Mormon Polygamy: A Battle of Reluctance

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

Controversy vs Reality

Most who explore the concept of Joseph Smith’s wives and Mormon plural marriage are obsessed with the most sensational questions: How many wives did Joseph Smith or Brigham Young or other early LDS Church Presidents have? How young were many of these brides? Were some of these women already married to other men? 

Answers to these questions are readily available online, but investigators should sometimes be skeptical of the source, its motives, intent, and bias. It’s well-known that in recent years the Mormon Church (or as members prefer to call it, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has made an appreciable effort and gone to significant lengths to debunk any suggestion that the organization is reluctant to make public any historical data on these and other questions. It was the objective of Church Presidents in the 1990s and 2000s to “get it all out there!” and let the chips fall where they may. As a result, most of the details that detractors and critics of the LDS faith might find most controversial or “juicy” are readily searchable on the Church’s own website,

Still, there is a persistent effort by detractors of the Mormon Church to accuse its leaders of “hiding” historical or doctrinal data from the public–an accusation that the Church denies. On the contrary, the general consensus of modern Church leaders is to embrace its archival past and, at times, even admit errors. 

The Origins of Polygamy in the LDS Church

There is considerable evidence from first party sources that the original revelation discussing the “new and everlasting covenant,” (a term that was eventually understood to mean plural marriage), was received by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1831, less than a year after the founding of the Church. Several sources suggest that Joseph most likely engaged in the first instance of polygamy in the mid-1830s. The most reliable sources suggest Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger (a woman hired by the Smith family to help with domestic duties as early as 1832) were “sealed” in 1835, although some sources suggest the marriage took place a couple years earlier. In any case, the union was short-lived and Fanny Alger moved to Missouri the following year and shortly thereafter married non-member, Solomon Custer, in Dublin, Indiana. She remained in Indiana, giving birth to nine children, while her parents and other family members followed Church leaders to Illinois and later to Utah territory. When her father, Samuel Alger, a patriarch, passed away in southern Utah in 1874, his obituary celebrated his family’s faithfulness to the Church, although Fanny’s personal beliefs are unclear since she regularly attended a Universalist Church in Indiana until her death in 1889. 

The first plural marriage of Joseph Smith, that others either witnessed or had confirmed to them, was to Louisa Beaman in 1841 Most of Joseph’s other plural marriages occurred over the next two years. At the time of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in July, 1844, less than one hundred Church members had reportedly participated in the practice, and most were advised to keep such unions to themselves. 

A Doctrine Initially Muddled By Confusion

Joseph and other Church leaders made numerous public statements that, in general terms, appear to condemn the practice of polygamy. In almost every instance the language contains subtle loopholes. For example, the actual practice being condemned is “unauthorized” unions not approved by the President of the Church. Other statements are intended to condemn “spiritual wifery,” an idea that apparently originated with John C. Bennett, a talented and charismatic convert who quickly rose to positions of Church leadership. John C. Bennett had a reputation of adultery prior to his conversion. Spiritual wifery was understood to mean that a Priesthood holder could engage in extramarital affairs as long as both parties kept the affair a secret–a concept roundly condemned by Church leaders of the time as well as traditional Christian doctrine. Attempts to condemn and expose this malicious and false doctrine by Joseph and others were often conflated with the practice of plural marriage, authorized and unauthorized. This led to an expected state of confusion among Church members in Nauvoo and surrounding areas, causing many to lump any non-traditional practice beyond traditional monogamous marriages into the same category of debauchery and lechery. Doubtless, this confusion contributed, in part, to the feelings of enmity that culminated in the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in 1844.

The revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 was finally recorded in July of 1843 by William Clayton, with Hyrum Smith serving as witness. Only a few of the most faithful members of the Church were made privy to the doctrine and even fewer–perhaps less than 100 men and women–reportedly entered into the practice besides Joseph Smith. The doctrine was not announced publicly to the membership of the Church until August of 1852, after its headquarters had relocated to Utah. The revelation was not published as part of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1878. 

An Unfolding Understanding of the Ordinance of “Sealing”

Various historical sources have sought to confirm the question: Joseph Smith: How many wives? Most conclude that this number is around 35. An obvious accusation is that Joseph promoted it to satisfy his own libidinous appetites. During the convening decades of the 19th century, only three of Joseph’s wives claimed they had intimate relations with Joseph Smith. An additional seven are described as involving intimacy by secondary and tertiary sources. If the accusation of an overactive libido is to be associated with Joseph Smith, it seems logical that some of these marriages would have produced children. In the 19th century there were no practical means of birth control. Such efforts would have also been culturally discouraged. Some have claimed they were the offspring or descendents of Joseph Smith from various plural wives, but modern DNA tests that sought to verify such  ancestry claims have all been negative. Some of these children cannot be tested because they died as infants, obviously leaving no offspring. One case–that of John Reed Hancock, born 1841–has not been conducted as of this writing. 

Prior to the death of Joseph, many ideas regarding the ordinance of “sealing” were still unfolding, line upon line. Often the union of Joseph Smith and some “wives” was never intended to be a traditional marriage according to our traditional understanding. The practice of “sealing” women to prominent Church leaders was often defined in religious terms as “only for eternity,” meaning that intimate relations never occurred and were not expected. In such instances a woman was free to marry someone else “for time,” as was the case with Joseph Smith’s youngest wives, including 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball. Also, several women sealed to Joseph Smith were already married to other men. In such cases, again, intimacy was neither sought or expected. Joseph’s status as President of the Church led some women to agree to this union with Joseph or other Church leaders with the full knowledge and consent of their husbands. Those involved would have considered these unions for “eternity” an honor and privilege. The practice of sealing individuals to prominent Church leaders, in marriage or as an “adoption” (child to parent), for the living as well as by proxy for the dead, was common in the Church until a revelation received by President Joseph F. Smith in 1878 clarified that sealing ordinances were intended to connect only those directly related through lineage and bloodlines. A marriage sealing “for time and eternity” was also limited at this time to couples legally married in life. This practice continues in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to this day.

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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