This is (from a distance due to construction that fenced it off) the grave of Brigham Young.
Born in 1801 in Whittingham, Vermont, Young grew up pretty poor in upstate New York. His mother died of tuberculosis, his father remarried, and he was sent away to apprentice in a trade, learning to be a carpenter, a glazier, and a painter. If only he had stuck to these skills. He even painted a home that later belonged to William Seward. Exciting trivia there!
Young, like so many people in upstate New York, got caught up in the revivals and reform movements of the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s. He was into the Methodist revivals, but thought they weren’t hard core enough. This leads us to the exciting debates over baptism. Is sprinkling water on you OK or do you need full immersion baptism? If you are like me, you might say, who gives a shit? It’s not like the Bible provides any clarity here. But there’s a historical marker in downtown Lexington, Kentucky noting the spot where Henry Clay presided over a 19 day debate on this issue. I can’t even. In any case, while Methodists were sprinkling people, Young wanted to full immersion and forced his way into it.
So it’s not surprising at all that Young would find the Methodists too soft anyway. There were so many weirdo religious movements also around at this time. Any quack could get people to follow him. It reminds one of nothing more than idiots running their stupid communes around the American West in 1967 or 1972 when their ideology seems to be nothing more than free love for me and not for thee. Well, it was like this in the 1820s and 1830s too. Joseph Smith had already claimed to have discovered his noted tablets, even though no one could see them because THEY WERE TOTALLY REAL BUT GOD ONLY LETS ME SEE THEM! Compelling! Young met one of Smith’s early followers and was instantly interested in this new religion.
In 1830, Young first read the Book of Mormon. Somehow, he thought this made a lot of sense. He met Joseph Smith eventually, they talked, and he joined the church officially in 1832. There was some exciting speaking in tongues at this event. As he kept doing this, Smith claimed that Young was imbibing in what he called the “Adamic language.” Ah.
In 1835, Young was ordained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, one of the many Mormon governing bodies. You know that your religion is the true divination of Christ when it happens to replicate early 19th century northerners’ mania for joining things and creating organizational structures. He was supposed to be big into the conversion of Native Americans. Mormons claimed that Native Americans were “Lamanites,” people who are claimed in the Book of Mormon to have settled. They needed to be converted to their natural religion. This caused all kinds of weird contradictions in the early history of Mormonism, especially after they moved to Utah and ran straight into the war and slavery world of the early 19th century Southwest. They couldn’t support genocide exactly since they were in the Book of Mormon, but then they were seen as far from equal and if you bought some slave Native children, well, OK you are just doing your religious duty.
Anyway, Young eventually become Smith’s right-hand man. Not surprisingly, the Mormons were not seen with kindness by other people. After all, plural marriages was…..pretty new! And unlike most of these bonkers religious movements of these years, the Mormons both a) proselytized like crazy and b) grew. Most of the movements that stuck around were more like the Shakers, living off by themselves. And most of the really crazy plural marriage or other free love-based movements tended to die off pretty fast due to being led by lunatics, though it is worth noting that Sojourner Truth was a member of one of the most insane and quite violent movements for awhile in these years. Well, the Mormons certainly tried to live by themselves too, but that was only after the violence that would eventually kill Joseph Smith in their community in Illinois.
In fact, it was Young, an exceptional organizer, who led the move from Missouri to Illinois in 1838. He spent a year in the UK as a missionary and was very successful. Many early Mormon converts were English. Now, it was only in Nauvoo where Smith introduced the idea of plural marriage. This was in 1842. I guess God spoke to him again and told him to fuck some more women. Young performed the ceremony and then snagged a 17 year old of his own to marry. Young would have a total of 56 wives over his life, though some of the women were not considered to be full wives. Early Mormons could be pretty flexible over these arrangements. But at least 26 of them were real full wives. Eight of them were former wives of Smith that he married after his murder. I mean, it’s not that hard to see why people would be hostile to these people. Not saying that murdering Smith was good, but this was pretty fucking crazy.
Young took over the church after Smith’s murder and he quickly sought to lead them out of Illinois and into the American West. They wintered in 1846 in Nebraska before moving to what became Utah in the spring. Here, Young would attempt to start his ultimate utopian community, with him in charge of course. At first, the U.S. government was relatively interested in white Americans moving out to this land just stolen from the Mexicans to expand slavery. The Fillmore administration went so far as to create Utah Territory in 1850 and name Young it’s first governor. Part of the reason is that Young was pro-slavery. He wanted to make Utah a slave state. As he stated in an 1852 sermon, “In as much as we believe in the Bible … we must believe in slavery. This colored race have been subjected to severe curses … which they have brought upon themselves.” He did not shy away from this as the nation moved toward civil war too. In 1859, he called slavery a “divine institution … not to be abolished.”
But despite being a pro-slavery governor in a time when being pro-slavery was good for your political future, things went south very quickly between the Mormons and the federal government. The polygamy was just too much for most Americans. The Buchanan administration decided to crack down and appoint a non-Mormon governor. This led to near war. Buchanan sent the governor out with 2,500 troops and Young called on Mormons to resist. Then, later in 1857. Mormon settlers engaged in a horrifying massacre of whites going to California. In that atmosphere of fear, Mormons thought a wagon train was filled with those wanting to declare war on Mormons. In the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Mormons killed 120 people. They tried to cover it up after that, but Young basically ordered a total silence on the matter and then threw various people under the bus when it served his interests over the years. Eventually, blame fell on a Mormon patriarch named John Lee, who was executed in 1877, but Young had his fingerprints all over this, even if he did not personally do the killing.
What Young did do was act the patriarch. As an effective theocracy, he could have anything he wanted and any woman he wanted and he took them all. He became tremendously fat and eventually had to be carried around by servants. He also took the opportunity to become very wealthy. Mormonism had always been about personal wealth and Young really personified that. To this day, the Mormon Church holds vast business interests across the nation and world, often quite under the radar. For Young, it included railroads, banks, ferrying companies, agricultural businesses, utilities, basically everything that came and went through Utah. He would order different groups of Mormons wherever he wanted them to go, including into the deserts of southern Utah and Nevada, where making a living was sketchy at best. But how could you deny Young? You really could not. He was the ruler of Utah, whatever the federal government wanted to say about it.
As for the theology, it was completely bonkers and much of it was later repudiated by the church in an attempt to gain respectability. The reason the Mormons of southern Utah and northern Arizona are so extreme, continuing to even engage in polygamy, is that they are following Young’s teachings much more than the mainstream Mormon church. Young would teach that Adam was literally the biological father of Jesus, having come back to Earth to impregnate Mary. It was Young who ensconced racism at the center of the Mormon hierarchy, banning Black men from being ministers or missionaries. The church still struggles with this legacy of institutionalized racism today. The more you dig into this stuff, the more bonkers it gets. And yet, this was the one new religion of the Second Great Awakening to survive and it continues to thrive today.
Young basically ruled the church to the end of his life, which was in 1877, when his appendix burst. He was 76 years old.
Brigham Young is buried in the Brigham Young Family Cemetery, Salt Lake City, Utah.
If you would like this series to visit other famous Mormons, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Joseph Smith is in Nauvoo, Illinois and Walker Lewis, one of the first Black Mormons, is in Lowell, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.