Question: Did Joseph Smith offer to trade Jane Law for Emma Smith in a wife swap with William Law?

FAIR Answers—back to home page

Question: Did Joseph Smith offer to trade Jane Law for Emma Smith in a wife swap with William Law?

This claim rests on a single, unreliable hostile source. Other hostile sources (including William Law) deny the tale

This question arises because of a somewhat opaque verse in the Doctrine and Covenants section on plural marriage. (The revelation was written down at Hyrum Smith's request, who believed that he could persuade Emma Smith of the doctrine's provenance from God.) The verses in question read:

51 Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice....54 And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. (D&C 132꞉51,54


No one is certain as to what this refers. William Clayton, Joseph's scribe and secretary, wrote in his contemporaneous journal:

This A.M. President Joseph took me and conversed considerable concerning some delicate matters. Said [Emma] wanted to lay a snare for me. He told me last night of this and said he had felt troubled. He said [Emma] had treated him coldly and badly since I came…and he knew she was disposed to be revenged on him for some things. She thought that if he would indulge himself she would too.[1]

Some have seen this as Emma claiming she would practice plural marriage (a strange idea, given how she felt about it), and these readers have then extended the reading to include a belief that she was threatening to marry William Law. Others have seen these verses (perhaps more plausibly) as Emma simply threatening divorce if Joseph didn't cease plural marriage. In this reading, Joseph would have agreed to a divorce--both were probably speaking somewhat in the heat of the moment—and the Lord in D&C 132 makes it clear that he does not endorse Joseph's offer of (or agreement to) a divorce.

The idea of Joseph offering William Law to Emma springs out of an anti-Mormon work. As D. Carmon Hardy noted:

Belief that the prophet contemplated a 'spiritual swap' of wives with William Law, based on Joseph Jackson's statement in his exaggerated Narrative, 20–21, should be viewed with caution. The best review of the matter remains Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 176–77.[2]

It becomes clear how shaky the evidence is when one drills down to the ultimate source of the idea. The source of this charge seems to be a book by Joseph H. Jackson. Jackson claimed to have insinuated himself into Joseph's counsels, and claimed Joseph had told him that he was going to attempt to "get Mrs. William Law for a spiritual wife…for the purpose of affecting his object [Joseph] got up a revelation that Law was to be sealed up to Emma, and that Law's wife was to be his; in other words there was to be a spiritual swop [sic]…[Joseph] had never before suffered his passion for any woman to carry him so far as to be willing to sacrifice Emma for its gratification."[3]

However, Jackson appears on no Church membership records, and Joseph's early opinion was that he was "rotten hearted." Note that D&C 132 was given almost a year prior to Jackson's claimed revelation.[4]

Testimony that contradicts the claim

William Law himself denied that Joseph ever attempted such a swap:

Joseph Smith never proposed anything of the kind to me or to my wife; both he and Emma knew our sentiments in relation to spiritual wives and polygamy; knew that we were immoveably opposed to polygamy in any and every form…[but Law did believe] that Joseph offered to furnish his wife, Emma, with a substitute, for him, by way of compensation for his neglect of her, on condition that she would stop her opposition to polygamy and permit him to enjoy his young wives in peace and keep some of them in the house.[4]:176

Law thus saw the verse as referring to divorce, not a swap.

It is also interesting that another anti-Mormon writer (and former wife of Brigham Young) Ann Eliza Webb Young wrote:

One particular passage [of D&C 132] is said to refer to a matrimonial scene in which a threat was held out that the life of the Elect Lady should be terminated [84] by poison. She is here commanded to "stay herself, and partake not" of that which Joseph had offered her. It is, however, only right to add that the Mormon exponents of the Revelation say that this passage refers to an offer which Joseph had made to sacrifice his own personal feelings, and to accede to a divorce between Emma and himself. In these few lines more is disclosed of the Prophet's domestic life and difficulties than he probably was aware of. I give these paragraphs in full, that the reader may judge for himself. [She then cites D&C 132:51–60][5]

Ann Eliza wasn't old enough to have direct personal knowledge about plural marriage in Nauvoo, but her parents (who also later apostatized) were there--so this may well reflect their insights. At the very least, she too would have had reason to condemn Joseph Smith if Joseph had offered a wife swap, but she didn't. In fact, she understood the mysterious verses quite differently.

Most historians have thus not given much weight to this idea. It is probably best seen as anti-Mormon folk history. It still crops up now and again among those who either don't know the data well, or who are working with a lascivious picture of Joseph and so this "fits" how they think he behaved.

William Law and complicating the picture

The story is complicated by the issue of William Law (who was a counselor to Joseph in the First Presidency before he apostatized and helped write the Nauvoo Expositor) and his wife, Jane. There are various versions of that story, and so they get tangled up in this issue.

It is not clear whether or not William and Jane were ever sealed. Alexander Neibaur, a close friend of the Prophet, said that "Mr Wm Law--wisht to be Married to his Wife for Eternity Mr [Joseph] Smith said would Inquire of the Lord, Answered no because Law was a Adultereous person. Mrs Law wandet to know why she could not be Married to Mr Law Mr S said would not wound her feeling by telling her, some days after Mr Smith going toward his Office Mrs Law stood in the door beckoned to him more the once did not Know wheter she bekoned to him went across to Inquire yes please to walk in no one but herself in the house. she drawing her Arms around him if you wont seal me to my husband Seal myself unto you. he Said stand away & pushing her Gently aside giving her a denial & going out. when Mr Law came home he Inquired who had been in his Absence. she said no one but Br Joseph, he then demanded what had[pass[ed] Mrs L then told Joseph wandet her to be Married to him." (Journal of Alexander Neibaur, 24 May 1844, Church Archives. See also Hyrum Smith's statement in Nauvoo Neighbor, Extra, 17 June 1844, regarding Law's adulterous conduct.) Yet at Law's trial of excommunication, Jack John Scott, a Canadian convert, testified that to ameliorate conditions between William and Joseph (possibly because of the accusations that the Prophet had made advances to Jane Law) Joseph Smith had sealed William Law and his wife (Minutes of meeting, 18 April 1844, Brigham Young Papers, Church Archives).[6]

This could be Joseph just spin-doctoring, but his account told to Neibaur was done privately, and wasn't used in public to discredit Law or his wife. This, to me, adds to its plausibility. It didn't really benefit Joseph if he were to lie in private to a very few about Law, while Law was making such public trouble for Joseph. Here's Hyrum Smith's evidence (and many regarded Hyrum as impeccably honest):

Councilor Hyrum Smith continued—Jackson told him he (Jackson) meant to have his daughter, and threatened him if he made any resistance. Jackson related to him a dream, that Joseph and Hyrum were opposed to him, but that he would execute his purposes; that Jackson had laid a plan with four or five persons to kidnap his daughter, and threatened to shoot any one that should come near after he had got her in the skiff; that Jackson was engaged in trying to make bogus, which was his principal business. Referred to the revelation read to the High Council of the Church, which has caused so much talk, about multiplicity of wives; that said revelation was in answer to a question concerning things which transpired in former days. That when sick, William Law confessed to him that he had been guilty of adultery, and was not fit to live, and had sinned against his own soul, &c., and inquired who was Judge Emmons? When he came here he had scarce two shirts to his back; but he had been dandled by the authorities of the city, &c., and was now editor of the Nauvoo Expositor, and his right hand man, was Francis M. Higbee, who had confessed to him that he had had the——! [the blank at the end likely refers to a venereal disease contracted by Higbee from a prostitution ring run by John C. Bennett][7]

Law, in his turn, claimed "[Joseph][ha[s] lately endeavored to seduce my wife, and[ha[s] found her a virtuous woman".[8]

The best reconstruction may be Cook's:

A possible explanation for this discrepancy is that Neibaur's account (cited above), though reasonably accurate, is simply incomplete. Obviously, Jane Law's frustration over not being permitted to be eternally sealed to her husband might have prompted her to request eternal marriage to the Mormon leader (say, in late 1843), and (as per Neibaur) she was rebuffed. Subsequently, possibly to gratify and assuage the Laws, Joseph might have finally agreed to seal the couple near Christmas 1843 (as per John Scott). Then later, just before or soon after the Laws' excommunication, Joseph Smith might have sought to have Jane Law sealed to him in an attempt to keep her from following her apostate husband (as per Law's diary and other published sources noted above). Bathsheba W. Smith, one of the anointed quorum who was conversant with all the ramifications of plural marriage in Nauvoo, believed that Jane Law may well have been sealed to the Prophet (Bathsheba W. Smith Deposition, Eighth Circuit Court, 1892 Temple Lot Case, carbon copy of original, Church Archives). However, if this were the case, it was short-lived because Jane, who was expecting her sixth child, did remain with her husband, William Law. In July 1867, John Hawley reported that Wilford Woodruff had said, "When Brigham Young got the records of the Church in his hands, after the death of Joseph Smith, he found by examination that . . . [William] Laws wife and [Francis] Higbys wife and[L[yman] Wights wife and [Robert D .] Fosters wife had all been Sealed to Joseph, as their Husbands could not Save them" (John Hawley, Autobiography, January 1885, p. 97, RLDS Library-Archives).[6]

See also Brian Hales' discussion: William and Jane Law and the Prophet

William Law was Joseph's counselor, but eventually broke with the Prophet and helped publish the Nauvoo Expositor. (Link)
Plural Marriage and the Martyrdom
Did rumors of polygamy contribute to Joseph's martyrdom? (Link)
Did Joseph Smith Intend to Abandon Plural Marriage?
William Marks related that Joseph’s conversation denouncing plural marriage occurred “three weeks before his death” or around June 6. Perhaps Joseph had such a change of heart during the first week of June, but this seems unlikely and other parts of Marks’ recollection are implausible. (Link)
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)

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. William Clayton and George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995), 108 (entry dated 23 June 1843).
  2. B. Carmon Hardy, Doing the Works of Abraham, 65, note 99.
  3. Joseph H. Jackson, The Adventures and Experiences of Joseph H. Jackson in Nauvoo: Disclosing the Depths of Mormon Villany <sic> Practiced in Nauvoo (Printed for the Publisher: Warsaw, Illinois, 1846), 21-22.
  4. 4.0 4.1 See Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994).:176-177 The conclude that "Its meaning [the verse in D&C 132] remains a mystery.
  5. Ann Eliza Young, Wife No. 19, or the Story of a Life in Bondage...(Hartford, Conn.: Custin, Gilman & Company, 1876), 84.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lyndon W. Cook, "William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter," Brigham Young University Studies 22 no. 1 (Fall 1982), footnote 82.
  7. 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), 6:434-436 (10 June 1844). Volume 6 link
  8. Law Diary, 13 May 1844