Brigham Young (brĬg´əm), 1801–77, American religious leader, early head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, b. Whitingham, Vt. Brigham Young was perhaps the greatest molder of Mormonism, his influence having a greater effect even than that of the church's founder, Joseph Smith, in shaping the Mormon faith as it exists today (see Latter-Day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of).
He was a painter and glazier in Mendon, Monroe co., N.Y., when he was first attracted to the new religion. Baptized as an adult in 1832, he led a group to the Mormon community at Kirtland, Ohio, and in 1835 became one of the Council of Twelve (the Apostles). When the Mormons were persecuted in their Missouri Zion in the late 1830s, Young was one of the few Mormon leaders not placed under arrest, and his abilities as an organizer came to the fore. He was one of the chief figures in the move to Nauvoo, Ill. Sent as missionary to England, he started a community that eventually brought approximately 40,000 émigrés to the United States between 1841 and 1870.
After Joseph Smith's assassination (1844), Young was the chief factor in maintaining the unity of the church in the Council of Twelve. From that time forward, he served as the Mormons' spiritual leader. He led the great migration west in 1846–47 and was the director of the settlement at Salt Lake City. He exercised supreme control in the communal theocracy of Mormonism, and his genius, as much as anything else, led to the phenomenal growth of a prosperous community. After the creation of Utah's provisional government, he was also made territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs.
When the Mormon practice of polygamy and a more general fear and hatred of Mormon power led to hostilities between the United States and the Mormons, Young defended Mormon interests, particularly during the military expedition against the Mormons called the Utah War (1857–58). He lost his post as governor, but through his able statesmanship, he avoided a real break with the United States. In his old age, he was arrested on charges of polygamy and murder, but he was acquitted and his influence increased rather than diminished until his death.
The exact number of his wives—still a contested figure—and the extent of his fortune were the objects of curiosity and idle rumor nationwide. Accusations of sensuality leveled against him by people who were ignorant of the basic principles of Mormon doctrine were not justified. The most serious charge that can be brought against him is that of condoning the massacre at Mountain Meadows. He did not instigate that crime, but it seems probable that he did protect its perpetrators.
See Susa Young Gates (his daughter) and L. E. Widtsoe, The Life Story of Brigham Young (1930); C. Stott, Search for Sanctuary (1984); L. J. Arrington, Brigham Young (1985); N. G. Bringhurst, Brigham Young (1986); J. G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (2012).