Ep 197 – Fostered Dissent
On this episode, we talk about the Fosters, Robert D. and Charles A. Who are they? Why are they important? What did they do? Charles Foster, unfortunately, is a rather obscure historical figure. His brother Robert, however, figures prominently in the Mormon kingdom of Nauvoo from its inception. We talk about the growing divide between Joseph Smith and Robert D. Foster as the Nauvoo church expanded and grew until Charles Foster pulls a pistol on the prophet in broad daylight. What does it all mean?
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Robert D. Foster
Charles A. Foster
Robert Foster Duty assignment
Memorial to Congress signed by Charles and Robert Foster
One Man’s Nauvoo by James B. Allen
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Last week we brought up some important folks in Nauvoo Mormon history, the Fosters, Higbees, and Laws. We’re going to spend the next 3 episodes talking about each of these families individually, what happened to them, why they’re important, and what their association with Nauvoo Mormonism ultimately resulted in. Today we’re talking about the Fosters.
Last week, Charles Foster pointed a pistol at the chest of Joseph Smith in broad daylight. If not for Porter Rockwell there to disarm Foster, Jo could have been assassinated at that very moment, but the time wasn’t quite right. Charles Ambrose Foster isn’t an especially prominent figure in Mormon history; Robert D. Bob-the-builder Foster, Charles’ brother, typically garners the majority of the ink. But let’s talk about these brothers now that they’re arrested and in the Nauvoo jail awaiting trial; let’s get a little biographical sketch. Listeners familiar enough with Nauvoo Mormon history will know why we’re focusing on the Fosters, Higbees, and Laws in May of 1844 where our timeline currently rests. If that’s you, let’s keep it between you and me for a couple more episodes so we don’t spoil the surprise for the uninitiated.
Charles A. Foster and Robert D. Foster immigrated to America from Northamptonshire, England with their parents in 1831. Robert was the older brother to Charles; they were both sons of John Foster and Jane Knibb. The Foster family arrived in New York in late spring of 1831, with Charles at age 15 and Robert aged 20. Two strapping young lads getting a new start in a teenage America with seemingly endless opportunities. Unfortunately, as is the case with most minor actors in early Mormonism, not much about the Foster brothers before Mormonism is known and possibly doesn’t exist except for maybe a hiding land deed in some state archive filing cabinet. Aside from any undiscovered documents, all we really know about the Foster brothers is that they moved to Hancock County sometime before 1839, at least Robert D. Bob-the-builder Foster had; Charles Foster, it’s unclear when he arrived in Hancock County.
This is notable because the Fosters were brothers who were trying to make a life for themselves around Commerce, Illinois when the Mormon refugees began arriving in early 1839 from their makeshift settlement in Quincy, which is the county seat of adjacent Adams county. By 1839, Robert D. Foster had been married to Sarah Phinney for 2 years. They were both baptized into the church sometime before October 1839 because in October is when Robert was ordained an elder.
Here, Charles Foster, still unmarried according to available documents, shrinks a bit into historical obscurity until 1843. However, Robert D. Foster immediately becomes elevated to the inner-circle of Jo’s elites. Robert was tasked with the most-important task of being Jo’s personal scribe for a specific journey.
Once Jo had escaped from Liberty Jail in spring of 1839, he and other church leaders collected hundreds of affidavits signed by thousands of individuals about what they’d just experienced during the Missouri-Mormon war and the 5 years preceding it. That information was compiled into a folder and five men set out on a mission to present that information to President Martin Van Buren and Congress, petitioning the government for redress to the tune of $1.2mn. Those five men who departed on this journey of nearly 1000 miles were Hingepin Sidney Rigdon, in his sickly state he’d yet to recover from after Liberty Jail, Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell, as Jo’s personal bodyguard during the journey, Jo himself, and Robert D. Bob-the-builder Foster as scribe and historian. Elias Higbee was also present, but we’ll talk about him next week.
Apparently, Robert Foster did keep Jo’s journal during the trip to and from Washington D.C. The trip all ended in nothing good for the Mormons coming from it, beyond gaining the sympathy of many powerful men in government, which would pay off just not immediately the way a government payout of a million dollars would have. What happened to that journal? That’s a matter of historical mystery. Foster had maintained with the posse for the majority of the journey, but Rigdon became to ill to continue traveling.
About this time we had arrived near Columbus, when the roads were so bad, Elder Rigdon’s health so poor, and the time so fast spending, when it was necessary for the committee to be in Washington, that I started in the stage with Judge Higbee on the most expeditious route to Washington City, leaving Rockwell, Rigdon, and Foster, to come on at their leisure in the carriage.
Bob-the-builder Foster wasn’t just a carpenter, he was also yet one more herbal physician Jo brought into his inner circle. He’s frequently referred to as Dr. Foster throughout Nauvoo documents, leading one to believe he probably split his time evenly between herbal physician and his duties with building, and other government-related duties. Foster stayed with Pistol Packin’ Port and Rigdon in Columbus, Ohio to help Rigdon get recovered enough to continue the journey. Jo and Elias Higbee continued their journey to D.C. to keep with the appointment they had scheduled for their hearing before Congress.
Notably, during the journey, they ran into Wilson and William Law on their way to the Mormon refugee settlement from Canada. The Laws hadn’t been present in Missouri during the war; they’d converted in Canada and waited until the Mormons were settling in Quincy and Commerce before immigrating themselves. The Laws were in “company with seven wagons from Canada, who returned with us to Springfield, and tarried while we did until the 8th.”
These threads which form a tapestry of dissent by 1844 were only beginning to be strung together in late 1839 here. Back to the story! Robert Foster kept the journal, but what happened to it is unknown. Jo had one of his scribes write this in his journal upon his return, after loosely recounting the journey from memory.
I depended on Dr. Foster to keep my daily journal during this journey, but he has failed me.
Apparently, Jo asked Robert D. Foster for the journal repeatedly but Foster never gave it up. There could be a few reasons for this. Maybe he was embarrassed with how little he’d actually recorded and wanted to buff it up before giving it to Jo but didn’t have the time. Maybe he told Jo he was recording everything but actually spent his time keeping Hingepin Rigdon alive and thus never actually wrote anything down. Maybe it was lost during the journey. Or, if we want to take a bit more of a speculative approach with historical hindsight, maybe Robert Foster saw some of Jo’s tendencies during those many hours on the road every day and recorded what he saw to be used as leverage at a later time. Maybe, what Jo had preached during his return trip could be viewed as treasonous or threatening against the President of the United States and Foster didn’t want his name attached to anything so dangerous.
Unfortunately, because the record simply doesn’t tell us more, we can’t ever know what happened to that book at the time and we surely can’t know if it survived, but it’s quite doubtful. It is notable, however, that Robert D. Foster became increasingly referred to as Dr. Foster from that time forward. In accordance with his being of age to join the Nauvoo Legion and his medical expertise, Dr. Foster was appointed surgeon general in the Nauvoo Legion once the Nauvoo Charter passed the Illinois state legislature and the Legion was formed.
The next place Robert D. Foster enters Nauvoo documentation is in one of the most consequential pieces of paper to all of Nauvoo history, which became D&C 124.
John C. Wreck-it Bennett was a crucial addition to the church in September of 1840. He held an incredible amount of sway in powerful circles and had recently been appointed as brigadier general in the Illinois State militia.
When he joined the church and the Mormon settlement, they were in a bad place; yet opportunities flourished and so did Bennett. Bennett was almost single-handedly responsible for the passing of the Nauvoo Charter through the Illinois state legislature with the help of both Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln 20 years before those two men were household names. The Nauvoo Charter established the legal framework from which Nauvoo would be constructed and it granted the Mormon leadership all sorts of incredible rights including taxation, the Nauvoo Legion, the Municipal Court, and plenty of other necessary items when building a theocracy.
The Charter, however, was the secular side of Nauvoo’s establishment. Concomitant with it going into effect in February 1841, Jo gave a revelation which has become modern D&C 124, establishing the religious side of Nauvoo and entangling many of the affairs and government bodies formed by the Nauvoo Charter.
A lot of big names are present in the revelation, Jo’s first actual revelation since the Mormons had fled Missouri 2 years prior. Vinson Knight, Hyrum Smith, George Miller, Lyman Wight, John Snider, William Law; a bunch of Nauvoo Mormon elites are called by name in this revelation which gave specific instructions to each of these people or called them to specific positions.
From how verse 34 reads in the original, there’s a bit to tease out about Robert D. Foster. Notably, in the modern D&C 124, this is verses 115-118, but as it was originally divided it was a standalone sentence all about Robert D. Foster.
34 And again, verily I say unto you, if my servant Robert D. Foster will obey my voice, let him build a house for my servant Joseph, according to the contract which he has made with him, as the door shall be open to him from time to time; and let him repent of all his folly, and clothe himself with charity, and cease to do evil, and lay aside all his hard speeches, and pay stock also into the hands of the quorum of the Nauvoo House, for himself and for his generation after him, from generation to generation, and hearken unto the counsel of my servants Joseph and Hyrum and William Law, and unto the authorities which I have called to lay the foundation of Zion, and it shall be well with him forever and ever: even so; Amen.
This is how Robert D. Foster got his nickname of Bob-the-builder Foster. He was commanded by god, as Jo claimed, to build the Nauvoo Mansion. If you’ve ever been to Nauvoo you’ll be able to recall this intersection of buildings at Main and Water streets. On Water street you have Jo’s Red Brick Store, the Nauvoo Homestead, which was the first home the Smith family lived in upon their arrival to Commerce, then across Main street you have the mansion home and just a little toward the Mississippi on Main street you have the Nauvoo House and another block down Water Street from this intersection you have the Rigdon Home and the homes of a number of other Mormon elites. That L-shaped building, known as the Nauvoo Mansion, became the Smith family home from late 1842 until… I actually don’t know when Emma moved out of the Mansion house. I know ownership of it was disputed as was the case with all of Jo’s other properties, but I don’t actually know how long Emma and the kids continued to live there. If you know, hit me up and I’ll read your comment on air.
This Nauvoo Mansion became a sore-spot between Jo and Robert Bob-the-builder Foster. Robert couldn’t complete construction at a pace consistent with Jo’s wishes. Jo couldn’t provide enough lumber and other resources to the project for Robert to keep a consistent pace. Many disagreements between the two centered around the Nauvoo Mansion and Jo repeatedly called out Robert D. Foster from the pulpit for lacking faith or motivation.
However, the Nauvoo Mansion eventually did finish construction. All the while, Bob the builder was gaining sizeable wealth in the city. While his younger brother, Charles A. Foster, has very little surviving documentation with his name on it, Robert D. Foster was quite the land speculator around Nauvoo. I counted no less than 25 individual deeds with Robert D. Foster’s name on them through all of 1841-4, most of which happened in 1843 after he’d completed the Nauvoo Mansion.
With this many land deeds having his name on them, it leads me to believe that Robert D. Foster was quite well-off. If that were the only data point it would be a solid assumption, but there’s another data point where Robert Foster’s wealth was made an example of by Joseph Smith from the pulpit.
In February 1843, Jo was giving a discourse, which was recorded by White-out Willard Richards. Jo was ranting about all sorts of things to the temple committee when they were really far behind schedule and most of the temple was covered to shelter the lumber from the harsh winter on the Mississippi. This is one of many speeches Jo gave to the temple committee telling them to pick up the pace on the temple and on the Nauvoo House project.
The sermon begins with a response to Lucian Woodworth giving a speech. Woodworth was not an official member of the church at this time, he was either a believer in other spiritualism or was agnostic. However, Jo referred to Woodworth as a Pagan Prophet at the beginning of the speech, before he goes on to decry the class divisions and materialism manifesting throughout Nauvoo, making an example of Foster for the wealth he’d gained, possibly pointing a little jab at Foster suspecting him of colluding with John C. Wreck-it Bennett, who’d defected publicly from the church less than a year before and had published his expose book just a couple months before this speech.
Well, the Pagan Prophet has preached us a pretty good sermon this morning, and I don’t know as I can better it much, but I feel disposed to break off the yoke of oppression and say what I have a mind to. If the Pagans and the Pagan Prophet feel more for our prosperity than we do for ourselves, it is curous; I am almost converted to his doctrine. He has prophesied that if these buildings go down, it will curse the place. I verily know it is true: let us build the Temple. There may be some speculations about the Nauvoo House, say some. Some say, because we live on the hill, we must build up this part on the hill. Does that coat fit you, Dr. Foster? (“Pretty well.”) Put it on, then. This is the way people swell, like the ox or toad in the fable; they’ll come down under the hill among little folks, and say, “Br. Joseph, how I love you; can I do anything for you[?]” and then go away secretly and get up opposition, and sing out our names to strangers and scoundrels with an evil influence. I wan all men to feel for me, when I have shook the bush and borne the burden in the heat of the day; and if they do not, I speak in authority, in the name of the Lord God, they shall be damned…
When men have done what they can, or will do for the Temple, let them do what they can for the Nauvoo House. We never can accomplish one work at the expense of another. There is a great deal of murmuring in the church about me, but I don’t care anything about it. I like to hear it thunder, and I like to hear the saints grumble, for the growling dog gets the sorest head;…
This is common Jo bloviation from the pulpit as dissent continued to grow through the last half of 1842 into 1843. However, Robert D. Foster did respond when he was directly called out for being relatively wealthy as a result of Nauvoo House stock trades. While Foster wasn’t commanded directly to purchase stock in the Nauvoo House Association in D&C 124 like William Law and others were, he had purchased a significant amount of the stock certificates. These stock certificates became money in Nauvoo and throughout most of 1843, Bob the builder Foster was flush with them. Here’s what he said in response to Jo calling him out.
As I closed, Dr. Robert D. Foster remarked to the assembly: “Much good may grow out of a very little, and much good may come out of this. If any man accuses me of exchanging Nauvoo stock for rags, &c., he is mistaken. I gave a thousand dollars to this house, (this he said upon his own responsibility) and fifty dollars to the Relief Society, and some to Fullmer to get stone to build Joseph a house, and I mean to build Joseph a house, and you may build this, and I will help you. I mean to profit by this: and I will divide the mammoth bones with you. I am guilty of all of which I have been charged.
That whole speech and exchange with Robert D. Foster comes from pages 277-9 of volume 5 of the Vogel edition HoC. Robert D. Foster did continue through all of 1843 buying and selling Nauvoo House stock certificates and land deeds. He made a considerable amount of money, which was great as long as he was loyal to the leadership and cause of the church. Jo liked to dote upon his loyal sycophants to inspire deeper loyalty, but granting wealth to followers has diminishing returns and eventually people like Robert D. Foster stop overlooking the signs that Nauvoo was a corrupt empire.
Foster had, in multiple instances, demonstrated his loyalty to the prophet, though. A case in March of 1842 reveals a scenario where Foster’s loyalty to the prophet squashed a dispute Jo had with somebody to which he owed money.
Amos Davis was a convert in 1840 and had built a tavern in Nauvoo. Jo owed him a bunch of money because Jo owed everybody money in 1842 and was woefully in debt. Jo had planned on the government payout to fulfill all the debts he’d incurred during the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo. When the government told Jo and the Mormons to figure it out for themselves, Jo was on the hook for over $200,000 in personal debts for just land. He was in debt unknown amounts in small bills to hundreds of other people for everything from food to saddles and tack the Red Brick Store had in stock. With Nauvoo House stock certificates serving essentially as money, Jo tried to pay debts back with these certificates or by giving people land in Nauvoo. The more he gave out plots of land, the less value each plot of land carried and the Nauvoo economy was incredibly volatile.
Amos Davis was furious about the debt Jo owed him as his tavern business was struggling to stay afloat. In addition to this, Bennett, as mayor at this time, was a teetotaler prohibitionist. He’d been able to pass alcohol prohibitions through the Nauvoo City Council, making tavern-keeping a tough job. Various taverns which had cropped up before the prohibitions went into effect were visited by the city marshal, Dimick B. Huntington, and shut down. However, some continued to operate with Jo’s approval whether because they were loyal to him, or because they had some kind of leverage over Jo. Amos Davis was allowed to operate his tavern because he fell into the second category.
The situation continued to build tension between Jo and Amos Davis. One day, in early March 1842, Jo went to Davis’ tavern and asked for a drink. Davis refused to serve him until the debt Jo owed him was paid. Jo told Davis he’d pay the man in land deeds or Nauvoo House stock certificates. Davis was constantly suffering from the volatility of the Nauvoo markets and wanted it paid in actual specie, silver and gold, which were VERY precious commodities in Nauvoo. Davis continued to refuse to serve Jo and then left the room and refused to even be in the same room as Jo. Rumors of polygamy had gained fairly wide attention at this time and the various brothels around town run by the Mayor, John C. Wreck-it Bennett, and Jo’s younger brother, Crazy Willey Smith, had sullied the reputation of the city. Amos Davis called Jo a “whoremaster, scoundrel, rascal, liar, knave, and swindler”. Jo didn’t like it when people said such true things about him and he filed a complaint with the Nauvoo Municipal court; Amos Davis was arrested by marshal Dimmick Huntington and brought before the court the following day, chaired by Jo’s buddy, Mayor John C. Bennett.
Robert D. Foster was caught up in this scenario and arraigned in court as a witness to the events. Here’s what he testified, which you’ll find linked in the show notes as Nauvoo v. Davis from the Joseph Smith Papers.
Robt D. Foster— Was at Defts, at Supper, Deft said he would be damned if he could go into the Room where Smith was, that Smith had broken his pledges to him, & that he considered he intended to Swindle him, & that he knew it, Witness was requested to tell Smith to leave the House, he delivered the Message, which was from Defts Wife, & Smith went,— Deft then came into the Room, & Deft said he was willing to meet Joseph Smith in the Woods, with Words, Fists, or Rifles, that he believed Joseph Smith was a damned Whoremaster, & <that he was> a Scoundrel <or rascal>, does not believe Mrs. Davis asked J. Smith to Tea, but that Mrs Hibbard or Mrs. White, <X> Witness talked to Davis to pacify him, & Mr Taylor was present, Deft did not speak to J. Smith, but about him,
Said he did not deliver the Message to J. Smith, for that J. Smith had his Hat or Cap in his Hand, & in the way of going, when Witness entered the Room.—
Foster basically acted as the emissary between Jo and Davis once Davis refused to even walk in the room where Jo was seated and asking for the drink. The record almost reads as if Jo was trying to take Amos Davis’ wife as a plural wife. The Mrs. Hibbard listed there was likely Amos’s sister-in-law, and the Mrs. White was likely the wife of James White, a guy Jo owed a lot of money for buying Commerce land during the Mormon settlement. Whether it was Amos’s wife, Amos’s sister-in-law, or Mrs. White who invited Jo to the tavern for a drink, the confrontation was the inevitable result. Foster’s testimony with Jo’s buddy, John C. Bennett chairing the hearing, led to Amos Davis being fined $100 on charges contained in “an Ordinance, entitled, “an ordinance concerning Vagrants and disorderly Persons”.” One of the jurors was the guy who founded the town I grew up in, Peregrine Sessions.
Notably as well, all of the witnesses called said something about Davis being abusive toward Jo or that Jo was a standup guy. Davis was abusive toward Jo but I would argue that abuse was warranted or justified. Jo was solidifying his position as a despot and his war against anybody who spoke against him began in the Nauvoo courts. This case is one example of how he could bend the will of the court to side with him and drive away any dissenting voices or problematic foes like Amos Davis. Robert D. Foster, in this early 1842 hearing, demonstrated his willingness to follow the prophet and testify in a way that would help Jo’s case and result in the conviction of Davis.
With that said, however, Robert D. Foster, and by proxy his brother Charles, began to be pushed to the outside of the church. While in 1842 rumors of polygamy were rampant and ubiquitous thanks to the expanding practice of the public departure and expose of Wreck-it Bennett, by late 1843 the High Council had seen the revelation on paper. Polygamy was expanding and more men beyond Jo, Hyrum, and Bloody Brigham were practicing it. The more people practicing it, the more likely people are to believe the rumors and learn that a close loved-one is caught up in the ring.
Polygamy becoming more public yet still hush hush had some interesting effects for everybody in Nauvoo Mormonism. If you were somebody who was a bit more partial to Puritanical ideas of one-man one-woman marriage, it was viewed as abhorrent. But, if you were a bit more liberal in your views of what constitutes love and successful relationships, the idea of polygamy presented an exciting prospect of aspiration. An example of that division can be seen with the Fosters juxtaposed to William Clayton, or, as we call him, Quilliam Claypen.
Foster didn’t like the idea of polygamy, and began to align himself with the leadership who knew it was being practiced but opposed it. Those were people like William Brutus Law, William Judas Marks, Hingepin Sidney Rigdon, and frankly the majority of other church leaders. These were the anti-polygamists, many of whom participated in explicitly non-polygamous sects of Mormonism after Smith’s death, or altogether quit the Mormon game from that point forward.
On the other side of that spectrum we have folks like Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith, Bloody Brigham Young, and Quilliam Claypen who all practiced polygamy and enjoyed the fulness of the blessings and other benefits which came along with being inducted into this inner-circle.
From an article James B. Allen published in the Journal of Mormon history 1979 titled One Man’s Nauvoo: William Clayton’s Experience in Mormon Illinois.
Clayton was officially instructed in the doctrine [of polygamy] either in February or March 1843. Joseph Smith then authorized him to send for a young lady in England by the name of Sarah Crooks, and even offered to furnish the money. Clayton was apparently not shocked, and the Prophet proceeded to give more instruction. In later months, as Joseph continued to teach him privately, Clayton became convinced that “without obedience to that principle no man can ever attain to the fullness of exaltation in celestial glory.”
Being convinced of a principle is quite different from putting it into practice, and therein lay a great human drama for Clayton. He was delighted with the possibility that Sarah Crooks would become one of his first plural wives since he had known her back in Manchester and the two had become very very close. Ruth, too, was acquainted with her, and they all got along very well indeed. It is unclear whether Joseph actually furnished money for Sarah’s passage, but when she received a letter that Clayton wrote on 12 February 1843 she immediately started out for America.
This excitement was felt by plenty of people who had the idea of polygamy proposed or taught to them. Polygamy was a polarizing teaching and for many a test of loyalty to the prophet. The Fosters, the Laws, and the Higbees all failed the test in Jo’s eyes.
Robert Foster, and presumably his brother Charles, began to slip away from Jo’s grasp by early 1844. They both signed a petition to Congress in the Nauvoo Council’s efforts to both get remuneration for the Missouri-Mormon War and to have Congress recognize Nauvoo as a sovereign territory. That was signed on November 28, 1843, but dangerous signs had been making themselves present about the Fosters’ loyalty for months by that point. Charles and Robert Foster signing this memorial was more symbolic than anything else and was also necessary because both of them held positions in Nauvoo government.
The Foster brothers signaled their faltering loyalty to Joseph Smith simply by their day-to-day interactions and the company they kept. People who’d been this influential and integral to Nauvoo Mormonism not being inducted into the anointed quorum or Council of Fifty is data by omission. By virtue of not being included in these secretive groups, when everything else in Foster’s timeline signals that at least Robert should have been included, it reveals to us that Jo was significantly questioning their loyalty.
This greatest signal Jo had was the Fosters’ association with William and Wilson Law. The Laws had been causing trouble for the church for quite some time and anybody who associated with the Laws was a likely enemy of Jo’s church. Specific documents don’t reveal the growing division between Jo and the Fosters here, but the tension which led to their excommunication must have been present. The Fosters didn’t simply wake up one day and decide to be critics of Joseph Smith and his growing polygamy ring, the disagreements long predated their excommunication.
The only document I can find that reveals a bit of the growing tension is a legal case in early April 1844, which was chaired by Dr. Robert D. Foster as a Justice of the Peace. This was a case where two men were alleged to have committed perjury in a previous case. I can’t find the case file for the previous case in order to contextualize this specific case, but A.J. Higbee filed a complaint against A.D. Rhodes and Andrew Colton for committing perjury in a case against him, A.J. Higbee, from the week before. A.J. Higbee was a crony of Joseph Smith and it seems he’d lied on the stand to defend Joseph Smith in some capacity, to which Andrew Colton and A.D. Rhodes provided testimony contradicting A.J.’s testimony, attacking the prophet. Jo wanted Colton and Rhodes arrested for what he considered perjury and they were, indeed, arrested. They both filed for a writ of habeas corpus, which was heard by Dr. Robert D. Foster. He granted a hearing, which Jo chaired as mayor and chief justice of the Nauvoo Municipal Court. Not wanting this to be referred to Carthage, Jo punted on the writ of habeas corpus and referred it to a lower court, which Isaac Higbee refused to hear. This wasn’t resolved until September of 1844, but what it did do was effectively demonstrate to Jo that Robert D. Foster wasn’t willing to let this complaint go when doing so would protect the prophet. Instead he pushed it to the court and Jo was forced to chair a hearing where he had a vested interest in the persons remaining in jail to cover up polygamy.
This growing tension can be seen in the court hearing on April 13th, 1844. During it, Jo got in a heated exchange with Robert D. Foster and began lobbing accusatory questions at Foster. Jo was also trying to press Foster for information on his fellow conspirators who were working against the prophet. Foster did the only thing he could in the situation, turned into a stone from which Jo could get absolutely no information. Jo’s reaction is to charge Foster with “unchristianlike conduct” which provides a window into how liberally Jo used that charge against his enemies for his entire ministry. From Jo’s journal:
Joseph have I ever misused you any way? Foster. said I do not feel at liberty to answer this qu[es]tion under existing circumstances.—
did I ever misuse you? do not feel at libe[r]ty to answer under existing circumstances.—
Did I ever wrong you in deal personally misused you.— in any shape? Foster I do not feel at libe[r]ty.— to answer— I have treated you I Christ[i]anly and fri[en]dly too— so far as I have had ability.— Jo. tell me where I have done wrong & I will ask your forgiveness.—— I want to prove to this company by you[r] own testim[o]ny that [p. ] I have treated you honorably.— Foster I shall testify no further at pres[e]nt.—
A[ndrew] Colton come up on Habus [habeas] corpus and was discharged on the insuffici[e]ncy of the papers.202
after which. Joseph pref[er]red the following charge against Bro R. D Fostr— “for unchristin like conduct in general. for abusing my character privately. for throwing out slanderous insinuation agist [against] [p. ] me. for conspir[i]ng again[s]t my peace & safety. for conspiri[n]g again[s]t my life. for conspiring again[s]t the peace of my family, and for lying”. Joseph Smith
Whatever details of the case I’m having trouble parsing out, the result is what matters. This case was the last documented straw for the relationship between Jo and Robert D. Foster. Charles Foster, remember, is an inferior figure as far as documented history goes because Robert was much more involved in Nauvoo government, politics, and religious affairs. Presumably, Charles was on more on board with his brother Robert than anything that might be done by the Nauvoo leadership.
Just a week after this hearing involving Robert D. Foster and Jo’s final disagreement, the High Council held a meeting. We only learn about this from the journal of Quilliam Claypen which has a personal touch about the opposition to polygamy in addition to the general council being called to cleanse the leadership of polygamy dissenters.
…Sarah C[r]ook[s] has been at my house to day and before she left again she shewed her enmity to Joseph and others in full. She has got a wicked spirit in her and will be cursed if she do not repent.
I also attended in council with the Twelve and High Council on cases of the Laws and R D. Foster, when Wm Law and his wife Jane Law, Wilson Law and R D. Foster were cut off from the church by unanimous vote.
And, just like that, on April 18th, only 7 days after the Council of Fifty had elected Joseph Smith to be Prophet Priest and King, the Laws and Robert D. Foster were excommunicated in absentia. Undoubtedly, Robert D. Foster heard of his excommunication and immediately began to suspect his life was in danger. This is coming less than a month after Joseph Smith had named Foster and the Laws specifically in a conspiracy to murder the prophet. Foster was officially cut off from the church and the only life insurance he had was his public presence as surgeon general of the Nauvoo Legion, a Regent of the University of Nauvoo, and as a relatively wealthy landowner in Nauvoo. So, he had enough public connections that simply disappearing would cause far too many questions and Jo had ranted from the pulpit about how much they he and his coconspirators were enemies of the church, which had its own insurance effect.
So, now enters the final week of April 1844, Robert D. Foster and Charles Foster are furious with how they’re being treated. Joseph Smith has engaged in a public character-smearing campaign against the Fosters and their closest friends. They’re surrounded by thousands of people who see them as de-facto enemies because they were opposed to the prophet. Even if those thousands of people didn’t know the reasons behind the Fosters being assailed from the pulpit, they knew enough to be a threat to the Fosters.
The Foster brothers, Charles and Robert, were simply going about their business one day in late April 1844. John P. Greene, the city marshal, runs up to them and says you’re officers of the Nauvoo Legion and I’m deputizing you to arrest Augustine Spencer while he’s meeting with his lawyer. The Fosters refused to assist and Joseph Smith himself walks up behind the marshal and commands them to aid in the arrest of Augustine Spencer. They refuse again because they view Joseph Smith as a mortal enemy at this point. Jo was the greatest threat to their wellbeing and survival and now he’s giving them explicit commands to arrest an enemy of the church leadership. You know what they say about enemies of enemies. They refuse all his petitions and the situation gets heated. Joseph is flanked by Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell, a person who they’d likely sworn oaths of secrecy with in the past. Harsh words are thrown back and forth. Robert is wiser than his younger brother, Charles. Charles realizes he’s in mortal danger and the only solution was to draw his pistol and aim it at the chest of Joseph Smith. Per his training, Port immediately lunges at Charles and wrenches the pistol from his hands, saving Joseph’s life. Both Charles and Robert are arrested and taken to the city jail, prisoners of their greatest enemy.
What does a person in this situation do? Joseph Smith was in total control of their fates. What would you do in this situation? Do you stay and fight the tyrant? Do you sell your property at rock-bottom prices, assuming the prophet doesn’t tell everybody not to buy from you, and just leave as quietly and quickly as possible? Do you speak your truth and hope some follow? How do you stand and fight while insuring your life? Do you carry the fight to courts outside of Nauvoo at the expense of all your property, friendships, family connections, and everything you hold dear?
The options that Charles and Robert Foster had available to them were incredibly limited and carried heavy consequences. The next issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor carried the story of what transpired between the Fosters and the prophet when a pistol was brandished by Charles. How would the public react to the story?
The May 1st edition of the Nauvoo Neighbor after relating the story carried the declaration:
I wish the public to know who it is that makes insurrections and disturbs the peace and quiet of the people of the city of Nauvoo and in order to do this I need only to tell the world that this R. D. Foster is a county magistrate and the same R. D. Foster that was fined for gambling a few weeks since… When the wicked rule the people mourn: But righteousness exalteth any nation. –Solomon
J.P. GREENE, City Marshal
The Fosters were brought into the Municipal Court of Nauvoo the very next day after their arrest. They were convicted of disturbing the peace each $100. They were released after this conviction and appealed their cases to the court at the county seat, Carthage. An additional note present in Jo’s journal here is that Robert Foster accused Willard Richards while “shaking his fists in [Richards’s] face” stating “[you] are another Damned black hearted villain. You tried to seduce my wife on the boat when she was going to New York.—and I can prove it.” Tensions between Robert Foster and the leadership loyal to Jo were extremely high during this hearing.
The details of the hearing aren’t present on any official paper in the Nauvoo document register on the Joseph Smith Papers site at least. Where they are present is in Jo’s personal journal kept by Quilliam Claypen. This is all we know about what transpired during that hearing. After the hearing, Jo approached Robert Foster in private with a proposal.
9 A.M. R. D. Foster come up for trial—after much conversation with the Mayor in which he charged Joseph with many crimes Danite-ism in Nauvoo—and a great variety of vile & false epithets & charges court adjourned to Moday 9 AM.
As a result of the following day’s hearing, Jo remanded the case to Alderman William Marks, who wasn’t a crony of his as Jo had declared from the pulpit that William Marks was a Brutus laying in wait to kill the prophet. Understandably, Foster objected to the hearing being transferred on grounds of jurisdiction, but he maybe should have let it go through because Marks was likely more sympathetic to Foster as an enemy of polygamy than he was to Jo as the tyrant of Nauvoo. Regardless, after the first day’s hearing, Jo personally visited Robert Foster in between the two trials. This is the actual end of the affair between Foster and Jo.
—Foster agreed to meet Joseph on 2nd—moday of may at the stand and have a settleme[n]t Foster then said he would publish it Warsaw paper—Joseph told him. if he did not agree to be quiety—not attempt to raise a mob & he would not meet him—if he would be qui[e]t he would publish it in Neighbor—Foster would not agree to be quiet—and Joseph said he was free from his (Foste[r’]s) blood. had made the last ove[r]ture of peace. delivered him into the hand of God & shook his garm[e]nts ag[ain]st him
This was Jo’s plan, propose to Foster that he can print his complaints with Jo and the church in the Nauvoo Neighbor as long as he keeps quiet. Did Jo really think that proposition would take? Did he legitimately think it would work? Regardless, Bob-the-builder Foster rejected the offer at which point Jo told Foster he was in the Lord’s hands, that he was free from Foster’s blood and then Jo shook his garments against Foster. These are three clear and present signals that the clock had begun ticking. If he didn’t act quickly and deliberately, he and his brother Charles would disappear. The Danites were coming for him. Marching orders had been given.
Now Foster had to line a few things up with his brother, the Laws, and the Higbees, then their survival would be insured. However, that didn’t stop people from visiting Foster to discourage him from going public with his impending expose.
Meetings were immediately held among Nauvoo elites to determine what to do about the Fosters and their cohorts. During the Council of Fifty meeting on May 6th, John Taylor reported that he’d met with Robert Foster. This is what he said:
Er Taylor reported that he had visited Dr Foster, and had advised him to keep still &c, and that all men who professed to be saints must support the church &c. Foster said he had no bad feeling & had been appeased &c he was ready to meet on any honorable terms or receive any communication. He said he could do nothing, his wheels were clogged &c.
This sounded like good news to Jo and his entourage, but was it true? Foster knew Taylor was deep in the Council of Fifty and Quorum of Apostles; Taylor had only met with Foster on the prophet’s direct orders, so of course he’d conceal his plans from John Taylor. Jo could see through the misdirection and responded to Taylor’s intel:
The chairman said he [Foster] would do nothing again while God gives him breath… The chairman decided that Foster and the Higbees were included in the last resolution and were all given to the buffetings of Satan.
In Council of Fifty terms, those are assassination orders. Jo wanted the Foster problem to go away and he was putting pieces in place to have the Fosters removed, but there’s strength in numbers. A meeting was held in the Temple Grove where the Fosters, Higbees, and Laws devised a plan and a public demonstration, but we’re not ready to talk about it just yet.
This same first week of May 1844, the Nauvoo Legion cashiered, or released, Robert Foster from official duty. He was excommunicated from the church, his post in the Nauvoo Legion had been taken from him, and Daniel H. Wells issued a writ of ejectment for anybody who’d purchased any land from Robert Foster, meaning all the land deeds or contracts with his name on them were no longer valid. Robert Foster was being completely starved out of the church and the Council of Fifty meetings had determined his thread needed to be cut. The walls were closing in on both Robert and Charles Foster.
The last data point I’ll leave everybody with today is this small entry in Jo’s journal for May 7th, 1844.
An opposition printing press arrived at Dr [Robert D.] Fosters fr[o]m Columbus ohio. as report says
The walls were closing in on Charles and Robert Foster, but they were on the right side of history. Worth brief comment here is the lack of options Jo had. The walls were closing in on everybody, not just the dissenters. As time progressed, Jo knew his name would be sullied and he couldn’t keep the secrets under wraps any longer. It was only a matter of time before he was discovered and what would happen then? If not the Fosters exposing him, then who? If he doesn’t handle this situation with the Fosters just right, how long before his empire comes collapsing in and crushes him beneath the weight of the broken and abused system? Nothing happened in Nauvoo without the knowledge of Joseph Smith, but he didn’t control everything. He was a man who’d shown a penchant for violent behavior his entire life, especially as a religious leader. How would he handle the dissent growing from the Fosters, Higbees, and Laws? Was violence the answer?
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