Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo

This is an annotated version of the article Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo at To display the annotation, click on the note numbers at the end of a paragraph (Note 1, Note 2, etc.). Click again to hide the note. The annotations are not part of the original article.

Latter-day Saints believe that monogamy—the marriage of one man and one woman—is the Lord’s standing law of marriage. In biblical times, the Lord commanded some of His people to practice plural marriage—the marriage of one man and more than one woman. Some early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also received and obeyed this commandment given through God’s prophets. Note 1

The Bible does not contain a single instance of God commanding polygamy. See note 1 to the article Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah on this site.

After receiving a revelation commanding him to practice plural marriage, Joseph Smith married multiple wives and introduced the practice to close associates. Note 2

The chronology of Joseph Smith’s polygamy is different from the way it is presented here. His first extra-marital relationship with Fanny Alger (considered a plural marriage by some, see Bradley 2010) dates back to 1833, the revelation mentioned above came 10 years and 27 plural wives later.

When Joseph Smith’s wife Emma discovered this relationship, he did not appeal to the Bible or a revelation to justify his actions. Instead, he begged his wife’s forgiveness and the relationship was ended.

In the second half of the 1830s, the Mormon situation in Missouri as well as Illinois became increasingly unstable. Joseph Smith’s reputation and allusions to polygamy generated a lot of rumours, which were denied by both Joseph Smith individually and the church as a whole (see note 15).

This changed at the beginning of the 1840s, after the Mormons settled down in their own city of Nauvoo (Illinois). Here Joseph Smith felt safe enough to test the waters by publicly hinting at what he called the restoration of Biblical polygamy. Reactions to this were usually negative, after which he would backpedal by saying the time had not yet come (Newell & Avery 1994, pp. 95-96).

In secret, though, Joseph Smith went ahead and started taking on many polygamous wives in the early 1840s. In an effort to convince his wife Emma of the practice, he finally dictated a formal revelation about polygamy on July 12, 1843.“And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me,” it said, “for I am the Lord thy God, and ye shall obey my voice” (Doctrine and Covenants 2013, pp. 271-272).

This principle was among the most challenging aspects of the Restoration—for Joseph personally and for other Church members. Plural marriage tested faith and provoked controversy and opposition. Few Latter-day Saints initially welcomed the restoration of a biblical practice entirely foreign to their sensibilities. But many later [some] testified of powerful spiritual experiences that helped them overcome their hesitation and gave them courage to accept this practice.

Although the Lord commanded the adoption—and later the cessation—of plural marriage in the latter days, He did not give exact instructions on how to obey the commandment. Significant social and cultural changes often include misunderstandings and difficulties. Church leaders and members experienced these challenges as they heeded the command to practice plural marriage and again later as they worked to discontinue it after Church President Wilford Woodruff issued an inspired statement known as the Manifesto in 1890, which led to the end of plural marriage in the Church. Through it all, Church leaders and members sought to follow God’s will. Note 3

This paragraph contains two errors:

- There were some “exact instructions” on how to practice polygamy;
- The Manifesto did not lead “to the end of plural marriage in the Church”.

To start with the latter point: on the very day church president Woodruff submitted the Manifesto to the general membership for approval, he advised Byron Harvey Allred, who had traveled to Salt Lake City to marry an additional wife, how to circumvent the Manifesto (read Allred’s journal here, search for the last mention of “Woodruff”).

In the Manifesto, president Woodruff denied “in the most solemn manner” the cases of polygamy which the Utah Commission had identified but these have since been amply documented and confirmed (see Quinn 1985, who was disciplined and later excommunicated from the Mormon church for publishing this research). One year later, president Woodruff again lied under oath about the clandestine continuation of polygamy in an attempt to regain seized church property (Wagoner 1989, p. 149) – possibly the real purpose of the Manifesto.

With regards to the “instructions on how to obey the commandment” of polygamy, there may not have been many but the ones that were there, were not followed. Leviticus 18 in the Bible, for instance, prohibits men from marrying a mother and her daughter, as well as marrying sisters, yet both practices were frequent among Mormons (see note 1 to the essay Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah).

Neither did Joseph Smith follow the instructions from his own 1843 revelation which states, for instance, that polygamous wives should be virgins. Joseph Smith, however, had relationships with at least 11 married women. Some girls, like Sarah Ann Whitney (17) and Flora Ann Woodworth (17) married other men within a few months after their polygamous unions to Joseph Smith, which, according to the revelation, constitutes adultery. And finally, the revelation stipulates that the first wife gives her husband permission to take extra wives but Joseph Smith took most of his plural wives without his wife Emma’s knowledge, let alone permission.

Many details about the early practice of plural marriage are unknown. Plural marriage was introduced among the early Saints incrementally, and participants were asked to keep their actions confidential. They did not discuss their experiences publicly or in writing until after the Latter-day Saints had moved to Utah and Church leaders had publicly acknowledged the practice. The historical record of early plural marriage is therefore thin: few records of the time provide details, and later reminiscences are not always reliable. Some ambiguity will always accompany our knowledge about this issue. Like the participants, we “see through a glass, darkly” and are asked to walk by faith. Note 4

Throughout this essay, the authors repeatedly claim that “many details” of Mormon polygamy are unknown because the historical record is supposedly incomplete, or even “thin”. It is not clear why they would say this since the authors’ own sources disagree with that conclusion.

In endnote 29, for example, an article by apostle John A. Widtsoe is cited which reads: “The literature and existing documents dealing with plural marriage in Nauvoo in the day of Joseph Smith are very numerous. Hundreds of affidavits on the subject are in the Church Historian’s office in Salt Lake City. Most of the books and newspaper and magazine articles on the subject are found there also” (Widtsoe 1946).

In endnotes 25 and 26, the authors quote Bringhurst & Foster’s 2010 book The Persistence of Polygamy which starts with an overview of “the plethora of books articles, and essays dealing with Mormon polygamy” and speaks of a “multitude of historical documents” (p. ix). “Literally hundreds of books”, the introduction claims, “have been written on the topic of Mormon polygamy” (p. 2).

So we have hundreds of books about polygamy, hundreds of affidavits from early Mormons who were personally involved in polygamy, as well as many other historical documents like marriage records, journals, letters, newspaper articles, etc. They contain details about every aspect of the first polygamous Mormon marriages. These sources are not a matter of faith either; in fact, most of them can be consulted quite easily these days by anyone with an internet connection.

The reliability of “later reminiscences” can be determined by comparing them to the rest of the historical record. By pretending these sources do not exist, the authors exempt themselves from such methodological rigour. Instead, they ask the reader to “walk by faith”. Remarkably, the reliability of later reminiscences doesn’t seem to be an issue in the remainder of the essay when the reminiscences fit the authors’ narrative.

The Beginnings of Plural Marriage in the Church

The revelation on plural marriage was not written down until 1843, but its early verses suggest that part of it emerged from Joseph Smith’s study of the Old Testament in 1831. People who knew Joseph well later stated he received the revelation about that time. Note 5

This is a first example of what was stated in note 4. The reliability of “later reminiscences” is never questioned when it suits the authors of this article, in this case to create a sequence of events that puts Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger in the context of polygamy.

The sources quoted with this paragraph are from 1878 and 1887. That in itself does not mean they are unreliable but in view of the absence of contemporary supporting evidence, some caution seems appropriate. See note 2 for the actual chronology.

The revelation, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 132, states that Joseph prayed to know why God justified Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon in having many wives. The Lord responded that He had commanded them to enter into the practice.

Latter-day Saints understood that they were living in the latter days, in what the revelations called the “dispensation of the fullness of times.” Ancient principles—such as prophets, priesthood, and temples—would be restored to the earth. Plural marriage was one of those ancient principles. Note 6

It is not in dispute that polygamy occurs in the Bible as a cultural practice. However, the Christian world does not generally see it as a commandment from God (see also note 1). Moreover, the justification of polygamy by claiming that “God justified Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon in having many wives” was already anticipated – and unequivocally condemned – in the Book of Mormon:

“But the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son. Behold, David and a Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord (Book of Mormon 2013, p. 121).

Polygamy had been permitted for millennia in many cultures and religions, but, with few exceptions, was rejected in Western cultures. In Joseph Smith’s time, monogamy was the only legal form of marriage in the United States. Joseph knew the practice of plural marriage would stir up public ire. After receiving the commandment, he taught a few associates about it, but he did not spread this teaching widely in the 1830s. Note 7

There is no evidence that Joseph Smith received a revelation about polygamy in the 1830s, nor that “he taught a few associates about it”. Curiously, the sources that are quoted with this paragraph do not support this either.

The first source concerns a hypothetical question asked to Lorenzo Snow in 1892: “Could Joseph Smith receive a revelation (…)”. There is nothing in Snow’s testimony to suggest that Joseph Smith received a revelation about polygamy in the 1830s.

The second source is an 1869 sermon by Orson Pratt which actually states the opposite of what is implied in the paragraph above, namely that Joseph Smith indicated in 1832 that the time for polygamy had not yet come and that, therefore, the revelation on polygamy was only given in 1843.

The third source is not about polygamy at all but about disseminating Mormonism among Native Americans by “forming a matrimonial alliance with the Natives”. Although this letter is critical of Joseph Smith and his associates, no mention is made of polygamy. Rather, in the matter of an unnamed man from New York (possibly Martin Harris) marrying a Native American woman, the letter states that “before this contemplated marriage can be carried into effect, he must return to the State of N. Y. and settle his business, for fear, should he return, after that affair had taken place, the civil authority would apprehend him as a criminal” (Marquardt 2008; read this source online here, see the second to last paragraph of the December 6, 1831 letter).

When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. 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. Note 8

This is not a correct representation of the facts. The only source which indicates that an angel appeared three times to Joseph Smith in that period, was Mary Rollins Lightner in 1905 (Hales 2010). However, Joseph Smith did not tell this to “his associates” but to her, in an ultimate effort to convince her to enter into a relationship with him (he had been pursuing her since 1831, when Mary was only 12 years old, see Newell & Avery 1994, p. 65).

All sources for the angel-with-the-drawn-sword-story are relatively late (the earliest one is from 1853), appear to be depending on each other and lack  supporting evidence from Joseph Smith’s lifetime. It’s possible, then, that the story was made up later to create the impression that Joseph Smith engaged in polygamy under divine duress – a concept that doesn’t really sit well with Mormon theology.

Fragmentary evidence suggests that Joseph Smith acted on the angel’s first command by marrying a plural wife, Fanny Alger, in Kirtland, Ohio, in the mid-1830s. Several Latter-day Saints who had lived in Kirtland reported decades later that Joseph Smith had married Alger, who lived and worked in the Smith household, after he had obtained her consent and that of her parents. Little is known about this marriage, and nothing is known about the conversations between Joseph and Emma regarding Alger. After the marriage with Alger ended in separation, Joseph seems to have set the subject of plural marriage aside until after the Church moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. Note 9

It is true that a lot of information about Fanny Alger stems from “decades later”, starting with the sources cited for this paragraph, which are from 1886-87, 1903 and 1896 respectively. Of all the historical sources that mention Fanny Alger, these are the most recent. A surprising choice, in view of the concern the authors of this article have expressed about the reliability of “later reminiscences” (see note 4).

Then again, maybe not so surprising, considering that the earlier sources (until 1842) do not speak of a marriage with the blessing of Fanny’s parents but of “a dirty, nasty, filthy affair” (Oliver Cowdery), “adultery” (Far West High Council minutes), “girl business” (Joseph Smith himself), “unlawful intercourse” (Fanny Brewer) and “improper proposals” (Martin Harris).

Other aspects of the relationship between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger that can be gleaned from the sources are that Emma Smith was initially unaware of it, that she caught her husband having sex with Fanny Alger (or found out about it when Fanny’s pregnancy became visible), that Joseph Smith asked his wife for forgiveness, that the relationship ended there, and that Fanny left the Smith household (or was sent away by Emma).

None of the sources mention a commandment or an angel with a drawn sword in this connection. Only one secondary 1896 source states that Fanny’s parents may have consented.

Plural Marriage and Eternal Marriage

The same revelation that taught of plural marriage was part of a larger revelation given to Joseph Smith—that marriage could last beyond death and that eternal marriage was essential to inheriting the fullness that God desires for His children. As early as 1840, Joseph Smith privately taught Apostle Parley P. Pratt that the “heavenly order” allowed Pratt and his wife to be together “for time and all eternity.” Joseph also taught that men like Pratt—who had remarried following the death of his first wife—could be married (or sealed) to their wives for eternity, under the proper conditions. Note 10

The distinction between “eternal marriage” and “plural marriage” is a modern interpretation that does not necessarily follow from the text of Joseph Smith’s revelation, which only mentions “this law”, “my law” and “the new and everlasting covenant” throughout the entire text.

The only distinction drawn in this revelation is between a traditional, non-Mormon marriage which ends with death and a marriage “by God’s word” which is remains valid in the afterlife.

The sealing of husband and wife for eternity was made possible by the restoration of priesthood keys and ordinances. On April 3, 1836, the Old Testament prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple and restored the priesthood keys necessary to perform ordinances for the living and the dead, including sealing families together. Marriages performed by priesthood authority could link loved ones to each other for eternity, on condition of righteousness; marriages performed without this authority would end at death. Note 11

This paragraph confirms the issues with chronology that were pointed out in note 2: Fanny Alger cannot have been “sealed” to Joseph Smith if the sealing of husband and wife for eternity was only made possible three years later.

Moreover, the connection between the events of April 1836 and the “sealing power” is of later origin. No new ordinances were introduced as a result of the appearance of Elijah. The first sealings between men and women were performed in 1843 and the sealing of children to their parents only started after Joseph Smith’s death (Buerger 1994, p. 61; Prince 1995, pp. 155-172).

The sealing of men and women, then, did not originate as a result of the appearance of Elijah but in the context of Joseph Smith’s 1843 revelation on polygamy. To early Mormons, sealing and polygamy were one and the same.

Marriage performed by priesthood authority meant that the procreation of children and perpetuation of families would continue into the eternities. Joseph Smith’s revelation on marriage declared that the “continuation of the seeds forever and ever” helped to fulfill God’s purposes for His children. This promise was given to all couples who were married by priesthood authority and were faithful to their covenants.

Plural Marriage in Nauvoo

For much of Western history, family “interest”—economic, political, and social considerations—dominated the choice of spouse. Parents had the power to arrange marriages or forestall unions of which they disapproved. By the late 1700s, romance and personal choice began to rival these traditional motives and practices. By Joseph Smith’s time, many couples insisted on marrying for love, as he and Emma did when they eloped against her parents’ wishes. Note 12

Love may not have been Joseph Smith’s only motivation for marrying Emma Hale. For years he had been trying to retrieve golden plates which he claimed to have found in a hill near his home. He said they were guarded by a spirit who eventually stipulated that he could take the plates on the condition that he got married. The spirit did not inform him who he should marry but in his seer stone he saw it was to be Emma (for Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, see this article about the translation of the Book of Mormon).

Earlier attempts to take the plates home had failed and this was to be Joseph Smith’s last chance before they would sink into the earth forever. That is why he wanted to marry quickly; eloping may have been necessary because Emma’s parents weren’t too keen on their daughter marrying a young treasure hunter without a respectable, steady job (Quinn 1998, pp. 163-164; Marquardt & Walters 1994, pp. 89-94).

Latter-day Saints’ motives for plural marriage were often more religious than economic or romantic. Besides the desire to be obedient, a strong incentive was the hope of living in God’s presence with family members. In the revelation on marriage, the Lord promised participants “crowns of eternal lives” and “exaltation in the eternal worlds.” Men and women, parents and children, ancestors and progeny were to be “sealed” to each other—their commitment lasting into the eternities, consistent with Jesus’s promise that priesthood ordinances performed on earth could be “bound in heaven.” Note 13

The statement that the hope of living in God’s presence with family members was a strong incentive to participate in polygamy contradicts the distinction proposed earlier between eternal and plural marriage (see note 10). If the Mormons of Kirtland and Nauvoo had made this distinction, polygamy would not have been required to live in God’s presence with family members.

Incidentally, most non-Mormons who believe in an afterlife believe they will be together with their loved ones anyway. The conditions and restrictions which the Mormon church imposes can be considered impediments rather than enablers.

The first plural marriage in Nauvoo took place when Louisa Beaman and Joseph Smith were sealed in April 1841. Joseph married many additional wives and authorized other Latter-day Saints to practice plural marriage. Note 14

Between Fanny Alger (1833) and Louisa Beaman, there was also a relationship between Joseph Smith and Lucinda Pendleton Harris (Compton 1997, pp. 43-54). It is unclear why this union isn’t mentioned here, maybe because it didn’t occur in Kirtland or Nauvoo but in Missouri.

The practice spread slowly at first. By June 1844, when Joseph died, approximately 29 men and 50 women had entered into plural marriage, in addition to Joseph and his wives. When the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, at least 196 men and 521 women had entered into plural marriages. Participants in these early plural marriages pledged to keep their involvement confidential, though they anticipated a time when the practice would be publicly acknowledged.

Nevertheless, rumors spread. A few men unscrupulously used these rumors to seduce women to join them in an unauthorized practice sometimes referred to as “spiritual wifery.” When this was discovered, the men were cut off from the Church. 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. Note 15

Rumours had been spreading since the days of Fanny Alger and had already caused problems and denials in Ohio and Missouri. The term rumour, however, doesn’t apply since Joseph Smith did indeed have relations with many women. They were only rumours because Joseph Smith and other church leaders kept publicly denying their involvement in polygamy.

From the very beginning, lying has been an integral part of Mormon polygamy (Hardy 1992). Joseph Smith lied to his wife, his associates, his followers and his community. His successors lied to the authorities, the courts and to Congress. Today, the Mormon church lies about polygamy to prospective members in its missionary programme, to current members in its curriculum and to non-members in its media statements (such as this essay).

Whether these statements are called lies or “carefully worded denials”, it seems clear that they were – and are – primarily meant to deceive.

Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage

During the era in which plural marriage was practiced, Latter-day Saints distinguished between sealings for time and eternity and sealings for eternity only. Sealings for time and eternity included commitments and relationships during this life, generally including the possibility of sexual relations. Eternity-only sealings indicated relationships in the next life alone. Note 16

There is no evidence that the Mormons from “the era in which plural marriage was practiced” made this distinction. As stated in note 10, the text of Joseph Smith’s 1843 revelation only distinguishes between marriages “for time” and “for time and eternity” – to this day the only two forms of marriage in the Mormon church. Marriage “for eternity only” is an apologetic term which does not appear in any primary 19th-century source (Quinn 1997, pp. 183-84; Compton 1997, pp. 12-15, 500).

The reason why the authors of this essay use the “eternity only” category may be to introduce the idea that some of Joseph Smith’s polygamous unions did not have a sexual aspect, and might be perceived as less controversial that way.
Since the “eternity only” category does not exist, however, there is no reason to suppose that Joseph Smith’s relationships did not have a sexual component, all the more so because sexual relations can be established with reasonable certainty in about half the cases – which is quite a lot for a time in which sexuality was not openly discussed.

Evidence indicates that Joseph Smith participated in both types of sealings. The exact number of women to whom he was sealed in his lifetime is unknown because the evidence is fragmentary. Some of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith later testified that their marriages were for time and eternity, while others indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone. Note 17

The endnote to this paragraph reports that the best estimates put the number of wives of Joseph Smith between 30 and 40. mostly relies on the research of Todd Compton, who lists 33 women (excluding Emma). Quinn (2012) proposes that there is also sufficient evidence that Esther Dutcher, Hannah Ann Dubois, Mary Heron Snyder and Lydia Kenyon Carter were sealed to Joseph Smith, which puts the tally at 37. Based on extensive demographic research, Smith (1994) puts in an even higher estimate of 42.

There is no evidence that any of these women ever “indicated that their relationships were for eternity alone” (see note 16, but see also Quinn 2012 for one possible exception).

Most of those sealed to Joseph Smith were between 20 and 40 years of age at the time of their sealing to him. The oldest, Fanny Young, was 56 years old. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph’s close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Note 18

While it is technically true that most of those sealed to Joseph Smith (18 out of the 33 women) were between 20 and 40, this grouping seems arbitrary and clouds the actual age distribution of Joseph Smith’s wives:

The chart above shows that Joseph Smith had a strong preference for women who were younger to much younger than himself. To use another arbitrary grouping: most of those sealed to Joseph Smith (also 18 out of 33) were between 10 and 30. The older women, like Patty Bartlett (47) and Elizabeth Davis (50) were actively involved in recruiting the younger women and girls for plural marriage (Smith 1994; Compton 1997, pp. 179, 254-55, 260, 262).

Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens. Helen Mar Kimball spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being “for eternity alone,” suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relations. After Joseph’s death, Helen remarried and became an articulate defender of him and of plural marriage. Note 19

Plural marriage was never legal in the US, so the question of age is moot from a judicial point of view. “Some women” did indeed marry “in their mid-teens” but they were few and far between. The chart below (from Foster et al. 2010) shows that in Joseph Smith’s time (1840), less than 2% of the women were married in their mid-teens, at 15 or younger:

The data for the above chart are for the entire United States. Zooming in on the Northeastern states where Joseph Smith lived, the rate of mid-teen marriages drops to 0.4 percent. Nine out of ten women who married in their teens did so at 18 or 19 (Compton 2010). Only three of Joseph Smith’s teenage wives were in this latter age range, the other seven (including Fanny Alger) were all younger:

Another issue is the age gap between Joseph Smith and his polygamous wiwes. Without claiming any statistical sophistication, Mormonism101 has prepared the following chart based on the ages of Joseph Smith and his wives as given by Foster et al. (2010, p. 154) and a sample from the IPUMS-USA database (Ruggles et al. 2010).

The vertical bars represent Joseph Smith’s wives at the age he married them, in order of age; the orange line represents Joseph Smith’s age at the time. The green line represents the age gap between 3,475 women of the same age and in the same area as Joseph Smith’s wives and their husbands as recorded in the 1850 US census (no earlier census data are available). The green area covers one standard deviation plus and minus from the average age gap in the sample.

Thus, whenever the orange line crosses into the green area, the age gap between Joseph Smith and that wife is within what could be considered a normal range. This is the case for 15 out of Joseph Smith’s 33 plural wives (the lighter coloured bars in the chart). The age gaps with his teenage wives and with his elderly wives generally fall outside the green area.

Click here to take a closer look at the 1850 census data.

In summary, then, we can conclude that Joseph Smith’s marital practices were well outside the bounds of normal behaviour in the time and place where he lived with regard to (1) the number of his wives, (2) their age at marriage and (3) the age gaps between them.

Nowhere in the autobiographical writings cited as sources for this paragraph does Helen Mar Kimball state that her sealing to Joseph Smith was “for eternity alone”; this quote is completely taken out of context here. What she does say, is the following:

Helen’s marriage was arranged by her father: “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 altar; how cruel this seemed to my mother whose heartstrings were already stretched until they were ready to snap asunder” (Compton 1997, p. 498).

Helen supposed the marriage would be for eternity only but, according to one source, soon learned otherwise: “I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it” (Wagoner 1989, p. 53).

Helen was promised salvation in exchange for her marriage to the prophet: “If you take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation and that of your father's household and all of your kindred. This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward” (Compton 1997, p. 499).

Helen was put under severe time pressure to make her decision: her father left her“to reflect upon it for the next twenty-four hours, during which time I was filled with various and conflicting ideas. I was skeptical--one minute believed, then doubted. I thought of the love and tenderness that he felt for his only daughter, and I knew that he would not cast her off, and this was the only convincing proof that I had of its being right. I knew that he loved me too well to teach me anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous and exalting in its tendencies; and no one else could have influenced me at that time or brought me to accept of a doctrine so utterly repugnant and so contrary to all of our former ideas and traditions” (Compton 1997, pp. 498-499).

Regardless of Helen Mar Kimball’s eloquence in defending Joseph Smith and polygamy at a much later age, she was under no illusion that polygamy had anything to offer her or her fellow female participants: “No earthly inducement could be held forth to the women who entered this order. It was to be a life sacrifice for the sake of an everlasting glory and exaltation” (Compton 1997 p. 349).

The authors of this article correctly assess that such relationships are deemed “inappropriate by today’s standards”. It is unlikely, however, that this was any different in the 1840s.

Following his marriage to Louisa Beaman and before he married other single women, Joseph Smith was sealed to a number of women who were already married. Neither these women nor Joseph explained much about these sealings, though several women said they were for eternity alone. Other women left no records, making it unknown whether their sealings were for time and eternity or were for eternity alone. Note 20

These married women (12 to 14 according to the endnote to this paragraph) have said and written just as much about their relationships with Joseph Smith as the others (see note 4) and there is just as little (meaning no) evidence that these relations were “for eternity alone”(see note 16). On the contrary, as is the case for Joseph Smith’s other wives, there is ample primary evidence for sexual relations with a significant number of these married women as well (Quinn 2012).

There are several possible explanations for this practice. These sealings may have provided a way to create an eternal bond or link between Joseph’s family and other families within the Church. These ties extended both vertically, from parent to child, and horizontally, from one family to another. Today such eternal bonds are achieved through the temple marriages of individuals who are also sealed to their own birth families, in this way linking families together. Joseph Smith’s sealings to women already married may have been an early version of linking one family to another. Note 21

This and the next two “possible explanations” are pure speculation for which there is no supporting evidence. Based on sources that actually exist – as opposed to the imagined feelings and thoughts of Joseph Smith and unnamed “faithful women” – only two explanations have any basis in fact:

Posterity: the stated purpose of Mormon polygamy was procreation. For a long time, Joseph Smith was thought to have fathered a handful of children with several of his polygamous wives, at least four of which were already married (Quinn 2012). By now, most of these claims have been disproved using modern DNA techniques (Groote 2011). As Quinn points out, however, the relevant fact here is not whether these children actually were Joseph Smith’s but whether their mothers thought they might be. This strongly suggests that Joseph Smith had sexual relations with these (married) women and that “raising up seed” should be considered as a possible explanation for his behaviour – which the authors of this essay don’t do.

Loyalty: Joseph Smith tested the loyalty of his closest associates by asking to marry their wives and daughters. Men who passed the test, entered a small, trusted inner circle, received leadership positions and were encouraged to start relations with other women themselves (Wagoner 1989, p. 41).

In Nauvoo, most if not all of the first husbands seem to have continued living in the same household with their wives during Joseph’s lifetime, and complaints about these sealings with Joseph Smith are virtually absent from the documentary record. Note 22

That few complaints are known about Joseph Smith’s sealings to married women is, again, not an accurate representation of all the relevant facts:

Firstly, not all legal husbands were aware that Joseph Smith initiated relations with their wives (although most men knew afterwards). This was certainly true for Orson Hyde (on a mission) and Adam Lightner (out of town) and possibly for George Harris, Windsor Lyon, David Sessions and Jonathan Holmes as well.

Secondly, by focusing on “these [12 to 14]sealings”, a large group of people is left out of the picture who did not appreciate Joseph Smith’s proposals and who did have complaints about them. One of them, William Law, founded a newspaper with other Nauvoo dissidents in which they wanted to expose polygamy and other misconduct. As the mayor of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith allowed the printing press and the first edition to be destroyed. For this unlawful act, he was arrested and while awaiting judicial proceedings in prison, was murdered by an angry mob. The attempted suppression of complaints about polygamy directly led to Joseph Smith’s death.

Thirdly, complaints from legal husbands are not as absent from the documentary record as the authors of this essay suggest, especially in view of the limited scope of this practice. Church leader Daniel H. Wells, for instance, wrote about Albert Smith (no relation), Esther Dutcher’s legal husband: “He is much afflicted with the loss of his first wife. It seems that she was sealed to Joseph the Prophet in the days of Nauvoo, though she still remained his wife, and afterwards nearly broke his heart by telling him of it, and expressing her intention of adhering to that relationship” (Hales 2010a)

Another example is Henry Jacobs, whose wife Zina Huntington first married Joseph Smith but remained with Henry, then left her husband altogether for Brigham Young after Joseph Smith’s death. Although he remained a loyal Mormon, his letters reveal a deeply hurt husband and father:

“I have written so many letters to you and the children from first to last and got no letters, that I almost feel discouraged. I never have received but one from you since I left Salt Lake. O, how happy I should be if I only could see you and the little children, I would like to see the little babe.

Zina, I wish you to prosper. I wish you knew what I have to bear, my feelings are indescribable. I am unhappy, there is no peace for poor me. My pleasure is you, my comfort has vanished.

I have had many a good dream about you and the little ones. I have imagined myself at home with you and the little boys upon my knees, singing and playing with them. What a comfort, what a joy, to think upon those days that are gone by, o heaven bless me, even poor me, shall I ever see them again?

I think of you very often, Zina. Are you happy? Do you enjoy your life as pleasant as you did with me when I was home with you and the children, when we could say our prayers together and speak together in tongues and bless each other in the name of the Lord?

O, I think of those happy days that are past. When I sleep the sleep of death then I will not forget you and my little lambs. I love my affections, I love my children. O Zina, can I ever, will I ever get you again?” (minor editing for legibility by, for more extensive quotations, see Compton 1997, pp. 98-100).

These sealings may also be explained by Joseph’s reluctance to enter plural marriage because of the sorrow it would bring to his wife Emma. He may have believed that sealings to married women would comply with the Lord’s command without requiring him to have normal marriage relationships. This could explain why, according to Lorenzo Snow, the angel reprimanded Joseph for having “demurred” on plural marriage even after he had entered into the practice. After this rebuke, according to this interpretation, Joseph returned primarily to sealings with single women. Note 23

As stated in note 21, this explanation is purely speculative. It is based on reading Joseph Smith’s mind, a dubious story about an angel (see note 8) and a fabricated concept of marriage without “normal marriage relationships” (see note 16).

Another possibility is that, in an era when life spans were shorter than they are today, faithful women felt an urgency to be sealed by priesthood authority. Several of these women were married either to non-Mormons or former Mormons, and more than one of the women later expressed unhappiness in their present marriages. Living in a time when divorce was difficult to obtain, these women may have believed a sealing to Joseph Smith would give them blessings they might not otherwise receive in the next life. Note 24

This explanation is not only pure speculation; it is also based on an incorrect portrayal of the facts. Of the eleven already married women on Compton’s list, only one had a former Mormon husband (Presendia Lathrop) while three had non-Mormon husbands (Mary Elizabeth Rollins, Sarah Kingsley and Ruth Vose).

Nor was divorce difficult to obtain, given the loose Mormon marriage morals. Of Joseph Smith’s 11 married wives (again according to Compton 1997), five divorced or simply left their prior husband (Lucinda Pendleton between 1846-1850, Zina Huntington in 1847, Presendia Lathrop in 1845, Marinda Johnson in 1870 and Elizabeth Davis in 1846).

Regardless of these factual inaccuracies, it has been explained already in note 11 that the idea of sealing originated in the context of polygamy, not the other way around. Sealing and polygamy were synonyms to early Mormons. Saying that “faithful women felt an urgency to be sealed” would be akin to saying that these women felt an urgency to engage in polygamy – an implication which is contradicted by all available sources.

The women who united with Joseph Smith in plural marriage risked reputation and self-respect in being associated with a principle so foreign to their culture and so easily misunderstood by others. “I made a greater sacrifice than to give my life,” said Zina Huntington Jacobs, “for I never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman.” Nevertheless, she wrote, “I searched the scripture & by humble prayer to my Heavenly Father I obtained a testimony for myself.” After Joseph’s death, most of the women sealed to him moved to Utah with the Saints, remained faithful Church members, and defended both plural marriage and Joseph. Note 25

The women who did not unite with Joseph Smith or his associates in plural marriage also risked their good name. If they continued to refuse polygamous proposals, their reputation might get publicly tarnished to preemptively divert attention away from the proposals themselves, which would be perceived as inappropriate and scandalous should they become known to the general public. Sarah Pratt was accused of adultery, Martha Brotherton was called a “mean harlot” descended from “old Jezebel” in a newspaper, and 19-year old Nancy Rigdon was deemed “little, if any, better than a public prostitute” (Wagoner 1986).

After Joseph’s death, his wives were redistributed among other church leaders. Brigham Young took 7 to 9 of them, his counselor Heber C. Kimball 11. The other women were divided among other church leaders such as George A. Smith, Amasa Lyman, Ezra T. Benson and others (Compton 1997, p. 83).

This practice would be the foundation of the way in which the Mormons practiced polygamy in the second half of the nineteenth century: as “a symbol of status and inclusion in the inner Mormon circle of power” (Zeitzen 2008, p. 99; see also note 11 to the article Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah).

Joseph and Emma

Plural marriage was difficult for all involved. For Joseph Smith’s wife Emma, it was an excruciating ordeal. Records of Emma’s reactions to plural marriage are sparse; she left no firsthand accounts, making it impossible to reconstruct her thoughts. Note 26

This is the third time the authors incorrectly claim that little is known about a certain aspect of Joseph Smith’s polygamy (see notes 4 and 20). The reason why most Mormons do not know a lot about Emma Smith is that she has been largely ignored in Mormon history ever since she chose to remain in Nauvoo after her husband was murdered, and not join the body of Mormons who emigrated to Utah.

According to author Jana Riess, “Emma’s disappearance from LDS history was so total that (…) an article about her for the Ensign in 1979 was the first writing about her to appear in any official church publication in 113 years” (Riess 2013). Polygamy is not discussed in this article, however, because that is another subject which Mormon church leaders have tried hard to ignore in official publications before the advent of internet.

Nevertheless, records of Emma Smith are not “sparse”. Linda King Newell and ValeenTippetts Avery’s biography Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, for example, is 394 pages long, contains a 14-page bibliography of published sources and builds on research into more than 50 historical newspapers, as well as diaries, minutes, letter and (auto)biographies from 85 archive collections. Expertly put together, these sources make crystal clear how Emma Smith felt about her husband’s extra-marital relations: betrayed, deceived, hurt, sad, angry, taunted and humiliated.

However, Newell and Avery’s groundbreaking book is not cited in this essay, once again allowing the authors to pretend that little is known about things they don’t want to write about.

Joseph and Emma loved and respected each other deeply. After he had entered into plural marriage, he poured out his feelings in his journal for his “beloved Emma,” whom he described as “undaunted, firm and unwavering, unchangeable, affectionate Emma.” After Joseph’s death, Emma kept a lock of his hair in a locket she wore around her neck.

Emma approved, at least for a time, of four of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages in Nauvoo, and she accepted all four of those wives into her household. She may have approved of other marriages as well. But Emma likely did not know about all of Joseph’s sealings. She vacillated in her view of plural marriage, at some points supporting it and at other times denouncing it. Note 27

The sequence of events was a bit different. These four women (Emily & Eliza Partidge and Sara & Maria Lawrence, 19, 22, 17 and 19 years old respectively) already lived in the Smith household before Emma gave her permission. The Lawrence sisters were their wards. The Partridge sisters had already married Joseph Smith two months before, without Emma’s knowledge. Nobodytold Emma this, though, but the ceremony was simply performed a second time in her presence. Even when Emma supported polygamy, she was being deceived by her husband (Newell & Avery 1994, p. 142-143).

Emma’s approval was short-lived. Apparently she did not fully realize that Joseph Smith’s plural marriages were also of a sexual nature. That same night she found her husband in a room with Eliza Partridge and “from that very hour,” Emily wrote in her journal, “Emma was our bitter enemy” (Newell & Avery 1994, p. 143-144; Smith 1994).

The speculation that Emma Smith “may have approved of other marriages as well” has no basis in fact. She didn’t even know about these unions. These four are the only ones which she approved of for a few hours, after which she immediately regretted it.

During the two months in which these events unfolded, Emma Smith’s attitude toward polygamy did indeed vacillate. The rest of her life, before and after, she was radically opposed to it. To her dying day she maintained, against better judgment, that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy.

In the summer of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation on marriage, a lengthy and complex text containing both glorious promises and stern warnings, some directed at Emma. The revelation instructed women and men that they must obey God’s law and commands in order to receive the fullness of His glory.

The revelation on marriage required that a wife give her consent before her husband could enter into plural marriage. Nevertheless, toward the end of the revelation, the Lord said that if the first wife “receive not this law”—the command to practice plural marriage—the husband would be “exempt from the law of Sarah,” presumably the requirement that the husband gain the consent of the first wife before marrying additional women. Note 28

The “law of Sarah”, then, is of no consequence. The first wife must give her consent but if she doesn't, the plural marriage can go ahead anyway.

After Emma opposed plural marriage, Joseph was placed in an agonizing dilemma, forced to choose between the will of God and the will of his beloved Emma. 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. Note 29

However, Joseph Smith had already taken on 22 extra wives before he first told his wife about polygamy. There was no dilemma when the 1843 revelation was recorded. He had already made his choice without giving her the opportunity to come to a decision.

Because of Joseph’s early death and Emma’s decision to remain in Nauvoo and not discuss plural marriage after the Church moved west, many aspects of their story remain known only to the two of them.

Trial and Spiritual Witness

Years later in Utah, participants in Nauvoo plural marriage discussed their motives for entering into the practice. God declared in the Book of Mormon that monogamy was the standard; at times, however, He commanded plural marriage so His people could “raise up seed unto [Him].” Plural marriage did result in an increased number of children born to believing parents. Note 30

This is incorrect. Mormon polygamy led to fewer children than probably would have been born in a monogamous society (see note 6 of the article Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah).

Some Saints also saw plural marriage as a redemptive process of sacrifice and spiritual refinement. According to Helen Mar Kimball, Joseph Smith stated that “the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.” Though it was one of the “severest” trials of her life, she testified that it had also been “one of the greatest blessings.” Her father, Heber C. Kimball, agreed. “I never felt more sorrowful,” he said of the moment he learned of plural marriage in 1841. “I wept days. … I had a good wife. I was satisfied.”

The decision to accept such a wrenching trial usually came only after earnest prayer and intense soul-searching. Brigham Young said that, upon learning of plural marriage, “it was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave.” “I had to pray unceasingly,” he said, “and I had to exercise faith and the Lord revealed to me the truth of it and that satisfied me.” Heber C. Kimball found comfort only after his wife Vilate had a visionary experience attesting to the rightness of plural marriage. “She told me,” Vilate’s daughter later recalled, “she never saw so happy a man as father was when she described the vision and told him she was satisfied and knew it was from God.”

Lucy Walker recalled her inner turmoil when Joseph Smith invited her to become his wife. “Every feeling of my soul revolted against it,” she wrote. Yet, after several restless nights on her knees in prayer, she found relief as her room “filled with a holy influence” akin to “brilliant sunshine.” She said, “My soul was filled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew,” and “supreme happiness took possession of my whole being.”

Not all had such experiences. Some Latter-day Saints rejected the principle of plural marriage and left the Church, while others declined to enter the practice but remained faithful. Nevertheless, for many women and men, initial revulsion and anguish was followed by struggle, resolution, and ultimately, light and peace. Sacred experiences enabled the Saints to move forward in faith. Note 31

As can be seen from the examples above, it takes most people tremendous effort to act against their natural feelings, their socialization and their conscience. Many reports of the struggle of those who first entered a polygamous relationship, therefore, mention days and nights of prayer, fasting and sleep deprivation, combined with enormous psychological pressure and emotional distress.

Contrary to what the authors of this essay seem to think, most people will not consider this “a sacred experience” to be emulated in any way. Overriding one’s natural impulses and acting against one’s conscience in the name of faith is the domain of religious fanaticism.

Also missing from this article is the message that religious leaders who, from their position of authority, extort sex from followers in exchange for promises of salvation do not necessarily need to be obeyed (Money 2014). This may be a modern message but then again, the Mormon church chose a modern medium, the internet, to release this essay to a modern audience.


The challenge of introducing a principle as controversial as plural marriage is almost impossible to overstate. A spiritual witness of its truthfulness allowed Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints to accept this principle. Difficult as it was, the introduction of plural marriage in Nauvoo did indeed “raise up seed” unto God. A substantial number of today’s members descend through faithful Latter-day Saints who practiced plural marriage. Note 32

Unfortunately, no sources are given on which the assumption that a substantial number of today’s Mormons descend from polygamists is based. What is known, however, is that the Mormon hierarchy has become intimately connected through dynastic and polygamous marriages (Quinn 1997, pp. 163-197). This confirms that polygamy was an important tool in establishing and expanding the power base of the Mormon church leadership (see note 25 to this article and note 11 to the article Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah).

Church members no longer practice plural marriage. Consistent with Joseph Smith’s teachings, the Church permits a man whose wife has died to be sealed to another woman when he remarries. Moreover, members are permitted to perform ordinances on behalf of deceased men and women who married more than once on earth, sealing them to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married. The precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to trust in our wise Heavenly Father, who loves His children and does all things for their growth and salvation. Note 33

Other traces of polygamy that can be seen in Mormon church policies today are:

* Although a man whose wife has passed away may be sealed to another woman in the temple, women whose husband has passed away may not be sealed to another man.

* As a side effect, it is often difficult for young Mormon widows to find a new partner in the Mormon church. Mormons believe that the children of subsequent husbands will belong to the first husband in the afterlife. The authors of this article feign ignorance about this by claiming that “the precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known” but such ignorance would pull the rug from under the whole of Mormon sealing theology. Why create a mess in this life only to sort it out in the next?

* Divorced women who want to remarry in the temple, have to apply for an ecclesiastical divorce first. This does not apply to men, who can be married in the temple to multiple living women this way.