An early convert to Mormonism, Brigham Young succeeded founder Joseph Smith as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1847; he led the church until his death in 1877. After guiding an exodus of thousands of Mormons westward to the Great Salt Lake Valley, Young founded Salt Lake City and served as the first governor of the Utah Territory.
Early Years and Rise in the Church
Born into poverty in Vermont in 1801, Young later moved with his family to western New York, 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 that Smith claimed to have translated from gold plates 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 church governing body, in 1835; he became its president four years later. Though he initially resisted adapting the church’s controversial custom of plural marriage, Young later embraced it as his duty, and would eventually have 55 wives and 56 (or 57) children.
Journey West to the Great Salt Lake
An armed mob assassinated Smith in 1844, and Young and the other apostles took charge of leading 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 in Nauvoo, Illinois to the Great Salt Lake Valley, then part of Mexico. In early 1846, Young and an advance group began an arduous journey some 1,300 miles across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains.
After spending the winter of 1846-47 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 Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. Young declared the site would be the group’s new home, and they began building an adobe and log settlement where Salt Lake City now stands.
Growth of the Mormon Community in Utah
Young returned east to lead a second company of Mormons to the region in late 1847, and in 1848 was officially selected as the church’s new president. Over the next few decades, as thousands of Mormons arrived in Salt Lake City, the charismatic Young styled himself after the great prophets and leaders of ancient Israel, earning nicknames like “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 Utah Territory in 1850. He governed the territory as a theocracy, with church doctrines taking precedence over laws. Among other policies, he continued the limitations on African American participation in the church, instituting a ban on Black men receiving the Mormon priesthood,
Mountain Meadows Massacre
Young’s defiant stance toward outside authority meant frequent clashes with the federal government, especially after the church’s public embrace of plural marriage in 1852. In 1857, President James Buchanan declared Utah to be 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 (though he remained de facto leader in the territory).
Amid the tensions, however, a band of armed Mormons attacked a wagon train of non-Mormons heading west from Arkansas in a valley known as Mountain Meadows in September 1857. After a standoff of several days, the Mormons called a truce, only to massacre most of the wagon train party, including some 120 men, women and children. Though many suspected Young of ordering or at least covering up the attack, John Lee, an adopted son of Young’s, was the only Mormon brought to trial for the Mountain Meadows massacre; he was executed in 1877.
Young's Final Years
With Congress repeatedly rejecting proposals for Utah statehood, Young firmly resisted the territory’s involvement in the Civil War, especially after passage of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862, which effectively outlawed plural marriage in U.S. territories. Several church leaders, including Young, were later charged under the law; Young was not convicted, but a case involving his secretary, George Reynolds, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1879 unanimously decided that the law was constitutional and the First Amendment did not protect polygamy.
By the summer of 1877, Young’s health was in decline, but he continued to play an active role in the Mormon church up 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.
The Mormons: Brigham Young. PBS: American Experience.