Love him or loathe him, revere or revile him, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and iron-fisted ruler of territorial Utah undoubtedly would be a ratings winner today, on the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Indeed, 124 years after his death in 1877, Young's fingerprints remain all over Salt Lake City, where extra-wide streets form the grid he designed for his "City of Zion." Visitors flock to his restored Lion House and Beehive House residences, and a heroic statue stands sentinel near the LDS Temple, which the world knows as the heart of Mormondom.
Simply put, Young was an American empire builder perhaps rivaled only by Sam Houston of Texas, says Paul Andrew Hutton, executive director of the Western History Association.
Both were "larger than life, brilliant, headstrong, pragmatic and sometimes ruthless," Hutton says. "Our Western and national heritage is their legacy."
Young, however, wore a spiritual mantle unlike any other American leader. He was prophet, seer, and revelator to his Mormon followers, the man who replaced murdered church founder Joseph Smith and led more than 60,000 people, many of them European immigrants, to his redoubt west of the Rocky Mountains.
He built his Zion on a foundation of faith, but he wanted more for his people, says historian Ron Walker of Brigham Young University.
"President Young wanted every man, woman, and child busily employed. He wanted them learning and growing. He wanted them to experience such things as drama and music," Walker said. "He encouraged the personal growth of church members, many of whom had been disadvantaged in their European homeland. He wanted to bring about a social transformation."
To achieve that, Young was constantly trying new experiments -- cooperative economics, a silk industry, a wine mission, new alphabets, uniforms for everyone.
In his book, "Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869," historical writer Stephen E. Ambrose wrote that "had it not been for his generally feared or despised religion, he quite possibly might have been a president of the United States, and, depending on the time, a good or even a great one."
As it was, journalists and writers went out of their way to visit Utah for a chance to meet the man dubbed "the lion of the Lord" by his devoted followers and an ambitious charlatan by his critics.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
He was tender and solicitous toward the women in his family, having nursed his mother and first wife before they died, Derr says. "He did not enter polygamy with great enthusiasm. He did marry young women and father children with them, but he also used plural marriage as a way of taking care of widows and invalids."
Though Young took a hard line on the question of male authority in a faith that grants the priesthood only to men, his attitude on women's roles evolved in the last 20 years of his life, Derr says. He encouraged them to speak in their own voices and to publish their own periodical, the Woman's Exponent.
One early editor, Luisa Lula Green Richards, called Young "the most genuine, impartial and practical 'Woman's Rights Man' upon the American continent."
Long before Utah gained statehood in 1896, Mormon women voted in local elections, attended college (many were physicians) and worked in trades and the professions.
Young's support for women's rights may have been part public relations, says historian Carol Cornwall Madsen, but it also was motivated by his "profound respect for initiative, regardless of gender."