Joseph Smith Wives: Did Joseph Smith Marry a 14-year-old?

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

Despite the fact that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stopped practicing plural marriage over a hundred years ago, the fact that it was once a thing is still understandably hard for people to digest, myself included. As I mentioned in the last episode we did about polygamy, I don’t like this subject. I’d bet MOST Latter-day Saints today don’t like it. That said, it’s part of our history, so we’ve got to own it.

But while I still have lots of questions about plural marriage, there are also lots of rumors and misconceptions about the practice that we can address. One subject of considerable controversy is Joseph Smith’s wives and his marriage to 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball. So that is what we’re going to talk about in this episode.

Alright guys, so here’s where the rubber meets the road. People are uncomfortable with the fact that Joseph Smith married a 14-year-old mainly because marriage usually implies a sexual relationship, and Joseph Smith having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old sounds super inappropriate. So, for the record: While there’s not enough evidence to prove anything, what we do know suggests that the relationship between Joseph and Helen was very likely not sexual.

Helen was sealed to Joseph about 13 months before Joseph was killed. During that time, Helen continued to live at home with her parents. Brian Hales, who we’ve had on the show, said, “Helen wrote more about plural marriage than any other female author in the nineteenth century, defending it and Joseph Smith. … Through those pages, Helen never describes even one time being alone with the Prophet without a chaperone.”

Helen herself defended Joseph’s motives, saying, “If Joseph had had any impure desires, he could have gratified them in the style of the world with less danger to his life or his character than to do as he did.” And for more information suggesting that their relationship was likely not sexual, check out the notes in the YouTube description of this video.

It’s also important to recognize that Joseph was not “courting” Helen. In fact, marrying Helen was not even Joseph’s idea. It was her father’s idea, Heber C. Kimball. “He taught me the principle of Celestial marriage and having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him… my father introduced to me this principle and asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph, who came next morning & with my parents I heard him teach & explain the principle of Celestial marriage.”

And forming an eternal family connection really was the purpose of this marriage. Helen’s son, Orson Whitney, described Helen’s marriage to Joseph as “a golden link… whereby the houses of Heber and Joseph were indissolubly and forever joined.”

Some of Joseph Smith wives were for time (or mortal life) only, some were for time and eternity, and some were for eternity only. Helen’s marriage was probably meant for time and eternity, but due to her young age, it seems that for all intents and purposes, the marriage was largely treated as an eternity-only marriage, similar to some of his marriages to women on the opposite end of the age spectrum, like 56-year-old Fanny Young or 58-year-old Rhoda Richards.

Now, clearly, Helen’s father wanted the best for Helen and believed that this was it, but that understandably didn’t make it easy for Helen, and in her writing, she talks about how she “thought [herself] a much abused child” because after her marriage to Joseph, she wasn’t allowed to be as socially involved as her peers, suggesting that she may not have fully understood the social implications of the marriage at the time. And later in life, Helen did acknowledge that at the time, she “was too young or too ‘foolish’ to comprehend and appreciate all that [she] heard [Joseph Smith] teach.”

Latter-day Saints consider eternal marriage to be an ordinance necessary for exaltation, assuming the parties involved stay true to the covenants they make. But there is some controversy surrounding Helen’s understanding of what her sealing to Joseph meant for her in the eternities. She remembers being one of Joseph youngest wives and him saying at the time, “‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.’ This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward.”

Now obviously, Helen was under some pressure from her father to accept the marriage, and Joseph’s status as the prophet surely added pressure. But some people point to this quote as evidence that Joseph coerced Helen into the marriage with the promise of unconditional exaltation. I find that conclusion unlikely because on the very next page of Helen’s recollection, she references the promises Joseph made to her and says that “with the help of our Heavenly Father, I am determined to so live that I can claim those promises,” suggesting that she was aware that those promises were not without conditions.

Also, Helen’s parents were present when Joseph made these promises. Helen was sealed to Joseph in May 1843, and we have a June letter from her mother and a July letter from her father that pretty clearly show that they also did not consider anyone’s exaltation to be guaranteed through marriage. But you’re certainly free to come to your own conclusions.
My personal conclusion is that while this marriage was understandably hard for Helen, it wasn’t the product of Joseph Smith wives ages being creepy, but was rather a way for the Kimball family and the Smith family to be connected after this life. After Joseph died, Helen was remarried to Horace Whitney, who also later practiced polygamy. While it was oftentimes a heart-wrenching practice, she defended it. She wrote, “I did not try to conceal the fact of [plural marriage] having been a trial, but confessed that it had been one of the severest of my life; but that it had also proven one of the greatest of blessings.” She died as a believing member of the faith in 1896.

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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