It has been quite some time since my last contribution here at American Creation. For many reasons, I took a long break from blogging about early American religion. One of the chief reasons for my absence was due to what I would call a crisis of faith. The past few years my Mormonism has undergone a bit of a metamorphosis. Though I am still a Mormon, I would not call myself orthodox.
I share this because the past two years have seen me deeply embedded in Mormon studies. I simply could not get enough. But now I have emerged, a different Mormon but still appreciative of the faith. I'm also ready to dive back into the study of early American religion in general. I have missed this blog. I miss the debate. I miss the history. But I'm back and I hope 2016 will see much more of me here.
To break the ice, I present to you a piece I did not too long ago that became somewhat of a "hit" in Mormon Internet circles. I hope you will enjoy.
At first glance, John Willard Young must have seemed like an
obvious candidate for inclusion into the Mormon halls of power. As the favored son of “the Lion of the Lord,”
John Willard possessed many of the same qualities that made his famous father,
Brigham, a legend. John Willard was
charismatic, charming, intelligent, witty and cultured. Unlike his father, however, John Willard was
also lazy, entitled, dependent, impulsive and careless. How the favored child of the most powerful
figure in Utah Mormonism (and one of the most powerful men in the history of
Western expansion) could go from being an ordained apostle and heir apparent to
his father, to dying broke, friendless and hopeless in an obscure New York
apartment is a tale that few Mormons today know (but should).
John Willard Young’s life isn’t
just an illustration of a “what could have been” tragedy. To borrow for the poetry of Sir Walter Scott,
John Willard’s life was that of:
concentrated all in self,
forfeit fair renown,
dying, shall go down
To the vile dust
from whence he sprung,
unhonored, and unsung.
And while you are unlikely to find much about the man by
searching LDS.org or any other church website, John Willard’s life is deserving of
our time and attention. Though muddled
in the complexity of his father’s unbridled zeal, the naiveté of his privileged
upbringing and the instability that resulted from his own poor decisions, John
Willard Young’s life was not without genuine contribution, both intended and
accidental. His contributions to the
world of business and government, particularly as they related to railroad
expansion and petitioning for Utah statehood, are most assuredly underappreciated,
even if his labors employed less-than-ethical actions. And perhaps most noteworthy of all, John
Willard Young’s life helped to (inadvertently) establish the practice of
apostolic succession that we see in Mormonism today.
Because We All Love a Juicy Crime
It was a particularly cold morning when the sun rose over
the booming metropolis that was Jersey City on September 19, 1902. As a thriving dock and manufacturing hub,
Jersey City was a desirable first stop for many newly arrived immigrants to the
United States. Work was oftentimes
difficult to find in most Atlantic coastal towns, which made the flourishing
community of Jersey City all the more desirable.
But a bountiful job market and economy was hardly the only
flourishing enterprise in Jersey City.
Prostitution, drug trafficking and other unsavory institutions had
become a staple commodity, willing and able to accommodate the needs (and
wallets) of all newcomers to the Land of the Free. So when Jersey City Police responded to the
news of a dead prostitute found half submerged in the Morris Canal it wasn’t
terribly shocking news…
When the body of Anna Pulitzer, a well known prostitute with
an impressive arrest record, was removed from the water, police discovered her
abdomen had been hacked to pieces and her head nearly decapitated. Further investigation led detectives to an
apartment where several empty beer bottles were discovered, along with bottles
containing powerful sedatives, including chloroform and chloral hydrate. In the bedroom police found sheets, towels
and clothing soaked in blood. The words
“Blood Atonement” had been scribbled several times in a notebook found on the
Police eventually determined that the apartment belonged to
John Willard Young, a local businessman and failed entrepreneur. Young, who had been out of the country for
several weeks, immediately returned to the United States upon hearing the news
of the deceased woman, who police determined had died of a drug overdose. By the time he returned to the States,
officials had already arrested the man they deemed responsible for the grizzly
and bloody scene in John Willard Young’s apartment. Hooper Young, a well known morphine and
gambling addict, had confessed to using drugs with Anna Pulitzer. After her death, Hooper Young admitted to
authorities that he tried cutting up her body in order to dispose of it, but
the sight of so much blood caused him to flee in terror. The news fell hard on John Willard
Young. Not only had a prostitute been
butchered post-mortem in his own apartment, but the guilty party responsible was
none other than his own son, Hooper Young.
News of the crime traveled fast, even making its way west
into the Salt Lake Tribune. And though
the Tribune, which had recently been purchased by U.S. Senator Thomas Kearns,
was determined to rid itself of what they called “anti-Mormon filth,” this
particular story could not be ignored.
After all, Hooper Young was not just the son of John Willard Young: failed
businessman, but he was also the son of John Willard Young: Mormon Apostle and
Prophet, who at one time was the chosen heir to succeed his own father as the
supreme religious figure in the Utah Territory, his father being none other
than the Mighty Brigham Young.
To understand the story of John Willard Young and the role
he played in Mormon history we must journey back to the years of his
youth. Born October 1, 1844 in Nauvoo,
Illinois to Brigham Young and Mary Ann Angell, John Willard grew up as a child
of the Mormon pioneer era. He traveled
across the American frontier, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley where his famous
father hoped to establish the Mormon Zion in the Rocky Mountains.
Though the third son born to Brigham Young, John Willard was
apparently his father’s favorite. As
such, John Willard grew up in a world of plenty. His prophet father ensured that John Willard received
a formal education and was afforded with multiple opportunities to travel and
experience life outside of the Utah Zion.
As a result, John Willard grew up with a keen understanding of American
politics, business and other important issues of his day. John Willard was also lauded as being the
most charismatic and articulate of Brigham’s children.
But it wasn’t just a lavish upbringing and good schooling that
Brigham Young hoped to bestow upon his son.
On November 22, 1855, at the tender age of eleven, John Willard Young
received his Endowment and was ordained an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ by
the hand of his prophet father. The
ordination, which was kept secret from the other members of the church’s First
Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was eventually announced for the
first time to church leaders in February of 1864, roughly eight years after
John Willard’s original ordination. On
that occasion, President Brigham Young ordained John Willard’s two older
brothers, Joseph Angell and Brigham Jr., to be apostles as well, and set all
three of his sons apart to be “Assistant Counselors to the President.”
The ordination of Brigham Young’s children to the Holy
Apostleship was met with surprise and timid acceptance. Apostle Wilford Woordruff recorded the
occasion with the following in his diary:
said I am going to tell you something that I have never before mentioned to any
other person. I have ordained my sons
Joseph A., Brigham & John W. Apostles and my Counselors. Have you any objections? J. Taylor & G.A. Smith said they had not,
that it was his own affair & they considered it under his own direction
And though some church leaders were aware of the ordination
of Brigham Young’s children as apostles, the church in general was kept in the
dark. President Young had instructed
members of the Quorum of the Twelve to “make a record of it, but…not tell
anyone not present about the event.”
wasn’t until April of 1873, nearly eighteen years after being ordained by his
father, that John Willard, along with his brothers, were publicly sustained as “Prophets,
Seers and Revelators” and as Assistant Counselors in General Conference
(Brigham, Jr. had been sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve in the October
General Conference of 1868).
It naturally seems odd to modern members of the church when
they discover Brigham Young’s enigmatic actions in ordaining his own children
(in the case of John Willard at the tender age of eleven) to be apostles. After all, the calling of apostle has been
held in the highest regard by Mormons of all generations. What does it say of such a calling if an
eleven-year-old child can assume such a mantle merely because of his family
The answer is actually simpler that we might think. For Brigham Young, the calling to the apostleship
(not to mention church participation in general) was very much a family
affair. For example, Joseph Smith had
issued a number of prestigious callings to members of his own family. Joseph’s brother, Hyrum, was called to be
“Assistant President of the Church,” a position he held until his death. Joseph Smith, Sr., father to both Hyrum and
Joseph, was given the position of Presiding Patriarch, which he also held until
his death. And in a hotly debated (even
to this day) act, Joseph Smith ordained his own son, Joseph III, to become his
In addition, other church leaders who followed in Brigham
Young’s shoes saw no issue with calling family members to various positions of importance. John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Joseph F.
Smith all went on to call respective kin to become apostles once they became
president of the church.
When writing on the matter of familial favoritism as it
relates to apostolic nomination, renowned Mormon Historian D. Michael Quinn
stated the following:
revelations that some men had a right to preside in the church by virtue of
lineage (D&C 26:21, 36:8, 107:39-52, 113:8). As implied by some revelatory statements, the
right extended beyond lineal office of Presiding Patriarch…Several revelations
indicated that the sons and other descendants of current leaders would have
significant roles in the church. These
statements gave authority for the appointment of relatives to the hierarchy
In short, Brigham Young’s ordination of John Willard (along
with his two older brothers) may seem odd by 21st
standards, but it was hardly strange to Mormons living in the 19th
This doesn’t mean that the ordination of John Willard Young
was without criticism. With that being
said, the criticism came not as the result of the calling itself, but rather
due to John Willard’s apparent ineptitude and indifference to Mormon teachings
and practices. Those who questioned
President Brigham Young’s actions in this regard were not protesting a familial
bias on the part of the prophet, but rather his evident disregard for John
Willard’s obvious incompetence. It was
one thing for Mormons to accept the prophet’s son as potential heir to the
hierarchy, but it was quite another for them to discard blatant hypocrisy.
Though he had been ordained an apostle for nearly a decade
(from 1855 to 1864) and set apart as an Assistant Counselor in the First
Presidency, John Willard Young seemed to live a life that was utterly
unimpressed with and totally disinterested in his unique (and for a believer,
divinely inspired) calling. From 1864
on, John Willard spent most of his time living the high life in New York City,
where his lavish tastes earned him (and cost him) a great deal. John Willard’s wild business ventures,
combined with his grandiose personality, wit and charm, yielded terrific
financial success from time to time. His
expensive tastes, luxurious lifestyle and unbridled avarice, however, produced
even more debt. When his business
ventures eventually failed, John Willard found himself immersed in so much debt
that his only recourse was to turn to his powerful father for aid.
While known for his authoritarian persona and intimidating style
of leadership, Brigham Young proved extremely docile in his relationship with
John Willard. Time and time again, the
Mormon Prophet placated his troubled son’s woes by sending him copious amounts
of money which John Willard used to keep fueling his extravagant lifestyle as
opposed to paying off his debt. Letters
from his prophet father pleaded with John Willard to return to Utah and take up
the cause of his church and apostolic calling. In one particular letter, Father
Brigham begged son John Willard (whom he refers to as “Jonna”) to return home
and take up the cause of Zion:
O Jonna I pray
for you and yours continually. If you
nue [knew] how I want to see you, you would come. My dear Jonna, I due [do] hope you will see
as we see things. I send your dear Br.
Brigham & Br Stanes to prevail on you to come home and stay with us. May God bless you my dear boy.
Brigham Young’s dysfunctional relationship with John Willard
was no mystery to church leaders.
Apostle George Q. Cannon expressed his concerns regarding the
misappropriation of church funds, particularly as they related to John
Willard’s regular monetary allowance that came straight out of tithing
funds. Apostle Joseph F. Smith was even
more specific when he noted that John Willard’s “$16,000 per year from the
tithing office for his support” was a blatant misuse of church funds.
And it wasn’t just church tithes and offerings from which
John Willard was channeling money to support his flamboyant lifestyle. Once ordained an apostle, John Willard
regularly petitioned church membership for additional funds to “assist with
construction of the railroad,” which he promised would eventually be of great
benefit to the Saints in the west. In
fact, John Willard used the idea of constructing a railroad to the west as the
primary justification for his lavish expenses and wanton disregard for
To placate his father, John Willard
would appeal to the supposed need for him to maintain a high standing in the
eyes of those in power, so they would be more inclined to take him
seriously. On one occasion, John Willard
wrote to Brigham Young, who was greatly troubled by his son’s expenditures,
that staying in the best of hotels while traveling was justified because of his
family ties: “As it was generally known that I was your son, I felt I could do
no less than stop at the finest hotel.”
Eventually John Willard’s financial woes became so
overwhelming that a change of scenery became a necessity. After again obtaining financial aid from his
father that was sufficient to pacify his debtors, John Willard returned to Salt
Lake City in March of 1876. Brigham
Young, who was more than delighted to welcome his son home, seized the moment
by offering John Willard a position that would keep him in Utah for the
foreseeable future. Though John Willard
had never exercised any actual church responsibility, nor shown any interest at
all in church matters, the Prophet Brigham announced in the October, 1876
General Conference that his 32-year-old son was to be the new First Counselor
of the First Presidency of the church.
Skepticism and criticism naturally surrounded news of John
Willard’s rise to the position of First Mate of the LDS Church. As his father’s right-hand man, John Willard
was now in a position to make a substantial impact, which caused detractors no
shortage of angst. Local newspapers, which had grown accustomed to commenting
on the unsavory habits and lifestyles of Brigham’s children, were more than
willing to lampoon “apostate Johnny” (John Willard) and “Fat Prince Briggy”
(Brigham, Jr.) as the unworthy beneficiaries of nepotism.
F. Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, expressed his concerns
privately to President Brigham Young.
Smith believed John Willard’s lack of actual experience and poor life
decisions could upset members who knew next to nothing about the man and his
credentials. In a fit of rage, President
Young scolded Elder Smith for his remarks and then promptly sent him on a
five-year mission to Europe.
Fellow church leaders were far from the only critics of John
Willard’s ascent to power. Many
outsiders, curious about their Mormon neighbors to the west, took note of the
perceived hubris of “King Brigham” the Mormon prophet:
So completely has Brigham
brought his people under this subjection, that it is of no consequence what he
proposes to them—if they even hate the subject proposed, they will vote for it,
if Brigham puts it before them, and, as seen by a telegram to the Chronicle,
recently, the old man has at length defined is policy for the future of the
Mormon Church, in selecting for his first counselor the youngest son of his
first family, JOHN W. YOUNG. This now to be prominent young man is well known
in this city, especially among capitalists. He has stopped at our hotels quite
frequently within the last few years, and has been entertained in a princely
style…The Prophet thought Johnny should see a little more of the world before
proceeding further in that line, and he was consequently sent to England on a
tour of pleasure in company with his brother "Briggy Junior." These
two scions of Mormon royalty traveled all over Europe, spending lavishly the
funds of the poor confiding Saints…[T]he youngest son of the Prophet drank
deeply of the ways of the world, and was furiously captivated by its fashions.
For several years he has lived so little in Utah—preferring San Francisco and
New York to the City of Saints—that he has been regarded as an apostate from
the faith, and thus, unexpectedly to everybody, he re-turned to Utah a week
ago, and the Prophet, in utter disregard of the sentiments of the Mormon
people, places him next to his throne, and makes him by that act the next
Prophet of the Mormon Church.
And from the Chicago Tribune:
He [John Willard] has
never done much of anything for himself, his father has set him at this, then
at that; now getting together and keeping a museum; now running a steamer, more
ornamental than useful, on Salt Lake; now starting a street-railroad, finally,
at building railroads that do not pay expenses. This last kind of enterprise
having been run into the ground, Johnny, as everybody calls him, is to be put
at his real profession, running the church…[John Willard] is the SIMPLE RESULT OF
FAMILY PRIDE on the part of Brigham. He feels that his end is drawing near.
For a man of Brigham Young’s stature, the choice to promote
the untested, unproven and seemingly uninterested fruit of his loins over other
men who were far more qualified reveals the very real intent of establishing a
familial dynasty. But as mentioned
above, this was not without precedent nor entirely frowned upon. The issue wasn’t that a child of the prophet
was now following in his father’s footsteps, but rather that the child chosen
was a charlatan with a track record of narcissistic greed that flew in the face
of everything the faith hoped to represent.
Apostolic Succession: A Very Brief
For Mormons of the 21st
century, the basic
understanding of apostolic succession suggests that the process is carried out
with seamless perfection by the very hand of God: the Lord calls his apostles,
who gradually climb the latter of seniority within the Quorum of the Twelve,
and, if it be God’s will, live to become the senior apostle, thereby becoming
the de facto President of the Church.
If only history were this simple!
In February of 1835, Joseph Smith claimed that the Lord had
commissioned the Three Witnesses (Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin
Harris) to select the first members of the new Quorum of the Twelve
Apostles. Once the selections were
completed, the newly appointed apostles had their seniority arranged according
to their order of ordination as apostles.
In other words, the first apostle ordained as such became the most
senior, while all other apostles followed in like manner based on order of
ordination. This system of ordination,
however, changed dramatically in May of that same year when Joseph Smith
instructed that the apostles were to arrange their seniority based on their
This system of seniority existed, more or less, for the next
decade until Joseph Smith was killed at Carthage in 1844. The beginning of the
Mormon Succession Crisis brought into focus many of the flaws that existed with
the age-based apostolic seniority system. Over time (1835-1844), numerous members of the
Quorum of the Twelve had been replaced due to death, apostasy, etc. Men called to fill these vacancies struggled
to know their place in the quorum. Did
they hold more seniority if they were older but lacked the experience and
tenure of already serving apostles? For
example, was Wilford Woordruff (age 32, ordained an apostle April, 1839) senior
to John Taylor (age 30, ordained an apostle December, 1838)? Technically, yes but practically, no. The Mormon Succession Crisis, though not
based entirely on apostolic seniority, was exacerbated by the obscurity of this
It wasn’t until Brigham Young was able to emerge as leader
of the majority going west that this question of apostolic seniority would be
answered, and the answer given was far from concrete. For all intents and purposes, Brigham Young’s
understanding of apostolic seniority rested exclusively on date of ordination
as an apostle, which is why John Taylor was eventually placed ahead of Wilford
Woodruff in the line of succession.
This is how the matter stood when Brigham Young took the
eleven-year-old John Willard and ordained him an apostle. The next most junior apostle in age to John
Willard was Franklin D. Richards (age34).
As a result, John Willard was perfectly positioned to one day enjoy
overwhelming seniority and lengthy tenure as church president. Keeping these facts in mind, it is almost
impossible to deny that Brigham Young was determined to establish his family
line as a dynasty that would extend long into the future. With now four of his sons ordained to the
apostleship, Brigham was clearing stacking his own deck. If the Smith family was to be revered as
Mormonism’s founders, the Young family would be revered as its future.
And so it was that John Willard Young, a man with no
experience and a track record of slothful irreverence for all things Mormon,
took his place at the right-hand of his father.
As an ordained apostle and sustained “Prophet, Seer and Revelator,” John
Willard was now rubbing shoulders with (and, in essence, presiding over) the
very apostles who questioned and doubted his abilities and integrity. For men like John Taylor, the presence of
John Willard as First Counselor to his father was aggravating at best. Taylor had recorded that John Willard’s body
of work amounted to little more than “perusing secular enterprises” and he had
done virtually nothing as a General Authority.
In terms of his actual day-to-day performance as First
Counselor in the First Presidency, John Willard seemed to share his father’s
knack for micromanagement. His letters
to Saints throughout the Utah Territory carry very specific instructions for
seemingly menial tasks, and demonstrate a complete lack of understanding the
many particularities of life in the American West.
In one letter to the Saints
of St. George, President John Willard Young stated the following:
Of late there has been less attention paid to
the raising of sugar cane and the manufacture of molasses than formerly. This should be remedied. Those settlements suitable to the production
of this crop should not only produce enough for their on consumption, but
should make some to send to settlements less favored in point of climate.
Female labor should be classified giving
sewing to those most skilled in this branch of industry…You are advised not to
buy additional sewing machines on time from agents who travel through the
country…In this connection it may be stated that in many of the settlements it
will be found, under the provisions of the United Order, that there are more
than enough sewing machines to do all the work required
One can only imagine what these communities were thinking
when they read President John Willard’s words of counsel. Not only had sugar cane been a complete
failure in the Utah Territory, but the extreme lack of sewing equipment had virtually
stymied any chance of producing clothing on a large scale. Simply put, John Willard’s life experience as
a businessman in New York did not translate well to life in the Mormon colonies
of the west.
With his son John Willard now assuming the role of second in
command, Brigham Young’s vision of establishing a family dynasty was becoming a
reality. Having three sons, two of which
were the youngest of all the apostles (John Willard and Brigham Jr.), the Young
name was perfectly positioned to remain in the halls of power for decades. As grandiose as this goal was, however, it is
only half of the story. In addition to
ordaining his sons as apostles, Brigham Young also made efforts to marginalize
his fellow apostles in the Quorum of the Twelve. Mormon Historian Todd Compton points to this
virtual tug-o-war between President Young and the Quorum of the Twelve when he
wrote the following:
government is not a simple monolithic structure in which all church leaders and
organizations act alike; there is a system of checks and balances. It is clear that Brigham Young minimized the
Council of the Twelve at times, and they resented his use of autocratic power
Brigham Young’s actions to minimize the Quorum of the
Twelve’s influence while bolstering his own authority were met with mild but
sincere resistance. Though the other
apostles in the Quorum of the Twelve disliked the actions of Young, they did
little to oppose him. In the 1851
General Conference, Young had himself and his two counselors sustained as
“Prophets, Seers and Revelators,” but did not extend the same titles to the
apostles in the Quorum of the Twelve.
Young furthered his consolidation of power by allowing only himself and
members of his First Presidency to be sustained “Prophet, Seer and Revelator”
in every General Conference from 1873 until his death in 1877.
By the 1870s, Brigham Young’s inner circle of trusted
confidants did not include a single apostle from the Quorum of the Twelve.
The death of Heber Kimball, Brigham’s
greatest friend, forced him to seek others in whom he could trust. This may help us to better understand why
Brigham insisted on having his children, even if wayward, over fellow apostles.
Brigham Young had seen, first hand, the
betrayals of other apostles when Joseph Smith was in charge of the church. For a man who had spent a lifetime fighting
the enemies of the faith (whether inside the church, outside the church, or
simply in his own head), trust and loyalty were the supreme commodity.
Perhaps due to his own superciliousness, Brigham Young never
considered that his fellow apostles would one day seek to undo all he had set
in motion for the benefit of his family line.
With the death of President Young in 1877, a new face rose to take
control of the church. John Taylor, who
had experienced his own share of disagreements with both Brigham and John
Willard, would eventually emerge as Mormonism’s 3rd
president, though not right away. In yet
another example of how different the church operated in the 19th
century v. today, the Quorum of the Twelve essentially decided to govern the
church as a quorum instead of nominating another president.
This decision certainly seems strange by modern Mormon
standards, but consider how those in that now distant time were perceiving
events. Brigham Young, who had dominated
virtually all the affairs of the church and the Utah Territory with an iron
fist, not to mention completely marginalized the authority and influence of the
Quorum of the Twelve, had passed on. The
chance for a more democratic style of church government had now become a
legitimate possibility. As Apostle
George Q. Cannon put it:
Some of the
brethrem, as I have learned since the death of President Brigham Young, did not
have feelings concerning his course.
They did not approve of it, and felt opposed, and yet they dare not
exhibit their feelings to him, he ruled with so strong and so stiff a hand, and
they felt that it would be of no use. In
a few words, the feeling seems to be that he transcended the bounds of the
authority which he legitimately held
For John Willard, the death of his father also meant the
death of his position as First Counselor.
With the Quorum of the Twelve now governing as a group, their first
order of business was to decide what to do with First Presidency Counselors
John Willard Young and Daniel Wells.
Though vacancies existed in the Quorum of the Twelve, it was decided
that John Willard would not be included, but rather be given the title of
“Counselor to the Twelve.”
As one might expect, John Willard elected to
abandon his new calling entirely as he returned to his previous life in New
It wasn’t until 1880 (three years after Brigham Young’s
death) that John Taylor finally emerged as the church’s 3rd
church president. In addition, three new
apostles were called to the Quorum of the Twelve. John Willard, however, continued to remain on
the outside. Though still technically
considered a “Counselor to the Quorum of the Twelve,” John Willard’s name would
go unrecognized at future church General Conference meetings. He may have still been considered an apostle,
but it was clear that the church wanted little to do with him, and by all
appearances John Willard felt the same.
From 1880 to 1899, John Willard would continue to fall out
of favor with the church. On multiple
occasions, church leaders met to consider removing John Willard completely as a
General Authority and even debated excommunication.
The problem was that John Willard, while
clearly not living in harmony with church teachings, still had numerous
connections to business and political leaders in the east. His business with the railroad and his
efforts to assist with Utah receiving Statehood were still of great importance
to the church. The problem, however, was
the fact that John Willard continued to spend with reckless abandon and relied
on unethical practices when it came to his business/political ties. As John Willard stated in several letters to
church leaders, “My conscience is clear in buying men to do good, but not to do
wrong,” and “I think almost any judge or particularly obnoxious official can be
removed if we go about it in the right way.”
And though his connections proved beneficial, John Willard
Young’s conduct became too much for church leaders to stomach. With a personal history replete with examples
of wanton spending, unethical dealings and scandalous sexual promiscuity, the
church eventually decided to take action.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the
Twelve, in a meeting prior to the commencement of the October, 1891 General
Conference, once again took up the question of what to do with the wayward John
Willard Young. Fortunately for church
leaders, their repeated letters of reprimand became too great an annoyance for
John Willard, who finally replied with an official letter of resignation from
his position as a General Authority.
John Willard continued to carry the title of
an ordained apostle (there was little church leaders could do about that) but
for now he was done as a General Authority.
Pride Goeth Before the Fall
The story of John Willard Young doesn’t end here. Being removed as a General Authority did not
therefore mean that John Willard no longer had standing within the church hierarchy. Bearing in mind the precedent of apostolic
succession implemented by Brigham Young (i.e. the date of ordination as an
apostle being the determining factor in seniority), John Willard was still very
much a concern for church leadership.
The question of how to deal with this dilemma remained on
the back burner until 1898. By then,
Presidents John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff had passed away, thereby making
Lorenzo Snow the church’s 5th
president. The issue of what to do with John Willard
took center stage in December of the following year when Apostle Franklin D.
Richards, President of the Quorum of the Twelve, passed away. John Willard Young, the unruly, indifferent
and indulgent apostle since the age of eleven, was now the senior apostle behind
For President Lorenzo Snow, now age 85 and in failing
health, the prospect of John Willard becoming his successor was simply
unacceptable, but since John Willard remained an ordained apostle having never
been excommunicated, he still had the only legitimate case to be made as it
pertained to apostolic seniority. The
obvious issue was John Willard was completely unliked and totally
untrustworthy, which was more than enough justification for Lorenzo Snow to
make what was arguably his greatest contribution as church president. On April 5, 1900, in a private meeting with
his counselors, Lorenzo Snow made a slight but dramatic change to the way
apostolic succession would be determined (which continues to be the standard to
this day). Snow claimed that apostolic
seniority was to be based exclusively on date of entrance into the Quorum of
the Twelve Apostles, and that date of apostolic ordination was no longer to be
As a result, John Willard Young went from
being the most senior apostle to having no seniority at all. He may have served
as a member of the First Presidency and as a “Counselor to the Twelve,” but
John Willard was never officially a member of the Quorum of the Twelve
Apostles. Ironically this meant that
Joseph F. Smith, John Willard’s nemesis who had been ordained an apostle by his
father, Brigham, was now the heir apparent to the church presidency.
News of the change fell heavy on John Willard, who not only
had been making preparations for his triumphant return to Utah, but hoped that
his new position would alleviate his financial situation. Since returning to New York, John Willard’s
personal finances had become a disaster.
No longer could he look to his rich father for aid, and the prospect of
becoming church president was the only remaining card John Willard had to play.
The final years in the life of John Willard Young are
anything but joyful. Having squandered
all of his money and burned all remaining bridges with church, business and
political leaders, John Willard was left destitute. He had ruined all relationships with his former
wives (divorcing 4 of them and separating from 1). All subsequent letters for aid to former
colleagues in both New York and Utah went unanswered.
As a result, John Willard Young spent his
final years living in an obscure New York apartment and working as an elevator
operator in an upscale hotel he once frequented.
He was now estranged from all his former
wives and children, friends and associates. His favorite son, Hopper, was eventually
sentenced to twenty years in Sing Sing Prison for his role in the death of Anna
Pulitzer. One of John Willard’s former
wives wrote, “My children will never know in this life what the word father
John Willard Young died of cancer on February 24, 1924. Though he regularly continued to attend his
local branch, where he enjoyed flaunting his ordination as an apostle by the
hand of his father, Brigham, church authorities in the area wrote that he “died
without a friend in the world.”
John Willard’s son, Hooper, finished his
twenty-year prison sentence and returned to Utah, where he briefly met up with
distant family members and tried to cash in on his family name. He then promptly left Utah and was never
heard from again.
And thus ends the curious case of John Willard Young.
The life of John Willard Young is undoubtedly seen in a
different light depending on who is acting as audience. For the skeptic, John Willard Young is the
textbook case to prove that the position of apostle is nothing more than a mere
title bestowed by human conceit. For the
believer, John Willard Young forces us to reconsider what truly qualifies a
person to the status of “Prophet, Seer and Revelator.” Clearly the prerequisites are much more than
mere ordination, which is but a formality, akin to a political oath of office,
and does not guarantee the blessings of heaven.
And while his story may seem too offensive to merit greater
attention, I believe it is vital that we avoid the desire to sweep the story of
John Willard Young under the rug. After
all, pretending that his life never took place does nobody any good. John Willard Young was not simply a “Faux pax
Prophet” or mere blemish in an otherwise perfect church. Instead, like it or not, John Willard Young is
a litmus test for every leader, every saint, every sinner, every calling and
every member. One may possess impeccable charm, spectacular
charisma, unlimited intellect, infinite wealth, or noble ancestral heritage but
none of that supersedes the basic building blocks of human potential:
unwavering integrity, humble virtue, thoughtful charity, and selfless
It is more than likely that John Willard Young’s story will
remain on the fringe of the Mormon narrative and rightfully so. The church, like any institution, has the
right to put its best foot forward to the world. But for those who choose to swim further out
into the current, John Willard Young is a story that spawns deep struggle. After all, his story exposes some of the
less-than-pleasant attributes of his famous father, Brigham Young, who himself
walked a thin line between totalitarian dictator and humble prophet. John Willard’s story brings to light the
struggle that exists in the halls of power of every institution, regardless of
its mission, and the many mistakes that result from human frailty. And finally, John Willard’s story reminds us
that the chasm dividing success and failure is not as wide as we sometimes
believe. After all, John Willard Young
was, for a time, literally a heartbeat away from becoming President of the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!
That he died friendless and penniless in a humble New York apartment is
probably the outcome nobody expected, least of all his father. Perhaps
this is why his story matters so much.