The Mormon church recently released a groundbreaking essay on Joseph Smith's polygamous practice during the 1830s and 1840s. I say groundbreaking in the context of its having been authored and posted to the official LDS website. Frankly, I'm pleased the church has chosen to be more transparent about its founder's eccentric marital practice. The brethren are now willing to admit Joseph Smith had between 30-40 wives, some of which were married to other living men, some of which were younger than 16 years old, and that many of these marriages had a sexual dimension. Of course, faithful historians have conceded this information and more for several for decades now, some of them even facing excommunication for their unequivocal transparency.
But like a few of their other recent essays, the church has broad-brushed most of the details in an effort to obscure any “context” that might be faith destroying. For instance, it's not true that we know nothing of how Emma felt about Joseph's infidelity and it's not true that there are no accounts of how Joseph implemented the practice. It seems the men in charge are more concerned with preserving loyalty and admiration for the prophetic mantle than in giving their membership full disclosure on the man who founded their religion. But anyone who has studied the life of Joseph Smith knows that by his own admission, he was a fallible mortal. A spiritual charismatic to be sure, yet he was human. He made mistakes and he manipulated people. Viewing Joseph Smith from a historical-critical perspective is the only way we can reconstruct him as a whole person rather than a caricature. Doing so requires that we account for not only his theological integrity but also for the character of his words and actions from every perspective.
First of all, let’s concede that on the subject of polygamy, Joseph’s public testimony is almost entirely unreliable. Except to a few of his closest associates, he vehemently denied practicing polygamy until the day he died. When allegations arose, he actively smeared the reputations of those who exposed his participation and used church discipline to silence whistleblowers. That’s just the fact of the public record. Joseph denied ever sanctioning it, and were he present today he would likely excommunicate Monson and the twelve for endorsing the polygamy article in official church channels.
But facts are facts and the church has evidently reached a point where it can’t afford to deny these things any longer. Certainly progress is progress and they deserve a plaudit for as much. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that they can’t be bothered to give any of the known details about how Joseph propositioned these women and the deception he used to conceal it. The article doesn’t mention the kind of language in which the prophet couched his propositions. It talks about him promising heaven, but it doesn’t mention his promise of damnation to those who would not comply. It doesn’t offer any examples of the surviving evidence we have for sexuality with the younger women or in the polyandrous marriages. It doesn’t mention Joseph adopting young twins and marrying them – more than once. Actually, one is hard pressed to name a maid or female foster child in the Smith household who doesn’t eventually end up on this list.
The church article doesn’t discuss Joseph using what he called “harsh measures” to discipline his wife, Emma, when she would not be contented with silence on the subject. The article fails to mention Joseph’s suspicions that Emma was poisoning him for his involvement in polygamy. It fails to mention that Joseph offered her a second husband as compromise. It doesn’t mention Joseph marrying older widows and using them to convince younger women to accept his proposals. It doesn’t mention letters he wrote asking close disciples to bring their daughters to his private room while cautioning them against Emma's discovery of the errand. It doesn’t discuss how he sent associates on missions then approached their wives in their absence.
Fortunately, a few of Joseph’s “burn upon reading” letters have survived, and his peers weren’t nearly as opaque about Nauvoo polygamy. These accounts serve to show that there is more to the story than Joseph being threatened by a sword-wielding angel if he resisted God's command, as the prophet intimates he did. The church has cited that story to suggest Smith was reticent rather than enthused to practice polygamy. Here are a few examples that demonstrate this was simply not the case. Consider Mormon historian Richard Van Wagoner’s account of Joseph and Sidney Rigdon’s fallout in Nauvoo:
"Smith was at odds with his long-time friend and counselor Sidney Rigdon over a reputed polygamous proposal on 9 April 1842 to Rigdon's unmarried daughter Nancy. George W. Robinson, a prominent Nauvoo citizen married to another of Rigdon's daughters, wrote to James A. Bennett, a New York friend to the church, on 22 July that 'Smith sent for Miss Rigdon to come to the house of Mrs. [Orson] Hyde, who lived in the under-rooms of the printing- office.’ According to Robinson, Nancy 'inquired of the messenger . . . what was wanting, and the only reply was, that Smith wanted to see her.' Robinson claimed that Smith took her into a room, 'locked the door, and then stated to her that he had had an affection for her for several years, and wished that she should be his; that the Lord was well pleased with this matter, for he had got a revelation on the subject, and God had given him all the blessings of Jacob, etc., etc., and that there was no sin in it whatever.' Robinson reported that Nancy 'repulsed him and was about to raise the neighbors if he did not unlock the door and let her out.'
"Nancy's brother, John, recounting the incident years later in an affidavit, remembered that 'Nancy refused him, saying if she ever got married she would marry a single man or none at all, and took her bonnet and went home, leaving Joseph.' Nancy withheld details of the situation from her family until a day or two later, when a letter from Smith was delivered by Smith's personal secretary, Willard Richards. 'Happiness is the object and design of our existence,' the letter began. 'That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.' The letter went on to teach that 'whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. . . . Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.'
"Nancy showed Smith's letter to her father and told him of the incident at the Hyde residence. Rigdon demanded an audience with Smith. George W. Robinson reported that when Smith came to Rigdon's home, the enraged father asked for an explanation. Smith 'attempted to deny it at first,' Robinson said, 'and face her down with the lie; but she told the facts with so much earnestness, and the fact of a letter being present, which he had caused to be written to her, on the same subject, the day after the attempt made on her virtue,' that ultimately 'he could not withstand the testimony; he then and there acknowledged that every word of Miss Rigdon's testimony was true.’ Much later, John Rigdon elaborated that 'Nancy was one of those excitable women and she went into the room and said, “Joseph Smith, you are telling that which is not true You did make such a proposition to me and you know it [crossed out in the original: 'The woman who was there said to Nancy Are you not afraid to call the Lord's anointed a cursed liar No she replied I am not for he does lie and he knows it’”]’
"Robinson wrote that Smith, after acknowledging the incident, claimed he had propositioned Nancy because he 'wished to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts!'" (Richard Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, pp. 31-33)
In the same letter to Nancy, Joseph observed, “If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon: first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation. A parent may whip a child, and justly, too, because he stole an apple; whereas if the child had asked for the apple, and the parent had given it, the child would have eaten it with a better appetite; there would have been no stripes; all the pleasure of the apple would have been secured, all the misery of stealing lost."
By his own account Joseph didn’t steal these women, he felt entitled to them because they were given to him by God. In this way did he persuade faithful women to consent to “things which might [otherwise] be considered abominable.” Thereby he believed the pleasure was preserved without an infraction against eternal law. But was pleasure really an operative aspect of Joseph's motivations? One late recollection from William Law, a counselor in the First Presidency at the time, observed that to his confidants, "Joseph was very free in his talk about his women. He told me one day of a certain girl and remarked, that she had given him more
pleasure than any girl he had ever enjoyed" (Interview with William Law, Salt Lake Tribune, July 31, 1887).
His libido is more directly attested by Eliza R. Snow who was asked by Heber C. Kimball whether she remained a virgin after her plural marriage to Joseph, to which she replied, “I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that” (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, p 12, 13). Once the practice became public in the Salt Lake Valley, several of his documented wives testified of having “carnal intercourse” with him and being his wives “in very deed.”
There are many problems with arguing that Joseph's focus was more the spiritual, sealing aspect of Joseph’s marriages. It certainly existed. Joseph forged a loyal inner hierarchy by marrying the daughters and sisters of his closest disciples in exchange for their assured salvation, and often the privilege to take plural wives themselves. But does this feudal sealing strategy sufficiently account for the odd details surrounding some of Joseph’s wives? The prophet's romantic relationship with Fanny Alger began sometime in 1833, at least three years prior to any claim of restored sealing power. One of Joseph’s first wives was actually a non-member at the time. He secretly married Louisa Beaman on 5 April 1841, but she was not baptized until 11 May 1843 (Ibid., p 59; Joseph Smith, History of the Church, vol. 5, p 385). Joseph Noble, a friendly source, conducted the ceremony and testified to their having slept in the same bed from time to time. Why did God command him to marry these women contra what was later claimed to be the Lord’s standard? Was Joseph simply using his ecclesiastical position to his advantage as a roaming suitor?
Recall Joseph’s mode of persuasion when he requested fourteen year old Helen Mar Kimball’s hand in plural marriage (from her memoir): “[Joseph] said to me, ‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all your kindred.’ This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself for such a reward” (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, p 499). Not only will she, in a single stroke of action, seal her eternal salvation on her own head, but also on all of her relatives and friends, too. Apparently, Joseph developed a new hierarchical soteriology to justify his actions in Nauvoo. Salvation depends upon obedience to whatever commandment is issued from the Lord’s Anointed, and in this case, also upon one’s attachment to him in the eternities. Because to Joseph his exaltation was already assured, anyone he willed could be sealed to him and partake of his celestial glory.
In studying the Nauvoo period specifically, it becomes clear that Joseph has long since internalized the persona of deity and takes license with biblical notions to craft his own gospel message with special allowances for his disciples:
"I charged the Saints not to follow the example of the adversary in accusing the brethren, and said "if you do not accuse each other God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser you will enter heaven; and if you will follow the Revelations and instructions which God gives you through me, I will take you into heaven as my back load. If you will not accuse me, I will not accuse you. If you will throw a cloak of charity over my sins, I will over yours – for charity covereth a multitude of sins. What many people call sin is not sin; I do many things to break down superstition, and I will break it down." (Joseph Smith, History of the Church 4:445)
A fine example of Joseph's messianic conflation of his own desires with those of the Almighty as it relates to polygamy is found in his letter to seventeen year old Sarah Ann Whitney and her parents:
“Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.-
“I take this oppertunity to communicate, some of my feelings, privetely at this time, which I want you three Eternaly to keep in your own bosams; for my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my absence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and if you three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me, now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things. I am now at Carlos Graingers, Just back of Brother Hyram's farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you can come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at the window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room intirely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty, I know it is the will of God that you should comfort me now in this time of affliction, or not attal now is the time or never, but I have no kneed of saying any such thing, to you, for I know the goodness of your hearts, and that you will do the will of the Lord, when it is made known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater friendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I will tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. one thing I want to see you for is to git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you will pardon me for my earnestness on this subject when you consider how lonesome I must be, your good feelings know how to make every allowance for me, I close my letter, I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont, dont fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, and affectionate, companion, and friend.”
“Joseph Smith” (Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 539-540)
Joseph hid his marital liaisons from Emma in direct conflict with the stated program in D&C 132. Whether due to narcissism or megalomania, Smith confused his own desires with those of the Almighty – “I know it is the will of God that you should comfort me now” – and he used his position as prophet to exert religious pressure on young girls and their families. Again, lest anyone suppose that Joseph was marrying these women without requiring physical intimacy, consider the unpublished revelation to Sarah’s father a month prior:
“Verily thus saith the Lord unto my servant N[ewel]. K. Whitney, the thing that my servant Joseph Smith has made known unto you and your Family [his plural marriage to Sarah Ann Whitney] and which you have agreed upon is right in mine eyes and shall be rewarded upon your heads with honor and immortality and eternal life to all your house both old & young because of the lineage of my Preast Hood saith the Lord it shall be upon you and upon your children after you from generation to generation, by virtue of the Holy promise which I now make unto you saith the Lord. These are the words which you shall pronounce upon my servant Joseph and your Daughter S[arah]. A[nn]. Whitney they shall take each other by the hand and you shall say you both mutually agree calling them by name to be each other’s companion so long as you both shall live preserving yourselves for each other and from all others and also throughout all eternity reserving only those rights which have been given to my servant Joseph by revelation and commandment and by legal Authority in times passed. If you both agree to covenant and do this then I give you S[arah]. A[nn]. Whitney my Daughter to Joseph Smith to be his wife to observe all the rights between you both that belong to that condition.”
(Revelation to Newell K. Whitney, 27 July 1842, from copy in archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah)
The fact is Joseph did engage in sexual union with many of his wives; there is much corroboratory evidence attesting the behavior. Parents or guardians were sometimes aware of conjugal visits as in the case of the Whitney’s above. After being sealed to Almera Johnson, Smith stayed with her in her brother's home "as man and wife." Her brother Benjamin Johnson later said Joseph "occupied the same room and bed with my sister, that the previous month he had occupied with the daughter of the late Bishop Partridge as his wife" (Letter from Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs).
If we take a moment to consider the line of thinking that suggests polygamy's primary purpose was to raise up "righteous seed," we are then left to wrestle with why there were so few children resulting from these marriages (none are verifiable). We know Joseph was potent because of his first marriage; Emma conceived nearly a dozen times with him. And it is obvious Joseph was concerned about concealing potential pregnancies because the majority of his earliest marriages were to married women. Case in point: months after his own polygamous union to her, Joseph arranged for young Sarah Ann Whitney to marry Joseph C. Kingsbury in what he called a "pretended marriage" to avoid suspicion. If the prophet’s apparent lack of children by these women is telling, keep in mind that Smith’s sometime associate, John C. Bennett, practiced as a medical doctor while in Nauvoo. Among other things, Bennett was accused of secretly conducting abortions and “embryo infanticide” by Joseph's brother before Hyrum ever knew of the prophet's participation in polygamy (Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, p 113). Perhaps there is a connection?
Certainly Joseph’s connection to Bennett, while brief, speaks volumes about how the prophet practiced polygamy. Many choose to dismiss Bennett’s testimony a priori given that Joseph later smeared him as a traitor and a liar. But it should be remembered, however, that as mayor of Nauvoo, Assistant President of the Church, and Counselor in the First Presidency, Bennett was closer to Joseph during this courtship period than any other man. Bennett introduced Smith to the several ranks of Masonic ritual that quickly found their way into the Lord's own revealed liturgy. Before fleeing Nauvoo, we know he courted women on the coattails of Joseph's "spiritual wifery" doctrine, often citing Smith's endorsement of their relationship (and using similar proposal methods). Once excommunicated, Bennett published an exposé correctly naming seven of Joseph’s plural wives and many eye witness details of the ceremonies that are now confirmed in other friendly journals.
My final submission for consideration is a summary of Joseph’s courting of Sarah Pratt, wife of stalwart apostle Orson Pratt, during 1841-1842:
While Orson Pratt was serving a mission in Europe, Joseph told his confidant, the aforementioned Bennett, that he had fostered an affection toward Sarah Pratt for some time. Accordingly, he called on her, made a proposition in the typical manner, and was deftly rejected. After another attempt, she threatened disclosure to Orson upon his return. Joseph reportedly said, “Sister Pratt. I hope you will not expose me; if I am to suffer, all suffer, so do not expose me... If you should tell, I will ruin your reputation; remember that.” Orson returned from his mission and Sarah kept silent until the following year.
Bennett indicates that Joseph subsequently kissed her privately, at which point she reported the behavior to her husband. The apostle Orson was enraged to learn the allegations and engaged Joseph in long conversation. Joseph denied the claims of Sarah, instead accusing his wife of committing adultery with Bennett. Orson initially did not oppose the prophet publically, and refused to testify against Bennett in his excommunication trial, saying, “he knew nothing against the man.” This changed, however, when Smith renewed his attack on Pratt’s wife, calling her a “bitch from her mother’s breast” at the pulpit.
By all accounts, Orson was in a very dark place. From his perspective Smith supposedly wanted Sarah for himself, and Bennett had supposedly slept with her – both men explicitly denying the accusation. Orson’s mind was so depressed he left a note and wandered five miles out of town miserably. Joseph mandated a citywide search, concerned that he would kill himself. When they found him and tried to reconcile his mind, they couldn’t relieve his grief. Orson then sided with his wife, who was opposed to Joseph’s account of things. Joseph encouraged a divorce and warned the apostle “if he did believe his wife and follow her suggestions he would go to hell.” The Pratts’ resisted and were both excommunicated. Eventually Joseph won Orson over, however, and the apostle later began practicing polygamy out West. Sarah in turn divorced her husband because of his “obsession with marrying younger women.” (summary based largely on Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, pp 29-31).
I could go on. Should these details about Joseph Smith’s private behavior change our conception of him as a prophet? Do these details matter? However we esteem his other revelations, shouldn't this last one be scrutinized just as closely? I think its fair to say his actions in Nauvoo caused a great deal of destruction in people’s lives and broke the hearts of his first wife and many followers. Instead of salvation, this "new and everlasting" commandment nearly brought Mormonism to its ruin within fifty years time!
In my opinion, the missing context in the church article is further evidence that the brethren do not prioritize truth and honesty above commitment to their own program. The certainty of prophetic fallibility is not a notion they wish to emphasize in an organization already struggling to maintain its solidarity and loyalty to the faithful narrative. I think it's a missed opportunity to discuss ethics in religion and its leadership. Like King David to the Jews, we can study Joseph's life and actions to better understand our own humanity and the inevitable humanity of our spiritual guides, despite their best ambitions. Together, we could witness the truth; that "we have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion" (D&C 121:39). Thus they rob their membership of an all-important lesson – that the truth is strengthened only when every man is permitted to think and reason and account for himself the meaning of these and all things.