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Carolyn Allen
Monday, April 22 2013

Brigham Young, Health, Herbs, Doctors and Medicine

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Note from Author:  This is the third in a series of articles on herbs and medical practices in the early years of the Church.  They are based on the book “Joseph Smith and Herbal Medicineby John Henierman, published by Bonneville Books in 2009.

After the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, Brigham Young continued Joseph’s strong counsel to avoid medical doctors, even until shortly before his own death in 1877. 

In 1846 he wrote to the Mormon Battalion, “If you are sick, live by faith and let surgeon’s medicine alone.  If you want to live, use only such herbs and mild food as are at your disposal.  If you give heed to this counsel, you will prosper; but if not, we cannot be responsible for the consequences.  A hint to the wise is sufficient.”  (Letter dated August 19, 1846 to captains, officers and soldiers of the Mormon Battalion.) 

The U.S. government had assigned a Missouri doctor, a Dr. Sanderson who hated Mormons with a passion.  Dr. Sanderson threatened to cut the throat of any man who would administer any medicine without his orders.  His hatred toward Mormons was reciprocally matched by the hate of the Mormon soldiers towards him.   President Young made sure that a qualified Mormon botanical doctor, William L. McIntyre, accompanied the soldiers and was appointed with the title “Assistant Surgeon” who was loved and appreciated by the men.

As the Saints established themselves the Great Salt Lake Valley, the value of reliance upon faith and herbs for healing was repeated by President Young often, seeming to carry on the great belief Joseph had in botanical medicine.

In fact, a doctor from Illinois wrote to Brigham Young and asking to bring a large group of neighbors to Utah as converts.  Brigham told him that if he “wanted to earn his bread like an honorable man, he would be welcome, but that there was very little need for doctors in Utah.” (“Medicine and the Mormons”, article by Robert T. Divett in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, Vol. 31, No. 1, January 1936.)

During these years in Salt Lake City a “Council of Health” was established.  The Council was headed by Willard Richards, the head botanical physician in Nauvoo who knew and loved the Prophet Joseph, and served him along with his brother Levi.  One of the council’s first tasks was to visit the large island in the Great Salt Lake to secure for medical purposes, such saline plants and roots that were needed.  Beyond that, they were to seek and to find in the surrounding areas the additional medicinal plants for the cure of diseases incident to the climate.  The society was very active and open to men and women, where they would meet and discuss aches, pains and modes of care.  Botanical physicians practiced widely in the early Utah years and were most welcome at these meetings and given a seat of authority. 

Into the late 1850’s, Brigham continued to state the importance of self-reliance, but began to acknowledge that other remedies should be considered:

“If we are sick and ask the Lord to heal us, and to do all for us that is necessary to be done, according to my understanding of the Gospel and salvation, I might as well ask the Lord to cause my wheat and corn to grow without my plowing the ground and casting in the seed. It appears consistent to me to apply every remedy that comes within the range of my knowledge, and to ask my Father in Heaven, in the name of Jesus Christ, to sanctify that application to the healing of my body … it is my duty to do, when I have it in my power.  Many people are unwilling to do one thing for themselves in the case of sickness, but ask God to do it all.” 

The addition of “other remedies” is no doubt reflective of the great advances in medical science during the 1840s, (the last of Joseph’s life, the end of the Nauvoo years and the beginning of the trek west) and through the remainder of Brigham’s life.   Modern nursing through the influence of Florence Nightingale, Pasteur’s discoveries in the field of bacteria, and the discovery and use of ether as anesthesia are but a few of the now common medical practices and truths that were then considered astonishing.

In 1869, he said “Learn to take proper care of your children… if any of them are sick, the cry now is, instead of ‘Go and fetch the Elders to lay hands upon my child,’ it is ‘Run for a doctor.’  You should go to work and to study and see what you can do for the recovery of your children.  Treat the child with prudence and care, with faith and patience, and be careful in not overcharging it with medicine.  If you take too much medicine into the system, it is worse than too much food…”  Journal of Priddy Meeks, Utah Historical Quarterly, 10:199.

In 1872, five years before his death, he called his nephew, Seymour B. Young, to be a doctor and sent him off to New York City to study.  He also called other herbalists and druggists to become doctors. They, and even some women who were called, left Utah to become educated in the East, then returned to Utah to practice medicine. 

At the same time, he was also calling others to carry on and become qualified practitioners in the field of botanical medicine, documenting his standing that faith, herbs and mild food were the primary sources of healing.  They, too, were sent back East to study (at the Thomsonian Schools of Botanic Science) then returned to Utah to practice.

Did Brother Brigham vacillate until the time of his death on the place of medicine for the Saints?

In 1871 (just a year before sending called individuals off to the East to medical school) he said:

“We do not know what to do for the sick, and if we send for a doctor, he does not know what to do for the sick, and if we send for a doctor, he does not know any more than anybody else.  No person knows what to do for the sick without revelation.  Doctors, by their study of the science of anatomy, and by their experience, by feeling the pulse, and from other circumstances may be able to judge of many things, but they do not know the exact state of the stomach. 

In 1872 (the same year he sent his nephew off to medical school in New York City) he said:

Would you want doctors?  Yes, to set bones.  We would want a good surgeon for that, or to cut off a limb.  Do you want doctors?  For not much of anything else, let me tell you, only the traditions of the people lead them to think so, and here is a GROWING EVIL IN OUR MIDST.  … Now the cry is “Send for a doctor.’  If you have a pain in the head, ‘Send for a doctor, if you feel aches, “I want a doctor’ …

And in a sermon dated August 31 1875 he said:

“Instead of calling for a doctor, you should administer to them by the laying on of hands and anointing with oil, and give them mild food and herbs, and medicine you understand.”

Though  his actions and statements seem to be in direct opposition,  herbalist John Heinerman observes:

“First of all, he believed in doctors, but only to the extent of fractures, sprains and such, with a surgeon necessary for amputation when they may occur … the real reason is because a good majority of the Mormon people wanted these services for themselves in the territory.


  1. Thank you very much for this series! This last article again confirmed my own experiences. Although I am in Italy and cannot even obtain some of the herbs mentioned in the miracle tea contents, I am blessed with a good herbalist in our town, who helps me with her vast knowledge of our local herbs, as well as blessings given and received in faith.
  2. I don't usually comment about any articles or opinions, but have chosen to do so. I live a very healthy lifestyle, which unlike many church members, includes exercising regularly and avoiding meat and dairy products generally. Often we can try to justify our own dogma, or business/finances by giving incomplete information. I am actually a direct descendant of Brigham Young and love him and his ways dearly. My family eats largely "raw" for health reasons. I also happen to be a practicing M.D. and am sure that if Brigham Young were alive today, in the world of modern medicine, when the life ecpectancy is far longer than it was in his day; that he would, like all other modern prophets welcome "Western, modern" medicine, and doctors. He was a brilliant man, and would not harp on 150 year old comments at this time. Please consider modern prophets words and experiences who live in this modern time with modern medicine. Again, I don't discount herbs and nutrition; and think that much of modern sickness could be prevented with proper eating.
  3. We don't have to go back to Brigham Young's day to learn how wrong mainstream medicine has been. Merthiolate and Mercurochrome were compounds of mercury. Great for killing germs but extremely toxic to the body. Paregoric was great for calming fussy babies because it contained Opium. The original Coca Cola contained Cocaine that was addictive for obvious reasons. If your old enough to remember, "More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand because they are gentle on the T Zone." Most recently: For fifty years we were told to use margarine, shortening, and hydrogenated vegetable oils instead of saturated fat to prevent heart disease. Now the Harvard Medical and the New England Journal of Medicine fells us that such 'Trans Fats" cause between 73,000 to 221,000 heart attacks and strokes each year.
  4. The Lord didn't tell Adam that Noah needed to build an Ark, likewise the counsel of Living Prophets Today is the Most Pertinent to us. Brigham Young was directly quoted by Wilford Woodruff: "Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: ‘There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day. And now,’ said he, ‘when compared with the [living] oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books." Evidence abounds both for traditional and alternative treatments, however, it is worth noting that herbs, etc are not regulated in that potency/quality, etc vary greatly from one source to the next. In addition, Allergic reactions can happen at Any time, and herbs are equally likely to cause serious harm as modern drugs, All should be taken with caution, and fervent prayer is the safest approach to "know for yourself" which course of action to follow.

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