As head of the Mormon Church and architect of the Mormon colony in Utah, Brigham Young was almost sole author of one of the most important chapters in the history of the American West.
Born in 1801 into a poor Vermont farming family, Brigham Young was the ninth of eleven children. When he was three, his family moved to upstate New York, and at age sixteen, Young left home to start a career as an itinerant carpenter, painter, farmer and general handyman. He married his first wife in 1824, and in 1829 the couple moved to Mendon, New York, some forty miles from Manchester, where Joseph Smith was in the final stages of preparing the Book of Mormon for publication.
Although he had converted to Methodism in 1823, Young was drawn toward Smith's newly formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from his first encounter with the Book of Mormon in 1830. Two years later, he was baptized into the Mormon church, and the same year went to Canada as a missionary. In 1833, a recent widower, he led several friends and much of his family to join Joseph Smith and the gathering of Zion in Kirtland, Ohio.
The rest of Young's life was spent in service to the Mormon Church. He went to Missouri in 1834 when hostile gentiles (non-Mormons) threatened the Mormon community there, traveled the eastern states as a missionary, and staunchly supported Joseph Smith when the Kirtland settlement foundered in 1837. The next year he followed Smith to Missouri, and when anti-Mormon mobs drove the community out, helped organize the move to Nauvoo, Illinois. Young carried the Mormon message to England in 1840-41, gaining many converts among the urban working class. By 1841, his devotion had so impressed Joseph Smith that he was made the President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the governing body of the church, second in authority only to Smith himself.
When Joseph Smith was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob in 1844, Brigham Young was on the East Coast gathering converts and raising money for the construction of an enormous temple in Nauvoo. On his return, Young played a critical role in keeping the savagely persecuted church together by organizing the exodus that would take the Mormons westward, first to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, in 1846, and finally on to Utah's Salt Lake Valley, where Young and an advance party arrived on July 24, 1847. Here Young hoped the Mormons would at last find the freedom to worship and live as their faith decreed. Late in 1847 his leadership was confirmed when he was named president and prophet of the church, inheriting the authority of Joseph Smith.
Young met the challenge of making a new life in Utah by expanding the role and responsiblities of his church. Through the church he directed political decision-making, economic development, cultural affairs, law enforcement and education. To strengthen the church and its authority within Utah, Young constantly encouraged emigration, offering to finance wagon trains and, for a time, furnishing converts with handcarts so they could make the 1,400 mile trek on foot. Young also sought to broaden the scope of church authority by establishing Mormon colonies throughout Utah and in the neighboring Arizona, Nevada and Idaho territories. Finally, he worked to insulate the church by making its people economically self-sufficient. He encouraged the local manufacture of goods that might otherwise be imported from the east, and he discouraged enterprises, like mining, that might require or invite outside investors.
Within just a few years, Young achieved outstanding success. In 1851, Utah was organized as a territory, and Young appointed its governor and superintendant of Indian Affairs. But as it had in the past, Mormon success raised suspicions and provoked opposition from those outside the faith. Federal officials began to fear that Utah would become a theocracy in which church and state were indistinguishable. And with the announcement in 1852 that plural marriage, or polygamy, was a basic tenet of the church, there began a public outcry that accused Mormons of immorality and of thinking they could live outside the laws of the land. By 1857, these complaints had become so persistent that President James Buchanan, eager to find some way to distract attention from the issue of slavery, finally sent an army into Utah to suppress what the Mormon's critics considered a full-scale rebellion against federal authority.
Buchanan's so-called "Mormon War," however, would be a war in name only, because Brigham Young chose to fight the government by cutting off its troops' supply lines rather than engage them in battle. The conflict did, however, give rise to an incident which still haunts Young's reputation, the September 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which a party of 120 emigrants, suspected of hostility toward the church, was murdered in southeastern Utah by Paiute Indians and a band of Mormons led by John D. Lee, who claimed to be acting on orders from Young himself. Despite this atrocity, by 1858 Brigham Young had reached a reconciliation with the federal government, which issued a pardon for alleged Mormon offenses and for a time at least allowed the Saints to practice their religion and build their community without interference.
Over the next decade, Young saw his people flourish. The Mormons' missionary activities continued to be enormously fruitful, and Utah's economy and population bloomed. In 1869, the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, posed a challenge to this prosperity by bringing a fresh influx of non-Mormons into the territory, but Young met the challenge by consolidating the Mormons' political and economic power. He created a network of church-financed cooperative stores that effectively shut out competition from non-Mormon merchants, and he encouraged industrial cooperatives that aimed to shut out non-Mormon investors. At the same time he secured passage of women's suffrage in Utah, thereby increasing the number of Mormon voters and diluting the political influence of non-Mormons whom the railroad brought into his domain.
By the decade's end, however, federal officials were resuming their efforts to separate church and state in Utah, and the public was resuming its outcry against the Mormon practice of plural marriage. In 1871, Brigham Young was himself tried under an 1862 law that prohibited polygamy in United States territories, but though he had by this time married more than twenty wives, he was not convicted. Federal officials also sought to prove Young's complicity in the Mountain Meadows Massacre twenty years after the fact by bringing John D. Lee to trial in 1877, but Lee refused to implicate the Mormon leader. Young responded to this fresh attack by federal prosecutors by tacitly influencing Lee's Mormon jury to vote his acquittal, but when public outrage over this outcome forced a second trial, Young saw he would have to sacrifice Lee for the good of the church and accepted the verdict that finally condemned Lee to death.
Brigham Young died shortly after the Lee trial, on August 29, 1877. For more than a decade after his death, the Mormons would find themselves under relentless attack by a federal government determined to strip away the economic and political powers Young had established for their church, and determined to eradicate the practice of plural marriage, a practice Young had hoped to safeguard by maintaining a sanctuary of isolation between his church and the outside world. Nonetheless, even after the government succeeded in its aims, the Mormon Church and the Mormon community remained a living testimony to the vision and spirit of Brigham Young.
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