Brigham Young is one of the most well-known figures in the history of the American West. The first man to become President of the Church after the death of Joseph Smith, Young left behind a legacy in which he was known both as a “Lion of the Lord” and “Brother Brigham”—two distinct aspects of his personality. This article breaks down some of the most important historical research about Brigham Young’s wives, church presidency, teachings, and more.
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Table of contents
- Beliefs and Teachings
- Books to Read
- Brigham Young Wives
- Joseph Smith
- Migration West
- Mountain Meadows
- Odds and Ends
- President of the Church
- Race and Priesthood
- Salt Lake
- Utah War
Beliefs and teachings
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.
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 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.Council of Fifty Minutes on Brigham Young
He also spoke about the law being written upon the heart
Another Council of Fifty quote by Brigham Young shows the future prophet talking about the importance of having the law of God written upon our hearts:
Er [Brigham] Young. Said spirits had been more susceptible these few councils than ever before. He thought when he came into this church he should never want to keep book accounts again. Why? He thought the law would be written in every mans heart, and there would be that perfection in our lives, nothing further would be needed.
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 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?
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.
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 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?
A caveat about the law of adoption
Early Latter-day Saints engaged in a sealing practice known as adoption. Interestingly, Brigham Young taught that the law was necessary only because the priesthood hadn’t been retained through every generation.
As Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal:
President Young said the priesthood had been on the earth at different times. When the Priesthood had not been on earth, men will have to be sealed to each other until we go on to Father Adam. Men will have to be sealed to men so as to link the chain from beginning to end and all children [born before their parents received their endowments] will have to be sealed to their parents. . . . But this must be in a temple and nowhere else.Wilford Woodruff’s journal, as cited in Wilford Woodruff and the Development of Temple Doctrine
Brigham Young and the priesthood ban
Bruce R. McConkie specifically cited Brigham Young when counseling members to accept the 1978 priesthood revelation. In particular, one Elder McConkie quote cautioned members about holding onto the teachings of past leaders such as President Young and George Q. Cannon:
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.Bruce R. McConkie
Law of the gospel
Joseph Smith first used the term “law of the gospel” in 1832, but he didn’t provide a definition. Brigham Young would later define the law as the Savior’s higher law that replaced the law of Moses with a commandment to love others. Latter-day Saint leaders would go on to define the law in several different ways, culminating with a 2023 definition included in the General Handbook.
Books to read
Books about Brigham Young detail everything from his beliefs and doctrinal teachings to the Mountain Meadows Massacre and Utah War. This list includes several books about the pioneer prophet that are still available today.
|Brigham Young books
|40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young by Chad Orton (Find Book)
|American Moses by Leonard Arrington (Find Book)
|At Swords Point by William MacKinnon (Find Book)
|Blood of the Prophets by Will Bagley (Find Book)
|Brigham Young Journals Vol. 1 by Brent Rogers (Find Book)
|Conflict in the Quorum by Gary Bergera (Find Book)
|Diaries and Office Journals by George D. Smith (Find Book)
|Discourses of Brigham Young by John A Widtsoe (Find Book)
|Expansion of the Mormon Faith by Thomas Alexander (Find Book)
|Modern Moses, Prophet of God by Francis M. Gibbons (Find Book)
|Pioneer Prophet by John Turner (Find Book)
|Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (Find Book)
|The Price We Paid by Andrew Olsen (Find Book)
Brigham Young University
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’s Wives
Brigham had more than 50 wives
He sparred with Emma Smith over polygamy
Plural marriage is one of the factors that led to the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph. And there’s evidence to suggest that Brigham held Emma Smith partially responsible for what happened.
“Some of his statements suggest that [Brigham Young thought Emma’s opposition to polygamy led to Joseph’s death],” said Laurel Thatcher-Ulrich, author of A House Full of Females.
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.”
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.Romney Burke
Susa Young Gates had a conflicted personality
Brigham’s daughter was simultaneously confident and insecure. Historian Lisa Olsen Tait suggests that both traits stemmed from her identity as a daughter in the Young family:
I think these conflicting elements came from the fact that she was Brigham Young’s daughter—and thus had entry into the elite circles of the church and community—but she was also one of many Youngs and felt a desire to distinguish herself.
It also had to do with gender. She was a daughter, not a son, of Brigham Young. That made a great deal of difference in her life trajectory, and she grappled for most of her life with questions about the meaning of gender.Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead
Susa was divorced
Susa Young Gates divorced her husband at a time when it made her a pariah in pioneer society. The break-up was a result of her youthful inexperience and his alcoholism, but they both went on to have happy second marriages:
After her divorce, Susie married Jacob F. Gates, a young man she had known growing up in St. George. They had eleven children together and a very happy marriage. Jacob was content to let her do her thing and was remarkably supportive for a man of his generation. Sadly, they buried eight of her thirteen children (including her son from the first marriage) before the turn of the century.Lisa Olsen Tait, Why Did Susa Young Gates Get Divorced?
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.
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 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.Ronald W. Walker, “Six Days in August: Brigham Young and the Succession Crisis of 1844”
Brigham 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.
Brigham didn’t have Joseph Smith killed
Contrary to what you may have seen in FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven, there’s no evidence that Brigham Young tried to have Joseph Smith killed.
He said that Joseph Smith didn’t write the Lectures on Faith
Generations of Latter-day Saints believe that Joseph Smith wrote the Lectures on Faith. Elder Bruce R. McConkie even lobbied to have them included in the Pearl of Great Price. However, historians don’t believe there’s any evidence to back up the assertion.
Interestingly, Joseph’s prophetic successor attributed authorship to an early member of the First Presidency:
Scholars who have examined the scant historical documentation argue that Sidney Rigdon was the author or at least a heavy collaborator in producing the lectures. Indeed, Brigham Young called them the lectures “Brother Sidney prepared.”Church History Topics: Lectures on Theology (“Lectures on Faith”)
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 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
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 with those who had 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.
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.Richard Bennett
Mountain Meadows Massacre
He wasn’t part of the coverup
Local Latter-day Saint leaders actively participated in a Mountain Meadows Massacre cover up. But Brigham wasn’t a part of the scheme. Rather, he actively sought to bring the perpetrators to justice, but was stymied by a perfect storm of unique local and federal circumstances.
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.
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.
His missionary service continues to inspire Latter-day Saints
Brigham and several other prominent leaders left their families to serve proselyting missions in the early days of the church’s history. In 2004, Elder Russell M. Nelson used their examples to inspire contemporary Latter-day Saints:
No senior missionary finds it convenient to leave. Neither did Joseph or Brigham or John or Wilford. They had children and grandchildren too. They loved their families not one whit less, but they also loved the Lord and wanted to serve Him.Inspiring Russell M. Nelson Quotes from Every General Conference
Odds and Ends
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.”
Brigham 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.
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.
The elevator story isn’t true
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.”
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 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 doppelganger.
You can visit the Brigham Young winter home
Brigham lived in St. George during the winters months in the 1870s. In addition to remodeling the home, the Utah Territory governor constructed an office where he could see to Church business such as the construction of the St. George Temple and the settlement of Southern Utah. You can get a firsthand look of the Brigham Young home courtesy of a free in-person or virtual tour.
He didn’t get along with Emma
The tensions between Brigham and Emma Smith are legendary, with people taking different sides as history has unfolded. The primary reasons for their tension boil down to two key issues, according to Road to Carthage podcast host, Spencer McBride:
Two of the main points were disagreements over Joseph Smith’s estate (e.g. what property belonged to the church and what property belonged to the Smith family) and over the question of whether the practice of plural marriage would continue.Spencer McBride
Brigham Young had a favorite hymn
It was none other than “Oh My Father,” written by Eliza R. Snow. Interestingly, the hymn’s original title was, “My Father in Heaven,” according to William V. Smith, author of The King Follett Sermon: A Biography.
There’s a funny story about the St. George temple
Brigham Young didn’t like the look of the original tower for the St. George Temple. When lightning later struck the tower after the prophet’s death, some people joked that he arranged for its (un)timely demise from beyond the grave.
There’s a reason he was called “Brother Brigham”
Brigham was exceptionally down to earth. His fellow Saints in Utah called him Brother Brigham because of his genuine love for them, along with his frequent personal correspondence and his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
“When Brigham asked people to do hard things, they knew he had set the example,” said Chad Orton. “He regularly did what many leaders would have left to others.”
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
It surfaces in his journal
Brigham’s personality clearly emerges in his journals. Rather than a cold-hearted and violent caricature, his journal entries show a rich array of emotions.
When you get to read Brigham in his own words—and see him in a more holistic way—you find somebody who is inclusive and caring, someone who is devoted to the gospel and wants to share that gospel message with others. He makes every effort possible to bring people unto Christ.Ronald K. Esplin, What Did Brigham Young Write About in His Journal?
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 had a “pulpit personality”
Brigham seemed to purposefully adopt an aggressive tone when speaking in his role as President of the Church. Chad Orton refers to it as Brigham’s “pulpit personality,” and admits that Brigham could sometimes be his own worst enemy.
But there was also another side to Brigham:
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.Chad Orton Looks at Brigham Young in 40 Different Ways
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?”
His relationship with John Bernhisel was mixed
Brigham Young initially had a positive relationship with John Milton Bernhisel—a man who would spend a lifetime helping bridge the gap between Latter-day Saint pioneers and the federal government.
However, the relationship soured somewhat when Young appointed Bernhisel as the Utah Territory’s Delegate to Congress:
For example, Brigham Young’s decision to publicize and flaunt the practice of polygamy made it virtually impossible for Bernhisel to get legislation benefitting Utah Territory through Congress. In addition, on more than one occasion, Bernhisel had to talk Washington out of sending troops to the Great Basin.Who Was John Milton Bernhisel?
He struggled with 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
President of the Church
Brigham had a dozen counselors in his First Presidencies
Brigham Young had 12 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
- John W. Young
- George Q. Cannon
- Brigham Young Jr.
- Lorenzo Snow
- Albert Carrington
He mentored George Q. Cannon
Brigham is partly responsible for the significant role that George Q. Cannon would play in Utah’s history. “Upon George’s return to Utah (from the Sandwich Islands), it was abundantly clear that Brigham Young had singled him out for leadership,” said biographer Ken Cannon.
The two would form an intimate mentor-protege relationship that impacted not only Church leadership, but also Utah politics and business.
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 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.
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.Christopher Blythe
He introduced rebaptism
Brigham introduced the practice of Latter-day Saint rebaptism. Unlike traditional baptisms, a “rebaptism” was intended to help church members renew their covenants. It was especially popular during the “Mormon Reformation” in which Brigham felt like the Latter-day Saints were abandoning their spirituality.
He may have wanted a “Smith of his own”
Brigham Young called Joseph F. Smith to be an apostle under unique circumstances. Stephen Taysom, a Joseph F. Smith biographer, argues that this may have been done in response to Joseph Smith’s sons who were part of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leadership.
I argue in the book that the timing suggests that this may have been done in response to the sons of Joseph Smith, who were now part of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and were planning to come to Utah. I argue that Young wanted a “Smith of his own” in the hierarchy to blunt the impact that the sons of Joseph might have on the people in Utah.Stephen C. Taysom, What’s in the New Joseph F. Smith Biography?
Race and priesthood
Brigham Young started the priesthood ban
The history of race and priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is lengthy—and complex. However, one issue that most historians consider settled is the role of Brigham Young in creating the priesthood ban after Joseph Smith’s death.
While the Prophet Joseph enabled access to temples and priesthood for all, Brigham’s concerns with mixed-race marriages led him to restrict Blacks from holding the priesthood:
Brigham spoke out stridently against race mixing; he even advocated capital punishment as the penalty. By 1852 he openly articulated a racial priesthood restriction and did so in conjunction with ongoing preaching against race mixing.W. Paul Reeve, Let’s Talk About Race and Priesthood
It laid the foundation for a prolonged ban
It’s a complicated topic, but Brigham’s role in establishing the ban also impacted generations of future Church leaders. “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions,” explains the Church’s Gospel Topics Essay on “Race and the Priesthood.” “None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.”
The prophet took shopping seriously
Joseph Smith taught Brigham the importance of eliminating poverty. The Utah prophet took the lesson to heart. He founded ZCMI in 1869 with the intent to increase economic parity among Latter-day Saint pioneers, even going so far as to threaten excommunication for those who didn’t shop at the Zion mercantile:
This sounds extreme to us today, but I think it indicates the seriousness with which Brigham viewed the system. He really did view this as an essential step to establishing Zion—and either you were in or you were out.Jeffrey Paul Thompson, The History of ZCMI
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).”
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 almost paid a huge tax bill
The government’s Internal Revenue Assessor tried to make early Church leaders pay taxes on tithing. Interestingly, Brigham Young would’ve been personally responsible for the initial $60,000 bill. According to Samuel Brunson, the Church went so far as to instruct local leaders to stop collecting tithing until the matter was resolved.
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
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.
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.
Settling Utah led to Mexico colonies
Brigham’s efforts to create settlements throughout the Utah Territory also led to the formation of Latter-day Saint colonies in Mexico. The country on the other side of the Rio Grande also provided a legal outlet for polygamy.
According to John A. Gonzales, Mexico represented a safe space for “Church members to practice their beliefs without the threat of persecution by the U.S. federal government.”
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
Brigham was close to Emmeline B. Wells
Emmeline B. Wells was one of the most prominent Latter-day Saint women of the nineteenth century. She had a close association with Brigham Young throughout her life. The Emmeline B. Wells Diaries indicate that the prophet gave her a priesthood blessing when she was 16-years-old. He also presided at her two marriages and asked her to create a history of women in the church.
Brigham asked Eliza Snow to restart the Relief Society
The prophet commissioned Eliza Snow to reorganize the Relief Society in 1867. “She spent the rest of her life teaching, exhorting, and administering to women in many ways,” said historian Lisa Olsen Tait in an interview about women and the priesthood.
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.”
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.”
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
Brigham Young FAQ
Was Brigham Young related to Joseph Smith?
No, Brigham wasn’t related to Joseph Smith. However, he did succeed the Prophet Joseph as the second President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Did Brigham Young marry Joseph Smith’s wife?
Where was Brigham Young when Joseph Smith died?
Brigham Young was in Boston with other apostles when Joseph Smith was killed. Due to limited communications, it took three weeks for him to learn of the Prophet’s death.
Who was Brigham Young’s favorite wife?
Most sources point to Harriet Amelia Folsom as being the favorite wife of Brigham Young. She was 23 when she married the 60-year-old church president.
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- How Well Do You Know Joseph Smith?
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- John Turner Looks Back on Pioneer Prophet
- Scholar Finds New BY Revelation
- What Was Brigham Young’s Swift Pony Express?
- Prophets of the Restoration (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
- Biography: Young, Brigham (Joseph Smith Papers)
- Brigham Young Papers (The Brigham Young Center)
- Early Life, Conversion, and Apostleship (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
- American Religious Leader (Britannica)
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Chad Nielsen. “The King Follett Sermon: A Biography,” Oct. 18, 2023.
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Kurt Manwaring. “Mountain Meadows Massacre: Was There a Cover Up?,” May 15, 2023.
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Kurt Manwaring. “Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology,” Feb. 9, 2022.
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Kurt Manwaring, “Virtual Tour of the Salt Lake City Cemetery,” May 27, 2019.
Kurt Manwaring. “Was Zion’s Camp a Failure?,” July 31, 2022.
Kurt Manwaring. “What Happened at Winter Quarters?,” March 28, 2022.
Kurt Manwaring. “What Happened Between Jim Bridger and Brigham Young?,” March 12, 2022.
Kurt Manwaring, “What Have Prophets Taught About the Law of the Gospel?,” Sept. 10, 2023.
Kurt Manwaring. “What’s in the New Joseph F. Smith Biography?,” July 24, 2023.
Kurt Manwaring. “What’s in the Relief Society General Board Minutes?,” June 20, 2022.
Kurt Manwaring. “What’s Really in the Journal of Discourses?,” June 27, 2022.
Kurt Manwaring. “What Was Brigham Young’s Swift Pony Express?,” July 8, 2022.
Kurt Manwaring. “What Was the Purpose of Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates?,” June 20, 2022.
Kurt Manwaring. “Who Was John Milton Bernhisel?,” Jan. 21, 2023.
Kurt Manwaring. “Why Are the Diaries of Emmeline B. Wells Important?,” Dec. 18, 2022.
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