Joseph Smith Polygamy: Tough Polygamy Questions with Dr. Brian Hales (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

Let’s talk about Emma in regards to Joseph Smith Polygamy. A lot of people have questions about Emma. So here’s one, one of our listeners named Trevor. He asks, “Why do you think God would drive a wedge in Joseph and Emma’s marriage with a commandment to practice plural marriage?” And number two, “If a marital wedge between Joseph and Emma was necessary as an Abrahamic test to fulfill this commandment, why were they required to carry out such a test, whereas Abraham himself was stopped before sacrificing his son and implementing it?”

Brian Hales:
I think it’s an excellent question. Except that I think it has a small scope.
And what I mean is that I don’t think God specifically commanded Joseph to practice polygamy to try Emma’s faith. I think that was one of the things that happened.
But a good, I guess, counter experience is Vilate Kimball. If you’ll remember, Joseph Smith told Heber C. Kimball, her husband, that he wanted to marry Vilate. And, of course, Heber wasn’t comfortable with that, but he believed Joseph was a prophet. And, as it turns out, it was just a test.

Scott Woodward:
It’s a horrible test, by the way. That’s a horrible test.

Brian Hales:
Yeah. I don’t defend it. God does what God does, but—and Joseph may have been more of an author of that than anything, saying, “I’m going to test these people.” And there’s actually evidence that Joseph used plural marriage to test the First Presidency members and the Quorum of the Twelve. But this was the way he was going to find out who was actually committed to the restoration and these higher practices and laws.
But Vilate, she went to God directly and had a vision that explained what was going on. At least, that’s the account that we have.

So her reaction—and she accepted it, and she supported it. And if you read the letters between Heber and Vilate, you see references. You don’t always know that there are references to the plural wife, but if we understand the context, it’s pretty clear.

And so in the case of Heber C. Kimball and Vilate, this wasn’t a wedge. This was an opportunity for Vilate to have a vision that she wouldn’t otherwise have received and to gain this. Now she still struggled with it. That’s not to say that she liked it.

But in the case of Emma, part of the problem was Emma’s stubbornness, Now, she had a unique role. Heber could say, “The prophet Joseph told me I had to do this.” OK. But Emma, because Joseph is the revealer of this practice, Emma could always worry it was Joseph’s libido, that she was inadequate and that’s why he wanted another wife. I mean, Emma had a very unique role in this whole picture, and that’s why we shouldn’t judge her. And I would encourage no one to criticize her. There were words between her and Brigham and things, but I hope that’s all in our past, because I think Emma’s going to be fine.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, me too.

Brian Hales:
And even though she stumbled, I think that we all stumble, and there’s plenty of forgiveness for what was there. So I don’t see the practice as being a wedge, except as Emma was unable to accept it, except she did accept it for a few weeks in May of 1843.
And then who knows what was going on in September and then in 1844. We just don’t have any records to tell us how they’re doing on this topic.
Joseph Smith How Many Wives: There were plural wives living in the mansion. Was Emma preventing them from being with Joseph, or was Emma acting like the first wife and regulating their interactions? We have no idea.
So anyway, I just say judge Emma kindly and look at it in maybe a bigger scope.

Scott Woodward:
Hmm. Thank you. Another question. This is from a listener named Rich, also about Emma. He said, “I’d love to understand more about Emma’s relationship with plural marriage after the Saints left to Utah. We know her son was out here denying his father ever taught the doctrine, but what did Emma ever say on the subject afterwards?”

Brian Hales:
We don’t have a lot of material from her. We have a couple of denials that are recorded. One of them comes through Joseph Smith III, who waited until she was dead and—to publish it.
And interestingly, if you go to the notes that he wrote during his interview on that occasion. It doesn’t have anything in there on polygamy. It talks about the Book of Mormon and her statement on the Book of Mormon being beyond Joseph’s ability in 1829.
But when you get to all the polygamy stuff (and perhaps Joseph Smith Polygamy Timeline), there’s no notes there. He’s reconstructing this from notes that we don’t have or from his own memory, and I’m just not sure he’s representing her words very accurately there. We have a couple of statements from others who say, “Yeah, I talked with Emma in 1846 or 1847, and she acknowledged that there were plural wives.” And so there’s ample evidence that Emma knew, and Eliza R. Snow, who was eloquent, she said if the words that Joseph Smith III published as Emma’s last interview, the ones that were published after Emma had passed away, if they are true, then Emma died with libel on her lips.
Because Eliza knew. She was in the home. I mean, she knew what Emma knew.
And I think really, there’s lots of evidence that Emma did know. It comes from good sources.
And yet her sons were fighting against it. There’s very good evidence that Joseph Smith III knew. He wrote a couple of letters. We have them here. One is telling William, his uncle, to not remember certain details if he writes a biography of Joseph. But there’s another letter to an RLDS missionary in Salt Lake where he’s asking the missionary to find the branches of the family tree. And by that it’s a list of the plural wives or women who say they are Joseph’s plural wives. So I think it’s pretty clear that Joseph Smith III knew, and yet the public view was, “Let’s try to repair my father’s acceptance in the world by denying this.”

Scott Woodward:
So you think that was the motive, as you’ve researched this? The motive was, “Let’s deny the evidence, or let’s kind of brush over that evidence—coming from the RLDS perspective—in order to basically heal Joseph Smith’s reputation, Joseph Smith Jr.?” Yeah. What’s your take on why Joseph Smith III would in some ways actively try to forget this aspect about his father?

Brian Hales:
Well, I don’t know. I like Joseph Smith III. I’ve read a bit about him. He was a strong man. He was very committed. I think he was a good man. I think he was a very moral man.
But I think if we study the RLDS church in the 19th century, they were built upon two primary ideas: One was that Joseph Jr. wasn’t a polygamist, and the other was that the presidency should pass down through a patriarchal line.
And so he defended those two, which, if he had not, his church, I think, would’ve imploded, which is kind of—maybe that’s the wrong word. But if you look at the Community of Christ today, they’re a very different church—
In that they don’t hold the—either of those two tenants, and they become kind of just another Christian denomination in their teachings.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. So, OK. So this, in some ways, was about the legitimacy of the RLDS church’s existence in the first place. Like, if polygamy was authorized, if that is a correct practice, then why are we out here in Nauvoo and not in Utah?

Brian Hales:
Yeah. Well said. I don’t know that I could improve on that.

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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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