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On Brigham Young's birthday, the many ways he shaped Utah, the West

Born 216 years ago on June 1, 1801, Brigham Young was many things to many people in his 76 years.

Young was the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the first governor of Utah territory. He was also a painter, a glazier, a master carpenter, a husband to 55 and a father to at least 56.

Leonard Arrington, one of Brigham Young’s most prominent biographers, observed that one could pore over Young’s diaries, letters and sermons and still not fully understand the man: "His personality was full of ambiguities and complexities."

Young was a shrewd businessman and a commanding, even abrasive, orator, inspiring his followers to call him the "Lion of the Lord." During sermons, Young would reportedly whip out his bowie knife to demonstrate his readiness to fight his enemies, according to Arrington.

Yet Young wasn’t a violent person, once saying, "Never, in the days of my life, have I hurt a man with the palm of my hand." He was also revered for his compassion toward children and his love of singing and dancing.

While it's hard to grasp Brigham Young in his full complexity today, Utah — and the American West — would not be the same without him.

American Moses

Historians often refer to Brigham Young as "the American Moses" because he, like the biblical prophet, led a massive religious exodus through a desert to a promised land.

To establish a Mormon community protected from persecution and outside influence, Young supervised the overland trek of 60,000 to 70,000 Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley. He also enabled immigration from overseas by establishing the 1850 Perpetual Emigrating Fund, which helped more than 30,000 poor Latter-day Saints travel from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands to the American West.

Brigham Young directed colonization in the territory as well, founding over 350 settlements in what is now Utah, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming.

Urban planners still praise Young’s attention to detail and foresight. He designed communities based on the "City of Zion" plat, a grid system originally envisioned by Joseph Smith, that ensured each home was close to public amenities and allowed plenty of room for urban growth. Because Young laid out city streets wide enough for a wagon to turn around, these communities have expanded easily and adapted to today's automobiles and mass transit.

Historian and Salt Lake City Planning Commission member Craig Galli noted that Salt Lake City residents are "the direct beneficiaries of (Brigham Young's) urban design," which helped make Salt Lake City a model for urban planners decades into the future.

Captain of industry

Young also established a range of businesses and industries in the Salt Lake Valley and surrounding areas. He preached independence and self-reliance and sought to make the church economically self-sufficient.

As such, Young developed sugar and textile industries, established iron works and a bank, contracted for and assisted in building telegraph and railroad lines and organized an efficient mail service.

ZCMI facade, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

Young also founded America's first department store, Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), which sold everything from lumber to beauty products. For 132 years, ZCMI stores remained an institution of the Intermountain West until the company was sold to May Department Stores Company (now Macy's, Inc.) in 1999.

Today, the historic facade of the first ZCMI covers the west entrance of Macy's department store in downtown Salt Lake City, harking back to an earlier era of industry.

Cultural developer

Even though Brigham Young had only 11 days of formal schooling, he was a strong advocate of education. In 1850, he established the University of Deseret, which eventually became the University of Utah. And in 1875, he opened Brigham Young Academy, the precursor to today's Brigham Young University.

A turn of the century view of the Brigham Young Academy, now Provo's library. | Deseret News archives

While Young counseled the early Saints to remain separate from the rest of the world, he also frequently emphasized the importance of secular learning.

In an 1854 Deseret News column, Young responded to an individual asking if he should read only the scriptures. "Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books," Young replied.

Young viewed the theater as a particularly important source of education and cultural refinement, arguing it could teach moral values.

Though many in late 19th-century America saw theatrical plays as scandalous, Young encouraged his children to attend them and built both the Salt Lake City Theater and the Social Hall, a center for performing arts.

Young once said, "If I were placed on a cannibal island and given a task of civilizing its people, I should strait-way built a theater for the purpose." Over the years, he remained very involved in the Salt Lake City Theater, managing productions and attracting renowned actors from the East and Europe.

Personal counselor

Young governed a massive territory and led a following of over 100,000, yet historians also note his repeated attention to the lives of individuals.

Early Saints frequently came to him with personal problems, and Young played the role of pastor, family counselor or financial advisor. Arrington reported that of the 30,000 surviving copies of Young’s letters, at least 10,000 are responses to letters asking him for advice on personal or family issues.

In an address at Brigham Young’s funeral in 1877, Mormon apostle George Q. Cannon observed that Young "had been the brain, the eye, the ear, the mouth and hand for the entire people of the Church. ... From the greatest problems connected with the organization of this Church down to the smallest minutiae. ... Nothing was too small for his mind; nothing was too large."