When Joseph Smith was born, 172 years ago this December 23, Brigham Young was already an active boy of nearly five, sharing his parents’ struggles for survival on the western frontier. Brigham, like Joseph, was born in Vermont. But in 1803, when Brigham was only two, he was taken to a homestead about 100 miles east of Palmyra, New York, where Joseph’s family would move in 1815. By the time Joseph had his first vision in 1820, as a boy of 14, Brigham was an established craftsman in Auburn, about 50 miles from Palmyra. And when the Book of Mormon was published and the Church organized in 1830, Brigham Young heard rumors of these events—and soon read the Book of Mormon—because he was by then supporting his family with a carpentry mill at Mendon, only 13 miles away.
The two latter-day prophets finally met in 1832, shortly after Brigham Young’s baptism. They were not separated again, except by Brigham’s journeys to preach the restored gospel, until the Prophet was martyred in 1844 and Brigham was called to take his place. But even then President Young continued to see himself as what he called “an Apostle of Joseph Smith,” a “witness” of his work, called to carry out the visions and plans of the great founding Prophet of the Restoration.1 He had come to know the Savior, had felt the Holy Spirit like fire in his bones, and had learned to be a prophet himself—in large part because of the way the Lord had been able to use Joseph Smith as a model and teacher. And he felt a deep and lasting emotional tie, was even visited on occasion by Joseph in his dreams. Finally, just before Brigham Young died, 100 years ago last August 29, after a painful illness that lasted five days, his daughter Zina reports that he was taken from his canopy bed and placed before an open window in the Beehive House where he could get better air: “He seemed to partially revive, and opening his eyes, he gazed upward, exclaiming: ‘Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!’ … This name was the last word he uttered.”2
Brigham Young, like many other early Mormons, traveled hundreds of miles to meet the man whose revelations had already profoundly changed his life. With his closest friend and fellow craftsman, Heber C. Kimball, he went from Mendon, New York, to Kirtland, Ohio, and found the Prophet felling trees and chopping wood behind his father’s home, where he was living: “Here my joy was full at the privilege of shaking the hand of the Prophet of God, and received the sure testimony, by the Spirit of prophecy, that he was all that any man could believe him to be, as a true prophet.”3 From that first handclasp Brigham began to be bound, heart, mind, and spirit to Joseph, whom he came to accept without reservation not only as the spokesman for God in his generation but as his own most powerful, personal model among men. In a letter to a non-Mormon friend he had known in Port Byron in the 1820s, he wrote, nearly ten years after Joseph Smith was killed:
“In 1833 I moved to Ohio where I became acquainted with Joseph Jr. and remained familiarly acquainted with him in private councils and in his public work and acts until the day of his death, and I can truly say that I invariably found him to be all that any people could require a true prophet to be, and that a better man could not be. …”4
The Prophet’s physical strength and vigor, his hearty frontier directness and good humor, and above all his penetrating prophetic gifts—all this appealed immediately to Brigham the carpenter. But the Prophet’s unique combination of strength and tenderness, of diverse physical, mental, and spiritual qualities, was new to many, including Brigham Young, and though he and others were deeply attracted, some only saw the human element. Brigham, too, was aware that Joseph was indeed human, a man he could therefore genuinely identify with and try to be like with some hope of success, but he also knew how the divine calling from God made the Prophet different:
“Though I admitted in my feelings and knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults.
“… I never had the feeling for one moment, to believe that any man or set of men or beings upon the face of the whole earth had anything to do with him, for he was superior to them all, and held keys of salvation over them. Had I not thoroughly understood this and believed it, I much doubt whether I should ever have embraced what is called ‘Mormonism.’ …
“It was not my prerogative to call him in question with regard to any act of his life. He was God’s servant, and not mine. … That was my faith, and it is my faith still.”5
It was that faith, confirmed by the Holy Spirit, that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, chosen and directed by God, that allowed Brigham to stand as a rock of loyalty when tides of apostasy and persecution swirled around Joseph in Ohio and Missouri. It sustained him when he was suddenly left in charge of the desperate winter exodus, after the Prophet and most of the other leaders were imprisoned in Missouri. It enabled him to lead the great missionary journey of the apostles to England and to recognize and grow under the divine callings that increasingly came to him through Joseph until he received the Prophet’s mantle itself in August 1844. That faith became the knowledge that he himself was called of God and empowered Brigham Young, though perfectly conscious of his own human frailties, forcefully and confidently to lead the pioneers into a stark desert wilderness, to move them to great sacrifices in order to build there the kingdom of God, and from that base to take the gospel to all parts of the earth.
Brigham’s desire after meeting the Prophet was to be like him, and because of his loyalty and ability to learn from Joseph Smith, he did in fact become much like him. A major reason he succeeded was that he always remembered the source of Joseph’s greatness—the Prophet had accepted a call from the Savior to be His spokesman, and he taught and lived the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1865 President Young said, “I honor and revere the name of Joseph Smith. I delight to hear it; I love it. I love his doctrine.”6 In 1843 he said to the Saints at Nauvoo:
“Who is the author of this work and gathering? Joseph Smith, the Prophet, as an instrument in the hands of God, is the author of it. He is the greatest man on earth. No other man, at this age of the world, has power to assemble such a great people from all the nations of the earth, with all their varied dispositions, and so assimilate and cement them together that they become subject to rule and order. This the Prophet Joseph is doing. He has already gathered a great people who willingly subject themselves to his counsel, because they know it is righteous.”7
Brigham Young began to develop rapidly toward his own foreordained role as a prophet the night in October 1832 when he first met Joseph and began to “subject [himself] to his counsel.” He and Heber C. Kimball were invited to stay for supper and for a regular, informal gathering of the Church leaders in Kirtland. There they “conversed together upon the things of the kingdom.” Brigham was asked to give the closing prayer, during which he was moved to speak in tongues. This was a spiritual gift the Prophet had not witnessed before; in fact, he had strongly warned against certain over-enthusiastic and unedifying cases of such expression at frontier camp meetings he had heard about, and the brethren thought he would condemn this manifestation. But when they asked him about it after Brigham left, he said, “No, it is of God, and the time will come when Brigham Young will preside over this Church.”8
This new convert, with little education and little experience at leading or teaching others, had much to learn. But he learned fast, in good part because of the witness he received of Joseph Smith’s calling and the loyalty which that inspired in him.
After spending most of the winter and spring on missionary journeys to Canada, “Elder Young,” as he was now often called, along with Heber C. Kimball, responded to the revelation the Prophet had received calling the Saints to gather at Kirtland. Apparently some of the others who gathered there had difficulty finding the right kind of employment or in getting paid on time, so, contrary to counsel, they went off to surrounding towns for the winter. But as Brigham later remembered, “I told them I had gathered to Kirtland because I was so directed by the Prophet of God, and I … was going to stay here and seek the things that pertained to the kingdom of God by listening to the teachings of his servants, and I should work for my brethren and trust in God and them that I would be paid.”9
Brigham Young not only managed to get along that winter in Kirtland with his carpentry, but he began to develop a close relationship with the Prophet. He learned from him in direct conversation and let his own spirit expand and his emotions mature and blossom under the influence of such a powerful model. He also impressed the Prophet and thus was asked to participate in the Zion’s Camp march to the aid of the Missouri Saints the next summer and performed that harrowing journey with exemplary loyalty to the Prophet’s leadership. The next year he was chosen by the Lord to be one of the first Quorum of Twelve Apostles.
As an apostle, Elder Young was to look back on Zion’s Camp as especially dear to him for the privilege it brought of being close to the Prophet and learning from him day by day. The young Church President’s organization of the camp on the same plan Moses had used—by tens, then fifties, and then hundreds—impressed Brigham as inspired of the Lord and powerfully effective, and he used the plan four years later when he was suddenly faced with evacuating 15,000 Saints from Missouri. He used it again when he organized the system for emigrating shiploads of Saints from Europe and again when he led the great exodus from Nauvoo. And all his life he fondly remembered Zion’s Camp and similar opportunities to learn from the Prophet that followed:
“In the days of the Prophet Joseph, such moments were more precious to me than all the wealth of the world. No matter how great my poverty—if I had to borrow meal to feed my wife and children—I never let an opportunity pass of learning what the Prophet had to impart.”10
Though often away on missions over the next few years, Elder Young had many opportunities for such learning. He learned directly through the revelations Joseph Smith constantly received and in the School of the Prophets—and more indirectly through such experiences as seeing the overwhelming spiritual outpourings when the Temple at Kirtland was dedicated in early 1836.
But by the next year the young apostle’s loyalty was tested. He told the Saints in 1857, “Once in my life I felt a want of confidence in brother Joseph Smith. … It was not concerning religious matters … but it was in relation to his financiering.”11 As part of the great national “Panic of 1837,” the Kirtland Anti-banking Society—in which many of the Church members had invested—failed, and Joseph was blamed. Many apostatized, and others wavered for a time; in fact, Joseph was later to lament that among the original Twelve, only Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young did not ever “lift their heel against me.”12 The reason Brigham Young remained true, he later testified, was that after his momentary doubt, he immediately recognized his mistake:
“A feeling came over me that Joseph was not right in his financial management, though I presume the feeling did not last 60 seconds, and perhaps not 30. It gave me sorrow of heart. … I repented of my unbelief, and that too, very suddenly, I repented about as quickly as I committed the error.”13
As President Young later recorded: “During this siege of darkness, I stood close by Joseph, and with all the wisdom and power God bestowed upon me, put forth my utmost energies to sustain the servant of God and unite the Quorums of the Church.”14 At one time he offered to “cow-hide” a man who came into Kirtland and shouted through the streets in the middle of the night that Joseph had been “cut off” and he was to take the Prophet’s place. Once he learned of a plan to ambush and kill the Prophet who was returning from Michigan in a stagecoach, and he saved Joseph’s life by riding out to get him off the stage, substituting William Smith as a decoy while they escaped. At the height of the crisis, his vigorous defense of the Prophet succeeded in thwarting attempts to depose Joseph as President. In fact, because of this, Elder Young had to flee the city for his life in December even before the Prophet had to leave. Later he commented concerning this time, “When I saw a man stand in the path before the Prophet to dictate him, I felt like hurling him out of the way and branding him as a fool.”15
Brigham Young again and again demonstrated to the Prophet not only tenacious loyalty but the courage and competence and spiritual power to succeed in increasingly difficult crises and assignments—not only to succeed by some general human standard of success but to measure up to Joseph Smith’s prophetic vision: He got the Saints out of Missouri by putting the Church leaders, and then the people, under covenant that no one would go unless all, no matter how poor or weak, could go also and by returning many times himself to bring others out.16 He returned to Far West with the Twelve, in mortal danger after Governor Boggs’ “Extermination Order” had gone into effect, to fulfill to the letter Joseph’s earlier revelation requiring them to take leave from the Saints at the Temple site for their mission to England. And he led the apostles in England to a degree of success that fulfilled the Prophet’s high expectations.
The Church President was inspired in August 1841, after the Twelve returned from England, to give them new assignments—“the settling of the immigrants and the business of the Church at the stakes,” and the commission “to bear off the kingdom in all the world.” This accelerated the process that prepared Brigham Young to be Joseph Smith’s eventual successor and the Saints to accept him as such. That fall and the next year, the Prophet met more and more frequently with the Twelve in council and delegated to them an increasing amount of ecclesiastical and economic responsibility and power: calling them to help with the ingathering to Nauvoo and to assign and supervise missionaries; giving them authority to gather funds for the temple, etc., and to organize the 380 traveling elders sent to counter the attacks on the Prophet and the Church by apostates; and finally in 1844, asking them to organize and participate in his campaign for President of the United States, and thus to travel in the spring and summer of 1844 preaching both his political views and the restored gospel—which is why they were away from Nauvoo when he was killed on June 27.
Elder Young played a central role in this development of the Quorum, constantly increasing in wisdom and ability and in the Prophet’s confidence. By late 1841, Brigham, as head of the Quorum, became generally known as “President Young” and seems to have gradually become more close in counsel to the Prophet. He was the one to take the Church President’s place when he had to be in hiding and was in every practical sense the second in command. As early as the summer of 1842 there are entries in Brigham Young’s “Manuscript History” like the following:
“June 9—Rode out with the Prophet, and looked at lands the Church had for disposal.
“July 31—Attended council with the Prophet and others. In the month of July I attended councils, waited upon the immigrants; and as President Joseph Smith kept concealed from his enemies, I had continual calls from the brethren for counsel, which occupied much of my time.”17
But the relationship was not merely ecclesiastical. When President Young returned from his ingathering mission in the fall of 1842, he was struck with a terrible illness that nearly killed him. The Prophet administered to him, prophesied that he would live, and then personally cared for him, sitting with him for hours, carefully instructing and supervising his attendants for many days during the crisis period. Brigham said much later concerning this time, “I used to think, while Joseph was living, that his life compared well with the history of the Savior.”18
One of the Savior’s central qualities that the Prophet taught Brigham Young was what the Lord had called, in an earlier revelation, “love unfeigned.” (D&C 121:41.) This kind of love is perhaps best revealed in those two prophets’ most unreserved expressions, their personal letters to their wives. Historian Richard Bushman has commented on Joseph Smith’s difference from other prominent public figures, “who become so absorbed in their public life that their private life is neglected.” Though the Prophet was deeply involved in “the good of the people, the fight against evil, etc. … he still drew back to his family and there obtained his deepest satisfactions.”19 Joseph’s tender letters from Liberty Jail to Emma, with stirring, unreserved messages of love to each child, show well the quality of soul that Brigham learned. Here is Brigham writing to his wife Mary Ann on June 12, 1844, when he was traveling to the East on his last mission:
“My beloved wife, while I am waiting for a boat to go to Buffalo, I improve a few moments in writing to you. … This is a pleasant evening on the Lake but I feel lonesome; O that I had you with me this summer, I think I should be happy. Well, I am now because I am in my calling and doing my duty, but the older I grow the more I desire to stay at my own home instead of traveling. …
“How I want to see you and [the children]. Kiss them for me and Luny [their youngest] twice or more. Tell her it is for me. Give my love to all the family. … I do feel to bless you in the name of the Lord.”20
Only two weeks later, on June 27, the Prophet was killed. Brigham did not learn of Joseph’s death for three weeks, but he then remembered his experience on the day of the martyrdom while sitting in the depot in Boston, waiting for the train to Salem: “I felt a heavy depression of spirit, and so melancholy I could not converse with any degree of pleasure.”21 He had seen newspaper accounts of the assassination on July 9 but had discounted them because of the current sensationalism in the press about Mormonism. Then, on July 16, while in Petersboro, New Hampshire, with other apostles, he read a letter from Nauvoo that gave details of the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. He roused himself from despair, decided on a course of action, and returned to Boston the next day to take the Twelve back to Nauvoo. But first, as Wilford Woodruff recounts:
“Elder Brigham Young arrived in Boston this morning. I walked with him to 57 Temple Street and called upon Sister Vose. Brother Young took the bed and gave vent to his feelings in tears. I took the big chair, and veiled my face, and for the first time gave vent to my grief and mourning for the Prophet. …”22
Nearly a month later, shortly after the great meeting where he and the rest of the Quorum of the Twelve were sustained to lead the Church, President Young wrote to his daughter back in Massachusetts:
“It has been a time of mourning. The day that Joseph and Hyrum were brought in from Carthage to Nauvoo, it was judged by many, both in and out of the Church, that there were more than five barrels of tears shed. I cannot bear to think anything about it.”23
But besides the ability to grieve deeply at this tragic personal loss, President Young had learned from the Prophet how to cope with new responsibilities and to move ahead with courage. He recovered quickly from the fear, felt by many of the Saints who were totally surprised by the death of the Prophet, that the Church’s religious authority had died with him:
“The first thing which I thought of [when the letter was read] was, whether Joseph had taken the keys of the kingdom with him from the earth; brother Orson Pratt sat on my left; we were both leaning back on our chairs. Bringing my hand down on my knee, I said, the keys of the kingdom are right here with the Church.”24
Although severely wounded with grief and beset with major problems that made the going anything but smooth, from that time President Young acted with inspired single-mindedness and effectiveness to shepherd the stunned Church and unite it under the authority of the Twelve, as he was certain Joseph had intended. He led the apostles back from the East on August 6, amid rumors that some of the mob were still lying in wait to kill them. They found that Sidney Rigdon, the only remaining official member of the First Presidency, had returned from Pittsburgh, where he had gone over a year before when a rift had developed between him and the Prophet. Now he was claiming the right to act as guardian of the Church for Joseph. The President of the Quorum acted swiftly to unify the leaders, and then the body of the Saints, against this and other claims that threatened the Church with disintegration. The next morning he met with all the apostles at the home of John Taylor, who was still recovering from terrible wounds received at the martyrdom, and then in the afternoon with all the Church leaders at the Seventies’ Hall, where he effectively rebutted Sidney Rigdon’s claims. With inspired assurance Elder Young moved to the next day a general meeting that had been called for a week later and there brought about an orderly and unifying succession of leadership. As he described it to his daughter in that letter of August already quoted:
“The Brethren were overjoyed to see us come home, for they were little children without a father, and they felt so, you may be sure. All things are now reviving up again. The brethren prayed with all faith for us to return. … I have been in council almost all the time since I arrived here. But this much I can say, the spirit of Joseph is here, though we cannot enjoy their persons. Through the great anxiety of the Church there was a conference held last Thursday [August 8]. The power of the priesthood was explained and the order thereof, on which the whole Church lifted up their voices and hands for the Twelve to move forward and organize the Church and lead it as Joseph led it, which is our indispensable duty to do.”
All things were, in fact, “reviving up again,” despite the unsettled conditions only a few days earlier, and the process was successful mainly because through the power of the Lord “the spirit of Joseph” did indeed manifest itself in remarkable, to many witnesses even miraculous, ways.
There is much evidence—from Brigham Young’s own account of the meeting, from the record of the speech he gave there, and from the accounts of others—that he spoke in a new voice that day, yet one that was familiar to those who knew Joseph Smith. In his own diary Brigham recorded:
“This day is long to be remembered by me. … Now Joseph is gone, it seemed as though many wanted to draw off a party and be leaders. But this cannot be. The Church must be one or they are not the Lord’s; the saints looked as though they had lost a friend that was able and willing to counsel them in all things; in this time of sorrow … I arose and spoke to the people. My heart was swollen with compassion towards them and by the power of the Holy Ghost, even the spirit of the prophets, I was enabled to comfort the hearts of the Saints. … I laid before them the order of the Church and the power of the priesthood. After a long and laborious talk of about two hours in the open air with the wind blowing, the Church was of one heart and one mind. They wanted the Twelve to lead the Church as Br. Joseph had done in his day.”25
The speech shows that Brigham Young indeed had the “spirit of the prophets,” that through the power of the Holy Ghost he spoke with a new sense of authority that both recalled to the people their lost Prophet and yet encouraged them to look forward to the great destiny of the Lord’s Church that had been restored:
“Attention all! … For the first time in my life, for the first time in your lives, … without a prophet at our head, do I step forth to act in my calling in connection with the Quorum of the Twelve, as Apostles of Jesus Christ, … who are ordained and anointed to bear off the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world. …
“You did not know who you had amongst you. … He loved you unto death—you did not know it until after his death; he has now sealed his testimony with his blood. There is much to be done. … as for myself I am determined to build up the kingdom of God. …
“Brother Joseph the Prophet has laid the foundation for a great work and we will build upon it. … There is an almighty foundation laid, and we can build a kingdom such as there never was in the world.”26
Wilford Woodruff recounted, long after, “Just as quick as Brigham Young rose in that assembly, his face was that of Joseph Smith— … the power of God that was upon Joseph Smith was upon him, he had the voice of Joseph.”27
This miraculous descent of the mantle of the Prophet upon Brigham Young was later recalled by many who were in the audience,28 but the crucial thing was that whatever they remembered of the miraculous was confirmed in the following months by the reality of President Young’s leadership as he did in very fact become a Joseph—a clearly inspired prophet—to his people. As William Burton wrote the next May: “But [Joseph’s and Hyrum’s] places were filled by others much better than I once supposed they could have been, the spirit of Joseph appeared to rest upon Brigham.”29
The spirit of Joseph—the prophetic voice and power from the Lord—continued with Brigham as he encouraged the Saints to complete the temple and develop the city, even in warning him against his natural tendency to push the people too hard. On August 17, 1845, he records: “This morning I dreamed I saw brother Joseph Smith and as I was going about my business he says, ‘Brother Brigham don’t be in a hurry’—this was repeated the second and third time, when it came in a degree of sharpness.”30 Another dream of Joseph, again carrying a plea responsive to the special needs of the time, came to Brigham over a year later in Winter Quarters, as he was preparing for the great trek west:
“I dreamed that I saw Joseph sitting in a room in the South-West corner near a bright window and he sat in a chair with his feet both on the lower round. I took him by the hand and kissed him on both cheeks and wanted to know why we could not be together as we once were.
“He said that it was all right that we should not be together yet. We must be separated for a season. … Joseph said, do you be sure and tell the people one thing … that it is all important for them to keep the Spirit of the Lord, to keep the quiet Spirit of Jesus.”31
As Nauvoo rapidly developed under the Apostle’s leadership into a lovely, progressive city, admired by gentile visitors during the period of peace following the martyrdom, President Young began to refer to it as the “City of Joseph.” But when he saw the resistance to renewed mob activity that began in September 1845 would lead only to continuing bloodshed, he set his face like flint to the West and the unfinished business of building the kingdom. He had caught the vision of the ensign to the nations, to be established in the tops of the mountains, from the Prophet himself. When the time came, he turned from Joseph’s city, where the Prophet was buried, from his own new home, even from the temple without reluctance, to begin the new task. His apprenticeship was over; he was now speaking under the Spirit’s direction, with his own prophetic voice such as in the Lord’s revelation to him concerning the trek west:
“Let the companies be organized with captains of hundreds, captains of fifties, and captains of tens, with a president and his two counselors at their head, under the direction of the Twelve Apostles.
“And this shall be our covenant—that we will walk in all the ordinances of the Lord.
“When the companies are organized let them go to with their might, to prepare for those who are to tarry.
“Thou shalt be diligent in preserving what thou hast, that thou mayest be a wise steward; for it is the free gift of the Lord thy God, and thou art his steward.
“If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
“If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful.
“Fear not thine enemies, for they are in mine hands and I will do my pleasure with them.
“For they killed the prophets, and them that were sent unto them; and they have shed innocent blood, which crieth from the ground against them.
“Therefore, marvel not at these things, for ye are not yet pure; ye can not yet bear my glory; but ye shall behold it if ye are faithful in keeping all my words that I have given you, from the days of Adam to Abraham, from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Jesus and his apostles, and from Jesus and his apostles to Joseph Smith, whom I did call upon by mine angels, my ministering servants, and by mine own voice out of the heavens, to bring forth my work;
“Which foundation he did lay, and was faithful; and I took him to myself.
“Many have marveled because of his death; but it was needful that he should seal his testimony with his blood that he might be honored and the wicked might be condemned.” (D&C 136:3–4, 6, 27–30, 36–39.)
Brigham Young never forgot from whom, by the grace of God, he had learned to speak and what the central message was. His words to the Saints in 1855 are good ones for us to consider on Joseph Smith’s birthday:
“I feel like shouting Hallelujah all the time when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet whom the Lord raised up and ordained, and to whom He gave keys and power to build up the Kingdom of God on earth and sustain it. These keys are committed to this people, and we have power to continue the work that Joseph commenced, until everything is prepared for the coming of the Son of Man. This is the business of the Latter-day Saints, and it is all the business that we have on hand.”32