This video discusses the beginnings of polygamy in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While we often avoid this painful topic, faithful members who seek a better understanding of it, will have tools to answer the avalanche of criticisms leveled against us regarding this charged and sensitive topic. This video explains why polygamy was practiced, how to avoid judging its history through our present day eyes, better understanding for the criticisms leveled against Joesph Smith for how he started the practice, and how participants who struggled to live it were buoyed up by miraculous manifestations leading them to know it was, indeed, from God for that particular time, and for His particular purposes. The next video, part 2, will discuss the endings of polygamy in the church and what the afterlife might look like with regard to this principle (hint: would God require us to live an Abrahamic sacrifice throughout eternity?).
So, in this video I’m going to be talking about polygamy or plural marriage. I’m going to do a part two, which will be about the endings of polygamy and the afterlife and hopefully that’ll be a very comforting aspect to this, but this one, I want to really focus on the beginnings of polygamy. Also, this is a topic we don’t talk about much, where I think we want to distance ourselves from it. Say, “It was a long time ago. We don’t practice that anymore. It’s a painful topic. Feels very unfair. It’s challenging” and so, I think we have not studied the issues a lot and so one of the challenges is this is being pounded in today’s internet world and critics really are having a heyday with this topic and challenging people’s faiths with lots of different issues. There are actually great answers for many of the key criticisms, but it’s just we haven’t really taken time to study some of the issues because we really probably don’t want to. So, hopefully this video will be helpful in that way.
So, let’s talk a little bit about the history here. In fact, polygamy has actually been practiced in many cultures throughout the history of the world. The ancient Chinese, Native Americans, many African countries. In fact, still today, Hindus up until 1955. They changed that. The Muslims, in fact, still do. In fact, a third of the world today is still in areas where polygamy’s practiced or allowed, and if you are part of the Judeo-Christian culture and believe in the Old Testament, then you have to acknowledge that God allowed polygamy at times. In the Bible, in the Old Testament, there are 29 polygamists. Some of the famous ones, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon.
So, now let’s talk about how polygamy was started by Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in our day. Some of the key things I want to talk about with this topic as I get into this is one is presentism and that is basically taking how you see things today and applying that back to an earlier day and that can be fraught with risk, especially on some of these topics we’ll be going through.
A great example would be the second thing I would say is the understanding of sealing that we have today is very different than the way that they saw sealing back then. It was enrolled line-upon-line. In its infancy, they saw the sealing in a lot of different ways. First of all, they required the Melchizedek priesthood for a man to be sealed and so, if a wife had a husband die and he didn’t get the Melchizedek priesthood, she could not be sealed to him. They wouldn’t allow Melchizedek priesthoods to be done on a proxy basis after they were gone. Same thing with parents. You couldn’t be sealed to your parents if there wasn’t a Melchizedek priesthood holder as the father.
They saw a great desire to be sealed to general authorities or leaders binding there. They also had these dynastic sealings where they were trying to combine families in a sense, especially the leaders. A famous one was Heber C. Kimball wanted his daughter, Helen Mar Kimball, I’ll talk about her in a minute for another issue, but to Joseph Smith as a way to combine their two families. There’s a great book that I would recommend. This is just a great read. It’s fascinating. The Development of Temple Doctrine. Wilford Woodruff is when the revelation came in 1894 that basically set the stage for how we do sealings today and it’s just fascinating to see how that came about. Right after the Salt Lake temple dedication, that’s when we started the genealogy society, et cetera. So one little nugget that’s quite fascinating at the end of all this is in 1894 when Wilford Woodruff released the new sealing doctrine that he received from revelation, there were actually 13,000 sealings at that point that had been done between unrelated individuals. So, the sealing types of which we would not do today.
The third thing to remember is scarce records on this topic. It was practiced in the beginning very confidentially before it was rolled to the Church as a whole. So, there’s not a lot of records, and then also I would suggest reading some of the accounts of the people that were given this practice early on and what they had to say about it, especially the women. To give you some examples, Zina Huntington, “I made a greater sacrifice than to give my life, for I never anticipated again to be looked upon as an honorable woman. Nevertheless, I searched the scripture and by humble prayer to my heavenly father, I obtained a testimony for myself.” Mary Elizabeth Rollings, “A personage stood in front of the bed looking at me. Its clothes were whiter than anything I’d ever seen. I could look at its person, but when I saw its face so bright and more beautiful than any earthly being could be and those eyes piercing me through and through, I could not endure it.” And this is what Joseph had promised her, that she would receive this witness.
Lucy Walker. “Every feeling in my soul revolted against it.” After several restless nights on her knees in prayer, she said, “My room became filled with a heavenly influence. To me it was in comparison like the brilliant sun bursting through the darkest cloud. My soul was filled with a calm, sweet peace that I never knew. Supreme happiness took possession of my whole being and I received a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truth of the marriage covenant called celestial or plural marriage, which has been like an anchor to the soul through all the trials of life.”
You think about many pin this on Joseph as just Joseph. You have to answer for all these experiences. I did a video once called, “How Could They Have All Lied?” And it reminds me of this as we see these experiences that were had.
Elizabeth Whitney, her and her husband together, “We pondered upon the doctrine of polygamy continually and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us. He revealed unto us his power and glory. We were seemingly wrapped in a heavenly vision, a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own minds that God heard and approved our prayers. Our hearts were comforted and our faith made so perfect.
Now for a few brethren. Let’s look at Heber C. Kimball. “I never felt more sorrowful. I wept days. I had a good wife. I was satisfied.” Brigham Young, “It was the first time in my life that I desired the grave. I had to pray unceasingly and I had to exercise faith and the Lord revealed to me the truth of it and that satisfied me.” John Taylor, “I had always entertained strict ideas of virtue and I felt as a married man that this was to me, an appalling thing to do. Nothing but a knowledge of God, and the revelations of God, could have induced me to embrace such a principle as this. We, the Twelve, seemed to put off, as far as we could, what might be termed the evil day.”
And one of my favorites, Benjamin Johnson. Joseph had talked to him about marrying his sister and he said, “And almost an agony of feeling. I looked him straight in the face and said, ‘Brother Joseph, this is something I did not expect and I do not understand it. You know whether it is right. I do not. I want to do just as you tell me and I will try, but if I ever should know that you do this to dishonor and debauch my sister, I will kill you as sure as the Lord lives,’ and while his eye did not move from mine, he said with a smile in a soft tone, ‘But Benjamin, you will never know that, but you will know the principle is true and will greatly rejoice in what it is, what it will bring to you,’ but, ‘How?’ I asked, ‘Can I teach my sister when I myself do not understand?’ ‘But you will see and understand that,’ he said, ‘And when you open your mouth to talk to your sister, light will come to you and your mouth will be full and your tongue loose.'”
And then he described the experience talking to his sister. “I stood before her trembling, my knees shaking. Just so soon as I found power to open my mouth, it was filled, for the light of the Lord shown upon my understanding, and the subject that had seemed so dark now appeared of all subjects pertaining to our gospel, the most lucid and plain, and so my sister and myself were converted together.
I love some of those stories and that can help us see this principle at its inception. So, why was polygamy practiced? Why was it started up? So, I want to go through a timeline. 1831 was when Joseph Smith was going through trying to do the inspired version of the the Bible and is looking at the verses and was asking about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Great Patriarchs, and how it was that they were allowed to practice polygamy.
It was revealed to him at this time and it was codified in the revelation that was written out in 1843 that is now Doctrine and Covenants section 132. In that, there are four reasons told as to why and I’m going to give you four other really good ones too, but four key ones from D&C 132. Raise up seed now onto me, as it said in Jacob 2. In the Book of Mormon it says monogamy is the principle, but at times polygamy can be the the law for a period if it was to raise up seed unto the Lord. And it’s interesting, there were lower birth rates of polygamous wives than monogamous. However, the overall number of women that had married was much higher, and so the actual overall births were quite a bit higher in studies showing this, but the most important was who they were born to and the houses that they were raised in and those influences. The keys were through the prophet and that’s how the practice was done. I’ll talk more about that in the second video about really the Utah days.
Number two, Abrahamic sacrifice was a key test to ultimately try the saints. If you look at the screen, Helen Mar Kimball said, “The Prophet said that the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the saints would ever have to test their faith. I did not try to conceal the fact of it’s having been a trial, but confess it had been one of the severest in my life, but that it had also proven one of the greatest of blessings. I could truly say it had done the most towards making me a saint and a free woman in every sense of the word and I knew many others who could say the same and to whom it had proven one of the greatest boons, a blessing in disguise.”
Number three is it also was a restitution of all things. Acts 3:19 through 21 says before the Lord comes again for the second coming, there would be a restitution of all things. This was part of that. And then number four, it allowed women the opportunity or more opportunities for exaltation. We learned in section 132 verse 19 that exaltation is achieved through the sealing power there of marriage, and so it did require a worthy spouse worthy husband, and so there was an interesting study that professor Catherine Danes did in 19th Century Utah, even though the men and women numbers were similar, the actual temple worthiness as measured by temple recommends and endowments was skewed to the women. So, it did allow those women in excess in that respect to have the blessings and benefits of that special ordinance.
Now, for the quick reasons why I think it was wonderful for the benefits that this provided at this time, one is those adoptions in dynastic sealings helped to form a powerful cohesion for the journey ahead. That was just brutal for them. Number two, it separated the saints from their environment. Sociologists have actually proved that for a religion to successfully grow, it requires to be a demanding religion and actually to have some moderate tension with its host community. You could say polygamy certainly did that. In fact, if you look at the RLDS, they rejected polygamy and if you look today, they are very small numbers and barely recognizable amongst the protestants in differences. Number three, economic advantages. So, if you think about it, the wealth was more equally distributed through this process of plural marriage, specifically because you had to prove and show that you had the resources to support another wife. And about 50% of the plural marriages in total happened between 1844 and 1859, which was the part of the transition to Utah, the settling of the frontier, essentially very harsh conditions and would be much more difficult without those resources maybe spread to that degree. The last thing I would say is social support, especially when the men were off serving missions.
Okay. So, when we jump forward to 1834. This is when Joseph was actually commanded by an angel to begin the practice of polygamy. He didn’t start right away. He wasn’t told, it sounds like, how to do it at all. There’s no manual. He was on his own. He talked about how challenging it was to break the molds of things. He says, “I tried for a number of years to get the minds of the saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.”
So, his first attempt, it didn’t go well, but it was with Fanny Alger and it was a housekeeper in the house. She was 18 or 19 at the time. Like I said, 1835, 1836 he got permission from the parents. He had Levi Hancock be the mediator as well as the one to perform the marriage. It doesn’t appear that Emma knew, but it’s a little uncertain. There aren’t records really clearly from either one of them personally firsthand, but she did find out. She blew up and could barely be consoled, and Joseph did not practice polygamy for another five years until the angel appeared again. That was in 1841. So, second time on there and Joseph began a practice that has become very hard to understand in our day today, and that was marrying women who were already married.
Now, if you look here, this is from the Gospel Topics Essays. He says, or they say there, “Joseph Smith’s sealings to women already married may have been an early version of linking one family to another. These ties extended both vertically from parent to child, and horizontally from one family to another. Today, such eternal bonds are achieved through the temple marriages of individuals who are also sealed to their own birth families. In Nauvoo, most, if not all, the first husbands seemed to have continued living in the same household with their wives during Joseph’s lifetime, and complaints about these sealings with Joseph Smith are virtually absent from the documentary record. These sealings may also be explained by Joseph’s reluctance to enter plural marriage because of the sorrow it would bring to his wife Emma. He may have believed that sealings to married women would comply with the Lord’s command without requiring him to have normal marriage relationships. This could explain why according to Lorenzo Snow, the angel reprimanded Joseph for having demurred on plural marriage even after he’d entered into the practice. After this rebuke, according to this interpretation, Joseph returned primarily to sealings with single women.
Another possibility is that in an era when lifespans were shorter than they are today, faithful women felt an urgency to be sealed by priesthood authority. Several of these women were married either to non-Mormons or former Mormons, and more than one of the women later expressed unhappiness in their present marriages. Living in a time when divorce was difficult to obtain, these women may have believed the sealing to Joseph Smith would give them blessings they might not otherwise receive in the next life.” As one example, Orson Hyde was a member of the Twelve. So, he’s one you would say, “Wow, that must have been a very faithful brother.” I’m sure he was, but his wife, Miranda, actually, when divorce laws were much easier and they were in Utah, she did divorce Orson Hyde back then. So, that was one of these women. So, one of the things I’d like to share this from a phenomenal book. If there’s one book I would like to recommend on this, it’s this publication. So Brian and Laura Hales have studied this topic I think more than anybody, done more research. They have a 1500 page trilogy on this. They’ve tried to get every document out there. They run a phenomenal website called Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Very helpful for answers in even reader’s digest fashion. This is their book summarizing the 1500 page trilogy, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy Toward a Better Understanding. One tiny snippet out of that on this topic, “As odd as these arrangements seem to us today, it is important to note that there is no unambiguous evidence indicating that Joseph ever treated these women as wives and sexual partners. Observers may take solace that none of the civil couples tied to this union left any public complaints against Joseph for the arrangements.” In fact, even Joseph’s enemies did not use this against him at the time, which is a good indication they knew that these were eternity only marriages.
Now, there were two that may have been for time and eternity and these are the ones that critics have just bashed on for years and it’s a fascinating study in how these things can be portrayed by critics, and I want to just dive into one because it was just solved in a sense by a DNA study in 2016. So, one of these, there were 14 marriages to women that were already married. Two of them potentially according to the laws of the land, had not been divorced. However, they had been separated from their husbands and where it was very challenging and difficult to get divorces, especially if you’re poor, especially if you’re on the frontier, behavior was looked at significantly to determine that. So, in a sense they had the church divorce. Also, according to the scriptures, the new and everlasting covenant actually does away with all old covenants. So, in a sense, the old covenant would have been done away with this happening. However, critics said, “Hey, no, it’s not in the records, on the legal records back in Illinois in that time,” and so, they looked at this one thing, Sylvia Sessions on her death bed was one of these 14, called her daughter, Josephine Lyon, in and said, “Josephine, you are Joseph Smith’s daughter.”
Told her that. Well, so that was the evidence right there that Joseph practiced sexual relations with women that were married, which is called polyandry and it’s really in four times in D&C 132. It’s considered adultery, and so that’s where they thought they had kind of the smoking gun, the evidence here, but as I mentioned, you could also say that the old marriage was done away because of the new and everlasting covenant. However, DNA evidence in 2016 just showed that William Lyon, who was Sylvia’s prior husband was the father, not Joseph. So, I think she was talking about in a spiritual sense because of that sealing that had happened.
So, that’s the kind of stuff that’s happening out there and you don’t know these details and it can be very simple. Another issue that critics will bring up about this specific topic is they’ll say, “Joseph sent men off on missions so he can marry their wives,” which is just a crock. In fact, if you look, three of these we don’t have dates for. So, you can’t include those. The 11 we do have dates for only one of them, this would apply to, and it was Orson Hyde and literally was a year after he was out on his mission. We have a date, but we actually have a second date for Marinda and it was actually after Orson got home. So, even that. So, it’s easily debunked. The truth is there.
Okay. 1842. This was the third time the angel came. If you recall on the Gospel Topics Essay, it talks a little bit about that. The angel said that Joseph had demurred on practicing fully polygamy and there was actually a sword and he was threatened with destruction in this, and so this is when Joseph really started marrying heavily. 35 total wives, six of them we don’t have dates. 23 out of 29 happen in this next 18 months, so about 80%overall. According to my calculations, only about a quarter of these involved any type of sexual relations. So, even though he was commanded there and there were no children that can be found even with DNA evidence now there, but one of the biggest complaints that critics will also make are underage marriages, and there were two specific marriages that were under 16.
Now, one of them is very low documentation associated with it. Nancy Winchester, age 14 to 15, but possibly not even, some historians said maybe not even included as a wife. No real documentation to go off of on there. However, Hellen Mar Kimball was the other one. She was 14, three months away from being 15, and that marriage is very comforting if we know two things. One, no sexual relations. This was one of those that we talked about a dynastic sealing between the families. It was her father’s request, Heber. She agreed, and it was not viewed as a sexual situation at all. In fact, in Utah, there was a policy that they asked that if a marriage was done before age 18 that they wait until 18 for consummation and they subscribed that back to they believe from Joseph. There’s another thing I want to just show you. This was a graph that was, and this is another great book, The Persistence of Polygamy.
They’ve got a graph. They’ve done research on the census records of marriages, and so if you actually look, now 14 years old would have been eyebrow raising, but not completely unusual. If you look at this chart right here, this shows on the far right in 1850, those that were married at age 14 and under in the Midwest was 1.5% of the marriages, and I’ve got a great one to share with you. The governor of the state, Thomas Ford, governor of Illinois, was married at age 28 to a 15 year old. So, there’s a great example and this is a great case in using presentism that we do on this. So, the last thing on that, I wanted to just say in 1842, 1843, there were rumors being spread heavily. This was a confidential thing at the time. In the Gospel Topics Essay, it says here, “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.”
John C. Bennet was the big one there. “When this was discovered, the men were cut off from the church. 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 C,hurch practiced no marital laws other than monogamy while implicitly leaving open the possibility that individuals under direction of God’s living prophet might do so.”
Okay, let’s go to 1843 and talk about Emma. So, Emma was up and down about polygamy. We don’t know a lot of details. In fact, there’s nothing in first person for Joseph or Emma. So, it’s very difficult on these. We are told in section 132 that Joseph had transgressed and Emma was to forgive him. We don’t know what that means, but it may be that he practiced polygamy without her acknowledgment. Maybe he was trying to not hurt her. Maybe he was trying to not have her be accountable and be responsible for the doctrine, or it could be that he did and he did tell her and she blew up and there was a discussion in there of the Law of Sarah, the first wife to give permission, but if rejected by the first wife, then maybe he felt justified to move forward. We don’t know. Up and down, but I do want to share a very powerful quote here from Emma Smith to Marie Jane Woodward, a domestic working the Smith home, overheard an emotional conversation between Emma and Joseph regarding plural marriage. Knowing that Mary Jane had been listening, Emma approached her the next morning. “She told me to sit down on the bed by her and we both sat down on the bed that I was making.
She looked very sad and cast down and there she said to me, ‘The principal of plural marriage is right, but I am like other women. I am naturally jealous-hearted and can talk back to Joseph as long as any wife can talk back to her husband, but what I want to say to you is this. You heard me finding fault with the principle. I want to say that principle is right. It is from our Father in Heaven. What I said I have got to repent of. The principle is right, but I am jealous-hearted. Now, never tell anybody that you heard me find fault with Joseph or that principle. The principle’s right, and if I or you or anyone else find fault with that principle, we’ve got to humble ourselves and repent of it.'”
At Joseph’s death, Emma cried over the casket and said Joseph was her crown. She loved Joseph to the end. So, at the martyrdom, there were 29 men, 50 women, that had been entered into the practice and by the time they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, there were 196 men and 521 women, and then it became an official practice in 1852. I’ll talk about that a lot more in the next video. Hope you enjoyed. Subscribe for more. See you next time.
LDS.ORG Gospel Topics Essay: Plural Marriage in Kirtland & Nauvoo https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-mar…
Brian & Laura Hales Website Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: http://josephsmithspolygamy.org
Fairmormon – many subtopics covered https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Mo…
Hales – series of podcasts on their own channel – titled Joseph Smith’s Polygamy http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/audio/
LDS Perspectives Podcast Interview – Tough Questions About Mormon Polygamy http://www.ldsperspectives.com/2017/0…
The Interpreter Foundation – Special Roundtable Discussion: Polygamy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-tgk…
Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward A Better Understanding – Brian & Laura Hales https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOV9Z…
The Persistence of Polygamy – Joesph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy by Newell Bringhurst and Craig Foster
Joseph Smith’s Polygamy – Toward A Better Understanding by Brian and Laura Hales
Wiford Woodruff’s Witness: The Development of Temple Doctrine by Jennifer Ann Mackley
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.