Your Affectionate Father, Brigham Young: The Prophet’s Letters to His Sons (Part 2)
April 1974

“Your Affectionate Father, Brigham Young: The Prophet’s Letters to His Sons (Part 2)” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 63

Your Affectionate Father, Brigham Young:

The Prophet’s Letters to His Sons (Part 2)

Brigham Young’s desire for his children was that “they not only walk in the footsteps of their father, but take a course to enjoy life, health, and vigor while they live, and the Spirit of intelligence from God, that they may far outstrip their father in long life, and in the good they will perform in their day.” And more specifically, he said, “I wish my sons to far exceed me in goodness and virtue.”

Whatever Brigham Young’s influence may have been upon the lives of his children in their early years, his efforts to direct them continued even after they left home to begin their preparations in life. The letters they received from their father were an important source of direction for them. Many of these letters are a reflection of his belief that Solomon’s saying, “spare the rod and spoil the child,” ought to be altered to “spare the rod” and “give good counsel to children and thus draw them to you.”

Several of Brigham Young’s children made important contributions to the Latter-day Saint community and to the nation. His oldest son, Joseph, served many years in the Utah Territorial Legislature; Brigham, Jr., was a mission president, a member of the Council of Twelve, and a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church; John was widely known in railroad construction and financial circles, and was a counselor to his father in the First Presidency; Willard had a remarkable military career and as an engineer supervised important river and harbor improvements along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and in the Northwest, presided over two colleges, and was superintendent of Church building; Don Carlos was Church architect for 50 years and a member of the Utah Legislature; Susa Young Gates, a noted author and editor, played a leading role in state and national women’s organizations in addition to raising a large family.

Although not a complete listing, these examples are indicative of the determination and drive that were characteristic of many of Brigham Young’s children. Their accomplishments serve as a monument to a dedicated home life.

Letters written by Brigham Young to 13 of his sons, as they embarked upon various assignments away from home, reveal a unique ability to discern the needs of his children and to counsel them in the problems they faced in the different conditions under which they labored. Written to missionaries, students, and servicemen, these letters are also significant for their relevance for those engaged in similar pursuits in a more modern era.

The absence of letters of Brigham Young to his daughters is due to the fact that they did not leave home for extended periods of study or missionary service during their father’s lifetime, as did his sons.

Eleven of President Young’s boys filled missions for the Church. Joseph, Brigham Jr., Oscar, Ernest, Arta de Christa, Lorenzo, and John completed proselyting assignments in England; Morris labored in Hawaii and the Eastern States; Heber in Switzerland; Don Carlos in the Southern States; and Feramorz in Mexico. In the letters he wrote to them, their father gave them counsel that is pertinent far beyond its original intent.

President Young wrote to his son, Oscar: “While you are on your present mission, you will lay a foundation for future usefulness in the Kingdom of God. If there be any difference in missions probably the first mission that a man takes has more influence on his future than any that he may take in after life. On his first mission he lays the foundation and adopts the principles which are to guide him through his future career, and it has seldom been the case that a young man who has been dilatory and careless while upon his first mission has ever recovered the ground he then lost.”

President Young noted that much that is truly valuable in life can be gained in discharging one’s calling as a missionary in the Church of Jesus Christ: “There is no position a young man can be placed in that is better adapted to give him a knowledge of God and of His holy spirit than to be sent on a mission.”

He reminded Joseph A. that education was not all confined to schools, and that while engaged in his proselyting he should “lose no opportunity of making yourself familiar with all that is useful and likely to benefit you, for to be able to combat with the world we must make ourselves acquainted with the ways of the world. This can only be done by keeping your mind constantly on the alert and when in society never allow anything to escape your notice, listen attentively; and observe minutely the manners, customs, and remarks of all, for, from the most humble of our fellow creatures an observing man can learn something that will be useful to him in after life.”

A mission provides an opportunity to obtain knowledge and experience that no book can teach: “Stores of information surround you,” Brigham Young wrote to two of his boys in England. “You are in the midst of the world’s activities, the discoveries of science and the masterpieces of inventive genius are within your reach and you have many bright opportunities of increasing your range of knowledge and widening your views of man and nature.”

After reminding one son that the missionary is called to mingle in society a great deal, Brigham urged him to cultivate his speech and social graces and use every effort to improve his address. “Always exert yourself to be agreeable,” he wrote, “and no matter whether poor or rich, treat them with equal courtesy, do not be pompous to the needy, nor condescending to the wealthy.” By this, he assured him, “you will gain the love and admiration of those worthy of your esteem, and at comparatively little expense.”

Arriving in the large cities of Christendom in their youth—many of them away from home for the first time—President Young’s sons were cautioned to avoid the wickedness of the world with its many allurements:

“Many a young man has fall[en] from a virtuous life through a desire to simply see and become acquainted with the sins of the world. But having once become familiar with the ways of the sinner it has too often proved that the meshes of sin were too strong to allow of its victims escape. Do not on any pretense or excuse allow yourself to be persuaded to visit the dens of iniquity … and other traps for the unwary.”

To his son Heber, he wrote that a missionary’s success depends on being able to subjugate his passions, appetites, and feelings to the mind and will of God through self-mastery and determination: “The man who suffers his passions to lead him becomes a slave to them, and such a man will find the work of emancipation an exceedingly difficult one.” The President urged his son to “make the doing of God’s will and the keeping of His commandments a constant habit with you and it will become perfectly natural and easy for you to walk uprightly before Him.” He concluded, “The time of youth and early manhood is the proper time in which to form such habits.”

To the young missionary confronted with the added problem of learning a difficult foreign language, President Young advised diligence, study, courage, and perseverance:

“Never allow your courage to fail you; man’s greatest works have been done by men of patience, perseverance and a determined will which would acknowledge no defeat, rather than by those gifted with a natural ability which made success easy but who lacked the tenaciousness of purpose. Then my boy never say fail but work on in the way you have started and your reward is certain.”

Since the main responsibility of the missionary is to take the message of salvation to mankind, he must never neglect an opportunity to enlighten the ignorant or strengthen the weak. “Raise your voice wherever possible in defense of the truth, President Young wrote; but, if “when declaring the truth, you are attacked by the wicked, do not condescend to argue with them, much less retaliate.”

He continued: “Recrimination proves no truth; it enlightens no man’s mind, but it is one of the weapons used by the adversary to produce hatred and malice in the hearts of mankind, and should never be indulged in by a Latter-day Saint. When you may be assailed, heed it not, bear your testimony to the great work the Lord is doing on the earth, proclaim the Truth in meekness, and if they will not listen, leave them to their own folly. We are not called to cavil with the world.”

Brigham Young summarized the mission experience by noting, “It is the noblest, happiest life that a man can lead, to be a minister of salvation to the people of the nations.”

Two of President Young’s sons were appointed to the United States military academies at West Point and Annapolis. Willard Young entered West Point in 1871 when he was 19, and Feramorz commenced his training at the Naval Academy in 1874 at 16. While the problems confronted in the military were different from those in the mission field, Brigham Young’s boys in the service also received pertinent and forceful counsel from their father, adapted to their needs and circumstances.

Being Mormons and sons of Brigham Young demanded an austerity that was not common in a military environment. “By exhibiting your character and the principles you profess in your daily walk and conversation, and by refraining from every appearance of evil,” he admonished them, “you will not only be admired by the good and the upright, but you will command that respect that even the most unvirtuous are willing to accord to those who truly deserve it.”

And to the soldier who may have been inclined to slip into anonymity so far as his religion was concerned, President Young wrote that it was the duty of “every Latter-day Saint, young or old, to serve the Lord. None of us are excused from this duty, as, also, none of us are shut out from the attainment of the blessings of eternal life. Never in all your associations forget that you are a Latter-day Saint.”

As Willard launched into rigorous training and study at West Point, he was directed “to treasure up the instruction so abundantly provided there, that in after years you may be prepared to take a place even in the foremost ranks of the great men of the nation.” And lest he become overstudious, he was urged to pursue a course of moderation: “A proper regard must be had to physical as well as intellectual exercise, else the intellectual powers become impaired, and therefore, bodily recreation and rest are as necessary as they are beneficial to mental study.”

No course of action was urged by Brigham Young upon his sons with more force than that directed to Willard almost immediately after his arrival at the military academy: “I understand you cadets are exceedingly popular with the fair sex, and some of them are very, very dangerous when so disposed, just for the sake of having a laugh at their victims; shun such as you would the very gates of hell! They are the enemy’s strongest tools, and should be resisted as strongly. Beware of them!”

Another vice confronting the servicemen was idleness. Convinced that happiness consists in having something worthwhile to do and in doing it well, President Young warned that “whoever wastes his life in idleness, either because he need not work in order to live, or because he will not live to work, will be a wretched creature, and at the close of a listless existence, will regret the loss of precious gifts and the neglect of great opportunities.”

“… whatever be our labor, calling or profession, we should hold our skill, knowledge and talents therein, subservient to the accomplishment of the purposes of Jehovah, that our entire lives, day by day, may be made to praise Him, and our individual happiness secured by the consciousness that we are fulfilling the purpose and design of our presence here on the earth.”

An “unmitigated evil” to young men in military service that Brigham Young felt would impair their mental powers and unfit them for their daily duties and studies was the use of tobacco and profane language: “Some young men seem to entertain the idea that to smoke, to chew, or to use profane language makes them appear more manly. Never was [there] a greater fallacy.”

Real manhood, he advised, consists in serving God and keeping his commandments: “The highest type of mankind is shown in such worthies as Enoch, Abraham, Joseph, Nephi, Alma, Joseph Smith, and others. If boys wish to be thought manly let them copy the best men and their virtues, not inferior and vicious men and their follies and vices.”

Although several of his children attended the local University of Deseret, three of Brigham Young’s sons studied at institutions of higher learning in the East. Don Carlos and Feramorz (after his release from the Naval Academy) studied engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York, and Alfales received a law degree from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Like his sons in the military service and in the mission field, these students also received their portion from their father’s steadying pen.

As he arrived in the little New York university community of Troy to study engineering and architecture, Don Carlos was cautioned that some of his new surroundings would tend to strengthen his faith while others would seek to draw him away:

“As you advance in life you will find every position and occupation surrounded by its peculiar temptations, the great strength and bulwark against all of which is prayer to our Heavenly Father. Cultivate this spirit and you will find that it shall be a wall of fire around you, and your glory in the midst of you. In its practice you will find a safeguard against the wiles of the adversary, and every good resolution will be fortified by it, and every seductive influence will lose its power to annoy you.”

Focusing upon the moral lapses that often mar the character of the student away from home, Brigham Young urged his sons never to abuse the confidence that others had placed in them, “or by folly or criminality break down the character we have built up by a life of industry and honesty. Our character is not entirely our individual property. It belongs partly to our neighbors and we have no right to shake their confidence in us and in mankind generally by acts inconsistent with the good name we have established.”

Brigham Young recognized that a contributing element to happiness consisted in the wise selection of associates and friends. He counseled his boys to select companionship among those whose characters were established upon a foundation of truth and honor, whose pursuits were honorable, whose lives were temperate, and whose expenses were moderate.

“Studiously avoid all those whose lives are tinctured with looseness, prodigality, and even among the very best of your associates be sure and only imitate their virtues. Remember that however bright any character may be, however much he may shine mentally or intellectually, that if he has vices they are blemishes and should not be copied. It would be as foolish, yes more so, to copy a man’s moral blemishes because he has the reputation of being a gentleman, a student or a good fellow, as it would be to make an artificial wart upon one’s face because some very handsome man had the misfortune to have a natural one on his.

“We all of us are subject to the influences of others, especially of those for whom we have regard; and from our companions both our character and disposition we’ll [sic] receive a tincture, as water passing through minerals partakes of their taste and efficacy. How careful then ought we to be to associate only with the upright, the good and the pure.”

Finally, to the young student who might be tempted to set his religion aside while obtaining a degree, President Young wrote:

“The adversary has no craftier snare for the feet of the young of God’s people than to persuade them they can be Latter-day Saints and bury the principles of their religion so deep out of sight that when wanted they never can find them. Whilst away from home I hope you will continue your present practice of associating as much as practicable with the Elders and members of the Church.”

While the letters of Brigham Young to his sons reveal a deep personal affection for his children, the answers he received from them reveal that they returned that feeling. The numerous letters written by his sons are lavish in sentiments of respect and honor for their father and eagerness to do his bidding. As they began their various assignments away from home, they well knew the size of the shoes they were being asked to fill. They undertook the challenge in the same spirit in which they were sent.

After beginning his missionary work in England, Brigham, Jr., wrote his father: “I have been afraid that more is expected of me than I can do. They consider the idea that such a father had ought to have a smart son. I can’t help it if they are disappointed in their expectations, but I will do my best to answer the prayers of my friends.”

Another time, after being introduced to New York merchants during a trip east, he informed his father, “they take off their hats and make very polite bows [and remark] ‘happy to meet you Mr. Young,’” but, acknowledged the younger Brigham, “it is simply the result of your labors, Father, and I give you the credit next to God. I know that you have done the work, and I am reaping the benefit, and I feel that the only way I can repay you is by living as becomes a saint which may God help me to do.”

Another son, John W., explained his reason for rooming in one of St. Louis’s finest hotels when he stopped there in company with other businessmen in 1866: “Personally I feel no desire to make a show, but when the eyes of many are directed towards me and it is said, ‘there is a son of Brigham Young,’ I feel that to look and act respectably is my duty.”

The letters of Brigham Young’s sons leave no doubt that their father’s influence upon their lives was lasting and profound. As a missionary in England in 1866, John W. penned these lines: “I seat myself to write to you and it is with great pleasure that I do so because I not only love you as a Father, but respect and honor you as a Prophet of God.”

Writing from West Point, Willard reflected upon his home life and the guidance of his father as a preparation for his opportunities at the military academy:

“I ever feel grateful toward you, my dear father, for the many great kindnesses and benefits you have heaped upon me, and upon all the children, though it is perhaps impossible for me to appreciate their full worth. How thankful we all ought to be (I really think I am) that we have such a loving and indulgent parent, such a wise instructor, and so worthy an example as you.”

In 1876, after receiving counsel from his father that helped him resolve the question of continuing his military career, Willard responded:

“I must say thanks a thousand thanks for your excellent letter. As is always the case it proved interesting beyond comparison. I always have such a ‘good’ feeling (I cannot better describe it) when I read your words. They seem to do me good every way, physically, mentally, and morally. The effect of the perusal of this last letter was to make me involuntarily exclaim: Thank God for such a father.

“You have satisfied me every way. I shall enjoy myself a great deal better now, I feel sure, for in trying to carry out your advice in the several directions pointed out, I shall be doing just what I need to better satisfy my own sense of duty. I shall serve out the remainder of my time now with a good heart, since I know it to be your wish.”

And from England Lorenzo wrote to his father: “Your letters are always repeatedly read, for in them I find spiritual strength, encouraging words, and parental love, which spurs me on to more diligence in executing my duties.”

If the congenial image of Brigham Young seen in the pages of his letters to his sons appears to contradict the austere picture that is generally seen of him, it is largely due to two factors:

First is the preponderance of unreliable source material pertaining to Brigham Young. So unfavorable was the popular reaction to Mormonism and its leaders in the nineteenth century that the non-Mormon stream of historical sources dealing with the Latter-day Saints received a taint from which it has never been adequately purified.

In 1882, Phil Robinson, a correspondent for the New York World, noted that, with the exception of Burton’s City of the Saints, he was not acquainted with a single gentile work about the Mormons that was not utterly unreliable because of its distortion. Yet it is from these works “that the American public has acquired nearly all its ideas about the people of Utah.” Since most students of Brigham Young have seen him mainly through the jaundiced eye of a hostile nineteenth-century press, their understanding of him has been highly contradictory at best.

A second factor that has obscured the view of Brigham Young has been the difficulty of seeing him from the perspective of his domestic environment. In an effort to correct faulty opinion about his people and himself, he spent much of his time giving interviews. Even as his health failed him in the closing months of his life, he refused to relieve the burden of his time and strength caused by the constant stream of visitors to his office, “all of whom have to be chatted with more or less.” He reasoned:

“I am satisfied that such visits are, as a rule, productive of good results. Many a one who comes to Utah filled with all kinds of outrageous ideas with regard to the Mormons in general and Brigham Young in particular, after having visited our City, seen its objects of interest and called at the office, go away with feelings greatly modified, and often afterwards have a kind word for the people of Utah when they hear them assailed, and occasionally will smooth the way of any of our missionaries whom they may chance to meet.

“This interviewing, then, though sometimes disagreeable is too valuable a means of correcting false ideas, and removing prejudice to be discontinued whilst by the blessing of the Lord I am able to meet those who call upon me and extend to them courtesies to which, in some cases, they are probably entirely unworthy.”

Despite his intent of correcting false ideas, the attempt was not wholly successful, because the interviews were far too brief to permit more than a fleeting glimpse of the president. Then, too, many of the visitors who came to the president’s office were looking for other things. Their very interest in Brigham Young’s family deprived them of a view of it. He noted that almost everyone that came to see him was motivated by an inordinate obsession or depraved curiosity to inquire about his family and domestic life.

The volumes that record Brigham Young’s meetings with visitors and report his public discourses seldom mention his family. In 1857, as work began on his history, President Young notified the Church historian that “he did not wish but little history of his family given.” Only by a study of his private writings 5 and correspondence with his family can research adequately reveal the sensitive, affectionate nature of Brigham Young that has almost completely escaped the biographer.

Every father who reads the letters of Brigham Young to his children may vicariously experience the satisfaction that the prophet felt in seeing them grow to maturity and to develop as useful citizens and participants in building the kingdom of God.

He will note, however, that Brigham Young’s satisfaction was not unearned. Among the paternal influences that had the greatest impact upon the lives of his children were the religious and secular education that he provided for them, the environment of love and understanding in which they were raised, and above all, the example of his own life.


  1. See also Dean Jessee, “The Writings of Brigham Young.” The Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 4 (July 1973, pp. 273–94.

  • Brother Jessee is a historical associate in the Historical Department of the Church. He lives in the 13th Ward of Salt Lake South Cottonwood Stake.

Photography by Longin Lonczyna, Jr.

Family album on a table in the Beehive House.

Pen holder and ink stand on Brigham Young’s desk.

Brigham Young’s pen on a letter from his son, Willard.

From this desk in his room, Brigham Young corresponded regularly with his family and on official business for both Church and state.