As the new prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young, whose 200th birthday was June 1, struggled to understand his spiritual role. "When the still small voice speaks, always receive it," Joseph Smith told him in an 1847 vision.
"I don't profess to be such a prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel," Young confessed in 1857, "but I am a Yankee guesser." He never said he spoke with God face to face, but he had "received the spirit of Christ Jesus, which is the spirit of prophecy." To this day, modern prophets follow Young's example.
As first governor and Indian superintendent of Utah Territory, Young achieved a position of religious and political power unequaled in U.S. history. Young laid out Great Salt Lake City and sent colonists to found towns at Provo, Las Vegas, Manti and San Bernardino, California. Young distributed property by lot, assigning worthy families "stewardships." He conducted marriages and granted divorces. Most Sundays he would "thunder and roar out the Gospel" in impromptu sermons.
For more than twenty years, Young directed a series of brutal Indian wars. "It is better to feed them than to fight them," he often said, but Mormon policy offered Utah's Indians a hard choice: surrender or starve. The combination of absolute power and complete certainty in his prophetic mission brought Young into conflict with the U.S. government. He spent federal funds on church projects and treated his fellow territorial officers with such contempt that packs of them periodically fled Utah in fear for their lives.
Convinced the Mormons were "in a state of substantial rebellion," President Buchanan sent an army to Utah in 1857 to ensure the execution of U.S. laws. When Mormon militia burned the army's supply wagons, it was clear the rebellion was no illusion. The crisis nearly plunged the nation into a religious civil war, but Utahns finally bowed to federal power.
By any standard, the Utah War was a political disaster. Ironically, the conflict actually improved the Mormon prophet's image. "Brigham Young no longer seems to the American public a religious mountebank," commented the Atlantic Monthly. "On the contrary, he begins to appear as a man of great native strength and scope of mind." Young never again had the power he exercised as governor, but he had won the nation's respect and the lasting devotion of his followers.
As his people's affection for him grew, Young's political power declined. The Black Hawk War cost the LDS Church millions and destroyed its military forces. Unsuccessful attempts to manufacture sugar, iron, cotton and silk devoured capital and produced hardship. Such financial failures doomed the prophet's last attempt to impose a religious economic system.
Young grew stout and irascible in his old age, but he never wavered from his beliefs. He died in Salt Lake City in August 1877, probably of appendicitis. Young remains the best-known Mormon in the world, best remembered for his devotion to polygamy, an ongoing discomfort to modern Mormonism. LDS historian Preston Nibley wrote a 552-page biography without ever mentioning that Young had more than one wife, a tradition that continued through the 1997 official church manual.
Devout Mormon historians insist there was no such thing as "holy murder" in early Utah, but as writer Wallace Stegner observed: It would be "bad history" to pretend "blood atonement" was not only preached but practiced during the revival of 1856. The Mountain Meadows Massacre proved that such killings did happen, and contradictory attempts to vindicate Young in the affair cannot stop troubling questions about his role. Restrictions on access to Young's archives and the recent suppression of key parts of historian Leonard Arrington's papers reveal a reluctance to find answers. "Our father had his faults and failings, no doubt of that," his daughter Susa once noted. "His family and friends loved him so well they forget to remember anything about him but his shining virtues."
Will Bagley is a Utah historian.