Emma Smith and Others, Statement, October 1, 1842

Emma Smith, Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Sarah M. Cleveland, Eliza R. Snow, Mary C. Miller, Lois Cutler, Thirza Cahoon, Ann Hunter, Jane Law, Sophia R. Marks, Polly Z. Johnson, Abigail Works, Catharine Petty, Sarah Higbee, Phebe Woodruff, Leonora Taylor, Sarah Hillman, Rosannah Marks, and Angeline Robinson, Statement, Times and Seasons (Nauvoo, IL), Oct. 1, 1842, vol. 3, no. 23, p. 940.

See image of the original document at lib.byu.edu, courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

The statement on marriage featured below was part of an effort by Latter-day Saints to counteract the growing influence of John C. Bennett in late 1842. Bennett, who joined the church in 1840, served as mayor of Nauvoo and as a member of the church’s First Presidency during 1841 and into 1842. He was excommunicated from the church in May 1842 on the charge of adultery.1 As John Taylor recalled, Bennett and others “got an inkling” of Joseph Smith’s private teachings on plural marriage and “made use of some of those principles to corrupt to destroy not only himself but others.”2

Bennett, in turn, accused Joseph Smith of fraud, murder, and liaisons with “clandestine wives.” In July 1842, not long after the Times and Seasons published notice of Bennett’s excommunication—and reprinted affidavits regarding his deceptions and immoral activities3—Bennett’s first attacks on Smith and the church began appearing in the Springfield, Illinois–based Sangamo Journal. By the autumn of 1842, his “disclosures” had been widely published in newspapers in the United States. With a book-length exposé at press, Bennett also began delivering lectures on “The Secret Wife System at Nauvoo.”4

Refuting Bennett’s assertions regarding “secret wives” presented those church members who knew about Joseph Smith’s plural marriage in Nauvoo, including some Relief Society members, with a dilemma: how to openly refute Bennett’s false claims without acknowledging or explaining the practice of plural marriage in a public setting. Bennett’s highly visible lectures in New York and the pending publication of his exposé made a public refutation imperative.5 Even before Bennett’s public attacks began, Emma Smith had proposed to the Relief Society on June 23 that “a Circular go forth from this Society, expressive of our feeling in reference to Dr. Bennett’s character.”6 Latter-day Saints answered Bennett’s accusations through a variety of channels, including petitions to the Illinois governor7 and missionaries sent out specifically to counter Bennett’s influence.8

In addition, church members responded in the October 1, 1842, edition of the Times and Seasons. The newspaper printed a copy of a statement on marriage from the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants: “We declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”9 This was followed by a statement signed by leading Mormon men that refuted Bennett’s claims as “foul and infamous slander upon an innocent people.”10

The same issue of the Times and Seasons also published a similar statement signed by nineteen prominent members of the Nauvoo Relief Society, perhaps related to Emma Smith’s earlier call for such a statement, in which the women distanced themselves from Bennett’s activities and accusations. This document, which is reproduced below, illustrates the complex situation in refuting Bennett’s claims, in that at least three of the undersigned women had firsthand experience with plural marriage: Eliza R. Snow was sealed to Joseph Smith on June 29, 1842, in the presence of Sarah M. Cleveland, and Elizabeth Ann Whitney was present on July 27, 1842, when her daughter Sarah Ann Whitney was sealed to Smith.11 It is unclear when Emma Smith learned of the plural wives Joseph Smith married in Nauvoo, though she knew of some of them by spring 1843.12

In signing the statement on marriage, these women who knew about plural marriage likely differentiated in their minds between what they saw as an inspired system of marriage, commanded by God, and Bennett’s practice of unlicensed bigamy or polygamy, which they believed manipulated innocent women to serve men’s baser desires.13 Eliza R. Snow later wrote, “At the time the sisters of the Relief Society signed our article, I was married to the prophet— we made no allusion to any other system of marriage than Bennett’s— his was prostitution, and it was truly his, and he succeeded in pandering his course on the credulity of the unsuspecting by making them believe that he was thus authorized by the Prophet. In those articles there is no reference to divine plural marriage. We aimed to put down its opposite.”14

We the undersigned members of the ladies’ relief society, and married females do certify and declare that we know of no system of marriage being practised in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints save the one contained in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants,15 and we give this certificate to the public to show that J. C. Bennett’s “secret wife system” is a disclosure of his own make.

Emma Smith, President,

Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Counsellor,

Sarah M. Cleveland, Counsellor,

Eliza R. Snow, Secretary,

Mary C. Miller,

Catharine Pettey [Petty],

Lois Cutler,

Sarah Higbee,

Thirza Cahoon,

Phebe Woodruff,

Ann Hunter,

Leonora Taylor,

Jane Law,

Sarah Hillman,

Sophia R. Marks,

Rosannah Marks,

Polly Z. Johnson,

Angeline Robinson,

Abigail Works.

Cite this page

Emma Smith and Others, Statement, October 1, 1842, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, accessed May 27, 2024 https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-1/1-6