The Saintly Scoundrel - The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett
by Andrew F. Smith

Reviewed by the Salamander Society at Amazon.com.(click on the book cover) Following are some quotes from the book but for a much deeper feel and context for Dr. John C. Bennett's influence in early Mormonism, please read the entire book.


January 1832 - Bennett meets William McLellin, a recent convert to Mormonism. McLellin then introduces Bennett to Joseph Smith and on January 13,1832 Bennett "talked considerable with Br Joseph". The content of their conversation was not recorded. p. 12

To add to his boldness, Bennett proposed conferring doctorates on women. John Riddell tried to dissuade him from doing this, particularly in medicine, because "predjudiced being" would oppose it. Bennett roared that he had hung "out the banner of reform" and wanted others to rally around it. He did compromise and meekly revised the bylaws to prohibit women from receiving medical degrees, although they could receive doctorates in seven other areas of study, making Christain College the first publicly chartered coeducational college in the United States. p 15

Bennett arranged to have the diplomas prepared and printed by Eber D. Howe, the editor of the Painseville Telegraph. Howe was an anti-Mormon who published Mormonism Unvailed in 1834, which Bennett likely read. When Bennett's vending of diplomas surfaced, the trustees directed the secretary to write Howe requesting information about how many diplomas had been printed and what had become of the remaining parchment. The trustees obviously feared that Bennett had produced additional diplomas and intended to sell them as well. p. 32

Bennett summarized Dr. William Smith's beliefs and presented them to his class in his opening lecture, declaring that tomatoes successfully treated diarrhea, biliousness, and dsypepsia. p. 34

Bennett serves for one year as Brigadier General of the Invincible Dragoons, Second Division of Illinois Militia. p 47

Bennett has Dr. B. A. Parnell, a phrenologist, examine him. Parnell examined Bennetts skull and described Bennett as being sanguine and bilious of temperament. Parnell listed 37 other attributes. Bennett later published this phrenology. p. 48

Spring of 1840 - Bennett attended a Mormon meeting in Springfield, Illinois and since he did not know anyone there he kept a low profile. p. 54

Summer 0f 1840 - Bennett wrote a series of three letters to Joseph Smith. He professed that wealth was not his aim but desired only happiness. He was convinced that he could enjoy himself better with the Mormons than with any other religious body. He hoped that the time would "soon come when your people will become my people, your God my God."

Jospeh Smith wrote back from Nauvoo on August 8, 1840. "It would afford me much pleasure to see you at this place, and from the desire you express in your letter to move to this place, I hope I shall soon have the satisfaction."

While there were many spontaneous conversions to Mormonism, religious fervor was not likely to have been central to Bennett's move to Nauvoo. His correspondence was a calculated attempt to gain Smith's and Rigdon's confidence. Unlike other confidence men, Bennett was quite ambitious and desired glory and renown; he was quite willing to sacrifice money both for fame and power. Bennett might hav believed from the onset that Smith was a charlatan and that Mormonism was a fraud, but this would not have particularly mattered to him. He pursued secular, not religious goals. He was interested in using the Mormons, as he had the Methodists and the Christian Disciples, to promote his eminence and enhance his power. p 55

September 1840 - Bennett's relocation to Nauvoo was not his first contact with Mormonism. William McLellin had introduced him to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon while they were all in Hiram, Ohio, in 1832. What Bennett heard in Hiram did not impress him, and he remained a steadfast supporter of Alexander Campbell, who spoke out frequently against Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Mormonism. Bennett likely read Campbell's Delusions: An Analysys of the Book of Mormon, an anti-Mormon tract first published in the Millennial Harbinger in 1831 and in pamphlet form the following year. In late 1834 Bennett moved to Chagrin, Ohio, not far from Painsville. Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painsville Telegraph, published several of Bennett's articles, and Bennett encountered Howe's anti-Mormon book, Mormonism Unveiled, published in November 1834. Kirtland was about four miles from Chagrin, and Bennett attended Mormon services there in early 1835, when both Rigdon and Smith were present. What he found in Kirtland did not impress him either. After eight years of contact with Mormonism, Bennett was not likely to have become a thunder-struck convert in the summer of 1840.

Joseph Smith was impressed with Bennett and had him board with the Smith family for thirty-nine weeks. He became Joseph Smith's closest friend and confident, claiming to have known "Joseph better than any other man living for a least fourteen months!" William Law, who later became assistant president of the Mormon church, agreed with Bennett's assessment of his relationship with Joseph Smith. According to Law, Bennett "was more in the secret confidence of Joseph than perhaps any other man in the city." p 56

Bennett also befriended Joseph Smith's brothers, Hyrum Smith and Don Carlos Smith. Hyrum Smith replaced Joseph Smith, Sr. as the patrirarch of the Mormon church. When Bennett was baptized, he received the first patriarchal blessing bestowed by Hyrum Smith. Impressed with Bennett's speaking abilities, Hyrum Smith likened Bennett to the biblical "Paul reasoning with Felix, and they shall tremble when they hear thy words." Hyrum Smith predicted that Bennett would not turn "aside from the truth for the popularity of the world. p. 57

Stephen Douglas, then the Democratic secretary of state, also had opposed similar incorporations, but he assisted in the passage of the Mormon bills. Thereafter, he had himself appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court, serving on the Fifth Circuit, which included the city of Nauvoo. He moved to Quincy and occasionally visited Nauvoo, where he preached, attended meetings, and solidified Mormon support for the democratic party in future elections.

The History of the Church, published under Joseph Smith's name, reports that the Nauvoo charter was "of his (Smith's) own plan and device" and that he had "concocted it for the salvation of the Church." According to tis account, Bennett was "delegated to Springfield, Ilinois" to carry the "petition for a City Charter." It is unlikely that this was an accurate reflection of what really happened. Bennett was an experienced and accomplished lobbyist, having written and passed bills in Ohio, Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois. He specifically had written bills related to incorporating universities and militia unit, which were provided for in the Nauvoo charter. p 60

Whoever deserves credit for initiating the Nauvoo charter, Smith was elated with Bennett's role in shepherding the bill through the legislature. In his "Proclamation to the Saints Scattered Abroad," issued in January 1841, Smith introduced Bennett to the Mormon community by identifying him as "one of the principal instruments, in effecting our safety and deliverance form the unjust persecutions and demands of the authorities of Missouri, and also in procuring the city charter-He is a man of enterprize, extensive acquirements, and of independent mind, and is calculated to be a great blessing to our community." On January 5 Smith characterized Bennett as a superior orator, "active and diligent, always employing himself in doing good to his fellow men."

Two weeks later Smith reported a revelation from God regarding Bennett: "Again, let my servant John C. Bennett, help you in your labor, in sending my word to the Kings and people of the earth, and stand by you, even you my servant Joseph Smith in the hour of affliction, and his reward shall not fail if he receive council; and for his love, he shall be great for he shall be mine if he does this, saith the Lord. I have see the work he hath done, which I accept, if he continue; and will crown him with blessings and great glory."

The Mormon historian B.H. Roberts interpreted this revelation to mean that "John C. Bennett in coming to the Saints did so out of love for the work, had a desire to work righteousness but was among those who failed-he did not 'continue' in his right intentions." Since Smith later charged Bennett with almost continuous adultery from the time he arrived in Nauvoo, Bennett's intentions were questionable well before Smith announced the revelation. Whatever the proper explanation for this revelation might be, Robert's version is not likely it. pp. 61-62 Bennett also actively sought to launch the Masonic Lodge in Nauvoo. The first meeting of the Nauvoo Masons occurred in Hyrum Smith's office on December 29,1841. George Miller was elected worshipful master. Miller had been a wealthy farmer near Macomb in McDonough County, Illinois. when the Mormons were expelled from Missouri, he ran into Joseph Smith, Sr. and Don Carlos Smith in Quincy, Illinois. Miller invited them and other Mormons to live on his farm. After their departure from Missouri, Joseph Smith, Jr., Sidney Rigdon, and John Taylor visited Miller. Miller converted to Mormonism in the spring of 1839 and moved to Iowa, across from Nauvoo, in the spring of 1840.

On September 1,1840 - perhaps the same day Bennett first arrived in Nauvoo--Joseph Smith invited Miller to move to Nauvoo. In many ways, Miller's rise to power in the Mormon church parallels Bennett's. On the same day (January 19,1841) that Smith claimed to have had a revelation about Bennett, he also had one about Miller. Miller was made a bishop of the church by revelation and was appointed president of the Nauvoo House Association. In February 1841 Miller was ordained and was elected to the board of regents of the University of the City of Nauvoo. He also assisted in building the Nauvoo Temple.

At the same meeting that Miller was elected worshipful master of the Nauvoo Lodge, Bennett was elected secretary. Bennett, Miller and another Mason were appointed to a committee to draft bylaws for governing the Nauvoo Lodge. The bylaws were presented and approved on the following day. Bennett served as grand marshall. pp. 75,76

While in Nauvoo, Bennett had succeeded beyond his own wildest expectations. He later nostalgically observed that he had "possessed power, wealth, and the means to gratify every passion or desire." p. 78

According to Joseph Smith, as soon as Bennett became a Mormon (Bennett's date of baptism is disputed but was either in Sept or Oct of 1840) , Smith received a letter from an unidentified person cautioning the Mormons against him. Knowing that it was not uncommon "for good men to be evil spoken against," however, Smith kept quiet about the letter.

In February of 1841 Smith sent George Miller to McConnelsville to delve into Bennett's past. On March 2,1841, Miller reported back that "during many years his poor, but confiding wife, followed him from place to place, with no suspicion of his unfaithfulness to her; at length howevere, he became so bold enough in his departures, that it was evident to all around that he was a sore offender, and his wife left him under satisfactory evidence of his adulterous connections; nor was this his only fault; he used her bad otherwise." Miller concluded that Bennett was "an impostor, and unworthy of the confidence of all good men."

Despite this information, neither Smith nor Miller took any known action against Bennett. In fact, Smith appointed him assistant president of the Mormon Church in April 1841. Miller himself permitted Bennett to become the secretary of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge in December 1841.

On June 15, 1841, Hyrum Smith and William Law, then in Pittsburgh, wrote to Joseph Smith corroborating the content of George Miller's letter. According to Smith, he read the letter to Bennett, "which he did not attempt to deny, but candidly acknowledged the fact." Whatever happened, Bennett and Joseph Smith clearly had a temporary parting of the ways. Bennett, who had been living with Joseph Smith's family, moved into other quarters. pp. 79,80

Oliver Olney reported in his journal that in early April 1842 it was common gossip that members of the Twelve Apostles were "very intimate with females."

On April 10, 1842 Joseph Smith "pronounced a curse upon all adulterers, and fornicators, and unvirtuous persons." and those who had made use of his "name to carry on their iniquitious designs." The individuals to whom these remarks referred were unnamed. p. 85

On May 14, 1842 the city council passed an ordinance prohibiting brothels in the city. An eyewitness later claimed that Bennett had built one. The city council ordered it ripped down as a public nuisance. Lorenzo D. Wasson, Smith's nephew, reported that he had knowledge of "Bennett and his prostitutes." Whatever Bennett's connnection to the brothel, if any, it is unimaginable that it could have survived without the knowledge of the leaders of the church, yet due to a tacit acceptance, perhaps because the brothel was protected by Bennett, or it might have been an integral part of an emerging system of sexual experimentation then underway in Nauvoo, as Bennett later implied.

On May 17, 1842 Bennett resigned as mayor and voluntarily left the Mormon church. Two days later Joseph Smith was elected Mayor and Hyrum Smith was elected as vice-mayor. p 86

On the morning of May 26, 1842 Bennett met with sixty to one hudnred of the Masonic brethren. According to Smith, Bennett "acknowledged his wicked and licentious conduct toward certain females in Nauvoo, and that he was worthy of the severest chastisement, and cried like a child, and begged that he might be spared, in any possible way; so deep was his apparent sense of his quilt and unfitness for respectable society; so deeply did he feign, or really feel contrition for the moment, that he was forgiven still." Joseph Smith pled for mercy for Bennett. This seems curious, though perhaps this is consistent with Joseph Smith's pattern of forgiving sinners after public confession. Alternately, as others have speculated, Smith and Bennett might have come to agreement: if Bennett publicly confessed his sins, Smith would forgive him. Still others have suggested that Smith's reluctance to break with Bennett might have been based on his fear that Bennett would publicly reveal his knowledge about plural marriage and Joseph Smith. p. 90

Perhaps Smith expected or at least hoped that Bennett would leave Nauvoo quietly. When he failed to do so, Smith publicly censured him. On June 18,1842 Smith spoke out publicly against Bennett. According to Wilford Woodruff, Smith "spoke his mind in great plainness concerning the iniquity and wickedness of Gen. John Cook Bennett, and exposed him before the the public." Smith's public attack produced a heated exchange with Bennett. As described in a private letter published in Burlington's Hawk-Eye and Iowa Patriot, "Some hard swearing passed between these saints during the quarrel." According to the unidentified author, Bennett threatened "to write a book for the purpose of exposing the rascality of this pretender to the spirit of prophecy. Bennett was excommunicated from the Mormon church on this day. On June 21, 1842, Bennett abruptly left Nauvoo and headed for Springfield. p. 91

Bennett returned to Nauvoo before June 26, 1842 and boarded with George Robinson. On June 27 he wrote to James G. Edwards, editor of the Hawk-Eye and Iowa Patriot, reporting that the schism between Smith and him was irreconcilable. He also recounted that Smith had threatened to kill him and had "ordered some of his Danite band to effect the murder clandestinely." According to Bennett, on the evening of June 29 "twelve of the Danites, dressed in female apparel, approached my boarding house, (Gen. Robinson's) in Nauvoo, iwth their carriage wheels wrapped with blankets, and their horses feet covered with cloths, to prevent noise, about 10 o'clock, for the purpose of conveying me off and assassinating me, thus prevent disclosures- but I was so admirably prepared with arms, as were also my friends, that after prowling around the house for some time, they retired. p. 94

July 1842 - Bennett's Accusations Against Joseph Smith

1. That Bennett's disfellowshipment notice of May 11, 1842 signed by John E Page, William Smith and Lyman Wright was a forgery because these three men were not in Nauvoo at that time. All three were away on official church errands.
2. That Joseph Smith attempted to seduce Miss Nancy Rigdon, the eldest and single daughter of Sidney Rigdon.
3. That Joseph Smith sold valuable property to Willard Richards, N.K. Whitney, and others prior to declaring bankruptcy.
4. That Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and four others were initiated, passed and raised before the installation of the Masonic Lodge, which was against Masonic regulations.
5. That Joseph Smith introduced a new degree of masonry, called "Order Lodge", in which a part of the obligation says, "I furthermore promise and swear, that I will never touch a daughter of Adam, unless she is given me of the Lord," so as to accord with Smith's licentious practices.
6. That Bennett's affidavit, sworn on May 17, and his statement, signed on May 19 before the city council, were made under duress.
7. That Joseph Smith ordered Orrin Porter Rockwell to shoot former Governor of Missouri, Lilburn W. Boggs. pp. 100-105

September 1842 - Bennett publishes his 350 page book "History of the Saints" an anti-Mormon work. The Mormons of course were not overwhelmed by the book. Joseph Smith prophesied "that whoever has any hand in the matter, will find themselves in a poor fix in relation to the money matters." While the book's financial earnings have not been uncovered, it is not likely Smith's prediction was accurate. The book went through three printings in 1842. For two years Bennett had no known revenue other than the royalties from the book and his lecture fees. p.127

In 1850 Brigham Young announced that John C. Bennett had died in one of the most wretched slums of California, where he had gone in the excitement of the Great Gold Rush. According to Young, Bennett's body had been "dragged out with his boots on, put into a cart, hauled off, and dumped into a hole a rotten mass of corruption." Aroet Hale claimed that Bennett's death, as described by Young, was the fulfillment of one of Joseph Smith's prophecies. According to Hale, Bennett was cursed to "die a vagabond upon the face of the earth, without friends to berry him." p.166

The report of Bennett's demise was greatly exaggerated, however. He was alive and well, living in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Bennett continued to practice medicine, breed chickens and cattle, promote anti-slavery issues, served as a surgeon in the Union army and re-married. After a protracted illness, probably precipitated by a stroke, Bennett died at the age of sixty-four in August of 1867 in Polk City, Iowa. p. 185

Despite the Mormon appraisals, Bennett was respected by his Polk City neighbors and was relatively well-off when he died. His tombstone is one of the largest in the Polk City Cemetary. His second wife died less than one year later and was buried beside him. Bennett's first wife, Mary, lived until 1897. Nothing is known of his two children. pp. 185,186.

As shocking as Bennett's disclosures might have been in his day, the Mormon experiment with polygamy should be viewed in the broader context of sexual exploration underway in the United States at the time. On one end of the spectrum of sexual experimentation were the Shakers, who believed in complete abstinance. On the other end were those members of the Oneida Community in New York, who openly practiced their belief in free love.

Eight years before Bennett made his first disclosures, the United States had been rocked by the sensation surrounding the self-styled prophet "Matthias." This scandal included reports of lascivious sexual relations, a strange new religious cult, and eventually murder. Matthias was tried and convicted of lesser charges. Four months after he left jail in 1835, Matthias visited Kirtland, where he met and conversed with Joseph Smith and preached to the Mormons. Smith subsequently cast Matthias out of Kirtland. p. 191


For a look at Bennetts's interaction with the Masons of Nauvoo click here: The Confrontation Of Grand Master Abraham Jonas and John Cook Bennett At Nauvoo and Secretary John Cook Bennett Of Nauvoo Lodge

Comments Section


I would like to read his book. - 07/09/2008 - pixsi

Other records indicate that JC Bennett had formerly been associated with Matthias and/or the Oneida community groups prior to coming to J. Smith and his group. When these rumors first started to surface regarding Bennetts behavior, Joseph Smith talked to Brigham Young who defended Bennett and told Smith He would handle the Bennett problem. The second and third time Young convinced Smith that Bennett would be taken care of.

Finally Joseph Smith took the matter in his own hands and had Bennett excommunicated from the church. Young had met Bennett earlier in New York and conversed with him about spiritual wifery and celestrial marriage as practiced by the Oneida Community. Young John Taylor, H Kimbell, O. Cowdrey, O Pratt and others were involved in adulterous behavior with youg women (Married and Single) in Nauvoo.One should check out all possible avenues of history before casting stones at glass houses. - 02/19/2008 - josie

Jesus is the Savior of the world and creator - to me there is no doubt about this. I have my witness, however he chose 12 apostles and 1 fell - according to my math, the Redeemer of the Universe was right 11 out of 12 times. Do we questions Jesus Christ's ability to chose good men? I hope not for one second. All people have their agency to choose right or wrong - and mortal men (even prophets) can and will make mistakes. Their lives will have challenges and they must grow in character just like us. If you want a plentiful supply of examples from God's chosen vessels making errors in judgement - just let me know..... Remember Aarons reply to Moses about the golden calf? ....Read it... I would say Aaron made a mery poor mistake in judgement; wouldn't you? - 08/21/2005 - anon

Was Judas Iscariot true to Christ? Why didn't Christ see this earlier? Aaron to Moses? Jacob's 11 sons to him and Joseph? The argument that because Bennett remained in Joseph's confidences that Joseph didn't have access the promptings of the Holy Ghost is ridiculous. People attempting to find fault, will find it. 01/15/2003 anon

12/13/2002 - from Charity Sophronia Cleebers

I wouldn't class John C. Bennett with other Church authorities. He was basically an exploitive opportunist, a semi-pro con artist.

I've had dealings with a couple of people like that in organizations I've worked for. They can be very impressive at first, and they're certainly capable of being charming. But after the first general infatuation with them passes, doubts start to creep in.

For a while there are factions: people who see through them, and people who're still caught up in the illusion. The latter category keeps shrinking, through it tends to contain members of the group's leadership until late in the game. One of the ways you can distinguish these con artists from people who are charming in a normal way and screw up in a normal way is that the con artists bend all their efforts toward staying in the good graces of the leadership.

Eventually it all collapses, like a sort of emotional and organizational Ponzi scheme. The decent people are left feeling heartsick and exhausted. The con artist moves on, whistling, unconcerned with the havoc he or she leaves behind.

What did John C. Bennett see in the early Church? A bunch of inexperienced visionaries, some of whom were ripe for sexual experimentation. A naive and newly-formed community that didn't yet have the sort of integrated social infrastructure that would normally flag someone like Bennett as a predatory adventurer far earlier in his career. An energetic and ambitious leader who was willing to try almost anything, but who didn't know much about the world and how it worked, and who would appreciate a follower who could show him how to make things happen.

If John C. Bennett hadn't happened along, it's easy to imagine some other con artist filling his place in Mormon history.

For me, the most pertinent point of the story is that Joseph Smith (and the other Mormons) took such a long time to recognize Bennett as the thoroughly bad apple he was. So much for spiritual insight and the promptings of the Holy Spirit!

08/02/2001 - anon
Bennett was clearly immoral. Why couldn't the Brethren see it earlier? He wasn't the first Church authority with chastity problems and probably not the last. GBH says "we cannot afford to be stained by moral sin." Will praying for our leaders save them and us from the sins of a wicked generation? "Save us Lord from error. Watch us day by day..."

06/12/2000 - Fiona
I own and have read the book, and it is absolutely riveting. One thing that is the most interesting is his speech about Mormon female sexual slavery. It's so clear that he was deeply obsessed with the idea of the harem, which was an exciting idea generally in this period, and he creates this whole heirarchy with colored veils and stuff. It's like a window into his own sex fantasies. Check it out. If nothing else, you'll get a really good laugh at what he thought was the ultimate in perversion and corruption.

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