Brigham Young's statements regarding plural marriage

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Doctrinal foundation of plural marriage
Introduction of plural marriage
Plural marriage in Utah
End of plural marriage

Did Brigham Young and Joseph Smith say that polygamists were allowed to go beyond normal bounds of social interaction?

Joseph’s point is clear—men, like Brigham, who have reached a certain degree of faithfulness may be asked to do even more difficult things

It is claimed that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young admitted that the practice of polygamy meant they were "free to go beyond the normal 'bounds'" and "the normal rules governing social interaction had not applied to" Joseph.[1]

"Sometimes Joseph phrased the matter [of polygamy] in terms of being free to go beyond normal ‘bounds,’" G. D. Smith announces. As evidence, he presents Brigham Young’s account of being taught plural marriage. Brigham worried out loud that he might marry a second wife but then apostatize, leaving his plural family "worse off." In Brigham’s account, Joseph replied, "‘There are certain bounds set to men, and if a man is faithful and pure to these bounds, God will take him out of the world; if he sees him falter, he will take him to himself. You are past these bounds, Brigham, and you have this consolation.’ But Brigham indicated that he never had any fears of not being saved" (p. 364).[2]

Joseph’s point is clear—men, like Brigham, who have reached a certain degree of faithfulness may be asked to do even more difficult things. They need not fear that they will lose their eternal reward if they falter in these Abrahamic tasks, for God "will take him to himself" before they reap damnation. But G. D. Smith seems to be reading "bounds" in the sense "a limit by which any excursion is restrained; the limit of indulgence or desire."[3] This is why he conceives of it as being "free to go beyond normal bounds"—that is, beyond normal limits or restrictions. This is clearly not Brigham’s meaning. Bounds should be understood as "the line which comprehends the whole of any given object or space. It differs from boundary."[4] These bounds are not a limit beyond which one may not go—they encircle and enclose all that one must do. Before polygamy, Brigham had already striven to be faithful to the whole of his duty to God. Having done so, he would not be damned. But he was now being asked to fulfill a task not asked of most. The circumference of his bounds—or duties—was enlarged.

Brigham was thus past the bounds because he had done all that God required and more, not because he would violate moral limits

Unfortunately for G. D. Smith’s reading, polygamy cannot be "the bounds" referred to since Joseph told Brigham that he was already (before practicing polygamy) "past these bounds"—that is, the duties required of all men by God—and thus "you have this consolation." Brigham was thus past the bounds because he had done all that God required and more, not because he would violate moral limits. He had crossed the finish line; he had not gone "out of bounds" or offside.

G. D. Smith argues that Brigham gave "a telling concession that the normal rules governing social interaction had not applied to [Joseph] Smith as he set about instigating polygamy." But Brigham is not conceding anything like this. His "bounds" are not limits beyond which one may not go, but duties that one must fulfill before anything else might be asked. The bounds are divine duties, not social rules. G. D. Smith caps his argument by citing Brigham’s belief that Joseph "passed certain bounds . . . before certain revelations were given" (p. 365). Thus G. D. Smith wants to paint Brigham as admitting that polygamy required one to transgress social or moral boundaries.

Brigham was clearly making the same claim about Joseph that Joseph made about Brigham. In Brigham’s view, Joseph had not been challenged by the command to practice plural marriage until he had proved sufficiently faithful to guarantee his salvation. For its first practitioners, the challenge of plural marriage was such that a merciful God would not, in Brigham’s mind, require it of those whose salvation would be at risk in the event of their failure.

Brigham sees the matter as a command that he does not wish to fulfill—he would prefer to be dead—but that God confirms as his will

Immediately preceding the language quoted by G. D. Smith, Brigham tells an apostle that

the spiritual wife doctrine came upon me while abroad, in such a manner that I never forget. . . . Joseph said to me, ‘I command you to go and get another wife.’ I felt as if the grave was better for me than anything, but I was filled with the Holy Ghost, so that my wife and brother Kimball’s wife would upbraid me for lightness in those days. I could jump up and hollow [holler?]. My blood was as clear as West India rum, and my flesh was clear.[5]

In this passage, Brigham sees the matter as a command that he does not wish to fulfill—he would prefer to be dead—but that God confirms as his will. His bounds are duties to fulfill, not limits that he is now free to exceed.

Further evidence: Heber C. Kimball

That this reading is correct, and that G. D. Smith is in error, is confirmed by Heber C. Kimball’s similar doubts and reassurance: "Finally [Heber] was so tried that he went to Joseph and told him how he felt—that he was fearful if he took such a step [to practice plural marriage] he could not stand, but would be overcome. The Prophet, full of sympathy for him, went and inquired of the Lord. His answer was, ‘Tell him to go and do as he has been commanded, and if I see that there is any danger of his apostatizing, I will take him to myself.’"[6]

Kimball’s bounds—the commandments given him—had increased. But having already proved his faithfulness, he would not be damned for failure. Kimball apparently clung to this promise and would soon write to his wife that "my prayer is day by day that God would take me to Himself rather than I should be left to sin against Him, or betray my dear brethren who have been true to me and to God the Eternal Father."[7]

The Kimball data is absent from Smith’s analysis, but one wonders if it would have helped. To accept it would require a modification of the thesis that polygamy was driven by lust and a violation of barriers, and that Joseph knew it.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Brigham Young boast about his ability to get more wives even though he was married to 50-60 women?

The references do not support the claims

As is often the case, the references do not support the claims, and the worst possible interpretation is placed on what are likely innocent remarks, or remarks intended to teach a spiritual point.

The Tanners cite multiple sources for this claim. They are examined below.

Journal of Discousces 5:210

Brigham is here discussing Thomas B. Marsh's return to the Church, and it is inaccurate to describe him as "boasting."

In conversing with brother Marsh, I find that he is about the same Thomas that he always was—full of anecdotes and chit-chat. He could hardly converse for ten minutes without telling an anecdote. His voice and style of conversation are familiar to me.

He has told you that he is an old man. Do you think that I am an old man? I could prove to this congre[ga]tion that I am young; for I could find more girls who would choose me for a husband than can any of the young men.

Brother Thomas considers himself very aged and infirm, and you can see that he is, brethren and sisters. What is the cause of it? He left the Gospel of salvation. What do you think the difference is between his age and mine? One year and seven months to a day; and he is one year, seven months, and fourteen days older than brother Heber C. Kimball.

"Mormonism" keeps men and women young and handsome; and when they are full of the Spirit of God, there are none of them but what will have a glow upon their countenances; and that is what makes you and me young; for the Spirit of God is with us and within us.

When brother Thomas thought of returning to the Church, the plurality of wives troubled him a good deal. Look at him. Do you think it need to? I do not; for I doubt whether he could get one wife. Why it should have troubled an infirm old man like him is not for me to say. He read brother Orson Pratt's work upon that subject, and discovered that the doctrine was beautiful, consistent, and exalting, and that the kingdom could not be perfect without it. Neither can it be perfect without a great many things that the people do not yet understand, though they will come in the own due time of the Lord.

See Quote mining—Journal of Discourses 5:210 to see how this quote was mined.

Journal of Discourses 8:178

Brother Cannon remarked that people wondered how many wives and children I had. He may inform them that I shall have wives and children by the million, and glory, and riches, and power, and dominion, and kingdom after kingdom, and ..

See Quote mining—Journal of Discourses 8:178 to see how this quote was mined.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Why did Brigham Young say that women "have no right to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom of God"?

Brigham's intent has been distorted

Brigham Young said women "have no right to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom of God". This is used to portray Brigham as authoritarian and sexist. However, Brigham's intent has been distorted, and those who cite this have used presentism to bias the reader against him.

Sally Denton uses this quote, and uses D. Michael Quinn, as her source. Unfortunately, Denton omits the context which Quinn's volume provides:

[women] have no right to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom of God[—]outside the pale of this they have a right to meddle because many of them are more sagacious & shrewd & more competent [than men] to attend to things of financial affairs. they never can hold the keys of the Priesthood apart from their husbands. [8]

Brigham then continued, "When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of the church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home & if you see females huddling together veto the concern." [9]

Brigham's statement about "meddling," then, in no way reflects on women's competence or skills—he insists that many know better than men. Brigham's point is that women have no right to priesthood government. This statement was probably precipitated by Emma Smith's use of her role as head of the Relief Society to resist Joseph's teachings, especially plural marriage. [10] Brigham is signaling that those without priesthood power may not dictate to ordained priesthood leaders about priesthood matters.

The author relies on presentism, since Brigham and virtually all of his contemporaries (men and women) likely had attitudes about women's roles which would strike us as "sexist"

Though the quote seems offensive and exclusionary, we need to remember the context of the time. Attitudes toward women during that time, and even 100 years later, were far from our current attitudes. It is unreasonable to expect people living in a different time to fit 21st century perspectives. Brigham was, however, quite liberal for his day—he encouraged women to get an education: for example, he even assigned several to travel to the eastern United States to get training as physicians.

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Brigham Young 8 October 1861 discourse on plural marriage

Summary: Notes on BRIGHAM YOUNG's Unpublished Sermon of 8 October 1861.

Why did Emma Smith and Brigham Young dislike one another?

Summary: After Joseph Smith's death, Brigham Young and Joseph's widow Emma came into conflict for a number of reasons.

Has the Church tried to hide Brigham Young's polygamy?

Summary: Some critics have claimed that the Church has tried to hide Brigham Young's polygamy in a modern lesson manual—despite polygamy being the one thing for which Brigham is certainly known, in and out of the Church.

Joseph Smith's Polygamy: "Brigham Young Seeks a Plural Wife", by Brian C. Hales

(Click here for full article)


  1. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 364–365. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  2. Citing Brigham Young Manuscript History, 16 February 1849, Church Archives. The quoted material is on pp. 19–20.
  3. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "bound."
  4. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "bound." (Compare article for "boundary.")
  5. Church Historian’s Office, History of the Church, 1839–circa 1882, DVD 2, call number CR 100 102, vol. 19 (19 February 1849), 19.
  6. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 325-326.
  7. Heber C. Kimball to Vilate Kimball, "My Dear Vilate" (23 October 1842), cited in Augusta Joyce Crocheron (author and complier), Representative Women of Deseret, a book of biographical sketches to accompany the picture bearing the same title (Salt Lake City: J. C. Graham & Co., 1884). (accessed 2 December 2008).
  8. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994), 650.
  9. Seventies Record, 9 March 1845, holograph, Church Archives (cited in Beecher, see below).
  10. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, "Women in Winter Quarters," Sunstone no. (Issue #8:4/15) (July 1983), note 37. off-site