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John C. Bennett : biography

03 August 1804 - 05 August 1867

John Cook Bennett (August 3, 1804 – August 5, 1867) was an American physician and 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.


Early Mormon

Bennett's involvement in the Latter Day Saint movement came after several encounters with the community that had left him unimpressed. He nevertheless wrote several letters to Joseph Smith, Jr. in Nauvoo, Illinois in which he declared his desire to join the movement. Bennett was essential to the passing of the Nauvoo city charter in the Illinois legislature, the provisions of which he had helped craft. He even garnered praise for his lobbying efforts on behalf of the Mormons from the young Abraham Lincoln.

His efforts on behalf of the Mormons, and the long time he spent living in the Smith mansion in Nauvoo, secured for Bennett the confidence of Joseph Smith. Smith was instrumental in promoting Bennett to ever greater civic and ecclesiastical responsibilities in Nauvoo, Illinois. Bennett became an Assistant President of the Church and Counselor in the First Presidency, the mayor of the city of Nauvoo, General of the Nauvoo Legion, and the chancellor of the University of Nauvoo.

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.

Later life

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 History of the Saints, 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.

John C. Bennett briefly returned to Nauvoo in December 1843, but the sole record of that visit is a notation in Joseph Smith's Daybook from his General Store showing a payment of the rent Bennett owed for the 39 weeks he lived in the Smith home in 1840-1841. After December 1843 John Bennett is recorded to have lectured only once more against Mormonism during Joseph's life, in Boston, during the spring of 1844. At the 1844 Boston lecture, Bennett was not well received. He was pelted with rotten eggs and chased through Boston by the 'vast assemblage,' who ran over several Boston police officers in the process. After Smith's assassination in Carthage, Illinois on June 27, 1844, Bennett resumed his lectures against polygamy in an attempt to win converts for Strang. 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"

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