This is my second installment where I tackle the accusation that Joseph Smith was a rake (Ken Jennings wouldn’t say so either.) before he ever received a revelation about plural marriage. I am partial to Dan Bachman’s theory that section 132 was received in stages as he lays out in “The Ohio Origins of the Revelation on Eternal Marriage” in a JMH 1978 article. Critics have likewise turned to the Ohio period to frame Joseph Smith as a sexual predator before the revelation was made public. Clark Braden, in his 1884 debate with an RLDS apostle pursued this agenda. He claimed that the [March 24,1832] tar and feathering was brought about by Eli Johnson’s brotherly outrage of Joseph Smith’s impropriety against Eli’s sister, Marinda Nancy Johnson. I am going to present some new information about Eli Johnson, but if I don’t make much sense please see the following links for background information: 1 2 3 .
Clark Braden’s account is hopelessly garbled, but that doesn’t deter many critics from Fawn Brodie to Grant Palmer from using him as a source to tar Joseph Smith’s character. Braden’s family lived in the right area at the time of the incident, but Clark himself was just an infant. As will be seen, it is likely that his informant was not Eli Johnson. Furthermore, as Dale Broadhurst, one who sympathizes with Braden’s promotion of the Spalding theory, observed from his numerous published errors that “Clark Braden was prone to exaggeration and ‘loose’ quotations of others assertions, comments, etc. The allegations and proofs offered in his speeches should be read with that fact in mind.”
The moderator at the Braden-Kelley debate was Arthur Deming, the son of a Jack Mormon sheriff. Minor Deming had made many enemies for the protection he gave the Saints after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and died shortly after. Young Arthur became bitter against the Mormons, essentially blaming them for having to serve an apprenticeship (as orphaned or fatherless teens were often made to do) to learn a trade that turned out to be useless for him. Arthur Deming also prefaces his collection of anti-Mormon affidavits as being a consequence of the debate. “Mr. Braden, the opponent of Mormonism, was unable to satisfactorily prove some points he claimed, and he engaged a party to collect evidence to sustain his position. The party did not accomplish much and I undertook the business.”
So a year later Deming followed up on the tar and feathering account with Newell K. Whitney’s hostile brother who had never embraced Mormonism and who had remained in the Kirtland area. Deming received a very different story from the Rev. Whitney, one that presents a more plausible motivation.
He stated that one of the party who tarred and feathered Sydney Rigdon and Jo Smith at John Johnson’s, in Hiram, O., informed him that Rigdon said to their assailants he presumed they were gentlemen, but Jo Smith fought until overpowered. A doctor present offered to castrate Jo and said he would warrant him to live. It was not done. Several of Johnson’s sons were of the party. They were angry because their father was urged by Jo and Rigdon to let them have his property. He finally did give them some of it, and moved to Kirtland and kept tavern, and his son Luke became one of the first Mormon Twelve Apostles.
By any historical methodology for weighing sources, Deming’s account trumps Braden’s. While both are extremely late. the latter is of unknown provenance and hence even less reliable. The former is third hand ( Johnson brother -> unidentified mobber ->S. F. Whitney -> Deming) unless the unnamed mob snitch was John Johnson Jr. The falsifiable errors Deming makes are less severe. Contra Braden, Marinda had no brother named Eli. Working against Deming, is that at most only one of Johnson’s son’s (not several as claimed) could have been in the mob. However it will take some argumentation to establish that fact. Let’s look at each of the relevant members of the immediate Johnson family to see where their sympathies were at.
Marinda Nancy Johnson
While she (much) later became a plural wife of Joseph Smith, she wrote unsolicited in her diary that Joseph never behaved improperly towards her. “Here I feel like bearing my testimony that during the whole year that Joseph was an inmate of my father’s house I never saw aught in his daily life or conversation to make me doubt his divine mission.”
John Johnson Sr.
John Sr. came to Joseph’s rescue when he heard the commotion, but got clocked when mistaken as a mobber by a fellow rescuer. David Whitmer miraculously healed his broken bone. Later John Sr. faithfully served on the high council, which is inconsistent if he suspected Joseph behaved in an untoward manner with his daughter.
Earlier Joseph had healed her arm, an act that ironically helped convert one of the mob’s leaders Ezra Booth for the time being. She helped clean the tar off of Joseph Smith and hence can not have been sympathetic to the mob’s aims.
Whitney failed to note that Lyman was also called to be an apostle, in addition to Luke. This is in itself makes it highly unlikely that either Lyman or Luke harbored any ill feelings towards Joseph Smith. Lyman also has an alibi, he was on an eastern mission for much of 1832. According to the Saints without Halos website’s chronology, he was with Orson Pratt continuously from Feb. 3 to Nov. 8. More importantly a source that trumps either Braden or Deming by being earlier and only second hand and having no (as yet) falsified information likely stems from this mission, but I have yet to see any Braden apologist adequately deal with it. From Orson Pratt we have:
At a meeting held in Piano, Illinois, Sept. 12,1878, Apostle Orson Pratt explained the circumstances connected with the coming forth of the revelation on plural marriage. He refuted the statement and belief of those present that Brigham Young was the author of that revelation [Section 132 in the Utah Doctrine and Covenants]; showed that Joseph Smith, the Prophet, had not only commenced the practice of that principle himself, and further taught it to others, before President Young and the Twelve had returned from their missions in Europe, in 1841, but that Joseph actually received revelation upon that principle as early as 1831. He said, “Lyman Johnson, who was very familiar with Joseph at this early date, Joseph living at his father’s house [near Hiram, Ohio, beginning in September 1831], and [Lyman] who was also very intimate with me [Orson], we having traveled on several missions together, told me himself that Joseph had made known to him as early as 1831, that plural marriage was a correct principle. Joseph declared to Lyman that God had revealed it to him, but that the time had not come to teach or practice it in the Church, but that the time would come.” To this statement Elder Pratt bore his testimony. (Historical Record 6:230 cited disapprovingly in Price)
If Orson Pratt’s recollection is correct, than it isn’t possible to claim that Joseph was accused of being a womanizer (specifically in the cases of Fanny Alger and Marinda Johnson. Eliza Winters is another story, but it also falls flat.) before he received a revelation on plural marriage. Like Braden and Deming, Pratt can be dismissed as being late and agenda driven. But why should we reject Pratt, but accept the weaker Braden source? I hope that the historians who take the minority, contrarian view, championed by Signature will one day coherently address that question.
Luke was called on a mission at the same time as his brother in section 75. His first companion, William McClellin, fizzled out after a short while so he returned and was reassigned with Seymour Brunson. Luke was also gone during the tarring according to Saints without Halos’ chronology. Luke ‘s 1858 account is thus second hand, but over 25 years earlier than Deming and Braden. It is clear that his loyalties lie with Joseph Smith and his parents and not the mob in his account. He makes an error in dating it to Fall of 1831, but offers information not found in Joseph Smith’s history. Noticeably telling is the absence of any mention of his brothers being involved or a motive behind the attack. However, I don’t want to make too much of an argument from silence.
Olmstead also does not seem to be a mob participant. In Joseph Smith’s history he was just visiting the Johnson farm. Olmstead failed to convert to Mormonism and soon went traveling. “He went to the southern states and Mexico, and on his return, he took sick, and died in Virginia.” Although, the history is vague about the timing of the visit, Olmsted is out of the narrative before the tarring incident is covered.
John Johnson Jr.
There is really only two reasons I am aware of that may point to John Jr. being a member of the mob. The first is that he is included in a list of apostates that has other known members of the mob. That list is sandwiched in between Olmsted’s visit and the tarring incident. The second is that Deming’s theory of motive regarding property becomes tenuous if at least one son wasn’t worried about his inheritance. Other apostates would not feel as threatened that a plot was afoot to deprive them of their property. As I allude to earlier, the property motive is much more plausible for the mob’s extra-legal maneuvers than accusations of sexual misconduct. Attempts to harmonize the two extremely post-hoc justifications run the risk of Occam’s wrath. However, I believe an even more plausible explanation, if one had to just pick one, is religious bigotry. To do this, I will now look at some Johnsons who were uncles rather than brothers of Marinda.
Uncle Edward Johnson
An Edward Johnson also appears on list of apostates, but beyond that, there may be no reason to connect him to the mob’s activities. Looking at John Johnson Sr.’s genealogy, he had a brother named Edward who moved to Portage Co., Ohio around 1831 and he may be the apostatizing Edward. John Sr. had moved there (in Hiram) around 1820, but the rest his brothers and sisters appear to have maintained residency in New Hampshire.
Uncle Eli Johnson
It is clear that there was an Eli Johnson at the tarring who was in charge of the tar bucket. It may be that a second uncle, Eli, tagged along with Edward on his move to Ohio for awhile. He was also known for his religious persecution of those differing from his Calvinist/Presbyterianism worldview. He hated Universalists with their idea of no Hell, so it is real possibility that Joseph and Sidney’s vision of the Degrees of Glory set him off. So he does fit a mobber profile, if this is our man.
Eli was partially blind, fond of drink, disgruntled, the village tale-bearer, and lived in outhouses (apparently not a big property owner). He is known to have lived his last 50 years in Battleboro, NH (1809-1859), posing further difficulty for him being in Ohio for long and being Clark Braden’s source. He would have been around 50 when Joseph was tarred and feathered and not easily mistaken for Marinda’s brother.
Let us just say if this Eli Johnson is your star witness, your Joseph Smith history has major credibility problems. If this isn’t your Eli, than Eli is not a relative and it is even less likely that he would be aware of a sexual impropriety that apparently didn’t bother the Johnson family and was denied by Marinda herself.