With more than 13 million members on six continents, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormon church, is one of the largest religious organizations in the world. But in 1901, when the future Mormon leader Brigham Young was born, the church did not yet exist. Young’s missionary work and leadership, both before and during his time as church president, played an important role in the growth and prosperity of the Mormon community. Seventy years after Young’s death in 1877, church membership had reached one million. Young also was largely responsible for the colonization of Utah, which became the 45th state of the United States in 1896.
Young was born on June 1, 1801, in Whitingham, Vermont. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, also was born in Vermont, in 1805. As children, both Young and Smith moved with their families to New York, where Young eventually would learn about the Mormon faith. Young spent his earliest years on his family’s farm. He attended only about 12 days of school. As a young man, Young worked as a carpenter, glazier, and painter. In 1830, Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon and founded the Church of Christ (later the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in New York. Young, at that time a Methodist, read the Book of Mormon soon after its publication and became interested in Smith’s teachings. In 1832, after a period of thoughtful investigation, he converted to Smith’s faith, the start of a journey that would span the rest of his life.
Young soon demonstrated his dedication to his adopted religion. In 1832, he went to Canada as a missionary. In 1833, he joined a Mormon settlement at Kirtland, Ohio. And in 1834, he traveled with a group to Jackson County, Missouri, to try to take back Mormon lands from hostile non-Mormons. In 1835, Young was made an apostle of the church, one of 12 central church leaders. In 1837, the Kirtland settlement broke up. The next year, Young moved to Missouri, where Smith had gone. But further anti-Mormon sentiment there resulted in the arrest of Smith and other church leaders. Young then led thousands of Mormons to Illinois, where they established a community at Nauvoo. In the early 1840’s, Young worked as a missionary overseas in England, and at home in New England. He had great success, converting many people in England and arranging for them to migrate to the United States. In 1841, Smith made Young president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the governing body of the Mormon church.
Smith was killed by a mob in Illinois in 1844, and Young in effect became head of the church. In 1846, facing yet more anti-Mormon sentiment in Illinois, Young led his followers on a long journey west. They settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley in what is now Utah in 1847, and Young formally was elected president of the church. Under Young’s leadership, the Mormons prospered in Utah. The U.S. government established the Territory of Utah in 1850 and made Young its first governor. In 1858, following a conflict with the U.S. government, Young stepped down as governor. But he remained an extremely powerful man in Utah until his death on Aug. 29, 1877.
Critics have accused Young of intolerance to opposition. Many people opposed his practice of polygyny (having multiple wives at once). But Young’s leadership and pioneering efforts rank him as a great colonizer of the American West and as the architect of a firmly rooted Mormon community. Mormon history records that Young brought 100,000 people to the mountain valleys, founded hundreds of settlements, and established many schools and factories. A statue of Young represents Utah in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Regarding his own reputation, Young has been quoted as saying, “I care nothing about my character in this world. I do not care what men say about me. I want my character to stand fair in the eyes of my Heavenly Father.”