Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Nauvoo Polygamy/Use of sources

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Nauvoo Polygamy: Use of sources

A FAIR Analysis of: Nauvoo Polygamy: "... but we called it celestial marriage", a work by author: George D. Smith

Nauvoo Polygamy: Use of sources


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that,

Danel Bachman and Ron Esplin's Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on plural marriage briefly mention[s] the "rumors" of plural marriage in the 1830s and 1840s but only obliquely refer[s] to the teaching [of] new marriage and family arrangements .

Author's sources:
  1. "Plural Marriage", Encyclopedia of Mormonism

FAIR's Response

  • The Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry is four pages long, and discusses the "rumors" and "new marriage and family arrangements" extensively, contrary to the author's assertion that they are only "briefly" and "obliquely" mentioned. It even mentions Joseph Smith's first plural wife: Fanny Alger.
  • The Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on Plural Marriage states:

Rumors of plural marriage among the members of the Church in the 1830's and 1840's led to persecution, and the public announcement of the practice after August 29, 1852, in Utah gave enemies a potent weapon to fan public hostility against the Church...considerable evidence suggests that the principle of plural marriage was revealed to Joseph Smith more than a decade before...probably as early as 1831...a man could have more than one wife at a time and not be condemned for adultery...Evidence for the practice of plural marriages during the 1830's is scant. Only a few knew about the still unwritten revelation, and perhaps the only known plural marriage was that between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger. (emphasis added)

Teaching new marriage and family arrangements where the principles could not be openly discussed compounded the problems. Those authorized to teach the doctrine stressed the strict covenants...those who heard only rumors...often envisioned and practiced something quite different... (emphasis added)


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that, "…understandably hesitant to specify a precise date for the end of the world, Smith knew that 'our redemption draweth near.' " (emphasis added)

Author's sources:
  1. Jesse, 306
  • Jessee, The Personal Writing of Joseph Smith, p. 283

FAIR's Response

  • Appended to the Cowdery letter were a few lines by Joseph Smith. This postscript and a lengthy epistle dated August 18 contain Joseph Smith's initial reaction to news of the Missouri violence.

Kirtland Mills Ohio Aug 10th 1833.

Dear Brethren, W, J, E, I, J, and S, and all others who are willing to lay down their lives for the cause of our Lord Jesus Christ:

P.S. Brethren if I were with you I should take an active part in your sufferings, and although nature shrinks, yet my spirit would not let me forsake you unto death, God helping me. Oh be of good cheer, for our redemption draweth near. Oh, God save my brethren in Zion. Oh brethren give up all to God, forsake all for Christ's sake.

J[oseph] S[mith] (emphasis added)

  • Joseph's note is referring to the redemption of the Saints in Missouri and their deliverance from persecution. The quote has nothing to do with the "end of the world." This is a complete misreading of the source material.


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that "Smith found [Matthias] credible enough to converse with from 11:00 a.m. until evening when Smith invited him to stay for dinner." "Without objection from Smith, Matthias asserted: 'The silence spoken of by John the Revelator…is between 1830 & 1851…." (emphasis added)

Author's sources:
  1. The author cites Jesse, Papers of Joseph Smith, 2:68–73, 568–69.
  2. This information is also found in History of the Church 2:306, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 78 and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 104.

FAIR's Response

  • Joseph was simply relating what "Matthias" said to him—he wasn't offering an opinion on whether or not he believed it was true. This states absolutely nothing about what Joseph Smith believed about the "end of the world."
  • As an example of how the author distorts this, suppose we take the sentence immediately preceding the one that the author chose and apply the same logic. We would have: "Without objection from Smith, Matthias asserted: 'that all the railroads, canals, and other improvements are projected by the spirits of the resurrection.'"
  • The author completely ignores the fact that Joseph said that Matthias' "doctrine was of the devil" and that Joseph sent him on his way, instead implying that Matthias was "credible enough"—A complete reversal of meaning!

The citation in context:

I then withdrew to transact some business with a gentleman who had called to see me, when Joshua informed my scribe that he was born in Cambridge, Washington County, New York. He says that all the railroads, canals, and other improvements are projected by the spirits of the resurrection. The silence spoken of by John the Revelator, which is to be in heaven for the space of half an hour, is between 1830 and 1851, during which time the judgments of God will be poured out, after that time there will be peace.

Curiosity to see a man that was reputed to be a Jew, caused many to call during the day, and more particularly in the evening....

[After listening to what Matthias said] I told him that his doctrine was of the devil, that he was in reality in possession of a wicked and depraved spirit, although he professed to be the Spirit of truth itself; and he said also that he possessed the soul of Christ.

He tarried until Wednesday, 11th, when, after breakfast, I told him, that my God told me, that his god was the devil, and I could not keep him any longer, and he must depart. And so I, for once, cast out the devil in bodily shape, and I believe a murderer."


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

According to the author:

Robert Matthews "advocated what he called a 'community of property and of wives,' in a more 'spiritual generation.' Mormons avoided the idiom but not the practice." "…Mormon communal practices extended to property as well as to marriage."

Author's sources:
  1. Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 8.
  • Where, exactly, does one use this statement from the source to draw the conclusion that Latter-day Saints treated wives as "community property?" The source describes Matthews' views of communal marriage—not Joseph Smith's.

FAIR's Response

  • From the source, Van Wagoner:

Another practicioner of spiritual wifery was Robert Matthews, alias "Matthias the Prophet." Matthews announced that "all marriages not made by himself, and according to his doctrine, were of the devil, and that he had come to establish a community of property, and of wives...After a brief prison sentence, Matthews turned up on Joseph Smith's doorstep in Kirtland as "Joshua, the Jewish Minister." Smith's account of the two day meeting is sketchy, but apparently Matthews was sent on his way after a disagreement on the "transmigration of the soul."


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author states that Oliver Cowdery said Joseph wanted to "commune with some kind of messenger."

Author's sources:
  1. Oliver Cowdery to W.W. Phelps, LDS Messenger and Advocate 1 [No. 5] (Feb 1835): 79.

FAIR's Response

  • The quote is incorrect. The correct phrase, as seen if one looks at the cited source Messenger and Advocate is "some kind messenger."
  • The text actually reads, "On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, previous to retiring to rest, our brother's mind was unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind—his heart was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his whole soul was so lost to every thing of a temporal nature, that earth, to him, had lost its claims, and all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God." (emphasis added)
  • One wonders, then, why this text was misquoted in this manner. It turns out that the same misquote exists in D. Michael Quinn's, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 125, 134. The author appears to be using Quinn's quotes and attributing to his sources without checking the primary source in order to make sure that Quinn got it right. And, since Quinn's intent was to portray Moroni in the idiom of "magic," it suited his purpose to call him "some kind of messenger," which makes it sound as if Joseph didn't know quite what to expect, or even the nature of the forces he was dealing with. In fact, Joseph was praying to God—a messenger from God to a sinful man would be kind, or merciful.


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author states that Oliver Cowdery said Joseph "had heard of the power of enchantment, and a thousand like stories, which held the hidden treasures of the earth."

Author's sources:
  1. Author cites Oliver Cowdery to W.W. Phelps, Messenger and Advocate 1 (Feb 1835): 79.
  • CITATION is in ERROR. The author is quoting from Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 125, 134 and Vogel, Indian Origins, 14–15.
  • Actual quote is found in: Oliver Cowdery to W.W. Phelps, LDS Messenger and Advocate 2/1 (October 1835): 197.

FAIR's Response

  • Here is the full text:

"On attempting to take possession of the record a shock was produced upon his system, by an invisible power [page 197] which deprived him, in a measure, of his natural strength. He desisted for an instant, and then made another attempt, but was more sensibly shocked than before. What was the occasion of this he knew not-there was the pure unsullied record, as had been described-he had heard of the power of enchantment, and a thousand like stories, which held the hidden treasures of the earth, and supposed that physical exertion and personal strength was only necessary to enable him to yet obtain the object of his wish. He therefore made the third attempt with an increased exertion, when his strength failed him more than at either of the former times, and without premeditating he exclaimed, "Why can I not obtain this book?" "Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord," answered a voice, within a seeming short distance." (emphasis added)

  • Note that the phrase is removed from context in order to emphasize the words "enchantment" and "treasures of the earth." This is actually part of the story of Joseph's first attempt to remove the plates from the box, and any Latter-day Saint that sees it in context will recognize this.
  • Once again, it is evident that the author does not check the primary sources. Instead, he quotes secondary sources and copies their sometimes erroneous citations without verifying whether or not they are correct.


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author states,

"Skin color was important in other LDS scriptures as well, and blacks of African ancestry were denied full participation in the church until 1978. Interestingly, the rhetoric underlying the theology may have resulted from 1830s Mormons trying to convince their neighbors in the slave state of Missouri that they were not abolitionists."

Author's sources:
  1. Campbell, "'White' or 'Pure': Five Vignettes," Dialogue 29 (Winter 1996) 119-120
  2. Lester E. Bush Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, Neither White nor Black (SLC, Signature Books, 1994).

FAIR's Response

  • The author quotes Campbell, but does not represent his argument fairly. Campbell's argument is that LDS scripture is not about race (however some may have misconstrued it):

"These verses suggest that "white" garments are metaphors for purity and cleanliness. A physical cleansing agent removes stains, soils, dirt, disease, and impurities from clothing. Clothing washed in physical blood does not appear white....I suggest that “whiteness” for Mary and Jesus refers to a countenance that is exquisite, radiant, awe-inspiring, and not to blue-eyed, blond-haired, white-skinned Aryans....

The “whiteness” of gentiles is also metaphorical. To see this, consider the question, who are the gentiles in the Book of Mormon? The prophet Mormon gives us an answer on the title page. As did the Jews, Mormon divides the world into two: Jews and gentiles. Gentiles are the non-Jews. Black Africans, brown Hispanics, yellow Vietnamese, black Melanesians, fair-skinned Scandinavians, or olive-complected Italians are not Jews....

White-skinned Nephites and black-skinned Lamanites are metaphors for cultures, not for skin colour. The church teaches that the descendants of the Lamanites inhabited the Americas when Columbus arrived. But Lamanites are not black-skinned; they are not even red-skinned. As the “skin of blackness” is a metaphor, so too is the white skin of the Nephites. Perhaps 3 Nephi 2:15-16, in which the Lamanites have the curse taken from them, fulfills 2 Nephi 30:6. In these verses the Lamanite has become “white and delightsome” not “pure and delightsome.”...

It is Moroni in Mormon 9:6 who gives this fervent prayer as to what our condition may be on the day of resurrection: spotless, pure, fair. And white, not white skinned. Not Aryan. Not Caucasian. But cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb....

2 Nephi 26:33...elates salvation to sets of opposites. Salvation transcends gender, social condition, and race. Christ’s gospel is intended to overcome our narrow biases.

  • Thus, for Campbell, skin color is not important in LDS scripture—to read it that way is to misread it. The author has used Campbell as a reference for exactly the opposite point of view!
  • It would be more accurate to say that skin color was important in pre-Civil War America, and so members sometimes read those ideas into the Book of Mormon text.
  • The author's presumption that the Book of Mormon represents Joseph Smith's mind causes this misrepresentation—if the book is an authentic ancient text, it is unsurprising that it contains ideas which are foreign to the preoccupation with race in Joseph's day, as Campbell demonstrates. But, the author probably does not want his readers to come to that conclusion. They will never know about it, unless they check the source.


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author states that "Emma did not leave a diary, and her letters do not mention anything about Joseph's adolescence or later experiences with women...It was in a mysterious atmosphere of imaginative lore and a mix of theology and magic that Joseph and Emma eloped."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided (One wonders why the author didn't use the available source containing Emma's own words).

FAIR's Response

  • How does the author know this? Just prior to making this assumption, the author states that Emma left no diary and that she didn't mention anything about this period in their lives. This is all supposition—invented out of thin air.
  • In the documented interview with Emma years later, there is no mention of any sort of "mysterious atmosphere of imaginative lore" and "magic."
  • So what did Emma herself say about this? We have the following from an interview with her son, Joseph Smith III, February 1879:

"I was visiting <at> Mr [Josiah] Stowell's who lived in Bainbridge and saw your father there. I had no intention of marying when I left home; but during my visit at Mr Stowell's, your Father visited me there. My folks were bitterly opposed to him; and being importuned by your father, aided by Mr Stowell, and preferring to marry him than any one I Knew, I consented, we went to Squire Tarbeill's and were married. Afterwards when father found I was married he sent for us. The statement in mother [Lucy] S[mith]'[s] history is substantially correct as to date and place." (Vogel, "Emma Smith Bidamon Interview with Joseph Smith III, February 1879", Early Mormon Documents, 538.


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author claims,

"Another future wife, Marinda Johnson, was fifteen when she met Smith in Ohio. She said when he looked into her eyes, she felt ashamed. At the time, the Smiths were living with Marinda's family…."

Author's sources:
  1. No source provided.

FAIR's Response

  • What is the author trying to imply...that Joseph made her ashamed? According to the source, Marinda felt "indignation and shame" that her parents had converted to Mormonism! When she met the Prophet, she felt ashamed for having had bad thoughts about him. The real question here is: What does this have at all to do with plural marriage simply because Marinda was "a future wife?"
  • Note that the author does not tell story of Marinda's mother being healed of a palsied arm by Joseph (See Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 230).
  • Here's what Compton says,

"When [Marinda and her sister] reached the family farm, they found, to their chagrin, that their parents had invited none other than Joseph Smith himself to a cottage worship meeting in their house, and that they had converted to Mormonism. Marinda remembers that she felt only 'indignation and shame' at her parents' belief in such a 'ridiculous fake.'

She did not want to attend the meeting, but her parents prevailed upon her, and she agreed reluctantly. That night, as she walked into the meeting room, 'The Prophet, raising his head, looked her full in the eye. With the greatest feeling of shame ever experienced, she felt her very soul laid bare before this man as she realized her thoughts concerning him. He smiled and her anger melted as snow before the sunshine. She knew he was what he claimed to be and never doubted him thereafter." (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 228).

The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that "Joseph wrote in his journal on December 4, 1832, 'Oh, Lord, deliver thy servant out of temtations [sic] and fill his heart with wisdom and understanding.' If this was not in reference to Fanny Alger, it coincided with the report of two of Joseph's scribes, Warren Parrish and Oliver Cowdery, that Joseph had been 'found' in the hay with his housekeeper."

Author's sources:
  1. Dean C. Jessee (editor), The Papers of Joseph Smith: Autobiographical and Historical Writings (Vol. 1 of 2) (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1989), 16–17. ISBN 0875791999
  2. Jessee, note 11.
  3. D. Michael Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy: Origins, 44.
  4. Jessee, 17.

FAIR's Response

  • Neither Parrish nor Cowdery said anything about them being found in the hay together. That relies entirely on William McLellin's second and third hand reports.
  • Note that the day prior to Joseph praying to be delivered from temptations, William McLellin was excommunicated:

December 3d [1832]...William Mclelen was excommunicated from the church &c—[1]

Jessee notes that "The cause of McLellin's 1832 excommunication is not known...."[2] D. Michael Quinn, however, notes that McLellin was excommunicated in December 1832 for spending time with "a certain harlot" while on a mission.[3] This event, then, may have weighed on Joseph.

  • And, the very next day, Joseph wrote that:

....this day I been unwell done but litle been at home all day regulated some things this Evening feel better in my mind then I have for a few days back Oh Lord deliver out thy servent out of temtations and fill his heart with wisdom and understanding.[4]

  • Joseph is by now less troubled than he has been over the last few days. In context, he may have been burdened by the necessity of disciplining McLellin and the other press of church business which his entry of December 3 describes.
  • Note that the author tries to make Cowdery and Parrish witnesses of details reported only second- or third-hand by William McLellin. The author likewise says nothing about McLellin's checkered past.


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author state that "Orson Hyde reported seeing a 'wonderful lustful spirit' on his visit to the polygamous Cochranite community….In 1834 he acquired his own lustful spirit in Marinda Johnson…."

Author's sources:
  1. G. D. Smith (p. 532 n. 151) quotes Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, 8. Van Wagoner indicates that Hyde’s journal “disdainfully described” the Cochranites’ practice. Elsewhere Van Wagoner likewise notes that Hyde was “worried” by the practice: “Mormon Polygamy at Nauvoo,” Dialogue 18/3 (Fall 1985): 69–70)
  2. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "wonderful."

FAIR's Response

  • The author is apparently trying to be cute. What he does not tell us is that Hyde’s attitude to the Cochranites’ free love was wholly negative, as his source for the journal indicates.[1] Wonderful is here not being used in the sense of “excit[ing] . . . admiration” but, rather, “strange; astonishing.” Elsewhere anxious that we not misunderstand Victorian idiom, G. D. Smith here provides the reader no help (pp. 41–42).[2] It is not clear that Hyde would have agreed that his marriage partook of the same “lustful spirit.”


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that the murder of Parley P. Pratt was "the proximate cause of the Mountain Meadows Massacre."

Author's sources:
  1. Turley, Walker and Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, 30–32, 37.
  2. The author cites: Scott F. and Maurine J. Proctor, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (1874; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 586-99.

FAIR's Response

  • There were many causes of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, not just something that can be labeled "the proximate cause." (Smith gives links to various treatments on pp. 298–299, n.107—this is a refreshing, if rare, example of him providing links to the relevant literature which advocate different views.)
  • While Pratt's murder doubtless increased the LDS sense of alienation, President Brigham Young counseled peace and patience, and Pratt's murder was "old news" before the Fancher train arrival (it went unmentioned, for example, in accounts of the Mormons receiving news of the approaching federal army).[1]
  • Far from being the proximate cause, Pratt's murder was a minor factor which played little role in the tragedy of Mountain Meadows. The author's attempt to make a murder related to polygamy into the proximate cause of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is ahistorical.


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author claims that "Joseph Smith had offered a time frame for Jesus' return, deciding that 'fifty-six years should wind up the scene and the Saviour should come to his people.' He made this assessment in February 1835."

Author's sources:
  1. Not specified.

FAIR's Response

  • The History of the Church recounts:

"President Smith then stated that the meeting had been called, because God had commanded it….and it was the will of God that those who went to Zion, with a determination to lay down their lives, if necessary, should be ordained to the ministry, and go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, or the coming of the Lord, which was nigh—even fifty-six years should wind up the scene." (HC 2:182, 14 Feb 1835.)

  • The author fails to tell us that 1890 was the year in which Joseph would be eighty-five years old. Joseph was clear elsewhere that he knew by revelation only that Christ would not come before that time, and frankly admitted that he didn't know whether this meant he would come then, or if he (Joseph) would die before that date.


The author(s) of Nauvoo Polygamy make(s) the following claim:

The author states, "Instead of evaluating a difficult past in order not to repeat it, the church leadership tried to separate its troubles from their apparent causes."

Author's sources:
  1. See, for example, John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 20:352-354. (30 November 1879)
  2. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:xxxvii–xxxviii. Volume 6 link

FAIR's Response

  • The author's main evidence for this is Emma Smith's denial that Joseph taught polygamy (pp. 442-443), but this has little to do with the leaders of the Church.
  • The Church remained well aware—as evidenced by nineteenth century sermons—that polygamy played a large role in their persecution. Later Church historians also noted the connection.[1]
  • For example, after detailing the many factors that contributed to animosity between Illinois and the Mormons, Elder B.H. Roberts concludes that events were “awaiting only the spark. . . . The spark came.” The spark was the Expositor, according to Roberts, since it involved

...the new marriage system, involving the practice, within certain limitations and under very special conditions, of a plurality of wives, [which] constituted a ground of appeal to popular prejudices and passions that would have been absolutely resistless if the paper had been allowed to proceed. In the presence of such difficulties, what was to be done? In addition to declaring the existence of the practice of plural marriage, not yet announced or publicly taught as a doctrine of the Church, and agitating for the unqualified repeal of the Nauvoo charter, gross immoralities were charged against leading citizens which doubtless rendered the paper grossly libelous.[2]

  • There is no basis to the claim that LDS leaders ignored the role which plural marriage caused in their difficulties. They could hardly forget it.