Joseph Smith’s Polygamy
Growing up in the LDS church, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know polygamy was part of our history. I knew Brigham Young had a lot of wives, and I had a vague notion that maybe Joseph Smith did too. But, I figured if it was commanded by God like he did in the Bible (that turns out to not be true), and if it only involved consenting adults, then it wasn’t something I needed to worry about. Little did I know the LDS church had recently admitted to many details of Joseph Smith’s polygamy that would make me feel like I had never heard the whole story.
The LDS church’s “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” essay discusses the following points:
- An angel with a drawn sword threatened Joseph Smith that he if didn’t marry multiple women he would be destroyed.
- His first wife was Fanny Alger who was a maid living in his house.
- “The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph’s close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday.” (That seems to be an attempt to avoid saying she was 14. Joseph Smith was 37 at the time.)
- Joseph Smith married women who were already married. (This is known as polyandry.)
- Joseph Smith did not tell Emma about all of his wives.
- The number of wives Joseph Smith had was between 30 and 40. (You have to dig this out of the footnotes since it doesn’t appear in the essay itself.)
Some things the essay neglects to mention:
- Oliver Cowdery didn’t think Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger, the live in maid, were married. He described it as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair”. (Cowdery, Oliver. Letterbook, 1833-1838. 21 Jan. 1838. Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.)
- If Joseph Smith did marry Fanny Alger, it was in 1833, and the sealing power wasn’t restored until April 1836 in the Kirtland Temple. Whatever it can be called, it wasn’t a sealing.
- Joseph Smith repeatedly lied to his wife, the church and the world about polygamy. One such example: “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.” (History of the Church, Vol 6, p 411)
- Joseph Smith married a total of seven girls under the age of 18.
- Joseph Smith married women whose husbands were out serving missions.
D&C 132 is a revelation Joseph Smith wrote to try to placate Emma and help her understand why the Lord had commanded polygamy.
61. And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.
That verse talks a lot about virgins. Why did Joseph then marry women who were already married? Did he think maybe Emma would feel better about it if she thought they were virgins? And why didn’t he get permission from Emma for all of his additional wives if the Lord commanded it?
62. And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
His wives belong to him? Women are not property, but maybe they are in God’s eyes.
64. And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.
Sorry Emma, if you don’t go along with his additional wives, you’ll be destroyed. From what I’ve read, Emma wasn’t too happy with this revelation for obvious reasons.
So Why Polygamy?
The Book of Mormon says the only reason polygamy would ever be allowed is to “raise up seed”, but if you think about it, that doesn’t make sense. A man living polygamy might have more children than he would otherwise, but on average each woman will have less. There would be in total more children if each woman was married to one man. I have my own theories about why Joseph Smith instituted polygamy. I believe he thought he was a prophet and thought he was doing what God wanted him to do. It doesn’t make polygamy right, and I feel badly for Emma and anyone else who had to struggle with it.
LDS.org essay: Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo
LDS.org: D&C 132
Mormonverse.com: D&C 132: A revelation of men, not God
CESLetter.com: Polygamy / Polyandry
Great posts Steve. You’ve clearly done more research than me, so when I challenge a point, I want to say up front that you are probably right and I am probably wrong. Your statement: ‘I believe he thought he was a prophet’ I don’t accept this for two reasons:
1. Criminal Past
He was convicted of illegal banking, and charged with banking fraud (but fled to avoid the trial). To me, this means JS was a cheater and liar. It’s hard to say what JS actually thought, but I think his fraudulent past shows a lack of character and morality. Here’s a Wikipedia article about his criminal past: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Smith_and_the_criminal_justice_system
2. His revelations are clearly self serving. It’s so clear that he just wanted to have sex with as many women (and young girls) as possible, so he made up rules that made it seem OK. It’s not me doing this, it’s god. This is the simplest explanation.
Joe, thanks for reading. I agree that fleeing the banking scandals and the self serving revelations are big problems, as are marrying lots of women only because he says God told him to. But I still think his motivation was he thought God was telling him to do everything. Take the banking scandal. He thought God would provide a way for the bank to be successful without having to follow good financial practices, but obviously that doesn’t work. Of course that doesn’t make it right what he did, but it speaks to his motivation. I didn’t think this way until I read Fawn Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History”. I had heard her book was considered anti-Mormon by people in the church, and she definitely didn’t think he was a prophet, but she thought that he thought he was. It was a take I hadn’t considered until I read it, but she makes a good case. Surprisingly I was more sympathetic to him after I read it. Another historian, Dan Vogel, makes similar arguments here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4JlJaD2fks. We’ll never really know, but I find it fascinating to learn about.