Testimonies in Nauvoo High Council Cases (May 1842)

Screenshot of Testimonies given to the Nauvoo High Council in May 1842 1

On 19 May 1842, President Emma Smith told the Nauvoo Female Relief Society that “now it is necessary that sin should be expos’d— that heinous sins were among us—”.

On May 21 the first of several individuals came forward to testify before the Nauvoo High Council regarding sins they either suspected or could confess to.

Brian Hales sent me a copy of a portion of these testimonies in 2014. Ironically, he has since asserted that he never looked at that pdf, suggesting that perhaps the pdf had been created from Dr. Val Avery’s notes by Don Bradley. While I had a theory leading into my 2013-2014 Faithful Joseph series of blog posts, it was the copy of these statements that confirmed the truth was even more sobering than I had speculated.

In 2018 I visited Utah State University, where Dr. Val Avery’s notes are housed. My visit was inspired by two purposes. First, I had reason to suspect that the pdf I’d been sent did not include all the pages. Second, I was looking forward to talking with the USU archivist, to ensure he was aware of my research and plans.

Unfortunately, I talked enough about my research and its implications that the USU archivist became very nervous. He strongly suggested I obtain permission to use the notes directly from the Church Archives. He was concerned that my research (which some find controversial) could prompt the Church to remove sensitive documents from the USU archives.

During the summer of 2016 I had attended the Mormon History Association. During that encounter, Elder Steven Snow had given me his business card. So I e-mailed Elder Snow directly. I praised Saints, the initial chapters of which were beginning to be published. Then I explained my concern about the Nauvoo Statements before the High Council.

Up until now these statements have been protected from publication, which is appropriate for documents related to Church Disciplinary Courts. Unfortunately, theories regarding Nauvoo have abounded, with the illicit intercourse activity neatly suppressed.

I did not hear from Elder Snow himself, but I did receive an e-mail from Keith Erekson. He assured me that these important documents were in the queue to be digitized and published on the Church History website. Though he could not promise when they would be available, he assured me that they should be available online by the time the Joseph Smith Papers Project reached 1842, which it did this year.

Today I checked, and these heartbreaking but paradigm altering documents are now available online (though I believe you must log in using your Church Account):

Testimonies in Nauvoo High Council cases , https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=aa99b602-c7ef-412a-991e-8ac468eb438a&crate=0&index=0 (accessed: July 31, 2019)

Perhaps the rest of the historians who study Nauvoo have already known about this for a while – since I don’t frequent the Mormon Historians Facebook group these days, I wouldn’t know.

These testimonies (or confessions) speak again and again of the way in which certain men, including William Smith, coerced women into engaging in sexual activity with any number of men.

When Orson Pratt and George Q. Cannon and others talked about plural marriage being an alternative to adultery and infanticide, they were talking about the epidemic of sexual misbehavior that occurred in 1841-1842.

Modern researchers have presumed that plural marriage allowed men to satisfy their carnal desires without having to resort to the extramarital excess associated with “Gentiles” of the world. When I read this in Brian Hales’s writings, I dismissed it as merely a male-centric absurdity. But today as my husband read to me from the chapter “Puritan Polygamy” in Lawrence Foster’s Religion and Sexuality, I realized that this is a misreading on the part of many modern historians of Orson Pratt’s 1852 announcement regarding plural marriage as an authorized practice in the Church.

It was not that any righteous man needs to have multiple wives to absorb their libidinous urges. Instead, it was that vulnerable women had been subjected to the equivalent of prostitution by evil men. In that circumstance, it was necessary in some cases for righteous men to step forward to care for both repentant women and innocent yet still-vulnerable women.

I suppose some will read these documents and presume these statements are representative of the activities of Joseph Smith. Heavens knows that is what Dr. Avery thought. In light of these documents, she would become so upset as she wrote about Joseph Smith and the women with whom he covenanted that she would vomit. After composing herself, she could only write for a short time before she had to vomit again.

But Dr. Avery did not have access to DNA evidence demonstrating that there is no evidence that any children born to Joseph’s covenant wives were fathered by any other than the women’s legal husbands. Of note, there is no case where an unmarried woman who had covenanted with Joseph is known to have conceived prior to his death.

This information will not necessarily convince anyone. As observed among the monkeys of Koshima 2, mature individuals typically refuse to change. As I have observed with “Riley,” 3 not even extensive interventions by fraud investigators and the FBI were able to persuade “Riley” the $1M and more sent to online “friends” was lost to scammers. So I won’t be particularly surprised or offended if folks continue to assert that I’m making all this up.

I look forward to seeing how responsible/conscientious scholars incorporate this information into their future writings.

Edit: Here is a transcription I made of the copy that was in the USU library. It appears the pages were in a different order in Val Avery’s copy, but the number of pages is the same.

Notes:

  1. Testimonies in Nauvoo High Council cases , https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=aa99b602-c7ef-412a-991e-8ac468eb438a&crate=0&index=0 (accessed: July 31, 2019)
  2. Misrepresentations of the scientific observations of monkey behavior on Koshima have led to an erroneous belief that new behavior will spread throughout a population once a sufficient core group has adopted the new behavior. Inactuality, the scientific observations confirmed that mature monkeys would refuse to adopt the new behavior, no matter how beneficial it was. See “Hundredth monkey effect,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundredth_monkey_effect (accessed 31 July 2019).
  3. See my posts Believing Lies, On Dementia and Traitors, and Of Sirens and Judgment for more about my experiences with “Riley.”
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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 may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

21 thoughts on “Testimonies in Nauvoo High Council Cases (May 1842)

  1. Awesome update. Thanks

    I’ve also wondered about the stigma associated with women who had one or more multiple sexual encounters being considered unfit for marriage, women who were raped, and maybe even women who had STDs.

    How much of all 3 of those had gone on and would have been very private to talk about and considered in a charitable light by the brethren. Were there women who felt themselves “non marriage material” because of social stigma?

    Would plural marriage be a balm in that case? How could you talk about our defend such rationale without dragging the women’s names through the mud?

    Not suggesting this was the case often, but I’ve just wondered if it played a part with some women.

    Multiple wives came up in a coworker missionary moment today. I’m sure we’ve all had that conversation. I remarked how I’d personally be pretty stressed about being responsible for not than one wife and many children. It didn’t seem like a bonus to me, to which the multiple-sexual partner coworkers (men) said the sex sounded great. They always think like that… but I said I’d be terrified to have multiple sexual partners as the concept seems pretty foreign to me.

    We’re not talking about sex, but trying to make multiple unions work. Being on the same page in unity. My wife and I don’t necessarily always agree, but for the most part we’re pretty united and I’m always grateful that she’s the most level headed woman I’ve ever known. (Hopefully all husbands feel the same)
    The stress and risk of trying for that kind of unity with 2-4 more wives? Holy cow, it seems like a minefield. Then being responsible to house, feed, etc? You’ve got to be kidding. And it’s not like anyone was sustaining a sexual relationship with every woman many days in a row. Do you think the men went from sex 2-4 days a week to 3-5? At some point, you’d just get bored if it. So how many more sexual encounters are there really? 25% more? There’s just no way the possibility of 25% more sex is worth ANY of that.

  2. I salute your dedication to this course, Meg. And I’m glad you’re not leaving the Church over it. 🙂

  3. Why ever would I leave the Church?

    As I often say to folks, Nauvoo, properly understood, leaves one with a Joseph Smith who is one of the best of the prophets that has ever proclaimed the Christ.

  4. Meg, well said:

    “As observed among the monkeys of Koshima 2, mature individuals typically refuse to change. ”

    Not sure how this helps you think JS was one of the best prophets, but glad your content with where you are at.

  5. I find Joseph to have been one of the best prophets because he simultaneously restored the understanding that all children should be sealed to their parents into the family of mankind (which necessitates at least eternal plural marriage covenants) while also immediately responding with compassion and urgency to an illicit intercourse epidemic. He responded so quickly and so thoroughly that I CAN’T GET ANYONE TO TALK ABOUT THE FACT THAT THERE WAS AN ILLICIT INTERCOURSE EPIDEMIC (as is documented in the May 1842 statements).

    The monkeys of Koshima are an important instance that demonstrates that older folks will be so set in their prior opinions that they won’t change in the face of new evidence. So I’m just saying that I’m not going to be deterred if people continue to avoid/ignore/suppress/deride what I am saying.

  6. Meg,

    I don’t think we need to lump in “older folks” to being so set in their prior opinions that they won’t change in the face of new evidence. We all have a strong tendency to do that.

    “In fact, people chose the circle that had a filled-in patch 65 per cent of the time. “We never expected this,” says Ehinger. “The brain trusts its own generated information more than what it sees outside in the world.”

    This fits in with what we know about cognitive biases, says Ehinger. When people hold strong beliefs, they are likely to ignore any evidence to the contrary. ”
    https://www.newscientist.com/article/2131864-our-brains-prefer-invented-visual-information-to-the-real-thing/

    A question to see if you and I fall into that.
    When was Joseph Smith sealed to his wife and kids?

    You are screaming that people won’t look at the epidemic “evidence”, but perhaps we need to zoom out and examine the “evidence that he was a prophet to begin with. Otherwise, I can just say I had a “feeling” that there wasn’t an illicit intercourse epidemic” and hold to my bias.

    I am in no way trying to push my views on you, just reflecting if we are both being constant in the way we apply our logic. I hope the best for your journey on getting people to understand.

  7. Hi Brian,

    Your comment is scattered.

    Joseph was sealed to Emma in the latter portion of May 1843. As far as I can determine, there were no sealings performed uniting children to parents prior to Joseph’s death. It appears Joseph considered child to parent sealings so sacred that he wouldn’t allow them to occur until they could be solemnized in the temple.

    After Joseph’s death, Brigham briefly instituted a policy requiring any widow or widower wishing to be sealed to a deceased spouse to be temporally married to the individual standing as proxy. Emma never chose to have her sealing to Joseph resolemnized. Therefore none of Joseph’s children were sealed to him during their mortal lives.

    As to the illicit intercourse epidemic, read the document.

    While I happen to believe the Church is true (and Joseph was a prophet), the May 1842 statements are a matter of history, not faith. Whether one believes Joseph was a prophet or not, he was a leader who was dealing with gross aberration amongst his people.

  8. Meg,

    Thanks for feedback about how I put forth my comment. Let me try again.

    If you are going to say that the May 1842 statements area matter of history, not faith, then do you carry that logic to other histories of the Church?

    Such as the “ILLICIT INTERCOURSE EPIDEMIC” with Franny Alger in 1832 or 1835? There is some uncertainty as to the date, due of course to the secretiveness of the relationship. It is usually dated in late 1832 or early 1833, e.g., Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 26-33. Others date the beginning of the relationship to 1835, e.g., Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:99-106.

    When did he receive the sealing power again?

    (1) Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger was regarded by those closest to him—his wife Emma and two of his earliest associates, Oliver Cowdery and Martin Harris—as adulterous. Cowdery was excommunicated in part over his criticism of Joseph’s adultery.

    (2) The stories describing Fanny as a plural wife of Joseph are very late, typically secondhand, and implausible in various respects.

    (3) Joseph Smith had no legal or religious authority to take Fanny as a plural wife, even if one were to concede his later claim to religious authority to do so with other women.

    For these reasons, we are on solid ground in concluding that Joseph’s sexual relationship with Fanny Alger was a simple case of adultery.

    If you want to say the revelation was from 1831 with W.W. Phelps and Native Americans, I would ask you post it here and outline it. I think there is a reason that it is not talked about in Sunday school lessons.

    I purpose that in this case you are like the monkeys of Koshima, and have a strong Congative Bias. I will agree that he was dealing with a gross problem amongst the people, but I sustain that he helped create the atmosphere and approved of it at some level.

    I think it is wonderful that you have found your truth. I hope it brings you joy and peace. I will reread the article and hopefully understand better what you are communicating and see how I can learn from it.

  9. Brian,

    I recommend you consider my book, Reluctant Polygamist, where I treat all these matters.

    It appears most contemporaries of Kirtland events place their knowledge of anything going on with Joseph as occurring in 1838. Obviously Ms. Alger was no longer with the community of Saints at that point. But that is when Oliver openly opposes Joseph and makes his accusations.

    According to a late account by Erastus Snow, he learned of plural marriage from Joseph Smith in 1843. Erastus reported that Joseph said he’d received the revelation while translating Genesis, a portion talking about inheritance. It appears this was when Joseph was translating Genesis 17:8-12 (see the JST). This would have occurred in Jan-Mar 1831, as Joseph ceased translating Genesis on March 7 in accordance with D&C 45.

    This Genesis translation matter occurs before the reported “take unto you wives of the Lamanites” instance, which Phelps doesn’t record until years after the supposed instance.

    I am an engineer. I rely on data. When data contradicts my hypotheses, I adjust my position.

    I don’t know what you are. You appear to be content to retain your prior position without actually reading the original contemporary document I’ve pointed you to.

  10. Meg,

    I will add it to my list of books to study and read. I don’t judge you for assuming that I am content in my positions, but please know that is your worldview and a dream your creating, not mine. I, like you, rely on data and have no issues adjusting beliefs or hypotheses when something contradicts.

    After the BYU study of Joseph plagiarizing (relying heavy) on Adam Clark’s Bible dictionary I don’t have much faith in the JST. I do find it odd that the full version isn’t studied in Sunday School nor is something held up to the world to restore plain truths. I am fascinated to know what you data is for supporting the idea that Abraham was literal person. I fully expect you to be familiar with the documentary hypothesis.

    I look forward to our discussions together and looking at data that I may have overlooked. I will say I do not subscribe to the Givens “Start with the wrong assumptions – Key lock” philosophy. I’ll be back in touch when I have finished reading your book. Thank you for the link.

  11. Hi Brian,

    One note – Joseph did not start using the Adam Clark Bible as a crutch until after March 7th. So the Adam Clark Bible did not influence what Joseph wrote as he worked on Genesis.

    Opinion, Joseph turned to the Adam Clark Bible *because* of what he believed he’d been prompted to do as a result of Genesis 17:8-12 (JST).

  12. Meg,

    What brings you to the conclusion that he was not using it before March 7th?

    Opinion: I don’t see the sealing power of polygamy as part of circumcision.

  13. Hi Brian,

    In listening to the LDS Perspectives interview with Dr. Wayment related to the Adam Clarke Biblical Commentary, Dr. Wayment states that use of the Commentary began when Joseph Smith began his work on the New Testament.

    Erastus Snow’s account of the conversation only mentions the inheritance matter in brief. It is my inference that the verses must have been in Genesis 17. Looking at the JST, it seems that there is content in Genesis 17:8-12 that is germane.

    As the New Testament Church established (see Acts 15), it was not necessary for the “Gentiles” to adhere to circumcision as part of their covenant. Similarly, the Book of Mormon specifies that Law of Moses performances were explicitly anticipated to end in light of the sacrifice of Christ (see 3 Nephi 1:24-25).

    I’m glad to hear you say you are not close-minded.

  14. Didn’t Dr. Wayment have another BYU student who found and helped with this research?

    It is fascinating to look at the Book of Mormon and try to find examples of the Mosaic Law. For being so important to all Jews, I find the lack of reference in the Book of Mormon……..well fascinating.

    Your super brilliant, you also understand about how the books of the bible were put together and the order and authorship? How does that data that Bart Ehrmat presents play in?

    I am not close-minded, and willing to drop any belief I was raised with if the truth leads that way. As well, if the truth leads to sustain it I will. I extend that you are living the same.

  15. Hi Brian,

    You write:

    “It is fascinating to look at the Book of Mormon and try to find examples of the Mosaic Law. For being so important to all Jews, I find the lack of reference in the Book of Mormon……..well fascinating.”

    You could also find it fascinating to read my blog posts and try to find examples where I talk about breathing or eating. Given that these activities are important to sustain life, one could find the lack of reference to such activities… well fascinating.

    I haven’t paid much attention to Bart Ehrmat. But I don’t see how that is germane to the 1842 statements.

  16. Meg,

    I love your humor and wit!

    To me, there is a connection. Perhaps you would be open to paying some attention to Bart and see if there are data points you have missed?

    For now, I will read your book and get back to you.

  17. In reviewing a summary of Ehrman’s career, I see a man who started from the position of evangelical belief in an inerrant Bible. Study broke him of that pure view. Then he stumbled on the problem Traditional Christians face related to trying to understand how their god could permit evil and suffering. So now he’s an articulate agnostic who asks questions of Christian believers that most are not sufficiently articulate to answer.

    He’s written 30 books, so you’d need to narrow down what you think is important that I ingest. Given that Ehrman isn’t in conversation with Restoration Christianity, I doubt I’d get much from his arguments. I’d mostly be frustrated that he doesn’t operate from a paradigm where we are eternal (both before and after mortality) and where we made the choice to submit ourselves to mortality due to our pre-mortal faith in Christ. When things like this get discussed in our household, my loving husband (who probably is conversant with (if unsympathetic to) Ehrman’s position) puts up with me ranting about how uninformed and absurd people can be when they presume we are created at birth and have no chance after death to reconsider.

  18. Meg,

    Thank you for your great work in putting together the Reluctant Polygamous. I personally suspect that the main purpose the Lord had us practice polygamy was to firmly separate us (or rather, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) from mainline Christianity as practiced in 19th century America. It certainly did that quite thoroughly. I am impressed with your hypothesis that it was also set up to deal compassionately and urgently with an illicit intercourse epidemic. I don’t doubt that the Lord could accomplish both purposes (and probably a lot more besides) with polygamy.

    –Tom

  19. For what it’s worth, someone who likes to troll the Church History website and download jpgs thinks these images went live a while ago. I guess I was too focused on other items…

  20. Tom,
    I believe the Word of Wisdom, non-Trinitarian Godhead, communalism, prophecy, miracles, angels, a tendency towards abolitionism, Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign and the Book of Mormon would have separated us out just fine… but this is all speculative.

    I take it one step further. Plural marriage required the sacrifice of dignity and was beyond the pale for the Victorian era. It was the Abrahamic sacrifice of the 19th century. Think of the sacrifice it continued to be as the Church migrated away from the practice in the 1890’s. Polite “American” society has always snubbed “polygs” and “cohabs.” The scriptures speak of a “circumcised heart.” It took that to be part of a plural marriage. Perhaps (if Meg’s theory is correct) plural marriage was the perfect antidote for a morally bankrupt, lascivious society. I have read enough social history to understand Nauvoo was not alone in abusive sexual behavior in the 1800’s.

  21. Meg,

    I am appreciative of your work and agree with your general propositions. Thank you.

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