I’ve heard the story of Martha Brotherton before, but I’d never really taken it seriously because I hadn’t read the original account1 and it just sounded like a case of he said/she said. Now that I’ve dug into it, I think this story is worthy of its own post.
In short, 17-year-old Martha Brotherton made a scandalous claim against Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. Mormon leaders — and even some of Martha’s family — denied her story publicly even though most of them couldn’t have known the facts. They did their best to paint Martha as a perpetual liar and a tramp. But 28 years later Brigham had Martha sealed to him by proxy2. This is damning for the Mormon leaders as it supports at least part of Martha’s story.
Martha recorded her memory of the alleged event a few hours after it took place. She later put together an affidavit that you can find here:
Martha H. Brotherton, Affidavit dated July 13, 1842. History of the Saints by John C. Bennett. (It’s found on page 236 of the book and page 248 on the pdf).
A Little Background
Martha and her family were from England. They met Brigham Young while he was on a mission there. The family was baptized and was soon willing to sacrifice all in order to obey the command to gather with the Saints. They arrived in Nauvoo in 1842.
Soon after arriving, Martha claims to have found herself the object of Brigham’s affections even though he was 41, married, had seven children, and she was only 173. According to her affidavit, only three weeks after their arrival, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball coordinated a secret meeting with Martha where they cornered her, locked her in a room, and tried to convince her to marry Brigham on the spot without the knowledge of her parents.
I’ll narrate it a bit to cut to the chase but you should definitely read the entire account sometime.
…we found Young and the Prophet alone. I was introduced to the Prophet by Young. Joseph offered me his seat, and, to my astonishment, the moment I was seated Joseph and Kimball walked out of the room, and left me with Young, who arose, locked the door, closed the window, and drew the curtain.
Martha then said that she received a proposition of marriage from Brigham.
My feelings at that moment were indescribable. God only knows them.
She said that her opinion of her new religion changed in an instant.
‘What’, thought I, ‘are these men, that I thought almost perfection itself, deceivers? And is my fancied happiness but a dream?’
She claims Brigham explained how it would all happen:
‘Joseph will marry us here to-day, and you can go home this evening, and your parents will not know any thing about it.’
Martha said that when she resisted, Brigham left to find Joseph who would support everything he was saying:
He then unlocked the door, and took the key and locked me up alone.
She claimed that when Joseph arrived, he did his best to convince her, pressuring her to marry Brigham then and there, saying,
‘what are you afraid of, sis? – come, let me do the business for you.’
Martha said that she never would have considered saying yes but she was afraid to say no because…
If I say no, they may do as they think proper…
It seems that she felt threatened, so instead of giving an answer, she strategically asked for time to think and pray on it.
‘Well,’ said Young, ‘I shall leave it with brother Joseph, whether it would be best for you to have time or not.’
‘Well,’ said Joseph, ‘I see no harm in her having time to think, if she will not fall into temptation.’
‘O, sir,’ said I, ‘there is no fear of my falling into temptation.’
‘Well, but,’ said Brigham, ‘you must promise me you will never mention it to any one.’
‘I do promise it,’ said I.
‘Well,’ said Joseph, ‘you must promise me the same.’
Martha claims she promised that she would keep the secret and then stood up to leave. Joseph stopped her and tried a final time to convince her to get hitched on the spot:
Joseph commenced to beg of me again – he said it was the best opportunity they might have for months, for the room was often engaged. I, however, had determined what to do.
What Happened to Martha?
Martha promptly told her family about this event. Versions of the story spread and a scandal erupted. Many Mormon leaders and even some of Martha’s family members arose to publicly defend Joseph and Brigham and to call Martha a liar and a tramp. (Hyrum4, Joseph5, Brigham6, Heber7, Parley P. Pratt8, et al.9 produced firm denials, complete with name-calling and character assassination10.) Martha and her parents left the Mormon Church, and departed from Nauvoo. Martha married one year later and had 5 children. She died in 1863, when she was only 39. As I mentioned before, Brigham had Martha sealed to him “by proxy on August 1 , 1870”. I imagine that Martha — looking down from heaven — would have been disgusted to watch Brigham go through that ceremony and listen to her name read and “sealed” to the man she eluded decades earlier.
What Apologists Say
FAIR calls Martha’s story “dramatic”, and “unlikely” (source). Here’s their rationale:
- Rumors of being locked in a room for a full day: FAIR quotes Hyrum Smith who attempts to discredit Martha by citing a rumor going around Nauvoo that Joseph had locked a girl in a room for a full day or several days. The implication is that Martha was the source of that rumor and if so, her entire story must be called into question.
- Association with John C. Bennett: As far as I can tell Martha’s account was first published in a newspaper called the Native American Bulletin (St. Louis) on July 16, 184211 and addressed to “Gen John C. Bennett”. I suppose their implication is that Mr. Bennett influenced Martha or convinced her to lie.
Brian Hales calls Martha’s account “antagonistic”12 and “somewhat tainted” but doesn’t explain why (source). I’m guessing it’s for the same reasons provided by FAIR. That said, Hales seems to accept the basic facts of Martha’s account.
The apologetic arguments I found fall into two categories: character assassination, and guilt by association. Guilt by association is a logical fallacy and character assassination is a form of misdirection. In other words, they avoid these crucial facts:
- …Joseph, and Heber (at least) are known to have been involved in the cornering and propositioning of young girls without the knowledge of their parents13
- …they had a reputation for lying about it and viciously destroying the character of those who exposed the truth14
- …Brigham corroborated a part of Martha’s story by having her sealed to him
I have found a few believers who do address Brigham’s sealing to Martha. Their interpretations vary from disappointment and sadness, to (shockingly) faith affirming15. Neither FAIR nor Brian Hales address this at all.
If Martha’s story was completely fabricated, we’d also have to explain why many of the Brotherton family abruptly abandoned the faith that they had so willingly left their country, possessions, friends and family to join.
As such, it’s highly likely that Martha did receive a proposition from Brigham Young. If so, Joseph, Brigham, and Heber were lying16. And if they were lying, they were willing to use deceit in order to destroy the reputation of an innocent girl who stood in the way of their own tainted reputations.
Apologists are still doing this today. They are obscuring the facts in order to protect their own faith. Martha just happens to be collateral damage.
- I have a tendency to doubt any fantastic claim until I’ve had a chance to look into it carefully.
- See Stanley S. Ivins, research into LDS sealing records, Ivins Papers, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City. Here’s a link to the repository.
- This article indicates that Marta was born on May 24th 1824, which would make her 17 years old. I can’t find good references on that website but that would match up with Martha’s account. Brigham asked her, “‘you are of age, are you not?’ ‘No, sir,’ said I, ‘I shall no be until the 24th of May.’”.
- “He [Hyrum Smith] then spoke in contradiction of a report in circulation about Elder Kimball, B. Young, himself, and others of the Twelve, alledging that a sister had been shut in a room for several days, and that they had endeavored to induce her to believe in having two wives…”
Times and Seasons, April 15, 1842 p. 763/i>
- “Pres’t. J. Smith spoke upon the subject of the stories respecting Elder Kimball and others, showing the folly and inconsistency of spending any time in conversing about such stories or hearkening to them, for there is no person that is acquainted with our principles would believe such lies, except Sharp the editor of the ‘Warsaw Signal.’”
Times and Seasons, April 15, 1842 p. 763.
- “I do hereby testify that the affidavit of Miss Martha Brotherton that is going the rounds in the political and religious papers, is a base falsehood, with regard to any private intercourse or unlawful conduct or conversation with me.”
- “Personally appeared before me, Ebenezer Robinson, a justice of the peace, for said county, Heber C. Kimball, who being duly sworn according to law, deposeth and saith that the affidavit of Miss Martha Brotherton, which has been published in sundry newspapers, is false and without foundation in truth, and further this deponant saith not.”
- ”The spirit of apostacy has been quite prevalent of late, principally among those who have emigrated from England to America….
Among the most conspicuous of these apostates, we would notice a young female who emigrated from Manchester in September last , and who, after conducting herself in a manner unworthy the character of one professing godliness, at length conceived the plan of gaining friendship and extraordinary notoriety with the world, or rather with the enemies of truth, by striking a blow at the character of some of its worthiest champions. She well knew that this would be received as a sweet morsel by her old friends, the Methodists, and other enemies of the Saints. She accordingly selected president J. [Joseph] Smith, and elder B. [Brigham] Young for her victims, and wrote to England that these men had been trying to seduce her, by making her believe that God had given a revelation that men might have two wives; by these disreputable means she thought to overthrow the Saints here, or at least to bring a storm of persecution on them, and prevent others from joining them; but in this thing she was completely deceived by Satan…“
Millennial Star 3 [August 1842]: 73–74
A little over a year later, Parley was sealed to Martha’s sister, Elizabeth, becoming Parley’s first polygamist wife. (source)
- John McIlwrick:
“I do know that the sister of my wife, Martha Brotherton, is a deliberate liar, and also a wilful inventor of lies; and that she has also to my certain knowledge at sundry times, circulated lies of a base kind, concerning those whom she knew to be innocent of what she alleged against them. She has also stooped to many actions which would be degrading to persons of common decency, such as lying on the top of a young man when he was in bed, and seeking Aristotle’s work from a young seaman’s box”
- The Church of Scientology applies the same tactic today. They spend a lot more time trying to destroy the person than they do addressing the issues.
- This website has transcribed a copy of the original.
- The fact that something is “antagonistic” isn’t evidence that it’s untrue. It would be strange to not be antagonistic toward an already-married 41-year-old who tries to secretly coerce a 17-year-old into marriage without parental permission.
- One excellent example comes from the journals of Emily Partridge (one of Joseph’s teenaged polygamist wives). She resisted Joseph’s overtures for more than a year until she was tricked into a secret meeting with Joseph Smith and Heber C. Kimball. She wrote:
“When I got there nobody was at home but [the Kimball children] William and Hellen Kimball… I did not wait long before Br. Kimball and Joseph came in”
She then said that the children were then sent away. Heber and Joseph pretended to send Emily away as well, in order to avoid suspicion. Emily sensed an uncomfortable situation, so tried to get away. “I started for home as fast as I could so as to get beyond being called back, for I still dreaded the interview. Soon I heard Br. Kimball call, ‘Emily, Emily’ rather low but loud enough for me to hear. I thought at first I would not go back and took no notice of his calling. But he kept calling and was about to overtake me so I stopped and went back with him.”
Emily wasn’t as lucky as Martha: “I cannot tell all Joseph said, but he said the Lord had commanded [him] to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him and although I had got badly frightened he knew I would yet have him… Well I was married there and then. Joseph went home his way and I going my way alone. A strange way of getting married wasn’t it?” More on Emily’s story here.
- Joseph lied about it to the public, to the law, to his first wife, and to the general membership of his Church.
Joseph published this in 1842 in order to quell rumors of his polygamy: “We are charged with advocating a plurality of wives…now this is as false as the many other ridiculous charges which are brought against us. No sect has a great reverence for the laws of matrimony…we practice what we preach.” (Times and Seasons vol. 4, p. 143) This post lists a few more of those denials.
A lawsuit of “adultery” was brought against Joseph to which he replied in a sermon, “Another indictment has been got up against me…What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.” (see History of the Church Vol. 6 Chap. 19)
Emma was aware of what was going on to some degree, but Joseph did his best to keep it a secret from her. For example, some of his young wives recall Joseph asking them to burn his letters in order to keep them from Emma (and others) (see Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 138.).
While he was in jail, he also wrote to his wife, Sarah Ann Whitney, asking her to visit him but that “…the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty…” He also asked her to “…burn this letter as soon as you read it…”. (See Letter to Newel K., Elizabeth Ann Smith, and Sarah Ann Whitney) There are many other examples like these two.
Joseph ordered the destruction of a printing press, whose first-and-only printing exposed his polygamous relationships. Of course this led to his incarceration and murder at Carthage, Ill.
- In this article from the Millennial Star, the author says,
“Perhaps most sobering is the fact that Brigham Young chose to perform a ceremony where Martha Brotherton was sealed to him in 1870, following her death. This is not the kind of thing Brigham would have done for a woman who had entirely lied about the incident Martha reported. To me it appears to be the kind of thing a man would do if he believed he had driven a promising young woman away from the gospel, hoping to persuade her in eternity of the pure intentions of the correct doctrine in contrast to the corrupted ordeal he had subjected her to in life. Certainly to others it has seemed the kind of thing a Brigham who really had propositioned Martha would do, securing in eternity a young woman he had failed to secure in life.”
Somehow the fact that Mormon leaders lied about and savagely attacked Martha to protect themselves eludes this author. She merely comments on the faith-affirming aspect of, see, Brigham really did care for her soul and believe the she belonged to him.
- Hyrum, Parley, and others probably didn’t know about the Mormon doctrine of polygamy at the time of the fiasco with Martha.
It’s hard to argue against a 17 year old child that very unlikely had any ulterior motives. It’s also hard to argue against whether Martha and her family were willing to make big sacrifices in order to follow Christ. You can argue with what people say; much harder to argue when they vote with their feet. They showed their willingness to sacrifice when they joined, and when they left the church. Both, to me seem equally noble. It seems that the core motive behind both choices was likely the same… to follow Christ. Martha’s story likely being true, on a… Read more »
Thanks for your heartfelt comment. I agree with a lot of what you said. I think that most people are better off if they can figure out a way to stay in. There’s so much good in the Mormon Church. (I won’t agree that it’s 99% good… but it’s still pretty darn good.) I think it’s a great life decision if a person can push through the bad and figure out a way to keep all of the good. On the other hand, I completely understand that there are many (like myself) who just can’t do that. I do worry… Read more »
Thanks for putting this together. It’s interesting how many antagonistic accounts are accurate in retrospect.
Thanks for taking the time to read it.
Very well written. Thank you.
Thankyou for this very interesting article. Martha Brotherton was my shelf breaker. I did the genealogical research about her and her family and wrote about it on my blog which you have linked to in your notes. Thank you for the link. If you are interested I have found some more interesting and scandalous information during my research from the British Newspaper Archives.
Kind regards Debra
These poor people emigrated to “Zion” under false pretenses. They were told it was a commandment from God and were promised eternal families and Celestial glory. In reality, it was nothing more than sex trafficking. There was a total lack of informed consent. Much like today, LDS missionaries fail to teach that polygamy is the basis of the LDS religion and it is an eternal principle. The LDS church uses the phrase, “Sacred, not secret”. This is a lie. The LDS church keeps polygamy, polyandry, snd under aged marriages secret because they are illegal and wrong.
I think that’s a pretty good way of putting it. If you’re aware of the history, it’s difficult to keep from calling the early Mormon leaders “predatory”. That said, I don’t agree that “it was nothing more than sex trafficking”. It’s more complex than that. The further I get from Mormonism, the more I see deep contradiction and complexity with Joseph (not as much with Brigham). I think that Joseph was a charlatan and yet it seems that sometimes he believed his own lies. And I think that what he created contained (and contains) good principles of honesty, sacrifice, loyalty,… Read more »