Brigham Young is perhaps best known as the prophet who led his people across the plains to settle in the West. He was the second President of the Church and the first governor of Utah Territory. His name and legacy live on far beyond the Intermountain West. But many who know of Brigham Young know little of his life before he became a prophet. This wood lathe from Brigham Young’s carpentry shop in Mendon, New York, sheds light on a lesser-known chapter in the life of this great man.
Brigham Young was born in Vermont, the ninth of 11 children. The family moved to New York when he was three. As a teenager, Brigham lived with one of his sisters in Auburn, New York, where he became an apprentice carpenter, painter, and glazier.1 He became known for his furniture as well as for ornately carved mantelpieces.2
Brigham married Miriam Works in 1824, and their first child, Elizabeth, was born within a year.3 In 1828 the Youngs moved to Mendon, New York, where Brigham’s father had settled.4 Brigham built a home and carpentry shop on his father’s property, about 550 feet from his father’s home.5
This lathe was used in that shop to turn pieces of wood to make furniture. A stream that ran near the carpentry shop was dammed and used to power the machinery.6 Brigham worked hard and took pride in his craft. When a friend once complimented his craftsmanship, he replied: “I have believed all my life that that which was worth doing was worth doing well, and have considered it as much a part of my religion to do honest, reliable work, such as would endure, for those who employ me, as to attend to the service of God’s worship on the Sabbath.”7
In addition to being a fine craftsman, Brigham Young was a loving husband and father. After their daughter Vilate was born, Brigham’s wife, Miriam, contracted tuberculosis and became mostly invalid. As a result, Brigham performed most of the household duties. He “worked for half a crown a day [perhaps 65 cents] when he could not get more; got breakfast for his wife . . . and the little girls, dressed the children, cleaned up the house, carried his wife to the rocking-chair by the fireplace and left her there until he could return in the evening. When he came home he cooked his own and the family’s supper, put his wife back to bed and finished up the day’s domestic labours.”8
It was also during this time that Brigham first heard about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Mendon is only about 20 miles from Palmyra, so the Youngs had heard rumors of Joseph Smith and his “gold Bible.” In 1830 Brigham’s brother Phineas purchased a copy of the Book of Mormon from Samuel Smith and shared it with his family.9 Brigham was interested but cautious. He later related:
Says I, “Wait a little while; what is the doctrine of the book, and of the revelations the Lord has given? Let me apply my heart to them;” and after I had done this, I considered it to be my right to know for myself, as much as any man on earth. I examined the matter studiously for two years before I made up my mind to receive that book. . . . I wished time sufficient to prove all things for myself.10
In 1832 Brigham was moved by the testimony of one of the elders teaching him, and he was converted: “The Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminated my understanding. . . . My own judgment, natural endowments, and education bowed to this simple, but mighty testimony. . . . It filled my system with light, and my soul with joy.”11 Brigham was baptized on April 15, 1832, in the millstream behind his shop.12 Members of his immediate family were also baptized, including Miriam.13
Miriam died only a few months after their baptism, and Brigham, filled with the desire to preach the gospel, temporarily left his daughters in the care of friends and fellow Latter-day Saints Heber C. and Vilate Kimball while he taught in Canada and towns around Mendon.14
In September 1833, following the counsel of the Prophet Joseph to gather in Kirtland, he closed his shop permanently and moved with his two daughters to Ohio.15
Brigham Young lived in Mendon, New York, for only a few years, but it was there that Brigham Young the carpenter started on the path that would lead to him becoming Brigham Young the prophet.
Because of the difficulty in moving large machinery, Brigham left this lathe and a few other tools in his shop when he moved to Kirtland. When the property was sold, the new owner sold Brigham’s tools to a local carpenter. The tools remained in the Mendon area until they were acquired by the Church History Museum.