Some Thoughts for LDS Members Who are Surprised and Upset about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

There has been a lot of discussion and media attention about articles recently published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints detailing the history of the practice of Plural Marriage in the church.

Joseph-Smith

The media has focused on what they characterize as a “shocking” disclosure by the church that founding prophet Joseph Smith was sealed to multiple women– including women who were already married to other men and a few young women, the youngest of whom was 14 years old.

I want to talk to those members of the church who are feeling surprised and upset by this new information and who may feel betrayed or deceived.

First of all, I want to let you know that your reaction is understandable. You had built up expectations about Joseph Smith that appear to have been contradicted. It is normal to feel upset when that happens.

You have probably seen headlines and blurbs like this one from the New York Times:

It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives

Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, portrayed in church materials as a loyal partner to his loving spouse Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old.

Or this one from the Washington Post:

The Mormon church finally acknowledges founder Joseph Smith’s polygamy

Many Mormons have mixed feelings about a recent disclosure from the church, acknowledging for the first time that the religion’s founder Joseph Smith had as many as 40 wives in his lifetime, including teenagers.

As I discussed at length in my recent two-part podcast, it is times like this that it is important to be a critical consumer of information. You should take the time to analyze what it is that the church has actually said in its articles and not rely only on how that information has been characterized by the media or bloggers. Don’t draw any hasty conclusions. And don’t accept the headlines at face value. Headlines are by their nature an oversimplification.

Take the time to carefully read the actual articles published by the church on their official website:

Another thing to keep in mind is that the headlines and articles you have seen may have conditioned your mind to read the articles with certain assumptions. In other words, you have been told what the church has said so that when you do read these articles for yourself you will see what they have told you to see; this is a technique that stage magicians use all the time to influence what people perceive by predisposing their audience to see things a certain way.

So it is important not to take for granted that the articles published by the church say exactly what you have been told they say.

For example, blogs and media sources have often used terminology that gives a certain biased impression. You may have seen shock-words like “Polyandry” and “child-bride” which carry with them assumptions that may not be accurate. Even the words “marriage” and “wife” carry implications that do not necessarily reflect the complicated historical situation described in the church’s articles. Unfortunately, even some good members of the church have adopted this terminology, and by doing so perpetuate oversimplifications and assumptions.

While in the modern church-culture the word “sealing” is often associated with courting, proposals, marriage, weddings, and honeymoons, not all sealings are marriages. We also seal children to parents. And historically the doctrine of sealing was extended to ideas of spiritual adoption and spiritual dynasty.

The sealing power and the priesthood keys are connected to binding and loosing agreements, relationships, and promises so that they are valid beyond the grave. Even ordinances like baptism retain their validity through the sealing power.

So it is a mistake to assume that being sealed is always synonymous with courtship, marriage, and sexual intimacy. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. The word “sealed” is not always functionally equivalent to “married”.

As the article the church has published explains, it appears that Joseph Smith and the early saints may have made a distinction between being “sealed for time and eternity” and being sealed “for eternity” only. In other words, not all of the women who were sealed to Joseph Smith were necessarily his “wives” in the sense that our modern assumptions might suggest.

Some of them, perhaps even most of them, were simply sealed to Joseph so that in the afterlife they would be his wives, but never appear to have been functionally his wives during their lives. And this is especially likely with those women to whom he was sealed who were already married to other men and with the young women to whom he was sealed. The suggestion that he had sexual relationships with these women and girls is speculation with very little evidence.

So being upset by the notion that Joseph Smith had 40 wives, some of whom were already married, and some of whom were young girls is understandable, but it also includes a lot of assumptions that on closer consideration may not be justified or supported by the actual historical record.

Many members of the church were already aware that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage. A lot of media coverage of the articles has given the impression that the new articles by the church are the “first time” the church has ever acknowledged it– and that impression is simply not correct.

It is true that the church has never given a lot of emphasis to Joseph Smith’s wives. And I think that it is a complex topic and the Church has very good and justifiable reason for not giving it undue emphasis. But the topic has been covered in official manuals, for both adults and youth, and in other publications for many years.

Nevertheless, there are some members of the church for whom this information is completely new. It doesn’t really matter that the information is not new for others if it is new to you. So if you are one of them, you should not feel bad. But you don’t need to feel deceived or betrayed either.

Even though church manuals and publications do contain information on this and other topics, in my experience there are more than a few of the layman teachers in the church who, in the course of executing their callings, don’t actually teach the information in the manuals.

Some of that tendency is just a function of natural prioritization. The manuals almost always contain more information than can be covered in the time allotted. And the members of the class will often drive the focus of a lesson based upon their comments and interests– which is often a good thing. And when prioritizing information to teach, it would seem natural for some people to under-prioritize uncomfortable or difficult topics (possibly even subconsciously) and to correctly emphasize devotional and pastoral content. This would be especially true of teachers who are not very prepared or preparing last-minute.

So it is possible that even though topics such as polygamy are covered in the manuals, that they are being under-discussed or even omitted by well meaning lay-teachers. And I can conceive of how that might lead to a feedback loop of self-reinforcing reticence on these topics.

There are certainly members of the church whose lack of knowledge of these subjects is the result of their own casual or superficial engagement with the church.

However, there are others, perhaps like you, who are sincere, devout, and engaged, but simply have had very little exposure to some subjects through no fault of their own, and, I might add, through no real fault of the church– it is just a function of human nature, social psychology, personalities, and priorities. Learning to apply the teachings of Christ is simply more applicable to our everyday lives than complex historical fact that have little immediate application.

So whatever the reason is that you never learned about these things, we can’t change your past experience; and there is no use trying to blame the church or individuals.

I truly empathize with those of you who have not been deeply aware of the historical details and are now struggling to understand.

It is understandable if it bothers you that the commandment to practice plural marriage appears to have caused strife between Emma and Joseph Smith, and that in order to obey the Lord, Joseph was sealed to some women without Emma’s knowledge or consent.

It is also understandable that you might feel concerned by the fact that Joseph Smith made carefully worded public statements denying that the church practiced polygamy, while privately allowing for the Lord to authorize individuals to practice plural marriage.

I can see how that information could be difficult for you. That is an understandable, normal reaction.

But I believe that if you will carefully read the church’s actual articles on the subject, instead of relying on the characterizations from the media and blogs, and if you will take the time for calm, circumspect, contemplation, coupled with sincere prayer and fasting, you will find peace, reassurance, and a reconfirmation that Joseph acted under the commandment of God.

As I discussed in my recent podcast, Elder Uchtdorf recently published a message from the First Presidency of the Church in which he told a story about a woman who worked as a customer support specialist for a seed supply company. In his story, various customers call up complaining that the seeds they have purchased don’t work properly. And in each case it is not the seeds that were bad, but the customers who had incorrect expectations or misunderstandings about how the seeds were supposed to work.

Sometimes it is the same with the gospel and the church. Sometimes we think that the church doesn’t work, when really it is that we have wrong expectations or understandings about how it is supposed to work.

So don’t give up your testimony when you encounter information that seems to contradict what you know. Don’t be hasty. Don’t make any rash decisions or jump to conclusions. Be patient and withhold judgement until you have more information. And don’t take what you hear or read at face value. Watch out for your own modern assumptions. Look into it yourself and form your own opinions.

Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. He restored the true church of Jesus Christ. And he was faithful to the Lord throughout his life.

But don’t take my word for it. Find out for yourself.

UPDATE 11/14/2014

Since this post is getting a little more attention than usual, here are a few extra things:

1. If you want to keep up with new posts here on my blog, please go like my new Facebook page for my blog: https://www.facebook.com/jmaxwilsonblog or you can subscribe to my public Facebook posts on my personal Facebook profile at http://www.facebook.com/jmaxwilson

2. If you want a more in-depth study of Joseph Smith and Plural marriage, I recommend checking out Brian Hales website: http://josephsmithspolygamy.org .

3. My friend, Meg Stout also has proposed a well researched and interesting theory about Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage which you can read in detail in her multi-part series of blog posts at the Millennial Star blog: A Faithful Joseph.

UPDATE 11/15/2014

A couple of people have raised the complaint that my post gives the impression that Joseph Smith never had a sexual relationship with any of his additional wives. I am not saying that. Some of his sealings were for eternity only, and others were for time and eternity. I leave it up to readers to study the church’s articles, as well as the information on the websites linked in the update above, and make up their own minds on that subject.

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29 Responses to Some Thoughts for LDS Members Who are Surprised and Upset about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

  1. richalger

    From Meg Stout
    “the “Church” knew about Joseph marrying individuals who were married to other men. Brigham knew who was getting sealed to Joseph Smith and insisted on exercising his place as husband to Zina Diantha Huntington based on having stood proxy for Joseph in the Nauvoo temple sealing, even though Zina had been Henry Jacobs’ wife before being sealed to Joseph. As Zina was the third Relief Society president, it isn’t as though her history was hidden.

    As for other circumstances, Joseph F. Smith did extensive research in 1869, documenting who had been married to Joseph. This included interviewing many of the women, who were still living. Andrew Jensen was independently doing research as well. Andrew Jensen’s researched ended up being published at a time when it was deemed useful to explain that Joseph had practiced polygamy.

    So it is disingenuous to claim that the Church didn’t know that Joseph had “married” women who were already married to others.”

    http://www.millennialstar.org/why-didnt-the-church-teach-me-this-stuff/comment-page-1/#comment-145084

  2. J. Max Wilson

    Though Joseph Smith’s polygamy has been mentioned and even briefly discussed in official church manuals, this is the first time it has been discussed with this level of detail in an official church publication. That is the whole reason why the church has published these articles: to provide a more detailed account from an official source to supplement what has already been said.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful blog post. While I agree some individuals, like Brian Hales, do interpret the facts differently, most LDS scholars, including Todd Compton, agree that he most likely had sexual relations with most of his wives. That was the reason given for polygamy in the D&C- multiplying and replenishing the earth (Although I guess Joseph didn’t really follow any of the other rules laid out in D&C regarding polygamy anyways). For example, the quote in the LDS church essay used to support that Helan Mar Kimball most likely didn’t have sex was taken out of context. When the poem, from which the quote is taken, is read in its entirety, along with another account where she said ‘I would never have been sealed to Joseph Smith if I had known it was anything more than a ceremony’ the idea that they had sex is very plausible. We can go through and critique each source, and we certainly don’t have sex tapes, but if you go through the story of each wife and read the temple lot affidavits, etc, that these marriages included sex (even the polyandrous and young ones) is the best explanation. I would agree that individuals with questions should look into these issues for themselves and not just read the CNN article. However, I think someone with questions will need to read more than the LDS church essay which does not get into the real details.

  4. What official church manuals is polygamy discussed in (not including the very recent publications)?

  5. Hey,

    I’m a staunch supporter that the Book of Mormon is the evidence of that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, and all else is secondary in importance to that keystone evidence.
    Polygamy is however important for me to understand and to talk to non-lds friends. A lot of negative connotations of Joseph having sexual relations or impliying such in the temple sealings he performed. Here’s my issue: no one has better records about what was going on than the LDS church and its members during the early years of its existence. Very few other individuals wrote on these issues (many of these people being anti-mormon propagandists).
    As for the “scholars believe this or that”, I want primary source documents, or links to said documents published with the comments. I want to have the actual accounts of members involved in plural marriages and verify the credibility of the sources on my own. But if you say most scholars think this or the experts say this…. I can’t trust that. So please, add sources that you are proud of and think are respectable when you state a negative opinion of polygamy. I am seeker of truth, I am a Mormon.

  6. The articles mentioning Ms. Kimball all refer to a girl “as young as 14” without providing historical context. In the mid-19th century, marriage at that age was still rather common, and certainly the age of consent was set even lower (10-12 in most states, Delaware infamously as low as 7). Most states did not raise their age of consent laws until the late 19th or early 20th century, but even then, lawful marriage over a certain age served as an exception. What seems shocking today was a daily part of life back then. This is not the kind of black mark on Joseph’s past current newspapers are looking for.

  7. J. Max Wilson

    Thanks for your comments.

    Chad, Brian Hales books on this subject are exactly the resource you are looking for. It is the most comprehensive collection of every source related to Joseph Smith and Polygamy I know of:

    http://www.amazon.com/Joseph-Smiths-Polygamy-Volume-History/dp/158958189X

    His website, http://josephsmithspolygamy.org, is also very helpful.

    For example, looking at Sarah Burton’s comment above, she says of Helen Mar Kimball, the 14 year old girl who was sealed to Joseph Smith, “When the poem, from which the quote is taken, is read in its entirety, along with another account where she said ‘I would never have been sealed to Joseph Smith if I had known it was anything more than a ceremony’ the idea that they had sex is very plausible.”

    Well, Brian Hales has the entire poem on his website here: http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/faq/14-year-old-wives/

    Read the poem for yourself. I have, and like most poetry, it is too easy to impose meaning that may or may not have ever been intended.

    And in truth, we really have no idea if Sister Kimball really said “I would never have been sealed to Joseph Smith if I had known it was anything more than a ceremony”. That statement doesn’t come directly from her but from Catherine Lewis who after having left the church wrote that Sister Kimball had said that to her. But there is no way for us to verify the quote.

    And even if the quote is accurate, there is plenty of room for various interpretations of what she meant by it.

    I wouldn’t recommend relying on Todd Compton for your understanding of this issue. Consider what he has to say, but also that he is pushing a lot of his own interpretations (just like everyone else).

  8. Michael: how common was it during the 19th century for 37-year-old men to marry 14-year-old girls? Do you have some data on that?

  9. Hi Michael, just because it was legal does not mean it isn’t disturbing. When someone in a position of power puts pressure on someone of that age to be sealed with eternal consequences at stake, it could look very bad from the outside looking in.

  10. J max Wilson I agree 🙂 I admitted have my own biases and I think everyone should look at the evidence themselves and not just take one scholars opinion as the final say.

  11. J. Max Wilson

    Sarah Burton,

    If you have studied this topic in depth, you really owe it to yourself to consider Meg Stout’s blog posts at the Millennial Star blog, which I linked to at the end of the article above. It will give you a lot of context that you may not have known and may even make you reconsider some of your interpretations.

    Thanks for your comments.

  12. J Max –
    I was wondering about the manuals also. Where did you find it? I checked the D&C seminary, institute, and adult Sunday School manuals, and found zero details about Joseph’s polygamy. I was surprised to see that the seminary manual had the most information out of the three, and even that was sparse, basically just saying that Joseph implemented polygamy.

  13. ldsphilosopher

    Thanks for this post. We really do not know all of the details of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Scholars have varying (and legitimate) interpretations of the historical record. There is a tendency amongst the media to give far more credence to less favorable interpretations than the evidence actually warrants. More than anything, I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I believe that Joseph Smith was commanded of God to initiate polygamy.

    My interpretation of what happened — which makes sense to me, based on the evidence available — was that Joseph Smith was uncomfortable with the principle, and initially tried to practice it through “loopholes.” For example, he would seal women to him “for eternity,” but not for time. He would seal women to him for eternity who were socially unavailable (already married, too young). Etc. It was his way of “stalling,” living the principle but not *really* living it. Ironically, he imagined that this would look better to the world — he imagined that people would recognize and know that he wasn’t being sexual because his “eternity” sealings were to women who weren’t sexually available to him anyways. Then an angel came and said, “Stop goofing around.” That’s when the polyandrous marriages stopped, and the *real* polygamous marriages began — none of which were as “salacious” as the polyandrous marriages. Ironically, modern people *don’t* give Joseph Smith that benefit of a doubt, and interpret his “goofing around” and “stalling” as real marriages, sexual and all — precisely the opposite of what he had hoped. Perhaps this is what he gets for not taking the principle seriously to start with. Who knows?

    But even if my interpretation is wrong, it doesn’t change my testimony of Joseph Smith — that he was a prophet of God, that he was doing his best to follow God’s will (and, I think was probably successful). That it might violate some of our modern sensibilities doesn’t change that — God is not behold to modern, Western sensibilities. But even if I’m wrong about that, Joseph Smith doesn’t have to be perfect to be a prophet of God.

  14. J. Max Wilson

    Stephen and Katie,

    Good question. I don’t really have a comprehensive list but one that I know of for sure is Chapter 20 of the “Church History In The Fulness Of Times Student Manual” under the sub-heading “Revelations on Marriage” (2003).

    And for what it is worth, the new 2013 edition of the Seminary Teachers Manual for Doctrine and Covenants has quite a lot of information, though the old edition did not.

    And the fact that Joseph practiced Polygamy has been mentioned in various other manuals, though without much detail. I seem to remember it being mentioned in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church Books for President John Taylor and maybe Wilford Woodruff.

    The introduction to the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church Manual for Joseph Smith himself says “This book deals with teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith that have application to our day. […] 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.

    Interestingly, a number of people I know became familiar with Joseph Smith’s Polygamy through the fictionalized retelling of church history by author Gerald Lund in his book series “The Work and the Glory”.

    Hopefully some other readers can chime in with other examples if they know of them.

  15. That statement doesn’t come directly from her but from Catherine Lewis who after having left the church wrote that Sister Kimball had said that to her. But there is no way for us to verify the quote.

    It’s also worth noting that Catherine Lewis had left the LDS Church and written an expose by 1848; which means that Kimball’s statement–if accurately reported–was made before her 20th birthday and should be given the same degree of latitude typically given to the angsty kvetching of teenaged girls. In later years I believe Kimball wrote not one, but two treatises defending polygamy.

  16. Richard,

    With no offense intended to Meg, I believe she is wrong in her assessment. Please go read my response to her. She may be an expert in polygamy during that era, but she isn’t for history after that. The idea that history is “known” is not true. It takes effort to learn history and the idea of a ‘historian’ in the modern sense is literally modern. It is incredibly easy for certain ideas and information to get lost over time.

    The Church in the 20th century had little awareness up to the highest levels about the specifics of JS’s polygamy. And during Widstoe’s era (from the book I am referencing) the idea of “polyandry” was replaced with a belief that these were not perceived as marriages.

    I’ll go find my copy and quote it to you. But the sealings to civilly married women were no longer perceived as marriages in the earthly sense. So the Church was quite literally *not* for the most part aware of that aspect of JS’s polygamy because the tradition that was passed down through the generations wasn’t entirely accurate. That happens all the time.

    I could give you several more examples of things ‘lost’ over time. Did you know what the biggest blow up between Leonard Arrington and the more conservative apostles was? (Remember, Leonard Arrington was the very first actual historian to run the church archives and most of the archives was untouched at the time.) It was over a letter Brigham Young sent to his son in which he is encouraging his son to practice the word of wisdom while he’s on his mission. And BY goes on to say essentially, “Believe me, I’m struggling with it too, but it’s important.”

    This had huge shock value at the time because the Church had totally forgotten as an institution the true history of the Word of Wisdom (which was NOT part of temple worthiness until LONG after BY’s time.)

    People thought the Word of Wisdom, at least from the 1850s on, had always been to us what it was now. But in fact the Word of Wisdom didn’t become the defining part of Mormonism it is now until polygamy ended. And do you know what? It’s because Joseph F Smith was smart enough (that is to say, inspired enough) to realize that ending polygamy would destroy the church if we didn’t start to emphasize other parts of Joseph Smith’s revelations. So Word of Wisdom and — believe it or not — the First Vision got a major boost in importance at the time.

    But the church had totally forgotten this until a historian decided to study it and found out what happened.

    Also, the church leaders are not historians. Unless they choose to sit down and study histories available out of interest they aren’t going to know much more than anyone else. Michael Quinn pointed this out in his address at UVU (I think). Their level of awareness has shot up precipitously precisely because it started to become an issue with an increasing number of members (probably thanks to the internet) and they started to learn about the various issues for the first time. Richard Bushman has a cute story about how he met with a general authority that discovered about the issues surrounding the Book of Abraham by reading Rough Stone Rolling. As non-historians, they learn through the same sources we do and then have to figure out how best to react.

  17. Sarah,

    That quote, “I would never have been sealed to Joseph Smith if I had known it was anything more than a ceremony” attributed to Helen Mar Kimball by Lewis goes to say that she didn’t know she was going to have to have sex with her own father. It’s so outrageous that even Todd Compton admitted it wasn’t believable. I know that if you first hear the poem and then are told about that quote (as Compton portrays it) that it really seems like the two are connected. But in fact, they probably aren’t.

    There is actually a much better explanation available too. Many scholars (including non-LDS scholars like Foster, if I’m remembering correctly) believe the poem she wrote referred to how she felt about (according to her own account) not being allowed to go to dances any more, because she loved dancing. By her own account:

    “…but I felt quite sore over it, and thought it a very unkind act in father to allow [my brother] to go and enjoy the dance unrestrained with others of my companions, and fetter me down, for no girl loved dancing better than I did and I really felt that it was too much to bear. It made the dull school still more dull and like a wild bird, I longed for the freedom that was denied me; and thought myself a much abused child, and that it was pardonable if I did murmur.”

    Bear in mind that this is a now old woman remembering back to how she felt as a child, admitting to her own childishness. This was her own example of why she was bothered by being married to Joseph Smith.

    Read full account here:
    http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/HWhitney.html

  18. By the way, Sarah, Todd Compton went on record saying he believes most likely Helen’s marriage was not sexual. He even claimed he was shocked that people read his book as implying that her marriage was sexual. (Which I’m sort of shocked that he was shocked, because it reads that way to me too.)

  19. Aaron says, “Michael: how common was it during the 19th century for 37-year-old men to marry 14-year-old girls? Do you have some data on that?”

    Aaron, marriage of an older man to a 14 year old at that time was rare. It was quite a bit more common by age 15. But really the average was still around 20 or so.

    I think the problem with ‘averages’ is that they fail to capture the real situation. While marriage to a 13 or 14 year old was ‘rare’ it was common enough that if you went back and did your own genealogy I’d bet $10 that you find at least one such case in your own family history even for those outside the Church. When it did happen, it was looked upon as a little weird, but not as in some sense perverted or illegal.

    To use an analogy, marriage to a 13 or 14 year old back then carried a stigma with it probably quite similar to how we think of 18 year old girls getting married today. We tend to think of them as “the ones that got knocked up” or “were too stupid to get a job” or whatever. However unfair that might be in our judgment. (In the recent Twilight novels a very big deal about this stigma is made of 18 year olds getting married) But we do NOT think of it as perverted or illegal at all.

    Consider, for example, Emma who was for the most part (we think) against polygamy. In one her times where she became accepting of it she did choose wives for her husband. And what age were they? Go look it up. I believe the youngest was 15. So here we have Emma, who isn’t a huge fan of polygamy feeling completely comfortable with what to use is a teen marriage.

    Also, go read that link I put above of Helen Mar’s own account. It is pretty clear that her parents thought her old enough to make the decision for herself. That seems silly to us (and we have science now that suggests that it is silly that 19th century people would not have) but they saw girls that age as on the cusp of adulthood and capable of making their own decisions, or so it reads to me.

    Further, bear in mind that that is the age teens (especially girls) hit puberty. Teenagers today at that age often think they are old enough to start making decisions about who to have sex with precisely our biology programs us to think we can. And in fact nature did originally intend teen girls to marry. Steve Pinker points out that in primitive tribes the ‘desirable girls’ are usually teens. Further, when they take pictures of the women and show them to males in the US, they find that men here tend to agree strongly with the primitive men as to who the attractive ones are. That’s because (or so argues Pinker) we still have biological roots evolved in the male mind that make teen girls desirable. However, Pinker also points out that this is much less an issue in our society because women past the teen years now have technologies available to them (like say makeup) that allow them to continue to show off signs of “being a teen” into their 40s. The brain isn’t that discriminating. It doesn’t care so much about the age of the girl/woman as what its been programmed to find attractive by evolution that — prior to the modern era — happened to be predominately teen aged features. In any case, what this all means is that biology has had younger women marrying for a very very long time such that evolution was shaped to encourage it. It’s a recent innovation (comparatively speakng) to pull against that. That’s why girls (and boys) in their teens feel they are ready, because evolution programmed them to honestly believe that.

    Also keep in mind that one of the main reasons why we became against younger marriages — eventually outlawing it — was because we now education women as well as men. There just isn’t enough time to get a sufficient education in the modern era if a girl gets pregnant too young. But for most of history, that has not been the case.

    Also keep in mind that we really don’t have a huge issue with teen girls having sex. We accept it as the norm today (“everyone is doing it, just use a condom”) so long as the boy involved is within 3 years of her. If so (even if he’s an adult) most states will not see it as illegal.

    I’ve tried to imagine myself trying to explain our sexual customs to our 19th century forefathers.

    “Well, you see, if a girl is 17 and 364 days old, she is too young to have sex with an older man… well, unless he’s within 3 years of her. But then the next day she’s old enough to have sex with a 90 year old if she wants…”

    I suspect they’d be right to laugh at us and think we’re silly and weird compared to them.

  20. Bruce, the reason I phrased my question the way I did was because while I grant that it may have been merely uncommon for girls to marry at the age of 14 or 15, I would suggest that a 37-year-old male marrying a 14-year-old girl, under circumstances of, shall we say, spiritual duress, was likely as scandalous back then as we find it today. If Joseph had been as young as his early 20s at the time of this marriage, I don’t think it would raise much ire with anyone.

    I don’t doubt an evolutionary male predisposition to seek after youthful (fertile) females. However, I’m not entirely sure how that observation is friendly to a faithful perspective, as presumably it was God who was selecting Joseph’s brides, not Joseph’s primal desires. As it happens, I think Joseph’s practice of polygamy can be explained rather well from a purely secular perspective. I also think an evolution-based explanation for Joseph’s selection of brides is inconsistent with the claim that many of the marriages were not sexual in nature and for “eternity” only. It is also problematic in light of the fact that no verified offspring were produced from these marriages.

    Anyway, I appreciate your thoughtful response, even though I don’t find it persuasive. I won’t comment further.

  21. sfg

    All everyone is focusing on is how many women Joseph was sealed to. I don’t think people realize that men were also wanting to be sealed to him in the since that is stated in the article, the idea of being sealed in heaven to loved ones. Members didn’t totally understand what this meant. I will have to do some research on this, but one of the early church leaders preparing for his Temple work, was confused on the issue and prayed about who he should be sealed to, he was thinking Joseph would be a good person to be sealed to. So he sought advice through prayer, and the answer he received in summation was “What about being sealed to your own father?”. The Church is not given all the answers, just like individuals, it as a whole has to learn line upon line the way things work. If you have questions go to Heavenly Father in prayer and ask Him. knowledge is not opened to us until we are ready to receive it, even if it is right in front of us in plain sight. When we are finally ready to learn and we ask, He will help open our eyes to see it.

  22. sfg

    I just want to add my source. It was President Wilford Woodruff I was referring to in my comments. It can be found in “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church Wilford Woodruff” in the preface page xxxiv. He also explains the confusing of the church members at the time dealing with the sealing ordinances.

  23. The only real problem with this article is that it came just a couple of years too late to help my friend who was so shaken by his discovery of Joseph Smith’s polygamy that he no longer believes in the church or even God.

    Though situations like that cannot be pinned on one doctrine or event and are much more likely a result of many choices over time, it is a major reality that a number of members of the church, even lifelong members, are hurt, confused, and alienated by this information. I very much appreciate your sensitivity to that group of people. In fact, I copied and pasted some lines from your post into a chat conversation with this friend, and he was very grateful that I was sensitive to his personal experiences.

    Thank you for a sensitive, detailed treatment.

  24. This is certainly not the church’s first official release about this information. It may be the first one “online” but there have been hundreds of books published by the church concerning this information and also scholarly articles and official answers from Joseph Fielding Smith in his large collection of books called “Answers to Gospel Questions.” I could not even fathom to name all the official releases by the church about Joesph Smith’s wives. Here are just a “few.” Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage has been discussed by Latter-day Saint authors in official, semi-official, and independent publications. See, for example, Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” 219–34; B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930), 2:93–110, Danel W. Bachman and Ronald K. Esplin, “Plural Marriage,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:1091-95; and Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, a People of Promise (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Brigham Young University, 2002), 343–49.

    Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 1:3, 2:165.

    Joseph Smith, Journal, May 19, 24, and 26, 1842; June 4, 1842, available at josephsmithpapers.org. Proponents of “spiritual wifery” taught that sexual relations were permissible outside of legalized marital relationships, on condition that the relations remained secret.

    “On Marriage,” Times and Seasons, Oct. 1, 1842, 939–40; and Wilford Woodruff journal, Nov. 25, 1843, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Parley P. Pratt, “This Number Closes the First Volume of the ‘Prophet,’” The Prophet, May 24, 1845, 2. George A. Smith explained, “Any one who will read carefully the denials, as they are termed, of plurality of wives in connection with the circumstances will see clearly that they denounce adultery, fornication, brutal lust and the teaching of plurality of wives by those who were not commanded to do so” (George A. Smith letter to Joseph Smith III, Oct. 9, 1869, in Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Oct. 9, 1869, Church History Library, Salt Lake City).

    Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 2:277–302. Despite claims that Joseph Smith fathered children within plural marriage, genetic testing has so far been negative, though it is possible he fathered two or three children with plural wives. (See Ugo A. Perego, “Joseph Smith, the Question of Polygamous Offspring, and DNA Analysis,” in Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy [Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2010], 233–56.)

    J. Spencer Fluhman, “A Subject that Can Bear Investigation’: Anguish, Faith, and Joseph Smith’s Youngest Plural Wife,” in Robert L. Millet, ed., No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues (Provo and Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2011), 104–19; Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context,” in Bringhurst and Foster, eds., The Persistence of Polygamy, 152–83.

    Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Autobiography, [2], Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

    Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Plural Marriage as Taught by the Prophet Joseph: A Reply to Joseph Smith, Editor of the Lamoni (Iowa) “Herald” (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882); Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Why We Practice Plural Marriage (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884).

    Estimates of the number of these sealings range from 12 to 14. (See Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997], 4, 6; Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:253–76, 303–48.) For an early summary of this practice, see John A. Widtsoe, “Evidences and Reconciliations: Did Joseph Smith Introduce Plural Marriage?” Improvement Era 49, no. 11 (Nov. 1946): 766–67.

    Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 1:421–37. Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to more than one man, typically involves shared financial, residential, and sexual resources, and children are often raised communally. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith’s sealings functioned in this way, and much evidence works against that view.
    Rex Eugene Cooper, Promises Made to the Fathers: Mormon Covenant Organization (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), 138–45; Jonathan A. Stapley, “Adoptive Sealing Ritual in Mormonism,” Journal of Mormon History 37, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 53–117.

    I could go on and on and on but you get the picture. The church has officially published and released information and books about this since the late 1800s.

    Nothing new here.

  25. Aaron, I don’t think Bruce’s post should be read as stating that Joseph Smith had, or intended to have, a sexual relationship with Helen Mar Kimball; rather, I think his point was that as a general matter a “marriage” between a thirty-something and a fourteen-year-old, while highly abnormal, wouldn’t have been completely out of the realm of social acceptability at the time.

    As for “spiritual duress”–if one thinks it’s “duress” for an ecclesiastical leader to initiate a nonsexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old that results in her having to consider herself “married” and therefore withdraw from the singles’ scene, what does one call it when a god initiates a nonsexual relationship with a fourteen-year-old (maybe even a twelve-year-old) that results in her getting pregnant?

    Joseph relayed his requests to potential plural wives through fathers or brothers, occasionally citing his experience with angels in the process. God relayed His will to Mary through an actual angel–and if you read Chapter 1 of Luke, it appears that 1) it scared the beejeebies out of Mary, and 2) going off the plain text of the exchange, it wasn’t technically a “request” at all.

  26. Aaron, James hits the nail on the head. You’re trying to mix two things together that have to be separated. The first is ‘how did people at the time feel about the age difference’? The second is ‘how do people (now or then) feel about ‘spiritual duress’?

    The first I answered completely and truthfully with a lot of nuance. The second, you hadn’t asked.

    But now that you ask, the answer is pretty simple: you are assuming it is spiritual duress from the get go, thus obviously you see it as negative. Pretty fair bet that absolutely everyone that sees it as spiritual duress from the get go will see it as negative. Doesn’t matter one whit if it was back then or today.

    One of the turning points for me, after I lost my faith in God over polygamy, was actually reading the first hand accounts of the women themselves (like the one I linked to.) In none of the surviving accounts do the women think of themselves as under spiritual duress when you read it in their own words. It is not hard to reshape their experience as spiritual duress, of course, and most non-believing historians do so.

    But I’m talking about how the women themselves saw it. They consistently claim that they told Joseph Smith off, that they stood up to him, that they turn him down, etc. But then they sought an answer from God and God told them to do it. So then they changed their minds and entered into the marriage.

    Now I realize we can always take the approach that this is them post facto reshaping their spiritual duress into a non-duress and that in reality they weren’t so easily able to stand up to Joseph Smith. And again, most non-believing historians take that stance. Nevertheless, the idea of spiritual duress (from Joseph Smith anyhow…) is an assumption you are starting with that is equivalent to your conclusion and it is not found in the original sources.

    I have no doubt that if I was starting with the same assumption you are, I’d agree with you. Heck, at one time I WAS starting with the same assumption you are and I at the time agreed with you. But I’m less convinced that assumption is correct now.

  27. “If Joseph had been as young as his early 20s at the time of this marriage, I don’t think it would raise much ire with anyone.”

    Not so sure. A man in his 20s back then marrying a 13 or 14 year old would have raised some ire, from my limited research anyhow.

    Todd Compton, hardly a friendly source, in his book (p. 372) gives the following monogamous example:

    “On December 21 [1845] Adaline married Gilbert Belnap at the tender age of fourteen; Gilbert was one day short of twenty-four.”

    Compton goes on to explain (with a certain amount of obvious shock) “Despite Adaline’s youth, the marriage would endure.”

    A fair question is how true to the times Compton is being here. I’m not entirely sure. While I’m not a fan of some aspects of Compton’s presentation (and more to the point, his chosen bias) I really have no reason to doubt he’s an excellent historian. Though I suppose its possible he’s merely inserting his own presentism here.

    Compton repeats this in another non-LDS marriage he writes about:

    p. 270 “To the scandal of his [John Wesley’s] grown children, he married a twenty-one-year old woman in 1884…”

    Again, I can only assume Compton is a competent historian and knows what he’s talking about. This is a case of a much older man marrying a 21 year old. This raised ire due to the age difference, if he’s being accurate here.

    So those are two examples. One of a 20 something marrying a 14 year old and one of a much older (I think 50s) marrying a 21 year old. Both are portrayed by a historian as raising some ire or being out of the ordinary for the times. And yet, in his book specifically meant to make the case that polygamy didn’t come from God, he was forced to include at least two (those are the ones I wrote down anyhow) examples of monogamous and even non-LDS marriages following similar patterns. Uncommon, somewhat scandalous, but common enough that he has no choice but to include them in the biographies of Joseph Smith’s wives.

  28. Thanks for this great post Jmax.

  29. richalger

    Thanks for your feedback Bruce.

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