Polygamy book/John C. Bennett/Rise and Fall of Bennett

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Rise and Fall of Bennett

A FairMormon Analysis of: Polygamy book/John C. Bennett, a work by author:

John C. Bennett in Nauvoo

…as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.

D&C 10:37

Bennett's Motives

Bennett's first meeting with Joseph Smith predated Nauvoo. While all were living in Ohio, Bennett travelled with William McLellin to see Joseph in January 1832.[1] Joseph seems to have made little impact on Bennett personally, though the visit would be remembered later.[2] Interestingly, Bennett instead became friends with Eber D. Howe, who was to print Mormonism Unvailed, one of the first anti-Mormon works.[3] Howe also printed the diplomas peddled by Bennett, and the doctor borrowed heavily from Howe's work when he penned his attack on Joseph and the Saints.[4] This early familiarity with both the Saints and their enemies, coupled with Bennett's unscrupulous nature and burning need for pre-eminence and power, gives credence to his later claim that he did not arrive as a sincere convert.

"I never believed in them or their doctrines," insisted Bennett, but

the facts and reports respecting them, which I continually heard, led me to suspect, and, indeed, believe, that their leaders had formed, and were preparing to execute a daring and colossal scheme of rebellion and usurpation throughout the North-Western States of the Union… …the proceedings of the Mormons…at length determined me to make an attempt to detect and expose the moves and machinery of the plot.[5]

Though his conversion was probably insincere, it is difficult to credit Bennett's claim that his intention was to expose Joseph as a fraud and danger to the Republic. His biographer notes that Bennett's "rationalization has properly met with derision subsequently by most historians."[6] One such historian was H. H. Bancroft, who replied:

When a man thrusts in your face three-score certificates of his good character, each signed by from one to a dozen persons, you may know that he is a very great rascal. Nor are we disappointed here. This author is a charlatan, pure and simple; such was he when he joined the Mormons, and before and after.…if [Bennett] really does not know better than this why he wrote his book, perhaps he will excuse me for telling him that it was, first, for notoriety; second, for money; and third, in order to make people think him a better and greater man than he is.[7]

Following the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum, Bennett returned to Illinois (after two years of anti-Mormon lectures) and attempted to influence the succession in favor of Sidney Rigdon, even providing a supposed revelation from Joseph endorsing Rigdon.[8] He later threw his support behind Jesse James Strang, who made Bennett co-adjudicator of his break-off group, only to excommunicate him in 1847.[9] These are not the acts of a whistle-blower, but of someone seeking to use religion for temporal power. As quartermaster general, Bennett also arranged the transfer of ammunition and light cannon for the Mormon militia—a reckless act if he truly believed the Mormons were plotting sedition. It is far more likely that Bennett recognized that the Mormons were "an untapped political potential in Illinois," which "he could exploit…for his own gain. He likely believed from the onset [sic] that Smith was a charlatan and Mormonism a fraud. Neither of these circumstances would have particularly mattered to him,"[10] since he had repeatedly resorted to lies and misrepresentation for his own aggrandizement (see [11]).

Was Bennett, then, ever sincere? An assessment of his lifelong behavior and character would probably lead most to reject this possibility—but, LDS authors have often entertained it because of a revelation addressed to Bennett.[12] Bennett and others have read this as an endorsement of his behavior to that point, and critics have seen it as evidence that Joseph was both uninspired and unaware of Bennett's nature and actions.[13] B.H. Roberts believed that "his intentions in life at that time were honorable," and argued that "the Lord" shared this view in D&C 124.[14]

A close reading of both the text and the historical circumstances calls this assumption into question:

Again, let my servant John C. Bennett help you in your labor in sending my word to the kings and people of the earth, and stand by you, even you my servant Joseph Smith, in the hour of affliction; and his reward shall not fail if he receive counsel.
"And for his love he shall be great, for he shall be mine if he do this, saith the Lord. I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue, and will crown him with blessings and great glory. (D&C 124:16–17)

The praise for Bennett is, in fact, rather mild. In the same section, the Lord is "well pleased," (v. 1, 12) with others, who are described as "blessed" (v. 15), "holy" (v. 19), "without guile" (v. 20), and praised for "integrity of…heart." No such language is applied to Bennett.

Bennett is instructed to support Joseph in difficulty and receive counsel (rather than give it, as is his wont) if he wishes a reward. Bennett is told he "will be" the Lord's because of his love if he obeys—he is offered a transformation of his nature, if he will accept it. The Lord promised to accept his work "if he continue" (v. 20, emphasis added). What work had Bennett performed?

The Nauvoo Charter

A bill for the Nauvoo charter was submitted to the Illinois legislature on 28 November 1840. By 16 December, the charter was approved, and "[b]oth Mormon and non-Mormon sources give Bennett much credit for the passage of the Charter." [15] Section 124 thus approves Bennett's political work on behalf of the Saints and offers provisional blessings—it says nothing of Bennett's current state before God. The same can be said of the patriarchal blessing given by Hyrum Smith to Bennett on 21 September 1840, which three times makes its promises contingent on faithfulness. It also notes that Bennett may "step aside from the path of rectitude…because of temptation," and promises that God will "call after" him in such a case while cautioning against turning "aside from the truth for the popularity of the world."[16] Such a warning was well-placed, and Bennett did not heed it. Prestige and power were always his over-riding goals.

Even the First Presidency's message about Bennett, printed four days before the receipt of the D&C 124 revelation, said nothing about Bennett's moral character or spiritual gifts. He was described as one who had helped protect them from persecution by securing passage of the Nauvoo charter, and as simply "a man of enterprise, extensive acquirements, and of independent mind, and is calculated to be a great blessing to our community."[17] Bennett had helped already, and had great potential, but the praise was all secular—not spiritual.[18]

Source and degree of Bennett's prominence

According to William Law, Bennett "was more in the secret confidence of Joseph than perhaps any other man in the city."[19] How did a newcomer become mayor, a member of the First Presidency, and a military leader so quickly?

The founding of Nauvoo placed even greater administrative burdens upon Joseph.

In June 1840, he asked the high council to appoint someone else to attend to "the temporalities of the Church."…Joseph wanted to free himself for 'the spiritualities'—translation and revelation—but his appeal went unheeded. The high council supplied another clerk, leaving Joseph responsible…He oversaw the business [of the Church] for another year, until the Twelve Apostles returned…[20]

Not only were Joseph's needs greater than ever, he had lost many of those on whom he had relied in the past. The Twelve were away on missions. Joseph Smith, Sr., died in September 1840, and Joseph had often had to use whatever talent was available to him.[21] Bennett's organization skills, military background, political acumen, and restless energy made him useful.

Sidney Rigdon, a counsellor in the First Presidency, was frequently ill. On April 8, "John C. Bennett was presented, with the First Presidency, as Assistant President until President Rigdon's health should be restored."[22] Modern readers should be cautious in projecting the role of the current First Presidency on Joseph's day. In the modern Church, the First Presidency is almost always composed of two apostles called to serve with the President, and have extensive experience in ecclesiastical affairs. In Joseph's day, this was not the case. Most of Joseph's counsellors in the First Presidency were to betray his trust, including Jesse Gause, Frederick G. Williams, Sidney Rigdon, William Law and John C. Bennett. While some of these counsellors received keys, Bennett did not.[23]

Bennett often acted as Joseph's proxy in political and secular matters, and "appears to have officiated at few public religious activities. He occasionally preached, and as mayor of Nauvoo he performed a few marriage ceremonies," though given Joseph's introduction of sealing ordinances, this is more a secular than religious function. With few exceptions, Bennett "played little role in church conferences. There might have been an unofficial division of labor between Bennett and Smith. Smith handled church affairs; Bennett took the lead in secular matters."[24] In Bennett, Joseph had found the secular aide-de-camp he sought in vain from the high council.

Bennett: an outside "insider"

Following his break with Joseph, Bennett made much of his insider status. He claimed that his role in the First Presidency "gave me access to all their secret lodges and societies, and enabled me to become perfectly familiar with the doings and designs of the whole Church."[25] It is difficult to know whether Bennett was lying or mistaken. Despite his claim, he was never part of the inner circle which received the highest temple ordinances introduced by Joseph. Bennett and Rigdon "were conspicuously absent"[26] when Joseph Smith spoke to those who would be among the first to receive the full endowment necessary "to finish their work and prevent imposition" by Satan.[27]

"Thus," wrote one author

the considerable embarrassment to Joseph Smith and Mormonism which some have inferred from Bennett's alleged duping of the Mormons is cast in a new light because Bennett himself so effectively refutes his own claim that he was a close confidant of Joseph Smith. Unwittingly, Bennett indisputably demonstrates that he was neither directly involved with the endowment, eternal marriage, nor plural marriage—the most significant private theological developments during Bennett's stay in Nauvoo.[28]

Storm Clouds

Bennett's past followed close on his heels. Joseph received a letter reporting Bennett's abandonment of wife and children soon after announcing his baptism. Joseph knew from personal experience that "it is no uncommon thing for good men to be evil spoken against," and did nothing precipitous.[29] The accusations against Bennett gained credence when Joseph learned of his attempts to persuade a young woman "that he intended to marry her." Joseph dispatched Hyrum Smith and William Law to make inquiries, and in early July 1841 he learned that Bennett had a wife and children living in the east. Non-LDS sources confirmed Bennett's infidelity: one noted that he "heard it from almost every person in town that [his wife] left him in consequence of his ill treatment of her home and his intimacy with other women." Another source reported that Bennett's wife "declared that she could no longer live with him…it would be the seventh family that he had parted during their union."[30]

When confronted with these charges, Bennett broke down and confessed. Emma's nephew, Lorenzo D. Wasson, claimed to have been upstairs and heard Joseph "give J. C. Bennett a tremendous flagellation for practicing iniquity under the base pretence of authority from the heads of the church."[31] Claiming to be mortified at the idea of public censure, Bennett took poison in a suicide gesture, but recovered.[32] As a physician, Bennett probably knew how to dose himself to avoid serious harm. Such a flamboyant play for sympathy is consistent with his sociopathy; it is likely that his regret was feigned, save for the risk of public exposure.

Joseph, always quick to forgive the penitent, agreed to keep Bennett's past crimes a secret. Almost a year later, at the end of May 1842, Chauncey Higbee was brought before the high council and excommunicated for "unchaste and unvirtuous conduct towards certain females, and for teaching it was right, if kept secret."[33] This was a replay of Bennett's tactics, and four women testified to the high council that Higbee had thus seduced them, and two named Bennett as the source of the doctrine.[34] This, coupled with reports that Bennett was continuing to seduce women, moved the leaders to action.[35]

After learning of Bennett's persistent seductions, on May 17, Joseph instructed the Church recorder to "be so good as to permit Bennett to withdraw his name from the Church record, if he desires to do so, and this with the best of feelings towards you and General Bennett."[36] Hyrum Smith reported that several women confessed to submitting to Bennett's proposal, and that he also promised

he would give them medicine to produce abortions, provided they should become pregnant. One of these witnesses, a married woman that he attended upon in his professional capacity whilst she was sick, stated that he made proposals to her of a similar nature; he told her that he wished her husband was dead, and that if he was dead, he would marry her and clear out with her; he also begged her permission to give him [her husband] medicine to that effect; he did try to give him medicine, but he would not take it.[37]

Bennett was forced to resign as mayor, and swore an affidavit stating that the doctrines he had taught were his own, and not from Joseph Smith. The entire city council later testified that Bennett was not under any duress when he made these statements. Needing to rehabilitate his reputation for his anti-Mormon book, Bennett later claimed that Joseph took him into a private room, "locked the door," "DREW A PISTOL ON ME," and told him that if he did not "exonerat[e]…me from all participation whatever, either directly or indirectly, in word or deed, in the SPIRITUAL WIFE DOCTRINE, private intercourse with females in general; and if you do not do it with apparent cheerfulness, I will make CAT-FISH BAIT of you, or delivery you over to the Danites for execution to-night…'If you tell that publicly,' said he, 'death is your portion; remember the Danites!'"[38]

This story is utterly implausible. In addition to the city council's testimony, the non-LDS alderman before whom Bennett swore his oath said that

[t]he door of the room was open and free for all or any person to pass or repass…[Bennett then] said, "you know it will be better for me not to be bothered with Mayor's office, Legion, Mormon, or any thing else." During all this time if he was under duress, or fear, he must have had a good faculty for concealing it, for he was at liberty to go and come when and where he pleased... I know that I saw him in different parts of the city, even after he had made these statements, transacting business as usual.[39]

Bennett, like many anti-Mormon imitators after him, would repeatedly claim that his truth telling put his life at grave risk from the "Danite" assassins, who "pledge themselves to poison the wells and the food and drink of dissenters, apostates, and all enemies of Zion, and to murder…[and] to destroy by fire and sword all the enemies of Mormonism."[40] Bennett's subsequent actions belie his worry—he was to remain openly in Nauvoo for another five weeks, and during his two years of extensive anti-Mormon lecturing and publishing, he was never threatened by Danites. He even returned to Nauvoo a week after "escaping"—hardly a sign of fear.[41] It seems far more likely that Bennett was not yet ready to burn all his bridges with Joseph Smith, and was willing to express contrition in private if it did not threaten his public influence.

Fall of Bennett

Such a threat was not long in coming. With the conclusion of Chauncey Higbee's trial, Bennett was told that his withdrawal from the Church would be made public. Bennett once more begged for mercy, claiming that public exposure would distress his mother.[42] A public announcement was again deferred, and Bennett would soon also make confession to the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge. Weeping, Bennett pleaded for leniency, with Joseph as his advocate. Even Joseph's patience had an end, however. It soon became clear that still other members had used Bennett's arguments to seduce women—Bennett's excommunication was publicized on 15 June. The Masonic Lodge published Bennett's crimes the next day.[43] His Nauvoo reputation in tatters, Bennett left and began plotting his revenge.

Notes

  1. See William McLellin journal entry for 11 January 1832, reproduced in William E. McLellin, The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, ed. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, Brigham Young University, 1994), 69.
  2. Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 12.
  3. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 411.
  4. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 31–32.
  5. John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints, or an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism, ed. Andrew F. Smith, 3rd ed. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 5–6, italics in original.
  6. Andrew F. Smith, "Introduction," in The History of the Saints, or an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism, ed. Andrew F. Smith (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000, xvii.
  7. Hubert Howe Bancroft and Alfred Bates, History of Utah, 1540–1886 (San Francisco: The History Co., 1889), 150–151n; as cited in Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:xx-xxi. Volume 5 link
  8. See Thomas J. Gregory, "Sidney Rigdon: Post Nauvoo," ‘‘Brigham Young University Studies’’21/1 (Winter 1981): 51–67.
  9. Smith, "Introduction," xxxvi–xxxvii. See also the same point made in T.B.H. Stenhouse, Rocky Mountain Saints: a full and complete history of the Mormons, from the first vision of Joseph Smith to the last courtship of Brigham Young (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873), 184–185n.
  10. Smith, "Introduction," xvii.
  11.  (needs URL / links)
  12. For example, John Taylor: "I was well acquainted with him. At one time he was a good man, but fell into adultery and was cut off from the Church for his iniquity; and so bad was his conduct, that he was also expelled from the municipal courts, of which he was a member…he fell into iniquity and was cut off from the church for adultery, and then commenced his persecutions…."; reproduced in History of the Church, 5:80–81; citing Public discussion between Reverends Cleeve, Robinson, Carter, and Elder John Taylor at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France, 1850. Volume 5 link
  13. "So it appears from the Prophet's own showing, that the Lord was remarkably well pleased with his servant John C. Bennett so long as he was an advocate of the Mormon creed; but when he came out on the pretended man of God…Joe contended that he always knew Bennett was a scoundrel." - Bennett, History of the Saints, 42. (Bennett examined)
  14. History of the Church, 5:xvii–xviii. Volume 5 link
  15. James L. Kimball, Jr., "A Wall to Defend Zion: The Nauvoo Charter," ‘‘Brigham Young University Studies’’15/4 (Summer 1975): 493–494.
  16. Bennett, History of the Saints, 42–44. (Bennett examined)
  17. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, "A Proclamation of the First Presidency of the Church to the Saints Scattered Abroad, Greeting," ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ 2/6 (15 January 1841): 275; also in History of the Church, 4:270. Volume 4 link
  18. "Bennett never aspired to spiritual leadership. He preached politics and urban improvements, not theology." - Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 459.
  19. William Law to T.B.H. Stenhouse, letter, 24 November 1871; cited in Stenhouse, Rocky Mountain Saints, 198–199.
  20. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 417.
  21. Richard Price argues that the loss of other aides and family members to death made Joseph further vulnerable to Bennett. Richard Price. "Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy: How Men Nearest the Prophet Attached Polygamy to His Name in Order to Justify Their Own Polygamous Crimes." (n.p.: Price Publishing Company, 2001), chapter 7.
  22. History of the Church, 4:340–341. Volume 4 link
  23. Anonymous, "Kirtland Revelation Book," (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church Archives), 10 (27 February 1832); D&C 84:3 [1835 edition] / 90:6 in modern LDS; D&C 124:126. See also discussion in Andrew F. Ehat, "Joseph Smith's Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question," (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, Master's Thesis, 1981), 38–40.
  24. Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, 62.
  25. Bennett, History of the Saints, 3. (Bennett examined)
  26. Ehat, "Succession Question," 40.
  27. "Book of the Law of the Lord" entry for 1 May 1842; cited in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 119–120..
  28. Ehat, "Succession Question," 64–65.
  29. Joseph Smith, "To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and to All the Honorable Part of the Community," ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ 3/17 (1 July 1842): 839.
  30. History of the Church, 5:35–37. Volume 5 link
  31. L[orenzo] D. Wasson, "Dear Uncle and Aunt," letter, 30 July 1842, Philadelphia; reprinted in ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ 3/20 (15 August 1842): 892.
  32. History of the Church, 5:37, 43. Volume 5 link
  33. History of the Church, 5:18. Volume 5 link
  34. Affidavits are available in Price and Price, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, 1: [ http://restorationbookstore.org/articles/nopoligamy/jsfp-vol1/chp12 chapter.htm 12].. See History of the Church, 6:407. Volume 6 link
  35. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 460.
  36. Bennett, History of the Saints, 40–41. (Bennett examined)
  37. "Affidavit of Hyrum Smith," ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ 3/19 (1 August 1842): 870–871. See also History of the Church, 5:71–73. Volume 5 link
  38. Bennett, History of the Saints, 287–288. (Bennett examined)
  39. Daniel H. Wells, "[Affidavit]," ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ 3/19 (1 August 1842): 873–874.
  40. Bennett, History of the Saints, 271. (Bennett examined)
  41. Bennett left for Springfield on 21 June 1842 to arrange publication of letters "exposing" Joseph and the Saints. See Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 461–462.
  42. History of the Church, 5:18. Volume 5 link
  43. {{RSR/Short|pages=461; see ‘‘Times and Seasons’’ 3/15 (15 June 1842): 830; History of the Church, 5:32. Volume 5 link