A Mormon “Detective Story”

[The following is a guest post written by a friend of Mormonism Research Ministry – a former Mormon who wishes to remain anonymous to keep family peace.]

I’m submitting for your consideration a “detective story” from my family history that raises more serious questions about Joseph Smith and polygamy.

SHolmesIt starts with my uncles – devout Mormons – doing their Church-mandated genealogy and discovering that one of our ancestors was Joseph Ellis Johnson, a close friend of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and brother to two of Joseph Smith’s polygamous wives, Delcena and Almera Johnson.  The Johnson family was considered Mormon royalty in the 1800s and still is today.  My family proudly announced the fact, although discreetly because up until last year Joseph Smith’s polygamy was still being denied by Church leaders.  Nevertheless, members of their ward spread the word of our lineage in hushed tones and more than a little envy.  We were proud.

After a couple years, our family history quickly descended from pride to one shocking discovery after another.  First, one of the uncles discovered that Joseph Ellis Johnson admitted to a church court presided over by Brigham Young that he had committed adultery with one of the wives of future church prophet Lorenzo Snow and fathered her child.  Surprisingly, both Lorenzo Snow and Brigham Young forgave him, and Snow released his wife from her vows so that she could marry Johnson.  It’s something of a “Camelot” story, with Snow as King Arthur, Johnson as Lancelot, Hannah Goddard as Queen Guinevere, and Brigham Young as Merlin the Great.  It was interesting, even poetic, but for us it was humiliating, too. [1] Those of us who knew about it kept it to ourselves.

This was shocking enough for my family, but their next discovery threatened to unravel not only the family but also the LDS Church itself.  The family has tried – successfully, so far – to keep it somewhat confidential, or, as they say, sacred.

Johnson stated during his church court hearing that he had witnessed Joseph Smith having sex with his mother-in-law Mary Heron Snider.  At first, my uncles assumed this to be just another of Joseph Smith’s plural brides, shocking enough at the time, but then they discovered that there is no LDS Church record whatsoever of Joseph Smith having ever married Mary Snider.  That terrible word, adultery, almost paralyzed them with fear.  Worse, they read that [during the hearing] neither Brigham Young, Lorenzo Snow, nor Ezra T. Benson registered any surprise or indignation, nor did they deny it or strike it from the record.  They simply forgave Johnson his adultery and ordered his re-baptism.   My uncles could see the high moral ground claimed by Joseph Smith disintegrating before them, possibly damaging the Church’s truth claims, and all because of our esteemed ancestor – a Johnson.

This changed everything.  Our genealogy became a “DaVinci Code” cluster of conspiratorial secrets; we all waited with bated breath to see if our discovery would become widely known; and worse, we wondered if the Church would be damaged by the disclosure that Joseph Smith was having sex not just with his plural wives but with other women, too.

Nothing for several years. Just a few obscure references.  So far so good.  Then it happened.  Wikitree published the story of Joseph Ellis Johnson committing adultery with Lorenzo Snow’s wife, with Brigham Young forgiving him and ordering his re-baptism.  Wikipedia published the story of Joseph Smith secretly committing adultery with Mary Heron Snider, who was not one of his plural wives. [2]   

Our terrible secrets were out.  Most of the family kept silent.  No longer did anyone boast about our royal Mormon heritage.  A few no longer bore their testimony about the divine mission of Joseph Smith. A few started reading non-Mormon blogs to see if the word would spread.  And none of us did any more genealogy.


1. “O. Hyde [speaking] there is a matter of bro: Johnson to be laid before the Council—this matter was brot before Council in Kanesville  his Priesthood was required to be laid down until he came here – a Miss Goddard wife of Lorenzo Snow became in a family way by Bro Johnson – she was living in his house – we deemed it improper for her to be there –  he sent her away to a retired place – she was delivered of a child – she is again living at his house in Kanesville – he wishes to retain his fellowship in the Church.  He says he has   bro: Snow & he was satisfied.

“Joseph E. Johnson [speaking] – I am come purposely if possible to get the matter settled & atone for the wrong I av done – I av neglected to lay it before you before this – bro Hydes statements r all correct – true – all I can do is beg for mercy – I became acquainted with the girl, & the consequences r as the r – I saw bro. Snow at Kanesville & he was satisfied – I am come here to atone for the wrong I av done.”

According to Johnson, he met with Apostle Snow to discuss the matter and says the Apostle (and future Prophet) “was satisfied.”  It goes beyond that, though, suggesting that this may have been a true Mormon pioneer love story that ended well.  Reports state that Lorenzo Snow relinquished his earthly claim on the pregnant Hannah Goddard and allowed her to marry her true love Joseph Johnson.   Joseph Ellis Johnson died on 17 December 1882 after an illness. He left behind three wives — Harriet Snider, Eliza Saunders, and his beloved Hannah Goddard.  He was the father of twenty-eight children.   At the time of the events in 1845, Hannah Goddard was 17; Joseph Ellis Johnson was 28; Lorenzo Snow was 31; and Brigham Young was 44.

Inventory of the Joseph Ellis Johnson papers, 1831-1964.

Misc Minutes, Brigham Young Collection, d 1234, CHL, Sept. 2, 1850, restricted; excerpts transcribed by D. Michael Quinn, bx 3 fd 2, Quinn Collection, Yale Library. This document is available on Richard E. Turley, Jr., Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Provo, Utah: BYU Press, vol. 1, DVD #18.

Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power.  Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997, p. 701.

2. From Wikipedia:

Johnson was a colorful figure in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In response to a presentation on plural marriage given by Brian Hales at a FAIR Conference in 2012, D. Michael Quinn wrote:

“Using a slang vulgarity for sexual intercourse, her [Mary Heron Snider’s] son-in-law Joseph E. Johnson privately told a group of devout Mormons in 1850: ‘He was familiar with the first frigging that was done in his house with his mother in law by Joseph.’ Johnson said this during a council meeting that was deciding whether to excommunicate him for impregnating one of Apostle Lorenzo Snow’s plural wives whom Johnson now wanted to marry. She loved him, not the apostle. A Church court in Kanesville, Iowa, had already decided that ‘his priesthood was required to be laid down [i.e., he was disfellowshipped] until he came here’ to Salt Lake City. I cannot take seriously the suggestion by Hales that this Church court’s official minutes misquoted Johnson’s words. First, by any reasonable logic, who would assume that any LDS clerk introduced a crudely sexual term into a non-sexual remark or into a remark that only implied sex? Second, by 1850, the LDS Church’s clerks routinely used stenographic shorthand to accurately record such meetings, especially when Brigham Young participated (as he did in this one).” [Read Quinn’s full response (pdf) here.]

Hales stated that he believes the Johnson account:

“I think he’s telling the truth. I believe it. I’m willing to make this assumption. But, the next assumptions you are willing to make are very important. Because if you assume there was no plural sealing, that Joseph is just involved with Mary Heron, without any kind of a marriage, then it’s adultery. If you want to assume there was a plural sealing and that she was also having conjugal relations with her legal husband, then it’s sexual polyandry and this is what Michael Quinn is promoting and believes happened.”

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
This entry was posted in Early Mormonism, Joseph Smith, Mormon History, Polygamy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to A Mormon “Detective Story”

  1. falcon says:

    Oh come on.

    How about, “It’s just sex!”
    How about, “Joseph Smith had been given that woman in the pre- existence.
    How about, “It all lies!” The enemies of the church are trying to destroy Joseph Smith.”
    How about, “It happened a long time ago.”
    How about, “I’ve known about that for a long time and it doesn’t effect my testimony one bit.”

    Right response? “I’m outta here!”

  2. Mike R says:

    The claim of Mormonism to be the original Christian church restored , as well as the very same gospel of salvation that Jesus’ apostles preached , those claims ring hollow when one looks into the history of Mormon polygamy . It’s no wonder why most Mormons are embarrassed about it .
    The Mormon people have been short changed by following latter days prophets not sent by Jesus —
    Matt 24:11

  3. Mike R says:

    The writer ( anonymous ) of this thread said about his family : ” A few no longer bore their testimony about the divine mission of Joseph Smith .”

    That’s good news . I pray that these individuals will come to see not only that the Mormon church is a false prophet led organization , but most importantly that they will hear the true gospel of salvation and respond to it by asking Jesus to save them . Finding out that Mormonism is not what it has claimed to be is a good thing , but finding the true Jesus and turning to Him alone for salvation is the best thing that can happen to the Mormon people .

    This family’s emotional struggles , because of what they found in Mormon history , is a sample of what multitudes of Mormons have discovered the last few years about certain truths in their church’s history , and aspects concerning Joseph Smith’s polygamy is one example .

    Mormon leaders have restricted access to the church history archives , as well as the contents of the First Presidencies private vault . Will they open these up fully ? If they claimed to have done this for their flock can Mormons really believe that ? More and more LDS are asking hard questions , and the church’s recent attempt in some Essays to finally give answers in a wide spread official way has been anemic .

    The rank and file members of the Mormon church are not the problem , never have been . The problem is their leaders . These men have detoured rank and file members to accept a counterfeit gospel created by them . By their inclusion of polygamy they altered the true gospel , and sadly that is only one example . Thus the kind of danger the Mormon people are in is ultra serious — Gal. 1:8

  4. falcon says:

    As a couple of you know, I’ve recently been involved in some back-and-forth on a very LDS sect type blog. One thing that fascinates me is how these folks love to pick apart Luther, the apostle Paul in an attempt to prove LDS Mormonism. It’s really a smoke screen, as far as I’m concerned, to ignore the things like that which are presented in the article we are now considering.
    These are people with intellectual horse power who are using it to frame Mormonism in a light which makes them feel comfortable. In the end, however, they have to ignore the man with the magic rock who had an insatiable sexual appetite. So much so that he didn’t even bother to get “sealed” to at least one woman before engaging in sex with her; as the article claims.
    But as I point out to the TBMs, it is absolutely no fun to have to consider these things. It’s much more fun to consider Luther or Calvin or some other theologian, try to find objections to their theology and in effect tag it all with “therefore the church is true”.
    It takes a lot of “faith” to ignore the facts in an attempt to maintain “faith” in the LDS program.

  5. falcon says:

    Well they are sending me to “delete” on that blog. It was fun, sort of, while it lasted. This is a type of Mormon(s) that I’ve only encountered a few times here on MC over the years. They don’t want to go any where near a story like the one in the article on this thread. They like to immerse themselves in deep philosophical conversations that go no where near the truth of Mormonism, it’s history, founder or doctrine. They do a total mind wipe, like in the movie “Men In Black, on things that really define Mormonism. It’s like it’s never happened or was just a bunch of silliness back then. All I can figure is that there must be a ton of social pressure for these folks to stay in the program; if they are willing to turn a blind on to what really defines Mormonism and define it themselves.

  6. Mike R says:

    falcon , you planted seeds and that is all you can really can do . The rest is the Holy Spirit’s ministry .

    Concerning Mormon polygamy , it’s sad how decent sincere people can fall for the slick salesmanship
    of prophets like those who run the Mormon church . Joseph Smith liked women and so to justify his longing for them he simply claimed God told him to pursue women and get them to marry him , that way his close associates would be afraid to stop him . But in the end it was Smith’s behavior that ended being the main reason for his untimely death .

  7. falcon says:

    I have a lot of sympathy (maybe) for a guy who’s a returned Mormon missionary, BYU grad., priesthood holder, married his sweet little honey who is now a Molly Mormon and who more than anything wants a forever family, all of his friends are LDS, family LDS as far as you can see, boss is LDS, the guys whole life is Mormonized.
    BUT he can’t swallow Brigham Young style Mormonism and is beginning to set a lot of things troubling things on the Mormon shelf. So he has to find someway to survive and maintain a modicum of personal integrity. So what does he do? He turns LDS intellectual.
    He finds a group of guys who have a philosophical/theological bent and they start nuancing Mormonism. He totally ignores the troubling history of the sect and develops his own version. He even sounds smart, thoughtful and DEEP and gives a killer testimony at church with a shaky voice that makes old ladies cry.
    His wife is OK with it as long as he still wears a white shirt and black tie to church and doesn’t say or do anything to embarrass her.
    I wouldn’t want this guy’s life. Remember what Jesus said about putting anything before him? It really does come down to Jesus or the LDS church.

  8. Mike R says:

    I think you summed it up rather well .

    I was thinking about Mormon polygamy today , and I can’t help tipping my hat to those Mormon women who were fooled into following a false prophet ( Smith , Young etc ) and entered into a polygamous relationship . Those women were truly deceived and ended up experiencing a very difficult life unnecessarily ( and ” difficult” is an understatement ) .

    Today most Mormon women think that polygamy in their religion is a long dead issue . They’re in for a surprise because even today if they die their husbands can be sealed to another wife and have both women later in heaven eternally producing spirit babies with their husband and he will go on to become a heavenly father just like his Heavenly Father is today .

    Women in Joseph Smith’s day were fooled by his promises , and Brigham Young deceived even more women . But that’s what false prophets do .

    Mormonism is not the answer .

  9. Mike R says:

    I should have added that my respect for those Mormon women who were fooled into accepting a polygamous life is because despite the grueling hardship they lived they were mothers who cared for their children as best they could .

  10. grindael says:

    I did an article on this for Mormon Coffee last year. (May 2014) It can be found here.

  11. falcon says:

    Funny thing happened last night. After probably thirty years of intense involvement in study and Christian apologetics, I had my first Mormon missionaries waltz up my driveway. I talked with them for over an hour, until dark. The first 95% of the conversation went cordial enough but I guess I was just too persistent and had a mountain of information, because the lead “elder”finally played the “I don’t think we should attack other peoples’ religion” card. I said, “We’re just having a conversation here. If you think this is an attack you’re suffering from a persecution complex.”
    The point of all of this is that they had ended up at my place because I have a young acquaintance, who is LDS and we’ve had some back and forth on facebook. The missionaries were trying to shut me down. It was like two hit men from the Mormon mafia.
    I finally said to them, “It’s getting dark but before you leave I’d like to pray for you.” He replied, “We don’t want you to pray for us!” I said, “Well that’s fine but when you leave here I’m going to pray for you and will continue to do so in the days to come.”
    I was pretty wound-up when I went back in the house, woke up at 1:30 in the morning and prayed up a storm and have been processing this all day. The newbie missionary, I could tell, was touched and troubled by many things I said. The hardcore lead missionary just kept throwing things against the wall trying to get something to stick. He had to defeat me or look bad in the newbies eyes.
    I’d guess, because we don’t have many Mormons in the area, those who know me will really know me now as the word is spread not to have contact with me. I know this is one of the tactics of the LDS church in their failed attempts to stem the flow of people out of the church.

  12. Mike R says:

    Thanks for the reminder . Your articles are first rate .

    falcon ,
    If God did’nt think you would speak with those young men He would not have sent them to you .
    Seeds of truth were planted in their minds because you spoke with them . The Holy Spirit will do what He does best — convict them . Rest in that fact .

  13. falcon says:

    There’s a lot to this tale, but one thing is that God’s been drawing me again and again to the sixth chapter of Ephesians specifically Paul’s advice to put on the full-armor of God. I’m sure Paul drew his symbolism from the armor worn by the Roman soldiers/guards, of whom he was very familiar. I don’t think there was a random selection of the items he cites the soldiers wearing. (Ephesians 6:10-19)
    When he talks about shodding our feet with the with the preparation of the Gospel of Peace, I believe he was referring to a type of foot wear the soldiers put on. They had spikes in them to allow them to stand firm.
    In my encounter I did stand firm and I think this is what eventually got to the lead missionary. He was definitely agitated because I wasn’t budging off of a couple of points. One point was that they were acknowledging a Jesus different from who the Lord is and that I felt a duty an obligation to defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ against false gospels.

  14. grindael says:

    The last time I had any contact with Missionaries was in 2008. I’ve seen them around the city and outlying ‘burbs, but none have come to my door since then (and I have moved). I would relish the opportunity to speak with them.

  15. falcon says:

    It was quite an experience. It was fun watching the dynamics between the older, lead missionary and the trainee. I look for “tells” and the junior partner had several facial expressions that indicated to me he was hearing some things for the first time. I was up-front with them regarding my study of Mormonism and visits to Mormon sites. The leader of course wanted to know if I’d read the BoM. I told him it was a “fools errand”. I went on to explain in some detail that the only acceptable answer for them is that the BoM is true.
    I also hit on the various sects of Mormonism and specifically how the CofC handles the BoM. They’ve moved on since they give their membership the option of viewing it anyway they want. I doubt if these boys have run into anyone in this area who knows anything about Mormonism.
    I gave a detailed account of my testimony which has some pretty dramatic aspects, emphasizing the deity of Christ and his atoning work on the cross.
    I borrowed rick b’s line when they insisted they were Christians because they believe in Jesus. I said that if that’s true then I’m a Mormon. I stumped them and they didn’t know where to go with that. I also told them that one of us was right and one of us was wrong regarding who Jesus is, but we both couldn’t be right.
    Finally the leader did get frustrated with me. I was pretty wound up after the session and had to have a double hot chocolate. I woke up at 1:30 in the morning praying up a storm. I think God gave me a vision.
    I prayed that God would send out tremors to these MM and it would shake them to the core and resonate outward from them into their families, friends and church. I saw these big blocks made of rock falling ending up in a heap and a snake was crawling through the rubble. I get pictures like this occasionally and it generally is related to Mormonism. I’ll let others judge as to what is going on with these “visions”.

  16. RikkiJ says:


    Good work on engaging the missionaries. Blessings.

  17. RikkiJ says:


    Drop me a line if you’re free sometime. [email protected]

  18. Pingback: Joseph’s Wives: Mary Heron & Clarissa Reed | The Millennial Star

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