When Brigham Young died 100 years ago, on August 29, 1877, he was the leader of an empire of 350 towns and cities blossoming in a desert, and he was the prophet—the literal spokesman of God—to over 100,000 people. Two things made all the difference in the first half of his life and determined the direction of the dramatic changes and struggles and achievements of the latter half: in his teens and early 20s, Brigham became a first-rate carpenter, painter, and glazier, skills he always took pride in thereafter; in his early 30s he carefully examined the newly proclaimed Mormon faith for two years and finally embraced it with undeviating commitment—in his words “for all day long.”
Brigham’s parents were devout, puritanic Methodists. He remembered his father thus: “It used to be a word and a blow, with him—but the blow came first.”1 (It was after Brigham had gone out on his own that his father developed the gentle openness and genial spirituality that brought him into the Church even before Brigham and fitted him to be one of the Church’s first patriarchs.) Susa Young Gates reported the family tradition that Brigham’s mother mellowed his father’s stern, emotionally narrow effect with her “tender solicitude,” and gave Brigham and the other children what little schooling she could at home.2 At any rate, Brigham responded to the strict piety of his parents by neither adopting nor totally rejecting it. 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, revealing what kind of parent—and leader—he had learned to be:
“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 mind.”3
A central part of Brigham’s conversion to Mormonism was his finding in it a philosophy, a way of life, and a model, in Joseph Smith, that would complete his long quest to become “free and untrammeled”—yet healthily disciplined—in body and mind.
But for a long time he had to struggle. He later recalled:
“Brother Heber [Kimball] and I never went to school until we got into ‘Mormonism’: … We never had the opportunity of letters 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. … I learned to make bread, wash the dishes, milk the cows, and make butter; and can make butter, and can beat the most of the women in this community at housekeeping. Those are about all the advantages I gained in my youth. I know how to economize, for my father had to do it.”4
Brigham’s father had to economize because he moved his family from Vermont, where Brigham was born, to a series of frontier homesteads in New York on the road west from Albany. The whole family worked to clear forest; build successive log cabins; and plant corn, grain, and slips of sugar maples. Brigham had less than a year of formal schooling because, as he noted in his own history, “at an early age I labored with my father, assisting him to clear off new land and cultivate his farm, passing through many hardships and privations incident to settling a new country.”5 Late in his life he still remembered, “I used to work in the woods logging and driving team, summer and winter, not half clad, and with insufficient food until my stomach would ache.”6
The work and privation were intensified for the entire family when Brigham’s mother died of tuberculosis in his 14th year. The father soon after moved to a new homestead on 100 acres of timber 15 miles from any settlement and was sometimes away working or getting supplies in the nearest towns. At these times the children were left to clear land and care for the maple trees by themselves. Brigham’s younger brother, who was named after the great Methodist preacher, Lorenzo Dow, recalls that one time when he and Brigham were left alone for a few days while their father went for food, they were famished from living only on the insubstantial maple sugar. Brigham finally shot a robin that lit near the house, and while it was cooking, they managed to thump a few spoonfuls of flour out of the cracks of the empty flour barrel and thus “thickened the broth.”7 The grimness of such an existence was intensified by the father’s continuing insistence that the children not indulge in any amusements. Brigham remembers that his brother Joseph, older by four years, seemed never to smile “during some four or five years.”8
Brigham himself, soon after his father’s remarriage in 1817, began to be exposed to freedoms and opportunities that released and satisfied deep energies and needs in him. He was apprenticed out to a Mr. John C. Jeffries, a chairmaker and housepainter in the town of Auburn on Owasco Lake. By the time he was 18, Brigham was skilled and mature enough to go into business for himself, and he set up a small woodworking shop in nearby Aurelius, a tiny village noted mainly for its three “taverns” (really inns that provided food and board for the westering emigrants and a gathering place for the local frontiersmen). Suddenly he was free of all restrictions from parents and masters and sufficiently near to ample temptation, but the remarkable independence that had kept him from joining his parents’ Methodist church also kept him from serious evil. Though he later said that “like other young men, I was full of weakness, sin, darkness and ignorance,”9 in that mature confession he was setting exceptionally high standards for his former self because he refers mainly to sometimes losing control of his temper and his tongue. At the dances that were held regularly in the second stories of the inns, attended by the surrounding farmers and young girls of the township, Brigham learned to enjoy dancing; that lifelong love was a major influence in making the dance an expression of joy and a solace in trouble for the Latter-day Saints he came to lead.
At Aurelius in 1823 Brigham met Miriam Angela Works, then only 18, nearly five years younger than he was. The next year they married and for their honeymoon traveled west along the nearly completed Erie Canal to Mendon, where some of Brigham’s family had settled and where he at this time first met Heber C. Kimball. Heber, President Spencer W. Kimball’s grandfather, was later married to Brigham’s niece and became his closest friend and his lifelong fellow-worker.
Brigham and Miriam established their home at Haydenville near Auburn, and Brigham developed into a fine craftsman. According to Mary Van Sickle Wait, a nonmember who wrote an appreciative history of Brigham’s early years as a craftsman, he had even earlier “established himself as the skilled artisan who is [still famous in Western New York] for the beauty of his stairwell decorations, fanlight doorways, door frames, stair rails, louvered attic windows and, above all—fireplace mantels.”10 Mrs. Wait said she derived “keen pleasure” from living much of her life in one of the homes still standing that Brigham worked on during this period; she described it as “distinguished by its fan-shaped doorway, … a small but perfect example of Colonial architecture”11 that has been praised by visitors and regarded with pride by the community for over 150 years. Mrs. Wait also described in detail other houses and particular articles of furniture made by Brigham Young that are still preserved, such as a cherry desk, “plain and sturdy, rather chaste in design, and the wood … beautiful.”12
Simple beauty, sturdiness, usefulness—it would be hard to find better criteria for making something. But what is perhaps most interesting is the way Brigham gradually transferred these ideals from cabinets to people, and his craftsman’s integrity into a total perspective of life’s meaning, as he found the religious conviction that unified the various elements of his life. Not long before he died, one of Brigham’s friends from this early period, Captain George Hickox, wrote him, recalling how kind Brigham had been to him when he was ill almost 50 years before and inviting Brigham to the centennial supper of his town, where “the most interesting [item] will be one of the chairs you made for me. …”13 Brigham replied:
“I have no doubt that many other pieces of furniture and other specimens of my handiwork can be found scattered about your section of the country, for 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.”14
Brigham’s daily work gradually changed after he became a Mormon, but even as he came to labor with words and organizations and souls rather than glass and paint and wood, the emphasis on honest, reliable, and enduring work remained. The goal of helping shape a thing, without violating the integrity (or agency) of the material, into something more useful, strong, and beautiful endured and intensified; and he never lost his love of seeing good handwork, or of doing some himself, such as he did on the St. George Temple even when he was an old man and a busy prophet.
Brigham’s search for religious integrity was a long one. Even though, like Joseph Smith, he was brought up on the frontier “amid those flaming, fiery revivals so customary with the Methodists,” Brigham, also like Joseph, held aloof from his parents’ church. He later said, “Priests had urged me to pray before I was eight years old. On this subject I had but one prevailing feeling in my mind—Lord, preserve me until I am old enough to have sound judgment, and a discreet mind ripened upon a good solid foundation of common sense.”15
These were the keys—judgment, discretion, common sense. In the Methodist camp meetings, Brigham said, “I had seen men and women fall, and be as speechless and breathless as that stove before me” as a result of “what they called the power of God”; though he was unwilling to deny their sincerity, because of their excesses these people’s ideas “did not commend themselves to my understanding.”16 Instead, though he continued to visit the meetings of different churches—from the formal Episcopalians to the evangelistic Freewill Baptists, Reformed Methodists, and the gently moralistic Quakers—he seems to have turned, like many in more modern times, from the arid contentions, the mutually contradictory dogmatic claims of the traditional churches, and the self-indulgent extremes of the dissenting groups and tried simply to be a moral, hardworking, loving husband and father.
During the mid-20s when his first daughter was born, Brigham farmed in the summer, pursued his various handskills in the winter, was even employed for a while in a woolen mill and also a paint factory, where he used the cannonball his father had carried home with him from the Revolutionary War to grind the paint. Elder S. Dilworth Young reports a family tradition that Brigham invented an ingenious “water-powered pigment crusher,” with the cannonball “as the pestle to an iron pot mortar,” thus saving a good deal of work and time.17 However, he found that to succeed as a painter in the area where he lived, he would have to adulterate the linseed oil like his competitors. Unwilling to do so, he moved to Oswego, on Lake Ontario, and built a large tannery and then to Mendon, where he had his own carpentry shop. There a second daughter was born.
Brigham’s daughter Susa tells us that he once remarked about this period of his life that “he worked for half a crown a day [perhaps 65 cents] when he could not get more; got breakfast for his wife [who was ill with tuberculosis] and the little girls, dressed the children, cleaned up the house, carried his wife to the rocking-chair by the fireplace and left her there until he could return in the evening. When he came home he cooked his own and the family’s supper, put his wife back to bed and finished up the day’s domestic labours.”18
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, for some response to nagging questions about life’s meaning, about the potential and future of human beings. We know this because over 30 years later, a Methodist minister, Hiram McKee, who had been Brigham’s friend in Oswego, wrote reminding him of the times when Brigham had been his friend and fellow seeker after truth there in Western New York: “I have not forgotten your advice, counsel, prayers. My confidence was great in you, in view of your deep piety, and faith in God. You was one of my early spiritual friends, and guides.”
Reverend McKee went on to wonder, on the basis of the scandalous reports in Eastern papers he had been reading, “if Brigham enjoyed as much piety now as then, or whether ambition, and love of power, and distinction did not hold some sway in that mind that was once so humble, contrite and devoted. … O, my brother how is it? How sweet was our communion in Old Oswego, how encouraging our prayers, and enlivening our songs we used to sing. … Now Brother Brigham, before the all-seeing God, who in the judgement will judge us, can you lay your hand on your heart and say that your hope of heaven is as good as then?”19
Brigham assured the good Reverend that he was “as honest a seeker after truth as I was during our acquaintance in Oswego.”20 He and Miriam, as a young married couple, had apparently joined with McKee in a little group of independent “seekers,” and may have done so in the other towns where they lived. We know they did with Brigham’s brothers and father when they moved to Mendon in 1829. Phineas Young, who was the leader of the group, described it thus: “We … opened a house for preaching, and commenced teaching the people according to the light we had; a reformation commenced, and we soon had a good society organized, and the Lord blessed our labors.”21 Such groups were, of course, common on the American frontier, and many tended to be “restorationist” in character, seeking through close study of the New Testament to learn what Christ’s original Church was like and to conform exactly in teaching and practice. Thus it was from such groups that many of the early converts to Mormonism came. Mormonism itself claimed to be the full restoration of Christ’s teachings and his church as described in the Bible, though it required in addition to those beliefs that converts accept the divine authority and prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, which was most directly witnessed by the Book of Mormon.
That same brother, Phineas, was the first of the Young family to see the Book of Mormon, though even before it was published, they had all heard and read of the Prophet “Joe Smith” and his “gold Bible” over in Palmyra less than 15 miles away. In April 1830, Phineas was given one of the first copies by the Prophet’s brother Samuel, and because he felt responsible to his little religious society to expose any such things “got up 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, quite certainly 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.”22
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, who was more reserved:
“When the Book of Mormon was first printed, it came to my hands in two or three weeks afterwards. Did I believe, on the first intimation of it? … ‘Hold on,’ says I. … The mantle of my traditions was over me, to that degree, … it was almost impossible for me to see at all; though I had beheld, all my life, that the traditions of the people was all the religion they had, I had got a mantle for myself. 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;’ and after I had done this, I considered it my right to know for myself, as much as any man on earth.
“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.”23
On another, later occasion Brigham further 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 ripened everything in my mind, I drank it in, and not till then.”24
“Examine,” “prove all things for myself,” “good common sense,” “ripened”—all certainly good, rational approaches, and characteristic of Brigham with his down-to-earth Yankee skepticism and his well-learned wariness of religious extremes. But just as characteristic, though more hidden perhaps, was his need and desire to “apply his heart” to these new and attractive teachings, and after about a year and a half, that is how 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 before me. I was encircled by them, filled 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.”25
From Brigham’s many statements about this experience, it is clear that this direct testimony was so effective because it completed and fulfilled—rather than crudely contradicted—what Brigham’s own “judgment, natural endowments, and education” had helped him to yearn for and helped him find in the Book of Mormon and the people who believed it. After all the partial fulfillments and disappointments of his long search, the flood or famine of emotionality, the intellectuality without common sense, the call to good works without motivating power, the guilt and anxiety without any basis for the self-esteem necessary for a successful process of repentance—after all this, everything began to come together for him in Mormonism.
Shortly after this crucial meeting, Brigham went, with his brother Phineas and Heber Kimball, to the missionaries’ home branch of the Church in Columbia:
“We conversed with them, attended their meetings and heard them preach, and after staying about one week we returned home, being still more convinced of the truth of the work, and anxious to learn its principles and to learn more of Joseph Smith’s mission. The members of the Branch in Pennsylvania were the first in the Church who received the gift of tongues.”26
That speaking in tongues may have been a severe test for Brigham, who had earlier been repelled by the excesses of frontier evangelical groups carried away by their religious ecstasy. (See footnote 16.) But here the context of edifying common sense and the balance of convincing rationality apparently made such emotional experiences quite different. Brigham was not only able to accept speaking in tongues as one of the appropriate signs that follow those who believe but gradually to respond personally, and even to participate in such expressions, as his own suspicion of emotion and ecstasy was calmed.27
Phineas reports that when they returned from Pennsylvania, they preached Mormonism along the way, though from what he later said, the inexperienced Brigham took only a minor part at this time.
Brother Brigham then took his horse and sleigh to Canada after his brother Joseph, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and missionary, and “told him what I had experienced of the power of God.”28 Joseph and Phineas and their father actually joined the Church a week before Brigham did, having traveled again to the little Mormon branch in Columbia. But then the same humble elder who had first touched Brigham with his testimony traveled from Columbia to Mendon and baptized Brigham on April 15, 1832—in his own little millstream behind his carpentry shop. Brigham’s record of the event helps us understand some of the reasons for the powerful changes that immediately began to take place in him:
“Before my clothes were dry on my back he laid his hands on me and ordained me an Elder, at which I marvelled. According to the words of the Savior I felt a humble, child-like spirit, witnessing unto me that my sins were forgiven.”29
That childlike meekness and sense of acceptance in God’s universe—and especially the virile joy in being called and authorized by divine sanction to do something through the authority and commission of the priesthood—combined to release enormous reserves of spiritual energy and ability in young Brigham. By his 31st birthday on June 1, 1832, he was a new man—and yet also much more maturely himself.
Besides his new responsiveness to the Holy Ghost, which he felt in hearing the missionaries’ testimony and on the day of his baptism, one of the most interesting, and perhaps most significant, of these changes was the sudden release of language in Brigham. While with a group gathered at Heber Kimball’s house for family prayer, Brigham reports that “the Spirit came on them, and I spoke in tongues, and we thought only of the day of Pentecost.”30 Despite his lack of formal schooling, or even much incentive for self-education before he was 30, Brigham, because of the motivations and opportunities brought by his conversion to Mormonism, became one of the greatest and most prolific orators the Church has produced—and one of the most powerful, interesting, and honest voices to ever use the English language. That achievement took many years of careful, “gritty” (as he called it) cultivation of his own capacities and of the Spirit of the Lord, but the process began dramatically: Brigham started his first diary the day after his baptism, the first written material we have in his handwriting—and very important in revealing a young man of exceptional tenderness and perceptiveness. And within a week he had begun to give his first sermons and embark on the missionary service that became a central part of his life and identity. He tells of a meeting only one week after being baptized:
“I think there were present on that occasion four experienced Elders. … I expected to hear them address the people on the principles that we had just received through the servants of the Lord. They said that the Spirit of the Lord was not upon them to speak to the people, yet they had been preachers for years. I was but a child, so far as public speaking and a knowledge of the world was concerned; but the Spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I felt as though my bones would consume within me unless I spoke to the people and told them what I had seen, heard and learned—what I had experienced and rejoiced in; and the first discourse I ever delivered I occupied over an hour. I opened my mouth and the Lord filled it. …”31