4. Polygamy and Joseph's Many Wives
That Mormons practiced polygamy in the early days of the church is well known. What a lot of people don't know, though, is that Joseph Smith was heavily involved in polygamy himself. This included taking at least 11 women that were already married to other men at the time (i.e., polyandry). I find this particularly troublesome, as these women stayed married to their first husbands while at the same time being married to Joseph. In his book, In Sacred Loneliness, Dr. Todd Compton wrote:
"Polyandry is one of the major problems found in Smith's polygamy and many questions surround it. Why did he at first primarily prefer polyandrous marriages?…A common misconception concerning Joseph Smith's polyandry is that he participated in only one or two such unusual unions. In fact, fully one-third of his plural wives, eleven of them, were married civilly to other men when he married them. If one superimposes a chronological perspective, one sees that of Smith's first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous. So in this early period polyandry was the norm, not the anomaly…
How could Joseph's marriage to women who were already married to upstanding members of the church possibly be justified? According to Brigham Young, the purpose of polygamy was to propagate life through worthy families:
"There are multitudes of pure and holy spirits waiting to take tabernacles, now what is our duty. To prepare tabernacles for them; to take a course that will not tend to drive those spirits into families of the wicked, where they will be trained in wickedness, debauchery, and every species of crime. It is the duty of every righteous man and woman to prepare tabernacles for all the spirits they can. This is the reason why the doctrine of plurality of wives was revealed, that the noble spirits which are waiting for tabernacles might be brought forth." (Discourses of Brigham Young, 1977 edition, p. 197)
Clearly this could not have been the purpose for many of Joseph's marriages, since Joseph's wives were already married to righteous men. Perhaps the purpose of polygamy was instead, as Jedediah Grant (Second Counselor to Brigham Young) claimed, a trial of faith:
"Did the Prophet Joseph want every man's wife he asked for? He did not…the grand object in view was to try the people of God to see what was in them." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2 (1855), p. 14)
The total number of Joseph's plural wives is unknown. Andrew Jenson, who was the Assistant Church Historian, made a list of 27 women who were sealed to Joseph. In this list he talked of "Fanny Alger, one of the first plural wives sealed to the Prophet." (Historical Record, May 1887, vol. 6, page 233). Fanny was a 17-year-old orphan girl whom Emma had taken into the family, but after her relationship with Joseph was discovered, Emma drove her out of the house. Warren Parrish, the secretary of Joseph for a period of time, told Benjamin Johnson that he and Oliver Cowdery knew the report of an affair between Joseph and the girl to be true, for they "were spied upon and found together." (Letter from Benjamin Johnson to George Gibbs, 1903; Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, pp. 103-104)
The Mormon author John Stewart states that Joseph "married many other women, perhaps three or four dozen or more…" (Brigham Young and His Wives, page 31) In No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie included a list of 48 women who may have been married to Joseph Smith. Stanley Ivins, who was considered to be "one of the great authorities on Mormon polygamy," said that the number of Joseph Smith's wives "can only be guessed at, but it might have gone as high as sixty or more." (Western Humanities Review, vol. 10, pp. 232-233)
Documenting plural marriage evidence becomes difficult because it was instituted and practiced in a haze of secrecy, public concealment, and open lies. Mormon historians today admit that Joseph only told a select and small group of people about plural marriage. It was not until 1852 that the LDS church publicly admitted to the practice of plural marriage. This was 8 years after Joseph Smith was murdered. This is why many Mormons are surprised to learn that Joseph Smith was ever a participant in plural marriage.
Joseph's polygamy clearly included taking other men's wives. For example, consider a sermon given in the Tabernacle by Jedediah Grant on Feb. 19, 1854:
"When the family organization was revealed from heaven - the patriarchal order of God, and Joseph began, on the right and on the left, to add to his family, what a quaking there was in Israel. Says one brother to another, 'Joseph says all covenants are done away, and none are binding but the new covenants: now suppose Joseph should come and say he wanted your wife, what would you say to that?' 'I would tell him to go to hell.' This was the spirit of many in the early days of this Church…
Ann Eliza Young, who had been married to Brigham Young, charged that Joseph Smith was guilty of adultery:
"Joseph not only paid his addresses to the young and unmarried women, but he sought 'spiritual alliance' with many married ladies…He taught them that all former marriages were null and void, and that they were at perfect liberty to make another choice of a husband. The marriage covenants were not binding, because they were ratified only by Gentile laws…consequently all the women were free…
Patty Bartlett Sessions, the wife of David Sessions, made it clear in her private journal that she was married to Joseph Smith for both "time" and "eternity":
"I was sealed to Joseph Smith by Willard Richards Mar 9, 1842, in Newel K. Whitney's chamber, Nauvoo, for time and all eternity…Sylvia my daughter was present when I was sealed to Joseph Smith." (Journal of Patty Sessions, as quoted in Intimate Disciple, Portrait of Willard Richards, 1957, p. 611)
Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, the wife of Adam Lightner, testified:
"Joseph said I was his before I came here and he said all the Devils in Hell should never get me from him, I was sealed to him in the Masonic Hall…by Brigham Young in February 1842 and then again in the Nauvoo Temple by Heber C. Kimball…" (Affidavit of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, as cited in No Man Knows My History, p. 444)
In a speech given at Brigham Young University (see Mormonism-Shadow or Reality? pp. 215-216), Mrs. Lightner said that Joseph claimed an "angel" came with a "drawn sword" and told him that if he did not enter into polygamy "he would slay him." She frankly admitted that she "had been dreaming for a number of years that I was his [Joseph's] wife." Since both Joseph and herself were already married, she "felt it was a sin." Joseph, however, convinced her that the "Almighty" had revealed the principle and while her "husband was far away," she was sealed to him.
The contradictory rule revealed as the Law of Sarah was used as justification for the seemingly audacious behavior of Joseph. As revealed in section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Law of Sarah decreed that the first wife was to give her consent for subsequent wives, unless the first wife was unbelieving or unwilling. In that case the male was exempt from the Law of Sarah, and the first wife was found in contempt, labeled a transgressor, and even threatened with destruction. This "law" allowed the first wife to consent to other wives, unless she didn't consent, wherein she was deemed unworthy. In a "revelation" received through Joseph, his wife Emma was told that:
"…if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord they God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law." (D&C 132:54)
Is it not rather obvious this was Joseph attempting to convince his wife Emma to allow him to be with other women - with her consent - and doing it through a supposed revelation?
William Clayton, personal secretary of Joseph, described how the "revelation" on polygamy in D&C 132 came about. Apparently, the Law of Sarah was not applied, as Emma knew nothing about Joseph's revelation on polygamy prior to July 12, 1843:
"On the morning of the 12th of July, 1843, Joseph and Hyrum Smith came into the office in the upper story of the 'brick store,' on the bank of the Mississippi River. They were talking on the subject of plural marriage. Hyrum said to Joseph, 'If you will write the revelation on celestial marriage, I will take it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.' Joseph smiled and remarked, 'You do not know Emma as well as I do.' Hyrum repeated his opinion and further remarked, 'The doctrine is so plain, I can convince any reasonable man or woman of its truth, purity or heavenly origin,' or words to their effect. Joseph then said, 'Well, I will write the revelation and we will see.' He then requested me to get paper and prepare to write. Hyrum very urgently requested Joseph to write the revelation by means of the Urim and Thummim, but Joseph, in reply, said he did not need to, for he knew the revelation perfectly from beginning to end. Joseph and Hyrum then sat down and Joseph commenced to dictate the revelation on celestial marriage, and I wrote it, sentence by sentence, as he dictated. After the whole was written, Joseph asked me to read it through, slowly and carefully, which I did, and he pronounced it correct. He then remarked that there was much more that he could write, on the same subject, but what was written was sufficient for the present.
Emma had a very difficult time with Joseph's polygamy. It is no surprise that she chose to separate herself from the Saints prior to their exodus to Utah. On October 7, 1866, Brigham Young related a story that actually accused Emma of trying to murder her husband; not once, but twice. Brigham declared:
"Not six months before the death of Joseph, he called his wife Emma into a secret council, and there he told her the truth, and called upon her to deny it if she could. He told her that the judgments of God would come upon her forthwith if she did not repent. He told her of the time she undertook to poison him, and he told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked than she. He told her where she got the poison, and how she put it in a cup of coffee; said he, 'You got that poison so and so, and I drank it, but you could not kill me.' When it entered his stomach he went to the door and threw it off. He spoke to her in that council in a very severe manner, and she never said one word in reply. I have witnesses of this scene all around, who can testify that I am now telling the truth. Twice she undertook to kill him." (The Essential Brigham Young, p. 188)
It may be that Joseph eventually admitted that plural marriage was wrong or a hoax. Joseph's niece, Mary Bailey, stated in 1908 that her uncle finally:
"…awoke to a realization of the whole miserable affair [and]…tried to withdraw from and put down the Evil into which he had fallen" (Newel and Avery 1984, p. 179).
Former Nauvoo Stake President William Marks wrote in July 1853 that he met with the prophet a short time before his death. Joseph told him at this time:
"We are a ruined people. This doctrine of polygamy, or spiritual wife-system, that has been taught and practiced among us, will prove our destruction and overthrow. I have been deceived…it is wrong; it is a curse to mankind, and we shall have to leave the United States soon, unless it can be put down, and its practice stopped in the Church. Now Brother Marks, you have not received this doctrine, and I want you to go into the high council, and I will have charges preferred against all who practice this doctrine; and I want you to try them by the laws of the Church, and cut them off, it they will not repent, and cease the practice of this doctrine...I will go into the stand and preach against it with all my might, and in this way, we may rid the Church of this damnable heresy." (Zion's Harbinger and Baneemy's Organ, Vol. 3 (July 1853), pp. 52-53)
The account by William Marks may well be colored by his personal antipathy to polygamy. But as Marks relates, Joseph was killed shortly after this conversation. When Marks shared what Joseph had said, his testimony "was pronounced false by the Twelve and disbelieved."
Plural marriage, the secrecy of its early practice, and the ensuing social and political circumstances that emerged from its practice, are probably the greatest factors leading to the murders of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and the subsequent upheaval of that era of Mormon history.
Subsequent litigation and national disenfranchisement would force (or heavily induce) the church to abandon the practice of plural marriage. Complete abandonment of the practice proved to be a formidable task. Although most Mormons know that polygamy was practiced in the early days of the church, relatively few are aware of the sordid facts discussed here.
Daniel Bachman and Ronald Esplin stated Joseph was only a reluctant participant in polygamy, which he found repugnant:
"Although certain that God would require it of him and of the Church, Joseph Smith would not have introduced it when he did except for the conviction that God required it then. Several close confidants later said that he proceeded with plural marriage in Nauvoo only after both internal struggle and divine warning. Lorenzo Snow later remembered vividly a conversation in 1843 in which the Prophet described the battle he waged "in overcoming the repugnance of his feelings" regarding plural marriage." (Daniel Bachman and Ronald K. Esplin, Plural Marriage, LDSFAQ)
Apostle Parley P. Pratt defended polygamy as a holy ordinance governed by strict boundaries:
"These holy and sacred ordinances have nothing to do with whoredoms, unlawful connections, confusion or crime; but the very reverse. They have laws, limits, and bounds of the strictest kind, and none but the pure in heart, the strictly virtuous, or those who repent and become such, are worthy to partake of them. And…[a] dreadful weight of condemnation await those who pervert, or abuse them" (Parley P. Pratt, The Prophet, May 24, 1845; cf. D&C 132:7)