the Kirtland Temple: “I rose up, and in a plain and forcible manner told them that Joseph was a Prophet, and I knew it, and that they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased, they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God, they could only destroy their own authority, cut the thread that bound them to the Prophet and to God and sink themselves to hell” (MHBY-1, 16).
Brigham Young remembered waiting with Joseph Smith “scores and scores of nights ready to receive the mob who sought [the Prophet’s] life” (DNSW, 15 May 1877, 1). He was so uncompromising in his support of the Prophet that the apostates, he recounted, “threatened to destroy me” (MHBY-1, 23–24). He fled Kirtland and went to western Missouri, joining Joseph Smith and other Church leaders whose lives had been threatened. But as large numbers of Latter-day Saints continued to migrate into western Missouri, other settlers there became alarmed, fearful of political and economic domination by the Saints. Tensions erupted in the summer and fall of 1838 and culminated when the governor ordered the state militia to exterminate the Latter-day Saints or drive them from the state. The imprisonment of Joseph Smith and other key leaders and the apostasy or death of several members of the Quorum of the Twelve thrust new responsibilities on Brigham Young, now President of the Quorum. He and Apostle Heber C. Kimball were the only members of the Church’s presiding quorums available to guide and assist the Saints in their difficult winter exodus from Missouri. Under their direction, the Saints covenanted to help the poor, to bring every Latter-day Saint out of the state, and to prepare to gather once again.
The exiled Saints built a new city in Commerce, Illinois, which they later named Nauvoo. President Young stayed there only a few months, however, because the Prophet Joseph received a revelation calling the Quorum of the Twelve to serve missions in England. In the fall of 1839, President Young left Illinois determined to assume the new responsibility despite the ill health he and his family were suffering. He later recalled that he could not walk very far without help and that his sister Fanny begged him not to go. He responded: “‘Sister Fanny, I never felt better in my life.’ She was a very eccentric woman and, looking at me, with tears in her eyes, she said ‘you lie.’ I said nothing, but I was determined to go to England or to die trying. My firm resolve was that I would do what I was required to do in the Gospel of life and salvation, or I would die trying to do it” (DNSW, 2 Aug. 1870, 1).
Eight members of the Quorum of the Twelve served missions in the British Isles during 1840 and 1841, and Brigham Young, as Quorum President, directed their labors. During that momentous year the Twelve achieved remarkable success. As President Young prepared to leave Liverpool in April 1841, he reflected with gratitude on God’s “dealings with me and my brethren of the Twelve during the past year of my life. … It truly seemed a miracle to look upon the contrast between our landing and departing from Liverpool. We landed in the spring of 1840, as strangers in a strange land and penniless, but through the mercy of God we have gained many friends, established Churches in almost every noted town and city in the kingdom of Great Britain, baptized between seven and eight thousand, printed 5,000 Books of Mormon, 3,000 Hymn Books, 2,500 volumes of the Millennial Star, and 50,000 tracts, and emigrated to Zion 1,000 souls, … and have left sown in the hearts of many thousands the seeds of eternal truth, which will bring forth fruit to the honor and glory of God, and yet we have lacked nothing to eat, drink or wear: in all these things I acknowledge the hand of God” (MHBY-1, 96–97).
By wholeheartedly shouldering new responsibilities, President Young and his fellow Apostles had enlarged not only their personal capacities but the capacity of the quorum to work unitedly and effectively for the Church. Joseph Smith trusted their “united wisdom” and announced in Nauvoo in August 1841 “that the time had come when the Twelve should be called upon to stand in their place next to the First Presidency” (HC, 4:403). The Twelve were given greater responsibilities, including preaching the gospel, settling immigrants, purchasing land, and building the Nauvoo Temple.
Before the temple was completed, Joseph Smith privately introduced President Young and other members of the Twelve to temple ordinances, including baptism for the dead, the temple endowment, and family sealings, anticipating that the Twelve would teach these ordinances to the members of the Church. The Prophet met with the Twelve in the spring of 1844 to confer on them all of the keys and authority necessary to carry forward the work of the kingdom. “I roll the burthen [burden] and responsibility of leading this Church off from my shoulders on to yours,” the Prophet proclaimed. “Now, round up your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord is going to let me rest a while” (undated Certificate of the Twelve, BYP).
Within three months the Prophet Joseph Smith was dead. While President Young was serving a summer mission in the Boston area, he learned that Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been murdered by a mob at Carthage, Illinois. Upon hearing the news, he asked himself “whether Joseph had taken the keys of the kingdom with him from the earth,” but he immediately felt assured that the keys of the kingdom rested with the Twelve (MHBY-1, 171). Returning at once to Nauvoo, he found that Joseph’s First Counselor, Sidney Rigdon, had offered to take over leadership of the Church, and a general assembly of Saints had already been called to sustain a new leader. President Young spoke to the gathering of Saints with forceful plainness:
“For the first time in my life, for the first time in your lives, for the first time in the kingdom of God in the 19th century, without a Prophet at our head, do I step forth to act in my calling in connection with the Quorum of the Twelve, as Apostles of Jesus Christ unto this generation—Apostles whom God has called by revelation through the Prophet Joseph, who are ordained and anointed to bear off the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world.
“… Now, if you want Sidney Rigdon or William Law to lead you, or anybody else, you are welcome to them; but I tell you, in the name of the Lord that no man can put another between the Twelve and the Prophet Joseph. Why? Because Joseph was their file leader, and he has committed into their hands the keys of the kingdom in this last dispensation, for all the world” (HC, 7:232, 235).
Many witnesses noted that President Young looked and sounded like the Prophet Joseph as he spoke, a powerful manifestation of divine approval. The nearly 5,000 Saints assembled sustained the Twelve as the governing quorum of the Church. Three days following the meeting in which President Young had told the Saints he “wanted the privilege to weep and mourn for thirty days at least” (HC, 7:232), he quietly expressed his grief: “It has been a time of mourning [since] the day that Joseph and Hyrum were brought in from Carthage to [Nauvoo]. It was judged by many both in and out of the church that there was more than five barrels of tears shed. I cannot bear to think anything about it” (MHBY-1, 177).
During nearly a decade of service as an Apostle of Jesus Christ, Brigham Young had been learning the ways of the Lord. His willingness to work hard, obey, sacrifice, and accept responsibility and his capacity for receiving and acting on the promptings of the Spirit prepared him to preside over the Latter-day Saints, first as President of the Quorum of the Twelve and after December 1847 as President of the Church. Under his extraordinary leadership, which spanned some 33 years, he taught the Saints how to build Zion in the American West and in their own hearts, families, and wards. “Brother Joseph, the Prophet, has laid the foundation for a great work, and we will build upon it,” he promised the Saints in August 1844. “We can build a kingdom such as there never was in the world” (HC, 7:234). His unwavering faith in God; his dedication, experience, and sense of humor; his love for gospel doctrine and ordinances; and his understanding of priesthood order and Church organization enabled him to move the Saints toward oneness of heart and mind.
President Brigham Young led the exodus of the Latter-day Saints from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley in the Rocky Mountains. This permitted the Saints to gather in a way that had not been possible in Ohio, Missouri, or Illinois. When President Young looked out at the valley of the Great Salt Lake on 24 July 1847, he was certain he had found the refuge that Joseph Smith had foreseen for the Saints in the West and that he himself had seen in vision as being the right place. “The spirit of light rested upon me and hovered over the valley, and I felt that there the Saints would find protection and safety,” Brigham wrote (MHBY-2, 564). Here the Saints could find the time and space needed to establish themselves as a people apart from the world.
The gathering in the West, which began with the arrival of President Young and the pioneer company in July 1847, continued for decades. Eighty thousand Saints made the difficult journey westward before 1869 when the railroad made travel easier. Even after that, Saints continued to leave their homes and often their families to gather to Zion. Their geographical move symbolized a spiritual move away from the world. President Young declared that God had called Saints “together from the uttermost parts of the earth … to become of one heart and of one mind in all our operations and endeavors to establish Christ’s spiritual and temporal kingdom upon earth, to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man in power and great glory” (DNSW, 21 Jan. 1868, 2). He expected and required a great deal of his people in building Zion temporally and spiritually. They not only journeyed to the tops of the mountains but also gave of their means to help other Saints follow them in gathering.
Under President Young’s direction, Saints left the Salt Lake Valley to colonize approximately 400 settlements in the American West. They worked to raise their own food, make their own clothing, and establish local industries so they could become economically self-sufficient. They learned to depend on the Lord and one another.
Not all of the economic enterprises that President Young directed the Saints to undertake were successful. Economic success, however, was not his primary concern. Ultimately he was less concerned with raising crops and money than he was with helping his people to become a holy nation. He knew from experience that they would grow from working hard and accepting responsibility. “This is a good place to make Saints,” he told a congregation of members in Salt Lake City in 1856 (DNW, 10 Sept. 1856, 5).
For several years, Brigham Young served the area named Deseret (later to become the state of Utah) as territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs. In time he was replaced by federal appointees. He spent years trying to resolve conflicts between the Latter-day Saints and the United States government over the Saints’ desire for political independence. He endured criticism and ridicule from ministers, journalists, reformers, and politicians who attacked him and his people for their religious beliefs and their social, economic, and political practices. But such challenges did not alter his clear understanding of the need to “make Saints” and thereby build Zion. President Young declared: “I have looked upon the community of the Latter-day Saints in vision, and beheld them organized as one great family of heaven; each person performing his several duties in his line of industry, working for the good of the whole more than for individual aggrandizement; and in this I have beheld the most beautiful order that the mind of man can contemplate, and the grandest results for the upbuilding of the kingdom of God and the spread of righteousness upon the earth” (DNSW, 21 Jan. 1868, 2).
President Young recognized that Zion could not be built through hard work alone. Zion must be directed through the priesthood, which he knew to be the “Government of the Son of God” (DNW, 10 Aug. 1864, 2). He knew that the Saints could “become of one heart and of one mind in all … operations and endeavors” (DNSW, 21 Jan. 1868, 2), only according to a “pure and holy form of government” (DNSW, 8 Nov. 1870, 3). He taught that Church members could be sanctified only by participating in priesthood ordinances; thus, priesthood ordinances and organization were central to his teachings and leadership.
From 1844 to 1846, President Young and the Twelve made completion of the Nauvoo Temple an urgent priority. Endowments and sealings were performed there even before construction ended. “Such has been the anxiety manifested by the Saints to receive the ordinances, and such the anxiety on our part to administer to them; that I have given myself up entirely to the work of the Lord in the Temple night and day, not taking more than four hours sleep, upon an average, per day, and going home but once a week,” President Young recorded in his diary (MHBY-2, 10). Between 10 December 1845 and 7 February 1846, approximately 5,615 Saints received the ordinance of the endowment and numerous families were sealed. Just over a year later, three days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, President Young designated the lot where the Salt Lake Temple would be built. It was to be at the center of the city and at the center of Saints’ lives. The great temple, which took 40 years to build, was not completed until after President Young had died, but he designated other sacred places where temple endowments and sealings could be performed for the living while waiting for the temple to be finished. At the dedication of the lower stories of the St. George Temple on 1 January 1877, a few months before his death, President Young spoke energetically about resuming ordinance work for the dead: “When I think upon this subject, I want the tongues of seven thunders to wake up the people. Can the fathers be saved without us? No. Can we be saved without them? No” (MS, 39:119).
Temple ordinances were critical to binding together generations and to passing sacred truths from one generation to another. Latter-day Saints born or converted in the last half of the nineteenth century would not experience the persecutions in Missouri or personally remember the Prophet Joseph Smith. With the passage of time, fewer of them would be involved in pioneering and colonizing experiences, but they too would need to learn sacred truths about building Zion. President Young encouraged efforts to teach the gospel to the youth of the Church and worked to refine Church organization, expressing a desire to “rear up a generation of men and women who shall love and maintain truth and righteousness in the earth” (MFP, 2:288). Ward Sunday Schools for children, first established in 1849, began working unitedly under a central board in 1867. At President Young’s request, and beginning with his own daughters, associations were organized in 1869 to strengthen young women in their gospel understanding and commitment to provident living. In 1875, similar associations were formed to teach young men and give them leadership experience.
Recognizing that Zion cannot be built without the sisters, President Young reestablished the Relief Society in 1867 as it had been organized in Nauvoo by the Prophet Joseph Smith. The women assisted bishops in providing relief to the poor and afflicted, encouraged families to make at home whatever they needed, taught one another the gospel, and supervised the teaching of younger women and children.
During the last year of his life, President Young put the priesthood quorums in order. He divided and reorganized stakes, increasing the number of stakes from eight to eighteen. He directed the organization of elders quorums and instructed the elders in their temporal and spiritual responsibilities. He emphasized the ward as the primary local unit of Church activity and expanded the role of the bishop as head of the ward. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve who had been presiding over local units were released from those positions so they could carry out their callings as special witnesses of Jesus Christ to the nations. By the time of his death on 29 August 1877, the Church was organized as most Saints recognize it today.
President Young’s commitment to building Zion through colonization, economic enterprise, sacred temple ordinances, and priesthood organization is woven through the fabric of his sermons. No one sermon could capture the comprehensiveness of his vision. “I have only touched a little of the great Gospel Sermon,” he declared at the end of one discourse (MSS, 15:49). The fulness of the gospel, he believed, could only be taught little by little, line upon line. “The gospel of the Son of God,” he said, “… is from eternity to eternity. When the vision of the mind is opened, you can see a great portion of it, but you see it comparatively as a speaker sees the faces of a congregation. To look at, and talk to each individual separately, and thinking to become fully acquainted with them, only to spend five minutes with each would consume too much time, it could not easily be done. So it is with the visions of eternity; we can see and understand, but it is difficult to tell” (DNW, 26 Oct. 1854, 2). Through his teaching and his leadership, President Brigham Young always tried to help the Saints both see and understand the eternal truths of the gospel.
Brigham Young’s life was centered in teaching the gospel and building up and sustaining the kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of heaven is first and foremost with us,” he told the Saints (DNW, 27 July 1864, 2).
Perhaps the leadership given by President Young has been best described by the Apostles who were serving at the time of his death: “During the thirty three years that he has presided over the Church, since the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph, his knees have never trembled, his hands have never shook; he has never faltered or quailed. However threatening the surroundings or prospects may have been, he has never been dismayed; but at those times he has exhibited such serene confidence and faith, and uttered such words of encouragement, as to comfort and sustain all the people, and to call forth their love and admiration. The Lord, however, not only blessed him with valor, but He endowed him with great wisdom. His counsels, when obeyed, have been attended with salvation, and as an organizer and administrator he has no superior. …
“His labors the Lord has crowned with most remarkable success, his words he has honored and fulfilled, and those who have obeyed his counsel he has blessed and upheld. The time will yet come when his presidency over the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be pointed to as an epoch of wonderful events” (MFP, 2:298).
How did Brigham Young come to know the Church was true?
How did Brigham Young’s willingness to be obedient and make sacrifices help him build and defend the kingdom of God?
What can members of the Church today learn from Brigham Young’s constant support of the Prophet Joseph Smith?
What were some of the events in Brigham Young’s life that prepared him to preside over the Church? How is the Lord preparing each of us to serve in the kingdom of God?
What did President Young say was the express purpose for the gathering of the Saints? In what ways did President Young build up the kingdom of God?
What did Brigham Young say is the “Government of the Son of God”? How did President Young magnify his priesthood?
What is required to “rear up a generation of men and women who shall love and maintain truth and righteousness in the earth”? What did Brigham Young do to accomplish this? Why is this so important today?
How did President Young help the Saints to see and understand the eternal truths of the gospel? Why do you feel it will be beneficial to study and ponder the teachings of Brigham Young over the next two years?