Another Martyr

Monday, March 5, 1888


Elder John B. Johnson departed this life at the Utah Penitentiary at an early hour this morning (March 5th). He was one of that numerous class of inmates of that institution who have been and are prisoners for conscience’ sake. He was relegated to prison under conviction and sentence for unlawful cohabitation, having two families. His conscience would not allow him to make any agreement to obey the law in the future, because it amounted from his standpoint to an annulment of a contract with his plural wife entered into before the status which brought conviction against him had been made a legal offense. He felt that he could not consistently place the ban of shame upon his wife nor the brand of illegitimacy upon his children by any action upon his part, and he was sent to languish in a loathsome prison. He did not languish, however, but died.

Numbers of people have met their death in various indirect shapes, and some of them direct, through the efforts that have been made during the last three years and a half to crush a devoted community rather than to attempt to educate them into conformity with what is held to be the will of the nation, but of the hundreds that have been incarcerated, Elder Johnson, who had reached the advanced age of 64 years, is the first to succumb to the grip of death within the walls of the prison. This is a remarkable fact when the number that has been incarcerated during a comparatively brief time is considered. Many of them have been aged and feeble, and not a few belong to that class who have been accustomed to home comforts, the change to prison life being trying in the extreme. Those who have belonged to the poorer class have suffered perhaps most of all, if there has been any difference, not only feeling keenly the deprivation of liberty, but being mentally concerned regarding the temporal welfare of those dearer to them than life. Yet they have been wonderfully preserved, our deceased brother being the first to fall a martyr, within the walls of a prison, to what we hold to be a mistaken and far from merciful policy on the part of the government.

The scoffer will probably turn up the lip at the mere mention of martyrdom in connection with a case like this. It should be remembered, however, that martyrs are not made because of their closely conforming to popular views and opinions. That the deceased was honest in his religious convictions no one has a right to deny; if the element of honesty cannot be consistently denied, then his incarceration was in consequence of his adherence to his genuine conception of right. This being the case he was a martyr for the truth as he understood it. No man can be a martyr on any other basis.

Those who class such men as Elder Johnson among common or ordinary law-breakers only fit to be ranked among fools. Those who stand by “the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world� are not ordinary men in any sense. The usual run of humanity take the easiest available method of getting out of trouble when it confronts them. The smaller class consider the principle involved, stand upon that and trust in God for the outcome. Such men as our departed brother are honest in every sense, being good neighbors, respecting the property and other rights of their fellow-beings, peaceable and reputable, one of their greatest hardships in connection with imprisonment being that they are thrust involuntarily into the society of those who are held in durance because of their not possessing that sterling morality for which they are conspicuous.

There is something exceedingly pathetic in the demise of Brother Johnson in prison. His wife and some other members of his family had been summoned to his bedside, but the good lady, probably owing to the deep distress caused by the circumstances, was taken ill and was compelled on that account to retire. He leaves a large family; many of the children are of tender age. Only one son was by the side of the couch upon which Brother Johnson lay when the final summons came and the faithful spirit took his flight to the realms of light; where no such condition exists as casting intelligent beings into prison because of an honest adherence to honest conviction.

We learn that the family of the deceased, as might naturally be expected, have been thrown into the deepest grief, and are at present almost inconsolable. This is scarcely to be wondered at, when the circumstances of the sad case are considered. It will be the sincere desire and prayer of every Latter-day Saint that peace may rest upon them, and that they may feel consoled in the reflection that their husband and father left this vale of tears treading the path of duty and honest conviction, which is the highest phase of human action. Upon this basis they may rest assured that he will not fall short of a reception of his eternal reward.


John Johnson was my great-great-great grandfather (the paternal great-grandfather of my maternal grandmother). In Sweden, where he was born in 1824, his name was Johannes Jansson. This eulogy/editorial/news story was the lead article in the Deseret Evening News on March 5, 1888, and is unfortunately all I know of him. I don’t know when he emigrated, who taught him the gospel or how it changed his life, aside from determing the unusual location and circumstances of his death. When we discussed the polygamy cases in my Church & State seminar in law school, I gave this article to my professor, who asked my permission to include it in his course materials. I agreed, of course, proud to have students read about my uncompromising grandfather and the passion of those who wrote this tribute to their shared cause.

17 comments for “Another Martyr

  1. The United States was wrong to persecute us, and I consider the U.S. campaign against polygamy up to the present to be disgraceful.

  2. Thanks for the post Matt. It’s a good reminder of the heritage of faith and duty we all share.

    Check out your email address here at Times and Seasons. I don’t think it is working. I tried to email you directly and it bounced.

    Bruce Wilson

  3. OK, I’m a little confused here (new convert)…are all of you actually condoning polygamy?

  4. Hardly Tony. This post shows the pains and to what extent people within the Church went to live a law received through revelation. Many men and women were incarcerated because they lived within the dictations of what they believe. The persecution that many endured, if it was done in this day, would enrage most civil liberties groups. Some people were imprisoned, just because they were Latter-day Saints, living or not within a polygamous relationship. I think that the polygamy period in fact galvanised the Church in many ways, and was akin to Abraham sacrifice. To sum up, stories like the present show how much people would give to live the Restored Gospel, even if it took their lives. That is the biggest lesson that I get from this post.

  5. Yes, Tony. Condoning polygamy THEN, but not necessarily NOW.

    Then, and during the terms of the first four prophets of the restoration, it was a revealed commandment, as clear and as preached as any other. Brother Johnson was imprisoned for it, as were John Taylor and other church authorities at the time. I can condone their choices without hesitation. Brigham Young likened the United Order and eternal marriage, including plural marriages, to the pillars of exaltation. We can learn a lot from both principles and from considering them together. They both extend Christian charity beyond ourselves and beyond those within our zones of comfort.

    Pondering a plural marriage covenant might also teach us something about the potential we have for spiritual unity with all those to whom we are sealed, as all our family lines all cross somewhere. Hence, we are all sealed to one another. The spiritual unity of marriage can be extended to others as we progress. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 can be read in this light.

    But, to pursue polygamy contrary to the sealing authority of the presidency is wrong, in my opinion. Besides, the history of both plural marriage and the law of consecration shows that the exceptional charity and selflessness they require may not be within the mortal grasp of many.


  6. Tony – To follow up AlexG’s comment, many members today (me included), don’t claim to fully understand polygamy or why the early LDS Church was asked to practice it (or even why Biblical prophets like Jacob and Moses did as well), but I’m not convinced we really need to have all these answers right now. We still reverence these individuals and the enormous sacrifices they made for principles they felt compelled to live. I respect anyone who suffers at the hands of others for principles they believe in. This is the very reason I greatly respect and admire individuals like devoted Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite the fact that I may disagree with their position on things like blood transfusions or military service.

  7. First, thank you, Matt, for this moving respect paid to an ancestor.

    I see several have responded thoughtfully to Tony’s remark, better than I could have worded it. As a convert myself, I just want to confirm in particular what Marc Bohn wrote. Another thought: sometimes we wish there had never been an episode like polygamy in the Church’s history, considering the dubious image it gave Mormons up to now and worldwide. But, who knows, would the Church have gained its strength and the Saints their devotion without it? Also, my experience is that our strongest converts are those able to accept the reality of that peculiar past and stand firm in their testimony of the Restoration.

  8. Matt,

    I didn’t know you had such a long term geneology in the church. It is very interesting to hear about.

    Wilfried wrote “But, who knows, would the Church have gained its strength and the Saints their devotion without it?”

    I tend to agree. I have often wondered if the Lord didn’t actually institute polygamy as a means of polarizing the membership toward him or against him, and to promote sufficient persecution from outside influences that would drive the Saints toward the West where the Church could have probably grown more powerfully than it would have in the East. I think that the Lord isn’t afraid of doing this kind of thing even today, such as through the commandments of the Word of Wisdom, whereby he gives commandments that actually make us a “peculiar” people. Not that I disagree with the Word of Wisdom, I think there are very good principles of health therein, but there are probably some elements of that commandment, as well as other commandments, that leave room for disagreement. Hence, the Lord can guage our commitment to the Gospel by how closely we follow the commandements where there is room for disagreement, but yet we still keep the commandments with fulness of heart.

  9. Polygamy is one aspect of LDS doctrine that requires a lot of faith for some of us, especially women (married or not). In particular the recent connection of abuse with polygamy colors my view of the practice. It seems like I’ve seen and heard a lot about this topic in the past few weeks–the other day there was a History Channel or similar doc about it on TV. And you’ve probably heard about the Tom Hanks-HBO child Big Love, which is premiering on Sunday, and the Church’s
    official response. I don’t have HBO but I’m interested to see how the show is received.

    And…I have no answers re: polygamy’s place but I do think about it from time to time. For me, it’s up there with how eternity works. I just don’t know. “I know that God loveth his children. Nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”

    P.S. Marc Bohn, are you the Marc Bohn that I know?

  10. Thank you all for the responses. I was, of course, viewing the issue through my 21st century eyes.

  11. I am a descendant of one of George Q. Cannon’s many wives, but I do not share Matt’s admiration of the practice of which i am a product. I find it to be indefensible and deeply troubling. I recently read Brother Bushman’s “Rough Stone Rolling” and came away even more deeply troubled by the practice, and Joseph Smith’s participation in it with women of various ages and marital status. Try bringing that up in your next Gospel Doctrine class and see how people react.

    Like it or not, polygamy is very much a part of our CURRENT theology, and we cannot push it under the rug. Contrary to what some have said, it is not just ancient history, and it is also in our future. Ask any widow who has been unable to get re-married because she was sealed to her deceased husband — while men can (and regularly do) get sealed to more than one wife. That is a current practice that is more than just a vestige of polygamy. Many believe that polygamy will be practiced in the hereafter. I try not to think about it.

    We have to be more honest with others and ourselves than to simply brush it off as a “peculiar past.”

  12. Porter, when you say our current theology, you are talking about celestial sealings in heaven, not polygamy on the earth. If we are to practice plural marriage in the heavens, don’t you think that we will be given a much better understanding of the practice, perhaps even greater knowledge and perspective, and possibly even more direction regarding such a practice if it is to be instituted in the heavens? Do you feel it would be productive to have a discussion on that topic given that we don’t have much solid revelation on the practice of plural marriage in the hereafter (other than that we do have a vestige of the practice via multiple sealings and some discourses by early church leaders – would you consider that to be enough “solid” revelation to really come to any definite conclusions on the matter?)

    I, like you, try not to think about it too much. Not because I have a moral dilemma with the concept of plural marriage, but more because I don’t have really solid references to fall back on to support a definitive position. I understand the concept, and I understand that if there will be an unequal ratio of male to female individuals, then something has to be done to allow everyone to enter into a marriage covenant and to have children in heaven. However, our social perceptions and pre-conceptions of what earthly polygamy is and does to mortal human beings taints the topic of plural marriage in heaven.

  13. I am descended from Mormon polygamists and openly acknowledge it as part of my heritage. Like Porter #13 I find it “deeply troubling and indefensible.”

    I think that the Prophet Joseph Smith was human and had many weaknesses. I do not think that his introduction of this practice of plural marriage was right and I do not think it was from God. I admit that I am no expert and pretend no special revelation on the topic and I could be wrong. But that is what years of study in this difficult area (and direct exposure to a few who escaped the practice) has lead me to conclude. Here is why.

    First, Joseph violated his marriage covenant with his wife Emma. We can quibble how much she accepted it or knew at any given time. But it would be wrong to claim that she embraced it with zeal. Second, it involved other men’s wives; sometimes with their consent, sometimes behind their backs while they were far away on missions. It involved switching husbands. It involved teenagers before the age when they were legally capable of making these decisions. It involved mothers and daughters married to the same man. And possibly even more revolting arrangements, if that was not enough. It was socially disruptive. One might argue that it got Joseph killed.

    It gave modern Mormonism a “black eye” that follows us today, now 116 years since the Manifesto. I stood on the doorstep of a man in Japan in 1977 who berated me for this practice before two sisters, both recent converts. (Yes, back then we were allowed to go on “splits” with two local branch sister missionaries in place of our companion). The two sisters lost their testimonies of the Restoration that day and I could not do enough to counter it. I didn’t even know what the Japanese word (iputasai) for polygamy was until then.

    In Pioneer Utah it had a negative impact on the birth rate, as monogamous women had more children than polygamist women. I think it degraded women, but it also in a paradoxical way enpowered them when the shared husband seldom came around and they had to learn to fend for themselves on the frontier. It resulted in bitter feuds, including some in my family, that lingered for generations. This lead many out of the church including the vast majority of the children of the younger plural wives of many of the 19th century leaders such as Brigham Young and John Taylor. I don’t think it created nearly as much strength within the church (if any at all) as it drove the children of the covenant out in massive dissention.

    The federal government, due largely to polygamy, stopped Mormon immigration into the Great Basin at a time when the church could not really become established outside the Deseret strongholds. This severely limited the number of multi-generational Utah Pioneer families we have as a bulwark in the church today and limited the ultimate size of the church if expotential growth does not continue. This inability for many 19th century converts in foreign lands to come to Utah negated much of the success bought at an enormous sacrifice by Mormon missionaries of the time.

    The quarrel with the federal government over polygamy impoverished the church and resulted in the systematic deprivation of many civil rights and thereby threatened the Constitution, at least indirectly. We Mormons heap blame upon the federal government at that time, but we have little comprehension and take no responsibility for how we brought these ills upon ourselves by not complying with the law of the land as instructed in the 12th Article of Faith. Capitulation on polygamy 20 years eariler than the 1890 Manifesto would have avoided most of this suffering. What exactly did we gain for those two decades of stubbornness?
    What bothers me the most is that today we are hardly free from this plague. Estimates vary but what I read is that at the dawn of the 21st century, 30,000 to 50,000 people are trapped in a polygamist cult lifestyle. More people than ever lived in Nauvoo. It is lifestyle that is fundamentally incompatible with modern life. We see the incest and abuse; physical, sexual, emotional, educational, lack of health care, etc. We hear of the “poofers,” the 14-15 year old girls who disappear into secret marriages to have many children by old men they initially are loath to even touch, before they are old enough to make adult decisions and thus are trapped. We see the “lost boys,” those hundreds of teenagers kicked out of their isolated communities without any skills who become street urchins and drug addicts. We see the welfare rolls of western states bulging with the thousands who “bleed the beast” and won’t accept any basic responsibility to care for their families. How can all of this putrid wickedness be justified?

    The problem grows worse every year. High birth rates in polygamist communities do not explain all of their rapid growth. The polygamists are quite sucessful at recruiting new converts from the looney bins of modern Mormonism. Some can say with complete assurity when plural marriage was approved by God and when the divine approval was withdrawn. But thousands of others have not been so enlightened by the heavens and persist in the practice. Thousands more are persuaded or rather confused every year, when it was and when it was not commanded by God and join their ranks. How does a rational person raised within the shadow of a polygamist cult differentiate between accounts of the First Vision of Joseph Smith (I presume most on this site accept as valid) and the accounts of an 1886 Vision of John Taylor in Kaysville (I presume most on this site accept as confabulation) when it is claimed that the Savior appeared and instituted the perpetuation of secret polygamy beyond the Manifesto into modern times by the forerunners of these numerous modern cults? Powerful spiritual revelations and confirmations are claimed for both.

    I don’t care what fanciful justification that church intellectuls and polygamy apologists create. None of it can justify the suffering we see today from the perpetuation of this practice.

    What are we doing today to stop it? Put the responsibility back onto an ineffective state and federal government? This our problem. Could we, as a Mormon people, do more?

    Might I suggest one little thing, that of taking this position: plural marriage was wrong, is wrong and always was and always will be wrong? This morally unambigious and simple-to-understand position might make it so much more difficult for the polygamists to recruit from within our ranks and then this source of growth and financial support might dry up. We will soon ask most of those converts in Latin America to give up the notion that they are genetic descendents of the children of the Book of Mormon when the local geography perspective reaches wide acceptance; maybe we can ask the descendants of Mormon Pioneer polygamists (like me) to make a similar sacrifice and give up the notion that we are descended from such morally courageous and admirable folks as we paint the pioneer ancestor to be, instead of the deluded outlaws that they were, at least in this one area.

    I realize that in 1844, when the Prophet Joseph was murdered, (and thereafter) acceptance of polygamy (by those few who were privileged to know about it) was the crucial litmus test of their faith. Those who accepted it, including one of my ancestors, went west with Brother Brigham. I am thankful to them for being born into this community. As for those who did not accept it, they stayed in the midwest and some became part of the RLDS now called Community of Christ. Polygamy was a test that I, now “enlightened” with a contemporary perspective of where it would lead, could not pass.

  14. Porter and Mike,

    We shouldn’t treat polygamy as our “peculiar past,” and polygamy isn’t always wrong. As Jacob explained to his people, God usually requires men to have but one wife, and concubines none, but he sometimes commands otherwise. (Jacob 2:27-30) Polygamy has been immoral since God revoked the exception.

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