Part 26: CES Letter Polygamy & Polyandry Questions [Section G]
by Sarah Allen
We’re at the close of the Polygamy and Polyandry section of questions/concerns from the CES Letter, so I wanted to take a week to talk about some of the amazing women who lived this law. Since the Letter focuses exclusively on Joseph’s personal practice of plural marriage, I’ll focus only on his wives as well. However, there’s only room for a handful of stories and there are many other wonderful examples of these faithful, strong women who lived this practice, both married to Joseph and to others. I encourage everyone to read about them and their experiences.
One of the themes that comes up over and over and over again in these stories was that initially, people learning of the doctrine allowing for plural marriage were repulsed by the idea, only to have an incredible witness that later changed their minds. Some saw angelic visitors, others had revelatory dreams or visions, and still others had deeply spiritual confirmations that resonated with them throughout their entire lives.
One of these was a woman named Sarah Studevant Leavitt. She was not one of Joseph’s wives, so I’ll only briefly recount her experience here before moving on, but I’m highlighting her revelation because it’s both incredible and also not atypical for the time. The following is taken from her autobiography:
It was whispered in my ear by a friend that the authorities were getting more wives than one. I have thought for many years that the connections between man and wife were as sacred as the heavens and ought to be treated as such, and I thought that the anointed of the Lord would not get more wives unless they were commanded to do so. But still I wanted a knowledge of the truth for myself. I asked my husband if he did not think we could get a revelation for ourselves on that subject. He said he did not know. After we went to bed I lay pondering it over in my mind. I said, “You know, Lord, that I have been a faithful and true wife to my husband, and you know how much I love him, and must I sacrifice him?” The answer was, “No.”
And then my mind was carried away from the earth and I had a view of the order of the celestial kingdom. I saw that was the order there and oh, how beautiful. I was filled with love and joy that was unspeakable. I awoke my husband and told him of the views I had and that the ordinance was from the Lord, but it would damn thousands. It was too sacred for fools to handle, for they would use it to gratify their lustful desires. How thankful we ought to be that we live in a day when we can know the will of God concerning our duty, and that the darkness that has so long covered the earth has been dispelled and the light of truth has burst upon the benighted world. But what good will this do those who will not come to the light because their deeds are evil, and they choose darkness rather than light. But the honest in heart that seek the Lord in faith will obtain all the knowledge needful for their salvation. I have seen so much wrong connected with this ordinance that had I not had it revealed to me from Him that cannot lie, I should sometimes have doubted the truth of it, but there has never a doubt crossed my mind concerning the truth of it since the Lord made it known to me by a heavenly vision.
We pondered upon the matter continually, and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us; He revealed unto us His power and glory. We were seemingly wrapt in a heavenly vision, a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own bosoms that God heard and approved our prayers and intercedings before him. Our hearts were comforted and our faith made so perfect that we were willing to give our eldest daughter, then seventeen years of age, to Joseph, in the order of plural marriage.
While a vision of the Celestial Kingdom or being encircled in a halo of light is shocking to many of us, they were far from the only ones to have had experiences like this. Many of Joseph’s close friends and loved ones had these same experiences, including many of his wives.
Today, I want to focus mainly on a few of Joseph’s lesser-known wives. Many of us are at least somewhat familiar with Zina Huntington, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Eliza R. Snow, and Emily and Eliza Partridge. Some of those wives, like Mary Elizabeth Rollins, saw angels confirming the doctrine of plural marriage and played prominent roles in some of the events of the Restoration. Others, like Eliza R. Snow, Zina Huntington, and Helen Mar Kimball, lived rich, full lives and used their talents to make large contributions to our Church and to the Relief Society. Many of them are personal heroes of mine, whose faithfulness I greatly admire and strive to emulate. But there are some equally impressive women who aren’t as well-known, and I’d like to highlight a few of them today, too.
Lucy Walker is often cited as an example of Joseph coercing young women into marriage by our critics, but that’s only because they don’t really know anything about her.
She was born April 30, 1826, and joined the Church in 1835. By 1841, they were living in Nauvoo. Lucy’s mother died in January, 1842, and Lucy’s father was ill and felt unable to care for all of his children, so Joseph offered to take in the four oldest children, and advised him to place the younger ones with close friends while he regained his health enough to care for them. This was done, and Lucy was among the children sent to live with Joseph and Emma.
She was taught the principle of plural marriage and was sealed to Joseph in the Spring of 1843, when Lucy had just turned 17. Her father, whose health had improved, was away on a mission at the time, so Joseph approached her eldest brother, William, to ask for his permission to approach Lucy. William replied that it was Lucy’s decision, and that if she wanted to enter into the practice “of her own free will and choice,” he wouldn’t object. William also praised Joseph’s forthrightness instead of attempting to do it secretly without her family’s approval. When her father returned home, they all discussed the matter with him and gained his approval, too.
When Lucy was first approached about it, however, she was not so sanguine:
When the Prophet Joseph Smith first mentioned the principle of plural marriage to me I felt indignant and so expressed myself to him, because my feelings and education were averse to anything [of that] nature. But he assured me that this doctrine had been revealed to him of the Lord, and that I was entitled to receive a testimony of its divine origin for myself. He counselled me to pray to the Lord, which I did, and thereupon received from him a powerful and irresistible testimony of the truthfulness and divinity of plural marriage, which testimony has abided with me ever since.
In another interview taken from the same link, she went into more detail:
In the year 1842, President Joseph Smith sought an interview with me, and said: “I have a message for you. I have been commanded of God to take another wife, and you are the woman.” My astonishment knew no bounds. This announcement was indeed a thunderbolt to me. He asked me if I believed him to be a prophet of God. “Most assuredly I do,” I replied. He fully explained to me the principle of plural or celestial marriage. He said this principle was again to be restored for the benefit of the human family, that it would prove an everlasting blessing to my father’s house, and form a chain that could never be broken, worlds without end. “What have you to say?” he asked. “Nothing.” How could I speak, or what could I say? He said, “If you will pray sincerely for light and understanding in relation thereto, you shall receive a testimony of the correctness of this principle.” I thought I prayed sincerely, but 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. Oh that the grave would kindly receive me, that I might find rest on the bosom of my dear mother. Why should I be chosen from among thy daughters, Father, I am only a child in years and experience, no mother to counsel [she died in January, 1842]; no father near to tell me what to do in this trying hour [he was on a mission to a warmer climate to help his health]. Oh, let this bitter cup pass. And thus I prayed in the agony of my soul.
The Prophet discerned my sorrow. He saw how unhappy I was, and sought an opportunity of again speaking to me on this subject, and said: “Although I cannot, under existing circumstances, acknowledge you as my wife, the time is near when we will go beyond the Rocky Mountains and then you will be acknowledged and honored as my wife.” He also said, “This principle will yet be believed in and practiced by the righteous. 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.”
Now, Joseph wasn’t talking about the gates of Heaven, here. He was talking about the blessings that would come from entering into plural marriage. Lucy was the only woman who was ever given any kind of a deadline, and it was because she’d been fretting over it for months while Joseph watched her mentally suffering in his own house because of what he’d been commanded to teach her. It was upsetting to both of them, and he wanted to ease her mind. He was promising her that if she prayed about it again, she would get her answer by the next day. Even so, she didn’t take the deadline kindly and reacted the way most of us would:
This aroused every drop of Scotch in my veins. For a few moments I stood fearless before him, and looked him in the eye. I felt at this moment that I was called to place myself upon the altar a living sacrifice–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, for as yet no shadow had crossed my path, aside from the death of my dear mother. The future to me had been one bright, cloudless day. I had been speechless, but at 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,” and emphatically forbid him speaking again to me on this subject. Every feeling of my soul revolted against it. Said I, “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.” He walked across the room, returned and stood before me with the most beautiful expression of countenance, and 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 joy and peace that you never knew.”
Oh, how earnestly I prayed for these words to be fulfilled. It was near dawn 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.
The first day of May, 1843, I consented to become the Prophet’s wife, and was sealed to him for time and all eternity, at his own house by Elder William Clayton.
A secondhand account of this experience, reported by a judge in Utah and also taken from the same source, sheds even more light on this experience:
I went to live with Joseph Smith’s family as a maid and after I had grown up, Joseph asked me if I would marry him. I felt highly insulted and he said that if I wanted to know whether the principle was true, I could go to God and find out. One night after supper I went out into the orchard and I kneeled down and prayed to God for information. After praying I arose and walked around the orchard and kneeled again and repeated this during the night. Finally as I was praying the last time, an angel of the Lord appeared to me and told me that the principle was of God and for me to accept it.
Lucy didn’t accept anything Joseph told her blindly, but was determined to receive her own answer. And ultimately, she did. It was an answer so strong, given to her by an angel of the Lord, that she couldn’t ever deny it. She leaned on that experience for the rest of her life to anchor her and give her strength.
It appears that Lucy didn’t view her marriage to Joseph romantically, but as a sacrifice and a way to prove her devotion to God. In the December 24, 1899 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, she said:
Men did not take polygamous wives because they loved them or fancied them or because they were voluptuous, but because it was a command of God.
It was not a love matter, so to speak, in our affairs—at least on my part it was not, but simply the giving up of myself as a sacrifice to establish that grand and glorious principle that God had revealed to the world.
He often referred to the feelings that should exist between husband and wives, that they, his wives, should be his bosom companions, the nearest and dearest objects on earth in every sense of the word. He said men must beware how they treat their wives. They were given them for a holy purpose that the myriads of spirits waiting for tabernacles might have pure and healthy bodies. He also said many would awake in the morning of the resurrection sadly disappointed; for they, by transgression, would have neither wives nor children, for they surely would be taken from them, and given to those who should prove themselves worthy. Again he said, a woman would have her choice; this was a privilege that could not be denied her.
After the martyrdom, Lucy was sealed to Heber C. Kimball for time and re-sealed to Joseph for eternity. She went West with Heber and the rest of the Saints and testified in favor of plural marriage for the rest of her life. She died in 1910 in Salt Lake.
Desdemona Fullmer is one of Joseph’s least-known wives, but she was one tough lady and one of my personal favorites.
In 1838, she was in the process of moving just outside of Haun’s Mill with her brother when the Massacre struck. Her brother was violently ill at the time or he would have gone to help the men protect the town, and likely would have died. Their family hid in the woods until it was all over.
Eventually, they made their way to Illinois, and Desdemona took up residence with the Smith family. There, she learned of the plural marriage doctrine and was sealed to Joseph after receiving a vision of an angel confirming the doctrine was true.
At that point in time, Hyrum Smith didn’t yet know about plural marriage. He was one of the very vocal leaders in the charges against John C. Bennett, and was on something of a moral crusade throughout 1842 and early 1843 to rid Nauvoo of sexual deviancy. This was done with William Law and some of the others who later became involved with the Expositor situation. Hyrum’s later about-face and his testifying of the plural marriage doctrine before the High Council is one of the things that led to William Law turning on Joseph and the Church. In early 1843, however, Hyrum was still in the dark about it and was still trying his best to root out sexual immorality from among the Saints. Because of this, Joseph kept quiet about plural marriage until the timing was exactly right, leading to some awkward exchanges between Hyrum and those who already knew of the doctrine.
One of them was with Desdemona. She was living with Hyrum’s family at the time to help his wife, Mary Fielding Smith, with some sewing. Hyrum sat next to her one night and asked if he could ask her a question, and she said yes. He then asked her if, supposing Joseph came to her and told her that he had a revelation from God saying he could have more than one wife, she would believe it really did come from God. She asked him if he believed Joseph was a prophet, and he said he did. She replied that, because Joseph was a prophet, she couldn’t pick and choose which revelations she would believe. Hyrum let the matter drop until the next morning.
Apparently, over breakfast he said something to the effect of, “If I knew that any woman in this house believed in polygamy, I would kick them 40 rods up the road and then follow them and kick them still further.” So, being an intelligent young lady, she took that as her cue to move back out again.
After Hyrum learned the truth about plural marriage, he went to her and apologized and begged her forgiveness, telling her that she’d done service to God by standing by Joseph.
She was never shy about speaking her mind to others, just like she did with Hyrum. In her autobiography, she makes mention of several incidents where she stood up to those challenging her:
I went to Kirtland with a few Saints and lived one year there during which time a great number of the members turned against the church. Oliver Cowdery, with others, would say to me, ‘Are you such a fool as still to go to hear Joseph the fallen Prophet?’ I said, ‘The Lord convinced me that he was a true Prophet, and He has not told me that he is fallen yet.’
… Sometimes the mob would come to the door all armed and yell like Indians, ‘You must leave here in three days or all will be killed!’ When snow and winter was there, my brother lay helpless with fever. I spoke and said, ‘We have no team and wagon. We may as well die in the house as a few rods from it.’ So they let us go. We started to march for Illinois. On the way, the sectarian priests came around us and would say to us, ‘Give up your faith and stay with us, and you shall never want.’ I said, ‘I have no faith in you nor in your father, the Devil.’ So I shut them up every time.
Another thing worth mentioning is that one night, she had a dream/vision where she was warned that Emma would try to poison her if she stayed at the Smith house, so she told Joseph, who apparently agreed that “she would if she could.” So, Joseph helped Desdemona move to William Clayton’s residence. Subsequently, Joseph became so violently ill that he and others believed Emma had poisoned him instead. Brigham Young also shared this story as true. Joseph apparently became so ill that he dislocated his jaw from vomiting so hard and that he was vomiting up blood. His doctor agreed that it was certainly poison.
However, as Richard Bushman notes in Rough Stone Rolling, Joseph had dislocated his jaw from being ill at least one other time before then, and maybe again once more after that. This was in the middle of a lot of marital strife between Joseph and Emma, and it must have been really bad if Joseph was willing to publicly accuse Emma of poisoning him. It’s unlikely that she really did try to kill him, but Desdemona’s dream suggests that maybe she did. It’s hard to know one way or the other, though I doubt it.
For a time, Desdemona was a plural wife of Ezra T. Benson, great-grandfather of President Ezra Taft Benson, though they divorced after only six years. They didn’t have any children, either. Eventually, she married Harrison Parker McLane and had one child with him, a daughter who died the same year. The McLanes later divorced, after which she moved in with her brother and his family. She died in 1886 at the age of 76, still strong in the faith.
In her autobiography, as reported by Todd Compton, she stated:
The spirit of the Lord direc[t]ed me and [angels] vis[it]ed me and my faith increased in this church. I belong 30 years and the longer I live in it the better I like it.
For a change of pace, I wanted to highlight that, while these incredible experiences were somewhat common for many of these women, they were not universal. There were others who took a somewhat different route navigating their way through plural marriage, such as Flora Woodworth.
FLORA ANN WOODWORTH
Flora Woodworth joined the Church as a child and, with her family, moved to Missouri and then Nauvoo. She was born on November 14, 1826 and, while there’s not a firm sealing date, an estimate puts her sealing to Joseph on March 4, 1843, which would have made her 16 years old at the time.
At some point after that sealing, Joseph gave Flora a gold watch. That gift apparently had some dramatic consequences. William Clayton, one of Joseph’s most trusted scribes in his later years, wrote this entry in his journal for August 23, 1843:
23 August 1843, Wednesday Nauvoo 2
Wednesday 23rd. … Prest J. told me that he had difficulty with E. yesterday. She rode up to Woodworths with him & caled while he came to the Temple. When he returned she was demanding the gold watch of F. he reproved her for her evil treatment. On their return home she abused him much & also when he got home. he had to use harsh measures to put a stop to her abuse but finally succeeded.
To put this in context, Joseph had given Eliza R. Snow a gold watch as a gift at some point, and Emma knew that. Emma had her own gold watch which also may have been a gift from Joseph, as mentioned in the cited link. I don’t know if Joseph gave all of his wives watches as marriage gifts or if it was just them, but at least these three women had them.
One day, August 22, Joseph and Emma went out. Joseph visited the Nauvoo temple site, while Emma paid a social visit to the Woodworth family. She was apparently unaware of Joseph’s sealing to Flora until she learned of Flora’s watch—whether she saw it and asked, or whether Flora told her unprompted, it’s unclear. Emma was upset by the news and got into an argument with Flora. When Joseph returned, he found Emma demanding the watch from Flora. Joseph reprimanded her for her behavior, and they left. Once they were alone, Emma lit into Joseph for, assumedly, both the sealing and his public reproval.
Finally, he “had to use harsh measures” to make her stop. I don’t know exactly what that means, but they were clearly having a fight so he almost certainly shouted at her. There’s no evidence of any kind of physical abuse. Joseph and Emma were having serious marital trouble around this time, as mentioned above with Desdemona’s story, and apparently, divorce was on the table. Maybe warning her about that possibility is what Clayton meant, or maybe he reminded her of the covenants she’d made and the consequences for breaking them, but I honestly don’t know.
Seymour B. Young later stated that Emma destroyed Flora’s watch, so she may have actually taken it from her. However, this statement wasn’t made until 1912, nearly 70 years later, so who knows if it’s actually true or not.
Flora’s reaction to all of this was both extreme and understandable. She was 16 years old, after all, and this must have been a very difficult situation to find herself in. But she also seems to have been pretty immature in some of her behavior, which she apparently later regretted.
The very next day, August 23, she eloped to Carthage and civilly married a non-Latter-day Saint, Carlos Gove. It’s unclear what their relationship was like prior to their marriage, but Flora had already allowed at least one other young man to court her after her sealing to Joseph, who had to be told about the marriage by Flora’s mother.
After this, on August 26, 28, and 29, Joseph, Flora, and Flora’s mother met up for some big conversations. It’s unclear whether Flora and Joseph had ever consummated their marriage, but this was scandalous by any measure regardless of that. Joseph apparently released Flora from at least the “time” portion of the sealing and she remained married to Carlos. After Joseph’s death, she was endowed and re-sealed to him the way many of his wives were.
Carlos hated the Church, but Flora somehow convinced him to head West anyway, though they never made it to Utah. Her marriage to Carlos was apparently not a happy one because of his strongly negative feelings toward the Church and its members. According to Helen Mar Kimball, she came to regret her rash behavior and wished she’d remained true to Joseph, intending to “cling to him hereafter.”
Despite her impetuous reaction to her altercation with Emma, Flora remained strong in her faith until the day she died, and she looked forward to reuniting with Joseph in the next life. Tragically, her death came only a few short years after Joseph’s. Flora died in her mid-20s near Council Bluffs, Iowa, in either 1850 or 1851, after battling hardship and a long illness while en route to Utah. She left behind her husband and two young children.
Her story is sad but hopeful. She seemed to grow out of her immaturity and managed to hold true to her faith despite some difficult times. I don’t know how her life would have turned out had she made it to Utah, but she ultimately recognized the importance of the endowment and of her sealing to Joseph. She died intending to honor that sealing, and we’ve all made decisions we later come to regret. She was human, like we all are, and she eventually learned what really matters in this life: holding true to our covenants.
That’s why I wanted to recognize Flora today alongside Lucy and Desdemona. She didn’t see angels, she made some bad decisions, and she isn’t some amazing, otherwordly example of faithfulness that’s seemingly impossible to live up to. But she learned from her mistakes, and she pressed on, and she did her best. She’s just like every one of us in that regard, and to me, that’s worth championing.
So, it was not all sunshine and roses for these women, and none of their stories are identical. They went through difficult times that most of us can only imagine. But many of them did receive incredible blessings for their faithfulness, and those who did remained true to the Church and to Joseph for the rest of their lives. Many of them testified in favor of plural marriage despite the hardships it brought them because those blessings were so great by comparison. Theirs is a faith that has echoed through the generations of our religion, and there’s a reason we still hold them up as examples and inspirations to us today.
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.