Young had a variety of nicknames, among the most popular being "American Moses, (alternatively the "Modern Moses" or the "Mormon Moses") because, like the Biblical figure, Young led his followers, the Mormon pioneers, in an exodus through a desert, to what they saw as a promised land. Young was also dubbed the "Lion of the Lord" for his bold personality, and was commonly called "Brother Brigham" by Latter-day Saints. However, Young's legacy is controversial, as he is perhaps best known outside of Mormon circles as the most prominent Mormon polygamist. He is also largely credited by historians for revoking the priesthood and the right to temple ordinances from black members of the church. While having helped to organize a large religion, as well as the accession of Utah Territory to the United States, concerns persist about his role in the Utah War against the United States government.
He was ordained an apostle and joined the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as one of its inaugural members on February 14, 1835. During the anti-Mormon persecutions in Missouri in the late 1830s, Young suffered the loss of all his property. In 1840 and 1841, he went to England as a missionary; many of those Young converted moved to the United States to join Mormon communities. In the 1840s Young was among those who established the city of Nauvoo, Illinois on the Mississippi River. It became the headquarters of the church and was comparable in size to the city of Chicago at the time.
While in jail awaiting trial for treason charges, Joseph Smith, president of the church, was killed by an armed mob in 1844. Several claimants to the role of church President emerged during the succession crisis that ensued. Before a large meeting convened to discuss the succession in Nauvoo, Sidney Rigdon, the senior surviving member of the church's First Presidency, argued there could be no successor to the deceased prophet and that he should be made the "Protector" of the church. Young opposed this reasoning and motion. Smith had earlier recorded a revelation which stated the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were "equal in authority and power" to the First Presidency, so Young claimed that the leadership of the church fell to the Twelve Apostles. Many of Young's followers would later reminisce that while Young spoke to the congregation, he looked or sounded similar to Joseph Smith, to which they attributed the power of God. For many in attendance at this meeting, this occurrence was accepted as a sign Young was to lead the church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Rigdon became the president of a separate church organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and other potential successors emerged to lead what became other denominations of the movement.
Young's proclamation expounded on a discourse by Orson Pratt on the subject of polygamy earlier that morning:
The doctrine which Orson Pratt discoursed upon this morning was the subject of a revelation anterior to the death of Joseph Smith. It is in opposition to what is received by a small minority of the world; but our people have for many years believed it, though it may not have been practiced by the elders. The original of this revelation has been burnt. William Clayton wrote it down from the Prophet's mouth; it found its way into the hands of Bishop Whitney [father of Smith's 16th wife Sarah Ann Whitney], who obtained Joseph Smith's permission to copy it. Sister Emma burnt the original. I mention this to you because such of you as are aware of the revelation, suppose that it no longer exists. I prophesy to you that the principle of polygamy will make its way, and will triumph over the prejudices and all the priestcraft of the day; it will be embraced by the most intelligent parts of the world as one of the best doctrines ever proclaimed to any people. You have no reason whatever to be uneasy; there is no occasion for your fearing that a vile mob will come hither to trample underfoot the sacred liberty which, by the Constitution of our country, is guaranteed to us. It has been a long time publicly known, and in fact was known during his life, that Joseph had more than one wife. A Senator, a member of Congress, was well aware of it, and was not the less our friend for all that; so much so, as to say that were this principle not adopted by the United States, we would live to see human life reduced to a maximum of thirty years. He said openly that Joseph had hit upon the best plan for re-invigorating men, and assuring a long life to them; and, also, that the Mormons are very good and very virtuous. We could not have proclaimed this principle a few years ago; everything must abide its time, but I am now ready to proclaim it. This revelation has been in my possession for many years, and who knew it? No one, except those whose business it was to know it. I have a patent lock to my writing-desk, and nothing gets out of it that ought not to get out of it. Without the doctrine which this revelation makes known to us, no one could raise himself high enough to become a god.*
During the Mormon flight from Illinois towards Utah in 1847, Brigham Young received a letter informing him of an inter-racial marriage by the son of a prominent black member, Walker Lewis. The letter was written by William Ivers Appleby, a conservative Mormon Elder, and stated:
At Lowell - I found a coloured brother by name of -Lewis- a barber, an Elder in the Church, ordained some years ago by William Smith. This Lewis I was informed has also a son [Enoch] who is married to a white girl [Mary Matilda Webster Lewis]. and both members of the Church there. Now dear Br. I wish to know if this is the order of God or tolerated in this Church ie to ordain Negroes to the Priesthood and allow amalgamation [inter-racial marriage]. If it is I desire to Know, as I have Yet got to learn it.
Appleby had sent the letter to Young at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, but Young was actually in Utah, and therefore did not receive Appleby's missive until the first of December 1847, when he returned to Winter Quarters. Quite coincidentally, Appleby himself arrived in Winter Quarters on December 2. Young read Appleby's letter and then had him personally report to Young and the eight Apostles who were then in Nebraska. According to the minutes of the Quorum of the Twelve for December 3, 1847, Young confided to the Apostles that he would have both Enoch Lovejoy Lewis and his wife Matilda killed "if they were far away from the Gentiles" instead of living in Massachusetts. Young continued,
when they mingle seed it is death to all. If a black man & white woman come to you & demand baptism can you deny them? the law is their seed shall not be amalgamated. Mulattoes r like mules they cant have children, but if they will be Eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake they may have a place in the Temple.
Young later (in 1863) reiterated,
Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so. (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 110)
After settling in Utah in 1848, Brigham Young announced a priesthood ban which prohibited all men of black African descent from holding the priesthood. In connection, Mormons of African descent could not participate in Mormon temple rites such as the Endowment or sealing. These racial restrictions remained in place until 1978, when the policy was rescinded by President of the Church Spencer W. Kimball.
When federal officials received reports of widespread and systematic obstruction of federal officials in Utah (most notably judges), U.S. President James Buchanan decided to install a non-Mormon governor. Buchanan accepted the reports of the judges without any further investigation, and the new non-sectarian governor was accompanied by troops sent to garrison forts in the new territory. The troops passed by the bloody Kansas–Missouri war without intervening in it, as it was not open warfare and only isolated sporadic incidents. When Young received word that federal troops were headed to Utah with his replacement, he called out his militia to ambush the federal column. During the defense of Deseret, now called the Utah War, Young held the U.S. Army at bay for a winter by taking their cattle and burning supply wagons. The Mormon forces were largely successful thanks to Lot Smith, the famous Mormon commando, who outsmarted the Federal army despite being outnumbered by more than a thousand to one. Young made plans to burn Salt Lake City and move his followers to Mexico, but at the last minute he relented and agreed to step down as governor. He later received a pardon from Buchanan. Relations between Young and future governors and U.S. Presidents were mixed.
“It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it [the blood of Christ] can never remit.”
“Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them. You would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the Kingdom of God. I would at once do so, in such a case; and under the circumstances, I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands.... There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it.”
“If you want to know what to do with a thief that you may find stealing, I say kill him on the spot, and never suffer him to commit another iniquity. I will prove by my works whether I can mete out justice to such persons, or not. I would consider it just as much my duty to do that, as to baptize a man for the remission of his sins.”
The time has been in Israel under the law of God, the celestial law, or that which pertains to the celestial law, for it is one of the laws of that kingdom where our Father dwells, that if a man was found guilty of adultery, he must have his blood shed, and that is near at hand.
“Now take a person in this congregation who has knowledge with regard to being saved... and suppose that he has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of that exaltation which he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed he will atone for that sin and may be saved and exalted with the God, is there a man or woman in this house but what would say, ‘shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?’”
“This is loving your neighbour as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it.”
When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world. He is MICHAEL, the Archangel, the ANCIENT OF DAYS! about whom holy men have written and spoken—He is our FATHER and our GOD, and the only God with whom WE have to do. Every man upon the earth, professing Christians or non-professing, must hear it, and will know it sooner or later.
When the Virgin Mary conceived the child Jesus, the Father had begotten him in his own likeness. He was not begotten by the Holy Ghost. And who is the Father? He is the first of the human family.
It is true that the earth was organized by three distinct characters, namely, Eloheim, Yahovah, and Michael, these three forming a quorum, as in all heavenly bodies, and in organizing element, perfectly represented in the Deity, as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Again, they will try to tell how the divinity of Jesus is joined to his humanity, and exhaust all their mental faculties, and wind up with this profound language, as describing the soul of man, "it is an immaterial substance!" What a learned idea! Jesus, our elder brother, was begotten in the flesh by the same character that was in the garden of Eden, and who is our Father in Heaven. Now, let all who may hear these doctrines, pause before they make light of them, or treat them with indifference, for they will prove their salvation or damnation. I have given you a few leading items upon this subject, but a great deal more remains to be told. Now, remember from this time forth, and for ever,that Jesus Christ was not begotten by the Holy Ghost.
Adam was an immortal being when he came. on this earth he had lived on an earth similar to ours… and had begotten all the spirit that was to come to this earth. and Eve our common Mother who is the mother of all living bore those spirits in the celestial world…. Father Adam’s oldest son (Jesus the Saviour) who is the heir of the family is Father Adams first begotten in the spirit World. who according to the flesh is the only begotten as it is written. In his divinity he having gone back into the spirit World. and come in the spirit [glory] to Mary and she conceived for when Adam and Eve got through with their Work in this earth. they did not lay their bodies down in the dust, but returned to the spirit World from whence they came.
“While brother Joseph was referring to the provinces of God, I was led to reflect that there is no act, no principle, no power belonging to the Deity that is purely philosophical. The birth of the Saviour was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood – was begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers.”
“... I believe the Father came down from heaven, as the apostles said he did, and begat the Saviour of the world; for he is the ONLY-begotten of the Father, which could not be if the Father did not actually beget him in person.... I believe the Father came down in His tabernacle and begat Jesus Christ.”
The Latter-day Saints believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They believe in baptism for the remission of sins, personal and by proxy; they believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world; they believe that all who attain to any glory whatever, in any kingdom, will do so because Jesus has purchased it by his atonement.
I can say to you in regard to Jesus and the atonement (it is so written, and I firmly believe in it), that Christ has died for all. He has paid the full debt, whether you receive the gift or not. But if we continue to sin, to lie, steal, bear false witness, we must repent of and forsake that sin to have the full efficacy of the blood of Christ. Without this it will be of no effect, repentance must come, in order that the atonement may prove a benefit to us.
But we should all live so that the Spirit of revelation could dictate and write on the heart and tell us what we should do instead of the traditions of our parents and teachers. But to do this we must become like little children; and Jesus says if we do not we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. How simple it is! Live free from envy, malice, wrath, strife, bitter feelings, and evil speaking in our families and about our neighbors and friends and all the inhabitants of the earth, wherever we meet them. Live so that our consciences are free, clean and clear.
You know that it is one peculiarity of our faith and religion never to ask the Lord to do a thing without being willing to help him all that we are able; and then the Lord will do the rest. I shall not ask the Lord to do what I am not willing to do
The purpose of our life should be to build up the Zion of our God, to gather the House of Israel, bring in the fullness of the Gentiles, restore and bless the earth with our ability and make it as the Garden of Eden, store up treasures of knowledge and wisdom in our own understandings, purify our own hearts and prepare a people to meet the Lord when he comes.
When we conclude to make a Zion we will make it, and this work commences in the heart of each person. When the father of a family wishes to make a Zion in his own house, he must take the lead in this good work, which it is impossible for him to do unless he himself possesses the spirit of Zion. Before he can produce the work of sanctification in his family, he must sanctify himself, and by this means God can help him to sanctify his family.
We should never allow ourselves to teach our children one thing and practice another.
I can pick out scores of men in this congregation who have driven their children from them by using the wooden rod. Where there is severity there is not affection or filial feeling in the hearts of either party; the children would rather be away from father than be with him.
Kind looks, kind actions, kind words, and a lovely, holy deportment...will bind our children to us with bands that cannot easily be broken.
It has never altered my feelings towards individuals, as men or as women, whether they believe as I do nor not. Can you live as neighbors with me? I can with you; and it is not a particular concern of mine whether you believe with me or not.
We have not in our society an aristocratic circle. Whether a brother wears a coon skin cap or a fine beaver hat is all the same to us. If a person is a faithful servant of God we do not object to his coming to meeting, though he has only a piece of buffalo skin to wear on his head. We partake of the Sacrament with him, hail him in the street as a brother and a friend, converse with him, meet him in social parties and greet him as an equal.
Truth commends itself to every honest person, it matters not how simply it is told, and when it is received it seems as though we had been acquainted with it all our lives.
Wait until you have searched and researched and have obtained wisdom to understand what we preach.... If it is the work of God, it will stand.
Our religion has been a continual feast to me. With me it is Glory! Hallelujah! Praise God! instead of sorrow and grief. Give me the knowledge, power, and blessing that I have the capacity of receiving.....
Young was a vehement opponent of inter-racial marriage, and blacks holding the priesthood.
Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.
You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind....Cain slew his brother. Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings. This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin. Trace mankind down to after the flood, and then another curse is pronounced upon the same race-that they should be the "servant of servants;" and they will be, until that curse is removed; and the Abolitionists cannot help it, nor in the least alter that decree. How long is that race to endure the dreadful curse that is upon them? That curse will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof.
If the Government of the United States, in Congress assembled, had the right to pass an anti-polygamy bill, they had also the right to pass a law that slaves should not be abused as they have been; they had also a right to make a law that negroes should be used like human beings, and not worse than dumb brutes. For their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.
Sources have varied on the number of Young's wives due to differences in what observers have considered to be a "wife". There were 55 women that Young was sealed to during his lifetime. While the majority of the sealings were "for eternity", some were "for time only". However, it is suspected that not all of the 55 marriages were conjugal, and Young did not live with a number of his wives or publicly hold them out as wives, which has led to confusion on numbering.
Of his 55 wives, 21 had never been married before; 16 were widows; six were divorced; six had living husbands; and the marital status of six others are unknown.
In 1856, Young built the Lion House to accommodate his sizable family. This building remains a Salt Lake City landmark, together with the Beehive House, another Brigham Young family home. A contemporary of Young wrote: "It was amusing to walk by Brigham Young's big house, a long rambling building with innumerable doors. Each wife has an establishment of her own, consisting of parlor, bedroom, and a front door, the key of which she keeps in her pocket".
At the time of Young's death, 19 of his wives had predeceased him, he was divorced from ten, and 23 survived him, with the status of four unknown. In his will, Young shared his estate with the 16 surviving wives who had lived with him; the six surviving non-conjugal wives were not mentioned in the will.