b. 15 August 1778 Hopkinton, Washington, Rhode Island
d. 13 April 1850 South Cottonwood, Salt Lake, Utah
b. Salt Lake City, Salt Lake, Utah
Wives: (1) Tabitha Bentley, (2) Lydia Stewart, (3) Elizabeth Beswick
Father: Joshua Tanner; Mother: Thankful Tefft
[Editor's Note. January 24, 2014. This is a short paper I wrote for a college religion class, and edited a little for this blog. Reading it 20 years later makes me cringe. It's not too bad for a young college student, but it only uses secondary history, relies heavily on devotional history, is devotional history itself, almost entirely ignores the women in the story, and uses the secondary sources with almost no assessment of reliability. I am leaving this up to show an example of a well-written, agreeable paper that is poor history.]
[Previous Note: John Tanner married Tabitha Bentley when he was 22 and she was 20. She died a few days after the birth of their son Elisha in 1801. John married our ancestor, Lydia Stewart, and they lived together until she died after the birth of their twelfth child in 1825. After marrying Elizabeth Beswick, with whom he had eight more children, he began his adventures that are detailed here. I've always found it interesting that there were 42 years between the birth of his first and last children.]
John Tanner was born in Hopkinton, Washington County, Rhode Island 15 August 1778 to Joshua and Thankful Tefft Tanner. It is through the Tefft family that we trace our ancestry back to the Mayflower.
John Tanner moved to New York and became a wealthy farmer. In the late 1820s or early 1830s he developed a serious condition in his left leg, which confined him to a specially-constructed wheelchair. Although John Tanner hired the services of many of the most prominent doctors in the country, his condition was incurable and he remained in the wheelchair.
In September 1832, the Tanners heard an announcement that Mormon missionaries were going to preach in the area.
The announcement, Mr. Tanner hailed with delight. It afforded him an opportunity, he thought, of doing much good. He was conversant with the Bible and felt himself amply qualified to discuss such heresy as he thought the Latter-day Saints were propounding in their effort to spread Mormonism. Mr. Tanner also believed that he would confer a benefit upon his fellow men by showing up the fallacies of the Mormon elders.
However, as he listened to brothers Simeon and Jared Carter, “a wonderful change came over the mind of Mister Tanner, and when they closed the evening services he invited them to his home.”
Jared Carter wrote that he and Simeon met John Tanner and while holding a meeting, Carter said that “we found he was a believer in the Book of Mormon. I asked him to endeavor to walk in the name of Christ, he agreed to undertake. I then took him by the hand and commanded him in the name of Christ to walk, and by the power of Christ he was enabled to walk. Brother Simeon was not at the moment present, but I found after this at the very time he was healed Brother Simeon had an exercise of faith for him in secret prayer to God.”
“‘I arose, threw down my crutches, walked the floor back and forth, praised God, and felt as light as a feather,’ was the declaration Mr. Tanner made in explanation of this marvelous power.” Some accounts say that John Tanner walked to Lake George that very night to be baptized, while other accounts argue that he waited until the morning.
John Tanner remained in New York until 1834 when he began making preparations to move with the Saints to Missouri. In the spring of 1834 he sent two sons, John J. and Nathan, to Kirtland where they joined Zions Camp and marched to Missouri in an effort to redeem Zion.
In December 1834 John Tanner “received an impression by dream or vision of the night, that he was needed and must go immediately to the Church in the West.” Although many of his neighbors believed Tanner’s decision to give up his wealthy and prominent position in the community was foolish, he sold his property in New York and left on Christmas Day with his family for Kirtland.
When John Tanner arrived in Kirtland he found that the Prophet Joseph Smith and other church leaders had been praying for means to lift the mortgage on the temple site. John Tanner and his son Sidney met with the High Council the day after arriving in Kirtland, by invitation of Joseph Smith. Leonard Arrington wrote that John Tanner,
…loaned the temple committee thirteen thousand dollars, signed a note for thirty thousand dollars with the Prophet and others for goods purchased in New York, and made “liberal donations” toward the building of the temple.…There is no evidence that any of these loans were repaid.
The prophet Joseph Smith recorded the following from an 18 January 1835 meeting which was probably the same as recorded in the sources above.
Certain brethren from Bolton, New York came for counsel, relative to their proceeding to the West; and the High Council assembled on the 18th. After a long investigation, I decided that Elder Tanner assist with his might to build up the cause by tarrying in Kirtland; which decision received the unanimous vote of the council.
Instead of moving to Missouri as originally intended, the Tanners remained in Kirtland where John Tanner had additional chances to associate with the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith recorded in his journal on 9 December 1835:
My heart swells with gratitude inexpressible when I realize the great condescension of my heavenly Father, in opening the hearts of these my beloved brethren to administer so liberally to my wants. And I ask God, in the name of Jesus Christ, to multiply blessings without number upon their heads, and bless me with much wisdom and understanding, and dispose of me to the best advantage for my brethren, and the advancement of His cause and kingdom. And whether my days are many or few, whether in life or death, I say in my heart, O Lord, let me enjoy the society of such brethren.
Elder Tanner brought me half of a fatted hog for the benefit of my family. A few days since, Elder Shadrach Roundy brought me a quarter of beef. And may all the blessings named above be poured upon their heads, for their kindness towards me.
“When the temple was finished, [John Tanner] participated in the dedication, took part in the ‘Solemn Assembly,’ and the glorious gifts and manifestations of that memorable occasion [and] received his temple anointings.”
Another instance of association with the Prophet is recorded in John’s son Nathan’s journal on 6 April 1836: “I went with my father and brother [in-law] Amasa M. Lyman, to brother Joseph Smith’s, and there under the hands of Joseph Smith, Amasa M. Lyman and my father I received a father’s blessing. It was of great importance to me.” Nathan left the next day with Amasa Lyman and two others for a mission in New York.
John Tanner invested heavily in the Kirtland Safety Society. When American banks crashed in 1837, the Kirtland Safety Society also fell. When it ceased operations in November 1837, John Tanner lost heavily. However, unlike some who lost their faith when they lost their money, Tanner remained in the church and continued to sustain Joseph Smith as a prophet of God.
Having lost heavily in the bank failure, and with conditions getting worse in Kirtland, John Tanner sold his farm, and left for Missouri in April 1838. Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had left for Missouri two months earlier.
On his trip to Missouri Tanner had besides himself, ten persons, a horse of his own, three borrowed horses, an old turnpike cart and perhaps an additional wagon, a keg of powder for barter, and between $7.50 and $20.00 in cash. The book Scraps of Biography notes that when the money and powder ran out, the Tanners begged buttermilk and sometimes other food from settlers along the route. To add to the hardship, along the way, his young daughter died.
On 3 July 1838 the Tanners arrived in Far West. In a conversation with a friend, John Tanner reputedly said, “Well, if others have come up easier, they have not learned so much.” Several of John’s adult sons (Sidney, John Joshua, and Nathan) had already gone to Missouri, purchased land, and started farming. John Tanner was able to pay his debts from his efforts and those of his sons.
In autumn 1838 John and his son Myron traveled to a mill nine miles from town. On the way home they encountered the state militia who threatened them with death. Captain Myer Odell struck John Tanner over the head with his gun. Tanner would have been killed except for his thick felt hat. John Tanner was held prisoner for two or three days, during which time he refused to wash the blood off, as a witness against the mob action. The militia released John Tanner when General Doniphan withdrew his men and the Saints “laid down their arms.”
On 3 March 1839, John Tanner and his family and his sons’ families moved to New Liberty, Illinois where they lived for a year. In the middle of March 1840 they moved to the area of Montrose, Lee County, Iowa. Tanner remained there for four years until he was called on a mission to New England in April Conference 1844. Stopping in Nauvoo on his way, he encountered Joseph Smith on the street and handed him the $2,000 temple loan note of January 1835.
The Prophet asked him what he wanted done with the note. Elder Tanner replied, “Brother Joseph, you are welcome to it.” The Prophet then laid his right hand heavily on Elder Tanner’s shoulder, saying, “God bless you, Father Tanner; your children shall never beg bread.
After the death of the Prophet, John Tanner went to Winter Quarters with the Saints. At Winter Quarters his house and most of his possessions burned. However, the Tanners quickly recouped. In June 1848 Tanner started for Salt Lake in the Amasa Lyman company. Tanner took five teams and wagons and eighteen months’ provisions for his own family and the seven wives and the children of his son-in-law Amasa Lyman. They arrived in Salt Lake on 17 October. The Tanner family moved to South Cottonwood where John Tanner died a year and a half later of rheumatism.
From the materials available on the life of John Tanner and his associations with Joseph Smith, we know that he loaned and donated to the church significant amounts of money. He sent two sons with Zions Camp and one with the Mormon Battalion, he invested and lost heavily in Joseph Smith’s Kirtland Safety Society, he helped provide for the Prophet, he participated with the Prophet in giving his sons a blessing, he was present at temple ceremonies, and he received a blessing from the Prophet that his children would “never beg bread.” Undoubtedly John Tanner also interacted with the Prophet Joseph many other times in his acquaintance with him. From the records, we learn that John Tanner believed in the Book of Mormon and the restored gospel and in the prophet Joseph Smith, and that “Father Tanner,” as he was known, was willing to sacrifice all of his possessions to build the kingdom of God.
Journalist M.R. Werner wrote about John Tanner arriving in Kirtland, “Manna from Heaven arrived in the form of John Tanner, a convert from New York.…He arrived there just as the mortgage on the temple ground was about to be foreclosed.…” Werner then tells of Tanner’s financial contributions to the Church and joked, “they made him an elder; they should have made him a Saint!”
Werner, writing in jest, overlooked the fact that John Tanner was a Saint. He was a man, who although he undoubtedly had his faults, is worthy of emulation in his example of faith, sacrifice, generosity, and faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Arrington, Leonard J. “The John Tanner Family.” Ensign. March 1979.
Black, Susan Easton. Membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1830–1848. “John Tanner,” xlii: 500–505. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1989.
Church Educational System. Church History in the Fulness of Times. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989.
Esshom, Frank. Pioneers and Prominent Men, Volume ii. Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Pioneers Book Publishing Co., 1913.
Family Record, and Index to Individual History Pages: John Tanner Family, Record of Henry Martin Tanner.
Jenson, Andrew. Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia. “John Tanner,” ii: 799–802. Salt Lake City, Utah: Andrew Jenson History Company, 1914.
Lake George. [Photograph.] Wikipedia.
Scraps of Biography: Tenth Book of the Faith Promoting Series Designed for the Instruction and Encouragement of Young Latter-day Saints. “Sketch of an Elders Life,” 1–19. Salt Lake City, Utah: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883.
Smith, Joseph, Jr. Edited by B.H. Roberts. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1948.
Tanner, George S. John Tanner and His Family. Salt Lake City, Utah: The John Tanner Family Association, 1974.
Werner, M.R. Brigham Young. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925.