The rise and fall of John C. Bennett is one of the great cautionary tales of early Latter-day Saint history.
Bennett was a Massachusetts native who had had several encounters with Mormonism during the 1830s. During that time he was a member of Alexander Campbell’s Church of Christ, the same movement from which Sidney Rigdon had emerged. Bennett was a medical doctor, specializing in gynecology, and had risen to high office in the Illinois state militia by 1840. He came to Nauvoo in September 1840 after an exchange of correspondence with Joseph Smith.
In Nauvoo, Bennett helped craft and pass the Nauvoo city charter, which gave the city council near-autonomous powers. Bennett used his contacts in the state legislature and his status in the state militia to move the charter through to approval. His efforts secured for him the confidence of Joseph Smith.
By February 1841 he had been elevated to three of the highest leadership posts in the city: mayor, chancellor of the Nauvoo University, and major general of the Nauvoo Legion. In April 1841 general conference he was sustained as a counselor in the First Presidency.
Eventually, however, rumors began to swirl that Bennett was involved in widespread sexual immorality. Eventually he was caught having secret sexual relationships with women in the city. He told the women that the practice, which he called “spiritual wifery,” was sanctioned of God and Joseph Smith, that these women were now his wives, and that Joseph did the same.
When discovered, he privately confessed his crimes, and produced an affidavit that Joseph Smith had no part in his adultery. Although he vowed to change, he was caught again. His indiscretions were publicly exposed and he was excommunicated from the Church and stripped of public office.
His rise and fall took place over just 13 months.
After leaving Nauvoo in May 1842, he wrote a tell-all book, The History of the Saints; or, An Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism, and went on a nationwide book tour.
Unlike others who had joined the Church in good faith and then later fell away, Bennett had been a fraud from the start. All his efforts in Nauvoo had merely been a means to and end: To get in the good graces of the Prophet Joseph and thereby obtain power, influence, and (later) sex.
So how, then, do we explain this revelation to Joseph Smith, received 19 January 1841?
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 acounsel. 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.)
First, it strikes me that Joseph Smith was a poor judge of character. He wanted to see the best in people, and when there were “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” he was typically unwilling to believe negative reports about them. This changed somewhat after the Bennett episode; he became more suspicious and took to “testing” individuals’ faithfulness (many of these tests involved introducing them to plural marriage).
In reading D&C 124:16–17, it strikes me how conditional all of Bennett’s blessings were (note the thrice-repeated use of “if”). Contrast that with 124:15, where Hyrum was unconditionally blessed “because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me.” No such statement was made of Bennett.
Bennett was told that the Lord had “seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue.” This is probably a reference to Bennett’s work on the Nauvoo charter, which benefited the Saints enormously after the privations they had suffered in Missouri. Were it not for Bennett, Nauvoo would not have gotten off the ground as a city. It’s possible that the Lord was willing to use Bennett for His purposes, and, once they were done, allow Bennett either come clean or self-destruct.
God does not reveal everything to his prophet all the time, only what He needs to advance the kingdom. Sometimes He withholds information because the prophet needs to figure it out on his own, or the prophet needs to be tested, or because the fallout will cause a necessary separation of wheat and tares within the Church, or because the prophet didn’t ask, or for other reasons. Prophets do not walk around with a “spiritual earpiece” that constantly feeds them information about people they encounter.
The Mark Hofmann affair was similar: Hoffman presented documents he had forged to the First Presidency, who accepted them graciously and turned them over to scholars for analysis. There was no reason to mistrust Hofmann, so they didn’t bother to ask. In the end, the Church survived, and we’re a little wiser for the experience.
So with Bennett’s betrayal: As difficult as it was, he served his purpose. If the Lord had revealed Bennett’s true intentions to Joseph in January 1841, any help he was after that would have been preempted and Joseph probably would not have learned a valuable lesson about vetting close associates.