Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Seduction and Founding of the Mormon Church

On this Valentine's Day, I thought it fitting to write a post that is - sort of - about love.  This explores a simple act of sexual seduction that apparently occurred almost 200 years ago in Pennsylvania.  However, as we will see, it directly involved my family as well as the founding of the Mormon Church.  In 1829, Joseph Smith (the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) supposedly seduced Eliza Winters, who was the teenage half-sister of my great-great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Winters.  Eliza also happened to be his wife's friend and a close relative by marriage. This happened exactly when Joseph was in the process of writing the Book of Mormon and founding the new church. The supposed act likely had an effect in shaping his views on polygamy, Mormon doctrine and the reputation of Mormons in general.

Although much of the below narrative is conjecture, it also seems to shows historical precedent for the negative treatment (revictimization and character assassination) of female victims of sexual abuse by men in power, which unfortunately still happens to this day.

Joseph Smith
Excerpt from 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed, which is
the only direct evidence of the supposed scandal between
Joseph Smith and Eliza Winters

Joseph Smith is well known as the founder of the Latter Day Saint churches (i.e. the Mormon Church) and was known as a prophet by his followers.  During the 1820s though, Smith was relatively unknown; he claimed to have religious visions and supported himself by literally digging for treasure. 

In 1827, he was married to Emma Hale and moved with her to her hometown of Harmony, Pennsylvania.  It was at that same time that Joseph retrieved the infamous golden plates and began transcribing them.  The transcription process, which resulted in the Book of Mormon, took place between 1827 and 1830.  Joseph was a close friend during this time with Martin Harris, who apparently helped him transcribe the plates.  (Note that Martin Harris' wife Lucy Harris had a prominent role in songs about the history of Mormonism on the TV show South Park, in which she is lauded as "Lucy Harris, smart smart smart smart" for her skepticism of the whole thing. In reality, Lucy Harris soon separated from her husband because of their disagreements over Joseph Smith and the plates.)

In May 1829, the Smith family moved away from Harmony.  In 1830, the Mormon church was officially founded and a fascinating historical/religious movement began. Joseph had quite a colorful life until he was murdered in 1844.  Later the Mormon movement was headed by Brigham Young and resulted in the founding of Salt Lake City and Utah.

Eliza Winters

In 1827, Eliza Winters was a 15-year old girl who lived with her mother and stepfather (Phebe and Joseph McKune) and siblings, in Harmony, Pennsylvania.  She had recently moved to the area when her mother had remarried after her first husband, Eliza's father, had died.  Eliza's ancestors were from New England (some of her ancestors were documented passengers on the Mayflower in 1620). At the time of the incident, Eliza's half-brother Joseph Winters (my great-great-great-great-grandfather) was recently married and living in nearby Cannonsville, New York. 

Although the existing sources are far from definitive, it seems clear that something inappropriate happened between Joseph Smith and Eliza Winters.  We do know that Eliza was the close friend of Joseph's wife Emma.  Apparently Eliza "was often at Smith's home and much in Mrs. Smith's company. The young women were on very intimate terms, and very many times did Mrs. Smith tell her young friend about the finding of the "golden plates" or the "golden bible"" (3).  At the time, Eliza's family were literally next-door neighbors of the Smiths (2).  In addition to being a friend and neighbor, Eliza Winters was also related to them by marriage.  Eliza's stepsister Nancy McKune was married to Emma's brother Isaac Hale.  It was in this situation that Eliza was frequently in their house that Joseph "attempted" to seduce Eliza Winters.  Apparently, Levi Lewis (Emma's cousin) was close to Joseph Smith and Martin Harris.  He said that he overheard Smith and Harris talking about trying to seduce Eliza Winters in which they also said that "adultery was no crime" and that Harris specifically said he "did not blame" Joseph for trying to seduce her.  Levi made this allegation which appeared in a newspaper article and a book against Mormonism in 1834 (1).  Note that Eliza was also related to Levi Lewis: his sister was married to Eliza's stepbrother.

The inference is that Joseph Smith made inappropriate sexual advances to Eliza Winters, but that "nothing happened".  The date of the incident(s) in question is unknown, but would have occurred sometime between 1827 and 1829 (when Eliza was between 15 and 17).  The best guess is that the incident occurred in early 1829, when the Smith family moved away.  Regardless of what happened, Eliza was frequently in the Smith household (along with vocal critic Lucy Harris) and would have been an indirect witness to Smith writing the Book of Mormon and establishing the church. 

Aftermath - Smith

Emma Hale Smith - the wife of Joseph Smith
and apparently the close personal friend of Eliza
Winters.  She apparently did not know about or
approve of her husband's sexual behavior or
polygamy - after his death she became an anti-polygamy
activist in the Mormon church
Although the 1829 incident might have been unremarkable or innocent, it appeared to establish a pattern.  Based on this and later accusations, Joseph Smith might have been something of a sexual predator.  Eliza's story was the first in a series of 12 known (but unproven) allegations of sexual misconduct between 1829 and 1841 by Joseph Smith against various young women that lived in towns where he lived and preached. 

It is also interesting that the Mormon church's views about polygamy were developing at the same time that Joseph was engaging in apparent inappropriate sexual activity with other women.  Joseph had been married since 1827, but had apparently began teaching a polygamy doctrine by 1831 and eventually became a polygamist himself.    According to some sources, Joseph had at least 27 wives during his lifetime, in addition to his legal wife Emma.

After his death, the leaders of the Mormon Church used evidence of Smith's polygamy to establish the practice officially as part of church doctrine.  Interestingly though, Joseph's own family (his first wife and his son) refuted the claims that he was a polygamist and were publicly against the practice for the duration of their lives.

Since Eliza Winters was possibly the first known recipient of Joseph's supposed extramarital sexual advances, perhaps his experience with her was what whetted his appetite enough to seek out adulterous relationships with other women and eventually establish a church that accepted the practice of polygamy.

Aftermath - Winters

Eliza Winters continued living with her family in Harmony, Pennsylvania.  In 1838, Eliza served as a witness when her stepfather wrote his will; she was then one of the only children still left in the home.  Sometime between 1838 and 1840, she was married and lived in the area until her death in 1899 at the age of 87 (4).  It is quite interesting that (much like the other allegations against Smith) the Eliza Winters-Joseph Smith scandal has been dismissed by many Mormon historians based on lack of evidence and the suggestion that Eliza Winters was a promiscuous girl with low morals and because she was apparently silent on the subject.  Many have dismissed the allegation entirely as propaganda meant to disparage the reputation of Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church.  However, just because the evidence is inconclusive - there is nothing to suggest that it did not happen.  Why would she have been specifically named by a third party relative in an allegation against Smith if there was not some basis to the claim?

In 1832, Martin Harris (the same man apparently overheard talking with Joseph Smith about trying to seduce Eliza) publicly accused Eliza of having an illegitimate child.  Eliza responded by suing Harris for slander because his words "render her infamous and scandalous among her neighbors", but she lost the case (5).  During the court proceedings (against Harris), Eliza made no mention of the seduction attempt by Joseph Smith. This has led many to conclude that the seduction attempt by Smith didn't happen because she didn't mention it (even though it would have been irrelevant to the slander case against Harris).  It is possible that Eliza did have an illegitimate child, but it is also quite possible that (regardless of whether it was true or not) the "bastard child" allegation was an intentional attempt by Harris and Smith to damage her reputation and thus credibility.  It's worth noting that at the time, Joseph Smith was subject to a variety of unrelated criminal charges and was increasingly in the public eye; and it would have been in their best interest to remove character witnesses that could be used against him. 

Decades later, Eliza was interviewed with Sallie McKune (her step-brother's widow) by a reporter to gather derogatory statements against Joseph Smith (and the Mormon Church) by people who had known him in his youth.  During the interview, they were both quoted as saying "Joe Smith never made a convert at Susquehanna, and also that his father-in-law became so incensed by his conduct that he threatened to shoot him if he ever returned" (2), but apparently made no reference to any sexual misconduct or seduction attempt.  Again, this omission has been used by historians as evidence that the scandal never happened.  But perhaps Eliza had learned the "lesson" she had been taught years earlier by Martin Harris, and didn't want to damage her reputation by bringing up the sordid past - especially if she was a willing participant in the event and if she was in the interview with her sister-in-law.  (And as described below under sources, above is the only known statement that Eliza made during her interview.)

It is interesting that even today, historians are not in agreement on this incident and Joseph Smith still has many apologists.  One such recent writer wrote that Eliza lost her 1832 slander lawsuit "likely because she had no good character to sully" and that "it seems far more likely that Eliza was known for her low morals." (He basing this off no more evidence described above and the fact that she lost her slander lawsuit. To me, it's not surprising that she lost her case. The court system - especially 184 years ago - would not have necessarily been on the side of a 20-year old single woman suing a 50-year old wealthy, well-respected man. The only other known record which speaks to Eliza's character or conduct is her 1899 obituary which simply stated that she was "well known and highly esteemed" (4).)   It's also interesting to note that when Eliza married in her late 20's, she was considerably older than any of her 6 sisters were when they married.  Perhaps she did have a damaged reputation that made it more difficult to find a husband (she eventually married the brother of her sister's husband) or perhaps she was just simply more independent.  Being a middle child in a very large family (she had 7 full siblings, 4 half siblings and 8 step siblings) it would have been understandable if she was a little rebellious or independent. 

My Winters family lived in New York and apparently did not have much contact with their relatives in Pennsylvania - including Eliza Winters.  The story of the Joseph Smith scandal had not been passed down in the Winters family.  To me, that suggests that the story is plausible - if indeed Eliza Winters was involved in the scandal, it would have been damaging to her reputation (and to her family) to even talk about it. 


1. Affidavit of Levi Lewis, March 20, 1834, which appeared in: 1) Susquehanna Register and Northern Pennsylvanian, May 1, 1834 and 2) Howe, Eber D. Mormonism Unvailed: Or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion From Its Rise to the Present Time. Painesville, OH; 1834. 

2. Article "The Early Mormons" in Broome Republican, Binghamton, New York, July 28, 1880. [This is what other sources refer to as the interview in which Eliza does not mention the seduction attempt.  However, the source is only a newspaper article which briefly mentions that Eliza was present at an interview with Sallie McKune (her sister-in-law) and that she corroborated a brief statement by made by Sallie.  It is far from a transcription of an interview with Eliza.]

3. Stocker, Rhamathus M. Centennial History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, R.T. Peck & Co., 1887.

4. Obituary of Eliza Squires, Tri-Weekly Journal, May 2, 1899

5. Case file (slander) of Eliza Winters vs. Martin Harris, Court of Common Pleas, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, 1833.  "Harris, M."