No view of Mormonism is complete without a thorough understanding of the controversial practice of polygamy. For an uninterrupted period of approximately 70 years, polygamy remained an extraordinary eternal benefit, available primarily to male Church leaders. Today, most LDS believe that the “New and Everlasting Covenant” pertains to eternal marriage and the sealing of families, unaware that this historically referred to plural marriage.
Polygamy in the hereafter is still practiced today in LDS temples. Widowers and civilly divorced men may be eternally sealed to multiple wives, while a woman may have just one man. In its recent LDS Gospel Topics Essay on polygamy, the Church suggests “…the marriage of one man and one woman is the Lord’s standing law of marriage.” The Church has never disavowed polygamy as doctrine, only prohibiting its earthly practice under increasing threat of property confiscation and total destruction under Federal law.
As originally published in D&C 101, the Church specifically forbade polygamy and defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This section remained in the D&C for forty-one years, despite directly conflicting with the secretive and later public practice of polygamy. The D&C 101 scripture was quietly removed in 1876, deferring to D&C 132 to justify the practice of polygamy. This historical fact remains largely unknown among Church members and remains unaddressed in instruction.
Smith groomed and likely engaged in sexual relations with multiple girls, some including teenagers. A few were under his direct employ and living under his roof. Additionally, he solicited the wives and daughters of numerous senior leaders and apostles and women already married to other men (polyandry). Smith’s obfuscations to his wife, church members, and the general public are matters of public record. Plural marriage was never openly communicated to the church membership or presented for sustaining vote during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.
ORIGINAL LDS MARRIAGE DEFINITION
The LDS Church’s original definition of marriage, as recorded in the Joseph Smith Papers Project, was written by Oliver Cowdery, a member of the First Presidency at the time. The statement was officially sustained and adopted as canonized scripture in Aug 1835, when W.W. Phelps introduced “Article on Marriage” at General Conference. It was section 101 in the 1835 D&C edition, becoming section 109 in the 1844 revision.
The scripture clearly identifies marriage as between one man and one woman: “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 have asserted that D&C 101 was merely an advisory statement which was never intended as God’s will, as Joseph was out of town when monogamy was reaffirmed as the law of the church. Yet Joseph did not edit or alter D&C 101 despite personally supervising the 1844 D&C edition.
FairMormon (Foundation for Apologetic Information Research), a leading defender of LDS truth claims, confirms the doctrinal validity of D&C 101:
“Joseph Smith was preaching in Michigan at the time Oliver and W.W. Phelps introduced these two articles to the conference; it is not known if he approved of their addition to the D&C at the time, although he did retain them in the 1844 Nauvoo edition, which argues that he was not opposed to them.”
“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” (Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, vol 1, 171–173).
ORIGIN OF D&C 132
Attempts to justify polygamy often 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 demographic realities of the day, or the troubling execution of the practice. Mormonism predominantly sprang up in westward frontier territories where the supply of men outstripped females.
What is now D&C 132 was first written in 1843 as a letter to be taken to Emma Smith at the request of Joseph’s brother Hyrum to persuade her to accept plural marriage. Joseph informed Hyrum that he didn’t think it would work, that he knew her better.
Section 132 states, “Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.” Verses 15-17 clarify that marriage will pave the way for members to become gods, while single members will become their servants. The section provides at least 3 rules for polygamy:
- additional wives after first are to be virgins (verses 61-62).
- they are not to be vowed to other men.
- the polygamist husband must ask his first wife for permission before adding an additional wife (verse 61).
Verse 65 of the revelation introduces a loophole: if the first wife does not accept the rule of her husband, “…she then becomes the transgressor; and he is exempt from the law…” and will be destroyed. The letter, in essence, threatened Emma’s eternal welfare if she did not accept Joseph’s taking additional wives.
Though she rejected the doctrine, Emma’s short-lived approval of polygamy was contingent on a contractual agreement that she would be taken care of financially regardless of what happened to Joseph. Joseph’s personal secretary William Clayton recorded that only hours after Emma initially rejected the polygamy revelation, “Joseph told me to deed all the unencumbered lots to Emma and the children. He appears much troubled about Emma.”
On July 12, 1843, Smith deeded Emma 65 parcels of church property, comprising dozens of individual lots, including 9 entire blocks of the City of Nauvoo, for a total sum of $10,000. The transaction relies upon a significantly reduced valuation, and was witnessed by Newell Whitney as Justice of the Peace. Newell had given his 14 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”. (Journals of William Clayton, Signature Books, 1995) William Law, Joseph’s Presidency Counselor reported that Emma confided to him in the fall of 1843, “Joe and I have settled our troubles on the basis of equal rights” (The Law Interview, The Daily Tribune: Salt Lake City, July 31, 1887).
On August 29, 1852, eight years after Joseph’s death and many years after polygamy started, Brigham Young publicly presented the letter to the Saints after word leaked out about the practice to the national press via territorial judges who fled the Utah territory. The revelation was not added to the D&C canon until 1876, shortly before Brigham Young’s death.
- MormonThink: Joseph Smith Polygamy
- FairMormon: D&C Denies Polygamy
- Confessions of an Elder: The Petition to Remove Section 132
- Mormon Stories: A Revelation of Man, Not God
- Should We Defend Our Past Polygamy?, Curt Henderson, 2009
POLYGAMY REMAINS DOCTRINE
Brigham Young differentiated between “celestial marriage” (polygamy) and monogamy while openly deriding monogamy as an evil practice. “… 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” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol 11, 128).
“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” (Prophet Brigham Young, Deseret News, Sept 17, 1873).
“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 (Prophet Joseph F. Smith, Journal of Discourses, vol 20, 31, July 7, 1878).
“… 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” ( Prophet Wilford Woodruff’s Journal 1833-1898, under January 26, 1880, vol 7, 546).
Polyandry is often an unfamiliar topic to most faithful LDS members. EIt is a form of polygamy in which a woman has more than one husband. The opposite of this is polygyny, where one man is married to more than one woman. Both terms exist under the broader definition of polygamy. Joseph Smith initiated polyandry nearly in tandem with ordinary polygyny with single women and young girls. Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, who likely was likely sealed in secret to Joseph Smith in 1838, was already married to devout LDS member and leader, George Washington Harris. When Joseph married Zina Jacobs (after several rejected proposals and a purported warning by the sword-wielding angel) she was already pregnant by her husband Henry, who was a faithful member and a President of the Seventy.
Brigham Young instructed that “if a woman preferred another man of higher authority,” no bill of divorce was required. His doctrine 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” (LDS Conference Reports, Oct. 8, 1861).
One prominent example of Smith’s polyandry involved Sarah Pratt. Joseph began soliciting her soon after sending her husband Orson on a mission to Europe. Brother Pratt was a high profile leader in the early church, sufficiently righteous to become the longest-serving apostle in the church. There can be no argument that Sarah required Joseph’s more senior priesthood because her husband was unworthy. Smith threatened Sarah with ruin when she rebuffed his advances. Instead, she promptly told her husband Orson, who confronted Joseph, only for him to deny the encounter (see Minutes of Quorum of 12, Jan 20, 1843).
Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde
A similar scenario unfolded with Nancy Marinda Johnson Hyde in 1842, who Joseph also married shortly after sending her husband on a mission. Apostle Orson Hyde was sent to Jerusalem as the Lord’s emissary to consecrate Palestine for the gathering of Israel. He was indeed a worthy priesthood holder.
Mary was the very same lady that Joseph first met a decade prior, in March 1832, while staying in the Johnson home. On that occasion, Joseph was dragged out of the house and tarred and feathered. Marinda’s older brothers later insinuated that they had summoned a doctor to castrate Joseph Smith upon accusations of his intimacy with the sixteen-year-old Marinda. Whether or not the Johnsons actually summoned a doctor to castrate Joseph remains disputed, but he certainly stirred the ire of his hosts.
Joseph Smith’s long-deferred acquisition of Marinda evolved in a fascinating 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 Joseph 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 whereby 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 Joseph, tells Marinda to listen to anything which Joseph may teach her.
- 28 January 1842 – God reveals to Joseph 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.
- Joseph used the entire proceeds of the Lawrence estate to acquire Times & Seasons. John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff are appointed editors of the paper under Joseph’s supervision. In May of the coming year, Joseph secretly married both Lawrence sisters while they resided in his home under his guardianship and care.
- April 1842 – Joseph 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 Joseph’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.
- Sunstone: I Could Love Them All, Devery S. Anderson
NOT GOD’S COMMAND
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.” The best source for this belief is D&C 132:34-39, which states that “God commanded Abraham” to sleep with Hagar, his wife’s handmaiden. Yet according to the Bible, it was Abraham’s wife Sara, not God, who offered her handmaiden to Abraham so he could father children (Genesis 16:1-3). Nowhere in the Bible are men commanded by God to take plural wives. Leviticus 18 forbids marrying a mother and her daughter and marrying sisters, which Joseph Smith and other leaders did.
The Book of Mormon lends no support for polygamy. Rather, Jacob strongly condemns it as an “abomination” before God. (Jacob 2:24). But Jacob did 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, Joseph did not raise up any seed despite having ample opportunity with dozens of wives.
Compare – Jacob 2:24
“Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.”
With – D&C 132: 38-39
“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…”
Average Marriage Age
A defense of Joseph’s marriages to numerous teenage girls suggests that it was common for older men to marry women as young as fourteen years old in the nineteenth century. Though such marriages were legal, they were rare and no less scandalous in Victorian America than it is today.
An act of February 28, 1800, authorized the second national U. S. Census and, by 1890, the U.S. Census was collecting the average age of first marriage for both men and women. 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:
- Mia Maids: 2
- Laurels: 5
- Young Single Adult girls: 7
- Relief Society sisters: 20+ (half of them already married to other men)
- Marriage Data 1850-1880
- Was it Common for 1800s Teenager Girls to Marry? – Chart
- HISTORY: 5 Things Victorian Women Didn’t Do Much
- Age of Marriage in U.S. 1800s
DENIALS OF POLYGAMY
Joseph Smith never publicly revealed God’s command of polygamy during his life. On at least one occasion, he instructed the young lady to dress as a man before slipping quietly into the woods for the secret ceremony. Helen Kimball made it clear that she was forbidden to associate with peers once she became sealed to Smith.
Measures were regularly taken to ensure that Emma remained unaware of Joseph’s multiple wives, such as when he staged a fake wedding with the Emily and Eliza Partridge to appease Emma; and when he arranged a fabricated union between Sarah Ann Whitney and her brother-in-law, Joseph Kingsbury, seemingly to take her off the market and avoid suspicion as she turned 18 and would have been expected to court suiters her own age. Despite his attempts to conceal, rumors of Joseph’s infidelities began to spread within the tight-knit LDS community.
In Saints: The Standard of Truth, the church instructs that “A few men 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 only difference between these marriages and Joseph’s is that they were done without his express permission. Joseph’s marriages were equally secret and illegal.
“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 direction of God’s living prophet, might do so.” Simply put, the Church contends that in referring to his relationships with numerous polygamous wives as “celestial marriage,” it affords the prophet legitimate room to deny charges of “polygamy.”
A Statement from the Relief Society
Joseph Smith managed to gain control of Times & Seasons in February 1842, the popular LDS periodical, and promptly assumed managerial control.
On October 1 of that same year, under the direction of the prophet, Times & Seasons re-published the monogamy statement (Times & Seasons 3:939) “On Marriage” from D&C 101, including a specially signed addendum denouncing John C. Bennett’s “secret wife system.” The timing is significant because, by October 1842, Joseph had already secretly married approximately 18 women. See an itemization of Joseph’s wives in context HERE.
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 (polygamist apostles and future prophets of the church), and many of the highest ranking members of Mormon society.
Perhaps Emma remained unaware that Joseph had married Sarah Cleveland in June 1842, despite her “standing” marriage to John Cleveland. Also in June, Joseph married Eliza R. Snow and Sarah Ann Whitney, Elizabeth’s daughter, with Elizabeth and Newell Whitney’s consent. All of Emma’s leaders were secretly compromised by polygamy at the time of their public statement.
Besides Emma, 5 of the 19 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 another 2, but they rejected him (Nancy Rigdon and Sarah M. Kimball). Joseph also proposed to another John Taylor’s wife Leonora, but when rebuffed, suggested it was only a test of her husband’s faith. John Taylor said yes.
Lying For The Lord
In apostle John Taylor’s Three Nights public debate with Protestant minister C. W. Cleeve in 1850, Taylor boldly and repeatedly denied polygamy, citing D&C 101:4. Taylor was married to twelve women at the time.
On May 26, 1844, Joseph Smith spoke from the pulpit on Sunday to refute the public accusations of William Law, a former counselor in Smith’s first presidency. 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.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, during an interview with Larry King, propagated the myth that polygamy was a primarily a western migration thing, in sharp contrast to LDS records and documented history. Larry King asked, “First tell me about the Church and polygamy. When it started, it allowed it?” Hinckley replied, “When our people came west they permitted it on a restricted scale,” though the practice originated well before the westward migration. He further stated that polygamy is not doctrine, despite it still being practiced for eternal sealings in LDS temples.
- Mormon Bandwagon: extensive list of Joseph Smith’s polygamy denials
The LDS Church interprets D&C 110 to mean that Elijah would return to restore the sealing power. There is no reference to the restoration of sealing power in the Elijah revelation itself, merely stating that Elijah would return “To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers,” which the majority of biblical scholars do not interpret as having anything to do with the Mormon concept of “binding and sealing.”
It is interesting to recognize that Joseph Smith first sealed himself to plural wives before finally sealing himself to Emma. She was not permitted to be sealed to Joseph until she accepted the principle of plural marriage and allowed Joseph to marry the Partridge sisters, whom he had already secretly married. Joseph never sealed himself to his children or parents, as sealing was only interpreted to apply to marriage at the time.
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 explicitly 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: 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.’
After Joseph’s death, Helen remarried and moved to Utah, where she proceeded to have 11 children with her legal husband. She was never permitted to be sealed to him or her children, as she already belonged to the prophet for eternity.
Sarah Ann Whitney
On Aug 18, 1842, while in 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 17 year old daughter Sarah, whom he had married just three weeks prior without Emma’s knowledge. “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.” Joseph instructed that “The only thing to be careful of…is to find out when Emma comes… [because] it cannot be safe.”
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. Joseph 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.”
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, just one block from his own home. In March 1843, Smith took additional steps to solidify the secret arrangement, providing Sarah a handwritten blessing which assured the salvation of her extended family, provided that she remain in the “Everlasting Covenent” of plural marriage. As noted above, the following month, as Sarah turned 18, Smith arranged a sham wedding between Sarah and Joseph Kingsbury (her brother-in-law) by promising Kingsbury eternal sealing to his recently deceased wife (Sarah’s sister).
The LDS Church retains in its archives the original letter Joseph Smith wrote to Nancy Rigdon persuading her to marry him. Smith wrote: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another… Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire” (Joseph Smith to Miss Nancy Rigdon, 11 April 1842, History of the Church, vol 5, 134-36).
Historian 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 her 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., 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.
“Nancy’s brother, John, recounting the incident 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.’
“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”]’ . . . .
“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…”
(Mormon Polygamy: A History, Richard Van Wagoner, 30-31, 73).
The Walker family arrived in Nauvoo in 1841 with their 10 children. Mrs. Walker died in 1842, leaving the family in dire straights. 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, “My house shall be their house. I will adopt them as my own…place the little ones with some kind friends, and the four eldest shall come to my house and be received and treated as my own children.” Shortly after the faithful father departed the scene, Joseph informed 16 year old Lucy that she was to become his next plural wife. Joseph married Lucy one day after her 17th birthday.
SEXUAL RELATIONS CONFIRMED
The Church denies that Smith fathered any children with his multiple relations, yet sexual relations are documented by multiple sources. Fanny Alger, Joseph’s first affair, “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 LDS women who were married to Joseph Smith would later swear court affidavits that they engaged in sexual relations with him.
From a purely practical perspective, why would Joseph inflict so much harm upon so many, including his first and only legal wife Emma, by lying about polygamy if sex were not involved? Would God command him to steal all those girls’ lives away, denying the natural path of courtship and true love, while also damaging the relationships of those already married to other men? If Joseph’s sealings were solely dynastic in nature, why would so many of the women agonize over the sacrifice, rather than express excitement at the opportunity to affiliate with the prophet’s family for eternity?
- Faithful Mormon Melissa Lott (Smith Willes) testified that she had been Joseph’s wife “in very deed.” (Affidavit of Melissa Willes, 3 Aug. 1893, Temple Lot case, 98, 105; Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 156)
- In a court affidavit, faithful Mormon Joseph Noble wrote that Joseph told him he had spent the night with Louisa Beaman. (Temple Lot Case, 427)
- Emily Partridge said she “roomed” with Joseph the night following her marriage to him and said that she had “carnal intercourse” with him. (Temple Lot case 364, 367, 384; see Foster, Religion and Sexuality, 15)
- Smith’s personal secretary recorded that on May 22nd, 1843, Smith’s first wife Emma found Joseph and Eliza Partridge secluded in an upstairs bedroom at the Smith home.
- 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. (William Clayton’s journal)
- 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” (Zimmerman, I Knew the Prophets, 44. See also “The Origin of Plural Marriage, Joseph F. Smith, Jr., Deseret News Press, 70-71).
- 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”” (Stake President Angus M. Cannon, statement of interview with Joseph III, 23, LDS archives).
“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” (In Sacred Loneliness, Todd Compton, 15).
William Law was a successful man from Canada who invested in real estate, lumber and construction, which is why Joseph promptly sought his credibility upon meeting him. He was appointed Second Counselor in Joseph’s Presidency, yet grew increasingly uncomfortable with the deceitful practice of polygamy and polyandry, Smith’s establishment of a secret political kingdom to overthrow the U.S. Government (Council of 50). He also believed Smith played a role in the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs.
Canonized Wife Swapping
Crack open D&C to 132:51 and take a close look at what this most wondrous verse reveals. “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…”
Given the extreme degree of his philandering, Joseph had offered Emma the ability to pick an additional husband to offset his numerous young wives; she chose William Law. Joseph also wanted Jane Law as another polyandrous wife and repeatedly attempted to seal the deal; but the Laws would not concede. Note how “partake not of that which I commanded you (Joseph) to offer unto her (Emma)” speaks directly to Emma and the removal of a spouse swapping scheme with William and Jane Law. Having failed, God, through brother Joseph, withdrew Emma’s offer under threat of destruction.
God clarified that it was merely a test of Emma’s virtue, “for I did it to prove you all.” Joseph was known to invoke the “only a test” clause when rejected by various prospects. Verse 52 reminds Emma to receive “all those that have been given unto Joseph,” while Verse 54 “commands Emma to cleave unto Joseph and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed.”
The personal journal of William Clayton, Joseph’s dedicated scribe, and other contemporary records, validate this episode.
The Final Counselor Revolt
On Oct 1843, William Law, failing to bring about a reformation of Church practices in private, confronted Joseph “with his arms around the neck of Smith, tears streaming, pleaded to withdraw practice.” Smith would not cease, prompting Law’s resignation from the Presidency in Jan 8, 1844.
Joseph excommunicated William and Jane Law on April 18th. Smith’s ability to disaffect his most intimate associates and counselors became notorious. The list includes dozens of Palmyra neighbors, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, the Whitmers, Jesse Gause, John C. Bennett, numerous Apostles and a large percentage of his closest Kirtland associates, etc. At various times, the list included Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde. Sidney Rigdon remained committed, despite Smith’s attempt to obtain his teenage daughter.
On March 20, 1844 through his Church controlled Nauvoo Neighbor newspaper, printed Emma’s version of Voice of Innocence, disavowing and denying the practice of polygamy. The assertions made in Emma’s article have since been proven demonstrably false. It is telling that both of Emma’s counselors, and other Relief Society members were directly compromised by polygamy at the time.
William Law, with the support of other dissenters, obtained a warrant on May 23 for Smith’s arrest on the charge of adultery with Maria Lawrence. Smith married both young Lawrence sisters, Sarah and Maria, after they became foster daughters and moved into his home. Their father had passed away shortly after their arrival in Nauvoo, and Margaret Lawrence was pregnant with her seventh child, thus Smith was appointment as executor of the estate. His offer to become guardian and provider for the girls was accepted.
William Law had been a family friend of the Lawrence’s in Canada, perhaps endearing him to the plight of the young girls. Joseph Smith was unburdened by the ethical and moral conflict of soliciting intimate relations with displaced foster daughters that were entirely dependent upon him for shelter and support. This bold assertion is further evidenced by his repetition of the theme with Emily and Eliza Partridge, sisters whom he married in March 1843 as they labored and resided in his home.
His first advances toward Emily having been rebuffed, Smith’s enlisted the support of Elizabeth Durfee, who he had secretly married the previous year, to personally intervene on his behalf. Mrs. Durfee established a clandestine meeting at the home of Heber C. Kimball, where he and the prophet persuaded Emily to marry Smith on the spot. Emily personally affirmed that she slept with Joseph on many occasions. Such were the bizarre circumstances of Nauvoo polygamy in 1843.
The grand jury, 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”. (People vs. Joseph Smith, May 24, 1844) William Law again testified before a reconvened grand jury, obtaining a second indictment on five counts, which included perjury and adultery.
The prophet 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 (he had at least 34 wives at the time), when I can only find one” (History of the Church, vol 6:410-411).
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. 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” (Rational Faiths: Joseph Smith’s Indictment for Adultery and Fornication, Aug 16, 2015).
Interactions between the Smiths and Laws continued, as William recorded in his journal on May 13, 1844 that Smith again 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.
Facing the dual challenges of a prophet willing to pursue any means necessary, in apparent partnership with his wife who was publishing falsehoods affirmed by her Relief Society, 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, as the 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 following day, Smith convened the Nauvoo City Council, which he controlled. Though the Council lacked jurisdiction to judge the Expositor editors, the proceedings continued throughout most of the day, resulting in a declaration of 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. As an added measure, Joseph made sure to bless the unruly mob in the name of the Lord.
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.”
The following day, community members gathered at Carthage. Indignant over official Mormon lies and ongoing abuses of power within the small community, the crowd resolved to drive the Mormons out. In typical fashion, the Church decried the accusations as vicious, anti-Mormon lies.
On June 12, Smith and 17 others were arrested, but a friendly, local judge acquitted all. Joseph surely felt the noose tightening around him by this time. Upon his release, Smith declared martial law and again 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,” which became an oft repeated false narrative. Smith was killed by angry mob while incarcerated on June 27, 1844.
Although William Law is spoken of in Mormon circles as the Judas of the early Church, his “anti-Mormon lies” have been proven true; many events even acknowledged by the 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…” remain unsubstantiated and discredited.
William lost everything because Joseph, as sole Church trustee and land agent, forbade all from buying dissenter’s land. The day following Smith’s murder, Law wrote, “One of Joe Smith’s weakest points was his jealously of other men. He could not bear to hear other men spoken well of. If there was any praise it must be of him; all adoration & worship must be for him. He would destroy his best friend rather than see him become popular in the eyes of the Church or the people at large. His vanity knew no bounds. He was unscrupulous; no man’s life was safe if he was disposed to hate him. He sat the laws of God and men at defiance. He was naturally base, brutish and corrupt and cruel. He was one of the false prophets spoken of by Christ who would come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly be a ravelling [sic] wolf. His works proved it. One great aim seemed to be to demoralize the world, to give it over to Satan, his master; but God stopped him in his mad career & gave him to his destroyers. He claimed to be a god, whereas he was only a servant of the Devil, and as such met his fate. His wife was about as corrupt as he was” (William Law’s Nauvoo diary entry, 28 June 1844. See Cook, William Law, 60-61).
After separating from Mormonism, William moved to Wisconsin, sought no publicity, granting only a single interview in 1887 to The Salt Lake City Daily Tribune. In it, Law comes off as a supremely decent man who raised a family of lawyers, doctors and judges. He never allowed the interviewer to make claims that were beyond his knowledge, and even corrected some distortions that would have benefit him. He published his first-hand experience with Smith and never once changed his story.
When asked about his involvement in Smith’s murder, Law replied, “No. I had no idea, no idea. I had been ruined by that man; all my property was gone; all my dearest illusions destroyed, and through my connection with him I got a black spot on my life, which will pain me to the very last minute of my existence. But I tell you [The old gentlemen buried his head in his hands and when he removed them, his eyes were wet.] I tell you, no, if I had had any idea of any such scheme, I would have taken steps to stop it. I have always considered the killing of Joseph Smith a wrong action. It is my opinion that he deserved his fate fully, much more than thousands of men who paid the penalty of their crime to Judge Lynch–but I would have preferred that he should have been tried by court and sent to the Penitentiary.”
William shared, “The greatest mistake of my [life was my] having anything to do with Mormonism. I feel [it to] be a deep disgrace and never speak of it when I can avoid it. For over 40 years I have been almost entirely silent on the subject and will so continue after this. Accept my kind regards.” – William Law
- Read the Nauvoo Expositor
- William Law Interview
- William Law’s Amazing (And Suspect) Diary, Benjamin Park
- Wives of Joseph Smith: Emily and Eliza Partridge
- Rational Faiths: Joseph Smith’s Indictment for Adultery and Fornication
ONGOING SUPPORT FOR POLYGAMY
Prophets and Apostles for generations took many teenage wives. Brigham Young accumulated over 50 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” (Journal of Discourses, vol 11, 269).
Lorenzo Snow took a total of 9 wives, 5 of whom were teenagers ranging in age from 15 to 18. He fathered 42 children, his final wife was 17 when he was 57.
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”(Deseret News, April 22, 1857).
Apostle 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-gamic nation, and the numerous evils attending that system early laid the foundation for that ruin which eventually overtook her”(Journal of Discourses, vol 13, 202).
“Brethren, I want you to understand that it is not to be as is 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 (Apostle Heber Kimball,1st Counselor to Brigham Young)
Modern LDS revelators confirm the eternal nature of polygamy. “Obviously the holy practice of plural marriage will commence again after the second coming…and the ushering in of the millennium” (Mormon Doctrine, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, 1966).
THE POLYGAMY MANIFESTOS
As Federal pressure against polygamy increased, the church purchased 100,000 acres of land in Mexico in 1885, encouraging Saints to travel there from Utah and Arizona. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 prompted most to return to the U.S. but some returned to continue the practice when tensions died down.
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.
On Oct 6, 1890, the first polygamy manifesto was accepted at LDS General Conference. Despite the manifesto, formally sanctioned polygamy secretly continued within the Church, with 250 additional plural marriages being consummated, primarily among elite leadership circles. The church began exporting whole families to Canada and Mexico to continue “the practice” unfettered by federal law.
Facing increased scrutiny on multiple fronts, the Church issues a second manifesto on April 6, 1904 clarifying an end of polygamy. Despite the prophet Wilfrord Woodruff’s receipt of revelation ceasing polygamy, he continued to marry additional plural wives after the second ban. The manifestos came not as a result of any pain or injury the practice of polygamy inflicted, but the desire to achieve Utah statehood and the reality of confiscation of coveted assets, including the temples.
Had the US government did not made it impossible for polygamy to continue, the sacred practice would have continued uninterrupted to this day. Women would be sharing their husband in marriages not based on love, but on contingent exaltation. Teenage daughters would continue to be pursued by the most pious leaders as they accumulated eternal property.
- LDS Essay: Manifesto and End of Plural Marriage
- LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904, Quinn
Q: The LDS Gospel Topics Polygamy Essay carefully states how the current one man/one woman practice is the “standing” policy of the church, while continuing the practice of polygamy in temples. Do you sustain eternal polygamy?
Q: If Smith actually received revelation commanding polygamy, why not declare it to members at some point during his life? Did they not follow his every word; did he not run the entire church, town and militia? Why not take the high ground instead of continued denials?
Q: The Church often suggests that polygamy was not about sex, but was about helping widows and offering exaltation through Joseph’s line – since no woman can enter the highest order of heaven on her own. If that were the case, why not rely instead upon the law of adoption? Why keep it all secret from Emma and the Church via lies and denials?
Q: Why were so many women sealed to Smith after his death? Are LDS women property, conveying dynastic eternal power?
Q: The Church goes far out of its way to claim that no children resulted from Joseph’s numerous wives. Is that not also a violation of polygamy’s stated purpose in Section 132?
Q: Do you believe God commanded the already married 37 year old to marry a 14 year old girl, under the pretense of eternal salvation for her family? Similarly, was it ok for Joseph to marry woman already married to another worthy male?
Q: If we can reconcile the previous two questions, how can we justify Joseph doing so without the knowledge or consent of his first wife Emma?
Q: Why didn’t Joseph bother to seal his own family?
Q: Do you find it oddly coincidental that the revelation to end polygamy came right when the Church was facing the forfeiture of its assets to the U.S. government?
- Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman
- Mormon Enigma – Emma Hale Smith, Linda Newell
- LDS Gospel Topics Polygamy Essay
- Mormon Think: A Response to LDS.org Essay
- Introduction to Joseph Smith’s Polygamy
- In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, Todd Compton
- Exploring Mormonism: Polygamy Timeline
- False Witnesses and Lost Credibility
- Mormon Polygamy Documents: A Huge Index
- Joseph Smith’s letter to Whitneys
- Joseph Smith’s letter to Nancy Rigdon (that which is wrong)
- Supplement to Rigdon letter
- Feminist Mormon Housewives
- Wives of Joseph Smith – full listing with biographies, by a lifelong LDS member
- Mormon Polygamy Documents
- Mormons in Transition: Joseph Smith statement denying polygamy
- Kirk Van Allen, A Revelation of Man, Not God
- List of Joseph Smith’s Wives
- Children of Joseph Smith
- Felons of Faith, BYU Religious Studies Center