Mormon History

Benjamin Winchester Testimony - 1889

The Salt Lake Tribune

September 22, 1889


Personal Narrative of It by Mr. Benjamin Winchester.


How he repudiated Polygamy -- Joseph Smith and His Capacity for Deceit, Lewdness and Confidence Games -- The Contradicting Revelations -- An Absorbing Narrative.

It was in the month of February, 1833, when I a boy, not quite sixteen years of age, living with my parents in Elk Creek township, Erie county Pennsylvania, that two Mormon Elders came into our neighborhood. Their names were John Boyington and E[v]en Green. Like many other sensational proselyters they created a great deal of interest upon the subject of religion and succeeded in making a considerable number of converts there, among whom were my parents and myself and several relatives. In November of the same year I left my parents and went to Kirtland, Ohio, which place at that time had been designated as the rendezvous of the Saints. Soon after my arrival there I made my home with Sidney Rigdon. Following that time and prior to the beginning of May, 1834, the Mormons organized what they termed "Zion's camp." This organization was effected with the understanding that they were to fight their way, if deemed necessary to redeem Zion. More than 200 left, then, I among them, on that expedition to Missouri, During that trip, Joseph Smith who was of course at the head, had a number of revelations, all beginning with his stereotyped formula, "thus saith the Lord," and the belief he imparted to the company was that the Lord would protect us all, and if necessary to gain a crossing of the Missouri River, it would open its waters and let us over, even as the Red Sea was reputed to have opened in ancient times. When we reached Clay county, Missouri, Joseph stated to me that he had received another revelation that this Zion's camp programme was simply a matter of the Lord's will


Of the Saints and that it was not the Lord's will that they should go into Jackson county then but that He had expected this offering as a tribute to their faith and the Zion's camp expedition was then abandoned. Joseph said at that time that the keys of the kingdom had been given to him through the angels, Peter, James and John, and that he himself had finished his work so far as a complete organization of the church was concerned. He then, in a conference ordained David Whitmer to be his successor in case of accident to himself. Whitmer, by the way, as the world knows, repudiated Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the polygamous doctrine that came after this time. Directly after the majority of us returned to Kirtland the best way we could get there -- it was a good deal like "every fellow for himself and the devil take the hindmost." When I returned to Kirtland the temple was nearly completed, and during that winter -- 1835 and 1836 -- its dedication occurred. That ceremony ended in a drunken frolic -- one of the worst I ever saw. Joseph Smith


And his father and brother, Hyrum, begged that the wine should be taken away, so that the carousal might be stopped as soon as possible. I did not know Joseph to be what is termed a "common sot," but that was not the last time I saw him intoxicated.

After that dedication the Mormons organized what they termed "the school of prophets." A revelation prior to that time had given Oliver Cowdery the privilege of nominating the twelve apostles of the Church. About the time of this organization there was a good deal of scandal prevalent among a number of the Saints concerning Joseph's licentious conduct, this more especially among the women. Joseph's name was then connected with scandalous relations with two or three families. Apparently to counteract this he came out and made a statement in the Temple, before a general congregation that he was authorized by God Almighty to establish His Kingdom -- that he was God's prophet and God's agent, and that he could do whatever he should choose to do, therefore the Church had


Anything he did, or to censure him, for the reason that he was responsible to God Almighty only. This promulgation created a great sensation -- a schism occurred and a large portion of the first membership, including the best talent of the Church, at once withdrew from it. This was during the summer of 1836.

In the autumn of 1837 Joseph received a revelation especially concerning Kirtland. It was to be the great center of the world. Kings and queens were to come there from foreign lands to pay homage to the Saints. It was to be the great commercial point of the universe, and on the strength of this revelation the famous bank there was started. A boom of huge proportions was then inaugurated, and it became so great that a large number of Gentiles in the surrounding country were attracted, and they came by scores and hundreds, and depleted their savings, taking receipts or checks, as we would call them now. I have seen men come there with large quantities of Mexican dollars, even in the night, and they would wake up Sidney Rigdon, the


For the purpose of making deposits, seemingly with the belief that there was a big thing in it. Joseph was president, and Rigdon was cashier of the concern. This went on until the bank had absorbed a large proportion of the money in that section of the country, and a considerable number of people began to find out that they had some need of some of their deposits. When the demands for redemption began to accumulate the deposits were paid in the paper of an almost defunct bank at Monroe, Michigan, which the schemers had bought. Of course the depositors soon became uneasy after finding that their checks were paid in worthless bank notes of the bank of Monroe, and when the prospect of mob violence became apparent, Smith, Rigdon, and a man named Boyd of New York, connected with the first two in the swindle, decamped between sunset and sunrise. The trio had the money and the people had their experience. Soon afterwards came the collapse of Kirtland.

Among the visionary schemes at Kirtland which I well remember was the canal scheme. This was a project to connect Kirtland with


From Lake Erie at the mouth of a small river some five miles away. It is almost needless to say that Joseph's name was first and foremost in this proposed enterprise.

After the collapse at Kirtland, to which I have referred, all of the so-called witnesses to the Book of Mormon, with the exception of the members of the Smith family, left the fold and were never afterwards identified with it at Nauvoo under Joseph Smith, or in Utah under Brigham Young, and two-thirds of the best talent of the Church then left, and never after had any connection with the concern at either place above named.

During this period I will say in extenuation for myself, that I was young, and, like most other youthful religious enthusiasts, I was fanatical as well as credulous. I was induced to believe that many things which seemed to me wrong and absurd would come out right, and with many misgivings about what seemed to be foolish and absurd, I kept on hoping that the outcome would justify the faith I had reposed in the concern.

Still strong in the faith, I was ordained as an elder and started out to preach what I believed to be the first, and pure principles of the Gospel of Christ, and during two or three years of service in that capacity I made more converts than any half dozen of the leading elders of the entire Church.

When, as I have stated, Joseph fled from Kirtland in the night, he, with his brother Hiram, and Sidney Rigdon, went to Missouri. Not long after their arrival there they were driven out by a mob and came to Nauvoo, Illinois, which became a common rendezvous for the Saints from Kirtland, from Missouri and from every other place in which they had gathered in any considerable number. In the winter of 1839 and 1840 Smith, in company with Rigdon and with Porter Rockwell, acting as a sort of body guard,


That were after them, acting for the State of Ohio, on the charge of criminal practice at Kirtland, and they came to Philadelphia where I was stationed and where I was stake president. There they remained with me in the best degree of secrecy that could be maintained. Smith and I slept in the same bed and Porter Rockwell occupied a bed near the foot of our couch in the capacity of a body guard for the "prophet." It was there and at that time that I had a good opportunity to study the character of the "prophet." It then began to be apparent to me that he was tyrannical by nature, a libertine, in short a gross, sensual, corrupt man, but I was then still young and hopeful and it remained for events in a few brief years thereafter to fully open my eyes to the gigantic delusion I had been drawn into.

During the time of Smith's sojourn with me in Philadelphia we visited quite a number of members of the Church there. Among them was a Mrs. Smith, foreman or forewoman of a glove factory, and some eight or ten girls were working in that factory who were, like Mrs. Smith, members of the Church. Smith, after several silly flirtations with the girls which I witnessed and which created


And caused me some trouble, finally became enamored with Mrs. Smith and induced her and two girls to leave there and go to Nauvoo. I subsequently met Mrs. Smith at Nauvoo, when she told me that she had lent Joseph all of her money and he had gotten her married to a man by the name of Debble -- that through the "prophet" she had lost her all and was reduced to a condition of abject poverty. But to repeat all I heard at Nauvoo in the way of complaints of poor people who had been


In the same way by the prophet would take a great deal of your time and mine.

Up to the year 1843 "spiritual marriage" or polygamy had never been preached or inculcated as a doctrine of the church. Prior to that year my experience had been that the church was fully as strict and as pure with respect to virtue and morality as any other religious organization. In the autumn of 1843 I moved my family to Nauvoo and I there became fully conscious of the new departure of the prophet in regard to the polygamous doctrine which he sought to ingraft into the church. In the preceding year John C. Bennett, a sleek plausible man, came to Nauvoo. An adept in flattery, he soon became intimate and influential with the "prophet." He developed into a noted libertine and this characteristic eventually bore fruit as his connection with his friend Joseph Smith, for the polygamy doctrine was not long after promulgated. That winter there was a great deal of excitement in Nauvoo over the doctrine of "spiritual marriage," as it was then called, but which was really polygamy. In our social gatherings many were opposed to it while a considerable number favored it. Hyrum Smith, the elder brother of Joseph, had always been a particular friend of mine. He came to see me when I was convalescing after illness and said he had been strenuously opposed to polygamy until he had become convinced that it was the will of the Lord, and advised me to cease my opposition to it. I told him I could not do it for the reason that a very strong point of the 'Latter Day Saints' doctrine was in condemnation of it and the Book of Mormon emphatically condemned it and that it was a violation of nature's laws. In a conversation with Hyrum subsequently, when I spoke to him about the numerical equality of the male and the female sexes he explained that that difficulty could in time be surmounted


Of surplus men who should be "hewers of wood and drawers of water," and that the church dignitaries and the more worthy brethren would be left the choice of plenty of women. Subsequently Joseph Smith sent for me and explained it in as plausible a manner as he could and requested me to take a mission and go to Southern cities saying that it was the command of the Lord. At this time Joseph, Hyrum and Sidney Rigdon and some other officials of the Church imparted to me their theory of just what they intended to do and that was to get out from under the authority of the Government of the United States so that they might be able to establish a kingdom and government of their own where they could have the power and privileges of practicing the doctrine of polygamy with no authority to interfere or molest them.

It was a subject of common talk among many good people in Nauvoo that many of the elders were sent off on missions merely to get them out of the way, and that Joseph Smith, John C. Bennett and other prominent Church lights had illicit intercourse with the wives of a number of the missionaries, and that the revelation on spiritual marriage, i.e. polygamy, was gotten up to protect themselves from scandal. Of the open scandal concerning


With married women by Joseph Smith, Bennett and others I forbear to speak, for those women have, I believe passed away and some of their descendants now live in this city and Territory.

Joseph was very bitter in some of his public discourses relative to the talk among people about his lewdness, especially the women gossipers. On one occasion he said these women deserved to be threshed. One of the brethren, Badlam by name, took his suggestion in a literal sense: he went home from the meeting and gave his wife a severe whipping, which circumstance became the talk of the town.

The Book of Mormon was written up about the time of the excitement upon the subject of Free Masonry in Western New York. I think any one who has read that book will agree with me that it condemns Masonry, for it certainly condemns secret societies. About the time that the polygamy revelation was received, Smith and Bennett, in connection with old Dr. Modesa, secured a charter from the Grand Masonic Lodge of Illinois and started a lodge in Nauvoo. They got nearly all the leading men into the lodge and then began to admit indiscriminately, taking in boys even. Their lodge work became so scandalous that the Grand Lodge revoked their charter, but they continued to run their local organization just the same. In this connection I will say that I have more than once heard the statement made that Joseph was shot at the instigation of enraged members of the Masonic order, but I do not personally know of this.

Thus it was in nearly everything as it was in this Masonic business; inconsistency following upon inconsistency in rapid succession. The doctrines and practice of one day were set aside for something new and contradictory on the next day. From almost the very beginning of the church up to the time of Smith's death the word of the Lord today became half-forgotten history on the morrow.


In regard to Joseph's literary work -- his "translations" -- I well remember some of it at Kirtland. They had there in the temple some Egyptian mummies, four of them I am positive. From one of them Joseph had taken a scroll lettered over with what purported to be Egyptian characters. It was kept on exhibition in a glass case. To this scroll Joseph applied his peep-stone or "Urim-Thummim" and made out a translation purporting to be a vision of Abraham in which the modern theory that the world is round and that it revolves was sustained against the ancient theory prior to the time of Galileo. It also purported to enlarge upon the Biblical account of the creation of the world and to make clear the solar system. I am not sure whether this work was ever published or not. 

I observe that THE TRIBUNE has made mention of some of my literary work. Many Mormons in Salt Lake doubtless remember about my publications, some of which are still in use among the Josephites. I was on the Times and Seasons at Nauvoo only for a brief time after the death of Carlos Smith, brother of Joseph. John Taylor afterwards took hold of that publication.


I knew the Smith family well and was on very intimate terms with its members. Joseph's parents were good people. The mother's great weakness was her faith in Joseph and her ambition for the success of his work which has wrought but little good and an infinite amount of mischief and misery. Hyrum, the eldest brother, I always had a high regard for, and I deeply regretted when he went off into the advocacy of polygamy, swayed as he was by his brother Joseph's unhallowed ambition. The other members of the family were Samuel H., William, Carlos, Lucy, and one or two more daughters. Lucy was a bright-looking girl and a true woman -- the youngest of the family. Joseph did all in his power to make her accept the polygamous doctrine, promising her that she would be chief among the women of the church, offering to raise her in the dignity of priestess, but all to no purpose, she would have none of it. She married a man by the name of Milliken, I believe. and the last I heard of her, some years ago, she was living in Harrison county, Iowa. It is full forty-five years since she repudiated the so-called religion of her brother. The brothers, Samuel H., and Carlos, I always regarded as good men, Joseph and William were the two black sheep of the flock. The widow of Carlos repudiated Mormonism away back in the forties. She was a most estimable woman.

Joseph Smith had a fair degree of dramatic talent by nature and he was cut out by nature for a writer of fiction. Although not an educated man he had a wonderful capacity for weaving and unraveling plots. I believe that the Book of Mormon was mainly the production of the brains of himself and Cowdery, and by chain of events and reasoning, I say most emphatically that I do not believe that the Spaulding manuscript was utilized in any way in making up that book. Joseph was away behind Brigham Young in executive ability; he could not hold his adherents together as did Brigham and he was almost constantly in trouble over dissensions and frequent schisms in the Church. His pictures, which I see in windows and cabinets here, flatter him very much. The photographs do not show the peculiar shape of his head, especially the retreating forehead which any observer of the man in life could not fail to notice. He was possessed with an inordinate degree of vanity and was quite susceptible to flattery. He was a perfect adept in the use of abusive and obscene language.


Referring to myself, I left the Church in 1844 and went into business in Pittsburg, Pa., where I remained for something over nine years. In 1854 I removed to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which city has ever since been my home. My parents came to Utah with the Mormons in 1848, and they both died here. My only surviving brother, living in this country with his family, repudiated Mormonism several years ago. I am not altogether a stranger in this locality, having been here in comparatively early days. I was here last about sixteen years ago.


If I may be pardoned for digression I will remark here that Joseph Smith, once in the presence of my mother at Nauvoo, when walking across the room with his hands clasped behind him as was his habit when in deep meditation, broke out in a tirade against Brigham Young and he wound up with this expression, "If Brigham Young ever gets control of the church he'll run it to the devil." It was the only prophecy Joseph ever made which has come anywhere near literal fulfillment.

The Mormon organization is the most artfully devised system in modern times for enriching the few from the result of the toil and privation of the many, and a most deplorable feature of it is that the system paralyses free thought and free agency.


I am well advanced in years, being now seventy-two, but I hope to live to see the offensive features of Mormonism completely removed -- its one man political power completely broken. I hope the younger Mormons, at least, will soon realize the folly and fraud to which they are environed, and come out boldly as free men to the end that they may become worthy citizens of this great republic. To me it is as clear as the light of the noonday sun that no adherent of this Mormon Church can be worthy of the privileges of an American freeman, for by adherence to the power of the priesthood and to the obligations a member of the Church must assume, he is clearly in a position that is utterly and wholly antagonistic to the institutions and government of our common country.