Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Plural wives/Prescindia Lathrop Huntington Buell/Did not know father of her son

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Questions regarding the paternity of suspected children of Joseph Smith

Summary: A notoriously inaccurate anti-Mormon work claimed that Buell confessed to not knowing her son's paternity. The account contains multiple of others, is implausible, requires proponents to overcome severe historical timeline and geographic problems, and has been refuted by DNA evidence. It is not convincing.

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Question: Did Prescindia Buell (or Sarah Pratt, or Mrs. Hyde) not know who was the father of her son?

The source for this claim is a notoriously unreliable anti-Mormon work. It makes several errors of fact in the very paragraph in which the claim is made

It is claimed that Prescindia Lathrop Huntington Buell admitted that she did not know who was the father of her child—Joseph Smith or her first husband. Sometimes Sarah Pratt (wife of apostle Orson Pratt) is mistakenly identified as the woman in this story. [1] Others sometimes mention Orson Hyde's wife as the source of this rumor. [2]

The source for this claim is a notoriously unreliable anti-Mormon work. It makes several errors of fact in the very paragraph in which the claim is made.

It is implausible that the supposed admission upon which the claim is based would be made. There are major historical problems of geography and timeline for Joseph to have even been a potential father of Buell's child.

The claim cannot be substantiated.

Is the source reliable?

This book was written by Nelson Winch Green, who reported what estranged member Marry Ettie V. Coray Smith reportedly told him.

Even other anti-Mormon authors who had lived in Utah regarded it as nearly worthless. Fanny Stenhouse wrote:

Much has already been written on this subject much that is in accordance with facts, and much that is exaggerated and false. Hitherto, with but one exception [Mrs. Ettie V. Smith is noted in the footnote as the work referred to] that of a lady who wrote very many years ago, and who in her writings, so mixed up fiction with what was true, that it was difficult to determine where the one ended and the other began no woman who really was a Mormon and lived in Polygamy ever wrote the history of her own personal experience. Books have been published, and narratives have appeared in the magazines and journals, purporting to be written by Mormon wives; it is, however, perhaps, unnecessary for me to state that, notwithstanding such narratives may be imposed upon the Gentile world as genuine, that they were written by persons outside the Mormon faith would in a moment be detected by any intelligent Saint who took the trouble to peruse them. [3]

So, we must remember that this work is not regarded as generally reliable today, and it was not regarded as reliable even by the Church's enemies in the 19th century.

The claim

The source for this claim is an anti-Mormon book. The relevant passage reads:

The Prophet had sent some time before this, three men, Law, Foster and Jacobs, on missions, and they had just returned, and found their wives blushing under the prospective honors of spiritual wifeism; and another woman, Mrs. Buel [sic], had left her husband, a Gentile, to grace the Prophet's retinue, on horseback, when he reviewed the Nauvoo Legion. I heard the latter woman say afterwards in Utah, that she did not know whether Mr. Buel [sic] or the Prophet was the father of her son. These men [Law, Foster and Jacobs] established a press in Nauvoo, to expose his alleged vicious teachings and practices, which a revelation from Joseph destroyed. [4]

Errors of fact

As might be expected, then, there are many claims in this passage that are in error. We know that the following are false:

  • Ettie Smith claims that William Law, Robert D. Foster, and Henry Jacobs were on missions and that Joseph had proposed plural marriage to them. Law and Foster, in fact, never served missions. Henry Jacobs did serve a mission, but he was not gone on a mission when Joseph discussed plural marriage.
  • Foster and Law did participate in publishing the Nauvoo Expositor, but Henry Jacobs did not. He was and remained a faithful member of the Church.
  • The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor was undertaken by the Nauvoo city council. Some members of that council were not members of the Church--it seems implausible to think that they would bow to a "revelation" to Joseph requiring its destruction. The decision was made, instead, after 8 hours of discussion and after consulting legal references.

Thus, in the single paragraph we have several basic errors of fact. Why should we believe the gossip of what Mrs. Buell is claimed to have said?

Such an admission would be out of character for a believing Utah woman of the 19th century

Furthermore, such an admission would be out of character for a believing Utah woman of the 19th century. As Todd Compton notes:

Talk of sexuality was avoided by the Victorian, puritanical Mormons; in diaries, the word 'pregnant' or 'expecting' is never or rarely used. Women are merely 'sick' until they have a child. Polyandry was rarely discussed openly by Mormon women. [5]

It is difficult for Joseph to have even had contact with her at the proper time to conceive a child

Fawn Brodie painted a fanciful scenario in which Joseph would have been able to potentially father a Buell child. However, she misread the historical information, and it is difficult, as Todd Compton has demonstrated, for Joseph to have even had contact with her at the proper time to conceive a child. [6] This would suggest that there were no grounds for Mrs. Buell—or a modern reader—to conclude that Joseph might have been the father.

Notes

  1. This type of error is not new in later anti-Mormon documents. An 1884 document claiming to be by Sarah Pratt (who was by then antagonistic to the Church) describes her as the wife of "Orson Hyde," rather than "Orson Pratt." This error is corrected three times, but the error stands in three other cases. See discussion in Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Volume 1: History (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 577. The document cited is [Anonymous], "Workings of Mormonism Related By Mrs. Orson Pratt," typescript of holograph, MS 4048, LDS Church History Library. Sarah Pratt's role, if any, in creating the document is not known. (See Hales, 2:462).
  2. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 298–299, 308, 345. ( Index of claims ); Nelson Winch Green, Fifteen Years among the Mormons: Being the Narrative of Mrs. Mary Ettie V. Smith, Late of Great Salt Lake City; a Sister of One of the Mormon High Priests, She Having Been Personally Acquainted with Most of the Mormon Leaders, and Long in the Confidence of The "Prophet," Brigham Young (New York: H. Dayton, Publishers, 1860 [1858]), 34–35.; George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 82. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  3. Stenhouse, "Tell It All", 618.
  4. Nelson Winch Green, Fifteen Years among the Mormons: Being the Narrative of Mrs. Mary Ettie V. Smith, Late of Great Salt Lake City; a Sister of One of the Mormon High Priests, She Having Been Personally Acquainted with Most of the Mormon Leaders, and Long in the Confidence of The "Prophet," Brigham Young (New York: H. Dayton, Publishers, 1860 [1858]), 34–35.
  5. Todd Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives and Polygamy: A Critical View," in Reconsidering No Man Knows My History: Fawn M. Brodie and Joseph Smith in Retrospect, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996), 166.
  6. Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 670–673. ( Index of claims ) Compton, "Fawn Brodie on Joseph Smith's Plural Wives," 166–170.