Polygamy Overview, Part 3: Apologetics and Conclusion
We’re now well over 25,000 words on polygamy between the first two overviews, so I am quite aware I need to wrap this up and continue on to other topics in church history. Before we move on though, I want to cover some other overall problems with Joseph Smith’s polygamy along with looking at a few more apologetic responses from the church’s essay to outline why I believe that not only is polygamy not from God, but that the apologetic responses the church gives do not fit the accounts I’ve outlined.
Spiritual Wifery vs Plural Marriage
One problem I had when reading the Saints book was looking at how the church framed the idea of “spiritual wifery” practiced by John C Bennett and Joseph Smith’s brother, William Smith. The attempts to try and separate the two feels like an apolgetic attempt to preserve Joseph Smith as being the most righteous person possible, but the details just do not give such a great distinction to me. From the church’s essay:
“Nevertheless, rumors spread. A few men unscrupulously used these rumors to seduce women to join them in an unauthorized practice sometimes referred to as “spiritual wifery.” When this was discovered, the men were cut off from the Church.”
As I mentioned in the second polygamy overview about the Happiness Letter, the idea of “spiritual wifery” was happening at the same time that Joseph Smith was ramping up polygamy, and it was happening among those who were the closest to Joseph Smith.
In fact, it was not just John C. Bennett, who had become extremely close to Joseph Smith during this time, that was having sex with women under the idea of “spiritual wifery,” but Joseph Smith’s own brother William was as well. While the church wants to make this an entirely different idea than “plural marriage,” they really are not all that different if you view them as you would view any other group practicing this kind of idea.
The people who were “cut off from the Church” testified that they learned these practices from Joseph Smith and this was confirmed by the women they seduced in the practice of ‘spiritual wifery.’
First is the testimony of Catherine Fuller, who was told by Joseph's brother William that she should not get married so they could continue having sexual relations:
"[William Smith] has also been to my house on the 27th of last month being the day I was married and proposed unlawful connexion but I refused and told him that it was contrary to the teaching of Joseph on the stand. He answered that Joseph was obliged to teach to the contrary on the stand to keep down prejudice and keep peace at home. First W. Smith insisted very much that I should not marry and proposed to supply me with food etc if I should remain unmarried and grant his requests." (Catherine Fuller's testimony)
Sarah Miller also testified that she was told that the teachings of "spiritual wifery" originated with Joseph Smith:
"Some two or three weeks since, in consequence of Bro Joseph Smiths teachings to the singers, I began to be alarmed concerning myself, & certain teachings which I had recevd from Chauncy L. Higby, & questioned him about his teaching, for I was pretty well persuaded from Joseph[’s] public teachings that Chaney had been telling falsehood.– but Chauncy said that Joseph Now taught as he did th[r]ough necessity, on acount of the prejudices of the people, & his own family particlarly as they had not become full believers in the doctrine." (Sarah Miller's testimony)
A third account from Margaret J. Nyman confirms this yet again:
“During the evening's interview, he, (as I have since learned,) with wicked lies proposed that I should yield to his desires, and indulge in sexual intercourse with him, stating that such intercourse might be freely indulged in, and was no sin: That any respectable female might indulge in sexual intercourse, and there was no sin in it, providing the person so indulging, keep the same to herself; for there could be no sin, where there was no accussor;—and most clendestinely, with wicked lies, persuaded me to yield by using the name of Joseph Smith: and, as I have since learned, totally false and unauthorised; and in consequence of those arguments, I was influenced to yield to my Seducer, Chauncey L. Higbee.” (Nauvoo Neighbor, Mar 29, 1844)
While apologists would argue that they were completely misrepresenting what Joseph Smith was teaching in private for their own benefit, this actually matches quite well with the history of polygamy with regards to how Joseph Smith had to keep it secret from Emma to keep the peace at home.
There are no records that Joseph Smith was teaching women that they could have sex without being married, but the Happiness Letter certainly gives the indication that such things could be OK under the parameters set up by Joseph himself. We also have incidents where Joseph Smith had sex with women who were only his eternal (polyandrous) wives, which lines up with the idea of being a ‘spiritual wife.’
Furthermore, the third account above by Margaret J. Nyman states that Chauncey Higbey was teaching that “for there could be no sin, where there was no accuser… (and) persuaded me to yield by using the name of Joseph Smith.”
As I discussed in the second overview, Joseph Smith was teaching this very idea to the church at the very time that Joseph Smith was ramping up polygamy – that if you do not accuse others of sin, you are not sinning yourself. These ideas did not originate out of nowhere, and they all point right back to what Joseph Smith was teaching, and these people being exposed for 'spiritual wifery' were close to Joseph when they were engaging in sexual relations with these women.
I'm not trying to beat a dead horse here, but what I want to make clear is that there are multiple testimonies that Joseph Smith was teaching these ideas to those around him, including his own brother who was an apostle for the church. The church demonizes John Bennett as he had a falling out with Joseph Smith and very publicly wrote salacious details about the church, but the reality is that Bennett was close to Joseph Smith and the inner workings of the church during the time he was practicing what the church later deemed "spiritual wifery" to differentiate it from the polygamy and polyandry that Joseph Smith was teaching privately.
This pattern correlated well with the Nancy Rigdon proposal, and I believe the letter speaks for itself once you understand why Joseph Smith wrote it and the implications he very carefully and explicitly laid out within the letter by citing Solomon as the model of what those who know Heaven in full would desire.
Carefully Worded Denials
One of the things that is so troubling about polygamy is how Joseph Smith was so dishonest not just to Emma, but to the church as a whole. Picking up from the idea of “spiritual wifery,” the church continues their essay with this statement:
“The rumors prompted members and leaders to issue carefully worded denials that denounced spiritual wifery and polygamy but were silent about what Joseph Smith and others saw as divinely mandated “celestial” plural marriage.The statements emphasized that the Church practiced no marital law other than monogamy while implicitly leaving open the possibility that individuals, under direction of God’s living prophet, might do so.”
This paragraph reads like it was written by a lawyer who wants to stretch the truth as much as he possibly can without technically lying. The footnote from the essay explains these denials thus: “In the denials, “polygamy” was understood to mean the marriage of one man to more than one woman but without Church sanction.” Effectively, they are differentiating between “polygamy” and “plural marriage” as verbal semantics that Joseph used to lie to both the public and most members of the church about his secret marriages.
Just to make it clear, the “members and leaders” making these "carefully worded denials" mentioned in the essay refers mostly to Joseph himself. In other words he lied publicly, both in printed articles and in public speeches about his plural marriages by using a politician’s trick of having a different definition in his head from the definition that he knows you have in your head. When Bill Clinton said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” he was excluding oral sex from his personal definition of sexual relations.
In one example of Joseph’s public “carefully worded denials” he said the following:
“I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made a proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives. I mean to live and proclaim the truth as long as I can…A man asked me whether the commandment was given that a man may have seven wives; and now the new prophet has charged me with adultery. I never had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses…I am innocent of all these charges, and you can bear witness of my innocence, for you know me yourselves…What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.” (Joseph Smith - LDS History of the Church 6:411).
When Joseph Smith made this declaration, he had already amassed over 20 wives. While the church will call this a “carefully worded denial,” the fact is that he was lying to the church and community because he did not want the truth to get out. Apologists want to claim that Joseph Smith was ‘acting as a man’ with the implementation of polygamy, but the reality is that when you read the above statement after all of the stories in these polygamy overviews, there is no way around the simple fact that he was lying.
Furthermore, Joseph Smith mockingly jokes about “whether the commandment was given that a man may have seven wives,” and yet in D&C 132, written prior to this statement, it explicitly states that if a man “have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.” (D&C 132:62)
Earlier in October 1843, Joseph Smith dictated an even more pointed denial of polygamy as he was practicing it. In his journey, Joseph Smith had his scribe, Willard Richards, write the following:
“gave instruction to try those who were preaching teaching or the doctrin of plurality of wives. on this Law. Joseph forbids it. and the practice thereof— No man shall have but one wife.” (The Joseph Smith Papers)
What’s even crazier is how this journal entry was retrofitted later to completely change both what Joseph Smith said and to make it work with the 'new and everlasting covenant' of plural marriage. Read how that entry was entered into the official history:
“Evening, at home, and walked up and down the streets with my scribe. Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives: for, according to the law, I hold the keys of this power in the last days; for there is never but one on earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred; and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise.” (History of the Church 6:2)
Just as we showed in the First Vision and priesthood restoration overviews, Joseph Smith has always been willing to rewrite the church’s history and scriptures to conform to an evolving theology. In this case, you can see where the church itself is willing to rewrite Joseph Smith’s history to conform to the evolving theology of polygamy/plural marriage in the church.
In 1842, Emma, although she knew about some of Joseph’s previous indiscretions with other women and girls, was still unaware that Joseph was actively taking wives which by then were over 20. The persistent rumors motivated her to commit the relief society to the purpose of eradicating polygamy from Nauvoo, and Joseph played along. Here is a statement that was published in the church newspaper and signed by Emma and the rest of her Relief Society presidency with Joseph’s encouragement:
“We the undersigned members of the ladies’ relief society, and married females do certify and declare that we know of no system of marriage being practiced in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints save the one contained in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants... [i.e., the now-deleted Section 101:4 that forbids polygamy]...
Emma Smith, President,
Elizabeth Ann Whitney, Counselor,
Sarah M. Cleveland, Counselor,
Eliza R. Snow, Secretary" (Times & Seasons, vol. 3, p. 940 (Oct. 1, 1842)
What Emma did not know at the time was that all three of the other members of her presidency who signed this statement were secretly committed to polygamy and two were actually married clandestinely to her own husband:
Elizabeth Ann Whitney was an eyewitness to her daughter Sarah Ann’s plural marriage to Joseph Smith on July 27, 1842 (Compton, p. 347);
Sarah M. Cleveland was married to Joseph Smith on June 29, 1842, officiated by Brigham Young and witnessed by Eliza Snow (id., p. 277);
Eliza R. Snow was married to Joseph Smith also on June 29, 1842, officiated by Brigham Young and witnessed by Sarah M. Cleveland) (id., p. 313).
It is very difficult to read this information and not feel incredibly sorry for Emma, who had absolutely no idea not only what her husband was up to, but what her closest friends in the church were doing with her husband in the name of God without her knowledge. Can you imagine having your closest friends signing a statement trying to weed out polygamy while they are either secretly married to your husband or witnessing a polygamous marriage to Joseph behind your back? This is why polygamy just breaks my heart, because so many members today have no idea that this is both still doctrine of the church and that it was implemented this way.
As I mentioned in the first part of the polygamy overview, the church added a section to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835 that was a clear and straightforward repudiation of polygamy in response to Joseph Smith’s sexual relationship with Fanny Alger whether an affair or marriage.
This section was written when Joseph Smith was out of town, but Joseph Smith would have needed to approve of its addition to the Doctrine and Covenants and, more importantly, its publication in the Times and Seasons on October 1, 1842. From the Times and Seasons:
“Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again…
We have given the above rule of marriage as the only one practiced in this church, to show that Dr. J. C. Bennett’s “secret wife system” is a matter of his own manufacture; and further to disabuse the public ear, and shew [show] that the said Bennett and his misanthropic friend Origen Bachelor, are perpetrating a foul and infamous slander upon an innocent people, and need but be known to be hated and despise. In support of this position, we present the following certificates:—
We the undersigned members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and residents of the city of Nauvoo, persons of families do hereby certify and declare that we know of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and we give this certificate to show that Dr. J. C. Bennett’s “secret wife system” is a creature of his own make as we know of no such society in this place nor never did.
[Signed by 12 men, including Newel K. Whitney, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff. Under an almost identical statement are the printed signatures of 18 women including Sara M. Cleveland and Eliza R. Snow]” (Times and Seasons, October 1, 1842)
To be clear, Joseph Smith would have already been married to both Sara Cleveland and Eliza Snow when this was published, and Newel Whitney had given his daughter to Joseph Smith and performed their polygamous sealing. While apologists will contend that the use of the term “secret wife system” gives them an out, the fact that the church’s statement says that they “certify and declare that we know of no other rule or system of marriage than the one published from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants” is without any doubt a complete and intentional lie.
I hope these examples make clear that these were not “carefully worded denials” as the church states in their essay, but outright lies to keep both his first wife Emma and the church unaware of what Joseph Smith was teaching in secret. If the church wants to claim that the lying was justified because it was for God, they should be upfront and state it, because what is in the essay is a deceptive statement premised on using technicalities and weasel words to keep members from realizing just how dishonest Joseph Smith was to both his wife and the members of the church.
The Instructions Were Not Clear
Another common apologetic is found in the church’s essay is to say that Joseph Smith was implementing polygamy the best he could without specific instructions from God on how to proceed. From the essay:
“Although the Lord commanded the adoption—and later the cessation—of plural marriage in the latter days, He did not give exact instructions on how to obey the commandment.”
First, I want to be clear that polygamy/plural marriage is not over – it is still the doctrine of the church. To be clear, the manifestos that stopped polygamy in this life were not considered a revelation, which makes sense given that D&C 132 is still doctrine. Polygamy is still being practiced for the eternities, and we need look no further than the current prophet, Russell M. Nelson, or his First Counselor, Dallin H. Oaks. Both are sealed to multiple women, and under church doctrine they will be sealed to them for eternity, and will be able to have sex with both of them to create enough spirit children to populate their worlds with as gods.
But more importantly to this overview, the idea that God did not give Joseph Smith enough instructions on how to handle polygamy is just ridiculous. The problem isn’t that D&C 132 isn’t specific in its rules – it’s that Joseph Smith violated pretty much every rule that was dictated by Joseph Smith. This should be clear from D&C 132:8 which states: “Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.”
That verse literally sets off what is a very clear and specific set of instructions on how Joseph Smith is to implement and practice polygamy/plural marriage. This is no different than many of Joseph Smith’s other claimed revelations, where he is very clear on subjects whether it’s the Word of Wisdom, the buying and selling of property, or the exact amounts that people should invest in the Nauvoo House.
Among the rules that D&C 132 is very clear on:
Verse 15: Marriages not performed in the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ end in death, making all marriages on Earth null and void except the ones performed by Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Verse 41: If a woman enters into the new and everlasting covenant and then ‘be with another man,’ she has committed adultery and will be “destroyed.” This is not going to be good for the polyandrous wives.
Verse 44: If a woman is faithful but the husband breaks the vow, then the woman will given to another who is pure – and only Joseph Smith holds the power to do it.
Verse 51: Emma Smith is not allowed to partake of the offer which Joseph Smith made to her, which was either to take an additional husband or to offer divorce. Instead D&C 132 rescinds the offer with the claim that it was an Abrahamic test.
Verse 54: Emma Smith shall abide and cleave to Joseph Smith, but if she does not accept Joseph’s polygamy she will be “destroyed.”
Verse 57: Joseph Smith should not put any property out of his hands, for “Satan seeketh to destroy.”
Verses 61-62: Men are only allowed to marry virgins, yet Joseph Smith married eleven women who were already married to other men.
Verse 61: Men must gain the consent of their first wife, although D&C 132 then gives a loophole in 65 that makes the wife at fault if she does not give consent.
Verse 63: The commandment is to take virgins and to replenish and multiply the earth, but if those virgins be with another man they will be destroyed. This verse makes clear that the women are here to be given to men, which is a theme that is woven throughout Mormonism.
I get that this revelation does not give the instructions on how to propose to these other women to join him, but it does give a lot of specifics, most of which Joseph Smith violated and others that are directly contradicted by the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.
Joseph Smith repeatedly married polyandrous wives, meaning that he was not “espousing virgins” as D&C 132 requires, and it then makes those polyandrous wives instantly guilty of adultery if they continue to have sexual relations with their legal and lawful husbands.
The “Law of Sarah” was added by Joseph Smith in D&C 132 even as he violated it over and over again, which appears to be why he then gives himself an out just a few verses later by saying if the first wife does not approve, not only can Joseph Smith have those women anyway, but the first wife is the actual transgressor.
Joseph Smith is commanding Emma not to take any property, but as we outlined in the first overview, on the very same day that this revelation was dictated, Joseph Smith deeds quite a bit of property to Emma Smith, almost certainly due to the problems with Emma because of his involvement in polygamy.
Finally, the entire purpose of polygamy is to raise up seed, and yet apologists like to mention that Joseph Smith never had kids with these wives even though there is strong evidence he had sex with at least eleven of his polygamous wives. That is in violation of D&C 132 which tells us that the entire point is to multiply and replenish the earth.
The point is that the essay works to make Joseph Smith the victim by claiming it just was not specific enough for him to know what to do, but with the specifics that were written into D&C 132, Joseph Smith continually violated them. Much like I’ve said about the Book of Abraham translation and the apologetic idea that there’s a lost scroll, if Joseph Smith is already violating almost all of the rules given, why would anyone expect him to suddenly get it right with if D&C 132 contained more instructions?
Joseph Smith: The Reluctant Polygamist
Another apologetic offered in the essay is to imply that Joseph Smith did not want to do this, but he simply had no choice. From the essay:
“When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”
The first thing I want to point out, because I think this is an important and often overlooked detail, is that Joseph Smith himself is the one who wanted to know about polygamy. From the very first verse of D&C 132:
“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines” (D&C 132:1)
Furthermore this language is echoed in Joseph Smith’s “Happiness Letter” that we discussed with his proposal to Nancy Rigdon:
"If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon; first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart; even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of Heaven only in part, but which, in reality, were right, because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation."
What we’re seeing in D&C 132, which I believe is authored by Joseph Smith, is that he is creating the justification for polygamy by stating in the voice of God that Joseph Smith was simply asking questions about what it was all about. The problem for this apologetic argument, however, is that it shows clearly that Joseph Smith was the one initiating the request about polygamy. In other words, it makes little sense to think that God just thrust this upon Joseph Smith simply because Joseph was asking questions.
When you combine that with the passage above from Joseph Smith’s Happiness Letter, you can see that Joseph Smith believes that if you desire something that God will provide it. This is completely contradicted by the Book of Mormon as stated in the first part of the polygamy overview, but it shows that Joseph Smith is creating this loophole that allows him to find justification for his desires in the voice of God. I will touch upon this more below, but I think that is an important detail.
We discussed the ‘angel with a drawn sword’ story already, but it is used in the essay to paint Joseph Smith as this virtuous husband who refused to enter polygamy until his life was threatened. What they don’t tell you is that Joseph Smith already cheated on Emma with Fanny Alger before he had even developed the idea of sealing keys, so this idea is simply a non-starter if you apply the same critical thinking to Joseph Smith that you would to any other religious leader caught up in a sex scandal.
Furthermore, it is again writing history through the rosiest lens for Joseph Smith. We know Joseph Smith used the angel with a drawn sword story on Zina Huntington shortly after she married her true love, Henry Jacobs, but we also have documentation that Joseph Smith used it on Almera Woodward Johnson and even on Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, who was also already married to her husband, Adam Lightner.
The idea that Joseph Smith is both a reluctant polygamist and a person who took almost forty wives, having sex with at least eleven of them, does not paint the picture of someone trying to do the bare minimum for God. This is a big problem I have with apologetics, because if this was anyone but Joseph Smith they would never give this kind of justification for his behavior.
First of all, this takes away Joseph Smith’s free agency. If the angel is going to kill Joseph Smith if he does not comply, does he really have free agency? Granted I do not believe the story really happened for reasons outlined in these overviews, but I am just pointing out that even at face value this is problematic.
Why wouldn’t the angel visit the girls instead of threatening Joseph Smith’s life to let them know they were chosen for Joseph Smith? Instead we have an unverifiable and self serving story from Joseph Smith that mirrors treasure digging with the power of three visitations, and it is used to pressure young girls to abandon their morals to marry and (in many cases) have sex with the man they consider a prophet.
If the angel first appeared in the early 1830s as the essay states and Joseph complied by marrying Fanny Alger, why did this angel need to keep returning to threaten Joseph after polygamy was committed fully? In fact, Joseph continued to use the angel warning with women even after he already had 20 wives. As I outlined above, Joseph sometimes obtained his brides (many in the mid-teenage years) by promising either the girl or her parents a guarantee of exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom as a reward for sacrificing herself or their daughter to him. He would then sometimes use the story of the angel with the drawn sword if his first proposals were unsuccessful. Why would God take away the free agency of these women when the promise of exaltation was extended to an entire family, furthered by the warning that an angel would destroy Joseph if they were not entered into a polygamous marriage?
It is important to step back and consider the events of the restoration (as given by Joseph Smith) that were so important that God needed to send an angelic messenger to make sure the message was driven home:
1. Moroni’s delivery of the Gold Plates
2. The restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods
3. Elijah’s transfer of the sealing keys
4. Joseph’s failure to marry enough wives
Never did an angel come down to tell prophets to stop banning black members from the priesthood, being sealed in the temple, or being prepared for exaltation. Never did an angel come down to tell Joseph Smith that he was teaching incorrect biblical stories or that the Book of Mormon contained material that hadn’t been written in Book of Mormon times. Never did the angel tell Joseph Smith he got the Book of Abraham translation completely wrong and that the ability to translate Egyptian would soon be available, proving the Book of Abraham a complete fraud.
We are told in this essay to believe that polygamy and polyandry are such a high priority in God’s plan that an angel would kill Joseph Smith for not fully participating even after we are to believe he fully participated with Fanny Alger. If that is the case, how they were these same revelations so easily disavowed with a letter written by Wilford Woodruff to “whom it may concern?” (Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1)
One final point on both the angel story and the idea that Joseph Smith was a reluctant participant in polygamy:
The story itself is very disturbing in what we are to believe of God's will. We are told to accept that God sent an angel to command Joseph Smith, who then used the story to intimidate and/or pressure potential polygamous brides, yet we are clearly told the entire revelation only came about because Joseph Smith himself inquired why others were allowed plural wives in the Bible. Again, the very first verse from D&C 132:
"Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines" (D&C 132)
The authors of this official church essay, approved by the First Presidency, are looking you in the eye and with a straight face asking you to not only believe this story, but to embrace it as morally commendable and redeeming. After Joseph Smith asked God why others were allowed to have 'many wives and concubines,' God answered by not only telling Joseph that it was OK (which goes against the Bible and the Book of Mormon), but then sent an angel to make sure Joseph Smith expanded an idea that only originated because Joseph’s asked about polygamy. It just does not make sense on any level, and we see that with so many problems in church history. You cannot make the puzzle pieces fit together with the essay, but they fit together quite well when you look at the history as I’ve outlined in all of these overviews.
John Taylor’s 1886 Revelation:
As we begin to wrap-up the overviews on polygamy in the church, I want to quickly address Prophet John Taylor’s revelation from God on polygamy. This was at a time when the church was under immense pressure to end polygamy from the government, and John Taylor asked God if they could end plural marriage, which at the time was synonymous with the new and everlasting covenant. Here is what God told Prophet Taylor:
Given to President John Taylor September 27, 1886
My son John, you have asked me concerning the New and Everlasting Covenant how far it is binding upon my people.
Thus saith the Lord: All commandments that I give must be obeyed by those calling themselves by my name unless they are revoked by me or by my authority, and how can I revoke an everlasting covenant, for I the Lord am everlasting and my everlasting covenants cannot be abrogated nor done away with, but they stand forever.
Have I not given my word in great plainness on this subject? Yet have not great numbers of my people been negligent in the observance of my law and the keeping of my commandments, and yet have I borne with them these many years; and this because of their weakness—because of the perilous times, and furthermore, it is more pleasing to me that men should use their free agency in regard to these matters. Nevertheless, I the Lord do not change and my word and my covenants and my law do not, and as I have heretofore said by my servant Joseph: All those who would enter into my glory must and shall obey my law. And have I not commanded men that if they were Abraham’s seed and would enter into my glory, they must do the works of Abraham. I have not revoked this law, nor will I, for it is everlasting, and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof; even so, Amen. (Archived Revelation)
This revelation is extremely important because it is used by the polygamous offshoots of the modern day LDS church as it quite explicitly states that God is not going to end polygamy because of pressure from anyone. The last part is particularly telling:
“And have I not commanded men that if they were Abraham’s seed and would enter into my glory, they must do the works of Abraham. I have not revoked this law, nor will I, for it is everlasting, and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof; even so, Amen.”
Apologists want to contend that polygamy and the new and everlasting covenant are two separate things, but they absolutely were not considered so by both the early church and, from the prophet’s mouth, God. These sentences make clear that polygamy is the new and everlasting covenant when God, via Prophet Taylor, states that the church “must do the works of Abraham” and that “this law… is everlasting.”
The church would produce the first manifesto just four years later through Prophet Wilford Woodruff, which sought to end polygamy for time. Just two years earlier in 1888, Prophet Woodruff stated that “We are not going to stop the practice of plural marriage until the Coming of the Son of Man.” (Diary of Heber J. Grant, Prophet Woodruff at the Manti Temple Dedication, May 17, 1888)
Prophet Wilford Woodruff would take another polygamous wife seven years after he issued this manifesto along with other apostles that also took polygamous wives, showing how unserious the church was about ending polygamy, but that’s another story.
Regardless, the 1886 revelation to John Taylor is ignored by the church today because it does not fit with the progression of the church’s stance on polygamy in this life, although it actually fits completely with Joseph Smith’s teachings along with D&C 132.
As I’ve stated in many of the other overviews, you can see how the different prophets tend to run the church as they see it, which is a very good indication that God is not leading the church, but these men bringing their preexisting worldview into the authority they are given. This continues through today, as we saw Prophet Russell M. Nelson begin his time as prophet by implementing the ‘name change’ that he had fought unsuccessfully for over the previous decades.
While the church today seeks to distance itself from John Taylor’s 1886 revelation, even FAIR Mormon is forced to concede that “it appears to be in his handwriting, and it is probably genuine.” (FAIR Mormon) This revelation is damning not just because God told Prophet Taylor to continue polygamy, but that it explicitly ties polygamy to the “new and everlasting covenant.”
If you want to believe that God would change his mind just four years after stating to Prophet Taylor that “I have not revoked this law, nor will I, for it is everlasting, and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof,” (and two years after Prophet Woodruff said plural marriage would not end until Jesus returned) I can’t stop you, but you have to answer why an unchanging God decided to change His mind just four years later. On a small side note, this is about the same amount of time it took God to change His mind on the church’s November 2015 LGBT policy as well.
Spiritual Witnesses of Polygamy
In one of the final overviews I want to cover the idea of spiritual witness in the church in greater detail, but I know it’s necessary to address it here briefly. The church’s essay uses a formula that they want the reader to undergo as they read the essay, which is that after the initial disgust at the practice, you will naturally have an internal struggle over the details you’ve read above, followed by your doubts being resolved through a spiritual experience. This is a theme in many of the problematic essays, as the church states:
“Nevertheless, for many women and men, initial revulsion and anguish was followed by struggle, resolution, and ultimately, light and peace. Sacred experiences enabled the Saints to move forward in faith.”
Within the essay, the church cites that Joseph’s polygamous and polyandrous brides would initially recoil at the idea, but would ultimately have a spiritual witness that would then allow them to accept Joseph’s proposals.
I want to state up front that we have to honor the lived experiences of these women, because none of us can speak for them or tell them what they really experienced. As I pointed out with Lucy Walker’s story, she had reported at least two sleepless nights before she felt the room light up, which gave her the internal permission to marry Joseph Smith.
What I will say is that the church, from the time we are born, tells us what our emotions are and then constantly uses them against us. We all have stories of being told that if it makes you feel warm, it’s God confirming the church is true, but if you read something that makes you feel that cognitive dissonance, then it’s the ‘adversary’ trying to deceive you away from the church.
That sounds awful and cynical, but in the case of polygamy you can truly see it. Joseph Smith tells these young women that if they do not marry him, he will be killed by an angel or that the ‘gates will be forever closed’ for a chance at exaltation.
That pressure is followed by the instructions to fast, ponder, and pray for a confirmation that polygamy is from God, and that God had “given” these young girls to Joseph Smith. Again, as I mentioned with Lucy Walker, this pressure will cause these girls to look for reasons to accept polygamy because they feel like they have no other choice.
I want to present one of the testimonies of a polygamous wife, because I feel like it is very striking and it is difficult to watch (video link at the end of the quote):
“I’ve been searching for a witness of this work and of this church and just tonight I got my witness and it’s burning within my soul how important this work is and how true it is. I know it is. And it’s hard to believe that just a year ago I was in high school and now I am in a plural marriage and struggling. But I know without a shadow of a doubt, that this is the Lord’s work. That I’ve finally found it. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ amen.” (Testimony excerpt of a member of The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days, Spiritual Witnesses Video)
This young girl is part of one of the LDS offshoot branches that practices polygamy, which still upholds D&C 132 as the new and everlasting covenant just as God told Prophet John Taylor it would be. But this testimony is similar to what you would hear both from the earliest women in polygamy all the way through a Fast and Testimony meeting today (minus the testimony of modern polygamy, of course).
That’s not to say that spiritual witnesses do not matter, but it is to say that people from every religion receive spiritual witnesses from God that often conflict with each other, yet they all believe that they receive those witnesses in divine ways. Furthermore, we know from our own lives that we often get confirmations of things that simply do not pan out whether we receive a confirmation of who to marry, what job to take, or when we ask God to heal a sick friend or family member.
What I’m trying to say is that while the church will often say that these women had spiritual witnesses of polygamy so that we don’t need to worry about it not being from God, I want to point out that not only are spiritual testimonies demonstrably unreliable as a method of evaluating truth, but that even today women are giving testimony of polygamy being from God in offshoots of the Brighamite branch of the church as quoted above.
That is a difficult thing for most members to reconcile, because it really illustrates the problem with relying on spiritual confirmations as a method of discerning truth when we can point to so many throughout history that were proven false, and so many being given today from people who are acting in ways that we are taught is explicitly forbidden by God.
As I’ve pointed out in many of the previous overviews, the evidence is pretty clear, and if we’re willing to set aside the supernatural and just follow the documentary evidence, historical evidence, and scholarship being done in an overwhelming number of fields, it becomes clear that these scriptures and ideas were created by Joseph Smith, and that they are actually quite explainable without the need to invoke God.
As I said at the beginning, polygamy is what never sat well with me as a convert. My wife and I met young, which meant that I was always jealous in school when she was around other boys, and I know she was jealous when I was around other girls. It’s obviously a normal feeling for any couple, but the idea of thinking about how she would feel if I was taking additional wives and having sex with them just made my stomach turn and ultimately grew in my mind as a problem with the church that had no reasonable answer.
I often see critics of the church say that Joseph Smith implemented polygamy simply to have sex with many women and some even label him a pedophile for his two marriages to 14 year old girls. The truth is that nothing is usually that black and white, and I do think that Joseph Smith was thinking about sexual relations based on how he implemented polygamy, but I also believe he was trying to accomplish other ties and secure powerful and influence as well.
I also think that calling Joseph Smith a pedophile is flat-out incorrect - he was not attracted only to young girls and clear had sex with many women who were post-puberty. Joseph Smith was a predator just as every other religious leader who preys on their followers for sex, money, and power is. This is not a distinction without a difference and I think is important to use the correct terminology, because I have shown in these overviews how Joseph Smith preyed on his followers for sex, money, and power, and that goes well beyond polygamy.
The truth is that whatever motivation we put on Joseph Smith, it’s going to be based heavily on our own speculation. What we can look at objectively, however, is how Joseph Smith used his authority to coerce young girls to marry him, and that we know he had sex with at least eleven of them which shows that sex was at least a factor in these marriages.
Joseph Smith writes in his Happiness Letter the following:
“God has designed our happiness, the happiness of all his creatures, he never has, he never will, institute an ordinance or give a commandment to his people that is not calculated in its nature to promote that happiness which he has designed, and which will not end in the greatest amount of good and glory to those who become the recipients of his law and ordinance.”
There is no possible way that anyone can argue in good faith that D&C 132 promotes happiness among the women of the church. Even the church’s essay concedes the anguish that Joseph put his ‘beloved Emma’ through beginning with his sexual relationship (whether an affair as history states or a marriage as the church proclaims) with Fanny Alger all the way through his mock marriage to the Partridge sisters after Emma briefly allowed polygamy so that Joseph Smith would finally be sealed to her.
Further evidence of how polygamy was created by men, for men comes from Heber Kimball, who the church’s essay said was never as happy as when his first wife Vilate approved of him taking additional polygamous wives:
“In the spirit world there is an increase of males and females, there are millions of them, and if I am faithful all the time, and continue right along with brother Brigham, we will go to brother Joseph and say, “Here we are brother Joseph; we are here ourselves are we not, with none of the property we possessed in our probationary state, not even the rings on our fingers?” He will say to us, “Come along, my boys, we will give you a good suit of clothes. Where are your wives?” “They are back yonder; they would not follow us.” “Never mind,” says Joseph, “here are thousands, have all you want.” Perhaps some do not believe that, but I am just simple enough to believe it.” (Apostle Heber C. Kimball, address delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, February 1, 1857)
Apologists would of course contend that Heber was speaking for himself, and there’s no way to know one way or the other what Joseph Smith taught directly to others, but this thinking did not originate on its own. The practice of polygamy was both created and implemented by Joseph Smith, and the horrifying consequences that we still see today in LDS offshoots are evidence of the fruits of his theology.
In one other gem from Heber Kimball, he talks about how men who are taking in polygamous wives begin to look “fresh, young, and sprightly:”
“I have noticed that a man who has but one wife, and is inclined to that doctrine, soon begins to wither and dry up, while a man who goes into plurality looks fresh, young, and sprightly. Why is this? Because God loves that man, and because he honors his word. Some of you may not believe this, but I not only believe it but I also know it. For a man of God to be confined to one woman is small business, for it is as much as we can do now to keep under the burdens we have to carry, and I do not know what we should do if we had only one wife apiece.” (Discourse by Apostle Heber C. Kimball, published in the April 22, 1857 Deseret News)
I’m not saying that every man enjoyed polygamy, but I will say that the accounts are clear that men got more out of polygamy than women did. In a lot of ways polygamy is the equivalent to today’s cliché of older men taking “trophy wives,” except that they created a loophole to keep your original wife while adding additional younger wives to have sex with. I know some readers will find that comparison offensive, but this is exactly how many of the men practiced polygamy in the church. Here’s another quote from Heber Kimball that makes this clear:
“Some time ago Heber Kimball was lecturing some missionaries who were preparing to start out on foreign missions, in the Tabernacle, and said to them: “Brethren, I want you to understand that it is not to be as it has been heretofore. The brother Missionaries have been in the habit of picking out the prettiest women for themselves before they get here, and bringing on the ugly ones for us; hereafter you have to bring them all here before taking any of them, and let us all have a fair shake.” The old reprobate then had at least a score of women whom he called wives.” (Polygamy and its Fruits, New York Times, April 17, 1860)
In the previous overviews I was able to cite and use scholarship to show that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text, and that Joseph Smith left his fingerprints all over the scriptures he created. So far in the history of the church, I have outlined how both the First Vision and priesthood restoration accounts evolved, and how Joseph Smith was willing to change revelations and visions to fit his changing beliefs and needs to bolster his authority.
Polygamy takes the worst aspects of all of those overviews, which is why I have written close to 40,000 words on this one subject and I still do not feel like I scratched the surface of how bad polygamy is and always was. There are so many other stories and anecdotes I wanted to include, because every time I would uncover another problem with polygamy it seems like I would find two more problems beneath it.
If you look at D&C 132, you can see that the very premise of the revelation is factually incorrect. God never commands Abraham to enter into polygamy, and God never at any point ‘gives’ wives and concubines to David and Solomon. The Book of Mormon itself tells us that God finds that practice to be abominable and that it began when the people fell into wickedness.
In order for D&C 132 to be correct, the Bible and Book of Mormon have to be incorrect. There’s simply no way around it. And while I believe the evidence is clear that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, it is an irreconcilable problem even if we are to begin with the assumption that both are from prophets of God. The only other way to make it work is to contend that God is changeable by calling the practice of David and Solomon abominable in one instance but to claim it was given from God in another.
Beyond the fact that D&C 132 is factually incorrect, it is written completely to the benefit of Joseph Smith. Of the “stern warnings” that the church essay references, almost every one of them is directed at Emma if she does not let Joseph Smith openly marry and have sex with other women, and the warnings at Joseph Smith are indirectly at Emma Smith.
Once you get beyond D&C 132 and look at what Joseph Smith was actually doing in implementing polygamy, you see a few common threads that are the very same traits we see throughout history with religious leaders who prey on their followers.
Joseph Smith first holds his authority over their head when he asks if they believe him to be a prophet of God. Once he convinced them of this, it becomes very difficult for these young girls to say no. If they do say no, Joseph Smith uses stories such as the angel with a drawn sword to tell them that if they don’t marry him, the angel will kill him. It’s an absolutely awful story that makes no sense as outlined above, but to these young, vulnerable girls it left them with no real choice.
Furthermore, Joseph Smith often proposed to young women who were living in the Smith household, which gave him a chance to really get to know them and, for those he felt might be willing to join him, groom them to accept the proposals. We outlined above how many of these young women had recently lost their parents and were living with the man they believed to be a prophet of God, and he then used that to tell these young girls that God had “given them” to Joseph Smith. Again, if this was anyone but Joseph Smith we would not be having this conversation because it’s so clearly an abuse of authority.
Beyond that, Joseph Smith would often bargain with the family members of these young women, promising exaltation for the entire family if they would give their daughter or sister to him. Just as with Heber Kimball, Joseph then introduces these other men to polygamy and they quickly begin taking brides secretly as well. As I’ve heard others points out, this is a way to get these families complicit in polygamy, which is assured mutual destruction if anyone talks.
I don’t know what else to say – this is horrible practice, and while the previous overviews show why the church cannot possibly be “true,” this shows why its history is not one that I want any part of. At some point I came to realization that even if the church was true, it’s not one that I want any part of.
I've tried to highlight as you look at the Book of Mormon or Book of Abraham to read the text and the historical issues as you would if anyone else wrote it - privileging Joseph Smith is not how we assess these areas honestly. The same applies to polygamy - compare what Joseph Smith did to the other leaders who have taken followers as brides that I highlighed in the first two overviews. There is no reason to privilege Joseph Smith here especially once you can see that the Book of Mormon is not a true book from God. We need to assess these areas objectively as we would any other religion or religious leader, and when you do that you can immediately see how wrong and abusive what Joseph Smith did to these young women was, and that just like the Book of Mormon, it is not from God.
If God sent an angel to me and said I needed to start having sex with more women or I would die, I’d like to hope that I would tell the angel to go back to whatever hell it came from. But the reality is that will never happen, because it never happened to Joseph Smith either.
When you look at the instances of polygamy in the Bible and Book of Mormon they all are sending a very clear message that polygamy doesn’t work. While D&C 132 and the Happiness Letter paint a picture of polygamy being a virtuous practice that brings joy, the Bible is actually a great endorsement for never practicing polygamy. That makes Joseph Smith’s insistence on implementing it all the more telling.
Are we really to believe that God was willing to send an angel down to force Joseph Smith to have sex while not protecting the church when they were forced to flee Missouri or Nauvoo? This same God never told Joseph Smith to boil water which could’ve saved many lives, but needed to repeatedly send an angel for him to have more sex?
I know this sounds harsh but you need to understand that to accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, you need to accept all of these problems as from God. If they are not from God, which the history is pretty clear on, then Joseph Smith is not a prophet of God. If Joseph Smith is not a prophet of God, then the church is not true and all of the problems with the scriptures, polygamy, the temple ceremony, and Joseph Smith’s revelations become moot as they are all fruit of a poisonous tree.
The last thing I want to say is that I know from talking to so many people over the last few years that one of the toughest parts of polygamy is that so many current members come from polygamy. I hear it all the time on podcasts and in writings where people say some variation of “But I come from pioneer stock who practiced polygamy, so what does it say if I no longer believe this church is God’s church?”
You do not need to condemn your ancestors to realize that the church is not true. They did not have access to all of the resources that we referenced here. Your ancestors did not how Joseph Smith created D&C 132 off the top of head, how he pressured young girls to marry him with threats of an angel, or how he lied to Emma Smith at every step of the process.
We can both honor the sacrifices our ancestors made while also realizing that while they made the best decision they knew how to make, it was sadly the wrong one. It’s not your ancestor’s fault that they believed Joseph Smith when they couldn’t hop on Google to check out Joseph Smith’s history of composing the Book or Mormon or how he changed his miraculous foundational stories of the church.
I know how difficult it is to change paradigms and I know how much my stomach turned the first time I read through stories of polygamy (and that still happened as I listened to podcasts leading up to writing these overviews). Below I will link to many podcasts on polygamy, and I will tell you that every one of them made my stomach turn the first time I heard them – the Happiness Letter podcast probably being the worst in terms of outright disgust. But that does not mean that they are not true – it just means our bodies are trying to protect us from information that tells us what we’ve been taught by the church is simply not true.
D&C 132 is still the doctrine of the church and every woman is subject to it in the eternities. And to be clear, every woman reading this will have absolutely no choice in the matter. According to Joseph Smith’s revelation, you must either accept your husband’s polygamous wives or be destroyed. Any idea that “it’ll all work out in the end” goes directly against the revelation if you are a woman – it will absolutely work out for the men because they have complete control over how many other women they want to marry.
To everyone who has made it through these overviews on polygamy, I just want to say that if you’re encountering this for the first time I know what you might be feeling and it does get better. The rest of the overviews will not be so emotional, but they will continue the same path in looking at how Joseph Smith implemented his theology and why it simply does not work against the historical evidence.
Thank you so much for reading these overviews. I had a much harder time writing them than I thought I would – it has been a lot more painful to write these than the previous twenty that covered the Book of Mormon, biblical scholarship, Book of Abraham, the First Vision, and the priesthood revelation. I just cannot help but think of how these poor women had to sacrifice themselves for the promise of something better, completely unaware of how Joseph Smith was creating these ideas.
Thank you for reading, and please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more information and updates on future sections.
Next section: Overview on the Word of Wisdom
LDS Discussions Anotated Gospel Topics Essay: Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo
Mormon Discussions Podcast: Nancy Rigdon and the Happiness Letter
LDS Discussions Writeup: Joseph Smith and the Happiness Letter
Mormon Discussions Podcast: Lucy Walker and Spiritual Confirmations
Mormon Stories Podcast: Discussion the New Polygamy Essays, Part 1
Mormon Discussions Podcast: Gospel Topics Essay, Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo
Video Highlighting Spiritual Witnesses Among Different Religions
Sunstone History Podcast: This is a complete list and I recommend them all, but you can find many on polygamy
Infants on Thrones Podcast: Nauvoo Polygamy Essay Smackdown (Some more abrasive language in this one)