No area of Mormonism is as controversial and ill-understood as the practice of polygamy, which lasted for an uninterrupted period of approximately seventy years. Early LDS prophets, such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, as well as other leaders taught that polygamy (also called plural marriage or celestial marriage) was the “new and everlasting covenant” that assured the exaltation of its participants. The doctrinal significance of polygamy is often overshadowed by the scandalous sexual arrangements which resulted, but the practice remains essential to LDS exaltation and becoming like God.

Today, the LDS Church teaches that the new and everlasting covenant pertains to monogamous, heterosexual marriages that are sealed only within its temples. The Church’s Gospel Topics Essay on polygamy carefully suggests “the marriage of one man and one woman is the Lord’s standing law of marriage,” meaning that while monogamy is the current mandate, exceptions can and have been made should the Lord decree.

Despite the shift in emphasis from plural to monogamous marriage, polygamy remains LDS doctrine as the Church continues to permit the sealing of one man to multiple women for eternity in cases of death or civil divorce. It is an eternal principle that members believe will continue at the highest levels of exaltation in the afterlife, as though females are prizes for male righteousness and priesthood power. 

Some who wish to absolve Joseph Smith of any connection to polygamy propose Brigham Young as the originator of the practice. As this essay will explore, Smith began to utilize his ecclesiastical and social power, personal charisma, and divine mandate as the mouthpiece of God several years before his revelation enabling polygamy to marry underaged, often vulnerable girls, as well as the wives of several of his closest associates. He was not only the originator of Mormon polygamy, but was one of its most controversial and enthusiastic practitioners who used the Relief Society to hide his improprieties and refused to follow even his own rules set forth in D&C 132. Joseph Smith would later repeatedly lie, and encourage numerous followers to deceive, to mask their illegal practice of polygamy.


Polygamy was not always accepted by Latter-day Saints. To the contrary, Church doctrines originally forbade polygamy and defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Oliver Cowdery, as a member of the First Presidency, wrote the first definition of marriage for the Church. Introduced to the membership by W. W. Phelps as “Article on Marriage,” it was sustained at a church conference in August 1835 and included in the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 101. The statement remained in the D&C, shifting to Section 109 in the 1844 revision. The article stated:

“Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again. It is not right to persuade a woman to be baptized contrary to the will of her husband, neither is it lawful to influence her to leave her husband.”

Some scholars have asserted that D&C 101 was merely an advisory statement never intended as God’s will, in spite of it being canonized in multiple versions of the D&C. Additionally, they argue that Joseph was out of town when Cowdery’s article was affirmed. Even the most ardent defenders of Joseph Smith concede: “However, there is also some evidence that an article on marriage was already anticipated, and cited four times in the new D&C’s index, which was prepared under Joseph’s direction and probably available prior to his departure. Thus, if a disagreement existed, it was resolved before the Prophet left for Pontiac.” [1] Further, Joseph neither edited nor removed the article despite personally supervising revisions of the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. Notably, Smith’s revelation concerning polygamy (D&C 132) was never canonized during his life and was clearly written to be shared with only a small audience (discussed below).

It seems evident that the original definition of LDS marriage was an early defense against polygamy. The words “reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy” hint at the rumors that had already been spreading about the secret practice of polygamy. Yet this simple and arguably disingenuous definition of marriage remained in the D&C for forty-one years, but was quietly removed in 1876, as it contradicted the more favored D&C 132. Although LDS leaders had been practicing polygamy for over thirty years at the time of the inclusion of D&C 132, plural marriage had only been publicly acknowledged by Brigham Young since 1852.


D&C 132, still canonized in LDS scripture, which defines ”eternal marriage,” is suggested by some to be about marriage between one man and one woman. But the phrase “eternal marriage” means polygamy, if viewed in context of the time and surrounding events when it was initially written. Reading the section carefully, it is clear that the revelation warns Emma Smith that if she did not abide by this commandment she would be destroyed. The warning of destruction is repeated in the same verse for emphasis: “I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law” (verse 54). The five young women referred to in the revelation were sisters Sarah and Maria Lawrence (ages 17 and 19), sisters Emily and Eliza Partridge (ages 19 and 22), and Lucy Walker (age 17), all of whom Joseph Smith had secretly married months before this revelation was dictated, though Emma likely did not know this.

The ecclesiastical requirement of the first wife to approve of subsequent sister-wives became known as the “Law of Sarah.” While the law of Sarah portion of the revelation is written specifically to Emma, it became the general rule that any woman disapproving of her husband’s prospective polygamous wife would be damned because she “abide[d] not in my law”. Fundamentalist sects today largely operate with this same doctrinal law in place.

It is difficult to read this section of scripture and not determine it to be justification for Joseph’s own desires and intentions, projected onto his personal notion of God. For example, despite the command that the first wife’s permission must be sought, Joseph repeatedly did not do this. He had already taken numerous polygamous wives before ever speaking to Emma, a fact he concealed until his death. Verse 65 provides a convenient justification for him continuing to do this: if the first wife does not accept the rule of her husband, “…she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law [of Sarah]” and will be destroyed. The letter, in essence, threatened Emma’s eternal welfare if she did not accept Joseph’s taking of additional wives.

The LDS Church’s Gospel Topics essay, Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, confirms the function of the scriptural loophole: “He may have thought Emma’s rejection of plural marriage exempted him from the law of Sarah. Her decision to ‘receive not this law’ permitted him to marry additional wives without her consent.” To suggest that he “may have” felt himself to be above the law makes no sense when acknowledging that Smith practiced polygamy for many years before this revelation, and indeed was the author of its contents. Certainly afterward, Joseph acted without any regard to Emma’s consent. He accumulated many brides, among them women who were not virgins and women who were already married, promptly violating the terms of the law he said came from God. Given his inability to abide by the “one woman” standard previously established in LDS scripture, one wonders if Smith would have presented the new revelation if only he’d lived long enough to do so, or possibly have altered this particular scripture to suit his practice of polygamy, as he did in many other documented cases.

Some chronology clarifies Joseph’s duplicity to Emma and his lack of adherence to the rules of polygamy laid out in the D&C:

March 1843 – Joseph Smith is secretly sealed in celestial or eternal marriage to Emily and Eliza Partridge who at the time are living in the Smith’s Homestead, a two-story cabin. Most historians agree Emily and Eliza Partridge were wives 19 and 20 in the generally accepted polygamy chronology.

May 1843 – It is worth noting that Emma and Joseph were not sealed before this time, leading some historians to speculate that Joseph withheld Emma’s sealing blessings as well as her endowment until after she had consented to plural marriage. In any case, Joseph’s first celestial marriage (“sealing”) was not to his legal wife.

Emma Smith appears to have acquiesced to Joseph’s desire to be sealed to additional women to (1) secure her own endowment and sealing to Joseph, and (2) her belief that these sealing were “spiritual only,” meaning that she may have believed or been told that there was no physical intimacy involved. Emma consents to allow Joseph to be sealed to Emily and Eliza Partridge as well as Sarah and Maria Lawrence, sisters who are living in the Smith’s large home. Despite their earlier clandestine sealing, Joseph holds a faux second ceremony with Emily and Eliza Partridge, this time in Emma’s presence. Lucy Walker was also sealed to Joseph at this time, reportedly with Emma’s consent. Emma and Joseph Smith are also finally sealed the same month. 

According to William Clayton’s journal entry for May 23, Emma caught Joseph in a secluded room with Eliza Partridge and was devastated, possibly leading to talk of divorce between Joseph and Emma.

July 1843 – Joseph and Emma Smith’s marriage may have begun failing at this point. Joseph dictated the plural marriage revelation (D&C 132) at this moment, likely in response to Emma’s agitation over his arrangement of marriages to young women in their household. The revelation attempts to coerce Emma to accept these marriages upon the threat of her own eternal damnation. 

Hyrum Smith convinced Joseph Smith to allow him to present the revelation to Emma. William Clayton records Emma “did not believe a word of it and appeared very rebellious.” Apparently, Emma’s opposition to the new revelation catalyzed many arguments between her and Joseph. In order to satiate her “rebellious” reaction to the revelation, Joseph told William Clayton mere hours after the argument to “Deed all the unincumbered lots to E[mma] and the children,” giving her greater control over Nauvoo assets. According to Clayton, “[Joseph] appears much troubled about E[mma]” and the conflict between them surrounding polygamy simmered for the short remainder of Smith’s life. Emma’s conflicts with Joseph’s live-in plural wives also increased in severity and frequency.

Ultimately, Emma received sixty-five parcels of church property on July 12, 1843, comprising dozens of individual lots, including nine entire blocks for a total sum of $10,000. The transaction, which relied upon a significantly reduced valuation, was witnessed by Newell Whitney acting as Justice of the Peace. Newell had given his fourteen-year-old daughter, Sarah Ann, to the prophet the year prior. Three days later, Joseph’s trusted scribe William Clayton recorded: “Made Deed for 1/2 Steam Boat Maid of Iowa from Joseph to Emma. Also a deed to Emma for over 60 city lots.” [2]

August 1843 – The Smith family and the five young wives move into the larger Mansion House across the street from the Homestead, built by Robert Foster under revelation from Joseph two years earlier. By September, the Mansion House was also used as a hotel.

October 1843 –Emma Smith removed Emily and Eliza Partridge from the Smith home. It is rumored that Emma threw Eliza down the stairs in a fury, although this story remains unsubstantiated. After this time, Joseph slows the taking of additional plural wives, with only one more documented plural sealing taking place—the November 1843 sealing of Joseph Smith to Fanny Young, Brigham Young’s older sister.

The historical evidence indicates that Joseph Smith married at very least twenty-one women using his often secret ceremonies. He did not follow the rules of his own revelations, and it appears that he both bribed and manipulated Emma with ecclesiastical threats, as well as young women in his charge, to go along with his plans – at least temporarily. The fact that Emma was insistent to the end of her days that polygamy was not part of Smith’s church perhaps suggests a large dose of denial and that any agreement on her part was quickly regretted.

Notably, Emma’s often-cited denials of polygamy were stated when her eldest son, Joseph Smith III, was prophet of the vehemently anti-polygamy Reorganized LDS Church. Emma had seen the issues and turmoil caused by polygamy and reasonably wanted her son’s church to be free from these troubles.



The LDS Church’s simplistic description of polygamy is complicated by the reality of Joseph’s Smith’s practice of polyandry. Polyandry is an unfamiliar topic to most faithful members, as it is a form of polygamy where a woman has more than one husband. Joseph Smith practiced polyandry by being sealed to nearly a dozen women who were already civilly married. 

Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, likely sealed in secret to Joseph Smith in 1838, was already married to devout member and leader, George Washington Harris. When Joseph married Zina Jacobs (after she rejected his proposals multiple times and was only convinced after the threat of a sword-wielding angel), she was already pregnant by her husband Henry, a faithful member and president of the Seventy. Yet these women are listed as Joseph Smith’s wives in records of the Church, erasing their marriages to other men because Smith was considered a better eternal mate. This was not an uncommon idea under Mormon polygamy.

Brigham Young instructed that “if a woman preferred another man of higher authority,” no bill of divorce was required. This was reiterated in conference by George D. Watts: “If a woman can find a man holding the keys of the priesthood with higher power and authority than her husband, and he is disposed to take her, he can do so, otherwise she has got to remain where she is.” [3]

Sarah Pratt

Another example of Smith’s polyandry involved Sarah Pratt, wife of apostle Orson Pratt. Orson would become the longest-serving apostle in the Church, negating the argument that Sarah perhaps required Joseph’s more senior priesthood because her husband was unworthy. Smith began soliciting Sarah to become his polygamous wife soon after sending Orson on a mission to Europe. He ultimately threatened her with ruin when she rebuffed his advances.  

Upon this denial to become another of Smith’s wives, Sarah Pratt became the target of a vicious character-assassination plot which has sullied her name even to this day. Sarah’s cordial friendship with John C. Bennett, a member of Smith’s Presidency, became a point of attack by the Mormon-controlled Nauvoo press to paint both of them as practitioners of unapproved “spiritual wifery” in conjunction with an expansive propaganda campaign of polygamy denial. As a result, Sarah became vilified and garnered the reputation of being an unchaste woman who supported her daughter by providing sexual favors to either Joseph or Bennett.

When Orson Pratt returned from his mission, he was greeted by the terrible news of Sarah being caught in the middle of a media campaign to discredit Bennett and “spiritual wifery” when all she had done was deny Smith’s plural marriage proposal. When Orson realized the gravity of the situation, it sent him into a deep depression. His disappearance drew questions of contemplated suicide or possible removal by Church authorities. [4]

Sarah’s legacy remains vilified to this day and she is considered untrustworthy because the character-assassination campaign was successful. Orson did eventually embrace polygamy, becoming a staunch advocate of the practice in Utah and taking ten wives. Sarah, provided many later statements contextualizing Nauvoo polygamy and claiming abortions were administered to cover up the results of the practice. Once again, however, her statements are regarded as untrustworthy by many who tend to favor Joseph Smith more than his victims.

Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde

Examples of Smith’s manipulative polyandry continue. A similar scene unfolded with Nancy Marinda Johnson Hyde in 1842 (again before the official revelation on polygamy was penned in 1843), who Smith married shortly after sending her husband, Apostle Orson Hyde, on an important mission to Jerusalem to consecrate Palestine for the gathering of Israel.

But Marinda’s history with Smith is rather complicated and unfolds over many years. Smith first met Marinda in March 1832 while staying in the Johnson home. On that occasion, he stirred the ire of his hosts and was abruptly dragged out of the house and tarred and feathered. Marinda’s older brothers later asserted that they had summoned a doctor to castrate Smith upon accusations of his intimacy with their sixteen-year-old sister. Some historians have suggested that Smith’s heretical retranslation of the Bible sparked the violence. However, an attempted castration cannot be easily justified if the infuriated mob were motivated solely by religious intolerance. The participants of the mob has also been a source of historical controversy, but their actions seem to point to defense of their younger sister instead of disagreements about doctrinal issues concerning a new translation of the Bible.

Joseph Smith’s long-deferred acquisition of Marinda evolved in the following manner:

  • April 1841 – Joseph Smith sends Orson Hyde on a mission to Jerusalem.
  • 17 January 1842 – The Nauvoo Stake and Quorum of the Twelve, with Smith in attendance, are determined not to let Ebenezer Robinson continue to publish books. Unhappy with the publications of the Times and Seasons, owned by Robinson, they had unsuccessfully attempted to acquire it.
  • 25 January 1842 – Joseph delivers a revelation in which God tells Ebenezer Robinson to take Marinda Hyde (aka Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde) into his home until her husband, Orson Hyde, returns from his mission. Robinson’s livelihood is derived from Times and Seasons, and his small living quarters is located within the structure. God, through Smith, tells Marinda to listen to anything which he may teach her.
  • 28 January 1842 – God reveals to Smith that the Twelve should take over Times and Seasons.
  • 4 February 1842 – The following week, Ebenezer is allowed to name his price for the whole establishment, to which he affixes the hefty sum of $6,600. He notes in his ledger that a portion was credited to him for the building of the temple in the book of the Law of the Lord and various other credits, so he doesn’t actually receive full payment. Unable to locate any place to move his family on short notice, his requests for a little time is rewarded with a threat to vacate that very night or be evicted into the dead of winter. A benefactor next door allows him to move in temporarily.
  • That night, Apostle Willard Richards moves into the living quarters with Marinda Hyde. Willard Richards is said to have boarded up the windows and stepped outside and shot off his revolvers in celebration of his new circumstance. Richards’s wife and family were living in Massachusetts at the time.
  • Smith used the entire proceeds of the Lawrence estate to acquire Times & SeasonsJohn Taylor and Wilford Woodruff are appointed editors of the paper under Joseph’s supervision. In May of the coming year, Smith secretly married both Lawrence sisters while they resided in his home under his guardianship and care.
  • April 1842 – Smith marries Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde while she is living with Willard Richards. Her legal husband remains on an overseas mission, unaware.
  • April 9, 1842 – During the funeral of Ephraim Marks, Marinda engages teenage Nancy Rigdon on Smith’s behalf, informing her that he desires to talk with her in private. During the arranged encounter, Smith unsuccessfully propositions Nancy to become his plural wife.

When Leonard Arrington, LDS Church Historian, was asked about the most shocking thing he found in the archives, he replied “The most shocking thing I have found was when Joseph Smith propositioned the wives of his colleagues, including Apostles.” Indeed, it is not just polygamy itself which is shocking, but the way in which Smith practiced it, including marrying young girls half his age who were under his care and in his home, and marrying women who should have been protected from his advances, such as the wives of his friends and fellow leaders of the Church.




The LDS Church asserts that “In biblical times, the Lord commanded some to practice plural marriage—the marriage of one man and more than one woman.” [5] D&C 132:34–39 states that “God commanded Abraham” to sleep with Hagar, his wife’s handmaiden. Yet according to the Bible, it was Abraham’s wife Sarah, not God, who offered her handmaiden to Abraham so he could father children (Gen. 16:1-3). And while it can be argued that God perhaps condoned or provided guidance, nowhere in the Bible are men commanded to take plural wives, especially not wives of other men. Additionally, Leviticus 18 forbids marrying a mother and her daughter and marrying sisters, which Joseph Smith and other early Mormon leaders commonly did.

Similarly, The Book of Mormon lends little support for polygamy. Jacob strongly condemns it as an “abomination” before God (Jacob 2:24), but does allow a loophole: “For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed to me, I will command my people, otherwise they shall hearken unto these things” (Jacob 2:30). But again, Smith did not raise up any seed despite having ample opportunity with dozens of wives. Brigham Young also had many children, but statistics argue that the number of children under the practice of polygamy was lower than it would have been under monogamy. [6] The biggest difference with polygamy is that certain powerful men have many more children than the men who do not rise into leadership. 

In Jacob, God speaks about polygamy as an abomination: “Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.” (Jacob 2:24) But in D&C 132: 38-39, a mere thirteen years later, God approves of polygamy: “David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me. …David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me…”

It seems that Joseph Smith conveniently altered God’s will to coincide with his own sexual desires. Brigham Young and others continued to argue that God was behind polygamy, even commanded it under threat, until Wilford Woodruff abruptly declared in 1890 that God wanted the practice ended, albeit only reluctantly following the federal government’s passage of numerous anti-bigamy laws which would have assured the destruction of the entire church. Thus, many Mormons continue to believe that the higher law of polygamy will one day again be practiced by all who desire to obtain the highest degree of celestial glory.  


A common defense of Joseph’s marriages to numerous teenage girls argues that it was more common for older men to marry women as young as fourteen years old in the nineteenth century. Though such marriages were legal (and remain legal in some states in the present, including in Utah where minors can marry at 16 with the permission of parents), they were rare and no less scandalous during the Victorian era than today. 

An act of February 28, 1800 authorized the second national U. S. Census and, by 1890, the Census was collecting the average age of first marriage for both men and women. Thus we learn that the average marriage age was 20 for women, 24 for men; and almost always involved a partner of similar age.

To draw a comparison with modern LDS terminology, Joseph’s teenage wives would be categorized as follows:

  • 14-15: 2
  • 16-17: 5
  • Young Single Adult girls: 7
  • Relief Society sisters: 20+ (half of them already married to other men)

Other attempts to justify the purpose of polygamy involve the notion that there were too many women and children in need of support, given the persecution the Saints faced wherever they went. This notion cannot be reconciled with the troubling execution of the practice involving teenage girls who had just crossed the plains and were given no other choice than marriage to men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers. Nor does it square with the demographic realities of the day, as Mormonism predominantly sprang up in westward frontier territories where the supply of men always outstripped females.

It is also hard to reconcile the idea of one man supporting multiple families as good. Greater stability and financial security is tied very closely to families with two full-time parents living under the same roof. The income and interpersonal relational resources of one man being distributed across multiple wives with multiple children statistically leads to diminishing standards of living for each subsequent family.

The reality of polygamy for men who were not in leadership positions meant that they had little to no opportunity to marry. Rather than creating larger populations of Mormons, what resulted was a handful of men with many wives and children living in destitution, with many descendants leaving a legacy of competitive ecclesiastical abuse, torn families and patriarchal favoritism.



The history of polygamy in Mormonism is rife with secrecy and inconvenient truths which only reluctantly seeped into public view. Joseph Smith never publicly revealed God’s command of polygamy during his life, beyond his inner sanctum of trusted elites. The LDS Church confirms that “participants in these early plural marriages pledged to keep their involvement confidential.” [7] On at least one occasion, the prophet instructed a young lady to dress as a man before slipping quietly into the woods for the secret ceremony. Fourteen-year-old Helen Kimball wrote that she was forbidden from associating with peers once she became sealed to Smith, one of many examples of the secrecy which surrounded the practice. 

Despite his elaborate attempts at secrecy, rumors of Smith’s infidelities began to spread within the tight-knit community of Nauvoo and their non-Mormon neighbors in Hancock County. The LDS Church’s Gospel Topics Essay states, “The rumors prompted members and leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as divinely mandated ‘celestial’ plural marriage. The statements emphasized that the Church practiced no marital law other than monogamy while implicitly leaving open the possibility that individuals, under the direction of God’s living prophet, might do so.” [8] Simply put, redefining his relationships with numerous polygamous wives as “celestial marriage” while simultaneously publicly vilifying “spiritual wifery” and “polygamy” was merely a mechanism to sidestep valid accusations of impropriety and misdirect criticism toward public enemies of the Church like John C. Bennett, Charles A. Foster, and Joseph H. Jackson. 

The LDS Church’s recently-published book Saints: The Standard of Truth, instructs that “A few men [referring primarily to John C. Bennett] unscrupulously used these rumors to seduce women to join them in an unauthorized practice sometimes referred to as ‘spiritual wifery.’ When this was discovered, the men were cut off from the Church.” It is important to understand that the primary difference between these arrangements and Smith’s is that they were done without his authorization. Joseph’s marriages were equally secret and illegal. In fact, the lines historians and apologists use today to distinguish unauthorized “spiritual wifery” from authorized “celestial marriage” were far more blurry at the time.

It is instructive to recognize who the LDS Church omits from its list of unscrupulous men who were practicing spiritual wifery. By May 1842, when the Church convened a disciplinary council to determine fault, many of the women involved named John Bennett as a participant. But they also testified that a high-ranking official was brought in to provide Joseph Smith’s approval for their extramarital sexual relations. That authority figure was none other than Apostle William Smith, the brother of the prophet.

As testimonies compounded against his brother, such as those from Catherine Fuller, Margaret Nyman, Matilda Nyman and Sarah Miller (Warren), the prophet stood and boisterously demanded, “I will not listen to this abuse of my family for a minute longer.” [9] Brigham Young, one of Smith’s most loyal followers, promptly dropped all charges against William and the testimonies against him were crossed out of the record. Later, when the Church published the accounts of the women who had named names in its Nauvoo newspaper, The Wasp, over which William was conveniently the editor, it redacted any mention of Apostle William Smith, focusing the blame instead upon Bennett. Everyone was excommunicated except for William Smith, and the episode to this day is commonly referred to as John C. Bennett’s practice of spiritual wifery, though nuances within the historical record suggest otherwise.

Troubled by the ongoing public accusations and accelerating opposition of John Bennett, his former presidency counselor, Smith called a special conference “to give instructions to the Elders, and call upon them to go forth upon this important mission.” Held on Aug 29, 1842, “President Hyrum Smith introduced the object of the conference by stating that the people abroad had been excited by John C. Bennett’s false statements, and that letters had frequently been received inquiring concerning the true nature of said reports.” [10] Thus, Smith sent hundreds of faithful followers on missions in order that “the tide of public opinion will be turned.” Unfortunately, those missionaries were unknowingly bearing false witness.

To affect public opinion and further motivate his followers to abandon their families and livelihoods in the pursuit of convincing distant audiences that he wasn’t practicing polygamy, Smith leveraged his power as editor of Times and Seasons to publish a disingenuous rebuttal on September 1 of the ongoing accusations of polygamy. He asserted “…we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband…” He had at least thirteen wives by this time.

Accusations of abuse and adultery, often from his closest associates, consistently followed the prophet, both before and after the Bennett incident. On May 26, 1844, Joseph Smith spoke forcefully from the pulpit to refute the public accusations of William Law, Smith’s recently estranged presidency counselor. Smith declared, “Oh 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.” Although his assertion about having only one wife was technically correct, only because the other secret marriages remained illegal and did not qualify as wives, Smith knew that he was deceiving others in the moment. The prophet set a dangerous precedent which other LDS leaders followed.

Lying for the lord continued in apostle John Taylor’s Three Nights public debate with Protestant minister C. W. Cleeve in 1850. Taylor boldly and repeatedly denied polygamy by citing the one man, one woman Article on Marriage doctrine contained in D&C 101:4, despite being married to at least eleven women at the time.

In more recent times, during an interview with Larry King in 1998, President Gordon B. Hinckley propagated the myth that polygamy was primarily a western migration practice, in sharp contrast to LDS records and documented history. Larry King asked, “First tell me about the Church and polygamy. When it started, who allowed it?” Hinckley replied with a partial truth, “When our people came west they permitted it on a restricted scale.” This became the line of the LDS Church, though the practice originated well before the westward migration, and extended long after the Saints had settled in Utah.

President Hinckley further asserted that polygamy is not doctrine, despite numerous statements by earlier Church leaders to the contrary, and despite the ongoing practice of polygamy as an eternal principle in LDS temples. Hinckley stated, “I condemn it, yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal. It is not legal. And this church takes the position that we will abide by the law.” Hinckley, a savvy public relations expert, was arguably playing with words when he inserted the “as a practice” caveat, as the prohibition by the U.S. Federal government is the only restraint preventing the LDS Church from openly engaging in the doctrine today. His statement is ironic, given that the practice was equally illegal when the LDS Church previously practiced it. 


The Relief Society, which was led by Emma Smith, was also conscripted to excuse Joseph’s polygamy. Smith gained control of Times & Seasons in February 1842. On October 1 of that same year, under his direction, Times & Seasons re-published the monogamy statement “On Marriage” from D&C 101 (Times & Seasons 3:939) including a specially signed addendum denouncing John C. Bennett’s “secret wife system.” [11] The timing is significant because, by October 1842, Joseph had already secretly married approximately 18 women. [12]

The special addendum supporting monogamy declared, “We have given the above rule of marriage as the only one practiced in this church . . . We the undersigned members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and residents of the city of Nauvoo, persons of families do hereby certify and declare that we know of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants” Signatories included Emma Smith and the full presidency of the Relief Society, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, and many high ranking members of Mormon society.

TIMES & SEASONS, ON MARRIAGE, VOL 3. OCT 1, 1842, VOL 3. OCT 1, 1842

Perhaps Emma remained unaware that Joseph had married Sarah Cleveland in June 1842, despite Sarah’s “standing” marriage to John Cleveland. That same month, Joseph married Eliza R. Snow and Sarah Ann Whitney (Elizabeth’s daughter) with Elizabeth and Newell Whitney’s consent. All of Emma’s Relief Society leaders had been compromised by Joseph’s practice of polygamy at the time of their public statement. Again, it appears that Smith was manipulating those around him by using his charisma and unchecked prophetic authority to religiously groom and coerce dozens of women to agree to extramarital affairs under the guise of divine command.

Besides Emma, five of the nineteen original Relief Society members became Joseph’s polygamous wives (Desdemona Fulmer, Eliza R. Snow, Martha McBride Knight, Elvira Cowles, and Sarah M. Cleveland). Joseph proposed to two additional Relief Society members but they rejected him (Nancy Rigdon and Sarah M. Kimball). Joseph also proposed to John Taylor’s wife Leonora, but when rebuffed, suggested it was only a test of her husband’s faith – a test which Taylor passed by agreeing to Smith’s proposal. The list of Smith’s polygamous wives (and their husbands) is damning in itself, but the level of deceit, coercion, and secrecy surrounding its practice extends God’s commands to be equally deceptive and immoral. However, when viewed through a naturalistic lens, we need not appeal to divine authority to explain the doctrine and practice when the human ego and libido are more than sufficient.


The trail of Joseph Smith’s plural wives is long. Joseph Smith married Emma Hale on January 18, 1827. On January 17, 1842 (15 years later) Joseph Smith married Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner while she was about six months pregnant with her third child. Emma was also seven months pregnant at the time. The Lightner wedding took place in the upper room of Joseph’s red brick store with Brigham Young officiating. At that time, Smith counseled Mary to stay with her husband and children in Farmington, IL.

This was not enough for Smith, however, because later that very night, he and Willard Richards went to Agnes Coolbirth Smith’s home (wife of Smith’s deceased brother Don Carlos) for dinner. Joseph had secretly married Agnes about five days earlier. Willard fell asleep after dinner while Smith spent time with Agnes. Joseph later awoke Willard and they returned to the Smith home.On January 18th, 1843 there was a grand celebration of Joseph and Emma’s sixteenth wedding anniversary at the Smith home. [13] Smith was living a double life.

Joseph married Sylvia Porter Sessions on Feb 8, 1842, just two days after his wife gave birth to their stillborn son. The following month, Joseph married Sylvia’s mother, Patty Sessions, with her daughter Sylvia present.


Smith groomed and likely engaged in sexual relations with multiple women, including half a dozen teenagers. Several were under his direct employ and living under his roof. Joseph professed that he was commanded of God to take multiple wives, and that his very life was endangered if he rejected the command: “During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.” [14]

When it comes to explaining polygamy and Joseph Smith’s sexual relations, the LDS Church often adopts the viewpoint that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Whereas the polar opposite, that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, is suggested when exploring the archaeological implications of the Book of Mormon.

Helen Mar Kimball

Helen Mar Kimball is referenced in the LDS Polygamy Essay as the girl that Joseph took as a plural wife “several months before her 15th birthday” in May 1843. It is understandably difficult for the Church to plainly admit that she was only 14 years old.

Helen provided a first-hand account of her experience with Joseph and polygamy. As was often the case with other young wives, she elaborated on the Prophet’s promised blessing of eternal salvation and her tortuous decision to sacrifice herself to “purchase so glorious a reward” for her family and kindred. Her sacrifice was generously rewarded as the Kimball family went on to assume many leadership positions within the Church.

Referring to her father, Heber C. Kimball, in her autobiographical journal, she recorded, “he taught me the principle of celestial marriage, and having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth. My father had but one ewe lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter [sic]: how cruel this seamed to the mother whose heartstrings were already stretched untill they were ready to snap asunder, for he had taken Sarah Noon to wife & she thought she had made sufficient sacrafise, but the Lord required more. I will pass over the temptations which I had during the twenty four hours after my father introduced to me this principle & asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph, who came next morning & with my parents I heard him teach and explain the principle of Celestial marrage-after which he said to me, ‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.’

This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God & his angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart—when Joseph asked her if she was willing, she replied ‘If Helen is willing I have nothing more to say.’ She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older and who better understood the step they were taking, and to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come as the sun was to rise and set; but it was all hidden from me.’” [15]

The recasting of this innocent young girl as a sacrificial lamb is striking, spiritually uplifting to some, but sickening to others who recognize the manipulation and thinly veiled bribery. If a man secures a young virgin using the stick of eternal damnation and carrot of eternal salvation, he’s revered by some as a prophet of God.

The end of Helen’s story is equally tragic. After Joseph’s death, Helen remarried and moved to Utah, where she proceeded to have eleven children with her legal husband. She was never permitted to be sealed to him or her children, as she already belonged to the prophet Joseph for eternity. Perhaps this is what she wanted, but one wonders how clear her choice was, made as it was at age fourteen and at the price of her beloved parents’ salvation in the kingdom.


Sarah Ann Whitney

Another underaged girl Smith married was Sarah Ann Whitney. On Aug 18, 1842, while hiding to avoid a second arrest involving an accusation of his plotting the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs, Smith wrote Newel and Elizabeth Whitney twice asking them to visit with their seventeen-year-old daughter Sarah, whom he had married three weeks prior without Emma’s knowledge. He wrote, “If you three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those which whom I am alien, do love me, now is the time to afford me succor, in the days of exile.” Smith instructed that “The only thing to be careful of . . . is to find out when Emma comes . . . [because] it cannot be safe.” Some historians have attempted to clarify the closing line stating that authorities may have been watching Emma closely in order to locate Smith, but the more obvious interpretation was that Smith was intent upon hiding what he was doing from his legal wife.

Smith suggested that the reason for their visit would be to “git the fullness of my blessings sealed upon our heads,” despite the parents having already been sealed just days prior. He further instructed them to “burn this letter as soon as you read it,” and later to keep the marriage secret from their son, whom he feared could cause “serious trouble.” Smith remained fearful of the results of his polygamous marriages, which eventually did lead to his assassination.

But it wasn’t just eternal salvation Smith seemed to be peddling to the Whitneys and to young Sarah Ann. Three weeks after penning the letter, Joseph exercised his authority as sole Trustee of Church assets to grant young Sarah a parcel of land for $1,000 ($31,000 in 2017 dollars), owned by the Church and situated just one block from his own home. In March 1843, Smith took additional steps to solidify the arrangement, providing Sarah a handwritten blessing which assured the salvation of her extended family provided that she remain in the “Everlasting Covenant” of plural marriage. The following month, as Sarah turned 18 and would have been expected to court suiters her own age, Smith negotiated an arranged wedding between Sarah and Joseph Kingsbury (her brother-in-law) by promising Kingsbury eternal sealing to his recently deceased wife (Sarah’s sister). These elaborate measures were likely undertaken to obscure what he was doing from other members of the Church as well as his own wife.

Joseph’s Letter to Whitneys


Nancy Rigdon

Another teenager Joseph Smith pursued was Nancy Rigdon, daughter of First Counselor Sidney Rigdon. Sidney Rigdon’s biographer, Richard Van Wagoner, observed: “The prophet [Joseph Smith] was . . . at odds with his long-time friend and counselor Sidney Rigdon over a reputed polygamous proposal on 9 April 1842 to Rigdon’s unmarried daughter Nancy. George W. Robinson, a prominent Nauvoo citizen married to another of Rigdon’s daughters, wrote to James A. Bennett, a New York friend to the church, on 22 July 1842, that ‘Smith sent for Miss Rigdon to come to the house of Mrs. [Orson] Hyde, who lived in the under-rooms of the printing- office. . . . According to Robinson, Nancy ‘inquired of the messenger . . . what was wanting, and the only reply was, that Smith wanted to see her.’

Robinson claimed that Smith took Nancy into a room, ‘locked the door, and then stated to her that he had had an affection for her for several years, and wished that she should be his; that the Lord was well pleased with this matter, for he had got a revelation on the subject, and God had given him all the blessings of Jacob, etc., and that there was no sin whatever.’ Robinson reported that Nancy repulsed him and was about to raise the neighbors if he did not unlock the door and let her out. This clear and convincing report of compulsion makes it easier to envision what other proposals by Smith may have looked like.

Nancy’s brother, John, recounting the incident years later, remembered that ‘Nancy refused him, saying if she ever got married she would marry a single man or none at all, and took her bonnet and went home, leaving Joseph . . .’ Nancy withheld details of the situation from her family until a day or two later, when a letter from the prophet was delivered to her by Smith’s personal secretary, Willard Richards. ‘Happiness is the object and design of our existence,’ the letter began. ‘That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.’ The letter went on to teach that ‘whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof til long after the events transpire. . . . Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.’ [16] Few members today understand that this phrase so often cited by LDS authorities, purportedly conveying God’s designs for our eternal happiness, actually originated from a manipulative solicitation of his counselor’s teenage daughter into a secret relationship with the prophet. 

Nancy showed the prophet’s letter to her father and told him of the incident at the Hyde residence. Rigdon demanded an audience with Smith. George W. Robinson reported that when Smith came to Rigdon’s home, the enraged father asked for an explanation. The prophet ‘attempted to deny it at first,’ Robinson said, ‘and face her down with the lie; but she told the facts with so much earnestness, and the fact of a letter being present, which he had caused to be written to her on the same subject, the day after the attempt made on her virtue,’ that ultimately ‘he could not withstand the testimony; he then and there acknowledged that every word of Miss Rigdon’s testimony was true’ . . . . Much later, John Rigdon elaborated that ‘Nancy was one of those excitable women and she went into the room and said, “Joseph Smith, you are telling that which is not true. You did make such a proposition to me and you know it [crossed out in the original]: ‘The woman who was there said to Nancy, “Are you not afraid to call the Lord’s anointed a cursed liar?” “No,” she replied, “I am not for he does lie and he knows it”’ Though only sixteen at the time, it seems that Nancy Rigdon was confident and poised beyond her years, to the benefit of history.

“Robinson wrote that Smith, after acknowledging the incident, claimed he had propositioned Nancy because he ‘wished to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts!’ . . . But the Rigdon family would not accept such an explanation. They were persuaded that the rumors about the prophet’s polygamy doctrine had been confirmed. The issue continued to be a serious source of contention between the two church leaders until Smith’s death in 1844. According to John Rigdon, Sidney told the family that Smith ‘could never be sealed to one of his daughters with his consent as he did not believe in the doctrine’ . . . . Rigdon preferred to keep his difficulties with the prophet private, but John C. Bennet’s detailed disclosures made this impossible.” [17] 

Smith’s polygamy is difficult to excuse as a youthful indiscretion, given his age and experience by this time. This episode is consistent with Smith’s tendency to pursue women and girls over whom he could exert influence because of his association with their husband or father.


Lucy Walker

Another demonstration of Smith’s tendency to pursue vulnerable women is Lucy Walker. The Walker family arrived in Nauvoo in 1841 with their ten children. Mrs. Walker died of malaria in 1842, leaving the family in dire straits. That same year, despite the large family’s difficulties, Smith sent Mr. Walker on a mission to the eastern states while offering to house a number of the oldest children. He said, “You must have a change of scene, a change of climate. You have just such a family as I could love. My house shall be their home…place the little ones with kind friends, and the four Eldest shall come to my house and [be] received and treated as my own children…” [18] Lucy recorded “when we went out in public, he referred to us as his own children.”

Shortly after the faithful father departed the scene, Joseph informed sixteen-year-old Lucy that she was to become his next plural wife. The prophet provided Lucy with an ultimatum: “It is a command of God to you. I will give you until to-morrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you.” Lucy’s journal records her sleepless night as she struggled to receive spiritual confirmation of her assignment to the prophet. “Why should I be chosen from among thy daughters, Father I am only a child in years and experience. No mother to council; no father near to tell me what to do, in this trying hour. Oh let this bitter cup pass. And thus I prayed in the agony of my soul.” [19] 

Lucy’s experience and personal turmoil is consistent among many of Smith’s teenage brides. It is perfectly normal for a young girl like Lucy to have been filled with fear of what such a marriage might entail, especially considering that some of her fellow teenage girls living under the same roof had already undergone the rite of passage of marrying the prophet. What survives in her journal today only reveals a small window into the anxiety and fear she must have truly experienced. Once a woman was marked as Smith’s prey, she seldom escaped unscathed. Joseph Smith ultimately married Lucy one day after her seventeenth birthday, while his legal wife Emma was in St. Louis purchasing supplies. Lucy recalled “Emma Smith was not present and she did not consent to the marriage; she did not know anything about it at all.” [20]

This episode, perhaps more than the other instances when Joseph pursued vulnerable young girls over whom he exercised control, has prompted many to question how a loving God could convert a father/daughter relationship into that of a husband/wife with a much older authority figure. One wonders why God so convincingly provided his command and confirmation to the man rather than the anguished girl ensnared by difficult, arguably predatory circumstances. 

The Partridge Sisters

Like Lucy Walker, Smith’s young wives Emily and Eliza Partridge thought of the prophet as a father figure and a protector. Emily and Eliza Partridge lost their father in 1840 and were hired by the Smith family to live in their home and help care for the Smith children. Emily recalled her experience living with Joseph and Emma: “for they had a young baby . . . that is what I delighted in, tending babies . . . Joseph and Emma were very kind to us; they were almost like a father and mother.”

Joseph Smith first approached Emily in the spring of 1842, but she rebuffed his advance. Smith then solicited the support of Elizabeth Durfee, whom he had married the previous year. Elizabeth Durfee was a “mother in Israel,” a wife of Smith who helped teach the doctrine of polygamy to women who may have been otherwise averse to hearing the teaching directly from Smith or other Church leaders. Durfee, along with a small group of other women, was tasked with impregnating the minds of young women with the idea of celestial marriage, and gauging their reaction to a potential approach by Smith or other Church leaders. Durfee would then return with information about how receptive a woman was to polygamy or how to best approach the proposal. With the support of the “mothers in Israel,” Smith’s success rate likely was higher than if he wouldn’t have enlisted their help.

Joseph Smith again approached Emily on her nineteenth birthday, February 28, 1843. Shortly thereafter, Smith reenlisted the support of Mrs. Durfee to arrange a private visit at Heber C. Kimball’s home. Emily recalled, “he said the Lord had commanded [him] to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him.” Heber married Emily to the prophet that moment, on March 4, 1843. [21] Again, we wonder why a loving God would not provide comforting revelation to the young girl, instead of relying upon the undue influence of authority figures already compromised by the controversial practice of polygamy. 

Joseph Smith secretly married Eliza just four days later, while instructing each sister not to tell the other. Eliza Partridge was twenty-two; Emily was nineteen. The sisters “were married to Bro. Joseph about the same time, but neither of us knew about the other at the time; everything was so secret.” Eliza faithfully kept a journal, but eventually burned it because it was “too full.” Too full of what, we’ll never know.

At this point, it becomes clear how the temple ceremony is inextricably linked to the practice of polygamy. “About this time Smith introduced select men to the endowment ceremony. He taught that it was necessary for exaltation. Women would also be receiving the endowment and Joseph wanted his wife, Emma, to be the “Elect Lady”: the first women to receive the endowment. She would then disseminate it to the other women… Because Emma was resisting plural marriage, Joseph would not let her participate in the endowment, thus risking her own exaltation as well as delaying ceremonial endowments for other women. Carrying this burden, Emma agreed to let Joseph marry additional wives; provided she could select them. Unaware of their marriage to Joseph months earlier, Emma selected her live-in helpers, Emily and Eliza. Emily recalls, ‘I do not know why she gave us to him, unless she thought we were where she could watch us better.’” [22]

Church Historian Andrew Jenson recorded Emily Partridge saying: “On the 11th of May, 1843, we were sealed to Joseph Smith a second time, in Emma’s presence, she giving her free and full consent thereto. From that very hour, however, Emma was our bitter enemy. We remained in the family several months after this, but things went from bad to worse until we were obliged to leave the house and find another home.” [23]

Family trouble soon festered as Emma encountered her husband with Eliza in an upstairs room. Smith held the door closed while Emma attempted to push through, calling Eliza’s name. Emma’s tolerance for plural marriage was short lived, as she demanded that the girls be removed from the house and city. Emily later recounted, “my sister and I were cast off.” The sacred practice of polygamy, linked to the temple endowment and sealing ceremony, is also inextricably linked to coercion and disgust.


While no offspring have yet been confirmed from Joseph Smith’s plural wives, leading some LDS scholars to argue that these relationships were merely “spiritual,” the evidence attested to by multiple sources suggests otherwise. Additionally, General Authorities of the LDS Church have confirmed that sexual relations indeed occurred with a number of Smith’s wives. One recent example occurred in July 2019 when Elder Steven Snow, the official LDS Church Historian and Executive Director of the Church History Department, confirmed that “…there were also sealings where he [Joseph Smith] treated them as a plural wife, they were as husband and wife, and consummated relationships.” [24]

Fanny Alger, Joseph’s first extra-marital relationship, “was unable to conceal the consequences of her relation with the prophet,” prompting Emma to kick her out of the house. At least thirteen faithful women who were married to Joseph Smith would later swear court affidavits that they engaged in sexual relations with him.

  • Melissa Lott (Smith Willes) testified that she had been Joseph’s wife “in very deed.” [25]
  • Joseph Noble wrote an affidavit testifying that Joseph told him he had spent the night with Louisa Beaman. [26]
  • Emily Partridge said she “roomed” with Joseph the night following her marriage to him and said that she had “carnal intercourse” with him. [27]
  • On May 23, 1843, Joseph Smith’s personal secretary, William Clayton, recorded that the prior day Emma found Joseph and Eliza Partridge secluded in an upstairs bedroom at the Smith home. Emma was devastated. [28]
  • Smith’s secretary William Clayton also recorded a visit to young Almera Johnson on May 16, 1843: “Prest. Joseph and I went to Benjamin Johnsons to sleep.” Johnson himself later noted that on this visit Smith stayed with Almera “as man and wife” and “occupied the same room and bed with my sister, that the previous month he had occupied with the daughter of the late Bishop Partridge as his wife.” Almera Johnson also confirmed her secret marriage to Smith: “I lived with the prophet Joseph as his wife and he visited me at the home of my brother Benjamin” [29]
  • Stake President Angus Cannon told Joseph Smith’s son: “Brother Heber C. Kimball, I am informed, asked [Eliza R. Snow] the question if she was not a virgin although married to Joseph Smith and afterwards to Brigham Young, when she replied in a private gathering, ‘I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that'” [30]

The Temple Lot Case revolved around a disputed parcel of land in Independence, Missouri which had been designated by Joseph Smith as the site for the temple in the prophesied city of New Jerusalem. Many affidavits confirming sexual relations with Smith were provided during the hearings. Some argue that Smith’s wives were lying because the Church encouraged them to confirm sexual relations to bolster its claim to the property. Rather than discounting credible first-hand testimony under oath, it is most logical to view Smith’s marriages as he saw them, as real in every way, intended to be equal to his legal marriage to Emma in the next life.

LDS historian Todd Compton notes: “In conclusion, though it is possible that Joseph had some marriages in which there were no sexual relations, there is no explicit or convincing evidence for this (except, perhaps, in the cases of the older wives, judging from later Mormon polygamy). And in a significant number of marriages, there is evidence for sexual relations.” [31] It is nearly impossible to argue that none of Smith’s polygamous marriages were sexual in nature, and beyond dispute that nearly all later instances of polygamy were sexual.


Further evidence of the sexual nature of Joseph Smith’s polygamy comes from William Law, who was a successful man from Canada who invested in real estate, lumber, and construction, which is why Smith promptly sought his credibility upon meeting him. He was appointed Second Counselor in Smith’s Presidency but grew increasingly uncomfortable with the secretive practice of polygamy and Smith’s establishment of a secret theocratic kingdom (Council of Fifty). 

Sanctioned Spouse Swapping?

It is important to understand the role William Law played in the public exposure of Smith’s polygamy and how it eventually led to the assassination in Carthage in 1844. As the First Counselor in Smith’s Presidency, Law was an obvious choice for an invitation to join in secret polygamy. But his reluctance was also dangerous. Smith seemed to use scripture once again to try to convince Law.

William Law, Joseph’s counselor in the first presidency, reported that Emma confided to him in the fall of 1843, “Joe and I have settled our troubles on the basis of equal rights.” [32] The phrase “equal rights” has been a great source of controversy among historians. Some have speculated that it refers to the property holdings transferred to Emma, making the owned property more evenly distributed between her and Joseph. Others, however, have claimed a mutual spousal-swap proposal with the Laws was agreed to. In answer to these accusations, William Law gave an interview in 1887 stating: “Joseph Smith never proposed anything of the kind to me or to my wife; both he and Emma knew our sentiments in relation to spiritual wives and polygamy; knew that we were immoveably [sic] opposed to polygamy in any and every form.” But some contemporary sources state a spouse-swap was, indeed, discussed between the Laws and Smiths. Those sources are largely antagonistic to the Church, yet William Law was also an antagonist both when the alleged spouse-swap was proposed and when this Tribune interview was given.

D&C to 132:51 states: “I give a commandment unto Emma Smith that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it to prove you all…” This ambiguous statement may refer to Joseph having offered Emma the ability to pick an additional husband, possibly William Law, to offset his numerous young wives. Another interpretation was that Joseph offered Emma the option of divorce. Following a pattern previously demonstrated when advances were rescinded, the revelation clarified that it was merely a test of Emma’s virtue, “for I did it to prove you all.” Regardless of whether this statement refers to spousal swapping or a recalled offer of divorce, there is no question that plural marriage caused tension between Joseph and Emma as well as many of their close associates. The practice of polygamy was fraught with problems in a monogamous world.

The Final Counselor Revolt

During the final year of Smith’s life, it seemed as though everything was about polygamy. On Oct 1843, William Law, failing to bring about a reformation of Church practices in private, confronted the prophet “with his arms around the neck of Smith, tears streaming, pleaded to withdraw practice.” But Smith would not cease, prompting Law’s resignation from the Presidency on Jan 8, 1844. This was the beginning of the end for Smith.

Joseph excommunicated William and Jane Law on April 18, 1844. William recorded in his journal on May 13 that Smith had attempted to seduce his wife Jane. He [Smith] had lately endeavored to seduce my wife, and had found her a virtuous woman.” Sidney Rigdon, who remained in Smith’s Presidency, visited the Laws, offering to reinstate both into good standing if they acquiesced. The offer was refused unless Smith apologized for and ceased the practice of polygamy. Battle lines were drawn.

With the support of other dissenters, William Law obtained a warrant on May 23rd for Smith’s arrest on the charge of adultery with Maria Lawrence. Smith married both Lawrence sisters, Sarah and Maria, after they became foster daughters and moved into his home. William Law had been a family friend of the Lawrence’s in Canada, perhaps endearing him to the plight of the young girls. Law had a full understanding of what was going on, and used his knowledge against Smith’s secrecy.

The grand jury at the subsequent trial, which included Nauvoo Stake President William Marks, found “good and sufficient evidence” to indict on multiple counts. However, the State’s attorney, E.A. Thompson, recorded that his office was “unwilling further to prosecute this suit.” [33]  William Law again testified before a reconvened grand jury, obtaining a second indictment on five counts, which included perjury and adultery. Joseph Smith responded from the pulpit by delivering a boastful sermon the following Sunday, May 26th declaring that “God knows then that the charges against me are false . . . what a thing it is for a man to be accused of adultery, of having seven wives, when I can only find one.” [34] It seemed Smith still believed that he would get away with polygamy and that any lawsuit could be swayed by his influence, as he had surrounded himself with so many loyalists in both governmental and ecclesiastic affairs.

Smith traveled to the Circuit Court in Carthage, but only addressed the court regarding Charles A. Foster v. Joseph Smith, a separate case brought against him. He did not appear, nor did his attorneys present any objections, when The People of the State of Illinois v. Joseph Smith Sen. – Indictment for Adultery and Fornication was called on May 27. His accusers did appear, and the case was advanced for trial that October. Historian John Dinger provides a thorough examination of Smith’s actions around this time, affirming “Any claim he went to Carthage to prove his innocence for the crimes of adultery and fornication, is not supported by the court docket.” [35]

Confident in the validity of their assertions, William Law and others purchased their own printing press. The Nauvoo Expositor produced only a single issue on June 7, 1844, reaffirming the authors’ belief in the original Church and related scriptures. The article thrust Smith’s long rumored polygamy, governmental secession plans, and land speculations into daylight, while proposing fourteen reforms. The Nauvoo Expositor was not alone in accusing the prophet of grave misdeeds. One week prior, Joseph H. Jackson printed “Startling Disclosures” in The Warsaw Signal, accusing Smith of counterfeiting, seduction, and the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs.

The day after the damning newspaper was published, Smith convened the Nauvoo City Council, over which he presided. Though the Council lacked jurisdiction to judge the Expositor editors, the proceedings continued throughout most of the day, resulting in a declaration of the Expositor being a public nuisance. On June 10th, the town marshal complied with Smith’s dual authority as Mayor and militia leader, deploying the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the unfriendly press.

After burning the press, over a hundred men gathered at Smith’s home to hear his boisterous speech. He declared, “I would never submit to have another libelous publication…established in this city. …I cared not how many papers there were in the city if they would print the truth but would submit to not libel or slander.” Smith believed that he retained ultimate power in Nauvoo and would never be forced to publicly deal with the illegality of polygamy. This assumption would soon be proven incorrect. 


The following day, community members gathered at the county seat of Carthage, Illinois. Indignant over ongoing abuses of power within their small community, the crowd resolved to drive the Mormons out.

On June 12, Smith and seventeen others were arrested, but a Nauvoo judge acquitted all, as Smith likely expected. This sent the outlying county into an outrage, demanding by threat of militia action that an unbiased retrial be conducted outside of Nauvoo in Carthage. Joseph surely felt the noose tightening around him by this time. Upon his release, Smith declared martial law and rallied his militia. In full dress uniform, he delivered another rousing speech before promptly fleeing town.

Witnessing the escalating events in Nauvoo, the Federal Government declared that it would send troops, even destroy Nauvoo if needed, to locate Smith if he did not promptly surrender. Smith informed his associates that he would go “as a lamb to the slaughter,” expecting that he would face trial. He and his associates were given safe harbor at the Carthage Jail while they awaited their turn before the judge. At some point in the afternoon of June 27, 1844, the guards left their posts and a mob rushed in, killing Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and severely wounding apostle John Taylor.

This represented the end of the trial of Joseph Smith on charges of polygamy and sedition, but it was not the end of the LDS Church. Brigham Young took control as the new prophet and again moved West, where the Saints could practice polygamy in peace – at least for a few decades before the government again intervened.

Although William Law is spoken of in Mormon circles as the Judas of the early Church, his “anti-Mormon lies” about Smith’s polygamy and other practices have been proven true; with many events even now acknowledged by the LDS Church in official essays and articles. The Joseph Smith Papers Project further corroborates many of William’s first-hand assertions. The Church’s claim that “William Law was holding secret meetings with others on how to kill the Prophet” remains unsubstantiated and discredited. In fact, William lost everything because Smith, as sole trustee of the Church and land agent for Nauvoo, forbade all from buying dissenters’ land. If Law had been motivated by power or wealth rather than the truth, he would surely have pursued a different course of action.




Prophets and Apostles for generations took many polygamous wives. Brigham Young accumulated over fifty wives, while declaring “The only men who become Gods, even sons of Gods, are those who enter into polygamy. Others attain unto a glory and may even be permitted to come into the presence of the Father and the Son; but they cannot reign as kings in glory, because they had blessings offered unto them, and they refused to accept them.” [36]

Lorenzo Snow took a total of nine wives, five of whom were teenagers ranging in age from fifteen to eighteen. He fathered forty-two children. His final wife was seventeen when he was fifty-seven.

Heber C. Kimball – “I have noticed that a man who has but one wife, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young, and sprightly. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honors his word. Some of you may not believe this, but I not only believe it but I also know it.For a man of God to be confined to one woman is small business… I do not know what we should do if we had only one wife apiece.” [37]

Expressing his concern for maintaining the opportunity to select the most attractive ladies, Kimball said: “Brethren, I want you to understand that it is not to be as it has been heretofore. The brother missionaries have been in the habit of picking out the prettiest for themselves before they get here, and bringing on the ugly ones for us; hereafter you have to bring them all here before taking any of them, and let us all have a fair shake.” [38]

George Q. Cannon – “It is a fact worthy of note that the shortest-lived nations of which we have record have been monogamic.Rome, with her arts, sciences and warlike instincts, was once the mistress of the world; but her glory faded.She was a mono-gamicnation, andthe numerous evils attending that system early laid the foundation for that ruinwhich eventually overtook her.” [39]


Polygamy had been hard-won through western migration of the long-suffering pioneers and was not to be given up easily. So in 1885, as Federal pressure against polygamy increased, the church purchased 100,000 acres of land in Mexico, encouraging Saints to relocate from Utah and Arizona. While the Mexican Revolution of 1910 prompted most to return to the U.S., some returned to continue the practice when tensions died down.

Next, in 1887, Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act to punish the Church itself, not just individual members. The Act dissolved the Corporation of The Church and directed that all Church property valued in excess of $50,000 be forfeited to the U.S. government. The pressure was increasing.

On Oct 6, 1890, the first polygamy manifesto by President Wilford Woodruff was accepted at LDS General Conference. Despite the manifesto, formally sanctioned polygamy secretly continued within the Church, with 250 additional plural marriages being approved and sealed in temples, primarily among elite leadership circles. The church began exporting whole families to Canada and Mexico to continue “the practice” unfettered by U.S. Federal law. The manifesto came as a desire to achieve Utah statehood and the hopes of regaining confiscated assets, including the temples. However, church leaders and members viewed Woodruff’s manifesto as relating specifically to practices within the United States, which is why many faithfully awaited the day when the practice of polygamy would return.

Facing increased scrutiny on multiple fronts, particularly the Senatorial seating of Apostle Reed Smoot, President Joseph F. Smith issued a second manifesto on April 6, 1904 clarifying an end to polygamy. Though some of the leadership still had multiple living wives whom they supported financially, they publicly had only one legal marriage. Since this time, members found initiating new polygamous marriages (except eternal polygamous sealings) have been excommunicated from the Church. One such instance was Apostle Richard R. Lyman who was excommunicated in 1943 for practicing polygamy. His wife, Amy Brown Lyman, serving as the General Relief Society President at the time, was devastated when she discovered that her husband had married another woman in secret.

Shortly after Joseph F. Smith’s second manifesto, groups began splitting off from the mainstream church, accusing it to be in apostasy for caving into the U.S. federal government’s demands rather than following God’s commands of continuing the everlasting principle of plural marriage. Most notable among these splinters was Lorin C. Woolley, a devout member of the LDS Church who had been ordained an apostle by Brigham Young and who helped President John Taylor hide from Federal authorities during the polygamy raids in Utah. Woolley stated that President John Taylor received a revelation in 1886 stating that the “new and everlasting covenant [polygamy] was binding” among Mormons and that the Lord would never revoke the law. The document containing this revelation was discovered in 1911 by John Taylor’s son, Apostle John W. Taylor. That same year, Taylor resigned from the Quorum of Twelve in opposition to the Church’s stance on plural marriage. Images of the revelation confirms that it was written in John Taylor’s handwriting, suggesting that there is good reason why fundamentalist sects of Mormonism believe their continued practice of the sacred principle is truer to the original church of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young than the mainstream LDS Church. [40]

Had the U.S. government not intervened, the practice would have undoubtedly continued uninterrupted to this day in the mainstream church. Women would be sharing their husband in marriages not based on love, but on contingent exaltation. Women would continue to be seen as rewards by the most pious leaders as they accumulated eternal property. This is evidenced by the practices found within Mormon fundamentalist sects that continue today.



Whereas Joseph Smith had practiced polygamy in private and swore any he invited to join in the sacred practice to oaths of secrecy, Brigham Young brought the practice into public light. This is due, in part, to the Church’s recent relocation into distant territory over which it exerted near total control; one that had originally been part of Mexico and only later became a territory of the United States. Word about polygamy soon leaked into the national spotlight through the reports of territorial judges and other non-Mormon authorities, all of whom eventually fled the territory under threat of violence. On August 29, 1852, eight years after Smith’s death, Young publicly presented the revelation that Smith had dictated to convince Emma to embrace the doctrine.

Brigham Young went on to accumulate approximately 55 wives, many of whom endured dire circumstances and trials as a result. Some historians assert that the timing of Brigham’s decision to publicly reveal polygamy owed to his determination to establish the practice as an act of religious freedom in the public record so that it might persist through the territory’s bid for statehood. At the time, U.S. territories were governed through federal oversight, while states conversely operated as near-independent republics. If Utah had been granted statehood under the governorship of Brigham Young, the chances of developing a religious theocracy/dictatorship with polygamy protected by state constitution would have been much higher. [41]

It is vital to understand how important polygamy was to early Mormonism, as it operated as doctrine necessary for salvation, rather than an optional practice. Brigham Young differentiated between “celestial marriage” (polygamy) and monogamy, deriding monogamy as an evil practice. He stated, “This monogamic system which now prevails throughout all Christendom, and which has been so fruitful a source of prostitution and whoredom throughout all the Christian monogamic cities of the Old and New World, until rottenness and decay are at the root of their institutions both national and religious.” [42] While historians debate to what extent sexual desire played into Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy, here Brigham Young seems to portray the male sex-drive as a primary reason for the practice. While the LDS Church today prides itself on its family focus with carefully crafted images of nuclear families, many early Utah-territory households more closely resembled the family dynamic preserved in dozens of fundamentalist Mormon factions today. 

Polygamy became an interplay in Utah territory Church leadership; the more favored a man was in the Church, the more likely he was to have more wives. The more wives a man had, the more likely he was to rise through the leadership ranks and gain access to the inner circles of government and ecclesiastical elites. The acquisition of more wives became an indicator of status and a pursuit unto itself, frequently with little regard to the consideration and experience of the women caught up in the viciously competitive system.

Brigham Young stated, “Now, where a man in this church says, ‘I don’t want but one wife, I will live my religion with one.’ He will perhaps be saved in the Celestial Kingdom; but when he gets there he will not find himself in possession of any wife at all. … and he will remain single forever and ever.” [43] Joseph Smith’s earlier revelation, which established rules for the practice of polygamy, was added to the D&C canon in 1876, shortly before Brigham Young’s death. Like Smith, Young also violated the rules at his unchecked discretion. 

Brigham Young was not alone in teaching that polygamy was the divine law of the eternities. Orson Hyde instructed in 1855, “I discover that some of the Eastern papers represent me as a great blasphemer, because I said, in my lecture on Marriage, at our last Conference, that Jesus Christ was married at Cana of Galilee, that Mary, Martha, and others were his wives, and that he begat children.” [44]

The LDS Church’s third president, John Taylor, accumulated 8 plural wives. Wilford Woodruff, the fourth president of the Church, and the man who would later write the proclamation officially ending polygamy to stave off federal backlash and total destruction, stated, “Wo unto that Nation or house or people who seek to hinder my People from obeying the Patriarchal Law of Abraham [polygamy] which leadeth to a Celestial Glory… for whosoever doeth those things shall be damned Saith the Lord.” [45]

Even after Taylor’s manifesto purportedly ceased the practice, the doctrine that damnation would follow LDS men who were not polygamous endured at the highest levels. Joseph F. Smith, sixth president of the Church taught, “I understand the law of celestial marriage to mean that every man in this church, who has the ability to obey and practice it in righteousness and will not, shall be damned, I say I understand it to mean this and nothing less, and I testify in the name of Jesus that it does mean that.” [46] Thus it should come as no surprise that even as late as the 1950s, when Bruce R. McConkie published Mormon Doctrine, he declared, “Obviously the holy practice of plural marriage will commence again after the second coming . . . and the ushering in of the millennium.” [47]

It is fascinating to observe how the prophets’ statements and actions demonstrate that it was only men’s salvation they were concerned with. Women were mere accessories to men’s eternal glory. This notion that the accumulation of multiple women enhanced male glory in the afterlife is evidenced by the way in which select LDS leaders accumulated wives through marriages to dead women. For example, Wilford Woodruff gave himself birthday presents of additional wives by sealing himself to young women who had died, so that he could have them in the after-life. It goes without saying that the notion of female consent is totally absent in such cases. 

Today, the LDS Church insists it is laughable that its members are accused of being secret polygamists. As with many concepts in Mormonism, the whole truth is a bit more complicated. The current president of the LDS Church, Russell M. Nelson, and his counselor Dallin H. Oaks, are both sealed for eternity to two different women. Both speak openly and in positive terms of their heavenly mansions, still sealed to both women. The balance of power remains squarely in male territory. Mormon men are not required to cancel prior eternal sealings before marrying another eternal wife in the temple, and there is no doctrine stating that men will have to choose between their wives in the afterlife. This inequality is further echoed in the LDS temple sealing ceremony, as men’s vows differ from women’s, allowing men to receive multiple wives and call them through the veil to the Celestial Kingdom at their discretion. Indeed, polygamy remains doctrine. 



Even the most devoted members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understandably find the history of polygamy and Joseph Smith’s relationships with married women, sisters, mothers and daughters to be troubling. Was it really a commandment from God, or was polygamy the offspring of Smith’s unchecked sexual appetite? Even among those who do believe polygamy was commanded for a time, the manner in which Smith carried it out has left many to question his motives. The grooming, hiding, manipulating, and outright lying, even threatening destruction of those women who rebuffed his advances or rejected the principle, including his wife Emma—is this the behavior of a true prophet?

Do we side with so many former loyalists to the prophet – Oliver Cowdery, William Marks, William Law, Sidney Rigdon, Nancy Rigdon, Emma Smith, and many others – who felt that Smith had crossed a line and abused his power, or have we wrongfully condemned the innocent for the sake of loyalty and tradition while idolizing a sexual predator?