A Kingdom Builder. Noted historian Leonard J. Arrington called Brigham Young a kingdom builder with dreams as grandiose as Sam Houston or John C. Fremont. According to Arrington, however, one thing set Brigham Young aside from the others: success. Brigham Young was the supreme American paradox… the business genius of a Rockefeller with the spiritual sensitivities of an Emerson. His success was to lead thousands of Mormon Pioneers from religious persecution in the Midwest to religious freedom in the Salt Lake Valley. Born in Vermont 1801 to Revolutionary War veteran John Young and Abigail Howe, Brigham was the ninth of eleven children. Although he was born in New England, Brigham was a child of the frontier. He had only 11 days of formal schooling his entire life, but he became an accomplished carpenter, joiner, painter and glazier.
Noted historian Leonard J. Arrington called Brigham Young a kingdom builder with dreams as grandiose as Sam Houston or John C. Fremont. According to Arrington, however, one thing set Brigham Young aside from the others: success. Brigham Young was the supreme American paradox… the business genius of a Rockefeller with the spiritual sensitivities of an Emerson. His success was to lead thousands of Mormon Pioneers from religious persecution in the Midwest to religious freedom in the Salt Lake Valley. Born in Vermont 1801 to Revolutionary War veteran John Young and Abigail Howe, Brigham was the ninth of eleven children. Although he was born in New England, Brigham was a child of the frontier. He had only 11 days of formal schooling his entire life, but he became an accomplished carpenter, joiner, painter and glazier.
An American Moses. Brigham Young has been called an American Moses for directing one of the largest mass migrations in human history. Between 1847 and the time of his death thirty years later, he oversaw the immigration of more than 70,000 pioneers to the area now known as Utah; founded 400 settlements; established a land distribution system later ratified by Congress; served two terms as the first territorial governor of Utah, first superintendent of Indian Affairs of Utah Territory, and as Church president for 30 years. He led the faithful after Church founder and first president Joseph Smith was martyred in 1844.
A Religious Conversion. Young was a religious man who sought the church described by the New Testament. After reading the Book of Mormon as a young married man of 28, he remained cautious. I examined the matter studiously for two years before I made up my mind to receive the book. I knew it was true, as well as I knew I could see with my eyes, or feel with the touch of my fingers. Had not this been the case, I never would have embraced it to this day….I wished time sufficient to prove all things for myself.
Spreading the Word. Before leading the pioneers west, Young left home on ten separate occasions as a missionary. Moving through Canada, the eastern United States and Great Britain, Brigham sought both converts and to foster understanding for the newly established Church. During his nearly two years in Great Britain, he supervised the bringing of nearly 8,000 new members into the faith.
In His Own Words. On his stern upbringing: “I had not a chance to dance . . . and never heard the enchanting tones of the violin until I was eleven years of age; and then I thought I was on the highway to hell if I suffered myself to linger and listen to it. I shall not subject my little children to such a course of unnatural training, but they shall go to the dance, study music, read novels and do anything else that will tend to expand their frames, add fire to their spirits, improve their minds, and make them feel free and untrammeled in body and mind.” Advice to parents: “Never allow yourselves to become out of temper and get fretful. Why, mother says, this is a very mischievous little boy or girl. What do you see? That amount of vitality in those little children that they cannot be still.
. . .They are so full of life. . . that their bones fairly ache with strength . . . and activity. . . Do not be out of temper yourselves. Always sympathize with them and soothe them.” On women: “We think the sisters ought to have the privilege to study various branches of knowledge that they may develop the powers with which they are endowed. Women are useful, not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, make beds, and raise babies, but they may also stand behind the counter, study law and physic [medicine], or become good bookkeepers, and all this to enlarge their sphere or usefulness for the benefit of society at large. In following these things they but answer the design of their creation.” Relations with Indians: “I wish to impress [all] with the necessity of treating the Indians with kindness, and to refrain from harboring the revengeful, vindictive feeling that many indulge in. . . . We exhort you to feed and clothe them so far as it lies in your power. Never turn them away hungry from your door, teach them the arts of husbandry, bear with them in all patience and long suffering, and never consider their lives as equivalent for petty stealing.” On daily toil: “Every human being will find that his happiness very greatly depends upon the work he does, and the doing of it well. Whoever wastes his life in idleness, either because he need not work in order to live, or because he will not live to work, will be a wretched creature, and at the close of a listless existence, will regret the loss of precious gifts and the neglect of great opportunities. Our daily toil, however humble it may be, is our daily duty, and by doing it well we make it a part of daily worship” (Ibid. p. 61). Wise use of natural resources: “You are commencing anew. The soil, the air, the water are all pure and healthy. Do not suffer them to become polluted . . . Strive to preserve the elements from being contaminated. . . . Keep your valleys pure, keep your towns pure, keep your hearts pure, and labor as hard as you can without injuring yourselves.
. . . Build cities, adorn your habitations, make gardens, orchards, and vineyards, and render the earth so pleasant that when you look upon your labors you may do so with pleasure, and that angels may delight to come and visit your beautiful locations.” Brigham’s determination: “We have been kicked out of the frying-pan into the fire, out of the fire into the middle of the floor, and here we are and here we will stay. God has shown me that this is the spot to locate His people, and here is where they will prosper. . . . I have the grit in me and will do my duty anyhow.”
Polygamy. Most commonly referred to as polygamy, the practice among some early Latter-day Saints was more accurately polygyny,the marrying of one man to more than one wife. In fact, it was the practice of this principle among ancient biblical prophets that drove Joseph Smith to inquire of the Lord concerning its contemporary validity, probably as early as 1831. Although it had been revealed to him as a gospel practice, Joseph did not broach the subject publicly for a number of years. Neither was he alone in his hesitancy. Of his feelings at that time, Brigham Young later said: “Some of [you] know what my feelings were at the time Joseph revealed the doctrine; I was not desirous of shrinking from any duty, nor of failing in the least to do as I was commanded, but it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time.”
Upon entering the Salt Lake Valley, the contracting of plural marriages became a topic of much more open discussion and practice, although most Latter-day Saint men never entered into it. It was considered a covenant of the highest order, available only to the faithful who were authorized by the Church president to enter into it. In his lifetime, Brigham Young entered into a spousal relationship with twenty women. Sixteen of those bore him fifty-seven children.
Following his death of peritonitis in 1877, his next few successors would continue the practice, as would a number of faithful saints throughout the region. While it was a doctrinal principle, it was, nevertheless, one considered among the most sacred of covenants: even its height, only a minority of Latter-day Saints ever lived in a plural union.
With the biblical patriarchs as models, direct revelation as incentive, and nothing in the U.S. Constitution clearly proscribing otherwise, the Latter-day Saints lived the law of plural marriages largely unmolested until 1862, when Congressional legislation first intervened. For another twenty years, the Latter-day Saints deflected the intrusion by arguing the free exercise of religion clause in the 2nd Amendment all the way to the Supreme Court. But in 1882, the Edmunds Act, directed clearly and overtly at the Latter-day Saints, barred persons living in plural marriages from jury service, from public office, or from voting.
Five years later, the Edmunds–Tucker Act disincorporated the Church and authorized seizure of Church real estate, threatening even the confiscation of its most sacred buildings, the temples (of which there were then three completed and one, Salt Lake, nearing completion). Women, who had been voting in elections in the territory since 1870, were disenfranchised. More than 1,300 fathers, including many Church leaders, were taken from their homes and imprisoned.
A cloud of anxious fear brooded over the Utah Territory throughout the late 1880s. Third Church President John Taylor died of natural causes while living in exile in 1887. His successor, Wilford Woodruff, watched the funeral procession from behind the veiled windows of the Church historian’s office on South Temple Street. Three years later President Woodruff issued a press release now know as the Manifesto declaring the Church’s official cessation of the practice of plural marriage.
Five and a half years later, Utah became the nation’s 45th state. Attempts have been made by some outside of the Church to link the end of polygamy with some determined political expediency in search of statehood. To suggest that statehood was more to be prized by Latter-day Saints than was a foundational gospel principle is absurd. As declared by President Woodruff some five weeks later, the future of the Church, its very existence, was at stake. “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it … all [temple] ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign … and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us, and leave our Prophets and Apostles and fathers free men, and the temples in the hands of the people … I say to you that that is exactly the condition we as a people would have been in had we not taken the course we have. I saw exactly what would come to pass if there was not something done. But I want to say this: I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of heaven commanded me to do what I did do.”
In 1890, when the Manifesto was issued, there were approximately 2,500 plural families living in the Territory of Utah. Although the Edmunds–Tucker Act attempted to annul all such relationships, illegitimizing both children and wives, the Utah constitution benevolently avoided that. “The ordinance in our state constitution,” wrote Church historian B. H. Roberts some years later, “was adopted in such form and spirit that while future polygamous or plural marriages, were forever prohibited, it contemplated leaving undisturbed the already existing plural marriage relations. Under these circumstances I do not hesitate to say that for Mormon men to abandon the wives they had taken in good faith, who had been induced to accept that relationship under religious persuasion and conviction, would be both cowardly and criminal in the eyes of God and all good and respectable men.” With the natural passing of many polygamists, the number of plural unions began to drop rapidly, although some, contracted in the years before the Manifesto, lasted into the 20th century.
Numerous members of the Church today having pioneer ancestry can trace their roots to such marriages. Since the Manifesto was issued, however, and particularly since 1904, when the Church’s First Presidency issued a second manifesto, any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who has entered into a polygamous union has been subject to excommunication from the Church (expulsion from membership). Although they have no connection whatever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some polygamous groups exist in Utah and elsewhere. Sometimes they are erroneously and misleadingly referred to in the media as Mormon fundamentalists. Such references are confusing. If the term Mormon is commonly though unofficially applied to those who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then referring to polygamists as Mormons is clearly wrong.
As recently as the October 1998 world general conference of the Church, President Gordon B. Hinckley declared categorically that the Church has nothing to do with polygamy, and that proponents of plural marriage are in violation of the law—both God’s and man’s. President Hinckley said that even in countries where polygamy is legal, the Church teaches that marriages must be monogamous and does not accept into its membership those practicing plural marriage.