Joseph Smith Polygamy: Unraveling Joseph and Emma Smith’s Acceptance and Practice of Plural Marriage

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: Revelations in Doctrine and Covenants Section 132

This comprehensive discussion delves into the intricate aspects of Joseph Smith polygamy, shedding light on his personal struggles, divine guidance, and the delicate balance between faith and doubt. The narrative unravels Joseph’s early encounter with plural marriage, examining his deep commitment to his wife and the internal conflict that arose. The analysis also navigates the scriptural accounts surrounding marriage commandments, particularly drawing attention to Abraham’s sacrifice as a metaphor for life’s testing nature. The narrative further explores the uncertainties and doubts that often arise when contemplating the intricate nuances of plural marriage both within and beyond earthly life, emphasizing the importance of compassionate understanding and an ongoing search for personal revelation.


Let’s jump into section 132. We’ve tried to lay out the foundation of some of the historical situation. Now let’s look at what the Lord actually says through Joseph the prophet to once again look at the very first line in verse one verily thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph. You’ll notice he doesn’t say unto every one, or unto the church, or unto the twelve. This really is a personal revelation to Joseph that is meant to be shared with Emma, in relation to plural marriage and Joseph Smith polygamy. Inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants. Now notice who he lists Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three great patriarchs, as also Moses, David, and Solomon, my servants as touching the principles and doctrines of their having many wives and concubines. It’s fascinating to me, that he would include that list. And when Jacob talks about the struggles with the Nephite men in his time, he doesn’t talk about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and he doesn’t talk about Moses. The only ones he mentions are the two who messed it up royally. And I mean royally. That pun is intended for kings they take it to a totally different level. And those are the two that Jacob mentions because they abused it, which is fascinating to me right now. 

Notice many people will read this next part, verse three. “Therefore prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I’m about to give unto you.” Now, if I’m honest with myself, I’m saying, well, for Joseph in his setting when he first gets this in 1831 32, 33, whenever it’s kind of coming to him originally, we understand the setting, but for us today, I think it’s important to recognize that this is not for our day. 

And so if you read the first half of this section, under the umbrella of the new and everlasting covenant in the Lord’s law of marriage that we talked about, one man and one woman, it’s really beautiful. And it’s very similar to the ceiling ordinance that we have in the temple today between a husband and wife, particularly verse seven. All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations or expectations.

But the fact that if they’re not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise of him who is anointed and that’s where I think we get this whole idea of the new and everlasting covenant being of Christ both as well for time and for all eternity. That too, most holy by revelation and commandment, through the medium of mine appointed. 

And then if we skip down to the end. This is a very long sentence. Now, I was just going to point out that verse seven is one sentence. For those of you who in the past, when you went to school, learned how to diagram sentences, this would be your final exam. I want you to diagram verse seven appropriately. 

“All of these promises are of no efficacy, virtue or force in and after the resurrection from the dead. For all contracts that are not made into this end have an end when men are died.” And I actually think this is important because we see in the Book of Mormon when Nephi is given this promise that what is sealed on earth shall be sealed in heaven with his authority and with his power. So I think this is something that we see select prophets holding throughout the Scriptures.

Joseph Smith Polygamy: The Lord Walks Joseph Through Marriage Scenarios 

Now, you’ll notice when you get this next part of section 132 where the Lord walks Joseph through four different marriage scenarios. So as you turn the page over and you pick it up in verse 15, let’s take number one. It’s verse 15 through 17. So he says in the beginning of 15. Therefore, if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world. The words we use today are as long as you both shall live or until death do ye part. Right? So if you’ve got that marriage, then the Lord gives the outcome. 

Verse 16 says, “Therefore, when they are out of the world, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering, servants to minister for those who are worthy of a far more and an exceeding an eternal weight of glory.” Then the second marriage type starts in verse 18. He has no authority to say that, or she has no authority to make that claim. Well, verse 18 says, without the authority, it doesn’t matter. It cannot exist in the next life. 

And then the next one, verse 19 is a good example. And you’ll notice partway down halfway down in 19 he says, “ye shall come forth in the first resurrection, and if after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection, and shall inherit.” Now notice the list, “Thrones, kingdoms, principalities. You’ll notice these are all plural and powers, dominions, all height, and depths, and then shall it be written in the Lamb’s book of life,” these other things that come in the rest of the verse. 

And then you get the fourth marriage type in verses 26 through 27, which is a good marriage, but the covenants aren’t kept and the Holy Spirit of promise doesn’t seal that marriage up. And what happens there? Now we shift from just general marriage to some of the specifics regarding plural marriage, or Joseph Smith polygamy. In verse 29, he talks about Abraham receiving all things and he gives this interesting little detail there at the end that Abraham hath entered into his exaltation and sitteth upon his throne.

I think it is safe to just say from a church history perspective that we have a bit of what you might call a pronoun problem in Scriptures where it just focuses on the masculine, the men all the time. But you can’t assume that if Abraham is exalted and sitteth upon his throne, based on our doctrine, there is no such thing as an exalted bachelor. So if Abraham is exalted, that’s great. Yeah, the implication is Sarah is exalted. So Jenny, from your perspective, what is that idea of Abraham and Sarah have entered into their exaltation? How do you see that?

Jenny’s thoughts: I see it the same way that I see it in the temple. I was privileged to be an ordinance worker in the Salt Lake Temple before it closed. And I realized how vital it was to have both the patriarch and the matriarch, the man and the woman, and that are sealed in the new and everlasting covenant and that share these obligations and responsibilities, but also these blessings. And I think we often give that short shrift to Sarah or to Emma or to Hagar. They all received these keys and these powers and these ordinances, and they’re all a part of who they are.

Sometimes we leave Hagar out of the story in the Genesis account, and it comes up here in verse 34, “God commanded Abraham and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham, to wife.” Why did she do it? Because this was the law. It’s important to note this is not the law for us today. But I think it’s also important to note that she had agency, that she had a part of it. And I think that’s part of what Joseph is, or the Lord is telling Joseph that Emma needs to be a part of this, or Joseph Smith polygamy. And when she’s not a part of it there’s a problem that it creates major, major issues. 

Scripture Accounts of Marriage Commandments 

Do you find it interesting that here we are in this discussion of plural marriage and the various struggles that different people face and the Lord throws in verse 36, Abraham was commanded? So you’ll notice verse 34 said, God commanded Abraham. Now, in verse 36, Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac. Nevertheless, it was written, Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness. There’s this what we always call in the church, we generally refer to this as the Abrahamic sacrifice, the Abrahamic trial, the Abrahamic test. This was the ultimate test. I think it’s interesting that it’s thrown in here right in line with this discussion of Sarah and Hagar, lest we overlook the fact that that was probably part of a major part of Abraham and Sarah’s test as well. 

And now Isaac’s sacrifice comes into that mix. Almost to me, what that says is life on earth is intended to test us and to try us. It’s not intended to be simple with easy answers from sunbeams all the way to the grave, that there are going to be some things that are really difficult you have to wrestle with and work through. And I love the fact that in verse 37, he now includes Isaac and Jacob and Rebecca. And I don’t know how it works with Rachel and Leah and Bilha and Zilpa, the two handmaids there. But notice how he says, “Because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation according to the promises and sit upon thrones and are not angels, but are gods. 

Plural Marriage 

Now, I think this is probably a good place to mention what do we know? What don’t we know about plural marriage in the Eternities, in the heavens?

We don’t know anything. The details of Joseph Smith polygamy in the next life. All we know is what Henry Jacob said to Zaina, that there are twistings and turnings in this life and everything will be worked out in the next life. 

So I have a lot of friends who are married to men who lost their first wives, and this has been troublesome to them. And I think the most basic answer is something that President Oake said, is that we don’t know. And it is hard to not know something. It is hard to not know how everything’s going to fit into a specific slot or place. But I believe in a loving God and a loving heavenly father and a loving heavenly mother, and I think it’s going to all work out.

I believe it was Elder Quentin L. Cook in a broadcast from Nauvoo where Elder Cook said, basically, plural marriage fulfilled its purpose. It’s done. We don’t need to worry that maybe it’s going to come back. So in summary, in spite of what we don’t know about what’s going to happen in the next life, I think it’s fair to say that it’s okay if you have questions. It’s okay if you have concerns. It’s okay if you have even doubts about aspects of plural marriage, whether it be in Joseph’s time period or Brigham’s or up to 1890 or after or in the eternity, it’s okay for us individually and collectively to wrestle with this and try to find peace not from the world, but from God.

And I love that you say that because I find myself that I kind of go in waves. Sometimes I’m like, this is good. Everything’s great. It’s going to be fine. And other times I’m like, oh I don’t know how this is going to work out. Wait a minute. But it’s like a wave, like it comes and goes. And I think that is completely fair. I think that is why we experience mortality.

And perhaps if you have loved ones or members of your ward who are struggling with this, rather than dismissing them or patting them on the head, perhaps a better approach would be to say, it’s okay. It’s okay to wrestle with this. It’s okay to struggle with this. And it will likely come for most people in waves and provide a safe space for them to actually wrestle with it rather than almost pushing them out.

I think it’s important to not try to resolve everything. I think some of the most powerful words we can say are “I hear you.” And stop. Full stop right there. Absolutely not fix it. Until God’s prophets, those who are authorized to declare doctrine and to give absolute answers until they do that, it’s not very helpful. When we try to be too dogmatic in telling people who are struggling with their faith regarding aspects of Joseph Smith polygamy or other plural marriage topics or any aspect of their faith, I think it’s our job to comfort them.

I think sometimes we’re working with a puzzle and we see it in 3D, right. And you have to fit these pieces together. But I think that we are limited in our mortal understanding and we are limited by time and space. And once we get past those limitations, things are going to shift into all sorts of dimensions that we can’t see right now.

Personal Revelation for Joseph and Emma 

You’ll notice in verse 49, this to me, based on your insight at the very beginning, that this was not intended to be a revelation for everybody. This was for Joseph specifically, and to Emma as well, verse 49, for I am the Lord thy God, and will be with thee even unto the end of the world and through all eternity. For verily I seal upon you your exaltation and prepare a throne for you in the kingdom of my father, with Abraham, your father. Behold, I have seen your sacrifices that Taylor was talking about earlier, this lifelong diligence of keeping those covenants. I’ve seen your sacrifices and will forgive all your sins. I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go therefore, and I make a way for your escape as I accepted the offering of Abraham, of his son Isaac. That’s interesting because it’s a year later when Joseph is going to be killed. Some would say, wait, he didn’t escape. And I would say back to your analogy, Jenny, of our earthly perspective versus the more full, eternal perspective. I think God prepared a way for his escape.

Question for Jenny – 

So, Jenny, as we finish off this important discussion, not having answered every question or resolved every issue, what would you say to people out in the world about Joseph and Emma and their story (in regards to what occurred relating to Joseph Smith polygamy)? 

Jenny’s response – 

There’s another phrase that occurs often in this section, and that is that the Lord is a God of order. And I think that’s significant. And I think it’s significant that Joseph and Emma did come to a unity, but how hard was it? They were torn apart literally before they were able to come to that ultimate unity. And I think that is so beautiful. And I think that the Lord requires us to pay the price.

Tyler – 

Absolutely. And that process, that price along the way that sometimes comes in ways is never pleasant. We don’t love those struggles in relationships, in trying to become one. But, oh, how worth it is in the end. Now, Jenny, at the very beginning, you promised to end this episode with a sweet note.

I really want to end on this story, and this is the story that just days before Emma died, she had a dream and her nurse, who was Nancy Abercrombie, recorded this dream. She dreamed that Joseph came for her and brought her to a beautiful mansion. And in the mansion was a nursery. And in a crib in the nursery was her son, Don Carlos, who had died in 1841 at the age of 14 months. And she scooped him up into her arms and was so excited. And she turned to Joseph and said, “Where are the rest of them?” And he said, you shall have all of them. Everyone. And then she turns and sees the Lord. And I take that to mean that Emma has experienced an incredible redemption. She did not follow the saints to Utah, to the west. She remained in Nauvoo. She stayed with her husband’s body. She took care of her children. She cleaved unto her covenant. And as a result, she received those blessings that she’d been promised.

And I really believe that she was, in fact, entering his presence and receiving that crown of righteousness that was promised her in 1830 in what we have as Section 25, and receiving his inheritance, which was those principalities and powers and dominions and posterity as the stars in the sky and the sands of the sea. I also find it interesting that Emma’s last words before she died were “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph.” He had come for her, and they were once again together. And I love that. I love the way that Emma actually achieved a type of redemption that is so sacred and so holy and so beautiful that it could only come through the atonement of Jesus Christ. And I believe that each of us can achieve that kind of atonement from our own Abrahamic sacrifices.

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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