Little-known John Bernhisel did much for Utah

Published: Sunday, Oct. 9 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

In the mid 1970s as a student in college, I made friends with a young man named Jim Bell. One day Bell had me come over to his home for a minute before we went with a group from church to a movie. While sitting in his family's den, I noticed an old clock on the wall. Liking all things old, I went over and inspected this mid-19th-century timekeeper.

Moving forward some 38 years, one afternoon I was in the LDS Church's Museum of Art and History preparing an exhibit for the capitol on Utah's struggle for statehood. There I spotted a wall clock purchased by Utah's first congressional delegate to Congress, John Bernhisel, that he had given to President Brigham Young. Looking at the tag on the clock, I read, Preston Bell, Fullerton, Calif. At that moment, I realized that this was the same clock I had inspected many years ago. Bernhisel was a great grandfather of Bell's, I later learned.

Born in 1799 in Pennsylvania, John Bernhisel was an adventurous lad who, before attending the University of Pennsylvania, decided to take a trip to see the country in which he lived. Bernhisel was a terrific letter writer and did not hesitate writing letters of 25 or 50 pages. One letter he wrote in 1825 chronicles his travels into Ohio, down the Mississippi then back to the school where he became a doctor.

After completing his education, Bernhisel found his way to New York City, where he began a medical practice. While in the city, he met LDS missionaries and joined the new church. After a short time, he became the bishop of a New York City ward and came to the notice of President Joseph Smith. Upon President Smith's encouragement to visit him in Nauvoo, Ill., Bernhisel became a friend of the prophet and was invited to move into the Mansion House in 1843. During his short time in the Smith home, he would go on rides with Joseph and get to know him well, later fighting in vain for his freedom at Carthage jail.

Joseph said to him the quote, "I go like a lamb to the slaughter." After Joseph and his brother Hyrum's death, Bernhisel prepared their bodies for burial. Later, he would deliver the last child of Joseph and his wife Emma. He stayed close to Emma and the children long after leaving Nauvoo. Church leaders asked Bernhisel to stay behind in Nauvoo and settle some of the church's property and affairs.

On one trip, Emma lent Bernhisel Joseph's translation of the Bible, and it was this copy of the work that was brought back to Salt Lake as the first copy of the Inspired Version.

Bernhisel left Nauvoo and arrived in Salt Lake in 1848. After a short while in the city, he was elected delegate to Congress, so he went east to take up the cause of the saints in the nation's capitol. He served twice in Congress, from 1851 to 1859 and from 1861 to 1863. During his time there, he developed key friendship with leaders in government.

In college, he knew several men who later became members of Congress and one who was appointed to President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. He met with Presidents Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Lincoln. He was invited to the White House several times for dinner. He presented The Book of Mormon to President Fillmore, the first known time the book was given to a president. Bernhisel pled with President Buchanan for restraint during the Mormon War period, and he was successful in requesting President Lincoln to move troops from Salt Lake in 1862 to assist in the Civil War in the East.

He was present when Utah became a territory and push the idea of statehood, at the time to no avail. He was successful in getting President Young appointed governor of the new territory and got funds for the territory's first library. Horace Greeley, the famous newspaperman, complained that he rode all the way from the East to Salt Lake sitting atop the books Bernhisel bought for Utah's first library.

He pushed for the western railroad, money for a new capitol building in Fillmore, mail routes and funds to provide irrigation.

After 1863, he returned to Salt Lake and made his home on North Temple Street, where the flagpoles sit in front of the LDS Conference Center. He was a director of ZCMI and practiced as a doctor in the community until his death in 1881. He is interred in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Members of the Bernhisel family and Church History Library staff have encouraged me to write a book about this great man, a story that needs to be told in much greater detail.

Ronald Fox owns a governmental relations and marketing firm. He is a photo historian and co-author with Mike Winder of the book "When the White House Comes to Zion." He has served as an advance representative for five U.S. presidents.

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