Aaron Johnson’s big mistake
On March 1, 1857 Aaron Johnson defied a revelation of Joseph Smith by marrying 14-year-old Julia Johnson.1 It is true that, at age fifty, he was old enough to be her grandfather. It is also true that he already had eight other wives. It is also true that on the same day he was also married and sealed to Cecelia Sanford, age 15 and Sarah James, age 19. Regrettably, it is also true that Julia was Aaron’s own niece. But those weren’t the real offenses. The reality was that Julia was the sister of four of Aaron’s wives and this was in direct opposition to revelation of Joseph Smith.
The ban of being married to multiple sisters was revealed to Joseph Smith in 1843 and told by William Clayton. Both Clayton and Smith were interested in marrying 17-year-old Lydia Moon but Clayton had the distinct advantage of being married to Lydia’s two older sisters. The addition of Lydia to his household would have made for complete marital and sisterly bliss and harmony. But, alas, it was not to be. Clayton and Smith’s conversation over the matter was recorded by a dejected but faithful Clayton in his journal.2
He said the Lord had revealed to him that a man could only take 2 of a family except by express revelation and as I had said I intended to take Lydia he made this known for my benefit. to [sic] have more than two in a family was apt to cause wrangles and trouble. He finally asked if I would not give L to him I said I would so far as I had any thing to do in it. He requested me to talk to her.
Perhaps Aaron Johnson was unaware of Smith’s revelation when he exceeded the authorized limit of sisters in marrying Julia. Perhaps it was just habit. He had started marrying into the Johnson family in 1844 with his 20-year-old niece Sarah. A year and a half later he married her 14-year-old sister Mary. He then married their sisters 15-year-old Harriet and 17-year-old Eunice. By 1957 marrying Johnsons was a regular pattern.
As sobering as these details are, we find that there must be an explanation for people like Aaron Johnson. As a Nauvoo polygamist, he entered the practice of celestial marriage early in LDS history. He wasn’t a religious outcast. Just seven years prior to his marriage to Julia he had led a company of Mormon pioneers from Kanesville, Iowa to the Salt Lake Valley.3 In 1956 he is mentioned as being a Bishop in Springville, Utah.
Although the record is fairly quiet on Aaron Johnson there is no indication he was reprimanded for his incest. He doesn’t even seem to have received a slap on the hand for marrying too many sisters from the same family (his own family, to be specific). What appears to be wanton behavior (a fifty-year-old marrying three teenagers on the same day!) seems to have been simply passed over. Or perhaps it was simply the mainstream behavior of the time.
There is no doubt in my mind that the history of polygamy upsets LDS. I can relate to feelings of being upset about charges brought against my faith from people of other religions. One of the most frequent charges that I hear directed towards Evangelicals from LDS is the charge of the Great Apostasy. It is never fun to be on the receiving end of “historical dissection with an agenda.” Please know that my intention is not to ridicule or hurt LDS. I love the LDS people very much. I don’t know any Mormons that would behave the way Aaron Johnson did and believe that Mormons today find his behavior just as strange and difficult to understand as I do. The reason I discuss him is not to cast a shadow on today’s LDS; it is to attempt to place a finger upon the pulse of the past. Just as the LDS believe the Great Apostasy caused a removal of authority and priesthood, I believe that polygamy in the early LDS church is a sign of apostasy.
In Tad Callister’s book The Inevitable Apostasy he describes the wickedness within the church hierarchy as a cause of the apostasy of the early church. He quotes Erasmus as saying that few priests were chaste. Some had fallen into lust and incest (p. 269). They “‘do not refrain from contact with wine and women’” (p. 276). He quotes the bishop of Torcello, “‘The morals of the clergy are corrupt; they have become an offense to laity’” (p. 275). Monks accused other monks of preaching chastity but then keeping concubines for themselves (p. 275). While the sins that he mentions are somewhat varied, the theme of sexual sins is prevalent and, to Callister, is a clear mark of their apostasy. He concludes, saying:
The foregoing are tragic indictments of the church and its clergy. Does it seem plausible that God would allow men of this caliber, in these proportions, to be the chosen vessels of his Church? One cannot help but recall the words of Peter concerning Church leaders, names, that they should be “ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3) (p. 280).
No one is perfect but God. We shouldn’t demand perfection from clergy or anyone else, but we should expect a reasonable showing of good fruit among the religious leadership. “One would not expect perfection of them, but one would expect them to be morally clean, to be humble, to be devoted to their flock” (p. 281).
I couldn’t help but compare Callister’s presentation of the apostasy to the polygamy of the early LDS church. Although the laity was involved in celestial marriage, the church leadership were especially eager in their participation and their engagement of teenage brides. It is all but impossible not to view this as licentious and immoral. Not to mention, in the case of Bishop Aaron Johnson and his nieces, it was incestuous. Is this the church that God restored to the earth?
I would have to echo the words of Jesus: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).
1. For more complete genealogical data for these people see familysearch.org.
2. Smith, G. D. (2008). Nauvoo polygamy (p. 234). Salt Lake City: Signature Books
3. LDS Church History Library has the record of this journey here.