Brigham Young, Sr. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
Accuracy, objectivity, and fairness without interpretation in these notes is of supreme importance to me. If something doesn’t look right, please let me know. It’s a challenging subject, to be sure. I’ve noted references below.
Brigham Young, Sr. who was often referred to as the “Mormon Moses” stepped up to lead the Mormons when leaders Joseph Smith and his brother were murdered in 1844. In 1846, he decided to lead his followers on an exodus across the western plains to a portion of central North America under the control of Mexico. He proposed to call this The Promised Land and believed that, by relocating out of the United States, they would be able to avoid any further conflicts with hostile non-Mormon American citizens. He and an advance party left to scout the area in early 1846. The party reached the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847 and Young declared the site that is now Salt Lake City to be their new home. The remainder of the Mormons traveled the 1,300 miles and upon arriving in 1848, selected Young to become the church’s new president.
Much to Brigham Young’s dismay, with the end of the Mexican-American War, in 1848, the areas including the majority of the present-day states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah came under the control of the United States. In 1850, Young was appointed the governor of the new Utah Territory. According to an article written in History.com Editors, (September 15, 2021), “He governed the territory as a theocracy, with church doctrines taking precedence over [Federal] laws. Among other policies, he continued the limitations on African-American participation in the church, instituting a ban on Black men receiving the Mormon priesthood.”
Racism was fairly common throughout the U.S. at this time, so his position was supported by a large portion of U.S. citizens, particularly in the South. In Chapter Six of Cat’s Cafe, I quote excerpts from Brigham Young’s February 5, 1852 speech “Slavery, Blacks and the Priesthood.” I have provided several of these quotes here.
“Cain took it into his heart to put Abel out of this mortal existence. After the deed was done, the Lord inquired of Abel, and made Cain own what he had done with him. Now says the grandfather, I will not destroy the seed of Michal and his wife; and Cain, I will not kill you, nor suffer any one to kill you, but I will put a mark upon you.”
“What is that mark? You will see it on the countenance of every African you ever did see upon the face of the earth, or ever will see … But let me tell you further. Let my seed mingle with the seed of Cain? That brings the curse upon me, and upon my generations—we will reap the same rewards with Cain. In the priesthood I will tell you what it will do. Where the children of God mingle their seed with the seed of Cain it would not only bring the curse of being deprived of the power of the priesthood upon themselves but they entail it upon their children after them, and they cannot get rid of it … Therefore, I will not consent for one moment to have an African dictate me or any of my Bren [brethren] with regard to Church or State Government … If the Africans cannot bear rule in the Church of God, what business have they to bear rule in the State and Government affairs of this Territory or any others?”
“But say some, is there anything of this kind in the Constitution the U.S. has given us? If you will allow me the privilege of telling right out, it is none of their damned business what we do or say here. What we do is for them to sanction, and then for us to say what we like about it.”
“I have given you the true principles and doctrine. No man can vote for me or my Bren in this Territory who has not the privilege of acting in Church affairs. Every man, and woman, and child in this Territory are Citizens; to say the contrary is all nonsense to me. The Indians are Citizens, the Africans are Citizens, and the Jews that come from Europe, that are almost entirely of the blood of Cain. It is our duty to take care of them, and administer to them in all the acts of humanity, and kindness. They shall have the right of Citizenship, but shall not have the right to dictate in Church and State matters.”
“As for our bills passing here, we may lay the foundation for what? For men to come here from Africa or elsewhere; by hundreds of thousands. When these men come here from the Islands, are they going to hold offices in Government? No!”
“Suppose that five thousand of them come from the Pacific Islands, and ten or fifteen thousand from Japan, or from China. Not one soul of them would know how to vote for a Government officer. They therefore ought not in the first thing have anything to do in Government affairs.”
“What the Gentiles are doing we are consenting to do. What we are trying to do today is to make the Negro equal with us in all our privilege. My voice shall be against this all the day long. I shall not consent for one moment. I will call them a counsel. I say I will not for one moment allow for you to lay a plan to bring a curse upon this people. I shall not while I am here!”
As is suggested in this speech, racism in America in the late 19th century was not limited to African-Americans. My next post will discuss this further.
Brigham Young was successful in establishing numerous new settlements throughout what is now known as the State of Utah. During his tenure as leader of the Mormon Church, he established many controversial religious policies including the Adam-God doctrine which explains that Adam returned to earth to become the biological father of Jesus. He also expanded the doctrine of polygamy, having possibly as many as 55 wives himself, and he successfully organized numerous caravans of converts from all over the world to move to the Salt Lake City region.
Besides acting as the religious leader of the Mormons, he was an impressive political and financial leader. Although implicated in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre (more information on that in a future post) and other confrontations with the U.S. government, he still managed to negotiate an understanding with President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War wherein the Mormons sided with the Union and protected the telegraph service that ran through Salt Lake City in exchange for the government NOT enforcing the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862. During his tenure over the Mormons, Young directed the founding of 350 towns in the Southwest and became the single most successful individual in colonizing the vast arid west between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada.
References cited in various sources I read for Brigham Young and the Mormon Church, particularly the notes for chapters 5 and 6, are primarily from excerpts of works by Thomas G. Alexander, Franklin M. Gibbons and John G. Turner found in Wikipedia. The specific books by these authors can be found in the bibliography at the end of Cat’s Cafe.