Did Joseph Smith coerce women to marry him?


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

Were plural wives forced into the marriage?

Plural wives were not forced into marriage

Brian Hales:

Some writers affirm that Joseph Smith put pressure on women to marry him. They portray him almost as a predator gallivanting about Nauvoo seeking new wives, even marrying other men’s spouses. While it makes for an entertaining storyline, it does not square with the historical record. One of Joseph’s plural wives, Lucy Walker, remembered the Prophet's counsel: "A woman would have her choice, this was a privilege that could not be denied her." The Prophet taught that eternal marriage was necessary for exaltation and encouraged all those he taught to comply, but he always respected their agency and choices in the matter.[1]

How many Mormon women refused offers of plural marriage?

It is difficult to know how many women refused plural marriage—if they said nothing, then we may have no way of knowing if they refused. Some cited in LDS sources include:

  • Sarah Granger Kimball
  • Rachel Ivins (Grant)
  • Lydia Moon
  • Cordelia C. Morley (Cox)
  • Esther M. Johnson
  • Nancy Rigdon - daughter of Sidney Rigdon
  • Sarah Pratt - wife of Orson Pratt[2]

Anti-Mormon sources list several other possibilities, but it is hard to know how far to trust them. As Compton notes, "Some ... are fairly well documented; others are sensationalist and badly documented." These include:

  • Jane Silverthorne (Law) - wife of William Law
  • Leonora Cannon (Taylor) - wife of John Taylor
  • Melissa Schindle
  • Emeline White
  • Mrs. Robert Foster
  • Pamela Michael
  • Mrs. Caroline Grant Smith
  • Lucy Smith Milligan (or Miliken)
  • Lavina Smith
  • Miss Marks - daughter of William Marks
  • Athalia Rigdon[3]

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources
  • Watchman Fellowship, The Watchman Expositor (Page 3)

Did any woman suffer consequences for turning down Joseph's proposal?

Two women afterward attacked Joseph's character and misrepresented his offer, to which Joseph responded. Those who did not were left strictly alone

There are numerous accounts of women to whom Joseph proposed plural marriage, who turned him down.

Two women afterward attacked Joseph's character and misrepresented his offer. He responded. Those who did not were left strictly alone. There were no consequences to these women. Sarah Kimball reported Joseph's mild reaction to the rejection:

Early in the year 1842, Joseph Smith taught me the principle of marriage for eternity, and the doctrine of plural marriage. He said that in teaching this he realized that he jeopardized his life; but God had revealed it to him many years before as a privilege with blessings, now God had revealed it again and instructed him to teach it with commandment, as the Church could travel (progress) no further without the introduction of this principle. I asked him to teach it to some one else. He looked at me reprovingly, and said, 'Will you tell me who to teach it to? God required me to teach it to you, and leave you with the responsibility of believing or disbelieving.‘ He said, 'I will not cease to pray for you, and if you will seek unto God in prayer you will not be led into temptation.'[4]

(Sarah's husband was not a member of the Church until 1843. There was some tension between him and Joseph as a result of this episode, but he seems to have resolved any animosity he held for the prophet.[5] They were later to go Utah with the Saints, where Sarah assumed a prominent role in the Relief Society. Her husband died while en route to a mission in Hawaii.[6]

Other women loudly trumpeted the plural marriage doctrine in Nauvoo and the hostile press. These women's testimony and character were generally attacked to try to discredit them in an effort to preserve the secrecy which surrounded plural marriage. (This factor is complicated by the fact that at least some were guilty of inappropriate behavior (e.g., likely Sarah Pratt). Despite attacks on their character, some remained in Nauvoo and likewise suffered no physical harm (e.g., Nancy Rigdon).

Were women put under "tremendous pressure" to accept a proposal of plural marriage?

Given that the Saints believed Joseph was a prophet, any command from him would carry significant weight

  • No one was coerced or forced into marriage (see above). However, given that the Saints believed Joseph was a prophet, any command from him would carry significant weight.
  • Despite this, the reported initial reactions are all negative: these women were strong-minded, and did not simply obey because Joseph told them to.
  • Because of their distaste for the idea, many plural wives reported divine revelations that confirmed the truth of plural marriage. Joseph encouraged women to seek for such divine confirmation.

Did Joseph Smith give a woman only one day to decide about entering a plural marriage, and would refusal mean terrible consequences?

One woman was told that the opportunity for plural marriage would expire in twenty-four hours. She was not threatened with damnation or physical consequences

This claim distorts the account of Lucy Walker. Joseph offered to teach Lucy about plural marriage, but she angrily refused:

When the Prophet Joseph Smith first mentioned the principle of plural marriage to me I became very indignant and told him emphatically that I did not wish him to ever mention it to me again....and so expressed myself to him....He counseled me, however, to pray to the Lord for light and understanding in relation thereto, and promised me if I would do so sincerely, I should receive a testimony of the correctness of the principle. Before praying I felt gloomy and downcast; in fact, I was so entirely given up to despair that I felt tired of life...."

Joseph then said nothing more to her for at least four months (and possibly as long as sixteen). Lucy continues:

[I] 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....

The Prophet discerned my sorrow. He saw how unhappy I was, and sought an opportunity of again speaking to me on this subject....

[He said] "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."

– Lucy Walker, italics added

Lucy was told that the opportunity for plural marriage would expire in twenty-four hours. She was not threatened with damnation or physical consequences. Yet, she did not meekly obey:

This aroused every drop of scotch in my veins...I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar a living Sacrafice, 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, this was too much, the thought was unbearable.... I...at last found utterance and said, "Although you are a prophet of God you could not induce me to take a step of so great importance, unless I knew that God approved my course. I would rather die. I have tried to pray but received no comfort, no light....The same God who has sent this message is the Being I have worshipped from my early childhood and He must manifest His will to me."

Joseph's response:

He walked across the room, returned, and stood before me. With the most beautiful expression of countenance, he said, "God almighty bless you. You shall have a manifestation of the will of God concerning you; a testimony that you can never deny. I will tell you what it shall be. It shall be that peace and joy that you never knew."

That night, Lucy reported:

It was near 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.
– Lucy Walker

Even with Lucy's revelation and consent, Joseph then sought the permission of her oldest male relative in Nauvoo, her brother William Holmes Walker. He said:

The Prophet invited me to hitch up my horse with one of his...and to ride with him....On this occasion the subject of celestial, or plural marriage, was introduced to me. As we returned home he remarked, 'If there was anything I did not understand to hold on a little, and I would understand it."....

In the spring of 1843, my father, being away on a mission, the Prophet asked my consent, for my sister Lucy in Marriage. I replied that if it was her free will and choice, I had no objection....

When father returned from his mission, the matter being fully explained in connection with the doctrine, received his endorsement and all parties concerned received his approbation.

— William Holmes Walker

This is the only case of any kind of deadline being given, and it only came because Joseph saw how unhappy Lucy was as she hesitated with a decision over a period of months.

Did Joseph claim that an angel threatened him with a "drawn sword" or "flaming sword" if a woman refused to marry him?

The references to the "angel with a sword" refer to Joseph's postponement of the initiation of polygamy

Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs said that Joseph mentioned an angel with a drawn sword.[7] The account of a "flaming" sword came from Eliza Snow and Orson F. Whitney.

The "angel with a sword" reference refers to Joseph's postponement of the practice of polygamy. Brian Hales notes that,

"Twenty-one accounts by nine polygamy insiders left recollections that the Prophet told of one specific reason: an angel with a sword who threatened him if he did not proceed. All nine witnesses could have heard the statement from the Prophet himself; however, the narratives themselves suggest that Benjamin F. Johnson and Eliza R. Snow may have been repeating information gathered from other people. Joseph Lee Robinson's narrative is difficult to date and his actual source is not clear. Lorenzo Snow, Erastus Snow, and Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner quote the Prophet directly and Mary Elizabeth provides details not available elsewhere. Unfortunately, with the possible exception of the Robinson account, all of the reminiscences date to at least twenty to thirty years after the event." [8]

Here are the quotes attributed to Zina on the matter:

1881: Zina Huntington—Zina D. Young told of Bro. Joseph's remark in relation to the revelation on celestial marriage. How an angel came to him with a drawn sword, and said if he did not obey this law he would lost his priesthood; and in the keeping of it he, Joseph, did not know but it would cost him his life. [9]

1894: Zina Huntington—[Joseph] 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 lost my position and my life.'" [10]

Were women "locked in a room" in order to convince them to accept plural marriage?

While Nancy Rigdon and Martha Brotherton were likely approached about plural marriage in private, it is unlikely that they were locked in rooms or confined against their will

The author of Nauvoo Polygamy:..."but we called it celestial marriage," claims that "…both Nancy [Rigdon] and Martha [Brotherton] were…isolated in a locked room during the...effort" to persuade them to practice plural marriage.[11]

The claims about being "locked in a room," while dramatic, seem unlikely. Much of the evidence hinges on the unreliable and vindictive John C. Bennett, who published the exposé, The History of the Saints, or an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism. While Nancy and Martha were likely approached about plural marriage in private, it is unlikely that they were locked in rooms or confined against their will.

Hyrum Smith touched upon this subject during a Conference talk on April 6, 1842:

He [Hyrum Smith] then spoke in contradiction of a report in circulation about Elder Kimball, B. Young, himself, and others of the Twelve, alledging that a sister had been shut in a room for several days, and that they had endeavored to induce her to believe in having two wives...

Pres't. J. Smith spoke upon the subject of the stories respecting Elder Kimball and others, showing the folly and inconsistency of spending any time in conversing about such stories or hearkening to them, for there is no person that is acquainted with our principles would believe such lies, except Sharp the editor of the "Warsaw Signal."[12]

The claim that Martha was locked in a room for "days" is likely an exaggerated rumor: It was more likely "about ten minutes" while Joseph was summoned

RLDS authors Richard and Pamela Price, who firmly believed that Joseph did not practice plural marriage, uses the Times and Seasons account to assert that Martha "changed her story" regarding the length of time during which she was held in the room:

The records show that Martha changed her story. As Hyrum reported to the Conference, at first she had told that she was locked in a room for days. But since that was such a ridiculous, unbelievable story, she changed it in her St. Louis affidavit to read that Brigham locked her in Joseph's office for only "about ten minutes."

However, we have no access to Martha's original story, so the Prices' assumption that Martha originally claimed that she was held in the room for a number of days cannot be verified. The source of the claim that Martha was held in the room for "days" is likely an exaggeration, however, the source of the rumor cannot be determined. The claim that she was locked in the office for "about ten minutes" while Joseph was summoned seems much more plausible.

The Prices provide additional reasoning against the idea that Martha was in the room for a number of days,

It would have been impossible for Martha to have been imprisoned in any room in the Red Brick Store without it being detected. In fact, she could not have gone up and down the stairs and from room to room without being observed by many. The store was a small, two-story building, and Joseph's office was only about ten feet square. Since dozens of people came to the store daily, her calls for help would have been heard. Martha had but one witness—John Bennett, who asserted in the Sangamo Journal for July 15, 1842, "She was locked up ... I saw her taken into the accursed room."

If Martha's story had been true, there would have been many witnesses, because Joseph' s store was the hub of activity in Nauvoo. People came to the store to buy everything from food to footwear. The store building also housed the headquarters for the Church and the city. There, the people paid their tithing and taxes, and conducted banking and real estate business. The store was alive with people by day and by night, for it was also in constant use as a civic and religious center…."[13]

One suspects Bennett's influence in this part of the story, since Bennett would likewise claim Joseph locked him in a room. In Bennett's case, the story is unworkable and contradicted by a non-LDS eyewitnesses.[14]

See also Brian Hales' discussion
Why did early members of the Church practice polygamy? Were they all dupes? Easily manipulated? Religious fanatics who believed Joseph could do no wrong? This article explores the initial reactions and eventual decisions made by the first generation of polygamists in Nauvoo.

Some critics would have readers believe that Joseph Smith simply had to smile at the young maidens of Nauvoo, and they would readily accept Joseph’s offers of marriage, perhaps acting on hidden desires to be with the handsome young prophet. Others characterize the women as acquiescing because of religious zealousness or coercion, unwilling victims of a lustful prophet wielding his powers of persuasion.

While these make for dramatic stories, the reality was certainly more complex than these colorful narratives would lead one to believe.

Learn more about polygamy and claims of coercion


  1. Brian Hales, "A Response to Concerns Regarding Joseph Smith and the Practice of Plural Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," October 17, 2013.
  2. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Vol. 2, 121n26. See also 1:274–275; 2:31–32, 120–121; 3:230–234.
  3. Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 634–635. ( Index of claims ) We have here omitted Eliza Winters, a claim not supportable by the evidence.
  4. 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).
  5. See 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), 5:12–13. Volume 5 link; Richard S. Van Wagoner, "Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18/3 (Fall 1985): 77; Van Wagoner, "Joseph and Marriage," Sunstone 10/9 (January 1986): 32.
  6. Jill C. Mulvay, "The Liberal Shall be Blessed: Sarah M. Kimball," Utah Historical Quarterly 44/3 (Summer 1976): 209; citing (221n11) "Jenson dates Hiram's baptism July 20, 1843. Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City, 1901-36), 2:372. At the end of 1844 Hiram received a patriarchal blessing, an ordinance usually reserved for church members. Patriarchal Blessings, vol. 9, December 25, 1844, manuscript, LDS Archives."
  7. Brian C. Hales, "Encouraging Joseph Smith to Practice Plural Marriage – The Accounts of the Angel with a Drawn Sword," Mormon Historical Studies 11/2 (Fall 2010).
  8. Brian Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History, 2:187.
  9. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History 2:190. Originally quoted in "The Prophet's Birthday," Deseret News, January 12, 1881, 2.
  10. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy: History 2:190. Originally quoted in "Joseph, the Prophet, His Life and Mission as Viewed by Intimate Acquaintances," Salt Lake Herald Church and Farm Supplement, January 12, 1895, 212.
  11. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 154. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  12. Times and Seasons, April 15, 1842 p. 763.
  13. Richard and Pamela Price, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy—Vision Articles [Subsequent to Volume 1] (From Vision Magazine, Vol. 32, "The Martha Brotherton Case," off-site. FairMormon's consultants cannot endorse the Prices' contention that Joseph Smith did not practice plural marriage.
  14. Bennett, History of the Saints, 287–288. See affidavit from a non-LDS witness denying that Bennett was locked in a room by Joseph: Daniel H. Wells, "[Affidavit], "Times and Seasons 3/19 (1 August 1842): 873–874.