“Brigham Young”


"Now Brigham Young (is/was) a Mormon bold" with "five and forty wives." He leads the Mormon citizens of "Great Salt Lake, Where they breed and swarm like hens on a farm." Most of the song describes how Young's wives have sapped his vigor


In defense of Young (if not of Mormon doctrines of polygamy, which reportedly are still secretly practiced in some circles, resulting in severe inbreeding), it should be noted that he was a forceful and effective leader who successfully founded the Mormon colony in Utah, allowing the faith to survive despite severe persecution.

Sally Denton, _American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 11, 1857_ (Secker & Warburg, 2003) gives a brief account of Young's early life starting on page 32. Young was one of several children of John Young, a revolutionary war veteran. The family moved to Whitingham, Vermont, in 1801, and Brigham was born later that year. The family quickly fell into poverty; that, plus severe family discipline, seemed to forge a strong determination in Brigham.

Very handsome in his early years, he first married in 1824, and watched in despair as his wife sickened and he failed to prosper. Then his brother Phinehas gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon, just recently published. In 1832, Brigham was baptised into the Mormon church. He met Mormon founder Joseph Smith later in that year, and once his wife died, Young became one of Smith's key assistants. By this time, the Mormons were starting on their wanderings. When Smith was killed in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844, the church was twice in crisis: It had no leader and it was finding it almost impossible to find a home.

The contest to succeed Smith ended in what was reported as a miracle. Denton, pp. 30-31, reports that "When [Young] opened his mouth to speak, it was not his voice that emanated, according to many of those in the audience, but a voice uncannily like that of Joseph Smith. Many in the crow rushed the platform to see if their prophet had risen from the dead, only to be further mystified by the same 'supernatural radiance' that had enveloped Smith now illuminating Young." Stegner's version of this (p. 34) is that Young took on the appearance and voice of Smith. Bernard DeVoto, in _The Year of Decision: 1846_ (Little, Brown and Company, 1943), p. 77, concurs: "[T]he Saints beheld a transfiguration. [Young's] pudgy body suddenly became the tall, handsome, commanding body of the martyred prophet." Combine that with good organizing ability, and Young naturally became head of the Mormons.

Not everyone accepted this, to be sure, including many of Smith's relatives. Many who did not accept Young would coalesce into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints; Denton, p. 37. This group is largely concentrated in southern Missouri. A member of the group tells me that while they still use the Book of Mormon and other Smith-related writings -- in editions slightly different from those used by the "regular" Mormons -- they generally fall closer to orthodox Christianity DeVoto, p. 77, mentions some other splinters that broke off the main body of the church: "all told these half dozen, dividing by mitosis, were to form over twenty minute churches, each one the true apostolic succession from the prophet."

But the majority of the Mormons, though, accepted Young. "This was a much greater man than Joseph. Instead of a man drunk on deity... who could produce no effective leadership, no effective government, no effective social organization, there had come to lead the Church out of the land of Egypt one of the foremost intelligences of the time, the first American who learned how to colonize the desert" (DeVoto, p. 77).

Young gradually consolidated his position, and in 1847 had a revelation which caused him to order his people to head for Utah (Denton, pp. 54-55). The land was so poor that Young was forced to change the Mormon economy, already rather socialist, into something approaching a Leninist centrally-directed communism (Denton, pp. 59-60). Unlike Russian Leninism, though, Young made his version work -- perhaps because he ran it himself, with fewer communist functionaries; perhaps because the people were all volunteers and actually gave it their best shot; perhaps something of both.

It is little surprise, then, that Allan Nevins, in _The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume I: Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos 1857-1859_ (Scribner's, 1950), p. 315, declares that "Brigham Young was the most commanding single figure of the West. This rugged Vermonter, who had been given only eleven days' formal schooling before he set to work as carpenter, glazier, and painter, possessed an inexhaustible energy, a domineering temper, and a rocklike will which made him seem truly the Lion of the Lord."

Young's goal in moving to Utah seems to have been partly one of getting out of the United States (Utah was Mexican territory prior to the Mexican War) and partly to move to land no one else would want. He didn't really succeed in either; the Mexican War ended with all that land becoming part of the U.S., and land hunger in the east was so great that people settled even the basically uninhabitable parts of New Mexico territory. Young put small colonies in many areas of his "Deseret" territory. Most struggled even more than the settlement by the Great Salt Lake. And when Utah Territory was organized, it was much smaller than Young's projected fiefdom (Denton, p. 66). Still, President Fillmore appointed Young its governor after Thomas Leiper Kane turned down the job. Young also was given the titles of commander of the militia and superintendant of Indian affairs (Nevins, p. 315, who declares that, "In short, he confirmed Young's dictatorship").

Nevins, p. 316, adds that "Despite his coarse an brutal vein, his egotism, an his frequent pettiness, Brigham Young was popular. He treated his own people with affability, throwing his arm over any Mormon's shoulder and asking corially about his wives and children. His rough and ready manners, provincialisms of speech ('leetle,' 'beyend,' 'disremember,' and 'they was'), his kindness, an his justice in business dealings, were all assets in [Deseret]."

Young, like Joseph Smith before him, had problems with authoritarianism, which would result in the Utah War (and probably, indirectly, in the Mountain Meadows Massacre; see that song for details).

Folklore lists Young as having as many as sixty wives; it should be noted, however, that only 17 wives (along with 56 children) were alive at the time of his death. Of course, he had repeatedly denied that the Mormons engaged in plural marriage at all, until John Williams Gunnison exposed the truth (Denton, p. 69-70). - RBW

Historical references

  • 1801-1877 - Life of Brigham Young
  • 1832 - Young becomes a Mormon
  • 1844 - Young becomes leader of the Mormons
  • 1847 - Mormon migration to Utah
  • 1850 - Young made Governor of Utah territory. From 1857, however, the U.S. Government enforced various restrictions on the Mormons and their governor, mostly in response to polygamy.


  1. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 432-433, "Brigham Young" (1 text)
  2. Silber-FSWB, p. 290, "Brigham Young" (1 text)
  3. Roud #8056
  4. BI, LxA432


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1910
Keywords: marriage humorous age
Found in: US