The presiding high priest in the LDS church at Guymon’s Mill in early 1838 was Aaron Lyon. Guymon’s Mill was about eight miles east of Far West. Aaron Lyon’s wife died and left him with young children to care for as a single parent.
In 1837, a young woman named Sarah Jackson moved there ahead of her husband who was then serving a mission. Her husband was expected to join her a few months later, but by early 1838 he had not come yet.
Sarah Jackson went to Aaron Lyon as the presiding high priest to ask if he would pray for a revelation to know the reason for her husband’s absence. Lyon complied with the request and said her husband would not be joining her because he was on a mission now preaching to the dead because he was dead. Lyon also told Sarah Jackson that he had learned by revelation that she was to be his (Lyon’s) wife, and that if she did not marry him, her life would turn out to be miserable.
Sarah Jackson believed Aaron Lyon was a man of God, and believed what he told her. She mourned her husband’s death, and then consented to marry Lyon. The marriage was just a few days away when Sarah’s husband arrived home from his mission, alive and well, to join his wife in Guymon’s Mill. He was justifiably angry at the news concerning Aaron Lyon and his wife.
A church court was held on April 28, 1838 and Aaron Lyon was demoted from his rank as presiding high priest. In the testimony at the court, the following evidence was entered by Sarah Jackson:
Lyon told Sarah Jackson: “the Lord had appointed him a wife, by revelation, and he knew her name.” Further, “that the Lord told [Lyon] that [Jackson’s] husband was dead and preaching to the spirits in prison, and that I was presented before [Lyon], and that the Lord told him that I was to be his wife.” (JSP Documents, Vol. 6, p. 123.)
Further, according to Sarah Jackson, Lyon “told me that if I refused this I should be forever miserable, for he had a complete view of my future state and he would write it down, for he knew just how it would be.” (Id., p. 124.)
Aaron Lyon relied on his position as presiding high priest to coerce Sarah Jackson into accepting his claims because, he explained, “them that are ordained to this high authority are ordained of God and you have as much right to believe me [Lyon] as to believe Paul.” (Id.) He followed this up with the grave warning that “the vengeance of God was about to be poured speedily upon me if I did not agree to [Lyon’s] evil designs.” (Id.)
Less than six months after this incident, in October 1838, Joseph Smith was arrested and imprisoned. The longest part of his imprisonment happened in Liberty, Missouri where, while in confinement, he wrote a letter explaining how fragile priesthood authority was and how quickly almost all men forfeit that authority after it is conferred upon them. He explained in that letter:
“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson-that the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called, but few are chosen. No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile-“
The trial of Aaron Lyon would have been in recent memory as Joseph reflected on those who had been ordained to the priesthood. Aaron Lyon claimed authority “by virtue of the priesthood.” He claimed it certified that what he said was reliable, as ‘believable as the Apostle Paul.’ Lyon exercised dominion and compulsion over Sarah Jackson. He used his priestly claims to justify his ambition to obtain Sarah Jackson as his wife.
The only way to preach, teach or expound truth is by persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness. But those tools are comparatively weak when compared with priestly authority claims invoking the false premise that God backs the man even when the man does not back God.