The essay Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo is an attempt by the Mormon church to frame this part of its history in a way that is acceptable and justifiable to modern Mormons. To this end, the anonymous authors of the essay took as their starting point the main objections that are traditionally raised against Mormon polygamy.
In this general introduction, these objections are briefly discussed, as are the ways in which the Mormon church tries to counter them. A detailed treatment will be found (in time) as notes to the essay itself.
The reason for polygamy
Mormons believe that starting with polygamy was God’s will. The only reason He would want this that can be found in Mormon scripture is to “ raise up seed unto me” (Book of Mormon 2013, p. 121; see also Doctrine and Covenants 2013, pp. 272-273).
This explanation is used in the essay Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo as well, which raises two issues. First, considerable effort is spent in the essay on minimizing the number of sexual relations (and, consequently, the chance of conceiving children) Joseph Smith had with his wives. Second, polygamy probably led to less children, not more (see my note 6 to the essay Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah).
The only remaining argument is Joseph Smith’s 1843 revelation on plural marriage but this raises other issues, as you can read below.
Joseph Smith’s first known extramarital relation dates back to 1833 but he only received the official revelation on polygamy in 1843. Interpreting Joseph Smith’s relations up to 1843 as polygamous marriages creates a problem of chronology.
Mormons solve this by supposing that Joseph Smith had received the revelation earlier but only had it written down in 1843. Joseph Smith himself, however, never said so. On the contrary, his own notes intimate that he considered the 1843 revelation a new revelation. “Received a revelation it the office in the presence of Hyrum [Smith] and Wm. Clayton,” he wrote in his diary for August 12, 1843. For August 25 he noted: “My brother Hyrum in the office conversing with me about the new revelation upon celestial marriage (Wagoner 1989, p. 57).
Literally thousands of books have been written about Mormon polygamy. In view of the nature of the subject and the way polygamy was practised, however, most of it is quite unpallatable. To detract attention from this literature, Mormons often claim that very little is known about polygamy.
They apply two standards here. Damning sources are kept to the most stringent requirements. Everything that does not meet these, is rejected as “unreliable”. For positive sources, no requirements whatsoever seem to apply. Worse still, most mormon speculations, interpretations and theories about polygamy are hardly based on historic sources at all; they are mostly ex post facto arguments.
Since the historical sources suggest that Mormon polygamy may have originated in Joseph Smith’s extramarital relations, Mormons try to minimize the sexual aspect of his relations as much as possible.
The tactic they use here has been described above: the historical sources about this subject are mostly indirect, so Mormons claim that they are unreliable, that few details are known and that this will always be so. However, more is known than the Mormon church cares to discuss.
Two groups of women for which Joseph Smith’s sexual relations are particularly disturbing to Mormons are teenage girls and married women.
Joseph Smith’s relations with minors are rationalised by claiming that marrying at such a young age was normal for girls in those days, which it wasn’t. The age gap between these girls and the prophet wasn’t average either. Both occurred - marriage at a young age and large age gaps - but they were far from normal.
The essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” goes into quite some detail about one teenage bride, Helen Mar Kimball. That Joseph Smith had relationships with two 14- year olds, two 16-year olds and three 17-year olds, remains unmentioned, as is the fact that one of these children was his ward. Likewise, the case of Mary Rollins, who, as young as 12 years old, was groomed for years by Joseph Smith to start a relationship with him, is not discussed.
Joseph Smith’s “marriages” to married women are a problem as well, not in the least because his own revelation about plural marriage explicitly forbids it. Moreover, approaching married women caused quite a stir, not just with the lawful husbands of these women (if they knew, that is) but also in the communities of Kirtland and Nauvoo.
It looks like the Mormons don’t have a clue how to deal with this aspect of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. In the article “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo”, no fewer than three theories are proposed to explain Joseph Smith’s relations with married women. None of these is based on any fact and the facts that are known, are not discussed.
In all times and all places where the Mormons ever practised polygamy, it was against the law of the land which they claimed to respect. It’s hardly a surprise then, that lying has always been an integral part of Mormon polygamy (see Hardy 1992).
Joseph Smith lied to his wife, his associates and his followers. His successors lied to the authorities, the court and even Congress. Today, the Mormon church lies about polygamy in its missionary efforts, its curriculum and in the media.
A considerable part of the essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” is dedicated to convincing the reader that polygamy was very tough on the men but that most women eventually made their peace with it.
What is not mentioned, is that these women had very little choice. The revelation about plural marriage is clear about this: if a man wants to take another wife, his first wife has to consent. If she doesn’t, she is damned and he can go ahead anyway.
This inequality is still seen in current Mormon marriage practices and policies, as is partly admitted toward the end of the essay. Polygamy, therefore, remains in the back of every Mormon woman’s mind to this day, if not in this life, then in the next.