From Whom Do We Learn History?

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Young Draughtsman Copying an Academy studyThis week I’ve been intrigued regarding the question of whom we look to for our history. This was prompted in no small part by the vigorous discussion with DQ, someone apparently in the Utah area who simply doesn’t believe what I am saying about Emma working with Joseph to uncover the identity of those seducing women circa 1842. DQ’s argument is that my version of events isn’t credible unless a bona fide historian concurs with what I’m saying.

The interesting thing I’ve come across is a large cadre of researchers, many not official historians, who have concurred with the idea that one can believe William Law and John C. Bennett, but one cannot believe Joseph and Emma Smith.

These are researchers who, in attempting to construct a coherent history, have been forced to discard information that doesn’t fit.

Richard S. Van Wagoner is a prime example of such a researcher. In 1986 Van Wagoner wrote an article exploring the story of Sarah Pratt, wife of apostle Orson Pratt. In 1842 Dr. Bennett accused Joseph Smith of having attempted to bed Sarah Pratt. Joseph countered, telling residents of Nauvoo that Sarah had an affair with Dr. Bennett. As Van Wagoner told the story, he gave credence to Dr. Bennett’s assertions and William Law’s later statement that Dr. Bennett was very much in Joseph’s confidence. Though Van Wagoner indicates Emma Smith didn’t like Dr. Bennett, this dislike is downplayed.

The most striking bit of the story as related by Van Wagoner is how he discounts an affidavit provided by Jacob Backestos, indicating that Dr. Bennett had been discovered having inappropriate relations with Sarah Pratt. Van Wagoner tells us that Backestos’ testimony may safely be discarded entirely, telling us that Backestos was a Mormon, and that therefore his testimony was invalid.

Why would an ostensibly faithful Mormon tell us that the testimony of a Mormon must necessarily be discarded?

This story of Sarah Pratt is one I have studied thoroughly myself. I have read Backestos’ affidavit asserting that he came upon Dr. Bennett having sex with Sarah Pratt in July 1841.

The most curious thing to me was the idea that Backenstos was a Mormon. As far as I had been aware, he wasn’t a Mormon in 1841-1842. So I went digging. I found a delightful 2003 article on Jacob B. Backestos in the Journal of Mormon History.[ref]Omer (Greg) Whitman and Varner, Sheriff Jacob B. Backenstos: “Defender of the Saints” 2003, pp. 150-178. Available online at, retrieved 30 Nov 2014.[/ref] Jacob Backenstos had been the Sheriff of Hancock County. He never was baptized, though because of his willingness to defend the Mormons, he was known as a Jack Mormon. In those days, Jack Mormon referred to a non-Mormon who was friendly to Mormons.

Despite Backenstos’ willingness to be friendly to the Mormons, he was also willing to do whatever it took to uphold the law. One story relates his arrest of Porter Rockwell. Porter Rockwell had angrily shot off his weapon in the presence of Chauncy Higbee. Sheriff Backenstos had to arrest Porter Rockwell based on this behavior. Backenstos chased Porter Rockwell down, cornering him in the Mansion House. Porter faced Backenstos, leveling a gun at him. Backenstos stood his ground, telling his deputy, “When he shoots me, kill him.” Porter Rockwell, realizing Backenstos was willing to die to enforce the law, went ahead and gave himself up.

Yet Van Wagoner completely dismissed Backenstos’ testimony regarding Dr. Bennett because it didn’t fit the story he had constructed about Joseph’s role in the matter of Sarah Pratt. Van Wagoner’s contemporaries and later historians have exhibited a similar willingness to presume any reports of sexual misconduct during the 1840s could be attributed to Joseph Smith and his secret teachings regarding plural marriage.

Another example of a well-respected researcher who presumes Bennett learned to be a sexual reprobate from Joseph’s teachings regarding plural marriage is Gary Bergera. In all the articles I had come across, Gary had struck me as cautious and unwilling to take a strong stance. Then I learned Gary had written an article talking about the High Council investigation,[ref]Bergera, Gary James, “‘Illicit Intercourse,’ Plural Marriage, and the Nauvoo Stake High Council, 1840-1844,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 23 (2003): 59-90.[/ref] an article published in the the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal and therefore not available online.

I was so excited. I adore Gary Bergera’s scholarship. Here, perhaps, I would find that the secret business of the investigation into the seducers and the women they entrapped would already have been documented. However when I had a chance to read Gary’s article, I saw for the first time Gary’s insistence that Dr. Bennett was only doing what Joseph had taught him to do, albeit going a bit rogue.

A bit rogue?

This is the point on which I will agree to disagree. As I analyze the data, it seems clear that Joseph never taught Bennett about the New and Everlasting Covenant. When Joseph finally did become aware that Dr. Bennett was the leader of the seducers who had infested Nauvoo, Joseph swiftly evicted Dr. Bennett from every position of influence in the Church and the city.

Next week I will post an analysis of Gary Bergera’s list of the first polygamists, giving my reasons for sorting them between saints and seducers, where heretofore any man in Nauvoo who had more than one wife was considered to have been one of Joseph’s followers.

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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.

42 thoughts on “From Whom Do We Learn History?

  1. Thanks for this. I have no idea if your version of events is true or not, but more than anything I appreciate that you are drawing attention to details missed by other accounts. I think there is an idolatry towards learnedness, where we treat accounts offered by credentialed scholars as if they are immune to the biases that plague the rest of mankind.

  2. I enjoy watching professinal acrobats and tumblers and clearly recall that however swift their routines they always take a brief moment to shake or pull on their equipment on which their life or health will depend. Even though they might overlook such caution with no ill result most of the time, checking for themselves has become ingrained. Too many ‘experts’ on Nauvoo era polygamy neglect this care of checking information for themselves and heap error on error in the books and articles they produce. If they were acrobats they would be in traction. Meg provides a good example of a researcher who does not take the information of her predecessors in the area of studying polygamy, as it relates to Joseph Smith, for granted. She seeks out the original documents at every turn. This often means she finds a story that counters the common perceptions that cast doubt on the prophet’s motives.

  3. Meg, the more I read, the more I find that none of us should put our faith in the hands of historians, credentialed or not. Frankly, I can’t say I KNOW anything true from reading historians, just that I know how they interpret the sources. As touching Joseph Smith, including the Nauvoo period, I have independent confirmation that he was a prophet and behaved accordingly, which confirmation is from a source more trusted than any other. To the extent that work of some, such as yourself, is consistent with what I know, I tend to agree. Where they aren’t, I do not. I may not have the tools accepted by historians to wage war with them on their field of battle, but that doesn’t mean that they are right.

  4. Questioning the “experts” is about the healthiest and most sane thing you can do in this life, but it took me until my 40s to learn that lesson. Some people have not learned that lesson yet.

  5. I know that Meg did not begin her research into the subject of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy with the idea that he was physically faithful to Emma. I was her first reader years ago when she began the effort to piece together the story of her ancestor Elvira Annie Cowles who had been sealed to Joseph Smith by Brigham Young in Nauvoo with her legal husband, Jonathan Harriman Holmes, standing as proxy. A family tradition hinted that Joseph had been Elvira’s husband in body as well as by covenant.
    Working as a physicist in a field where errors cost millions, Meg was accustomed to applying a rigor of evidence that was not satisfied by the consensus of other writers or historians but delved into original documents. Where she formed hypotheses she disclosed that she was making assumptions, unlike many who blandly proceed as if their hypotheses were facts.
    It was after years of reading virtually every publication on the subject that was not a flat-out calmuny of Joseph, as well as an exhaustive search for original documents, Meg reached the conclusions she has reported in her series on this forum ‘A Faithful Joseph’. I was as surprised as most by her report that Joseph seems to have been ‘virtuous’ according to the culture in which he was reared (Victorian Yankee). Meg had no intention of creating an ‘apologetic’ version of the Prophet’s behavior. She began with the assumption that other writers had based their accounts on solid evidence. That assumption soon wavered and collapsed in the face of facts.

  6. I am also a historian. While not an expert on Nauvoo period, I have read enough to consider Meg’s research as plausible. There are so many 2nd and 3d hand reports that are relied upon for Joseph Smith’s supposed sexual prowess that it leaves me overly cautious on most articles regarding the period.
    In history, there are facts and then there is the interpretation of those facts. I judge historians’ plausibility by the facts they use and how they use the facts. Do they intentionally neglect/ignore some facts? Do they use interpretation or supposition not only to fill in holes, but to replace facts? Do they enter into the research with the final product already decided, or with a hypothesis they are willing to discard?
    Even the best historian can find him/herself blinded by bias.

  7. Tonight I reread Gary Bergera’s article about the High Council and reports of weird stuff going on.

    I was troubled by Gary Bergera’s assertion that Joseph had necessarily confided in John C. Bennett regarding his April 1841 marriage to Louisa Beaman. I can certainly understand why he might feel that way, given that Bennett named Louisa Beaman as one who had been married to Joseph. But there are other ways Bennett could have suspected that relationship. In any case, there is no footnote, nor is there any qualification on this point.

    Another odd assertion was that Catherine Fuller was 22. The Catherine Fuller I have documented was born in 1807, making her 35 in 1842. Again, this information (that Catherine was allegedly only 22) is simply asserted in Gary’s paper, without any footnote to allow substantiation.

    There was one item that caused me pause. Bergera mentions an entry in William Clayton’s diary indicating E demanded J give up all or she would divorce him. The footnote references George Smith’s Intimate Chronicle and Bergera’s text says this occurred the month after Joseph wrote the revelation now canonized as D&C 132. I suspect this actually occurred the month before Joseph wrote the revelation, which would be consistent with the language in D&C 132.

    The error in timing (if it is in error – I don’t have access to the holographs of Clayton’s journal for that period of time) could have either crept into Bergera’s manuscript and been correct in the Clayton diary, or it could have been printed incorrectly in Smith’s book, or it could have been incorrectly copied by Ehat (the source for the Clayton journals for that time period). The Ehat notes taken from the Clayton diaries for that period apparently contain no more than 25% of the original journal entries, and Smith didn’t include everything that was found in the Ehat notes, based on the BYU Studies review of Intimate Chronicle.

    In this article, Bergera continually asserts that Emma didn’t know about Joseph’s plural marriages, however he merely indicates that this has been documented elsewhere and cites Mormon Enigma, which I do not consider to contain any primary documentation regarding Emma’s actual level of knowledge regarding Joseph’s plural marriages.

    I think I am beginning to understand why some Mormon scholars make a point of saying they are not experts in Nauvoo. The data is voluminous and there is not yet a consensus on how to interpret events.

  8. That no credible historian pro lds or otherwise line up behind your theory as being the new way we should view our history is just one drop in the bucket. I’m not saying I disagree about Joseph abstaining from sex with his plural wives. He very well might have. I’ve got no opinion one way or another. Other than to hold it as some kind of article of faith in Joseph is kind of pointless considering the church moved on to do so.

    Yourtheories are not backed by real evidence in my view and to say so gets you quite upset as a personal attack on you (it seems). Take the Eliza poem. I disagreed when I first read your article suggesting a darker original version and I thought it pretty amazing you’d infer potential modification by he library as proof you were on to something. When your theory proved without base, you continued anyway and suggested your willingness to assume a twig of inference amounted to a stout branch of evidence was something in your favor. This all seems to be getting personal, and it’s only because you’ve put so much of yourself into this elaborate series.

    I have no problem lining up with some of your theory, but the extent you go to place Emma as a willing counter co-conspirator is just without any basis in fact because she nor anyone else never said anything like that.

  9. Btw, tracing an ip of a commenter is kind of strange. It matters not where I post from unless you assume I’m anyone of significance. Just another anonymous everyday lds schmo…

  10. Hi DQ,

    More ad hominem. I’m looking for facts that challenge me.

    As for checking the IP address, I was actually able to determine which town you live in. Since you, like many others, like to post without giving any hint of your identity, I was intrigued. I’d never actually looked up someone based on IP address before. Knowing your town gives me context, because there is no such thing as an everyday lds schmo, any more than there is such a thing as an everyday wine. Each member of the church is unique, and they have distinct cultures. Much can be learned about an individual from their location, even if it’s a location they are merely visiting for the holidays.

    I’m sure it isn’t possible to identify one’s town for all IP addresses. Though I do get amused when google tries to lock me out of my accounts when I’m on business travel – clearly they’re tracking my location with some precision.

    For what it’s worth, I have family from the county where you appear to live. So I have an opinion about folks from that region. It’s not a bad opinion, by the way.

    While you’re merely repeating the assertion that I’m wrong without providing facts, I’ve actually identified a possible piece of evidence that might run contrary to my construct. And I’ve contacted a variety of individuals to hunt down that evidence, including asking the Church History department to digitize holdings in their possession. Alas, the wait time for the request is roughly a month.

    Intellectual inquiry requires that one inquire. You actually live within driving distance of the resources I wish I could access. You live in a land where local bookstores carry materials that contain this information. Yet you haven’t produced any facts to bolster your claim. Impressions of memories from having read something written by a scholar you aren’t mentioning aren’t persuasive, since even those original “scholarly” works are so often filled with unsubstantiated assertions.

    If you’ve read the exchanges following my early posts, you’ll see that when people brought me facts regarding alleged polygamy abuses, I was able to delve deeper into the stories, going beyond the “scandal” they had learned about to find a rich contextual background that informed both our modern understanding of events as well as why the hagiographies had formed the way they did. So it isn’t so much that I’m being defensive, though you are clearly reading my posts in that light. It is that I adore data. And you are depriving me of that which I adore.

  11. As for Emma working with Joseph, I was reading the BYU Studies review of George Smith’s Intimate Chronicle, where they indicate that one of the losses from only publishing small portion of the Clayton journal entries was the loss of tender moments between Joseph and Emma, moments which show their closeness. I really do wish that the Clayton journals could be published in their entirety. I’m hoping that will be part of what comes forth as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project. I believe the most recent available “journal” compilation only goes through April 1843, a couple of months shy of the time period I’m particularly interested in.

  12. One of the best and most trusted aspects of the “scientific method” (that our culture seems to worship by the way), was articulated by Charles Darwin himself in his famous Origin of the Species, a work in which he was very humble in recognizing the potential weaknesses of his theory, something scholars and historians today would be wise to emulate. Anyway, what he said is that when piecing together historical artifacts, one must assemble and analyze all the evidence and then use “inference to the best explanation”

    Having read many biographies of Joseph Smith’s life- friendly, unfriendly and everything in between, I am prepared to say that to the very best of my reasoning capacity, Meg Stouts narrative is the finest work to date of assembling and analyzing all the evidence and then making an “inference to the best explanation”.

    She is also far more willing than most, like Darwin himself, to point out where the weaknesses in her theory are. The reason this is so important is that it shows she has no agenda but is simply willing to follow wherever the evidence leads.

    In these two very important aspects, I consider her far ahead of the general scholarly curve and am grateful for her work. I truly hope that as time goes by her ideas will be taken more and more seriously by all who are interested in the truth!

  13. For what it’s worth, I have actively spoken of my ideas on this to various people. I have had a correspondence with Todd Compton for years, Brian Hales for the past year, and talked or corresponded with Eliza Snow’s biographers, Jill Derr and Karen Davidson. I mostly e-mailed Todd back when I was doing this as fiction, but I’m certain I let him know I was blogging. Brian has indicated he didn’t quite follow, but he was in the midst of getting married. Most recently, he was concerned about my hypothesis about Eliza, but didn’t offer me any information that would overturn my theory, merely said I shouldn’t go there. Both Jill and Karen have hoped my inference wasn’t correct, but again they didn’t offer any data or analysis that showed why I must necessarily be wrong. I have had discussions over at Interpreter where I became aware of the overwhelming hostility my ideas have raised by those offended by what I have documented. Which is good inasmuch as it produces data to clarify truth. Not so good if it merely results in stonewalling.

    I was also forwarded an amusing conversation where three days after I started my Faithful Joseph theory, folks who forwarded a link to my post were being threatened with retribution (being reported, being banned). People didn’t bother reading my bio or googling me, merely insisting I must be a nutter who believes all manner of nonsense. However they didn’t come and engage in debate.

    Margaret Blair Young went to high school with my husband, so she knows me. I can’t imagine I didn’t regale her with my ideas when she and Darius Grey were visiting DC with their movie Nobody Knows. I regularly attend events in the home of Greg Prince, who stands bemused as I talk with people (such as Jan Shipps and George Smith) about my theories. I spoke up about my theory regarding Eliza Snow at the Exponent II 40th anniversary event in DC, which was attended by Kate Kelly, Claudia Bushman, Mary Bradford, and others.

    None of these people have come forward with information that gives me any reason to doubt what I have uncovered. In fact, they haven’t even tried, except to say (in select cases) that they can’t believe Eliza would fall for Bennett’s lies.

    Yet Eliza’s own poem in November 1842 speaks eloquently about being deceived. Some English PhD candidate specializing in Historicism should really make a study of those 1842 poems. My in house post grad is focusing on a different topic, alas. And as my in-law, he likely would be suspected of having been unduly influenced by me. Ironically, it was only when he read Eliza’s poem that he actually believed me. He was the one who pointed out the personalization of “innocence” as representing Eliza herself, he was the one who twigged to the significance of the phrase “side by side and face to face.”

    Paradigm shift takes time. The shift from the tradition view of a corrupt Joseph to a Joseph who was keeping secrets to protect men and women he hoped would repent is a particularly hard shift for most.

    Speaking of paradigm shift, my son-in-law shared a great snippet from a show where they talked about the significance of a tiny bracelet. In 1903 a man developed a device that could protect premature infants, something he called an incubator. Prior to his time it was believed that premature infants were somehow flawed, that it was best to let them die. And prior to 1903 the ignorance regarding bacteria and lack of machinery that could maintain constant body temperature would have made any such attempt impossible anyway. No serious hospital would consider the incubator, however.

    So the inventor of the incubator linked up with the side show folks at Coney Island. He proposed that he would install his incubators, and the impossibly tiny children could be an attraction. The 25 cent admission price paid by each visitor would pay for the nurses and other financial outlays required to maintain the children and the incubators.

    At one point, he was sued for exploiting the children. The suit was eventually dropped, when it became clear that without this side show, the “exploited” children would be dead.

    As soon as incubators became accepted, the side show was shut down. But that took 40 years, making the tiny baby show the longest running freak show ever at Coney Island. During those 40 years, the Coney Island incubators saved 6,000 lives.

    I have no idea how long it might take for the true portions of what I’ve described to gain widespread acceptance. But in the mean time, there are those who might spiritually die who will be able to hold on to spiritual life because of what I’m saying. I don’t know how many may be helped. Indeed, I have been accused of giving aid to the enemy, though no one has deigned to share how such “aid” might have been given, nor which “enemy” was allegedly aided.

    Hence my insistence on fact, rather than vague hints, false attacks, or ad hominem reasoning. Those who have followed my progress on this for the past decade have seen how I bend to fact.

  14. How is it that many of the same people who will not comment on the Ferguson protestors, hours and hours of real-time footage notwithstanding, are willing to hang Joseph high in spite of the fact that we are separated from him by 170 years and much of the data we have is either sketchy at best or highly biased at worst?

  15. Hi Pantherli,

    Not quite sure what your point might be. Who is failing to comment on the Ferguson situation who is willing to hang Joseph high?

  16. Good luck Meg!

    While I’m not one who’s testimony was ever in question, I was for awhile confused on the contradictory evidence that seemed apparent in Joseph’s life. On one hand there is simply no way one can take all the evidence into account (liberty jail for instance as just one of countless bits of his life) and think that this was a dishonest, selfish or fraudulent man. He clearly loved his family and his people with a love that I desire more fully in my own life. And others loved him in return…. in seemingly infinite measure! That was always enough for me to accept him as a prophet, given my countless other positive experiences with the infinitely deep gospel he restored.

    But then there were the stories of plural marriage, well documented, inescapable, and some frankly a little scary! They simply didn’t seem to fit, there had to be more to the story. When you have separate pieces of evidence that seem like they are coming from different worlds the best thing to do is to find out what’s missing that would make it all make sense. This is simply sound logic and good scholarship.

    Well Meg appears to have found those missing pieces, thoroughly documented them, and put it all together so that it makes sense. Perhaps the most important of all those many pieces was the complete story of John C. Bennett and his little (or maybe not so little) band of rabble rousers.

    In my mind at least, it all fits together better than it ever has. And as much as I dearly love Eliza Snow, and based on her inspired and inspiring songs and poetry I count her as one of the remarkable women in all history, I don’t mind Meg’s interpretation of her either. It fits the evidence! And if she was deceived by Bennett, realized the mistake and lived faithful the rest of her life, why should that in any way mar her character or the way we look at her? But it seems many would rather ignore the evidence to protect Eliza from an honest mistake, while effectively tarring and feathering the prophet of the restoration….again by ignoring the evidence!

    But I guess like Meg said, a paradigm shift can take time. In the mean time I would encourage everyone to go back and re-read A Faithful Joseph, paying careful attention to the sources and the logic, and then decide for yourself what makes the most sense in light of everything else we DO KNOW about Joseph. If you don’t want to do that, just read the Book of Mormon…no controversy there right!

  17. Meg,

    I doubt many posters / commenters at Millennial Star fall into the category to which I am referring. I occasionally go out to leftward leaning “LDS” blogs and sites to double-check my own assumptions and biases. My opinion is that a properly developed philosophy of life should be internally consistent and should allow you to extrapolate beyond your life’s experiences and should be constantly subjected to scrutiny. As part of this, I try to read at least several articles or posts each week that originate from a point of view with which I know I’m highly likely to vehemently disagree. If I find something that forces me to adjust my point of view, great. If I can’t find a logical chink in my armor, it helps confirm that the model I’m creating for life can at least help me keep moving in the right direction.

    As an engineer, I can’t stand things that are inconsistent, so when a blog site claims that Brown was murdered without any evidence, I question it. When the same site comments about the suffering of the mothers of children slain by police without a comparable concern for the mothers of crime victims, it makes no sense to me. When the site shows minimal sympathy for shop owners whose lives have been destroyed by looters and pillagers and concurrently claims that we cannot comment on the rioters because we cannot understand where they are coming from, my BS detector goes off. And then these same sites are willing to crucify Joseph Smith after 170 years of the metaphorical “fog of war.” Perhaps my comment should have been made on one of the sites to which I refer, but I do not believe they would understand the paradox they are creating.

  18. Hi Jess and Pantherli,

    Most people are able to accept wildly irrational conflict, as long as it fits comfortable with what they’ve learned to accept.

    Then there are those of us who are engineers (or slightly autistic) where the inconsistencies really, really bug us.

    Speaking of Ferguson, I think it is tragic that the police officer wasn’t wearing a camera. I think video documentation of the situation he faced would eliminate the ability for such divergent opinions to wreak havoc. I’m not saying whether Brown or the officer would have been found most in error based on what video would have shown, but at least there wouldn’t be controversy.

    And people who loot stores have no moral standing. Period.

  19. The fact that there are inconsistencies doesn’t generally bother me too much. We all have them. I view them as a fact of life given the fallen state in which we live and they’re evidence that we either are missing needed data or don’t have the spiritual or intellectual maturity yet to work through them. The problem for me is people who seem to be manifestly incapable of observing their own inconsistencies but instead act as if they’ve had a Mount Sinai experience that invalidates the views and beliefs of everyone else. If there truly had been that many burning bush experiences, I think the Lord would have probably run out of shrubbery by now.

    Most of the left seems to be permanently stuck in a cycle that might best be summarized by a T-shirt we gave our oldest son while he was on his mission (an engineer in training): pi says to i, “Get real.”; i says to pi, “Be rational.” Most of the internet these days seems to be occupied by people who have little clue regarding the topics they discuss and have to make up with volume what they can’t communicate in substance. Or else they get their Bill and Ted on and scream, “Be excellent to each other. Or I will hate you.”

  20. This is a bit of a tangent, but I am reminded of how my great grandmother and her twin sister were born 2-3 months premature, in Beaver, Utah, in 1898. She weighed less than 4 pounds. The midwife and town doctor told her mother and father that they should get twin caskets, but instead they got a pair of shoe boxes, lined them with straw and feathers and kept the two of them in those boxes under the kitchen stove. They both lived into their mid-90s.

  21. Meg, I think if you want your theory to gain more acceptance, I think you have to first convince more professional historians, or “experts” first. Obviously you are trying to do that, but until you succeed, I personally can’t take your claims seriously. Why? Because I believe that it is hubris for someone uninformed about the history like me, to embrace an extreme minority opinion like yours, simply because I might like it, or because I am antogonistic to concensus or “experts.” Who am I, as an uneducated nobody, to question the consensus of dozens of people smarter than myself, who have dedicated their lives to the question? If I were an armature sleuth like yourself, convinced they were on the verge of some great game-changing theory, that is different. You are an “expert” yourself, though you hold minority views. But your un-expert followers are embracing a conspiracy theorist mindset. They are antagonistic to expert consensus because of their innate distrust of (in this case secular) authority. But Joseph Smith said we should “believe all things.” We are to be a believing, trusting people. If expert consensus tells me something, we know it might be wrong, but in our own ignorance, it is the best, the only real option. We can trust spiritual authority over secular authority, disbelieving in evolution for example. But there is no incentive for an ignoramus like me to trust a non-secular, non-spiritual authority of a minority expert, simply because I am squeemish about sex. That would be an unwise decision.

  22. Well Meg I’m not an engineer….so are you calling me….? I am however a clinical therapist and have diagnosed individuals with autism, but now I’ve been diagnosed by an engineer! Truth be told you might be halfway right…lol!

    But thanks again for all your research that seems to have satisfied my “slightly autistic mind”.

  23. Nate,
    So I know you’re not a historian but you do know the differences between primary sources and secondary sources right? Just do a quick….or perhaps more lengthy check on the primary versus secondary sources Meg uses and when she is careful to point those out, compared to your “consensus” experts. Take as look at what they leave out that is very well documented such as the role of John C. Bennett, that Meg includes in a way that changes everything! Take a look at the credence they give to clearly unreliable sources such as William Law, since we know that he was one of the conspirators in Joseph’s death.

    And finally please use the “inference to the best explanation” hypothesis I mentioned earlier. If you do these things I really think you might change your mind about Meg’s narrative. If not, then perhaps you should ask yourself why you are so wedded to one particular narrative?

  24. Nate,

    You ask, “Who am I, as an uneducated nobody, to question the consensus of dozens of people smarter than myself, who have dedicated their lives to the question?”

    You may wish to consider that the bestowal of credentials on a historian (or anyone else for that matter) is not generally accompanied by an endowment of unusual intelligence. One of the smartest people I know dropped out of graduate school to become a plumber. He’s rich, well read, serves faithfully and has always had lots of time for his family.

    As I mentioned above, I have a personal testimony of the divinity of Joseph’s call as a prophet, and the truthfulness of his teachings all the way to his death. He was not a fallen prophet. I know this independent of what anyone has written about him, and I trust my source much more than I would ever trust someone (anyone!) who has dedicated their lives to a question and come up with the wrong answer. Trust not in the arm of flesh, or the fallible brains controlling those arms.

  25. Meg,

    I’m kinda amazed at the willingness of so many who claim to be faithful LDS to accept a view of Joseph as such a flawed and corrupt individual but who, at the same time, refuse to acknowledge that maybe Eliza Snow might have sinned in a lesser degree. I understand why they do it, but it is odd that one would lionize her while coincidentally speaking ill of the prophet.

  26. Hi Jess W.,

    I figure we’re all a bit autistic, at least that’s what I remember an invited expert teaching us in a Primary inservice meeting (the son of our Stake President was profoundly autistic).

    To Nate,

    The majority of individuals in the world are not Christians, though Christianity as a broad category is the largest plurality. However Latter-day Saints are obviously far from being the most populous of the Christian religions.

    Therefore I find it inconsistent for a Mormon, by definition a minority among a non-majority, to proclaim that new ideas that resonate with fact must be discarded.

    However if you in the rest of your life are what marketing folks refer to as a late adopter, then that is at least consistent. You will consistently miss out on risks early adopters incur, but will also miss out on opportunities.

    Having fun reading Givens’ Wrestling the Angel. It appears the burden of revelation, which can redirect us at God’s whim, causes many to cling to the iron rod of consensus, despite the lack of a formally articulated theology. Thus we as Mormons are simultaneously taught to embrace all truth, but most comfortable clinging to the familiar.

    I think I’ve related it here, but I once saw what I thought was a great light while riding in the back of a car. I sat forward, trying to discern what the light could be, through the passing trees. Then we left the forest and I could see that what I had thought was a light was actually the white portion of a bird’s droppings.

    Having studied this period for as long as I have, I am confident that what I have written about Bennett is true. I am confident that Joseph’s interactions with women are much less prurient that commonly supposed. I am also confident that Emma knew more than most researchers imagine. As for the other details, I am willing, eager even, to hear of conflicting data. Ad hominem and appeals to establishment opinion are not terribly helpful.

    To Michael,

    We recently have been dealing with a litter of newborn rabbits. Much can be learned from how such animals prepare to protect their initially tiny and naked young (for rabbits, it involves straw and fur – when my daughter relocated the pregant mother inside the house due to an impending cold snap, the mother busily denuded a sheep skin rug to provide hair for the nest, since she’d already plucked all that could be plucked from her own body). So glad your great-grandmother and her sister had a chance to live to a ripe old age!

  27. “appeals to establishment opinion are not terribly helpful.”

    I didn’t mean to discredit your theory by appealing to establishment opinion, its just that you were questioning why DQ trusts more in establishment opinion than your lone theory. Your theory might be right, and if I read your posts and see all the evidence and “primary sources” you site, I might find it compelling. I’m just trying to explain why, philosophically, I can’t support theories which defy expert consensus unless I myself am an expert.

    Yes, as a Mormon, I already espouse non-expert, non-concensus views on religion. But this is different altogether. My LDS beliefs come from two sources: empirical spiritual experience which I have personally had, and prophetic authorities. And my trust in prophetic authorities comes because I’ve experienced empirical spiritual evidence of the reality of that authority. And the scope of that prophetic authority is rather narrow, concerned with a handful of truth-claims and doctrinal beliefs.

    But apart from our prophetic authorities, Mormons are supposed to be truth collectors, studying and learning from the best the scientific and intellectual worlds have to offer. Mormons are not like Evangelicals and others who believe fundamentally that the secular world is just one big Satanic conspiracy. We are to learn “from the best books” words of wisdom. We are “to believe all things,” all things which can be demonstrated reasonably to be true. We embrace experts, education, and consensus secular wisdom (when it does not contradict superior prophetic authority). As Mormons, ours is a humble and teachable position, not antagonistic to the world, but living in it and learning from it.

    For example, I believe fundamentally that Geoff B’s position: “Questioning the “experts” is about the healthiest and most sane thing you can do in this life” is not in the true spirit of Mormonism. Yes, we should question, when it contradicts things our spiritual authorities say are true. And we should understand that expert consensus changes. But I believe it is in the spirit of Mormonism to “with it,” to partake of the spirit and wisdom of the times, while always subjecting it to our sometimes contradicting spiritual authorities.

    If I lived at the time of Galileo, and the consensus scientific and theological authorities of the day all said that the sun revolved around the earth, I would believe them, and reject Galileo. If Galileo came up to me and showed me all his graphs and numbers and proofs, I would still disbelieve him, because I’m not a scientist or mathematician myself, and I wouldn’t be able to trust my ability to understand his numbers accurately. However, if I were a scientist myself, and Galileo came to me, and showed me all his proofs, then I might say, “well maybe he’s on to something!”

    But I believe normal, non-expert people should trust consensus. As Paul said, “the powers that be are ordained of God for thy good.” If you feel called by God to be a lone prophet, that is another matter. If you feel called by God to follow a lone prophet, that is also another matter. But if you are following your fundamental distrust and antagonism of “experts,” and of secular authorities in general, you are out of the traditional spirit of Mormonism, at least the Mormonism preached by Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, who sought to bring the wisdom and learning of the world to the saints. We are a trusting, believing people, not an antagonistic, mistrusting people.

  28. It’s helpful for you to state that, under your paradigm, it would be right to have agreed to the inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo, which resulted in indefinite imprisonment (he died while still under house arrest). Would it therefore also have been right that William Tyndale was incarcerated and killed for going against authority and publishing a version of the Bible in English?

    If we seek after truth, then I am wondering why inferences from primary sources must necessarily be distrusted until such time as the establishment authorities embrace the new theory?

    As for DQ, I was asking for fact. DQ could have merely said that the writings of [insert authority] were persuasive, and that therefore Emma appeared to be wrong to remain in Illinois and claim she was Joseph’s only wife, in the opinion of DQ (who I think is male, but don’t know with certainty). We could have agreed to disagree and left it at that.

    Instead DQ asserted that I was wrong, that there was not a shred of evidence for my claims, that we could as well presume that President Monson and Sister Burton were secretly engaging in polygamy. This was after I engaged in discussion attempting to demonstrate that the position DQ was taking was not the only possible position.

    Getting back to a theme of this string of comments, there are those who would rather imagine the abusive, deceptive Joseph of Mormon Enigma and American Crucifixion is the founder of Mormonism than consider that their long-held perception of Emma and Eliza might be slightly in error. You can’t imagine a different Joseph (a Joseph suggested by the documentary evidence in light of recent scientific data) without considering at least the possibility that the history of the women Joseph interacted with might have been different than has long been believed.

    If we were talking about two views of an event where the truth didn’t matter, the certainly it makes sense to poll the consensus of authorities. However this is a matter where the establishment view causes many to falter in their faith. Even for those who remain faithful, it causes men to presume they need not consider the needs of the women in their lives and it causes women to presume that God so hates women that He directed His prophet to abuse and deceive and seduce.

    My good friend, who is patriarch in our stake, was talking with me and said something about Joseph being a flawed man. I pointed him to my blog. What he read there has made a difference in how this faithful man (very smart too, by the way) views Joseph. I believe it has been a matter of discussion in his family, since his daughter responded to me bringing up the topic with enthusiasm and complete agreement.

    So, Nate, if you wish to hold to the damaged and deceptive Joseph of long-published scholarly works, that will be your choice. But please don’t go telling people they must turn off their own brains and hearts and necessarily accept the lust-tarred version of Joseph Smith merely because you are content to do so.

  29. Meg, I didn’t say I would have agreed to an inquisition of Galileo, only that I wouldn’t have believed his scientific theories him in the face of consensus expert opinion aligned against him. His imprisonment would not have been a scientific consensus, but rather religious authority against him, so again, that’s in an entirely different category of faith, not reason. Actually, I can see where the problem lies. Yours is not an impartial historical theory. Rather, it is an apologetic theory. So we have to add yet another dimension to the argument.

    If we were talking about something completely non-religious, like global warming, would you trust expert consensus opinion, or would you align yourself with minority non-consensus experts? Many on this blog would align themselves with minority, non-consensus experts because they are antagonistic and distrusting of “the establishment.” But I don’t think you are this way. You are reasonable and trusting. You would probably align yourself with expert consensus opinion because you don’t have these conspiracy mindsets, as would I. Am I right?

    However, with Joseph Smith’s polygamy it is a different story. We actually have three different expert consensuses. We have the impartial, non-LDS consensus, the partial anti-LDS consensus, and the apologetic pro-LDS consensus. The impartial, non-LDS consensus would likely be that Joseph probably slept with at least some of his other wives, because Joseph Smith would be interpreted as a normal guy sexually, out of his “2nd only to Christ” near-perfection mode. The partial anti-LDS consensus says the same, but because they believe Joseph Smith is a scoundrel. But the apologetic pro-LDS consensus also says that Joseph Smith slept with at least some his other wives, because the apologists who’ve done work on it, Bushman, Hales, and others, don’t need to have a monogamous Joseph in order to believe he was a prophet of God. However, there are other apologists, like those from the RLDS church who NEED to have a monogamous Joseph as part of their faith. Also, there are apologists like you, who NEED a monogamous Joseph in order to respect him as a faithful husband, and thus as a worthy prophet. That is part of your faith, so you need a special kind of apologetics.

    But you stand apart from the other apologists, because you are working under different faith-criteria. You have a different brand of faith, something like Monogamous-Joseph-Mormonism. In this particular brand of Mormonism, maybe you are the only current apologist, so actually you have expert consensus within your particular brand of Mormonism! Anyone who needs Joseph to be monogamous as part of their faith criteria, should accept your theory, because maybe its the most reasonable, (or only) theory out there. But I have a different brand of Mormonism altogether, so your theory doesn’t really fit my needs. In fact a polygamous but monogamous Joseph to me seems more monstrous than a sexually active polygamous Joseph. It would shake my faith in him. So we are both gravitating to the apologetics we need to prop up our particular brand of LDS faith.

  30. I guess what I’m saying is that it was probably wrong of me to invoke “expert consensus” since we are talking about apologetics, not impartial science.

    Apologetics starts with a truth, or belief, and finds evidence to support that belief. The problem with your apologetics (for me personally), is that they start out trying to support a belief which I fundamentally disagree with: the idea that God would want a polygamous man ideally to be monogamous.

    No matter how compelling your theory is, at the end of the day, its apologetics. All your research exists solely to prop up your particular belief in a monogamous Joseph, not to try to be an impartial historian uncovering some unknown reality.

    I think apologetics are important, as rational crutches to prop up faith in a doubting world. I rely on them for my own beliefs. But I don’t seek them out in matters that don’t concern my faith, (like faith in a monogamous/polygamous Joseph). I don’t go to the Noah’s Ark museum to find scientific truth. The only people who go there go there because they NEED help to prop up their particular faith. But a literal Noah’s Ark is not part of my faith, so I don’t need it.

  31. I suppose we should stop seeking a second opinion in legal, financial and medical matters.

  32. Ah, but Nate, I am not an apologist.

    I am someone who believes in data. And while it is possible that Joseph was intentionally having a different kind of sex with those who were not his legal wife, I am asserting that the most logical conclusion in light of the lack of children born to plural wives who can be linked to him by DNA is lack of sex (Josephine’s case is fully explainable by other relations, and in fact the odd nature of the results is what sent them looking for other explanations).

    You find a monogamous Joseph who taught that polygamy was possible *and* married dozens of women is horrific. However that is a philosophical point for you, not a worldview based on years of scrutinizing the data.

    The point of the original post is that those who have written prior histories of Joseph Smith were eliminating data so that their theories could fit the data they chose to include.

    I don’t eliminate data. I believe in what can be proven, and I believe in a framework that fits all the data, not just the convenient data. One criterion for this framework is that it not only fit all current data, but that it serve useful for predicting information that isn’t yet available.

    For example, when I realized (through random genealogy research) that a census of Nauvoo had been performed in February 1842, I surmised that it was related to the hunt for seducers. It was only after Brian Hales sent me the High Council transcripts that I learned that the purpose of the census for explicitly religious purposes (to teach households to be righteous) was a matter of documented fact.

    If God appeared to be tomorrow and told me Joseph had ceremonial sex with each of his wives, that wouldn’t bother me. If a report is published tomorrow that proves there are several dozen individuals who’ve gotten their DNA assessed by 23&me or who are bona fide descendants of Joseph Smith by plural wives, that wouldn’t bother me.

    What bothers me is that is currently no such DNA data. The ring of seducers created sufficient cause for Joseph and Emma to behave as they did after Joseph married Louisa Beaman, technically obeying God’s requirement that Joseph become a polygamist. Given the need to protect those who had been seduced by Bennett’s errant doctrine, the need to continue some form of unusual polygamy (marrying way more wives that possible for a normal man to support) becomes understandable.

    Bring me data that I am unable to refute, and I am happy to believe in the construct(s) that could fit a world in which such data exists.

    Until then, my framework explains all the data of which I am aware, a virtue no other theory can boast, no matter how often ossified in print.

  33. Meg,

    I’m friends with Ugo Perego, who is a geneticist who has done some work related to possible offspring of Joseph Smith, or rather the lack of genetic evidence supporting the claims of some that individuals a, b, or c are offspring of Joseph Smith. I’m guessing you’re familiar with his work on the subject. If you would ever find an introduction to him useful, let me know and I will arrange it.


  34. Hi Mike,

    It would be wonderful were you to introduce me to him ore fully. However it turns out I’ve twice e-mailed him and he has twice responded. Which is why I am so certain of what I say when I assert that Josephine cannot be proven to be Joseph’s child.

  35. It is useful to recall the legal standard for an objective historian, established in the case Irving v. Penguin Books and Lipstadt (1996):

    1. The historian must treat sources with appropriate reservations;
    2. The historian must not dismiss counterevidence without scholarly consideration;
    3. The historian must be even-handed in treatment of evidence and eschew “cherry-picking”;
    4. The historian must clearly indicate any speculation;
    5. The historian must not mistranslate documents or mislead by omitting parts of documents;
    6. The historian must weigh the authenticity of all accounts, not merely those that contradict a favored view; and
    7. The historian must take the motives of historical actors into consideration.

    In the court case, Irving was claiming he’d been libelled when Lipstadt wrote in her book that Irving was incorrectly denying the holocaust.

  36. I find it significant that nowhere in the list of requirements is there a provision for academic credentials or peer approval. The giants in many fields of endeavor have often been amateurs when their most important contibutions, sometimes foundational to the discipline, were made. Edward Gibbon, generally acknowledged as one of the great historians, spent little time in formal schooling at the university level but he read and traveled and discussed his ideas with bright people. It is common in this day and age to let consensus or accreditation loom larger than actual accomplishment, but all of us know at least a few people who are in love with finding out the truth as far as it can be determined and do not flag in the face of criticism when the facts force a divergence from ‘common knowledge’. That is the only way we gain true understanding of the way things truly were and are and will be. I include spiritual insights in this drive for truth, but in my experience, such insights are only useful in the sense of scholarship when they lead to or can be backed by factual information.

  37. I just got off the phone with the incomparable Andrew Ehat.

    Most of us might think of him as a researcher, but he was the fellow who gave us Word Perfect back in the day, and is a VP at Western Standard, an electronic database and publishing company. So cool!

    Anyway, he was kind enough to talk with me about the Clayton journals. When I asked about that entry, he said that was exactly the entry that gained him access to the journals, so many years ago. The entry is dated 16 August 1843, and it indicates Emma had come back from St. Louis and was set against P [presumably polygamy]. She had agreed to let Joseph have E & E P (Eliza and Emily Partridge, one presumes) but Joseph knew that if he did that, Emma would fly off on him and seek a divorce.

    This makes sense. It isn’t that Emma was actually threatening divorce in August 1843, but that Joseph was himself certain that if he did proceed to take advantage of Emma’s offer to let him have the Partridge sisters as full wives, Emma would return to her position of June. As we know Emma was dead set against plural wives being actual sexual partners to their husbands, it makes sense that she would indicate she was set against “p” as it had been discussed in the revelation (which clearly indicates plural wives should bear children).

    For what it’s worth, we talked for over an hour and at no point did Andrew tell me I was wrong. Not that he’s had a chance to review all my sources, but nothing I said ran fundamentally contrary to what his own research had indicated. Back in the day he was talking about Joseph’s “polyandrous” marriages as pseudo polyandry.

    Anyway, so happy.

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