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Books by Brian C. Hales dealing with "Mormon fundamentalist" polygamy:

Alleged Sexual Impropriety between Joseph Smith and

Mary Heron


Misc Minutes, Brigham Young Collection, d 1234, CHL, Sept. 2, 1850, restricted; excerpts transcribed by D. Michael Quinn, bx 3 fd 2, Quinn Collection, Yale Library


"He was familiar with the first frigging [slang for sexual relations] – that was done in his house with his mother in law—by Joseph."


Most of the accusations of sexual impropriety examined here were leveled by anti-Mormons.  One exception is a cryptic reference to Joseph Smith and Mary Heron Snider made by Mary’s son-in-law, active Latter-day Saint Joseph E. Johnson.  On October 6, 1840 Johnson married Harriet Ellen Snider, oldest daughter of John Snider (sometimes Snyder) and Mary Heron Snider, in a ceremony performed by the Prophet.  

Sometime in the late 1840s, while Lorenzo Snow was on a mission, Joseph E. Johnson became intimately involved with a woman who had previously been sealed to Lorenzo in an apparently unconsummated marriage.  The woman, Hannah Goddard (b. 1828), became pregnant.[1]  Johnson was present at a Church Council that discussed his case on September 2, 1850 in the Salt Lake Valley.[2]  Brigham Young presided at the meeting, which was also attended by Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, Orson Hyde, Parley P. Pratt, Ezra Taft Benson, George A. Smith, Orson Spencer, Daniel Carn, Alexander Neibaur, Joel H. Johnson, Benjamin F. Johnson, and Joseph Kelly (secretary).[3]  Notes from that council explain: 

“O. Hyde [speaking] there is a matter of bro: Johnson to be laid before the Council—this matter was brot. before Council in Kanesville  his Priesthood was required to be laid down until he came here – a Miss Goddard wife of Lorenzo Snow became in a family way by Bro Johnson – she was living in his house – we deemed it improper for her to be there   he sent her away to a retired place – she was delivered of a child – she is again living at his house in Kanesville – he wishes to retain his fellowship in the Church.  He says he has bro: Snow & he was satisfied.
            “Joseph E. Johnson [speaking] – I am come purposely if possible to get the matter settled & atone for the wrong I av done – I av neglected to lay it before you before this – bro Hydes statements r all correct – true – all I can do is beg for mercy – I became acquainted with the girl, & the consequences r as the r – I saw bro. Snow at Kanesville & he was satisfied – I am come here to atone for the wrong I av done.[4]

 During the proceedings, secretary Kelly recorded Joseph Ellis Johnson defending himself:  

I never heard any conversation to say it was right to go to bed to a woman if not found out – I was aware the thing was wrong.  – had been with – he sd. He was familiar with the first frigging [slang for sexual relations] – that was done in his house with his mother in law—by Joseph.[6]

 The “mother in law” was Mary Heron Snider.  Understanding her relationship with Joseph Smith is challenging due to a lack of historical documentation.  Other than Johnson’s brief assertion that Joseph was sexually involved with her, no additional evidence has been found supporting a connection between them, either a plural sealing or adulterous union.

Born in 1804, Mary married John Snider on February 28, 1822.  Records show they had three children between 1823 and 1828.  Baptized in Toronto in 1836, they gathered to Nauvoo, being listed together there in 1842 Nauvoo census.  Mary was a member of the Relief Society[7] and John was mentioned several times in Joseph Smith’s diary.[8]  It is obvious that the Sniders were well known to the Prophet.

On January 19, 1841, John Snider was named as a member of the Nauvoo House committee (D&C 124:22).  A year later he was called on a mission to England.  Joseph Smith’s diary for January 28, 1842 reads: 

Joseph decided that Elder John Snider should go out on a mission, and if necessary some one go with him, and raise up a church, and get means to go to England. & carry the Epistles required in the Revelation page, \of Dec 22/ 36.—and instructed the Twelve, B. Young H. C. Kimball. W. Woodruff. & W. Richards – being present, to call Elder Snider into their council & instruct him in these things, & if he will not do these things he shall be cut off from the church. & be damned.[9] 

The Prophet further recorded on March 26, 1842:  “Elder John Snider Received his final instructions from the President, & received his blessing from Prest B. Young. With the Laying on of the hands of Prest. Joseph. J.E. Page. & W. Richards. & Started for England same day.”[10]  John returned from his mission on January 23, 1843.[11]   Critical analysts may speculate that Joseph Smith was anxious to send John Snider on a mission so he could marry or otherwise become involved with John's wife, Mary Heron Snider.  However, it is unknown when their relationship began.[12]

In 1840, Joseph Ellis Johnson settled in Ramus, Illinois located  about twenty-five miles east of Nauvoo.  He traveled to Nauvoo in October to marry Harriet Snider and then the couple returned to Ramus to set up housekeeping.  The town was growing rapidly and experienced a name change to "Macedonia" in 1843; today it is called "Webster."

In 1843 Joseph Johnson built a "comfortable home in town and with good society lived happily with little means."[13]  If his comment concerning sexual relations “done in his house” was true, then it would have occurred in Ramus/Macedonia, not in Nauvoo, and probably would have occurred in 1843.  John Snider, having returned from his English mission, and Mary, lived in Nauvoo in 1843.  A review of the Prophet's travels reveals that he visited Ramus, Illinois on five different occasions. The first occurred on March 11, 1843, with subsequent visits on April 1st, May 17th, October 20th, and the following March 27th, 1844.[14]  Hence for Joseph to have experienced conjugal relations with Mary, she would have also needed to have been in Ramus on one of those occasions, with or without her legal husband accompanying her.

The friendship and trust between the Prophet and John Snider is indicated on January 3, 1844, when Mayor Joseph Smith directed that the marshal to bring John before the Nauvoo City Council to testify.[15]  At that time William Law was then accusing Joseph Smith of sexual improprieties.  If John was uninformed or antagonistic, his testimony might have been problematic.

Shortly after the death of the Prophet, the Sniders moved to Toronto to facilitate their sons’ education and learn the trade of masonry.  Their exit from Nauvoo at that time is strange, because John was also a mason and there was probably ample work in Nauvoo, especially with the temple being constructed at that time.  In the fall of 1847 the family moved to Iowa and then six months later, back to Nauvoo.  Their absence from Illinois during that period explains why neither John Snider, nor Mary Heron were endowed in the Nauvoo Temple or received other ordinances there.  In 1850, John journeyed alone to California in search of gold, leaving Mary and the children behind.  Perhaps poverty prompted John to temporarily abandon his wife and family, or possibly other dynamics were operative.

Mary crossed the plains in the Almon W. Babbitt Company in the spring of 1851 with their two sons.[16]  Fellow traveler Mary Augusta Hawkins Snow recorded on May 23, 1851: 

We are all rejoicing to day in a glorious sunshine inward as well as outward I trust for all seem happy—particularly the children after being confined in the wagons so long…  Mrs Snider is quite sick and has been made as comfortable as possible, her canaries, the only ones with us, are gaily singing quite unconscious that the hand which has tended them so faithfully thus far is able to do it no longer.[17]

 John joined Mary later in Salt Lake City.  Whether she suffered a lingering illness, or experienced bouts of different sicknesses, she died January 31, 1852.  A search of all available obituaries for Utah and the region for that period fail to identify any details concerning her death.

            In contrast, records show that John Snider, died in Salt Lake City in 1875, having served valiantly in the Church.  The notice of his death read:  “Deceased was a veteran in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, having been connected with it in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith and ever since.  He was a man much respected, being true to his convictions of right.”[18]  Two weeks later, Apostle John Taylor penned a second obituary, which stated:  “He [John Snider] gathered to Utah in 1851, where he has since continued a steadfast, faithful and honorable member in the Church… Having been well acquainted with him for upwards of forty years, I thought it proper to give the above short statement.” [19]  There is no mention of his marriage to Mary Heron in either obituary notice. 

            It appears that the one sentence record of Joseph E. Johnson’s statement during the council meeting constitutes the only evidence of a relationship between Joseph Smith and Mary Heron currently identifiable.  Because of the paucity of available information, it can be interpreted several different ways. 

            One view assumes that Joseph overstated his impression or claimed knowledge he did not actually possess as he attempted to exonerate himself.  Excommunication in 1850 would have been a difficult challenge for a man who came from a very prominent family in the Church.  Joseph E. Johnson’s brother, Benjamin F. Johnson recalled that in the early 1840s, “In Macedonia the Johnsons were quite numerous and influential and the envious dubbed us the ‘Royal Family.’  When Joseph [Smith] heard of the honor conferred upon us by our neighbors, he said the name was and should be a reality; that we were a royal family.”[20]

A second interpretation acknowledges that sexual relations did indeed occur between Joseph Smith and Mary Heron and assumes that no plural marriage ceremony had been performed, thus documenting Joseph as both an adulterer and a hypocrite.  However, the behavior of both Joseph E. Johnson and Mary’s husband John Snider, both of whom remained true to the faith, seems to contradict this view.  If they were privy to such hypocrisy, it seems less likely that they would have continued to hold to their beliefs in Joseph Smith and the Church he restored.  We also note that thirteen men were in attendance at the 1850 council where Johnson made his defense, yet his comments seemed to have aroused no curiosity regarding the Prophet's actions and nothing that transpired there appears to have affected anyone’s convictions.

A third interpretation also acknowledges the existence of sexual relations between Joseph and Mary and assumes the two were sealed in a plural marriage making Mary Heron Joseph Smith's thirty-fifth plural spouse.  It also assumes that at that time, Mary was also experiencing conjugal relations with her legal husband, John Snider, thus creating a sexual polyandry situation.  This version also describes the Prophet as an adulterer and a hypocrite because he taught that sexual polyandry was adultery (D&C 132:63).  D. Michael Quinn apparently concurred, writing in his notes (now housed at Yale University):  “If the statements about Joseph Smith in this trial are accurate, and they do not seem to be disputed with respect to the impropriety of circulating them, then JOSEPH SMITH HAD SEXUAL INTERCOURSE (AND PRESUMABLY PLURAL MARRIAGE) WITH MARY HERON SNIDER” (emphasis in original).[21]  Contrasting this view is the lack of recorded pregnancies of Mary Heron after 1828, which leaves unanswered the question regarding the couples connubial relations thereafter. 

A fourth interpretation also acknowledges conjugality between Joseph Smith and Mary Heron, and assumes that a plural sealing occurred that was accompanied by a Church divorce that terminated conjugal relations between John and Mary.  John continued as a "front husband" to shield Joseph Smith from suspicion.   This explanation absolves Joseph of both adultery and hypocrisy charges and is supported by several observations.  First, John Snider and Mary Heron seem to have endured significant periods of estrangement after their exit from Nauvoo.  Also, it appears that the couple's marriage was never sealed, although the option was available to them.  Curiously, John obtained his own temple endowments just two weeks after Mary’s passing away.[22]  Perhaps the timing of John Snider's first temple visit was coincidental, or possibly a sealing between Mary and Joseph Smith had created an awkward situation while they were both living.

Without any additional evidence, it is impossible to conclusively identify the nature of Joseph Smith’s relationship with Mary Heron, if any special relationship ever existed.  The opinions of observers will be based upon their willingness to assume or to not assume (1) that without additional supportive evidence, the Joseph E. Johnson's story was accurate, (2) a plural sealing occurred between Joseph Smith and Mary Heron, (3) conjugality between John Snider and Mary Heron continued after her sealing to the Prophet, and/or (4) a Church divorce (in conjunction with the sealing) curtailed connubial relations between Mary Heron and John Snider.  Unfortunately, without additional historical data, assumptions are required to bridge the gaps but even then, no researcher can claim his or her view constitutes documented history.

Some reviewers might assert that the discussion of the Joseph Smith-Mary Heron relationship should be included with the polyandrous sexuality accounts.  However, including it there requires acceptance of the assumption that both the Joseph E. Johnson's account is true and that a plural sealing occurred between Joseph and Mary, neither of which is reliably documented.  Classifying Joseph E. Johnson's comment with the other available ambiguous historical data seems wise until additional explanatory historical evidence is found.

[1] I have not been able to identify a sealing date for Lorenzo and Hannah.  However, D. Michael Quinn recorded as one of Lorenzo Snow’s wives:  “Hannah M. Goddard 1845 (no children), separated 1845, remarried 1849 but not divorced until 1882.”  (D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997, 701).

[2] See Rufus David Johnson, J. E. J. Trail to Sundown: Cassadaga to Casa Grande 1817-1882, n.p. n.d, 125-30.

[3] The precise decision of Church leaders regarding the Johnson-Goddard sexual transgression is unknown, but it appears he was soon restored to full fellowship.  Concerning the event, Michael Quinn wrote:  “BY [Brigham Young] reproves him and has him rebaptized” (D. Michael Quinn, bx 3 fd 2, Quinn Collection, Yale Library.)  With respect to the pregnant Hannah Goddard, Lorenzo Snow relinquished his earthly claim on her, allowing her to marry Johnson.

[4] Misc Minutes, Brigham Young Collection, d 1234, CHL, Sept. 2, 1850, restricted; excerpts transcribed by D. Michael Quinn, bx 3 fd 2, Quinn Collection, Yale Library. This document is available on Richard E. Turley, Jr. Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Provo, Utah: BYU Press, vol. 1, DVD #18 , but that entry is blacked out, restricted because it deals with Church disciplinary proceedings.

[6] Misc Minutes, Brigham Young Collection, d 1234, CHL, Sept. 2, 1850, restricted; excerpts transcribed by D. Michael Quinn, bx 3 fd 2, Quinn Collection, Yale Library.

[7] Maurine Carr Ward, “'This Institution Is a Good One”: The Female Relief Society of Nauvoo, 17 March 1842 to 16 March 1844," Mormon Historical Studies, Volume 3, Number 2, Fall 2002 184.

[8] Dean C. Jessee, ed. The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 2, Journal, 1832-1842, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992, for Dec 22, 27, 1841; Jan 28, 31, 28 (second entry), Mar 26, May 17, 1842. 

[9] Dean C. Jessee, ed. The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 2, Journal, 1832-1842, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992, 362.

[10] Dean C. Jessee, ed. The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 2, Journal, 1832-1842, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992, 373.

[11] Scott H. Faulring, ed. An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989, 295.

[12] In early 1842, prior to the visit of the angel with a sword in early February, Joseph Smith was proposing plural sealings exclusively to legally married women.  Several such sealings were contracted in which sexual relations are undocumented or substantiated by questionable historical data.  They may have been "eternity" only sealings.  The presence of sexuality

[13] Joseph E. Johnson quoted in Rufus David Johnson, J. E. J. Trail to Sundown: Cassadaga to Casa Grande 1817-1882, n.p. n.d, 75.

[14] Scott H. Faulring, ed. An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989, 332, 338, 423, 435, 461, and 472; George D. Smith, ed. An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995, 101-04,

[15] Nauvoo City Council Minutes, January 3, 1844, LDS Archives; copy of typescript in possession of the author.

[16] Joseph E. Johnson's sister was Almon W. Babbitt's wife.

[17] Mary Augusta Hawkins Snow Journal, CHD, MS 6136, Fd. 1, for date.

[18] “A Veteran Gone,” Deseret News, December 22, 1875, page 9.

[19] “Obituary,” Deseret News, January 5, 1876, page 14.

[20] Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review, Mesa, Arizona: 21st Century Printing, 1992, reprint, 93.

[21] D. Michael Quinn, bx 3 fd 2, Quinn Collection, Yale Library; emphasis in original. Todd Compton lists Mary Heron as a “possible wife” (In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997, 632).  Compton’s only evidence is “Quinn, MHOP 587” or D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994, 587 (should be page 588), where Quinn includes her in a long list of Joseph Smith’s wives writing:  “Mary Heron (Snider) 1842/43.” 

[22] Family Group Sheets at (accessed May 22, 2011).