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In June 1842 Dr. John C. Bennett left Nauvoo, thoroughly angry and vengeful. He had been fired as mayor, evicted from the Church, outed as a sexual predator, and thwarted at every turn by Joseph Smith and the newly-formed Relief Society.

Few realize that Bennett returned and met with Joseph in December 1843. Even though neither man recorded the details of their meeting, the record suggests Bennett was willing to repent.

The Hasidic Parable

Bennett had told terrible tales about Joseph. However individuals have long spoken ill of good leaders. An ancient Hasidic parable explores this.

Once there was a man who spoke evil of the rabbi. The rabbi had done no wrong, but the man’s tales brought him fame.

Much later, the man realized the harm he had done. Weighed down with guilt for his great crime, the man returned to the rabbi to make amends. He openly admitted his wrong and offered generous payment.

The rabbi looked at the money on the table with sorrow. The rabbi picked up a pillow, stuffed to bursting with fine goose down. Curious, the man followed the rabbi outside.

Without a word, the rabbi took the pillow in his hands and ripped the ticking apart. The man cried out as the valuable feathers scattered in the wind.

The rabbi somberly turned to the man. “My friend, please bring me the feathers, and we will repair the pillow.” The rabbi hugged the man, and the man saw tears glistening on the rabbi’s cheeks. The rabbi slowly walked back to his cottage.

The man turned to his task. He quickly gathered several handfuls of the white down, and began to hope. But as the sun fell low in the sky, clouds gathered on the horizon. Rain began to fall. The man hurried back to the rabbi’s cottage with the precious few feathers he had been able to recover.

Wordlessly, the man offered the feathers to the rabbi. Carefully, the rabbi placed the gathered feathers into the ticking. The rabbi stitched the ticking back together, and the man saw that the repaired pillow was a flat parody of its original form.

The rabbi gave the man the thin, lumpy pillow. “Now, go, and attempt to gather back all the words you have spread.” [1]

The History of the Saints

Weeks after leaving Nauvoo, Bennett produced a book titled History of the Saints. The book largely consisted of testimonials Bennett had collected during his career, combined with a variety of fantastic tales of evil allegedly perpetrated by “the Saints.”

Bennett asked Stephen A. Douglas to help Bennett formalize the divorce from his estranged first wife, Mary Barker [Bennett]. [2] This may have been intended to keep inconvenient truths from disrupting Bennett’s campaign against Smith.

For nearly a year after Bennett left Nauvoo, he traveled America. In each location, Bennett booked halls so people could pay to hear tales of the supposed evils of Joseph Smith and his band of Mormons. Bennett used these events to sell his book.

After a year Bennett’s ability to attract crowds was waning. Bennett’s talk about the Mormons was old news. It also appears communities no longer wished their citizens to be exposed to tales of lurid sexuality. When Bennett attempted to speak against Mormonism at the stage barns in Fort Des Moines in Iowa, men with firearms persuaded Bennett to cease sales of his anti-Mormon book, History of the Saints. [3]

Hinkle, the Traitor

George M. Hinkle had been an early member of the Mormon Church. But in 1838 Missouri, Hinkle had turned against Joseph Smith. Knowing the leaders of the Missouri militia intended violence, Hinkle betrayed Joseph into their hands. [4] Hinkle proceeded to confiscate Joseph Smith’s property, confident that General Lucas would ensure Joseph was killed.

In the fall of 1843, Bennett decided to visit the Hinklites. Perhaps Bennett saw in Hinkle some kind of kindred spirit. Hinkle might have been able to reveal history that could revive Bennett’s own claims of injustice.

We do not know exactly what transpired during Bennett’s visit with Hinkle. But it is while Bennett was with the Hinklites in Moscow, Iowa, that his writings for the first time reflect a correct, if still hostile, understanding of Joseph’s practice of plural marriage. On October 28, 1843, Bennett wrote about the:

“Doctrine of Marrying for Eternity… They must marry in time so as to begin to form that sincere attachment and unsophisticated affection which it is so necessary to consummate in eternity in order to [realize] the peace of Heaven… a man may select as many wives for eternity as his devotion to the interests of the Mormon Church will entitle him–-and this is to be determined by revelation through His Holiness, the Prophet!” [5], [6]

There had been rumors circulating in Kirtland about Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger. So it is possible Hinkle was the sole source of Bennett’s new information about the ‘Doctrine of Marrying for Eternity.’ However it seems more likely that someone from Nauvoo was in contact with Bennett, someone who had read the revelation about Celestial Marriage (D&C 132). [7]

Return to Nauvoo

For whatever reason, Bennett left Hinkle and traveled back to Nauvoo, arriving in early December, 1843. Bennett would never speak of the visit, nor did anyone else describe what happened. The only historical trace is an entry in Joseph Smith’s Daybook from the Red Brick Store in Nauvoo.

For some reason, Bennett handed Joseph $117. At $0.10 to $0.25 per head at Bennett’s lectures, this represented the net profit from over a thousand lecture tickets. In the Daybook, Joseph quietly attributed it as back-payment of rent for 39 weeks’ lodging at the homestead. [8] Of note, it is only after the visit of Dr. Bennett in 1843 that we see Joseph and Hyrum openly accuse William Law of adultery. [9]

It could be Bennett had returned in an attempt to make amends, as seen in the Hasidic parable. If so, Bennett’s actions following this December 1843 visit could be read as an attempt to repent and set the record straight.

Grasping for Feathers

Following Bennett’s visit with Joseph in Nauvoo, Bennett traveled to Boston. As he had done at the beginning of his tours defaming Joseph, Bennett booked Marlboro Chapel for the purpose of delivering a lecture. A report of the lecture was published April 10, 1844. [10]

When Bennett took the stage, he began by describing his own sins. Bennett’s confession of wrong was then followed by a complaint that Mormons themselves were similarly guilty, and that Bennett should not have been the one at whom the first stone was cast.

Bennett was not lying here. As had been explained to the Relief Society, it had been policy to avoid exposing the sins of the guilty. Other Mormons who may have been similarly guilty included Justus Morse, John Higbee, Bishop Knight, Francis and Chauncey Higbee, and William Smith.

The Saints in the Boston area at the time likely attended Bennett’s lecture to rebut falsehood, as Mormons had done throughout Bennett’s earlier lecture series. William Smith was President of the Eastern Branches at the time, but was himself at Nauvoo in April, 1844. [11] However there may have been other Mormons in attendance who knew how damning it would be if Bennett were permitted to name names.

Before Bennett could continue, the crowd turned on him. [12] They pelted him with rotten eggs, rocks, and vegetables. Bennett retreated and fled the building. The “vast assemblage” chased him through the streets of Boston, running over several Boston police officers in the process. [13] Bennett could easily have beed killed that night, had the police not intervened.

The Boston attack ended Bennett’s possible attempt to correct the slanders he had spread throughout the nation in 1842-1843.



Return to the Saints

Days before Joseph’s death, an unidentified “Major-General in the Illinois militia” wrote to Bennett on June 19, 1844. The letter pleaded “we need you very much in your military capacity throughout the campaign… things will come to a crisis in about eight to ten days…” [14]

It is not known whether Bennett responded to the letter. However the Church leaders who followed Joseph Smith believed Bennett had in some way been involved. [15] In eight days, Joseph Smith was dead. With Joseph’s death, the only man who might have vouched for Bennett’s possible intended repentance was gone.

Joseph had once upon a time blessed Bennett, promising rewards and great glory had he accepted counsel and stood by Joseph:

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. [16]

But the moment was lost. Bennett had absented himself. During that absence, the mantle was conferred on Brigham Young and the other apostles. Bennett would return to Nauvoo, but Brigham Young wanted nothing to do with him.

The Prodigal Returns – Notes

After leaving Nauvoo, Dr. Bennett wrote a book, History of the Saints. Bennett proceeded to canvas the United States, selling his book and regaling all willing to pay with lurid tales of seduction.

In October 1843, Bennett wrote of the “Doctrine of Marrying for Eternity.” The article was still hostile, but marks the first time Bennett conveys an accurate understanding of Joseph Smith’s doctrine. In December, Dr. Bennett returned to Nauvoo and gave Joseph $117, the profits from over a thousand tickets to Bennett’s lectures.

In the spring, Bennett attempted a lecture in Boston, confessing his sins. Before he could proceed, he was mobbed, ending a possible attempt to take back his lies. When Bennett returned to Nauvoo, Joseph was dead.

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[1] Based on Rabbi Scheinerman’s article on lashon hara (the Hebrew term for “evil speech”). Online 10 Jun 2014 at http://scheinerman.net/judaism/Sermons/lashon-hara.html.

[2] In July 1842, Bennett requested Stephen Douglas assist him in obtaining a divorce from his wife, Mary. The actual divorce was finalized on October 15, 1842. From Andrew Smith’s Saintly Scoundrel on p. 105: “While in Quincy [in July 1842], Bennett might have met with Stephen Douglas because two matters were resolved about this time. The first was Bennett’s resignation as master in chancery for Hancock County. The second was Douglas’s [sic] agreement to handle Bennett’s divorce from his estranged wife, Mary Bennett, who had remained in Ohio. This divorce was not finalized until October 15 because she had to be informed of the proceedings. She evidently did not contest the divorce. [Reference to Decree of Divorce, signed by Stephen A. Douglas, Hancock County Archives, Carthage, Ill.]”

[3] J. M. Dixon and J. W. Doughty, Centennial History of Polk County, Iowa, p. 327, cited in Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, p. 138.

[4] Michael De Groote, “Speaker says militia leader betrayed Joseph Smith”, Deseret News, online 15 Jun 2014 at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700009433/Speaker-says-militia-leader-betrayed-Joseph-Smith.html?pg=all.

[5] John C. Bennett, October 28, 1843, letter to the editor, published in the Hawk-Eye and Iowa Patriot, cited in Andrew Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, p. 138.

[6] A possible informant might be William Law, who learned about the New and Everlasting Covenant around this time.

[7] Though Bennett had secured a divorce from Mary Barker, he married again in early 1843. Therefore he could not have hoped to have the woman he had courted in Nauvoo (possibly Elvira Cowles) unless she were to have become his plural wife.

[8] Joseph Smith’s Daybook from His General Store in Nauvoo, December 8, 1843, Iowa Masonic Library, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Cited in Andrew Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, pp. 138-139. Then end note giving details of the payment is note 34 on page 223.

[9] Joseph Jackson claimed in January 1844 that Joseph had been attempting to convince Jane Law of the correctness of the doctrine for “some two months.” Numerous 1844 documents discuss the accusation that William Law was an adulterer, including: Alexander Neibaur’s journal entry of May 24, 1844; William Clayton’s journal entry of June 12, 1844; Hyrum Smith’s accusations in the Nauvoo City Council on June 8, 1844; and Hyrum’s writings in the June 17, 1844, Nauvoo Neighbor.

[10] Daily People’s Organ, April 10, 1844.

[11] William Smith and his family went east in the spring of 1843 and remained away until May 4, 1845, though William made a solo trip back to Nauvoo in March-May 1844. See Walker, William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet, “Chapter 9 – President of the Eastern Branches, 1843-1845,” pp. 171-207, 236.

[12] It is possible some in the Boston crowd were Mormons who had been sent away from Nauvoo following the scandal. We know William Smith was in the Boston area. Mormon Elders had been following Bennett’s lecture circuit, to mitigate the damage his tales caused. The attack on Bennett could have been to stop him from identifying the other guilty men.

[13] Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p. 140.

[14] Cited in Saintly Scoundrel. Jonathan Dunham, Major General of the Nauvoo Legion, could be the author of the reported letter. However Joseph last instructions to Dunham told Dunham to “instruct the people to stay at home and attend to their own business.” Allen J. Stout alleged Dunham had disobeyed Joseph Smith’s order to rally to Carthage, but it does not appear Joseph issued such an order. If traitorous, Dunham would have been happy to keep the Mormons away from Carthage, as Joseph Smith had commanded him to do.

[15] LaJean P. Carruth and Mark L. Staker, “John Taylor’s June 27, 1854, Account of the Martyrdom”, BYU Studies Quarterly Vol 50:3, 2011. In the address, given on the tenth anniversary of the martyrdom, Taylor clearly implicates Dr. Bennett as complicit with those who effected Joseph’s death. LaJean Carruth is the first to decipher George D. Watt’s Pitman shorthand notes of this address. Online 28 Feb 2017 at https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/john-taylors-june-27-1854-account-martyrdom.

[16] D&C 124:16-17.