Part 21: CES Letter Polygamy & Polyandry Questions [Section B]
by Sarah Allen
Polygamy is probably the single biggest issue that people have with the Church, more than the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, other aspects of Church history, living prophets today, the rejection of the common model of Trinity, the lack of allowances for LGBTQ+ relationships, etc. It is, without a doubt, the #1 topic of jokes relating to the Church and to Utah in popular entertainment. It is a big stumbling block for a lot of people…including the early Saints who were taught it and who lived it.
That was by design. The idea of polygamy as an Abrahamic sacrifice to test the early Saints is a fairly common one, and for good reason. Sacrifice is the ultimate test we’re called to give on this Earth, because that’s how we exercise faith. It’s how we grow. It’s how we prove to God that we know what’s truly important. It’s the refiner’s fire that purifies us and sanctifies us. The Savior was sacrificed for us at His Father’s behest, because that what was necessary to bring about salvation, and the Savior was devoted to fulfilling His Father’s work. Can you imagine what that must have been like for Him, knowing what was coming and what He would have to do? And yet, He did it anyway. The courage, faith and love that must have taken is astronomical. And that same courage, faith and love is what is required of us, only on a smaller scale.
We get the idea of polygamy being one of those tests from the Lord Himself in D&C 132:
50 Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.
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.
Additionally, D&C 98:14-15 says:
For if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me.
What exactly does it mean to be “proven in all things?” Well, in the Lectures on Faith, lecture #6, Joseph Smith stated the following:
Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things: it was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has, for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice, because he seeks to do his will, he does know most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life.
Continuing this line of thought, President Ballard taught us:
“Now is the time for labor,” [Brigham Young] said. “Let the fire of the covenant which you made in the House of the Lord, burn in your hearts, like flame unquenchable” (Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 28 Sept. 1846, 5; emphasis added).
… We often hear of the suffering and the sacrifice those early Saints endured, and we ask ourselves, How did they do it? What was it that gave them such strength? Part of the answer lies in President Young’s powerful words. Those early Latter-day Saints had made covenants with God, and those covenants burned like unquenchable fire in their hearts.
Sometimes we are tempted to let our lives be governed more by convenience than by covenant. It is not always convenient to live gospel standards and stand up for truth and testify of the Restoration. It usually is not convenient to share the gospel with others. It isn’t always convenient to respond to a calling in the Church, especially one that stretches our abilities. Opportunities to serve others in meaningful ways, as we have covenanted to do, rarely come at convenient times. But there is no spiritual power in living by convenience. The power comes as we keep our covenants. As we look at the lives of these early Saints, we see that their covenants were the primary force in their lives. Their example and testimony were powerful enough to influence generation after generation of their children.
… Brothers and sisters, we need to instruct one another and instill deeper faith in our hearts to fortify ourselves with the courage to keep the commandments in a world of ever-increasing wickedness. We need to become so deeply converted to the gospel of Christ that the fire of the covenant will burn in our hearts like flame unquenchable. And with that kind of faith we will do what is necessary to remain true and worthy.
Those who have not the knowledge and assurance that the course which they are pursuing is according to the will of God, cannot endure all these afflictions and persecutions, taking joyfully the spoiling of their goods and even if necessary to suffer death, by the hands of their foes. They will grow weary and faint and fall by the way unless they have unshaken confidence and a perfect knowledge for themselves. They cannot make a sacrifice of their character and reputation; and give up their houses, their lands, brothers, sisters, wives and children; counting all things as dross, when compared with the eternal life and exaltation, which our Savior has promised to the obedient; and this knowledge is not obtained without a struggle nor the glory without a sacrifice of all earthly things. In the last days (we read) the Lord is to gather together his Saints who have made covenant with Him by sacrifice and each one must know that their sacrifice is accepted as did righteous, Abel and Abraham the father of the faithful. Every Latter-day Saint knows this to be true, and that according to our faith so are our blessings and privileges.
This is a concept we see over and over again in our doctrine, that sacrifice is necessary for salvation. It’s in talks, it’s in scriptures, it’s reinforced in many places to ensure we get the point because if we don’t, we can’t grow into the people that we need to become.
D&C 136 reiterates it in verses 31 and 37:
… Therefore, marvel not at these things, for ye are not yet pure; ye cannot yet bear my glory; but ye shall behold it if ye are faithful in keeping all my words that I have given you, from the days of Adam to Abraham, from Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Jesus and his apostles, and from Jesus and his apostles to Joseph Smith, whom I did call upon by mine angels, my ministering servants, and by mine own voice out of the heavens, to bring forth my work;
Sacrifice, giving everything we have to the Lord, doing whatever He requires of us, is the only way we can be purified enough that we can be found worthy of returning to His kingdom. Those sacrifices come in different ways to different people, and it may not always be very obvious to outsiders what one person’s ultimate sacrifice is. But we’re all required to give something. For the rich young man who came to Christ asking what more he needed to do, it was to give up his fortune. That was his Abrahamic test, and he sadly wasn’t willing to do that.
The reason these things are called Abrahamic tests are because Abraham nearly had to sacrifice his beloved son to prove his devotion to God, because that devotion to God is the only way forward. For the rich young man, he turned and walked away because he couldn’t do what was required of him. And for those early Saints when faced with the challenge of polygamy, many of them turned and walked away, too. But many didn’t.
The Church’s essay on Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo states that, “Some Saints also saw plural marriage as a redemptive process of sacrifice and spiritual refinement. According to Helen Mar Kimball, Joseph Smith stated that ‘the practice of this principle would be the hardest trial the Saints would ever have to test their faith.’ Though it was one of the ‘severest’ trials of her life, she testified that it had also been ‘one of the greatest blessings.’ … Not all had such experiences. Some Latter-day Saints rejected the principle of plural marriage and left the Church, while others declined to enter the practice but remained faithful. Nevertheless, for many women and men, initial revulsion and anguish was followed by struggle, resolution, and ultimately, light and peace. Sacred experiences enabled the Saints to move forward in faith.”
One of the more common reasons you hear for the commandment of plural marriage is that it was necessary to “raise up a righteous seed.” People often then point to Joseph’s lack of children with his plural wives and say, “Oh, really? Then explain this!” as if they’re somehow contradictory. But they aren’t. While yes, some of the early Saints did have large numbers of children with their plural wives, many more did not. The vast majority of people living this law belonged to families with 2-3 wives, not dozens. Their families were larger than average, but not hugely so. It wasn’t necessarily about numbers of righteous Saints as it was about strength and unity.
Some Church members have presumed that polygamy was thus designed to ensure a larger number of descendants than would be possible under monogamy. This need not be the case: polygamy was, as we have seen, an effective tool for “winnowing.” Any family willing to make the sacrifices attendant to plural marriage were unreservedly dedicated to the restored gospel. Children raised in such an environment can have had no doubt, from an early age, of their parents’ convictions. This effect can only have been magnified by the fact that most Church leaders were in polygamous unions.
Plural marriage served, therefore, to train a “peculiar” generation in devotion to their faith, while sparing them the physical persecution of Ohio, Missouri, or Illinois. The Saints were faced with the question of where their ultimate devotion lay: to Church or country? To God or man? To revelation or convention? Plural marriage cast that choice in stark terms which could not be avoided, and the early members did not shrink from the choice.
… The Church’s practice of polygamy became public knowledge in 1852. Organized only 22 years prior, the Church was a young, little understood, and often reviled faith. It drew converts from New England, Canada, Scandinavia, England, Scotland, Wales, and elsewhere. Sometimes not even sharing a language, it was necessary that this mix of new members be molded into a solid, enduring social group.
This was accomplished via two means: geographic isolation in the Salt Lake basin and marital practices that were odious to most Americans.
… We do not have to look far to discover the fate of a religion without the twin isolators of plural marriage and geography: the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This break-off from the Utah “Brighamites” initially shared most of the other distinctive LDS doctrines, including a belief in Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, the divine origin of the Book of Mormon, and a need for a restoration. Yet, today the RLDS Church—now “Communities of Christ”—has little to distinguish it theologically from mainline Protestantism. Theologically, they were steadily absorbed into the American “mainstream,” while the Utah Mormons have retained their separate theological identity, despite joining the American cultural mainstream.
… No impartial study of the Saints’ sacrifices during the polygamy period can fail to impress us with their devotion. Doctrine and Covenants 132 acknowledged at the outset that what was being asked was a staggering sacrifice… The Saints were asked to put everything on the altar. For them, “faith was a task for a whole lifetime, not a skill thought to be acquired in either days or weeks.” They were not asked simply to part with their sins and foibles, to which anyone might bid a none-too-fond farewell. Beside these offerings they were to then lay their good name, their reputation for moral rectitude and honesty, their civil rights, and their place in American society. Not only must they abandon the false doctrines of the sectarians, but they must appear to renounce cherished principles of monogamy which were viewed as the well-spring of civilization. And then they were later required to discontinue the practice for which they had given so much. … At its core, polygamy asked the Saints to put their “money where their mouths were.” Was Joseph really a prophet, or not? Did prophetic authority persist? Could God truly speak by divine, unmistakable revelation to each individual? Was God’s voice truly sovereign over all institutions, and in all circumstances? Were they confident that they could discern that voice, even—or especially—when something contrary to their expectations was demanded?
The Saints’ actions answered in the affirmative.
The Church’s general essay on plural marriage says something similar:
Latter-day Saints do not understand all of God’s purposes in instituting, through His prophets, the practice of plural marriage. The Book of Mormon identifies one reason for God to command it: to increase the number of children born in the gospel covenant in order to “raise up seed unto [the Lord].”
Plural marriage did result in the birth of large numbers of children within faithful Latter-day Saint homes. It also shaped 19th-century Mormon society in many ways: marriage became available to virtually all who desired it; per-capita inequality of wealth was diminished as economically disadvantaged women married into more financially stable households; and ethnic intermarriages were increased, which helped to unite a diverse immigrant population. Plural marriage also helped create and strengthen a sense of cohesion and group identification among Latter-day Saints. Church members came to see themselves as a “peculiar people,” covenant-bound to carry out the commands of God despite outside opposition.
That “peculiar people” and the bond and unity they shared was what allowed the Church to grow into the organization that it is today. Instead of being stamped out the way its critics who continually celebrated its demise predicted it would, it has only grown from strength to strength. That righteous generation born from parents who practiced plural marriage, with their fierce dedication to obeying and honoring their covenants no matter what befell them, is what propelled the Church into the 20th Century and beyond. It’s why it still exists today.
So, why am I bringing all of this up instead of moving on to Jeremy’s next question? Because the idea of plural marriage as a sacrifice and a test to prove themselves to God, one with a variety of reasons and outcomes behind it, is vital to understand before we dive into what’s next. That’s the context that’s missing from everything Runnells says about this topic going forward.
The questions pick up like this:
During the summer of 1841, Joseph Smith tested Helen Mar Kimball’s father, Apostle Heber C. Kimball, by asking Heber to give his wife, Vilate — Helen’s mother — to Joseph:
“…shortly after Heber’s return from England, he was introduced to the doctrine of plural marriage directly through a startling test—a sacrifice that shook his very being and challenged his faith to the ultimate. He had already sacrificed homes, possessions, friends, relatives, all worldly rewards, peace, and tranquility for the Restoration. Nothing was left to place on the altar save his life, his children, and his wife. Then came the Abrahamic test. Joseph demanded for himself what to Heber was the unthinkable, his Vilate. Totally crushed spiritually and emotionally, Heber touched neither food nor water for three days and three nights and continually sought confirmation and comfort from God. On the evening of the third day, some kind of assurance came, and Heber took Vilate to the upper room of Joseph’s store on Water Street. The Prophet wept at this act of faith, devotion, and obedience. Joseph had never intended to take Vilate. It was all a test.” – Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer, p.93
Yes, it was a test, and a similar one may have been given to John Taylor and a few of the other apostles, though the details of those instances are sketchy and it’s hard to find reliable sources. What is true, though, is that the entire idea of plural marriage was taught to Joseph’s inner circle as a test right from the very beginning. It was a test for Joseph, and it was one for everyone else who entered into the practice.
The CES Letter continues:
If Joseph’s polygamous/polyandrous marriages are innocuous “dynastic sealings” meant for the afterlife, as the Church and apologists are now theorizing, and Joseph wanted to “dynastically link” himself to the Kimball family, why was Apostle Heber C. Kimball so troubled by Joseph’s command for his wife that he “touched neither food nor water for three days and three nights”?
The Church and apologists are not “now theorizing” that the polyandrous sealings were dynastic sealings or ones for the next life. The sealings to already married women also weren’t polyandrous by the normal definition of the word. They do not appear to have included any sexual relations between Joseph and the women in question and were not sealings for time. As I pointed out last week, affidavits from the 1860s onward showed that the so-called polyandrous unions were sealings for “eternity alone.” We’ve known about “adoption sealings” right from the very beginning. “Dynastic” in this sense merely means linking families together. That seems to be exactly what the adoption sealings were for. Jeremy uses the word incorrectly through the rest of this section as a synonym for “celibate.” However, as with the rest of the poor vocabulary choices in this section, such as “wives” and “marriages,” it’s easier just to mimic his word choices even though the concepts are different.
As for why Heber C. Kimball was so troubled by the idea of Joseph and Vilate being sealed, it’s because he didn’t know it was a theoretical eternity-sealing at the time he was approached about it. He thought it was a true marriage being suggested. It wouldn’t be much of a test if he did know that going in, would it?
Jeremy says right in his source that this happened in/around the summer of 1841. What his source doesn’t say is that immediately after Joseph cried over Heber’s faithfulness, in that very same meeting he sealed Heber and Vilate together. Theirs was one of the very earliest sealings ever performed in this dispensation. The sealing power was just barely beginning to be taught to the Saints in mid-to-late 1841. Heber C. Kimball was one of the very first people Joseph ever approached about plural marriage or the sealing ordinance.
All Heber knew at the time was that he was agreeing to let Joseph marry Vilate after he prayed about it for days to know whether that teaching came from God. He didn’t know yet that their response to their Abrahamic test would be proof that they were worthy of being sealed together for eternity. They took a leap of faith and were rewarded for it afterward, but they didn’t know that’s what was happening going into it. They just knew that they were being given an incredibly painful, difficult commandment from a prophet of God, and they had to decide whether or not to follow it. Like Moroni teaches us in Ether 12, we often don’t receive blessings until after the trial of our faith.
Beyond that, some of Joseph’s marriages were true marriages that did include sexual relationships, according to the women in question. All evidence points toward the polyandrous ones as being sealings only for eternity, not for this life. But as we discussed last week, that was not true for all of Joseph’s wives, and the Church as an organization has never claimed that it was. Some members may have erroneously made that argument, but the Church itself has never made that claim. Jeremy appears to be taking a defense made for certain unions of Joseph’s and applying it to all of the marriages to make it seem ridiculous, but it’s a bad-faith argument that nobody but Jeremy himself ever made.
Out of the 34 women, 7 of them were teenage girls as young as 14-years-old. Joseph was 37-years-old when he married 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, twenty-three years his junior. Even by 19th century standards, this is shocking.
UPDATE: The Church now admits that Joseph Smith married Helen Mar Kimball “several months before her 15th birthday.”
Sigh. Yet again, this is not something the Church is only now just admitting. This has been known for a very, very long time. Helen Mar Kimball Whitney herself published it in the early 1880s.
She was an outspoken defender of plural marriage, and there is no evidence whatsoever that her marriage to Joseph was sexual in nature. In fact, there is evidence pointing to the contrary. That evidence included her own words stating that it was for “eternity alone,” and the fact that, while she was well-known as a plural wife of Joseph’s who was still living as well as a vocal supporter of plural marriage, she was not called as a witness for the Temple Lot Case, which was trying to prove that Joseph instituted the practice.
Supporting that the union was never consummated is the fact that Helen Mar Kimball was not called to testify in the Temple Lot trial. … Nine of Joseph Smith’s plural wives were living in 1892, but only three were called: Emily Partridge (resident of Salt Lake City), Malissa Lott (who lived thirty miles south in Lehi), and Lucy Walker (who lived eighty-two miles north in Logan). All three of these women affirmed that sexual relations were part of their plural marriages to the Prophet.
If Helen Mar had been sexually involved with the Prophet in their plural marriage, her exclusion from the depositions is difficult to explain. Helen lived in Salt Lake City (closer than Malissa Lott and much closer than Lucy Walker) and had written two books defending plural marriage. Her first, Plural Marriage as Taught by the Prophet Joseph: A Reply to Joseph Smith, Editor of the Lamoni Iowa “Herald,” (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882) was a direct response to the claims of the RLDS Church, the plaintiffs in the Temple Lot lawsuit. Her second book, Why We Practice Plural Marriage (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884), echoed many of the same arguments. Helen’s diary journal for March 1892 documents that she was aware of the visit of the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) contingent, but there is no indication that they or LDS Church leaders approached her to testify.
That she would have been an excellent witness to discuss and defend the fact that Joseph Smith taught and practiced plural marriage is undeniable. But if she could not testify to a full plural marriage with sexual relations, her deposition would not have been useful to the Temple Lot attorneys.
As far as his claim of their marriage being shocking even to 19th Century standards goes…nope. Craig Foster wrote an article for the Interpreter a few years ago that obliterated that argument. Marriages of girls that age and younger, to men Joseph’s of age and older, were fairly common on the American frontier at the time.
Joseph took 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball’s hand in marriage after his disturbing Abrahamic test on her father, Heber, while promising Helen and her family eternal salvation and exaltation if she accepted:
Again, I don’t see how it’s disturbing to have our faith tried. It’s been happening since the beginning of time, and it’s the entire reason we’re here on Earth: to learn how to exercise faith even times of difficulty and doubt, so that we can grow to become more like our Heavenly Parents.
Regardless of Jeremy’s spin, Helen Kimball was taught about plural marriage by her father two years after he and Vilate were sealed, and after Heber had a plural wife of his own that Helen was unaware of. The two events had nothing to do with one another, though the phrasing implies that they did. It was also Heber’s idea so that they could join families in the eternities, according to the excerpt from Helen’s autobiography quoted in the Letter:
Just previous to my father’s starting upon his last mission but one, to the Eastern States, he taught me the principle of Celestial marriage, and having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth. My father had but one Ewe lamb, but willingly laid her upon the altar: how cruel this seemed to the mother whose heartstrings were already stretched until they were ready to snap asunder, for he had taken Sarah Noon to wife and she thought she had made sufficient sacrifice, but the Lord required more. I will pass over the temptations which I had during the twenty four hours after my father introduced me to the principle and asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph, who came next morning and with my parents I heard him teach and explain the principle of Celestial marriage – after which he said to me, ‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation and that of your father’s household and all of your kindred.
This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God and angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart – when Joseph asked her if she was willing, she replied, ‘If Helen is willing, I have nothing more to say.’ She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older and who better understood the step they were taking, and to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come as the sun was to rise and set; but it was all hidden from me. — Helen Mar Kimball Whitney 1881 Autobiography, A Woman’s View, BYU Religious Studies Center, 1997, p.482-487
Because the accusation of Joseph promising exaltation to girls to manipulate them into marrying him is one that pops up a bit later in the Letter, this quote mentioning that promise is a good place to address the matter. Brian Hales states the following:
This quotation is sometimes cited by critics as solid evidence that the Prophet promised exaltation to at least one of his plural wives and her family if they would agree to the marriage. Typically omitted from such accounts is the fact that one year later Helen clarified that she may not have understood everything correctly: “I confess that I was too young or too ‘foolish’ to comprehend and appreciate all” that Joseph Smith then taught.
Contemporaneous evidence from more mature family members who were better positioned to “comprehend and appreciate” the Prophet’s promises to Helen demonstrates that her statement reflects her misunderstanding of the blessings predicated on this sealing.
Hales quotes letters from each of Helen’s parents from after her sealing to Joseph showing that they did indeed believe that Helen’s exaltation—and the sealing power of the ordinance itself—was contingent upon her obedience to the commandments, not her sealing to Joseph. He then states, “If fourteen-year-old Helen Mar understood her eternal sealing to the Prophet ensured her exaltation, she was apparently alone in this understanding.”
Why all the agony and anguish if this was an innocuous “Dynastic Linking” and sealing for the afterlife? Why did it seem “cruel” to Vilate, “whose heartstrings were already stretched”?
Literally two seconds’ thought could answer these questions. It seemed “cruel” to Vilate because she was already living as a plural wife at the time and she knew how hard that situation was. She and Sarah Noon got along well, and in fact had babies within several months of each other prior to Helen’s sealing (however, Sarah’s child died in infancy before Helen was even aware he had been her brother), but it was still a difficult thing for her to endure. She was sharing her husband with another woman, and that was painful for her.
She didn’t want her young daughter to have to endure that trial as well, the same way all parents want to spare their children pain. While in Helen’s youth it was a celibate union without any sexual relations, that may have changed down the road had Joseph lived more than a year afterward. Vilate was worried about her daughter being hurt in the future if it turned into a real marriage and she had to share him with other women, the way Vilate did with Heber.
Believing that something is commanded by God does not make it easy or painless to endure. This was something Vilate believed was true, but that did not make it pleasant and she didn’t want her daughter to have to struggle with it. She’d hoped Helen wouldn’t have to endure it, and it was initially hard for her to accept. That’s a normal, natural reaction for a mother to have when her daughter is growing up and making her own decisions. Sometimes, even when you’re doing everything right, those decisions bring pain that your parents wish you could have avoided. The possibility of Helen sleeping with Joseph someday is not the only reason Vilate might have been concerned for her daughter’s feelings and welfare. Life is hard. Watching while your children struggle with something painful surely makes it harder, even when that thing is a commandment from God.
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.