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Aaron Johnson’s big mistake

December 6, 2009

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
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.

51 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2009 7:29 am

    I don’t get it Stephanie. Are you trying to make the case that Joseph Smith was a legitimate prophet, but that the LDS Church apostatized from his teachings?

  2. December 6, 2009 1:32 pm

    Isn’t Aaron Johnson your great-great-something, Seth?

  3. December 6, 2009 4:12 pm

    Yeah. I come from Jane Scott.

    I just emailed my mom. She’s got a big hardcover copy of the Johnson Family History in her basement. Back when my great grandmother (maiden name Margaret Johson) was still alive, we used to accompany her to the massive Johnson Family Reunion held out in Springville yearly to this day.

    Aaron Johnson was one of the polygamists from the “Nauvoo period.” He was a close friend of Brigham Young and made multiple trips across the Great Plains assisting other Mormon wagon trains. He wasn’t just a bishop in Springville, he founded the town under Brigham Young’s instructions.

    I’m not particularly vested in whether Aaron was right or wrong in particulars. Although I do find trying to conjure up set-in-stone Mormon doctrine out of a highly personal and unpublished revelation recorded only in someone’s diary to be just a bit sketchy.

  4. Stephanie permalink
    December 6, 2009 4:26 pm

    Although I do find trying to conjure up set-in-stone Mormon doctrine out of a highly personal and unpublished revelation recorded only in someone’s diary to be just a bit sketchy.

    I’m very sorry, Seth. I had no idea this was a relative of yours. I’ll take down this post if you want. I had no intention of offending you.

    My own family were polygamists. One of my great-great grandfathers immigrated to America with his wife. They had 6 kids together before they left on the wagon trains to Salt Lake City. Before he left he married a teenage bride. I believe he was in his fifties at the time. The teenager that he married became my great-great grandmother. Another of my great-great grandpas married sisters (two of them, only). He was sealed to another sister after she died.

    I had no intention of bringing up your family history. I’ll take it down if you want.


  5. December 6, 2009 5:24 pm

    Disturbing. This practice is so disturbing, I don’t see how anyone can read this and not be disturbed. Thank God we live in a day and time where men who do this kind of thing are arrested. This account completely flies in the face of the “common” misconception many LDS have that plural marriage was practiced because their were so many widows and older women left without husbands…….. hmmm………

    All one has to do is go online and search the geneological records to see that this was not the case.

    Those poor young women were victiminzed.

    So sad,

  6. December 6, 2009 6:30 pm

    I was wondering if this post was meant to bait Seth (here’s where he blogged about his ties to Aaron Johnson). Glad to hear that it wasn’t.

  7. Stephanie permalink
    December 6, 2009 7:56 pm

    Honestly I had no clue Jack. Thanks for the link. Seth obviously has a much better person history of Johnson than I do.

  8. December 6, 2009 8:19 pm

    I believe you, Stephanie.

    Kind of a funny coincidence, when you think about it. I mean, how many other great-great-grandchildren of Aaron Johnson are cavorting around the Internet getting into smackdowns with evangelicals? And here you decided to blog about the man. Must be your lucky day.

    I actually find the post fascinating though. I know who William Clayton is and I’d heard of Aaron Johnson from Seth, but I hadn’t heard the William Clayton quote concerning Lydia Moon.

    Assuming Clayton’s account of what JS told him is accurate, it’s really hard to avoid the conclusion that JS simply made up new rules to govern polygamy as he went along, whatever helped him get what he wanted at the time. Then again, I’d never heard of Lydia Moon as a wife of JS. She wasn’t on Todd Compton’s list and didn’t make the list at Wives of Joseph

    The data on Aaron Johnson is interesting. I’m more interested in the fact that no one batted an eye at his marriages. Weren’t there any considerations or rules protecting women in polygamy other than easy access to divorces?

    Ah well. Like we really needed another episode of me being disturbed by the way 19th century polygamy was practiced.

  9. Stephanie permalink
    December 6, 2009 8:48 pm

    I believe you, Stephanie.

    I’m glad you believe me! I hope Seth does, too. Again, I will take down this post if it is offensive to him. The reason that I posted on Aaron Johnson was that I had read the quote about Clayton and wondered if there were other polygamists who had married multiple sisters. I have a copy of Nauvoo Polygamy and the appendix in the back lists the polygamist men from Nauvoo and their wives. I thumbed through the men and hit a gold mine with Johnson. The five women with the last name “Johnson” was a dead give away. It wasn’t until I got on that I realized they were also related to Aaron.

    Then again, I’d never heard of Lydia Moon as a wife of JS. She wasn’t on Todd Compton’s list and didn’t make the list at Wives of Joseph

    Lydia didn’t marry Clayton or Smith. She apparently told Smith that she had promised her mother that she wouldn’t marry while her mother lived. But after Smith died she married James Clayton (William Clayton’s brother) in 1847. Her mother was alive at the time and would live another 5 years after her marriage. Sounds like Lydia was just making excuses for not wanting to marry Smith (Smith, 2008, p. 234).

  10. December 6, 2009 9:21 pm

    Stephanie, the thought briefly passed my mind that I was being baited (uncharitable jerk that I am). But I quickly dismissed it as unlikely.

    And let’s be honest here. Aaron Johnson’s history isn’t something I really can claim any sole-ownership of. He was a public LDS figure in the founding history. He belongs to everyone. You probably can’t go anywhere in Utah without being within shouting distance of one of his descendants.

    I didn’t find it disturbing and don’t think you need to retract anything (unless of course your facts or context are wrong). If you are still uncomfortable about it, I would suggest shifting the debate to the general church practice of men marrying sisters. It was quite common.

  11. December 6, 2009 9:34 pm

    the thought briefly passed my mind that I was being baited (uncharitable jerk that I am).

    Wait… does that make me an uncharitable jerk for entertaining the same question?

    Oh well. I probably am.

  12. Stephanie permalink
    December 6, 2009 9:42 pm

    Thank you for being gracious, Seth. I wasn’t really intending to make a spectacle of Johnson but more to point out what I believe are systemic problems with 19th century Mormon polygamy.

    You said:
    I don’t get it Stephanie. Are you trying to make the case that Joseph Smith was a legitimate prophet, but that the LDS Church apostatized from his teachings?

    No. What I was trying to point out was that the arguments for apostasy flow both ways. If we are to examine a church by her fruits (as LDS do of the early church / Catholic church of the Dark Ages) we must also examine the LDS church’s roots. I see the evidence of apostasy in the church’s marriage practices.

  13. December 7, 2009 12:41 am

    It’s not just uncharitable jerks who do that kind of stuff Jack. You can pick your own adjectives.

  14. December 7, 2009 12:44 am

    I would choose adjectives for describing myself, but poor Jessica has asked me so many times not to swear on her blog…

  15. December 7, 2009 1:51 am

    I have??? When was that? 🙂

  16. December 7, 2009 2:23 am

    BTW, Seth, your G-G-Grandpa had serious game.

  17. December 7, 2009 2:50 am

    Incidentally, I find it rather disrespectful of early LDS women to reduce their entire identity and place in history to that of “victim.”

    It’s not a label that applied very well to most Mormon women of that period that I’ve read of.

  18. Stephanie permalink
    December 7, 2009 4:39 am

    Incidentally, I find it rather disrespectful of early LDS women to reduce their entire identity and place in history to that of “victim.”

    I mostly agree with you. I think we can’t put all of these women into the same category. There were many kinds of women that married into polygamy. The early LDS weren’t born into polygamy so they didn’t have that mindset when they embraced these doctrines. In some ways comparing them to the FLDS isn’t accurate. The FLDS have had years of “living the principle” and their women are extremely uneducated, have no access to the outside world and have been completely brainwashed. The early LDS would have been approaching polygamy with a very different viewpoint. I think there were probably as many different responses to polygamy as there were women. The story of Louisa Beaman, one of Joseph Smith’s first plural wives, doesn’t really sound like victimization to me. Any woman who is willing to dress up in men’s clothes and go out in public to be married to a married man is someone who is probably making her own decisions. But, then, she was in her mid-twenties and there is no report of manipulation in her story.

    I feel differently about the women who had parents that pressured them–like Helen Mar Kimball. Age is an issue for me as well. And it is not so much an issue of teenager vs. a woman of “marriageable age.” There are many historical accounts of teenagers marrying–this was fairly common practice. But old men marrying very young women is a different matter. I think that victimization could definitely occur here. It is hard to think of a young teenager being physically attracted to men in their 50s and 60s. I know that when I was 14 people in their 30s seemed ancient. [Now they are starting to seem less so! :-)] Were these young brides even given a choice?

    Spiritual pressure was also an issue. The revelation of Joseph Smith to a married Zina Huntington about an angel with a “sword drawn” telling him that he must marry her seems to be excessive pressure to me. I can see that she could have been victimized. On the other hand, I recognize that she was an adult making her own decisions.

    I think that it is wrong to say that the women were subservient little creatures who did whatever the men said. That is not true. I also think, though, that the teenagers were a different matter. I think that there could have been a number of victims of polygamy that were unable to really have a choice about their future because it was forced upon them by their parents. I think that 14- and 15-year-olds of the time would likely have preferred, given the opportunity, to marry someone closer to their own age.

    One person that really is a conundrum to me is Emma Smith. I’ve been reading a book called Mormon Enigma about her life. These LDS authors really paint quite the picture of Emma. I think she was a really smart woman. I also think she had a number of defense mechanisms for dealing with her husband’s polygamy. The very fact that she would remain in Illinois after the death of her husband and report that it was Brigham Young who started polygamy instead of her husband is very telling. I think that polygamy was very difficult for her to deal with. There is one report of Joseph bringing home his copy of the revelation on celestial marriage and giving it to her to read. Apparently she read it and then chucked it in the fireplace. It is no wonder that she needed a specific revelation to her in D&C 132. I don’t think that she was a victim, but I think she is a great example of why polygamy isn’t a good idea. She really suffered under the pressure of having her relief society friends secretly married off to Joseph one at a time.

  19. December 7, 2009 5:35 am

    “It is hard to think of a young teenager being physically attracted to men in their 50s and 60s.”

    Depends on the man, and the woman in question. And the motivations. Some of these women saw this very much as something heroic they were doing for their God. The idea of oneself as a heroic figure is something that is attractive to women of any age and era. This is how Helen Mar Kimball speaks of her own experiences in her later writings on the subject.

    And in the case of Joseph, who is to say that there wasn’t some attraction there?

    Charismatic, strong, handsome, favored by God….

    What’s not to like? Aside from him already being married…

    Keep in mind, one of Jane Austen’s most popular romances today involves a 21 year old Emma Woodhouse being courted by a 38 year old George Knightly. And even modern American girls gush about that romance.

    And I’ve heard plenty of women in their twenties make a few approving remarks about Patrick Stewart.

    It really simply depends. We can’t force our own set of pre-conceptions on historical figures. It just doesn’t work.

  20. December 7, 2009 5:44 am

    And I’ve heard plenty of women in their twenties make a few approving remarks about Patrick Stewart Liam Neeson.


  21. December 7, 2009 6:12 am

    All joking aside, I do want to say this: I find it very difficult to believe that a teenage girl age 14-15 could make a completely voluntary, independent decision on marriage to a much older man, especially with so much religious pressure thrown into the mix. I was always adventurous and assertive as a teenager, but even I had a hard time saying “no” to the guys my age who wanted me to go further than I was comfortable with—and they were my age. I can only imagine that it’s much worse with older men whom you feel are wiser than you and whom you look up to as authority figures.

    That does not automatically make the teenagers in question victims, but older-established-man / just-hit-menarche-girl is a dangerously unlevel dynamic. It was a sucky century for women in general, and surely the monogamous counterparts of these women had their own problems, but I am very skeptical of how fair polygamy was on teenage brides.

  22. December 7, 2009 6:49 am

    I think it depends on the person again.

    Look at it this way. I remember reading a National Geographic profile of a family of authentic cowboys. Not a bunch of migrant hands employed by Anheuser-Busch to run cattle herds as a tax-shelter (the majority of American ranching in the Intermountain West today), but an honest-to-goodness family run cattle operation in Wyoming. It was like a window into the past.

    The reporter was especially struck by the oldest son. The article spoke of a boy with a grip of iron, who could birth a calf, manage a herd, and any other number of chores all by himself without supervision. It talked about a calm, assured look and boy who – at age 13 – was already more of of a man than most American men at age 35.

    There were some real harsh realities of life in the 1800s that forced people to grow up far, far earlier than their contemporaries today. Women in 1800s households did an insane amount of work. I remember reading in a history of the Revolutionary War, a typical day for a woman in that time period, and being absolutely staggered at the amount of hard physical labor. Children were forced to work. Because if they didn’t, people starved. There was just too much work to get done. And people had to do it. And if they didn’t do it, there were real consequences. That kind of environment will make you grow up real fast.

    At age 15, a typical 1800s Mormon girl would have been capable of managing an entire household, competently raising and caring for infants and children, and a long hard day of backbreaking labor. At age 15, she would have been, in many ways, more mature than I or most of the women my age that I know. She probably would have been better-equipped in skills and emotional temperament for marriage than most college juniors in America today.

    True, there are actual health threats to a girl who is too young for pregnancy – such as permanently damaging the vaginal canal. But even here, you have to judge it based on the individual in question. Some 15 year olds would have been physically capable of a “safe” pregnancy (as safe as it ever was in those days). Others would not have been.

    Ignorance of medicine would have contributed to the risk of pregnancy in the 19th century and would have prevented people from seeing the real harm posed to young mothers as well. To be honest, pregnancy was such a roll of the dice in the 19th century – even under ideal conditions – that I imagine a lot of people during that time took a rather fatalistic view of the whole thing. If you’re lucky, wife and child survive. If not, well…

    And that was probably as far as most folks thought about it. I’m not sure most men back then would have even been aware of the big risks posed by a young bride. They would have considered the procreative process a bit of a crap-shoot no matter who your bride was.

    And some 15 year olds would have been fully developed physically – enough to bear a child as “safely” as any woman in their community.

    It just depends on the people.

  23. December 7, 2009 6:54 am

    And let’s be honest. No woman in the 19th century ever married completely freely.

    You don’t get a husband and you don’t have a rich dad, you die. Or you go work a brothel.

    Kind of makes things a little bit more stark doesn’t it?

  24. Stephanie permalink
    December 7, 2009 11:28 am

    Keep in mind, one of Jane Austen’s most popular romances today involves a 21 year old Emma Woodhouse being courted by a 38 year old George Knightly. And even modern American girls gush about that romance.

    Ahhh, Seth, you’re my kind of guy. You even got the ages and names right. I’m so impressed. 🙂

    Seriously, though, you wouldn’t make these arguments about women today. I don’t care how mature they were for their age, they were still very young. I agree with you about Joseph Smith–he was good looking, charismatic, and they viewed him as a prophet of God. Brigham Young? Heber C. Kimball? Not so much.

    I’m not sure most men back then would have even been aware of the big risks posed by a young bride.

    Maybe. But 14-year-olds of the time could have looked like pre-pubescent 12-year-olds of today. Skinny and undeveloped. That hardly seems like the ideal wife with “child bearing hips.” What was the rush in getting them married off so quickly–prior to the average age of menarche at the time? I personally think that it was to prevent these women from marrying men their own age.

    It makes my stomach turn a little to see polygamy forced upon young women today. I think it was probably quite similar in the 19th century.

  25. December 7, 2009 2:57 pm

    Those are good points, Seth, but my fear is that you’re creating a situation where we can’t be concerned about potential abuse because all of the warning signs we could look for can be explained away as reasonable.

    I don’t think people in the 1800s were all that ignorant of the greater risks of younger pregnancies. Have you ever read Laurel Ulrich Thatcher’s A Midwife’s Tale? Midwifery back then had issues, but it wasn’t total junk science. The legal age of marriage at the time was 12, but the average age of first marriage (for women) was between 20 and 24 years. My own reading of diary accounts and recollections from the time leads me to think that marrying these girls off before they could take interest in men their age was indeed a factor.

  26. December 7, 2009 3:01 pm

    You don’t get a husband and you don’t have a rich dad, you die. Or you go work a brothel.

    Well, I did say it was a sucky time to be a woman.

    What can I say. I never thought I’d be so glad to have been born in the ’80s.

  27. December 7, 2009 4:26 pm

    A short article on the topic of LDS women’s support of polygamy:

  28. December 7, 2009 8:15 pm

    Ever talk to the modern-day Mormon splinter group polygamists, Seth?

    I’ve yet to meet a polygamist woman who didn’t defend the practice.

  29. December 7, 2009 10:15 pm

    And not all the arguments of the FLDS women are invalid either.

    I was completely outraged by what happened in Texas. Internal abuse or not, those people were unquestionably persecuted by the State of Texas. Those women had every right to try and defend their families.

    That said, I find few real parallels between the FLDS today and Mormon women in the 1800s in Utah. As I’ve outlined before.

  30. December 7, 2009 10:25 pm

    The thought occurs to me that I should be clear about something.

    I don’t have a lot of objections to polygyny in principle. Attempts by evangelicals to say that the Bible forbids it strike me as incredibly weak. The Bible may have discouraged it and it may not have been the ideal, but it certainly wasn’t forbidden. And I think it’s a bit silly that in our society, there is greater cultural and legal baggage when a man lives in a committed relationship with four women at once and takes care of them all than when a man gets four women pregnant and abandons them.

    19th century polygamy had its perks. Women in polygamous marriages had fewer children on average than their monogamous counterparts. That along with access to the sister-wife community for assistance in caring for children allowed polygamous women to enjoy a greater deal of freedom than monogamous women in similar circumstances. Mormons were rather progressive on women’s issues outside of polygamy. It’s been noted many times that Utah was the second state in the nation to give women the right to vote, and it was the first state to elect a female state senator with Martha Hughes Cannon, who ran as a Democrat against her polygamist Republican husband Angus M. Cannon and beat him. IIRC, Congress approved of letting women in Utah have the right to vote because they thought they would use it to vote out polygamy, but when they voted in favor of polygamy, Congress wanted women’s suffrage revoked.

    I have statistics in my notes somewhere (can’t find them right now) listing the average age of marriage for polygamous wives. I’m pretty sure it was between 19 and 22, pretty close to the average age of first marriage for the nation. The teenage brides were the exception, not the rule.

    If early Mormon polygamy had always been an open system of legal marriages to women who were closer to the average age of marriage at the time, which was only done with the consent of all wives involved, I’d have little issue with the way it was practiced.

    I don’t know about the incest thing. My question before passing judgment would be, how common were uncle-niece monogamous marriages in the 1840s and 1850s?

  31. December 7, 2009 10:38 pm

    That said, I find few real parallels between the FLDS today and Mormon women in the 1800s in Utah. As I’ve outlined before.

    That wasn’t my point. I was only trying to say that I’ve heard women defend just about any kind of oppressive system you can name. That early Mormon women stood up for polygamy does not tell us much about whether or not the system was oppressive or abusive.

    I’m not saying that it was oppressive and abusive (at least, not overtly so and not everywhere it was practiced). Just saying that pointing to women defending it is a non-starter.

  32. December 8, 2009 1:30 am

    Well, I mainly pointed it out because how LDS women viewed themselves was a topic in discussion at the time.

    You always have collaborators – true.

  33. December 21, 2009 6:34 am

    My mom wrote back to me on the back story behind Aaron Johnson.

    She’s not really writing to play apologist or anything. Nor does she seem particularly interested in arguing about it (though she has read this post and the comments). Mostly, she’s just providing additional information. Here’s what she wrote me and gave me permission to pass along:

    “Interesting conversation. Here are a few clarifications about Aaron Johnson.

    Aaron was married to his beloved wife Polly in 1827. He married Sarah Johnson, Jane Scott, and Mary Ann Johnson in 1844, 1845, and 1846 respectively. His other marriages were all in the Springville period. Mary Ann was his niece. Sarah likely was, but they would have been cousins, not sisters.

    The four wives were instrumental in helping Aaron outfit the wagon companies that went to the Salt Lake Valley. Aaron was an extremely able man of many talents, and was asked to delay his own migration in order to help others. When their turn came in 1850, Polly, their oldest son Willis, and Sarah all died of cholera during the crossing. Jane’s son Aaron Jr. was born that year, and Jane cared for him as well as the widow and newborn son of Willis. Jane named her first daughter Polly Zerviah after her deceased sister wife. So only Jane and Mary Ann crossed the plains with him, and all his other marriages were in the Springville period. Mary Ann was a defender of plural marriage and delivered lectures on the subject that are very earnest.

    There are a lot of family stories about “living the principle”. Lots of them are positive, some are negative, some are funny. Maybe we should make a movie. One that grandma used to tell is that after the families had their own homes, one of the sister wives would sometimes raid the bishop’s storehouse and take some of the food donated as tithing so she could “set a better table” than the others. I don’t think you could put ten women together today without some level of competition.

    One thing you can’t deny about Aaron Johnson is that he provided for his family, and was an involved father with his children, leading by example. It’s ironic to me that women today are often attracted to men with less than stellar characters, and we wink at their indiscretions and trail of fatherless children. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening come to mind. Warren was an infamous womanizer and was still attractive enough for young, beautiful Annette Bening to marry him. The few Mormons who practiced polygamy to the extent that Aaron and Brigham Young did were honorable men who were committed to doing their duty to their families.

    Here are a few facts about Aaron’s career:

    He was a member of the Nauvoo Legion and volunteered for the Mormon Battalion. As was typical for him he was asked to not join the battalion and instead remain behind as the bishop over the families left behind by the 500 soldiers. (After caring for 500 families, maybe having 12 of his own was a piece of cake!) He served as Justice of the Peace in Nauvoo.

    His first month in Springville, he was appointed chief Justice of Utah County by Brigham Young and served about 15 years. During that time he was appointed Chief Justice to draft the state consititution in 1861.

    He was elected Councillor (Senator) from Utah County in 1851 to the first state legislature. There were 13 members in this first Council, six were from the Quorum of the 12 or the First Presidency. He served 15 out of the next 18 years.

    Aaron was instrumental in conducting Indian Affairs throughout the early years. One story from our family history tells that one custom in that period was when in the Manti area an Indian woman became old, her son would tie her behind a horse and drag her to her death, then leave her for the animals. One young Indian man couldn’t bring himself to do the deed, so he laid his mother on a bed of brush to protect her from the dragging, then left her alive in the wilderness. Some of our Whiting cousins found her moaning and crying and brought her home. They took her to Aaron Johnson in Springville, and he took her in. She lived out her days in comfort with the Johnsons.

    Aaron spent six months camping out in the hills above Springville hiding from prosecution for polygamy. He was made a patriarch after this period.

    Overall, he was unfailingly loyal to the church and served others in a truly Christian manner.”

  34. Stephanie permalink
    December 21, 2009 12:02 pm


    Thank you so much for providing additional information! And thank your mother, too. That was really nice of her to be so willing to provide family information about this man. It certainly was much more detailed and interesting than the information I was getting online!

    I do wonder about the issue of Sarah and Mary Ann not being sisters. lists both their parents as Lorenzo Johnson and Mary Lyman. Lorenzo was Aaron’s older brother. All five of the sisters mentioned above are listed as being the children of Lorenzo and Mary. I’m sure it is possible that familysearch has it wrong. Has it not been family tradition that he married all these sisters?

  35. December 21, 2009 12:32 pm

    Thank your mommy for weighing in for us, Seth.

    I don’t think you could put ten women together today without some level of competition.

    That ain’t true. I can enthusiastically declare that my own sister-wives, Whitney, Katie L., and KatyJane, are all much more talented and prettier than I am and I have zero interest in besting them.

  36. December 21, 2009 3:23 pm

    Stephanie, I wonder about that myself.

    Since the sister-thing was kind of a central point of the original post, and my mom says she read it, I can only assume she looked into it.

    Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time our genealogical records have done stuff like link two people as sisters who weren’t. When I pulled the Johnson family line back in the 1990s, I remember finding someone listed both as a man’s mother, and as his daughter – most certainly a mistake. But there it was, just the same.

    Thing you have to realized about FamilySearch is that it’s kind of like Wikipedia. It’s all user-generated content. If I go on there today and search the records, I might find one person with about 3 different birth dates and locations that different users entered for this same person. Sometimes you can see enough shared data between the entries to form a good sense of when the actual date would have been. And if you feel you have reliable family history data that sheds new light on the existing entries, you can “dispute” them and add your own data.

    The hope is that the truth will out eventually. But you’d better believe there are errors in the works.

    Unfortunately, my mom wasn’t more specific on this point.

  37. December 22, 2009 5:26 am

    I would just like to chime in and say that while I think Jack is being far too humble and generous in how she made her point, I agree that sister-wives don’t necessarily feel the need to compete with each other.

    (And come on, Jack, you really think I could stand a chance against an assassin wife? Please.)

  38. Casey Potter permalink
    March 1, 2011 3:07 am

    I am direct descendant of Isaac “Ike” Smith Potter.. Mr. Aaron Johnson had my ol’ great grand papy accused of several crimes including murder to try to get MARY (the fourteen year old wife of his) well mary had a POTTER baby and that is how we came to be.. So some bishop who thinks he is a judge or whatever. Look it up this is all true statements.. AARON JOHNSON had an innocent man accused of murder for a fourteen year old.. Mary died at birth to my other great grand papy Isaac Smith Potter Jr.. thats the story

  39. Marice Parkes permalink
    August 27, 2011 9:20 pm

    I believe I can set the record straight. I am a direct descendant of Lorenzo Johnson who was the father of Julia Johnson, Eunice Johnson and Harriet Johnson. The mother of Julia, Eunice and Harriet was Lorenzo’s first wife whose name was Mary Lyman Johnson. Mary Lyman had married William Johnson who was an older brother to Lorenzo and Aaron. William died and Mary was left with a small baby. Lorenzo married his brother’s widow and of course accepted the responsibility of little Mary. Little Mary was married to her uncle Aaron shortly after the pioneers left Nauvoo. After they reached Springville, he married Eunice, Harriet and Julia. Mary Lyman Johnson (first wife of Lorenzo Johnson is my great great grandmother. I think polygamy was a despicable practice designed for the benefit of lustful old men.


  40. Robert S. permalink
    April 8, 2012 6:28 pm

    I think this is just to think that my own relatives are hung up on debating their family heritage. I, too, am a descendant of Aaron Johnson, Sr and Jane Scott (Aaron Jr line) and have studied a great deal on the subject of polygamy. What is sad is that Lord will deal with those who disobeyed the law and yet we are casting judgement that is not in our right. We only know what was written and not what was held back. To condemn or go against without complete knowledge of the reasoning at the time. To do so would discredit the teaching s of the Bible and promote atheistic properties. (ex: Abraham, Issac, Jacob, etc…) Study the gospel of Jesus Christ for what it has been through the ages.

  41. May 30, 2012 5:00 pm

    Hi everyone, I am also a descendant of Aaron Johnson by his wife Mary Ann Johnson, who was also his niece and was 25 years younger and married him when she was almost but not quite 15 years old. I don’t know what to say about this practice but it was not uncommon, since I have another ancestor, Daniel Garn at an older age, who married his niece Mahala Garn though she was 19 years old; Another ancestor of my previous husband, Samuel Parkinson was 18 years older than his wife Charlotte Smart who was 17 years old at marriage, and he was also married to her sister Maria at age about 15 years, both on the same day, however he was only about 35 years old.
    So marrying sisters, and marrying nieces and marrying teen women wasn’t confined to Aaron Johnson though he seems to have been on the extreme on all categories. I also find it mystifying and hard to justify. My gr gr grandmother left Aaron later in life and all her descendants were out of the church. That didn’t seem to be beneficial though.

  42. Renae permalink
    June 6, 2012 1:32 am

    I am a descendant of Aaron Johnson from his wife Margaret Jane Ford. Thank you for posting and debating this long-heated topic. I do have one question – in my research I have found a reference that the girls that he married on the same day (that you referred to in your post) had additional details to the story. I wonder if you have come across similar or contradictory details? The story I heard was that the Army was coming and had been overheard to brag about what they were going to do to the Mormon women once they got to Utah. And, being young girls without living family to take care of them and being at the time that there was no way to provide for them, that Aaron Johnson married them but it was more for legal reasons. They lived at his house but he treated them as his daughters not as his wives. Then, when the threat was over, he divorced two of them (the third chose to stay with him) and they continued on with their lives even marrying other men and raising families.

    Have you found any details that could either prove or disprove what I have been told?

    Thanks so much!

  43. June 11, 2012 2:35 pm


    Thanks for the information. I wish I could provide you with more information but it has been a while since I have studied Aaron Johnson’s particular life story. It IS difficult to try to reassemble someone’s life from the bits and pieces that we know of them. One of the best resources that I know of on the topic of early Mormon polygamy is Nauvoo Polygamy (2008) by G.D. Smith. My own ancestors were polygamists and my grandmother told me that a family saying as a result of this was, “The kitchen is only big enough for one woman!” I can’t imagine the family tensions!!


  44. Seth R. permalink
    June 11, 2012 7:49 pm

    Stephanie, G.D. Smith’s book on Nauvoo Polygamy is a rather shoddy piece of scholarship. I would not recommend it as a good source of information on the practice.

    Todd Compton is a much better and more reliable scholar. I’d recommend his work instead.

  45. Seth R. permalink
    June 11, 2012 7:50 pm

    Oh, I forgot to post a link to a review of GD Smith’s book here:

  46. Renae permalink
    June 12, 2012 12:26 am

    Thank you so much for the references to the books. I have been studying other lines and am just now changing my focus to Aaron Johnson. Thank you!

  47. Jeanette permalink
    December 10, 2015 1:56 pm

    I thought this blog post was very informative, well reasoned, and flows logically.
    I have several “points to consider,”…..
    My husband left the church shortly after we got married. His evidence denouncing Joseph Smith was very compelling, but I also felt the evidence from the other side of the debate was compelling.
    My faith wavered, and the doubts crept in. I considered leaving the church too. We were fighting so much. I really wanted to make my new husband happy. I wanted to have peace in my home.
    So, because I felt no one had an answer, I prayed. I thought, “God knows everything. He knows the true motives of all these people. He can tell me if He commanded this or not.”
    God told me Joseph was a true prophet. He wasn’t a false or fallen prophet.
    Needless to say, I stayed in the church, am still married, and still working through all of this with God’s direction.
    God has asked people to do things that seem wrong or indicative of their falling from God’s grace – Abraham killing Isaac (or almost doing it), Jesus rejecting the Gentile woman because she was a Gentile (racism). Yet, we don’t question their faithfulness or standing before God. I find it puzzling that it is so inconceivable that He would ask Joseph to practice polygamy.
    Back to the point…. this argument flows logically, but leaves out one crucial point for me – appearances can be deceiving.

    One more point, because I really need to go….
    We need to be very careful in our judgement of people from the 1800s by our modern standards. Marrying young was not uncommon, and marrying close family was not uncommon either. It was not seen as predatory or incestuous. Like other commenters have said, for some women it was to protect them – women had NO rights before suffrage. In the eyes of the law, they were property. Unless they had a husband, they were non-existent. So, some of these men cared enough for women to give them legal status AND provide for their needs. That was a lot of responsibility to take on.

    These motive were not true for 100% of the men. There were many who used polygamy as a way to control and dominate. My point is that just because something can be used for evil, doesn’t make it evil. Men who are disposed to dominate and abuse women will find some way to do it, polygamy or not.

  48. Julie permalink
    April 5, 2016 2:50 pm

    This is a relative new work (excellently footnoted) on the life of JSJ. It gives the most definitive explanation on how and why polygamy started. It’s not what the LDS church teaches.

  49. Kelly D. permalink
    March 7, 2018 3:10 pm

    Hi there! Came across this article doing research about Aaron Johnson who also happens to be my gg grandfather. Colorful man indeed! Not sure which wife I am descended from, but can probably find info from my cousin. He is the one who told me about him after doing one of those DNA kits. Wow, I must have a ton of cousins. Any more info would be greatly appreciated. Ty

  50. Gordon permalink
    February 29, 2020 8:18 pm

    Hi, I’m a descendant of Aaron Johnson and am looking to reconnect with relatives (or relatives of relatives 🙂 of some folks we met in Springville at a family reunion in 1991. We don’t live in Utah and are not of the faith so I don’t have access to information/contacts. We’d like to know in particular if there continue to be Johnson family reunions. (sorry this post isn’t part of the blog stream here but I’m not internet savvy and am having trouble figuring out how to connect). Thanks, Gordon

  51. Rob F. permalink
    November 8, 2020 2:34 am

    Another possible explanation for where polygamy came from:

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