An early convert to Mormonism, Brigham Young succeeded founder Joseph Smith as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1847; he led the church until his death in 1877. After leading an exodus of thousands of Mormons west to the Great Salt Lake Valley, Young founded Salt Lake City and was the first governor of the Territory of Utah.
Small years and ascension in the Church
Born into poverty in Vermont in 1801, Young later moved with his family to western New York City, where he worked as a carpenter and craftsman. In 1832 he was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the religion founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 based on the Book of Mormon, a scripture which Smith claims to have translated from plates of gold given to him by an angel. named Moroni.
In 1833, after the death of his first wife, Young and his two daughters joined Smith and other Mormons in Kirtland, Ohio. A devoted missionary and supporter of Smith, Young was ordained as one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a governing body of the church, in 1835; he became its president four years later. Although he initially resisted adapting the controversial church custom of plural marriage, Young later adopted it as his duty and would eventually have 55 wives and 56 (or 57) children.
Travel west to Grand Lac Salé
An armed mob murdered Smith in 1844, and Young and the other apostles took over the leadership of the Mormon church. Seeking a place where they could avoid the persecution that had driven them from Ohio and Missouri, Young and the other apostles planned a westward exodus of thousands of Mormons from the settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois, to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, which was then part of Mexico. In early 1846, Young and an advanced group began an arduous journey of some 1,300 miles across the plains and the Rocky Mountains.
After spending the winter of 1846-1847 in a camp along the Missouri River between Iowa and Nebraska, Young headed further west with 142 men, including six apostles, three women, and two children, in April 1847. They arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. July 24, 1847. Young declared the site to be the group’s new home, and they began to build an adobe and log settlement where Salt Lake City now stands.
Growing Mormon Community in Utah
Young returned east to lead a second company of Mormons in the area at the end of 1847, and in 1848 he was officially chosen as the new president of the church. Over the following decades, as thousands of Mormons arrived in Salt Lake City, the charismatic Young drew inspiration from the great prophets and leaders of ancient Israel, earning nicknames such as “Lion of the Lord” and “American Moses. “.
With the United States in control of the Great Salt Lake Valley region after the Mexican-American War, Young was appointed governor of the new territory of Utah in 1850. He ruled the territory as a theocracy, the doctrines of the Church taking precedence over the laws. Among other policies, he maintained limitations on African-American participation in church, instituting a ban on black men receiving the Mormon priesthood,
Mountain Meadows Massacre
Young’s defiant stance toward outside authority resulted in frequent clashes with the federal government, especially after the church’s public endorsement of plural marriage in 1852. In 1857, President James Buchanan stated that the Utah was in a state of rebellion and sent some 2,500 federal troops to help replace Young as territorial governor. The Utah War was resolved in 1858, with Young agreeing to step aside in favor of the new governor (although he remained de facto leader of the territory).
Amid the tensions, however, a gang of armed Mormons attacked a train of non-Mormon wagons heading west from Arkansas into a valley known as Mountain Meadows in September 1857. After a standoff of several days, Mormons called for a truce, only to slaughter most of the group of wagons, including some 120 men, women and children. Although many suspected Young of having ordered or at least covered up the attack, John Lee, an adopted son of Young, was the only Mormon brought to justice for the Mountain Meadows massacre; it was executed in 1877.
Young’s last years
With Congress repeatedly rejecting Utah’s state proposals, Young strongly resisted the Territory’s involvement in the Civil War, especially after the passage of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862, which effectively prohibits plural marriage in the US territories. Several church leaders, including Young, were subsequently charged under the law; Young was not convicted, but a case involving his secretary, George Reynolds, went to the United States Supreme Court, which in 1879 unanimously ruled that the law was constitutional and that the First Amendment did not protect polygamy.
In the summer of 1877, Young’s health declined, but he continued to play an active role in the Mormon church until the end. On August 29, 1877, Brigham Young died in Salt Lake City at the age of 76.
Matthew Bowman, The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith (Random House, 2012)
David Roberts. “The brink of war.” Smithsonian magazine, June 2008.
John G. Turner. “Polygamy, Brigham Young and his 55 wives.” HuffPost, August 27, 2012.
Mormons: Brigham Young. PBS: American experience.