Joseph Smith Polygamy: The Rocky End to Plural Marriage in the Church (Part 1)

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: William Law and the Prophet’s Martyrdom

Let’s move to a different thread, which is how plural marriage is involved in the death of Joseph Smith. Now, this is one of several factors. In fact, the one thing I would point out is the people that pulled the trigger and actually killed Joseph Smith are motivated primarily by political reasons. You know, they’re worried about the growing influence of the saints in the region. And there’s not a lot of mysteries as to who the triggerman are, but the factors that lead up to Joseph Smith polygamy and his death. John Sea Benet plays a role, but probably the person inside Nauvoo who’s most cynically responsible for Joseph Smith’s martyrdom is William Law.

And William Law’s disaffection is also linked in some ways to plural marriage and some other stuff that was going on in William Law’s life a little bit. 

So William Law is Joseph’s second counselor in the first presidency, and he’s mentioned in Section 124 only very positively. There’s a lot of blessings that are promised to William Law if there’s a lot of if statements in those blessings, if he stays faithful. And he was just one of the biggest supporters and advocates of Joseph Smith as a prophet. But it seems the thing that starts to turn him is when Joseph tacitly starts to introduce the principle of plural marriage. Joseph wouldn’t always say it overtly, but as he tacitly starts to kind of fill William Law out on this, William instantly just tries to stamp this down. He’s reported as saying, quote, If an angel from heaven was to reveal to me that a man should have more than one wife, I would kill him. Well, that’s that’s how he felt about that. But ironically, in the fall of 1843, while meeting regularly with the Endowed Saints, in fact, that the book Saints is super good about this. I mean, let me quote from the book Saints a little bit. Hopefully listeners will forgive all my quoting today. This is in volume one. It says, “While meeting regularly with the endowed Saints, William Law hid from Joseph in Hiram the fact that he was guilty of adultery and in committing the sin, William felt that he had transgressed against his own soul. Around this time, Hyrum gave him a copy of the revelation on marriage. ‘Then take it home and read it,’ Hyrum instructed. ‘Then be careful with it and bring it back again.’ William studied the revelation and showed it to his wife, Jane. He doubted its authenticity, but she was sure it was real. William took the revelation to Joseph, who confirmed that it was genuine. Then William begged him to renounce its teachings. But Joseph testified that the Lord had commanded him to teach plural marriage to the Saints and that he would stand condemned if he disobeyed.”

So there’s some interesting ironies happening right here. So he is adamant against plural marriage yet at the same time, he’s got the sin of adultery, which he has not yet confessed, which he’s about to confess. He’s going to confess that on his deathbed when he was very sick. And he will confess to Hyram Smith his adultery. Later that same year, this is 1843, in the fall, he admits to Hyram that he did not feel worthy to live or to die. He said, and now I’m quoting again from Saints, “Yet he wanted to be sealed for eternity to Jane, and he asked Joseph if that were possible. Joseph took the question to the Lord, and the Lord revealed that William could not receive the ordinance because he was adulterous. At this point, William’s heart began to burn with anger against Joseph. So in late December, he and Jane stop meeting with the Endowed Saints. Jane advises that they just sell their property and quietly leave Nauvoo. But William wanted to crush Joseph Smith polygamy, and Joseph altogether, so he began plotting secretly with others who opposed the Prophet. And not long after, he lost his place in the first presidency.” And it’s fair to say that William Law is not the triggerman. No, no, he’s not in the mob that attacks the jail. But he’s probably more responsible for Joseph Smith’s death than any other person. Yeah. He just takes this and it eats him up.

Joseph Mcmorran heard it from William’s son Richard. So 1843 William Law, with his arms around the neck of the prophet, was pleading with him to withdraw the doctrine of plural marriage, which he at that time commenced to teach to some of the brethren. Mr. Law, predicting that if Joseph would abandon the doctrine, Mormonism would in 50 or 100 years dominate the Christian world. Mr. Law pleaded for this with tears streaming from his eyes. The prophet was also in tears, but he informed the gentleman that he could not withdraw the doctrine for God who commanded him to teach it and condemnation would come upon him if he was not obedient to the commandment. Oh, difficult stuff. Unfortunately, William Law takes it to an extreme, so much so that it’s fairly clear, you know, his endgame is that Joseph be not just removed from his position, but killed.

So how does he go from being angry about plural marriage and not being able to be killed his wife because of his own adulterous past to actually leading to the death of Joseph?

Here’s the obvious ones. He’s eventually excommunicated in the spring of 1844. And when Joseph gives things like the King followed sermon and he’s making reference to apostates from the church, this is probably a reference to William Law, and his brother is also complicit in this and participating. William and Wilson Law. The Law Brothers. At this time they start the wheels in motion to try and figure it out. And I don’t want to get too conspiratorial here, but it seems like there’s a genuine conspiracy. They wait until most of the 12 apostles are gone on missions. Joseph Smith announces he’s running for president of the United States in January of 1844. And the apostles, who are some of Joseph Smith’s most loyal supporters, are all called on missions. Brigham Young later on said, If I’d been, in my view, I never would have let Joseph go to Carthage. William is clearly working with other people like Jesse Higby and Robert Foster to corner Joseph into a place where they can basically get him to a spot where they know that he’ll be murdered. 

Some accounts actually place William Law in Carthage when Joseph Smith arrives there claiming that Joseph Smith is never going to leave Carthage jail alive. So this is where the Expositor comes into play.

The publishers of the Nauvoo Expositor are William and Wilson Law and the Expositor, which is published in the beginning of June 1844, makes two primary accusations against Joseph Smith. One is that he’s teaching the plurality of gods and that this is blasphemous, and the other is that Joseph Smith polygamy is being practiced. So they make this public accusation, and Joseph and the city council feel like they have to make a response to it.

The Nauvoo expositor seems to be a deliberate play. It had to be so inflammatory as to require some action by Joseph as mayor in the city council. And you know, the accusations of false doctrine, damnable doctrines they call an abominable hoard EMS as they talk about. And it’s very incendiary the way they talk about plural marriage in the Nauvoo expositor. I don’t recommend it as like pleasant reading, but if you ever want to check out what they said, it’s just, it’s really bad. It’s pretty extreme.

You know, luring young women from across the ocean to Nauvoo so that they can pounce and gratify their lust upon them. It’s so provocative and so incendiary that the city council’s got to do something about it multiple times. What should we do about this press? They’re going to consult legal texts and conclude from that. So in the novel Charter, which ironically John C Bennett helped to establish, Wright had a clause that public nuisances could be removed legally. And then they look at some legal texts which say that a libelous press, which the Nauvoo expositor was, can be considered a public nuisance. So if you put two and two together, the libelous press could legally be destroyed as a public nuisance. They talked about if they don’t do this, if they don’t destroy the press, then the Missouri days are going to come back, Right? This is so inflammatory, this kind of stuff. It’s going to whip up everyone that’s not LDS in the surrounding areas into such a frenzy as to bring them upon Nauvoo and blood would certainly be shed. So they’re trying to avoid that. But in agreeing to destroy the press, that’s going to give legal recourse to William Law and those that were with him to charge him with riot, they get charged with Riot. And both Joseph and the entire city council is required to go and respond to these charges at Carthage. They had to go to Carthage. And so that seems to be all part of the trap.

I will probably do a series just on the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, and we can dive into this deeper. But I want to point out a couple of things. Yeah. The city council meets together to make the decision to destroy the Expositor press. Right. They publish the minutes of that meeting later on. They’re there for everybody to read. There are people arguing in favor of the destruction of the press, including Joseph Smith. John Taylor is probably the one that argues most forcefully for it. But the question of were their actions legal? A young law professor named Dallin H. Oaks actually wrote an article in the 1960s where he looked at the laws of the time and the precedent of the time, and his conclusion was that the destruction of the Expositor was legal. Yeah. You know, like you said, they consult law texts, they have discussions back and forth. And ultimately, somebody in the meeting speaks about Huntsville and says, you know what, If this newspaper is allowed to print, it’s printing stuff that is just going to stir up problems. There’s going to be another Huntsville that happens here. So the destruction of the Expositor press is not a riot. It’s not a mob. They go and serve a warrant. And then a posse organized by the sheriff systematically destroys the press. And the other thing is that Joseph Smith is willing to go to trial over the legality of this action. He actually appears before two judges in Nauvoo. One’s a latter day saint, one isn’t, and is exonerated both times. But at this point, the laws and the WHO are in Nauvoo and the people outside Nauvoo like Tom Sharpe that really want Joseph dead, just have their excuse to yell and scream and holler until they can get Joseph out of Nauvoo and into a place where he’s vulnerable, which is Carthage Jail.

So I guess in summary, then we would say that if it wasn’t for William Law, we wouldn’t have the Nauvoo expositor. And if it wasn’t for the Nauvoo expositor, we wouldn’t have the means to get Joseph arrested. We wouldn’t have the means to get him to Carthage, wouldn’t have something to accuse him about. And so it does seem like those dominoes connect. William Law’s reaction to plural marriage, his anger toward Joseph, his now association with those who are conspirators against Joseph Smith polygamy and his life, their plot with the Nauvoo expositor leading to his arrest, leading to his death. Yeah, it reminds me, Joseph said, according to Brigham Young, speaking of plural marriage, he said, I will die for it. I will die for it. Joseph had a sense that if he stuck to this. Possible that it would lead to his death and that he turned out to be prophetic. 

And like I said, we’re simplifying for the sake of our subject here. There’s a number of reasons why that militia unit attacks Carthage Jail. That’s right. I don’t think plural marriage was the first in the minds of the men that attacked the jail, to be honest with you. But for the men inside Nauvoo, and it’s really an inside job and an outside job that comes together. Yeah, it seems like that was at the forefront of their reasoning. Let’s try and process here for a minute. 

Going away from all this, what are some takeaways that you would have now that we’ve kind of explored Joseph Smith’s plural marriage practice from beginning to end?

It’s just a hard topic. It’s just a hard topic to study. You empathize with Joseph. He’s between a rock and a hard place in terms of introducing a principle that comes from God and Angel, urging him multiple times, sometimes threatening him to get this started. I’ve said this in previous episodes. My reading of it is he’s a reluctant polygamist who is willing to obey God at all costs. It is going to lead to some serious strain in his own relationships with all of her Cowdery to some degree with his wife Emma. As we’ve explored and with his own second counselor in the first presidency, many of the insiders in Nauvoo who turn against Joseph had been former members of the church and they cite primarily plural marriage as the thing that kind of did it for him, the thing that pushed them over the edge. Right? The members of the High council like Austin Cowles and others that maybe we’ll explore later when we talk about the martyrdom. But it’s kind of a it’s a group of folks that are so dissatisfied with Joseph introducing this that they’re willing to call him a fallen prophet. They’re willing to start their own church. They set William Law up as its head. This causes such conflict for Joseph that I can’t see it other than Joseph doggedly determined to fulfill God’s will. You know, from one perspective, if Joseph Smith just wanted to have an outlet to fulfill his lustful desires, as some people accuse him of, think there’s a lot easier ways he could have gone about that. Right? So the sincerity of his actions and the stuff he was willing to go through tell me and indicate to me that he’s authentically acting on what he fully understands to be a revelation. So my assessment, just looking at all the evidence, is that he was a disciple of Jesus Christ seeking to do his will, and that’s going to lead to a premature death. 

I’ve been thinking of the statement that lives are still makes. As you know, the lights are snow is one of Joseph’s plural wives. And I think in our discussions we’ve tried really hard to involve the voice of women. So this isn’t just men talking about plural marriage. We’re talking about women who, like Eliza, ran the risk of being accused of being adulterous. She writes this. She said “This is Joseph. He knew the voice of God. He knew the commandment of the Almighty to him was to go forward to set the example and establish celestial plural marriage. He knew that he had not only his own prejudices and prepositions to combat and to overcome, but those of the whole Christian world stared him in the face. But God, who was above all, had given the commandment and he must be obeyed. Yet the Prophet hesitated and deferred from time to time until an angel of God stood by him with a drawn sword and told them that unless he move forward and establish plural marriage, his priesthood would be taken from him and he would be destroyed. This testimony he not only born of my brother, that’s Lorenzo Stone, but also to others, a testimony that cannot be gained said.” So on the one hand, was he perfect? We’ve kind of documented that it was difficult for him to implement and he wasn’t always sure what he was doing. And obviously he made mistakes along the way. Was he sincere? Is the big question that exists in my mind and from his testimony, from the testimony of people like Lazaar Snow and Lucy Walker and William Clayton, and the list goes on and on, it appears that he was sincerely acting on what he saw as a revelation from God. I can’t think of very many people that have had a more difficult burden laid on them, but that he stayed true to even at the cost of his own life. I think the average Latter day Saints will spend their whole life wrestling with this stuff. But that is okay. You know, it’s worth the wrestle to ask yourself discipleship, what does it mean and what does it mean when Joseph Smith polygamy said a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things can never produce the kind of faith necessary in the life and salvation, It might not just be sacrificing our money or our time. It could be sacrificing like our social perceptions or our comfort in larger society. This was a huge sacrifice, and I’m grateful that they made it. First of all, grateful because my wife is a descendant of some of these people that practice plural.

Marriage is pretty personal. But I also, from reading the historical record, think that this demonstrates absolute sincerity in Joseph Smith’s belief that he was acting on the commandments of God, acting on revelations he was given. 

Now, if you guys have made it this far with us, thank you so much for listening. This is sometimes heavy stuff, but we find it’s both interesting and important. So thank you for joining us. 

Check in at Doctrine Covenant Central for more resources on this subject. We publish things all the time and we’re more than happy to help you with questions, too. Thank you for listening to this episode of Church History Matters. Next week we continue this series by exploring the history of the spread of plural marriage in the church after Joseph Smith’s death, as well as the detailed history of how it came to an end under the crushing pressure of the United States government. We’ll talk about the George Reynolds trial, the manifesto, the read Smooth trials, and the second manifesto, the resignation of two members of the Quorum of the 12 over this, the beginning of the FLDS Church and more. Today’s episode was produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galetti and Scott Woodward with show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis. In Church, History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central, a nonprofit which exists to help build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making Latter day saints, scripture and church history accessible, comprehensible and defensible to people everywhere. For more resources to enhance your gospel study, go to Scripture Central Dawg, where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you. Thank you so much for being a part of this with us.

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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.

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