(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here). On Nov. 11, 1943, LDS apostles Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee gathered with Salt Lake City police officers, including Chief Reed Vetterli, outside the small Center Street apartment of elderly Anna Sofie Jacobsen. The apostles and officers burst into the home, breaking the door according to some accounts, and discovered LDS Apostle, Richard R. Lyman, 74, in bed with Jacobsen, who was not his wife. After gathering evidence, the two apostles reported back to J. Reuben Clark, first counselor to LDS President Heber J. Grant. Clark, who handled most of the church’s duties because Grant was ill, had ordered the raid. A day later, Lyman was excommunicated “for violation of the Christian law of chastity.”
The case of Richard Lyman is recounted by historian Gary James Bergera in the Fall 2011 Journal of Mormon History. Unlike the case of Albert Carrington, a 19th century LDS apostle also excommunicated for adultery, Lyman’s case is more complex. Unlike Carrington — who seems to have used his power to satisfy his lechery — Lyman appears to have been a victim of his own personal compassion, sexual dysfunctions within his marriage to his wife, Amy, personal tragedy in his family, and a rationalizing that his affair with Jacobsen was part of a polygamous pact that he had made with his mistress. For years, Lyman was bitter over his excommunication and sporadically continued his relationship with Jacobsen, who was also excommunicated.
There is some mirth in the idea of apostles in suits breaking in on the love nest of two senior citizens. However, by Bergera’s account, the affair shook the Quorum. In his diary, Spencer W. Kimball writes, “… To see great men such as the members of this quorum all in tears, some sobbing, all shocked, stunned by the impact was an unforgettable sight. …” In his memoirs, Kimball recounts the years that was spent getting Lyman ready for rebaptism and still lamented that the apostle eventually “… died a lay member of the church without Priesthood, without endowments, without sealings. …”
Bergera, in his article, has recounted trials in Lyman’s life that may have led to his rationalization that a sexual relationship with Jacobsen was not a violation of his church calling. His marriage to Amy Cassandra Brown ceased to have a sexual component after the birth of their second child. As Bergera relates in a footnote, “according to one family member, once Amy had brought forth two children, she informed Richard that their relationship from that point on would be celibate, living in amiable harmony …” Amy Brown’s biographer, David R. Hall, believes the pair’s gradual remoteness and lack of communication may have led to Richard’s adultery, writes Bergera.
In the 1920s, Lyman was assigned to assist Jacobsen in her efforts to return to the LDS Church. She was a Denmark native who had been excommunicated after being involved in a polygamous relationship after the church had banned the practice. In interviews just before he died (in 1963), Lyman recalls Jacobsen as “wonderfully unselfish and helpful.” As he prepared her for her rebaptism, the pair developed a close friendship and Lyman recalls that “she ‘was getting along in years with little or no hope of having a husband even in the great beyond,’” recounts Bergera. In 1925, after she was baptized, Lyman, suggested to Jacobsen, that the survivor among them get sealed to the other. Those preparations, which undoubtedly were a secret to Lyman’s sole wife, Amy, eventually progressed to sexual relations between the pair, who considered themselves “married.”
The death of the Lyman’s son, Wendell, 35, likely contributed to stress that Richard and Amy, with their emotional distance, probably didn’t handle well. Although Wendell’s death from carbon monoxide was reported in the press as an “accident,” it was most likely a suicide. Wendell had been depressed since the death of his young wife several years earlier and had recently clashed with his father over his drinking problems.
Given these trials, it’s not a surprise to consider that Lyman, in need of an emotional affair, allowed himself one that not surprisingly led to adultery. Bergera includes how Lyman rationalized his affair: “This woman had so many virtues and had done so much in an unselfish way for others that she and I agreed that while the present practice of the Church would not permit her to become my plural wife I began regarding her as my prospective plural wife with the mutual understanding that when by death or any other cause it would be possible for her to be my plural wife the ceremony would be performed.”
When Amy Brown Lyman was informed of her husband’s adultery and excommunication, her first words, according to Bergera’s article, were “I do not believe it. I do not believe it.” For Amy, the leader of the LDS Church’s women auxuiliary The Relief Society, it was understandably a torturous blow. Bergera recounts that some advised Amy that she would be justified in leaving Richard. However, during this time of intense trial, as well as personal, public, and religious humiliation, Amy stayed with Richard. Frankly, it shows an admirable capacity for love, compassion and forgiveness by her. The pair went into seclusion for a while, in contact with family and close friends.
A comparison of the distinct strengths, temperament and even sensibility of the pair was demonstrated soon after the excommunication, recounts Bergera. Richard, soon after being expelled from his church, went to the LDS Church Office Building and asked to use his office. He was refused and told he had to leave. Amy, who also worked there, was greeted with warmth by future LDS Church President David O’McKay, who escorted her to her offices. Although Amy died four years before Richard, she enjoyed better health than him and nursed him through several age-related illnesses. Her explanation for her loyalty was simple: As Bergera notes in a footnote, Amy told “family members that ‘in every other way been an ideal husband and father ‘ and ‘she was not going to leave him now.’”
As mentioned, it took 11 years for Lyman to be rebaptized. He made many requests but they were defiant gestures, opportunities for him to criticize his former colleagues in the Quorum of the 12 Apostles who had kicked him out earlier. Finally, in the fall of 1956, Lyman’s repentance, couple with his wife’s assurances that she had forgiven him, resulted in his rebaptism. He died, as mentioned, a lay member without priesthood or temple recognitions. Those, Bergera recounts, were restored six years after his death.
As for Jacobsen, she lived the rest of her life in her Salt Lake City apartment. Bergera was unable to learn if she as ever rebaptized. Because the Lyman family, understandably, retreated into silence during crisis, it’s difficult to know why Lyman was defiant to former leaders, or the reasons for his sudden desire to repent and be baptized, or his late-in-life apathy that prevented priesthood blessings while he lived. His case is fascinating; it bridged the older church with its polygamy and preoccupation with making eternal plans while on earth, with the modern church and its more PR-friendly responses. Bergera notes that had Amy Lyman not left her husband in the 19th Century, she might have been excommunicated later for adultery as well, because 19th century church leaders considered adultery a dissolution of marital vows. There’s no doubt that the episode really shook up Lyman’s colleagues in the Quorum. Some speculate that the uncompromising message, considered harsh by some, of Kimball’s later, landmark LDS book, “The Miracle of Forgiveness,” is shaped by his experiences with Lyman’s sin and efforts to return to the church.