John Milton Bernhisel had an outsized influence on the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was a loyal friend to Joseph Smith, negotiated with the federal government on behalf of the Latter-day Saints, and had a hot-and-cold relationship with Brigham Young. In this interview, biographer Bruce W. Worthen tells the story of John Bernhisel and the Latter-day Saints.
Read the book by Bruce W. Worthen, Mormon Envoy: The Diplomatic Legacy of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel (University of Illinois Press, 2023).
Table of contents
- John Bernhisel
- Bernhisel’s records
- Documentary limitations
- Joseph Smith
- Council of Fifty
- Broken agreements
- “Lamb to the slaughter”
- Unique skills
- Brigham Young
- Diplomatic challenges
- Utah War
- Berhnhisel’s legacy
- The big mystery
- About the author
Who Was John Bernhisel?
Dr. John Milton Bernhisel was a man whose fingerprints are all over early Latter-day Saint history. He was a rare upper-class convert to the faith who negotiated between America’s political leaders and the angry Latter-day Saints residing on the western frontier.
From his unsuccessful attempts to save the life of Joseph Smith to his success in securing a presidential pardon for Brigham Young, Bernhisel was in the middle of the Latter-day Saint conflict. As a representative of the Latter-day Saints in Washington, Bernhisel negotiated the boundaries of Latter-day Saint theopolitical ambitions with some of nineteenth-century America’s most influential political figures, including Henry Clay, Thomas Benton, Stephen A. Douglas, Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln.
As an intimate of early church leaders, Bernhisel was also a key participant in the development of the Latter-day Saint theocracy.
Bernhisel lived in the home of Joseph Smith, during the last nine months of his life, as an advisor and friend. The doctor was a member of the Anointed Quorum and learned directly from the Latter-day Saint Prophet about his vision for an American Zion that would prepare the Saints for a new millennial world.
Following the death of Joseph Smith, Bernhisel became Brigham Young’s chief diplomat in Washington. His goal was to secure an autonomous Latter-day Saint theocracy in the West. However, thanks to Young’s belligerence toward federal officials, the doctor spent most of his time defusing potentially deadly conflicts with Washington including the Utah War.
As it turned out, Bernhisel was never able to secure the theocracy that pioneer leaders craved—but he did something more important. Bernhisel managed to negotiate a lasting peace that allowed the Latter-day Saints to reclaim their identity as Americans and reenter mainstream US society.
What kind of documentation did Bernhisel leave behind?
Most of the documentation I employed consists of letters between John Bernhisel and other historical actors. These letters include correspondence with Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and America’s political leaders.
What were the limitations of these historical records?
While this correspondence provides rich detail of what John Bernhisel was doing, it doesn’t tell us much about the man himself. To fill in these details, I had to scour archives from California to New York to find out what other people had to say about Bernhisel’s character.
One item I discovered was at the University of Texas, Austin. It was a letter that Maria Austin wrote to her son Stephen F. Austin in 1821, in which John Bernhisel appears. It seems that Bernhisel was the attending physician treating her husband, Moses Austin, during his final illness. Maria describes the doctor in some detail, but I wish she had written more about him.
I also found descriptions of Bernhisel in nineteenth-century newspapers, the Congressional Record, minutes of meetings, and other similar records.
How did John Bernhisel meet the Prophet Joseph—and what was their relationship like?
Joseph Smith had a very close relationship with John Bernhisel. The Latter-day Saint Prophet became aware of the doctor through the Apostles who had visited Bernhisel in New York City, as well as via James Arlington Bennet, who was a wealthy friend of Joseph Smith from New York.
At first, Bernhisel corresponded with the Latter-day Saint Prophet, but Joseph Smith eventually convinced him to give up his prestigious medical practice in lower Manhattan to come to Nauvoo. By 1843, Bernhisel was living in the Smith household.
Joseph greatly admired the doctor and considered him to be a member of his family. Bernhisel even became the only spiritually adopted son of the Latter-day Saint Prophet.
Joseph Smith also valued Bernhisel’s advice and consulted with him on the issues facing the Church in Nauvoo. Bernhisel was also close to the rest of the Smith family. For example, he was a tutor to Joseph Smith III and corresponded with him after leaving Nauvoo.
Bernhisel also had the trust of Emma Smith. She allowed him to borrow Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible at a time when she refused to let anyone else see it.
Was John Bernhisel a member of the Council of Fifty?
John Bernhisel was one of the original members of the Council of Fifty and remained a member until he died in 1881.
Bernhisel was mostly involved in advising church leaders on where to start a new settlement once they left Nauvoo. During the Utah period, he reported on conditions in Washington and advised about policy initiatives.
How did John Bernhisel try to save the life of Joseph Smith?
When Joseph Smith ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, area residents surrounding the city began arming for war. Joseph called on Bernhisel and Apostle John Taylor to meet with Governor Thomas Ford to find a solution.
The result was an agreement where Joseph Smith would go to Carthage, enter a plea of not guilty, pay his bail, and then return to Nauvoo—all under the protection of the Illinois militia.
Bernhisel felt that this was the best way to calm the citizens in the communities surrounding Nauvoo and urged Smith to accept the agreement. Bernhisel even went to Carthage to speak with the head of the militia there to get assurances that Joseph Smith would be protected.
When Bernhisel conveyed these assurances to Joseph and Hyrum Smith, they agreed to go to Carthage. As we now know, things did not go according to the agreed-upon plan. The resulting martyrdom was the greatest tragedy of Bernhisel’s life.
How is John Bernhisel connected with Joseph Smith’s statement, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter”?
Bernhisel accompanied Joseph Smith to Carthage. About four miles from the city, the Illinois Militia appeared and arrested the Latter-day Saint Prophet in complete contradiction to the agreement Bernhisel and Taylor had worked out with Governor Ford.
That’s why Joseph Smith looked directly at John Bernhisel and said:
I am going like a lamb to the slaughter.Joseph Smith to John Bernhisel
We know about this statement because Bernhisel wrote a letter about it to Church Historian George A. Smith on September 11, 1854. Smith’s statement, as reported by Bernhisel, is now part of the official history of the Church.
How did John Bernhisel communicate with Latter-day Saints and the federal government?
I assert in the book that Bernhisel understood the Latter-day Saints and their adversaries better than they ever understood each other. This is largely because Bernhisel was something of a self-made aristocrat. He was born in the backcountry of western Pennsylvania and was well acquainted with the frontier conditions that had given rise to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Bernhisel also had a great mind and left the frontier for Philadelphia where he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania. He not only became a doctor, but he also adapted to the culture of the aristocratic faculty and students of the school. He became a prominent physician with prestigious patients and the upper class considered him to be one of their own.
Thus, Bernhisel understood both the worlds of the pioneer saints and the cultured elites who ran the country. This made him effective in communicating with both sides.
Describe John Bernhisel’s relationship with Brigham Young.
John Bernhisel’s relationship with Brigham Young was initially a very positive one. They worked together to raise money for the completion of the Nauvoo Temple. After the death of Joseph Smith, Bernhisel served as an envoy between Young and Emma Smith.
Under Young’s direction, Bernhisel also raised money for the trek west and arranged for the relief of the Latter-day Saints who had been driven from their homes.
However, their relationship became far more difficult when Brigham Young appointed Bernhisel to become Utah Territory’s Delegate to Congress.
How did Brigham Young’s temperament increase the difficulty of Bernhisel’s job?
At one time, I had considered titling this book, Mormon Envoy: The Ordeal of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel. Cooler heads at the University of Illinois Press prevailed, however, and that is why we decided on a more positive subtitle.
The fact remains that Bernhisel’s job in Washington was simply a nightmare. Young’s abuse of federal officers and his caustic sermonizing about Washington and the nation were always starting fires that Bernhisel had to put out.
For example, Brigham Young’s decision to publicize and flaunt the practice of polygamy made it virtually impossible for Bernhisel to get legislation benefitting Utah Territory through Congress. In addition, on more than one occasion, Bernhisel had to talk Washington out of sending troops to the Great Basin to rein in the pioneer prophet.
What role did John Bernhisel play in the Utah War?
James Buchanan decided to send troops to Utah Territory without informing John Bernhisel ahead of time. I believe if the president had done so, Bernhisel might have been able to talk him out of such a foolish move.
Once troops were headed to Utah Territory and Brigham Young decided to put his own army in the field to oppose them, Bernhisel faced his greatest challenge as a diplomat.
I was fortunate to have access to the minutes Bernhisel kept of his meetings with James Buchanan during the Utah War. These minutes make clear that Buchanan had made a horrible mistake—but wasn’t willing to back down.
Therefore, John Bernhisel used his influence with Congress and the press to force the president to send a negotiating team to Utah Territory. Bernhisel then met with the negotiators and coached them on dealing with Brigham Young.
What is the diplomatic legacy of John Bernhisel?
Latter-day Saints had taken their grievances to the federal government many times—only to be turned away. This made them an angry and bitter people who scarcely considered themselves to be Americans anymore.
Bernhisel was the first person to successfully get the Latter-day Saints and the federal government to sit down and negotiate with each other face-to-face. As it turned out, the federal negotiators who met with church leaders to find a way to end the Utah War were uncommonly wise. They listened sympathetically to Latter-day Saint grievances before attempting to discuss a resolution to the standoff. Meanwhile, for the first time, the Latter-day Saints were negotiating from a position of strength.
This led to a resolution where the army was allowed to establish a military post in the territory but had to confine the soldiers to a site forty miles away from Mormon settlements.
These negotiations not only resulted in the resolution to the Utah War but provided a framework for negotiations on other problems. Therefore, John Bernhisel’s legacy was transforming a dangerously escalating conflict between the pioneer saints and Washington into a peaceful coexistence that allowed the Latter-day Saints to reclaim their identity as Americans.
What would Bruce Worthen most want to ask John Bernhisel?
I have been asked that question many times. The answer is quite simple. My question would be: “Where is your diary?”
I know he kept one in Washington, but I’ve never been able to find it. The existing historical documents tell us what Bernhisel did, but I suspect if we want to discover John Bernhisel’s soul, we’ll only find it when we find his Washington diary.
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About the author
Bruce Worthen holds a PhD in American History from the University of Utah and is the author of Mormon Envoy: The Diplomatic Legacy of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel. His research interest revolves around the role of colonialism in the expansion of the American West.
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John Milton Bernhisel resources
- Mormon Envoy: The Diplomatic Legacy of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel (University of Illinois Press)
- A Member of the Family: Dr. John Milton Bernhisel and the Aftermath of the Death of Joseph Smith (John Whitmer Historical Association Journal)
- Dr. John M. Bernhisel: Mormon Elder in Congress (Utah Historical Quarterly)
- Biography: Bernhisel, John Milton (Joseph Smith Papers)
- John M. Bernhisel Papers (BYU Library–Special Collections)
- Bernhisel, John Milton, 1799–1881 (History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives)