(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) More than 125 years ago, the young Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was roiled by a tawdry affair of power-based predator adultery by elderly apostle Albert Carrington, who once named to the church hierarchy used his authority to seduce far younger women, including British converts barely out of their teens. Despite allegations stretching back a decade, Carrington escaped punishment until one of his mistresses confessed the sexual escapades to her new husband. At that point, his fall was swift.
Historian Gary Bergera recounts the Carrington case in the Summer 2011 issue of Journal of Mormon History. (It’s the first of a three-part series on LDS leaders who were disciplined for sexual misconduct). Carrington’s case is interesting not only for his bizarre defense, which echoes U.S. President Bill Clinton’s 100-plus years later, but for the culture of sexual dysfunction of that era, where elderly male church leaders were urged to select young plural brides while on assignments, yet “excessive indulgence in the marital relation” were denounced as sinful from LDS pulpits at the same time.
There’s no doubt that Albert Carrington, once editor of the Deseret News, was a despicable rake, and the outrage of his fellow apostles, who excommunicated him, was sincere. As Bergera relates, in 1882, more than a decade after being called as an apostle, Carrington was finishing his tenure as head of the LDS Church’s European mission when word reached his successor, John Henry Smith, that the 69-year-old Carrington has been seen in compromising positions with his housekeeper, Sarah Kirkman, 20.
Although church leaders were concerned enough to do a formal investigation and request a detailed response from Carrington in 1883, his denials brought a temporary end to the matter. Carrington rather shrewdly confessed to being “unwise” in his familiarity with Kirkman, but strongly denied any sexual misconduct. That was explanation enough for the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, which unanimously retained him as a member.
However, as Bergera relates, it wasn’t too long before the Quorum learned that Carrington had lied to them. In 1885, Kirkman, now married, told her husband, Richard Bridge, of her past sexual relations with Carrington, some of which had occurred in Utah after her marriage. After this reached the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, more investigation revealed that Carrington had committed adultery with other young women.
Confronted by his peers in the Quorum, Carrington admitted to sexual activity but used what might have been called a Clintonian defense a century later. He denied he had committed adultery because he “had not mixed his seed” with the women. Using what was later disgustingly referred to as a “four-inch defense,” Carrington insisted that withdrawing and ejaculating outside the women he had sex with cleared him of adultery. As his fellow apostles listened in horror and skepticism, Carrington described his activities as “a little folly in Israel” and thanked the Lord for clearing him of the sin of adultery.
As Bergera notes, the Quorum was quickly excommunicated him. Besides disapproval of the sins, his peers must have been angry with how Carrington’s behavior would hurt the church’s image, already suffering due to its practice of polygamy. Yet in his diary, Carrington, who had two wives, was mystified as to why he was cast out, insisting, Bergera records, that he had “never committed, even in thought,” adultery.
The former apostle’s health declined rapidly and before long he was bedridden. For more than a year, the now-repentant Carrington’s pleas for rebaptism were rejected by the apostles, many of whom were outraged at the blatant adultery, his explanations, and his longtime deception to them. One apostle, Moses Thatcher, Bergera records, was so incensed as to wish that adultery was a life-forfeiting sin. Future LDS President Heber J. Grant noted in his diary that Thatcher “hoped that the day was not far distant when the adulterer would forfeit his life, and then the question of rebaptism would never be raised.” Other apostles, with their new perception of the disgraced Carrington, “recollected” that he had never been a positive force in the quorum.
Time heals anger, as well as feelings of betrayal, and eventually mercy was granted Carrington. By the fall of 1887, the Quorum approved his re-baptism and confirmation. It occurred at the bedridden’s Carrington’s home. More than 30 years later, Grant, as LDS prophet, noted in General Conference that it was Section 64 of the LDS scripture Doctrine and Covenants, that moved him to OK Carrington’s rebaptism. Verse 10 reads, “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”
Bergera, in his JMH article, writes that many of the LDS apostles “may have wondered why Carrington, as family patriarch, had not simply brought Kirkman to Utah and married her regardless of his wives’ reaction.” Carrington was alone in London while mission president. Interestingly, Carrington and other missionaries had been urged by LDS President Brigham Young to get married. Bergera notes, from the Journal of Jesse Nathaniel Smith, that Young told Carrington and others in 1868: “When you get over there I want each of you to select a good girl and marry her.” However, Bergera adds that Carrington refused to marry another wife unless his first wife, Rhoda Maria, was with him to help select a plural wife.
As Bergera writes, “There are hints that Carrington’s first wife, Rhoda, did not respond favorably to the prospect of additional wives; and as a consequence, Carrington may have felt less constrained regarding extramarital sexual activity.” If that’s so, it was a life-wrecking assumption.
Carrington had been member of the LDS Church since the Nauvoo era. The stress of his excommunication doubtless contributed to his rapid physical and mental deterioration after 1885. (It also helped end his daughter Jane’s long marriage to Brigham Young’s son, apostle Brigham Young Jr.) In fall 1889, as the 76-year-old Carrington was dying, LDS leaders agreed to his family’s request that he receive the LDS priesthood so he could be buried in the faith’s garments. As Bergera relates from the diary of John Nuttall, secretary to the First Presidency, Carrington died minutes before he was to be ordained. “It was afterwards decided (that) Bro. Carrington may be buried in his Temple clothing,” Nuttall recorded on Sept. 19 1889.
In fact, 15 minutes after his death, LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff directed elders to ordain the deceased former apostle an elder.