A towering figure in Mormonism, Brigham Young (1801-1877), began his professional career as a carpenter and painter. Baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1832, he was ordained an apostle in 1835. After the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844, Young was chosen leader of the Mormons and continued as president until his death. He directed the migration of 16,000 Mormons from Illinois to Utah from 1856 to 1852, and became governor of the territory in 1851. In addition to bolstering his community through education and the arts, Young contracted for the national expansion of telegraph and railroad lines.
Born in Whitingham, Vermont, Young was the ninth of eleven children. His family moved to New York when he was three. Shortly after his mother’s death in 1815, he left home to make his living as carpenter, joiner, glazier, painter, and landscape gardener.
Young was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) in 1832. He became an ardent missionary and disciple, and moved to Kirtland, Ohio, where he did carpentry work and undertook preaching missions. He was ordained an apostle in 1835 and became one of the Quorum of the Twelve, who directed missionary work, emigration and settlement, and construction projects. In 1838-1839, he directed the removal of the Mormons from Missouri to Illinois. He served as a missionary in Great Britain in 1840-1841, and upon his return he was placed in charge of the business operations of the church. After the assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844, Young was chosen leader of the Mormons and continued as president until his death.
Young not only directed the migration of sixteen thousand Mormons from Illinois to Utah in 1846-1852 but also established the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company, which during the years 1852-1877 assisted approximately eighty thousand converts to migrate to Utah from Great Britain, Scandinavia, and continental Europe. Young also directed the colonization and development of some 350 settlements in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and California.
In 1861 Young contracted to build the transcontinental telegraph line from Nebraska to California and then erected the twelve-hundred-mile Deseret Telegraph line from Franklin, Idaho, to northern Arizona to connect all Mormon villages with one another and with Salt Lake City. He also contracted to prepare the roadbed for part of the transcontinental railroad line and then organized railroads to provide rail transportation for most Mormon communities in Idaho, Utah and Nevada.
When Utah became a territory in 1851, Young was the first governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, serving until 1858. As governor, he had repeated difficulties with ‘outside’ non-Mormon presidential appointees, especially judges and territorial secretaries, who were envious, if not fearful, of his power.
As president of the Mormon church, Young traveled to most settlements at least once a year, where he listened to grievances, discussed problems, and informed himself of local events and personalities. Under prodding from Young, Utah gave women the vote in 1870, thus recognizing their political equality and also adding to Mormon vote pluralities.
Young constructed the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and began the erection of the Salt Lake Temple. He founded Brigham Young University; the University of Deseret, now University of Utah; and the Salt Lake Theatre, where major actors and actresses performed.
Young was a leading Western colonizer, energetic entrepreneur of new industry, astute politician, friend of Native Americans, and effective sermonizer. The more than five hundred recorded sermons he delivered over the thirty-three years of his leadership emphasize practical religion-the improvement of living conditions, correct behavior, and the achievement of harmonious social relationships.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.