Brigham Young and Social Responsibility
January 1972

“Brigham Young and Social Responsibility,” New Era, Jan. 1972, 19

Brigham Young and Social Responsibility

Some youth are content to accept life as it has always been, while others, glimpsing visions of what life could be, are never satisfied until they have done everything in their power to transform their visions into realities.

Brigham Young was such a youth, an imaginative young man, filled with a vision of possibilities, all centering in the establishing of the kingdom of God on earth. For him, this kingdom was no ethereal phantasm, but a physical possibility, a new way of life, a new pattern for society; and he allowed this vision to work upon his mind until it became—to borrow a phrase from Jeremiah—like a “burning fire shut up in his bones.”

“I feel like shouting hallelujah all the time,” he remarked, “when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith the Prophet. … we have power to continue the work that Joseph commenced [building up the kingdom of God], until everything is prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. This is the business of the Latter-day Saints, and it is all the business we have on hand.

This dream influenced his goals, his life, and ultimately his eternal destiny.

Fortunate indeed is the young man or woman who can be obsessed by such a goal while still in youth, as was Brigham Young. For him, no sacrifice seemed too great if it was purposeful, especially if that purpose was the upbuilding of God’s kingdom on earth. The pursuit of this goal uprooted him from his life as a carpenter in Mendon, New York, and set him in motion, never to settle down until he established his home in the western empire of the Great Salt Lake.

Baptized in snowy weather during the early spring of 1832, Brigham Young was confirmed at the edge of the water and ordained an elder in his home two miles away before the clothes were dry on his back. And before that year was over—an important year involving the death of his first wife and his initial meeting with the Prophet Joseph—Brigham Young was out in the snow again, this time in an effort to share his new-found orientation to life with his friends in Canada.

In the cold of December Brigham Young and his brother Joseph set out on foot for Kingston, upper Canada. This journey was to take the two young elders over a distance of two hundred and fifty miles in snow “a foot and a half deep with a foot of mud under it.” Only those who have trudged through snow into mud can really appreciate the arduous task that these two underwent. To add to their discomfort, six miles of this journey was on ice—ice so thin that it bent beneath their feet, allowing the water to seep in until it was “half a shoe deep.”

For two months the missionaries labored in that area and baptized forty-five souls. Any youth who has seen his own inadequacies will appreciate knowing that missionary work was not an easy task for Brigham Young. He considered himself “about as destitute of language as a man could well be.”

“How I have had the headache, when I have had ideas to lay before the people, and not the words to express them; but I was so gritty that I always tried my best.”

Another year and another mission were to pass before Brigham Young could finally settle his little family in Kirtland, where he drew close to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Twenty more souls were to come into the kingdom through his efforts as a result of a second mission, and he then led them to Kirtland, much as he would later lead the westward trek of the Saints. Once he had settled in the quiet little town of Kirtland in northern Ohio, Brigham Young began to learn about Zion, dwelling place of the pure in heart, from the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Another major sacrifice for the cause of Zion came in 1834, as Brigham accompanied Joseph on the march of Zion’s Camp. Word was received in Kirtland that the Saints in Missouri had been driven from their homes by mobs, that help was needed. An appeal was made to the brethren in Kirtland. Joseph and 205 others answered this plea for help. Force would be met by force. Those who marched knew that death might await them on the other end of their thousand-mile trek.

Brigham’s generation was acquainted with long walks, but nothing like this march. President Young later talked about walking month after month with blood in his shoes as he worked as a missionary, but even missionary work was nothing compared to the intensity of this march, day after day, in the heat of the early summer.

As the march proceeded, exhaustion resulted, patience became short, and tempers flared. Finally, the dreaded cholera hit with its terrifying cramping and sudden death. Two years before this time America had experienced a major epidemic of cholera, and its symptoms were well known—diarrhea, spasmodic vomiting, and painful cramps, followed by dehydration that left the face blue and pinched, the extremities cold and dark, and the skin on the hands and feet puckered.

Death could follow in a day, even in an hour, and sometimes the victim would just keel forward as if hewn down by an axe. Some persons in Zion’s Camp attempted to flee, but Brigham Young remained, and his name is listed by Joseph Smith as one who was most active in caring for the sick and burying the dead.

Not long after his experience with Zion’s Camp, Brigham Young was called by the Prophet Joseph as one of the original Council of the Twelve, organized in 1835. With the new calling, Brigham Young experienced many changes and felt the weight of added responsibilities, but his goal in life remained constant: to continue the work that Joseph had commenced until everything was prepared for the coming of the Son of Man.

Two hastily sketched scenes from the apostolic years of Brigham Young should serve to give one an insight into his continuing dedication to this goal. Both are taken from the year 1839.

The first is a February sketch. Joseph Smith was imprisoned in Liberty Jail, and Brigham Young was directing the affairs of the Church by reason of his position as president of the Council of the Twelve, a new responsibility that had recently fallen his lot because of the apostasy of Thomas B. Marsh and the murder of David W. Patten in the battle of Crooked River. The problem at hand was the moving of the Saints from Missouri to Illinois. Few persons were well equipped for the move; many were destitute, and in their haste to leave, the temptation to run for one’s own life was strong. But in Brigham Young’s mind this was not a course of action for true Saints of God. Surely society would never endure unless men could learn love and compassion and concern for each other.

Accordingly, a meeting was called and a covenant drawn up, stating in effect that the signers would never leave until they had aided all of the poor to leave with them. Brigham Young and his family, accompanied by the family of Heber C. Kimball (Elder Kimball having remained in Missouri) set out in the cold February climate, with their wagons aimed toward Illinois, in one of the strangest processions in the entire Mormon emigration experience.

After traveling as much as twenty miles across the frozen Missouri plains, Brigham would stop, establish a temporary shelter for his wife and five children, and then retrace his journey to its point of origin, load up some of the poor and destitute Saints, and return to his family. In this way he actually covered three times the distance of most of his fellow travelers. Later, at the ending of their journey, Quincy, Illinois, an impressive meeting was held. The Saints in Quincy, learning that fifty families were still in Far West and were too poor to leave, drew together once more, offering to sell what little they had left—their hats, coats, and shoes—to raise funds for this movement. Brigham Young comments:

“We broke bread and partook of the Sacrament. At the close of the meeting $50 was collected in money and several teams were subscribed to go and bring out the brethren. Among the subscribers was Widow Warren Smith, whose husband and son had been killed at the massacre at Haun’s Mill. She sent her only team on this charitable mission.”

Through these experiences and many others like them, Brigham Young was to be buoyed up in his conviction that people can be drawn together in love, that they do have the ability to create a more Christlike society founded on love and concern for others.

The second scene from that same year, which depicts the determination of Brigham Young to sacrifice everything to the upbuilding of the kingdom of God, took place between September of 1839 and February of 1840 and involves a mission to Great Britain.

Our focal point concerns his journey to New York. The time had arrived for the Twelve to leave for a special mission, but Brigham Young, like so many of his brethren, was down with what appears to have been malaria. Aching in all the parts of his body, he managed somehow to struggle out of his bed in Montrose, Iowa, and to dress for his journey. Having no coat of his own, he used a quilt from the cradle as a makeshift wrapping. All of his children were feverishly ill in bed. His wife was also ill and in need of help with her little ten-day-old baby. The Mississippi River was only 165 yards away, but Brigham could not even walk to its banks. A neighbor drove up with a wagon and President Young crawled in. Met at the river, he was rowed to the other side, where Israel Barlow transported him by horseback to the home of Heber C. Kimball in Nauvoo. There he collapsed and was not able to continue for four days.

Eventually the time for departing arrived, and the missionaries left, moving eastward as best they could; President Young rode in the back of a wagon. Those who have felt the discomfort of flu can well imagine how one might feel being jostled across the countryside between Illinois and Indiana. Four months later Brigham arrived in New York City, well at last but not beyond hardships. In Brooklyn, while boarding a ferryboat, he fell somehow and, landing against a large iron ring, dislocated his left shoulder. While two of his brethren held him firmly against the deck, Parley Pratt took hold of his hand and pulled, with his foot against Brigham’s side. Agonizing though this ordeal was, Elder Young guided the bone back into the socket with his right hand. When they got him to a fire, President Young passed out and was not able to dress himself for several days.

Lesser souls would have become discouraged and would have dropped out long before that point, but Brigham Young would never be a dropout when the establishment of God’s kingdom was involved. He carried on, boarded the ship, and was seasick most of the way to Britain. So emaciated was he upon arriving in England that his own cousin, Willard Richards, did not even recognize him.

After months of strenuous missionary work, he returned home. His sacrifice had been acceptable to the Lord. Upon arriving back in Nauvoo, Elder Young received this commendation:

“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.

“I therefore command you to send my word abroad, and take especial care of your family from this time, henceforth and forever. Amen.” (D&C 126:1–3.)

Such was Brigham Young’s preparation for the prophetic role. Not once, but many times he had literally placed his life on the altar in his drive to establish God’s kingdom, this Zion on earth. All else in life was subordinated to that goal; he believed in it with all of his heart. Later, because of this preparation, he was the ideal person for the Lord to choose in encouraging others to join in the development of the ideal society. His dedication to Christ was complete. As prophet of the Lord, he commented in later life:

“I have Zion in my view constantly. 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. We will raise our wheat, build our houses, fence our farms, plant our vineyards and orchards, and produce everything that will make our bodies comfortable and happy, and in this manner we intend to build up Zion on the earth and purify it and cleanse it from all pollutions. [A significant statement for our day with its ecological problems.]”

Then he continued:

“Let there be an hallowed influence go from us over all things over which we have any power; over the soil we cultivate, over the houses we build, and over everything we possess; and if we cease to hold fellowship with that which is corrupt and establish the Zion of God in our hearts, in our own houses, in our cities, and throughout our country, we shall ultimately overcome the earth, for we are the lords of the earth; and instead of thorns and thistles, every useful plant that is good for the food of man and to beautify and adorn will spring from its bosom.”

In short, community planning for Brigham Young was not just the establishment of cities and orchards. It was the establishment of a fit abode for angels, a bit of heaven on earth. Education was to play a dominant role, and he anticipated the time that the Zion of Mormonism in the West would be a show place for all peoples of the world, who would come to gain from our example.

His dream in many aspects is still unfulfilled because many of us fail to comprehend its significance. One is tempted to ask of our generation, “Where in the Church today are the youth with a Brigham Young-type of dedication to this same dream?” Hopefully the answer is, “Right here, in our own ward, in our own branch.”

Brigham Young Highlights (1801–1877)


June 1, 1801

Born in Whittingham, Vermont



Mother dies; earns his own way in life; eventually becomes carpenter



Marries Miriam Works; she dies 1832



Baptized; ordained elder



Marries Mary Ann Angell



Ordained apostle



Serves mission to Great Britain



Joseph Smith is martyred; becomes leader of Church as president of Council of the Twelve



Leads exodus to Salt Lake City



Sustained president of Church



Becomes governor, Territory of Utah



Lays cornerstone for Salt Lake Temple



Utah War



Tabernacle is completed



St. George Temple is dedicated, first temple in West

Aug. 29, 1877



Early photograph of Brigham Young from an 1850 daguerreotype taken in Salt Lake City.

One set of lenses on these unusual glasses of Brigham Young’s were used for normal viewing; other set was flipped into place for reading.

Presumed to be the earliest photo we have of Brigham Young; authenticity is not fully established.

Brigham Young carried this carpetbag on his first mission.

Ice skates used by Brigham Young’s children.

This plush, red velvet chair came from Brigham Young’s private railroad car.

Twenty-gabled Lion House was built in about 1855 as a residence for Brigham Young. He died in this building in 1877.

This bootjack was made for Brigham Young out of the first batch of iron smelted in Utah.

The president in 1850.

Doorknob from the Beehive House built in 1852. Note the honeybee, one of President Young’s favorite symbols.

A message on a skull signed by the president.

Photograph of actual Mormon immigrants traveling down Echo Canyon in 1867.

Brigham Young during various stages in life.

This desk, built specially for Brigham Young, was often used by him and his counselors.