Brigham Young was the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, becoming prophet after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, Jr.  Brigham Young ranks among the most influential and important historical figures not just in Mormon history, but also in American history. He is called the “American Moses” because of his leadership of the “Mormon Exodus” to the western territories.

Mormon prophet Brigham YoungBrigham Young was born on June 1, 1801, in Whitingham, Vermont, the ninth of twelve children born to John and Abigail Young.  John Young was a veteran of the Revolutionary War.  Brigham Young was born into a life of hard work that left him no time for formal education.  His parents taught him how to read, and he was a voracious reader.  Through that means, he became a self-educated man.  When Young was a boy, his family moved to New York state.  His mother died when he was fourteen years old of tuberculosis. Although his father remarried, Brigham Young set out to make his own way at the age of 15.  He became an apprentice  carpenter, painter, and glazier and became a master at them all.

In 1823, Young moved to Port Byron New York.  There he met and married Miriam Work (1824).  Shortly after their marriage, the Youngs joined a Methodist congregation.  After four years, Young moved his new family to Oswego, New York, on Lake Ontario, where he joined a group of religious seekers, a movement in nineteenth-century America of men and women searching the Bible themselves in study groups trying to discover the truth. []

Later that year, Brigham and Miriam moved to Mendon, New York.  Shortly after giving birth, Miriam contracted tuberculosis and became an invalid.  Brigham took over all the household duties in addition to his vocational labor.  He crafted a rocking chair for Miriam and carried her to and from the chair whenever necessary.

In Mendon, Brigham Young got his first glimpse of the Book of Mormon in a circuitous way — In 1830 a young man named Samuel Smith, brother to Joseph Smith, came to Mendon to preach about the newly founded Church, the Church of Christ, or Mormon Church. Smith left a copy of the Book of Mormon with Brigham’s brother, Phineas, who read it, and passed it to his father, John Young. John Young gave it to his daughter, who finally gave it to Brigham.  Brigham was intrigued, but cautious.  He had been studying the Bible on his own, after becoming disillusioned with the Christian sects of the day.  He studied the Book of Mormon for two years, testing it against the Bible.  In a832 Brigham was present when a young Mormon missionary bore testimony of the truthfulness of the book and the Church.  Brigham later reported that this young man’s testimony “entered like fire into his bones.”  He and his wife and brothers were baptized into the Church in 1832.  Miriam died a short time later.

Leaving his children in the care of Heber C. Kimball,  Brigham Young began to preach the “restored gospel” in the areas around Mendon.  He also went to Kirtland, Ohio, to meet Prophet Joseph Smith.  He joined others there in prayer meetings and spoke in tongues.    Brigham then served a mission to Canada in 1833, and then was assigned to bring Latter-day Saints from his New York area to gather in Kirtland.  During this gathering, he met Mary Ann Angell, a convert from New York who had joined the Church in Rhode Island. On February 14, 1834, the pair were married in Kirtland.

In the summer of 1834, Brigham and one of his brothers participated in a venture called “Zion’s Camp.”  The purpose of the mission was to relieve the beleaguered Saints in Missouri, and it entailed a thousand mile walk and the endurance of untold hardship.  At the end of the mission, the group was miraculously delivered from hostile mobs, but the Lord relieved them of their original purpose.  Far from being a failure, the challenging endeavor separated the sheep from the goats among the men who volunteered.  Those who were faithful became the future leaders of the Church, having not only proved faithful, but having spent months at the feet of Joseph Smith, who constantly taught them the Doctrines of the Kingdom of God.  Brigham later said that this experience was among the greatest learning experiences of his life.

After his return from Zion’s Camp, Brigham Young was called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Over the next few summers, Brigham Young alternated his time between going on missions throughout the United States and Canada during the summer months, and helping with the construction of the Kirtland Temple the rest of the year. As a glazier and carpenter, he was particularly responsible for the windows of the temple.

In 1836 and 1837 some anti-Mormons threatened the life of Joseph Smith.  Brigham Young, because of his close association with and loyalty to the prophet, was also in danger.  Brigham was forced to flee from Kirtland.  He helped lead the Mormons to Caldwell County, Missouri where the Mormons were settling. Peace in this new home did not last long, as conflict erupted between the Mormons and their neighbors, who viewed them as a threat, a belief which many Mormons unfortunately stoked by banding together for protection and forming militias.

In 1838 Lilburn Boggs, Missouri’s governor, issued an extermination order against the Mormons in Missouri.  Joseph and other leaders were incarcerated for months in Liberty Jail, leaving Young temporarily in charge.  Brigham Young organized the Saints in such a way that every last one of them was cared for and able to leave Missouri.  He led them to Illinois and parts round about, and enabled them to settle in the newly founded Mormon city of Nauvoo.    Brigham began to build a house in Nauvoo, but a mission to England interrupted his efforts.  He left for this mission in ill health, and he left his family ailing, too.  He reached England in April, 1840, and through his efforts and the efforts of other apostles, around 8,000 English converts were won for the Church.

He oversaw the printing of the Book of Mormon in England, as well as hymnals, thousands of tracts, and a newspaper, The Millennial Star. He also established an organization that would help Mormons emigrate to America.  Upon his return, Joseph Smith blessed him with the knowledge that he would no longer have to leave his family to take the word of God abroad.  In early 1842, he was one of the first to participate in the Mormon temple ceremony, and later he was among the first to be introduced to polygamy, or plural marriage as the Mormons called it. Brigham later recalled that he was horrified when he first learned about polygamy.  He said he envied the dead who were carried in hearses to burial, but later he came to realize that it was a commandment from God. Brigham would ultimately marry 26 women and father 56 children by 16 of them.  In Utah, beyond those 26, Brigham Young married other women, with whom he did not cohabit (See Polygamy for a more detailed account of the various types of polygamous marriages). Young married these women to support them and their children financially, as there were many more female converts to the Church than male.

mormon historyBrigham Young and other apostles were away and serving missions, when Joseph and Hyrum Smith were martyred in June, 1844.  It took him about a month to get back to Nauvoo.  On August 8, 1844, a meeting was held to decide who should succeed Joseph Smith. Some tried to claim the leadership, but Brigham Young spoke reminding the Mormons that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had been charged by Joseph before his death with leading the Church and had been given all the keys to the priesthood. The assembly agreed and the work went on.

Work proceeded on the Nauvoo Temple as the Saints were given an ultimatum by the mobs to leave Illinois.  As the Saints were endowed with spiritual power in the temple, they prepared to leave in February, in the midst of a freezing winter.  It took them until fall to reach “Winter Quarters” in Nebraska, where Young created an organized encampment.  About 16,000 freezing, hungry Mormons were strung across Nebraska and Iowa, and hundreds died during the following winter of exposure and disease.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of modern revelations concerning the early history and organization of the early church, are revelations concerning the coming exodus of the Latter-day Saints to the Rocky Mountains.  The Lord called them the “Camp of Israel,” and He likened them to the ancient Israelites seeking the promised land.  The Lord promised them that He would be their forward and their rearward, and praised their worthiness over the Israelites of old.  He commanded them to sing and dance on the way.

Brigham Young organized the first migration west in 1847, the party containing 148 people.  Young had seen the Salt Lake Valley in vision and would recognize it upon his arrival as the “right place.”  This company arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.  One of the first things Brigham Young did there was to designate the location for the building of a temple.  He then returned to Winter Quarters to organize other parties of Latter-day Saints to make the journey.  By 1850, most of the 16,000 Saints were settled in the Rocky Mountains.   Thus, the title “modern Moses” given to Brigham Young by American historians.

The Missouri Compromise created the Utah Territory in 1850, and Brigham Young was appointed as governor.  Under his direction, hundreds of Mormon settlements were established.  He established the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which provided funds to immigrating Mormons, who then repaid what they could once they established themselves. The money was then loaned to the next pioneer.  Young also oversaw the development of commerce and sell-able crops and minerals.  In 1856, fearing that the Saints were becoming prosperous and comfortable and therefore, spiritually weak, President Young instigated a reformation among the Saints, stressing re-baptism and hence re-commitment to the Gospel.

Shortly, the Saints were facing the “Utah War,” which turned out to be mostly inflamed rumor, not battle.  Because of their overt commitment to the law of polygamy, the U.S. Government began to enact punitive laws, aimed at disenfranchising the Mormons and financially breaking the Church.  The only tragic incident in the Utah War was the so-called Mountain Meadows massacre.  Events of this unfortunate occurrence are still being pieced together, and reparations made, families healed.

…in September of 1857. In the midst of the renewed zeal of the Reformation and the heightened tensions caused by the invading army, Mormon settlers and Piute Indians in southern Utah attacked and massacred a traveling company of settlers from Arkansas and Missouri. Letters sent by Brigham Young warning the Mormons to leave the settlers alone came too late (See “Shining New Light on the Mountain Meadows Massacre” for more information about Brigham Young and the massacre). After the massacre, Mormons, fearful that others would attack them, stayed silent for many years. Ultimately one of the perpetrators, John D. Lee, was executed for his involvement (

Utah and the Mormons continued to flourish under the guidance and management of Prophet Brigham Young.  In 1861, Young helped establish the transcontinental telegraph. He contracted with the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads to have Mormons help finish the transcontinental railroad, and later he oversaw the construction of spur lines throughout Utah and Idaho. In the 1860’s the Mormons, under Young’s direction, established cooperatives to help produce sugar, cotton, wool, iron, and other goods.

Young loved education. The Mormon Church under his direction established schools for every grade level including three colleges. In 1850, the University of Deseret, later the University of Utah, was established as a co-education school. In 1875 the Brigham Young Academy, later Brigham Young University was established in Provo. In 1877, the Brigham Young College was built in Logan, Utah. It was shut down in 1926 and all students, staff, and equipment were combined with Utah State University.

President Young also built temples. Though he never lived to see the Salt Lake Temple finished (the temple took 40 years to build), he did oversee the dedication of the St. George Temple in 1877. Other temples in Manti and Logan, both in Utah, were begun.  Overall, the 1860s and most of the 1870s were much more peaceful. Colonization and immigration continued. By the time of his death in 1877, there were more than 115,000 Mormons, 70,000 of whom immigrated to Utah under Young’s leadership.

In April, 1877, Brigham Young went to St. George, Utah, for the dedication of the temple there, and he returned to Salt Lake City in ill health.  On August 29, 1877, the “Lion of the Lord,” so called because of his fearlessness in proclaiming the truth, died at age 76. He was interred on his property in Salt Lake City.

Under Brigham Young’s leadership, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints grew from 26,000 to over 115,000 members, most of whom lived in the intermountain region of the United States.   They had founded over 400 settlements in the west.  He directed the immigration of 70,000 Latter-day Saints, many of whom were converted in Europe and migrated by sea and then over land to Utah.  He practiced the building trades all of his adult life, and there are many pieces of furniture and several homes still in existence that demonstrate his handiwork.

He was an advocate for women’s right to vote (Utah gave women the right to vote in 1870), and to obtain education. He ensured that the women of his own family had opportunities to go to college. While he himself had only eleven days of formal schooling, he read widely and established three co-educational colleges before his death. He advocated freedom to practice one’s religion, peaceful relations with one’s neighbors, and the importance of serving others. He also cared deeply about nature and would not stand by and see it be abused by thoughtless men (MormonWiki/Brigham Young).

Additional Resources:

The Lion Heart of Brigham Young

Kirtland Temple

Nauvoo Temple

Salt Lake Temple

St. George Temple

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