Winter of the Reluctant Virgins

[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning and see the list of published and planned posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]

Zina Diantha Huntington, circa 1840

Zina Huntington circa 1855

September 1840 marks the beginning of a new period of plural marriage, a time where we see Joseph Smith begin to urgently discuss plural marriage with individuals who will document their first-hand interactions on the subject. Joseph’s attempts to get folks to embrace plural marriage during this winter are unsuccessful, it must be noted. Joseph Smith would not be able to convince anyone to participate in plural marriage until April 1841.

September 1840 also marks the arrival of Dr. John Cook Bennett in the Mormon community. During this same winter, while Joseph searched in vain to find anyone willing to say “yes,” the allegedly single Bennett rose to the pinnacle of Nauvoo’s power structure. However Joseph would lose confidence in Bennett around the end of March 1841.

Is it coincidence that Joseph would only contract a plural marriage after confirming that Bennett was unfit to be entrusted with the secret of the New and Everlasting Covenant?

John Cook Bennett, MD

John C. Bennett was born August 3, 1804 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, a natural port near the site of the first naval battle of the Revolutionary war. The Bennett family built ships, but blockades associated with the War of 1812 destroyed the family’s fortunes. John’s grandfather narrowly escaped debtor’s prison.[ref]Smith, Andrew, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, pp. 2-3. As Bennett’s 1841 suicide attempt and sexual excesses under the guise of Spiritual Wifery could have arisen from childhood sexual abuse, it appears this timeframe, when Bennett’s grandfather mysteriously avoids debtors prison, is a  candidate for such abuse.[/ref]

John’s mother returned to Ohio. In time John became the apprentice of his uncle, Dr. Samuel Hildreth. After passing his medical examination, Bennett married Mary Barker. There were few doctors and fewer institutions of higher learning in those days. John became an expert at setting up “universities” on the barest pretext. Bennett’s biographer suggests John might have been the first individual to run what would now be called a diploma mill.[ref]Smith, Saintly Scountrel. Chapters 2 and 3 are titled “The Diploma Peddler” and “The ‘Getter Up’ of Colleges”, pp. 13-33.[/ref] It seems John was expert at self-promotion and placing himself in high positions.

The field of women’s medicine in the early 1800s involved practices that today would be considered sexual abuse. One example was the common practice of using genital massage to treat hysteria.[ref]The first vibrator was invented in 1869, seen as a great boon for doctors to prevent repetitive stress injuries associated with the professional treatment of hysteria.[/ref] As the years passed, Mary Bennett began to suspect her husband of infidelity, seeing marriage after marriage end as a result of what she suspected was John’s interference. Eventually Mrs. Bennett felt she had proof of John’s adulterous behavior. She asked her brothers to take her entirely from her husband, “which they immediately done, they being leading members of the country and not wishing to be connected with so base a character…”[ref]Smith, Saintly Scoundrel, p. 79. In my midrash, I put forward the possibility that Mary’s “proof” was a newspaper clipping regarding the funeral of Elizabeth Bennett, wife of a Dr. J. Bennett who specialized in women’s medicine. Such a clipping would explain both Mary’s rejection and Joseph’s hesitation to openly break with John C. Bennett based on Elder Miller’s damning letter of March 1841.[/ref]

John may have decided to come to the aid of the Mormons in an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation. Bennett wrote to Joseph Smith in July 1840, offering his services.[ref]ibid. p. 54.[/ref] By early September Bennett was working to protect Nauvoo from the mobocracy that had driven the Saints from Missouri, the mobocracy that had taken the life of Marietta Holmes mere weeks earlier in the heart of Nauvoo.

Bennett drafted up a powerful city charter and traveled to Springfield, Illinois, to lobby for passage of the document, impressing the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Bennett won passage of the charter and returned to Nauvoo a hero. When elections under the charter were held, Bennett was installed as Mayor of Nauvoo and made General of the Nauvoo Legion–a rank subordinate only to Joseph Smith. Bennett  portrayed himself as a bachelor to his Mormon friends. Soon Bennett began to keep company with a young woman.[ref]”To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to All Honorable Part of Community” Times & Seasons, 1 July, 1842, available online at, retrieved Feb 22, 2014. Wilhelm Wyl suggested in 1885 that the woman in question was Eliza Snow, who Wyl claimed had become pregnant by Bennett. I suggest a more likely candidate was Elvira Annie Cowles, the Smith governess and therefore fellow resident of the Smith household during the winter of 1840/41.[/ref]

I suggest that Joseph saw in Bennett a man who might be able to live plural marriage. On January 19, 1841, Joseph pronounced a blessing on John C. Bennett:

     Again, let my servant John C. Bennett help you in your labor in sending my word to the kings and people of the earth, and stand by you, even you my servant Joseph Smith, in the hour of affliction; and his reward shall not fail if he receive counsel.

And for his love he shall be great, for he shall be mine if he do this, saith the Lord. I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue, and will crown him with blessings and great glory.[ref]D&C 124: 16-17[/ref]

Though Joseph wanted to trust Bennett, Joseph received a letter soon after it was known Bennett had joined the church, possibly after the January blessing.[ref]Bennett’s baptism is reported in the Western World (later the Warsaw Signal), 21 October, 1840. The letter is discussed in “To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to All Honorable Part of Community” Times & Seasons, 1 July, 1842, available online at, retrieved Feb 22, 2014.[/ref] The letter writer identified themselves as being from a vicinity where Bennett had lived, claiming Bennett was a mean man who had left a wife and children left behind in Morgan County, Ohio. Though Joseph’s own experience had taught him that evil tales can be told of honorable men, Joseph commissioned Elder George Miller in February to seek out the truth behind the stories alleged in the letter about Bennett.

I don’t believe Joseph would have confided in Bennett until Elder Miller returned with his report.[ref]When Bennett and his acolytes began to seduce women in late 1841 and 1842, their “doctrine” did not resemble Joseph’s doctrine at all, suggesting they were not privy to Joseph’s teachings. Bennett in particular was surprised when he learned of Joseph’s doctrine once the revelation on Celestial marriage was written down in 1843.[/ref] Miller wrote his report on March 2, 1841. It is unclear when it reached Joseph.

Miller’s informants claimed Bennett was “able to push himself into places and situations entirely beyond his abilities… his wife left him under satisfactory evidence of his adulterous connections… he used her bad otherwise… it has been Dr. Bennett’s wish that his wife should get a bill of divorcement, but as yet she has not… in fine, he is an imposter and unworthy of the confidence of all good men.” However a careful reading of Elder Miller’s letter reveals that he had not actually talked to Mary herself.

Bennett seems to have talked his way out of the accusations in Elder Miller’s report, perhaps by inferring his wife was no longer living. Risky though this would have been, it could explain why Joseph did not excoriate Bennett about abandoning his wife until June. More importantly for Bennett, the reprieve would give him time to secure the affections of his new beloved. Even though Bennett might have left Joseph with the impression that he wasn’t still married, Miller’s report ended any hopes Joseph might have had to partially shift the burden of restoring the New and Everlasting Covenant onto Bennett’s seemly-capable shoulders.

Elvira Annie Cowles

Elvira Annie Cowles was the eldest daughter of Austin Cowles by his first wife. In the spring of 1840, when Elvira Annie was 27, she was hired to be the governess for the Smith children.

In 1869 Andrew Jensen wrote the daughters of Elvira Annie Cowles, inquiring about her relationship with Joseph Smith.[ref]Andrew Jensen was attempting to piece together the history of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages. Separately Joseph F. Smith was canvassing Joseph’s wives seeking affidavits regarding the sealing dates for his wives. This activity was prompted by Joseph Smith III’s visit to Utah in 1869, as Joseph Smith III claimed his father had never married plural wives.[/ref] Elvira’s oldest living daughter replied, telling Jensen that Elvira had not been Joseph’s first plural wife.[ref]Copy of the letter from Marietta Holmes Welling to Andrew Jensen is in my files, obtained from the Mormon Battalion Visitor’s Center prior to the renovation that removed the records to Salt Lake City.[/ref] The date Elvira Annie Cowles would give Joseph F. Smith for her sealing to Joseph was June 1, 1843.

I searched for years to understand why Elvira didn’t marry Joseph until June 1843. The date didn’t fit. However the ladies who witnessed the sealing could only have been party to a sealing in 1843, so the date wasn’t a typo. I couldn’t figure it out until I read Bergera’s article on the earliest sealings between married couples[ref]Bergera, Gary James.  “The Earliest Eternal Sealings for Civilly Married Couples Living and Dead.”  Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35 (Fall 2002): 41-66.[/ref]. Elvira’s sealing to Joseph Smith occurred three days after Emma Smith was finally sealed to Joseph.

Here was a possible answer, then. Elvira Annie Cowles, of all the plural wives Joseph would covenant with, appears to have promised Emma that she would not enter into a Covenant with Joseph until after Emma herself had accepted the Covenant.

Even though Elvira Annie wasn’t the first plural wife, there is no reason to think she was not the first woman Joseph talked with after his father’s death. She was an intimate of the Smith family. Emma loved Elvira and trusted her.[ref]Emma would ask Elvira to be treasurer of the Relief Society in March 1842. Sarah’s stories make it clear that Elvira was an intimate of the Smith household even after her public marriage to Jonathan Holmes in December 1842 and her sealing to Joseph in June 1843.[/ref] Elvira may have witnessed the conversation between Joseph and the dying Marietta Holmes and the death bed blessing Father Smith pronounced on Joseph’s head. With this background, Elvira would be uniquely prepared to comprehend the strange doctrine of plural marriage.

Assuming Joseph approached Elvira about joining him in the New and Everlasting Covenant as a plural wife during September 1840, Elvira also understood one other thing about plural marriage. The first wife had to agree–Emma would have to give her consent. There is no good reason to suppose Joseph and Elvira kept this from Emma. If Elvira was going to refuse Joseph, then it seems only natural that she was doing so based on knowledge of Emma’s wishes.

Elvira’s situation presented her with multiple opportunities. She lived in a household with Joseph, who Jensen and I believe had proposed to her. The widower Jonathan Holmes lived in the household, an obvious potential husband, since Elvira was the mother figure for Jonathan’s daughter, Sarah. And Dr. Bennett was living in the household, a powerful and seemingly single man who would appreciate a learned wife with connections to the powerful in Nauvoo society.

When Dr. Bennett began to court, I suggest Elvira Annie Cowles was very likely the woman he sought.  When Joseph learned of Bennett’s shady past, it became a matter of significant importance to warn the young woman involved of the impropriety, to break off the acquaintance, as Joseph termed it. Significantly, it was around the timeframe of the Miller letter that Bennett moved out of the homestead, apparently taking a room in the home of Sarah Pratt.[ref]Bennett supposedly stayed with the Smiths for 39 weeks, based on a payment noted in Joseph Smith’s Daybook from His General Store in Nauvoo, December 8, 1843, Iowa Masonic Library, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If correct, this would place Bennett’s departure from the Smith home around May 1841. The question of correctness arises because the spectacle of Bennett visiting Joseph Smith in 1843 must have been fraught with other concerns. I suspect the rent was a way to account for monies Bennett forced Joseph to take.[/ref]

For now, it is sufficient to suggest that Joseph could have approached Elvira Annie Holmes about becoming his plural wife as early as September 1840, and she refused him.

Zina Diantha Huntington[ref]Image shown at beginning of post adapted from image #01 of Zina Huntington in Bradley & Woodward “4 Zinas,” image available online at, retrieved February 23, 2014. I date the picture to 1855 because commercial photography was only invented in 1838 making an 1840 portrait of a single teenager in the American West unlikely in the extreme, given that we don’t have photographs of Joseph Smith or John C. Bennett. Besides, even though this is arguably the youngest picture of Zina, she doesn’t look like a teenager in this picture.[/ref]

Zina was nineteen the summer of 1840 when her mother passed away of a “congestive chill,” likely malaria. Zina herself was so sick she couldn’t attend their mother’s funeral. Around the end of July Joseph Smith told Zina’s father to bring the family to the homestead so the Smith’s could care for them. Zina and her family lived with the Smiths until the latter part of August, moving out and into their new home on August 20, 1840, the same day Marietta Holmes died.[ref]Compton, Sacred Loneliness, pp. 71-113.[/ref]

While convalescing at the homestead, Zina met Henry Jacobs, and they began courting. At some point in the fall, Joseph taught Zina the principle of plural marriage and proposed to her. Zina would later record her prayers during that time, “O dear Heaven, grant me wisdom! Help me to know the way. O Lord, my god, let thy will be done….”[ref]Compton, Sacred Loneliness, pp 79-80.[/ref]

In early 1841 Zina married Henry Jacobs.

Zina would eventually agree to be sealed to Joseph Smith. However during the winter of 1840/41, when Zina was arguably the most “vulnerable” and impressionable, she refused Joseph’s proposal. Even after she would be sealed to Joseph, there is no evidence they lived together. DNA analysis indicates her children during Joseph’s lifetime were fathered by Henry Jacobs, her legal husband.

Louisa Beaman

On September 29, 1840, Louisa Beaman’s mother died. Louisa was twenty-five. She moved in with her sister Mary Adeline and Mary’s husband, Joseph Bates Noble.[ref]Compton, Sacred Loneliness, pp 55-70.[/ref]

In 1869 Joseph Bates Noble wrote out an affidavit that Joseph Smith had approached him in the fall of 1840 and taught him “the principle of celestial or plural marriage, or a plurality of wives,” saying “the angel of the Lord had commanded him (Smith) to move forward in the said order of marriage.” Joseph continued, “In revealing this to you, I have placed my life in your hands, therefore do not in an evil hour betray me to my enemies.”[ref]Quoted in multiple sources, including Gary James Bergera, Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-1844, available online at, retrieved Feb 22, 2014.[/ref]

It is often presumed that Joseph spoke with Noble for the purpose of acquiring Louisa as a plural wife. In a separate 1869 affidavit, Noble would affirm  to Andrew Jensen that “Elder Joseph B. Noble swears (the affidavit I have on hand) before a notary public, on June 6, 1869, that he did on April 5, 1841, seal to Joseph Smith, the Prophet, Miss Louisa Beaman, according to the revelation on plural marriage.”[ref]ibid.[/ref]

Was it not possible that Joseph Smith was trying to convince Joseph Bates Noble to enter into plural marriage himself? The sight of Joseph Bates Noble assisting his wife and sister-in-law down the street must have been arresting to Smith–so like a vision of plural marriage at its best. If Smith attempted to persuade Noble to take on a plural wife, however, Noble did not act in the winter of 1840/41.

Though Joseph Bates Noble did not enter into plural marriage that winter, neither did he betray Joseph Smith’s confidence.

By April 1841 Joseph Smith knew he couldn’t trust Dr. Bennett. Elvira Cowles wouldn’t marry him. Zina Huntington wouldn’t marry him. Joseph Bates Noble wouldn’t take a plural wife.

However apparently Joseph Bates Noble had been willing to teach Louisa about the doctrine of celestial marriage and the possibility of plural marriage. Louisa had prayed and received a testimony that the principle of plural marriage emanated from God.

Unbeknownst to Joseph, he would need Louisa’s help in the terrible storm to come. But in April 1841, it was sufficient that Louisa’s testimony of the doctrine of celestial marriage meant that Joseph could ask her to become a plural wife, in obedience to the commandment he’d received over ten years earlier.

Joseph Smith met Joseph Bates Noble and Louisa in a grove near Main Street. Louisa was disguised as a man. I’m not entirely persuaded the three of them knew which of the two men would become Louisa’s husband when they initially arrived in the grove. Ultimately Joseph Smith dictated the words to Joseph Bates Noble, who performed the ceremony, sealing Louisa to Joseph. The three of them traveled across the river to the Noble home.[ref]ibid. Also in Compton, p. 59.[/ref]

First Wife?

Despite Joseph and Louisa spending their wedding night under the same roof, Joseph Bates Noble was unable to testify that he’d actually seen the couple get in bed together.[ref]Testimony during the Temple Lot case in 1892, quoted in Bergera, available online at, retrieved Feb. 22, 2014.[/ref] Louisa would not become pregnant during Joseph’s lifetime. By contrast, Louisa would bear five children in five years to Brigham Young (including two sets of twins) between their marriage in September 1844 and Louisa’s death of breast cancer on May 15, 1850.[ref]Compton, Sacred Loneliness, pp 55-70.[/ref]

Even though the marriage between Joseph Smith and Louisa Beaman likely remained unconsummated, Louisa Beaman remained true to the covenant between Joseph and herself until death. Indeed, Louisa remained true to the covenant she’d made with Joseph beyond his death until she herself passed away.

Perhaps this marriage to Louisa could have been enough to restore celestial marriage. But Doctor Bennett would fall. And great would be the fall of the doctor.


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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.

12 thoughts on “Winter of the Reluctant Virgins

  1. I know you and I don’t always see eye to eye, but I have to ask: What do you mean when you say “Louisa Beaman remained true to the covenant between Joseph and herself until death. Indeed, Louisa remained true to the covenant she’d made with Joseph beyond his death until she herself passed away”? I’m fascinated when people say they are “true” to the covenant of celestial marriage (or that others are) when they remarry and have children with another spouse. If in deed she was “true” there is certainly no reason for anyone to complain about polygamy.

  2. When you’ve read all of the histories about Joseph’s wives, you’ll note that there are those who remained aligned (true) to the intent of the covenant and those who didn’t.

    Louisa sustained Joseph throughout his life and continued to sustain “the work” after Joseph’s life. There are other wives who chose not to remain with the Saints. Emma comes to mind, though she had unique circumstances. There are others.

    You say ” I’m fascinated when people say they are “true” to the covenant of celestial marriage (or that others are) when they remarry and have children with another spouse.” I’m thinking you are not familiar with levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5-10, Ruth).

    The way levirate marriage was practiced in the immediate wake of Joseph’s death was Joseph’s brothers-in-the-gospel took on responsibility for his widows. When the temple was complete, all widows who wished to be sealed to their deceased spouse would then become the temporal wife of the man who stood proxy. This is the reason certain apostles took on a huge number of wives.

    Having children by the levirate “brother” was aligned with the covenant the wives of Joseph Smith had made with Joseph. And this is why I say Louisa remained true to Joseph after his death, even though remarrying and proceeding to have several children with Brigham Young.

  3. “I don’t really love you or have affection for you (at least the kind of affection or feelings that would want to make me spend eternity with you as your wife), but I am willing to have sex with you and have your babies because of this Levirate concept because I know those children ‘born in the covenant’ between me and Joseph will be his and mine for eternity, and I appreciate you being good with that.” I’m sure that’s just the kind of conversation these women had with Joseph’s brothers in the gospel. Just as I’m sure a woman widowed today at a relatively young age who remarries and subsequently has children with a second husband is thinking the same thing.

  4. Sorry for the sarcasm. I can certainly understand the Levirate principle. I can understand raising seed unto my brother. I can understand taking care of the needful widow. But the practicality of it all, coupled with real life feelings and intimacies, makes me skeptical. Most women I know don’t have sex, much less pop out babies, with someone with whom they don’t love. And in LDS terms, we don’t have sex and introduce children into the world unless we’re trying to incorporate them into a larger celestial family. I just find it hard to believe women, even in those days, were fine with the notion of having sex and bearing children with someone with whom they didn’t want to spend eternity.

  5. “Most women I know don’t have sex, much less pop out babies, with someone with whom they don’t love.”

    I think you’d be surprised at what goes on in the hearts of women. Even in our relatively luxurious circumstances, I know a great many who have done just that. Most of us have taught ourselves to love the one we are with. But in a world of dire and immediate need for sustenance, and the very real possibility of ideological extinction, I can easily relate to the women of that day who made that choice. Much more than I can relate to the modern women who convince themselves they are leading a Disney life of “happily ever after.”

  6. One of the reasons Christians redefined marriage circa 1050 was the significant likelihood a powerful man would be murdered, since the wife and his property would go to the levirate husband. We certainly see this borne out in the story of the Queen of the Lamanites with respect to her second documented marriage.

    I believe MacBeth murdered the husband of Lady MacBeth in a particularly gruesome manner, and was well-known to have done so. Yet as he was the powerful individual capable of taking on the kingdom, she was forced to become his wife.

    Margaret of Scotland was particularly influential in getting the levirate laws modified, as (I believe) she feared her husband (King Malcolm McDuncan III) would be murdered to curry favor with the next man who would be king. The man poised to assume Malcolm III’s throne was his son, therefore Margaret’s stepson. The historical tidbits indicate the stepson was infatuated with his father’s young wife–in fact the stepson wouldn’t marry until after Margaret’s death, when he was roughly fifty years old.

    I suppose my point with this historical tidbits is that there doesn’t appear to be much problem with women accepting subsequent husbands or men desiring the wives or property of other men.

    I won’t comment on what people think today, because the widows and second husbands can opine for themselves. My first marriage ended due to constructive desertion, so I have never experienced internal conflict about the matter of my current husband’s relationship to my children. Though no one has ever suggested I bother sealing my child(ren) from my first marriage to my second husband. Despite the failure of my first marriage, the child(ren) from my first marriage is/are born in the covenant, and that seems to be sufficient. I leave it to God to make any adjustments He feels necessary.

  7. Another fascinating entry in this series. One thing is very obvious about Joseph’s personality: he always seemed to want to see the best in people until the evidence was overwhelming. I have often puzzled over how Bennett could worm his way into the highest echelons of power in Nauvoo.

  8. Meg,

    I fell behind, but this is excellent stuff! This clarified several things for me about the start of polygamy that I think I was still confused on.

    I can understand your skepticism, but you should keep in mind that the idea of Celestial marriage was mighty new to the Mormons of that day, 100% of which were converts or children of converts. So they very likely had no concept of marriage in the afterlife at all until plural marriage was revealed. Having babies with a man they aren’t married to in the afterlife would have been the total norm, I’d think. I’ve suspect that’s perhaps some of the men who let Joseph be sealed to their wives didn’t see it as all that threatening because of this. They never had eternal expectations for their marriages to begin with.

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