Mormon women refusing offers of plural marriage

FAIR Answers—back to home page

Articles about Plural marriage
Doctrinal foundation of plural marriage
Introduction of plural marriage
Questions about Joseph Smith and plural marriage
Notable plural wives of Joseph Smith
Plural marriage in Utah
End of plural marriage
Articles about various topics in plural marriage

Mormon women refusing offers of plural marriage

Question: 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.'[1]

(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.[2] 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.[3]

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).

Question: 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.

Question: 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.... 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.

Question: 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[4]

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[5]
See also Brian Hales' discussion: The Faith of the Nauvoo Polygamists

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. (Link)
Joseph Smith’s Personal Polygamy
Many are quick to declare that Joseph's polygamy sprang from religious extremism and/or sexual desire. This article explores the difficulties that Joseph had with plural marriage, and evidence for what truly motivated his acts. (Link)

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


  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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."
  4. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Vol. 2, 121n26. See also 1:274–275; 2:31–32, 120–121; 3:230–234.
  5. 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.