Ms. Stout next tackles the meteoric but relatively brief history of John C. Bennett in the LDS church. In 1840 Bennett had attached himself to the LDS church in Nauvoo, helping to develop the city charter and using his charisma and persuasiveness to get it passed by the state legislature. Joseph Smith was so impressed by Bennett that he gave him a tremendous amount of civil and ecclesiastical authority, and Smith even adopted Bennett’s oratorical style and mannerisms. But who was John Bennett?
As before, Ms. Stout begins her discussion with a straw man:
There are two prominent views of John Cook Bennett.
Those who revere Joseph Smith tend to believe Bennett was a devilish scoundrel who told vicious lies about Joseph Smith.
Those who don’t much care about Joseph Smith tend to believe Bennett was a colorful individual who possibly told the truth about Joseph Smith.
This is a false dichotomy, as most historians put Bennett somewhere in the middle of the scale between scoundrel and truthful whistleblower, hence the title of Andrew Smith’s Bennett biography is The Saintly Scoundrel. Bennett, in his self-serving exposé of Joseph Smith and the Mormons, History of the Saints, portrays himself as an unbeliever from the start, dedicated to ingratiating himself with Smith and church leaders as a means of exposing the truth. Meg Stout posits an initially sincere believer who eventually “fell.”
However real people are not all good or all evil. I think of Bennett as someone who secured freedom for his adopted people and could have been one of the greatest leaders of the Mormon movement. Allow me to explain how a believing and honorable Bennett could have fallen.
But I’m not going to focus on Bennett here entirely, as what is far more interesting is the contrast between the way Stout deals with evidence against Bennett and how she dismisses similar, if not stronger, evidence regarding Joseph Smith.
First of all, let’s look at Bennett’s sincerity. In discussing Joseph Smith, Ms. Stout takes everything he says at face value, even when it conflicts with compelling evidence to the contrary. Bennett, however, gets the opposite treatment:
Bennett’s 1842 exposé History of the Saints claimed he had never believed. But Bennett in 1842 was a wounded man full of rage, driven to hurt Joseph Smith in any way possible.
However I urge you to consider the possibility that Bennett was honestly impressed with the goodness of the people he had decided to save. Bennett’s past was littered with events of which a man might reasonably wish to repent. For a moment, let us consider that his decision to be baptized in October 1840 was sincere, despite his obvious political motivations.
It’s fine to consider a possiblity, but Ms. Stout gives us no reason to do so. Now, as before, Ms. Stout takes this speculation and interprets every subsequent event assuming that the speculation has become fact.
If Bennett was truly converted …
Perhaps a penitent Bennett thought his relinquished past could remain a secret.
It could be that Bennett was aware of how much Joseph was willing to forgive. … If Joseph could forgive the deadly treachery of W. W. Phelps, why need Bennett confess of politically inconvenient facts from the past?
In Ms. Stout’s world, then, by March of 1841, Bennett was a sincere, repentant believer, determined to leave his sordid past behind him. But it eventually caught up with him. Sometime after Bennett’s association with the church became public, Joseph Smith received a letter informing him of Bennett’s having committed adultery and having abandoned his still-living wife. Nothing is known about whether Smith confronted Bennett with this information, but, as we’ve seen before, that doesn’t stop Ms. Stout:
I imagine Joseph’s conversations with Bennett gently probed the past before Joseph took the step of commissioning an investigation. This would be the first point after baptism when Bennett could have come clean and retained Joseph’s trust. However Joseph remained concerned enough that he sent George Miller to look into the accusations.
On March 2, 1841, Miller reported back that he had substantiated the claims. Once again we have no information as to whether Joseph confronted Bennett at this time, either, but Ms. Stout forges ahead:
Joseph would have talked with Bennett again after receipt of George Miller’s March 2nd letter. The text of the letter is damning, so Bennett must have done something to retain Joseph’s good will. It’s even possible Bennett didn’t overtly lie.
Again we have an imagined conversation with nothing behind it but Ms. Stout’s hunch, but she goes further in telling us what she imagines the contents of the conversation were:
Why would an honest Bennett allow Joseph to reach a wrong conclusion? The key may have been love. Joseph would later accuse Bennett of having courted a woman under false pretenses. Bennett could have confessed to feckless behavior before his baptism without significant damage. But he could not admit he was still married and hope to continue courting his newly beloved.
Even if Joseph wasn’t ready to censure Bennett openly, Bennett had clearly kept important information hidden. Assuming the young woman Bennett had been courting was known to Joseph, he could easily have put her on her guard against Bennett. Bennett was persuaded to leave the homestead around May, hinting that the young woman in question was a frequent visitor to or intimate of the Smith homestead.
I wouldn’t blame readers for getting a little lost here, but let’s try to sort this out. In the July 1, 1842, edition of the LDS newspaper Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith wrote of Bennett:
He had not been long in Nauvoo before he began to keep company with a young lady, one of our citizens; and she being ignorant of his having a wife living, gave way to his addresses, and became confident, from his behavior towards her, that he intended to marry her; and this he gave her to understand he would do. I, seeing the folly of such an acquaintance, persuaded him to desist; and, on account of his continuing his course, finally threatened to expose him if he did not desist. This, to outward appearance, had the desired effect, and the acquaintance between them was broken off.
Smith’s statement is problematic for a number of reasons, but it’s germane here because, in the previous section, Ms. Stout had identified the young woman in question as Annie Elvira Cowles. I’m assuming this will become important later, but so far it’s just speculation based on speculation. More speculation follows:
Despite Joseph’s likely misgivings, Joseph defended Bennett when Thomas C. Sharp attacked Bennett’s character in May.
Again, we don’t know if Smith had “likely misgivings,” but Ms. Stout proceeds as if her supposition is factual. She continues:
It appears Bennett’s next lodging was the home of Sarah Pratt, wife of apostle Orson Pratt. Sarah was a young woman and mother, and was likely emotional about her husband being gone on a foreign mission. Later reports alleging Bennett and Sarah were intimate early on could have arisen from professional treatment of her “hysteria.”
Here she relies on testimony from Stephen and Zeruiah Goddard, with whom Sarah Pratt stayed in October 1840. They swore an affidavit that Bennett was with Sister Pratt every night but one during that month. This testimony is clearly false, as Bennett was in the state capital that month, working for passage of the city charter. Indeed, Sister Pratt later claimed that the Goddards told her they were forced to sign the affidavits to “save” Joseph and the church.
Stout then states as a fact that Bennett and Pratt “became fully intimate”:
Bennett was later reported to have claimed “Sarah Pratt made a first rate go.” I imagine Bennett was heartbroken at being cut off from his beloved. Sarah was likely still anxious about the absence of her husband, Orson. The professional treatment for hysteria in Bennett’s day was vulvar massage, something we would see as intensely sexual. Bennett and Sarah Pratt lived in the same house, a house not nearly as crowded and public as the Smith homestead where Bennett had been living. It is little wonder that the two lonely adults ended up in bed together.
Here we see the double-standard by which Stout applies evidence. Firsthand testimony from Joseph’s wives that they were sexually intimate with him is dismissed as “euphemisms” and outright lies. Corroboration from people who said Joseph retired to bed with a woman is dismissed because no one actually saw them having sex. But with Bennett, a secondhand report that “Sarah Pratt made a first rate go” is taken as absolute truth. Jacob Backenstos’s ambiguous statements that Bennett and Pratt seemed like husband and wife are also taken as proof of sexual intimacy, as are the clearly fabricated statements of the Goddards.
I do not know what transpired between Sarah Pratt and John Bennett. What matters here is that Meg Stout takes hearsay and demonstrably false testimony and accepts it as fact when it applies to John Bennett. But when dealing with Joseph Smith, she discards stronger, firsthand testimony because it doesn’t fit her narrative. This is dishonest, and it is not scholarship.
But let’s get back to the timeline. Apparently unsatisfied with George Miller’s report, Joseph confronted Bennett only after receiving further confirmation of Bennett’s past from Hyrum Smith. Here’s Stout’s take:
Joseph called Bennett in and tore into him. I believe it is during this discussion that Bennett confessed to his adultery with Sarah Pratt. 22
I’m leaving the footnote citation in because it’s illustrative. It reads:
22. Lorenzo Wasson, Emma Smith’s nephew, overheard the exchange but his summary doesn’t mention Sarah Pratt.
So, again, based on nothing, she asserts that Bennett confessed to adultery with Sarah Pratt.
Bennett begged Joseph to not openly shame him. Sarah was evicted from the house she had been granted and sent back to board with the Goddards. Bennett may have moved to a public house at this point. Certainly Joseph would not have brought Bennett back to the homestead.
Alone, disgraced, despairing, Bennett apparently took a lethal dose of medicine. I believe Bennett’s suicide attempt was sincere. But Bennett was discovered and his life saved.
Oddly, though, Joseph Smith did not make any of this public.
As angry as Joseph would have been at Bennett, he had compassion on the fallen man. As soon as practicable, Bennett was again involved in the duties of his offices. No mention was made publicly at this time of his abandoned wife and children, his shady past, or the adultery with Sarah Pratt.
Once again, Ms. Stout makes unsupported assertions. How do we know Joseph had compassion on Bennett? By this time, the anti-Mormon press had already suggested that it was common knowledge that Bennett was not a believer in Mormonism but had joined for personal gain. This would have been the perfect opportunity for Joseph to disavow Bennett, but he did not do so. Why, I do not know. I could as easily suggest that Bennett knew of Joseph’s marriage a few months earlier to Louisa Beaman and feared exposure, so he decided to keep quiet about Bennett’s problems. That makes as much sense as Meg Stout’s assertion, but at least I recognize mine is speculative and based on no evidence.
Next, she tells us, “By July Bennett was stripped of all real power. But few realized how hollow his positions were.” Without elaboration, it’s difficult to know what she means. But never mind, we’ll keep going.
In July Orson Pratt returned to Nauvoo after a successful mission to the Holy Land. Orson was perturbed to find his wife living as a tenant, without the level of support other missionaries’ wives were receiving. However no one told Orson at that time about Sarah’s infidelity. Orson re-established his household and looked to re-integrate himself into the excitement that was Nauvoo. Orson’s interest in founding a University led him to Bennett. When Orson learned of Bennett’s care for Sarah while Orson was absent, he insisted Bennett come live with them.
Again Ms. Stout assumes that Bennett’s alleged adultery with Sarah Pratt is established fact and was known in July 1841. Why? Because she believes that Bennett would have confessed to Joseph Smith. This baseless assertion leads to more wild speculation:
Bennett was forced to be friends with a man he’d cuckolded, forced to endure while that man enjoyed all the benefits of being back home. Bennett had to go through the performance of his duties knowing that Smith would never permit him any more opportunities for advancement. The woman he loved was in the city, forever in sight, but never to be his.
I’m trying to be polite, but this is beyond bizarre. But Meg Stout needs all of this to be true because she needs the sexual polygamy of Nauvoo to have originated with John C. Bennett, not with Joseph Smith. According to her narrative, Bennett’s first hint of polygamy came from an Joseph Smith made in the fall of 1841, at which Smith suggested that in countries were polygamy was practiced, the church might have to accept the practice.
After lunch the meeting reconvened, and Joseph recanted his words. But the sermon may have planted the seed of an idea in Bennett’s mind.
She doesn’t tell us why Joseph recanted, but it was Emma’s and other women’s strenuous objections over lunch that forced Joseph to back down. But for Stout, this is a seminal moment in that it gave the lecherous Bennett an excuse to sleep around with multiple women.
Bennett was apparently not alone. A small group of individuals came together over this idea. Some one or more of them was familiar with Jacob Cochran’s explosive teachings related to spiritual wifery. Bennett was an obvious individual to guide the group for good or ill. He could have called them all to repentance or asked Joseph to instruct them more perfectly in what he’d meant with his sermon about the Turks and Indians.
I submit that Bennett saw an opportunity to possess the one he desired. If he could convince her that it was right to sleep with someone who was not acknowledged as her husband before the world, he might taste the pleasure of her embrace. If he could convince her that it was right to be his secret, spiritual wife even though he was still legally married to another, he could have the joy of her devotion.
He could not risk approaching his beloved first, however. It needed to be bigger than him, something that neither his beloved or Joseph would see as the object of the group’s activities.
With luck Bennett would secure the heart and body of his beloved before Joseph discovered the matter. Joseph had forgiven men who had plotted to kill him. 28 Bennett himself had not suffered terribly even though he had bedded the wife of an apostle. What then if a few men tasted the pleasures of the fair ladies of Nauvoo, as long as it was done in secret without exposing those involved by unexplained pregnancies?
Surely, Bennett must have reasoned, Joseph would forgive.
More assertions and speculation without evidence. In a footnote, Ms. Stout explains her source for her unsupported assertions:
My midrashic view that Bennett could have fostered this scheme for the sole purpose of ensnaring the woman he had been courting is based on the 2002 DC Sniper. John Allen Muhammad created a cloud of shootings with the intent of hiding the intended murder of his wife. By the time John Allen Muhammad and his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, were apprehended, they had terrorized the capital of the United States for months, shooting twenty seven people, of whom seventeen died. John Muhammad had not yet gotten around to shooting his wife.
I will leave it here for now, as I don’t think that statement requires any commentary from me.