For those of you who regularly read my blog, I'm sure you have wondered if I still exist, considering I haven't posted a new article in about a year and a half. Well, I'm still alive and hope to get back to putting up more articles defending Joseph. Thank you for being so patient in my posting absence.
Several years ago I posted a blog article entitled, “Did Joseph Smith, Jr. make improper advances toward Sarah Pratt?” According to John C. Bennett's accusations against Joseph, which were printed in the Wasp Extra (July 27, 1842) and the Sangamo Journal (July 15, 1842), while Sarah Pratt's husband, Apostle Orson Pratt, was in the British Isles (between 1839 and 1841 according to Wikipedia), Joseph propositioned her to be his polygamous wife and she flatly and indignantly refused him. When Joseph III visited Utah in 1885, he interviewed Sarah Pratt to find out from her directly (a primary source) if Bennett's accusations were true. The essence of my previous blog post was to relate Sarah's interview as recorded by Joseph III (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III [1832-1914], 226). Her statement to him indicated that Joseph Smith Jr. never made such a proposition to her, which refuted Bennett's 1842 accusations.
However, since the time of my previous article, I've read portions of the book Mormon Portraits, by Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal, published in 1886 by Salt Lake City Tribune Printing and Publishing Company. This is an “exposé” on Mormonism with a volume dedicated to the subject of ”JOSEPH SMITH, THE PROPHET, HIS FAMILY AND FRIENDS.” In this volume is recorded Wymetal's interview with Sarah Pratt regarding her relationship with Joseph Smith Jr. and her comments about her interview with Joseph III a year earlier when he visited her in Utah. It seems that Sarah Pratt's statement to Wymetal was totally different than what Joseph III reported. In addition, her statement to Wymetal about her relationship to Joseph Smith Jr. corroborated John C. Bennett's statements printed in the Wasp Extra (July 27, 1842) and the Sangamo Journal (July 15, 1842). On the surface this gives credibility to her statement to Wymetal that Joseph Smith Jr. propositioned her and brings doubt as to the truthfulness of her statement to Joseph III.
The purpose of this blog post is to determine which of Sarah Pratt's statements are true—the one given to Wymetal or the one given to Joseph III. However, before we can honestly analyze the truthfulness of her statements, we need to discuss the probability that either Wymetal or Joseph III lied about what Sarah Pratt told them. Wymetal had "no dog in the fight" so to speak. He was a disinterested party. As a freelance reporter for various newspapers, the story that Joseph Smith Jr. was innocent of propositioning Sarah Pratt would have been as newsworthy, if not more so because of popular belief, as the one he actually reported. Based on no real motive to lie, I have to believe Wymetal actually reported what Sarah Pratt told him.
On the other hand then, did Joseph III lie? Some would say that he certainly had motive to do so. However, I don't believe he did. Having an RLDS background, some might think that I’m biased to believe Joseph III, and maybe I am. But if I am, it is because he was known in my church, as well as the community, as a man of impeachable integrity and honesty. His belief about polygamy was that it was wrong, even if his father had practiced it. While he hoped that his father hadn’t done so, the point of his many investigations about his father’s activities was to find the truth. Because Joseph III’s religious beliefs didn’t rest upon whether or not his father was a polygamist, he was open to any evidence proving his father guilty of polygamy. I believe that if Sarah Pratt told him—after some intense cross-examination to get to the truth—the same story that Wymetal reported, Joseph III would have relayed it exactly as she told it. The fact that he always sought the truth about his father is the reason I believe he correctly reported what Sarah Pratt told him. Thus, I believe both men accurately reported what Sarah told them. They didn't change her story—she did!
So here are her conflicting stories.
Sarah Pratt's statement to Wymetal
According to Wymetal, Sarah Pratt gave her interview to him in 1885 and 1886, which was over 40 years after her alleged incident with Joseph Smith Jr. He quoted her as saying, "'I want you to have all my statements correct in your book,' said the noble lady, 'and put my name to them; I want the truth, the full truth, to be known, and bear the responsibility of it'" (Mormon Portraits, 60). Her statement in Wymetal’s book about her relationship with Joseph Smith Jr. is as follows:
When my husband went to England as a missionary, he got the promise from Joseph that I should receive provisions from the tithing-house. Shortly afterward Joseph made his propositions to me and they enraged me so that I refused to accept any help from the tithing-house or from the bishop. Having been always very clever and very busy with my needle, I began to take in sewing for the support of myself and children, and succeeded soon in making myself independent. When Bennett came to Nauvoo, Joseph brought him to my house, stating that Bennett wanted some sewing done, and that I should do it for the doctor. I assented and Bennett gave me a great deal of work to do. He knew that Joseph had his plans set on me; Joseph made no secret of them before Bennett, and went so far in his impudence as to make propositions to me in the presence of Bennett, his bosom friend. Bennett, who was of a sarcastic turn of mind, used to come and tell me about Joseph to tease and irritate me. One day they came both, Joseph and Bennett, on horseback to my house. Bennett dismounted, Joseph remained outside. Bennett wanted me to return to him a book I had borrowed from him. It was a so-called doctor-book. I had a rapidly growing little family and wanted to inform myself about certain matters in regard to babies, etc., -- this explains my borrowing that book. While giving Bennett his book, I observed that he held something in the left sleeve of his coat. Bennett smiled and said: “Oh, a little job for Joseph; one of his women is in trouble.” Saying this, he took the thing out of his left sleeve. It was a pretty long instrument of a kind I had never seen before. It seemed to be of steel and was crooked at one end. I heard afterwards that the operation had been performed; that the woman was very sick, and that Joseph was very much afraid that she might die, but she recovered.
Bennett was the most intimate friend of Joseph for a time. He boarded with the prophet. He told me once that Joseph had been talking with him about his troubles with Emma, his wife. “He asked me” said Bennett, smilingly, “what he should do to get out of the trouble?” I said, “This is very simple. GET A REVELATION that polygamy is right, and all your troubles will be at an end.”
You should bear in mind that Joseph did not think of a marriage or sealing ceremony for many years. He used to state to his intended victims, as he did to me: “God does not care if we have a good time, if only other people do not know it.” He only introduced as marriage ceremony when he had found out that he could not get certain women without it. I think Louisa Beeman was the first case of this kind. If any woman, like me, opposed his wishes, he used to say: “Be silent, or I shall ruin your character. My character must be sustained in the interests of the church.” When he had assailed me and saw that he could not seal my lips, he sent word to me that he would work my salvation, if I kept silent. I sent back that I would talk as much as I pleased and as much as I knew to be the truth, and as to my salvation, I would try and take care of that myself.
In his endeavors to ruin my character Joseph went so far as to publish an extra-sheet containing affidavits against my reputation. When this sheet was brought to me I discovered to my astonishment the names of two people on it, man and wife, with whom I had boarded for a certain time. I never thought much of the man, but the woman was an honest person, and I knew that she must have been forced to do such a thing against me. So I went to their house; the man left the house hurridly when he saw me coming. I found the wife and said to her rather excitedly: “What does it all mean?” She began to sob. “It is not my fault,” said she. Hyrum Smith came to our house, with the affidavits all written out, and forced us to sign them. “Joseph and the church must be saved,” said he. We saw that resistance was useless, they would have ruined us; so we signed the papers. (ibid., 61-63)
Sarah Pratt's statement to Joseph Smith III
The statement made by Joseph III in his memoirs about what Sarah Pratt told him in his interview with her totally contradicts her statement to Wymetal. As quoted in my blog, “Did Joseph Smith, Jr. make improper advances toward Sarah Pratt?,” Joseph III stated:
The latter part of my conversation with her revolved around the matters I had had particularly in mind when I sought the interview. I asked her, "Sister Pratt, will you allow me to ask you some rather personal and delicate questions?"
"You may ask me any questions proper for a lady to hear and answer," she replied.
I assured her I would use no language a lady should not hear and did not wish to ask any improper question or one she might not answer in the presence of Doctor Benedict who was with me. But I told her I felt there were some which referred to my father and herself which only she could answer.
I asked her to consider the circumstances in which I was placed. I was the son of the Prophet; had been baptized by him; was a member, though a young one, at the time of his death, and thought that I had understood, in part at least, the principles the church taught and believed. But following his death certain things were said about him, his teaching and practice, which were at variance with what I had known and believed about him and about the doctrines he presented. Naturally I wanted to know the truth about these matters, for I assured her I would much rather meet here in this life whatever of truth might be revealed about those things, even though it were adverse to what I believed to be his character, than to wait until after I had passed to the other side and there be confronted with it and compelled to alter my position should such revealment prove I had been in error.
She told me to proceed and the following conversation took place.
"Did you know my father in Nauvoo?"
"Yes, I knew him well."
"Were you acquainted with his general deportment in society, especially towards women?"
"Did you ever know him to be guilty of any impropriety in speech or conduct towards women in society or elsewhere?"
"No, sir, never. Your father was always a gentleman, and I never heard any language from him or saw any conduct of his that was not proper and respectful."
"Did he ever visit you or at your house?"
"Did he ever at such times or at any other time or place make improper overtures to you, or proposals of an improper nature—begging your pardon for the apparent indelicacy of the question?"
To this Mrs. Pratt replied, quietly but firmly, "No, Joseph; your father never said an improper word to me in his life. He knew better."
"Sister Pratt, it has been frequently told that he behaved improperly in your presence, and I have been told that I dare not come to you and ask you about your relations with him, for fear you would tell me things which would be unwelcome to me."
"You need have no such fear," she repeated. "Your father was never guilty of an action or proposal of an improper nature in my house, towards me, or in my presence, at any time or place. There is no truth in the reports that have been circulated about him in this regard. He was always the Christian gentleman, and a noble man."
That I thanked Mrs. Pratt very warmly for her testimony in these matters my readers may be very sure. I had constantly heard it charged that my father had been guilty of improper conduct toward Elder Pratt's wife, and I had long before made up my mind that if I ever had an opportunity I would find out the truth from her. The result was very gratifying to me, especially as she had made her short, clear-cut statements freely, just as I have recorded, in the presence of Doctor Benedict.
It may be added that mingled with my pleasure was a degree of astonishment that such stories as had been told about her and her relations with Father should have gotten out and been so widely circulated and yet never met with a public refutation from her. However, I expressed my appreciation of her kind reception and her statements, and at the close of our interview, which lasted about an hour and a half, left her with good wishes.
Doctor Benedict and I passed from her presence into the street in a silence which was not broken until we had gone some distance. Then suddenly he stopped, pulled off his hat, looked all around carefully, and raising his hand emphatically, said:
"My God! What damned liars these people are! Here for years I have been told that your father had Mrs. Pratt for one of his spiritual wives and was guilty of improper relations with her. Now I hear from her own lips, in unmistakable language, that it was not true. What liars! What liars!"
Not a great while after this, just how long I do not know, Mrs. Pratt passed "over the river." I was glad that before she died I had her testimony, and that it had proved, as had been proved many times before, that such charges made against my father were untrue. (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III [1832-1914], 33-34)
Now about John C. Bennett and Sarah Pratt
Because Sarah Pratt's statement to Wymetal is so similar to John C. Bennett's published articles about Joseph and Sarah in 1842, it is impossible to evaluate the truth of her statement to him without briefly discussing Bennett's morality and veracity as well as his relationship with Sarah Pratt.
These two attributes of Bennett's character are well discussed in Chapter 7, Chapter 8, Chapter 11, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, and Chapter 16 of Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy—Volume 1 and I suggest a review of these chapters before continuing on. Regardless of an author's position on whether or not Joseph was a polygamist, most if not all will agree that John C. Bennett was a serial adulterer and liar. Thus, the fact that Sarah Pratt's statement to Wymetal was very similar to Bennett's published articles brings into question the truth of what she told Wymetal.
In addition, the truth of her statement to Wymetal is further called into question considering her relationship with Bennett. Both the chapter entitled “The Sarah Pratt Case” in Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy (Volume 2) and chapter 21 of Joseph Smith's Polygamy (Volume 1) by Brian C. Hales strongly indicate that Sarah Pratt and John C. Bennett had an extramarital affair during the time that Joseph supposedly propositioned Sarah. According to Hales, "evidence indicates that she and John C. Bennett experienced a sexual relationship while Orson [Pratt, her husband,] was in England. Joseph Smith intervened and was afterwards accused by Sarah of making an improper proposal" (Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy 1:235). Both sources indicate that there were several credible witnesses who made affidavits that Sarah and Bennett were having and extramarital affair. The evidence was strong enough to try them in Church court and find them guilty. John C. Bennett was expelled from the Church on May 11, 1842, for his affair with Sarah Pratt, as well as other sexually immoral activities (Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, Volume 1, chapter 5). Sarah Pratt was excommunicated from the Church on August 20, 1842, for adultery with John C. Bennett (Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy 1:584). The actions by the Church court indicate that the allegations by Bennett against Joseph in the Wasp Extra (July 27, 1842) and the Sangamo Journal (July 15, 1842) and later by Sarah Pratt to Wymetal were untrue and merely an attempt to cover-up their affair by publicly accusing Joseph of propositioning Sarah. And except for the recent investigative work on this subject by various authors, it seemed to have worked. Keep in mind that the Church court proceedings (including testimony) were private and not reported to the public, so in essence Sarah's and Bennett's affair was kept secret. On the other hand, Bennett's allegations in the newspapers, as well as Sarah's statement to Wymetal, were public statements. From Joseph III's interview with Sarah Pratt, it is evident that the prevailing public story about Joseph Smith Jr. and Sarah Pratt was that he made improper advances toward her—not that she and Bennett had an extramarital affair. To my knowledge, the only statements Sarah ever made regarding this event was to Joseph III and to Wymetal.
Which Story Are We to Believe from Sarah Pratt—Wymetal's or Joseph III's?
I believe Joseph III's interview with Sarah is the truth.
First, based on the evidence, I believe that Sarah Pratt and John C. Bennett had an extramarital affair, which indicates Bennett lied to the press and Sarah lied to Wymetal. Since Bennett was a proven serial liar, lying about this issue would not be out of character for him. Furthermore, in Sarah's statement to Wymetal, I could find no date that the event occurred or, in particular, where it occurred. In addition, John C. Bennett’s 1842 letters published in the press, which were the first public announcements of this alleged event, made no mention of these facts either. I find it peculiar that such a repulsive proposition from the Prophet to Sarah, who was married, did not impress upon her the date of the event or the circumstances surrounding it. Traumatic events like these do not flee our memory and when we relate them, we tell the events surrounding the traumatic one. The absence of this detail in her testimony to Wymetal is another reason I do not believe she told the truth to him.
Second, while her affair with Bennett was known in Church court proceedings as early as 1841 (see Chapter 3, “The Sarah Pratt Case,” in Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, Volume 2), she made no public statement of the alleged proposition from Joseph at that time. You would think that when all of this erupted in Nauvoo in 1841 about Bennett and her, she would have set the record straight that it was Joseph, not Bennett, who was being improper with her. She evidently told Orson this version and if it was true, why not make it public to save herself from adultery charges and support Orson who supported her?
Third, why would a woman who was so repulsed by such a proposal from Joseph endure years of her own husband's (Orson Pratt’s) polygamy? Why wouldn’t she be just as repulsed, if not more so, by her husband taking additional wives and living the principle for many years? According to the Jared Pratt Family Association Web site, Sarah and Orson were married July 4, 1836, and had twelve children together. Orson took four additional wives in Nauvoo beginning in 1844 and was married to five others by 1868—the year Sarah divorced him, according to Wikipedia. If she wasn’t repulsed by the principle enough to prevent her from living in polygamy for many years with a total of nine other wives and giving birth to twelve of Orson's 45 children, she wouldn’t have been so repulsed by Joseph’s alleged proposition.
For these reasons, I believe Sarah Pratt lied to Wymetal and told the truth to Joseph III.
So Why Did Sarah Lie to Wymetal?
Maybe she had second thoughts about having told Joseph III the truth, and when Wymetal came along a few years later, she took that opportunity to counter what she had told Joseph III. It was one thing for her to stand against polygamy in Utah, but totally another to reveal that church leaders had lied about this event with Joseph. Or, maybe after her interview with Joseph III, she realized that if the truth got out that this event never happened between Joseph Smith Jr. and her, the issue of her affair with Bennett might resurface. And in Utah, at the time, while polygamy was acceptable, adultery was not. Or maybe, since she was divorced from Orson and was involved with helping women come out of polygamy, she couldn't afford to give up her reputation as the one woman who was strong enough to refuse the advances of the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr. If Joseph III published her interview, she could loose that reputation. Her interview with Wymetal could have been just damage control in case her interview with Joseph III was published. However, the fact of the matter is that I don’t know why she lied to Wymetal, and without evidence, any attempt to provide a reason is pure speculation on my part. But whatever it was, I'm sure she had a reason since the version she gave to Wymetal was so different.
An Interesting Note
In her statement to Wymetal (Mormon Portraits, 60-61), she said about her interview with Joseph III, “I saw that he was not inclined to believe the truth about his father [that he was a polygamist], so I said to him: 'You pretend to have revelations from the Lord. Why don't you ask the Lord to tell you what kind of a man your father really was?'” If she had truly said this to him in 1885, he would have told her that in 1883, several years after his mother’s death, he did receive a communication from the Lord—in the form of a vision—as to exactly what kind of man his father was. Following is Joseph III's account of that vision:
I suddenly found myself, after my evening devotions, in a room where my mother was. It is just as literal and real to me as I see you people this afternoon. It was a two-story house such as we frequently see, about sixteen by twenty-four, without a division in the center; upon the one side at the end was her stove, and right over at the other side was her table, and next the door to the right was the chair where I sat. Mother had just got her dishes done and had wrung out her dish cloth and hung up her pan against the wall as you women folks do, you know, and she had taken her side comb out of her hair and combed her hair as they did in the old-fashioned way. She took some hair down on either side of her face and rolled it up and stuck a pin through it — you’ve seen it done, many of you. She took off her apron that she had been using and put on a clean one, drew the white handkerchief like some of you used to wear, across her breast and sat down on the chair and said to me, “Now Joseph, your father is here and you can ask him the questions that you have been asking me, to see whether I have been telling you the truth or not.” Now, remember, mother died as I told you awhile ago, aged seventy-four, with all the marks of age upon her; and as she sat in that chair, she was as I remember her to have been when she was about thirty-five years of age. All that she seemed to have lost was restored to her. I did not mark it at the time, but when she spoke of my father, I turned to the left and there, on an old-fashioned settee, I saw my father. In my estimation father presented an appearance more matured than when I saw him last; he was an older man, such as he might have been had he lived to be forty-two. That is my understanding of it. I turned and asked him the question, “Father, do you know what mother and I have been talking about?” He said, “Yes, my son, I do.” Are you prepared to answer the question whether she has told me the truth or not? “I am.” What is your answer? “You may depend upon it that your mother has told you nothing but the truth” (Infallible Proofs, 67-68; Zion’s Ensign, December 22, 1894, in sermon on “Future Conditions”).
Of course, the question Joseph III had been asking his mother was whether or not his father was a polygamist. As my blog post “Emma Smith on Polygamy” states, her answer was always emphatically “no.”