Bruce W. Worthen, author of Mormon Envoy: The Diplomatic Legacy of Dr. John Milton Bernhisel, answers questions on his scholarly influences, discoveries, and reader takeaways from his new book.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
I wrote this book because Dr. John Milton Bernhisel has his fingerprints all over early Mormon history—yet nobody had ever written a book about him. His life is truly fascinating. Bernhisel lived in the home of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, serving as an advisor, friend, and personal envoy. Smith even made Bernhisel his only spiritually adopted son. After Joseph Smith’s murder, Bernhisel worked as an envoy for Brigham Young and served as the chief diplomat for the Latter-day Saints in Congress. From 1840 to 1863, Bernhisel was in the middle of the Mormon conflict. The task of reconstructing his life has proven to be a difficult one, but writing his life’s story has yielded a very different view of such things as the Council of Fifty, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the fall of Nauvoo, the trek west, the Utah War, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and the Mormon desire to build an American New Jerusalem in the far reaches of the West.
Q: Who were your biggest influences?
I have always been interested in primary source materials. I have read tens of thousands of pages of letters, newspapers, and diaries. These items are so interesting because nineteenth-century people were literate and wrote very descriptively as photography had not yet reached the point where photographs could be included in newspaper articles or personal writings. Those writers are my greatest influence.
Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?
I was surprised at how vocal Bernhisel was in opposing polygamy. He had once been married to eight women, but by 1852 had returned to monogamy. In a letter he wrote to Brigham Young in 1853, he stated that “it seems at present utterly impossible that one in ten thousand will be convinced that the “Doctrine” is at all consistent with chastity, or even common morality, much less that it is a pure and righteous one.” This opposition may be why Bernhisel never rose in the church hierarchy.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?
Many events and personalities look quite different through Bernhisel’s eyes. Some characters such as Judge Perry Brocchus come across as being far more sympathetic to the Mormons than the usual narratives of early Utah Territory portray. Other people, such as Judge John Kinney, who Mormon leaders regarded as a friend, proved to be duplicitous. Kinney told Mormon leaders what they wanted to hear and earned their praise. What Mormon leaders didn’t know is that Kinney was secretly writing letters to Washington describing the Mormons as traitors to the country and encouraging the government to send federal troops to Utah Territory.
Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?
Continuing the theme of the previous question, it becomes evident that early Mormons had divided the world up into friends and enemies. Unfortunately, they were often incorrect in identifying who their real friends and their real enemies were. I believe the anger they felt from their violent experiences in Illinois and Missouri sometimes blinded them as to who merited their trust and who did not.
Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?
I follow NBA basketball quite closely and have season tickets to the Utah Jazz. That has been my primary form of diversion. During the pandemic, I was forced to seek out other forms of entertainment, and began to watch television a bit more. At first I limited myself to high minded documentaries and serious Masterpiece Theatre type of productions. As the pandemic dragged on I began to branch out into shows like Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and Foundation. I finally dropped all pretenses and began to binge watch Bob’s Burgers and the endless spinoffs of Star Trek. I should probably give some of these light diversions up, but they keep producing more episodes.