Part 20: CES Letter Polygamy & Polyandry Questions [Section A]
by Sarah Allen
I have to admit, of all of the different sections in the CES Letter, polygamy is the one I’ve been dreading. It’s such a messy subject, and there are going to be high emotions over it no matter what. The “questions” are angrier and more slanted, and everything is twisted to such a degree that it’s just not going to be particularly pleasant. I’m also not as well-read on this subject as I am on some of the others that interest me more, but I’ve still done a fair amount of research and I do have a testimony that plural marriage was instituted by God. That might be controversial to some people, but it’s true. I got my answer on that a long time ago. Regardless, this should be an interesting set of questions/concerns for all of us.
One of the things that also truly disturbed me in my research was discovering the real origins of polygamy and how Joseph Smith really practiced it.
So, right away, this is an interesting comment. We hear online all the time that people had no idea Joseph ever engaged in polygamy until they finally learned the truth. I assume that’s at least similar to what Jeremy means here when he says he discovered “the real origins.”
That’s honestly something that I just don’t get, particularly when those people further claim that the Church was hiding it from them or lying to them. It’s in the D&C, it’s in multiple fiction and nonfiction books published by Deseret Book and the Church itself, it’s been discussed in Church magazines and manuals, it’s been on Joseph’s Wikipedia page for twenty years, etc. I realize that not everyone has the same experiences growing up, and some people are taught more than others. It happens with a lay ministry. And it’s true that during parts of the 20th century, this aspect of Church history was deemphasized and some sources were harder to find before the internet was a thing. But even then, it was always available information. I understand that discovering something you didn’t know can be a blow. I really, truly do. However, you can’t accuse a church of hiding something from you when it’s in multiple public, official publications up to and including their canonized scriptures.
Just some quick background on this, at least as far as my experience goes: like a lot of us whose ancestors were early members of the Church, I have polygamists in my family history. I was also taught in Primary that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both had multiple wives. Again, I realize that wasn’t the case for everyone, but it was for me. Additionally, I am a single sister who has never been married and who has no children at this time. In at least two of my neighborhoods growing up in Utah, there were polygamists living nearby, both several blocks away on my same street.
When I was in kindergarten and first grade, one of my best friends, Janine, was the daughter of one of those polygamous families. Yes, she wore long-sleeved dresses to school fairly often, but not always and otherwise, she was just a normal girl. I used to go to her house to play with her and all of her siblings. They were always very nice to me, and I remember her crying on my shoulder once when some of the neighbors called the cops and had her dad arrested after the courts were closed, so he had to spend the weekend in jail before he could get arraigned. She didn’t have many friends, because a lot of families in the neighborhood wouldn’t let their kids play with her or her siblings, but my mom always thought that Janine shouldn’t be punished for what her parents chose to do and encouraged our friendship. She really loved her entire family, and as far as I know, she was not being abused in any way. I thought her situation was a little unusual because I’d never met anyone whose dad had multiple wives before, but I also didn’t think it was wrong or even that weird. It didn’t faze me because I already knew about polygamy from Primary. It was just something her family did that was different than mine. Anyway, my family moved halfway through first grade, so I never saw her again. It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I even realized how abusive that community can sometimes be and wondered whatever became of her. I don’t know if she married really young or even at all, or whether she’s an only wife or one of several. It’d be interesting to talk to her again and see where our lives converge and where they don’t.
The reason I’m sharing all of these personal details with you guys is so that you understand my perspective when I say that polygamy has never really bothered me very much—at least, as an abstract concept. I’m sure that if I was called to actually live it, it’d be a very difficult thing to endure and I’m incredibly grateful I don’t have to. But the practice, at least, I do believe was commanded by God, and no, I don’t personally have many issues with it. I know that’s somewhat unusual for a woman in today’s age and a lot of people do struggle with it, but the older I get without being married, the more I understand what some of those sisters were going through.
So, having said all that, let’s see what Jeremy has to say about polygamy:
- Joseph Smith was married to at least 34 women, as now verified in the Church’s 2014 polygamy essays.
First off, the source he links to in his first bullet point states that the Church has “acknowledged for the first time” that Joseph had up to 40 wives. It was an article from the New York Times, and there are similar articles you can find online from the BBC and other outlets. That’s not an entirely true statement, however. For over a century, the Church has stated that Joseph had approximately 30 wives. What they are now stating is that there may have been a few more than originally thought, but that the historical record is murky and it’s uncertain whether every name given is accurate or not. Brian Hales, probably the foremost authority on Latter-day Saint polygamy, pegs the number at 35. On the other hand, Wikipedia lists approximately 50 possible wives.
The two articles cited above also claim that, “The church has previously sought to portray Smith as loyal to his first wife Emma.” Again, this is not accurate, at least not the way they mean it. While some members may have been confused over Joseph practicing plural marriage, the Church itself has never denied that Joseph had multiple wives or that some of those marriages involved sexual relations. In fact, the Church took out affidavits from Joseph’s surviving plural wives, among others, who described their types of sealings. The affidavits I linked to are from books compiled by Joseph F. Smith. There were more notes compiled by Andrew Jenson (pgs 219-240 of the linked source). Other affidavits regarding plural marriage were conducted during a court case called the Temple Lot Case. Brian Hales gave a podcast interview about all of this that you can find here. This evidence does not mean Joseph was not loyal to Emma, however. Again, it’s unusual to us today, but having more than one wife was not being disloyal to his first wife, and he did not commit adultery. He did not cheat on her, which was the implication of the articles. Beyond that, many of the difficulties surrounding the institution of polygamy and the way it was practiced in the early days were because he was loyal to Emma in heart and mind, and she struggled so much with the idea.
Secondly, I think some definitions are in order. Though they’re largely synonymous in our church today, “marriage” and “sealing” are not the same thing. They were not performed together, the way they often are now in our temples, until well after the Saints moved to Utah and the surrounding areas.
The only types of sealings performed in the temples today are for time and eternity, but that was not the case in the early days of the Church. There were three types of unions in those days: time only, eternity only, and time and eternity. They’re all referred to as “marriages” today, and these women are all referred to as Joseph’s “wives,” but some were sealings for the next life without any kind of relationship in this life. Some were even simple, one-time-only contracts wherein the two parties had little contact with one another before or afterward and were never alone together.
Conversely, some of these unions were only for this life. None of Joseph’s were of this type that I’m aware of—except perhaps his union to Fanny Alger—but after his death, several members of the Quorum of the Twelve married some of his wives for time only in order to provide for them during their earthly lives until delivering them back to Joseph in the next. That sounds a little weird to modern ears, and like the women maybe didn’t have a say in the matter, but they did. Life in 1840 was very different for women than it is today. Women were not able to vote and in many places could not own and manage property; the number of professions they were able to enter into was limited; and divorce was difficult to obtain. In many states, men had to be the ones to initiate a divorce, so if a woman was unlucky enough to marry an unkind man, she sometimes had little recourse to get herself out of the situation. It sounds contradictory to us today, but being a plural wife gave these women some autonomy and freedoms that they otherwise might not have had. (Note: There were also some freedoms that a single woman could enjoy that married women could not.)
And some of these unions were both for time and eternity. We’re all familiar with these types of sealings, since they’re the ones we still engage in today.
Additionally, sealings were done in different ways for different reasons. Friends were “adopted” into each other’s families, there were cases where siblings were sealed to one another, there were dynastic sealings where two families would join together through the sealing process (usually to one of the apostles), women whose husbands were not members of the Church would be sealed to members for the next life, etc., all so they could have those connections throughout the eternities. We’re taught even now that in the Celestial Kingdom, we’ll all be sealed together in one unbroken chain back to Adam. In the early days of the endowment, they viewed that idea a little differently than we do today. It remained like that until 1894, when Wilford Woodruff received a revelation to change the way sealings were done.
All of which is to say, when we state that Joseph was “married” to 34 women, some of those were true marriages in every sense of the word, while others were sealings for the next life only. Some were even performed after he was dead. The distinction between a marriage and a sealing is necessary to understand because to the early Saints, they were two very different things. For the sake of brevity, though, going forward I’ll often refer to these women as Joseph’s wives and the unions as marriages.
Moving on to the second bullet point, the “polyandry” question:
- Polyandry: Of those 34 women, 11 of them were married women of other living men. Among them being Apostle Orson Hyde, who was sent on his mission to dedicate Palestine when Joseph secretly married his wife, Marinda Hyde. Church Historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen and unofficial apologists like FairMormon do not dispute the polyandry.
This is a big issue that comes up over and over again so we’ll discuss it in more detail. For starters, though, this is only a half-truth at best regarding Marinda and Orson Hyde. Orson Hyde was sent on his mission on April 15, 1840, and returned on December 7, 1842. There are two sealing dates for Joseph and Marinda, making it unclear when it actually happened. It was written down in Joseph’s journal by a scribe, Thomas Bullock, as taking place in May of 1842. This entry was apparently not recorded until after July 14, 1843, however, and the affidavit Marinda signed stated that the sealing took place in May 1843, after Orson was home. Regardless of which date is accurate, Orson was not sent on a mission so Joseph could steal his wife, if the sealing happened 2-3 years after he left.
There are also conflicting reports of whether the sealing was kept secret from him or not. There are four reports total, and two claim he was aware of it in advance and two claim he was not. Moreover, he was married to a second wife of his own in February or March of 1843, just 2-3 months after he returned from his mission. Clearly, he was not opposed to the idea of plural marriage.
Also, you’ll note Jeremy’s throwing around his “unofficial apologists” label again. He never does explain what an official apologist is or where to find them, but of course nobody is denying the so-called polyandry. Again, it’s been known and published since the mid-to-late 1800s. It wasn’t widely broadcast, granted, but it was out there.
So, what is polyandry, and why does it cause such a stir even when compared to “normal” polygamy? Polyandry is when a woman takes more than one simultaneous husband, as opposed to a man taking more than one simultaneous wife. This is seen as more scandalous by the world at large and by our past Church leaders, who deemed it as adultery. It’s even mentioned in D&C 132 as adultery. But the curious thing is, nobody considered Joseph’s polyandrous sealings to fall under that umbrella:
…D&C 22:1 states: “Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.” This revelation was given shortly after the church was organized in response to a specific question about baptism, which is a new and everlasting covenant between a person and God. The revelation states that the new and everlasting covenant causes all old covenants to be done away.
Eternal marriage is also a part of the “new and an everlasting covenant.” So according to these scriptures, a woman married civilly to one man, but subsequently sealed to another in the new and everlasting covenant, would not thereafter have two husbands in the eyes of the church. The old legal marriage covenant would be “done away.” It is unclear whether this dynamic ever occurred, but the principle prevents the authorized practice of polyandry in the church.
This is another difficult concept to understand, but it’s important that we do going forward. As sealings are not marriages, a sealing for the next life is not a marriage for this life. In God’s eyes, the sealing supersedes the earthly marriage. Civil marriages end with death or divorce. Sealings do not ever end, unless they’re broken by sin or cancelled by someone with the proper Priesthood authority. While these are sealings we’re talking about, and while these unions aren’t truly polyandrous ones as they were for the next life and not this one, again, I’ll continue using the term just like with “wives” and “marriages.” It’s just easier that way.
There’s something else to consider, however, particularly in the highly unusual case of Zina Huntington and her first husband Henry Jacobs. In 19th Century America, legal divorce was not always an option, as divorce was strictly limited to only a few reasons. To get around that, there were what Laurel Thatcher Ulrich refers to as “folk divorces.” Allen Wyatt describes it like this:
Critics who complain of Henry and Zina not having a “legal and lawful” divorce fail to point out what constitutes “legal and lawful” when it comes to a frontier where there is no established government. Who, exactly, should Henry and Zina have gone to in order to satisfy our modern sensibilities of what constitutes a “legal and lawful” dissolution of marriage?
The inaccessibility of government and the hostility of the trail may not be the only reasons why a formal divorce was not sought by Henry and Zina. Many people during the era, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, particularly those who were poor and transient (conditions that certainly applied to this couple), would engage in self-divorce. Rather than seek out the approbation of authority that was often seen as meddlesome, distant, and aloof, couples would simply agree to dissolve their marriage, and then each go their separate ways. This seemed, to those predisposed to distrust a hostile government, a practical and pragmatic solution to ending a marriage, and appears to be the path chosen by Henry and Zina.
It’s super bizarre to think of in this day and age, but oftentimes back then if you wanted to divorce and couldn’t, you simply ended the marriage and walked away. You then felt free to marry other people, even without a formal divorce. If you have a jstor.org account, you can read more about this phenomenon here.
While neither of these things seem to be what happened with any of Joseph’s polyandrous wives, they do appear to be what happened with Fanny Alger and with Zina, Henry, and Brigham Young. We’ll talk about both cases in more depth later, I’m sure, but Fanny left her marriage with Joseph without any kind of formal divorce and married someone else just a few months later, while Zina apparently felt her sealing to Brigham for time rendered her marriage to Henry null and void.
The CES Letter continues:
The Church and apologists now attempt to justify these polyandrous marriages by theorizing that they probably didn’t include sexual relations and thus were “eternal” or “dynastic” sealings only. How is not having sex with a living man’s wife on earth only to take her away from him in the eternities to be one of your [Joseph] forty wives any better or any less immoral?
Fair warning, there will be a lot of this kind of vitriol in this section. Jeremy Runnells has a clear disdain for the idea of polygamy and he is not shy about making that known. Regardless, this is not something the Church is “now attempting to justify.” All the way back in 1861, Brigham Young gave a sermon based on teachings he had apparently learned from Joseph Smith. (Note: This sermon was recorded by George Watt, who infamously liked to alter his transcriptions from what they originally said, so it’s unclear if this wording is exact or not.) In this sermon, Brigham stated:
How can a woman be made free from a man to whom she has been sealed for time and all eternity? There are two ways. All the elders in Israel will not magnify their priesthood, that are now in the habit of taking women, not caring how they get them. … The second way in which a wife can be separated from her husband while he continues to be faithful to his God and his priesthood I have not revealed except to a few persons in this church, and a few have received it from Joseph the Prophet as well as myself. If a woman can find a man holding the keys of the priesthood with higher power and authority than her husband, and he is disposed to take her, he can do so, otherwise she has got to remain where she is. In either of these ways of separation you can discover there is no need for a bill of divorcement. To recapitulate: First, a man forfeits his covenant with a wife or wives, becoming unfaithful to his God and his priesthood—that wife or wives are free from him without a bill of divorcement. Second, if a woman claims protection at the hands of a man possessing more power in the priesthood and higher keys, if he is disposed to rescue her and has obtained the consent of her husband to make her his wife, he can do so without a bill of divorcement.
Being the prophet, Joseph had higher Priesthood authority than any of the men whose wives he was sealed to. So, with the husband’s approval, and if the man with the higher authority was willing to accept her, a woman could be sealed for eternity to someone who was not her husband here on Earth. Additionally, there are documented cases of women asking to be sealed to apostles and general authorities in the 19th Century because they held a higher degree of Priesthood authority and, by their way of thinking, that meant that they had a better chance at exaltation. Obviously, we don’t hold to that belief today, but it was a common one back then. However, it does not appear that polyandrous sealings were continued after Joseph’s death.
Todd Compton, the author of the paper linked to in the paragraph above, also adds this thought:
First, [Jedidiah] Grant sees the practice in terms of extended family organization: “When the family organization was revealed.” Polyandry would obviously link families to Joseph. “Joseph began, on the right and the left”—frequently—“to add to his family.” Joseph is creating a large extended family through plural, sometimes polyandrous, marriages….
This seems to be exactly what happened with Joseph’s polyandrous wives. As far as we can tell from the spotty evidence, in several instances all three parties agreed to the sealing, and it seems largely to have been done to link their families together in the next life. It’s unclear whether every husband was aware of the sealings at the time or not, but there is definitive proof that at least some did. And, as Compton pointed out earlier in his article, many of the husbands of these women “were prominent church leaders and/or close friends of Joseph.” Therefore, it’d make sense that they’d want to link their families together through the sealing process. There are also other instances, such as Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, where she and Joseph both believed she had been foreordained to be one of his wives, so the sealing was fulfilling that promise from the preexistence despite her marriage to Adam Lightner.
In none of these cases was the woman forced to be sealed to Joseph instead of to her husband. In fact, Marinda Hyde, the very woman whose sealing to Joseph Jeremy objected to earlier, was sealed to Orson Hyde after Joseph’s death, while most of the other polyandrous wives were re-sealed to Joseph. Sealing themselves to Joseph was a deliberate, conscious choice that they made. They were not being passed around like pieces of candy to whichever man wanted them without any say in the matter.
Though this article is fairly antagonistic, I’d like to highlight a passage quoting several letters of Mary Elizabeth Rollins:
Mary Elizabeth Rollins, married to non-Mormon Adam Lightner since 11 August 1835, was one of the first women to accept the polyandrous teachings of the Prophet. “He was commanded to take me for a wife,” she wrote in a 21 November 1880 letter to Emmeline B. Wells. “I was his, before I came here,” she added in an 8 February 1902 statement. Brigham Young secretly sealed the two in February 1842 when Mary was eight months pregnant with her son George Algernon Lightner. She lived with Adam Lightner until his death in Utah many years later. In her 1880 letter to Emmeline B. Wells, Mary explained: “I could tell you why I stayed with Mr. Lightner. Things the leaders of the Church does not know anything about. I did just as Joseph told me to do, as he knew what troubles I would have to contend with.” She added on 23 January 1892 in a letter to John R. Young: “I could explain some things in regard to my living with Mr. L. after becoming the Wife of Another, which would throw light on what now seems mysterious—and you would be perfectly satisfied with me. I write this because I have heard that it had been commented on to my injury.”
I’ve seen that last letter listed as being sent to John A. Young, John R. Young, and John Henry Smith, so it’s a little unclear who she was writing to; however, the quote is the same in all three sources. Brian Hales offers more of the quote: “I have done the best I could, and Joseph will sanction my action – I cannot explain things in this Letter – some day you will know all. That is, if I ever have an opportunity of conversing with either of you.”
So, there were explanations for why the women stayed in their first marriages despite their sealings to Joseph, and at least one of those women stated that it was because Joseph told her to do so and to keep it quiet. Why did they happen at all?
The Church’s essay about Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo says this about the polyandrous sealings:
There are several possible explanations for this practice. These sealings may have provided a way to create an eternal bond or link between Joseph’s family and other families within the Church. These ties extended both vertically, from parent to child, and horizontally, from one family to another. Today such eternal bonds are achieved through the temple marriages of individuals who are also sealed to their own birth families, in this way linking families together. Joseph Smith’s sealings to women already married may have been an early version of linking one family to another. In Nauvoo, most if not all of the first husbands seem to have continued living in the same household with their wives during Joseph’s lifetime, and complaints about these sealings with Joseph Smith are virtually absent from the documentary record.
These sealings may also be explained by Joseph’s reluctance to enter plural marriage because of the sorrow it would bring to his wife Emma. He may have believed that sealings to married women would comply with the Lord’s command without requiring him to have normal marriage relationships. This could explain why, according to Lorenzo Snow, the angel reprimanded Joseph for having “demurred” on plural marriage even after he had entered into the practice. After this rebuke, according to this interpretation, Joseph returned primarily to sealings with single women.
Another possibility is that, in an era when life spans were shorter than they are today, faithful women felt an urgency to be sealed by priesthood authority. Several of these women were married either to non-Mormons or former Mormons, and more than one of the women later expressed unhappiness in their present marriages. Living in a time when divorce was difficult to obtain, these women may have believed a sealing to Joseph Smith would give them blessings they might not otherwise receive in the next life.
When it comes to the question of sexual relations within these polyandrous sealings, Brian Hales states the following:
It is true that little is known regarding Joseph’s actual involvement with many of the fourteen women. This lack of evidence is sometimes exploited by critics who wish to fill in the gaps with allegations that sexuality occurred in both relationships, charging that the Prophet entered into one or more genuine polyandrous relationships.
The lack of solid documentation is important because demonstrating the existence of polyandry could be done rather easily by quoting a single credible supportive statement, if such existed. One well-documented account from a participant or other close observer (of which there were dozens) indicating that any of the fourteen women had two genuine husbands at the same time would constitute such evidence. No documentation of this type has been found.
Similarly, no declarations from other polygamy insiders have been found saying Joseph taught polyandry was acceptable. No credible accounts from any of the fourteen wives exist wherein they complained about it, even though many complaints about polygamy are recorded.
More remarkable is the lack of defenses of the practice. Dozens of people were aware of some of these eternity-only sealings. That no explanatory texts or defensive references have surfaced is surprising.
Those contemporary defenses of polygamy exist. They do not exist for the polyandrous marriages, so it seems clear that the early Saints understood something about those sealings that is more murky to us today. Hales continues:
Nothing has been more controversial in the history of the LDS Church than the practice of polygamy. As soon as it became known, printing presses blasted the news across the continent, Christians around the world took offense, Congress labelled it a “relic of barbarism,” and a stigma arose that remains to this day.
If Joseph Smith had practiced polyandry, it seems the push-back would have been at least as great, if not greater. … Several of the legal husbands were not active Mormons, so Joseph’s personal safety could easily have been threatened. The possible involvement of the husbands of the wives sealed to him would probably have increased the potential for public scandal from polyandry beyond that from accusations of multiple wives.
He further points out that none of the vicious critics of the Church or of Joseph personally during the Nauvoo years ever used the polyandrous sealings as accusations. They went after polygamy full-force, but didn’t bother to mention polyandry: “That Joseph’s enemies failed to exploit these particular sealings in their crusades against Joseph Smith is puzzling. Their scandal-mongering missed an excellent opportunity unless they knew the sealings were only for the next life. No one made the accusation that Joseph Smith practiced genuine polyandry until several years after his death, and then the accusations were made by non-members who were not privy to details of the Nauvoo sealings.”
There is no credible evidence whatsoever that any of these polyandrous sealings involved sexual relations between Joseph and the women in question. That’s not “the Church and unofficial apologists attempt[ing] to justify” it, it’s a statement of fact. Comments from several of the women themselves stated that they were eternity-only unions.
The definitions and customs we’re familiar with today were not the definitions and customs they were familiar with in 1840. Applying modern standards to different times and cultures is called presentism, and it is a known logical fallacy. It’s a difficult thing to avoid, but in order for this topic in particular to make sense to us today, we have to understand those distinctions. When these sources say “wife,” they don’t always mean a “legally married wife.” When they say “marriage,” they equally often mean “sealing.” When they say “polyandry,” they don’t actually mean a “sexually polyandrous relationship.” When we talk about sealings from back then, they weren’t just along vertical familial lines like they are today. There were horizontal and diagonal sealings too, and they were done to help forge eternal links between families and the leaders of the Church. Going forward, we need to have that understanding firmly in mind.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.