Brigham Young Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History

Chad Orton Looks at Brigham Young in 40 Different Ways

Each chapter—and there are 40 of them—focuses upon a major theme or event from his life.

Brigham Young was known by many different names. To some, he was the Lion of the Lord or an American Moses. To others, he was simply “Brother Brigham.” In this interview, Chad Orton discusses the many ways he finds inspiration in the prophet’s life—and reveals what he’d include in a second edition of his biography of the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Read the book by Chad M. Orton and William W. Slaughter, 40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young: A New Approach to a Remarkable Man.

Table of Contents

How does “40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young” differ from traditional biographies of the prophet?

40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young is subtitled, “A New Approach to a Remarkable Man.” Unlike traditional biographies that largely look at their subject chronologically, i.e. from birth to death, 40 Ways is a topical biography. Each chapter—and there are 40 of them—focuses upon a major theme or event from his life.

40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young containers dozens of short chapters that discuss the prophet’s life.

For example, one of the chapters talks about how faith was one of Brigham’s predominate characteristics. Stories from the 1830s to the 1870s have been brought together into one chapter. In a traditional biography they would have been interspersed throughout multiple chapters and would have only been brought together through an index search.

In addition to featuring standalone essays, each chapter is also relatively short. This was done so that if someone only had ten minutes, they would still be able to learn about an aspect of Brigham’s life and personality.

He had planned out his funeral years earlier.

We tried this new approach in part because Brigham, sadly, does not enjoy the best reputation among Latter-day Saints. He is the prophet that Latter-day Saints love to hate and hate to love.

This is so different from how Latter-day Saints largely view Joseph Smith. With Joseph it is, “JOSEPH SMITH IS A PROPHET, but . . .” With Brigham it is “Brigham Young is a prophet, BUT . . .”

One hope we had in approaching him in this new way was that individuals might see him in a new light and better appreciate what a truly remarkable man he was.

How (and why) is Brigham Young so often misunderstood?

A lack of correct information regularly leads to misunderstanding. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there about him. A second, somewhat related problem, is that many individuals believe they “know” Brigham and have closed their minds regarding him.

Concerning the first problem, too often Brigham has been defined by his critics and enemies rather than by his friends and associates and his own personal records.

While some of the stories that are told have a basis in fact, a number of stories were created out of whole cloth by individuals with personal agendas. Many of these stories have been repeated so often that even some scholars have ignored their training and have chosen not to vet their accuracy. As a result, a regular view that people have been presented of him is a distorted view, not unlike a funhouse mirror.

Regarding the second problem, many Latter-day Saints approach Brigham like the five blind men approached the elephant. They grasp hold of one aspect of him and think that is representative of him while rejecting other perspectives that would present a more complete picture.

For many individuals, the one aspect that they believe to be the accurate portrayal of him is that of an individual with an abusive tongue and an abrasive personality. Frequently this belief is based upon a story they have been told, some of which are true, others of which have grown in the telling.

In fairness, it should be noted that Brigham was not without his faults and at times he could be his own worst enemy. He could have a sharp tongue—which he admitted was his greatest weakness—and he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, privately or publicly.

Brigham needs to be examined more thoroughly.

Additionally, he was trying to teach new converts and inexperienced Church members what was expected of Saints and felt that in order to get their attention and have them remember and act upon what he was trying to teach that he figuratively needed to make it rain pitchforks. Sometimes the words associated with this “pulpit personality,” especially when taken out of context, can be harsh or shocking.

What Latter-day Saints understood at the time, but is largely not understood today, was that along with his hard-speaking, law-giver temperament, Brigham regularly manifested a soft side that differed from this pulpit personality. They also knew from first-hand experience that many of the other stories about Brigham that people embrace today were also not an accurate reflection of the man.

What led to Brigham Young’s decision to be baptized?

While there were those among his contemporaries who immediately got baptized upon being introduced to the restored gospel, that was not the case with Brigham. It took him two years after he first was given a Book of Mormon before he was baptized. During that time he studied the restored gospel from nearly every angle.

He later noted that one of the things that led him to be baptized was the fact that Latter-day Saint doctrine, such as its views of the afterlife and the divine potential of individuals, challenged him intellectually.

Brigham Young studied the Book of Mormon for two years before he was baptized. “I knew it was true, as well as I knew that I could see with my eyes,” he said.

Why was Brigham Young sometimes called the Lion of the Lord?

I think Brigham earned that nickname for at least three reasons:

1. Roar out the good news

First, the restored gospel had brought him such joy that throughout his life he could not but help roar out the good news. This began immediately after he was baptized, when he called himself on a full-time mission to preach the gospel, and continued through the month he died.

2. Ardent defender of Joseph Smith

Second, he was an ardent defender of Joseph Smith and gospel truths and principles. During the dark days of Kirtland, Joseph stated that Brigham was one of only a couple of individuals he felt he could depend upon. There is a wonderful story of Brigham going out into the street late one night to encounter an individual decrying Joseph and telling that individual that he needed cease his braying or he would shut him up. Later as the Lord’s mouthpiece, Brigham insistently taught in word and deed what the Lord expected of His people.

3. Can-do attitude

A third way he was the Lion of the Lord was his can-do attitude. Whether it was completing the temple at Nauvoo, settling the Salt Lake Valley in spite of warnings that it could not sustain a large population, gathering thousands of Latter-day Saints, or rescuing the pioneers stranded in early winter in 1856, Brigham found a way to get things done.

What was Brigham Young’s defining moment?

A defining moment for Brigham occurred in July 1844 at Peterborough, New Hampshire, upon learning of the martyrdom of Joseph. As he sat there absorbing the news he began to wonder about the future of the Church.

In a moment of inspiration, he realized that shortly before his death Joseph had given the keys of the kingdom to the Twelve and that they now collectively had the authority to lead the Church. After returning to Nauvoo in early August, Brigham told the Saints that they were free to follow Sidney Rigdon if they wanted but it was the Twelve who had the keys.

When Brigham asked people to do hard things, they knew he had set the example.

The fact that the Twelve had the keys would have mattered little without a second moment that further defined him. That moment occurred two and a half years later in January 1847 at Winter Quarters when he received the revelation that is D&C 136.

When Brigham began leading the Saints from Nauvoo in 1846, he fully expected they would reach their new home in the west that year. Instead of reaching the Salt Lake Valley, however, they had struggled to make it across Iowa.

At the time the revelation was received, the Church had literally and figuratively become stuck in the mud. As a result of this revelation, Brigham came to understand that the Church had not reached its new home because he and the Saints had been trying to do things their way expecting the Lord to support them rather than aligning their will with the Lord’s.

While many had made covenants in the temple before leaving Nauvoo, as a Church they had failed to fully grasp the importance of being a covenant people and being on the covenant path.

This revelatory experience brought Brigham new hope in the midst of despair. He came to understand that the Church not only had the responsibility to approach things differently, they also had the privilege.

This attitude would guide him in his role as American Moses leading the Saints to their promised land as well as direct him as American Joshua in overseeing them in their settlement of the Great Basin.

A month into the 1847 journey of the vanguard company from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley, there were those in the company who wondered what would happen if they didn’t reach their destination in time to plant the crops they would need to survive. To these concerns, Brigham declared that if they were striving to live according to their covenants, they didn’t need to worry. “The Lord will do the rest,” he declared.

Why did the Latter-day Saint pioneers often refer to him as “Brother Brigham”?

Genuine love

In spite of Brigham’s often abrasive personality, his contemporary Latter-day Saints had a genuine love for Brigham that led them to refer to him as “Brother Brigham.” They knew that while he may have been hard spoken, he also had a genuine love for them.

Part of this love grew out of the fact that they knew he was one of them—a man of the people. Outsiders were surprised to see how freely he associated and socialized with the Saints. He visited their homes and listened to their concerns on his yearly visits through the settlements.


The fact that individuals felt he was one of them is reflected in the large number of letters he exchanged with the Saints who regularly approached him for help and advice. His concerns extended to almost all aspects of their lives. At one point he wrote to each bishop asking them to make certain that there was a swing within their ward boundaries that children could use.

Fellow servant

Another thing that caused people to refer to him as “Brother Brigham” was the fact that they recognized him to be a fellow servant not a haughty leader. When Brigham asked people to do hard things, they knew he had set the example by doing hard things himself. Rather than simply leaving tasks to others, he regularly did what many leaders would have left to others.

When a raft was needed by the vanguard company to cross the North Platte during its 1847 journey, Brigham literally jumped into the river and helped to build it.

On one occasion when the party he was traveling with came across a man whose wagon was stuck, it was Brigham who was the first to go to his aid, but not before encouraging the others traveling with him to do the same.

Why was recreation so important to Brigham Young?

Much of what was asked of the saints in terms of building the kingdom and literally having to carve out a Zion in the wilderness was physically demanding work. Although Brigham likely never advocated for eight hours of work, eight hours of play, and eight hours of rest, he recognized the importance of the saints having a diversion from the tasks and duties that were required of them.

He encouraged local Church leaders to take an active lead in providing socials for their ward members and even went so far as to write a letter to the bishops giving advice on how to hold a proper ward party. He encouraged the building of social halls in each community where plays and concerts could be put on and where dances could be held.

Susa Young Gates suggested that the emphasis her father placed upon recreation was one of the most inspired aspects of his leadership given the challenges the saints faced.

Susa Young Gates thought that Brigham Young’s approach to recreation was inspired, according to historian Chad M. Orton.

What was the Deseret Alphabet?

Brigham was an innovator who thought big and regularly looked to see if things could be done better. Like many who think big, not all his ideas were as successful as he hoped. A prime example was the Deseret Alphabet.

Many individuals gathering to Utah had to learn English as a second language, which is not always easy given the fact that some letters can be pronounced more than one way. Brigham tried to make it easier to read and learn English through the creation of the Deseret Alphabet.

That was his own situation as well.

Rather than 26 letters, the Deseret Alphabet consisted of 38 symbols, each of which had a distinct sound. While a few works were published using the Deseret Alphabet, for this plan to succeed, it required a widespread adaptation not only within and without Utah, but that never occurred.

While the Deseret Alphabet was less than successful, that was not the case with other of Brigham’s innovations, such as how the Saints were gathered to Utah. Between 1847 and the completion of the railroad in 1869, Brigham regularly looked at better ways to do things.

What was one of Brigham Young’s most important innovations?

One of the most important innovations was the implementation of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund (PEF), which allowed individuals to borrow money to make the journey.

While emigrants coming from Europe initially sailed into New Orleans, he subsequently directed that the emigration go through Boston and New York, in part to avoid heat-related illness that emigrants were experiencing once they arrived but also to allow them to take advantage of the railroad as it expanded west. In addition to making these changes, he also looked at the possibility of having emigrants from Europe sail to California and then travel overland from San Bernardino or then sail up the Colorado River.

When the PEF ran short of funds, rather than stopping emigration he tried the use of handcarts, which largely worked as advertised for the eight companies for which the established guidelines were followed.

One of the most amazing innovations was the use of down-and-back companies, in which individuals left Utah with wagons filled with goods that they would sell and then would use these now empty wagons to transport emigrants back to Utah.

Through these innovations, Brigham oversaw the emigration to Utah of upwards of 70,000 individuals prior to the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

What are Chad Orton’s five favorite stories about Brigham Young?

1. No need to worry about sins being remitted

The first is one my aunt told me years ago, which I have since been able to verify. A woman asked Brigham to remove her name from church records. In his response Brigham noted that there was no record of her ever being baptized so she didn’t have to worry that her sins had ever been remitted.

2. Get down on your knees

Another involves an instance when he lost his temper at a hired hand for leaving a saddle in the dirt. A daughter who reportedly witnessed this event claims to have followed him back into the Beehive House, where he went into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him. According to her, she then heard him say in frustration, “Get down on your knees Brigham. Down on your knees.”

3. Eyes like a pig

A third occurred during one of his yearly visits to the Saints. While stopping at Erastus Snow’s house, Snow’s young daughter told Brigham that he had eyes just like her pig’s. Upon hearing this, Brigham asked the child to take him to the pigpen so he could see this pig that had eyes just like his.

4. World geography

A fourth involves the visit that the famed British Explorer Sir Richard Burton made to Brigham at his office. During the visit, the conversation turned to Burton’s travels along the Zambezi River in Africa. When someone in the room went to the world map and pointed to a spot where he thought the river was located, Brigham stated, “A little lower.” Burton was amazed and later wrote that the educated in London couldn’t have corrected that mistake as well as Brigham did.

5. Joseph Smith as an enlightened leader

Finally, another visitor to Brigham’s office who believed in phrenology commented on a painting of Joseph Smith hanging on the wall, stating that it didn’t show the characteristics of a great leader.

In response Brigham acknowledged that Joseph wasn’t a natural leader, but he received everything he needed to be a leader through the enlightenment of the spirit. Brigham then added that that was his own situation as well.

What was Brigham Young’s greatest discourse?

There are more than 800 sermons that Brigham delivered for which there is at least a partial record. Given the large number, it can surely be a matter of debate which is the greatest.

One that I think ranks right at the top is the sermon he gave on November 30, 1856, the day that the Martin handcart company reached the Salt Lake Valley. For the power of its simple and clear language and its moving expression of pure religion, it is hard to argue against it.

I think another reason that argues for it to be the greatest is that it was given during Brigham’s finest hour—the rescue of the handcart and wagon saints who would have perished if not for his persistent efforts.

One paragraph that stands out to me contains an explanation of principles that Latter-day Saint leaders are still trying to teach today:

The afternoon meeting will be omitted, for I wish the sisters to go home and prepare to give those who have just arrived a mouthful of something to eat, and to wash them and nurse them up. You know that I would give more for a dish of pudding and milk, or a baked potato and salt, where I in the situation of those persons who have just come in, than I would for all your prayers, though you were to stay here all the afternoon and pray. Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and pudding and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place.

What role do temples play in Brigham Young’s legacy?

Beginning at Nauvoo, Brigham placed a great emphasis upon the sealing ordinance and making and keeping temple covenants. While most people would consider the many settlements established under his direction to be his lasting monuments, he likely would have preferred the focus to be upon the temple.

Before leaving Nauvoo, he not only pushed to finish the temple, he then worked to ensure that as many saints as possible received their endowment.

Shortly after arriving in Utah, he initiated work on the Salt Lake Temple, which was not finished until after he died. He also oversaw the completion of the St. George Temple and chose locations for the Manti and Logan temples.

In addition to building temples, in the months leading up to his death he worked to write down the endowment for the first time in this dispensation.

Richard Bushman has said that we need someone to treat the last portion of Brigham Young’s life empathetically. What do you think that would look like?

Before historians can be more emphatic and provide definitive answers to some of the hot button issues associated with him, Brigham needs to be examined more thoroughly than he has been.

While Brigham likely will never receive the same level of study as has happened with Joseph Smith through the Joseph Smith Papers, the process will be somewhat similar.

It will require more attention being given to looking at him in the context of his time; more research into primary sources, including his extensive papers (the sheer size of which is why there likely will never be a full-blown Brigham Young Papers project); and will require scholars to make certain that the pertinent questions regarding the complex and controversial issues associated with him have been addressed.

How did Brigham Young die?

Because medical knowledge was not advanced as today, we don’t know exactly what caused Brigham’s death. A doctor who has examined the accounts, however, feels like they point to a ruptured appendix.

In true Brigham fashion, he had planned out his funeral years earlier. Among other things he provided guidelines for how his coffin should be built and requested that people not wear black.

What chapters might be included if Chad Orton wrote a second edition with “45 ways” to look at Brigham Young?

Originally when we wrote 40 Ways we wanted to include a chapter about Blacks and the priesthood and another that looked at Brigham’s relationship with Emma Smith. The complexity of trying to figure out the first and still meet a publication deadline caused us to shy away from the first and having reached our quota of chapters prevented us from including the second.

Blacks and the priesthood

In a second edition, I definitely would include something on those issues. In the case of Blacks and the priesthood, I don’t think the chapter would be a definitive answer. Instead, it would look at some of the social, political and other issues that Brigham was dealing with at the time that may have entered into that decision.

Brigham Young and Emma Smith

The focus on the essay regarding Emma would look at how in spite of Brigham’s frustration with what he saw as Emma undermining her husband’s work, he regularly asked individuals to look in on her during their travels to and from the east to make certain that her needs were being met.

Doctrine & Covenants 136

I would include a chapter devoted specifically to Section 136, his only canonized revelation, and look at other aspects we did not address regarding its effect upon him and the church.

Javelin Sermon

I would also devote a chapter to one of the sermons Brigham gave during the Mormon Reformation that I call the Javelin Sermon, a sermon that his critics often point to as evidence he advocated blood atonement.

What the critics ignore is the fact that in this sermon Brigham pairs an Old Testament event in which sinners were killed with a javelin with the account of the New Testament story of the women taken in adultery for the specific purpose of reminding the Saints that they needed to have compassion on their neighbors’ wrongdoings (he mentions this fact 10 times) since they were not without sin themselves.

Adam-God Theory

Finally, I would probably devote a chapter to his statements about Adam—the so-called Adam-God Theory—and their relation to the temple.

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About the author

Chad M. Orton is a Curator in the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has a master’s degree in history from BYU and has written on a number of topics relating to Latter-day Saint history.

Further reading

Chad M. Orton books and articles

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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