John C. Bennett

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John Cook Bennett was born on 3 August 1804 at Fairhaven, Bristol County, Massachusetts. He was the son of John Bennett and Abigail Cook. Throughout his lifetime he served as a physician (specializing in gynecology), minister, and poultry breeder. He was also “a ranking and influential—but short-lived—leader of the Latter-day Saint movement, who acted as second-in-command to Joseph Smith, Jr., for a brief period in the early 1840s.” [1]

Freemasonry, Religion, Military, and The Church of Jesus Christ

Mormon John C. Bennett

In 1808 Bennett moved to Marietta, Washington County, Ohio. In 1812 he moved back to his home state of Massachusetts, and then in 1822, he moved back to Marietta where he married Mary A. Baker on 9 January 1826. About 1827, he joined Pickaway Masonic Lodge in Circleville, Pickaway County, Ohio. At first he was affiliated with the Methodist faith, but later joined with the Christian Disciple (Campbellite) faith.

Bennett first became acquainted with Joseph Smith, the first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ, through Sidney Rigdon in the early 1830s. In 1831 he moved to Wheeling, Ohio County, Virginia (later in West Virginia), where in 1834 he was charged with lying and other misconduct by the Pickaway Masonic Lodge. He then moved to Fairfield, Wayne County, Illinois in 1838, and was commissioned Brigadier General of the Second Division in the Illinois Militia in 1839. In 1840 he relocated to Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois.

Although his earlier encounters with the Latter-day Saint community had left him unimpressed, he still wrote several letters to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois in which he expressed his strong desire to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ. One such letter [2] was dated 30 July 1840. He was baptized in September 1840 in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Life in Nauvoo, Illinois

Bennett helped to draft and secure the Nauvoo Charter in the Illinois legislature in 1840, for which he “garnered praise for his lobbying efforts on behalf of the Mormons from the young Abraham Lincoln” [3]. Greatly due to his efforts on behalf of the Mormons, and the long period of time he spent living in the Smith mansion in Nauvoo, Bennett was able to gain the favor of Joseph Smith, who promoted him to ever greater civic, as well as ecclesiastical responsibilities in Nauvoo. Thus, he was afforded an extremely eventful life in Nauvoo.

Served as quartermaster general in Illinois militia, 1840–1842. Elected major general and inspector general in Nauvoo Legion, Feb. 1841. Served as assistant president in First Presidency, 1841–1842; mayor of Nauvoo, 1841–1842; chancellor of University of Nauvoo, 1841–1842; and master in chancery of Hancock Co., 1841–1842. Grand Secretary of Nauvoo Masonic Lodge, 1841. Excommunicated for adultery, 11 May 1842. Cashiered from Nauvoo Legion, June 1842. Expelled from Nauvoo Masonic Lodge, 1842. After disaffection from church, publicly accused JS of committing adultery, attempting murder, and planning the 6 May 1842 attempt to kill former Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs. Urged Missouri and Illinois officials to renew 1838 charge of treason against JS, which resulted in JS’s arrest in June 1843. [4]
Eventually, however, rumors of adultery, homosexuality, unauthorized polygamy, and the performance of abortions emerged. While Bennett was mayor, he was caught in private sexual relations with women in the city. He told the women that the practice, which he termed "spiritual wifery," was sanctioned by God and Joseph Smith, and that Joseph Smith did the same. When discovered, he privately confessed his crimes, produced an affidavit that Joseph Smith had no part in his adultery and was disciplined accordingly. [5]

John Cook Bennett’s fall from Grace

Shortly after Bennett moved to Nauvoo in August 1840, Joseph Smith received a letter “from a person of respectable character” in Ohio who lived “in the vicinity where Bennett had lived” (“To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and to All the Honorable Part of Community,” Times and Seasons, July 1, 1842, 839). The letter warned Joseph and Church officials that Bennett was “a very mean man.” The letter further stated that Bennett, living under the guise of a bachelor, was indeed married and had a wife and children living in McConnelsville, Morgan County, Ohio. Joseph wanted to keep the matter quiet, however, after Bennett began dating a young lady in Nauvoo, Joseph had no choice but to confront him regarding the matter. At first, Bennett refused to end the relationship, but soon relinquished after Joseph threatened to expose him publicly (“To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and to All the Honorable Part of Community,” Times and Seasons, July 1, 1842, 839). Thus began the fall of John Cook Bennett.

Seeing that Joseph, at least, was suspicious of his marital status, Bennett took his amorous designs underground. Failing in his efforts to convince unsuspecting women that promiscuity “was a doctrine believed in by the Latter-Day Saints,” Bennett tried to convince them that “the authorities of the church”—including Joseph—“not only sanctioned, but practiced” it themselves. The argument proved to be an effective one, Joseph wrote, with Bennett eventually seducing several women “by the same plausible tale” (“To the Church,” Times and Seasons, July 1, 1842, 840). [6]

In July 1841, Joseph received a letter from his brother Hyrum and William Law providing further evidence that Bennett had a wife and children and that they had been maltreated by him. Bennett acknowledged that the contents of the letter were true, and then attempted to end his life by taking poison. His life was saved by an antidote; however, his character and demeanor were not even slightly altered by the incident. Having thoroughly reviewed the case and the evidence presented against him, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ, nine members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Presiding Bishopric withdrew the hand of fellowship from Bennett, and he was officially excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ on 11 May 1842. A few days later, William Law informed Bennett of the disciplinary action that had been decided upon by the Church leaders.

“He plead with me to intercede for him,” Law wrote, “assuring me that he would turn from his iniquity, and never would be guilty of such crimes again.—He said that if he were exposed it would break his mother’s heart—that she was old, and if such things reached her ears it would bring her down with sorrow to the grave” [7]

Moved by Bennett’s pleas, Law asked Joseph to “spare Bennett from public exposure, on account of his mother” (“Affidavit of William Law,” Times and Seasons, August 1, 1842, 873).

A similar scene played itself out shortly afterward on May 17, 1842, when Hyrum Smith learned of Bennett’s continuing perfidy, including evidence that he had promised to give his victims “medicine to produce abortions, providing they should become pregnant.” “On becoming acquainted with these facts,” Hyrum wrote, “I was determined to prosecute him, and bring him to justice.” Learning of Hyrum’s intentions, Bennett tearfully pleaded with Hyrum not to expose him, then asked Joseph for the same favor. “On account of his earnestly requesting that we would not publish him to the world,” Joseph wrote later, “we concluded not to do so at that time, but would let the matter rest until we saw the effect of what we had already done.”

Concerned with how Bennett had been using his name to convince men and women alike of the correctness of his actions, however, Joseph required Bennett at this time to make a sworn deposition to the effect that he, Bennett, had never known Joseph to teach or practice anything contrary to the highest standards of virtue. Bennett immediately repaired to city alderman Daniel H. Wells, where, in the presence of William Clayton, Hyrum Smith, and Wells, he “stood at the desk” and wrote “that he was never taught any thing in the least contrary to the strictest principles of the Gospel, or of virtue, or of the laws of God, or man, under any occasion either directly or indirectly, in word or deed, by Joseph Smith; and that he never knew the said Smith to countenance any improper conduct whatever, either in public or private;” and that Joseph had never taught him or anyone else that illicit relationships were, “under any circumstances, justifiable.” Joseph accepted the statement and agreed to keep silent. [8]

Bennett resigned as mayor the same day and also confessed his sins in the Nauvoo Masonic lodge later that afternoon. Two days later – the day Joseph Smith was elected as Mayor – Bennett made a similar confession to the city council. In his confession of misdeeds he had committed, he defended the honor of Joseph Smith and expressed a sincere desire to return to full fellowship with the Saints, stating that he looked forward to the time “when I may be restored to full confidence, and fellowship, and my former standing in the church.” [9]. He was later subsequently exposed as being expelled from the Pickaway Masonic lodge in Ohio. After a considerable amount of deliberation on the matter, Bennett was expelled from the Nauvoo Lodge “and from all the privileges of Masonry” based on substantiated evidence to support the accusations against him for seduction, adultery, using Joseph Smith’s name to justify immoral acts, perjury, embezzlement, and seducing a master mason’s wife.

John Cook Bennett Betrays Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ

After Bennett left Nauvoo in May 1842, he claimed he had been the target of an attempted assassination by Nauvoo Danites, who were disguised in drag. He soon became a bitter antagonist of Joseph Smith and the Latter Day Saint church, reportedly even vowing to drink the blood of Joseph Smith, Jr. In 1842, he wrote a scathing exposé of Joseph Smith, entitled The History of the Saints; or, An Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism, accusing Smith and his church of crimes such as treason, conspiracy to commit murder, prostitution, and adultery. Through his newspaper writings and book, Bennett appeared to encourage Missouri's June 1843 attempt to extradite Smith to stand trial for "treason." Ironically, Smith escaped extradition, albeit narrowly, by virtue of the powerful Nauvoo charter, of which Bennett was a principal author in 1841.
In the fall of 1843 Bennett visited George M. Hinkle, a Mormon who was excommunicated after surrendering Joseph Smith to the Missouri Militia in 1838. Bennett's subsequent letter to the editor of the Hawk-Eye and Iowa Patriot describing the Mormon "Doctrine of Marrying for Eternity" is the first of his writings that discusses eternal marriage, as compared to the free love/spiritual wife doctrine he previously accused Joseph of practicing, where sexual relations weren't in the context of committed marriage. It is unclear whether Bennett learned of eternal marriage from Hinkle or from correspondents inside Nauvoo. [10]

Doctrine and Covenants 124:16-17 and John Cook Bennett

In modern day scripture, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 124:16-17 are these words:

Again, let my servant John C. Bennett help you in your labor in sending my word to the kings and people of the earth, and stand by you, even you my servant Joseph Smith, in the hour of affliction; and his reward shall not fail if he receive counsel.
And for his love he shall be great, for he shall be mine if he do this, saith the Lord. I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue, and will crown him with blessings and great glory.

A careful study of this revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith at Nauvoo, Illinois on 19 January 1841 will reveal that the blessing to be bestowed upon Bennett was a conditional blessing. The small word “if” is used three times. In comparing Doctrine and Covenants 124:15, it is revealed that the blessing bestowed upon Joseph’s brother, Hyrum Smith, was unconditional. The Lord said that He loved him “because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me.” Nothing similar was mentioned in Bennett’s blessing. It seems that the Lord was willing to use Bennett to serve His purposes, and then once those purposes were fulfilled, it was up to Bennett to either confess his misdeeds and turn from his sins, or fall, as he did.

John Cook Bennett’s Later Life

Bennett has been accused of having a part in Smith's murder, but, as his biographer Andrew F. Smith states, “Based on the extant evidence, Bennett appears to have had no influence on the events that unfolded in Carthage during June 1844" [11]

Following the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Bennett returned briefly to the Mormon faith. He first joined with Sidney Rigdon and then with James Strang. He became a member of the “Strangites” who had founded a break-off Mormon community on Beaver Island in Michigan. Bennett was influential in introducing the practice of polygamy into the community. Not long after he was convicted of more charges of sexual misconduct, and eventually left the Strangite community and Mormonism.

Bennett also commanded a company for the Union in the Civil War. He is also credited with noting the health benefits of the tomato as early as 1835, and was considered a pioneer in the use of chloroform as an anesthetic, publishing his findings in 1848. He was also the creator of several breeds of chicken to include the Plymouth Rock fowl which he exhibited in Boston in 1849. From 1830 through 1846 Bennett worked to establish institutions of higher learning. Many of said institutions were Medical Colleges. However, it was soon discovered that he was “selling diplomas,” and today only one institution remains of which Bennett had any connection.

John Cook Bennett left behind an extensive body of letters and published works on his various endeavors, including two books, History of the Saints, and The Poultry Book.