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John Williams: A Latter-day Saint Under Oath

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 07, 2012

On January 30, 1854, 28-year-old Henry Martin, already a 14-year employee of the firm Visger and Miller Brothers (dye manufacturers in Bristol, England), went to a supplier’s warehouse and purchased a barrel of oil for use on the company’s equipment. When he returned to the factory, something peculiar about the way he darted into the engine room (the record doesn’t say what that peculiarity was) attracted the attention of 39-year John Williams, the company’s foreman.

Williams followed Martin into the engine room and said he wanted to measure the oil. When he did, he found that the barrel was only three quarters full; closer inspection showed that water had been added to the oil in the barrel. Williams questioned Martin, who confessed that he had stolen the oil for his own use. He begged Williams not to report him to the company’s owners. Williams told him that if the property had been his own he might have accepted Martin’s apology and restitution, but since the oil belonged to his employer it was his duty to report the theft.

Visger and Miller pressed charges against Martin, and Martin was brought to trial at the Bristol Quarter Session of April 1854.

John Williams was, of course, called upon to testify. Just as he was about to be sworn, the defense attorney, a Mr. Edlin, interrupted to say he wished to question Williams before he took his oath.

Was the rumor true, he asked, that Williams was “one of the sect called Mormons”? Yes, he was a Mormon, Williams said.

What was Williams’ belief as to the divine authenticity of the New Testament? Edlin wanted to know.

“I believe in the divine origin of the New Testament,” Williams answered, “and that it was written by the Apostles.”

“And also in the divine origin of the Book of Mormon, I suppose?” continued Edlin.

“Yes,” stated Williams.

This exchange caused something of a stir in the courtroom, and one of the court officers joined the questioning. “Do you believe that a false oath taken on the New Testament would subject you to divine wrath hereafter?”

“I do,” Williams affirmed. “I believe this (the Testament) to be the testimony of Jesus Christ.”

Pressing further in an evident attempt to disqualify Williams from testifying by virtue of inability to take a valid oath, Edlin continued. “Do you consider an oath taken on the New Testament to be equally binding with an oath taken on the Book of Mormon?”

“I apprehend that it would be,” said Williams.

“Would you consider an oath taken on the Book of Mormon to be as binding as one taken on the New Testament?”

The Court intervened at this point, the Recorder saying he was satisfied that Williams was aware of the obligations of an oath, and it was unnecessary to inquire further into Williams’ beliefs. Williams was sworn, and gave his evidence.

On cross-examination, Edlin attempted to show that Williams bore animosity toward Martin, and that he had threatened the defendant over previous misunderstandings. Williams denied that he had ever threatened Martin.

In addressing the jury, Edlin suggested that it was unlikely that a man like Martin, who had been so long in service to his employers, could be a thief. He told the jury that Williams “had an evident animus” against Martin. Even more damning, he said, Williams “admitted that he was a Mormonite.” The jury must not destroy Martin’s life based on the evidence of a man who belonged to “a sect whose tenets formed as hideous an infidelity as was to be found in the darkest parts of India.”

The Court summed up the case for the jury, telling them that they had been asked to disbelieve Williams’s evidence “because he entertained certain peculiar notions of religion.” Williams had, he said, claimed the same belief in the divine origin of the New Testament as did all Christians, but he “also believed in some things else, which were called impossibilities.” He trusted that England had not reached the point where the jury should disbelieve any man’s evidence – so long as it was credible on other grounds – simply because a witness did not agree religiously with the men of the jury. He didn’t know how much the jury knew of the Mormonites, but “however revolting and incredible the tenets of that creed might be,” the jury must not discount the evidence of a man who “spoke under the solemn obligation of an oath, and [who] believed that the Divine wrath would come upon him” if he perjured himself. Disregarding Williams’s testimony on sectarian grounds would be unworthy of the jury, “a species of frightful bigotry” that should not exist.

The jury retired to deliberate, and 45 minutes later returned a verdict of “guilty.” The jury also “strongly recommended” that the Court show mercy toward the prisoner, on account of his many years of service and the fact that until this point he had had a good reputation.

The Recorder agreed to follow the jury’s recommendation of mercy. However, he said, Martin had very gravely aggravated the seriousness of his crime in choosing to make the defense he had. He had instructed his advocate to accuse Williams of fabricating charges against Martin, and then of committing perjury by testifying to those charges under oath. The Court would, therefore, impose a sentence far heavier than it would have been had Martin not attempted to clear himself by putting Williams in a false light, although he would lessen that punishment slightly because of the jury’s plea for mercy. Martin was sentenced to four months at hard labor.

Identifying John Williams is, you might expect, a difficult challenge. Based on occupation and place of origin, I believe he is probably the man who, with his wife Elizabeth and five children, emigrated aboard the LDS-chartered ship Columbia, sailing from Liverpool on November 18, 1856, and arriving at New York on New Year’s Day. The New Family Search records for John Williams are hopelessly scrambled, with data on many men combined into a single shameful record – the record shows him as John, David, William, and “Dave the Lonesome” Williams, with 30-some-odd wives, born anywhere from 1749 to 1802 in at least four different countries. However, parts of that genealogical horror include data that fit the emigration record, and give a baptism date of 1848.



5 Comments »

  1. What a awesome story!

    Comment by Niklas — August 7, 2012 @ 7:53 am

  2. Terrific, as usual.

    And, as usual, some detail completely unrelated to the central point of the story piques my curiosity. Because of the date (1854), it is a near certainty that the oil was not a petroleum distillate. Was it whale oil? Or coal oil? And what was the price of those oils in the 1850s, and how might that have affected the seriousness of the crime?

    Speaking of crime, and its punishments, Mr. Martin’s timing was propitious–had he committed the theft 25 years earlier, he would have been subject to the death penalty upon conviction. Or to what may have been worse, transportation (to Australia)!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 7, 2012 @ 8:22 am

  3. Thanks, Niklas!

    Mark, I hadn’t thought of that. Perhaps a clue would be in the fact that the warehouse where Martin went to purchase the oil was that of Thomas, Fripp, and Thomas, who, I find by Googling, were soap makers. That implies animal oil, doesn’t it, most likely the whale oil you suggest?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 7, 2012 @ 8:50 am

  4. If I didn’t already love history, this (including comments) would make me love it!

    Comment by Carol — August 7, 2012 @ 9:46 am

  5. It’s not often you read an account of a Latter-day Saint getting fair treatment in the legal system :-) It seems a very unusual, but equitable, step to increase the sentence because of the line of defence used. I loved it.

    For an idea of what the sentence of hard labour would have involved in Victorian Britain, see http://gallery.e2bn.org/gallery812-vcp.html

    Comment by Alison — August 7, 2012 @ 10:12 am

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