[This is the third post in a series. To read the series from the beginning, go to A Faithful Joseph.]
It is impossible to truly understand Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding plural marriage without understanding the environment in which he was operating. Medicine was primitive, histories could be hidden, weird sex was rampant, and visions abounded.
Having explored a possible doctrinal purpose for restoring the possibility of plural marriage, let me share three stories that capture the environment that existed prior to Joseph Smith that also inform my hypotheses about Nauvoo in the 1840s.
We modern folk forget how primitive medicine was in the first half of the 1800s. Even as late as the Civil War, medical procedures were barely more advanced than the medicine practiced during Christ’s lifetime. Alleged advances included practices like injecting tobacco smoke into the orifices of an unconscious person to revive them – literally blowing smoke into their, er, large intestine.
Doctors in the early 1800s didn’t know about bacteria and germs. America wouldn’t accept “modern” ideas about sanitation and antiseptic procedures until after the death of President James Garfield from blood poisoning in 1881. 1 While surgical procedures did not always result in death, any institutional use of surgical medicine prior to the age of modern antiseptic procedures was likely to result in high rates of death.
However, an occasional surgery could be surprisingly effective. Enter Dr. Jesse Bennett. 2 In 1794 Bennett had arranged for another physician to attend the birth of his first child. To Bennett’s horror, it soon became clear that the child could not be delivered vaginally. The attending physician refused to do anything to save the mother (by crushing the head of the infant to allow delivery) or the child (by cutting the mother open to remove the child). The physician left, after advising Bennett to leave the matter in God’s hands.
Alone with his wife, sister-in-law, and two black servants, Bennett decided to act. He placed a rough plank across two barrels upon which he laid his wife. By candlelight he cut her open, removing his daughter and his wife’s ovaries. Under his watchful eye, his wife recovered from the surgical wound and lived to the 1830s. However Dr. Jesse Bennett refused to publicize the details of the surgery during his life, knowing other doctors would never believe a woman could survive this hazardous operation.
In prior posts I’ve talked about the limited means available to a sexually active man to avoid impregnating his partner(s). But it bears emphasizing that surgical means of eliminating problematic pregnancies were particularly unsafe at that time.
I repeat this story for another reason. Dr. John C. Bennett played a prominent role in 1840s Nauvoo, both for good and ill. The great secret Dr. John C. Bennett kept from his Nauvoo associates was his marriage and the estrangement between him and his wife. I propose that garbled news of the death of a wife of Dr. J[esse] Bennett could have both caused the rift between John Bennett and his wife, as well as confused the later LDS inquiries into Dr. John Bennett’s past.
We live in a time when our identities are known with unimaginable precision. But in the early 1800s each valley was a world unto itself. If a couple decided they didn’t want to be together, they could remake themselves and their history, particularly when migrations and remote frontiers often meant there was no legal record a marriage had existed in the first place.
In this era of un-imagined marital freedom, several religious movements emerged with radical ideas about the nature of marriage. Ann Lee and her Shakers decided that true discipleship required giving up sexual relationships. John Noyes established the Oneida Community, which practiced “complex marriage” involving liberal associations between men and women, though men were expected to practice sexual continence. 3
However the marital heresy most entwined with the history of Mormon polygamy is Jacob Cochran’s Spiritual Wifery. Cochran allegedly taught that to be truly Christ-like, believers should hold all things in common, including spouses and children. Men in leadership positions were expected to “interview” their assigned spiritual wives regularly, and the women were expected to receive these men gladly, even though the assignments between partners could and would shift frequently. The children resulting from these “interviews” were to be loved and cared for by the community without condition. Cochran’s followers at one time numbered in the thousands and it was said he had assigned fully half of the females in his community to himself at some point in time. 4
To our ears, spiritual wifery and plural marriage sound like synonyms. But Cochran’s free love spiritual wifery turned women into sluts while Smith’s concept of marriage turned women into queens (albeit potentially sharing their “king”). However, the nominal similarity between Smith’s polygamy and Cochran’s teachings is (and was) confusing to many.
Numerous early members of the Church were either former Cochranites or neighbors of Cochranite settlements in Saco, Maine, and Grove, New York. Neighbors hardened against the excesses of Cochran and his followers included Oliver Cowdery’s brother Warren (LeRoy, NY) and Austin Cowles (Bolivar, NY). Understanding that key Church leaders were intensely opposed to Cochran’s heretical marriage practices casts a new light on the Kirtland apostasies, the persecutions in Missouri (where Danites advocated death for dissenters, like Cowdery), and the defection of those who wrote the Expositor in Nauvoo.
Faith and Visions
Lastly, let me leave you with something I believe is uplifting. We focus on Joseph’s vision in the grove, citing it as the First Vision, as though no one else ever had a vision of God and Christ. But Joseph was not the only visionary.
Some find it disturbing to hear of others having visions, as though the possibility that others were having visions in some way reduced the value of Joseph’s vision. But I believe it is informative to see how others handled their vision, particularly Robert Carter III, arguably the richest man in America during the Revolutionary period.
In 1776/1777 smallpox raged throughout the American colonies. Thomas Jefferson arranged to have his wife inoculated against smallpox in Philadelphia while working on the Declaration of Independence. George Washington had his soldiers inoculated, as more were dying of smallpox than in battle against the British. Robert Carter did likewise, subjecting himself and his family to the frightening inoculation process, which involved cutting into healthy flesh and injecting either infected pus or scabs.
As Robert Carter battled the fever the inoculation had produced, he had a spiritual experience that would change his life. According to his biographer Carter saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. 5
This vision prompted two responses. First, Carter became obsessed with attempting to discover the most correct of the available churches. For many years he aligned himself with the Baptist faith, when black and white, bond and free worshipped equally together. As Baptist congregations became less egalitarian, Carter migrated to the Church of the New Christ based on the visions of Swedenborg.
Second, Carter developed a gradual schedule for freeing his slaves, hoping to manumit his slaves without opposition. But persecution became heated, including the possibility that Carter was tarred and feathered. Carter fled Virginia, never to return. Despite Carter’s absence, the scheduled manumissions continued. Over 450 slaves were freed prior to Carter’s death, and the scheduled manumissions continued after his death, freeing the children who had been born into slavery prior to his death.
Even the richest man in America could not escape persecution because he obeyed a divine vision that emphasized freedom of all mankind and the importance of family. Bigots didn’t just pick on poor itinerant farm boys.
Beyond my fascination with Carter himself, I’m intrigued by a possible link between Carter and Jane Manning, the black convert who lived in Joseph’s home in 1843/44. When Emma asked Jane to be sealed to Joseph as a daughter, Jane refused, unwilling to supplant her own father. And Jane’s last name is the same as a trusted colleague of Carter’s in New England, the area where Jane and her family joined the Church. Something about the missionary message compelled her to join – could it have been a similarity to Carter’s experience?
Next week I will explain the year of intense searching that Joseph endured after the initial 1831 revelation regarding plural marriage.
- Garfield was shot on July 2 and passed away on September 19. Autopsy proved that cause of death was infection from his medical treatment under the hands of Dr. Bliss, prompting the saying “Ignorance is Bliss.” Though Lincoln gets the credit for healing a divided nation, historians consider the extended agony of the respected Garfield to be the event that actually healed the nation. As to the topic at hand, Garfield upheld the position of Rutherford B. Hayes that practicing polygamists should lose citizen rights, though the Edmunds Act was not passed until after Garfield’s death. ↩
- There is no known relationship between Dr. Jesse Bennett and Dr. John C. Bennett, though they didn’t live terribly far from one another, by modern standards. ↩
- aka Coitus reservatus. ↩
- Ephraim Stinchfield wrote his observations of the Cochranite Delusion in 1819. Cochran would spend four years in prison for what the state deemed gross lewdness. ↩
- Andrew Levy is Carter’s biographer. Information about Carter’s vision was conveyed during an author Q&A session and reported by Tanya Evans, who was in attendance ↩