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It has been said that in order to be a good leader one has to be a good follower. Perhaps there is not a better example of that idea in American history than in the case of Brigham Young.
June 1, 1801 – August 29, 1877
When Joseph and Hyrum Smith were murdered in 1844, the enemies of the Mormons were satisfied that the end of “Mormonism” would soon follow. However, they failed to understand the deep conviction and faith possessed by the majority of the Latter-day Saints, and they underestimated Brigham Young. The Mormons believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet, but they also believed in his message of the restored “Kingdom of God on the Earth” or “Zion.” Just as God replaced Moses with Joshua, the Mormon faithful expected God to provide a new inspired leader for them. Brigham Young would lead his people to a new Zion in the Rocky Mountains and build, upon the foundation that Joseph Smith laid, the “Kingdom of God.”
Brigham Young, from the very first time that he met Joseph Smith, was his staunchest supporter and most faithful follower. When his prophet called on Young to join him and 205 other members on a march from Kirtland, Ohio, to Jackson County, Missouri, to give aid to fellow Saints who had been forced from their homes by mob violence, Young happily followed. During this march that was known as “Zion’s Camp,” Joseph Smith watched and evaluated his men. Shortly thereafter, Smith chose many of the next tiers of leaders for his fledgling church. Young was chosen to be a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. Eventually he would rise to be President of the Quorum. When Smith and other church leaders were arrested in Missouri and the Mormons were forced to leave the state under the Governor’s extermination order, it fell to Young to organize the Saint’s removal to Illinois. When called by Smith to lead a mission to England in 1840, Young left his sickly family (he was quite ill also) in the hands of his church and faithfully traveled to the British Isles. Under Young’s direction, thousands of English families converted to the Mormon faith and, as soon as they could, left for “Zion.”
It was on a similar mission to the Eastern United States in the summer of 1844 that Young learned that his prophet and friend had been murdered. Young hurried home to Nauvoo to find the Saints in confusion and many competing for a place as their new leader. As he spoke to the members in a church gathering, many upon hearing him speak thought that they heard the voice of Joseph Smith. Feeling that the “mantle of Joseph” had fallen on him, the vast majority of the Saints accepted Brigham Young’s leadership and followed him as faithfully as they had their beloved Prophet Joseph.
Young was a master organizer. In a few short years, he directed the orderly migration of 10,000 of the Latter-day Saints to the Salt Lake Valley. Amongst the first to arrive in the valley, Young declared that “this is the right place.” From Salt Lake City, he sent pioneers all over the Mountain West to build Mormon settlements. From California to Colorado and from Canada to Mexico, Mormons built towns and cities that would, a short time later, ease the further migration of non-Mormon Americans westward.
Young served as the first territorial Governor of Utah until President Buchanan replaced him with Georgian and Non-Mormon Alfred Cumming in 1857. Young had initially petitioned, the territory having met the Constitutional requirements, for Statehood for the State of Desseret. The petition was turned down, however, because of the Mormon Church’s stand on polygamy. Utah would not be welcomed into the Union until 1896 (after the church repealed polygamy).
Fearing that Mormon Church leaders doubling as territorial government leaders was a threat to the rest of the country, Eastern enemies of the Mormons lobbied the President to install Non-Mormons as judges. When the judges complained that the Mormons were in rebellion (Mormons preferred to turn to their Bishops and Stake Presidents for judgments), Buchanan ordered General Albert Sidney Johnston to march his army to Utah to put down the “rebellion” (Johnston, ironically, fought with the rebellious South in the Civil War). Young, fearing yet another case of government sponsored terrorism against his people prepared the saints to defend themselves. Young planned and directed guerilla attacks on army supply trains as the made their way through the mountains. His “mountain boys” burned the supply wagons but were careful to avoid bloodshed. The Mormons were prepared, under Young’s direction, to burn their own homes and fields rather than to allow them to be taken and enjoyed by their enemies again. When the U.S. army finally reached the Salt Lake Valley, they were hungry and not very eager for a serious confrontation. Governor Cummings, who arrived with Johnson’s army, soon realized that the reports of the federal judges that the Mormons were in rebellion were false and peace was restored. Young had waged a bloodless “war” against the United States Army and the Mormons were able to profit from it. The occupation of the territory by federal troops was a boon to the local economy.
Though Young never again held political office, his was the most powerful influence on his people. The government without his approval could accomplish nothing. It was Brigham Young that directed the vast majority of the pioneer efforts throughout the Mountain West. Indians in the area, because of favorable experience in negotiations with him, trusted Young and preferred the Mormons to others that came to dwell amongst them. Except for the infamous “Mountain Meadows Massacre,” the Mormons, now the decided majority in Utah, lived peaceably with their Non-Mormon neighbors. Although they had rarely experienced religious tolerance at the hands of others, Young taught his people to be tolerant of other religions.
By the time of his death in 1877 he had finally brought the church that Joseph Smith had organized to a place of peace and prosperity. It was now possible for the Latter-day Saints to worship and live as their conscience dictated (except, of course, for the doctrine of polygamy). Just as Joshua finished Moses’ work by leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, Brigham Young had finished Joseph Smith’s work and led his people into their Promised Land. Brigham Young must have died satisfied that the enemies of Joseph Smith and “Mormonism” had failed. The last words he spoke as he expired were “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” (Allen and Leonard, p. 381)
Allen, James B. and Leonard, Glen M. The Story of the Latter-day Saints. Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah.