Brigham Young—organizer, pioneer, inspired prophet of God. We revere him as an energetic, fearless man of action who helped establish the kingdom of God on earth and helped ensure its nonstop proliferation through the best and worst of times.
Yet Brigham Young’s story is hardly one of auspicious beginnings or easy circumstances. And it is not the history of his life alone. Rather, his story commences with a family portrait. Father, mother, brothers, and sisters formed an intimate, cherished nucleus where Brigham was nourished in Christian principles and thereby prepared to embrace the restored gospel. All living members of his immediate family joined the Church, became stalwarts in the faith, and set spiritual precedents for future generations.
Brigham Young was the third youngest of eleven children born to John and Abigail (“Nabby”) Howe Young between 1786 and 1807. John, a veteran of three Revolutionary War campaigns under George Washington, married Nabby in 1785. The young couple settled on a farm in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. John, a “small, nimble, wiry man,” toiled unceasingly to support his rapidly growing family. But he never lost sight of his moral and religious convictions. “He was very circumspect, exemplary and religious,” wrote Brigham, “and was, from an early period of his life, a member of the Methodist Church.” 3
Nabby was one of the five popular Howe sisters of Shrewsbury, near Hopkinton—“pretty girls, vivacious, musical. … All were very devout and deeply concerned with Puritan religious life.” Physically, Nabby was “a little above medium height. She had blue eyes, with yellowish brown hair, folded in natural waves and ringlets across her shapely brow.” And the nineteen-year-old was “exceedingly methodical and orderly in her temperament.”
She had innate medical ability, as her son Phinehas testified:
“My earliest recollection of the scenes of life are relating to myself and my brother Joseph. A short time before I was two years old, he cut off my right hand, except a small portion of my little finger, with an ax, while we were at play. My mother doctored it and saved it.”
The first eight Young children were Nancy, born in 1786; Fanny (1787); Rhoda (1789); John, Jr. (1791); Nabby, her mother’s namesake (1793); Susannah (1795); Joseph (1797); and Phinehas Howe (1799).
After sixteen years in Hopkinton (with a brief interlude in Platauva District, New York), John moved his family into a log cabin on the outskirts of Whitingham, Windham County, Vermont, in the bitter New England cold of January 1801. Here, five months later, Brigham was born on 1 June 1801. The family remained in Whitingham for about three years while John cleared timber to render the land suitable for farming.
Another promising land enterprise took the Youngs to Sherburn, Chenango County, New York, in 1804, where John “followed farming, clearing new land, and enduring many hardships, with his family, incidental to new settlements in a heavy timbered country as New York was in those days.” Here the last two children were born, Louisa in 1804 and Lorenzo Dow in 1807.
Despite John’s industry, Nabby’s thrift, and occasional prospects for economic improvement, the Youngs never had material success. Sacrifice, illness, and poverty were constant, unremitting companions. Brigham reflected years later on the discrepancies between his father’s dreams and the disheartening reality:
“My father was a poor, honest, hard-working man; and his mind seemingly stretched from east to west, from north to south; and to the day of his death he wanted to command worlds” (Journal of Discourses, 9:104).
By the time baby Lorenzo Dow joined the family in 1807, two of his sisters had already married and left home. Nancy married Daniel Kent in 1803; the same year Fanny, then sixteen, married Robert Carr.
Joseph Young recalled that when baby Brigham was a few months old, “my father bought a cow … and it is worthy of note that the cow gave more milk than any one I have ever seen since that time. … The animal would suffer no one to come near her, except my sister Fanny, who with the infant Brigham in her arms performed this service of milking twice each day during the summer; this was in consequence of the sickness of my mother, and the child had to be nursed from the bottle, and no one could pacify him but my sister Fanny.”
Daughter Nabby, then fourteen, died of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1807. The illness had ravaged the frail constitution of her mother for several years and would ultimately prove fatal to her, also. It was a prolonged, agonizing death, common among frontier families of the day.
In 1813 two more of John and Nabby’s children left the nest. In February Rhoda, then twenty-three, married John Pourtenous Greene; later that year John, Jr., married Theodocia Kimball. Susannah married James Little in 1814. By this time the family had moved again—to Cayuga County, New York.
When in June of 1815 Nabby Young finally lost the long and painful battle against consumption, five of her children—Joseph, Phinehas, Brigham, Louisa, and Lorenzo—ages just under eight to eighteen, were living at home. Fanny, separated from her unfaithful husband, had returned to the household during Nabby’s final days, and for a while kept the family together. Within three years of Nabby’s death, however, father and children had gone separate ways, though strong family ties still united them in many respects. Joseph had been apprenticed out to a brother-in-law, James Little (Susannah’s husband), for miscellaneous “service”; Lorenzo lived for a while with a sister, Rhoda Greene, and later joined the Littles to learn gardening and tree raising.
Phinehas married Clarissa Hamilton at age nineteen in 1818. Father Young meanwhile moved to Tyrone, New York, and in 1817 married Hannah Brown, a widow with several children. She and John would have a son, Edward. Brigham, apprenticed to a carpenter in Auburn (near Tyrone), in a short time became an expert carpenter, painter, and glazier. Louisa probably lived with her father and stepmother until she married Joel Sanford in 1825.
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