Sexual Morality in Old Mormon Nauvoo

Sexual morality in early 1840s Nauvoo, Illinois, the City of Joseph [Smith], was enough to make most people blush. John C. Bennett, who had for 18 months been a member of Joseph Smith’s inner circle and close confidante, left the Mormon Church in May of 1842. He subsequently exposed “Joe Smith as the seducer of single and married females” in a series of letters published in the Sangamo Journal (Springfield, Illinois) beginning in July of that year. In his second letter Mr. Bennett included an affidavit sworn out by Nauvoo resident Melissa Schindle:

SagamoJournal7.15.1842P2“8th. Mrs. Melissa Schindle, wife of Col. George Schindle. — I now proceed to give the affidavit of Mrs. Schindle, which is in the following words, to wit:

“State of Illinois,) ss. McDonough County.)

“Personally appeared before me, Abraham Fulkerson, one of the Justices of the Peace in and for said county, Melissa Schindle, who, being duly sworn according to law, deposeth and saith, that in the fall of 1841, she was staying one night with the widow Fuller, who has recently been married to a Mr. Warren, in the city of Nauvoo, and that Joseph Smith came into the room where she was sleeping about 10 o’clock at night, and after making a few remarks came to her bed-side, and asked her if he could have the privilege of sleeping with her. She immediately replied NO. He, on the receipt of the above answer told her it was the will of the Lord that he should have illicit intercourse with her, and that he never proceeded to do any thing of that kind with any woman without first having the will of the Lord on the subject; and further he told her that if she would consent to let him have such intercourse with her, she could make his house her home as long as she wished to do so, and that she should never want for anything it was in his power to assist her to — but she would not consent to it. He then told her that if she would let him sleep with her that night he would give her five dollars — but she refused all his propositions. He then told her that she must never tell of his propositions to her, for he had ALL influence in that place, and if she told he would ruin her character, and she would be under the necessity of leaving. He then went to an adjoining bed where the Widow [Fuller] was sleeping — got into bed with her and laid there until about 1 o’clock, when he got up, bid them good night, and left them, and further this deponent saith not.

“MELISSA (her X mark) SCHINDLE. Subscribed and sworn to before me, this 2d day July, 1842.” (Sangamo Journal, July 15, 1842. See page 2, bottom of column 5.)

Given what history reveals about Joseph Smith’s character, this account isn’t hard to believe. But Joseph Smith was not the only man seeking “illicit intercourse” in 1840s Nauvoo.

Consider the experiences of the Widow Fuller herself. Born Catherine Laur in 1807, in due time she and Josiah Fuller married and had five children. The family lived near Haun’s Mill (Missouri) in 1838 and suffered through the Mormon War. Some accounts state that Josiah was killed in the Haun’s Mill Massacre, but FamilySearch records his death near Haun’s Mill five months later (April 3, 1839). At any rate, Catherine found herself a widow with five small children to care for. She made her way with the rest of the beleaguered Latter-day Saints to Nauvoo, Illinois, and, in the spring of 1842, married William Warren. But in the fall of 1841 Catherine was an unmarried widow who shared her bed, it is said, with the Prophet Joseph Smith – and others.

JohnCBennettIn May of 1842 Catherine Fuller Warren testified before the High Council, stating that several men of the Church had told her illicit sex was permissible as long as no one knew or found out about it. It was her understanding that this teaching originated with Joseph Smith. Catherine believed she was being taught the truth and so submitted. When she discovered this was a scam, she repented and confessed to having “unlawful connexion” with John C. Bennett 10-12 times, Chauncy Higbee 5-6 times, Joel S. Miller 2 times, George M. Thatcher 2 times, and once with non-Mormon Jacob Backenstos.

Catherine was not the only woman in Nauvoo to be seduced in this way. Five women confessed, yet there is reason to believe that many more women were approached and taken in by this teaching, a teaching being touted by multiple men in the city (see “Arraigning the Band of Brothers” by Meg Stout at The Millennial Star for more information on this topic).

Assuming the truth of this episode in Mormon history, the thing that jumps out at me is the gullibility of the women involved. These were Mormon women who were in Nauvoo to live their faith. Why did they believe and submit to men who told them something they should have known was untrue? They did know the suggested activity was “illicit,” that is, forbidden. Yet they engaged with the men anyway. Because they believed.

They believed in John C. Bennett, the Assistant President of the Church. Surely, as a Church leader entrusted with such great responsibilities and powers by the Prophet himself, the women must trust and obey what he taught them.

They believed in Joseph Smith. Apparently whatever he said was good and right in their eyes, even if it conflicted with what the Bible said, and even if it conflicted with what their religion taught publicly.

Isn’t this exactly how Mormonism was born, and how it has grown and thrived over nearly two centuries? Joseph Smith spoke, and people believed. They believed/believe, even though what Joseph Smith taught conflicts with what the Bible says. They believed/believe, even though what the Church teaches in-house at times conflicts with what it teaches publicly.

It is so easy to be deceived. That’s why God warns us again and again to beware; take heed; watch out. God tells us our spiritual safety lies in testing the prophets, trying the spirits, and searching the scriptures.

My friends, I echo the words of Jesus: “See that no one leads you astray.” (Mark 13:5)

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, Nauvoo and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Sexual Morality in Old Mormon Nauvoo

  1. falcon says:

    How would a true believing “chapel” Mormon react to this account? I think we all know. It would be labeled as all lies and an attack on God’s anointed prophet. It would be seen as an attack by Satan. Unfortunately, these folks (women) would be the first to hop into the sack with a general authority if he told them it was God’s will. When people out-source their decision making to those who they see as their spiritual guides, the out-come is predictable.
    Joseph Smith didn’t start this type of behavior in Nauvoo. It was there long before he created his religion. What his religion did for him was provide an avenue for him to pursue his sexual interests. By the time he was killed, he was a spree predator and totally out of control.
    The fall-back position for Mormons who can bring themselves to admit that Smith was a sexual predator, is to either call him a “fallen” prophet or say he was just a man BUT that doesn’t mean the BoM isn’t true or that the LDS church isn’t the one true church. Besides it all happened a long time ago and……………………………………………

  2. falcon says:

    What do people do when faced with the knowledge that someone in whom they have placed their trust, confidence, hopes and dreams was not just a regular run-of-the-mill sinner, but a reprobate reaching pathological proportions?
    We see what happens in families whose patriarch is exposed as having committed sexual sins with his own family members. It’s a strange psychological phenomenon that quite often the denial of other family members turns to condemning the ones upon whom the violation was committed. It’s just too difficult, emotionally, to face the reality of the perpetrators vial acts. There has to be an acceptable explanation.
    Joseph Smith set the tone for many of the men who were close to him. And it’s easy to see how those who have a proclivity for sexual sin would readily embrace the life style of their leader.
    It’s said that the three things that get people in leadership in trouble is money, sex and power. Joseph Smith had all three of these and it led to his eventual death at the hands of a mob. Not to in anyway excuse the murderous act of those who killed him, but it’s easy to see the Biblical admonition about reaping and sowing in his eventual demise.

  3. Brian says:

    John Taylor, in a lengthy address, once shared his view the monogamist:

    Their god is overlaid with gilt and tinsel, but inside it is pregnant with the social evil with its twin adjuncts feticide and infanticide. Like a great Moloch it is crushing out female virtue, trampling upon innocence, and prostituting and destroying millions of the fair daughters of Eve. Yet this loathsome, filthy, debauched, degraded monster is held up for our veneration and worship by its corrupt Christian devotees as the essence of everything that is great and grand, noble and praiseworthy … . Shall we worship this unnatural, lascivious Moloch? Shall we bow down before the shrine of this fetid, corrupt and debauched monster? (Journal of Discourses, 23:36)

    To John Taylor, monogamy was “the Christians’ idol.” Who do you suppose gave John Taylor this idea? Certainly this was not from God, who designed marriage as it is in the Garden of Eden. Likely this idea was from Joseph Smith.

  4. falcon says:

    Come on Brian!
    Give it up. That was a long time ago. Besides it wasn’t really sex in the conventional sense. It was spiritual connecting. It had to do with being a soul mate. There was no physical contact. It’s really deep stuff and has to do with the pre-existence……..or something.

  5. historybuff says:

    Although Mormons can deny some of the allegations of adultery by Church leaders, they can’t deny the fact that Joseph Smith himself was an adulterer, since the Church has admitted as much.

    Even worse, Joseph married two 14-year-old girls and the wives of other men.

    And worse yet, if that’s possible, Joseph chose to lie about, and to do so in a false scripture:

    “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy; we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.” 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, C1, p. 251 (1835).

    If that’s not enough to confuse present-day LDS, perhaps they should consider that Joseph’s lies have been continually repeated to them for 170 years by Church apostles and prophets, stake presidents, bishops and other local LDS leaders. While it’s true that many LDS will continue to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to consider the facts, doing so requires them to willingly deny the truth in matters of God, and they will hopefully some day realize that denying the truth is a sin in the eyes of God. John 8:32

  6. MJP says:

    History, but doesn’t a lie repeated enough become truth?

  7. falcon says:

    Joseph Smith and his boys exercised little if any control over their sexual urges. This is especially true with Smith. Not only that but he used religion and his position of power to seduce female members of his sect. God’s Word says that we are to walk by the Spirit and we won’t carry out the desires of the flesh. That’s basic as is to crucify the desires of the flesh.
    But there is sin, as I wrote above, then there is behavior that borders on if it isn’t out right pathological. What do you call an adult male who seduces a couple of 14 year old girls. That’s called a pedophile. Denial by LDS true believers can go just so far. They ought to wake-up and see their prophet and early leaders for who they are.
    The answer is to come out of Mormonism and into the arms of the Lord Jesus Christ.

  8. historybuff says:

    MJP —

    That’s what the LDS leaders had obviously hoped for, but the Internet eventually got in the way. The truth escaped and spread gradually, and now they have to deal with it.

    “Truth advances, and error recedes step by step only; and to do to our fellow men the most good in our power, we must lead where we can, follow where we cannot, and still go with them, watching always the favorable moment for helping them to another step.” — Thomas Jefferson

  9. historybuff says:

    Many Mormons defend the Church’s practice of polygamy with underage girls by pointing at Islam and the Prophet Mohammed’s polygamy and a sexual relationship with a nine-year-old girl. Mormons argue that Muslims accept this as historical fact ( ) and they revere Mohammed. They argue that we should be open-minded and simply accept the idea of polygamy while revering Joseph Smith, just as Moslems do with Mohammed.

    This comparison with Mohammed and Islam has not gone unnoticed by scholars. This from the LDS journal DIALOGUE:

    “In interpreting Joseph Smith’s revelation on polygamy, Wilhelm Wyl
    explained that “the prophet needed a religious mantle to cover his sins and
    quiet Emma.” He then compared the incident with a timely revelation
    permitting Muhammad to marry the wife of his adopted son. “In the
    case of both Mohammed and Joseph Smith,” said Meyer, “the sensuality of
    their lives grew continually stronger, and . . . the means for satisfying it
    actually appeared as divine commands.” Indeed, Charles Mackay
    remarked that “Joseph appears .. . to have had as great a penchant for a
    plurality of wives as Mahomet himself.” , p. 51.

  10. Mike R says:

    Sharon posed a important question concerning the women mentioned above : why were they so easily fooled , duped , into committing sexual sins ? Another question is why did women accept polygamy to be a new gospel ordinance of the true gospel ?

    Many people have been fooled by the slick salesmanship by men claiming to be latter days prophets , as a result they accept whatever the prophet says because the prophet has convinced them that to doubt or reject the prophet’s “new light” is to invite God’s displeasure and possible judgement . This is a scenario that has played out too many times ,from the time of the advent of Mormonism right up to recent times . Persons who join the Mormon church are taught to rely on feelings to confirm a new teaching / behavior by their leaders . This feeling is referred to with phrases like ” an inner witness ” or a ” spiritual witness ” . It’s a criteria that makes it easier to be misled by latter days false prophets , and the Mormon people are living proof of that fact . No doubt the women Sharon mentioned above relied on their feelings to confirm that it was God’s will for them to do what they did . Mormon women were also fooled into entering polygamy because of trusting in a feeling . If only these women would have put the main emphasis on evaluating a new teaching / behavior by testing it with the what the apostles taught which Jesus appointed to preach His gospel — 1Jn 4:1 .That could have prevented them from being fooled .

    A few years ago I watched a program on the National Geographic Channel which was about a group of people who followed a prophet named Michael Travesser . they lived in New Mexico . This latter days prophet told some teenage girls that he needed to gather 7 virgins , he proceeded to convince them to lie naked in a big bed with him and not be ashamed , they said they all felt closer to God by the experience . A reporter interviewing the group was able to find out the girls ages and discovered that two of them were underage . Mr Travesser was surprised to learn that and then quickly excused his act as being only a testing of the girls faith etc . In the program he also said that he had told a married woman that God wanted him to have sex with her , she agreed , and her husband was not unaware of the prophet’s request .

    Latter days false prophets : some are worse than others , but all have one thing in common — the all were not sent/ appointed by God as His messengers despite their claims to be such . They all sooner or later fail the test the apostle John recommended to his flock to prevent them from being fooled by false prophets , and that test is still valid for today , for obvious reasons . — 1Jn 4:1

  11. MJP says:

    When I think of Paul’s admonition against floating in faith as if waves on an ocean, I think of Mormonism. What does that thought have to do with the article above? Mormonism is so wishy washy and vague that it is so easy to deceive people. All they have to do is have faith that their leaders are correct and everything will be fine. Don’t think, trust, they are seemingly taught.

    The leadership avoids specifics and always leaves room to adjust. And the lay membership is supposed to believe and obey, striving to follow the rules.

    Christians they say follow the rules and ideas of men and have a faith, Mormons say, based on empty acts and unverifiable. Our faith to them is such that we can say we believe, go carouse with the rest of the world and call it good. They, Mormons emphasize, actually can demonstrate their true faith and are superior to traditional Christianity.

    All the while their faith was commenced by a man with huge propensity to sleep around and has many other ethical question marks. Their early leaders continued in the same way, and now the present leaders are forced to set aside these past actions without condemning their predecessors.

    It reveals that the Mormon ethic standards are not as high ass they would have everyone believe. As long as actions can be swept under the rug all is OK. At least they have the rules and discipline to show their love of Jesus…

    Of course, matters of the heart are secondary to that obedience and faith in the leadership…

  12. historybuff says:

    Wouldn’t you know it? Warren Jeffs is back in the news:

    “The elder Jeffs is serving a life sentence, plus 20 years, after he was convicted in 2011 of the aggravated sexual assaults of a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl who Jeffs claimed were his ‘spiritual wives’. ”

    Ironically, the same LDS who condemn FLDS “prophet” Jeffs for his “aggravated sexual assaults” of underage girls blissfully ignore the same offenses by Joseph Smith, even after the Mormon Church formally conceded that they actually occurred. Go figure.

  13. falcon says:

    So I’m back to wondering what the LDS folks do when they learn this information. The easiest thing is to deny it. Call it all lies against the prophet. The next is to excuse it, call it God’s will or some such thing. Next perhaps is to say that it doesn’t mean the LDS church isn’t God’s one true church.
    Bottom line is that it’s very difficult to give up a strongly held belief supported by emotion. This is especially true when the emotion is suppose to be a message from God.
    Let’s face it. It’s pretty tough to see Joseph Smith as this holy righteous prophet of God when we know how he behaved with the women in his church.

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