Joseph Smith and the small group of his trusted associates who had privately entered into plural marriages considered their relationships to be holy matrimony, sealed or confirmed by divine authority and approval. Joseph Smith’s 1843 revelation regarding plural marriage specified that he was the sole possessor of the authority for the performance of such marriages.1 However, as knowledge of the practice of plural marriage spread, it prompted counterfeit practices and abuse, such as John C. Bennett’s notion of “spiritual wifery.”2 Publicly addressing these dangers posed a significant challenge for Relief Society leaders in Nauvoo.
From the Relief Society’s first meeting, President Emma Smith emphasized the group’s responsibility “to watch over the morals— and be very careful of the character and reputation— of the members of the Institution.”3 As the practice of plural marriage slowly expanded, the Relief Society was drawn into disputes involving the gap between public pronouncements against “spiritual wifery” and the private practice of authorized plural marriage. In 1842 nineteen Relief Society members published a statement refuting Bennett’s claims that the church promoted a “secret wife system.”4 Over the next two years, more rumors of polygamy and “spiritual wifery” buzzed through Nauvoo and the surrounding area.
On February 26, 1844, a man named Orsamus F. Bostwick was brought before the mayor’s court in Nauvoo and fined for slander. Bostwick had claimed that Hyrum Smith had spiritual wives and that many women in Nauvoo were involved with “spiritual wifery,” promiscuity, and prostitution.5 Two days later, William W. Phelps, a printer who sometimes acted as Joseph Smith’s clerk and ghostwriter—and who also served as city clerk and assisted in keeping the church history—was “writing on O[rsamus] F Bostwick for women.”6 Whether “for women” means at the request of women or on behalf of women is not clear. Phelps’s document, titled “The Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo,” was then copied by Thomas Bullock, a clerk for Joseph Smith. “Voice of Innocence” gave Relief Society women a means for responding to insulting rumors and the allegations of Bostwick and others.
On March 7, in a public meeting at the Nauvoo temple before an audience of about eight thousand church members, Joseph Smith denounced Bostwick and asked the large assembly “to speak out. say whether such men should be. tolerated. and supported in our midst.” At this meeting, Phelps read aloud the “Voice of Innocence,” to which the assembly responded by saying “Amen” twice. During an afternoon continuation of that meeting, “notice was given for th[e] relief society to meet” the following Saturday to adopt the statement written by Phelps.7
At some point Emma Smith made some alterations to Bullock’s copy of the “Voice of Innocence”; that edited copy is used below as the featured text. On March 9, 1844, Smith read her slightly amended version at the first meeting of the Relief Society held that year. She spoke on the Bostwick controversy, and the assembled members of the Relief Society unanimously voted that they were “willing to receeve the princples of vurtue, keep the commandments of God, and uphold the Prestss in puting down iniquity.” Smith further expressed that her “determination was to do her Duty Effectully— in puting down transgresion.”8
Since the meeting room could not accommodate all the members of the Relief Society who wished to attend, Emma Smith presided over three more meetings—one on the afternoon of March 9 and two on March 16—that all approved the “Voice of Innocence.” On March 16 Smith denounced “J. C. Bennets [John C. Bennett’s] Spiritual Wife system” and exhorted Relief Society members to “cleanse thier hearts and Ears” and “throw the Mantle of Charity round to shield those who will repent and do so no more.” She called for a “reformation in boath men & woman.” By this point, Emma Smith opposed plural marriage as practiced by her husband and others in Nauvoo.9 She thus encouraged Relief Society members to follow the published statements of Joseph Smith and the church, as well as her husband’s teachings “from the Stand,” implying that they should abide by his public remarks against spiritual wifery rather than any private teachings regarding plural marriage.10
The version of “Voice of Innocence” amended by Emma Smith and read to the Relief Society was then published in the Nauvoo Neighbor on March 20, 1844, above the names of Emma Smith and Hannah M. Ells (secretary pro tem of the Relief Society). The article included a brief introduction that explained, “At four overflowing meetings of the Ladies of Nauvoo, Members of the Female Relief Society, (each meeting being composed of different members that all might have the opportunity of expressing their feelings) held at Gen Smith’s large assembly room on Saturdays the 9th and 16th of March 1844. The following preamble and resolutions were read and unanimously adopted at each meeting.”11
Publication of “The Voice of Innocence” possibly fanned the flames of the swelling firestorm over plural marriage in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith continued to be the subject of accusations from critics within and outside the church, some threatening legal action against him. On May 26, 1844, he addressed the Saints in a long sermon describing the hypocrisy of his traducers and noted that he “never had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses.”12
The Voice of Innocence
The corruption of wickedness which manifested itself in such horrible deformity on the trial of Orsemus F. Bostwick last week, for slandering President Hyrum Smith and the Widows of the City of Nauvoo, has awakened all the kindly feelings of female benevolence, compassion and pity, for the softer sex to spread forth the mantle of charity to shield the characters of the virtuous mothers, wives and daughters of Nauvoo, from the blasting breath and poisonous touch of debauchees, vagabonds, and rakes, who have jammed themselves into our city to offer strange fire at the shrines of infamy, disgrace and degradation; as they and their kindred spirits have done in all the great cities throughout the world: corrupting their way: on the earth, and bringing woman, poor defenceless woman, to wretchedness and ruin.
As such ignoble blood now begins to stain the peaceable habitations of the Saints, and taint the pure air of the only City in the world that pretends, to work righteousness in Union, as the sine qua non, for happiness, glory and salvation: and, as such ungodly wretches, burning or smarting with the sting of their own shame, have doubtless, transported with them; some of the miserable dupes of their licentiousness, for the purpose of defiling the fame of this goodly city: mildewing the honesty of our mothers: blasting the chastity of widows and wives, and corrupting the virtue of our unsuspecting daughters, it becomes US in defence of our rights, for the glory of our
mothers13 fathers; for the honor of our Mothers; for the happiness of our husbands; and for the well fare of our dear children, to rebuke such an outrage upon the sanctity of Society; to thwart such a death blow at the hallowed marriage covenant: and to ward off such poisoned daggers from the hearts of our innocent daughters, for blast them of <for the honor of> Nauvoo; and write in <with> indellible Ink, upon every such villain: Vitare perditoris!14 Beware of the Wretch! and, so put in every virtuous woman’s hand a rod, to scourge such tormentors of domestic felicity, with vengeance through out the world: Curse the man that preys upon female virtue! Curse the man that slanders a woman: Let the righteous indignation of insulted innocence, and virtue spurn him from society; Let the dignity of the Mother’s of Israel kick the blood thirsty pimp from the pale of social communion. Let the widows and wives who tread in the foot steps of their queenly mother Eve, drive such fag ends of creation, as was Cain, to the Land of Nod,15 and let the timid daughters of Nauvoo, dread such [p. ] Canker worms16 more than the pestilence that walketh in darkness, and spurn <shun> them as the serpent on the land and the shark in the Sea. My God! My God! is there not female virtue and valor enough in this City to let such mean men die of the rot:— that the Sexton may carry their putrid bodies beyond the limits of the City for food, for Vultures and Eagles? Refuse them female courtesy: deny them the pleasure of family correspondence and family intercourse: curse the Woman that speaks to such rotten flesh <if she knows who they are>: Curse the man that will harbor them; and Curse the Lawyer that will stoop from the dignity of his profession, to plead for them: The Apologer is as mean as the Murderer!
Female virtue is a pearl of great price,17 and should glitter in the abodes of men; as in the Mansions of bliss for the glory and honor of him, whose image she bears and whose help meet she is, and every attempt of man to seduce that virtue, is, next to murder, a robbery that cannot be restored. If woman swerves from the rules of righteousness:
“Ruin ensues, reproach and shame;
And one false step bedims her fame.
In vain the loss she may deplore
In vain review her life before;”
With tears she must in anguish be
Till God says, “Set that captive free”.18
Many of the distinguished females of Nauvoo, have waded to their present habitations through persecution, sorrow, and death, robbed and
ravished <insulted>, and bereaved of husbands and children by the combined powers, of priests and spiritual wickedness in high places,19 but none of these piercing calamities of man touch the heart of woman with such severe poignancy, as the envenomed Slander of O. F. Bostwick. that “he could take a half bushel of meal <obtain his vile purposes> and get what accommodation he wanted20 with almost any woman in the City”21
Wo to the Wretch that can thus follow the blood stained Mobbers of Missouri, in their hellish career, and
dreul <deal> his slander about the streets of Nauvoo, as he may imagine with impunity! Wo to the Man, or Lawyer, that filthifies himself by ( licking that dreul as he attempts to) advocate<ing> such <the> a rotten hearted raven’s rights, <or recommend him to the Sympathies of any being but Satan>22 to the sympathies of any being but Satan! [p. ]
Has any man a Mother in this City? honor says, clear such rubbish from her door:
Has any man a Wife? benevolence whispers trap such beasts of the field that they may not wrong the flock, nor kill the lambs. Has any Man a Widowed Mother? humanity seems to caution him—thy Mother is in danger, protect her, from the Stench of such Carrion! Has any Man, Daughters? the voice of reason compels him to exclaim: There is a Wolf in the path, Beware! Has any Man, Sisters? the blood of his kindred says, evil be to him that evil thinks:23 and Let the whole virtuous female population of the City, with one voice, declare that the Seducer of female Chastity, the Slanderer of Female Character, or the Defamer of the Character of the Heads of the Church or the canker worms of our husband’s
heaven, <peace;>24 the prostitute, or their pimps, whether in the character, of elites lawyer, doctor, or cisisbeo,25 shall have no place in our houses, in our affections, or in our Society.
Resolved unanimously that Joseph Smith, the Mayor of the City, be tendered our thanks for the able and manly manner in which he defended injured innocence in the late trial of O.F. Bostwick for slandering president Hyrum Smith “and almost all the women of the City.”
Resolved unanimously that we view with unqualified disapprobation and scorn the conduct of any man or woman, whether in word or deed, that reflects dishonor, upon the poor persecuted mothers, widows, wives and daughters of the Saints of Nauvoo: they have borne aspersions, slanders and hardships enough: forbearance has ceased to be a virtue, and retaliation, like the “dagger or the bowl”26 ought to close the lips of such cowardly
Resolved unanimously that while we render credence to the doctrines of Paul, that neither the man is without the28 woman; neither is woman without the man in the Lord,29 yet we raise our voices and hands against John C. Bennett’s “Spiritual Wife System,” as a scheme of profligates to seduce women; and they that harp upon it, wish to make it popular for the convenience of their own cupidity: wherefore, while the marriage bed, undefiled is honorable, let polygamy, bigamy, fornication, adultery, and prostitution, be frowned out of the hearts of honest men to drop in the gulf of fallen nature, <“>where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched!<”>30 and <let> all the Saints say
Amen! [p. ]