DESERET EVENING NEWS
Monday, March 5, 1888
Elder John B. Johnson departed this life at the Utah Penitentiary at an early hour this morning (March 5th). He was one of that numerous class of inmates of that institution who have been and are prisoners for conscienceâ€™ sake. He was relegated to prison under conviction and sentence for unlawful cohabitation, having two families. His conscience would not allow him to make any agreement to obey the law in the future, because it amounted from his standpoint to an annulment of a contract with his plural wife entered into before the status which brought conviction against him had been made a legal offense. He felt that he could not consistently place the ban of shame upon his wife nor the brand of illegitimacy upon his children by any action upon his part, and he was sent to languish in a loathsome prison. He did not languish, however, but died.
Numbers of people have met their death in various indirect shapes, and some of them direct, through the efforts that have been made during the last three years and a half to crush a devoted community rather than to attempt to educate them into conformity with what is held to be the will of the nation, but of the hundreds that have been incarcerated, Elder Johnson, who had reached the advanced age of 64 years, is the first to succumb to the grip of death within the walls of the prison. This is a remarkable fact when the number that has been incarcerated during a comparatively brief time is considered. Many of them have been aged and feeble, and not a few belong to that class who have been accustomed to home comforts, the change to prison life being trying in the extreme. Those who have belonged to the poorer class have suffered perhaps most of all, if there has been any difference, not only feeling keenly the deprivation of liberty, but being mentally concerned regarding the temporal welfare of those dearer to them than life. Yet they have been wonderfully preserved, our deceased brother being the first to fall a martyr, within the walls of a prison, to what we hold to be a mistaken and far from merciful policy on the part of the government.
The scoffer will probably turn up the lip at the mere mention of martyrdom in connection with a case like this. It should be remembered, however, that martyrs are not made because of their closely conforming to popular views and opinions. That the deceased was honest in his religious convictions no one has a right to deny; if the element of honesty cannot be consistently denied, then his incarceration was in consequence of his adherence to his genuine conception of right. This being the case he was a martyr for the truth as he understood it. No man can be a martyr on any other basis.
Those who class such men as Elder Johnson among common or ordinary law-breakers only fit to be ranked among fools. Those who stand by â€œthe light that lighteth every man that cometh into the worldâ€? are not ordinary men in any sense. The usual run of humanity take the easiest available method of getting out of trouble when it confronts them. The smaller class consider the principle involved, stand upon that and trust in God for the outcome. Such men as our departed brother are honest in every sense, being good neighbors, respecting the property and other rights of their fellow-beings, peaceable and reputable, one of their greatest hardships in connection with imprisonment being that they are thrust involuntarily into the society of those who are held in durance because of their not possessing that sterling morality for which they are conspicuous.
There is something exceedingly pathetic in the demise of Brother Johnson in prison. His wife and some other members of his family had been summoned to his bedside, but the good lady, probably owing to the deep distress caused by the circumstances, was taken ill and was compelled on that account to retire. He leaves a large family; many of the children are of tender age. Only one son was by the side of the couch upon which Brother Johnson lay when the final summons came and the faithful spirit took his flight to the realms of light; where no such condition exists as casting intelligent beings into prison because of an honest adherence to honest conviction.
We learn that the family of the deceased, as might naturally be expected, have been thrown into the deepest grief, and are at present almost inconsolable. This is scarcely to be wondered at, when the circumstances of the sad case are considered. It will be the sincere desire and prayer of every Latter-day Saint that peace may rest upon them, and that they may feel consoled in the reflection that their husband and father left this vale of tears treading the path of duty and honest conviction, which is the highest phase of human action. Upon this basis they may rest assured that he will not fall short of a reception of his eternal reward.
John Johnson was my great-great-great grandfather (the paternal great-grandfather of my maternal grandmother). In Sweden, where he was born in 1824, his name was Johannes Jansson. This eulogy/editorial/news story was the lead article in the Deseret Evening News on March 5, 1888, and is unfortunately all I know of him. I don’t know when he emigrated, who taught him the gospel or how it changed his life, aside from determing the unusual location and circumstances of his death. When we discussed the polygamy cases in my Church & State seminar in law school, I gave this article to my professor, who asked my permission to include it in his course materials. I agreed, of course, proud to have students read about my uncompromising grandfather and the passion of those who wrote this tribute to their shared cause.