Brigham Young is one of the most well-known figures in the history of the American West. But there are scores of lesser-known facts from his life that range from coining the term “pony express” to getting a bad rap in the Journal of Discourses. Similarly, many popular stories about Brigham Young fall into the realm of myth. For example, you won’t find his hearse at Disneyland—and he didn’t miraculously leave room in the Salt Lake Temple for elevators.
Cornerstone content. This article is frequently updated—meaning there’s a good chance you’ll find something new.
Brigham Young sometimes acted out his sermons
Thanks to the shorthand notations of George D. Watt, we have an idea of the church president’s personality during speeches. Reporters like Watt often included not only the words of pioneer speakers, but also their body language:
Watt noted that Brigham Young sometimes acted out what he was saying, pretending to weep when he described people weeping—or searching his pockets when talking about searching for something. This is the closest we can get to their actual words.What’s Noteworthy about the 1851 Missionary Journal of George Watt?
He once took on the appearance of Joseph Smith
Six weeks after the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham addressed the Saints. He and Sidney Rigdon both professed claims to the church leadership. Long story short, Brigham won the day. Many in attendance later said that Brigham took on the “mantle of Joseph,” and remarked that he both looked and sounded like the Prophet.
Fun fact: Two researchers believe that they’ve discovered a Joseph Smith photograph.
He might have received a letter from one of your ancestors
If any of your ancestors lived in Utah prior to Brigham’s death in 1877, there just might be a letter from them in the Brigham Young Office Files.
The Church History Department has copies of almost 14,000 letters that people sent to the pioneer prophet. Many of them deal with people approaching the prophet with their personal problems. He received so much correspondence of this nature that historian Leonard Arrington called him the “Dear Abby” of the Utah Territory.
Brigham Young may have coined the term “pony express”
Brigham created a “swift pony express” company three years before the legendary Pony Express. “That idea of a pony express was likely already in circulation,” said BYU’s Devan Jensen. “However, Brigham Young was probably the first person documented to use that precise wording (in 1856).”
People want to know how Brigham Young died
The most common Google search query for the early Latter-day Saint leader is: “How did Brigham Young Die?” The real answer is that we don’t know. However, a contemporary analysis of the medical records suggests that Brigham died of a ruptured appendix.
And how many wives he had
The second-most common question about the prophet deals with how many wives Brigham had. For inquiring minds, most scholars put the number at 55 or 56.
He received a letter from someone claiming to have seen the Bear Lake monster
The Bear Lake monster is the Utah-Idaho equivalent of the Loch Ness monster (some people even believe they’re the same creature). A report of a sighting crossed Brigham Young’s desk in 1874—about six years after the first eyewitness claim was published in the Deseret News.
William Budge, a Paris, Idaho resident who would go on to serve as a stake president, wrote about his encounter in a letter to the Prophet:
The monster, Budge claims, was seen by himself, William Broomhead, and Milando Pratt . . . He was soberly adamant that he and his companions had witnessed firsthand an unidentified animal of some sort moving in the lake.Jay G. Burrup, “Gems from the Brigham Young Office Files.”
He complimented the Tabernacle Choir 127 years after he died
Okay, so it wasn’t really him. But an actor dressed as Brigham Young gave a nod to the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square (formerly Mormon Tabernacle Choir) when it received an award in 2004.
“Handsome, aren’t they?” said actor James Arrington. “The first choir was not nearly as handsome. You look better fed, I’d have to say. And there’s not a beard among them, President (Hinckley)!”
Not to be outdone, the choir then sang “Happy Birthday” to the deceased prophet’s doppleganger.
Are you enjoying this article?
You keep reading and we’ll keep posting.
The prophet had a multi-layered personality
The Lion of the Lord has come to be known for his fierce rhetoric, but he could be equally passionate about the things of eternity:
At times, he displayed an intense spiritual fire, whether that manifested itself in speaking in tongues or through his discourses. He could also be incredibly down to earth. He danced with the Saints in the Nauvoo Temple and at Winter Quarters.John Turner on Brigham Young
Brigham Young administered temple ordinances at Winter Quarters
The Latter-day Saint exodus from Nauvoo to the Great Salt Lake Valley included an agonizing layover in Winter Quarters. Historian Richard Bennett said that the temple endowment is part of what gave the pioneers the faith to endure their sufferings:
This also explains how it was that at Winter Quarters, Brigham Young began to offer temple ordinances of sealings and other blessings to a people in great suffering and need.
Brigham’s first marriage had a different tone than Joseph’s
Joseph and Emma Smith had their fair share of ups and downs. Polygamy brought them to the brink of divorce, but they constantly worked on their communication.
“I love that in Nauvoo, when Joseph and Emma had very little privacy, that they would take their carriage or ride horseback out into the country to have a private conversation and come to terms with each other,” said historian Jenny Reeder.
She also noted that Joseph shared more with Emma than Brigham was probably comfortable with:
I think [Joseph] still shared quite a bit with [Emma], more than what Brigham Young preferred. I think Brigham Young and Mary Ann Angell had a much more traditional relationship, that Emma, in a way, in her active participation may have threatened Brigham.Jenny Reeder, The Remarkable Legacy of Emma Smith
Brigham’s conversion took time
The early Latter-day Saint leader was one of Joseph Smith’s most stalwart friends, but it took time for him to believe in the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
“I examined the matter studiously, for two years, before I made up my mind to receive that book,” he said in an 1852 Deseret News Weekly article. “I wished time sufficient to prove all things for myself.”
He offered the dedicatory prayer for the Salt Lake Tabernacle
The Salt Lake Tabernacle took 12 years to build and was home to the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square for more than a century. Aside from the Salt Lake Temple, it’s one of the most recognizable early Latter-day Saint buildings.
Following brief opening remarks, and the singing of a hymn written by Eliza Snow for the occasion, Brigham Young offered a dedicatory prayer for the building on October 6, 1867. The American Moses included a plea that the pioneer saints could grow in holiness and unity:
We pray that the Holy Ghost may be given unto us to bring us unto all truth and holiness, to [enlighten] our understanding, to enlarge our views pertaining to [the] heavens and to [the] earth, and all creations of God, to inspire us to faithfulness, to [meld us] to a oneness so that we may be the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.Lost Sermons: Brigham Young, October 6, 1867, Transcribed by LaJean Purcell Carruth.
He had an expansive view of revelation
The Council of Fifty minutes are a gold mine for Latter-day Saint history. The records include details from meetings to draft a new constitution, plans to move to the American West, and even nuggets about theology.
In one instance, the minutes record Brigham’s statement to the council:
He supposed there has not yet been a perfect revelation given, because we cannot understand it, yet we receive a little here and a little there. He should not be stumbled if the prophet should translate the bible forty thousand times over and yet it should be different in some places every time, because when God [speaks], he always speaks according to the capacity of the people.
Brigham Young didn’t think the Joseph Smith Translation was complete
Brigham expressed some discomfort when early church leaders quoted from the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST):
Perhaps one of the most interesting moments in the history of the Joseph Smith Translation came when it was first published by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1867. When some early leaders quoted from the 1867 edition in conference, Brigham responded by calling that edition into question and suggesting that the Prophet had not yet completed it and that it would not be used as the Bible of the Church.Meet New Testament Scholar Thomas Wayment
Brigham thought of Zion’s Camp as a success
“They depicted it as a formative event in their lives where they clearly saw God operating on their behalf and where they were able to see Joseph Smith’s leadership up close,” said historian Matt Godfrey. “At least for most participants, the expedition was not a failure but a period of spiritual growth for them.”
He was the subject of the first newspaper Q&A
Brigham Young sat for a two-hour interview with the journalist Horace Greeley in 1859. Greeley went on to publish his account in the New York Tribune. “Today, historians consider it the first newspaper Q&A interview ever published,” said Peter Carlson.
He believed that God progresses in knowledge
The nature of God’s progression is an open question in Latter-day Saint theology. Brigham believed that God progressed in knowledge, while his doctrinal sparring partner, Orson Pratt, took the opposite point of view.
The debate has continued into the present day. “I found it interesting that Brigham Young . . . and Elder McConkie . . . disagreed about this issue,” said Tim Morrison in an interview about the first 60 years of BYU Studies Quarterly.
Brigham Young organized the only Latter-day Saint Civil War unit
The prophet authorized the only direct Latter-day Saint involvement in the Civil War, namely a unit of 120 men charged with protecting overland mail and telegraph stations from Native Americans:
The men performed their work admirably, encountered no real fighting, pursued only a few Indians, and received compliments from the United States government for their service.“Chapter Thirty: The Civil War Period,” Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003), 381–91
He named a city after President Millard Fillmore
Brigham Young was appointed as the first governor the Utah Territory in 1851 by President Millard Fillmore. He went on to name Utah’s first territorial capital “Fillmore” after the the 13th president of the United States.
Brigham presided over the Salt Lake School of the Prophets
Joseph Smith originated the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, Ohio, in December 1832. The school disbanded in 1837, but Brigham Young reorganized it in 1867.
“Brigham Young revamped the school through his own vision of what he thought it should be at the time,” said Devery Anderson. “Times and needs had changed, and he saw no need to duplicate Joseph Smith’s exact format, but he was cognizant that the organization had been founded based on revelation and felt the need to honor that.”
Fun fact: John Taylor also organized a Salt Lake School of the Prophets in 1883. He took a different approach and attempted to restore much of Joseph Smith’s original philosophy.
He had a rough childhood
Brigham’s early years left something to be desired. He spent most of his youth in New York and had a challenging relationship with his father. “It used to be a word and a blow, with him,” Brigham once said. “But the blow came first.”
Brigham thought he was going to hell as a child
Physical abuse wasn’t the only negative aspect of Brigham Young’s upbringing. The future church president was also overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety and perfectionism.
“I had not a chance to dance . . . and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin, until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the high way to hell,” he wrote in an 1854 edition of the Deseret News. “I shall not subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, [and] read novels.”
Brigham Young (and one of his clerks) gave his daughter the wrong name
Brigham’s daughter, Susa Young Gates, has a strange name. It wasn’t popular at the time (or any time), and there’s a reason it looks like someone accidentally left off the “n” in “Susan.”
According to biographer Romney Burke:
Susa was originally named Susanne after the midwife who delivered her. When Susa was an adult, her father Brigham Young insisted (erroneously) that he had named her Susan as an infant after his sister.
Susa acquiesced to his desires that she become Susan, but when Brigham’s will was read several months later after his death, one of Brigham’s clerks had mistakenly written her name as “Susa.
It was insisted that Susa sign all of the legal documents as “Susa,” and thus, she became Susa for the rest of her life.
Brigham Young didn’t miraculously leave room for elevators in the Salt Lake Temple
You’ve probably heard the legend: Brigham Young left large empty shafts in the shell of the Salt Lake Temple during construction. Many years later, the spaces turned out to be the exact size needed for modern day elevators.
Except they weren’t. And he didn’t.
“Elevators were invented 100 years before the temple,” said Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library in Salt Lake City.
Erekson said that Latter-day Saints can be especially susceptible to religious myths when they assume prophets are perfect. “It also sets people up for a hard fall whenever they eventually learn that Joseph Smith and every other prophet made a mistake.”
He thought of handcarts as a trial of faith
Few things are more connected with the Latter-day Saint westward exodus than handcarts. However, while financial difficulties largely mandated the unique transportation choice, they weren’t the only rationale Brigham Young had in mind.
He also wanted to fill the Salt Lake Valley full of those with the greatest faith. In 1885, Brigham and the First Presidency released an epistle in the Deseret News:
If any apostatize . . . so much the better, for it is far better that such deny the faith before they start than to do so, for a more trifling cause, after they get here; and if they have not faith enough to undertake this job, and accomplish it too, they have not sufficient faith to endure, with the saints in Zion, the celestial law which leads to exaltation and eternal lives.Thirteenth General Epistle of the First Presidency, 29 October 1855.
You won’t find Brigham Young’s hearse at Disneyland
Brigham Young’s body was never transported in a horse-drawn funeral carriage after his 1877 death. That means the rumors you’ve heard about his hearse being located outside the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland aren’t true—because he never had one.
One of his biggest challenges was . . . Republicans
Just not for the reasons you might think. Historian Matt McBride says that Brigham Young’s three largest challenges in pioneer Utah were Republicans, money, and marriage:
I say this not to be provocative, but to point out how much things have changed in the past century and a half . . .
Americans of all political and religious stripes felt a similar disdain for the practice of plural marriage. But the Republican Party platform famously characterized polygamy as one of the “twin relics of barbarism,” and its party leaders in congress led the effort to introduce legislation that would place tremendous strain on the Church and its members.Matt McBride, ‘Saints’ Volume 2: No Unhallowed Hand
He had 10 siblings
The man most synonymous with pioneer polygamy came from a large family that included six sisters and four brothers:
- Nancy Young
- Fanny Young
- Rhoda Young
- John Young Jr.
- Nabby Young
- Susannah Young
- Joseph Young
- Phineas Howe Young
- Brigham Young
- Louisa Young
- Lorenzo Dow Young
He excommunicated his adopted son
John D. Lee was “adopted” into Brigham Young’s family through an early Latter-day Saint sealing ordinance. The prophet would go on to excommunicate Lee for his prominent role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Side note: Although John D. Lee’s membership was posthumously restored in 1961, historian Thomas G. Alexander says that it’s a mystery why Brigham waited so long to excommunicate Lee in the first place.
Brigham didn’t learn of the martyrdom until three weeks later
Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered in the Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844—but Brigham didn’t learn of the tragic events until July 16.
The news deeply affected him. Young later recalled:
I felt then as I never felt bef[ore]. My head felt as tho my head [would] crack.Six Days in August: Brigham Young and the Succession Crisis of 1844
He testified of Jesus Christ
He spoke often about the importance of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and clamed that his knowledge of the Savior came from heaven:
I testify that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the world; I have obeyed His sayings and realized His promises, and the knowledge I have of Him, the wisdom of this world cannot give, neither can it take away.
He founded the Brigham Young Academy in response to secular trends in education
Brigham Young was troubled by attempts to separate education into separate realms of religiosity and secularism. He founded the Brigham Young Academy in response to these trends and envisioned an approach that avoided any instructional material which:
speaks derogatory of the Savior, of the prophets and of the bible; that misrepresents or speak lightly of the divine mission of Joseph Smith, or the principles of the everlasting Gospel, or that falsifies the history of the church.Brigham Young, as quoted in “Called to Teach: The Legacy of Karl G. Maeser.”
Brigham Young didn’t order the Mountain Meadows Massacre
Some think that Brigham Young may have ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre. However, according to research presented by Richard Turley in Massacre at Mountain Meadows, the prophet wasn’t directly involved.
Historian John Turner came to the same conclusion in his biography, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, as did Thomas G. Alexander in Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith:
He did not order the Mountain Meadows Massacre. There is no evidence that he did so, and in fact, the currently available evidence leads to the conclusion that he did not.
Moreover, as early as 1859 he tried to make arrangements to bring the perpetrators to justice. He actually sent apostles to let them know that they must stand trial, and at least three of the major leaders hired attorneys in the belief that they would soon go to trial. Federal officials torpedoed his efforts.Thomas G. Alexander, Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith
That doesn’t mean he was blameless
Brigham Young didn’t order the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but he set the stage for what happened in one of the worst slaughters in American history. In particular, Brigham’s fiery rhetoric during the Mormon Reformation inspired extremism and violence, including the September 1857 attack on the Baker-Fancher Party.
There is only one canonized Brigham Young revelation
Section 136 of the Doctrine and Covenants is the only Brigham Young revelation in the ongoing Latter-day Saint scriptural canon. “This inspired document soon became the revelation of the exodus, a message of enormous hope and encouragement,” said historian Richard Bennett, while serving as the president of the Mormon Trail Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
President Young avoided using the phrase “thus saith the Lord”
Many people have wondered why there aren’t more Brigham Young revelations in the scriptures—and why he didn’t preface commandments with “thus saith the Lord” like his prophetic predecessor, Joseph Smith.
Historian Christopher Blythe says that Brigham addressed his lack of dialogic revelations several times:
He explained that when a revelation was placed into the words of deity and the Saints were not abiding its precepts, they risked greater condemnation than if it was just given as encouragement from a church leader. He argued that the Saints should not expect new revelations when they hadn’t lived up to the “thus saith the Lord.
He believed that Jesus was married
Latter-day Saints have long debated whether Jesus was married—and the Lion of Lord thought that he was. “Brigham seems to have first suggested that Jesus was married in 1847,” said Blythe. “He told listeners that the scene of Mary washing the Savior’s feet was exactly like how other women would come meet their husbands after the resurrection.”
Brigham’s approach to doctrine may have been even more radical than Joseph Smith
Terryl Givens commented on Brigham’s unique approach in an interview about his biography of the Latter-day Saint intellectual, Eugene England:
Eugene England was of the opinion that almost two centuries of church culture had taken the edge off of Joseph Smith—to our detriment. (This is ironic, because he thought the reverse was the case with Brigham Young in some ways.)
Brigham Young interpreted Lorenzo Snow’s couplet literally
Joseph Smith taught of humanity’s potential to become like God in his famous King Follett Discourse. However, it wasn’t a new idea for the early Latter-day Saints. Joseph had previously taught the doctrine and Lorenzo Snow produced a famous couplet explaining the same idea:
As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may become.Lorenzo Snow
According to BYU philosopher James Faulconer, Brigham Young took both halves of the couplet literally:
One the one hand: There never was a time when there were not Gods and worlds, and when men were not passing through the same ordeals that we are now passing through. That course has been from all eternity, and it is and will be to all eternity.
On the other hand: [Eternal matter] is brought together, organized, and capacitated to receive knowledge and intelligence, to be enthroned in glory, to be made angels, Gods . . . . This is what you and I are created for.James Faulconer, Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse: Is it Central to Latter-day Saint Doctrine?
Visitors waited on a bench to see the prophet
James E. Faust gave a speech at Brigham Young University as a member of the First Presidency in 2001. He recounted President Howard W. Hunter telling a story about a man who wanted to see Brigham.
While the story is fascinating in its own right, President Faust included a small detail that conjures up images of what it must have been like to wait for a meeting with the pioneer leader:
In those days visitors sat on a bench and moved along the bench as they waited for an appointment with the president.James E. Faust, “Brigham Young: A Bold Prophet”
He was suspicious of Freemasons after the martyrdom
Freemasonry played a significant role in early Latter-day Saint history, and many church leaders belonged to Masonic lodges. According to Cheryl Bruno, things changed after the death of Joseph Smith:
Many leaders—including Brigham Young—believed that Freemasons in Illinois and nationwide had conspired to kill Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and that non-Latter-day Saint Freemasonry operated contrary to the interests of the Church.How Did Freemasonry Influence Joseph Smith?
Brigham’s rhetoric changed after the Utah War
The Utah War of 1857–58 had a softening effect on Brigham’s oratory. After a drawn out conflict with the United States soldiers sent by President James Buchanan, Brigham began to approach things differently.
“During the Reformation of 1856–57, Brigham Young preached Blood Atonement,” said Thomas Alexander. “After the Utah War, he began to preach peace and love, and he urged others to do so.”
Brigham had nearly a dozen counselors in his First Presidencies
Brigham Young had 11 counselors during his time in the First Presidency from 1847–77:
- Heber C. Kimball
- George A. Smith
- John W. Young
- Willard Richards
- Jedediah M. Grant
- Daniel H. Wells
- Joseph F. Smith
- Lorenzo Snow
- Brigham Young Jr.
- Albert Carrington
- John W. Young
His conflict with Emma Smith may have impacted the Relief Society
The minutes from the first meeting of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo illustrate Emma Smith’s leadership. They also represent the Prophet Joseph Smith’s only recorded teachings specifically for women. However, Brigham’s friction with Emma may be one reason that he called for a temporary (but long-lasting) cessation of Relief Society meetings after the martyrdom:
Tensions between Brigham Young and Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s widow and president of the Relief Society, likely fueled Young’s concern about Relief Society meetings.The First Fifty Years of Relief Society
Young wasn’t happy that Orson Pratt published the plural marriage ceremony
Orson Pratt published the verbatim plural sealing ceremony in his periodical, The Seer. It included “descriptions of the actions taken by the first wife, groom, and plural-wife-to-be during the marriage.”
Historian Brittany Chapman Nash said that Pratt “did history a great favor” by publishing the account, but added that it was “all much to Brigham Young’s chagrin.”
He gets a bad rap in the Journal of Discourses
George Watt did modern readers a solid by recording Brigham Young’s body language, but he was far from perfect. In fact, shorthand transcriptions from reporters like Watt are one of the primary reasons that Brigham gets a bad rap in the Journal of Discourses.
It’s highly likely that every discourse in the 26-volume series contains serious mistakes. “It is very, very common for these errors to be significant,” said LaJean Purcell Carruth.
“Brigham Young—as he really spoke, according to the original shorthand records—was a powerful speaker,” said Carruth. He comes across as a kinder person when you look at his actual words:
Watt also changed many of Brigham Young’s questions to statements. Those modifications obscured his intent, making him come across as accusatory when in fact he was quite understanding.
Brigham Young’s actual words, according to the shorthand record, present a much kinder, more thoughtful man than what we have in the Journal of Discourses.LaJean Carruth, “What’s Really in the Journal of Discourses?”
Richard Bushman thinks that Young is a “fall guy”
Latter-day Saint history entered a new era when Richard Bushman published Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. The historian continues to produce scholarship, and has a book on the gold plates in the works.
Among his current thoughts are that Brigham Young is unfairly treated. “My heart goes out to Brigham right now,” Bushman told the Salt Lake Tribune. “He’s becoming the fall guy. We really need someone to go through his biography and treat the latter half of his life empathetically.”
Brigham isn’t buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery
The Salt Lake City Cemetery is home to the gravesites of 12 Latter-day Saint prophets, but Brigham Young isn’t one of them. His resting place lies in an alcove about two miles to the west, next to an apartment complex named in his honor.
Most of the graves in the Brigham Young Family Cemetery are unmarked, but those with names include several of his wives and children:
- Lucy Ann Decker
- Emmeline Free
- Eliza R. Snow
- Joseph Angell Young
- Alice Young Clawson
Brigham didn’t get along with Jim Bridger
Brigham Young and Jim Bridger met only once (so far as we know). They camped together on the evening of June 28, 1847, and Bridger detailed his knowledge of the great basin. They exchanged courtesies the next morning, with Bridger inviting Young to his fort, and Young writing Bridger a pass to ride the Latter-day Saint ferry.
The meeting went well, but the relationship soon soured. For reasons we don’t know, Young became suspicious that Bridger was plotting against the pioneer saints. The mountain man tried to explain the misunderstanding in a letter to “The President of the Salt Lake Valley,” but his claims of innocence fell on deaf ears.
Brigham once stated, “I believe I know that Old Bridger is death on us, and if he knew 400,000 Indians were coming against us, and any man were to let us know, he would cut his throat.”
The Latter-day Saints acted on the prophet’s animosity numerous times throughout the years, culminating in the seizure of Fort Bridger while the mountain man looked on from a hiding spot with a spyglass.
Did you learn anything new?
Support our efforts to publish free Latter-day Saint history content.
Brigham Young enthusiasts also read these articles:
- What’s Really in the Journal of Discourses?
- John Turner Looks Back on Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet
- Scholar Finds New Brigham Young Revelation
- What Was Brigham Young’s Swift Pony Express?
- Little-Known Facts about Joseph Smith