Joseph Smith’s Youngest Polygamous Wives: Sealings and the Question of Intimacy

Chris Heimerdinger

Fact Checked by Kevin Prince

(Image Source: LDS.org)

In the first decades of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith introduced the practice of plural marriage. Among his own plural wives the question is often asked about Joseph Smith wives ages. Indeed, the historical record reveals that some of these brides were remarkably young. This article delves into the youngest polygamous “sealings” of Joseph Smith Jr.,  and the lack of direct evidence suggesting that such marriages included intimate physical relations.

Plural Marriage in its Historical Context

Joseph Smith, a man of remarkable claims of visions and revelations, brought forth the practice of plural marriage as part of a larger theological framework. This included the restoration of ancient principles and the establishment of a “new and everlasting covenant.” Doctrine and Covenants 132, reportedly received as early as 1831, but not recorded until 1843, provided the scriptural basis for plural marriage. It outlined celestial marriage, or sealing for time and all eternity, as the pinnacle of spiritual attainment for Latter-day Saint men and women.

The Youngest Wives of Joseph Smith, Jr.

Among Joseph Smith’s wives, a few were notably young. Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Maria Winchester were both 14 at the time of their sealings to Smith.

Helen Mar Kimball

Helen Mar Kimball was born on August 22, 1828. She was the daughter of Heber C. Kimball, a close associate of Joseph Smith and a member of the Counsel of the Twelve Apostles. In May 1843, at the age of 14, Helen was sealed to Joseph Smith, Jr. Helen later wrote about her experience, indicating the sealing idea was proposed as a way to secure her family’s exaltation. She described her feelings of confusion and pressure, given her young age and the event’s religious significance. “My father had but one object in view,” Helen recalled, “that was to place me where I could secure eternal salvation.”

Nancy Maria Winchester

Nancy Maria Winchester, also 14 at the time of her sealing to Joseph Smith, remains a less documented figure in Church history. Little is known about her life and the specifics of her relationship with Smith. Historical records confirm her sealing to Smith, yet details of their relationship are not as available as those of other women associated with Joseph Smith polygamy

Original Meanings: Sealing vs. Marriage

In Mormon theology, “sealing” refers to a religious ordinance binding individuals for eternity, i.e., extending relationships into the afterlife. This concept is integral to the LDS Church’s understanding of the Plan of Salvation, which teaches that families can be together forever.

Sealings performed by Joseph Smith, Jr., were part of his efforts to restore what he believed to be the true gospel of Jesus Christ, including practices from the Old Testament. These “sealings” were not always synonymous with traditional marital relationships and frequently carried significant spiritual implications.

Many of the women in the Joseph Smith polygamy timeline, particularly to his younger wives, are believed to have been only spiritual in nature. These sealings were meant to create a network of eternal relationships to bind families together in the afterlife. More often the sealing of young women to Smith was about securing spiritual blessings and exaltation rather than establishing conventional marital relationships.

Helen Mar Kimball’s writings provide insight into how these sealings were perceived. In her reflections, Helen emphasized the spiritual nature of her sealing to Smith, affirming that it was more about eternal connections than earthly companionship. “I was young and they bade me wait,” she wrote. “Promises of great blessings were made to me if I would obey.”

The Question of Intimate Relations

A contentious aspect of Joseph Smith polygamy is whether these unions, particularly those involving his youngest wives, included intimate relations. The historical record is not always clear. However, there is no direct evidence that Joseph Smith consummated his marriages with his youngest wives.

Historical documentation from the 19th century is sometimes incomplete or ambiguous. While accounts and affidavits exist from some of Smith’s older plural wives that indicate marital intimacy, a notable absence of similar testimonies exist from his youngest wives or those contemporaries who knew them. No diary entries, letters, or third-party accounts describe intimate relations in association with such unions. 

In the cases of Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Maria Winchester, there are no testimonies or affidavits from them, or those close to them, that confirm or imply physical intimacy. Helen Mar Kimball, in her later writings, seems to deny intimate relations with Smith, emphasizing spiritual aspects of her sealing and reminding readers that the term “sealing” had a very different meaning and implication in the 1840s. 

Scholarly Viewpoints

Many historians and scholars argue that the lack of evidence suggests that these marriages were non-intimate. Richard L. Bushman, a prominent historian and biographer of Joseph Smith, posits that Joseph’s “sealings” to many wives, including the youngest, were likely never intended to be consummated. He suggests these unions idealized spiritual and dynastic ties, not traditional marital relations. “There is no evidence that Joseph Smith had sexual relations with his youngest wives,” Bushman notes. “The sealings were often about linking families for eternity.”

Modern Perspectives

The LDS Church today acknowledges the reality of Joseph Smith polygamy, including his sealings to young women, but emphasizes the context and purpose in a more spiritual framework. The Church’s official statement on plural marriage, found in the Gospel Topics Essays on its website, explains that these marriages were a part of Smith’s intended restoration of ancient practices and were more spiritual in nature.

Helen Mar Kimball’s writings are a valuable resource for understanding spiritual motivations behind her own sealing. Her reflections provide a glimpse into the mindset of those involved in these events. Helen’s emphasis on the eternal nature and character of her sealing to Joseph Smith emphasizes the eternal rather than physical nature of the union.

In Conclusion

The marriages of Joseph Smith to his youngest wives, such as Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Maria Winchester, continue to be a sensitive issue in Mormon history. Such unions took place early on as the deployment of Priesthood “sealing keys” were instituted by Smith, indicating that even the leader of this new American-based Christian organization introduced some of its principles line upon line, precept upon precept, allowing the Lord to revise and reform the official theological implications over time. While the idea of sealing remains a central defining value in Mormon marriages, it’s clear that in the beginning there was often no expectation of intimate relations between sealed parties. Today this understanding tends to run counter to modern, somewhat knee-jerk, perceptions of lecherous motivations commonly applied to modern-day males. The unfortunate assumptions is that these standards describe men of every generation, discounting the religious values that “checked” the behavior of many upstanding men of frontier America in the 19th century. This kind of “relativism” ought to be avoided, or at the very least viewed as suspect, when applied to adherents of the LDS faith. 

The lack of testimony or documentation indicating physical intimacy, combined with the spiritual emphasis associated with early sealings, suggests many plural marriages of this period were likely non-intimate.

Understanding the context and motives behind Joseph Smith polygamy provides valuable insight into the complexities of the earliest iterations that came to define these practices in Mormon theology. As the LDS Church continues to reflect on its history, the stories of individuals like Helen Mar Kimball offer a window into the faith and challenges of those who lived through this formative period.

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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