Brigham Young: Heartache Suffered

This article originally appeared in Vol.62, No.1 (2015) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Pioneer Magazine

As diligent as he was in his role as family patriarch and kingdom builder, Brigham’s home life was not without sorrow and heartache… . With a family the size of ’s, the usual activities and complexities of life were multiplied. Illness and death were no strangers in pioneer homes and certainly not in his. In 1856, for example, 17 of his children and one foster child were ill with measles.

Furthermore, Brigham witnessed the death of 20 of his wives and 14 of his children. Three of his wives died at a young age and their surviving children were raised by the other wives. There were other complexities. The challenge of raising teenagers never seemed to diminish. At the age of 67, Brigham had 22 teenagers in his home: 16 girls and 6 boys. Even something as seemingly simple as nightly supper was no easy affair. Susa Young recalled that, with their family, hired men and girls, orphans, and other unfortunate persons whom her father took into his home and cared for, “we often sat down in the dining room with 80 [people] at the table.”

In addition to the anxiety associated with illness and death, some of his wives left him and not all of his children adhered to the teachings of their father. After his death, the settlement of his estate brought disunity and discord, which no doubt would have caused him much sorrow. The wrangling over the estate bespoke of deeper problems. On the seventh anniversary of his death, in 1884, one of his sons lamented,

“Seven years ago was a dark day for my father’s family. At the present writing there are some who have squandered the hard earnings which he left them, and are, worst of all infidel to the Gospel. I will not name them for they may see the error of their ways and I cannot perpetuate their unfaithfulness.”

But whatever heartache may have transpired in Brigham’s bosom due to waywardness of some in his family, he was buoyed by his faith in the mercy and justice of God. “I learned a long time ago,” he reportedly said, “not to die because my children go wrong. It has been revealed to me that every child and descendant will come to me some time, somewhere. What causes me great sorrow, however, is to know what some of them will have to go through before they get back.”


Few men have approached the realm of family responsibility on a more complicated level and with greater devotion and insight than did Brigham Young. “I can say that I am not prepared to bring up a child in the way he should go,” he remarked toward the end of his life, “and yet I probably come as near to it as any person that lives.” Considering the ecclesiastical and secular responsibilities of his life, it is hard to comprehend just how he managed to provide such a high level of care and comfort for a family as large as his. Together, his many responsibilities carried a potential for extreme stress that could have easily spawned anger or violence in a lesser person. But through it all, Brigham Young maintained a level of composure that was a hallmark of his personality. He not only provided food and shelter for his family but effectively imparted the values of his faith through precept and example.

As Susa Young concluded:

“No other fact of father’s life was so profound a proof of his true nobility and greatness as his life at home and the influence which he radiated there. He was ever present in spirit. . . . The world knows Brigham Young as a statesman and colonizer; but to his children he was an ideal father. Kind to a fault, tender, thoughtful, just and firm…. None of us feared him; all of us adored him. . . . What his life and love meant to his family only their subsequent lives may testify.”

In the privacy of his children’s own homes, in their own relationships, in the lives of his 40,000 descendants, and in the precepts and example he left for generations to follow, the parental legacy of Brigham Young would live on.

Dean C. Jessee, BYU professor emeriti, is with the Joseph Smith Papers Project. The author thanks Jeff Johnson, former Church archivist, for providing some of the details on Brigham Young’s wives and family.

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