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. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and other church leaders taught that polygamy (also called plural marriage or celestial marriage) was the “new and everlasting covenant” that assured the exaltation of its participants. Today, the Church teaches that the new and everlasting covenant pertains to monogamous marriages that are sealed within LDS temples.

Despite the shift in emphasis from plural marriage to monogamous marriage, the concept of plural marriage is still present today in LDS doctrine as the Church still permits the sealing of one man to multiple women in cases of death or civil divorce. While practicing polygamy in life is an excommunicable offense, many Latter-day Saints still hold that plural marriage is an eternal principle that will be practiced at the highest levels of exaltation in the afterlife.

The Gospel Topics Essay on polygamy, authorized by the LDS Church, 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. Although Official Declaration no. 2 in the Doctrine & Covenants halted the practice of polygamy, most church leaders and members in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century believed this injunction to be temporary. Most leaders and members believed that plural marriage would eventually be practiced again.

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 in D&C 101. This section remained in the D&C for forty-one years and was quietly removed in 1876 when church leaders added D&C 132. Although church 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.

Prior to Brigham Young’s settlement in Utah, polygamous marriages were performed in secret and lived quietly, although speculation and rumors abounded. 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, Joseph Smith was not only the originator of Mormon polygamy, but was one of its most controversial practitioners.


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, which clearly identifies marriage to be between one man and one woman, was merely an advisory statement never intended as God’s will. 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.


The revelation warns that if Emma did not abide by this commandment she would be destroyed. This 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 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.

Verse 65 introduces a loophole for the man: 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 of additional wives.

The 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.” Joseph accumulated many brides without his wife’s consent, even women who were not virgins and women who were already married.

Some chronology clarifies this portion of the revelation:

March 1843 – Joseph Smith is sealed in secret to Emily and Eliza Partridge who at the time are living in the Smith’s Homestead, a two-story cabin.

May 1843 – Emma consents to allow Joseph to be sealed to Emily and Eliza Partridge as well as Sarah and Maria Lawrence, who are also living in the Smith’s Homestead.  Despite their earlier sealing, Joseph holds a second ceremony with Emily and Eliza Partridge, this time in Emma’s presence. Lucy Walker, living with the Smiths, was also sealed to Joseph, reportedly with Emma’s consent. Emma and Joseph are also sealed the same month in the Homestead. 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 to him as well as her endowment until after she had consented to plural marriage.

July 1843 – Joseph dictates the plural marriage revelation (section 132), likely in response to Emma’s agitation over the arrangement of marriages to the young women in their household. According to William Clayton’s journal entry for May 23, 1843, Emma caught Joseph in a secluded room with Eliza Partridge and was devastated, possibly leading to talk of divorce between Joseph and Emma.

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, 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.

Based on these events, it is possible that Emma Smith had 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 rationalized that there was no physical intimacy involved with these sealings. Upon discovering shortly after approving the sealings that there were intimate relations, Emma was devastated. Her and Joseph’s marriage may have begun failing. The July 1843 revelation attempted to coerce Emma to accept these marriages upon the threat of her own eternal damnation.

In addition to eternal promises, Emma’s short-lived approval of polygamy appears to be connected to 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 sixty-five parcels of church property, 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.” [3] 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.” [4]



On August 29, 1852, eight years after Joseph’s death, Brigham Young publicly presented the revelation that Smith had dictated for Emma. Word about polygamy leaked out in the national press through the reports of several territorial judges who fled the Utah territory under threat of violence. The revelation was added to the D&C canon 1876, shortly before Brigham Young’s death.

Some historians today speculate that Brigham’s decision to publicly announce the practice of polygamy in 1852 owed to his determination to enter the practice into public record for the territory’s bid for statehood as an act of “religious freedom.” At this time, U.S. territories were tightly governed through Federal oversight. 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 with polygamy protected by its state constitution would have been much higher. [5]

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.” [6]

At another time, 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.” [7]

Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of the Church, 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.” [8]

Joseph F. Smith, sixth president of the Church shared Young’s sentiments, stating, “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.” [9]

Polygamy is still practiced today in LDS temples, allowing widowers to accumulate additional eternal wives, and civilly divorced men to seal themselves to multiple living wives.



Polyandry is an unfamiliar topic to most faithful members of the Church. It is a form of polygamy where 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 practiced polyandry nearly in tandem with polygyny 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 several rejected proposals and a purported warning by the sword-wielding angel), she was already pregnant by her husband Henry, a faithful member and president of the Seventy.

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.” [10]

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.

Joseph began soliciting Sarah soon after sending Orson on a mission to Europe. He ultimately threatened her with ruin when she rebuffed his advances. She promptly told her husband Orson, who confronted Joseph, only for him to deny the encounter. This action by Joseph sent Orson into a deep depression, even to the point of contemplating suicide. [11] Sarah never became a plural wife to Joseph; however, Orson did eventually embrace polygamy, becoming a staunch advocate of the practice in Utah and taking ten wives.

Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde

A similar scene unfolded with Nancy Marinda Johnson Hyde in 1842, who Joseph married shortly after sending her husband, Apostle Orson Hyde, on an important mission to Jerusalem to consecrate Palestine for the gathering of Israel. Joseph first met Marinda 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 then sixteen-year-old Marinda. Whether or not the Johnsons 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 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 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 & SeasonsJohn 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.

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.”



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.” [12]  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 Sara, not God, who offered her handmaiden to Abraham so he could father children (Gen. 16:1-3). Nowhere in the Bible are men commanded by God to take plural wives. Additionally, Leviticus 18 forbids marrying a mother and her daughter and marrying sisters, which Joseph Smith and other early Mormon leaders did.

Similarly, The Book of Mormon lends little support for polygamy. Jacob strongly condemns it as an “abomination” before God (Jacob 2:24) but 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…”


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, 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 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)

Other attempts to justify explain 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 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.



Joseph Smith never publicly revealed God’s command of polygamy during his life. The Church confirms that “participants in these early plural marriages pledged to keep their involvement confidential.” [12] 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. Emma remained unaware of the majority of Joseph’s multiple wives.

Helen Kimball made it clear that she was forbidden to associate with peers once she became sealed to Smith. Despite his elaborate attempts to conceal, rumors of Joseph’s infidelities began to spread within the tight-knit community of Nauvoo as well among their non-Mormon neighbors in Hancock County.

The 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 direction of God’s living prophet, might do so.” [13] Simply put, referring to his relationships with numerous polygamous wives as “celestial marriage” afforded the prophet legitimate room to deny charges of “polygamy.” Not everyone agrees upon the legitimacy of this tactic.

On September 1, 1842, as editor of Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith was responsible for the disingenuous rebuttal of the ongoing accusations of polygamy by some of his closest associates, including a former counselor in Smith’s first presidency. He asserted “…we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband…” He had at least 13 wives by this time.

On May 26, 1844, Joseph Smith spoke from the pulpit refuting the public accusations of William Law, another 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.”

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.

In more recent times, during an interview with Larry King, President Gordon B. Hinckley propagated the myth that polygamy was a 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, “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 numerous statements by earlier church leaders to the contrary, and despite polygamy still being practiced as an eternal principle for sealings in LDS temples.

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 marriages and Joseph’s is that they were done without his authorization. Joseph’s marriages were equally secret and illegal.


Joseph 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.” [14] The timing is significant because, by October 1842, Joseph had already secretly married approximately 18 women. [15]

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 her “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 leaders had been compromised by Joseph’s practice of polygamy at the time of their public statement.

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 Joseph’s proposal.


On January 18, 1827 Joseph Smith married Emma Hale. 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, Joseph counseled Mary to stay with her husband and children in Farmington, IL. Later that night, Joseph and Willard Richards went to Agnes Coolbirth Smith’s home (wife of Smith’s deceased brother) 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. [16]

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, some including teenagers. A few 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.” [17]

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.’” [18]

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.


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, Joseph 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.” Joseph 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 Joseph.

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 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).

Joseph’s Letter to Whitneys


Nancy Rigdon

Joseph Smith wrote to Nancy Rigdon, teenage daughter of Sydney Rigdon, “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.” [19]

Sydney 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 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 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.’

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.” [20]


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, Joseph 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…” [21] 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.” [22]

Joseph 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.” [23]

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.

The Partridge Sisters

Some of Joseph’s younger wives lived under his roof and thought of him as a father figure. 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 first approached Emily in the spring of 1842, but she rebuffed his advance. Joseph then enlisted the support of Elizabeth Durfee, whom he had married the previous year, to introduce “the subject of spiritual wives.” Joseph approached Emily again on her nineteenth birthday, February 28, 1843. Shortly thereafter, Joseph again enlisted 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. [24]

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.

“About this time Joseph 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.’” [25]

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.” [26]

Family trouble soon festered as Emma encountered Joseph with Eliza in an upstairs room. Joseph 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.”


While no offspring have yet been confirmed from Joseph Smith’s plural wives, sexual relations were attested to by multiple sources. 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.” [27]
  • Joseph Noble wrote an affidavit testifying that Joseph told him he had spent the night with Louisa Beaman. [28]
  • Emily Partridge said she “roomed” with Joseph the night following her marriage to him and said that she had “carnal intercourse” with him. [29]
  • 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. [30]
  • 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” [31]
  • 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'” [32]

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.” [33]


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 but grew increasingly uncomfortable with the secretive practice of polygamy and Smith’s establishment of a secret theocratic kingdom (Council of Fifty). He also believed Smith played a role in the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs. 

Sanctioned Spouse Swapping?

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. 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 the practice of plural marriage caused tension between Joseph and Emma as well as many of their close associates.

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 on Jan 8, 1844.

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.

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.

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.” [34]  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.” [35]

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.” [36]

Incensed, 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 following day, 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.”


The following day, community members gathered at the county seat of Carthage, Illinois. Indignant over ongoing abuses of power within the 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. This sent the county into an outrage, demanding by threat of militia action that a 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.

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 trustee of the Church and land agent for Nauvoo, 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.” [37]

After separating from Mormonism, William moved to Wisconsin. He sought no publicity, granting only a single interview in 1887 to The Salt Lake City Daily Tribune. In it, William 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 benefitted 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.” [38]




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.” [39]

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.” [40]

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-gamicnation, andthe numerous evils attending that system early laid the foundation for that ruinwhich eventually overtook her.” [41]

Apostle Heber Kimball – “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.” [42]

Apostle Bruce R. McConkie – “Obviously the holy practice of plural marriage will commence again after the second coming . . . and the ushering in of the millennium.” [43]


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 approved, primarily among elite leadership circles. The church began exporting whole families to Canada and Mexico to continue “the practice” unfettered by 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 viewed Woodruff’s manifesto as relating specifically to practices within the United States, and the majority believed it to be temporary, faithfully awaiting 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. Since this time, members found practicing polygamy (except eternal polygamous sealings) are 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 Church who 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, John W. 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. [44]

Had the U.S. government permitted polygamy to continue, 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. Teenage girls would likely continue to be pursued by the most pious leaders as they accumulated eternal property. This is evidenced by the practices found within numerous Mormon fundamentalist sects that continue today.



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

And what are we to make of his relationships with younger women, sisters, mothers, daughters and married women? Do we accept a God who permits, even commands, this behavior? Or do we side with so many former loyalists to the prophet—Oliver Cowdery, William Marks, William Law, Sydney Rigdon, Nancy Rigdon, Emma Smith, and many others—who felt that Joseph Smith had crossed the line and abused his power? Have we condemned the wrong people for the sake of loyalty? This is for the reader to decide.