Brigham Young: An uncommon common man, he rose from obscurity to become mighty

A biography of Brigham Young written in the 1920s began with the non-Mormon author's assertion that "without Brigham Young the Mormons would never have been important . . . but without the Mormons Brigham Young might have been a great man." (M.R. Werner, Brigham Young, p.v.) Such a statement reveals that the otherwise fair-minded author knew little about the Church and less about what lay at the heart of Brigham Young's leadership.

For his part, President Young believed that God had blessed him with needed abilities and directed his successes, and that without the Church, without the Prophet Joseph Smith as mentor, and without divine assistance, he would have been of no special consequence.No doubt many early Saints would have agreed. Though he came into the Church in 1832 with a well of common sense and a reputation for flinty integrity and practical competence, he possessed no formal education, lacked social refinements, was a poor speaker, and had no leadership experience. He did not see himself as a leader of men, nor did others. Because his strengths and inherent abilities lay undeveloped beneath an unpolished exterior, many thought him less promising than others around him.

"God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and . . . the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." (1 Cor. 1:27.) Brigham Young drew strength and comfort when Joseph Smith applied this promise to him and to others selected as members of the new Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835. But the potential the Lord saw was not yet visible to most observers.

Years later Brigham Young recalled that when he and his friend Heber Kimball, the two least polished of the new apostles, met the more educated Saints on the streets of Kirtland, their looks expressed, "What a pity!" that the Lord had not found someone better. Remembering, President Young conceded that his call had been a mystery even to him until he considered that perhaps the alternative to men like himself and Heber were "Big Elders" who could not be taught. When he considered what "consummate blockheads" some of them could be, "I did not deem it so great a wonder." (Journal of Discourses 8:173, hereafter cited JD.) Throughout his life Brigham Young maintained that it was better to be a humble man who knew too little and had to rely on the Lord than a Big Elder who could not be taught.

In February 1835 Joseph Smith promised Brigham and other inexperienced apostles that "even the smallest and weakest among us, shall be powerful and mighty, and great things shall be accomplished by you from this hour." Brigham Young received a specific blessing that he would grow in his calling, "that he might be strong and mighty . . . that he may add ten talents." (History of the Church 2:182, 188, hereafter HC.) Such promises gave him courage despite his timidity. His rise from humble obscurity to become one of the mighty men of Zion provides a case study in the fulfillment of the Lord's promises.

Brigham Young never believed in leaving everything to God, of course. He had full faith that where human efforts proved insufficient, God could and, where vital, would supply the difference. But his theology required that man first do his part. Along with humility to learn, Brigham Young had the tenacity to always do his best. He knew his own deficiencies, but he also knew his strengths, including his great determination to do right regardless of the cost. "When I think of myself," he once said, "I think just this - I have the grit in me." Regardless of difficulties, "I will do my duty and how." (JD 5:97.)

In addition to obedience and constant effort, Brigham Young blossomed as a leader through more than a decade of close attention to his friend and mentor Joseph Smith. "An angel never watched him closer," Brigham insisted in later years. (Discourse, Oct. 8, 1866, Church Archives.) The Prophet Joseph's precepts as well as his actions provided Brigham the model for his own developing skills as leader and teacher.

Brigham Young grew in wisdom, spiritual strength and ability by applying what he learned from Joseph. These things anchored him, providing him roots that he never forgot or abandoned. Observers later in Utah, where he presided as president and governor, spoke of his "plain, simple manners of honesty" and noted the "total absence of pretention in his manner." (Richard F. Burton, The City of the Saints, p. 240.) In a more established society, his lack of polish might have been a liability, but in frontier Utah it contributed materially to the sturdy bond that welded this uncommon common man to his people.

"Brother Brigham" was a very human leader whose foibles as well as strengths the Saints came to know firsthand. He often asked them to sacrifice and they responded, in part because they knew his faith, trusted his judgment and appreciated his vision. He was a leader who said "come" rather than "go." When he asked difficult things of them, Latter-day Saints recognized that he had also sacrificed for the faith they shared - and would do so again. His example called their better selves to the same kind of effort he exhibited.

Still, the rough edges and the imperfections were real, and despite tremendous growth, they did not simply disappear. Given his background and the inescapable realities of mortality, with its attendant frailties, the Saints might be forgiven for fantasizing now and then about a "more perfect" leader.

On occasion grumbling could be heard that somehow the Lord should be able to come up with a better man than this rough, unrefined westerner lacking formal education or sophistication. Is he really the best we can do? Concerned by such talk, one brother took the matter to the Lord in prayer. The result was a vivid dream showing him that even though the Lord will manage affairs somewhat differently when He comes, Brother Brigham was "doing as well as could be expected of any person in the flesh, clothed in mortality, and like all mankind subject to passions and imperfections." (Warren Foote diary, Aug. 20, 1850, Church Archives.)

After the death of the Prophet Joseph, George A. Smith heard a man wish aloud "that brother Brigham was as good a man as Joseph was." To a large audience Elder Smith later announced that if Brother Brigham were one particle better than he is "he could not stay among us, he would have to leave us." He insisted that "the Lord in His mercy has given us a great Prophet and a wise Ruler" under whose direction Israel could prosper. Moreover, "he is just as good a man as we are at present worthy of having in our midst." (JD 2:218.)

Brigham Young was willing to acknowledge that he was not about to be whisked to heaven because he was too perfect to be among them. "There are weaknesses manifested in man that I'm bound to forgive," he said on one occasion. "I am right there myself. I am liable to mistakes, I am liable to prejudice . . . but I am where I can see the light. I try to keep in the light." (Historian's Office journal, April 30, 1860, Church Archives.) One could not find a better practical definition of a prophet.

One aspect of President Young's leadership that the Saints appreciated - unless it was part of a reproof directed against them, which was not uncommon - was his direct, very concrete, and colorful language. In public or in private, his speech and his teaching was full of homespun imagery that left his listeners clear about where he stood.

To help build a viable economy in their new mountain home, President Young negotiated business arrangements to provide jobs and services for the Saints - a contract to improve the mail, for example. A California businessman proposed to Brigham Young a new mail connection with the East. Extolling his extensive eastern contacts, he offered a contract in which he would organize the endeavor and help finance it, but the Mormons would do the work. This would provide a service the Saints needed and were willing to work for, but not necessarily on those terms.

"If this line goes through on your plan," Brigham Young responded, "it has to be done by Mormons, but if we are the bone and sinew and the marrow, we have the brain also. I would not wish to place my friends to do the labor and then when the business is done, they're over-balanced. If we hold the balance of power in hard knocks, we want the balance of power in dictation" as well, he concluded. (Brigham Young minutes, July 27, 1850, Church Archives.)

His language was equally concrete and direct when counseling the Saints privately. When a brother declined to pay on a defaulted note that he had co-signed, Brigham called him into his office. After some discussion, the man reluctantly said that he would "endeavor" to pay. "Endeavoring will not do," responded the President, "you must actually pay." (Brigham Young office journal, Oct. 9, 1859, Church Archives.)

By word and by example Brigham Young frequently reminded his people of several simple messages that were central to how he lived his life. He preached and provided an example of the efficacy of faith and works. "Do your duty before God and God will do the rest. Is life difficult, are you tried, have you had to suffer? May as well suffer now as later," Brigham Young commented, "for you've got it to do." And it was for our good.

Though some were alarmed when sickness struck his family, President Young insisted: "I have as good a right to be sick as any body. I do not wish to escape affliction sickness pain & sorrow no more than others, for if we make a right use of them they will return us blessings." (Wilford Woodruff diary, Feb. 15, 1858, Church Archives.) With scripture, Brigham Young believed and declared: "For after much tribulation . . . cometh the blessing." (D&C 103:12.)

As a leader, Brigham Young learned to move with confidence, secure in the knowledge that neither he nor the Saints were alone. Although his talents multiplied, as promised by the Prophet Joseph in 1835, President Young never lost touch with his humble beginnings - "that in and of myself I am nothing" - and remembered to give the credit to God.

"I have learned that of myself I have no power," he noted, "but my system is organized to increase in wisdom, knowledge, and power getting a little here and a little there." Alone "and my wisdom is foolishness, then I cling close to the Lord and I have power in His name." (JD 1:337-38.) This was the context for his confidence. "I have never particularly desired any man to testify publicly that I am a Prophet," he once said, "but if I am not, one thing is certain, I have been very profitable to this people." (JD 10:339.)


Milestones in life of Brigham Young

Known as the colonizer, Brigham Young established 358 colonies in the Great Basin, beginning July 24, 1847.

March 5, 1849: State of Deseret organized, first constitution adopted.

October 1849: Perpetual Emigrating Fund established to help gather the poor from the nations of the earth.

Dec. 9, 1849: Sunday School organized in Salt Lake City, Utah.

September 1850: Brigham Young was appointed governor of the territory.

1850: Missionary work in the Church took on a wider scope as missions were opened in Scandinavia, France, Italy, Switzerland and Hawaii.

1850: University of Deseret (University of Utah) founded.

1851: Pearl of Great Price published.

Temples started: Salt Lake, Feb. 14, 1853; Manti, April 25, 1871; St. George, Nov. 9, 1871; Logan, May 18, 1877. St. George Temple dedicated, April 6, 1877.

Oct. 9, 1867: Salt Lake Tabernacle dedicated, with first conference held there, Oct. 6, 1867.

Nov. 28, 1869: Young Ladies' Retrenchment Association (now Young Women) organized in Salt Lake City, Utah.

June 10, 1875: YMMIA (now Young Men) organized in Salt Lake City.

Oct. 16, 1875: Brigham Young University founded.

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