“A Traitor or a True Man,” chapter 38 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 38: “A Traitor or a True Man”
Steady rain pelted the streets of Independence, Missouri, on the evening of May 6, 1842. At home, Lilburn Boggs finished his dinner and settled into a chair to read the newspaper.1
Although his term as the governor of Missouri had ended more than a year earlier, Boggs was still active in politics and was now running for an open seat in the state senate. He had made enemies over the years, and his election was hardly certain. Besides criticizing him for issuing the extermination order that drove thousands of Saints from the state, some Missourians were displeased with the governor’s aggressive handling of a border dispute with Iowa Territory. Others raised questions about the way he had raised funds for a new state capitol building.2
As Boggs glanced at the headlines, he sat with his back to a window. The evening was cool and dark, and he could hear the faint patter of the rain outside.
At that moment, unbeknownst to Boggs, someone stole silently across his muddy yard and aimed a heavy pistol through the window. A flash of light erupted from the barrel, and Boggs slumped over his newspaper. Blood flowed from his head and neck.
Hearing the gunshot, Boggs’s son rushed into the room and called for help. By then the shooter had tossed the weapon to the ground and fled unseen, leaving only footprints in the mud.3
While investigators tried to track down Boggs’s shooter, Hyrum Smith was in Nauvoo investigating crimes of a different nature. In the early weeks of May, several women had accused Mayor John Bennett of appalling acts. In the presence of a city alderman, they told Hyrum that John had come to them in secret insisting that it was not sinful to have a sexual relationship with him as long as they told no one. Calling his practice “spiritual wifery,” John had lied to them, assuring them that Joseph approved of such behavior.4
At first, the women had refused to believe John. But he insisted and had his friends swear to the women that he was telling the truth. If he was lying, he said, the sin would fall squarely on him. And if they became pregnant, he promised that as a physician, he would perform an abortion. The women eventually gave in to John—and to a few of his friends when they came making similar requests.
Hyrum was horrified. He had known for a while that John was not the man of character he had first claimed to be. Rumors about John’s past had surfaced shortly after he moved to Nauvoo and became mayor. Bishop George Miller had been sent by Joseph to investigate the rumors and soon learned that John had a history of moving from place to place, using his many talents to take advantage of people.
George also discovered that John had children and was still married to a woman he had abused and cheated on for many years.5
After William Law and Hyrum had verified these findings, Joseph confronted John and rebuked him for his past wickedness. John had promised to reform, but Joseph had lost confidence in him and no longer trusted him as before.6
Now, as Hyrum listened to the women’s testimony, he knew something more had to be done. Together Hyrum, Joseph, and William drew up a document excommunicating John from the church, which other church leaders signed. Because they were still investigating the extent of John’s sins and hoped to settle the matter without creating a public scandal, they decided to withhold the excommunication notice.7
But one thing was certain: the mayor had become a danger to the city and the Saints, and Hyrum felt compelled to stop him.
John panicked when he learned about Hyrum’s investigation. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he went to Hyrum’s office and begged for mercy. He said he would be ruined forever if others learned he had deceived so many women. He wanted to talk to Joseph and make things right.
The two men stepped outside, and John saw the prophet crossing the yard to his store. Reaching for him, John cried out, “Brother Joseph, I am guilty.” His eyes were red with tears. “I acknowledge it, and I beg of you not to expose me.”
“Why are you using my name to carry on your hellish wickedness?” Joseph demanded. “Did I ever teach you anything that was not virtuous?”
“Did you ever know anything unvirtuous or unrighteous in my conduct or actions at any time, either in public or in private?”
“I did not.”
“Are you willing to make oath to this before an alderman of the city?”
John followed Joseph to his office, and a clerk handed him a pen and paper. When the alderman arrived, Joseph stepped out of the room while John hunched over a desk and wrote out a confession stating that the prophet had not taught him anything contrary to the laws of God.8 He then resigned his position as mayor of Nauvoo.9
Two days later, on May 19, the city council accepted John’s resignation as mayor and appointed Joseph to the office. Before he closed the meeting, Joseph asked John if he had anything to say.
“I have no difficulty with the heads of the church, and I intend to continue with you, and hope the time may come when I may be restored to full confidence and fellowship,” John said. “Should the time ever come that I may have the opportunity to test my faith, it will then be known whether I am a traitor or a true man.”10
The following Saturday, an Illinois newspaper gave an update on the Lilburn Boggs shooting. The former governor was still clinging to life, it was reported, despite the serious wounds to his head. Police investigations into the identity of the shooter had proved fruitless. Some people accused Boggs’s political rivals of pulling the trigger, but the newspaper argued that the Saints were behind it, claiming that Joseph had once prophesied a violent end for Boggs.
“Hence,” it declared, “there is plenty of foundation for rumor.”11
The report offended Joseph, who was tired of being accused of crimes he did not commit. “You have done me manifest injustice in ascribing to me a prediction of the demise of Lilburn W. Boggs,” he wrote the editor of the newspaper. “My hands are clean, and my heart pure, from the blood of all men.”12
The accusation came when he had little time to defend himself publicly. He was in the middle of a weeklong investigation into John Bennett’s actions.13 Day after day, the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, and Nauvoo high council listened to the testimonies of John’s victims. As they told their stories, Joseph discovered how much John had distorted the laws of God, making a mockery of the eternal covenant relationships Joseph had been trying to forge among the Saints.
During the hearings, he heard the testimony of Catherine Warren, the widow of a victim of the Hawn’s Mill massacre. As a mother of five children, she was desperately poor and struggling to provide for her family.
Catherine said John Bennett was the first man to take advantage of her in Nauvoo. “He said he wished his desires granted,” she told the high council. “I told him I was not guilty of such conduct and thought it would bring a disgrace on the church if I should become pregnant.” She gave in to him after he had lied to her, telling her that church leaders approved of it.
Soon some of John’s friends had also used the same lies to take advantage of her.
“Last winter I became alarmed at my conduct,” Catherine told the high council. When she learned that Joseph and other church leaders did not sanction what John was doing, she decided to speak out against him. Joseph and the high council listened to Catherine, continued to fellowship her, and excommunicated the men who had deceived her.14
When the investigation concluded, John received his official excommunication notice as well. Once more, he begged for mercy and urged the council to handle his punishment quietly. He said the news would break his aging mother’s heart and surely kill her with grief.15
Like Hyrum, Joseph was repulsed by John’s sins, but with accusations about the Boggs shooting hanging over the Saints, and newspaper editors eager to find scandal in Nauvoo, he and other church leaders acted cautiously to avoid drawing attention to the matter. They decided not to publicize John’s excommunication and waited to see if he would reform.16
Still, Joseph worried about the women John had deceived. It was not uncommon for communities to cruelly ostracize women they perceived to be guilty of sexual misconduct, even when the women were innocent of wrongdoing. Joseph urged the women of the Relief Society to be charitable and slow to condemn others.
“Repent, reform, but do it in a way to not destroy all around you,” he counseled. He did not want the Saints to tolerate wickedness, but he did not want them to shun people either. “Be pure in heart. Jesus designs to save the people out of their sins,” he reminded them. “Said Jesus, ‘Ye shall do the work which ye see me do.’ These are the grand key words for the society to act upon.”
“All idle rumor and idle talk must be laid aside,” Emma agreed. Yet she mistrusted quiet discipline. “Sin must not be covered,” she told the women, “especially those sins which are against the law of God and the laws of the country.” She believed in bringing sinners to light to prevent others from making the same errors.17
Joseph, however, continued to handle the matter privately. John’s past behavior showed he tended to withdraw from a community after he was exposed and stripped of authority. Perhaps, if they waited patiently, John would simply leave town on his own.18
The Relief Society met for its tenth meeting on May 27, 1842, near a grove of trees where the Saints often went for worship services. Hundreds now belonged to the organization, including Phebe Woodruff, who had joined a month earlier with Amanda Smith, Lydia Knight, Emily Partridge, and dozens of other women.19
The weekly meetings were a time for Phebe to set aside the concerns of her busy life, learn about the needs of the people around her, and listen to sermons prepared specifically for the women of the church.
Often Joseph and Emma spoke at the meetings, but on this day Bishop Newel Whitney spoke to the women about the blessings the Lord would soon give them. Having just received the endowment, Bishop Whitney urged the women to stay focused on the work of the Lord and prepare to receive His power. “Without the female, all things cannot be restored to the earth,” he declared.
He promised them that God had many precious things to bestow on the faithful Saints. “We must lose sight of vain things and remember that the eye of God is upon us. If we are striving to do right, although we may err in judgment many times, yet we are justified in the sight of God if we do the best we can.”20
Two days after Newel’s sermon, Phebe and Wilford climbed the bluff to the unfinished temple. As a family, they had endured hardships, including the death of their daughter Sarah Emma while Wilford was in England. Now they were more settled than they had ever been since their marriage, and they had welcomed two more children into their family.
Wilford managed the Times and Seasons office, which provided steady work so he could support their family. The Woodruffs lived in a modest home in the city while building a new brick home on land south of the temple. They had plenty of friends to visit in the area, including John and Jane Benbow, who had left the large farm in England to gather with the Saints.21
Still, as Bishop Whitney had taught, the Saints had to keep striving to do right, engaging in the work of the Lord and avoiding distractions that would lead them astray.
More and more the temple was becoming crucial to keeping that focus. Descending to its basement, Phebe entered the baptismal font on May 29 and was baptized for her grandfather, grandmother, and great-uncle.22 As Wilford immersed her in the water, she had faith that her kindred dead would accept the restored gospel and make covenants to follow Jesus Christ and remember His sacrifice.
John Bennett was still in Nauvoo two weeks after he learned of his excommunication. By then the Relief Society had warned the women in the city about his crimes and fervently condemned the kind of lies he had spread about church leaders.23 More unsavory information about John’s past had also surfaced, and Joseph realized it was time to announce the former mayor’s excommunication and publicly expose his grave sins.
On June 15, Joseph published a short notice of John’s excommunication in the Times and Seasons.24 A few days later, in a sermon at the temple site, he spoke plainly to more than a thousand Saints about John’s lies and exploitation of women.25
John stormed out of Nauvoo three days later, saying the Saints were unworthy of his presence and threatening to send a mob after the Relief Society. Unfazed, Emma proposed that the Relief Society put together a pamphlet that denounced John’s character. “We have nothing to do but fear God and keep the commandments,” she told the women, “and in so doing we shall prosper.”26
Joseph published an additional indictment against John, detailing the ex-mayor’s long history of deviance. “Instead of manifesting a spirit of repentance,” Joseph declared, “he has to the last proved himself to be unworthy of the confidence or regard of any upright person by lying to deceive the innocent and committing adultery in the most abominable and degraded manner.”27
John, meanwhile, rented a room in a nearby town and sent bitter letters about Joseph and the Saints to a popular newspaper in Illinois. He accused Joseph of a host of crimes, including many that he himself had committed, and wove wildly false and exaggerated stories to support his claims and cover his sins.
In one letter, John accused Joseph of ordering the May shooting of Lilburn Boggs, repeating the story from the newspaper that the prophet had foretold Boggs’s violent death and adding that Joseph had sent his friend and bodyguard Porter Rockwell to Missouri “to fulfill prophecy.”28
The Saints could see lie after lie in John’s writing, but the letters fed a fire that was already burning among their critics in Missouri. After recovering from the attack, Boggs had demanded that his would-be assassin be brought to justice. When he learned that Porter Rockwell had been visiting family in Independence at the time, Boggs accused Joseph of being an accomplice to his attempted murder. He then urged Thomas Reynolds, the new governor of Missouri, to request that Illinois officials arrest Joseph and send him back to Missouri for trial.29
Governor Reynolds agreed, and he in turn demanded that Thomas Carlin, the governor of Illinois, treat Joseph like a fugitive from justice who had fled Missouri after the crime.30
Knowing that Joseph had not been to Missouri since escaping the state three years earlier, and that there was no evidence of his involvement in the shooting, the Saints were outraged. The Nauvoo City Council and a group of Illinois citizens who were friendly to the Saints immediately petitioned the governor not to arrest Joseph.31 Emma, Eliza Snow, and Amanda Smith traveled to Quincy to meet with the governor and personally deliver a Relief Society petition in support of Joseph. Governor Carlin listened to their entreaties, but he ultimately issued warrants for Joseph and Porter anyway.32
A deputy sheriff and two officers arrived in Nauvoo on August 8 and arrested the two men, charging Porter with shooting Boggs and Joseph with being an accessory. Before the sheriff could take them away, however, the Nauvoo City Council demanded the right to investigate the warrant. Joseph had been charged falsely before, and the Nauvoo charter granted the Saints power to protect themselves against abuses of the legal system.
Unsure if the council had the right to question the warrant, the sheriff delivered Joseph and Porter over to the city marshal and left town to ask the governor what he should do. When he returned two days later, the sheriff searched for his prisoners, but they were nowhere to be found.33