Joseph Smith's marriage to young women

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Joseph Smith's marriage to young women

Question: Was Joseph Smith's marriage to 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball indicative of "pedophilia"?

It is claimed by critics that the average age of menarche in 1840 was 16.4 years and that therefore Helen Mar Kimball was prepubescent when she was sealed to Joseph Smith at age 14

Critics of Mormonism claim that Helen Mar Kimball was prepubescent at the time that she was sealed to Joseph Smith, and that this is therefore evidence that Joseph was a pedophile. Pedophila describes a sexual attraction to prepubescent children. However, there is no evidence that Helen ever cohabited with or had sexual relations with Joseph. In fact, she continued to live with her parents after the sealing.

The use of the term "pedophilia" by critics in this situation is intended to generate a negative emotional response in the reader. Pedophiles don't advertise their obsession and they certainly don't discuss marriages with the parents of their intended victims. It was Heber C. Kimball that requested that this sealing be performed, not Joseph. There is no evidence that Joseph was a pedophile.

The age of menarche in America in 1840 has a normal distribution close to a mean of 15.2 years and a standard deviation of 1.85

European data indicates a long term linear drop, while US data is much more sparse. Using post-1910 data, Wyshak (1983) determined that the average age at menarche was dropping linearly at 3.2 month/decade with a value of 13.1 in 1920. This trend projects to 15.2 in 1840 and 16.3 in 1800. The onset of menarche follows a normal distribution that had a larger spread in the 19th century (σ≈1.7 to 2.0) in Brown (1966) and Laslett (1977).[1]

Helen Mar Kimball was likely married near the end of the month of May in 1843 and was thus approximately 14.8 years old when she was sealed to Joseph Smith. With only the statistics cited above we can conclude that 40% of the young women her age would have already matured and thus in their society be considered marriage eligible. If 40% is taken as an a priori probability, additional information puts maturity at her first marriage beyond a reasonable doubt using Bayesian methodology.

Helen and her contemporaries considered her mature for her age

Helen remembered transitioning from childhood to adulthood over a year before her first marriage as she attended social functions with older teens. Here is quote on the abruptness of this transition in the past from a graduate course's textbook on child development:

In industrial societies, as we have mentioned, the concept of adolescence as a period of development is quite recent. Until the early twentieth century, young people were considered children until they left school (often well before age 13), married or got a job, and entered the adult world. By the 1920s, with the establishment of comprehensive high schools to meet the needs of a growing economy and with more families able to support extended formal education for their children, the teenage years had become a distinct period of development (Keller, 1999). In some preindustrial societies, the concept of adolescence still does not exist. The Chippewa, for example, have only two periods of childhood: from birth until the child walks, and from walking to puberty. What we call adolescence is, for them, part of adulthood (Broude, 1995), as was true in societies before industrialization.[2]

Helen recalls that by March 1842, she "had grown up very fast and my father often took me out with him and for this reason was taken to be older than I was." At these social gatherings, she developed a crush on her future husband Horace Whitney. She later married him after Joseph Smith's martyrdom and her 16th birthday and had 12 children with him.

According to Helen:

Sarah Ann's brother, Horace, who was twenty months her senior, made one of the party but had never dreamed of such a thing as matrimony with me, whom he only remembered in the earliest school days in Kirtland as occupying one of the lowest seats. He becoming enough advanced, soon left the one taught in the red schoolhouse on the flat and attended a higher one on the hill, and through our moving to Missouri and Illinois we lost sight of each other. After the party was over I stopped the rest of the night with Sarah, and as her room and his were adjoining, being only separated by a partition, our talk seemed to disturb him, and he was impolite enough to tell us of it, and request us to stop and let him go to sleep, which was proof enough that he had never thought of me only as the green school girl that I was, or he would certainly have submitted gracefully (as lovers always should) to be made a martyr of.
—Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, 1828-1896, Autobiography (c. 1839-1846), "Life Incidents," Woman's Exponent 9-10 (1880-1882) and "Scenes and Incidents in Nauvoo," Woman's Exponent 11 (1882-83)) off-site

Joseph was sealed to Helen Mar Kimball at her father's request

Joseph was indeed sealed to 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, and it was at her father's request. According to Helen:

My father was the first to introduce it to me, which had a similar effect to a sudden shock of a small earthquake. When he found (after the first outburst of displeasure for supposed injury) that I received it meekly, he took the first opportunity to introduce Sarah Ann [Whitney] to me as Joseph's wife.
—Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, 1828-1896, Autobiography (c. 1839-1846), "Life Incidents," Woman's Exponent 9-10 (1880-1882) and "Scenes and Incidents in Nauvoo," Woman's Exponent 11 (1882-83)) off-site

Evidence supports that Mormon teens did not marry until they had reached maturity.

Scholars that study fertility often divide large samples into cohorts which are 5 years wide based on birth year or marriage age . In contrast to what some critics claim, the marriage cohort of 15-19 year olds has been shown at times to be more fertile than the 20-24 cohort. The authors of one study found that "Unlike most other reported natural-fertility populations, period fertility rates for married Mormon women aged 15-19 are higher between 1870 and 1894 than those for married women in their 20s. Women aged 15-19 in 1870-74 would have been born in the 1850s when 55.8 percent were married before their 20th birthday; thus, this cannot be treated as an insignificant group." And also "In addition, the median interval between marriage and birth of the first child is consistently about one year for all age-at-marriage groups."[3] Another study disproved that younger marital age (15-19) resulted in a higher infant mortality rate due to the mother not being fully mature (termed the "biological-insufficiency hypothesis.").[4]

Helen continued to live with her parents after the sealing, and then married someone else and had children with them after Joseph's death

Helen continued to live with her parents after the sealing. After Joseph's death, Helen was married and had children.

Unlike today, it was acceptable to be sealed to one person for eternity while being married for time to another person. It is not known if this was the case with Helen, however.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Helen's marriage to Joseph was ever consummated—even where such evidence might be expected.

There is, despite the critics' insinuations, no evidence that Helen Mar Kimball's marriage was consummated. Consummation would not have been inappropriate, since this was a marriage, but the critics are too anxious to find problems where no evidence for such exists. The clearest potential rebuttal to this is that people aren't going to talk about their sexual relations. The problem here is that the evidence for sexual relations between Joseph and Helen doesn't arise even on those occasions where we'd expect it to. Brian Hales observes:

In 1892, the RLDS Church led by Joseph Smith III sued the Church of Christ (Temple Lot),[5] disputing its claim to own the temple lot in Independence, Missouri. The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) held physical possession, and the RLDS Church took the official position that since it was the true successor of the church originally founded by Joseph Smith, it owned the property outright.[6]

Although the LDS Church was not a party to the suit, it provided support to the Church of Christ (Temple Lot). The issue was parsed this way: If the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) could prove that plural marriage was part of the original Church, then the RLDS Church was obviously not the true successor since it failed to practice such a key doctrine.[7]

During the proceedings, three plural wives of Joseph Smith (Lucy Walker, Emily Partridge, and Malissa Lott) were deposed.[8]

Why was Helen Kimball Whitney not also called to testify in the Temple Lot trial regarding her marriage relations with Joseph Smith? She lived in Salt Lake City, geographically much closer than two of the three witnesses: Malissa Lott live thirty miles south in Lehi, and Lucy Walker lived eighty-two miles north in Logan.

A likely reason is that Helen could not provide the needed testimony. All three of Joseph Smith’s wives who did testify affirmed that sexual relations were part of their plural marriages to the Prophet.[9] Testifying of either an unconsummated time-and-eternity sealing or an eternity-only marriage would have hurt the Temple Lot case. Such marriages would have been easily dismissed as unimportant.

If Helen’s plural union did not include conjugality, her testimony would not have been helpful. If it did, the reason for not inviting her to testify is not obvious. Not only was Helen passed over, but Mary Elizabeth Lightner, Zina Huntington, and Patty Sessions, who were sealed to Joseph in eternity-only marriages, were similarly not deposed.

The lack of evidence does not prove the lack of sexual relations, but these observations are consistent with an unconsummated union.

Critics have alleged that at one point, Helen "confessed" to sexual relations with Joseph.

Critics have alleged that Helen confessed to having sexual relations with Joseph. This is refuted elsewhere on the wiki.

Helen spoke out on the subject later in her life

Helen later saw her youthful displeasure with her marriage to Joseph as inappropriate and insisted that she had been protected and blessed by being a plural wife, even though she did not know it at the time. Helen ought to be allowed to speak for herself here:

I did not try to conceal the fact of its having been a trial, but confessed that it had been one of the severest of my life; but that it had also proven one of the greatest of blessings. I could truly say it had done the most towards making me a Saint and a free woman, in every sense of the word; and I knew many others who could say the same, and to whom it had proven one of the greatest boons--a "blessing in disguise." [10]


  1. Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context,” in The Persistence of Polygamy, eds. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster (Independence, MO: John Whitmer Books, 2010), 152–83. The authors cite Grace Wyshak "Secular changes in age at menarche in a sample of US women," Annals of Human Biology 10:1 (1983): 75–77; P. E. Brown, “The Age at Menarche,” British Journal of Preventive and Social Medicine 20 (1966): 9–14; and Peter Laslett, Family life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
  2. Diane Papalia, Gabriela Martorell, and R. Feldman, In A Child's World: Infancy through Adolescence, 13th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014).
  3. Mineau, G. P., L. L. Bean, and M. Skolnick 1979 “Mormon demographic history, II: The family life cycle and natural fertility,” Population Studies 33, 3:429–46.
  4. L. Bean, G. Mineau, and D. Anderton, "High-Risk Childbearing: Fertility and Infant Mortality on the American Frontier," Social Science History 16, no. 3 (1992): 337–63.
  5. Known colloquially as “Hedrickites” after Granville Hedrick, who was ordained the church’s first leader in 1863. They prefer the title of “Church of Christ (Temple Lot).”
  6. S. Patrick Baggette II, “The Temple Lot Case: Fraud in God’s Vineyard,” 136.
  7. The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) were staunchly opposed to plural marriage and seemed to have pursued polygamy as a line of inquiry only for strategic purposes. See R. Jean Addams, “The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) and the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints: 130 Years of Crossroads and Controversies,” Journal of Mormon History 36, no. 2 (2010): 29–53.
  8. The Temple Lot case transcript, as it is popularly known, comprises more than 1,700 pages. It can be accessed at
  9. Malissa Lott, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, page 105, question 227; Lucy Walker, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, pages 450–51, 468, 473, questions 29–30, 463–74, 586.
  10. Helen Mar Kimball, Why We Practice Plural Marriage, 23-24. Cited in Andrus, Doctrines of the Kingdom.