Question: Was Emma was promised "annihilation" if she didn't accept plural marriage?

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Question: Was Emma Smith promised "annihilation" if she didn't accept plural marriage?

The revelation is not entirely clear on what this means

It is claimed that "In the revelation [D&C 132] Emma was promised annihilation if she failed to 'abide this commandment.'"[1]

Here are the verses of Doctrine and Covenants 132 in question:

54 And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.
55 But if she will not abide this commandment, then shall my servant Joseph do all things for her, even as he hath said; and I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.

One can see that the commandment given to Emma was to "to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else". This likely is a reference to adultery and/or being sealed to another man and not to accepting the plural marriage commandment. She is to remain faithful and supportive of her spouse. The punishment for committing adultery or being sealed to another man is that she will be "destroyed". The next verse is likely the one that refers to plural marriage though it's not entirely clear. It sets off a new clause with that "But". Plus, a different kind of consequence is promised for not accepting plural marriage. The consequence is that Joseph would "do all things for her; even as he hath said". A much more mild

Keep in mind that that same punishment is promised to both men and women that don't abide strictly by the new and everlasting covenant by either committing adultery or are sealed illegally. This from verse 26 of the revelation:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man marry a wife according to my word, and they are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, according to mine appointment, and he or she shall commit any sin or transgression of the new and everlasting covenant whatever, and all manner of blasphemies, and if they commit no murder wherein they shed innocent blood, yet they shall come forth in the first resurrection, and enter into their exaltation; but they shall be destroyed in the flesh, and shall be delivered unto the buffetings of Satan unto the day of redemption, saith the Lord God (emphasis added).

This same promise is given in verses 41–42 and verse 63 of the revelation. But what exactly does it mean to "destroy in the flesh"?

Other uses of the word "destroy" in the revelation are used in relation to those that are not sealed by priesthood authority (Doctrine & Covenants 132:14), in relation to those that Emma elects for Joseph to be sealed to and who have pretended to moral purity yet weren't morally pure (Doctrine & Covenants 132:52), in relation to Joseph and what will happen to his property if he put it out of his hands (Doctrine and Covenants 132:57),[2] and in relation to those women that are taught the principle of plural marriage but will not, like Sarah did, elect new wives for their husbands to be sealed to and have children in the covenant with (Doctrine & Covenants 132:64).

In these instances, "destroy" seems to mean either "create extreme psychological torment for" or "not give exaltation to" a particular person. The author is not aware, of the many people that we know that have committed adultery, of anyone who has been killed by God or struck down by him via lightning after committing adultery and being sealed to their first wife. Perhaps that should inform our understanding of "destroy" in this revelation and make it not mean "strike down with fire and utterly annihilate".

The revelation doesn't really settle the question for us. Joseph was promised this at the end of the revelation:

66 And now, as pertaining to this law, verily, verily, I say unto you, I will reveal more unto you, hereafter; therefore, let this suffice for the present. Behold, I am Alpha and Omega. Amen.

So perhaps our Heavenly Father will reveal more about exactly what the revelation means at a future date. The textual clues that already exist as well as personal experience can certainly delimit the logical number of options for possible interpretation, but we would be wise to not shut out the possibility of further light and knowledge settling the question for us definitively. Since we don't know and likely can't know, it's not rational to fret anxiously over what this verse actually meant. What we can know is that following the commandment to practice plural marriage was a moral imperative for the Lord. The commandment to enter into eternal sealings as men and women is required for our becoming gods. Failure to follow the lord's "word which is his law" results in the consequence of either a deprivation of the fulness of mortal/earthly felicity possible and/or the deprivation of God's fulness and nature that he has promised to those that keep his commandments.


See also Brian Hales' discussion: Emma's path through plural marriage
Sometime in 1840 Joseph Smith first broached the topic of plural marriage privately to trusted friends. Most of the apostles were in England and thus were unavailable for an introduction to the practice. (Link)
Emma and Fanny Alger
Joseph's first foray into plural marriage was deeply painful for Emma, his first wife. (Link)
When did Emma learn?
It is impossible to definitively determine when Emma learned of Joseph’s plural marriages. However, many historical clues help to create a possible timeline. (Link)
Emma Accepts Plural Marriage and Participates in Four of Joseph’s Plural Sealings
The earliest documentable date for Emma’s awareness of time-and-eternity plural marriage is May of 1843, when she participated in four of her husband’s polygamous sealings. (Link)
Emma’s Resistance Prompts recording of D&C 132
Emma’s resistance to plural marriage prompted Hyrum to encourage Joseph to dictate a written revelation on the subject. (Link)
Joseph and Emma: Conflict and Agreement
Rather than generating Emma’s active support, the revelation [D&C 132] appears to have brought a smoldering crisis to flame. She and Joseph took serious counsel together with some sort of agreement being negotiated. (Link)


Notes

  1. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 29. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  2. The reference to "property" does appear to be an oblique reference to women. The language will appear stereotypically sexist to many viewers. So is Doctrine & Covenants 132 sexist? Men and women sealed together are promised to share the same amount of power once they are out of the world in the revelation. See verses 19–20. See also our page on this: Question: Is polygamy sexist?. The language in verse 57 is certainly influenced by Joseph's legal milieu which followed a more patriarchal system of marriage that included laws for protecting a man's property including, as they were then legally considered, women. We need to remember that Heavenly Father speaks unto prophets "in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (Doctrine & Covenants 1:24). So the revelation follows Joseph's legal language and understanding. That does not, however, mean that that is how God valued women morally. Thus the revelation itself does not need to be seen as sexist. It doesn't intend to assign more moral value inherently to men over women. God values us all equally and it is made clear by the revelation that he intends to give us the same blessings once we become gods. The legal environment of that time is what is making its way into the revelation though. We should be very grateful for activists and legal scholars that have reshaped our understanding of marriage and the legal framework around it to not make women property.