Brigham Young in England
June 1987

“Brigham Young in England,” Ensign, June 1987, 28

Brigham Young in England

His British Isles mission prepared him for a role yet to come.

In the predawn hours of 26 April 1839, Brigham Young led two dozen Latter-day Saints in prayer and song on the temple block in Far West, Missouri. The meeting was in preparation for the departure of the Quorum of the Twelve on a mission to England, as the Lord had commanded them the year before. The revelation (D&C 118) had specified this date and place for their departure.

It might have meant imprisonment or perhaps cost their lives if they had been seen. Mobbers, who had already driven the Saints out of Missouri, had vowed to prevent this meeting and thus prove Joseph Smith a false prophet. Certain that the Mormons were beaten and cowed, they had not posted a guard. At daybreak, they discovered with astonishment that the Saints had come and gone—the commandment in the revelation had been fulfilled.

Brigham Young

Portrait by Frederick Piercy

The bold return to Missouri, into the heart of enemy territory, marked the beginning of a new era for the Quorum of the Twelve. The death of David Patten and the apostasy of Thomas Marsh a few months before had left Brigham Young to preside as the senior Apostle. Under his direction, a remaining core of Apostles had coordinated the withdrawal of the Latter-day Saints from Missouri while the Prophet was still in Liberty Jail. It was this core of the Twelve whom Brigham Young led back to Far West “because the Lord God had spoken and it was our duty to obey, and the Lord would take care of us.”1

The ordinations of Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith as Apostles that morning in Far West provided, for the first time in months, enough members of the Council of the Twelve for a Quorum. Preparing for England during the next several months gave them new direction and purpose. And in Brigham Young, who directed them so firmly and well in a time of crisis, they recognized an energetic and committed leader.

That summer provided an essential season of instruction for the Twelve. The Church had moved to Commerce (later renamed Nauvoo), and the Prophet, now reunited with the Saints, met frequently with members of the Twelve. They included Parley P. Pratt, fresh from a Missouri jail, and Orson Hyde, who had left the Church for a short time but, penitently, asked forgiveness and was welcomed back.

During a July 2 meeting a Brigham Young’s home, Joseph Smith promised that, if they were faithful, they would return safely from their mission and reap a bountiful harvest as seals of their ministry. Urging them to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, the Prophet stressed the need for humility and unity. Through all troubles, he cautioned, “see to it that you do not betray” heaven, your brethren, or the revelations of God.2

Malarial chills and fever, endemic on the river bottomlands, felled several members of the quorum and their families before they could depart. The first did not leave until August. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, both ill and with families bedridden, remained until September. Even then, Elder Young had to be lifted into a wagon and carried the first part of his journey.

From Liberty Jail, the Prophet had written of an Abrahamic test, a trial of faith like unto the ancients. For the Apostles, leaving their families in the grasp of sickness and poverty was such a trial. Though the Church had promised to assist, Brigham Young was under no illusion about its ability to do so. He could take comfort only in his faith that the Lord would oversee. As he wrote his wife from England, “The Lord said by the mouth of Brother Joseph; that [my family] should be provided for, and I believed it.”3 Truly these brethren left their families in the hands of God.

Delayed by illness and visiting the Latter-day Saints along the way, Brigham and Heber traveled slowly, separately reaching New York City in January. In early March they set sail for Liverpool aboard the Patrick Henry. Brigham Young and four other members of the Quorum of the Twelve arrived in England 6 April 1840, the tenth anniversary of the organization of the Church.

Once firmly on English soil, the five men held a private meeting to partake of the Lord’s supper, to thank the Lord for safe passage, and to ask again that the way be opened for them to do his work. One week later, joined by Elders Woodruff and Taylor who had preceded them, the members of the Twelve and Willard Richards met in Preston for what Wilford Woodruff called “The First Council of the Twelve among the Nations.” They ordained Elder Richards an Apostle and formalized, for the first time since the apostasy of Thomas Marsh, the presidency of their senior member by sustaining and setting apart Brigham Young as “the standing President of the Twelve.” Eight Apostles now stood ready to push forward the vital work in England—Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, George A. Smith, and Willard Richards.

At the time of their arrival, there were more than sixteen hundred Latter-day Saints in Britain. More than five hundred of them were assembled to greet the members of the Twelve their first Sunday in the country. A week later, the Apostles presided over the first British general conference, where they presented for a sustaining vote an ambitious program not only of missionary labor but also of publication. The conference approved the publication of a hymnal and, after a sufficient number had subscribed, a monthly periodical, thus authorizing and agreeing to support what would become one of Elder Young’s central preoccupations in the months ahead.

By April 17, the Twelve had laid the groundwork for publishing, ordained local member Peter Melling as the first patriarch in England, concluded to quietly encourage emigration without public announcement, decided where each would begin his individual ministry, and agreed to convene a second conference July 6. Brigham Young prepared a packet for Joseph Smith outlining their activities, including a note stressing a theme he would repeat many times during this mission:

“If you see any thing in, or about the whole affair, that is not right: I ask, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you would make known unto us the mind of the Lord, and his will concerning us. I believe that I am as willing to do the will of the Lord, and take counsel of my brethren … as ever I was in my life.”4

President Young assigned himself and Willard Richards to assist Wilford Woodruff in the work already unfolding among the United Brethren in Herefordshire. Elder Woodruff, laboring there since early March, had already baptized 150, including more than three dozen lay preachers. For a month President Young assisted in the delicate task of transforming the main body of United Brethren into Latter-day Saints. His common sense and practical experience, with simple and direct preaching, appealed to the people and helped advance the work.

On May 18, traditionally a feast day among the United Brethren, Elder Young, “clothed with the power of God,” addressed the Saints gathered at a large banquet. It was apparently on this occasion that a “notable miracle was wrought by faith & the power of God.” Writing two weeks later, Elder Woodruff recorded that the three Apostles had blessed Sister May Pitts, confined to bed for six years and unable to walk without crutches for eleven, “& her ancle bones received strength & she now walks without the aid of crutch or staff.”5

Their work among the United Brethren convinced the Twelve to move forward on their publishing projects. The people “beg and plead for the Book of Mormon,” President Young had written the Prophet from Herefordshire,6 and by May, Joseph Smith had given authorization. But it would be months before word reached England, and confronted with a pressing need for books and nearly impossible import duties, President Young faced an immediate decision.

On May 20, he and Elders Woodruff and Richards ascended to the privacy of Herefordshire Beacon in the beautiful Malvern Hills. Elder Woodruff recorded:

“We united in prayer & held a Council & unitedly felt that it was the will of God that Elder Young should go immediately to Manchester to assist in publishing a collection of Hymns … & also to immediately print & finish … the Book of Mormon.”7

Returning to Manchester, Brigham Young, along with Elders Kimball, Parley Pratt, and Taylor, promptly set to work. So great was the need for the proposed Millennial Star that Elder Young authorized Parley Pratt to proceed even before there were enough subscriptions to cover the cost. The Apostles reported they visited every printing establishment in Liverpool and Manchester before selecting a firm to print five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon. By the end of May they also began selecting hymns.

It is interesting to contemplate the self-educated, unpolished Brigham toiling long hours editing, proofreading, and indexing the book. He was not unaware of his own meager “book learning” and phonetic spelling. “Now my Dear Brother,” he wrote to Willard Richards, “you must forgive all my nonscense and over look erours.” And another time: “excuse erours and mistakes you must remember its from me.”8 (The original spelling here and hereafter has been retained, following standard historical practices. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.)

For the next several months, Brigham Young devoted his energies to either publication or emigration, squeezing in preaching in Manchester or Liverpool when he could. By personal visits and mail, he kept in contact with and influenced the tempo and direction of the entire mission. His letters indicate he not only kept his quorum informed on mission events, but also wrote letters expressing concern for his colleagues’ welfare and offering encouragement. His personal touch helped draw members of the Twelve together as President Young had hoped. Elder Heber Kimball wrote to his wife in May: “Thare never was beter feelings among the twelve than at this time all things go on well.”9

In May the Apostles first announced a policy of encouraging the Saints to emigrate to America, and on 1 June 1840, President Young and Elder Kimball organized the first of several companies of Latter-day Saints to sail for America. (Earlier two small groups of members had emigrated on their own.) For this small group of forty-six, they appointed priesthood leaders to preside at sea—a pattern that would endure for decades with the thousands of LDS emigrants to follow. President Young gathered letters from members of the Council of the Twelve to their own families and sent them with the emigrants. For his family, he prepared two letters and a box of small gifts.

Though President Young was fully engaged in his mission responsibilities, his family was never far from his mind. In June he wrote to his wife Mary Ann about a dream in which she told him that he must provide for the family, as the Church could not. He wrote to her that Joseph’s promise (that the Lord would watch over his family) continued to sustain him. He assured his wife that he was as happy in England as he could be anywhere away from his family, for the English were a loving people, more so than the Americans, “but my soul says sweet home sweet hom my blesed famely, yes my kind and loving family, how sweet is home.” He was not pining for home and ignoring his duty, however. He related how he had tested his feelings when the company of emigrants left Liverpool by asking himself if he were ready to join them: “I could not bare the thought of going,” with work unfinished, “but when the time has fully com, and the Lord says goe home my hart then will leap for joy.”10

When the Twelve met with the Latter-day Saints for a conference in July, there were 842 members more than there had been in April. The Apostles used this general conference to strengthen and further regulate the Church. According to Joseph Fielding, Brigham Young was especially effective in handling difficult problems among the members.

From July until October, Brigham Young found himself “much confined to the office … conducting and issuing the Millennial Star, Hymn Book and Book of Mormon, giving counsel to the elders throughout the European mission, preaching, baptizing and confirming.”11

President Young had written Joseph Smith in May: “I long to see the faces of my friends again in that Country once more.”12 He missed not just their friendship, but also their guidance. He also yearned for the Prophet’s advice. Although he had several times written for direction, by early September, some five months into his mission, President Young still had no answers. With a detailed report to the First Presidency in September, he asked again for counsel on a series of pressing questions. He also knew that he could not await a reply:

“Our motto is go ahead. Go ahead.—& ahead we are determined to go—till we have conquered every foe. So come life or come death we’ll go ahead, but tell us if we are going wrong & we will right it.”13

The October conference marked a shift to a different managerial style for the Twelve. Joseph Smith had taught them that acting as a quorum they had authority to conduct business without constant reference to a sustaining vote. So far, however, they had chosen to present important matters to a conference representing all the British Saints. But as business and numbers multiplied (up 1,115 members since the last conference), it became less practical to convene a general conference. Instead they decided that ordinations, the regulation of officers, and other business would now be conducted by the Twelve sitting as a quorum or traveling high council.

The publication process of the Book of Mormon and hymnbook continued to demand a great deal of Brigham Young’s time. Everything took longer than anticipated. As late as January he moaned that “the printing of the Book of Mormon goes slow to what the hymn Book did” and called it a “grate job” resting upon his shoulders.14 Not until February were the first copies ready.

Publication and administrative duties did not prevent Brigham Young from teaching. “Sence we have ben in Manchester,” he wrote his wife, “We have don all that we posably could to spread this work we have succeeded in makeing the priest mad, so that they rave like demonds, We keepe Baptiseing every weak which causes much per[se]cution.”15

In late October, Elders Young and Kimball took a short trip to Preston, then turned south to Hardin, Wales. Their preaching in Hardin elicited a singular response. Brigham Young noted in a letter to Mary Ann:

“We have hered from Wales where Br Kimball and I went, a grate meny of the people was sorry they did not obey the gospel when we ware there the report went out that we had the same power that the old apostles had, it is true we did lay hands on one young man that was quite low with a fevor, we rebuked his fevor and he got well we laid our hands on a woman that had verry bad eyes she emiditly recoverd, they have a gradel [great deal] to say about our preaching. they say that Elder Kimball has such sharp eys that he can look wright through them, and Elder Young Preashes so that every Body that heres him must beleve he preaches so plane and powerful.”16

Although only a few in Hardin initially accepted their message, eventually a large number from the area joined the Church.

The English climate did not agree with Brigham Young, nor did the social and economic conditions, but he loved the people. They, in turn, responded warmly to him. Experience with poverty and with life as an artisan gave him empathy for the working man. That shared background and his lack of pretension helped endear him to the English working class. At the same time, extensive business dealings with the more sophisticated taught him to operate in those circles and gave him confidence in his ability. Perhaps for both groups, practical competence coupled with Brigham Young’s “foreignness” held a certain attraction.

Wherever Brigham Young went he found friends. “I find Fathers & mothers sister & Brothers whare ever I goe,” he wrote in December. Only the ministers actively opposed the LDS missionaries, and that to no avail, for they only “drive the people to us,” he wrote. As an example, he pointed with delight to the Manchester sectarians who urged their members to stay away from the Mormons, telling them, “they are so intising you cannot keep away if [you] goe once.”17 The Mormon delusion was so powerful, said the preachers, that people would even pay their own passage to America.

Brigham Young spent November and December 1840 and early January 1841 traveling throughout the mission, visiting elders, preaching, holding conferences. With the arrival of the new year, he finally permitted himself to think of departing. Now that the publishing program was nearly complete, and now that Elder Parley Pratt had returned with his family to oversee the mission, it would be possible for President Young to return home. On January 15, he wrote his wife that on April 6, one year from the date of their arrival, they planned “a Council of the twelve with the officers of the Church for the purpos of arrangen the affares of the Church so that we can leve.”18

After writing Mary Ann, he wrote his fellow quorum members of the decision. The February Millennial Star then announced a conference in Manchester for April 6 so the Twelve, before departing, could meet with the Saints.

Later, Brigham Young received a December 15 letter from Joseph Smith counseling the Twelve to leave England in the spring. Additional counsel from the Prophet coincided precisely with what Brigham Young had already determined should be done before the Quorum finished their mission. This letter also brought Joseph’s approbation of their entire course of action. He especially commended them for unity and harmony which would, if emulated, bless the entire Church.

The mail also brought up-to-date information about developments in Nauvoo, including renewed emphasis on gathering. Most of the English members needed little convincing. “And goe they will, and nothing can stop them … they have so much of the spirit of getherin that they would goe if they knew … that the mob would be upon them and drive them as so[o]n as they got there,” President Young had written earlier.19

Brigham Young spent the months of February and March 1841 attempting to refine the emigration system and assist as many Saints as possible before his departure. He personally oversaw many of the details. He also wrote numerous letters to keep the other Apostles informed and coordinate efforts so that money, provisions, emigrants, and a ship came together for a successful voyage.

When the members of the Twelve met in Manchester 1 April 1841, there were nine in attendance, the most since soon after the organization of the quorum in Kirtland. Elder Orson Hyde, en route to Palestine, joined his brethren in England. These nine, together as a quorum for the first time, would later lead the Church after the death of the Prophet. (William Smith and John E. Page, who had not responded to the call to missionary service in England, did not support Brigham Young and the Twelve later in leading the Church to the West. Lyman Wight, called to the Quorum of the Twelve shortly before its other members returned from England, would later apostatize as well.)

On 6 April 1841, one year after their arrival in England, the Twelve met with the Latter-day Saints in conference. President Young presided over and conducted the conference. Brigham Young and the Twelve organized branches throughout the mission into conferences, each with a presiding elder, and appointed Elder Parley Pratt to preside over the whole. Reports from areas throughout the British Isles showed more than four thousand members; counting those who had emigrated or been cut off from the Church, more than five thousand people had been baptized in the British Isles to this point.

Their mission concluded, all members of the Quorum of the Twelve except Elder Parley P. Pratt boarded the train for Liverpool, where they joined two hundred Saints who were immigrating to the United States. On Sunday, 19 April 1841, President Young preached to the Saints in Britain for the last time. The following day he and his associates boarded the Rochester, one of the fastest ships in the harbor, and set sail. Well-dressed, each with gold in his pockets (a gift from one of Elder Woodruff’s wealthy converts), they were a sharp contrast to the poorly dressed, penniless group that had landed the year before.

Optimist that he was, Brigham Young could hardly have imagined the changes and accomplishments of the intervening twelve months. The impact in the lives of thousands of British Latter-day Saints was beyond measure. Likewise, the impact on the Church as thousands flowed to the land of promise was great. The impact of the mission on Brigham Young and his colleagues was to be an enduring blessing. Together the Apostles had learned to rely on each other and on God. They had increased in confidence in one another and in Brigham Young as their leader. They had proved they could work together in harmony.

Soon after President Young’s return to Nauvoo, Joseph Smith visited him at home. Not only did he extend warm personal greetings, but he also delivered to him the word of the Lord:

“Dear and well-beloved brother, Brigham Young, verily thus saith the Lord unto you: My servant Brigham, it is no more required at your hand to leave your family as in times past, for your offering is acceptable to me. I have seen your labor and toil in journeyings for my name.” (D&C 126:1–2).

The following month the Prophet had news of a different sort for the Twelve: the time had come to expand their role within the Church. Seasoned by their English mission, the Quorum of the Twelve had come of age. Now Joseph Smith and the entire Church needed their skills and maturity. The time had come for them to take their place next to the First Presidency in governing the whole Church, whereas previously their assignment primarily had been to direct missionary work and to preside away from the headquarters of the Church.

After the success of their English mission, they took their place at the Prophet’s right hand in all matters of importance, a position that prepared them to step forward and lead the Church when the Prophet was gone.


  1. Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 2 July 1839, Church Archives.

  2. Brigham Young to Mary Ann Young, 16 October 1840, Church Archives.

  3. Brigham Young to Joseph Smith in letter accompanying minutes of a conference at Preston, Lancashire, England, 15–16 April 1840, Times and Seasons, June 1840, p. 121.

  4. Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 3 June 1840.

  5. Brigham Young to Joseph Smith, 7 May 1840, Joseph Smith Papers, Church Archives.

  6. Journal of Brigham Young, 20 May 1840, Brigham Young Papers, Church Archives.

  7. Brigham Young to Willard Richards, 10 June 1840 and 17 June 1840, Church Archives.

  8. Heber C. Kimball to Vilate Kimball, 27 May 1840, Kimball Family Papers, Church Archives.

  9. Brigham Young to Mary Ann Young, 12 June 1840, Philip Blair Family Papers, Special Collections Department, University of Utah Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

  10. “History of Brigham Young,” Deseret News, 3 March 1858, p. 410.

  11. Brigham Young to Joseph Smith, 7 May 1840.

  12. Ronald W. Walker, “The Historian’s Corner: The Willard Richards and Brigham Young 5 September 1840 Letter from England to Nauvoo,” BYU Studies, Spring 1978, p. 475.

  13. Brigham Young to Mary Ann Young, 15 January 1841, Philip Blair Family Papers.

  14. Brigham Young to Mary Ann Young, 16 October 1840.

  15. Brigham Young to Mary Ann Young, 12 November 1840.

  16. Journal of Brigham Young, 21 December 1840.

  17. Brigham Young to Mary Ann Young, 15 January 1841.

  18. Note to Joseph Young in Brigham Young to Mary Ann Young, 16 October 1840.

  • Ronald K. Esplin is director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University. He is a member of the Union Thirty-third Ward, Sandy Utah Willow Creek Stake.

Painting by Richard Murray

Illustrated by Paul Mann