I’ve talked before about how if we knew and experienced the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for ourselves, we might be surprised by who were the most influential members in shaping the developing Church. Dr. John Milton Bernhisel is another of those individuals who had a surprisingly large impact compared to how often we talk about him today. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Bruce W. Worthen–author of Mormon Envoy: The Diplomatic Legacy of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel (University of Illinois Press, 2023)–shared insights on this important character from early Latter-day Saint history. What follows here is a copost to the full interview.
Bruce Worthen explained some of why John Bernhisel was so important.
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.
Bernhisel was notable for his negotiations on behalf of his coreligionists.
Part of his success came from the fact that he had lived in the worlds of both the Mormon leaders and the East Coast elites. As Worthen explained:
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.
He was able to do his job because he could negotiate between the frontiersman culture of his religious leaders and the cultured elites in the eastern U.S.
Granted, his job wasn’t an easy one.
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.
In fact, Bernhisel was also important in negotiating a resolution when Washington did send troops to the Great Basin.
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. …
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.
While important in resolving the Utah War, his influence paved the way for future rapproachment between Latter-day Saints and the U.S. government.
For more on John Bernhisel, such as his efforts to save Joseph Smith and his relationship with Brigham, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk for the full interview.