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Joseph likely became aware that actual seductions were taking place no later than January 13, 1842, when he abruptly summoned Willard Richards to his home. This marks the beginning of when we should expect to see evidence of Joseph’s concern in the official actions of either the religious Nauvoo High Council or the secular Nauvoo City Council.

As in other U.S. cities, Nauvoo reflected the political organization the founding fathers had designed for the United States. The chief executive in Nauvoo was the Mayor, who was Dr. Bennett. The legislative branch was the city council. The judicial function was filled by Nauvoo’s judges, including Elias Higbee. In the matter of Bennett and his Strikers, however, these three secular branches were inadequate to rectify a gross wrong. With Dr. Bennett as mayor, it is not surprising that the secular council had little impact on uncovering the corruption that should have been its business.

The defeat of Dr. Bennett’s corruption would require the combined forces of the religious executives, Joseph and Emma, and their respective councils, the Nauvoo High Council and the Relief Society organization.

The Church’s High Council initiated the Nauvoo census. When the combined efforts of Emma and Joseph had flushed out information regarding the leaders of the corruption, the Nauvoo High Council formally investigated the matter and questioned informants and witnesses.

A Little Tale Will Set the World on Fire.

Joseph Smith had warned that the truth on the guilty should not be told openly. The faithful heeded this counsel so thoroughly that the sexual heresy remains almost entirely unknown to even seasoned historians. Yet the mild and vague notice indicating the Church had withdrawn fellowship from Dr. Bennett would provoke a media storm that continues to “draw the indignation of a gentile world” upon the Mormon faith and its founding prophet.

A contemporary living in Nauvoo at the time would have seen this simple notice in the Times and Seasons issue of June 15, 1842:


The Subscribers, members of the First Presidency of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, withdraw the hand of fellowship from General John C. Bennett, as a christian, he having been labored with from time to time, to persuade him to amend his conduct, apparently to no good effect.


The following members of the Quorum of the Twelve concur in the above sentiments.


We concur in the above sentiment.


Bishops of the above mentioned Church. [1]

The recorded testimony that damned John C. Bennett implicated several women and many more men. Joseph would rail against Bennett in the months following June 1842. However Joseph would withhold the evidence presented to the High Council, reportedly in hopes of reclaiming those who had fallen. Towards the end of May, 1844, Joseph would finally release a small portion of the testimonies documenting the evil that had possessed the City of Nauvoo under Bennett’s corrupted leadership. [2] The testimony that was released was carefully chosen to implicate only one additional man in the seductions of 1842, Chauncey Higbee.

Joseph hoped confirmation of Chauncey’s complicity in the 1842 seductions would erode support for Chauncey’s plan to murder Joseph. But the disclosure was too little and too late. Joseph Smith would be dead at the hands of a mob in 1844, less than a month after publishing the damning 1842 testimonies against Bennett and his chief acolyte, Chauncey Higbee.

Preaching to the Choir.

The 1842 break in the public case occurred because of Joseph’s teachings against spiritual wifery. Joseph had addressed the Nauvoo Choir of Singers, speaking against sexual immorality, apparently using the kind of language we see Emma Smith using in her remarks to the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. One member of the choir was Sarah Searcy [Miller], born in 1815. On May 24, 1842, Sarah gave testimony that:

“Some two or three weeks since, in consequence of brother Joseph Smith’s teachings to the singers, I began to be alarmed concerning myself, and certain teachings which I had received from Chauncey L. Higbee…

“When he first came to my house soon after the special conference this spring, Chauncey commenced joking me about my getting married, and wanted to know how long it had been since my husband died, and soon removed his seat near me; and began his seducing insinuations by saying it was no harm to have sexual intercourse with women if they would keep it to themselves, and continued to urge me to yield to his desires, and urged me vehemently…

“[Chauncey] continued to press his instructions and arguments until after dark, and until I was inclined to believe, for he called God to witness of the truth, and was so solemn and confident, I yielded to his temptations…

“Chauncey Higbee, said it would never be known, I told him it might be told in bringing forth [a child]. Chauncey said there was no danger, and that Dr. Bennet understood it, and would come and take it away, if there was any thing.” [3]

The husband of Sarah Searcy [Miller] had died the previous year. [4] In September 1842 both Mary Clift and Esther Smith, also members of the choir, would also come forward. Mary and Esther told of how they had similarly been taught there was no harm in having sexual intercourse if the women would keep it to themselves. [5]

The Widow’s Daughters.

In 1840 the widow Jane Nyman had been the first person to have herself baptized on behalf of a departed loved one. In March of 1842, Chauncey Higbee stopped by Widow Nyman’s home, proposing to walk Jane’s daughters to the spelling school. The daughters in question were Margaret, almost 30, and her sister, Matilda. [6]

Margaret’s affidavit of May 20, 1842 would read:

“My sister Matilda, and myself accompanied him; but, changing our design on the way, we stopped at Mrs. Fullers: During the evening’s interview, he, (as I have since learned,) with wicked lies proposed that I should yield to his desires, and indulge in sexual intercourse with him, stating that such intercourse might be freely indulged in, and was no sin: That any respectable female might indulge in sexual intercourse, and there was no sin in it, providing the person so indulging, keep the same to herself; for there could be no sin, where there was no accusor;—and most clandestinely, with wicked lies, persuaded me to yield by using the name of Joseph Smith: and, as I have since learned, totally false and unauthorized; and in consequence of those arguments, I was influenced to yield to my Seducer, Chauncey L. Higbee.” [7]

Matilda’s May affidavit would read:

“During this spring Chauncey L. Higbee, kept company with me from time to time, and, as I have since learned, wickedly deceitfully, and with lies in his mouth, urged me vehemently to yield to his desires; that there could be no wrong in having sexual intercourse with any female that could keep the same to herself;—most villianously and lyingly stating that he had been so instructed by Joseph Smith, [8] and that there was no sin where there was no accuser:—Also vowing he would marry me.

“Not succeeding, he, on one occasion, brought one, [9] who affirmed that such intercourse was tolerated by the heads of the Church. I have since found him also to be a lying conspirator against female virtue and chastity, having never received such teachings from the heads of the church; but I was at the time partially influenced to believe in consequence of the source from whom I received it.

“I yielded and become subject to the will of my seducer, Chauncey L. Higbee: and having since found out to my satisfaction, that a number of wicked men have conspired to use the name of Joseph Smith, or the heads of the Church, falsely and wickedly to enable them to gratify their lusts, thereby destroying female innocence and virtue, I repent before God and my brethren and ask forgiveness.

“I further testify that I never had any personal acquaintance with Joseph Smith and never heard him teach such doctrines as Higbee, stated either directly or indirectly.” [10]

The affidavits seem formulaic and many researchers have ignored the affidavits or presumed the women were lying. However the additional testimony written down that day is realistically chaotic, stating that Dr. Bennett had engaged in intercourse with the Widow Fuller, as Matilda had seen them in the act. The formulaic nature of the signed affidavits, then, may not have been due to the women being coached on how to accuse, but may reflect the women being coached on how to tell a sufficiently damning story without revealing too much.

The idea that the women had been in a position to watch as Bennett and the Widow Fuller engaged in illicit intercourse would have been far more shocking that we can imagine. Dr. Bennett learned this the hard way, having accused Joseph Smith of engaging in sexual relations with Catherine Fuller while Dr. Bennett watched. [11] The feedback to that early voyeuristic claim in Dr. Bennett’s campaign against Joseph was intense, suggesting if Dr. Bennett was so intimately involved, it was reasonable to suppose Bennett “also came in for a pretty fair slice of the good things.” Bennett would never repeat in print the claim that he himself was witness to Joseph’s alleged sexual activities.

The Widow Fuller.

The testimony of Margaret Nyman implicated Widow Fuller. Widow Fuller’s home had been the place where Chauncey Higbee was able to interview Margaret and Matilda at length and perform his conquests.

Catherine Laur [Fuller] had been integral to the establishment and spread of spiritual wifery. But in October she unsuccessfully attempted to disentangle herself. By April she became convinced that spiritual wifery was not, in fact, a teaching approved by Joseph Smith, possibly influenced by what Hyrum and Joseph Smith said during General Conference, refuting the idea that spiritual wifery was a valid teaching of the Church. In late April 1842 Catherine married William Warren, ending her involvement in illicit intercourse. In May 1842 Catherine would provide extensive testimony about how Bennett and his Strikers had approached her saying illicit sex was permissible as long as no one knew about it. The published excerpt of Catherine’s statement reads:

“I have had unlawful connexion with Chauncey L. Higbee. Chauncey Higbee, taught the same doctrine as was taught by J. C. Bennet, and that Joseph Smith, taught and practiced those things, but he [Chauncey] stated that he did not have it from Joseph, but he had his information from Dr. John C. Bennet. He, Chauncey L. Higbee, has gained his object about five or six times, Chauncey L. Higbee, also made propositions to keep me with food if I would submit to his desires.” [12]

A More Complete Story.

Based on the testimonies eventually published in the papers, one could glean that John C. Bennett had been cut off and Chauncey Higbee had engaged in illicit sexual intercourse with four women. An examination of the High Council Minutes and the handwritten statements collected during the investigation expand the field of visible damage. [13]

Many men reportedly taught about illicit sex, several of whom engaged in illicit intercourse with one or more of the women who testified to having ‘yealded” to the men’s teachings. It is clear from the full record that Dr. John C. Bennett was the ring-leader. The ten men specifically named by Catherine Laur [Fuller Warren] and the other women are:

*Dr. John C. Bennett, Mayor and General of the Nauvoo Legion
*Chauncey Higbee, Bennett’s aide-de-camp and son of Nauvoo’s judge
*Joel S. Miles
*George M. Thatcher
*Jacob B. Backenstos, non-member, another Bennett aide-de-camp and sheriff of Hancock County
*Gustavus Hills, Nauvoo alderman
Darwin Chase, member of the Seventy since the flight from Missouri
William Smith, Apostle, Joseph’s brother [14]
Lyman O. Littlefield
Justus Morse

The records of the High Council [15] document the following men were also among those cut off:

F. G. Bishop
Ardus Geere
Orlando D. Hovey [16]
William Niswanger
John Hodson
Windsor Lyon [17]

The women who confessed to having engaged in illicit intercourse with these men were:

Catherine Laur [Fuller Warren] (10-12 times with Bennett, 5-6 times with Higbee, 2 times with Joel S. Miles, 2 times with George M. Thatcher, and 1 time with Jacob B. Backenstos)
Sarah Searcy [Miller] (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times, the first time possibly in the presence of Darwin Chase)
Margaret Nyman (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times and possibly also with John C. Bennett, this occurred at the same time as Higbee was having sex with her sister, Matilda [18])
Matilda Nyman (engaged in relations with Higbee multiple times)
Mary Clift (became pregnant with Gustavus Hills’s child from a single interaction) [19]

Other women mentioned as having been seen with members of the Bennett ring in a manner strongly suggestive of illicit intercourse include:

Ms. Shindle
Miss Lucy Munjar (also mentioned in the Relief Society minutes)
Ms. Brown (also denied admittance to Relief Society on this basis)
Ms. Barris
Ms. Gee
Rachel Kingsley [20] (seen with Higbee and Littlefield)
Elenor Kingsley [21] (seen with Higbee and Littlefield)
Esther (Dutcher?) Smith (Testified Gustavus Hills had taught her it was acceptable to have illicit intercourse)

Other Victims?.

Brian Hales writes that he is unaware of any evidence that the women who covenanted with Joseph were among those seduced by Bennett and his cronies. He and all the rest of us have overlooked the possibility that the Esther Smith metioned in the High Council record was almost certainly Esther Dutcher [Smith], [22] who is reported to have been sealed to Joseph Smith during his lifetime. Also, simple procedural steps we take for granted in modern investigations are missing, suggesting the testimony before the High Council could not have been complete:

  • There was no attempt to identify the “one, who affirmed that such intercourse was tolerated by the heads of the Church,” as Matilda Nyman had indicated in her testimony, though the Dinger edition of the High Council Minutes indicates this individual was William
  • Catherine Fuller Warren indicated John C. Bennett was the first to seduce her. This had occurred almost a year earlier, before mid-July 1841. Yet Sarah Miller, Mary Clift, Esther Smith and the Nymans had only been approached by the seducers that spring.
  • Mary Heron is not mentioned in these findings, despite the 1850 testimony indicating she was “frigged” by a man named Joseph, likely Joseph
  • Sarah Pratt is not mentioned in these findings, despite Bennett confiding in Jacob Backenstos that “Sarah made a first rate go.”
  • There was no attempt to get the men to yield up a complete list of the women they had corrupted. Catherine[Fuller Warren] testified that multiple men (Darwin Chase, William Smith, Lyman O. Littlefield, and Justus Morse) to whom she did not yield tried to get her to have sex with them. Are we to believe that these men never tried that line on anyone else?
  • When Dr. Bennett was expelled from the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge in August 8, 1842, the final reason given was “6th. For illicit intercourse with a Master Mason’s wife.” While this may refer to Sarah Bates [Pratt], it is possible this refers to another woman.
  • Bennett would identify the population of women who were excluded from the Relief Society as one of his major groupings of supposed spiritual wives, the Cyprian Saints. Both Joseph Smith and Emma Hale [Smith] were focused on rooting out sexual sin. This led to increasingly stringent membership screening and concerted efforts on the part of Emma’s counselors and confidantes to find the truth behind rumors. Therefore the women excluded from Relief Society are very likely women who were caught up in the illicit intercourse scandal.
  • Meanwhile the Times and Seasons reported on August 1, 1842, that Bennett had introduced “misery and infamy into families… and led the youth that he had influence over to tread in his unhallowed steps… the seduction of the virtuous, and the defiling of his neighbor’s bed.” [23] These descriptions evoke a larger population of sinners than those known to be implicated.
  • Orange Wight wrote that John Higbee, uncle to Chauncey and Francis Higbee, had two wives in 1841. Yet John Higbee is not mentioned in the High Council
  • Neither Joseph Kelly nor John Snider are mentioned in the High Council testimony, though 1850 testimony indicates they were both involved in illicit intercourse circa 1841/42.

In Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, he talks about concept of a historical “ice cube,” a postulated explanation for extant historical artifacts that constitute the metaphorical puddle of water from which we infer the truth.

A possible “ice cube” for the extant facts includes Dr. Bennett having an affair with Sarah [Pratt] before coming up with an elaborate scheme for justifying illicit intercourse. By summer 1841, Bennett had pressured Catherine [Fuller] to yield, claiming better persons that she were involved—theoretically a true statement as Sarah [Pratt], wife of an apostle, had been willing to engage in illicit intercourse.

Rather than keep Catherine [Fuller] as his own, personal, mistress, Bennett began teaching the “doctrine” that illicit intercourse was permissible as long as no one became aware of the interactions. The pool of men and women to whom this “doctrine” spread became vast.

There is a theme in the testimonies of the seduced women that the seducers provided food to the women who yielded to their demands. Those without support would be more vulnerable to men promising food. Those who hesitated were told Joseph Smith taught such doctrines, with Joseph’s brother, William, attesting that it was a correct doctrine. By October 1841 Dr. Bennett began to assert that Joseph Smith practiced illicit intercourse. We see these patterns of promised food and claims of Joseph’s blessing for the illicit sex in the case of known victims, widows Catherine [Fuller] and Sarah [Miller] and fatherless sisters Margaret and Matilda Nyman.

It is likely during final month(s) of 1841 that Brigham Young and Heber Kimball became persuaded that they had an obligation to reach out to Martha Brotherton and the Pitkin sisters, respectively.

As Louisa Beaman and Joseph Bates Noble would be featured in Bennett’s later exposé of Joseph Smith, it appears Joseph Bates Noble may have confided in Dr. Bennett or one of Bennett’s Strikers regarding the plural marriage ceremony Noble had performed in April 1841.

Alternately, it could be that Bennett, having asserted his teachings came from Joseph, began to notice patterns that supported his claims. This could have been as simple as noting a pattern in certain rejections. Many would have simply declined to yield, the way Catherine Fuller did not have sex with every man who came at her with the story about illicit sex being fine. But those who had been taught about the New and Everlasting Covenant would reject Bennett’s heresy, possibly citing Joseph’s teachings. [24]

From January 13th until May 20th, it seems Dr. Bennett and William Smith were engaged in a terrible game of chess with Joseph and Emma. Joseph and Emma were conducting a sting to ensure they identified the true source of the continued heresy while simultaneously warning as many innocents as possible to reject the arguments of the seducers, all the while attempting to minimize open discussion of the sinners.

Though Joseph and Emma had uncovered a vast network of corruption, only Dr. Bennett would initially be exposed to public censure. When later asked why others, such as Chauncey and Francis Higbee, had not been exposed in 1842, it would be explained that there had been hope that they would reform. [25] Several of those named in the 1842 testimonies did reform, at least temporarily. In 1842 we see the Higbees sign affidavits that Bennett’s “secret wife system” was a disclosure of his own make.

Francis Higbee would write a letter claiming he had been asked if he “would assist in… bringing into existence, a newly modeled concern against the church… But God forbid, as long as he gives me health, and strength, and vigor or mind, I scorn the idea.” [26] Joseph’s trust had been rewarded in the short term.

In the long term, we see some of the men named in the 1842 testimonies as Strikers would travel west with the Saints after Joseph’s death. This includes Lyman O. Littlefield, Justus Morse, and Gustavus Hills. When we expand the scope to those, like Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, who appear to have initially been fooled regarding the acceptability of spiritual wifery, Joseph’s willingness to love and forgive arguably won an impressive harvest of souls.

The Face that Launched a Thousand Lies.

Bennett’s energetic spread of the gospel of illicit intercourse seems to have been motivated by more than a desire for sexual gratification. A quiet affair with the pliant widow Fuller could have satisfied a simple desire for sex with relatively little risk.

Bennett had loved a young woman. That woman knew he was still married. She was probably ensconced in the bosom of the Smith family and undoubtedly aware of the teachings Joseph had been sharing with the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo. Bennett may have hoped he could find a way to persuade his original beloved to accept him as her lover. If so, it is impossible to know whether he succeeded, as such a seduction would be covered in the secrecy that has cloaked this entire troubling episode of Mormon history.

With the public withdrawal of fellowship from Bennett, Joseph and Emma were left with the responsibility to care for the the women who had been involved with Bennett and his men.

Arraigning the Band of Brothers – Notes.

The Nauvoo High Council requested the visits that became the 1842 Nauvoo census expressly to “see that every family done their duty…”

When the activities of the Relief Society had flushed out evidence of continued wrong-doing, the Nauvoo High Council documented the testimonies given to them. Redacted testimonies were not made public until 1844, when it was hoped a partial record of wrong-doing would derail the conspiracy to kill Joseph.

The full High Council record demonstrates the activities of Bennett and his Strikers were far more extensive than conveyed in the documents published in the newspaper. A list of those cut off or excommunicated at this time includes many names implicated by testimonies provided to the High Council, suggesting the possibility that all those cut off may have been involved in the illicit intercourse heresy. If so, the High Council was acting on additional testimony not included in the women’s testimonies.

A review of other situations documented both at the time and well after 1842 suggests that even the extensive lists derived from the High Council papers fail to capture the breadth of the spiritual wifery heresy of 1842.

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[1] Times and Seasons, Volume 3, No. 16 of 15 June 1842, online 20 Mar 2014 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9200.

[2] Gary Bergera has written about the trial in his article, “ ‘Illicit Intercourse,’ Plural Marriage, and the Nauvoo Stake High Council, 1840-1844,” John Whitmer Historical Journal.

[3] Women’s testimony as published in the May 29, 1844 issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor, online 18 Mar 2014 at http://boap.org/LDS/Nauvoo-Neighbor/1844/5-29-1844.pdf.

[4] Records for James J. Miller, LZG8-Z5X, online 19 Mar 2014 at familysearch.org.

[5] These two ladies were Mary Clift and Esther Smith. Esther Smith was likely Esther Dutcher [Smith]. Gustavus Hills, one of the Nauvoo Aldermen, had asked them for sex. see The Nauvoo City Council and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2011, p. 424-5.

[6] In the family story recorded by Rachel Neyman’s descendants, the children in the family when the Neymans left Pennsylvania in 1830 are listed as Margaret Jane [b. 1813], Cyrus Livingston [b. 1815], Annis [b. 1818], Hiram [b. 1819], Matilda, Mary Ann [b. 1822] and Jonathan [b. 1825]. This implies Matilda was born around 1820.

[7] Women’s Women’s testimonies published in the Nauvoo Neighbor issue of May 29, 1844.

[8] On May 17, 1842, Chauncey Higbee signed an affidavit affirming that Joseph Smith had never taught him about illicit intercourse, see The Nauvoo City Council and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2011, p. 415.

[9] From the testimonies as published in 1844, it seems this “one” might have been either John C. Bennett or William Smith. Dinger in his edition of the Nauvoo High Council minutes asserts this referred to William Smith. See footnote 40, The Nauvoo City Council and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2011, pp. 415-416.

[10] Women’s Women’s testimonies published in the Nauvoo Neighbor issue of May 29, 1844.

[11] Smith, Andrew, Saintly Scoundrel, pp. 117-118.

[12] Nauvoo Neighbor, May 29, 1844.

[13] Catherine Fuller statement before the Nauvoo High Council, LDS Archives MS/d/2375/Box 8/fd. Nauvoo, copied and included in the Valeen T. Avery Papers USU_COLL MSS 316, Box 24, Fd 14, Special Collections and Archives, Utah State University Merrill-Cazier Library, Logan, Utah.

[14] Information about William Smith has been crossed out in the hand-written testimony, but is still legible. A late account (Abraham H. Cannon Journal, 9 April 1890) says Brigham Young was to charge William Smith with adultery and other sins. After the trial began, Joseph entered the room and cried, “Bro. Brigham, I will not listen to this abuse of my family a minute longer…” Cannon writes “A rupture between the two greatest men on earth seemed imminent.” Brigham instantly said, “Bro. Joseph, I withdraw the charge.” Joseph may have believed William or Bennett had originated the illicit sex scheme. Once Joseph determined Bennett was the culprit, he tried to protect all others, including his brother.

[15] De Platt, Lyman, Early Mormon Records Series, Vol. 1, Highland, Utah, 1980, p. 298.

[16] Later reinstated.

[17] Later reinstated. His excommunication has been his audacity in suing William Marks. However blaming the discipline on a law suit may have been intended to deflect suspicion, given that Lyon was willing to repent.

[18] It is not clear if Margaret meant Higbee was having sex with Margaret’s sister during the same period of several weeks, or if Higbee was simultaneously engaging in sex with both of them in a ménage à trois. Margaret’s mother, Jane Neyman, is mentioned, but it is unclear whether she was implicated as one who had been seduced.

[19] The Nauvoo City Council and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2011, p. 424-5, note 63.

[20] Rachel would marry Lucien Woodworth in January, 1846, embracing Joseph’s teachings.

[21] Elenor Kingsley was endowed in the Nauvoo temple in February 1846, indicating that she had eventually decided to join the Church and embrace Joseph Smith’s teachings.

[22] Dinger suggests it was Esther Smith [Fuller] who testified in September 1842 regarding Gustavus Hills’s attempted seduction. See Dinger, p. 425, note 64. However Esther [Fuller] lived in Iowa, making it unlikely that she was participating in the special Nauvoo Women’s Choir. Also, Esther [Fuller] had been married for many years, making it unlikely she would be referred to as Esther Smith.

[23] Times and Seasons, Vol 3, No. 19, of August 1, 1842, pp. 868-869. Online 29 Dec 2016 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/utils/getdownloaditem/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/9911/filename/5003.pdf/mapsto/pdf.

[24] Those not vested in the idea that Joseph was innocent of Bennett’s activities presume that Bennett learned about Joseph’s plural marriage activities from Joseph himself. However the gross difference between the seducer’s rationale and Joseph’s teachings makes this unlikely.

[25] Nauvoo Neighbor, May 29, 1844.

[26] Times and Seasons, Volume 4, No. 3 of December 15, 1842, online 3 Apr 2016 at http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/8618.