Joseph Smith Polygamy: Why Did Plural Marriage Begin in the Church? (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

Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 and Insights to Joseph Smith Polygamy

The source of the origin of Section 132 is a man named William Clayton. Most church members know him as the guy who composed “Come, Come Ye Saints,” but he’s this English convert who’s acting as Joseph Smith’s secretary in Nauvoo, and he’s the one who describes the scene. He says Joseph and Hyrum came into Joseph Smith’s office in the Red Brick Store, and they were discussing the principle of Joseph Smith Polygamy. And Hyrum at a certain point says, “If you’ll write down the revelation, I’ll go and read it to Emma, and it will convince her.” And Joseph basically says, “You don’t know Emma as well as I do.” And that’s one thing that I would emphasize is this is a scene from a marriage where they’ve probably been having conversations about this for years and years. And Joseph seemed to feel like, “I don’t think that’s going to convince her alone,” but Hyrum said, “I think I can convince her.” Then there are a couple of other interesting things that Clayton adds. Like, he says, “Hyrum requested Joseph Smith to get the Urim and Thummim to write the revelation.”

Joseph said, “I know the principles of the revelation well enough that I can dictate it without the Urim and Thummim.” Then he dictates section 132, which is an incredibly long and complex document. Clayton says he dictated it, and then he had William read the whole thing back to him and pronounced it correct. But then one interesting thing here is that Joseph also says, “I could have added much more on the subject, but what I have to say is sufficient for right now.” So Section 132 is kind of an introduction. And it’s also a private conversation that unfortunately is our best document on the theology behind plural marriage, but it’s very much intended for an audience of one. Even if it does eventually end up in the Doctrine and Covenants, this is to Emma.

But within that, Hyrum takes it and reads it to Emma, and she still struggles with it. We’re going to talk about that a little bit later on. For anybody that’s curious, I would say do a careful reading of Section 132. But also keep in mind that part of the revelation is sort of a general explanation of eternal marriage and Joseph Smith Polygamy, and part of the revelation is addressed specifically to Emma Smith. And so it’s got to be read within context or it can be really difficult to deal with.

There are four clear reasons given. Brian Hales helps us kind of identify these four reasons. So let’s dive in. Number one reason, and you can find this in verses 34, 36, 50-51, is that this was intended to be a trial, a trial intended to test and try the Saints, and the Lord even invokes the name of Abraham, kind of the patron saint of all major trials. To describe what they’re going through. He couches plural marriage within the Abrahamic sacrifice motif, doesn’t he? He talks about Hagar. He was commanded to take Hagar as a wife. And then he says Abraham was also commanded to sacrifice his son, even though the commandment is “thou shall not kill,” bringing up this idea that, “Listen, plural marriage is the kind of thing that it’s only right when God commands it.”

It’s very similar to Abraham’s test, I think, in a lot of different ways, right? It looks wrong from an outsider’s perspective, right? Kill your son? What the heck is wrong with you, right? Are you mental? It offends our sensitivities deeply. It brings our loyalties into conflict. I mean, Isaac was Sarah’s son too, right? And so loyalty to Sarah versus loyalty to God, there’s that strong tension. It requires your love of God to transcend your love of everything else. You know, at the end of the day, it requires us to trust God, right? That’s the nature of an Abrahamic test.

And that’s reason number one. He mentions it there in verse, what did you say, 34-36? 34, 36, 50-51 are where Abraham’s name is invoked to use it, and We should say, and we’ve touched on this earlier, this was a severe trial not only for Joseph but for the people introduced to it. 

Brigham Young is kind of the poster child, right, for plural marriage. He says at the time Joseph revealed the doctrine, “It was the first time in my life that I had desired the grave, and I could hardly get over it for a long time. … When I saw a funeral, I felt to envy the corpse in its situation and … regret that I was not in the coffin. …And I have had to examine myself, from that day to this, and watch my faith, and carefully meditate, lest I should be found desiring the grave more than I ought to do.” 

We don’t think of Brigham Young as the sort of person who was wavering, but he says this was a severe trial for him. Like, that’s borderline—he’s kind of saying he was having suicidal thoughts if I’m not misreading than, right? I mean this, this doctrine gave him some serious pause and some desire for the grave. Should we do another one? I’ve got another one.

John Taylor. He’s so good. He said, “I had always entertained strict ideas of virtue, and I felt as a married man that this was … an appalling thing to do. The idea of going and asking a young lady to be married to me when I already had a wife!” He said, “It was a thing calculated to stir up feelings from the innermost depths of the human soul. I had always entertained the strictest regard of chastity. … [hence] nothing but a knowledge of God, and the revelations of God, and the truth of them, could have induced me to embrace such a principle as this.” I see really clearly in that quote from John Taylor that Abrahamic sacrifice principle. “Here’s a thing that goes against my feelings. Everything about it is revolting to me, and it’s only the knowledge that I have that it’s from God that induces me to embrace this principle.”

He will embrace it, and he’ll have several wives. Yeah. And not just prominent people like John Taylor. Lucy Walker, one of the wives in Joseph Smith polygamy, said, “Every feeling of my soul revolted against it. Said I, ‘The same God who sent this message is the being I’ve worshiped from early childhood, and he must manifest his will to me.’” Joseph Smith basically assures her he will manifest his will, and she gains a testimony of it, but I don’t think anybody that entered into plural marriage in Nauvoo did so without extreme hesitancy, and they, use the language again and again of an extreme test, an Abrahamic test, to describe it. And one thing I might add, too, is it’s still a test for members of the church. It’s still probably the number one most difficult issue in the history of the church that people have to grapple with.

Yeah, I mean, you get backed up to a wall on this one, and you just really have to ask, “Would God really command his prophet to do this?” And that troubles many today. And like you started out with earlier in saying “If you’re bothered by plural marriage, then that’s good,” you know? Welcome to the club. It’s actually a pretty faithful club that was bothered by this, starting with Joseph Smith. He’s the captain of not feeling very good about this principle.

Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Eliza R. Snow, John Taylor. All of the wives in Joseph Smith polygamy, that whole first generation wrestled with this deeply, and so if you—yeah, if you struggle with this, welcome to the club. It’s meant to do that, right? You know, one of Joseph’s wives, Helen Mar Kimball, said that Joseph told her this, and I think this is still true today, she said that Joseph said, “The practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.”

I think that’s prophetic. I think that’s true. There are kind of even different camps in the church. I’ve noticed there are some people that just really want Joseph to have been wrong about this. They rant to say, well, you know, prophets can make mistakes. I think this was an error, you know? And boy, I sympathize with their feelings that they don’t want to get behind a prophet who was rushing this and that it was really from God. But that’s the first reason that D&C 132 introduces, is this will be a test. This will be a trial. This will reach into your heart. This will tug your heartstrings deeply. It did it for them when they had to live it, and I think it still does that today.

OK, so reason number one: it’s an Abrahamic trial. Reason number two, and you can find this one around verses 40 and 45, is the early Saints definitely tied Joseph Smith polygamy back to the restoration of all things. They’re taking everything seriously that’s in the scriptures. Benjamin Johnson says it was the ancient order of plural marriage. Helen Mar Kimball said Joseph “astonished his hearers by preaching on the restoration of all things, and said … as it was anciently with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so would it be again.” So it’s ancient, basically. It’s the bringing back something that existed anciently. They take everything in the scriptures seriously.

Part of the restoration of all things that were clearly articulated there verses 40 and 45, is that Joseph has the keys to do that and that this would be one of the things that would be brought back as part of the Restoration. One thing that struck me, especially in a recent rereading of the Doctrine and Covenants is how seriously they take everything in the scriptures.

Not everything was brought back, like animal sacrifice, but there are several places in the Doctrine and Covenants where they’re asking serious questions about the Mosaic system of sacrifices and whether it needs to come back. It seems like they don’t, because the Book of Mormon says it’s not necessary, but plural marriage is one of those things where if Israel practiced it, we need to take a serious look at that and see if it’s cultural or if it’s theological. Should it become part of the restitution of all things? That Acts 3 phrase that they took very seriously.

Number three, you’re going to find around Section 63 [correction: Section 132 Verse 63] of the Doctrine and Covenants, and this is one that I think is reasonably intuitive. The language is “to multiply and replenish the earth.” The Lord tells them that part of the reason why he’s initiating the system is to multiply and replenish, to bring a lot of spirits to earth, to these good families that are going to nurture and help them along the way.

And that’s the one exception that the Book of Mormon offers, too, right? In Jacob chapter 2, which it seems like this was the chapter Joseph quoted to the angel, right, where he says, “Hey, it says right here that plural marriage is an abomination,” right? People, some of the Nephites were trying to justify plural marriage by quoting about David and Solomon in the Old Testament, and Jacob chastises them and says knock it off, right? “This is an abomination.” So if Joseph quoted that verse, the angel could have said back to Joseph, “Just keep reading, Joseph. There is an exception here.” Verse 30, right? Verse 27 of Jacob chapter 2 says, “For there shall not any man among you have to save it be one wife.” Right? There it is. There’s the standard.

But in verse 30, he says, “For if I will, saith the Lord of hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people,” to do something else besides the monogamy standard like Joseph Smith polygamy. “Otherwise they shall hearken unto these things,” that is the one-man-one-wife rule. And so, multiplying and replenishing is a key reasons for plural marriage. And that text in Jacob, and another passage in the Doctrine and Covenants in section 49, seems to indicate that monogamy is the rule. The standard is the word you use.

Plural marriage is the exception. In Jacob 2 the Lord says, “Yeah, if I need that to be done, I’ll command it.” That’s the reason he gives is to raise up seed unto him. In a lot of my classes, this point is as simple as saying, “Hey, raise your hand if you’re descended from someone who practiced plural marriage.

And I teach in the Pioneer Corridor, you know, in Utah. There’s a reasonably high number of students who raised their hands. My wife is a descendant of Heber C. Kimball, who was the most prominent polygamist in the history of the church. Any commandment that gets Elizabeth Ottley here to Earth, I’m going to be OK with. And that seems to be one of the expressly stated purposes in the revelation.

In the gospel topics essay on the Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, a line says “A substantial number of today’s members descend through faithful Latter-day Saints who practiced plural marriage.” It’d be interesting to know what that number is exactly. I don’t think anyone’s ever crunched that number. I don’t know if we have the data to do that, but the Heber C. Kimball Family Association, which my wife is part of by default, is 25,000 people now.

Maybe we need to give a little bit of time to explain it. Still, the rationale behind Joseph Smith polygamy in section 132 was that it was also given so that everybody would have an opportunity to experience marriage, especially faithful women. So let’s talk a little bit about the logic behind that. Can you go into that? So I think the key verses would be verses 16-20, and then verse 63. So the idea here is that—well, verses 16-20 lay out the standard that everyone needs to be sealed in an eternal marriage in order to obtain the highest kingdom of heaven.

That brings up the question, well, what about those women who don’t have the opportunity to marry in this life? Or what about those who are married to non-believers? And for women in that situation, plural marriage solves that. That’s what verse 63 is then going to bring in, so verses 16-20 talk about how everyone needs to be married in the new and everlasting covenant in order to obtain the highest heaven. Now, that could be monogamy. That’s going to be monogamy for most people, but there are people who are in a situation where that doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t fit their current scenario. At least, this is the thinking back in the 1830s and ’40s with this. And so, yeah, plural marriage would solve that. Brigham Young’s sister, just an example, she’s 55 years old. Her name’s Fanny Young, I think this is the last plural wife of Joseph Smith polygamy. She’s talking with Joseph and Brigham Young. She talks about how she would love in the next life just to be a ministering angel. She’s OK if she’s never married for eternity or whatever. And Joseph Smith rebuked her, and he said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know that you would be happy not in a married situation.” He said, “I’ll marry you right now. I’ll marry you to help take care of that.” And she accepts his proposal, and Joseph has Brigham Young do the ceremony right there. 17 You know, I say for anyone who thinks that Joseph Smith is just in this for, you know, some lustful reasons, you have to ponder on that episode. 55-year-old Fanny Young. That makes no sense at all in terms of being motivated by libido and lust. But it makes all the sense in the world when it’s understood through the lens of what Section 132 is talking about. Every woman needs to be, and every man needs to be, sealed in an eternal marriage.

One interesting wrinkle here is we quote Section 131, which doesn’t say you have to enter into marriage. It says you have to enter into this order of the priesthood. And then there are brackets, “meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.” I think we should point out that someone like Fanny Young didn’t have a physical relationship with Joseph Smith. And someone like Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner didn’t either.

I talk a lot about Mary because she is buried in my mom’s hometown. I’ve been to her grave in Minersville, Utah. Mary was wed to a guy named Adam Lightner, who’s buried right next to her and is by all measures a great guy. But Adam was not a church member, and he did not ever join the church. And so Mary was sealed to Joseph—there was no physical relationship—so that she would be able to enter into that order of the priesthood, be able to obtain the blessings of exaltation. And a fair number of the wives in Joseph Smith polygamy fit into that category.

That was kind of a unique practice in Nauvoo, but it was something that happened. And that’s why it’s so important, I think, just to reemphasize looking at all of this in context, right? In the context of Joseph Smith’s theology, marriage without having any sexual relation makes all the sense in the world. Outside of that context, outside of this theology, outside of reason number four that D&C 132 is underlining, makes no sense.

Joseph is true to the theology of section 132—all four reasons. There are women that he did have sexual relationships with, and we’ll talk about them in future episodes, but for Joseph, that was not necessary. Certainly for multiplying and replenishing the Earth, that would be necessary, but that’s only one of the reasons for plural marriage and not the only reason.

It seems like the primary reason, based on Section 132, is to create this extended family relationship, where you’re not just connected to someone, with them being your friend, you’re sealed together. And I think it’s crucial to understand that in the mind of the early saints, they’re creating not just eternal families but the eternal family, the group of people that will be connected through these ordinances of the priesthood and go back into God’s presence because of them. So theological context matters.

Let’s just review our main points here. Number one, Joseph Smith knows about this fairly early on, 1831, which is a year after the church was organized. Number two, he struggles with this. He’s not unusual. Even to the point of arguing with an angel about this, he struggled. Like we said, that takes moxie. The best sources to study this would be the revelation itself, rather than speculating about demography or anything like that. Read section 132, which, again, not a lot of us have done carefully. We need to take that seriously.

Then next to section 132, which is, I think, our earliest Joseph Smith polygamy document, by the way—so that comes in chronology, earliest, and then after that, I think, yeah, then the testimonies of Joseph Smith’s wives, his own wives, need to be taken seriously. And when you’re trying to understand Joseph Smith’s motives, his practice and his uprightness, his virtue as a man, nobody would know about that more than his wives.

From everything we can tell, Joseph Smith was motivated by his theology, motivated by what he was learning from God and from the angel. This was a test of faithfulness for him and the Saints who had to practice it and for us today. It’s still a test, in some ways. This was part of the restoration of all things. Multiply and replenish. It worked for many. We’ll talk about Joseph Smith himself later in future episodes, but others definitely. This was—as you said, Heber C. Kimball is a great example of that. It worked.

It was a way to provide a path for women who did not have a conventional eternal marriage to be able to be exalted according to the principles of section 132. So that’s the theology. That’s the initial kind of the beginning of all this, and I think when you keep this all in the original context, it might still try you, but without all the spin and innuendo put into it, I think it’s manageable. It’s bearable. It’s still difficult, but it’s one of those things you can wrap your head around with a little effort and study.

So this is just our first episode on this. We’re going to do a couple more where we talk more about the history of plural marriage, including a little more about how it was initiated in Nauvoo. We’re going to talk about how it was actually practiced during that 50-year period in the 19th century when it was practiced by the larger church, and then some of the most interesting information is about how and why plural marriage ended within the church and how that came to be. So join us again, and we’re going to continue to do a deep dive into Joseph Smith polygamy. You got the basics today, but we’re going to go much, much deeper in future episodes.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Church History Matters. Next week we continue this series by diving into the details of Joseph Smith’s own trial-and-error approach to personally living the practice of Joseph Smith polygamy, including an initial colossal failure in the 1830s followed by his 1840s efforts involving some creative, non-sexual, eternity-only and dynastic sealings, and also some time-and-eternity sealings, which involved at least some sexuality. We’ll also discuss what we know about any children Joseph may have had with these other wives. 

To listen to the full podcast episode, visit

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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