The problem wasn’t that I didn’t study. I just didn’t study the things not published by the Church. I listened to what was taught at General Conference every 6 months, participated in Sunday School lessons, and asked questions. I studied the scriptures on my own more than most, I’m sure, and read books like My Heritage and Preach My Gospel so I could understand what it meant to be Mormon. Polygamy became personal to me as I started to fall in love for the first time. I was 18 and about to leave on my two-year mission. I thought about my girlfriend, who I first started dating because I was jealous; she went on a date with someone else and I felt a heavy, stinging jealousy I couldn’t get rid of until I asked her out. I knew Joseph Smith had a few wives and tried to imagine what it would have been like for Emma to share her husband and for Joseph to deal with God’s command to marry other women. I stood up in front of the church on a regular basis and said I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and I listened to others say the same thing with conviction in their voices, some of them trembling as they tried to keep their emotions from overwhelming them. I thought of Joseph as a bold, teachable boy used by God to bring truth back to the world.
Yet I never knew Joseph had over 33 wives, 11 of which were already married to other men when Joseph claimed them, and he hid his polygamy from Emma and the church as long as possible. My personal reaction to Joseph’s polygamy was based on a carefully manicured history the Mormon church allowed me to see. I knew little, it turned out, about the character of the man I claimed was a Prophet of God. My decision to know the facts about Joseph was made for me by the church leaders I trusted, because you must feed a baby milk before they can handle meat. My situation is not unique.
The question I ask is: Should the true account of Mormon history be left to thick, scholarly editions few read?
In this article I’ll discuss polygamy candidly – in a way no one did for the first 21 years of my life, and most importantly, the two years I dedicated to preach the church’s doctrine every day. Though polygamy wasn’t a central issue in my doubts when I left the church five years ago, it illustrates a pattern the LDS church uses to disassociate itself with unpopular doctrines or history (click to read previous article). I used three books for this information, No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie, In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton, and Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman, which provide good balance from a negative to a positive outlook on Mormon polygamy. I use primarily the numbers given by Compton, because I appreciated the unapologetic and direct tone of his writing the most.
Joseph Smith had 33 well-documented wives. The majority of these women were younger than him at the time of marriage. Eleven of them were ages 14-20, nine were 21-30, eight were his same age group at 31-40, and five were older. In total, 18 of the women were single at the time of marriage to Joseph, four were widows, 11 were already married and living with their husbands, and at least one woman was married immediately afterwards to cover up the polygamous union. Joseph’s first polygamous marriage was to Fanny Alger (probably 14 years old, possibly as old as 16), which resulted in scandal and the excommunication of Oliver Cowdery when he “spread rumors” about Joseph committing adultery. Historians speculate that this is the reason he chose polyandry (one woman having multiple husbands) in early polygamy: nine out of the first twelve marriages were polyandrous. Polygamous marriages were not just spiritual – they were married for time as well as eternity – and there is no evidence to support the claim that Joseph didn’t have sex with his plural wives or that he didn’t consummate his marriage with even the two youngest girls, at 14, after the ceremony. Todd Compton lists eight additional wives for which the evidence isn’t conclusive. There were at least eight women married to Joseph after his death who weren’t married to him in his life (for eternity only, not for time). At least five women declined Joseph’s proposal.
Joseph hid his extra marriages from everyone possible, including Emma. It is believed that polygamy was first revealed in 1831 while Joseph was re-translating the Old Testament. It was possibly practiced by 1833, definitely by 1836, but the revelation wasn’t written down until 1843 upon urging from Hyrum Smith so he could try to convince Emma to finally accept the principle. That revelation is recorded in D&C 132, which I’ve summarized here. The church still denied, publicly, the practice of polygamy until an official decree in 1852, eight years after Joseph’s death. Polygamy was very controlled; only the very central families were told about it, and even then it was only when Joseph was about to make a proposal. Joseph believed the “keys” and authority to make these marriages rested with him alone, so non-sanctioned polygamous marriages were disciplined harshly, resulting in a confusing atmosphere for the church membership, but at least 29 other men entered Joseph-sanctioned polygamous marriages before his death.
“[Emma] probably knew of plural marriage but had no idea of the extent of her husband’s practice. Aware of her opposition Joseph could not bring himself to explain what he was doing. Caught between the plural marriage revelation and Emma’s opposition, he moved ahead surreptitiously, making the recovery of his domestic life almost impossible” (Bushman 493). Though most of polygamy was done outside of Emma’s view, Joseph tried to convince Emma to obey God’s new command many times. In 1843, Joseph finally convinced Emma to accept a few wives, but only on the condition that she was allowed to choose them. She chose two sisters, Emily and Eliza Partridge, who were staying in their home as wards. “The sisters were an awkward selection because Joseph had already married them two months earlier in March without Emma’s knowledge” (Bushman 494). Emily Partridge wrote, “To save family trouble, Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed” (Brodie 339).
Joseph’s and other leader’s character are brought into question by their definitive public statements in opposition to polygamy. Towards the end of his life, Joseph stated publicly, “The Church had not received any license from him to commit adultery fornication or any such thing but to the contrary if any man Commit adultery He Could not receive the Celestial kingdom of God”(Bushman 526, capitalization and punctuation kept the same as initial document). Bushman attempts to explain this contradiction, “The distinction between priesthood calls to take additional wives and unlicensed indulgence was clear to [Joseph] if not always to others.” Joseph apparently preached against adultery and fornication in a way that didn’t apply to him since his marriages were ordained by god and through the priesthood. Yet he failed to clarify that to the people he was speaking to, and since he also directly denied his own polygamy it seems Bushman is straining to interpret Smith’s actions in a positive light. Joseph used the same tactic in response to Oliver Cowdery’s claims that Joseph had committed adultery by adamantly claiming he hadn’t, but failed to specify he had sex with another woman, it just wasn’t adultery because it was sanctioned by god. Church leadership followed this same practice of denial. In 1844, a notice appeared in an issue of Times and Seasons, “As we have lately been credibly informed, that an Elder of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints, by the name of Hiram Brown, has been preaching Polygamy, and other false and corrupt doctrines, in the county of Lapeer, state of Michigan. This is to notify him and the Church in general, that he has been cut off from the church, for his iniquity.”
It is unlikely we would have reliable knowledge about early polygamy if Brigham Young hadn’t gone on a campaign to prove Joseph was polygamist. The Reorganized LDS church broke away after Joseph’s death and claimed Joseph didn’t have any real marriages to anyone but Emma, or if he was married to someone else it wasn’t a sexual relationship. When the RLDS sent missionaries to Utah, Young asked all Joseph’s wives to sign an affidavit stating they were married to Joseph and whether their relationship was sexual.
The Doctrine Behind Polygamy
Early Mormonism presented a radically different version of Christianity. Here you have prophets, apostles, priesthood, new scripture, and even temples, but you also have groundbreaking theological changes about heaven, human potential, and what god requires of us. The church now leaves most of these things in the “deep doctrine” category, choosing to focus on more “central” and well-established doctrines. But the modern church still holds on to the bare bones offspring of these more extreme beliefs, and they can still be found in Mormon scripture.
Joseph taught that heaven was not a paradise where everyone eternally worships God as equals; rather, there are “degrees of glory” attained based on faithfulness to God’s commandments. In the highest of the three degrees of glory, the Celestial Kingdom, there are differences of glory as well; those who accept all God commands can attain the highest of the highest rewards, exaltation. They are to become gods.
This was part of one of many innovations by Joseph that sought to understand heaven by looking at the natural world around him. The order of heaven was replicated on earth. Just as you and I have fathers and grandfathers, there is a family in heaven. God was tested on an earth like this, attained his exaltation, and with his wives created earths and spirit children, you and I, to come and be tested like he was. This idea is central to Joseph’s polygamist ideology. Joseph believed that marriage, when sealed by God’s authority, was eternal; the family unit was to carry over into the afterlife wherein they would continue to grow and create, have children and an ever-increasing family (a “continuation of seeds forever and ever”). More wives means more creation, more children, and therefore more glory as an exalted being. Yet another radical innovation, and possibly the logic Joseph used to justify marriage with other men’s wives, was that all marriages not performed by priesthood authority were invalid – even while on earth. Therefore God’s command for Joseph to marry someone’s wife trumped their previous, unauthorized, earthly marriage. Compton explains,
“Whatever the uncertainties in documenting this aspect of Latter-day Saint practice, there is a clearly discernible outline of ideology in the historical record that explains the development and rationale for the practice of Smith’s polyandry. “Gentile” (i.e., non-Mormon) marriages were “illegal,” of no eternal value or even earthly validity; marriages authorized by the Mormon priesthood and prophets took precedence. Sometimes these sacred marriages were felt to fulfill pre-mortal linkings and so justified a sacred marriage superimposed over a secular one. Mormonism’s intensely hierarchical nature allowed a man with the highest earthly authority – a Joseph Smith or Brigham Young – to request the wives of men holding lesser Mormon priesthood, or no priesthood. The authority of the prophet would allow him to promise higher exaltation to those involved in the triangle, both the wife and her first husband.”
To look at polygamy in terms of sexuality alone misses the complexity of the doctrine and the relationships. These marriages were for time and eternity and were meant to raise up a righteous generation (which means having sex and kids), but many of the relationships seem to be lacking romance, done only for highly religious reasons. Joseph had many responsibilities and his marriages were secret; he had to be very careful, avoiding public attention as much as possible. It is unlikely he had enough time to visit his wives often. Perhaps Lucy Walker gives us one of the best looks into the religious reasoning in her account of Smith’s proposal. She frankly rejected Smith’s proposal at 15- or 16-years-old. “He fully Explained to me the principle of plural or celestial marriage. Said this principle was again to be restored for the benefit of the human family. That it would prove an everlasting blessing to my father’s house. And form a chain that could never be broken, worlds without end.” He approached her again the next spring, and she describes her feeling: “I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar a liveing Sacrifice, perhaps to brook the world in disgrace and incur the displeasure and contempt of my youthful companions; all my dreams of happiness blown to the four winds, this was too much , the thought was unbearable.” She refused for the second time and told him to never speak to her again about the subject. He promised her God would tell her it was right, and that night she had a manifestation. “My room became filled with a heavenly influence. To me it was in comparison like the brilliant sunshine bursting through the darkest cloud. . . . My Soul was filled with a calm sweet peace that I never knew. Supreme happiness took possession of my whole being.” Lucy later says, “It was not a love matter, but simply the giving up of myself as a sacrifice to establish that grand and glorious principle that God had revealed to the world” (Bushman 492).
Joseph believed god was commanding him to marry each woman and he didn’t have a choice. Women and families accepted Joseph’s offer for marriage because they believed they were doing what god wanted and would receive greater rewards here and in heaven for their obedience; some were even guaranteed the salvation of their immediate family if they obeyed. However, those who had been taught about this principle had a responsibility to follow it or they would be damned. In D&C 132:4-6, “For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.” Later, in verses 51-56, God speaks directly to Emma: “If she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.”
The sacrifice women made to live this “celestial” marriage was incredibly large. When Joseph was killed, his plural wives were married “for time” to Brigham Young or Heber C. Kimball and a few other high church authorities to raise up seed unto Joseph. Many of them received little support and were sent, repeatedly, to establish new settlements in the West. They were strong and intelligent women. Annie Clark Tanner, a daughter of a polygamous marriage and later a plural wife herself, describes her feelings on polygamy, “As a girl I had been proud that my father and mother had obeyed the highest principle in the Church … I was aware now that my mother’s early married life must have been humiliating and joyless on many occasions because of her position as a second wife” (xiii – Compton).
Another anecdote from history shows us how important it was for early Mormons to be sealed to powerful priesthood families. Compton writes,
The importance of the size of one’s eternal family, and the necessity of building it up on this earth, is shown by the custom of adoption practiced in the late Nauvoo period by Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders who would have grown men sealed to them as “sons.” These “sons” even signed their names with their new “father’s” last name. In the late Nauvoo period, Mormon leaders reportedly competed to add new members, “sons,” to their adoptive families (Compton, 11).
My Decision Made For Me
With this history in mind, the LDS approach to teaching their membership and outsiders about their past is troubling. I’ll summarize the approach with one quote from the introduction of a recent church manual entitled Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith:
This book deals with teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that have application to our day. For example, this book does not discuss such topics as the Prophet’s teachings regarding the law of consecration as applied to stewardship of property. The Lord withdrew this law from the Church because the Saints were not prepared to live it (see D&C 119, section heading). This book also does not discuss plural marriage. The doctrines and principles relating to plural marriage were revealed to Joseph Smith as early as 1831. The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime. Over the next several decades, under the direction of the Church Presidents who succeeded Joseph Smith, a significant number of Church members entered into plural marriages. In 1890, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, which discontinued plural marriage in the Church (see Official Declaration 1). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints no longer practices plural marriage.
That’s it. I would have hoped a book meant to outline Joseph’s teachings would contain a meaningful explanation of his polygamy, but the conversation is stopped with this small paragraph in the introduction.
Aside from purposeful silence in Church publications, Mormons typically refer to Emma as “Joseph’s wife” in church, the specifics of polygamy are avoided, and missionaries and Church leaders give cursory answers that avoid connection with polygamy as much as possible. It is a sad fact that many Mormons know little to nothing about their polygamist heritage. They perpetuate half-truths, misdirection, and dishonesty handed down by previous generations.
Polygamy wasn’t central in my leaving of the church, but the pattern of lying, avoiding, and covering unattractive doctrine and history was. I heard the apostles speak and say things I knew were wrong but sounded good and bold. Things I wanted to be true. Things I had heard as a 14-year old in the Priesthood session of general conference. Things I knew many others were accepting as true and factual. I knew the Apostles weren’t ignorant and lost trust for the church authorities. What I wanted in a church was honest, bold truth. I didn’t care if the truth was difficult, I only cared that it was right. The leaders are accountable for this, but my next words go to everyone: By attempting to fit in with the rest of the world, soften your edges, and make your message more palatable, you have lost any claim you had of being the unique and restored church of God. Rather than teaching the world you are being taught by it, changing to conform to it, and trying to please it with flowery and well-designed statements aimed at obscuring your connection with unpopular things like polygamy. In this you appear as a business with a good PR department, not a divine source of untarnished truth.
Does the Mormon church believe in polygamy? The church often confirms the truth of a difficult doctrine by saying, “Do you believe in the Book of Mormon?” If the the Book of Mormon is true, they say, then Joseph must have been a prophet of God, and if he was a prophet then we know God taught through him. The conclusion comes, “God has given you that answer that Joseph is a prophet, which means [tithing, temple work, fill in the blank] is also true, doesn’t it? God asks that you have faith on the things you don’t understand, and he’ll confirm the truth of it to you in time.”
So I ask you, do you believe in polygamy? Well . . . do you believe Joseph Smith was a prophet of God?
“Even sharing the truth can have the effect of lying when we tell only half-truths that do not give the full picture. We can also be guilty of bearing false witness and lying if we say nothing, particularly if we allow another to reach a wrong conclusion while we hold back information that would have led to a more accurate perception. In this case it is as though an actual lie were uttered.” – Robert J. Matthews
Read other great blogs about this subject:
Ask Mormon Girl – One quote from this: “Why should we not inform our own people about our own history? When we don’t, we set up our people to feel betrayed and ashamed, and we give power to people who would like to embarrass us. What we refuse to be ashamed of, others can never hold over us.”