Church History
Brigham Young

“Brigham Young,” Church History Topics

“Brigham Young”

Brigham Young

Early Life, Conversion, and Apostleship

Brigham Young was born in Vermont in 1801 as the ninth of 11 siblings. He grew up in a family that relocated multiple times searching for a stable living. His parents insisted on strict obedience to the Bible and individual industriousness in each of their children. Brigham left home at the age of 16, two years after his mother’s death from tuberculosis. He was introduced to the Book of Mormon soon after the book’s 1830 publication but studied the gospel for two years before accepting baptism. He learned quickly to support the prophet in “patience and faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 21:5) after hearing of Joseph Smith’s vision of the degrees of glory, which seemed to run contrary to Brigham’s view of the resurrection. He embraced the revelation and encouraged others to do the same.1

Brigham marched to Missouri with the Camp of Israel (later called “Zion’s Camp”)2 in 1834, and shortly after the Camp’s return to Kirtland, Ohio, he was called to serve as an Apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve. In 1837, when several leaders, including Apostles, rejected Joseph Smith’s leadership in Kirtland, Brigham rallied supporters to protect the Church and sustain the Prophet. After Thomas B. Marsh resigned from the Twelve, Brigham succeeded Marsh as president of the quorum and played a key role in leading the Saints to refuge during the persecutions in Missouri.3 The following year, Brigham left with other Apostles on a mission to Britain, where he fostered unity in the Quorum of the Twelve and helped bring thousands of converts into the Church.

In Nauvoo, Brigham was among the first to receive the newly revealed temple endowment.4 After Joseph Smith taught him about plural marriage, Brigham, with his wife Mary Ann’s consent, married Lucy Ann Decker in 1842.5 In early 1844 he joined the Council of Fifty, a group tasked with finding settlement destinations for the Latter-day Saints.6

In 1844, while campaigning for Joseph Smith’s candidacy for president of the United States, Brigham learned that Joseph and Hyrum Smith had been assassinated.7 He left immediately for Nauvoo, arriving in August and meeting with other Church leaders to determine a way forward. In a general meeting of the Saints, he proposed that the Twelve should lead the Church as a quorum, a motion those assembled sustained almost unanimously.8 Brigham also emphasized the need to finish the Nauvoo Temple before the Saints left the city. After the temple’s partial dedication in December 1845, he oversaw the ordinance work of thousands of Saints in the temple, often administered in long and arduous shifts, before leaving the city for the West.9 In 1847 he received a revelation (later canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 136) reiterating how leaders should organize the Saints’ exodus and guided a vanguard company to the Salt Lake Valley that same year.10 That December, after returning to Iowa, Brigham reorganized the First Presidency at Kanesville, Iowa, with Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as his counselors.11

Brigham Young portrait

The earliest known portrait of Brigham Young, circa 1845.

Prophet on the Frontier

Under Brigham Young’s administration, the Saints worked together to build settlements in the unfamiliar Great Basin landscape.12 In adapting to their environment, the Saints deepened their commitment to a distinctive, communal culture, endured a famine, and founded many communities along a corridor stretching from Mexico and southern California to Idaho and Canada. Brigham displayed an unprecedented vision for organizing communities, sustaining ever-changing frontier economies, and accommodating a constant stream of immigrants. Through it all, he maintained a focus on the unifying objective of building Zion.13 “I have Zion in my view constantly,” he said. “We are not going to wait for angels, or for Enoch and his company to come and build up Zion, but we are going to build it.”14 While he could be outspoken and sharp at times, his fellow Saints remembered him as an attentive, beloved leader who cared for their interests.15

Brigham hoped to promote peace with the American Indian groups in the region. At times, however, Latter-day Saints contended with them, and Brigham expressed regret at the way these conflicts unfolded.16 He was serving as Territorial Governor in Utah in 1857–58 when the United States government dispatched troops to suppress supposed lawlessness among Latter-day Saints in Utah.17 During the hysteria that preceded the arrival of the U.S. army, some Latter-day Saints massacred a party of migrants passing through Utah Territory at Mountain Meadows.18 Though the fiery rhetoric he and other leaders had engaged in likely contributed to the climate of hostility leading up to the tragedy, Brigham had instructed Saints to leave the migrants alone.19

While his attention was often focused on the struggles of Utah Saints, Brigham Young was mindful of his prophetic responsibility to the world. He issued calls for missionaries to serve in continental Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America.20 Before his death, all or most of the Book of Mormon was published in Danish, French, Welsh, German, Italian, Hawaiian, Swedish, and Spanish. Brigham worked beyond certain cultural barriers of the time as he helped migrants from many different ethnic and language groups gather to Utah Territory and establish homes among their fellow Saints.21

portrait of Brigham Young

Portrait of Brigham Young in Utah, circa 1870.

Family Life

Brigham Young married his first wife, Miriam Works, in New York in 1824. A few months after they were both baptized, Miriam died of tuberculosis. Brigham’s second wife, Mary Ann Angell, helped raise Miriam’s children as well as her own, cared for their household alone during Brigham’s frequent absences on missions, and accepted plural marriage when introduced to the principle.

Though initially apprehensive, Brigham Young quickly became a strong advocate for the practice of plural marriage. Toward the end of his life, Brigham was widely known as the father of a large plural family. He was sealed to over 50 women, many but not all of whom lived with him. Some likely understood their sealing to Brigham as having spiritual rather than domestic significance. Brigham and 16 of his wives had a total of 56 children. As parents, they developed new traditions to manage the large family.22 Two of his wives were later Relief Society General Presidents: Eliza R. Snow and Zina D. Huntington Jacobs.23 Many of Brigham’s children, as well as orphans taken into the family, recorded fond memories of his paternal presence and influence in their lives.

Brigham Young’s wives and daughters

A photograph of 8 of Brigham Young’s wives and 16 of his daughters, circa 1893.

Changes to the Church’s Organization

During the last decade of his life, Brigham Young introduced numerous changes to Church organization. In 1867 Brigham called for women to revive the Relief Society and launch groups in each ward. The same year, he organized a general board to oversee local Sunday Schools. In 1869, with the help of his wives and daughters, he promoted a retrenchment movement, which soon led to the creation of a larger organization for young women.24 Progress on the Salt Lake Temple moved slowly, and in the 1870s he directed construction on a temple in St. George and planned other temples for Manti and Logan.25 As the St. George temple neared completion in 1877, Brigham worked with others to commit temple ordinances to writing for the first time to ensure temple work could continue after his death as he had envisioned. Among his final acts as Church President, Brigham Young streamlined the responsibilities and relationships of priesthood quorums and dedicated the St. George temple. He passed away on August 29, 1877, at 76 years of age.

Related Topics: Susa Young Gates, Zina D. H. Jacobs Young, Eliza R. Snow, Pioneer Trek, Pioneer Settlements, Salt Lake Temple, United Orders, Cooperative Movement, Mountain Meadows Massacre, Utah War, Reformation of 1856–1857, Succession of Church Leadership, Anointed Quorum (“Holy Order”), Council of Fifty, Departure from Nauvoo, Gift of Tongues, Plural Marriage in Utah, Quorum of the Twelve, Adjustments to Priesthood Organization, Emigration, Temple Building, Railroad, Deseret Alphabet, Retrenchment