Learning to Love
Doctrine and Covenants

Joseph Smith’s Personal Practice of Plural Marriage By Michael J. Preece

Joseph Smith’s Personal Practice of Plural Marriage

This discussion of Joseph’s personal practice of plural marriage will not be a look at this fascinating chapter of Church history from Michael Preece’s perspective. I simply don’t have the background and have not paid the price to qualify for having my own perspective. Dr. Brian Hales has, and I have used his materials exclusively. I have stayed true to those materials and his conclusions. We owe Dr. Hales a great debt for his contribution to this topic. He and those who helped him have literally uncovered every known available document regarding Joseph’s own practice of polygamy between 1835 and 1843. It is apparent that no one has access to any credible sources he has not reviewed. He has published an exhaustive, three-volume work on the topic which includes some 1200 pages. He also has published in 2015 a 200 page summary of the topic.

Dr Hales is deeply and firmly committed to the truth of the Church and the gospel. Here are his own words. Speaking of himself and his wife Laura, he said, “Our examination of the historical record has reinforced our convictions that Joseph was a virtuous man and a true prophet of the living God.”

My goal is to try to bring to all of us students of the history of the Church a “comfortable closure” on the topic. By “comfortable closure” I mean that I would like all of you students to be privy to a reasonably comprehensive account of Joseph’s practice of polygamy with nothing hidden. I would like each of you to be more accurately and more thoroughly informed than any of the anti-Mormon critics and writers who write about the topic in newspapers, magazines, or on the internet. I would also like to accomplish this in the setting where all of us can sincerely acknowledge Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God. And I also think it’s important that we also acknowledge that Joseph was a real human being with some of the frailties “enjoyed” by all the rest of us.

I will make the point later on that the Lord revealed the principle of plural marriage repeatedly to Joseph, but the Lord did not micromanage the implementation of that plural marriage. He left that to Joseph, and Joseph’s humanness resulted in some awkward, and even contentious, situations during those eight years. I have come to wonder whether there might well be a few things that Joseph might have wanted to rethink and redo. Before we conclude our discussion we’ll review a bit of speculation by Dr. Hales on that very topic.

In this discussion, I’m going to speak very plainly and try to tell it just like it was.

My plan for this discussion s to provide you with answers to what I feel are fourteen important questions about Joseph’s practice of polygamy. I even hope they might turn out to be the fourteen most vital questions. And, I’d like to provide the answers to these in a form you can have on the tip of your tongue for the rest of your life.

I’ve prepared a one-page summary of Joseph’s practice of plural marriage which you may find in another supplemental article titled “Summary of Joseph Smith’s Plural Sealings.” Please note that some of the material in this summary is not thoroughly understood and even today remains unclear. The reason is that Brian Hales sometimes had to suffer through a fog of indirect historical information and sometimes even conflicting information. The reason for this was a general paucity of primary historical documents and a dependence on secondary documents. A primary historical document is one written by the individual involved. The secondary documents are written by someone else about the individual involved. And sometimes these secondary documents were written years after the described incidents.

Definition of Terms

First let us briefly define a few terms. The word “polygamy” actually means a man or woman having more than one spouse. Two forms of polygamy exist. “Polygyny” is one man with more than one wife. In common usage today, as you know, we mostly refer to polygyny as “polygamy” or “plural marriage.” “Polyandry” is one woman having more than one husband.

We will learn and discuss the fact that Joseph Smith taught that true polygyny— that is polygyny that includes a sexual relationship between husband and wife—has been authorized by God in certain instances during the history of our earth. In contrast, Joseph taught that “true” or sexual polyandry inevitably constitutes the sin of adultery (D&C 132:63) and has never been divinely authorized.

Let us begin with the first question. I’m going to start you off fast. We will begin with one of the most colorful and even controversial events in the entire saga.

1. What is the real story of the Fanny Alger episode—Joseph’s first plural wife?

Joseph Smith’s first plural marriage was to a young woman named Fanny Alger. This took place in Kirtland, probably in 1835, a full six or seven years prior to Joseph’s taking his second plural wife in Nauvoo. Understanding the details of this polygamous union is difficult because those directly involved—Joseph, Emma, and Fanny Alger—left no written account on the matter. We therefore have no primary historical documents. Twenty historical documents have been located that refer to the incident, but many of them are historically problematic, second-hand, and recorded late. The earliest was written at least two years after the relationship ended, with sixteen of the reports penned at least three decades afterward.

Though I will later mention an earlier revelatory experience, apparently, the first time Joseph was directly commanded to marry an additional wife was in July of 1834. Again, this was in Kirtland, Ohio. The commandment for Joseph to begin the practice of polygamy was delivered by an angel. This was the first visit of the angel. This same angel would eventually come on two additional occasions. You will see those three visits listed on your handout in temporal sequence. On this first visit the angel had no sword and did not threaten Joseph, but Joseph was told to immediately enter into a polygamous marriage. We will learn that on the third visit, the angel reportedly did carry a sword and did threaten him because of his inaction. More about that later.

Though there is uncertainty regarding the date, it is most likely that in 1835, Joseph approached his friend Levi Hancock, taught him of plural marriage, and instructed him to approach Fanny Alger’s father to ask for his permission for Joseph to take her as a second wife. Levi apparently spoke to Fanny’s father, her mother, and to Fanny herself, and all agreed. Fanny was 18 or 19 at the time and was working as a housekeeper at the Smith home in Kirtland. Unfortunately, we have no details about the event but we do know that Levi Hancock married them using the words that Joseph provided for him. Levi did hold the Melchizedek priesthood, but this marriage likely occurred prior to the April 3, 1836, appearance of Elijah to Joseph in the Kirtland Temple wherein Elijah restored the sealing power. Hence, Joseph’s marriage to Fanny should be understood to end at death. It was not a sealing for time and eternity.

Joseph did not inform Emma about his relationship with Fanny. At some point, either weeks or months after the ceremony, one account reported that “one night she [Emma] missed Joseph and Fanny. She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!” (William McLellin, letter to Joseph Smith III dated July 1872, Community of Christ archives). We don’t know exactly what Emma saw, but she responded hysterically and could not be consoled. In desperation, Joseph summoned Oliver Cowdery in hopes that Oliver might help calm her. Apparently after speaking with Emma, Oliver was as angry as Emma and became convinced that Joseph had committed adultery. Some months later, Oliver would refer to the business with Fanny as a “dirty, nasty, filthy scrape,” and he and some other Church leaders regarded the Joseph Smith–Fanny Alger affair to be illicit. Several others, like Benjamin R. Johnson, Levi Hancock, and Eliza R. Snow disagreed, later referring to the association as a legitimate plural marriage. The fact that Fanny’s parents remained faithful to Joseph Smith and the Church throughout their lifetimes validates their confidence in its legitimacy.

As a consequence of the discovery, Emma immediately “turned Fanny out of the house.” Fanny lived with friends in the area and later returned to live with her family. One account suggests that Fanny may have been pregnant during the episode, but there is no record of Fanny’s giving birth to any children for several years after the incident. Thus, significant doubt is cast onto the story of her pregnancy. She later married Solomon Custer, from Indiana, and reportedly “became the mother of a large family.” Fanny never actually disavowed the Church and never maligned Joseph in any way. She did, however, later in life, join a church called the Universalists. As mentioned, Joseph would not marry again until the early 1840s in Nauvoo—some six or seven years later.

2. What prompted Joseph to inquire of the Lord regarding the practice of plural marriage?

Two specific events likely prompted Joseph to prayerfully inquire regarding a plurality of wives. The first occurred while Joseph was working on his inspired versions or his “translation” of the Old Testament in February and March of 1831. He came across the account of ancient patriarchs who practiced polygamy. The second was in a revelation received by Joseph later in1831 revelation given to him as he and others sought to preach the gospel to the Native Americans living on the western boarders of the United States. Let us consider further each of these.

Joseph’s work on the JST of the Old Testament. Joseph was working on Genesis in February and March of 1831 where he would have come across accounts of polygamous patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob. Nauvoo polygamist Joseph B. Noble recalled in 1883: “The Prophet Joseph told him that the doctrine of celestial marriage was revealed to him while he was engaged on the work of translation of the scriptures, but when the communication was first made the Lord stated that the time for the practice of that principle had not arrived (Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken O Ye People, 232-33). Joseph first learned that plural marriage had at times been a divinely-sanctioned practice. Whether he also learned initially that it would someday be practiced in the Church is unclear.

The 1831 revelation. This is an interesting and little known episode. In June of 1831 Joseph started on his missionary journey to preach to the Native Americans on the western borders of the United States. On June 19, 1831, Joseph, W. W. Phelps, Martin Harris, Sidney Rigdon, and several others traveled to Jackson County, Missouri, arriving a few weeks later. While there, Joseph receive a revelation indicating that men should take wives from among the Lamanites.

In 1861, thirty years after the revelation was reportedly given, W. W. Phelps wrote a letter to Brigham Young clarifying the experience. Phelps wrote the “substance” of the revelation which included the statement, “For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites that their posterity may become white, delightsome, and just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.” Phelps then identified it as from “Joseph Smith Jun. given over the boundary, west of Jackson Co. Missouri, on Sunday morning, July 17, 1831.” He then ended his letter to President Young as follows: “About three years after this was given, I asked brother Joseph privately, how ‘we,’ that were mentioned in the revelation could take wives from the ‘natives’—as we were all married men? He replied instantly, ‘In the same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Keturah, and Jacob took Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah: by revelation—the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation.” (H. Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary, 374).

Despite the directive, no marriages to Native American women, monogamous or polygamous, occurred at that time or at any time prior to the Joseph’s death in 1844.

Beginning in 1831, the Church began to be accused of practicing polygamy. This may have resulted from leaks and rumors, but also it did begin while the saints in Kirtland were attempting to practice the law of consecration and were trying to have “all things in common.” It began to be noised about by the press that were some frontier LDS groups that were sharing all things, including marital partners. In the April 1833 Evening and Morning Star the Church made it clear that no members of the Church were involved in the practice of plural marriage. These accusations never gained traction, likely because there was no evidence to support them.

3. Why did the Lord command Joseph to introduce the practice of polygamy to the Church?

The thoughtful student will quickly recognize that asking why the Lord commanded Joseph to practice plural marriage is not an entirely appropriate question. We do avow most assuredly that the Lord did command Joseph, but the Lord does not really owe us an explanation. It’s presumptuous to inquire why he so commanded it. But the Lord is generally merciful and does not lead us blindly, so we do have some information on this question.

It’s amusing to see that many well-meaning church leaders and members have tried to justify the practice. One good example is the idea that there were more women in the Church in Nauvoo and in Utah. Demographic studies do not support this conclusion and this reason was never mentioned by Joseph Smith as a reason for polygamy.

Doctrine and Covenants section 132 is the only first hand document written by Joseph Smith that addresses the topic of polygamy. From that document we may draw four reasons. As I mention these four, it is not necessary for you to have to choose one most likely. It seems probably that all of these four had a role in explaining why the practice of plural marriage was introduced to the saints.

  1. Polygamy was part of the “restitution of all things” prophesied in Acts 3:19-21. That passage reads, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (emphasis added; see also D&C 132:40, 45).

  2. To provide a customized trial for the saints at that time and place. By the time section 132 was written down in July 1843, Joseph already had multiple wives. In section 132, the Lord’s implies, in verse 51, that he revealed the principle to Joseph and expected Emma to adjust to the practice “to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.” In verse 60 of section 132, the Lord seems to be referring to Joseph’s practice of polygamy. The Lord said, “Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph; for I will justify him; for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands for his transgressions, saith the Lord your God.”

  3. To “multiply and replenish the earth” (D&C 132:63). Presumably for the benefit and future of the Church, the Lord needed a channel through which “noble and great” premortal spirits could be born into the Church for the good of the Church. Brigham Young explained, “This revelation [authorizing plural marriage], which God gave to Joseph, was for the express purpose of providing a channel for the organization of tabernacles, for those spirits to occupy who have been reserved to come forth in the kingdom of God, and that they might not be obliged to take tabernacles outside of the kingdom of God” (JD 3:265).

  4. The fourth reason is certainly the most compelling and obvious. Although it’s not overtly stated in the 132nd section, it is powerfully implied there. Have you ever wondered why—when Joseph inquired of the Lord about plural marriage—the Lord gave, instead, the revelation on eternal marriage? In verses 1 and 2, the Lord states clearly that he revealed section 132 to Joseph after Joseph had inquired about plural marriage being practiced in the Old Testament. Yet section 132 is not really about plural marriage. It is about eternal marriage. Why this relationship?

It is obvious. It is simple arithmetic. There is going to be a final judgment and many will be judged worthy to enter the celestial heaven. Unless there is numerical gender equality at the final judgment, either a plurality of wives or a plurality of husbands will be needed to alleviate the possibility of worthy men or women missing out on exaltation due to no fault of their own.

We know that the Lord has not provided for a majority of husbands. An excess of men in the celestial resurrection will not be a problem. Polyandry will not be needed in heaven. There is an observable greater receptiveness of women than men to the gospel message. Brigham Young taught: “The fact is, let the pure principles of the kingdom of God be taught to men and women, and far more of the latter than the former will receive and obey them” (JD 18:249).

We do not believe it is plurality of marriage itself that is necessary for exaltation. Rather, it is eternal marriage between a man and a woman. Plurality simply allows all worthy women to access it.

We all know of worthy and committed women that do not marry here on earth, but some of them would like to have been married and to have help “multiply and replenish the earth.” If they are found worthy of a celestial resurrection and elect the highest third of that kingdom, they must be sealed to a man for eternity. During those times when the Lord has not approved earthly plural marriage, they must wait. It is obvious, then, that working out the numbers will require that some polygamy will exist in the celestial kingdom. But it would seem it will not be practiced by all.

4. We know of instances in the Old Testament when the Lord has allowed plural marriage, particularly among the Lord’s leaders and prophets. Do we know of anyone other than Joseph Smith who was actually commanded to enter into plural marriage? When and where was Joseph’s commandment—actually commandments—received by Joseph?

First, we should emphasize that there has never been a doctrinal basis for tying the practice of plural marriage to exaltation. Nowhere, for example, in section 132 is there a commandment to practice polygamy in order to earn exaltation.

Aside from Joseph’s being commanded, there has only been one time when we know the Lord commanded the practice. This was when Abraham took Hagar to wife at Sarah’s bidding (Genesis 16:1-3). The Doctrine and Covenants adds the clarification of its being done by God’s command: “God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife” (D&C 132:34).

A valid question for discussion is whether or not the members of the Church were “commanded” to practice polygamy between the 1840s and 1890. One might make the case that they were commanded, particularly this was the case for a few of the Church’s leaders when polygamy was still not widely known by the Church. Joseph, in Nauvoo, met with a few of the leaders, told them of the principle, and strongly encouraged them to begin practicing it. It is also apparent that many among the Church membership regarded the counsel to practice polygamy as a commandment. If they had not, it seems that only a few would have practiced it. As mentioned previously, it seems likely that the Lord saw polygamy as a way the saints could expand the membership of the Church. And, indeed, the Church membership expanded faster between the 1840s and 1890 than monogamy would have allowed.

Joseph told the story to several among the Church leadership of three visits by an angel commanding him—on the third visit with a drawn sword—to practice polygamy. It should be noted that there are other scriptural accounts of angels with drawn swords communicating God’s will to reluctant mortals. For example, in Numbers 22:23, 31, the prophet Balaam was so visited. On another occasion, David was afraid of an angel with a drawn sword (1 Chronicles 21:30). See also Isaiah 37:36 and Acts 12:21-23.

The first angelic command was made to Joseph in 1834. This prompted Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger, but that relationship, as we’ve already seen, turned into a bit of a debacle. Sometime during the next seven years the angel appeared again, but Joseph apparently demurred. He did get started, but seemed reluctant. Look at wives 2 through 5 on your handout. Apparently, the third visit occurred in February 1842, and this time the angel was obviously not satisfied and was impatient.

He threatened Joseph with a drawn sword. He would be removed from office unless he complied. Your handout illustrates what happened after that.

5. Why has the practice of polygamy come and gone among the people in the Lord’s kingdom since the family of man began to be place on the earth?

While God is an unchanging God, it is notable that the needs of his earthly Church and his children do change. This seems to be the basis of why the Lord has regulated the marital practices of his followers differently at different times. At times, plural marriage is not permitted as is the case in the Book of Mormon (Jacob 3:5), though the possibility of the Lord’s commanding the practice under particular circumstances is acknowledged there (Jacob 2:30). Polygamy was also not permitted in the early Christian Church in New Testament time.

At other times the practice has been permitted but the “command” to practice it has not been binding on each follower of the prophets. This was the case in the Old Testament where, at times, polygamy was permitted but not required.

6. If polygamy is a divine principle, why was the initial period of polygamy characterized by so much intrigue, disappointment, disillusionment, and anger? There was much of social and legal opposition then that made the practice complicated and messy. One example is the account of Fanny Alger that we’ve already considered.

It is essential to know, and I mentioned this previously, that though the Lord commanded the practice, he did not micromanage its execution. Joseph did not receive detailed guidelines on how to introduce and live plural marriage. As a result, Joseph did not always weather the polygamy-related storms well in the 1840s nor is his legacy consistently weathering them well now, almost two hundred years after his death. Simply trusting that God commanded Joseph and the Church to practice polygamy seems to still be a test of faith for some saints today.

7. We hear of different types of plural marriage sealings done in the early Church.

What were they? And which of these types did Joseph’s sealings include? There were three types of sealings:

  1. Time-only sealings. These were more akin to traditional marriages that were for mortality only—differing, of course only in their polygamous nature. These were generally performed between men and widows who needed someone to take care of their material needs, and presumably these women were intended to remain the eternal spouses of their deceased legal husbands to whom they were eternally sealed. These time-only sealings may have included sexuality. If we exclude Fanny Alger, only two and possibly a third and fourth of Joseph’s plural marriages were of the time-only type.

  2. Time-and-eternity sealings. These were most common. These time-and­eternity sealings were of two variants. The first was to women who had not previously married. The second was to women who had previously been married but the legal marriage had been “done away.”

  3. It is true that some of these women had not been legally divorced. One might naturally wonder why these women would not seek a legal divorce before their sealing to Joseph Smith for time and eternity. It is important to note that legal divorces in that day were very difficult and impractical to obtain. While justices of the peace could legally marry a couple, divorce required a circuit court or even the state legislature to grant a divorce. This was not generally done. Hence, practically speaking, it was left to the churches to decide who was divorced. It was apparently felt that a sealing for time and eternity done by the proper priesthood caused the secular legal marriage to be “done away” (see D&C 22:1-3).

    In all of these cases there is nothing to indicate that Joseph Smith approached a male follower and asked for his wife except for one deliberate and colorful exception which I will mention in a few moments. Accusations of Joseph’s demanding and marrying a man’s wife, or sending men on missions, so he could soon marry their wives, have no historical basis. Apparently, however, there were three sealings to Joseph that engendered this rumor. Unfortunately the level of detail we would desire about these marriages is scant, making them easily misunderstood or misrepresented by those who are willing to fill in the documentary gaps with speculations.

  4. Eternity-only sealings. These were marital ceremonies that bound a man and woman only the next life. During mortality they would not have been considered married, and sexual intimacy between them would have constituted adultery.

While a few “eternity only” marriages were performed during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, evidence indicates the practice of sealing a living male to a living female for “eternity only” was discontinued after Joseph’s death. After Joseph’s death, however, proxy sealings to Joseph and perhaps others did continue for a time.

These eternity-only sealings were of two types:

  1. Those to women with non-LDS husbands. Since they could not be sealed to their husbands for eternity and receive exaltation. They desired to be sealed for eternity only. Hence, Joseph offered himself as their eternal husband for eternity only to make them eligible for exaltation.

  2. Those to women with active LDS husbands. Apparently when plural marriage was first introduced to the Church, the married women were free to choose to whom they would be sealed for eternity, as if they had not been married. These sealings generate two questions that we unfortunately cannot completely answer. Why would the women choose Joseph over their worthy legal husbands? And, why did the prophet Joseph allow these sealings? Joseph himself would be the best resource for information regarding his decision to engage in this practice, but, unfortunately, there is nothing from him explaining his decision to allow these sealings. There is evidence that some of the legal marriages were not happy ones, but we do not have information for all of the cases.

One note of importance. There is no historical evidence of Joseph’s ever having been involved in a polyandrous relationship, though the opposite is claimed by some anti-Mormon authors.

8. Is it possible to construct a simple time-line for Joseph’s plural marriages in Nauvoo? And what of these marriages? With how many did Joseph likely have conjugal relations?

The answer to these questions is included on the handout. It would seem that the second angelic visit occurred between 1836 and 1840 and it prompted Joseph to revisit the principle of plural marriage and begin to secretly discuss it with trusted friends in 1840 and 1841, largely with members of the Quorum of Twelve. At that time, he was sealed for time and eternity to Louisa Beaman in 1841. Joseph had imparted the sealing power to the man who married them, Joseph Noble.

Joseph then seems to have felt he had satisfied the angel messenger and he entered into a few eternity only marriages. These women were already civilly married, but they were unhappily married, and some of the husbands had left the Church. Perhaps Joseph felt he had satisfied the angel.

Then, apparently the angel messenger visited again in February, 1842, this time with a drawn sword. He threatened Joseph and demanded that he do more to practice real polygamy. Joseph then entered a period when, for the next 22 months, most of his plural marriages were for time and eternity. The final marriage was in November, 1843, some 8 or 9 months before Joseph’s death. The messenger angel did not appear again.

9. What does the evidence indicate concerning Joseph’s conjugal relations with his plural wives? Was there any evidence he was significantly motivated to take a plural wife by the promise of sexual relations with her? Just how interested was he in this aspect of the practice?

Joseph clearly taught that sexual relations were justified and expected in polygamous unions in order “to multiply and replenish the earth” (D&C 132:63). Of Joseph’s thirty-five wives, it would appear that he either had sexual relations or was at least authorized to have sexual relations with 20. This number is actually 18, as I will explain in a moment.

Of special interest is that the list of Joseph’s plural wives includes ten under the age of twenty at the time they were sealed to him. They included: Helen Mar Kimball who was 14. Nancy Winchester was 14 or possibly 15. Flora Ann Woodworth was 16. Three were 17, including Sarah Ann Whitney, Sarah Lawrence, and Lucy Walker. Four were 19, including Fanny Alger, Emily Dow Partridge, Maria Lawrence, and Malissa Lott.

Of particular concern is Joseph’s relationships with the two youngest on this list, Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Winchester. Critics have, of course, usually assumed that since they were sealed to Joseph as plural wives, they were also having sexual relations with him.

The question is often raised as to whether or not Joseph, were he to have maintained a sexual relationship with a 14 or 15 year old, would be guilty of statutory rape. Statutory rape occurs when any adult, male or female, has sexual relations with a child who has not yet reached the age of consent or the age of “majority.” During the nineteenth century, early English law set the age of consent at ten, and, indeed, in the 1800s most states had set the age at 10. This age was gradually raised over the years. A few states began by using twelve as the cutoff. The minimum age for consent in Illinois at that time was ten (Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1995, 14). Available research shows that in Joseph Smith’s day, marriages to fourteen year-old girls were legal, but rare. The Nauvoo City Council passed an ordinance specifying the minimum ages for marriage which recited Illinois State law verbatim: “All male persons over the age of seventeen years, and females over the age of fourteen years, may contract and be joined in marriage, provided, in all cases where either party is a minor, the consent of parents or guardians be first had” (“Nauvoo Records,” “An Ordinance Concerning Marriages passed February 17, 1842,” MS 16800, Church History Library).

Having said all that, Dr. Hales has confirmed that there is no evidence Joseph maintained any type of sexual relationship with his two youngest wives. During the polygamy years in the Church, there was a strong feeling that 14 and 15 year olds were simply too immature and physically small to be able to safely bear children, and such unions were consistently warned against.

Now, back to the question of sexual relations between Joseph and his other time­and-eternity or time-only wives. Frankly, it does not appear that conjugal relations were a common occurrence in the Prophet’s life in Nauvoo. Opportunities for Joseph to spend intimate time with his plural wives would have been limited by many factors including his parenting responsibilities, his duties as church president, his obligations as mayor and chief judge of the Nauvoo Municipal Court, his role as Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion, the scrutiny of dissenters and unbelievers, and Emma’s vigilant and mostly intolerant eyes.

That sexual relations were uncommon is evidenced by the observation that only two (and possibly three) pregnancies have been documented with any degree of reliability. It is obvious that the Prophet was virile, having fathered nine children with Emma despite their long periods of time apart and challenging schedules. Also, the wives with whom sex was authorized were all younger than Joseph and smack in the middle of child bearing years.

One child was born to Sylvia Sessions in 1844. She lived out her life as Josephine Lyon in Bountiful, Utah. By the way, Gary and Suzanne are descendents of Sylvia Sessions. The second child was born to Olive Frost and did not live long or may have miscarried. The identity of a third child remains unknown, if in fact a third baby was born to one of Joseph’s plural wives.

There is no evidence, of course, that Joseph had sexual relations with women to whom he was sealed for the next life only—that is, “eternity only” sealings. Though writers antagonistic to the Church claim otherwise, there is no evidence that Joseph ever committed adultery with women to whom he was not married or in situations that would have resulted in polyandry.

Evidence supports that he and Emma lived a largely monogamous lifestyle, especially during the last eight months of his life during which he entered into no new plural relationships.

10. Number 10 is not really a question. Rather it consists of three memorable and instructive stories of which you shouldn’t miss being aware.

Heber C. Kimball’s test. Heber C. Kimball was apparently the first man other than Joseph to marry a plural wife. However, prior to sanctioning a plural marriage for Heber, Joseph put him through a severe test of dedication that almost sounds overly severe and even mean spirited. Orson R. Whitney, Heber C. Kimball’s grandson-biographer, described the ordeal:

Before he [Joseph Smith] would trust even Heber with the full secret of plural marriage, he put him to a test which few men would have been able to bear. It was no less than an ostensibly revealed requirement for him to surrender his wife, his beloved Vilate, and give her to Joseph in marriage. The astounding announcement well-nigh paralyzed him [Heber]. He could hardly believe he had heard correctly. Yet Joseph was solemnly in earnest. Heber’s next impulse was to spurn the proposition and perhaps at that terrible moment a vague suspicion of doubt regarding of the Prophet’s motive and the divinity of the revelation, shot like a poisoned arrow through his soul. His heart-string might be torn, his feelings crucified and sawn asunder, but so long as his faith in God and the Priesthood remained, heaven helping him he would try and do as he was told. Such, was his superhuman resolve.

Three days he fasted, wept, and prayed. Then, with a broken and a bleeding heart, but with a soul self-mastered for the sacrifice, he led his darling wife to the Prophet’s house and presented her to Joseph. It was enough. The heavens accepted the sacrifice. The will for the deed was taken, and “accounted unto him for righteousness.” Joseph wept at this proof of devotion, and embracing Heber, told his that was all that the Lord required. He had proved him. The Prophet joined the hands of the heroic and devoted pair, and then and there, by virtue of the sealing power and authority of the Holy Priesthood, Heber and Vilate Kimball were made husband and wife for all eternity.

Sarah Ann Whitney. Sarah Ann Whitney, the daughter of Newell K. Whitney, was sealed to Joseph on July 27, 1842. Sometime in early 1843, suspicions arose concerning their plural marriage. If the plural union between Joseph and Sarah Ann were exposed, it might have provoked persecution and legal prosecution of the Prophet. Divorcing Sarah Ann was a possibility, yet Joseph may have sought an alternate solution because he planned to take the Latter-day Saints to the West within a few years where he believed plural marriage could be openly practiced.

Presumably to assuage the perceived danger, the Prophet requested that a Church member Joseph C. Kingbury pretend to marry Sarah Ann Whitney. Kingsbury later related: “On the 29th of April 1843, I according to President Joseph Smith’s council and others agreed to stand by Sarah Ann Whitney as supposing to be her husband and had a pretended marriage for the purpose of bringing about the purposes of God in the last days.” Thereafter, Kingsbury served as a front or pretend husband, living in the same house with Sarah Ann but in a platonic manner without conjugal relations.

As an almost comical aside, on November 23, 1880, Joseph C. Kingsbury asked President John Taylor that an $8,000 debt “be remitted in consideration of services he had rendered in Nauvoo, and after leaving there, to the Prophet Joseph, in keeping one of his wives, Sarah Whitney.” It is unknown whether President Taylor honored the claim.

Sylvia Sessions Lyons. In the past two decades, several authors have asserted that the plural marriage between Joseph Smith and Sylvia Sessions (again, Gary and Suzanne’s relative), who was legally married to Windsor Lyon, was sexually polyandrous. The apparent popularity of this interpretation justifies a little deeper dive into the historical record.

Sylvia’s daughter, Josephine, was most likely fathered by Joseph Smith. In 1915, Josephine signed a statement corroborating that conclusion. She said:

Just prior to my mother’s death in 1882 she called me to her bedside and told me that her days on earth were about numbered and before she passed away from mortality she desired to tell me something which she had kept as an entire secret from me and from others but which she now desired to communicate to me. She then told me that I was the daughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith, she having been sealed to the Prophet at the time that her husband Mr. Lyon was out of fellowship with the Church. She also told me that she was sealed to the Prophet about the same time that Zina D. Huntington and Eliza R. Snow were thus sealed. In conclusion mother told me not to make her statement to me too public, as it might cause trouble and arouse unpleasant curiosity. I have followed her advice, and I am relating the facts today practically the first time, responding to the request or desire of one of the assistant Church Historians.

Advocates of Joseph’s sexual polyandry suggest that Sylvia was sealed to Joseph in February 1842, when she was still living with her husband Windsor Lyons. There is a document that seems to indicate that date. Another version of the same document gives the date of 1843 for the sealing, a year later than the other document. A more clearly documentable timeline indicates that Windsor Lyons was excommunicated from the Church on November 2, 1842 for opposing Stake President William Marks in a business dealing. Several manuscripts indicate that Sylvia and Windsor separated in the equivalence of a Church divorce after that date, which ended any cohabitation between the two. Josephine was born in February 1844 indicating that the time of her conception was about May of 1843. Yet another document written by an Andrew Jenson and dated 1887 referred to Sylvia as “formerly the wife of Windsor Lyons.” When he left the Church she was sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith” (Andrew Jenson Papers, MS,box 49, folder 16). After Joseph’s martyrdom, some time prior to February 1846, Sylvia reunited with Windsor Lyon who was on his way back into the Church.

11. Is it possible to summarize fairly Emma’s experience with Joseph’s Nauvoo polygamy?

Keep in mind that Joseph’s first plural marriage in Nauvoo was on April 5, 1841, and his final sealing was on November 3, 1843. As mentioned, he entered into no new marriage relationships for about eight months prior to his death.

One factor that seems to have made Joseph’s plural marriages particularly painful for Emma was that for a significant period of time after April 1841, Joseph kept his plural marriage relationships a secret even from Emma. Exactly when Emma did finally learn of Joseph’s marriages is a difficult historical question and is not known for certain. It may have been as late as February 1843. It is also possible that she learned about the eternity only marriages prior to learning about the time and eternity ones. The only solid dates for when Emma undeniably knew of plural marriage are March and May of 1843. During those months she facilitated Joseph’s marriages to four plural brides: Eliza and Emily Partridge and Sarah and Maria Lawrence by being present, and giving her consent thereto. It is certainly possible that this decision by Joseph to delay informing Emma was a mistake.

We are again reminded of the fact that the Lord revealed the principle to Joseph, but the Lord did not micromanage the carrying out of the principle. Why did Joseph wait so long to tell Emma? It is possible—and it even seems likely—that he sensed how Emma might react, and he wanted to protect her from having to deal with the knowledge.

This sequence, including Joseph’s secret marriages and Emma’s delayed learning of them, created a particularly painful situation for Emma when she did finally learn of them. We may well compare her experience to that of a woman who just learned that her husband had been cheating on her. Sentiments of betrayal and distrust may have initially engulfed her.

It is apparent that Emma eventually came to know that plural marriage was a true principle from God. Leonora Taylor, the wife of Apostle John Taylor recalled that Emma told her that “she had received a testimony of the truthfulness of plural marriage” (“Leonora Cannon Taylor,” Young Woman’s Journal 19 [1908]: 347). But Emma did have a significant propensity for jealousy and tended to wax and wane in her feelings toward the principle. There were times when she was in the house in her bedroom while Joseph and a plural wife shared another bedroom. This dynamic of polygamy— sharing a spouse sexually—is probably the most difficult aspect for the first wife to face. She developed what seems to have been an intense and emotional ambivalence about Joseph’s polygamy. She varied from grudgingly accepting the new wives to fighting vigorously against the principle.

You are all familiar with the story of the happenings of July 12, 1843 when Joseph and Hyrum were meeting together. Hyrum said to Joseph, “The doctrine is so plain. If you will write the revelation on celestial marriage, I will take and read it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.” Joseph smiled and said, “You do not know Emma as I do.” Joseph did dictate section 132 to Hyrum, and Hyrum then took the revelation to read to Emma. Joseph remained in his office until Hyrum returned. When he came back, Joseph asked him how he had succeeded. Hyrum replied that he had never received a more severe talking to in his life, that Emma was very bitter and full of resentment and anger. Within two days a copy of the revelation was made. Creating a copy was fortunate because just days later, at Emma’s insistence, Joseph allowed the original to be burned.

It is very apparent that Emma never did lose her position in Joseph’s life as a cherished companion upon whom he relied. Although Joseph had several plural wives, it appears that he remained devoted to Emma, and she to him throughout his life. In the days leading up to his death, Joseph seems to have desired the companionship and advice from Emma more than anyone else. While hiding from Governor Ford on June 23, 1844, the Prophet was encouraged by the governor to turn himself in. Ford had guaranteed his protection, but Joseph was leery of his promises. He looked to Emma for advice: “Emma sent messengers over the river to Joseph and urged him to give himself up inasmuch as the Governor had offered him protection. The next day as he prepared to leave Nauvoo, Joseph requested that Emma accompany him. Because of the needs of their children, she was unable to comply. Joseph journeyed to Carthage and wrote two letters to Emma while incarcerated. One was written on June 25, 1844, and the other on the day of Joseph’s death, June 27.

Immediately after Joseph’s death, a family friend John P. Greene saw Emma “weeping and wailing bitterly, in a loud and unrestrained voice, her face covered with her hands.” He remarked to her, “This affliction will be to you a crown of life.” She quickly replied: “My husband was my crown” (Deseret News Weekly, December 8, 1875, 11s).

One story we probably ought to mention because it is so well known. I mention it mainly to make the point that it probably inaccurate at best and frankly false at worst.

Charles C. Rich called at the Mansion House, Nauvoo, to go with the prophet Joseph on some appointment they had together. As he waited in the main lobby or parlor, he said he saw the Prophet and Emma come out of a room upstairs and walk together toward the stairway which apparently came down at the center of the parlor. Almost at the same time, a door opposite opened and dainty, little, dark-haired Eliza R. Snow (she was “heavy with child” according to the story) came out and walked toward the center stairway. When Joseph saw her, he turned and kissed Eliza and then came on down stairs toward Brother Rich. Just as he reached the bottom step, there was a commotion on the stairway, and both Joseph and Brother Rich turned quickly to see Eliza come tumbling down the stairs. Emma had pushed her, in a fit of rage and jealousy. Emma stood at the top of the stairs, glowering, her countenance a picture of hell. Joseph quickly picked up the little lass, and with her in his arms, he turned and looked up at Emma, who then burst into tears and ran to her room. Joseph carried the hurt and bruised Eliza up the stairs and to her room. “Her hip was injured and that is why she always afterward favored that leg,” said Charles Rich. “She lost the unborn babe” (“Emma and Eliza and the Stairs,” BYU Studies 22 [winter]: 90).

There are several reasons suggesting this story is frankly untrue: The historical source is forth-hand and the result of one hundred years of story telling. There is no evidence Eliza was ever pregnant. There is also no evidence Eliza ever lived in or stayed overnight in the Nauvoo Mansion. Brother Rich did not learn of polygamy until May of 1844, some time after the date of this story. In other words, Rich had not become a polygamy insider prior to that date, so it seems unlikely he could have viewed such a scene. Finally the described configuration of the stairway in either the Homestead or the Mansion House did not permit someone to stand at the bottom of the stairs and see the top landing.

There are two other colorful stories that apparently are true:

After Joseph married Flora Ann Woodworth in the spring of 1843, Joseph presented her with a gold watch. In August of 1843 Emma called on Flora Ann and demanded the return of that watch. When Flora Ann gave her back the watch, Emma destroyed it by stamping on it. Flora reacted dramatically to the confrontation and declared that her plural marriage to Joseph was finished. The following day she married Carlos Gove, a member of the Church. Later in August, Joseph met with Flora Ann and her mother, and likely met with them more than once. Undoubtedly Joseph met with them to discuss the status of Flora Ann’s sealing to Joseph and possibly also to discuss possible disciplinary action because Flora Ann’s actions violated the plural marriage since women could not have more than one husband. Ultimately, it appears Joseph dissolved the plural marriage at least for time. Some forty years later, it was recorded that Flora Ann regretted her marriage to Carlos Gove, as he turned out to be an unbeliever. She intended to cling to the Prophet for eternity. Though it was probably not necessary, under the direction of President Lorenzo Snow, a proxy ceremony was performed between Flora and Joseph Smith in the Salt Lake Temple in 1899.

Another true story: In March of 1843, Joseph was sealed for time and eternity to the Partridge sisters, Emily and Eliza. Though Emma was present at the sealing of both, she apparently resisted this association from the beginning. Some time after August 31, 1843, Emma decided she would prevent Joseph from further associating with the two. She sent for them to come to the Mansion House. In the presence of the dejected Prophet, Emma declared that they would not see Joseph again. Joseph later came to them and shook their hands and declared that his hands were tied and that all was finished between them. The two Partridge sisters were sick with disappointment. Apparently they did not see him again until just before he left for Carthage.

Emma was plagued by feelings of opposition to the principle to her death and, after Joseph’s martyrdom, even denied publicly that her husband was involved in the practice, claiming that Brigham Young was responsible for the doctrine. Even today, the Reorganized LDS Church (now the Community of Christ) denies that Joseph ever practiced polygamy.

12. What is the tragic and far reaching story of William Law?

William Law was called to be a counselor in the First Presidency in Nauvoo on January 19, 1941. He was among the first group of men to receive their temple endowments in May 1842. After being taught the principle of plural marriage the following year by Joseph and Hyrum, William and Jane Law were allowed to take home a copy of the revelation on celestial and plural marriage. They (especially William) were not convinced of its divine origin, however, and soon became antagonistic against Joseph and the Church.

The conflict between Joseph and William Law expanded to include more than just a disagreement on the correctness of polygamy. William’s wife Jane became an important participant in the conflict, but her interactions with Joseph are difficult to precisely reconstruct. This conflict would eventually lead to the death of Joseph.

Law’s distaste for polygamy quickly hardened into a belief that Joseph had to be stopped in order to save the Church. He wrote in 1871: “I begged of Joseph, and pled with him, as a man might plead for the life of his best friend, to stop all these evils, and save the Church from ruin, but he seemed determined to rush on to utter destruction, and carry all with him that he could; and thus he met his doom” (William Law letter quoted in Stenhouse, Rocky Mountain Saints, 199).

One possibility for which there is reasonable documentation might have accounted for the escalating rancor between William Law and the Prophet. Apparently Law was found to be guilty of adultery, and there is evidence that Jane Law and Joseph at one point discussed the possibility of Jane’s being sealed eternally to Joseph— probably an eternity only sealing. Any hint of this happening could certainly have caused a dramatic deterioration in the relationship of Law and Joseph.

On June 8, 1844 Hyrum Smith testified before the Nauvoo City Council: “William Law confessed to him that he had been ‘guilty of adultery,’ and ‘was not fit to live,’ and had ‘sinned against his own soul,’ etc. (Nauvoo Neighbor, June 19, 1844). William Clayton wrote on June 12, 1844: “Law wanted to be sealed to his wife Jane, and Joseph told him he was forbidden which began the hard feelings” (The Journals of William Clayton, 133). Church member Alexander Neibaur provided additional information in a diary entry for May 24, 1844. This entry is written in clipped sentences: “Told about William Law—wished to be married to his wife [Jane Law] for eternity. Mr. Joseph Smith would inquire of the Lord, answered no because Law was an adulterous person. Mrs. Law wanted to know why she could not be married to Mr. Law. Joseph Smith said he would not wound her feelings by telling her. Mrs. Law stood in the door [of her house], beckoned to [Joseph] . . . Joseph went across to inquire. . . . No one but her in the house. She, drawing her arms around him, said, if you won’t seal me to my husband seal, myself unto you. He said, stand away and pushing her gently aside giving her a denial and going out. When Mr. Law came home, he inquired who had been there in his absence. She said no one but Brother Joseph. He then demanded to know what had passed. Mrs. Law then told “Joseph wanted her to marry him.”

Likewise Bathsheba Smith testified in 1892 that she believed that Jane Law “was sealed to him [Joseph Smith] for eternity” (Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, respondent’s testimony, part 3, page 318, questions 564-77). If William was unworthy, then it is certainly plausible that Jane might have sought to be eternally sealed to the Prophet after Joseph’s death.

Regardless of the intensity of their estrangement, Joseph sought in vain for reconciliation. Hyrum Smith contacted Law in March as did Almon W. Babbit the following month, seeking a resolution. Once again, on May 13, 1844, the Prophet sent Sidney Rigdon to seek peace, but he was rebuffed.

Weeks later, William Law opened a printing press in Nauvoo where he planned to expose the teachings he could not accept. The June 7 copy of the Nauvoo Expositor—the first and only printed edition—included plain accusations against the Prophet, including his practice of polygamy. In response Mayor Joseph Smith, who obviously did not want his secret practice of polygamy to be exposed, called together the city council and ordered an inquiry of the Expositor. The city councilors ultimately decided the paper to be a civic nuisance and dispatched a portion of the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the press. They burned every issue, destroyed the press, and disassembled the office.

Law was visiting Carthage at the time the Expositor was destroyed. Later that night he returned to Nauvoo: “We went home and when we came to Nauvoo we rode over our type, that was scattered in the street, and over our broken office furniture. The work of Joseph’s agents had been very complete. It had been done by a mob of about 200. The building, a new, pretty brick structure, had been perfectly gutted, not a bit had been left of anything” (Law, interview).

Despite the Prophet’s temporary success in foiling Law’s plan to expose Joseph’s secret plural marriage practices, the destruction of the Expositor started the proceedings that would culminate in the martyrdom. Joseph soon realized that he had given his enemies a moral issue beyond plural marriage with which to whip the Saints. He wrote a long letter to Illinois Governor Ford defending the decision to destroy the press and later offered to pay for a replacement if the Governor felt its destruction as unjustified. Ford, unsympathetic to the Prophet’s position, ordered him to Carthage to stand trial. There he was killed on June 27. Even though William Law was not a member of the party of ruffians who stormed the jail, his actions set the stage for the firestorm of bullets that cause Joseph’s death.

13. What happened following Joseph’s martyrdom?

Despite the death of the Prophet, plural marriage continued among the Latter-day Saints. Joseph’s secret plural wives were now secret widows. Fortunately, the apostles and other pluralists assured their material needs were met, usually by marrying them for time only. The extreme secrecy that had accompanied plural sealings during Joseph’s lifetime gradually relaxed. The secret circle of “polygamy insiders” continued to expand among Church members until Brigham Young publicly announced the practice in 1852, and polygamy was openly practiced in the West. This secrecy led to several incorrect assumptions in later years, including that plural marriage was actually instituted by Brigham Young or that Joseph Smith had introduced the practice but planned to abandon it.

One of the truly problematic documents was written in 1853 by William Marks (remember, this is not William Law, but William Marks), who had served as the President of the Nauvoo Stake in 1843. I wanted you to hear about this in the spirit of inoculation. In 1953 Marks wrote:

When the doctrine of polygamy was introduced into the church as a principle of exaltation, I took a decided stand against it; which stand rendered me quite unpopular with many of the leading ones of the church. . . . Joseph, however, became convinced before his death that he had done wrong; for he said to me, “Brother Marks . . . We are a ruined people.” I asked, how so? He said: “This doctrine of polygamy, or Spiritual-wife system, that has been taught and practiced among us, will prove our destruction and overthrow. I have been deceived,” said he, “in reference to its practice; it is wrong; it is a curse to mankind, and we shall have to leave the United States soon, unless it can be put down and its practice stopped in the church. Now,” said he, “Brother Marks, you have not received this doctrine, and how glad I am. I want you to go into the high council and I will have charges preferred against all who practice this doctrine, and I want you to try them by the laws of the church, and cut them off, if they will not repent and cease the practice of this doctrine” (“Epistle.” Zion’s Harbinger and Baneemy’s Organ 3 [July 1853]; 52-54).

If, in fact, Marks wrote this epistle, it seems clear he lied on several points. The evidence is as follows: Joseph had secretly authorized all plural marriages, and he knew well who was involved, obviating the need to dispatch stake leaders on a witch hunt. Eleven out of thirteen of the polygamous men held higher office in the Church than Marks. Neither Marks nor the high council was authorized to sever these polygamists from the Church. Available documents show that the Prophet continued to authorize new plural marriages through April and into May of 1843. The last recorded plural union in Nauvoo occurred on May 8 between Brigham Young and Clarissa Caroline Decker. During this time Joseph also continued to privately teach plural marriage. For example, Apostle George A. Smith recalled in 1869: “My last conversation with him [Joseph Smith] on this subject [plural marriage] occurred just previous to my departure from Nauvoo [May 9, 1844]. In this last conversation, he administered a little chastisement to me for not stepping forward as he had indicated in patriarchal marriage.” George had yet to marry a plural wife. These facts support the idea that Joseph’s feelings regarding polygamy did not change prior to June 1844. William Marks related that Joseph’s conversation denouncing plural marriage occurred “three weeks before his death” or around June 6. It seems most unlikely that Joseph had such a change of heart during the first week of June. Brigham Young remembered that with respect to plural marriage: “Joseph was worn out with it,” but added: “I never knew that he denied the doctrine of polygamy. Some have said that he did, but I do not believe he ever did” (Watson, Brigham Young addresses, 5:52 [October 8, 1866]).

14. What happened to Joseph’s wives after he was martyred?

Of Joseph’s 35 plural wives, three passed away in Nauvoo before the Saints left for the Rocky Mountains, remaining true to their convictions. Twenty-four made the trek to the Salt Lake Valley and apparently maintained a belief in Joseph Smith’s mission throughout the remainder of their lives. Regarding the remaining eight who died outside of Utah, nothing is known concerning Lucinda Pendleton’s religious convictions at her 1856 demise. Agnes Coolbrith did not identify herself with the Latter-day Saints but remained friendly to Church members who visited her. Flora Woodworth held to her beliefs. In addition, three joined other churches: Fanny Alger united with the Universalists, Elizabeth Davis joined the RLDS late in life, and Sarah Kingsley was baptized into a protestant denomination just months before her death. Only Sarah Lawrence became antagonistic. She was the only wife who lost her belief in the Church and in Joseph as a prophet. Late in life she actually denied vehemently that she had ever been sealed to Joseph.

Despite their varied lives after Nauvoo, it seems striking that none of Joseph’s plural wives ever accused him of abuse or deception, including the eight who did not gather to Utah with the main body of the Church. Sarah Lawrence simply denied that it ever happened. Decades after their feelings had matured and their youthful perspectives had expanded by additional experiences with marriage and sexual relations, none of them claimed they were victimized or beguiled by the Prophet. None came forth to write an expose to tell the world he was a seducing imposter. None wrote that Joseph’s polygamy was a sham or a cover-up for illicit sexual relations. Had any of his polygamous wives eventually decided that he had debauched them, their subsequent scorn might have easily motivated them to expose him through the pages of the anti-Mormon presses located across the expanding United States. Numerous publishers would have been eager to print their allegations.


In conclusion let me provide you with a quick overview of Joseph’s polygamy. Obviously we are able to do this today with the advantage of historical hindsight. We stated previously that although the Lord revealed the principle of polygamy to Joseph, the Lord did not micromanage the implementation and practice of it. While Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of God, he was also a man who was susceptible to error. It is difficult for us today to judge and conclude that he made actual mistakes in his practice of the principle of polygamy, but there were some things he did that seem to have unnecessarily resulted in controversy and criticism. Observing his practice of polygamy does give us an understanding of the real Joseph and the almost too great challenge of implementing the principle of polygamy and keeping it secret. It is possible that the perspective of all his struggles during this period will give encouragement to each of us individually as we too face earthly trials. Apostle Lorenzo Snow recalled: When I saw the weaknesses and imperfections in him [Joseph] . . . I knew I myself had weakness and I thought there was a chance for me” (Lorenzo Snow as quoted in George Q. Cannon Journal, [January 7, 1889] 29).

If it were possible to return to Joseph’s day and offer him some advice, thoughtful observers, with the benefit of hindsight, might offer at least five recommendations. These recommendations have been made by Dr. Brian Hales:

  1. Consider not marrying Fanny Alger without first telling Emma. If possible, convince the angel that Emma needed to be involved from the start. This recommendation to include Emma also applies to all of the Nauvoo sealings.

  2. Consider not being sealed to fourteen-year-old plural wives even if the marriages are not consummated knowing that deed would generate accusations of pedophilia a hundred years later.

  3. Consider not being sealed to wives for eternity only. Rather encourage those women to be sealed to their legal husbands if they were worthy.

  4. Consider not marrying so many wives. Even though Old Testament patriarchs had dozens of plural wives, limiting the number might have been more easily understood by onlookers years later.

  5. Consider limiting your involvement in politics. Letting someone else be the mayor of Nauvoo may have insulated you from liability in dealing with the Nauvoo Expositor.

While these suggestions may not have eliminated the debate, they would have diminished the most prevalent criticisms.

Although Joseph may not have been a perfect decision maker, his mistakes did not include immorality or hypocrisy. He understood perfectly the sin of adultery, and there is no evidence he ever committed that sin. As mentioned, it also seems likely he never consummated his marriages to the 14 and 15 year old brides for obvious reasons.

I will conclude with a memorable recollection of Brigham Young. In 1863 Brigham quoted Joseph’s words regarding plural marriage: “If ever there was a truth revealed from heaven through him, it was revealed when the revelation [on Celestial and plural marriage] was given, and if I have to die for any revelation God has given through me I would as readily die for this one as any other. And I sometimes think that I shall have to die for it. It may be that I shall have to forfeit my life to it and if this has to be so, amen” (Watson, Brigham Young Addresses, 4:26 [October 7, 1863, SLC Bowery).

- Michael J. Preece