"The petrified truth is that Utah is an absolute monarchy and Brigham Young is king!" Mark Twain wrote after an 1861 visit to Salt Lake City.

And like many a monarch, Young "exercised, when he felt forced to it, a ruthlessness that [Mormon founder] Joseph could never have stomached," historical writer Wallace Stegner wrote in "The Gathering of Zion."

Young did not have "humility in any excessive quantity," Stegner wrote. "Nor, faced with what he was faced with, would humility have served."

Still, the stubborn brilliance that saved the LDS Church also hurt Utah, says Bill MacKinnon, a Michigan historian who has written extensively about Utah territorial history.

MacKinnon believes it was Young's inflammatory rhetoric that caused President Buchanan to send a federal army into the Salt Lake Valley in 1857. The following decades of tension with the U.S. government "did not always serve his people well and retarded statehood for Utah unnecessarily," MacKinnon believes.

Young was undeniably outspoken, says James Arrington, an LDS actor who spent a full year researching the Mormon leader's life and writing his one-man play, "Here's Brother Brigham."

"He was not the least bit afraid of making clear where he stood, what his obligations were and what he thought your obligations should be," Arrington says. "Some people found that hard to take."

 

But that was part of Young's strength, he says. "Real leaders aren't moderates. They are zealots."

From Humble Beginnings
The man who would rule the LDS Church -- and to only a slightly lesser extent, Utah -- was born June 1, 1801, in Whitingham, Vt. He was the ninth of 11 children of Revolutionary War veteran John Young and Abigal Howe, who died when Brigham was 14.

Brother Brigham's Birthday

 

  • From Unlikely Roots Came an Uncommon Man

  • The elder Young moved the family to upstate New York and put his children to work on a series of farms. Young's formal education lasted just 11 days, but he was an accomplished carpenter, painter, and glazer when he left home at 16.

    In 1823 he joined the Methodist Church and married his first wife, Miriam Works, a year later. They settled in Mendon, N.Y., in 1829--just 40 miles from Manchester, where Joseph Smith would publish The Book of Mormon in 1830.

    Young read the book, was baptized into Smith's infant church in 1832, and soon went to Canada as a missionary.

    "I wanted to thunder and roar out the gospel to the nations. It burned in my bones like fire pent up.... Nothing would satisfy me but to cry abroad in the world, what the Lord was doing in the latter days," he would later write.

    Miriam died in 1833, after which Young joined Smith in Kirtland, Ohio, and later in Missouri. By 1841, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Young was second only to Smith in the church hierarchy.

    Following Smith's 1844 murder at Carthage Jail in Illinois, he took the faith's helm. Three years later, as he led Mormon refugees to the Salt Lake Valley, he was formally sustained as the church's new "prophet, seer and revelator."

    By 1849, just two years after his arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, Young divided Salt Lake City into 19 wards, or church districts; established a state of Deseret with himself governor; and founded the Perpetual Emigration Fund.

    By the time of his death, Young had founded 400 settlements throughout the Intermountain West and played a leading role in bringing the transcontinental railroad to Utah.

    The Women Question
    Notwithstanding his many accomplishments, Young is seen by many today primarily as a prolific polygamist. However, Young's relationship with women, including his 56 wives (nine of whom divorced him) and other female leaders in his flock, was much more complex than that, says BYU historian Jill Mulvay Derr.