Joseph Smith’s 1838 history did not originally have these words:
“In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. But I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, etc., not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been.” (JS-H 1:28.)
Instead his original draft ended with this confession:
“I was left to all kinds of temptations, and mingling (with) all kinds of society I frequently (fell) into many foolish errors and displayed the weakness of youth and the corruption of human nature which I am sorry to say led me into divers temptations to the gratification of many appetites offensive in the sight of God.” (JS Papers, Histories Vol. 1: 1832-1844, p. 220.)
The history of Joseph Smith was first published in the Times and Seasons. This part of his history was printed in an installment on April 1, 1842. (Times and Seasons, Vol 3, p. 749.) The explanation that Joseph was not guilty of “any great or malignant sins” had not yet been added in April 1842.
The month following publication of this installment of Joseph’s history, on May 11, 1842, John C. Bennett was excommunicated from the church for adultery. Bennett did not go quietly, and therefore public notice of his excommunication was announced in print on June 15, 1842. Bennett got louder and more accusatory and on July 1, 1842 a full account of John C. Bennett’s misconduct was explained in the Times and Seasons.
Because Bennett began his public accusations against Joseph Smith in 1842, on December 2, 1842 a note was added to Joseph’s history. The LDS Historian’s Office explains the note clarified his sins “were of a minor nature.” (See, JS Papers, History, Vol. 1, p. 221, footnote 55.) The addition they describe is in Willard Richards’ handwriting, and reads as follows:
“In making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins: a disposition to commit such was never in my nature; but I was guilty of Levity, & sometimes associated with jovial company &c, not Consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been; but this will not seem very strange to any one who recollects my youth & is acquainted with my native cheerly Temperament.” (Manuscript History, Note added December 2, 1842.)
The addition of this clarification appears to be directly in response to John C. Bennett’s adultery, the discovery by Joseph Smith of a “spiritual wife” system being practiced in Nauvoo, and the accusation that he was aware of, believed in, and practiced adulterous relationships. As Joseph Smith stated publicly months later in a meeting in Nauvoo:
“What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.” (DHC 6:411, May 26, 1844.)
I had not noticed this timing until called to my attention this week. Joseph denied committing “any great or malignant sins” in response to scandal brought to Joseph’s attention through the John C. Bennett affair. Put into context it is clearer. His denial was related to the “spiritual wife” system of adulterous relationships practiced in Nauvoo which was being attributed to him.