Church History
29 To Die in the Harness

“To Die in the Harness,” chapter 29 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 29: “To Die in the Harness”

Chapter 29

To Die in the Harness

Stethoscope lying on sick person’s bed

Brigham Young left the red cliffs of southern Utah in mid-April 1877. Heading home to Salt Lake City, he knew his days were numbered. “I feel many times that I could not live an hour longer,” he told the St. George Saints before he left. “I know not how soon the messenger will call for me, but I calculate to die in the harness.”1

A few days later, he stopped in Cedar City to speak to a reporter about John D. Lee and the Mountain Meadows massacre.2 The federal government had spent more than a decade investigating those who had carried out the killings. John and other men, including Parowan stake president William Dame, had been arrested several years earlier to stand trial for their part in the massacre, generating renewed national interest in the nearly twenty-year-old crime.3 The charges against William and others had since been dropped, but John had gone to trial twice before being convicted and executed by firing squad for his leading role in the attack.

During the trials, prosecutors and reporters had hoped that John would implicate the prophet in the massacre. But even though he was angry with Brigham for not shielding him from punishment, John had refused to blame him for the murders.4

John’s execution had ignited a national furor among people who falsely assumed that Brigham had ordered the massacre.5 In some places, anger toward the Church was making it hard for missionaries to find people to teach, and some elders were choosing to return home. Brigham generally did not respond to such attacks on him or the Church, but he wanted to go on the record about the massacre and agreed to answer the reporter’s questions.6

The reporter asked Brigham if John had received orders from Church headquarters to kill the emigrants. “None that I have any knowledge of,” Brigham replied, “and certainly none from me.” He said if he had known about the plan to kill the emigrants, he would have tried to stop it.

“I would have gone to that camp and fought the Indians and white men who took part in the perpetration of the massacre to the death, rather than such a deed should have been committed,” he said.7

Several days later, Brigham stopped in Sanpete Valley to dedicate the temple site in Manti. While there, the Spirit whispered to him that he needed to reorganize the Church’s priesthood structure.8

Brigham had already begun making some changes to Church organization. Two years earlier, he had restructured the Quorum of the Twelve to give seniority to apostles who had remained faithful to their testimonies since the time of their call. This move had granted John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff greater seniority than Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt, who had both left the quorum briefly during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. The change made John Taylor the senior member of the Twelve and Brigham’s likely successor as president of the Church.9

But on the road and in meetings with local Church leaders, Brigham could see other changes that needed to be made. Some of the Church’s thirteen stakes were overseen by stake presidents, while members of the Twelve presided over others—sometimes without counselors or high councils. Some wards had bishops and others had presiding bishops, and hardly anyone knew how the two callings differed. A few wards had no bishop at all.10

Aaronic Priesthood quorums were also disorganized. Aaronic Priesthood holders took care of ward buildings, visited families, and taught the gospel. Yet many wards lacked enough Aaronic Priesthood holders to form quorums, often because grown men were usually the only ones given the Aaronic Priesthood, and they were normally ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood soon thereafter.

In the spring and summer of 1877, Brigham, his counselors, and the Quorum of the Twelve worked together to reorganize wards and stakes and strengthen Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood quorums. They directed that all Church members should belong to a ward where a bishop could look after them with the help of two counselors. They designated one man, Edward Hunter, to serve as the only presiding bishop in the Church.

The First Presidency and the Twelve also asked local priesthood leaders to ordain young men to offices in the Aaronic Priesthood. They specifically asked adult teachers and priests to bring young men with them on visits to the Saints, thus training the boys in their priesthood duties. Each settlement was asked to organize a Mutual Improvement Association (M.I.A.) for the young women and young men.

Traveling throughout the territory week after week, the First Presidency and the Twelve released apostles from stake presidencies and called new stake presidents to take their place. They made sure each stake president had two counselors and each stake had a high council. They also asked each stake to hold a quarterly conference.11

The strain of traveling and preaching soon wearied Brigham. He looked pale and tired. “In my anxiety to see the house of God set in order,” he admitted, “I have somewhat overtaxed my strength.”12

On June 20, Francis Lyman received a telegram from George Q. Cannon, who was now serving as a counselor in the First Presidency. “President asks are you willing to act as president of Tooele Stake?” it read. “If so can you be here to accompany the Twelve Saturday morning?”13

Francis lived in Fillmore, Utah. The Tooele Stake was over one hundred miles to the north. He had never lived there and knew few people in the stake. In Fillmore, where he had lived for more than a decade, he held high positions in local government. If he agreed to serve in Tooele, he would have to uproot his family and move with them to a new place.

And Saturday morning was just three days away.

At thirty-seven, Francis was a committed Latter-day Saint who had served a mission to the British Isles and had taken an active part in his priesthood quorum. He had also gathered his family genealogy, looking forward to the day when ordinance work could be done in the house of the Lord.

“The height of my ambition,” he had once noted in his journal, “is to live the life of a Latter-day Saint and to lead my family to do likewise.”14

But he was still coming to terms with the decision of his father, Amasa Lyman, to join William Godbe’s New Movement. He had always hoped that his father would come back into the Church. They had worked together on the family genealogy and had recently enjoyed some happy interactions. Yet Amasa had died in February, still separated from the Church.

Near the end, Francis had visited his father on his sickbed. “Don’t go away,” Amasa had said. “I want you to be near me.”

“How long?” Francis asked.

“Forever,” he whispered.15

After Amasa’s death, Francis was anxious to have his father’s membership and priesthood restored, which would allow the family to feel whole again. In April, Francis had asked Brigham Young what could be done. Nothing for the present, Brigham had said. The matter was in the hands of the Lord.

Francis had accepted Brigham’s decision, and he willingly undertook the prophet’s new assignment for him in Tooele. “I will be with the Twelve on Saturday morning,” he telegrammed George Q. Cannon.16

The Tooele Stake was created on June 24, 1877, and Francis was set apart as its president on the same day.17 Prior to that time, the six principal settlements in the Tooele area had branches of the Church supervised by a presiding bishop named John Rowberry. Upon the creation of the new stake, each of the branches became a ward ranging in size from twenty-seven families to two hundred.18

Realizing that some Tooele Saints might grumble that their new president was a young man from another stake, Francis soon bought a house in the center of town and called two local men as his counselors. He then invited Bishop Rowberry to join him on visits to the various wards, where they organized new priesthood quorums and presidencies and spoke to the Saints, encouraging them in their devotions to the Lord.19

“Our temporal and spiritual interests of the kingdom are inseparably connected,” Francis taught the members of his new stake. “Be humble before the Lord and possess the light of His Holy Spirit for our constant guide.”20

In mid-July 1877, Jane Richards sat on the stand beside Brigham Young in the Weber Stake tabernacle in Ogden. The occasion was a conference for the city’s Relief Societies and Young Ladies’ Associations. Jane, the president of the Ogden Ward Relief Society, had organized the event and invited Brigham to speak.21

Leading such a large group of women had not always come easily for Jane. She had first joined the Relief Society as a young woman in Nauvoo.22 But when she was called to lead the Ogden Ward Relief Society in 1872, she had hesitated. Her health had always been poor, despite the strength she found in priesthood blessings, and it was particularly bad when she received her call.

One day, her friend Eliza Snow had visited her. Eliza urged her to live, certain that Jane still had something more to do in her life. While ministering to Jane, Eliza promised her that if she accepted the calling to lead the Relief Society in Ogden, she would have health and blessings from the Lord.

Jane was healed a short time later by the power of God, but she still spent weeks pondering whether she should accept the call. Finally, her bishop and Relief Society sisters implored her to do so. “The Lord has raised you from a bed of sickness to do us good,” they said, “and we want you to accept the office.” Jane then realized that her service contributed to a greater good, no matter how tired and fearful she felt.23

Now, five years later, the Weber Stake tabernacle was crowded with women and men anxious to hear the prophet. After Brigham addressed the Saints, other Church leaders spoke. Among them was Jane’s husband, apostle Franklin Richards, who had recently been released as the Weber Stake president as part of the priesthood reorganization.

During one talk, Brigham turned to Jane and quietly asked her thoughts on organizing stake Relief Societies and having them hold quarterly conferences. He had recently been considering doing so as part of his efforts to better organize the Church, and he had already consulted several people on the matter, including Bathsheba Smith, another woman active in Relief Society leadership.24

The question surprised Jane, but not because the idea of a stake Relief Society was hard to imagine. Though Relief Societies currently functioned only at the ward level, she and her counselors in the Ogden Ward already acted like an informal stake Relief Society presidency when they advised smaller Relief Societies in the area. What truly surprised her was the notion of Relief Societies holding regular conferences.

Jane had little time to get used to the idea. Before the conference ended, Brigham called her to serve as the Weber Stake Relief Society president and asked her to collect reports from ward Relief Society presidents about the spiritual and financial conditions of the women in their congregations. If his health permitted, he intended to meet with them again at their next conference to hear their reports.

Following the conference, Brigham asked Jane to travel with his company to neighboring settlements. On the way, he taught her about the duties of her new calling and the importance of keeping careful records of what she and the Relief Society accomplished. Leading a stake Relief Society would be a major undertaking. Before the recent Church reorganization, Jane had advised three Relief Societies in Ogden. The newly formed Weber Stake, in contrast, had sixteen wards.25

When Jane returned to Ogden, she met with her ward Relief Society. “I would like to hear from all the sisters and know how they feel about what President Young told us,” she said.

For the rest of the meeting, Jane listened as the women bore testimony and shared their experiences at the conference. Many of them expressed their love for the gospel. “We have the light and knowledge of the Holy Spirit,” Jane told the sisters, “and when we lose that, great is the darkness.”

At the next meeting a few days later, Jane added to her testimony. “I wish to live my religion,” she declared, “and do all the good I can.”26

That summer, while the Church underwent major reorganization, Susie Young Dunford wondered if it was time to make changes in her own life. Her husband, Alma, had just left on a mission to Britain. But rather than missing him, she was grateful he was gone.

Her marriage had been unhappy almost from the start. Like his cousin Morley, who had married Susie’s sister Dora, Alma drank alcohol regularly. After the Word of Wisdom was revealed in 1833, many Saints had not followed its counsel closely. But in 1867, Susie’s father, Brigham Young, had begun urging the Saints to obey it more exactly by abstaining from coffee, tea, tobacco, and hard liquor.

Not everyone accepted the counsel, and Alma was often defensive about his drinking. Sometimes he even became abusive. One night, after he had been drinking, he had thrown Susie and their six-month-old daughter, Leah, out of the house, yelling at them to never come back.

Susie had come back, hopeful that things would change. She and Alma had a son now as well, Bailey, and she wanted to make her marriage successful. But nothing changed. When Alma received his mission call, she was relieved. Sometimes young men like Alma were sent on missions to help them grow up and reform their behavior.

Susie enjoyed the newfound peace and quiet in her home. The more time she spent away from Alma, the less she wanted to see him again.27

Alma’s family lived beside Bear Lake, near Utah’s northern border, and Susie planned to visit them that summer. Before heading north, however, she went to see her father about another matter weighing on her mind.28

Recently, Saints had published a book in New York City called The Women of Mormondom to counter the depictions of Latter-day Saint women found in the books and lectures of Fanny Stenhouse, Ann Eliza Young, and other critics of the Church. The Women of Mormondom contained the testimonies of several prominent women in the Church and presented their experiences in a positive light.

To help promote the book, Susie wanted to go on a national speaking tour with two of her father’s wives, Eliza Snow and Zina Young, and her sister Zina Presendia Williams. Susie had always longed to be a great speaker and writer, and she was eager to travel the country and give lectures.29

Brigham spoke favorably to Susie about the tour, but he wanted her to undertake it for the right reasons. He knew she was ambitious, and he had always tried to support her developing talents by sending her to school with some of the best teachers in the territory. But he did not want her to seek worldly acclaim at the expense of her family.

“If you were to become the greatest woman in the world,” he told her, “and you should neglect your duty as wife and mother, you would wake up on the morning of the First Resurrection and find you had failed in everything.”

As usual, her father was not mincing words. But Susie did not feel rebuked. His manner was gentle and understanding, and he seemed to see into her soul. “All that you can do after you have satisfied the righteous claims of your home and family,” he reassured her, “will redound to your credit and to the honor and glory of God.”

“I wish I knew the gospel was true,” Susie admitted as they continued to talk. She wanted to know it was true deep within her soul, the way her parents knew it.30

“There is only one way, daughter, that you can get the testimony of the truth,” Brigham said simply, “and this is the way I attained my testimony and the way your mother got hers. On your knees before the Lord, go in prayer and He will hear and answer.”

A thrill swept through Susie, and she knew what her father said was true. “If it had not been for Mormonism,” he then told her, “I would be today a carpenter in a country village.”

Brigham had set aside his trade long before Susie was born, but he was still the same man of faith who had left his home in New York to shake the hand of a prophet of God in Kirtland. Before he passed away, Susie wanted him to know what he meant to her.

“How proud and grateful I am,” she said, “that I have been permitted to come upon the earth as your daughter.”31

On the evening of August 23, 1877, Brigham sat with Eliza Snow in the room where his family normally prayed together. They spoke about the plan to send Eliza, Zina, Zina Presendia, and Susie east to promote The Women of Mormondom and give people a better understanding of the Church.

“It is an experiment, but one that I should like to see tried,” Brigham said.

He stood and picked up his candle. Earlier that evening, he had spoken with bishops in Salt Lake City, instructing them to make sure priests and teachers were meeting monthly with each member of their ward. He had then appointed a committee to oversee the construction of an assembly hall next to the Salt Lake temple. Now he was tired.

“I think now I shall go and take my rest,” he told Eliza.

During the night, sharp pains seized Brigham’s abdomen. In the morning, his son Brigham Young Jr. rushed to his side and took him by the hand. “How do you feel?” he asked. “Do you think you will pull through?”

“I don’t know,” Brigham said. “Ask the Lord.”

For two days he lay in bed, enduring the agony with little sleep. Despite the pain, he made jokes, trying to ease the worry of the family and friends who gathered around him. Whenever anyone asked him if he suffered, he said, “No, I don’t know that I do.”

Apostles and other Church leaders gave him blessings, rallying his spirits. But after four days, he began to slip in and out of consciousness. His symptoms became worse, and the doctor operated on his abdomen to no avail.

On August 29 the doctor gave him medicine for the pain and moved his bed closer to the window for fresh air. Outside, a crowd of Saints stood in reverent silence in the yard of the Lion House. Brigham’s family, meanwhile, knelt in prayer around his bed.

Lying beside the window, Brigham revived for a moment. He opened his eyes and gazed up at the ceiling. “Joseph,” he said. “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.”

His breathing then grew shorter and shorter until it ceased.32