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The Mormons | Article

Brigham Young (1801-1877)

Brigham Young, December 12, 1850, daguerreotype. Courtesy: Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Fiery yet full of doubt, frequently ill yet strong when it mattered most, Brigham Young took charge of the Mormons in the wake of the prophet Joseph Smith's death and finally found them a lasting home.

A Mormon Missionary
The man later nicknamed "Lion" (from "the Lion of the Lord") began his life meekly enough on a Vermont farm. Born into poverty that caused his family to move to New York when he was three, Young set out on his own at age 16. He found employment as a carpenter and handyman where he could. He was married in 1824 and moved with his wife to Mendon, New York, not far from where Joseph Smith was working on The Book of Mormon. He came across the book shortly after its 1830 publication when a missionary sold a copy to Young's brother. Young studied Smith's teachings for two years before being baptized in the Mormon Church in April 1832. In 1833, after the death of his wife, he followed Joseph Smith's call for church members to gather in Kirtland, Ohio, arriving there with his two children in September 1833. As Young would recall, "if any man that ever did gather with the Saints was any poorer than I was, it was because he had nothing." But Young, a burly man with great energy, dove right into the work of the church, serving as a missionary across the eastern United States and even taking the Mormon message to England, serving a mission there in 1840-1841.

Devoted Apostle
A staunch defender of Smith, of whom he would say that "Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth," Young became head of The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a church governing body. All of which was not to say he instantly agreed with everything the prophet said. When informed that he should adopt plural marriage, Young felt that he would rather die. But he came to embrace the practice, eventually taking dozens of wives who bore him 57 children.

Leading the Migration
After Smith's 1844 assassination, Young proposed that The Quorum run the church and most of the Mormons who lived in Nauvoo, Illinois, with him agreed. He planned for a mass migration from Illinois to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, where he hoped Mormons could be free from the persecution that already had driven them from Ohio and Missouri. He organized the Mormon migrants as best he could, but a February 1846 departure made the first, wintry leg of the journey miserable, and many died along the way. Young, often ill and even more often plagued by self-doubt, wondered how he could possibly lead people to freedom. But while he lay sick in the Mormons' Winter Quarters in early 1847, Young had a vision of his deceased former mentor Joseph Smith telling him to listen to the "still small voice" inside. After this, Young became the strong leader the church needed. He was named its second president and prophet. Later that year, his group reached the Great Salt Lake and Young declared that this improbable site would be the Mormons' new home. Work began almost immediately to subdue the harsh terrain, and thousands more flocked west to join the growing community. Young and his wives made their home in an impressive complex that included the Beehive House, for Brigham and his senior wife; the Lion House, for the other wives; and a schoolhouse for all his children.

A Self-Reliant Community
In 1850 Utah became a United States territory, and Young was appointed its governor, but he soon came into conflict with the federal government. Young's treatment of federal officials, intemperate rhetoric (he declared that "any president of the United States who lifts his finger against this people shall die an untimely death and go to hell"), and public embrace of plural marriage lead President James Buchanan to declare the Mormons in "rebellion" in 1857 and send an army west to put them down. No soldiers battled in that short-lived conflict, but it spawned the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre, and controversy continues over whether Young ordered the slaughter of 120 non-Mormon settlers or simply set the stage for it with his fiery words. When Buchanan pardoned the Mormons in 1858, Young went back to building the Mormon community in Utah, encouraging emigration by Mormons elsewhere and economic self-reliance for those already there. As Salt Lake City grew, Young founded the forerunner of Brigham Young University and continued to oversee virtually all aspects of life in the territory. Young was tried but not convicted for polygamy in 1871, and escaped prosecution in the only legal proceedings around the Mountain Meadows massacre, the two trials of militia leader John Lee. When Brigham Young died in 1877, 50,000 people came to pay their respects.

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