Two hundred years ago last Friday, the ninth of eleven children was born to a poor Revolutionary War veteran, John Young, and Abigail "Nabby" Howe at Whitingham, Vermont. Despite humble beginnings, Brigham Young died at age seventy-six, the most powerful man in the American West. Thousands revered him as a prophet of God. He was founder of the Mormon kingdom of Deseret (now Utah), a millionaire, the husband of twenty conjugal wives and thirty or more spiritually sealed spouses, and father of fifty-seven children.
At the time, he was the most beloved and despised man in the United States. By any standard, his was a remarkable life. When his wife Miriam was suffering from tuberculosis, her family was being swept up in an American religious revolution. Not long after Joseph Smith Jr. founded the Church of Christ in upstate New York, Young's sister gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon and he was baptized early in 1832.
Following the death of his wife, Young moved to Kirtland, Ohio, and met the charismatic Smith. After remarriage to Mary Ann Angell and a mission to Canada, Young served in Zion's Camp, a private militia that marched to Missouri to support Mormons in the troubled border state. The effort failed, but Young called it "the starting point of my knowing how to lead Israel." His service led to his appointment as one of the original apostles of the LDS Church in 1835.
Others abandoned Joseph Smith in a financial scandal, but Young stood firm. He followed the prophet west and helped direct the evacuation of Missouri when Smith was imprisoned and the Saints were expelled in 1839. Young had barely settled his family at Nauvoo, Illinois, when he was sent to found the British Mission. In an amazing year, the missionaries reprinted the Book of Mormon and baptized some 8,000 converts.
Upon his return, Young directed missionary efforts and supervised construction of the Nauvoo Temple. Early in 1842, Smith revealed a "new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant, as also the plurality of wives." Upon hearing of the secret doctrine, Young recalled he "desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time."
Despite his initial reluctance, in June 1842 Young was sealed to Lucy Ann Decker Seeley, the first of the dozen wives he would marry by 1846. In March 1844 Smith created the secret Council of Fifty, appointing the priests and princes, including Young, who would rule the Kingdom of God when Christ returned. While working for Smith's presidential campaign in Boston, Young heard of the thirty-eight-year-old prophet's murder at Carthage Jail. The murder would traumatize and inspire Smith's followers, especially Young.
The senior apostle returned to Nauvoo to win a hard-fought battle to lead the Latter-day Saints. Still in his early 40s, the first photograph of Young reveals a surprisingly dapper and handsome man. Of middle height and clean-shaven, sandy red hair fell to his shoulders. Unlike the visionary Smith, he was not naturally charismatic, but his leadership was forceful and pragmatic. As the LDS Church struggled for its survival, even his enemies admitted Young was the man for the moment.
It was soon clear that the Mormons would not find peace in the United States. Young rushed through completion of the Nauvoo Temple and administered sacred ordinances to nearly 6,000 members. In fall 1845, Young promised to leave Illinois "as soon as grass grows," but after the federal government indicted a dozen LDS leaders for counterfeiting, he started the move west in February 1846.
Over the next two years, Young inspired his people with a spectacular display of leadership. His command of the Pioneer Camp in the Salt Lake Valley of 1847 marked the pinnacle of his career. On his return to Winter Quarters after founding Salt Lake, Young persuaded his reluctant fellow apostles to confirm him as president of the LDS Church.
Will Bagley is a Utah historian.