Brigham Young: Student of the Prophet
February 1998

“Brigham Young: Student of the Prophet,” Ensign, Feb. 1998, 51

Brigham Young:

Student of the Prophet

Brigham Young rejoiced in his close association with the Prophet Joseph Smith. Through it, he knew the Lord had prepared him for challenges and responsibilities yet to come.

When he recalled the days he spent with the Prophet of the Restoration, Brigham Young could hardly restrain his enthusiasm. “I feel like shouting, hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” he declared.1 Indeed, President Young often spoke and wrote admiringly of his friend and teacher. His statements—recorded in sermons, letters, diaries, and in conversations transcribed by clerks—illuminate an important facet of his personal growth. They also tell the story of friendship and discipleship and how one Church leader prepared another for future responsibilities. For the Prophet Joseph Smith was undoubtedly an instrument of the Lord in helping to mold Brigham Young into a strong leader, a pillar of the Church.

In the 1820s, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young actually lived not far from each other in upstate New York; the Smith home in Manchester township was fewer than 15 miles from the Young home in Mendon. This general proximity meant that Brigham Young heard about the beginning of the Church and about Joseph Smith from neighbors. President Young later recalled that “I knew his course of life, and that of the people who believed his testimony.”2 In fact, he remembered reading a short notice in a local newspaper that reported the young Prophet’s first encounter with the angel Moroni.3 People spoke of “old Jo Smith,” though he was but a young man, and questioned his integrity.4 Perhaps these unfounded criticisms explain Brigham Young’s lengthy study of Latter-day Saint teachings. “I weighed the matter for a year and a half. I looked at it on all sides,” he said. “I reasoned on month after month.”5 He was finally baptized in April 1832. His decision to join the Church was not determined by “mathematical proof” or learned “scientific deductions.” Rather, he had been convinced “by the spirit of truth which entered into [his] heart,” he said.6

Learning by Observation

A year after his baptism, Brigham Young traveled with Joseph Young, his brother, and Heber C. Kimball to Kirtland, Ohio, for his first meeting with the Prophet Joseph Smith. Brigham remembered his excitement. He wanted to learn. “When I first saw Joseph,” he later said, “I had but one prayer”; he hoped to “hear Joseph speak on doctrine, and see his mind reach out untramelled to grasp the deep things of God.”7

“[I] received the sure testimony, by the Spirit of prophecy, that he was all that any man could believe him to be, as a true Prophet,” Brigham Young remembered. The Prophet greeted his visitors warmly and had them come to his home, where in the evening they worshiped. Brigham Young was asked to pray. As he did, his words were transformed, and he spoke in tongues under the influence of the Holy Ghost. It was the “pure Adamic language,” Joseph Smith told those who were present.8

A second visit to Kirtland nine months later allowed the two men to become better acquainted, and Brigham recalled once more “enjoying the society of the Prophet.”9

When Brigham Young moved his family to Kirtland in the fall of 1833, his relationship with Joseph Smith began to deepen. At first he was so timid in the Prophet’s presence that he was tongue-tied. “I was with him several years before I pretended to open my mouth to speak at all,” President Young later confessed. Clearly uncertain about himself and full of awe for his teacher, he silently observed and listened, trying to digest even the Prophet’s smallest acts. “An angel never watched him closer than I did,” he said.10 He would later recall that in Kirtland “in the days of Joseph I always took the opportunity, whenever possible, to attend High Council meetings [though he was not a member] that I might learn principle and wisdom from the mouth of the Prophet.”11

For the first time in his life, he had found someone who could provide answers for his religious questions. He said that the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings brought heaven to earth and earth to heaven in “plainness and simplicity” so that “everybody could understand.”12 Later, while serving as President of the Church, he looked back on the attention he had given to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teaching as the key to his life’s success.13

Schooled by Adversity

There were events that tested the new disciple, however. Although the Prophet Joseph Smith advised the Saints to build up Kirtland rather than using their labor to build up non–Latter-day Saint communities, many men left Kirtland in search of winter work. Brigham Young remained behind. “I made up my mind that I would stay in Kirtland, and work [for Church members] if I never got a farthing for it,” he said. It must have been a difficult decision; he had arrived in Kirtland with borrowed boots and pantaloons and a three- or four-year-old homemade coat, inadequate for winter. “If any man that ever did gather with the Saints was any poorer than I was,” he said, “it was because he had nothing.”14

Yet despite Kirtland’s apparent lack of opportunity, he could get by. “The sun seldom if ever shone on my work before I had my tools in my hands and [was] busily engaged; and I rarely laid down my tools so long as I could see to use them. … I would gather a little here and a little there, and a day would not pass without its having sufficient food.”15 In Brigham Young’s mind, “the Lord opened the way most astonishingly” because he obeyed the Prophet’s counsel.16

At first the Young family lived on life’s margins. On one occasion in Kirtland Brigham Young was invited by the Prophet to attend certain sessions of instruction. The daytime sessions would prevent him from working and getting food for his family. Without a “mouthful of anything” in his home and fearing empty stomachs for his children, he nevertheless did what he was asked. When he left the school that evening, so great was the anxiety for his family that he remembered “drops of sweat stood on me” despite a stiff north wind and blowing snow. How was he to feed his family? His question was answered when a friend unexpectedly offered to loan him $25. Believing the money was a reward for obeying, Brigham flew home “like a dove” to provide for his children.17

Lessons of Zion’s Camp

In May of 1834, Brigham Young responded to another of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s requests by enrolling in Zion’s Camp—a band of several hundred men that marched from Ohio to Missouri in hopes of protecting the Saints and peacefully regaining their lands in Jackson County. The camp’s procedures were hard. A horn roused the men at 3:00 A.M., and they ended some of their days after 11:00 P.M., or even midnight, having marched 40 miles. If these conditions were not difficult enough, the men at times pushed and pulled the camp’s baggage wagons through spring mud. And just as they were about to complete their 900-mile journey, disease struck and several members of the camp died.18 Further, the Jackson County lands were not recovered.

Almost from the beginning of the march, “we had grumblers in that camp,” Brigham Young recalled. The camp’s casualties increased the despair some felt. Was the three-month ordeal and the tragedy of lost lives for nothing? That was not the view of the future President of the Church. He found spiritual value in the experience. “I told those brethren [who criticized] that I was well paid—paid with heavy interest—yea that my measure was filled to overflowing with the knowledge that I had received by traveling with the Prophet.”19 Just as he had done during his first months in Kirtland, Brigham Young had closely observed his camp leader, taking mental notes on how an expedition might be led. This knowledge proved valuable when he later organized the Saints to travel to the Salt Lake Valley.

The Prophet Joseph Smith learned from the Zion’s Camp episode that Brigham Young was a man who could be depended upon, could be given important Church assignments. Also, when work began on the Kirtland Temple, it was Brigham Young who supervised the painting and finishing, often working side by side with Joseph Smith under the most trying of conditions.

Defender of the Prophet

In February 1835, Brigham Young received a call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He remembered the event well. He and his brother Joseph Young had preached and sung at a meeting, and afterwards, the Prophet had invited the two brothers to his home for further devotions. As they continued their singing, Joseph Smith was inspired to organize the Quorum and call Brigham Young as one of its members. “He had a revelation when we were singing to him,” Brigham Young recounted. “Those who were acquainted with him knew when the Spirit of revelation was upon him, for his countenance wore an expression peculiar to himself while under that influence.”20

The call changed Brigham Young’s relationship with the Prophet Joseph Smith. No longer the retiring and silent newcomer to Kirtland, Elder Young now became the Prophet’s open defender. Sometimes this new role produced humorous situations, such as when a New York farmer by the name of Hawley went through Kirtland’s streets at night loudly and enthusiastically proclaiming Joseph Smith a fallen prophet. Brigham hastily dressed and confronted the man. I “assured him that if he did not stop his noise and let the people enjoy their sleep without interruption, I would cow-hide him on the spot, for we had the Lord’s Prophet right here, and we did not want the Devil’s prophet yelling round the streets.”21

Some threats against Joseph Smith were more serious. “It seemed as though all creation was upon him, to hamper him in every way,” President Young remembered late in life.22 During the construction of the Kirtland Temple, threats against the Prophet’s life were so constant that Elder Young slept “upon the floor scores and scores of nights ready to receive the mob that sought his life.”23 On one occasion, hearing rumors of a possible assassination plot, he obtained a horse and buggy and met the stagecoach in which the Prophet was traveling. Elder Young safely escorted his friend through the final miles into Kirtland.24

The new Apostle also defended his leader from opponents in the Church. When a few members argued that Joseph Smith should receive no revelations dealing with “temporal” topics, Elder Young entered the Kirtland Temple and challenged these men to provide an example of a prophet who had not given practical, everyday advice.25 Emotions ran so high against Joseph Smith that the dissidents attempted to replace him with a new leader. Responding to this threat, Elder Young told them “in a plain and forcible manner … that Joseph was a Prophet, and I knew it, and that they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased, they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God.”26

Because of the rising clamor, during the winter of 1837–38 the Prophet Joseph Smith and Elder Young were forced to leave Kirtland and move to Missouri. Traveling in separate parties, they met at Dublin in eastern Indiana. The Prophet had a surprising request. “Brother Brigham,” he said, “I am destitute of means to pursue my journey. … I believe I shall throw myself upon you, and look to you for counsel in this case.” Elder Young could hardly believe his ears, so strange was this reversal of their roles. The Prophet was asking for his help. Recovering from his surprise, he arranged for a local Saint to loan the Prophet enough money to continue his journey.27

The event indicated Brigham Young’s changing status. When called into the Twelve several years earlier, he was astonished because he felt inadequate for the position. Did not every elder in the Church know more than he? he wondered.28 On one occasion he commented that when he was first called, some Church members felt he needed a “stool in order to reach high enough to tie the shoes” of the seemingly more accomplished elders.29 It was a view that the Prophet clearly did not share: he saw talent behind Elder Young’s sometimes rough exterior and had experienced his loyalty and service firsthand.

Growing into his Role

Brigham Young continued to show his leadership traits in Missouri. After enemies imprisoned the Prophet and demanded that the Saints leave the state, Elder Young, as senior Apostle, directed the Church’s evacuation from Missouri. At a special conference, he insisted on an orderly removal, with special attention given to the poor.30

He took the lead in another important matter. The Prophet had received a revelation instructing the Quorum of the Twelve to meet at Far West, Missouri, on 26 April 1839 to begin their mission to Great Britain.31 Despite the prevailing persecution, Elder Young and his associates secretly traveled to western Missouri and very early in the morning followed the Lord’s direction. Elder Young later commented: “Thus was this revelation fulfilled, concerning which our enemies said, if all other revelations of Joseph Smith were fulfilled that one should not, as it had day and date to it [and they believed they could prevent it].”32

Elder Young’s one-year mission to Great Britain, 1840–41, was another milestone in his personal growth. The Prophet had told him that he would have the power to receive revelation for those under his direction, and during his mission he felt this influence. “I had a fountain of knowledge with me,” he said, pleased and marveling.33 While in Great Britain, he was formally sustained as President of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Several weeks after President Young returned to Nauvoo, the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation in his behalf. It declared that President Young’s past work in preaching the gospel was “acceptable” and promised him that he would no longer be required to leave his family for lengthy missionary tours.34 The revelation also marked a change in the Quorum of the Twelve. Since its organization a half dozen years earlier, some of its members had worked at cross-purposes with the Prophet, who had as a result been hesitant to give them important assignments.35 However, with Brigham Young now leading the Quorum, the group had the Prophet’s confidence. President Young remembered that the Prophet Joseph Smith met with them often and gave them the authority to handle “the business of the church in Nauvoo.” This authority included helping emigrants to settle in Nauvoo and selling them Church-owned land.36

During these Nauvoo years, the relationship between the two men was further strengthened. For President Young, the Prophet was “the greatest man on earth”37 and deserved his complete support. “It was my duty to throw … [my] influence around Joseph,” he later said. “Yes, I tied the people to Joseph Smith the Prophet. Every cord I could get hold of I hooked it to Joseph.”38

On one occasion, the Church leader asked President Young to help him respond to members who were critical. For some time, prominent members had been conducting meetings at the home of the Prophet Joseph Smith which seemed calculated to undermine the Prophet’s influence. When President Smith and President Young entered the house, the speaker was extolling the virtues of scripture as a test of truth but said nothing of the need for a prophet and seer. When the speaker sat down, the Prophet asked his friend to speak. “I felt like a thousand lions,” President Young later recalled. Placing each book of scripture on the stand, he declared to the audience that he would not “give the ashes of a rye straw” for the books without the accompanying teachings of “the living oracles of God.” He emphasized strongly that without living prophets The Church of Jesus Christ was “no better than” other churches of the world.39

The Prophet Joseph Smith appreciated President Young’s support and spoke warmly about his disciple. Later, the second Church President would recall the Prophet telling him that he—Brigham Young—was no longer susceptible to apostasy, for there were “certain bounds set to men, and if a man [is] faithful and pure to these bounds, God will take him out of the world if he sees him falter—he’ll take him to himself.”40 Three months before the Martyrdom, as the two men walked together through Nauvoo, the Prophet again expressed confidence in his friend and awareness of President Young’s role in the Church organization. “If I am moved out of the way,” the Prophet said, “you are the only man living on this earth who can counsel and direct the affairs of the kingdom of God on the earth.”41

“The Keys … Are Right Here”

In fact, during the last years of his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith increasingly spoke of his approaching death. President Young and the other Apostles did not understand. The possibility of the Prophet’s soon dying “was taken from us,” President Young recalled.42 However, while preaching in the East, President Young had a spiritual experience which he later understood was meant to prepare him for the Prophet’s death. As President Young sat in a train depot in Boston, a heavy depression swept over him that made conversation difficult. The experience came at the very time when Joseph and Hyrum were killed,43 he said later.

Two and one-half weeks after the Prophet’s death, President Young, while visiting a member in Peterboro, Massachusetts, heard the awful news. Normally a master of his emotions, he recalled that after learning of Joseph Smith’s death, he experienced such a severe headache that tears came to his eyes. With Joseph and Hyrum Smith gone, he remembered asking himself, “Is the priesthood taken from the Earth?” In the next few moments, the organization of the Church passed through President Young’s mind, and then the forceful thought came to him “like a clap”: “The keys of the kingdom are right here with the Church.”44

When he returned to Nauvoo, a congregation, formally organized into various priesthood offices, sustained the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the Church’s presiding authority—an act that sustained Brigham Young, President of the Quorum, as the Church’s leader. “I have spared no pains to learn my lesson of the Kingdom in the Eternal worlds,” he told the assembled Saints.45 He referred, in part, to his more than 10-year role as a careful observer of Joseph Smith’s teaching and leadership.

The Prophet’s Continuing Influence

Joseph Smith’s presence lingered in President Brigham Young’s life in several ways. When President Young sought a place to establish the Saints in the American West, he studied maps, government reports, and other sources of information. He also sought spiritual direction. In an 1869 sermon, President George A. Smith, First Counselor in the First Presidency, recalled that when “every trouble and calamity” seemed to beset the Saints in Nauvoo, President Young fasted and prayed frequently for guidance. Thereafter he experienced “a vision of Joseph Smith, who showed him the mountain that we now call Ensign Peak, immediately north of Salt Lake City, and there was an ensign fell upon that peak, and Joseph said ‘Build under the point where the colors fall and you will prosper and have peace.’” President Young knew he was to settle in the Salt Lake Valley.46

While the Saints were camped at Winter Quarters, President Young was again inspired by the Prophet Joseph Smith. President Young later recounted a vivid dream in which he talked with his friend. “Why is it that we cannot be together as we used to be?” he asked the Prophet plaintively. President Young also asked for instruction on how he should lead the Saints. The Prophet told him that Church members must maintain the Spirit in their lives, for the Spirit will “take malice, hatred, strife and all evil from their hearts; and their whole desire will be to do good, bring forth righteousness and build up the kingdom of God.” Finally, the Prophet taught his successor about the pattern of organization of God’s family under the priesthood’s sealing ordinances. “This I cannot describe,” President Young said later, but he “saw where the Priesthood had been taken from the earth and how it must be joined together, so that there would be a perfect chain from Father Adam to his latest posterity.”47

Later President Young had still another significant dream involving the Prophet Joseph Smith, during the 1849 California gold rush. Like other Americans, some Saints seemed willing to abandon their homes for the prospect of striking it rich in California. The mania worried President Young. Would the Utah settlements be decimated? Had all the work and resources expended to bring the Saints to the Great Basin been for nothing? After a “good deal of praying,” President Young dreamed of the Prophet, who seemed to be driving a large herd of sheep and goats a few miles north of Salt Lake City. Some of these animals were large and beautiful; others were small and dirty. President Young remembered looking into his friend’s eyes and laughing, just as he had often done when Joseph Smith was alive. “Joseph,” he said, “you have got the darndest flock … I ever saw in my life; what are you going to do with them?” The Prophet, who seemed unconcerned about his mixed flock, said simply: “They are all good in their places.”

When President Young awoke, he realized that while the Church’s missionaries might gather a variety of “sheep and goats” as converts, it was not necessary for him to worry unduly if some moved away from the Church’s gathering place. As converts sorted themselves out, his responsibility was to accept them all—goats as well as sheep—and help them realize their potential in the Kingdom. The message relieved President Young’s anxiety and became an important guide in his conduct of Church affairs.48

His dreams involving the Prophet Joseph Smith became less frequent as the years passed after the Prophet’s death, perhaps because of the growing confidence Brigham Young had in his own experience as a leader. However, he continued to speak often of the Prophet, testifying of him repeatedly, until his own death in 1877. He often expressed his personal debt to Joseph Smith, who had helped to make him what he had become. President Young testified that he had followed the Prophet because Joseph Smith was a “man of God” who had received and taught “the revelations of Jesus Christ.”49 Brigham Young said he did not “serve” Joseph Smith the man, but the doctrine of Christ “the Lord has revealed through him.”50

“What made me love Joseph so?” he once asked. It was because he “never spared any pains to do me good. I knew when my hand met his that he would lay down his life for me.”51 President Young admired so many of Joseph Smith’s qualities, especially his abject humility when approaching Deity in prayer. “I never saw Joseph but [when he] was always so before the Lord.”52

President Young believed that few of the Prophet’s mortal contemporaries, including members of the Church, fully realized Joseph Smith’s great worth. But Brigham Young cherished and loved him for the Prophet’s ocean of spiritual knowledge and for the greatness of his character.53 Because he had known the Prophet so intimately, Brigham Young could testify that Joseph Smith “lived as good as any man on the earth.” Indeed, “no man ever honored his mission more,” except the Savior.54 When President Young died, one of his children at his bedside reported that the Prophet was once more on Brigham Young’s mind. “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” were the last words Brigham Young spoke before passing on.55


  1. Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 Oct. 1855.

  2. Deseret News Weekly, 24 July 1869, 295.

  3. See remarks, 8 Jan. 1845, Nauvoo, Illinois, in Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, July 1920, 109. This statement is significant because historians have failed to find contemporaneously published sources dealing with the coming of Moroni.

  4. Address, 5 June 1870, General Church Minutes, Historical Department, Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives.

  5. In Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, July 1920, 110.

  6. Address, 21 June 1863, LDS Church Archives.

  7. Address, 8 Oct. 1866, LDS Church Archives.

  8. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, ed. Elden J. Watson(1968), 4.

  9. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 6.

  10. Address, 8 Oct. 1866 General Church Minutes, LDS Church Archives.

  11. See Brigham Young to Joseph Young, 2 Aug. 1877, Brigham Young Letterbooks, Brigham Young Papers, LDS Church Archives.

  12. Deseret News Weekly, 30 Dec. 1857, 340.

  13. See Deseret News Weekly, 16 Sept. 1868, 250.

  14. Deseret News Weekly, 13 Mar. 1867, 81–82.

  15. Deseret News Weekly, 22 Apr. 1857, 52.

  16. Deseret News Weekly, 13 Mar. 1867, 82.

  17. Remarks, 8 Apr. 1850, General Church Minutes, LDS Church Archives.

  18. See Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:1627–29.

  19. Deseret News Weekly, 3 Dec. 1862, 177.

  20. In Journal of Discourses, 9:89.

  21. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 17.

  22. Deseret News Weekly, 1 July 1874, 340.

  23. Deseret News Weekly, 16 May 1877, 225.

  24. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 17.

  25. Deseret News Weekly, 1 July 1874, 340.

  26. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 16.

  27. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 24–25.

  28. See address, 6 Oct. 1849, General Church Minutes, LDS Church Archives.

  29. In Wilford Woodruff Journal, 30 Dec. 1856, LDS Church Archives.

  30. See Far West Committee Minutes, 1839, January through April, LDS Church Archives, or History of the Church, 3:250, 254.

  31. See D&C 118:4–5.

  32. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 39.

  33. General Church Minutes, meeting of the high priests quorum, 14 Jan. 1849, LDS Church Archives.

  34. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 105.

  35. See General Church Minutes, 30 Nov. 1847, LDS Church Archives.

  36. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 106.

  37. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 140.

  38. Address, 22 June 1861, LDS Church Archives.

  39. Address, 8 Oct. 1866; see also address, 30 Mar. 1856, both in LDS Church Archives.

  40. General Church Minutes, 16 Feb. 1849, LDS Church Archives.

  41. Address, 8 Oct. 1866, LDS Church Archives.

  42. General Church Minutes, 30 Sept. 1855, LDS Church Archives.

  43. See Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 169; also Deseret News Weekly, 5 Aug. 1857, 172.

  44. General Church Minutes, 12 Feb. 1849, LDS Church Archives; Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801–1844, 171.

  45. General Church Minutes, 8 Aug. 1844, LDS Church Archives.

  46. Deseret News Weekly, 30 June 1869, 248. For discussion of Ensign Peak and its significance, see B. H. Roberts, “Mount Ensign,” History of the Church, 7:iii–iv.

  47. Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846–1847, ed. Elden J. Watson (1971), 529–30.

  48. President Young recounted this dream in several sermons (see, for example, Deseret News Weekly, 1 July 1874, 341). For some of his comments on this sorting-out process, see remarks of 30 June 1861, in an address at Centerville, Utah, LDS Church Archives.

  49. Deseret News Weekly, 27 Feb. 1856, 403.

  50. Millennial Star, 15 Sept. 1850, 275.

  51. General Church Minutes, 12 May 1850, LDS Church Archives.

  52. Address, 8 Mar. 1847, General Church Minutes, LDS Church Archives.

  53. See entry of 6 Dec. 1861, Brigham Young’s Office Journal, LDS Church Archives.

  54. Address, 27 June 1854, General Church Minutes, LDS Church Archives; see also Deseret News Weekly, 7 Dec. 1864, 75.

  55. In Susa Young Gates, The Life Story of Brigham Young (1931), 362.

  • Ronald W. Walker is a professor of history and senior research historian at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History, Brigham Young University.

Painting by Glen Edwards

Illustrated by Paul Mann

Detail from Zion’s Camp/Settling Missouri, by C. C. A. Christensen; © courtesy of Museum of Art, Brigham Young University; all rights reserved

As promised by the Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Young received divine direction in leading missionary work in the British Isles.

Forging Onward, Ever Onward, by Glen S. Hopkinson