(One Reason) Why I Love Brigham Young

I’ve let the ol’ blog go a bit to seed.

I’m really not what great bloggers are made of–too many seem to think that people want to read the least thing that drops from their lips.

(And, honestly, on the few blogs I follow that’s actually true–I do simply enjoy those writer’s company. They don’t have to be constantly dropping wisdom and bon mots; it’s a little like a college bull-session between classes. So, hopefully someone out there finds the same pleasure in a few minutes of my virtual company.)

Image But, it occurs to me that it is Brigham Young’s birthday today, and that has shaken me from my slumber. And, in stake conference we were encouraged again to engage in these types of conversations.

Brigham Young

Brigham was the second–and longest serving–leader of my faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He kept the Church together following the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and got them out of Illinois (and the United States) when citizens of that state and nation were trying to kill them, as other citizens had before.

Much has been said and written about and by Brigham–we have a much more robust record of his sermons and actions than we do of Joseph, for example. He was a powerful personality.

One thing that often gets lost, however, in accounts of Brigham is why he was as successful as he was.

Why was he–despite his rough edges, which were evident even to his contemporaries–almost universally supported, and even loved? Why did people follow him out into a desert, and persist despite persecution, famine, bad harvests, grasshoppers, Indian raids, US Army expeditions, and all the rest?

I found an account from my great-great-great-grandfather’s history that is little known outside the family, and I think it gives a window into part of the answer to that question.[1]

My grandfather’s background

He and his family lived outside of Nauvoo, and they were poor people:

My father was wont to go up to Nauvoo twice a year to attend conference, but never had the privilege of gathering with the saints until long after they were driven into the wilderness….The fact of our [327] being Mormons brought much persecution on our family of which I had my full share. Notwithstanding most of my playmates were relatives of one grade or another, mostly cousins on my mother’s side, I found myself early subjected to ridicule, taunts and many times to blows on this account. Our house was frequently stoned, the windows smashed in. Such was frequently the lawless and mobocratic spirit that prevailed in those days throughout the whole of the western country wherever a Latter-day Saint could be found….

…my father was taken with some disease which disabled him from working more or less for years, and we were as a consequence in poverty and distress, and this was the reason for not gathering with the Saints in Nauvoo….

Impending marriage

Isaiah discussed his love and impending marriage for a non-LDS woman, and noted:

[336] I had already caught the spirit of the gathering, and I knew that sooner or later it was my duty to gather with the Church….I at last laid my entire history before Elder Erastus Snow, one of the Twelve, and asked his counsel as to what I should do. He advised me to keep my engagement with Sarah, to marry her and leave the event with God….

Isaiah was teaching school in an area in which he was the only member. Despite being the only Mormon family, prejudice was sufficient to threaten his lifelihood:

[338]…Many of my patrons became highly incensed at the idea of their school teacher being a Mormon and began to withdraw their children from school and to clamor for my dismissal. I knew that eventually I should have to quit. About this time, an uncle of [my wife’s]…came on a visit….When he learned that I was a Mormon, his fury knew no bounds. Being a giant in physical proportions and strength, he seriously contemplated annihilating me utterly….[My wife] was afraid of him from the first, and when he threatened to follow me to the frontiers, if I started with her and to kill me wherever he found me, her mind that had all the time been wavering on the subject of accompanying me, was made up that she would remain. I told him flatly that I should go to Utah when spring opened and that I would take my wife with me if she wished to go.

In the meantime my once thriving school was now almost deserted, and I saw myself daily become more and more isolated from the community. Very few of my old friends stood by me in this trying hour. If my wife had been one with me I should not have minded it, for I had fully calculated on everything else; but she too was drifting away from me, and this it was that drove me almost to distraction. Still I labored on heartsick and weary until the 6th day of April when I went again to St. Louis to attend conference. While there I again sought the advice of Bro. Snow. After hearing me through he said, “You can have your choice of two things, either go on a mission to England to preach the gospel or go home to the valley. If you go to England your wife will likely repent while you are gone and be willing to go with you anywhere by the time you get back; if she sees you starting for the valley she may change her mind even at the eleventh hour and conclude to accompany you.”

After a night’s reflection on the subject, sleeping none, praying much, I decided to go with the emigration to Utah, be the final decision of my wife what it might. “Very well,” said Bro. Snow, “that is as I would have decided myself. It is the best thing you can do.”

Trip to Salt Lake

Isaiah’s wife did not decide to go with him.

[339]…when I came to part with my wife, my heart sank like lead within me. Henceforth, we were to see each other no more in this life…Hurrying away I entered the wagon that was waiting, buried my face in my hands, and looked not up again until [the town] and all its near and dear associations were left far behind. If I had not turned to a pillar of salt or ice, the sight of my beloved wife standing in the door would have melted my heart within me and I should have returned, and thereby braved the displeasure of the Almighty and perhaps have yielded little by little to the voice of the tempter until I, with her, should have been eternally lost and shut out form the presence of God and the holy Angels. The responsibilities resting upon me were too great. My father, brothers, and sisters tied hand and foot in Babylon with the iron chain of poverty, looked to me as a deliverer; they expected me to go ahead and open the way for them to come. A long line of ancestors who had died without the gospel in the ages past were calling to me with their spirit voices and bidding me go up and assist in rearing a temple wherein to officiate for them that they might come up and receive blessings equally with the living. And last, though not least was the consideration that I was obeying the voice of God and that I was taking a course that would secure my own glory and exaltation and that would eventually either in this life or that which is to come enable me to bind my wife to me in bands that could not be broken. She was blind then but the day would come when she would see….

[344] The year of my arrival in the valleys was one of hard times. The grasshoppers had preyed on the crops until starvation seemed to stare the people in the face. Grave apprehensions were entertained by many, of a famine. Being a thousand miles from the frontiers with no connecting railroad on which to bring supplies, we found ourselves thrown on our own resources of sustenance. Under the same circumstances any other people would have starved to death. But the Saints hearkened to the counsels of the prophet and were saved. A public feast was proclaimed every week and what was thus saved was distributed to the poor. Every man who had bread divided with his neighbor and thus the community was saved from the horrors [345] of famine. I heard of no instance of rich or well-to-do men taking advantage of the necessities of the poor. President Young himself set the example in this respect and dealt out to the people as long as any remained in his bins. Greens, wild roots, etc., were freely eaten by all classes so as to spin out the bread stuff until the harvest of [18]56….

Conclusion: Birth of a son and what followed

We come now to my point about Brigham. It’s taken a bit of time to get here, but you need the background to understand what comes next.

We’ve seen Brigham function on a broader scale–the territory-wide food shortage. But, he remains a somewhat remote figure, as he’d almost have to with thousands of members spread out over a huge area.

In spring of 1856, Isaiah learned that his estranged wife had given birth to his first child, a son.

…[345] I longed for the power of an immortal that I might transport myself in a moment to the side of my wife and babe. I felt as if I were caged, bound hand and foot and I struggled in spirit to free myself. And yet I was not sorry for what I had done. I could not however put out of my mind the intense longing to see my loved ones. It seemed as if I could not contain myself. While in this state of mind I one day met Bro. Erastus Snow and as he had always taken a very kindly interest in my welfare, I told him the news I had received and my feelings in relation to it. He advised me to go to President Young and lay the whole matter before him and then act on any counsel he might give me. I lost no time in adopting this advice.

During the whole of this recital [President Young] sat with one hand on my knee, looking in my face and listened attentively to what I had to say. At the close he took me by the hand in his fatherly way and said, “Bro. Coombs, you had better take a mission to the States this fall to preach the gospel and to visit your wife. Brother Snow had represented your case to me before. He is going to start on a mission to St. Louis in a few days and will be in charge. He would be pleased, I know, to have you as a co-laborer. Travel under his directions; visit your wife as often as you please; preach the gospel to her, and if she is worth having she will come with you when you return to the valley. God bless and proper you.” Such was the counsel of God’s prophet to me and I need not say that it sounded to my ears like the voice of my Father. It was sweet—-it was just what I had hoped he would say to me, and it was entirely satisfying to my soul. I felt as if I had suddenly been transported to the seventh heaven, so great was the joy that filled my bosom (emphasis added).

His wife never did accept Mormonism. Yet, Isaiah would love and honor Brigham for the rest of his life–and was eventually employed as one of Brigham’s clerks.

Here we have a young, poor member of the Church. He was not from Nauvoo; he did not move in the circles of Church power and influence. He doesn’t come in to the histories of the period.

His family was destitute, and still back in the east. He was, quite literally, a nobody—or, so you would think. But, Brigham evidently didn’t think so.

I think Brigham’s behavior and treatment of this troubled, unimportant young man speaks for itself. And, I think it shows why Isaiah and thousands of other Saints loved Brigham, and followed him to the ends of the earth.

So, whenever I hear someone criticize Brigham, I think of this story. And, I think my grandfather would have my hide if I ever turned on “Brother Brigham.”


[1] Kate B. Carter, ed., Isaiah M[oses] Coombs from His Diary and Journal (Salt Lake City, Utah: published by Daughters of Utah Pioneers through Utah Printing Company, n.d.). Page numbers have been inserted into my citations in square brackets.