Brigham Young's Despotism

There is no reason to believe that, to the date of Joseph Smith's

death, Brigham Young had inspired his fellow-Mormons with an idea

of his leadership. This was certified to by one of the most

radical of them, Mayor Jedediah M. Grant of Salt Lake City, in

1852, in these words:--

"When Joseph Smith lived, a man about whose real character and

pretensions we differ, Joseph was often and almost invariably

imposed upon by those in whom he placed his trust. There was one

man--only one of his early adherents--he could always rely upon

to stick to him closer than a brother, steadfast in faith, clear

in counsel, and foremost in fight. He seemed a plain man in those

days, of a wonderful talent for business and hundred horse-power

of industry, but least of everything affecting cleverness or

quickness. 'Honest Brigham Young,' or 'hard-working Brigham

Young,' was nearly as much as you would ever hear him called,

though he was the almost universal executor and trustee of men's

wills and trusteed estates, and a confidential manager of our

most intricate church affairs."*

* Grant's pamphlet, "Truth about the Mormons."

When the Saints found themselves in Salt Lake Valley they had

learned something from experience. They could not fail to realize

that, distant as they now were from outside interference, union

among themselves was an essential to success. The body of the

church was soon composed of two elements--those who had

constituted the church in the East, and the new members who were

pouring in from Europe. Young established his leadership with

both of these parties in the early days. There was much to

discourage in those days--a soil to cultivate that required

irrigation, houses to build where material was scarce, and

starvation to fight year after year. Young encouraged everybody

by his talk at the church meetings, shared in the manual labor of

building houses and cultivating land, and devised means to

entertain and encourage those who were disposed to look on their

future darkly. No one ever heard him, whatever others might say,

doubt the genuineness of Joseph Smith's inspiration and

revelations, and he so established his own position as Smith's

successor that he secured the devout allegiance of the old flock,

without making such business mistakes as weakened Smith's

reputation. "I believed," says John D. Lee, one of the most

trusted and prominent of the church members almost to the day of

his death, "that Brigham Young spoke by the direction of the God

of heaven. I would have suffered death rather than have disobeyed

any command of his." Said Young's associate in the First

Presidency, Heber C. Kimball, "To me the word comes from Brother

Brigham as the word of God," and again, "His word is the word of

God to his people."*

The new-comers from Europe were simply helpless. They were, in

the first place, religious enthusiasts, who believed, when they

set out on their journey, that they were going to a real Zion.

Large numbers of them were indebted to the church for at least a

part of their passage money from the day of their arrival. Few of

those who had paid their own way brought much cash capital, all

depending on the representations about the richness of the valley

which had been held out to them. Once, there, they soon realized

that all must sustain the same policy if the church was to be a

success. They were, too, of that superstitious class which was

ready, not only to believe in modern miracles, "signs," and

revelations, but actually hungered for such manifestations, and,

once accepting membership in the church, they accepted with it

the dictation of the head of the church in all things. Secretary

Fuller has told me that, after he ascertained the existence of

gold near Salt Lake City, he said to an intelligent goldsmith

there, "Why do you not look for the gold you need in your

business in the mountains?" "Why," was the reply, "if I went to

the mountains and found gold, and put it into my pouch, the pouch

would be empty when I got back to the city. I know this is so,

because Brigham Young has told me so."

* Journal of Discourses, VOL IV, p. 47.

The extent of the dictatorship which Young prescribed and carried

out in all matters, spiritual and commercial, might be questioned

if we were not able to follow the various steps taken in

establishing his authority, and to illustrate its scope, by the

testimony, not of men who suffered from it, but by his own words

and those of his closest associates. With a blindness which seems

incomprehensible, the sermons, or "discourses," delivered in the

early days in Salt Lake City were printed under church authority,

and are preserved in the journal of Discourses. The student of

this chapter of the church's history can obtain what information

he wants by reading the volumes of this Journal. The language

used is often coarse, but there is never any difficulty in

understanding the speakers.

Young referred to his own plain speaking in a discourse on

October 6, 1855. He said that he had received advice about

bridling his tongue--a wheelbarrow load of such letters from the

East, especially on the subject of his attacks on the Gentiles.

"Do you know," he asked, "how I feel when I get such

communications? I will tell you. I feel just like rubbing their

noses with them."* In a discourse on February 17, 1856, he

vouchsafed this explanation, "If I were preaching abroad in the

world, I should feel myself somewhat obliged, through custom, to

adhere to the wishes and feelings of the people in regard to

pursuing the thread of any given subject; but here I feel as free

as air." **

* Journal of Discourses, Vol. III, p. 48.

** Ibid., p. 211.

Mention has already been made of Young's refusal to continue

Smith's series of "revelations." In doing this he never admitted

for a moment any lack of authority as spokesman for the Almighty.

A few illustrations will make clear his position in this matter.

Defining his view of his own authority, before the General

Conference in Salt Lake City, on April 6, 1850, he said, "It is

your privilege and it is mine to receive revelation; and my

privilege to dictate to the church." *

* Millennial Star, VOL XII, p, 273.

When the site of the Temple was consecrated, in 1853, there were

many inquiries whether a revelation had been given about its

construction. Young said, "If the Lord and all the people want a

revelation, I can give one concerning this Temple"; but he did

not do so, declaring that a revelation was no more necessary

concerning the building of a temple than it was concerning a

kitchen or a bedroom.* We must certainly concede to this man a

dictator's daring.

* Ibid., Vol. XV, p. 391.

An early illustration of Young's policy toward all Mormon

offenders was given in the case of the so-called "Gladdenites."

There were members of the church even in Utah who were ready to

revolt when the open announcement of the "revelation" regarding

polygamy was made in 1852, and they found a leader in Gladden

Bishop, who had had much experience in apostasy, repentance, and

readmission.* These men held meetings and made considerable

headway, but when the time came for Brigham to exercise his

authority he did it.

* "This Gladden gave Joseph much trouble; was cut off from the

church and taken back and rebaptized nine times."--Ferris, "Utah

and the Mormons," p. 326.

On Sunday, March 20, 1853, a meeting, orderly in every respect,

which the Gladdenites were holding in front of the Council House,

was dispersed by the city marshal, and another, called for the

next Sunday, was prohibited entirely. Then Alfred Smith, a

leading Gladdenite, who had accused Young of robbing him of his

property, was arrested and locked up until he gave a promise to

discontinue his rebellion. On the 27th of March Young made the

Gladdenites the subject of a large part of his discourse in the

Tabernacle. What he said is thus stated in the church report of

the address:--

"I say to those persons: You must not court persecution here,

lest you get so much of it you will not know what to do with it.

Do not court persecution. We have known Gladden Bishop for more

than twenty years, and know him to be a poor, dirty curse . . . .

I say again, you Gladdenites, do not court persecution, or you

will get more than you want, and it will come quicker than you

want it. I say to you Bishops, do not allow them to preach in

your wards." (After telling of a dream he had had, in which he

saw two men creep into the bed where one of his wives was lying,

whereupon he took a large bowie knife and cut one of their

throats from ear to ear, saying, "Go to hell across lots," he

continued:) "I say, rather than that apostates should flourish

here I will unsheath my bowie knife and conquer or die." (Great

commotion in the congregation, and a simultaneous burst of

feeling, assenting to the declaration.) "Now, you nasty

apostates, clear out, or judgment will be put to the line and

righteousness to the plummet." (Voices generally, "Go it," "go

it.") "If you say it is all right, raise your hand." (All hands

up.) "Let us call upon the Lord to assist us in this and every

good work." *

*Journal of Discourses, Vol. I, p. 82.

This was the practical end of Gladdenism.

Young's dictatorship was quite as broad and determined in things

temporal as in things spiritual. He made no concealment of the

fact that he was a moneygetter, only insisting on his readiness

to contribute to the support of church enterprises. The canons

through the mountains which shut in the valley were the source of

wood supply for the city, and their control was very valuable.

Young brought this matter before the Conference of October 9,

1852, speaking on it at length, and finally putting his own view

in the form of a resolution that the canons be placed in the

hands of individuals, who should make good roads through them,

and obtain their pay by taking toll at the entrance. After

getting the usual unanimous vote on his proposition, he said:

"Let the Judges of the County of Great Salt Lake take due notice

and govern themselves accordingly . . . . This is my order for

the judges to take due notice of. It does not come from the

Governor, but from the President of the church. You will not see

any proclamation in the paper to this effect, but it is a mere

declaration of the President of the Conference."* The

"declaration," of course, had all the effect of a law, and Young

got one of the best canons.

* Journal of Discourses, Vol. I, pp. 217, 218.

Very early in his rule Young defined his views about the property

rights of the Saints. "A man," he declared in the Tabernacle on

June 5, 1853, "has no right with property which, according to the

laws of the land, legally belongs to him, if he does not want to

use it . . . . When we first came into the valley, the question

was asked me if men would ever be allowed to come into this

church, and remain in it, and hoard up their property. I say,

no." *

* Ibid., Vol. I, pp. 252-253

Another view of property rights was thus set forth in his

discourse of December 5, 1853:--

"If an Elder has borrowed [a hundred or a thousand dollars from

you], and you find he is going to apostatize, then you may

tighten the screws on him. But if he is willing to preach the

Gospel without purse or scrip, it is none of your business what

he does with the money he has borrowed from you." *

* Ibid, Vol. I, p. 340.

Addressing the people in the trying business year of 1856, when

his own creditors were pushing him hard, Young said:

"I wish to give you one text to preach upon, 'From this time

henceforth do not fret thy gizzard.' I will pay you when I can

and not before. Now I hope you will apostatize if you would

rather do it."*

* Ibid., Vol. III, p. 4.

Kimball, in giving Young's order to some seventy men, who had

displeased him, to leave the territory, used these words: "When a

man is appointed to take a mission, unless he has a just and

honorable reason for not going, if he does not go he will be

severed from the church. Why? Because you said you were willing

to be passive, and, if you are not passive, that lump of clay

must be cut off from the church and laid aside, and a lump put on

that will be passive." *

* Journal of Discourses, Vol. III, p. 242.

With this testimony of men inside the church may be placed that

of Captain Howard Stansbury, of the United Stated Topographical

Engineers, who arrived in the valley in August, 1849, under

instructions from the government to make a survey of the lakes of

that region. The Mormons thought that it was the intention of the

government to divide the land into townships and sections, and to

ignore their claim to title by occupation. In his official

report, after mentioning his haste to disabuse Young's mind on

this point, Captain Stansbury says, "I was induced to pursue this

conciliatory course, not only in justice to the government, but

also because I knew, from the peculiar organization of this

singular community, that, unless the 'President' was fully

satisfied that no evil was intended to his people, it would be

useless for me to attempt to carry out my instructions." The

choice between abject conciliation or open conflict was that

which Brigham Young extended to nearly every federal officer who

entered Utah during his reign.

The Mormons of Utah started in to assert their independence of

the government of the United States in every way. The rejection

of the constitution of Deseret by Congress did not hinder the

elected legislature from meeting and passing laws. The ninth

chapter of the "ordinances," as they were called, passed by this

legislature (on January 19, 1851) was a charter for Great Salt

Lake City. This charter provided for the election of a mayor,

four aldermen, nine councillors, and three judges, the first

judges to be chosen viva voce, and their successors by the City

Council. The appointment of eleven subordinate officers was

placed in the Council's hands. The mayor and aldermen were to be

the justices of the peace, with a right of appeal to the

municipal court, consisting of the same persons sitting together,

and from that to the probate court. The first mayor, aldermen,

and councillors were appointed by the governor of the State of

Deseret. Similar charters were provided for Ogden, Provo City,

and other settlements.

As soon as Salt Lake City was laid off into wards, Young had a

Bishop placed over each of these, and, always under his

direction, these Bishops practically controlled local affairs to

the date of the city charter. Each Bishop came to be a magistrate

of his ward,* and under them in all the settlements all public

work was carried on and all revenue collected. The High Council

of ten is defined by Tullidge as "a quorum of judges, in equity

for the people, at the head of which is the President of the


* Brigham Young testified in the Tabernacle as to the kind of

justice that was meted out in the Bishops' courts. In his sermon

of March 6, 1856, he said: "There are men here by the score who

do not know their right hands from their left, so far as the

principles of justice are concerned. Does our High Council? No,

for they will let men throw dirt in their eyes until you cannot

find the one hundred millionth part of an ounce of common sense

in them. You may go to the Bishops' courts, and what are they? A

set of old grannies. They cannot judge a case pending between two

old women, to say nothing of a case between man and man:' Journal

of Discourses, Vol. III, p. 225.

These men did not hesitate to attempt a currency of their own. On

the arrival of the Mormons in the valley, they first made their

exchanges through barter. Paper currency was issued in 1849 and

some years later. When gold dust from California appeared in

1849, some of it was coined in Salt Lake City by means of

homemade dies and crucibles. The denominations were $2.50, $5,

$10, and $20. Some of these coins, made without alloy, were

stamped with a bee-hive and eagle on one side, and on the reverse

with the motto, "Holiness to the Lord" in the so-called Deseret

alphabet. This alphabet was invented after their arrival in Salt

Lake Valley, to assist in separating the Mormons from the rest of

the nation, its preparation having been intrusted to a committee

of the board of regents in 1853. It contained thirty-two

characters. A primer and two books of the Mormon Bible were

printed in the new characters, the legislature in 1855 having

voted $2500 to meet the expense; but the alphabet was never

practically used, and no attempt is any longer made to remember

it. Early in 1849 the High Council voted that the Kirtland

bank-bills (of which a supply must have remained unissued) be put

out on a par with gold, and in this they saw a fulfilment of the

prophet's declaration that these notes would some day be as good

as gold.

Another early ordinance passed by the Deseret legislature

incorporated "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,"

authorizing the appointment of a trustee in trust to hold and

manage all the property of the church, which should be free from

tax, and giving the church complete authority to make its own

regulations, "provided, however, that each and every act or

practice so established, or adopted for law or custom, shall

relate to solemnities, sacraments, ceremonies, consecrations,

endowments, tithing, marriages, fellowship, or the religious

duties of man to his Maker, inasmuch as the doctrines,

principles, practices, or performances support virtue and

increase morality, and are not inconsistent with or repugnant to

the constitution of the United States or of this State, and are

founded on the revelations of the Lord." Thus early was the

ground taken that the practice of polygamy was a constitutional

right. Brigham Young was chosen as the trustee.

The second ordinance passed by this legislature incorporated the

University of the State of Deseret, at Salt Lake City, to be

governed by a chancellor and twelve regents.

The earliest non-Mormons to experience the effect of that

absolute Mormon rule, the consequences of which the Missourians

had feared, were the emigrants who passed through Salt Lake

Valley on their way to California after the discovery of gold, or

on their way to Oregon. The complaints of the Californians were

set forth in a little book, written by one of them, Nelson

Slater, and printed in Colona, California, in 1851, under the

title, "Fruits of Mormonism." The general complaints were set

forth briefly in a petition to Congress containing nearly two

hundred and fifty signatures, dated Colona, June 1, 1851, which

asked that the territorial government be abrogated, and a

military government be established in its place. This petition

charged that many emigrants had been murdered by the Mormons when

there was a suspicion that they had taken part in the earlier

persecutions; that when any members of the Mormon community,

becoming dissatisfied, tried to leave, they were pursued and

killed; that the Mormons levied a tax of two per cent on the

property of emigrants who were compelled to pass a winter among

them; that it was nearly impossible for emigrants to obtain

justice in the Mormon courts; that the Mormons, high and low,

openly expressed treasonable sentiments against the United States

government; and that letters of emigrants mailed at Salt Lake

City were opened, and in many instances destroyed.

Mr. Slater's book furnishes the specifications of these general


Brigham Young's Death - His Character Colonel Kane's Mission facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail