Dubious Anniversary

Joseph Smith Red Brick Store in Nauvoo175 years ago Brigham Young reportedly attempted to convince Martha Brotherton to be his “wife.” The conversation between Martha and Brigham Young reportedly occurred in the Red Brick Store (pictured above). The exact date is not know, but the conversation almost certainly occurred in the latter half of December 1841.

Many have presumed that the conversation was a “legitimate” proposal that Martha become Brigham’s plural wife within the context of Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding Celestial Marriage and the New and Everlasting Covenant. After all, Martha claimed that Joseph Smith was one of the three men who spoke with her that day, urging her to accept Brigham’s proposal.

However it should be remembered that Martha placed Joseph Smith at the scene in an affidavit written at the express invitation of Dr. John C. Bennett, who was attempting to tarnish Joseph Smith’s reputation. From the contemporary journal of a faithful Mormon, it appears Joseph Smith felt Brigham’s attempt to coerce Martha Brotherton was a transgression so serious that Joseph feared Brigham would be struck down and die. 1 As discussed in my post Saul, Alma the Younger, and the tale of Martha Brotherton, it is plausible that Martha’s account was largely based on actual events. However the third man participating in the conversations Martha described was likely an unwitting Hyrum Smith, rather than Joseph Smith.

Arrival in Nauvoo

Martha’s father, Thomas Brotherton, wrote to England on 7 December 1841, explaining he had arrived in Warsaw on 25 November 1841. 2 Thomas indicated “great numbers of the people are gone to Nauvoo. John and Mary went off there yesterday… I think of visiting Nauvoo next week to see the place and friends. Give our love to all friends, and tell them that after all we have suffered in losses, sea sickness, and toils, by land and sea, if I had it to do again, I should be more willing to do it than when I left Manchester.”

Martha Brotherton therefore likely arrived in Nauvoo itself on either 6 December (with her brother-in-law, John McIlwrick and her sister, Mary Brotherton [McIlwrick]) or as late as 14 December, presuming Thomas Brotherton traveled to Nauvoo according to his written plan.

Martha provided the timing of the conversation in her July 1842 affidavit, writing “I had been at Nauvoo near three weeks…when, early one morning, [Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball] came to my brother-in-law’s house, at which place I then was on a visit, and particularly requested me to go and spend a few days with them…” Martha indicates she didn’t go that day, as her brother-in-law was not at home (and presumably would be alarmed to come home and find her gone). But the next day was fine and she went. 3

The infamous conversation with Brigham Young occurred on that “fine” day.

Dating the Conversation between Martha and Brigham

There are three likely dates for the conversation between Martha and Brigham. If Brigham’s proposition to Martha was authorized by Joseph Smith, then it doesn’t much matter when the conversation took place. The timing is only critical if the proposal was an example of how prominent citizens were acting within the context of the sexual heresy fomented by Dr. John C. Bennett.

Mid-December 1841 (approx. 14 December)

If Martha equated her family’s arrival at Warsaw with arriving at Nauvoo, the 25 November date suggests Brigham Young’s conversation with Martha Brotherton occurred in mid-December.

A clue for why the arrival at Warsaw may have been considered being at Nauvoo can be found in Joseph Fielding’s December 1843 account of the arrival of his company at Nauvoo, the company in which Martha Brotherton and her parents had traveled. Fielding wrote:

I landed in New Orleans early in November, 1841, at the head of about 200 Saints, having had Peace and a good Passage…

We reached St. Louis in eight Days….

We took a Boat to Warsaw, the Water being too low to admit the Boat further… 4

So it was at Warsaw that the travelers had been forced to leave the boat. The weather had been fair during the company’s travel up river, but they were forced to leave the boat at Warsaw because the water was low. Thomas Brotherton indicated it had started to snow the day they arrived in Warsaw. As Fielding would write two years later, “Winter set in with a Snow Storm…” so the travelers were only able to get to Nauvoo via sleigh.

Warsaw therefore marked the end of the group’s extended travel by sea, an arrival that might have been equated with being “at Nauvoo”.

Late December 1841 (approx. 27 December)

Martha indicated she was on a visit in the home of her brother-in-law, John McIlwrick. This raises the possibility that Martha had traveled to Nauvoo on 6 December 1841 with John and Mary McIlwrick.

However this raises the question of why Thomas would not have mentioned Martha in his letter, while specifying that John and Mary had traveled to Nauvoo.

A clue is seen in Martha’s own affidavit. She indicated she was visiting with her brother-in-law, never mentioning her sister.

Another clue is seen in Thomas’s letter, where he mentions the name of his son-in-law (John McIlwrick) first, only afterwards mentioning John’s wife, Mary.

In 1842 it was common to omit mention of women, particularly young, unmarried women. So had Martha traveled to Nauvoo in advance of her parents, it would not necessarily have been remarked upon in writing.

Early January 1842 (approx. 4 January)

If Martha Brotherton traveled to Nauvoo with her parents a week after her father wrote his 7 December 1841 letter, the conversation Martha describes in her affidavit could have occurred as late as the first week of January, 1842.

This seemingly obvious January 1842 dating is problematic.

First is the question of why a Martha who had traveled to Nauvoo with her parents would feel a need to defer to her brother-in-law.

Presuming the Martha Brotherton conversation was the “transgression” described by William Clayton, it seems having the conversation in the first days of January would allow insufficient time for Brigham to then be discovered, pled for before the Lord, and eventually be determined sufficiently repentant 5 to become the first documented outsider 6 to officiate at a ceremony solemnizing a covenant between Joseph Smith and a woman other than Emma Hale [Smith].

Hints of Heresy in Joseph Fielding’s January 1842 Writings

Joseph Fielding was the Church leader who presided over the company of roughly 200 Saints that included the Brothertons. Joseph Fielding’s January 1842 letter to England. 7 described the company’s arrival in America and travels to Nauvoo. By January 1842 Joseph Fielding apparently knew “some… will send home an evil report; such as a brother B. from Macclesfield.” 8 Paul Pixton writes, “Although Fielding tries to mask the identify of the Brother B. from Macclesfield, it is quite certain that this was Thomas Brotherton of St. Georges Road, Manchester…”

The letter is only dated “January, 1842,” frustrating any certainty regarding when in January the letter was written. However the mention of evil reports and Brother B. comes at the beginning of the letter. Given the length of the letter, it seems this earlier portion of the letter was composed several days prior to the end of January, at the latest.

We see Fielding obliquely discuss irregularities and worries consistent with the hypothesis of a sexual heresy. He wrote in 1842 about the antipathy of those in St. Louis, “At St. Louis we found a number of Saints, at least who have a name among the Saints, some of those prove a trial for those who call there. They tell you many evil tales… At St. Louis, the Saints (so called) durst not say that they are Mormons for fear of the people.”

In 1843, Fielding would expand his description of the St. Louis detractors, “Here we saw some poor, faithless Saints something like Spiders Webs set to catch flies. They came to us with fain Words as our best Friends, but their Council was that of Enemies… Most of them had been to Nauvoo, but had not Faith enough to live there.”

Fielding’s January 1842 letter also warns, “There is one thing, in particular. I wish to caution the church against, namely this: some women, whose husbands persecute them for their religion, desire to come here; now, if such would lay their case before a council of the church and get a written statement from the presiding elder of their situation, so that the church here might know it, they might learn whether it would be lawful for them to be married again. There have been a case or two of this sort here, which have been a source of trouble. I would advise no one to come in such a case without such a certificate.”

In response to any evil reports that might reach England regarding Joseph Smith or Hyrum Smith, Fielding wrote, “It is plain enough that brother Joseph is a prophet of the Lord, and that he is an honourable man, as well as his brother Hyrum.”

By January Hyrum was actively working to counteract Dr. Bennett’s heresy. In April 1842 Hyrum explicitly refuted the rumor being spread that he, Brigham, and Heber had locked a woman up for several days. Yet it is still possible that in December 1841 Hyrum was the unwitting champion of Dr. Benentt’s heresy, if the conversation as Martha would document it was in any way an accurate account. If Martha’s description of the conversation was correct with respect to content, the third man could not have been Joseph Smith.

Why Talk of This?

In our day one of the forces tearing good people from their faith is a suspicion that Joseph Smith was a deceiver who encouraged the attempted seduction of Martha Brotherton and, by extension, coerced and forced dozens of women to slake his appetites.

This is the same force that tried (and often destroyed) the faith of people in 1842 and beyond.

In 1842 those who were willing to hear could be told details of the heresy, they could be pled with by those who had repented and those who were innocent of the terrible deeds attributed to them. Even if they weren’t told about the heresy itself, they had a chance to observe the individuals who championed the Church and determine if they were honorable.

In 2016, even the children of the past, such as Joseph F. Smith, are long gone. Just this morning I tumbled across a polygamy-related post and read a fresh comment from someone whose faith has been shredded by confronting the history of polygamy. But the mainstream version of the history that has destroyed the faith of so many is not complete.

I suppose there are those who wish I could have just stopped with explaining the gist of the 1841/42 heresy and subsequent antipathy to Joseph Smith without implicating good Saints such as Eliza Snow, Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, and Hyrum Smith.

But repentance is a thing that leave the penitent soul entirely worthy. And the same no-holds-barred turn over all the rocks approach that led me to understand the heresy is not something I’m willing to turn off just because I’ve skewered someone’s sacred cow.

My ancestor, Austin Cowles, was involved in at least the conspiracy to kill Joseph, which implies he was involved in the sexual heresy. His family remembered him as an honorable man, but the hagiographies of family members are not the only source of truth and are well-known for white-washing truth.

My ancestor, John Taylor, was the individual who covenanted with the greatest number of plural wives after Brigham Young and Heber Kimball. So if there were ever to be some other reason to suspect that he had also erred, as I hypothesize Brigham and Heber did, I would accept that.

Meanwhile, the story of mankind is that we all fall, but that Christ gives us the chance to repent and return to God. Therefore it is no shame to explore the greatness of the penitent soul. It is admirable to never fall in the first place, but heroes are those who overcome great trials.

Hyrum and Brigham are, and should be, heroes to whom we look as an example of how to be good and faithful. Not necessarily because they never made a mistake, but because they ended his ministry proclaiming righteousness and standing by the truth of the Gospel, even though in Hyrum’s case it would cost him his life.


  1. Clayton, William, journal entry of June 23, 1843. See An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, George D. Smith editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1995, p. 108.
  2. Millennial Star 2, no. 10 (February 1842): 156, cited by Paul B. Pixton, The Tyrian and Its Mormon Passengers, Mormon Historical Studies, Spring 2004, Vol. 5, No. 1, p. 45, online 27 Dec 2016 at http://files.lib.byu.edu/mormonmigration/articles/TyrianMormonPassengersMHS_Spring_2004.pdf

  3. Affidavit signed 13 Jul 1842, first published in the St. Louis American Bulletin on July 16, 1842, reprinted by Bennett in History of the Saints, pp. 236–240, online 29 Dec 2016 at http://mormonpolygamydocuments.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/JS0966.doc.
  4. Pixton, p. 46
  5. As described by William Clayton, journal entry of June 23, 1843. See An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, George D. Smith editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1995, p. 108.
  6. Other known officiants had been the brother or brother-in-law of the woman in question.
  7. Millennial Star 3, no. 4 (August 1842): 76-80, online 27 Dec 2016 at http://www.latterdaytruth.org/pdf/100302.pdf.
  8. ibid., p. 77.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

1 thought on “Dubious Anniversary

  1. C. S. Lewis put it another way. He points out that the Savior, though perfectly resurrected, nevertheless often appears with the nail marks in His hands and feet. He points out that it isn’t necessary for Christ to show these wounds, but He does so for the glory of God.

    In the same way, Lewis hypothesized, we would be perfectly cleansed, so that our sins would be forever obliterated. And yet, perhaps, we too would choose to allow our scars to be seen, as they would demonstrate that glory of God.

    If you are right in your hypothesis, I don’t think these early saints would mind at all you publishing it. Displaying the depth of these wounds also serves to display the power of the Physician who healed them.

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