Utah History Encyclopedia


By Lynn M. Hilton and Hope A. Hilton

John Milton Bernhisel was a successful and trusted political leader in early Utah. He was one of the few early citizens who had a university education, and he used his considerable talents and energy to help reconcile the Utah Territory with the federal government in Washington, D.C.

Bernhisel was born 23 June 1799 in Pennsylvania. His parents were prosperous, Protestant land owners and, as the oldest of nine children, he received an excellent education, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1827 as a doctor of medicine. Bernhisel kept no journal or diary, but his voluminous letters and the detailed accounts of his friends and associates have left a clear view of his life. He practiced medicine in Philadelphia and later in New York City. While still a student he met and was influenced by Henry Clay, then the U.S. Secretary of State, who oriented him toward national politics.

He was an early advocate of temperance, and his medical patients remembered his professional visits in a long frock coat and high silk hat. He was a picturesque figure of slender physique and never enjoyed robust health. By nature he was modest and retiring.

While practicing his profession in New York City he was converted to Mormonism. Three years later he was ordained bishop of the LDS branch in New York City. He sent $500 to Joseph Smith to buy land in Nauvoo, Illinois, where he moved in 1843. As a bachelor he took up residence in Joseph Smith's Mansion House and became a leading figure in organizing the Council of Fifty which undertook "searching out a resting place in the mountains or some uninhabited region" for the Saints.

In preparation for the exodus from Nauvoo he was assigned to a committee to remain to dispose of the Nauvoo Temple and settle other Mormon affairs. During this interval he served as the doctor who delivered Emma Smith (Joseph's widow) of her last child, David Hyrum. He borrowed the manuscript of the Inspired Version of the Bible from Emma and copied the additions, markings, and notations made by Joseph Smith and his scribes into his own Bible. He later presented his copy to Brigham Young. It is from this source that the Mormons in Utah obtained their scripture the "Book of Moses," now published in the Pearl of Great Price.

After completing the work assigned to him in Nauvoo he came to the Salt Lake Valley in September 1848. Soon after he arrived in the Salt Lake Valley the presiding council appointed him to serve as "agent" in "treating with congress in Washington DC" on behalf of Deseret, as Utah was then called. He departed for Washington in May 1849 and with the assistance of Almon W. Babbitt helped secure territorial status for Utah, with Brigham Young appointed as governor, Indian agent, and provider of the U.S. census in Utah.

Bernhisel was unanimously elected as the non-voting delegate from the new Utah Territory to the U.S. Congress in 1851 (and again in 1853, 1855, 1857, and 1861, each for a two year term).

During this period he became an influential and prominent member of the Washington, D.C., community. He had a brilliant mind and became known as an authority on political economics. He met socially with at least three U.S. presidents and many other political leaders. He lobbied successfully for the transcontinental telegraph and railroad, the first government postal service between Utah and the East, territorial appropriations for libraries, roads, and communications. He also helped to send the peace commission to Utah in 1858 to settle the Utah War, and later helped arrange for the removal of federal troops from Utah in 1862.

As a forty-four-year-old confirmed bachelor in Nauvoo, Bernhisel had been urged by Joseph Smith to get married. He did so in 1845, to a widow with six children, by whom he had one son. He then entered plural marriage, marrying six additional wives. Only his last wife, Elizabeth Barker, bore him other children - she had six. For one reason or another, by 1851 all his wives had left him except Elizabeth.

Bernhisel served as a member of the first Board of Regents of the University of Deseret (now University of Utah), was elected vice-president of ZCMI (1868-1873), and attended the Salt Lake School of the Prophets and the meetings of the Council of the Fifty until 1880. On 28 September 1881, he died in Salt Lake City.