Lot and his family fled Gomorrah based on a belief that it was a rotten place that God would destroy.
Various moderns have fled the LDS Church because they believe it is a rotten place (though it’s not always clear they think there is a God who cares to exact revenge on the Church, often taking up that task themselves).
One of the stories the disaffected love to tell is how rotten Joseph Smith was, portraying him as an abusive sexual addict. Given today’s headlines, one can only imagine such disaffected folks consider Joseph in the same class as abusers such as Harvey Weinstein and Dr. Larry Nassar.
(If you don’t know who Weinstein and Nassar are, you are possibly living in a cave and probably aren’t reading this anyway.)
The most effective arrow in this quiver has been the story spun around Josephine Lyon, daughter of Sylvia Sessions Lyon.
But I assert that the detractors have their story wrong. Now that I’ve had a chance to visit the Special Collections at the Family History Library, my conjecture has flesh.
Covenants: Conjugal or Not?
It is undisputed that Joseph Smith covenanted with many individuals other than his legal wife, Emma Hale Smith. It is undisputed that Joseph’s successor, Brigham Young, considered that such covenants ought to involve conjugal relations.
The reasonable inference was therefore that Joseph covenanted with women for the purpose of engaging in conjugal relations. However that inference is not more than inference.
Recently DNA evidence has allowed scholars to be certain that, in every case that has been tested, the children supposedly engendered by Joseph with a woman other than Emma are not, in fact, Joseph’s biological get.
For those who don’t want to believe anyway, this has persuaded some that Joseph was still having sex, but suppressed the evidence through various means, such as birth control, abortion, and dumb luck.
Sylvia Sessions [Lyon Clark] reported to family that she covenanted with Joseph Smith sometime after her husband, Windsor Lyon, was out of fellowship with the Church, which occurred in the latter part of 1842. In 1844 Sylvia gave birth to a daughter, Josephine.
When Sylvia was dying, she reportedly told Josephine that Joseph Smith was her father.
At face value, the story is simple. Based on only these facts, Sylvia appears to be telling Josephine that Joseph was her biological father.
However Phebe Clark Ellis, a daughter born to Sylvia in 1852, was also present, and wrote the confidence regarding Joseph Smith also applied to her. Phebe couldn’t have been Joseph Smith’s biological daughter. Further, Phebe writes about how she and her mother had discussed this special heritage in the past. 1
One of the questions that arises is why Phebe would have spoken of this covenant heritage with her mother while Josephine seemed ignorant of this fact until Sylvia’s death.
Looking at the Records
For years I have asked that people go to the Special Collections area at the Family History Library to look at the sealing records for Josephine and Phebe. I felt certain that there would be something that suggested a reason Phebe would have been told about her mother’s sealing to Joseph while Josephine was not told.
This past weekend I found myself in Utah. And so I took myself downtown to the Library.
As a matter of procedure, one can only gain access to the Special Collections area if one has a recommend from the bishop presiding over the area where you live (for active LDS members, a temple recommend suffices). With that and a government-issued picture ID, two Family History Librarians will remain present while you access records that are restricted for some reason.
First, I reviewed the record of the sealing of Marietta Holmes to Job Welling. That record is the reason I posit that children often only learned of their covenant relationship to Joseph Smith when they, themselves, married in the temple. I noted again how Job Welling’s name had been recorded as Wellings, with another hand marking out the terminal “s” and ‘No “S.”‘ written above Job’s name. Marietta’s name had been recorded as “Smith Marietta Holmes”, and above that name was written in another hand “Holmes, not Smith”. Wilford Woodruff was the one who officiated at Marietta’s sealing, a man aware of Nauvoo covenants.
Sealings in Utah during that time weren’t like today. There weren’t large groups of friends and extended family there to witness the event. The sealings took place in the relatively tiny Endowment House or an office of some member of the First Presidency.
In the case of Marietta’s sealing, it appears a perturbed Marietta went back to Farmington and demanded of her parents how it was that she was considered a “Smith.” There are several records that appear to arise from that time, when the family and neighbors were told a simplified version of Nauvoo events that was deemed sufficient.
Looking up Josephine’s sealing record, she was sealed to John Fisher on 2 Mar 1869 by Daniel H. Wells, with David Evans and W. W. Phelps as witnesses. Josephine had married John Fisher on 15 Aug 1863, so her sealing lagged her original marriage by many years. None of those participating in the ceremony were privy to information about Nauvoo covenants at the time they took place.
Looking at Phebe’s sealing record, she and her full-blood sister were sealed to their respective husbands on the same day, 31 Jan 1870. The officiator was Daniel H. Wells again, but this time the witnesses were Joseph F. Smith and W. W. Phelps.
Joseph F. Smith, by 1870, was actively involved in compiling affidavits to prove that Joseph covenanted with women other than Emma. Joseph F. Smith hoped to thereby prove that his cousins, Joseph Smith Jr.’s sons, were wrong to reject the LDS Church and the covenants performed in the temple. Therefore Joseph F. Smith would have been very likely to talk with Sylvia’s daughters about what they might know about their mother’s covenant with Joseph Smith.
Joseph F. Smith would prepare two affidavits for Sylvia’s signature, but it appears she declined to sign either. The date of Sylvia’s covenant with Joseph Smith is usually taken from the drafted affidavit that indicates that she covenanted with Joseph in the early portion of 1842. But as Sylvia never signed that affidavits and told her daughters the covenant took place after Josephine’s father was out of fellowship with the Church, the covenant seems not have taken place in early 1842.
Joseph F. Smith’s presence at the sealings of the Clark girls suggests that this may be where they initially learned about Sylvia’s covenant. The continuity of two individuals (Wells, Phelps) who were present at Josephine’s sealing may even explain why the family would know that Josephine had not similarly learned of her “special heritage” as a covenant child of Joseph Smith.
Sylvia’s concern that Phebe be acknowledged Joseph’s covenant child was so great that Phebe would approach Joseph F. Smith years later, having him stand as proxy for Joseph as the ceremony was formally performed to ensure Church records reflected what Sylvia felt was the case.
Why Does This Matter?
The Relief Society had been formed on 17 March 1842. On 30 March 1842 the society was reminded that “one principle object of the society was to purge out iniquity.”
But by June the person believed to be the root of that iniquity, Dr. John C. Bennett, had been evicted from the Church and Nauvoo. Enraged, Bennett accused Joseph Smith of vile misconduct in newspaper articles that would be reprinted throughout the United States and which would echo through time to our current day.
On 31 August, 1842, Joseph explained to the Relief Society, “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs I am charged with doing.”
A hint regarding what the wrong might have been can be gleaned from a subsequent comment from that day, “If you know anything, hold your tongues, and the least harm will be done.”
Instead of being a libidinous seducer, it seems Joseph Smith may have felt his wrong was in failing to detect the initial corruption. Certainly in 1844 he would suggest that his wrong by that time included allowing some (e.g., the Higbees) additional time after 1842 to repent.
It makes a difference if Joseph was “wrong” by not detecting evil for a mere six months, given that he thereafter acted with urgency to purge that evil. Joseph was no Cardinal Bernard, spending decades covering up sexual abuse. Joseph exposed the primary sinner(s) and denied the insufficiently repentant access to privileges, as when Sister Nyman was denied accession to Relief Society in 1842.
Nor was Brigham Young a Cardinal Bernard. Where Joseph forgave multiple times, Brigham was quick to excommunicate any who persisted in error after Joseph’s death. Not only were sexual relations outside of covenants punished, by the latter 1840s incorrectly administered covenants resulted in punishment of both the officiator (e.g., Henry Jacobs) and the man who had entered into wrongfully administered covenants (e.g., W. W. Phelps). 2
Many of the disaffected will state that plural marriage itself was sinful. Yet the LDS view can been seen in George Q. Cannon’s response to the ruling in Reynolds v. United States, where he stated:
Our crime has been: We married women instead of seducing them; we reared children instead of destroying them; we desired to exclude from the land prostitution, bastardy and infanticide. 3
Plural marriage served to allow all women who wished a way to honorably bear children within a covenant family, giving each woman who wished a husband with whom they could share their life’s burden. Under plural marriage there would be no reason for a woman to become so economically desperate that she must sell herself (prostitution). There would be no reason for a man to deny any child he had engendered (bastardy). There would be no reason for a woman to be so ashamed of her pregnancy that she would consider terminating the pregnancy (infanticide).
Given the LDS belief in eternal marriage, plural marriage served to ensure no man’s wife would be put aside because of another wife was already sealed to a man. No child would become an eternal bastard because they were the child of a less-favored wife.
Minds aren’t changed in a single day. Those who despise past Mormon leaders will likely continue to do so. But we can move forward with respect for our past leaders, love for our disaffected fellows, and polite refusal to swallow damning and incorrect stories that have been told about our past.
- See “Phebe Jane Clark Ellis,” Carr Family Record and Journal, pp. 124-129, particularly p. 127, online 17 Jan 2018 at http://mormonpolygamydocuments.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Phebe-Clark-chapter.pdf. ↩
- For more information in the circumstances leading to the 1848 excommunication of Henry Jacobs and W. W. Phelps, see <a href=”https://www.millennialstar.org/zina-diantha-huntington-young-exploring-a-confusing-legacy/”>Zina Diantha Huntington Young – Exploreing a Confusing Legacy</a>. ↩
- Cannon, George Quayle, A Review of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Geo. Reynolds vs. The United States, Deseret News Printing and Publishing Establishment, Salt Lake City, Utah, p. 52. ↩