Brigham Young (1801
) succeeded founder Joseph Smith
as the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
, commonly known as Mormonism
. After Smith and his brother were murdered by an angry mob at Carthage, Illinois
, Young led the Mormon
faithful on a massive migration to resettle in Utah
and served as their autocratic spiritual leader until his death in 1877
, in the process having a profound and lasting influence on the shaping of Church doctrine and traditions.
Still a controversal figure in American History, Young is portrayed by Mormons as a capable statesman and administrator and a benevolent father figure, but portrayed by others as a tyrannical meglomaniac who ruthlessly suppressed dissident voices and stopped at nothing to protect his authority. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Young was born in Whitingham, Vermont to a poor farming family, the ninth of eleven children. Young's family moved to upstate New York when he was three, and at age sixteen he left home to make his own way as an intinerant painter, glazier, carpenter, and all-around handyman. In 1824 Young married the first of what was to be many, many wives (the exact number is still disputed), and in 1829 he moved to Mendon, New York, where a young Joseph Smith was completing the Book of Mormon.
A soul-sercher who had already converted once (to Methodism in 1823), Young was immediately drawn into Smith's newly formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He received the Mormon baptism in 1832 and the same year was sent to Canada as a missionary. Following the death of his wife in 1833, Young led much of his extended family and a group of converts to join Smith's Mormon community in Kirtland, Ohio.
Young soon became one of the most active members of the Mormon church and one of Smith's staunchest supporters. In 1835 he became one of the Twelve Mormon Apostles, traveling extensively in to the eastern states to scrounge up new converts. In 1838 he rejoined Smith, now fled to Missouri, and when the Mormons were driven out of that state he was instrumental in organizing the new community at Nauvoo, Illinois.
From 1840-1841 Young traveled to England, where he was wildly successful in coverting members of that nation's economically depressed urban working class. Ultimately, more than 40,000 English converts would emigrate to the US as a result of Young's efforts. By now Young's efforts on behalf of the Church had so impressed Smith, that he was named President of the Twelve Apostles in late 1841.
The Migration to Utah
When Smith was shot to death in 1844, Young was back on the east coast seeking new converts. When he heard the news he rushed back to Illinois to find the Mormon community in a state of leaderless chaos, and still under persecution. Young's charisma and leadership were instrumental in uniting the faithful under his scheme to imigrate westward to seek a new spiritual homeland for the Mormon faithful. Ultimately, Smith's plan succeeded, as he led thousands of Mormons westward to settle in the barren Great Salt Lake Valley in Utah, a bold and risky move which probably saved the Mormon faith from extinction.
Young arrived in Utah with the advanced party in the summer of 1847. The early years of the Mormon settlement were filled with hardship, but under Young's leadership these hardships were overcome and only a few years later the Mormons were thriving; in 1851, Utah was officially organized as a territory, with Young appointed governor and superintendant of Indian Affairs.
From then on, Young excercised absolute temporal and religious control over the Utah territory and its people, insisting on taking a personal say in almost every decision of any consequence, such as when crops should be planted, where buildings should be constructed, who should marry whom, and dictating morality to his people. Young maintained his complete and utter control not only through his great personal charisma, but also through pyschological manipulations, a system of rewards and punishments, and to a debated extent, even terror tactics and brutality.
Meanwhile other non-Mormon pioneers continued to come west, settling closer and closer to the Mormons and bringing their fear and misconceptions with them. Non-Mormons were particularly angered by the Mormon practice of polygamy, begun by Joseph Smith, staunchly supported by Young, and announced as official church doctrine in 1852, in defiance of US law and tradition. Another cause of friction was Young's attempts to undermine non-Mormon federal appointees to the Utah territorial government, whom he saw as a threat to his authority. Increasingly, non-Mormons came to see the Mormons as a defiant and dangerous people bent on carving out a "blasphemous" independent nation in the middle of US territory.
The Utah War
In the face of this increasing anti-Mormon hostility, Young embarked on what were essentially preparations for war, creating a very effective and fanatical militia to protect the territory. Young's preparations proved far-sighted in 1857 when persistent complaints from anti-Mormon critics led President James Buchanan to send a military expedition against the Mormons in the so called "Utah War" of 1857-58. Young managed to make peace with the US, and although he was forced to relinquish his governorship, he essentially retained all his authority.
The war was almost entirely bloodless, a war in name only, with the glaring exception of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which a Mormon militia slaughtered 120 innocent Arkansas settlers, including women and children, in a horrible atrocity that continues to haunt Young's reputation. The Mormons tried to blame the attack on a band of Native Americans that had attacked the caravan earlier, and even tried to blame the settlers themselves, but in truth someone very high in the Mormon chain of command, possibly even Young, had decided that the settlers were somehow a threat and had to be eliminated. For years Young and the Mormons denined responsibility and protected the perpetrators, finally offering up one of the militia leaders and Young's adoptive son John D. Lee as a sacrificial scapegoat years later in 1875 and claiming that he was the sole instigator, although Lee had originally claimed that he acted on direct orders from Young.
With peace secured in 1858, Young and his people flourished. Mormon missionaries continued to be enormously successful, and Utah's economy and population boomed. In 1869, the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, posed a challenge to Mormon isolationism and prosperity by bringing a fresh influx of non-Mormons into the territory. Young met this new threat to his authority by consolidating and institutionalizing Mormon political and economic dominance. He created a network of church-run cooperative stores that effectively shut out competition from non-Mormon merchants and fostered industrial cooperatives that forced out non-Mormon investors, preventing them from having influence or power in the territorial economy and government. Much of this Mormon cooperative system is still in place today, making it more difficult for non-Mormons to effectively compete in Utah for jobs and businesses. In another tactic to secure Mormon control, Young secured the passage of women's suffrage in Utah, increasing the number of Mormon voters and thus diluting the political influence of the non-Mormons the railroad brought into his realm.
Although Mormon prosperity and converts continued to increase, at the time of Young's death on August 29, 1877 the Mormons were encountering increasingly fierce pressure from the US people and government to alter Young's anti-competative economic policies and to reform their most reviled practices, especially the hated practice of polygamy, which Young refused to give up to his dying day. It would take a later generation of reformers to bring the Mormon church away from some of Young's more repressive policies and more into the mainstream. Nevertheless, Young's legacy is secure as a visionary leader and masterful manipulator of men who almost singlehandedly saved the Mormon faith and shaped it into the major worldwide religion it is today. He remains a towering figure in the history of the American West.