Did Joseph Smith practice polygamy for the purpose of monetary gain?

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Did Joseph Smith practice polygamy for the purpose of monetary gain?

Question: Did Joseph Smith mismanage the estate of two orphans, Maria and Sarah Lawrence by marrying these sisters polygamously in order to use the marriage to enrich himself?

The account presented is given by a bitter apostate: The courts found that Joseph's conduct had been appropriate

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

It is claimed that Joseph Smith mismanaged the estate of two orphans, Maria and Sarah Lawrence. Joseph also married these sisters polygamously, and it is suggested that he also used the marriage to enrich himself. [1]

The account presented is given by a bitter apostate—offered nearly forty-three years after the fact—exclusive precedence over contemporary court documents, which demonstrate that the courts found that Joseph's conduct had been appropriate.

G.D. Smith reports that William Law charged Joseph with

fiduciary neglect of his teenage responsibility, Maria Lawrence. Reviewing his own actions forty years later, Law concluded that Joseph was not the only one who had taken advantage of a defenseless girl. Emma, he believed, was equally complicit. . . . With Hyrum Smith’s death, William Law, the other bondsman for the Lawrences, felt acutely the responsibility he bore, ultimately reimbursing Joseph’s $3,000 worth of expenses charged to the estate—the amount Joseph had claimed as the value of room and board (pp. 438–39).

Repeating error

By accepting Law’s account, G. D. Smith commits many of the same errors present in Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness. However, even before the publication of Compton’s book, Gordon A. Madsen had presented data showing the falsity of Law’s charges. Compton has the excuse that Madsen’s material was unpublished when his book went to press and only available from a presentation made at the Mormon History Association in 1996. More than a decade later, G. D. Smith makes the same errors, though with no hint of the exculpatory evidence available from the primary documents. [2] He even cites Madsen’s materials but tells the reader nothing about their contents. [3]

Ignoring other sources since Compton

G. D. Smith has apparently not paid attention to what the FARMS Review reported on this topic either, since

most of what Law said about the estate itself was incorrect. . . . Madsen’s paper quoted the will, under which Maria and Sarah would share equal parts of the estate with several siblings, but the distribution was not due during the life of their widowed mother, who was entitled to her share of annual interest on the undivided assets. . . . Between 1841 and early 1844, Joseph Smith charged nothing for boarding Maria and Sarah, nor did he bill the estate for management fees. Furthermore, in mid-1843, the probate court approved his accounts, including annual interest payments to the widow, as required by the will. . . . Gordon Madsen’s overall point was that the Prophet met his legal responsibilities in being entrusted with the Lawrence assets. There is no hint of fraud. [4]

Following William Law regardless

But rather than respond to this material or describe Madsen’s conclusions, G. D. Smith merely follows the hostile William Law. Madsen further informed me that there was never any “cash” in the estate delivered to Joseph, and certainly not the “$8,000.00 in English gold” that Law would later claim. [5]

The bulk of the estate was in promissory notes owed by fellow Canadians to the Lawrences. Law was well aware of this since he and his brother Wilson were hired by Joseph to collect some of these debts. Joseph’s accounts provided the probate court list payment to “W. & W. Law” in such cases. At one point, Joseph “sent William Clayton to Wilson Law to find out why he refused paying his note, when he brought in some claims as a set-off which Clayton knew were paid, leaving me no remedy but the glorious uncertainty of the law.” [6] It is not clear whether this was Law’s own note or one owed to the Lawrences. Certainly the estate was never liquid, and it is likely that not all of the notes had been collected before Joseph’s death. [7]

To portray Joseph as “us[ing] celestial marriage as a means to access . . . [a] fortune” (p. 439) is to ignore virtually all the primary sources.


  1. Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 478-479. ( Index of claims ); William Law, cited in “Dr. Wyl and Dr. Wm. Law,” Daily Tribune (Salt Lake City), 13 July 1887, 6.
  2. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 475, 742–43; this is discussed in Anderson and Faulring, “Joseph Smith and His Plural Wives,” 90. Compton replies in Compton, “Truth, Honesty and Moderation,” noting the difficulties that he had in accessing Madsen’s as-yet-unpublished findings. In preparation for this review, I spoke with Madsen, who told me that when approached by Compton, he felt his materials were not yet ready for distribution. Madsen believes a responder to his 1996 presentation at the Mormon History Association conference at Snowbird, Utah, placed some rough notes on the presentation in the library (Madsen to Gregory L. Smith, personal communication, 21 November 2008).
  3. G. D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, 196 n. 137, cites “Gordon Madsen, ‘The Lawrence Estate Revisited: Joseph Smith and Illinois Law regarding Guardianships,’ Nauvoo Symposium, Sept. 21, 1989, Brigham Young University, copy in possession of Todd Compton; see Sacred Loneliness, 474–476.” Strangely, this paper was not cited by Compton, nor is Madsen’s work mentioned on the pages cited by Smith. Compton’s actual discussion of Madsen’s research is restricted to endnotes on pages 742–746: “Madsen, Gordon. ‘Joseph Smith as Guardian: The Lawrence Estate.’ Paper given at Mormon History Association, May 18, 1996. . . . I have followed Madsen as closely as possible from my notes, but do not have his written argument and citations.” The FARMS Review (cited in main text above) also provided some of Madsen’s data in a review of Compton’s work, which G. D. Smith likewise ignores. G. D. Smith’s reference to 1989 instead of 1996 may be related to an event reported in the Ensign: “William Law’s recollection of how Joseph Smith, as guardian of the Lawrence children, cheated them and him is full of errors, claimed Gordon A. Madsen. All the court records pertaining to the guardianship and Joseph Smith’s management of the Lawrence estate still exist. They show that virtually all of Law’s claims are mistaken.” (“Nauvoo Symposium Held at Brigham Young University,” Ensign, November 1989, 109–11). Madsen told me that he had never given an address about the Lawrence estate until his 1996 MHA presentation, while his 1989 talk focused on the Austin King hearing in Richmond, Missouri, not the Anderson estate. In any case, Madsen’s research nowhere corroborates G. D. Smith’s version (GL Smith, personal communication as above).
  4. Danel W. Bachman, "Prologue to the Study of Joseph Smith's Marital Theology (Review of In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith)," FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998): 105–137. off-site
  5. “Dr. Wyl and Dr. Wm. Law,” Daily Tribune (Salt Lake City), 13 July 1887, 6; see also Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 742.
  6. 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), 6:350. Volume 6 link
  7. FairMormon thanks to Gordon A. Madsen, who was gracious enough to review GL Smith's draft of the Lawrence material. He also provided GL Smith with the information in this paragraph. Any mistakes or misapprehensions remain ours, and he is not responsible for these conclusions. Madsen’s manuscript on the Lawrence estate is currently (as of Dec 2008) in preparation for publication.