Few books have entirely shifted my outlook on life and have changed me as an individual. One, obviously, is The Book of Mormon. Another is by Tom Christofferson titled “That We May Be One” (That book seriously changed me!). Today, I read another book that changed me. The book is called “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding” by Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales.
We’ve all heard the stories that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. This is something that I have felt to say on more than one occasion: “I don’t know enough about this to have an opinion.” Research on the matter was something I pushed off, because, in all honesty, it’s kind of an uncomfortable topic. However, due to the changes among my family and friends, I felt that the need to study this for myself had finally come.
I feel that my research with Joseph Smith and polygamy started out as me holding this rock that was dripping with mud, but that has since been cleared away to show something more akin to a diamond. In studying these individuals called wives, I have come to know some of the greatest men and women who have ever lived. I can say today with a full heart that not only am I at peace with Joseph Smith’s polygamy -with all thirty-five of his documentable wives -but it has become something dear to me. I cannot explain my feelings towards it entirely, but perhaps if I give some of the stories and introduce you to some of the men and women you too may come to feel the same.
As a summary of my research I made a chart outlining all of Joseph’s wives, their ages, how he was sealed to them, whether or not they had conjugal relations and additional comments. (Click on the link below for the PDF)
The rumors of Joseph Smith’s polygamy range from him marrying young girls, to him sending men off on missions so that he could marry their wives. I even remember in my youth hearing a wild story about an angel visiting Joseph and threatening him with a sword if he did not obey the command to marry polygamously. I have studied for myself and have charted my findings and those findings are numerous. I want to try and keep this article short, however, because I know ya’ll have better things to do while the nation is under self-quarantine. 😉
In this post I want to try and answer several common questions such as: Why did Joseph Smith establish plural marriage? Did he marry young girls? Did he marry women who were already married? Did Joseph send men on missions so that he could marry their wives? Did an angel really threaten Joseph with a sword if he did not obey? I may not answer all of your questions and, with what little has been documented, there is a good chance that not all of the questions will be answered, but this may help.
Reasons for Polygamy
Not to go into too much detail regarding this, but many people have asked the question: “Why did Joseph Smith establish plural marriage among the Latter-day Saints?” I’m not sure that the Church has an official position on the matter but Hales gives several reasons that come out of the revelation received by Joseph on July 12, 1843 which has since become Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. (The following list comes directly from Hale).
- As part of “the restitution of all things” prophesied in Acts 3:19-21;
- To provide a customized trial for the Saints at that time and place;
- “Multiplying and replenishing the earth” (D&C 132:63); and
- To allow all worthy women to be sealed to an eternal husband “for their exaltation in the eternal worlds” (D&C 132:63)
One thing that helped me a great deal is a simple phrase that comes from an 1831 revelation where the Lord explained to Joseph Smith: “I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good” (D&C 56:4). In truth, we do not know why the Lord does what He does. His ways are not our ways.
Joseph Marrying Young Girls
If you have heard that Joseph Smith married women that were as young as 17, 16, and even 14, then you heard correctly. However, upon closer examination, a different perspective opens up for us.
Let me begin this specific topic by quoting again from Hales. He pointed out that for the individuals living in 2020, a man marrying a fourteen, or fifteen, or sixteen year old is just wrong. Hales stated that, “While these ages may seem young to observers in the twenty-first century, it would not have been considered scandalous in the 1840s, although the two fourteen-year-olds may have been eyebrow-raising” (I’ll get to those in a minute!)
Hales also pointed out these interesting facts:
|Husband||Wife||Age of Wife||Year Married|
|William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark expedition)||Julia Hancock||16||1808|
|Jesse Hale (Emma Hale’s brother)||Mary McKune||15||1815|
|Martin Harris (one of the Three Witnesses)||Lucy Harris||15||1808|
|Thomas Ford (Governor of Illinois)||Frances Hambaugh||15||1828|
Seeing these four examples accurately shows that this truly was the norm during this time period. As far as the two fourteen-year-olds go (Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Winchester) there is absolutely no documentable evidence that Joseph had conjugal relationships with them. In fact, one of them attests that that was absolutely not the case.
Joseph Marrying Women Who Were Already Married
I would hesitate to call this “polyandry” which is a term used to describe women who have more than one husband. This, in worldly sense, was never the case with Joseph Smith. While he was indeed sealed to many married women, those relationships were limited to what was understood as an “eternity-only” sealing. Let me explain: During this time Joseph Smith taught that there were three different types of sealings. One) Time-Only Sealings, in which one would live as a spouse in every sense of the word, but that that relationship would not carry into the next life. 2) Time-and-Eternity Sealings, in which one lives as spouse in every sense of the word and by personal righteousness that relationship carries into the next life (this is what we experience in the temples today when we marry). The final of the sealing types is 3) Eternity-Only Sealings, in which the couple does not cohabit or have any conjugal relations of any kind (they are only husband and wife in the next life). This specific type of sealing was the only type of sealing that occurred among those wives that were already previously married.
There were several reasons why the already-married-wives would chose to be sealed to Joseph for “eternity-only” rather than to their current spouse. The most common reason was that their spouse was not a member of the Church or that their marriage was unhappy to begin with. A few of the women, for reasons we may never know, chose to be sealed to Joseph rather than their husband even though their husbands were active members of the Church.
My favorite story among these already-married-women is the story between Elvira and Jonathan. Elvira Cowles and Jonathan Holmes were married on December 1, 1842. Jonathan was Joseph’s bodyguard and carried his coffin after the martyrdom and was “much beloved by the prophet.” Elvira was sealed to Joseph Smith on June 1, 1843 but remained with her husband. Because these sealings were done outside of the temple they each had to be redone after the Nauvoo Temple was built. Records show that Jonathan stood as proxy for Joseph Smith as his wife was later re-sealed to Joseph for eternity. During that same ceremony, Jonathan was eternally sealed to his deceased first wife, with Elvira standing as proxy for her. To me this story shows a great deal of love no matter which way you flip the coin. Either Elvira wanted to be sealed to Joseph instead of to Jonathan and he loved her enough to support her or Jonathan wanted to be sealed to his first wife without it being a polygamous union. Perhaps he didn’t want to share his first wife or perhaps he felt that because he was not among those commanded of the Lord to marry polygamously, he let Elvira go to Joseph Smith while he made those covenants necessary for him and his first wife to receive exaltation.
Joseph Sending Men on Missions in Order to Marry their Wives
When I first hear this of Joseph Smith’s character I was rather surprised. This, obviously, would have been a horrible thing for Joseph to do.
There are only two cases in which such a setting as this might occur. 1) Marinda Nancy Johnson and her husband Orson Hyde and 2) Lucinda Pendleton and her husband George Harris. And, as I stated before, both of these, regardless of the circumstances Joseph sent these men on missions, he was only sealed to them for eternity-only.
The case of Marinda Nancy Johnson:
The sealing date for Joseph and Marinda is uncertain. One date was given in a journal entry stating: “April 42 marinda Johnson to Joseph Smith.” The second date comes from a signed affidavit from Marinda Johnson herself who stated: “that on the [blank] day of May A.D. 1843, at the City of Nauvoo, County Hancock, State of Illinois, She was married or Sealed to Joseph Smith, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, by Brigham Young. In his book Hales explains that:
“The timeline shows that Apostle Orson Hyde, Marinda’s legal husband, served a mission to Palestine from the spring of 1840 to December 7, 1842. Weeks after his return, Marinda became pregnant with Orson Washington Hyde (conception approximately February 16, 1843), who was born on November 9, 1843. To date, there is no indication of a physical relationship between Marinda and Joseph. If the 1842 date for the sealing between Joseph and Marinda is correct, then Joseph may have been sealed to Marinda in an eternity-only sealing without Orson Hyde’s knowledge, which would not have affected her civil union with Orson. However, John D. Lee remembered that Orson gave his permission: ‘Hyde’s wife, with his consent, was sealed to Joseph for an eternal state.’ Whatever the sequence, Orson appealed to Joseph to perform his own plural marriage weeks after returning from his mission.”
The case of Luncinda Pendleton:
Despite what anti-mormons have said and one source of gossip, there is little, if any, evidence that Lucinda was sealed to Joseph at all. Lucinda kept no records and there are no papers documenting a sealing of any kind. Scholars Richard Lloyd Anderson and Scott H. Faulring expressed doubt: “The claim that Lucinda was sealed to Joseph Smith is not based on impressive evidence.”
Joseph first met Lucinda and her husband when he and Emma (with their children) traveled to Far West and stayed with the Harris’ for two months before both families relocated to Nauvoo. The piece of gossip of which I was referring comes from Harriet Cook Young, one of Brigham Young’s plural wives. Andrew Jenson wrote in 1887 that “Harriet Cook is positive that she [Lucinda] was married to Joseph in Missouri.” I call this gossip because Harriet wasn’t even a member of the Church during the Missouri period and she wasn’t even sealed to Brigham until the end of 1843. Two of the main sources for Joseph’s wives come from Eliza R. Snow and Malissa Lott who both wrote down separate lists of the women to which he was sealed. Lucinda’s name is not found on either list.
Lucinda’s husband, George Washington Harris, was called in 1840 on a mission to travel eastward collecting funds and materials for church publications. He left soon after July 25, labored for a year in the eastern states, especially New York, then returned home in September 1841 [Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, 50-51]. The unknown date for their sealing makes the allegation that Joseph sent Geroge on a mission in order to wed his wife cannot be fully known. The simple idea that she was sealed to him at all, likewise, cannot be fully known. There is no evidence to suggest that Joseph sent George on a mission in order to seal himself to Lucinda.
The Angelic Messenger with a Sword
The story goes that in July of 1834 Joseph was visited by an angel who commanded him to live the law of polygamy. Joseph married one girl (for time-only) named Fanny Alger. When Emma found out about the marriage she asked Fanny to leave her home. Two months later Fanny was in Missouri, married to another man. So, as you can see, this union didn’t last very long at all.
The second angelic visit happened near the end of 1840. By then Joseph had only married one other woman for “time-and-eternity.” It seems a third visit was necessary for Joseph to understand that the Lord didn’t just want him marrying for “eternity-only” but for this life as well.
To some, this third visit seems a little far fetched. An angel coming with a sword sounds like some made up story to try and get women to marry him.
However, examples of angels with swords are plentiful in the Bible. The prophet Balaam was visited by an angel after his donkey started speaking to him. “Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand” (Numbers 22:23,31). Another example is King David. As a consequence of his sins, King David “could not go before it to enquire of God: for he was afraid because of the word of the angel of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 21:30). In another Biblical account “the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred a forescore and five thousand…” (Isaiah 37:36). Even King Herod was visited by an angel who “smote him, because he gave not God the glory” (Acts 12:21-23). And so, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s description of a menacing angel with a sword is not singular.
Even so, there were two other woman besides Joseph who saw the angel (although he did not carry a sword when they saw him).
One wife, Mary Elizabeth Rollins told her experience (to three different groups of people) of when she herself was visited by an angel. Mary recounts that “Joseph made known to me that God had commanded him in July, 1834, to take me for his wife.” Joseph, however, did not make it known for she lived in Missouri and she was already married to another man. Apparently, after Joseph’s final visit from the angel, he got up the courage to talk to Mary Elizabeth about marriage. Upon hearing his proposal and the command of the Lord for them to be sealed, and even the story of the angel, Mary recounts: “I did not believe. If God told him so, why did he not come and tell me?” She also stated later that: “My faith in him, as a Prophet about failed me.” One night she felt impressed to pray. She prayed earnestly and the following night she had this experience:
“One night I retired to bed, but not to sleep, for my mind was troubled so sleep fled from me. My Aunt Gilbert was sleeping with me at the time when a great light appeared in the room. Thinking the kindling wood was on fire, that was spread on the hearth, I rose up in bed to look. When lo, a personage stood in front of the bed looking at me. Its clothes were whiter than anything I had ever seen. I could look at its person, but when I saw its face so bright and more beautiful than any earthly being could be, and those eyes piercing me through and through, I could not endure it. It seemed as if I must die with fear. I fell back in bed and covered up my head so as not to see it. I pushed my Aunt very hard to have her look up and see it too. But I could not wake her and I could not speak. I thought if she were awake, I would not feel so afraid. As it is, I can never forget that face. It seems to be ever before me” [Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, “Mary Elizabeth Rollins,” copy of holograph in Susa Young Gates Papers, MSS B 95, box 14, folder 4, Utah State Historical Society].
Apparently, Mary Elizabeth stayed under the covers until the angel had gone away without saying anything. When she told Joseph of her experience, he seemed rather upset that she had been “such a coward” and said that she had “insulted” the angel. Even so, Mary Elizabeth said that “After receiving other testimonies, I felt I could no longer disbelieve and in the month of March, , Brigham Young sealed us..”
The third person who saw the angel was Mary Elizabeth’s own Aunt Gilbert. “When my aunt woke up she said she had seen a figure in white robes pass from our bed to my mother’s bed and pass out of the window.”
Emma’s Feelings Toward Polygamy
I have heard many stories of how Emma Smith did not take well to the doctrine and practice of polygamy, stories where she tore up revelations and even pushed pregnant women down the stairs (I’m glad to say that neither of those are true!).
The first story goes that Brigham requested for Joseph to write the revelation of polygamy on a separate piece of paper and that when Joseph presented it to Emma, she tore it up and threw it in the fire. Firstly, it was Hyrum Smith who brought the revelation to Emma. He was convinced that the revelation was so plain that he could convince anyone of it and felt certain that he could talk to Emma. Joseph replied that “you do not know Emma as well as I do.” The story goes on to say that Hyrum took the revelation to read to Emma and when he returned, he told Joseph “that he had never received a more severe talking to in his life, that Emma was very bitter and full of resentment and anger.” Joseph is said to have “put the Revelation into his pocket” and that was the end of it. [William Clayton, affidavit, February 16, 1874, MS 3423, folder 1, images 30-36, MS 3412. Printed in Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” 225]. Within two days after William Clayton wrote down the revelation, a store clerk made a copy of the revelation which was fortunate because just days later “at Emma’s insistence, Joseph allowed the original to be burned” [Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy 79]. So, I guess the story is half true. She never tore up the revelation but was “allowed” to burn it.
The other story goes that Joseph and Emma exited their room one morning, at the top of the stairs, and that Eliza R. Snow -heavy with child -met them coming out of her own room. Joseph is said to have kissed Eliza before heading down the stairs toward Brother Rich. The men heard a commotion and looked up to see Eliza tumbling down the stairs after Emma had pushed her in a fit of jealous rage. Eliza is said to have lost the baby and even became sterile due to the fall.
The story of Emma pushing Eliza R. Snow down the stairs in a pregnant state is untrue for many reasons. 1) The stories are all at least secondhand with the most detailed one being forth-hand (it comes from Leroi Snow quoting W. Aird McDonald quoting Ben Rich quoting Charles C. Rich). 2) There is no evidence that Eliza was ever pregnant. 3) There is no evidence that Eliza ever lived with or stayed at the Nauvoo Mansion where the incident was said to have happened. 4) The man who supposedly gave this story, Charles C. Rich, did not learn about polygamy until May of 1844 so it is unlikely that he would have witnessed and described such a scene. 5) The Nauvoo Mansion house (and even the Smith’s Homestead) is not set up as the story describes (the stairs being in the center of the room and the men being able to see what occurred at the top of the stairs, etc).
These stories aside, we do know that these plural relationships were hard for Emma. It is easy to understand where she is coming from in her disagreements and struggles with Joseph’s other wives. What woman wouldn’t have struggles? Most people bring up these stories because they feel that Joseph Smith did a horrible thing in lying to his first wife and forcing her to accept this unwanted practice. One problem that I believe that exists within the Church, and even critics of the Church, is that people think that the prophet is perfect. This is obviously not true. Prophets are men who will make mistakes. In many of these cases, Emma was unaware that Joseph had sealed himself to these woman. There were also others that she was fully aware of and was present during the sealing. Joseph Smith probably did not handle obedience to this commandment as well as he ought to have. The trouble sometimes with commandments is that the Lord doesn’t give us instructions on how to keep them. All we can do is the best we can.
Authors and critics will always try to muddy the waters and make Joseph look like some kind of philanderer or pedophile. Personally, I have absolutely no problems with Joseph Smith and his plural wives. I believe that Joseph Smith was a man, prone to mistakes as any of us are, who was called of God to be a prophet in this dispensation. I believe that Joseph was a righteous, obedient disciple of Christ. I know that this Church is true. I know that The Book of Mormon is the word of God. I know that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the World. Of this I testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.