Polygamy (Joseph Smith Era)

Why and how did Joseph Smith practice plural marriage? Who were the women sealed or married to Joseph? What can we say about the nature of their relationships with him? This article gets into the origins of plural marriage and addresses some of the more common questions people have about it.

Timeline of Joseph Smith Era Polygamy

Pre-Kirtland Era (1823–1831)

September 21–22, 1823

Moroni[BIO] appears to Joseph Smith[BIO] and quotes prophecies about the restoration of sealing keys.[1]

January 18, 1827

Joseph Smith marries Emma Hale,[BIO] his first and only legal wife.[2]

ca. June 1829

Joseph Smith translates the book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon which includes teachings on when polygamy is authorized by God.[3][4]

June 1830

Joseph Smith begins his inspired translation or revision of the Bible,[5] which later sources identify as an early catalyst for Joseph becoming aware of plural marriage as part of the restoration.[6]

Kirtland Era (1831–1839)

May 7, 1831

In response to Shaker teachings on celibacy, Joseph Smith receives a revelation affirming that "marriage is ordained of God unto man."[7]

ca. 1831

According to later sources, Joseph Smith becomes aware of the idea of plural marriage.[8]

July 17, 1831

Joseph Smith reportedly receives a revelation informing a group of elders in Missouri that they should take plural wives among Native Americans.[9]

March 24–25, 1832

Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon[BIO] are tarred and feathered by a mob in Hiram, Ohio.[10] Fifty years later, a source alleges that this was in retaliation for an "intimate" relationship Joseph had with a young woman (and future plural wife) named Marinda Nancy Johnson.[BIO][11]

ca. 1834

According to Mary Elizabeth Rollings Lightner[BIO] and others, an angel with a drawn sword appears to Joseph Smith for the first of three times between 1834 and 1842 commanding him to practice plural marriage.[12]

ca. 1833–1835

Joseph Smith enters plural marriage by marrying Fanny Alger.[BIO][13] (See Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger.)

Summer 1835

The first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants is published[14] and includes a section on the Latter-day Saint view of marriage at the time.[15]

April 3, 1836

Elijah[BIO] appears in the Kirtland Temple and bestows sealing keys upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.[BIO][16]

April 1838

Oliver Cowdery is excommunicated for, among other things, "insinuating that [Joseph Smith] was guilty of adultry &c,"[17] referring to Joseph's relationship with Fanny Alger.[18]

Nauvoo Era (1839–1844)

ca. late 1840–early 1841

Joseph Smith reportedly privately teaches others about plural marriage and makes vague public hints at its eventual practice among the Latter-day Saints.[19]

April 5, 1841

Joseph Smith is sealed to Louisa Beaman[BIO] by Joseph B. Noble,[BIO] beginning the practice of plural marriage in Nauvoo.[20]

July 1841

Joseph Smith begins introducing plural marriage to members of the Quorum of the Twelve, including Brigham Young,[BIO] John Taylor,[BIO] and Heber C. Kimball.[BIO][21]

October 27, 1841

Joseph Smith is sealed to Zina D. Huntington,[BIO] the first of about a dozen women who had legal husbands at the time of their sealing to Joseph.[22][23]

ca. Late 1841

Joseph Smith possibly performs the first eternal sealing of another couple, Heber and Vilate Kimball.[BIO][24]

December 2, 1841

Joseph Smith receives a revelation for Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde that may contain veiled instruction for her to accept plural marriage.[25]

ca. April 1842

Joseph Smith purportedly writes a letter (later referred to as the "Happiness Letter") to Nancy Rigdon[BIO] which reads as an argument for justifying plural marriage.[26]

May 4, 1842

Joseph Smith introduces the endowment ceremony for the first time.[27]

May 11, 1842

Church leader and Nauvoo mayor John C. Bennett[BIO] is excommunicated for adultery.[28] In a subsequent exposé, Bennett alleges Joseph Smith is secretly practicing "spiritual wifery" and publishes redacted names of some of Joseph's plural wives.[29]

July 27, 1842

Joseph Smith is sealed to Sarah Ann Whitney[BIO] in the presence of her parents, with her father, Newel K. Whitney,[BIO] performing the ceremony using words that were given to him in a revelation from Joseph.[30]

August 18, 1842

Joseph Smith handwrites a letter to Newel K. and Elizabeth Whitney and their daughter Sarah Ann (who was recently sealed to Joseph) asking them to visit him while he was in hiding from Missouri lawmen.[31]

ca. Late Summer 1842

By the end of August, Joseph Smith is sealed to about a dozen plural wives.[32] No additional plural marriages are performed for about the next six months.[33]

October 1, 1842

The Times and Seasons publishes an official statement from the Nauvoo Relief Society condemning John C. Bennett and denying the existence of the "secret wife system" he alleges exists among the Saints in Nauvoo.[34]

Winter 1842

A tract titled The Peacemaker, which advocates for polygamy, is published in Nauvoo, and its non-Mormon author Udney Hay Jacob[BIO] lists Joseph Smith as the "printer."[35] Joseph Smith publicly disavows the publication.[36]

February–ca. May 1843

Joseph Smith resumes plural marriage by marrying Ruth D. Vose[BIO] and Flora Ann Woodworth.[BIO][37] By the end of the year, Joseph is sealed to more than another dozen women, bringing the number of wives to around thirty.[38]

March 3, 1843

Oliver Olney,[BIO] an excommunicated Latter-day Saint,[39] publishes The Absurdities of Mormonism Portrayed, which includes a brief exposé of Joseph Smith's practice of plural marriage.[40]

March 23, 1843

Joseph Smith handwrites a blessing to plural wife Sarah Ann Whitney.[41]

ca. May 1843

Joseph Smith is sealed his youngest wife, fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball.[BIO][42]

ca. May 1843

Emma Hale consents to, and participates in, the plural marriage sealings of four women to Joseph Smith.[43]

May 28, 1843

Joseph Smith is sealed to Emma Hale for eternity.[44]

July 12, 1843

Joseph Smith receives the revelation on plural marriage which is now canonized as section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants.[45]

November 2, 1843

Joseph Smith marries Fanny Young,[BIO] his last plural wife with a known marriage date.[46]

February 7, 1844

The Warsaw Message publishes a satirical poem mocking and criticizing Joseph Smith and plural marriage.[47]

June 7, 1844

The Nauvoo Expositor publishes its first and only issue,[48] exposing Joseph Smith's practice of plural marriage.[49] The Nauvoo City Council designates it a "public Nuisance" and the press is destroyed on Joseph Smith's order.[50]

June 27, 1844

Joseph Smith is murdered in Carthage, Illinois.[51]

Expand Timeline

Did Joseph Smith practice polygamy?

Yes. There is testimony from dozens of independent sources including Eliza R. Snow,[52] Helen Mar Kimball,[53] Lucy Walker,[54] Benjamin F. Johnson,[55] and many others attesting to the fact that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage.[56]

So it wasn't started by Brigham Young in Utah?

No. Joseph Smith introduced the concept to Brigham Young in Nauvoo,[57] where Brigham married Lucy Ann Decker as his first plural wife on June 14, 1842.[58]

Why did Joseph Smith introduce plural marriage?

There is no direct statement from Joseph Smith specifically explaining why he introduced the practice of plural marriage. However, on July 12, 1843, Joseph received a revelation, now canonized as section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which includes four reasons: to "restore all things," to provide an Abrahamic trial and sacrifice for the Saints, to "multiply and replenish the earth," and to give participants "exaltation in the eternal worlds."[59]

If one of the reasons for polygamy was to "multiply and replenish the earth," then did Joseph have children with his plural wives?

No, probably not. Many of the children who were thought to be Joseph's biological children have been discounted through genetic testing[60] (see table below). To date, there is no conclusive historical or genetic evidence that Joseph had children with any wife other than Emma Hale.[61]

Alleged children of Joseph Smith from a plural wife.

Child

Mother

Genetic Testing[62]

Oliver Norman Buell[BIO]

Presendia Huntington

Negative

John Reed Hancock[BIO]

Clarissa Reed[BIO]

Negative

Moroni Llewellyn Pratt[BIO]

Mary Ann Frost[BIO]

Negative

Orson Washington Hyde[BIO]

Marinda Nancy Johnson

No test performed.

Frank Henry Hyde[BIO]

Marinda Nancy Johnson

No test performed.

Josephine Rosetta Lyon (Fisher)

Sylvia Sessions

Negative

Josephine Henry (King)[BIO]

Margaret Creighton[BIO]

No test performed.

Mosiah Lyman Hancock[BIO]

Clarissa Reed

Negative

Zebulon Williams Jacobs[BIO]

Zina Diantha Huntington

Negative

Orrison Smith[BIO]

Fanny Alger

Negative

George Algernon Lightner[BIO]

Mary Rollins Lightner

No test performed.

Sarah Elizabeth Holmes[BIO]

Marietta Carter[BIO]

No test performed.

Alleged son or daughter

Hannah Dubois[BIO]

No test performed.

Expand Table

Did Joseph just make up polygamy to have extramarital sex?

No, probably not. Based on the current documentary record, Joseph's behavior in practicing plural marriage doesn't seem to support the idea that he was primarily motivated by sex,[63] and the available evidence suggests that he did not have sexual relations with many of his plural wives.[64]

Accounts from Joseph's plural wives emphasized the religious nature of the practice of plural marriage, rather than one based on sex or romance.[65]

When did Joseph first introduce the practice?

Joseph may have introduced the concept as early as 1831,[66] but he did not practice it until the mid-1830s, probably starting in 1835 when he most likely married Fanny Alger.[67] After that, he waited about six years before resuming the practice by marrying Louisa Beaman in 1841 and began teaching plural marriage to close confidants, eventually bringing them into the practice as well.[68]

He continued practicing plural marriage until his death on June 27, 1844, at which time he had married at least 27 women.[69]

Why don't we know exactly how many wives Joseph had?

The documentation for Joseph's plural marriages is limited,[70] so historians disagree over which women were actually wives or not.[71]

Plural Wives of Joseph Smith[72]

Name of Wife

Date of Marriage to Joseph Smith

Age at Time of Marriage (Years)

Evidence for Sexuality[73]

Fanny Alger[BIO]

ca. 1833–1836[74]

ca. 17–19[75]

Moderate[76]

Louisa Beaman[BIO]

April 5, 1841[77]

26.2

Strong[78]

Zina Diantha Huntington†[BIO]

October 27, 1841[79]

20.9

None

Presendia Lathrop Huntington†[BIO]

December 11, 1841[80]

31.3

None

Agnes Coolbrith[BIO]

January 6, 1842[81]

29.6

None

Mary Elizabeth Rollins†[BIO]

February 1842[82]

23.10

None

Patty Bartlett†[BIO]

March 9, 1842[83]

47.1

None

Eliza R. Snow[BIO]

June 29, 1842[84]

38.5

Weak[85]

Delcena Johnson[BIO]

ca. pre-July 1842[86]

35.8

None

Sarah Ann Whitney[BIO]

July 27, 1842[87]

17.4

Weak[88]

Martha McBride[BIO]

August 1842[89]

37.5

None

Sylvia Sessions†[BIO]

ca. November 1842–May 1843[90]

ca. 24.4–24.10

Weak[91]

Ruth Vose†[BIO]

February 1843[92]

35

None

Flora Ann Woodworth[BIO]

Spring 1843[93]

ca. 17–18

None

Emily Partridge[BIO]

March 4, 1843[94]

19.1

Strong[95]

Eliza Partridge[BIO]

March 8, 1843[96]

22.11

Moderate[97]

Almera Johnson[BIO]

April 1843[98]

30.6

Strong[99]

Lucy Walker[BIO]

May 1, 1843[100]

17

Moderate[101]

Marinda Nancy Johnson†[BIO]

May 1843[102]

24.11

None

Maria Lawrence[BIO]

ca. May 1843[103]

19.5

Moderate[104]

Sarah Lawrence[BIO]

ca. May 1843[105]

17

Moderate[106]

Helen Mar Kimball[BIO]

ca. May 1843[107]

14.9

None

Hannah Ells[BIO]

ca. Summer 1843[108]

ca. 35.5

Weak[109]

Olive G. Frost[BIO]

ca. Summer 1843[110]

ca. 27

Weak[111]

Elvira Cowles†[BIO]

June 1, 1843[112]

29.7

None

Rhoda Richards[BIO]

June 12, 1843[113]

58.10

None

Desdemona Fullmer[BIO]

July 1843[114]

33.9

None

Malissa Lott[BIO]

September 20, 1843[115]

19.9

Strong[116]

Fanny Young[BIO]

November 2, 1843[117]

56

None

Elizabeth Davis†[BIO]

Unknown[118]

ca. 51–52 (?)[119]

None

Sarah Kingsley†[BIO]

Unknown[120]

ca. 54–55 (?)[121]

None

Lucinda Pendleton†[BIO]

Unknown[122]

ca. 31–37 (?)[123]

None

Nancy Maria Winchester[BIO]

Unknown[124]

ca. 14–15 (?)[125]

None

Esther Dutcher†[BIO]

Unknown[126]

ca. 38–39 (?)[127]

None

Mary Heron†[BIO]

Unknown[128]

ca. 38–39 (?)[129]

Weak[130]

Expand Table

Who was Joseph's first plural wife?

Probably Fanny Alger, though not all historians agree that Fanny was a legitimate plural wife.[131]

Is it true Joseph married teenagers?

Yes. Joseph was sealed to about 10 women who were between the ages of 14 and 20 at the time of their marriage.[132]

Was marrying teenagers common in Joseph's day?

Yes. In contrast to today, marriage of teenagers to older men was relatively common[133] and not considered a social taboo in nineteenth-century America.[134] For example, the 1850 U.S. Census indicated that about 25% of women married in the West-South Central region were 15–19 years old.[135] Marriage age gaps averaged between 4 and 7 years depending on the region, whereas age gaps today are about 2.5 years.[136]

What was the average age of Joseph's plural wives?

The average age was about thirty years old with a standard deviation of 12 years, meaning most were between 18 and 42 years old.[137]

Why did Joseph keep the practice of polygamy secret?

Joseph did not say, but later sources claimed that it was to avoid persecution.[138] Others claimed it was to avoid social stigma and apostasy in the Church.[139] At least one source alleged Joseph was worried about the legality of plural marriage.[140]

Later sources claimed that had he lived long enough, Joseph intended to eventually announce the practice publicly.[141]

Did an angel really threaten Joseph with a sword if he didn't practice plural marriage?

Yes, probably. Although there are no firsthand accounts about this encounter from Joseph, multiple people reported that Joseph told them about the incident, including a few of his plural wives.[142]

Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner recalled that Joseph told her that "the angel came to me three times between the years of '34 and '42 and said I was to obey that principle or he would slay me."[143]

Was Joseph breaking the law by practicing plural marriage?

Probably. Anti-adultery and anti-bigamy laws existed in Illinois during the 1840s, and Joseph was indicted at least once for violating these laws.[144]

However, this indictment was never brought to trial, and Joseph was otherwise never successfully prosecuted for violating these Illinois statutes.[145]

Did Joseph and other early Latter-day Saints lie about practicing plural marriage?

Yes. Before it was publicly announced in 1852,[146] Joseph and other Latter-day Saints made conscious attempts to keep the practice of plural marriage secret by giving carefully worded public denials that relied on semantics to be technically truthful while also evasive.[147][148]

Both before and after plural marriage was an open, official doctrine and practice, the Church was publicly disputing charges of "polygamy" and "spiritual wifery,"[149] distinguishing those practices from "plural" or "celestial" marriage.[150]

If Joseph was a prophet, why would he conceal the truth about polygamy?

It's unclear. Some historians think Joseph used evasive language to deny the more outlandish charges of immorality made by some like John C. Bennett while also not denying plural marriage.[151]

In the Bible, Abraham is depicted as deceiving Pharoah and later Abimelech by saying that his wife Sarai was not his wife, but that she was his sister, for fear of being harmed or killed.[152]

How did Emma feel about plural marriage?

Emma did not record how she felt about plural marriage.[153] Reports from others indicate that she initially did not believe the principle was from God, but later accepted it, although she was sometimes "bitter" and "jealous."[154] Historians have characterized Emma's feelings about plural marriage as contradictory.[155]

Did Emma later deny that Joseph practiced "polygamy"?

Yes. In an 1879 interview with her son Joseph Smith III, Emma denied that her husband Joseph ever had "a revelation on either polygamy, or spiritual wives" and affirmed that he "had no other wife but me."[156] Emma made similar denials in 1867 and 1872.[157]

However, some historians speculate that her carefully worded statements given to her son and others (who opposed polygamy) were intended to be technically true (i.e., plural marriage and celestial marriage were technically not "polygamy") while also not denying that Joseph practiced "plural marriage."[158]

Did Joseph marry women without the consent or knowledge of Emma?

Yes. Although there is very little documentation on this topic, there is evidence that Emma was unaware of some plural marriages.[159] There is also evidence that she consented to some of his plural marriages, including to Eliza and Emily Partridge, Sarah and Maria Lawrence, and Malissa Lott.[160]

Did Joseph have sex with his plural wives?

Yes, probably with at least some of them. There are varying degrees of evidence that Joseph likely had sexual relations with some of his plural wives. (See the Plural Wives of Joseph Smith table above.)

Is it true Joseph married women who already had legal husbands?

Yes. Joseph was sealed to about a dozen women who had legal husbands at the time.[161] (See table below.)

Polyandrous plural wives of Joseph Smith.[162]

Plural Wife of Joseph Smith

Legal Husband

Comments

Zina Huntington

Henry B. Jacobs[BIO]

Henry was a member of the Church and a witness to Joseph's sealing to Zina.[163]

Presendia Huntington

Norman Buell

Norman was a disaffected member of the Church at the time of Presendia's sealing to Joseph.[164]

Mary Elizabeth Rollins

Adam Lightner[BIO]

Adam was not a member of the Church at the time of Mary's sealing to Joseph.[165]

Patty Barlett

David Sessions[BIO]

David was a member of the Church at the time of Patty's sealing to Joseph.[166]

Ruth Vose

Edward Sayers[BIO]

Edward was not a member of the Church at the time of Ruth's sealing to Joseph.[167]

Elvira Annie Cowles

Jonathan Holmes[BIO]

Jonathan was a member of the Church at the time of Elvira's sealing to the latter.[168]

Sylvia Sessions

Windsor Lyon

Windsor was out of fellowship with the Church at the time of Sylvia's sealing to Joseph.[169]

Marinda Nancy Johnson

Orson Hyde

Orson was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and the documentary record conflicts as to whether he was on a mission at the time of Marinda's sealing to Joseph.[170]

Elizabeth Davis

Jabez Durfee[BIO]

Jabez was a member of the Church at the time of Elizabeth's sealing to Joseph.[171]

Sarah Kingsley

John Cleveland[BIO]

John was not a member of the Church at the time of Sarah's sealing to Joseph.[172]

Esther Dutcher

Albert Smith[BIO]

Albert was a member of the Church at the time of Esther's sealing to Joseph.[173]

Mary Heron

John Snider[BIO]

John was a member of the Church at the time of Mary's sealing to Joseph.[174]

Lucinda Pendleton

George Harris[BIO]

George was a member of the Church at the time of Lucinda's sealing to Joseph.[175]

Expand Table

Why was Joseph sealed to women who had legal husbands?

It's unclear. In some instances, it may have been because the woman had a legal husband who wasn't a member of the Church or wasn't in good standing with the Church at the time,[176] and sealing is an ordinance needed for exaltation.[177] In others, it may have been a sort of "dynastic" sealing meant to unite the families.[178]

However, neither Joseph nor any of his polyandrous plural wives left statements explaining why they entered into this type of arrangement.

Did Joseph have sex with his plural wives who had legal husbands?

Possibly, though it seems unlikely that sexual polyandry would have gone undetected or uncontested by the legal husband, especially ones who were not Latter-day Saints or who were disaffected or excommunicated.[179] There is some historical evidence that may support this arrangement for two of Joseph's polyandrous marriages;[180] however, historians disagree on this subject.[181][182]

Did Joseph send men away on missions in order to secretly marry their wives while they were gone?

Probably not. This claim was originated by John C. Bennett.[BIO][183] Out of the thirteen women that Joseph was sealed to who had legal husbands, there is only evidence for possibly one (Marinda Nancy Johnson) who may have had a husband on a mission at the time of the sealing.[184]

For the other women, the evidence is either negative or inconclusive (see chart below.)

Plural Wife

Legal Husband

Husband on mission at time of sealing?

Notes
Zina Huntington

Henry B. Jacobs

No

Zina was sealed to Joseph Smith on October 27, 1841.[185] Henry did not leave on his mission until January 1842.[186]

Presendia Huntington

Norman Buell

No

Norman Buell was not an active Latter-day Saint at the time of Presendia's sealing to Joseph Smith (December 11, 1841).[187]

Mary Elizabeth Rollins

Adam Lightner

No

Adam Lightner was never a member of the Church.[188]

Patty Barlett

David Sessions

No

David was in Nauvoo at the time of Patty's sealing to Joseph Smith on March 9, 1842.[189]

Ruth Vose

Edward Sayers

No

Edward Sayers was never a member of the Church.[190]

Elvira Annie Cowles

Jonathan Holmes

No

Elvira was sealed to Joseph Smith on June 1, 1843.[191] Jonathan, a cobbler, was in Nauvoo at the time working.[192]

Sylvia Sessions

Windsor Lyon

No

Windsor Lyon was seperated from Sylvia and out of fellowship with the Church at the time of her sealing to Joseph Smith.[193]

Marinda Nancy Johnson

Orson Hyde

Possible

There are two possible dates for Marinda's sealing to Joseph Smith. One of them would put her sealing at a time when Orson was on a mission; the other shortly after he returned from his mission.[194]

Elizabeth Davis

Jabez Durfee

N/A*

The date of Elizabeth's sealing to Joseph Smith is unknown,[195] and there is currently no evidence that Jabez was on a mission anytime between 1839–1844.

Sarah Kingsley

John Cleveland

No

John was never a member of the Church.[196]

Esther Dutcher

Albert Smith

N/A*

Albert served a mission from September 12, 1842–August 22, 1843,[197] but the sealing date between Joseph and Esther is unknown.[198]

Mary Heron

John Snider

N/A*

John served a mission from March 26, 1842–January 23, 1843,[199] but Mary's sealing date to Joseph Smith is unknown.[200]

Lucinda Pendleton

George Harris

N/A*

George served a mission between July 17, 1840–September 1841,[201] but there is no known date for Joseph's sealing to Lucinda.[202]

Expand Table

Why did Joseph marry Helen Mar Kimball when she was only 14 years old?

According to her own account, Helen was sealed to Joseph at the behest of her father Heber C. Kimball, who had "a great desire to be connected with the Prophet" and evidently felt a sealing between Joseph and Helen would make that connection.[203] Helen's son, Orson F. Whitney, recorded something similar in a family history published in 1888.[204]

A black and white photograph portrait of Helen Mar Kimball, possibly in her forties, or in the late 1860s.

Did Joseph have sex with Helen Mar Kimball?

No, probably not. There is no evidence of sexuality in their marriage.[205][206] Some historians have described the relationship as a "dynastic marriage,"[207] meaning a marriage or sealing meant to link the Smith and Kimball families together for eternity.[208] This is consistent with how Helen herself and other members of the family described the union.[209]

Did Joseph coerce Helen Mar Kimball into marrying him by promising her family eternal life?

According to Helen's account, written 38 years later, Joseph ensured the "eternal salvation and exaltation" of the Kimball family if Helen would enter plural marriage, but nothing in her account suggests that she took this to be coercive or manipulative either at the time or later in her adult life.[210]

As an adult Helen defended Joseph Smith as a prophet and a morally upright man in her 1882 book Plural Marriage, As Taught by the Prophet Joseph and her 1884 book Why We Practice Plural Marriage.[211]

Did Joseph coerce Lucy Walker into plural marriage by threatening damnation if she rejected him?

Possibly. Joseph proposed plural marriage to Lucy Walker in either 1842 or early 1843,[212] and after some delay and hesitancy on her part told her, "I will give you until to-morrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you."[213] Some historians have interpreted this as a threat, while others interpret it as an offer with an expiration.[214]

Lucy said she "earnestly prayed" and received a divine confirmation that plural marriage was right,[215] and only then did she accept the offer.[216] She was sealed to Joseph on May 1, 1843,[217] and went on to publically defend Joseph's character against critics.[218]

Did any women reject Joseph Smith's plural marriage proposals?

Yes, it appears at least seven women, and possibly more, rejected plural marriage proposals from Joseph.[219]

How did men and women react when Joseph taught them about plural marriage?

Many reacted with shock or anguish and experienced a crisis of faith. This includes prominent Utah-era polygamists such as Brigham Young,[220] John Taylor,[221] Heber C. Kimball,[222] George A. Smith,[223] and Orson Pratt.[224]

Some of Joseph's plural wives reacted similarly and described their introduction to plural marriage as a "trial,"[225] while others appear to have accepted the practice more readily.[226] A recurring theme in these accounts is how the prospective participants wrestled with a trial of faith and only gained a testimony of plural marriage after earnestly seeking and gaining confirmation by the Spirit.[227]

What's the "Happiness Letter"?

It is a letter purportedly written by Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon,[BIO] the 19-year-old daughter of Sidney Rigdon, in the spring of 1842.[228] It gets its name from the opening line of the text: "Happiness is the object and design of our existence . . ."[229]

The letter appears to provide a justification for plural marriage on the grounds that whatever God commands is right, regardless of what humans think about the situation; however, it does not specifically mention plural marriage.[230] Some historians question the authorship of the letter, based on its provenance and publication history.[231]

Who else practiced plural marriage before the migration to Utah?

By Joseph's death in 1844 about 30 other men besides Joseph and 50 women had entered into plural marriage.[232] Around 200 men and 700 Latter-day Saint women were practicing plural marriage by the time of the westward exodus beginning in 1846.[233]

What did Joseph's plural wives say about their relationship with him?

Those who left statements (mostly many decades later) commonly mentioned how plural marriage was a trial of faith but that they gained firm testimonies it was from God and maintained faith that Joseph was a prophet. (See table below.)

Statements from Joseph Smith's Plural Wives

Plural Wife

Statement

Eliza R. Snow

"In Nauvoo I first understood that the practice of plurality of wives was to be introduced into the church. The subject was very repugnant to my feelings. . . . But when I reflected that I was living in the Dispensation of the fulness of times, embracing all other Dispensations, surely Plural Marriage must necessarily be included. . . . As I increased in knowledge concerning the principle and design of Plural Marriage, I grew in love with it, and today esteem it a previous, sacred principle. . . . I was sealed to the Prophet, Joseph Smith, for time and eternity, in accordance with the Celestial Law of Marriage which God has revealed—the ceremony being performed by a servant of the Most High—authorized to officiate in sacred ordinances. This, one of the most important circumstances of my life, I have never had cause to regret. From personal knowledge I bear my testimony that Plural Celestial marriage is a pure and holy principle . . ."[234]

Eliza R. Snow

"Plurality of wives is a great trial. If you want to sit in the courts of heaven, honor polygamy. Don't suffer your lips to say ought, even if you do not believe in it. When I entered it, I had no anticipation of ever being acknowledged as a lawful wife. I believed in it because I felt the work was true and I longed to see a Prophet. I feel proud that I ever embraced it. Polygamy did not hurt me, but to be looked upon as a woman of light character, that did hurt me. The very idea of not being a virtuous woman."[235]

Helen Mar Kimball

"I am thankful that He has brought me through the furnace of affliction & that He has condesended to show me that the promises made to me the morning that I was sealed to the Prophet of God will not fail & I would not have the chain broken for I have had a view of the principle of eternal salvation & the perfect union which this sealing power will bring to the human family & with the help of our Heavenly Father I am determined to so live that I can claim those promises . . ."[236]

Helen Mar Kimball

"I have been a spectator and a participator in this order of matrimony for over thirty years, and being a first wife, I have had every opportunity for judging in regard to its merits. . . . I know that this system tends to promote and preserve social purity, and that this alone can remedy the great social evils of the present day. When lived up to as the Lord designed it should be, it will exalt the human family, and those who have entered into it with pure motives and continue to practice it in righteousness can testify to the truth of these statements. There are real and tangible blessings enjoyed under this system which cannot be obtained in any other way."[237]

Helen Mar Kimball

"I never doubted that young Joseph was exemplary, for he always had the reputation of being strictly moral, and I know that he was taught, as were many others, the first principles of the faith, which were all good and necessary for a foundation; but because we believe the precepts taught us in youth it does not excuse us for refusing to accept more revelation when given as the majority of the world have done—rejecting all revealed principles without investigation."[238]

Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner

"Joseph the Seer taught me the principle of plural marriage in Nauvoo. . . . After a long time of prayer and supplication to my heavenly Father for a witness of the truth I went forward and was sealed to him for time and all eternity . . . Facts show what is right. . . . Joseph told me that he was afraid when the angel appeared to him and told him to take other wives. He hesitated, and the angel appeared to him the third time with a drawn sword in his hand and threatened his life if he did not fulfill the commandment. He further said that he must seal this testimony with his blood. Hyrum also had other wives. This is my testimony, and it will meet you at the judgment seat of Christ."[239]

Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner

"Much has come and gone from me through the powers and vicissitudes of this Church. I have been in almost every mob. I have been driven about and told I would be shot and had a gun pointed at me, but I stayed with the Church until it was driven from Nauvoo. The words of the Prophet that had been revealed to him always have been with me from the beginning to the end of the Gospel. Every principle that has been given in the Church by the Prophet is true. I know whereon I stand, I know what I believe, I know what I know and I know what I testify to you is the living truth. As I expect to meet it at the bar of the eternal Jehovah it is true. And when you stand before the bar you will know. He preached polygamy and he not only preached it but he practised it. I am a living witness to it. It was given to him before he gave it to the Church."[240]

Zina Diantha Huntington

"When I heard that God had revealed the law of celestial marriage—that we would have the privilige of associating in family relationship in the worlds to come—I searched the scriptures, and by humble prayer to my Heavenly Father I obtained a testimony for [my]self that God had required that order to be established in his church. I made a greater sacrifice than to give my life, for I never anticipated to again to be looked upon as an honerable woman by those I dearly loved. [But] I how could I compromise conscience [and] lay aside the sure testimony of the spirit of God? . . . I heard the words of the Prophet of God saying, at King Follett's funeral, 'All you Saints that will not oppose the doctrine that God reveals through me, I will see that you enter celestial glory.' His teachings were in every respct to benefit the human family."[241]

Zina Diantha Huntington

"I received a testimony for myself from the Lord of this work, and that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God before I ever saw him, while I resided in the state of New York, given in answer to prayer. I knew him in his lifetime, and know him to have been a great, true man, and a servant of God. . . . I wish to bear my testimony to the principle of celestial marriage, that it is true. When I think of the man that took his life in his hands and went from place to place where God told him to go, and in the midst of persecutions, trials and vexations of every kind, made covenant with the women of God that have stood true to him—most of them—when I think of his integrity, and of his obedience, I think what a lesson it should be to us, that we know that he did not do this of his own accord. . . . I know it is the work of God, and that Joseph Smith was His prophet. . . . I became his wife at this time in Nauvoo, and I never in my life had a rebellious thought against that principle, for which I thank the Lord."[242]

Presendia Huntington

"In 1841, I entered into the new and everlasting covenant [and] was sealed to Joseph Smith the Prophet and Seer; and to the best of my ability I have honored plural marriage, never speaking one word against the principle."[243]

Emily Dow Partridge

"Did Joseph Smith the Prophet claim to have a revelation on polygamy, or plural marriage? . . . It is a positive fact that he did so claim and so teach and also practice. I am a living witness of the same; with me it is neither guesswork or hearsay. I had it from his own mouth; to me it was the word of the Lord. I accepted the pure and sacred principle, and was married or sealed to him as his wife for time and all eternity."[244]

Emily Dow Partridge

". . . I feel it my duty to bear my testimony to the truth of Joseph Smith teaching and practicing plural marriage some years before his death. . . . I have never repented the act that made me a plural wife. It has been to me like an anchor cast within the veil. It gave me a hope that was like a rod of iron to cling to while wading through heavy mists of hatred and persecution. . . . I have often looked back with joy and thanksgiving that I listened to the 'still, small voice that whispered to my soul.' The door is open–enter! It may look dark, dreary and desolate, but peace, joy and exaltation lie beyond. The longer I live, and the more knowledge and understanding I get pertaining to the principles of the eternal worlds, the more I rejoice in the one act of my life that made me the wife of Joseph Smith, and bound me to him for time and all eternity. I feel perfectly secure under his guardianship. I know he was a prophet of God, and I know that he received the revelation on celestial marriage years before it was written. . . . I rejoice in my religion, and I appreciate the blessings that I enjoy as a Latter-day Saint.”[245]

Eliza Partridge

"While [living with Joseph Smith] he taught to us the plan of Celestial marriage and asked us to enter into that order with him. This was truly a great trial for me, but I had the most implicit confidence in him as a Prophet of the Lord and not but believe his words, and as a matter of course accept of the privilege of being sealed to him as a wife for time and all eternity. . . . Times were not then as they are now in 1877, but a woman living in polygamy dare not let it be known, and nothing but a firm desire to keep the commandments of the Lord could have induced a girl to marry in that way. I thought my trials were very severe in this line, and I am often led to wonder how it was that a person of my temperament could get along with it and not rebel. But I know it was the Lord who kept me from opposing his plans, although in my heart I felt I could not submit to them. But I did, and I am thankful to my Heavenly Father for the care he had over me in those troublous times."[246]

Lucy Walker

"I was a plural wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and was married for time and eternity in Nauvoo . . . When the Prophet Joseph Smith mentioned the principle of plural marriage to me I felt indignant, and so expressed myself to him, because my feelings and education were averse to anything of that nature. But he assured me that this doctrine had been revealed to him of the Lord, and that I was entitled to receive a testimony of its divine origin for myself. He counseled me to pray to the Lord, which I did, and thereupon received from Him a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truthfulness and divinity of plural marriage, which testimony has abided with me ever since."[247]

Lucy Walker

"[Plural marriage] was a command from God to me to receive it, and I would rather have laid down my life than disobeyed it, but it was a grand and glorious principle that was to be established, and when I was called upon I stepped forward and gave myself up as a sacrifice to establish that principle, and I did that in the face of prejudice."[248]

Lucy Walker

"It was near dawn after another sleepless night. While on my knees in fervent suplication, my room became filled with a holy influence. To me <it was> in comparison like the brilliant sunshine bursting through the darkest cloud. The words of the Prophet were indeed fulfilled. My soul was flled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew. Supreme happiness took posession of my whole being. And I received a powerful and iristable testimony of the truth of themariage covenant called 'Celestial or plural mariage'. Which has been like <an> anchor to the soul through all the temptations and trials of life. I felt that I must go out into the morning air and give vent to the Joy and grattitude that filled my soul. As I decended the stairs, Prest. Smith opened the door below, took me by the hand and said: 'Thank God, you have the testimony. I too, have prayed.' he led me to a chair, placed his hands upon my head, and blessed me with every blessing my heart could posibly desire. On the first day of May, 1843, I consented to become the wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith. And was sealed to him for time and all eternity, at his own house by Elder Wn Clayton, on whom he confered that authority."[249]

Rhoda Richards

"I have witnessed the death of many near and dear friends, both old and young. In my young days I buried my first and only love, and true to that affiance, I have passed companionless through life; but am sure of having my proper place and standing in the resurrection, having been sealed to the prophet Joseph, according to the celestial law, by his own request, under the inspiration of divine revelation."[250]

Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde

"Here I feel like bearing my testimony that during the whole year that Joseph was an inmate of my father's house I never saw aught in his daily life or conversation to make me doubt his divine mission."[251]

Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde

"The Lord gave me to Joseph Smith before I married Orson Hyde. This I did not know until ten years after where Joseph taught me the doctrine of Celestial Marriage. . . . I followed the council of the prophet Joseph as instructed and cherish in my heart the hope of realizing the fulfillment of the promises and blessings."[252]

Expand Table

Why does it feel like Joseph Smith's plural marriages aren't included in what the Church teaches about the Restoration?

Probably because the Church discontinued plural marriage beginning in the late nineteenth-century and so the details about Joseph Smith's plural marriages gradually became overlooked or downplayed.[253]

However, the Church historically has never denied that Joseph practiced plural marriage,[254][255] and in recent years has sought to (re)incorporate plural marriage as part of the narrative of the early Restoration.[256]

The Facts

  • Joseph Smith inaugurated the practice of plural marriage among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  • Later sources indicate Joseph was aware that plural marriage would be restored as early as 1831.

  • Joseph's first plural wife was probably Fanny Alger, probably age 18, who he probably married in 1835.

  • Joseph went on to marry or be sealed to around thirty additional women by the time of his death in 1844.

  • Joseph probably had sexual relations with some of his plural wives.

  • It is possible Joseph had children with some of his plural wives but DNA analysis has invalidated all claims that have been tested.

  • About a dozen women were legally married to other men at the time of their sealing to Joseph.

  • Joseph's youngest wife was 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball.

  • There is no evidence that Joseph's marriage to Helen Mar Kimball included sexuality.

  • Joseph's oldest wife was 58-year-old Rhoda Richards.

  • Some women rejected Joseph's plural marriage proposals.

  • Several of Joseph's plural wives went on to defend him as a prophet and plural marriage as a divine practice.

  • Years after Joseph's death, Emma denied that he ever practiced "polygamy."

Our Take

Joseph Smith is important to our faith as the restoring prophet of the gospel. So when that restoration and that prophet is associated with polygamy, it can become deeply uncomfortable and might challenge our understanding of Joseph as a good man of God. Why did Joseph have multiple wives? Was it just about sex, or power? Was the situation manipulative, deceptive, or abusive?

These are good questions to ask and they deserve consideration. Frustratingly, the documentary record is patchy and full of gossip, rumors, and contradictory and uncorroborated claims. From the available data, we can conclude that Joseph Smith secretly introduced the practice of plural marriage in the early 1840s. It’s apparent that Joseph had sexual relations with some of his plural wives. It also seems that even though he received revelation that guided him in restoring this practice, Joseph still made some misjudgments or mistakes in how he implemented and practiced plural marriage, especially in how he disclosed it to Emma.

Many of the women who entered plural marriage with Joseph would later go on to defend him as a prophet as well as plural marriage as a divine principle. Even Emma, who had vocalized serious problems with plural marriage, maintained that her husband was a prophet. There is no credible evidence that Joseph was willfully abusive or that he was merely using polygamy for sex and power.

Plural marriage is no longer practiced in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but people still grapple with its legacy and struggle to fully understand it. That's okay. We can honestly struggle with this aspect of Church history even while we maintain faith in Jesus Christ and the restoration of His gospel in the latter-days.

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Footnotes