7 Sylvia Sessions Lyon (Clark Layton) copy 2

Sylvia Sessions Lyon

Sylvia Porter Sessions was born on July 31, 1818, in Andover, Maine, to David Sessions and Patty Bartlett. The family was baptized in 1835 and migrated to Missouri in 1837. There, Sylvia met Windsor Lyon whom she married on April 21, 1838, in a ceremony performed by Joseph Smith.

Two years later they had relocated to Nauvoo. In the past few decades, Sylvia’s relationship with Joseph Smith has been scrutinized by many researchers who assumed her daughter Josephine Lyon was fathered by Joseph Smith. In fact, Brian was convinced this was the case until recently. Nevertheless, Dr. Ugo Perego’s latest genetic research shows Windsor was Josephine’s father.

Josephine Lyon was born February 8, 1844, which correlates with a conception date of approximately May 18, 1843, if she were full term. Ugo’s painstaking analysis of the DNA documents show that Sylvia experienced sexual relations with Windsor at that time. (See What can DNA testing tell us about Joseph Smith’s plural marriages? or Josephine Lyon’s Paternity Verified by DNA.)

Family history records indicate that many family members always assumed that Josephine and Sylvia’s other children born to her after her sealing to Joseph were Joseph’s children only in a spiritual sense.

This new DNA evidence necessitates a new look at the relationship between Joseph Smith and Sylvia Sessions Lyon. One interpretation asserts that Windsor was the only husband with whom Sylvia experienced conjugality in Nauvoo and that her sealing to Joseph was a non-sexual, eternity-only one like that of Ruth Vose Sayers, who was to be Joseph’s wife only after death.[3]

This view is controversial because shortly before her 1882 death Sylvia called Josephine to her side. Josephine reported in 1915: “She then told me that I was the daughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” [4] Generally, this language would be interpreted to mean the physical paternity. However, within the Church starting with the 1877 dedication of the St. George Temple, proxy sealings as vicarious adoption ordinances were creating fathers and daughters among individuals with no physical kinship relationship.[5]

For this and other reasons, several researchers have written that the language is too ambiguous to draw strict conclusions. Author Rex E. Cooper declared: “I find the evidence to be less convincing on three different grounds.”[6] Other scholars have agreed.[7]

Additional supportive evidence comes from a letter from Joseph Smith III, to RLDS leader E. C. Brand in 1894. “She [Sylvia] may have been sealed, but her testimony to E. C. Briggs gives the case away as to children by Joseph Smith. If my memory serves me right she was childless in Nauvoo.”[8]

President Smith then added: “Mountainous air and some vigorous proxy may have done for Joseph what he did not for himself—less the enjoyment of course—Bah!”[9] I have not been able to locate any notes from an interview between E. C. Higgs and Sylvia Sessions, but Joseph Smith III concluded that Sylvia’s comments precluded any children being born as a result of her relationship with the Prophet.[10]

Contradicting this view are evidences besides the 1915 affidavit. In 1888, George Brimhall recorded in his journal:  “Went to Spanish Fork …  Evening had a talk with Father Hales, who told me that it was said that Joseph Smith had a daughter named Josephine living in Bountiful, Utah.”[11]  At that time, Josephine Lyon lived in Bountiful with her husband Mr. Fisher.

Similarly, Stake President Angus Cannon told Joseph Smith III in 1905: “I will now refer you to one case where it was said by the girl’s grandmother that your father [Joseph Smith] has a daughter born of a plural wife.  The girl’s grandmother was Mother Sessions, who lived in Nauvoo and died here in the valley.  She was the grand-daughter of Mother Sessions.  That girl, I believe, is living today in Bountiful, north of this city.’”[12]

One way of looking at Sylvia’s 1882 statement would be that Sylvia did not mean Josephine was literally Joseph’s offspring, but was his daughter only spiritually due to an eternity-only sealing. It would also assume that the rumors of the Prophet’s paternity originated with someone else, perhaps Patty Sessions, Josephine’s grandmother, who was simply misinformed. Sylvia did preface her statement to Josephine saying that: “she desired to tell me something which she had kept as an entire secret from me and from others.”

In conclusion, contradictory evidence exists regarding a possible sexual relationship between Sylvia Sessions and Joseph Smith.

Endnotes:

[1] Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840-1910. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001, 29–30.

[2] David N. Danforth, ed. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 3rd ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 175–78, 299–317, 416–17, 800–02.

[3] Andrew Jenson Papers [ca. 1871-1942], MS 17956; CHL, Box 49, Folder 16, fifth document.  It appears that the documents in these folders were used to compile Jenson’s 1887 Historical Record article on plural marriage.

[4] Affidavit of Josephine R. Fisher, February 24, 1915, CHL, Ms 3423, folder 1, images 48-49; see also Danel Bachman, “A Study of the Mormon Practice of Plural Marriage Before the Death of Joseph Smith.” M.A. thesis, Purdue University, 1975, 141. See discussion in Richard S. Van Wagoner observed:  “Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo,” Dialogue, Vol.18, No.3, (Fall 1985) p.78fn12.

[5] See Jenifer Ann Mackley, Wilford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of the Temple Doctrine, Seattle: High Desert Publishing, 2014, 267–92.

[6] Rex E. Cooper, Promises Made to the Fathers: Mormon Covenant Organization. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990, 144, fn1. His reasons were: “First, although the possibility that Josephine was a daughter of Joseph Smith was being discussed as early as 1905, the statement reports a conversation that took place twenty-three years before in 1882.  Second, since the statement is transmitted through Andrew Jenson, it is a third-had account of Sylvia P. Session’s statement.  And third, the statement is unclear about what it meant to be ‘a daughter of Joseph Smith.’  For example, because of his mother’s matrimonial sealing to Joseph Smith, Heber J. Grant was regarded as a ‘son of Joseph Smith’ even though he was born twelve years after the prophet’s death.”

[7] Correspondence between the author and LDS historian Jeffrey Johnson, April 22, 2009.

[8] Joseph Smith III to Bro. E.C. Brand, Joseph Smith III Letter Press Book, P6, JSLB4, pages 63-67, Community of Christ Archives.

[9] Joseph Smith III to Bro. E.C. Brand, Joseph Smith III Letter Press Book, P6, JSLB4, pages 63-67, Community of Christ Archives.

[10] A review of the E. C. Briggs collection catalogue in the Community of Christ archives, Independence, Missouri, fails to identify any record mentioning Sylvia Sessions.

[11] George H. Brimhall,  Diary of George H. Brimhall, Volume 1, Bound typescript, undated, no publisher; edited by Jennie H. Groberg, copy in Harold B. Lee Library, Special Collections, for date; George H. Brimhall Journal, Jan 1, 1888, CHL,         MS d 1902.  The most likely identity of “Father Hales” is Charles Henry Hales (1817-1889), Brian C. Hales’ great-great grandfather.  Josephine Lyon would marry John Fisher on August 15, 1863.  The Hales and Fisher families both emigrated from Kent, England and may have known each other prior to their arrival in the United States.

[12] Angus Munn Cannon, “Statement of an interview with Joseph Smith, III, 1905,” regarding conversation on October 12, 1905, MS 3166, CHL.

 

For additional insights see “Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives after the Martyrdom.”

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