Joseph Smith Polygamy: Joseph Smith’s Trial and Error Approach to Plural Marriage (Part 2)

Todd Noall

Todd Noall

Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

Joseph Smith Polygamy: Understanding Time-And-Eternity Plural Marriages

After the second plural marriage, Joseph Smith polygamy begin this string of curious eternity-only marriages. In fact, eight of his next nine proposals are to women who are already married. And this, you know, when you first learn about this, this is quite the head-scratcher. Why would he propose to women who are already married? It appears that there are at least three possible reasons, maybe a mixture of all three. Or maybe there’s more that we don’t know about. But there seems to be a few reasons. 

Achieving Exaltation in the Afterlife

One of them would be a doctrinal reason. Again, back to D&C 132, the fourth reason, is that marriage in the new and everlasting covenant is essential for exaltation. So some of these women who were married to other men were faithful, active women in the church, but their spouses were non-members, or they were inactive, or they were faithless in some way. And so being sealed to Joseph as a plural wife for eternity only would help meet that eternal sealing need, right? It would allow those worthy women to be sealed to an eternal husband for her exaltation in the eternal worlds, in spite of their living husband’s faithlessness. And so that’s a big doctrinal reason why this would’ve occurred. In fact—Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner is our sterling example of this, right? We’ve been calling her Mary Elizabeth Rollins because of her ties to the Rollins family, but her married name was Mary Elizabeth Lightner. Her husband is Adam Lightner, who—I have seen his grave. It’s right next to Mary’s grave in my mom’s hometown in Minersville. Adam is a great guy by all accounts, but he’s not a member of the church, and he never joins. And so Mary Elizabeth was apart of Joseph Smith polygamy, probably for the exact doctrinal reason that you’re explaining here, that her husband wasn’t a church member. She was sealed to Joseph Smith in order to enter into this “new and everlasting order of the priesthood,” as section 131 describes it.

That leads us to the second potential reason that he did this. And sometimes it was just situational. It’s related to the first. Sometimes the women would prefer Joseph to be their eternal husband. One great example of this is one of Joseph’s plural wives, Ruth Vose Sayers. She’s the legal wife of Mr. Sayers in the record. In Andrew Jenson’s biographical sketch of Ruth Vose Sayers, he says that Mr. Sayers, her husband, “not attaching much importance to the theory of a future life, insisted that his wife Ruth should be sealed to the prophet for eternity, [as] he himself should only claim her in this life.” And so “she was accordingly [the] (sic) sealed to the Prophet in Emma Smith’s presence and thus [were] (sic) became numbered among Joseph Smith polygamy” So in this instance, we have a husband, we don’t know—again, a private conversation between Ruth and her husband. I don’t know if she was nagging him or what was happening, but at some point he says, “Let’s just get you sealed to Joseph. He can have you in eternity, and I’ll have you for now. How about that?” And she, she says, “That’s a great idea.”10 So that’s a situational reason. What would be the second? Just kind of, this is what husbands and wives had kind of worked out amongst themselves, and Joseph allowed it, and so that’s an interesting story. Let me just cite one other example. Nancy Marinda Hyde is the wife of Orson Hyde. She’s sealed to Joseph Smith. Later on, in the Utah period, Orson is practicing plural marriage at this point, too. But she actually approaches him and sort of, I guess as gently as possible, tells him that she considers Joseph Smith to be her husband in the eternities, and they end their marriage relationship in this life with the anticipation that she’d be with Joseph in the eternities, too. So there’s a lot of complexity going on here. And when we’re talking about sealing, we really need to sometimes use this perspective that it doesn’t seem like in most of these marriages, there was a marriage in the sense we think of it. It was like they were connecting together, they were creating familial relationships that would go into the eternities.

And I think that’s a key thing, and that bleeds into the third reason, which we could just call an emotional reason why eternity-only sealings would be appealing to those involved in Joseph Smith polygamy, is because they didn’t live together as husband and wife. In fact, when they already have a husband, that would prevent any sexual relationship, right? And I think Joseph maybe preferred this approach because it allowed him to be technically obedient to the commandment while essentially guaranteeing that there would be no sexuality in the relationship, right? And so the absence of sexuality in an eternity-only sealing would provide that layer of emotional protection for Joseph and Emma Smith’s relationship. And the Gospel Topics essay on Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo says as much. Let me quote from it. It says, “These eternity-only 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.” And looking at this from all the angles, I think that’s got to be close to the truth, if not dead on. The experience with Fanny Alger was just scarring, I believe, with Joseph and Emma’s relationship. And so when the angel comes again, and now he’s married Louisa Beaman, and that’s reopened up all the scar tissue from Kirtland. I think the wives involved in Joseph Smith polygamy probably preferred this eternity-only approach because of that advantage. This may have been a way of reaching a compromise between Joseph and Emma to obey the Lord’s commandment but insulate her from some of the emotional consequences of Joseph having other wives. 

Now, obviously, eternity-only sealings aren’t practiced today. Why does it end? What are the sources on that? So in 1842, according to Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, that third time the angel comes, this time with a sword, right? Brandishing the sword to make his point that “No, Joseph, we’re not talking about eternity only.” At least, that’s the inference, right? The inference would be that eternity-only sealings are not fully what the Lord has in mind. So in 1842, we see Joseph’s practice suddenly switch from eternity-only sealings to marrying women who did not have husbands. So these would be time and eternity marriages. In fact, between 1842 and 1843, Joseph married 20 more women during that time, all of whom did not have husbands. And that would fit, again, with the timeline of Mary Elizabeth Rollins, where she’s saying, 1842, the angel comes a third time. Suddenly Joseph Smith polygamy switches to single women. And so I think we can infer from that that that eternity-only approach was not fully satisfying to the Lord. Do you think that’s a fair inference? I think it’s a fair inference. Again, we have limited sources to tell us what was going on here, right? I mean, it’s complicated, right? It’s clear that some of these marriages are eternity only in which they’re husband and wife in eternity, but not acting as husband and wife in this life. But now I’m going to raise the question that comes up in my classes. Was Joseph husband and wife in the full sense with any of these women? And as a follow-up question, did he have children with any of these plural wives? You know, so we have about 35 well-documented wives of Joseph Smith. Nine of them there is sexuality that is documented. Like you said, they’re kind of in a Victorian time period where that’s not something that you normally would divulge.

Joseph’s Relationship with his Plural Wives

But the stakes were raised later on in the temple lot case. Let me provide some background. This case came up when the reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had kind of come into its own, and for a while, there were several legal squabbles over the Kirtland Temple and over the temple lot in Independence, as to which church was the legitimate church, which church was the church that traces itself back to Joseph Smith. The RLDS church, is it the Temple Lot Church? Is it The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? There’s all these schisms kind of running around and one of the major things that the RLDS were arguing during this time, they don’t argue this anymore, but they did at the time, was that Joseph Smith polygamy never practiced plural marriage, that Brigham Young initiated it and that Joseph Smith was never involved. And so, in response to this, several of Joseph’s plural wives were asked to testify. And again, these are chaste people. They don’t like to talk about their sex lives. “Did you have carnal relations?” I remember that question. “Did you have carnal relations?” That’s such a direct question. I can’t imagine how invasive that is for a 19th-century person who’s deeply religious. But credit these women for their bravery. They did tell the truth when they were on the stand. Yeah. “Yes. Yes, we did.” Now a complicating factor is, as far as we know, Joseph Smith doesn’t have any children with anybody besides Emma Smith. A friend of ours, mutual friend Ugo Perego—who’s a genetic researcher, actually tracked down a couple of people, I think Josephine Lyon is the most prominent one, who said that they were the children of Joseph Smith. Ugo took DNA samples from descendants of Joseph Smith, from his children with Emma and from Josephine Lyon, who claimed she was the daughter of Joseph Smith, and the results came back negative.11 We can’t find or identify any children that were born of the unions of Joseph Smith polygamy. Joseph Smith only had children with Emma. There are about 20 claims of children, eight of which are pretty solid, and yeah, all of those have been DNA tested and have come back negative.

Josephine Lyon, apparently when her mom was dying, Sylvia Sessions Lyon, when she was dying, she said to Josephine, “You are the daughter of Joseph Smith.” And so Josephine believed it, and her posterity believed it. But yeah, Ugo Perego has looked into that, and there’s no DNA evidence that that’s the case. And so that has raised some questions. If one of the four reasons given in scripture was to multiply and replenish, how come Joseph didn’t multiply and replenish with anyone but Emma? And there are a few sources, like Mary Elizabeth Lightner, again, said “I don’t know about his having children, but I heard of three. I heard of three that he was the father of,” she said, so a little hearsay there. Another one, George Reynolds, who was a secretary to Wilford Woodruff, he said in 1892 that one of his plural wives did become pregnant but miscarried, he said. We’ve got Lucy Walker Smith, one of Joseph’s wives. This is when some of the sons of Joseph and Emma from the RLDS church have come to Utah and are interviewing Joseph Smith polygamy, or these purported wives. Right? They’re still trying to decide how they come down on that, whether they’re going to believe that Joseph started this or Brigham Young. And so Lucy Walker Smith says to Joseph’s sons, she later wrote about that experience, that “they seem surprised that there was no issue,” or no children from asserted plural marriages with their father. And then she says, “Could they but realize the hazardous life he lived after that revelation was given, they would comprehend the reason. He was harassed and hounded and lived in constant fear of being betrayed by those who ought to have been true to him.” So one of his wives perspectives was, “We didn’t really have a lot of time together,” right? That he was harassed and hounded and lived in constant fear. They’re not having a lot of opportunity for intimacy, it sounds like. If they had had children together, I don’t think that would change the equation in the least.

Revelations from God

Some of these Joseph Smith Wives, Louisa Beaman, for instance, married Brigham Young after Joseph’s death and had several children through him, and the whole time plural marriage was practiced in the church it was common practice for plural wives and their husbands to have children. One problem we sometimes have in introducing plural marriage is just trying to capture perspective and how it must have felt to have this marriage practice introduced to you. Lucy Walker Smith is a part of Joseph Smith polygamy. This is a quote from her autobiography. You can find this at the Church History Library. She said, “Every feeling of my soul revolted against it. Said I, ‘The same God who sent this message is the being I have worshipped from my early childhood, and he must manifest his will to me.’ He walked across the room.” This is Joseph Smith, “returned, and stood before me with the most beautiful expression of countenance, and said, ‘God Almighty bless you. You shall have a manifestation of the will of God concerning you, a testimony that you can never deny. I will tell you what it shall be. It shall be that joy in peace that you never knew.’” So he tells her, “Go and get your own manifestation. Pray about it. Get a revelation from the Lord.” And this is what she writes as her experience: “Oh, how earnestly I prayed for those words to be fulfilled. It was near dawn after another sleepless night when my room was lighted up by heavenly influence. To me, it was, in comparison, like the brilliant sun bursting through the darkest cloud. The words of the prophet were indeed fulfilled. My soul was filled with a calm, sweet peace that I never knew.”

“Supreme happiness took possession of me, and I received a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truth of plural marriage and Joseph Smith polygamy, which has been like an anchor to the soul through all trials of life. I felt that I must go out in the morning air and give vent to the joy and gratitude that filled my soul. As I descended the stairs, President 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, he placed his hands on my head, and blessed me with every blessing my heart could possibly desire.” And so in discussing the numbers and sort of the more sensational questions surrounding plural marriage, like, “Were they intimate with each other?“ ”Did they have children together?” We shouldn’t overlook the fact that the men and women who entered into this practice saw it as a deeply spiritual practice. Doesn’t seem like Lucy Walker had an easy time with it, and the Lord granted her a reprieve from her struggle by giving her a manifestation that this was the right thing. I think it’s important to tell that because it doesn’t seem like there was coercion that happened here with Joseph Smith polygamy. It was a “Go and find your own testimony,” and there were several instances of people who had the principles explained to them and then decided not to enter into it, too. It was very carefully introduced. Yeah, sometimes it—there’s this antagonistic strain of people who want to make it out to be that Joseph was abusing his ecclesiastical position and putting all kinds of pressure on these women, even threatening them with loss of salvation or something like that if they didn’t marry him, right?

But there is no historical evidence that bears that out. In fact, the opposite is true, like the accounts of Lucy Walker that you just gave. There are multiple accounts from his other wives talking about spiritual manifestations. Mary Elizabeth Rollins said she actually saw an angel and was freaked out and, like, covered her head under her sheets, right? And she didn’t know what to say to the angel. And Joseph was a little disappointed that she didn’t let him talk to her. She just hid under his sheets. But she got her witness that this was a true principle. And throughout Joseph Smith polygamy there was never, as far as we have any historical record, put any sort of salvation on the line, or there was no coercion, no force. In fact, one of the things I love about Joseph Smith’s approach to this that helps me know that he is upright and he is as good as we often talk about him being is that he would propose to most of his wives through their dad or through their brother. Yeah. It was never coercion. It was always either “You get your own witness,” or he’s proposing through the very protectors of their chastity. Is that the kind of shenanigans that a fraudulent man who’s just trying to abuse his ecclesiastical position so he can gratify his lustful desires, is he going to go to the guardian of the chastity and virtue of the woman and propose through them? Would he propose through the dad or the brother if he was just trying to take advantage of these women? I propose that he would not. 

Building Dynastic Connections

Here’s a great case in point of Joseph Smith Polygamy: Benjamin F. Johnson‘s a close friend of Joseph Smith, and—this is firsthand, Benjamin F. Johnson telling this story. He said, “On … Sunday April second, President Smith took me by the arm for a walk, leading the way to a secluded spot within the adjacent grove, where to my … surprise, he commenced to offer [correction: open up] to me the principle of plural or celestial marriage, but I was more astonished by his asking me for my sister Almera to be his wife.” So he is going through the brother here. Now, watch. He says, “I sincerely believed him to be a prophet of God, and I loved him as such, and also for the many evidences of his kindness to me, yet such was the force of my education, and the scorn that I felt … unvirtuous, that under the first impulse of my feelings, I looked him calmly, but firmly in the face and told him that ‘I had always believed [you] to be a good man, [Joseph,] and wished to believe it still, and would try to;’— and that, ‘I would take for him a message to my sister, and if the doctrine was true, all would be well, but if I should afterward learn that it was offered to insult or prostitute my sister I would take his life.” That’s awesome. “If you’re lying to me, Joseph, you’re trying to take advantage of my sister, I will kill you.” This is one of Joseph’s very close friends. That’s the point, isn’t it? That’s the point. And he goes on. He said that Joseph responded with a smile, “Benjamin, you will never see that day, but you shall live to know that it is true, and rejoice in it.”12 So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, do Joseph’s actions here strike you as the actions of a man looking to take advantage through Joseph Smith polygamy? I submit that approaching the guardians of these women’s virtue to propose marriage is not the action of a lust-hungry man.

Another prominent example, the same thing you’re arguing here, Scott, is Sarah Ann Whitney. The marriage ceremony that they used, which was actually performed in 1842, was published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers recently, and Sarah Ann Whitney is the daughter of Newell K. Whitney and his wife. Her name—is it Elizabeth Whitney? It’s escaping me right now. Who, according to the same pattern you set up here, they were approached by Joseph to ask if he could be sealed to Sarah Ann. In fact, a close family friend records this: “Bishop Whitney was not a man that readily accepted of every doctrine and would question the prophet very closely upon principles, if not made clear to his understanding. When Joseph saw that he was doubtful concerning the righteousness of the celestial order, he told them to go and inquire of the Lord concerning it, and they should receive a testimony for himself. The bishop with his wife, who had for years been called Mother Whitney, retired together and unitedly besought the Lord for a testimony whether or not this principle was from him. As they ever after bore testimony, they received a manifestation and that it was so powerful they could not mistake it.”13 So he’s not just asking Joseph Smith polygamy that he’s being sealed to get a manifestation. In this case, he asked their parents to get a manifestation, and the ceremony is performed by Sarah’s father in this instance. That, again, doesn’t fit the pattern of an adulterous, sneaking-around-behind-the-back kind of relationship.It was creating this connection, and that’s maybe another angle to look at is creating dynastic connections.

Connecting families. In fact, some of Joseph’s more controversial sealings, like Helen Marr Kimball, can maybe be explained by this feeling of “let’s connect families together.” Can you explain a little bit about that? Remember when Jesus was talking to Peter in Matthew 16:19 and he said that he would give unto him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and then he used this as his word. He says, “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” I think the word “whatsoever” when it comes to the sealing power was interpreted by Joseph Smith with some leeway, some wiggle room, to be able to use the sealing power in different ways to try to help save people. You know, that’s the ultimate goal. And if eternal marriage is one of those things we need to do to be saved, sealing power is there to help make that happen through Joseph Smith polygamy. But there’s this other idea that is brought up in Nauvoo of connecting families sort of horizontally and not just connecting a husband and a wife, but connecting families that wanted to be together in the network of heaven, the priesthood network of heaven, where you would want to connect with people that you loved. And so one of the ways plural marriage came into play here is if someone had a daughter, they could have the daughter sealed to Joseph, and that would then create a connection with the Joseph Smith family in this kind of dynasty, right? Like, a kind of ancient kingdoms where the prince of this kingdom would marry the princess of that kingdom and connect the two dynasties. That’s kind of where the word “dynastic connection” comes in. This made sense when Joseph talked about the Kingdom of God and establishing kingdoms and kings and queens and priests and priestesses in the Nauvoo theology as it developed.

A concrete example is Heber C. Kimball and his wife, Vilate, offered to Joseph Smith polygamy is their daughter Helen Kimball. At the time, she was 14 years old, and so this is one of those controversial ones, right? It was her parents’ idea. Heber C. Kimball was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and they had a desire to be connected to the Smiths. In fact, let’s just actually let Helen speak for herself here. I have a quote from her. She says this, that later on she’s going to actually write one or two books. Did she write two books about plural marriage? She writes a couple defending plural marriage, yeah. She was a staunch defender of plural marriage, and so her first introduction to it was her dad talking about it with her gently and giving her some time to think about that and then actually making the proposal. So here’s her own account, she said “He,” meaning her father, Heber C․ Kimball, “taught me the principle of celestial marriage, and having a great desire to be connected with the prophet Joseph, he offered me to him.” And so that’s Helen’s understanding this would be a way to connect the two families. Now, Joseph Smith is never with Helen sexually. This appears to be an eternity-only sealing by all accounts. So if the Kimball and Smith families are bound through this daughter, Helen, on earth, then these families would be bound together in heaven. And so that’s a third kind of innovative way of being apart of Joseph Smith polygamy is using sealing power, and plural marriage in this case was the way to make that happen. Another expression here, again, expanding our use of the word “sealing,” is that after Joseph is gone, Brigham Young expands the concept of sealing.

From Marital Sealing to Adoptive Sealing

I like to shock my classes by saying, “Hey, my great, great, great granduncle was sealed to Brigham Young.” But he was sealed as his son. There are even some indications that sealing as an adoptive practice was something that happened in Nauvoo. They start even calling it adoptions, right? They say this is adoption practice, yeah. Let me point to a source I found a couple of months ago. This is Jane Manning James14, who’s kind of the patron saint of African American women in the church. She’s an African American convert, who shows up in Nauvoo. In her autobiography, she wrote, “Sister Emma asked me one day if I would like to be adopted to them as their child. I did not answer her, and she said, ‘I will wait a while and let you consider it.’ She waited two weeks before she asked me again, and when she did, I told her, ‘No, ma’am,’ because I did not understand or know what it meant. They were always good and kind to me, but I did not know my own mind. I did not comprehend.” Now it’s possible that what she’s making reference to was Emma proposing an adoptive sealing similar to the concept of Joseph Smith polygamy. That raises all kinds of questions, but also fits the M. O. that Emma believed in these principles, but was extremely cautious with the way that they were used. She doesn’t put any pressure on her. She doesn’t coerce her. She introduces the idea. When there’s resistance encountered, Emma backs off. And this practice of adoptive sealing actually continues for a while after Nauvoo. I think it’s Wilford Woodruff that ends it, isn’t it? 1894, he gets a revelation. He announces it in General Conference to all temple sealers, all presidents of temples, to no longer allow for adoptive sealings. It kind of came to be that you’d want to be sealed into the family of Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball or Erastus Snow, popular Apostles. You know, my great, great grandma is sealed to Erastus Snow. I think it was after Erastus Snow died, she got sealed to him.

The idea was that you would kind of want to be sealed to someone who you were pretty sure was going to go to heaven or going to be in the celestial kingdom is the point of Joseph Smith polygamy. You’re hedging your bets there, huh? Kind of hitch your wagon to theirs and kind of where they’re going to go, I’m going to go. So we kind of started building these, like, eternal dynastic family clusters. So, Joseph Smith, we don’t have any evidence that he did it other than by way of marriage. That Jane Manning James story is interesting that that was proposed, but we don’t have any evidence that actually anything ever came about other than by marriage with Joseph. But then Brigham Young, he’ll use it as adopting children. You know, President Packer once mentioned this in one of his books, called The Things of the Soul, pages 214-216. He said, “In the early days of the church, the Saints didn’t know how to use this sealing power in behalf of the dead.” That’s how he puts it. “Similarly, it took time for the Saints to understand the matter of sealings. They knew there was a sealing, yet they didn’t know quite what it was. So they began by getting themselves sealed to living prophets” like in the case of Joseph Smith polygamy. And he describes this practice, and then he says, “In April 1894, this changed. In General Conference President Woodruff explained these changes, and that’s when we got the lineage straightened out and we knew what this sealing of families was all about.”In that general conference, I’ve gone back and read that talk. Wilford Woodruff, he says, as he was pondering on “our sealing and adoptive practices, the Spirit said to me, ‘Have you not a father?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Then why not be sealed to him? And then seal him to his father all the way back as far as you can go.’” And he said, “Yes, that’s right.” And this is where the picture became clear. This is how we do it today, right? We go to the temple, we get sealed to our ancestors, and we try to seal them back as far as we can find ancestors to seal them back to. And so that current modern practice that we do, that’s 1894 onward in terms of being kind of the standard practice of how we do sealings. So before that, it was kind of they’re figuring it out, and Joseph Smith polygamy was subject to this trail and error approach. As President Packer’s saying, they’re kind of figuring it out.

From Stumbling Beginnings to Contemporary Faith in Ancestral Connections

It goes to your idea that they weren’t given an instruction manual. They were given the sealing keys, and then they had to stumble around a little bit. You could see how something that started out with a good desire to connect families together, to say, “Hey, you’re not just my friend. I want you to be part of my family for eternity.” But then that idea of a dynasty could eventually be taken so far that you’re going to your, you know, grandpa and saying, “Hey, buddy, you’re great and all, but I think I’ve got a better shot at eternity with Erastus Snow” or something like that. Today what we do exudes a fair amount of faith in our ancestors. You know, my grandpa wasn’t active in the church, but I went to the temple when he died, and my grandma and he were sealed together, and now I’m sealed back to him with this hopeful expression that maybe with a different perspective, he changed in the next life, he had the opportunity to accept things. And I really got the feeling that he did when I was there in the temple. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but I don’t think it is. I think this context really helps with that 14-year-old marriage of Joseph Smith polygamy. Because that one’s a shocker. But it’s important to know that she was an eternity-only wife, meant to connect the Kimball-Smith families. There was no sexual relationship. In fact, the age of consent in Illinois, this is wild. The age of consent for a girl to be married was 10 years old in Illinois at that time. That’s not very common, even 14 was young, but it wasn’t unheard of, and it wasn’t also unheard of for that age gap between husband and wife. In Newell Bringhurst’s book, they actually went back to try and study, “Hey, what were the ranges people were getting married at in America in the 1840s? And 14 was relatively young, but it was in the ballpark.” It was a little bit different back then, so that changed things.

There’s an analogy I like to use with my students, and that is a fact stripped of its context can be like an electrical wire stripped of its protective rubber sheath. It’s quite shocking when you come in contact with it, and the critics of the church know this. Joseph Smith polygamy can easily be used as a shock factor. If you don’t have the context, if you just drop this line, if you just say to somebody, “Hey, did you know Joseph Smith married a 14-year-old girl?” So there’s the fact. That’s actually a true fact. But it’s stripped of its context of eternity-only, it was parent-encouraged, dynastic sealings, it’s within the ballpark of the age of acceptability during that time. Or you could say this without any context: “Did you know that Joseph Smith married other men’s wives? Yeah. Crazy, right?” You can just make it sound as scandalous as you possibly can. Keep the fact outside of its context. But if you say, “Well, actually, in context, this is primarily to help those who are not in eternal sealings to have an opportunity to be sealed. And it guaranteed that there would be no sexual relationship.” So before we push the scandal button, right? And just start crying, “Scandal! Scandal! Scandal!” We gotta keep a context in mind. Gotta keep that rubber sheath around the wire. It’s important, by the way, to know about those women who were already married to men who then married Joseph Smith for eternity, that none of them ever complained, that none of their husbands ever complained or left any grievances against Joseph Smith polygamy, that none of the witnesses or officiators made any protest at what was happening, that none of the apostates in Nauvoo ever brought anything up about this in their anti-Mormon attacks. Maybe we’ll talk more about John C. Bennett next time. There’s no evidence of any criticism by anyone.

But now, this is one of the top criticisms of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, right? It’s, like, kind of the—one of the silver bullets, that and the 14-year-old girl. “Did you know about that?” It’s blowing holes in people’s testimonies. When you get the fact without the context, right? They make it all about sex, sex, sex, scandal, scandal, scandal. And without the proper doctrinal and historical context here, no wonder people are being shocked by this stuff. So I just think we would do well to postpone our criticisms or trying to draw any decisive conclusions until you get the kind of perspective that those who were involved had. It’d be well to pause when you come across some shocking fact, like “Joseph married a 14-year-old girl,” and actually go look at what the 14-year-old girl herself said and look at the historical facts of Joseph Smith polygamy. I think that’s just a generally smart rule anytime we’re doing history is you just want to make sure you always get your facts in context. That’s just kind of a basic historical approach, right? And afford people a little bit of complexity. 

I remember early on in my career wrestling with plural marriage and going to a female teacher who I admired, who definitely knew more than I did, and she was also very feminist, very forward-thinking, just a great example. I sat down with her and said, “How do you deal with this?” And she honestly said, “I sat down, and I read the accounts of the women that entered into plural marriage.” “I listened to their story. Rather than having it be filtered through people that were trying to shock and awe me, I embraced the complexity by seeing them not as cardboard cutouts, but as real people that were grappling with really difficult issues. Was it hard for them? Yes, it was extremely difficult. Yeah. Did they have to wrestle with it for a while? They did. Did some of them turn it down? Yeah.” The ones that accepted it and entered into plural marriage, though, regarded it as one of the most sacred experiences of their lives.” And because of that, we need to be cautious in not using this to shock people and not allow ourselves to be shocked, to continue with your analogy. To contextualize and do the work, which is a little bit harder, to really understand what the situation was, what they were feeling, and how the practices of Joseph Smith polygamy were carried out.

In conclusion, I’ll just say that while some of the things we talked about today may come across as pretty odd to our modern experience, I can say in studying Joseph Smith’s plural marriages and the wives and the people that were involved, I could say with a high level of confidence that there are no shenanigans going on. Can I say it like that? That Joseph never does anything that would disqualify him from actually being a true prophet of God or from deserving our trust. I mean, we’ve talked about quite the spectrum today, and a lot of issues that we’ve discussed are troubling to people. But we’ve tried to contextualize them in such a way as to, I think, show that Joseph Smith, he was honorable. He’s a reluctant polygamist who’s trying to do his best to obey a pretty difficult commandment, you know? When everything shakes out, as I read the history, I think he does a pretty darn good job.

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By Todd Noall, Source Expert

Todd Noall is an author and religious scholar at Mormonism Explained with a focus on the history and theology of religion.

Fact Checked by Mr. Kevin Prince, Source Expert

Kevin Prince is a religious scholar and host of the Gospel Learning Youtube channel. His channel has garnered over 41,000 subscribers and accumulated over 4.5 million views. Mr. Prince also created the Gospel Learning App, a reliable platform where individuals seeking truth can access trustworthy answers to religious questions from top educators worldwide.

About Mormonism Explained

Mormonism Explained is a resource that was designed to provide objective and factual information about Mormonism, its history, doctrines, and policies. Our team of researchers consults experts and primary sources to present factual information on a variety of topics relevant to the Mormon Church.