Sunday, March 11, 2018
Sunday, February 25, 2018
John Cook Bennett: most Mormons probably know him from LDS Church Almanacs as “assistant president of the LDS Church” for a year or so during the Nauvoo era. Those who know a bit more about church history know him as a proclaimed “Judas,” or “Lucifer,” who slithered into Nauvoo, deceived the Prophet Joseph Smith, seduced several women, married and single, was cast out, then made considerably more than 30 pieces of silver vilely blasting Smith at lectures and in a best-selling book.
Bennett was so anathema to LDS Church leaders that in response to his death in 1867, an LDS Church publication released a scathing, false obituary which read, in part, “… He dragged out a miserable existence, without a person scarcely to take the least interest in his fate, and died a few months ago without a person to mourn his departure. …”
In reality, Bennett died in Polk City, Iowa, a fairly well off and respected man. He had recently served as surgeon in the Third U.S. Infantry during the Civil War. Yet, the Mormons’ loathing of Bennett was not without cause. Despite Bennett’s many talents and skills, he was often a scoundrel during his life. He was a serial adulterer and grifter at times, selling “diplomas” from a medicine school diploma mill. He may have even been a sociopath, albeit one who could remain fairly prosperous even after alienating many.
I was surprised to discover a biography of Bennett’s life, “The SaintlyScoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John C. Bennett,” by Andrew F. Smith, published in 1997 by University of Illinois Press. It’s an interesting read. Bennett, born in 1804, grew up in southeastern Ohio and became a doctor in the early 1820s, learning medicine from his uncle, a prominent doctor and scientist. After marrying, Bennett practiced in several different areas and also was a lay preacher, favoring the reformist Campbellite doctrines. In fact, he had already met many prominent Mormons long before moving to Nauvoo.
Bennett enjoyed teaching and lecturing in medicine, and he tried setting up colleges and medical schools in several frontier states. This is also where much of his grifting began. At one college, Christian College, Bennett was hounded out by peers for blatantly selling diplomas. In fact, as author Smith surmises, Bennett may have been the first man to ever set up a diploma mill.
In the early 1830s, Bennett gained some prominence by touting the supposed health benefits of tomatoes, a fruit that many Americans didn’t eat at that time. Although Bennett’s and others’ claims about the healing powers of tomatoes were wildly overstated, for scores of years tomato pills, etc., were popular. Bennett also was an early advocate of Chloroform as a sedative for operations, although ether would prove to be a better alternative. During the 1830s, Bennett’s marriage collapsed due to his infidelity and allegations of spousal abuse.
His tenure as a Mormon leader, and its aftermath, is what Bennett is best known for. He ingratiated himself with Joseph Smith and into the highest levels of the Mormon Church, serving as mayor of Nauvoo, leader in the military Nauvoo Legion, town doctor, lobbyist for the city, and assistant president of the LDS Church. Like much of Bennett’s life, though, it was a short rise and fall. By his own admission, Bennett engaged in several affairs with Nauvoo woman. Whether the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was a participant with Bennett in this behavior is debated. At the time, the Mormon doctrine on polygamy was being taught in secret. Did Bennett try to convince women to marry Smith? Given his past, it’s likely Bennett exploited the issue for his carnal pleasure. Whatever the circumstances, the scandals roiled the Mormon Church.
Among the women reviled for their charges against Smith and Bennett were Sarah Pratt, Nancy Rigdon and Martha Brotherton. LDS leaders Sidney Rigdon, George Robinson and Orson Pratt publicly opposed Smith amid the charges of adultery, fornication, “spiritual wifery” and abortion.
What’s clear is that after Bennett was kicked out of Nauvoo, he was angry enough to turn his claimed betrayal by Smith and Mormon leaders into a cottage industry where he lectured against the Mormons in major cities, wrote articles for newspapers calling for Smith’s arrest, and penned a best-selling novel, “The History of the Saints.” As a professional anti-Mormon, author Smith recounts that Bennett was often greeted with skepticism even by enemies of the church. Derided was his claim that he had never embraced Mormonism, but had infiltrated Nauvoo to expose the wickedness of “Joe Smith” and the church.
Smith recounts a final episode in Nauvoo — after Bennett had turned anti-Mormon — where Bennett went to Joseph Smith’s store and paid a longstanding debt. It’s an interesting anecdote that invites speculation that Bennett may have asked Smith for another chance. In any cases, neither the Mormon prophet or Bennett left a written record of the encounter.
Not many know that Bennett, a few years later, rejoined an offshoot of Mormonism, entering the hierarchy of James J. Strang’s church in Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, Bennett was eventually kicked out of Strang’s church but later, Strang — who was eventually assassinated — embraced polygamy. It’s possible that Bennett, tomcatting as usual, swayed Strang toward polygamy. With Strang, Bennett also helped set up a secret “Order of the Illuminati” within that church.
In his post-Nauvoo years, Bennett married a second time and as he got older, his life became less controversial and more sedate. He gravitated toward Iowa and gained a measure of fame for his work breeding chickens. He wrote a well-received book, “The Poultry Book,” that was very popular. Bennett was fortunate, as he developed this interest in breeding during a “poultry craze” that swept the U.S. a decade prior to the Civil War. As Smith relates, Bennett gave a copy of the book to U.S. President Zachary Taylor, who thanked him for the gift.
Although a military surgeon for the North during the Civil War, Bennett’s health prevented him from full activity. His health failed rapidly in the middle 1860s and he died in August of 1867, soon after having a stroke, Smith surmises. A large, prominent grave in Polk City marks his final resting spot.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardBlogs
Sunday, February 18, 2018
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Sunday, January 28, 2018
One of the more entertaining Utah political tiffs was the battle between Salt Lake City Mayor J. Bracken Lee and Salt Lake City Police Chief W. Cleon Skousen. The battle ended in 1960 when Lee managed to convince a majority of city commissioners to fire Skousen.
Skousen was hired in 1956 to re-energize a police force that suffered from low morale. He had been recommended by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. The then-mayor, Adiel F. Stewart, not surprisingly, lobbied LDS Church leader David O. McKay for permission to get ex-FBI agent Skousen out of his BYU job. By most accounts, Skousen did improve the moral of the department. However, the moralistic, ultra-conservative Skousen was headed for a collision with the election of Lee as SLC’s mayor in 1959.
The Fall 1974 issue of “The Utah Historical Quarterly,” has an interesting account of the tension that developed between Mayor Lee and Chief Skousen. Both were political conservatives, but Lee, who was not Mormon, enjoyed recreational activities that the straightlaced Skousen regarded as immoral. According to historian Dennis L. Lythgoe, the pair clashed over Skousen regularly sending the city’s vice squad to bust striptease shows “to the private clubs of the city, such as Alta, Ambassador and Elks.” Lee allegedly ordered to Skousen to let up on the raids. Skousen refused. According to Lythgoe, “Angry words followed, with Lee suggesting that the police should stay away from striptease shows and admitting that he enjoyed them himself and had no desire to be arrested while attending one.”
Lee’s defense of striptease shows in refreshingly candid. In a footnote to Lythgoe’s article, he says in an interview “… I think the prettiest thing in the world is a nude woman — a good looking nude woman.” It’s clear that Lee was offended by what he believed was Skousen’s attempt to put a heavy police presence on issues that offended his personal morality. The pair also clashed over Skousen’s attempts to crack down on mild forms of gambling that went on surreptitiously at area private clubs.
When he became police chief, Skousen initiated a program where local taverns would self-police themselves. His reasoning was that if the taverns could self correct any potential violations of the law it would cut down on needed police presence. The taverns formed an association and hired a former police officer to advise them.
Lee disliked the program, and asked Skousen to disband it. He believed that tavern businesses were pressured and intimidated by both SLC police and the association if they spurned membership. At a public hearing charged by Mayor Lee on the program, both sides of the association debate were heard. In an interview with Lythgoe, Lees regards the tavern owners as thieves who had made a bargain with Skousen to steal less. He told Skousen, “I think you could make a deal with the underworld to only steal so much at night and they would be glad to police themselves.”
The rift between Lee and Skousen was moving beyond competing moral visions and into disputes over the role and size of government. Despite both men being traditional, anti-communism conservatives, Lee was realizing that Skousen’s morality tolerated an intrusive form of bigger government that his competing moral views opposed. Lee was not interested in vice cops chasing dancing women in panties or bras. Also, he wanted taverns to be policed by cops.
Not surprisingly, the final straw that led to Skousen’s firing was over the size of the police department’s budget. Lee wanted it trimmed far more than Skousen wanted to trim it. Skousen’s salary, at $10,000 a year, was larger than Lee’s. He also had three highly paid assistant police chiefs. Lee wanted those to go. The money issues, as Lythgoe recounts, couldn’t be worked out, and one day, in a Machiavellian move, during a routine commission meeting, Lee made a surprising motion to fire Skousen. Even more surprisingly, it passed 3-2 among city commissioners.
The mayor suffered short-term public relations/media problems but eventually withstood harsh criticism from Skousen supporters and others. In fact, Lee was re-elected as mayor of Salt Lake City twice after firing Skousen. In an interesting twist, the Deseret News, which had been an enthusiastic supporter of Skousen during his tenure, published a lukewarm, passionless editorial on his firing. What Lythgoe reports is that the Deseret News had prepared a full-page editorial harshly condemning Lee for firing Skousen. However, at the last minute, the LDS Church First Presidency spiked the editorial, and sent Counselor Henry D. Moyle to make sure the editorial did not run. Moyle’s church duties at the time included overseeing the editorial content of the Deseret News.
According to the article, Lee says that when he learned of the upcoming editorial, he called Church President McKay, who told him not to worry. Skousen is quoted as saying that Moyle was sent to spike the editorial because Lee was a Mason and the church worried about offending Masons. In an article footnote, then-Deseret News editorial director William Smart, who was editor and general manager of the News at the time Lythgoe’s article was published, Smart said that he had been opposed to Skousen’s firing but added this: “Well, we’ve never published nor ever will publish a full-page editorial — that’s ridiculous. And I’d really rather not comment on that. That’s an internal matter that I’d rather not get into.”
n the history of Utah journalism, it’s no secret that the Deseret News’ editorials are influenced by the hierarchy of the LDS Church. (In fact, recently, the newspaper, and the rest of the church’s media, has been restored to First Presidency control to a level that equals, if not exceeds, what it was 52 year ago.)
As to what drove the LDS Church leadership to side with the mayor who liked strippers over the ultra-straightlaced Skousen, I suspect Skousen is pretty close to the truth when he claimed “that the president of the church had always been more comfortable with a non-Mormon in office who was friendly than a Mormon who might feel a need to be independent,” writes Lythgoe.
As mentioned, it was an entertaining tiff in Utah history. The winner was Lee, who continued with a successful political career. Skousen resumed a private life, and enjoyed success with his brands of politics and religion for about two more decades until changing moods rendered him obsolete. However, in recent years the popularity of Mormon commentator Glenn Beck, a Skousen fan, has pushed his books, particularly “The 5,000 Year Leap,” back into prominence.
-- Doug Gibson
-- Originally published at StandardBlogs
Monday, January 22, 2018
I was indulging in one of my passions, which is leafing through the bookcases of elderly Latter-day Saints. A lot of treasures can be found — books by B.H. Roberts, old mission journals, the Improvement Era, “Papa Married a Mormon,” the works of Cleon Skousen, pamphlets from the 1920s offering advice for a new missionary. …
I came across the 1960 Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum. It’s titled “Apostasy to Restoration,” by T. Edgar Lyon. I borrowed the book, eager to compare today’s vanilla-brand manuals with one a half-century old. I also wondered if it would reflect the arch-conservatism that defined the LDS leadership 50 years ago.
The book, manual, lesson, whatever, is a fascinating history of the centuries between Christ’s birth and the emergence of the LDS Church. Whether one disagrees with its conclusions, the scholarship must be appreciated. Look, I have no objections to trudging through priesthood manuals that have, for the past few years, been collections of quotes and reminiscing about various prophets — it’s useful stuff.
But, apologies to Cal Grondahl, reading “Apostasy to Restoration” is like unearthing ancient scripture. Did we actually have lessons like this 50 years ago, that discussed “the Absence of Mysticism in the Apostolic Christianity,” or “the Fragments of Papias,” or “Irenaues’ Concept of the Ultimate Potential of Man,” or “Christian Gnosticism,” or “The Diocletian Persecution,” or “Ambrose the Christian Statesman,” or “the Contributions of Monasticism,” or “Pope Leo the Great (440-464 A.D.), or “Reformation Trends in Switzerland” …?
I Web searched T. Edgar Lyon and learned about the author of “Apostasy to Restoration,” which by the way, is for sale at E-bay. Thomas Edgar Lyon was born in 1903 in Salt Lake City. He went on a mission to the Netherlands, later married and enjoyed a long career as a prominent academic and historian.
Lyon’s thesis from the University of Chicago was on early LDS apostle Orson Pratt. He eventually received a doctorate in history from the University of Utah and was president of the Mormon History Association in the 1970s. He died in 1978.
Lyon’s book/manual is fascinating. I envy the Melchizedek Priesthood holders who used it in their classes 50 years ago. I look at the current manuals — sans author(s) name(s) — and while I’m OK with what’s being taught I wish we could have a re-run of “Apostasy to Restoration.” It must have been quite satisfying to learn something new in every lesson.
-- Doug Gibson
Originally published at StandardBlogs