Overview of Polygamy, Part 2: Joseph Smith's Proposals
In the first part of our overview on polygamy, I covered the origins of polygamy in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looking at the 1831 revelation to take wives among the ‘Lamanites’ to make the posterity “white, delightsome, and just,” Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger, issues with polyandrous marriages, the 1836 vision in the Kirtland temple, the 1841 teaching that ‘where there is no accuser there is no sin,’ and the production and problems with the text of D&C 132.
This overview is going to look at the ways that Joseph Smith implemented polygamy, with a focus on several of the women that Joseph Smith proposed to and the methods he used to convince them to enter into polygamous/polyandrous marriages with him.
Throughout these overviews I will continue to reference the text of D&C 132 to show how Joseph Smith violated his own revelation as well as referring to the church’s essay on polygamy to respond to the apologetic arguments the church uses for these problems.
I included this quote in the first overview, but I think it is incredibly important to read before we dive into the ways that Joseph Smith proposed to these women that revered him as a prophet of God. From a presentation by Jonathan Streeter at Sunstone regarding Joseph Smith and the Happiness Letter to Nancy Rigdon:
"Keep in mind that special divine permission is nothing new... Self proclaimed prophet David Koresh and the Branch Davidians claimed special divine permission to take child brides for the purpose of producing the 24 elders foretold in the Book of Revelations. Self proclaimed prophet Wayne Bent of the Lord Our Righteousness Church claimed special divine permission for having sexual relations with children, even his own daughter in law in order to avoid God's punishment. Self proclaimed prophet Julius Shacknow of the sect known as The Work, claimed special privilege to promise salvation in exchange for sexual intercourse with women and children, including his own stepdaughter. Self proclaimed prophet Tony Alamo of Alamo Christian Ministries claimed special biblical permission to illegally marry multiple women and children. Self proclaimed prophet David Berg of the Children of God claimed special divine permission to normalize sexual relation with children. Prophets, justifying their own predations as special, divine permission through the use of pious language and religious sentiment, is nothing new."
As we go through this second overview, you will see a lot of these same elements apply to how Joseph Smith proposes and applies pressure to these young women to accept what he claims is a direct commandment from God. I know that it is almost impossible to separate our lifetime of feelings for the church and Joseph Smith to read these accounts as objectively as we would for the other self-proclaimed prophets listed above, but in order to get to the truth we have to let go of those emotional feelings for just a while to look at what the historical record says about Joseph Smith and polygamy.
Before I begin, I want to highlight a few of the common threads between Joseph Smith’s wives and his proposals.
Marrying Girls who Lived in the Smith Home
One of the more common threads in Joseph Smith’s polygamous relationships is that he often married women who lived with him in his home. This is something that puts these women in a very awkward position – they are being housed by the man they believe is a prophet of God, and are then being asked to marry him secretly in a polygamous marriage, hiding it from his wife in the process.
Furthermore, Joseph Smith can use the time while they are living with him to feel out the situation and to slowly condition them to be ready for the proposal. I realize how devious that sounds, but that’s exactly what you would do if you’re seeking to take these young women as your polygamous brides knowing that they believe you are a prophet of God.
This practice began with Fanny Alger as we covered in the last overview. She was working at the Smith home when Joseph Smith had an affair with her, and Emma promptly had her kicked out of the house. It is a practice that would continue once Joseph Smith began developing and implanting polygamy, and we will highlight this again as we go through these accounts.
The apologetic argument I assume would be that they were free to reject his proposal and find another place to live, but the point is that Joseph Smith is putting them in a position where he is holding both his authority as a self-proclaimed prophet and his authority as the person housing these women when making these proposals. That really puts a dent in the idea of free agency, as it is severely diminished when a person you view as a prophet is asking you to do something that you know is completely immoral and dishonest.
Using Older Wives to Recruit Younger Wives
One of the apologetics that Joseph Smith was not marrying women just for sex is that he did marry some older wives that we do not have record of him having sex with. I want to state right up front that I do not believe every polygamous marriage was for sex. Remember that Joseph Smith is implementing a new system of marriage, and this will lead him to marrying women for differing reasons.
That being said, the idea that the older marriages played no role is really hard to defend once you realize that Joseph Smith was using some of the older wives to recruit younger wives for him. This again allows for Joseph Smith to have plausible deniability if the proposal is not received well, and it also allows Joseph Smith to use someone already in polygamy to sell these young women on how righteous the principle is once you accept it.
In the accounts below we will highlight how Joseph Smith used his older plural wives to help recruit younger women to accept his proposals, and this is another way to apply a high level of pressure to these young women who know that polygamy goes directly against their sense of morality.
Angel with a Drawn Sword
One of the more common examples from critics of how Joseph Smith used pressure to coerce these young women to accept his proposals is Joseph Smith’s use of the “angel with a drawn sword” story.
While the church teaches that Joseph Smith’s polygamous wives got spiritual confirmation and utilized their free agency while entering these marriages, the historical record is much messier and less compelling than the church’s essay wants it to be. From the church’s 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 is that once again Joseph Smith is using the magical “power of three” in this story, which we saw throughout his treasure digging, gold plates story, and even in the Lost 116 Pages. It is a very magical/occult practice that there is power in threes, which is why we see the three visitations in a Christmas Carol and so many other stories.
This also paints Joseph Smith as a reluctant victim, someone who was fighting polygamy so much that God had to send an angel with a drawn sword that would take his life if he did not obey the “commandment fully.” Remember that the commandment is to raise up seed, which means sexual relations. Joseph Smith certainly engaged in sexual relations with his polygamous wives, but he never raised up seed through any that we have confirmation for.
It’s also just an outrageous story when you think about it, and I will point it out as we go. But Joseph Smith is telling these young women, who revere him as a prophet of God, that if they do not marry and have sex with him that an angel will destroy him. Joseph Smith could find another young girl to marry, but instead he continues to insist to these young women that if they don’t do it, *he* will be destroyed for their refusal to accept the commandment of God that was given to Joseph Smith on their behalf.
This story puts a colossal amount of pressure on these young girls, and as we will see below he uses this story on girls who are vulnerable beyond just believing that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. Again, if this was any other religion, we would all call them out as predators coercing young women into sexual relationships. There is no difference between Joseph Smith and the self-proclaimed prophets highlighted above with the one exception that we were raised to believe this is the one true church.
We will cover this more as we highlight some of the accounts below, but as this is a famous story within the church I wanted to highlight it early so you’re familiar with it when it arrives.
Nancy Rigdon, Nancy Marinda Hyde, and the Happiness Letter
I want to start off with what I consider to be the most damning proposal that Joseph Smith made, which was to 19 year old Nancy Rigdon in April 1842. This will be a summary of the proposal and “letter on happiness” that Joseph Smith would dictate to her, but if you want to read a more in-depth account please check out our post on Joseph Smith’s Happiness Letter on Polygamy.
Nancy Rigdon was the daughter of Sidney Rigdon, a leader of the church and extremely close to Joseph Smith. Around April 9, 1842 Joseph Smith proposed to Nancy Rigdon. This proposal was set up by Nancy Marinda Hyde (some records go by Marinda Nancy, but we'll go with the revelation name here which is Nancy Marinda), who was living in the printing office and was sealed to Joseph Smith either in April 1842 or May 1843 (Joseph Smith's journal says April 1842). In fact, Joseph Smith produces a revelation for Nancy Marinda Hyde in December 1841, which includes the following:
"Verily thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have called upon me to know my will concerning my handmaid Nancy Marinda Hyde—behold it is my will that she should have a better place prepared for her, than that in which she now lives, in order that her life may be spared unto her; therefore go and say unto my servant, Ebenezer Robinson, and to my handmaid his wife—Let them open their doors and take her and her children into their house and take care of them faithfully and kindly unto my servant Orson Hyde returns from his mission, or until some other provision can be made for her welfare and safety. Let them to these things and spare not, and I the Lord will bless them and heal them if they do it not grudgingly, saith the Lord God; and she shall be a blessing unto them; and let my handmaid Nancy Marinda Hyde hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph in all things whatsoever he shall teach unto her, and it shall be a blessing upon her and upon her children after her, unto her justification, saith the Lord." (December 1841 Revelation)
This revelation is interesting, because Nancy's husband Orson Hyde had been sent on a mission to Jerusalem in April 1841, and in December of that year Joseph Smith gives Nancy a revelation to "hearken to the counsel of my servant Joseph in all things whatsoever he shall teach unto her, and it shall be a blessing upon her and upon her children after her, unto her justification, saith the Lord." Beyond Nancy Hyde's role in the Nancy Rigdon proposal, she would also become one of Joseph Smith's polyandrous wives while her legal husband, Apostle Orson Hyde, was away on a mission. In other words, Nancy Marinda Hyde took this revelation seriously as she would not only agree to a polyandrous marriage with Joseph Smith, but become a willing recruiter to help Joseph Smith obtain more wives.
There is a lot of backstory to the events that lead up to the Happiness Letter and I would recommend listening to the Mormon Discussions podcast on the Happiness Letter as it really details the role that Nancy Hyde plays in it and how Joseph Smith used revelation not just to get sealed to her, but to put her in a position to do whatever he asked of her.
About a month after Joseph Smith’s revelation to Nancy Hyde, he claims another revelation to take control of the printing office. Once they do that, the printing office becomes a private place where Joseph Smith can meet with prospective wives without Emma knowing, and does just that with Nancy Rigdon. Interestingly enough, this revelation clears the way for Willard Richards to cohabitate with Nancy Hyde, which is scandalous enough as it is. This leads to rumors of sexual relations between Nancy Hyde and Willard Richards, and then a few months later she would be sealed to Joseph Smith. This relationship alone would make for a great Netflix series as it has all of the elements of a great drama: love triangles, sex, ‘sealings,’ revelations from God, and a husband who was sent on a mission before it all began.
Nancy Rigdon rejects Joseph Smith’s initial proposal quite forcefully, and Joseph Smith then requested Nancy Hyde to explain the principle to Nancy Rigdon, and Nancy Hyde explains that “that these things looked strange to her at first, but she would become more reconciled on mature reflection.”
As I mentioned above, this was a common tactic by Joseph Smith to use another wife to try and recruit new, younger wives. Unfortunately in this case Nancy Rigdon was not entertaining Joseph Smith’s commandment to marry him, so Joseph Smith agreed to write her a letter to explain the principle in more detail. And that is where this becomes the most damning account of polygamy, because the letter provides so much insight into the methods Joseph Smith used to pressure young women to marry him.
Keep in mind this letter was written a year before D&C 132, but it contains many of the same ideas within it. As I’ve stated already, our longer write-up goes into this letter in much more detail, but I want to cover a few highlights here to illustrate what Joseph Smith was telling these women. From the letter:
“Happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God;”
This is the part of the letter that has been cited by many church leaders and prophets throughout the years, and is, without context, a very uplifting idea. However, as I will point out, in the context of the letter it’s quite manipulative kanguage. Back to the letter:
“but we cannot keep ALL the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know, unless we comply with or keep those we have already received! That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, Thou shalt not kill; at another time he said, Thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of Heaven is conducted, by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire."
Here Joseph Smith is quickly setting the foundation for polygamy, as he explains to Nancy that things might seem wrong, but are often right. Joseph then uses the example of “thou shalt not kill” to convey that if God could condone murder, then polygamy is quite insignificant by comparison. Again, remember that Nancy Rigdon has believed Joseph Smith to be a prophet of God since being a young girl, so when Joseph Smith says “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire,” he is effectively saying that whatever Joseph Smith says is right, even if it seems completely abhorrent to her senses.
Back to the letter:
"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."
This part of the letter is an early version of D&C 132, where Joseph Smith is seeking to normalize the 700 wives and 300 concubines of Solomon to make polygamy more acceptable to Nancy Rigdon. But just as we pointed out, when Joseph Smith evolves his theology it often contradicts his older writings.
The language in this section is truly remarkable: When he says that Solomon desired "even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of Heaven only in part," he is undercutting the authority of the Book of Mormon, because the Book of Mormon says that the Lord himself declared that Solomon "had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord."
In other words, when Joseph says those that consider Solomon's polygamy and concubinage to be "abominable" "understand the order of Heaven only in part," he is directly contradicting the Lord himself in the Book of Mormon. Again, in the Book of Mormon we are told that Solomon's wives and concubines were "abominable before me, saith the Lord," and Joseph Smith is unquestionably stating here that the Lord knows Heaven "only in part" because he considered Solomon's practice "abominable." I know I'm repeating myself here, but I find it fascinating that Joseph Smith uses language in this letter which throws both the Book of Mormon and God under the bus in order to justify polygamy to Nancy Rigdon.
This contradiction also puts 19 year old Nancy Rigdon in a most uncomfortable spot. If she believes that a relationship with the Prophet Joseph Smith is not from God, then she is being told by Joseph Smith, a man she has trusted since a child, that she knows "the order of heaven only in part." Lucy Walker (who we will discuss further below) stated that Joseph Smith first asked her "if I believed him to be a Prophet of God" during his proposal for a polygamous marriage, and this follows that pattern of using these young women's longstanding belief in Joseph Smith over their head to gain their consent for what would otherwise be repulsive to their very core.
Last, this section is implying (just as D&C 132 does) that it is Joseph Smith himself who inquired of the Lord for polygamy. Many apologists argue that prophets are only given revelation to questions that ask about (which is the reason we are told the ban on blacks was not lifted for 140 years, harmful LGBT policies, etc), and D&C 132 itself is clear that Joseph Smith is the one who asks about polygamy when it says "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"
Back to the letter:
"But in obedience there is joy and peace unspotted, unalloyed; and as 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 ordinances."
This is Joseph Smith using the language of scripture to convince Nancy Rigdon that it is a commandment to be obedient to God's servant, and Joseph Smith knows that Nancy has believed him to be God's servant since the age of 11. These are the very same tactics used by powerful men who have led many other religious movements with sexual exploitation such as the leaders like David Koresh, Wayne Bent, Julius Shacknow, Tony Alamo, David Berg, or Warren Jeffs.
The irony is that by Nancy Rigdon rejecting Joseph Smith’s proposal, she is explicitly stating that the idea of marrying and having sex with 37 year old Joseph Smith would not make her happy, and that clearly someone miscalculated in thinking that was what would provide her the most amount of joy.
I can't overstate how manipulative this letter is given how Joseph Smith is saying that God himself calculated this proposal to state that Nancy Rigdon will not only receive happiness, but the "greatest amount of good and glory" if she enters into this relationship with Joseph Smith whether it be as a polygamous wife or a concubine.
Back to the letter:
"Blessings offered, but rejected, are no longer blessings, but become like the talent hid in the earth by the wicked and slothful servant; the proffered good returns to the giver; the blessing is bestowed on those who will receive, and occupy; for unto him that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundantly, but unto him that hath not, or will not receive, shall be taken away that which he hath, or might have had."
Just as in D&C 132, Joseph Smith in this letter alternatives between, as the church’s essay states, “glorious promises and stern warnings.” If Nancy does not accept his proposal, not only will she lose the blessings she would receive from accepting this polygamous relationship with Joseph Smith, but she will lose all blessings that she has already received.
This is similar to the threats Joseph Smith dictates in D&C 132 against Emma Smith, where not only will you miss out on the blessings that you could otherwise receive by accepting and practicing polygamy under Joseph Smith, but that you will also be destroyed and lose whatever other blessings you might have previously enjoyed.
When Joseph Smith uses the word "offered" it is not by accident. Given the context of why the letter written, Joseph Smith is making it clear that rejecting his offer, which he terms as a blessing, would end up costing Nancy Rigdon all blessings that she "hath, or might have had."
This is not just a manipulative tactic to gain Nancy's consent, but is spiritual extortion. Joseph Smith is telling Nancy Rigdon that if she does not enter into the proposed relationship with him that she will lose every blessing she has already felt, which chips away at the pretense of free agency for a 19 year old girl who is being pursued by a man she was raised to revere as a prophet of God.
I will highlight one more section of the letter:
“Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive, and, at the same time, is more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of his punishments, and more ready to detect every false way than we are apt to suppose him to be; he will be inquired of by his children;”
Joseph Smith here is attempting to assure Nancy Rigdon that a polygamous/concubine relationship is not as immoral as it might sound because God is "more liberal" than we are ready to believe or receive.
This again is the problem that comes from having one man who claims to speak for God - they can use that authority to claim what God wants for those who believe in the self-proclaimed prophet. When a commandment from the self-proclaimed prophet seems immoral and wrong, the prophet can then claim that God is actually much more liberal than "we are ready to believe" in order to circumvent the sense of morality that the target has been taught since birth.
On the other hand, as we see from different prophets in church history, that "liberal" view tends to change based on the worldview of each prophet. Early prophets all believed that black members were not allowed to hold the priesthood, Russell Nelson today believes the word Mormon should not be used after past prophets publicly called Nelson out for suggesting so, and, of course, God's views on LGBT members changed in just 3.5 years after public outcry caused a 2015 revelation to be reversed in 2019.
At the same time that Joseph works to convince Nancy that polygamy is approved by God because of his liberalness, he also switches to make sure that Nancy is aware that God is "more awful in the execution of his punishments" to let her know what awaits those who reject his proposals.
I feel like I'm beating a dead horse here, but it is necessary to detail just how manipulative and abusive this letter is for a young, 19 year old woman who knows how immoral and abhorrent Joseph Smith's proposal is. The only reason we have the text of this letter is because Nancy Rigdon’s boyfriend, Francis M. Higbee, gave the letter to John C. Bennett who later published it, but the themes of the letter are not just in D&C 132 but in the other proposals we will highlight below.
I have spent way too much time on just Nancy Rigdon here, but it is so important because we have the letter that Joseph Smith wrote which really outlines how he was able to not just write in the voice of God at any moment, but to use the voice of God to put enormous pressure on these young women who viewed him as the mouthpiece for God on Earth. Look at how quickly Joseph Smith switches to the voice of God in final part of the Happiness Letter:
“he [God] says, Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find; but, if ye will take that which is not your own, or which I have not given you, you shall be rewarded according to your deeds; but no good thing will I withhold from them who walk uprightly before me, and do my will in all things; who will listen to my voice and to the voice of my servant whom I have sent; for I delight in those who seek diligently to know my precepts, and abide by the laws of my kingdom; for all things shall be made known unto them in mine own due time, and in the end they shall have joy."
As Joseph Smith finishes the letter to Nancy, he switches seamlessly into the voice of God to really hammer home that this marrying Joseph is a direct commandment from God and that Nancy needs to “listen to my voice and to the voice of my servant whom I have sent,” which in Joseph Smith’s mind are one and the same. This is how self-proclaimed prophets throughout history use their claimed authority to manipulate and exploit their followers, and this is not different than any of the other prophets I outlined at the beginning of this overview.
When I first heard the podcast that covers this letter along with the events that surrounded it, my stomach turned. I was working alone that day, and I remember gasping out loud as I heard the details. This is a horrific story, and it doesn’t end with the letter.
After Nancy rejected Joseph Smith’s proposal and letter, she committed the unforgivable sin of talking about it. Nancy’s brother John Rigdon stated the following in a 1904 letter to Arthur Welling:
Joseph Smith had said that “he had made a proposal to Nancy Rigdon to become his wife and she like a fool had to go and blab it.” (John Rigdon letter to Arthur Welling)
The church attacked her viciously as we cover in our longer post on the Happiness Letter, and even in 1845 Nancy Hyde’s legal, but not eternal, husband Orson Hyde had this to say about the incident:
"During my absence to Palestine, the conduct of his daughter, Nancy, became so notorious in this city, according to common rumor, she was regarded generally, little if any better than a public prostitute. Joseph Smith knowing the conduct she was guilty of, felt anxious to reprove and reclaim her if possible. He, accordingly, requested my wife to invite her down to her house. He wished to speak with her and show her the impropriety of being gallented shoot by so many different men, many of whom were comparatively strangets to her... Nancy, I presume, considered her dignity highly insulted at the plain and sharp reproofs she received front this servant of God. She ran home and told her father that Mr. Smith wanted her for a spiritual wife, and that he employed my wife to assist him in obtaining her." (Orson Hyde to Nauvoo High Priests Quurom, April 1845)
What’s even crazier is that this is written by the person who lost his wife for eternity to Joseph Smith on that very mission he is referencing. Nonetheless, Orson Hyde confirms that the event took place in this quote, which is very important to establish that a proposal was made. If Joseph Smith really needed to call a meeting with Nancy to tell her to stop being a prostitute, he wouldn’t have needed another wife to recruit her in such a way.
After the church slandered Nancy Rigdon publicly including accusations that Nancy Rigdon was involved in a sexual affair with John C. Bennett, even with a false account by Stephen Markham that had to be later rejected by Joseph Smith, many publicly disputed the lies being spread about Nancy Rigdon.
Among those who rushed to dispute Markham's account including George W. Robinson, Oliver Olney, Joseph H. Jackson, and John Olney. Joseph Jackson added the following:
"When, as happens in the cases of Miss Martha Brotherton and Miss Nancy Rigdon, [the prophet's] overtures were rejected, with disdain and exposure [he] threatened he would set a hundred hell hounds on them, to destroy their reputations." That is a pattern that occurs beyond just this example; Any time Joseph Smith is attacked he flips those accusations against the accuser. (Richard S. Van Wagoner, "Mormon Polygamy: A History")
This is why the Happiness Letter is so damning. It contains almost every element of what is so horrible about polygamy. There’s Joseph Smith marrying another man’s wife while he’s away on a mission, Joseph Smith using that new wife to recruit a younger woman to be a polygamous wife, a letter full of manipulative language – including some directly in the voice of God - to pressure her into marriage, and then an orchestrated attack once this young woman rejects the prophet and the letter gets out to the public eye.
Before I move on to a few Joseph Smith’s other proposals, I just want to again recommend reading our longer write-up on the Happiness Letter, and if you really want to get the full scoop on this event, please listen to the Mormon Discussions podcast with Jonathan Streeter and Christopher C. Smith. Their podcast and presentation is one of the most eye opening podcasts I have listened to on Mormon history, and they discuss all of these elements in much more detail.
Since Lucy Walker was referenced above, I wanted to include her next. Lucy Walker joined the church in 1835 and was living in Nauvoo by 1841. On January 15, 1842, Lucy’s mother passed away, leaving her and nine siblings without a mother. From the words of Lucy herself:
“Ten motherless children, and such a Mother. The youngest not yet two years old. What were we to do? My Father’s health seemed to give way under this heavy affliction. The Prophet came to our rescue. He said, “If you remain here brother Walker, you will soon follow your wife. You must have a change of scene, a change of climate. You have just such a family as I could love. My house shall be their house. I will adopt them as my own. For the present I would advise you to sell your effects, place the little ones with some kind friends, and the four eldest shall come to my house and be received and treated as my own children, and if I find the others are not content, or not treated right, I will bring them home and keep them until you return.” … The Prophet and his wife introduced us as their daughters.” (Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints, p. 43–44)
To be clear, following the death of Lucy’s mother, Joseph sent her remaining parent off on a mission and took the four eldest children to live with him. As Lucy lamented “ten motherless children,” Joseph Smith immediately sent their father away as well, and introduced the Walker children as his daughters to others.
That same year, after Joseph sent her father away, 16 year old Lucy Walker recalled the following:
“In the year 1842, President Joseph Smith sought an interview with me, and said: “I have a message for you. I have been commanded of God to take another wife, and you are the woman.” My astonishment knew no bounds. This announcement was indeed a thunderbolt to me. He asked me if I believed him to be a prophet of God. “Most assuredly I do,” I replied. He fully explained to me the principle of plural or celestial marriage. He said this principle was again to be restored for the benefit of the human family, that it would prove an everlasting blessing to my father’s house, and form a chain that could never be broken, worlds without end. “What have you to say?” he asked. “Nothing.” How could I speak, or what could I say? He said, “If you will pray sincerely for light and understanding in relation thereto, you shall receive a testimony of the correctness of this principle. I thought I prayed sincerely, but was so unwilling to consider the matter favorably that I fear I did not ask in faith for light. Gross darkness instead of light took possession of my mind. I was tempted and tortured beyond endurance until life was not desirable. Oh that the grave would kindly receive me, that I might find rest on the bosom of my dear mother. Why should I be chosen from among thy daughters, Father, I am only a child in years and experience, no mother to counsel [she died in January, 1842]; no father near to tell me what to do in this trying hour [he was on a mission to a warmer climate to help his health]. Oh, let this bitter cup pass. And thus I prayed in the agony of my soul.
The Prophet discerned my sorrow. He saw how unhappy I was, and sought an opportunity of again speaking to me on this subject, and said: “Although I cannot, under existing circumstances, acknowledge you as my wife, the time is near when we will go beyond the Rocky Mountains and then you will be acknowledged and honored as my wife.”5 He also said, “This principle will yet be believed in and practiced by the righteous. I have no flattering words to offer. It is a command of God to you. I will give you until tomorrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you.” (Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints: Giving an Account of Much Individual Suffering Endured for Religious Conscience, p. 46-48)
This account from Lucy Walker highlights a few of the methods that Joseph Smith used when proposing to young women. First, Lucy Walker was living in the Smith household, which gave Joseph Smith time to evaluate if she might be open to a polygamous marriage.
Second, Joseph Smith proposed to her when there were no parents around to speak to and while she was still vulnerable following the death of her mother. This was not lost on Lucy Walker, who mentioned what a difficult position she was put in with “no father near to tell me what to do in this trying hour.”
Third, Joseph Smith is also putting a time pressure on Lucy by stating "It is a command of God to you. I will give you until tomorrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you." Imagine having someone you believe to be a prophet of God tell you that you've been commanded by God to marry him, that your exaltation depends on saying yes, and that if you can't say yes by tomorrow the gate will be forever closed against you. Please read this quote as you would read it from any other religious leader, and you will understand why it is so offensive and abusive.
Again we see Joseph Smith leveraging his authority against Lucy Walker, asking her is she believed him to be a prophet as he gave her a commandment from God to marry him. Furthermore, another key element of Joseph Smith’s proposals was to promise exaltation to those who would marry him. In this case Lucy recalls that a marriage to Joseph Smith would be “an everlasting blessing to my father’s house, and form a chain that could never be broken, worlds without end.”
All of this is being done while Lucy Walker’s father was sent away and while living in the Smith household. Joseph Smith asks Lucy is she believes he is a prophet as he leverages that reverence against her. And finally, Joseph Smith sets a timeline on Lucy, further pressuring her to submit to his will by stating “I will give you until tomorrow to decide this matter. If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you.”
Joseph Smith is telling 16 year old Lucy Walker that if she does not agree to marry him that the gates will be closed forever. In this case, the gates would include exaltation as D&C 132 explicitly states that without the “new and everlasting covenant” you cannot reach exaltation.
While we will cover spiritual witnesses more in a future overview, Lucy Walker’s story is a good example of how those witnesses can also be manufactured and manipulated. From Lucy Walker’s account:
“This aroused every drop of Scotch in my veins. For a few moments I stood fearless before him, and looked him in the eye. I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar a living sacrifice–perhaps to brook the world in disgrace and incur the displeasure and contempt of my youthful companions; all my dreams of happiness blown to the four winds….
Oh, how earnestly I prayed for these words to be fulfilled. It was near dawn after another sleepless night when my room was lighted up by a heavenly influence. To me it was, in comparison, like the brilliant sun bursting through the darkest cloud. The words of the Prophet were indeed fulfilled. My soul was filled with a calm, sweet peace that “I never knew.” Supreme happiness took possession of me, and I received a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truth of plural marriage, which has been like an anchor to the soul through all the trials of life. I felt that I must go out into the morning air and give vent to the joy and gratitude that filled my soul. As I descended the stairs, President Smith opened the door below, took me by the hand and said: “Thank God, you have the testimony. I too have prayed.” He led me to a chair, placed his hands upon my head, and blessed me with every blessing my heart could possibly desire.
The first day of May, 1843, I consented to become the Prophet’s wife, and was sealed to him for time and all eternity, at his own house by Elder William Clayton.” (Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints: Giving an Account of Much Individual Suffering Endured for Religious Conscience)
Lucy Walker speaks of having scotch in her veins and also speaks of having “another sleepless night” when she finally received a confirmation. It has long been established that when you do not sleep you are more susceptible to emotional responses, and scotch would only elevate those emotions.
Again, we will cover spiritual witnesses in more detail towards the end of our overviews, but this is an example of how we can will ourselves to have a confirmation, and how we often do just that. It also shows how fasting, lack of sleep, and alcohol can assist in having confirmations, which is something that was seen often in early church history. (A good podcast on this is the Sunstone History Podcast called “Crazy for Kirtland”)
As Lucy Walker stated, she was married to Joseph Smith for time and all eternity, which is how the church defines a sexual marriage in their essay, in May 1843. We also know that Joseph Smith had sex with now 17 year old Lucy Walker (Joseph Smith would be 37) because Lucy Walker later recalled the following in the Temple Lot trial:
“Q. Can you state the circumstances under which he [Joseph Smith] first taught you that principle [of plural marriage]?
A. Well, the circumstances were these,—it was a command from God to me to receive it, and I would rather have laid down my life than disobeyed it, but it was a grand and glorious principle that was to be established, and when I was called upon I stepped forward and gave myself up as a sacrifice to establish that principle, and I did that in the face of prejudice, of course. In this day and age  we are considered fanatics of course, more or less. I gave myself up as a sacrifice, for it was not a love matter, so to speak, in our affairs, at least on my part it was not,—but simply the giving up of myself as a sacrifice to establish that grand and glorious principle that God had revealed to the world.
Q. Did you live with Joseph Smith as his wife?
A. He was my husband sir. . . .” (Joseph Smith Polygamy, Hales)
Lucy Walker stated that her polygamous marriage to the prophet Joseph Smith “was not a love matter… but simply giving up of myself as a sacrifice.” That is a chilling comment on what these women had to go through after being convinced by Joseph Smith that God was commanding them to marry and have sex with them, and in Lucy Walker’s case, she did have sex with him. She was just sixteen years old without parents when 37 year old Joseph Smith proposed to her, and just 17 when she married and engaged in sexual relations with a self-proclaimed prophet of God who was over twice her age.
This is a problem for me, and the methods that Joseph Smith used to convince Lucy to enter into such a relationship are no different than other religious leaders such as the ones we mentioned above with the Happiness Letter. If this same story was told and we replaced Joseph Smith’s name with Warren Jeffs or David Koresh, believing members would be disgusted. And it’s not going to get any better from here.
Zina Huntington Jacobs
I mentioned Zina Huntington in the last overview because her story is very uncomfortable to read about, especially give that it was a polyandrous marriage. Zina lived in the Smith household for a few months in the winter of 1839-40 while recovering from an illness, and at that time “Zina received numerous courtship visits from Henry Bailey Jacobs, a friend of her brothers, who often accompanied Oliver to the house. Simultaneously, Joseph Smith in private conversations taught her the principal of plural marriage, suggesting that she become his spiritual wife.” (Bradley, Plurality, Patriarchy, and the Priestess: Zina D. H. Young's Nauvoo Marriages, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 1994), p. 90)
This proposal tormented Zina, who was falling in love with Henry, but knew that the person she viewed as a prophet proclaimed that God had commanded her to become one of his polygamous wives. From Zina’s autobiography:
“O dear Heaven, grant me wisdom! Help me to know the way, O Lord, my god, let thy will be done and with thine arm around about to guide, shield and direct.” (Bradley, Plurality, Patriarchy, and the Priestess: Zina D. H. Young's Nauvoo Marriages, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 1994), p. 90)
Zina would rebuff Joseph Smith’s proposal and marry her true love, Henry Jacobs, on March 7, 1841. At this point Zina was 21 years old, and was “convinced that by doing so she had circumvented any further overtures from Smith.”
However, the marriage would not be the end of Joseph Smith’s advances, with Joseph Smith even throwing their wedding day for a loop. From Emma Jacobs:
“A family tradition relates that Henry and Zina had asked Smith to perform their marriage. He consented but did not appear, and John Bennett officiated in his place. When Zina later asked Smith about his absence, he reportedly said that "he couldn't give to one man [the woman] who had been given him by the Lord. The Lord had made it known to him that she [Zina] was to be his Celestial wife." (Emma Jacobs to Oa J. Cannon, letter included in an untitles narrative written by Cannon about Zina, 22-23, Oa J. Cannon Collection, LDS Church Archives)
To be clear, Joseph Smith was so convinced that Zina was “given him” that he wouldn’t perform a marriage that was actually based in love to Henry Jacobs. Joseph would propose to Zina again just months after she became a married woman, this time sending a message through Zina’s brother Dimick:
“He sent word to me by my brother, saying, ‘Tell Zina, I put it off and put it off till an angel with a drawn sword stood by me and told me if I did not establish that principle upon the earth I would lose my position and my life.’” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 659)
At this point Zina was seven months pregnant with Henry’s child, and she was then placed in an agonizing situation: Stay true to her newlywed husband that she loved, or submit to the man she believed was a prophet of God and whose life she was told would end if she rejected him again.
The angel with a drawn sword story is effective, and is clearly why Joseph Smith used it on women who do not accept his first proposals. It also severely diminishes any concept of free agency, because as I’ve already mentioned above, if you believe Joseph Smith to a prophet, then you also have to believe you are effectively murdering him by rejecting his proposal.
Zina would then be sealed to Joseph Smith, with her loving husband Henry standing as a witness. I cannot even imagine poor Henry standing as a witness as Joseph Smith takes his wife to be his polyandrous wife, knowing that upon death she will be Joseph’s along with the child who would be born soon after. But he went along with it because once Joseph Smith convinced people he was a prophet of God, that authority allowed him to get his followers to do things that you would be repulsed by if we swapped out Joseph Smith for David Koresh or Warren Jeffs.
It was clear that Zina was tormented by this decision, and she famously said the following:
“I made a greater sacrifise than to give my life for I never anticipated a gain to be looked upon as an honorable woman by those I dearly loved.” (Zina D. H. Young—Undated Biographical Sketch, in Zina Card Brown Collection, MS 4780, Box 2, Fd. 17 (on Reel 2).)
For Henry’s part, he rationalized giving his wife to Joseph Smith by stating the following:
“Whatever the Prophet did was right, without making the wisdom of God’s authorities bend to the reasoning of any man.” (Bradley, Plurality, Patriarchy, and the Priestess: Zina D. H. Young's Nauvoo Marriages, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 1994), p. 95)
As I said before, the idea of free agency is severely diminished when you view someone as a prophet, and this is a great example of how easily that claimed authority can be abused among the followers of a self-proclaimed prophet. It has happened throughout history, and Joseph Smith is no exception.
Following their marriage, Henry was sent away on missions, sometimes personally sent by Joseph Smith. While we do not have any record of Zina and Joseph Smith having sex – it was one thing for a polygamous wife to admit to sexual relations, but a polyandrous wife would be a whole different level – they were married while Henry was away for long stretches, so they idea that they did not have sex seems unlikely to me, and honestly makes no sense given the very premise of both Joseph Smith’s relations with other women and D&C 132.
While Henry was away on his missions he was deeply in love with Zina, telling John D. Lee during one of these missions what a “true, virtuous lovely woman she was. He almost worshiped her.” (Lee, John D. “Mormonism Unvailed: The Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop.” pg. 132)
These overviews will not get much into the post-Joseph Smith time of the church, but to show how ugly polygamy was in the church, I want to very briefly discuss how awful Zina’s situation was after Joseph’s death.
Many of Joseph Smith’s wives were taken by the other leaders of the church, with many going to Brigham Young and Heber Kimball. Brigham Young took Zina and was sealed to her for time, which meant that even though she was already sealed to Henry for time and Joseph Smith for eternity, Brigham Young wanted Zina as well.
This is abhorrent and goes against D&C 132, our basic sense of morality, and the biblical scriptures as well. Again, the children that Brigham would have with Henry’s wife Zina would be sealed to Joseph Smith. I cannot overstate how ridiculous of a theology that is, but that is what happens when a man writes a revelation that benefits the man writing it.
Anyway, Brigham Young sent Henry away on missions and even during a time when Henry was very ill, Brigham sent him on a mission. (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 88) While on this mission, Henry continued to send his wife love letters, writing the following:
“I dream of you often, and desire to see you very much,” he wrote in one letter. Another says, “Zina I have not forgotten you my Love is as ever the same and much more abundantly And hope that it will continue to grow stronger and stronger to all Eternity worlds without End…I remane as ever your affectionate Husband in truth.” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 88-89)
When Henry arrived back home, his wife Zina had been living openly as Brigham Young’s wife. Henry of course did not know this until he got back to America, and continued to write her love letters such as the following:
“Whether in Life, or in death, whether in time or Eternity, Zina my mind never will Change from Worlds without End, no never the same affection is there and never can be moved” while also adding “Bless Brother Brigham and all purtains unto him forever tell him for me I have no feelings against him nor never had.” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p 91)
Henry Jacobs was a much nicer person than I am, because if Joseph Smith had told my wife that an angel commanded him to take her as a wife, it would not have ended well for one of us. If I was sent on a mission to find out that the next prophet had taken my wife and had his way with her, I would have unleashed my inner John Wick on Brigham Young. It makes me sick to my stomach to read about this story – it is the very definition of abhorrent, and it all comes from Joseph Smith’s creation of polygamy via revelation.
Five years later, after Henry had been long estranged from his wife that had been taken by not just one, but two prophets of God, Henry wrote another devastating letter to Zina:
“O how happy I should be if I only could see you and the little Children bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh I mean all I would like to see the little babe; I Zina wish you to propsere I wish you new what I have to bar my feelings ar indiscribeable I am unhappy ther is now no peace for poor me my pleasure is you my Comfort has vanished the glory of day has flead like the fog before a pleasant morning my youthful days are yet in my mind yes never to be bloted out I have had meny a good Dream about you and the little ones I have imagin myself at home with you and the Little Boys upon my kneese a singing and playing with them what a comfort what a Joy to think upon those days that are gone by O Heaven Bless me eve poor me shall I shall I ever see them again
I think of you often very often Zina ar you happy do you enjoy your life as pleasant as you did with me when I was at home with you and the Children when we could say our prayers together and speak together in toungs and Bless each other in the name of the Lord O I think of those happy days that ar past when I sleep the sleep of death then I will not for get you and my little lambs I love my affections I love my Children.” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 99-100)
Not only did Joseph Smith take Henry’s wife and children away for eternity, but Brigham Young stepped in and took them for this life as well. Apologists contend that the marriage to Henry was one that was Zina was not happy with from this quote in an 1898 interview:
Q. “Mrs. Young, you claim, I believe, that you were not married to him [Joseph Smith] for time?”
A. “For eternity. I was married to Mr. Jacobs, but the marriage was unhappy and we parted.”…
Q. “I presume you are aware of the fact that it is claimed by your church that the marriage with Mr. Jacobs was not an agreeable one.”
A. “That is true.” . . . (Wight interview, “Evidence from Zina D. Huntington Young,” Saints Herald, January 11, 1905, p. 29)
I want to point out here that Zina is giving this interview about 50 years after the events that took place, and she is giving it to help elevate the reputation of the church, especially to the RLDS who has sought to claim Joseph Smith never was a polygamist. While she says the marriage was unhappy, it appears to not be the case. Furthermore, Zina was pregnant with Henry’s child after Joseph Smith’s death who was born on March 22, 1846. I don’t want to diminish Zina’s words because I cannot speak for her, but I want to give context that the marriage did not seem unhappy beyond prophets claiming that Zina had been given to them which is breaks my heart and makes my blood boil knowing that all of this happened for a doctrine created by Joseph Smith.
Emily and Eliza Partridge
I referenced the Partridge sisters earlier, but they are another good example in how Joseph Smith implemented polygamy using what I consider to be abusive methods to all involved.
Emily and Eliza Partridge were the daughters of Edward Partridge, who was the first Bishop of the church. Edward was tarred and feathered and was a target in Missouri, and the Partridge sisters unfortunately had to live through that trauma.
Upon moving to Nauvoo, Edward Partridge died and the Partridge sisters moved in to the Smith home. In 1842 when Emily was about 18 years old, Joseph Smith attempted to introduce the practice of polygamy to her. He requested that she read a letter and burn it afterwards, but Emily was having none of it. Emily wrote the following:
I “shut [Joseph] up so quick” that he didn’t bring up the subject again for several months.” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 406)
Joseph Smith then sent one of his older polygamous wives, Elizabeth Durfee, to recruit Emily. As I mentioned above, this was one of the ways that Joseph Smith could both recruit younger wives as well as groom them to accept Joseph Smith’s proposals. During this visit Elizabeth “wondered aloud if there was any truth to the rumors of “spiritual wives.” (Letter From a Doubter)
Emily, of course, knew that Joseph Smith had already attempted to engage in this, but did not say anything, and later “learned that Elizabeth was “a friend to plurality and knew all about it.”” (Letter From a Doubter) Again, this is an example of Joseph Smith sending another polygamous wife to test Emily to see if she would be willing, and to provide Joseph Smith with plausible deniability.
On Emily’s 19th birthday, Joseph Smith gave her what he must have thought was the greatest gift of all – the commandment to marry and have sex with him as a polygamous bride. From Emily:
“He taught me this principle of plural marriage that is called polygamy now, but we called it celestial marriage, and he told me that this principle had been revealed to him but it was not generally known; and he went on and said that the Lord had given me to him, and he wanted to know if I would consent to a marriage, and I consented.” (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 407)
The story of this proposal is actually a lot worse than Emily’s statement above, even beyond Joseph Smith again telling her that God had “given” her to him. From another account by Emily Partridge:
“Mrs. Durfee came to me one day and said that Joseph would like an opportunity to talk with me. I asked her if she knew what he wanted. She said she thought he wanted me for a wife. I was thoroughly prepared for almost anything. I was to meet him in the evening at Mr. Kimball’s…. Brother Heber told his children that they better go in to one of the neighbors, as there would be a council that evening at their house. Then he said to me, “Vilate is not at home, and you had better call another time.” So I started out with William and Helen, and bid them goodbye.
I started for home as fast as I could go so as to get beyond being called back, for I still dreaded the interview. However, soon I heard Brother Kimball call, “Emily, Emily,” rather low but loud enough for me to hear. I thought at first that I would not go back, and took no notice of his calling. But he kept calling and was about to overtake me, so I stopped and went back with him. I cannot tell you all Joseph said, but he said the Lord had commanded to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him and although I had gotten badly frightened, he knew I would yet have him. So he waited till the Lord told him. My mind was now prepared and would receive the principles. I do not think if I had not gone through the ordeal I did that I would ever have gone off that night to meet him. But that was the only way it could be done then. Well, I was married then and there. Joseph went home his way and I went my way alone. A strange of way of getting married wasn’t it. Brother Kimball married us on the 4th of March, 1843.” (Emily Young, “What I Remember” Marriott Library)
This account is truly horrific, as Emily is stating that she ran as fast as she could because she did not want to consider a marriage to Joseph Smith, but she only turned back once she realized she that Heber Kimball was about to “overtake me.”
Furthermore, this immense pressure is often used by Joseph Smith to convince these women, who believe he is a prophet of God, to marry him. Again I cannot speak for these women’s experiences, but I can tell you that almost every religious leader who takes young brides can provide you testimonies of these women who claim they had a confirmation it was right. It’s not unique and it’s another way that people who claim to be prophets of God abuse that authority, and I will cover that more in the third and final overview on polygamy.
I have kept Emily’s sister Eliza separate in this story, because Joseph Smith did as well. Eliza was married to Joseph Smith around the same time, and she unfortunately did not write much about the event. From Eliza:
“After a time my sister Emily and myself went to live in the family of the Prophet Joseph Smith. We lived there about three years. While there he taught to us the plan of Celestial marriage and asked us to enter into that order with him. This was truly a great trial for me, but I had the most implicit confidence in him as a Prophet of the Lord and not but believe his word and as a matter of course accept of the privilege of being sealed to him as a wife for time and all eternity. We were sealed in 1843 by Heber C. Kimball in presence of witnesses. I continue to live in his family for a length of time after this.” (Eliza Maria Partridge Lyman, “Life and Journal of Eliza Maria Partridge Lyman,”)
You can see that Eliza’s entire testimony of polygamy was based on viewing Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, which I’m trying to highlight because it really shows how Joseph Smith knew how deeply his followers revered him, and he used that to coerce some of these women into marrying him in both polyandrous and polygamous marriages.
Both sisters were married to Joseph Smith, but they did not know they were both married to him at first. Emily Partridge later remarked that “neither of us knew about the other at the time, everything was so secret.” I can only imagine the confusion as they thought they were both keeping polygamy from each other only to realize they were both having sex with the same man.
This leads to one of the more insane stories of polygamy, which is when Emma Smith chooses the Partridge sisters for Joseph Smith, but they were already married to him. Emma’s choice actually made a lot of sense, considering they were living in their house which would allow Emma the opportunity to keep an eye on her husband and his new wives.
Because Joseph Smith couldn’t tell his ‘beloved Emma’ that he was already married to and having sex with these teenage sisters, he simply staged a second ‘mock’ wedding to keep the secret from his ‘beloved’ Emma. (As a side note, I am using ‘beloved’ Emma in these overviews because the church’s essay uses this phrase to make Joseph the victim in having to enter into polygamy, where they do not give any of the other details I am giving here.)
On May 11, 1843, Joseph Smith was sealed to the Partridge sisters for a second time, however their previously great relationship with Emma Smith turned sour almost immediately after the mock wedding. Emma forced Joseph Smith to kick the girls out of the house, with Joseph Smith telling the girls his “hands are tied.” The Partridge sisters left to live with another polygamous wife, and Emma’s brief time in accepting polygamy came to an end.
The marriages to the Partridge sisters really hits on almost all of the issues I outlined above, which really shows how abusive and deceptive polygamy was for Joseph Smith. From a very great write-up on polygamy called “Letter From a Doubter:”
“Besides the heavy-handed pressure applied to Emily and Eliza, there’s a disturbing amount of deceit going on: Joseph asking her to burn a letter and not talk to her family; Elizabeth Durfee testing the waters with Emily under the pretext that she’s heard “rumors”; Joseph concealing the marriage of the sisters from their families and from each other; keeping it a secret from Emma, and then putting on a mock wedding rather than telling her the truth; in fact, secrecy and deceit is a recurring problem with polygamy, as we are about to see.” (Letter From a Doubter)
We still have a few more examples I want to cover and these overviews are already getting long, but I just want you to think about what you’re reading, and what you would think if it was being done by anyone else besides Joseph Smith. These details paint the picture of a man who is abusing his authority to coerce these young women to marry and have sex with him, using threats and secrecy along the way. As I said above, polygamy is what led me towards disbelief, but reading these details after I left still make my stomach turn.
Maria and Sarah Lawrence
When Emma Smith briefly agreed to allow Joseph Smith to marry other wives, she chose the Partridge sisters and the Lawrence sisters. Sarah and Maria Lawrence were also living in the Smith household when Emma chose them to be brides of Joseph Smith.
Just like the Partridge sisters, the Lawrence sisters moved into the Smith household when their father died, and the Smiths took them into the home. Joseph Smith was the legal guardian over these two sisters, which made their marriage all the more questionable, although we do know that these were the girls that Emma chose for Joseph Smith which needs to be considered.
Maria was 19 when she married Joseph Smith and her sister Sarah was just 16. Both sisters indicated a sexual relationship with Joseph, although they were not married to Joseph previous to Emma’s brief acceptance of polygamy as far as we know.
There is a lot of controversy over Joseph Smith’s marriage to the Lawrence sisters because as his legal guardian this gave him access to their estate. William Law, an antagonistic source at this point, claimed in 1887 the following:
“Soon after my arrival in Nauvoo the two Lawrence girls came to the holy city, two very young girls, 15 to 17 years of age. They had been converted in Canada, were orphans and worth about $8000 in English gold. Joseph got to be appointed their guardian, probably with the help of Dr. Bennett. He naturally put the gold in his pocket and had the girls sealed to him.” (“The Law Interview,” The Daily Tribune: Salt Lake City, July 31, 1887)
That statement by Law, however, does have issues. As Todd Compton points out in his book In Sacred Loneliness, The inheritance was not “$8000 in English gold,” but a farm in Lima, Illinois, possibly worth $1000, and a promissory note for $3000, if repaid in full. (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 742-743)
I only mention the inheritance issue because it is a common part of the Lawrence sister story from critics, and I don’t want to wade too deeply into areas that are as speculative as this.
My personal disgust with these marriages is that these sisters were brought into the Smith household after losing their father and were incredibly vulnerable girls who believed that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. This reverence was then used to convince them to marry and have sex with him, which is a horrible thing to do to vulnerable girls and, as I’ve tried to show here, it is a common thread in many of these polygamous marriages.
Helen Mar Kimball
Perhaps the most famous of Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages is to Helen Mar Kimball, the daughter of Heber and Vilate Kimball. The story behind this marriage is one that is sometimes used as a faith promoting story, which I simply cannot understand. From the church’s essay:
“According to Helen Mar Kimball, Joseph Smith stated that “the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.” Though it was one of the “severest” trials of her life, she testified that it had also been “one of the greatest blessings.” Her father, Heber C. Kimball, agreed. “I never felt more sorrowful,” he said of the moment he learned of plural marriage in 1841. “I wept days. … I had a good wife. I was satisfied…”
Heber C. Kimball found comfort only after his wife Vilate had a visionary experience attesting to the rightness of plural marriage. “She told me,” Vilate’s daughter later recalled, “she never saw so happy a man as father was when she described the vision and told him she was satisfied and knew it was from God.”
What the church does not tell the reader in this essay is that the reason that Heber Kimball “wept days” was because Joseph Smith had commanded Heber to give Joseph his wife Vilate. After Heber “wept days” he told Joseph Smith that he could have his wife only to be told that it was an Abrahamic test.
Furthermore, the essay doesn’t tell readers that the quote from Helen Mar Kimball that “she never saw so happy a man as father when she described the vision and told him she was satisfied and knew it was from God” is because Heber was commanded by Joseph Smith to take a polygamous wife, Sarah Noon, or else he would lose his apostleship. (Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, p. 337)
In other words, Heber Kimball was “never so happy a man” as when his wife told him that she was OK with him marrying and having sex with other women. Kimball would eventually take forty-three wives and have sixty six children with seventeen of those wives. This is the side other side of the faith promoting story that the essay neglects to tell members.
With that back-story out of the way, Joseph Smith married Helen Mar Kimball when she was just fourteen years old. From the church’s essay:
“The youngest [wife] was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph’s close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday. Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.”
This paragraph from the church’s essay is infamous because of the lengths they go to in order to avoid saying that Helen was just fourteen years old. It also is using some very deceptive wording, as it was not common for women in their teens to marry men who were 38 years old. Joseph Smith would also marry one other fourteen year old girl, Nancy Maria Winchester. (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 606)
In the 1890 census, they tell us that the average age of marriage was 20 for women and 24 for men. It must also be pointed out that 19th century girls typically had their first period three years later than girls do today. In terms of sexual maturity, marrying a 19th century 14-year old was the equivalent of marrying a 21st century 11-year old, so these were very possibly prepubescent girls (Boaz, 1999, Essentials of biological anthropology).
What I’m saying here is that this marriage is gross no matter how much the church wants to paint is as no big deal. The age is disgusting both in terms of Helen being just fourteen and the fact that Joseph Smith is almost triple her age at 38. We all revolted at hearing that Warren Jeffs married young girls, so I refuse to privilege Joseph Smith because he claimed to be a prophet of God – just as Warren Jeffs does.
I want to be clear that there is no evidence either way with regards to if Joseph Smith had sex with Helen Mar Kimball. We simply do not know because it was not normal for girls to talk about their sex lives, let alone a fourteen year old. Furthermore, apologists cite Helen’s absence in the Temple Lot case as evidence that she did not have sex, but again the church *wanted* to prove Joseph Smith was a polygamist here, but I’m not sure they would ever want to admit he had sex with a fourteen year old girl.
The point is that we don’t know, and in my opinion it doesn’t matter. Whether or not Joseph Smith had sex with her is only part of the story, because Joseph Smith took her chance at a loving relationship away from her. As Lindsey Hansen Park, the creator of the Year of Polygamy podcast that I highly recommend to anyone who has never listened before, has explained, Joseph Smith controlled Helen Mar Kimball’s sexuality even if they did not have sex before his death.
Beyond the problems with Helen Mar Kimball’s age, the bigger problem is how Joseph Smith sold the idea of polygamy to her. From Helen Mar’s own words:
"[Joseph] said to me, “If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred. This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God & his angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart—when Joseph asked her if she was willing, she replied “If Helen is willing I have nothing more to say.” She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older & who better understood the step they were taking, & to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come as the sun was to rise and set; but it was all hidden from me." (Letter from Helen Mar Whitney to her children, March 30, 1881)
Joseph Smith told Helen that not only would marrying him guarantee her eternal salvation but that of her entire family. This is again a huge abuse of authority – how could marrying Joseph Smith guarantee an entire family of their salvation? As I’ve pointed out above, Joseph Smith seems to offer women things that he would never have to deliver on, but that they trusted he could provide, in exchange for marrying and, in many cases, having sex with him.
Helen Mar told her kids that she “willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward,” which furthers that Helen Mar was nothing but a piece of property being traded for exaltation. I know that might sound very harsh to believing members, but again think about this if it was anyone but Joseph Smith making this kind of offer. What would you say if it was David Koresh? Warren Jeffs? David Berg?
That paragraph is so heartbreaking to me because even Helen knew her mom was devastated, but she did it because they believed Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. It is so crushing to think of being in that room as Joseph Smith takes her fourteen year old girl under the trade-off of eternal exaltation for the family, knowing now that the church is demonstrably not true. Just imagine giving your teenage daughter to an older man who claimed to be a prophet, only to find out that the scriptures they wrote can be proven false. I suppose in that regard I am thankful that Vilate didn’t have access to the full history of the church and current scholarship, because that would break me as a person.
To illustrate the lasting damage that this polygamous marriage caused, I again reference the great write-up on polygamy from “Letter From a Doubter:”
“After Joseph’s death, Helen got her social life back. When she was 16 she met Horace Whitney and they started dating. However, the consequences of her marriage to Joseph weren’t erased. Though, in Helen’s own words, she and Horace vowed “to cling to each other through time and, if permitted, throughout all eternity,” it was ultimately not permitted. Helen, being sealed to Joseph for eternity, could only be sealed to Horace for time. Their children would be Joseph’s in the eternities. They were sealed for time, and Horace stood proxy for the deceased Joseph while Helen was re-sealed to him for eternity (a recurring pattern is that Joseph’s sealings were repeated by proxy after his death). As compensation, Horace was sealed the following day to a deceased woman. Once again, a family was not bound together for eternity by the sealing ordinance, but rather separated by it.” (Letter From a Doubter)
There is just so much wrong with this marriage is goes well beyond the marriage itself. The promise of exaltation for her family is she gives herself to Joseph Smith, the controlling of Helen Mar’s sexual and social life, the pain it caused her mother, and the eternal implications of what happens both to Helen Mar and her children with Horace Whitney for eternity. It’s horrific, and it’s based on a revelation that as we showed in the first overview is riddled with problems.
Sarah Ann Whitney
One last marriage I wanted to cover briefly is somewhat connected to Helen Mar Kimball in that Helen Mar would go on to marry Sarah’s brother Horace after Joseph’s death. Sarah’s story has a lot of familiar elements of Joseph’s marriage proposals, so I wanted to cover her story here as well.
Sarah Ann Whitney was the daughter of Newel K. Whitney, a well known early member who was a bishop in the church. The Whitneys were a connected family in the early church, and Sarah was the second counselor to Emma Smith when the Relief Society was founded.
Joseph Smith initially approached Sarah’s parents about the marriage, and they, much like the other stories, initially resisted but then agreed after praying about it. Sarah’s mother Elizabeth references that Joseph had told them the story of the “the angel… that the most profound secrecy must be maintained,” which would likely be a reference to the angel with a drawn sword. (The Woman’s Exponent 1878-12-15 vol. 7 no. 14 “A Leaf from and Autobiography” by Elizabeth Whitney)
They were married on July 27, 1842, which would put Sarah Ann Whitney at 17 years old and Joseph Smith at 36 years old. Joseph Smith provided Sarah’s father, Bishop Newel K. Whitney, a revelatory marriage ceremony to conduct the wedding, which included promises of exaltation for the entire family just as Joseph Smith promised to Helen Mar Kimball and family for their daughter in marriage. (Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Part 59 (pg 95))
The secrecy with this marriage really showed the lengths that Joseph Smith would go through in order to keep polygamy from not just his first wife Emma, but even family members of his brides. Helen Mar Kimball recalls that “Joseph was afraid Sarah’s brother Horace (eventual husband of Helen Mar) would disapprove of the marriage, so he sent him East on a mission before the marriage ceremony would occur.” (Letter From a Doubter)
In addition to sending off Sarah’s brother, Joseph Smith wrote a somewhat famous letter to the Whitney family that is often cited by critics against Joseph Smith as it contains language that appears to indicate Joseph Smith was looking for a sexual encounter with Sarah. In the letter Joseph Smith asked the Whitney family to burn it after reading, but they did not follow that order and thus we now have the text of the letter.
From Joseph Smith’s August 18, 1842 letter to the Whitneys:
“Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.—
I take this oppertunity to communi[c]ate, some of my feelings, privetely at this time, which I want you three Eternaly to keep in your own bosams; for my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my abscence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me; now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things. I am now at Carlos Graingers, Just back of Brother Hyrams farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you come come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room intirely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty, I it is the will of God that you should comfort now in this time of affliction, or not at[ta]l now is the time or never, but I hav[e] no kneed of saying any such thing, to you, for I know the goodness of your hearts, and that you will do the will of the Lord, when it is made known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater frendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. one thing I want to see you for is git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you wi will pardon me for my earnestness on when you consider how lonesome I must be, your good feelings know how to every allowance for me, I close my letter, I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont dont fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, affectionate, companion, and friend.
The letter is most interesting to me in that Joseph Smith does not want them to arrive when Emma Smith is there, which could indicate that he did not want Emma to realize Joseph Smith was married to Sarah Ann.
Apologists point to Joseph’s invitation to Sarah’s parents as proof that there is nothing sexual in the text of the letter, and of course all we can do is speculate as to what Joseph Smith was hoping would happen if they visited. That said, the secrecy underscores how Joseph Smith was implementing polygamy and how much deception he was using to keep Emma from becoming aware of it. It is also noteworthy that Joseph Smith notes that “my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us,” which would be a nod to the marriage to Sarah Ann Whitney that took place just three weeks earlier.
Where the details go from bad to worse is when Joseph Smith works to conceal his marriage to Sarah Ann Whitney from the public by striking a deal with Joseph Kingbsury to stage a mock wedding with Sarah Ann in exchange for a promise to be reunited with his wife Caroline. From Kingsbury’s account:
“on the 29th of April 1843 I according to President Joseph Smith Couscil & others agreed to Stand by Sarah Ann Whitny as supposed to be her husband & had a pretended marriage for the purpose of Bringing about the purposes of God in these last days as Spoken by the mouth of the Prophets Isiah Jeremiah Ezekiel and also Joseph Smith, & Sarah Ann Should Recd a Great Glory Honor, & eternal lives and I Also Should Recd a Great Glory, Honor & eternal lives to the full desire of my heart in having my Companion Caroline in the first Resurection to claim her & no one have power to take her from me & we both shall be Crowned & enthroned together in the Celestial Kingdom of God Enjoying Each other’s Society in all of the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Diary of Joseph C. Kingsbury, pp 13-14. J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)
As I’ve noted in the other accounts, Joseph Smith uses his perceived authority to get people to do what he wants them to do in exchange for promises that he will never have to deliver. In this case, Joseph Smith held a fake wedding between Joseph Kingsbury and Sarah Ann Whitney to keep the public off his track, and in exchange for Kingsbury’s complicity, Joseph Smith promises that he will gain exaltation with his deceased wife.
The fake marriage was indeed held, and Kingsbury lived in the Whitney home to provide cover to the public that they were husband and wife, but in reality Sarah Ann was Joseph’s in every sense of the word. Even upon Joseph Smith’s death, Sarah Ann Whitney was married to Heber Kimball, not Joseph Kingsbury.
To recap the deception used in this marriage: Joseph Smith sent Sarah Ann’s brother on a mission because he know that Horace might disapprove of the marriage, sent a letter to the Whitneys to visit when Emma was gone, held a fake marriage for Sarah Ann to deceive both his wife and the church, and promised Joseph Kingsbury exaltation with his deceased wife for being complicit in the lie.
Conclusion of Part Two of the Polygamy Overviews
This overview is already long and I really didn’t cover that many polygamous relationships, and I highly recommend checking out the Year of Polygamy podcast series which details every woman who married Joseph Smith in their own episode. It’s not antagonistic and it’s not apologetic – it’s just a great podcast that covers the history as it is.
I hope that in the proposals I did cover, however, that you can see the patterns that Joseph Smith used. These are not the tactics of a prophet who is seeking to bring joy to his followers, but of a man who created a system of polygamy for the benefit of himself and those in his secret circle of leaders and friends.
The final overview will cover the problems with polygamy including the lies that Joseph Smith told the public as rumors swirled along with looking at the main apologetic points brought up in the church’s essay as to the messiness of polygamy. I also will cover the 1886 revelation to John Taylor that the “new and everlasting covenant,” which absolutely meant plural marriage/polygamy until it was revoked for this life, was said by God to be everlasting.
Last, I want to briefly cover the idea of spiritual witnesses with regards to polygamy, highlighting a more modern testimony of the spiritual witness received to be a polygamous wife. It is no different than the witnesses that are detailed in the accounts above, except that we are trained to be repulsed by it as this woman’s prophet, although a believer in Mormonism, is not from the Brighamite branch of the church.
Again, thank you for making it this far in the overviews. I know they are long and honestly I don’t feel like they’re really getting into the amount of detail that I would like to cover, but I hope it has illustrated just how problematic these issues are, and why I believe that without any doubt you can prove that this church is not true whether it’s all of the issues we covered with both the Book of Mormon and biblical scholarship, or the problems with the church’s foundational history that we can show has been retrofitted, altered, and distorted to make it feel more palatable and virtuous today.
Next section: Joseph Smith and Polygamy: Part 3
Thank you for reading, and please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more information and updates on future sections.
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