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JOHNSON, Benjamin Franklin

Friend of the Prophet

Benjamin Franklin Johnson

Joseph Smith’s death was a difficult tragedy for the Saints in Nauvoo. Most were confident that Joseph would again, as so many times in the past, escape his enemies and return to the Church and preside over the great events of the last days, especially finishing and dedicating the Nauvoo Temple. But it was not to be. The power of the opposition finally triumphed and Joseph and Hyrum returned to their beloved city and people as martyrs. Among Joseph’s many friends was a man who had had many deep and personal experiences with the Prophet; a man who had received great witnesses of Joseph’s work and calling; a man who knew, as only a few knew, that Joseph might never return from Carthage. Yet, despite the tragedy, Benjamin Franklin Johnson would continue to follow the next prophet and establish Zion. Such was the faith and loyalty of one of Joseph’s greatest and closest friends.

Benjamin Franklin Johnson was the tenth of sixteen children born to Ezekiel and Julia Hills Johnson on 28 July 1818, at Pomfret, New York. The Johnson family was God-fearing due to the deep faith of their mother. From Benjamin’s early years he had faith in God and realized the necessity of prayer. It was his study of the Bible at Presbyterian meetings that he learned to read and write. As a boy of eleven, in 1829, Benjamin learned from his Pomfret newspaper about “some young man professing to have seen an angel, who had shown and delivered to him golden plates . . . from which he had translated a new Bible. He could hardly refrain from wishing or hoping it might be so.”

After studying its teachings, Benjamin accepted the gospel the following year in 1831. He spent his impressionable years from 13 to 21 experiencing the glorious and trying days of the Church in Ohio and Missouri. Regarding this period, Benjamin observed:

“In looking back over the vicissitudes through which I had passed in that short period it seemed more like a dream than a reality; and when I think of it all as real, I feel a weight of gratitude to God that I find no words to express.”

Benjamin was an observer and participant in many significant events until the exodus of the Saints in 1846. He rendered selfless service to the sick, served a mission to Canada, received great instructions at the hand of the Prophet Joseph Smith, including the law of plural marriage, was called by Joseph as an original member of the Council of Fifty and received a special witness of Joseph’s mantel falling upon Brigham Young as the new leader in Zion. He was a loyal follower and defender of the next five Presidents of the Church.

On 10 March 1839, Benjamin was ordained an elder by Heber C. Kimball, who advised that he had been called to accompany the Apostles on their mission to England. Living in Springfield, Illinois at the time, following the forced exodus from Missouri, he immediately began saving money so he would be prepared when the brethren left. He departed for Commerce, (Nauvoo) Illinois on his 21st birthday in 1839 with about $100 and arrived at a time of general sickness and death among the Saints. Many had already died and nearly all were sick with chills or typhoid or malarial fever. Every house was a hospital, but without nurses. There were hardly enough men to bury the dead. As Benjamin had cared for the sick at the Kirtland Poor Camp, he knew what should be done and was immediately called upon by Joseph to help. He reported:

“I had come to Nauvoo on horseback and as the houses of the brethren were scattered for some distance up and down the river, I kept my horse under the saddle and rode from house to house giving medicines and caring for the sick, and for six weeks did not take off my boots or coat for one night of sleep.”

About this time the Prophet “had a violent attack of the prevailing sickness and as Emma was in no degree able to care for him,” he chose Benjamin as his constant nurse and companion. Benjamin wrote, “It wholly devolved upon me, and both day and night, through a period of a little less than two weeks, I was hardly absent from his room, and if any sleep came to me it was while lying upon his bed or sitting in my chair.”

Concerning the accounts of this time in Nauvoo, Charles S. Sellers observed,

“The Saints are generally well informed, but the part which Brother Johnson took, none are appraised, a fact undoubtedly arising through Brother Johnson’s modesty, and perhaps lack of friends among those who write history. A more loyal man to duty than Elder Johnson was never known. Whenever duty called, he never hesitated. He gave his time, all his life, and worked unceasingly for the good of his fellows. He was among the greatest men that our Church has known.”

Soon after the Prophet’s recovery, Benjamin “came apparently nigh unto death through violent attack of the fever and his comfort was kindly looked after by the Prophet.” Near the first of October 1839, Benjamin received a letter from his family informing him that his mother was very sick, and advising him to come as soon as possible because it was doubtful that she would recover. Out of concern for Benjamin’s weakened condition, Joseph gave him a blessing prior to his departure from Nauvoo. Benjamin recalled the blessing in these words, “He seemed to pour out his soul in blessing me. He told the Lord I had been faithful to care for others, that I was now worn and sick, and that on my journey I would need his care, and he asked that a special guardian might go with me from that day and stay with me through all my life.” This incident strengthened the bond of love and friendship between the Prophet and Benjamin. Throughout his life he cherished this close association and friendship with Joseph Smith.

With great suffering and difficulty Benjamin arrived in Springfield and the sickness continued for some weeks. On October 5, 1839, Apostles Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball arrived on their way to England. Benjamin struggled with the decision but later wrote,

“When they saw how sick I was, and without money or suitable clothing they did not urge me to go but left it to my faith and desire. I much wished to go but had no missionary experience and fearing they would feel me a burden I had not faith enough to start. They told me to take a mission east as soon as I was able and this I felt determined to do.”

From February 1840 to July 1842 Benjamin served alone as a missionary, walking most of the way, he preached in Indiana, Ohio, Canada and Pennsylvania. He experienced sickness, hardships, persecution and some success, including seven baptisms and speaking in tongues to an Indian tribe. At the end of this mission Benjamin stayed with his brother-in-law Almon W. Babbitt in Kirtland, Ohio. While there he met and fell in love with Melissa Bloomfield LeBaron, whom he married December 25, 1841.

Benjamin and his new bride arrived back in Nauvoo July 1, 1842 and he was warmly welcomed by the Prophet. Benjamin discussed with him the Kirtland business matters between Joseph and Almon Babbitt, expressing his confidence that Brother Babbitt would remain true to the cause. Benjamin felt an increase of love from Joseph after expressing his love for and desire to help his brother-in-law. Because of his integrity and love for both men, Benjamin was able to fill the role as intercessor in the problem.

“When business matters were brought forward relating to notes brought from outsiders against him or the Church, Brother Joseph said to him, ‘Now Brother Almon, we will not disagree, for here is Brother Benjamin. You have all confidence in him and so have I, and now let us leave all our differences to him and stand by it, and be good friends forevermore,’ to which Brother Babbitt agreed.”

Benjamin was given greater responsibility as Joseph then gave him custody of legal documents, including those pertaining to Church properties in Kirtland. Joseph asked Benjamin to settle in Ramus and to serve as the agent for the Church there. He was given power of attorney by Joseph, which he used until Joseph’s death. Benjamin’s work in Ramus involved selling goods, keeping a boarding house and doing all the Church business for that town, which was second only to Nauvoo in size. During this time the bond of friendship between him and the Prophet became even more intimate as Benjamin explained,

“The Prophet often came to our town, but after my arrival he lodged in no house but mine, and I was proud of his partiality and took great delight in his society and friendship. When with us, there was no lack of amusement, and his fraternal feeling in great degree did away with the disparity of age or greatness in his calling. I can now see, as President George A. Smith said, that I was then really the ‘bosom friend and companion of the Prophet Joseph.’ I was as welcome at the mansion as at my own house, and on one occasion when at a full table of his family and close friends he placed me at his right hand and introduced me as his friend, Brother B. F. Johnson at whose house he sat at a better table than his own.”

Such favoritism aroused some jealousy among the local residents; the Johnson’s were referred to as the Royal Family. When Joseph learned of this he assured Benjamin that the title was appropriate and they were a royal family as every faithful family. Previously, Joseph had given a blessing to Benjamin’s mother, Julia, in which she was told that not one of her children would ever leave the Church. Before Benjamin’s death in 1905 he testified that it was still true.

Besides frequently staying in Benjamin’s home, the Prophet counseled and instructed him on many doctrines. In writing in his journal in May 1843, Joseph recorded, “Tuesday 16, went to Benjamin F. Johnson’s with William Clayton to sleep. Before retiring, I gave Brother and Sister Johnson some instructions on the priesthood.” Included in these instructions were the teachings which are now contained in Doctrine & Covenants 131:1-6. Benjamin reported, “On April 2 and May 16, 1843 the Prophet was at my house with William Clayton as Scribe, at which time was written all of D. & C. Sections 130 and 131, and he gave to us all keys of knowledge contained in Sections 128 and 132 before they were written.”

On yet another occasion when the Prophet was visiting the Johnson home, Joseph wrote in his diary under the date October 20, 1843, “In the evening I gave instructions to Benjamin F. Johnson and others in relation to the blessings of the everlasting covenant and the sealings of the priesthood.” Benjamin later testified in an affidavit that “on this date the Prophet sealed my first wife to me for time and all eternity.”

Other instructions were privately given to Benjamin by the Prophet. Joseph showed Benjamin his garments and explained their meaning. He further gave some information regarding the endowment and said that, “free masonry as at present, was the apostate endowment just as sectarian religion was the apostate religion.” The new doctrine which would greatly affect the rest of his life was privately taught to Benjamin by the Prophet in April 1843. After Joseph had stayed with Benjamin overnight, he took him for a walk early one Sunday morning. Benjamin recorded, “Here as we sat down upon a log he began to tell me that the Lord had revealed to him that plural patriarchal marriage was according to His law, and that the Lord had not only revealed it to him but had commanded him to obey it; that he was required to take other wives, and that he wanted my sister Almira for one of them, and wished me to see and talk to her upon the subject.”

Benjamin struggled between the shock of what he was hearing and of his loyalty and faith in Joseph as a Prophet. He described his reaction, “If a thunderbolt had fallen at my feet I could hardly have been more shocked or amazed. He saw the struggle in my mind and went on to explain. But the shock was too great for me to comprehend anything, and in almost an agony of feeling I looked him squarely in the eye and said, while my heart gushed up before him, ‘Brother Joseph, that is all new to me; it may all be true. You know, but I do not. To my education it is all wrong, but I am going with the help of the Lord to do just what you say, with this promise to you, that if ever I know you to do this to degrade my sister, I will kill you, as the Lord lives.”

Joseph smiled and looking into Benjamin’s eyes told him softly that he would never see that day, and that he himself would not only know of its truth, but would fulfill the law and greatly rejoice in it. Benjamin then asked how he could teach his sister something he did not understand or show her what he himself could not see. Joseph told him that when he opened his mouth to talk to his sister, he would understand, and light would come to him and his mouth would be full and his tongue loose. In Benjamin’s words, “He also told me that he would preach a sermon that day which I would understand, while the rest of the congregation would not comprehend its meaning. His subject was the ten talents, plainly giving me to understand that the talents represented wives and children, as the principle of enlargement throughout the great future to those who were the heirs of salvation.”

In light of Benjamin’s account of this instruction the Prophet recorded in his journal, under the date of 1 April 1843, that “he traveled to Ramus and was joyfully received by Brother Benjamin F. Johnson.” On 2 April 1843, Joseph recorded that

“he supped at Brother Johnson’s and later instructed the Saints: ‘What is the meaning of the parable of the scripture, He that is faithful over a few things shall be made ruler over many. And he that is faithful over many things shall be made ruler over many more?’ What is the meaning of the parable of the 10 talents?”

In contemplating speaking to his sister about this principle, Benjamin felt sick and filled with horror. However, to be true to his word he arranged to speak to Almira privately. “I stood before her trembling, my knees shaking, but I opened my mouth and my heart opened to the light of the Lord, my tongue was loosened with the Holy Ghost. I preached a sermon that forever converted me and her also, to the principle, even though her heart was not yet won by the Prophet. And so I had great joy after my tribulation.” Benjamin testified, “With these teachings, accompanied by the spirit in which they were given, I was able to overcome my puritanical ideas monogamic [monogenic] marriage.”

Within a few days, Almira accompanied Benjamin to their sister Delcena’s home in Nauvoo where they were met by the Prophet Joseph, Hyrum, and William Clayton. Of this meeting, Benjamin wrote, “Brother Hyrum took me in hand, apparently in fear I was not totally converted, and said, ‘Now Benjamin, you must not be afraid of the new doctrine for it is all right. You know Brother Hyrum doesn’t get carried away by worldly things and I fought this principle until the Lord showed me it was true. I know that Joseph was commanded to take more wives, and he waited until an angel with a drawn sword stood before him and declared that if he longer delayed fulfilling that command, he would slay him.’ This was the manner of Brother Hyrum’s teaching to me which I then did not need, as I was fully converted.” After a little instruction Almira stood by the Prophet’s side and was sealed to him by Brother Clayton.

Benjamin suggested to the Prophet that Joseph might marry the orphan girl, Mary Anne Hale, whom his mother had raised and was then living with the Johnson family. However, the Prophet replied, “No, but she is for you. You keep her and take her for your wife and you will be blessed.” Before leaving Nauvoo, Benjamin took Mary Anne Hale and Clarinda Gleason as plural wives. Throughout his life he was proud of having a wife who had been “given” to him by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Because he was aware of what the public reaction would be if the doctrine of plural marriage were taught openly, Joseph had sought to keep these practices secret and had only divulged them to his most trusted friends. Benjamin recalled, “And we began now, in a degree, to understand the meaning of what he had so often publicly said, ‘that should he teach and practice the principles that the Lord had revealed to him, and now required of him, those nearest him in the stand would become his enemies and the first to seek his life,’ which they soon did, just as he had foretold.”

As betrayal and persecution increased, Joseph reflected depression and weariness. On the Prophet’s last visit to Ramus, after a long day of preaching he returned to Benjamin’s home very tired. After blessing Benjamin’s eldest child, Joseph collapsed into a chair and exclaimed: “Oh! I am so tired—so tired that I often feel to long for my day of rest. For what has there in this life but tribulation for me? From a boy I have been persecuted by my enemies, and now even my friends are beginning to join with them, to hate and persecute me! Why should I now wish for my time of rest?” His words to Benjamin were ominous, and they brought a shadow of death over his spirit, and I said, “Oh, Joseph, how could you think of leaving us? How as a people could we do without you? He saw my feelings were sorrowful and said kindly, ‘Bennie, if I were on the other side of the veil I could do many times more for my friends than I can do while I am with them here. I should not be far away from you, and if on the other side of the veil I should still be working with you, and with a power greatly increased to roll on this kingdom.’ And such was the tone, earnestness and pathos of his words to me then, that they can never be fully recalled but with emotion.”

As the Prophet had feared, some of those who had been intimately associated with him in the leading councils of the Church could not accept the teaching of plural marriage and looked upon it as a corrupt doctrine of a fallen prophet. Having lost confidence in their leader, those men set out secretly to remove the Prophet and establish their own leadership. Benjamin observed the “apostate spirits within were now joining with our enemies outside and the days of tribulation were now fast approaching.” Joseph could foresee this great danger, for Benjamin recalled, “as the Prophet so often told us, so it came to pass, and those he had called around him as a cordon of safety and strength were worse than a rope of sand, and were now forging his fetters.”

Much that the Prophet foresaw and shared with Benjamin was not comprehended until later fulfilled. In one of his visits to the Johnson home, Joseph stated, “The way I know in whom to confide—God tells me in whom I may place confidence.” On many occasions Joseph confided that he found in Benjamin a friend worthy of his trust, and his confidence in him increased until, as Benjamin said, “It did seem to me that he had few secrets to keep from me.”

One of the greatest evidences of trust occurred in March 1844. About this time his private Council of Fifty was organized and the Prophet called Brother Babbitt and Benjamin to be members of this council. In referring to those who made up the Council, Benjamin explained that it was, “A select circle of the Prophet’s most trusted friends, including all the Twelve, but not all of the constituted authorities of the Church.” He was called to sit in council with the presiding officers of the Church. This was an opportunity which he cherished.

A short time before Joseph’s death, he made an unusual presentation to the Quorum of the Twelve and some of the Council of Fifty. It was one of Joseph’s last meetings with this council. Benjamin recorded, “After all had been completed and the keys of power had been committed to the Twelve Apostles as a quorum, the Prophet rose and said as Benjamin recorded, And with great feeling and animation he graphically reviewed his life of persecution, labor and sacrifice for the Church and Kingdom of God, both of which he now declared were now organized upon the earth. The burden of which had become too great for him longer to carry, that he was weary and tired with the weight he so long had borne, and he then said, with great vehemence, ‘And in the name of the Lord, I now shake from my shoulders the responsibilities of bearing off the Kingdom of God to all the world, and here and now I place the responsibility, with all the keys, powers, and privileges pertaining thereto, upon the shoulders of you the Twelve Apostles, in connection with this council; and if you will accept this, to do it, God shall bless you mightily and shall open your way; and if you do it not you will be damned. I am henceforth free from this responsibility and I now shake my garments clear and free from the blood of this generation and of all men.’ And shaking his shirt with great vehemence he raised himself from the floor, while the spirit which accompanied his words thrilled every heart as with a feeling that boded bereavement and sorrow.”

Those who were secretly conspiring against the Prophet now openly opposed him and “the full break had now come in Nauvoo. All hell now seemed in commotion. All conspired for the destruction of the Prophet, with his beautiful city and massive temple so fast nearing completion. On the 15th of June 1844 an order came for able bodied men at Ramus to hasten to Nauvoo. On the 16th we started, and to avoid attack traveled all night across the prairie through mud, rain and darkness, terrible to those who were there. The Prophet came out to greet us.”

This was the last time Benjamin saw Joseph alive. Eleven days later the news of the tragic murder of Joseph and Hyrum struck Benjamin with shock and grief: “To attempt to delineate of woe and unalterable sorrow that swelled every heart too full for tears, I need not attempt. I stood up, dazed with grief, could groan but could not weep. The fountain of tears was dry. ‘Oh God! What will thy orphan church and people now do!’ was the only feeling or thought that burst out in groans. The words of Brother Joseph began to come back to me. I could begin now to feel just what he meant, and his words, ‘Do for his friends,’ to me, were like the promise of Jesus to provide mansions for his disciples that they might be with him always. These things now were my consolation, and when I could begin to rejoice in them the fountains of my tears began to flow, and I grew in consolation from day to day.”

Soon after the martyrdom, Benjamin realized his own life was in danger: “Our enemies, who, on accomplishing the murder fled in fear of Mormon vengeance, now began to return in boldness, and a mob came and searched my building for arms, and to take me on a writ, as they had obtained evidence that I was a refugee from Missouri justice. For days I was hidden in the woods, where trusted friends brought me food and bore me company.”

Gradually the excitement and feeling for persecution seemed to diminish and the Saints began to hope for a brief period of peace. However, Benjamin “had no confidence now in anything here as a future home,” and although the house he was building was enclosed and nearing completion, he had neither energy nor faith to invest more in it. With the death of the Prophet, there immediately arose the question of future leadership of the Church. This problem caused such dissention that it appeared to threaten the future of the organization. To settle the issue of leadership a conference was held in Nauvoo on 8 August 1844. Sydney Rigdon was the first to speak, and he put forth his claims at length, but Benjamin felt his remarks were “void for all power or influence.” Brigham Young, President of the Twelve Apostles, then addressed the Saints. In describing President Young’s speech, Benjamin wrote, “I was perhaps, to a degree, forgetful of what I knew to be the rights and duties of apostleship, and as Rigdon closed his address and sat down, my back was partly turned to the seats occupied by Apostle Brigham Young and other Apostles. When suddenly, and as from Heaven, I heard the voice of the Prophet Joseph that thrilled my whole being, and quickly turning around I saw in the transfiguration of Brigham Young, the tall straight and portly form of the Prophet Joseph Smith, clothed in a sheen of light, covering him to his feet; and I heard the real and perfect voice of the prophet, even to the whistle as in years past caused by the loss of a tooth said to have been broken out by the mob at Hyrum. This view, or vision, although but for seconds, was to me as vivid and real as the glare of lightening or the voice of thunder from the heavens, and so deeply was I impressed with what I saw and heard in this transfiguration, that for years I dared not publicly tell what I had seen. But I do know that this, my testimony is true.”

With his conviction strengthened by this spiritual manifestation, Benjamin became one of the foremost in testifying that Brigham Young was the true successor of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Benjamin continued to serve well throughout his entire life. He had a total of seven wives, 45 children and a living posterity of about 1,000 at the time of his death on 18 November 1905 in Mesa, Arizona. He now has a living posterity of an estimated 50,000, most of whom are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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