Plural marriage is one of the top two or three most controversial things about our church’s history. It’s something that most people have strong feelings about. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground, and it’s been a divisive doctrine right from the very beginning.
It’s probably what we’re most known for, and is definitely what we’re most mocked over. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been watching a show or movie, only to have a random “joke” tossed out about “the Mormons” and polygamy.
Personally, I know a great many people who are disturbed or embarrassed by this part of our history. I’m sure you all do, too. Some people really, really struggle with this doctrine. It’s one I personally developed a testimony of about ten years ago, but I had very conflicted feelings over it before then. It’s still not something I’d be happy to live and I’m incredibly grateful that I live in a time when I don’t have to, at least in this lifetime. I do firmly believe that it did come from God, but it’s complicated and messy. I can’t give anyone a testimony or make anyone believe the way I do. Everyone needs to resolve that question for themselves.
What I can do is help clarify some of the history and some of the doctrinal reasons that were given for its implementation. I can point you toward research done by people much smarter than I am. I can respond to Faulk’s claims with the same level of scrutiny I’ve given his other claims. And I can discuss this topic openly and honestly, the way I always try to, and not shy away from those messy, complicated aspects of the practice.
I’m biased—I’m telling you right up front that I believe this practice was instituted by God. Thomas Faulk is biased, too. He believes it wasn’t instituted by God. But you shouldn’t take either of us at our word. Put in the work and do the research, and most importantly, pray to Heavenly Father. Tell Him how you feel about it, and ask Him for guidance, understanding, and clarification. It’s what I did, and it’s the best advice I can give: develop your own testimony. Don’t rely on mine or your spouse’s or your parents’, or anyone else’s for that matter. Obtain your own, and maintain and grow it over time. Let the Holy Ghost work on you. Let Him teach you. It’s why He’s there.
Another thing I want to say right off the bat is that many of my citations on this topic are going to come from the work of Brian Hales. He is perhaps the world’s leading authority on Joseph Smith’s personal practice of polygamy. I can’t think of any other scholar who would even be close except for Don Bradley, Brian’s frequent collaborator and research assistant. They are both very knowledgeable on this topic, far more so than any of the authors of these various “letters.”
Faulk introduces this topic like this:
What kind of motivations could a man have to wed many women?
There are many things that would motivate a man to marry multiple women. Joseph Smith did not leave a personal statement of his motivation, but his friends repeated his motivation multiple times: he believed it was a direct commandment from God. It was also referred to explicitly as a commandment in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Therefore, the question in this case is likely not what his motivation was. It should be whether or not you believe him when you hear his motivation.
As I said above, this is a question I took directly to Heavenly Father. I put aside my personal assumptions and I asked Him if it was a commandment from Him, and if it was, to open my mind and give me understanding and insight as to why it was a commandment. Because I did that, I can say that yes, I believe Joseph when I hear what his motivation was, according to those who knew him and the revelation he received.
The idea that he did it for reasons of lust isn’t borne out by the evidence. There isn’t any evidence of sexual relations in most of his unions, and the ones that do have evidence show that it happened rarely.
By some estimates Joseph Smith married up to 65 women from a growing group of people that intensely admired him and that he held great influence over.
There are two parts to this question, the number of Joseph’s wives and whether or not he coerced them.
The exact number of Joseph’s wives is unknown and varies depending on the source. Hales puts the number at 35, not 65. Wikipedia lists approximately 50 potential wives, drawing on the work of Todd Compton, George D. Smith, and Fawn Brodie. That list is unconfirmed and some names are purely speculative. I can’t find a single source but Faulk who puts it as high as 65. Most sources put in the 30-40 range.
Something to bear in mind here is that these were not all marriages as we consider them today. Many—more than half, according to the evidence—were sealings for the next life only. Sealings and marriages are not the same things, though we often perform them together in the temple today. In the Nauvoo period, there were three different types of unions: marriages or sealings for this life only; sealings for the next life only; and marriages for time and eternity, like those we conduct today.
Joseph engaged in at least two of these types of unions, time-and-eternity and eternity-only, so while they’re all referred to his as his “wives,” that term isn’t technically accurate. Many were only sealings for the next life, with little-to-no contact in this life. They didn’t live as a married couple, there were no sexual relations, and they were rarely ever alone together in any capacity. And after Joseph’s death, several of the Apostles married Joseph’s wives for time-only. We’ll surely dive into all of this in more detail later in this section.
One prominent accusation of critics is that Joseph used his influence to coerce women into marrying him. There were two or three accusations of that at the time by women who were close to John C. Bennett and William Law, but none that hold up very well under scrutiny.
He also declined the opportunity to marry additional wives, which he likely wouldn’t have done if his behavior was predatory in any way.
Reports by the vast majority of those whom Joseph proposed plural marriage to suggest that he was very cautious about it, often using an intermediary. These were not passionate declarations of love or lust; at least on a few occasions, they were described as businesslike, contractual obligations.
Most importantly, several women turned him down without any reprisals or consequences, and he actively encouraged all of the women involved to pray for their own testimonies of the practice before answering him. The women were always to have a choice in the matter.
Even more interestingly, multiple women described intense spiritual experiences in response, from visions of the Celestial Kingdom to being surrounded by halos of light to divine messengers confirming the commandment from God.
For unspecified reasons his polygamy is never addressed in the Church education system, yet when studied in detail, problems appear concerning the timeline that Joseph began this practice, the secretive nature with subsequent denial, and the types of women married.
Is Faulk legitimately claiming that between four years of Seminary, four years of Institute, attending the MTC, and going through at least 22 years of Sunday School before graduating college, he never once was taught that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy? I find that incredibly difficult to believe. Maybe he just wasn’t paying very close attention in class or something, I don’t know, or maybe I’m just being judgmental. But I honestly don’t understand how someone can study the Doctrine and Covenants and read Section 132 without coming to the realization that the prophet who restored plural marriage also practiced it himself.
Plural marriage was deemphasized for a few decades in the 20th Century after the practice was ended, but it was never hidden information. The reason for this minimization was almost assuredly to further separate our church from that of the fundamentalist sects who still continue the practice. But even with that, it was still widely available information.
I’ve told this story before, but we moved into the house where I spent most of my youth when I was seven years old. That’s the ward I was baptized in. Before we moved there, I had a friend who lived up the block from me who was the daughter of a polygamist family. When I learned that her father had three wives, I thought it was kind of weird, but not that weird, because I’d already been taught in Primary that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both had more than one wife. I didn’t know any of the details yet by that point, but I’d been taught even at that young age, prior to baptism, that it happened. And that wasn’t the only time I was taught about it in a Church setting. I learned more in Sunday School as I grew older, and more still in Seminary and Institute.
And growing up in Utah, it’s common to meet those who had ancestors who were married to Joseph Smith. I had a friend in middle school who was a descendant of Edward Partridge and was named Emily. It was impossible to be friends with her and not know that she was named after her distant relative who was one of Joseph’s plural wives.
I know that not everyone had those same experiences, and I do sympathize with those who learned the information later in life and were shocked by it. But I don’t understand how someone can grow up in the Church and serve a mission or watch tv and movies and never once hear that Joseph Smith had multiple wives. I don’t understand how people could be aware of the exodus from Nauvoo across the plains, or learn of the martyrdom, without knowing that plural marriage was a catalyst for all of it. I’m not saying that to berate or belittle anyone who didn’t know about it, but I just genuinely don’t understand how they didn’t know. I’m always surprised and confused when I hear that from someone who didn’t convert to the Church later in life.
Many of those same people are equally shocked when they hear I learned it so young. In fact, a friend of mine has insinuated that my memories are false and that I gaslit myself into believing that I learned it before adulthood. But that same friend also can’t explain why I was comfortable with my friend’s polygamist family without having a basis for that, or how I knew about my friend Emily’s ancestry.
The point is, we all have different experiences in this Church, and trying to make your experience apply universally just doesn’t work. That’s something the authors of these different “letters” do, claim that their experiences are the exact same experiences everyone has in the Church. But that’s just not true. Their experiences aren’t universal, and their conclusions don’t have to be, either.
As far as the “problems” that Faulk describes, he’ll go into more detail as we go along, so I’ll address them as they come up.
An issue arises when we compare the date of the revelation to begin polygamy and the dates of Joseph’s marriages.
This “issue” is pretty easily explained by the actual history of the revelation. The date when it was written down was not the date when it was first received. Joseph apparently received at least a portion of the revelation back as early as 1831 while working on the JST. Then, subsequent portions as it related to the Temple Endowment and celestial marriage may have come over the next few years, or it all may have been given at once. The full timeline is murky, but the evidence does show that at least part of it was received in 1831. It wasn’t recorded yet presumably because of its controversial nature and because the time had not yet come when the Saints were commanded to live by its doctrine.
The story goes that, in 1843 when Emma was struggling so badly with the doctrine, Hyrum went to his brother and requested a written copy of the revelation so he could take it to her and try to help her understand and accept it. Joseph apparently warned him that it was a bad idea, but agreed to let him try, and dictated it to William Clayton. Hyrum’s meeting with Emma did not go well, to put it mildly, and Hyrum apparently told them later that “he had never received a more severe talking to in his life.”
So, that’s why it was ultimately written down, but it was received well before then.
Doctrine and Covenants, (Heading) Section 132
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843, relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant and the principle of plural marriage. (The Church has recently amended this heading to include, “evidence indicates that some of the principles involved in this revelation were known by the Prophet as early as 1831.” What they fail to clarify is that the 1831 revelation shows that Joseph instructed some elders to “take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome” (Letter from W.W. Phelps to Brigham Young, August 12, 1861, Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church Historians Office.)
This is conflating two different things, and one of them is not confirmed. It’s true that the section heading for 132 does agree that at least some of it was received in 1831. However, it is somewhat disingenuous to claim that the Church has “recently amended this heading to include, ‘evidence indicates that some of the principles involved in this revelation were known by the Prophet as early as 1831.’” The way it’s worded, it implies that the Church only recently added the information about it being known as early as 1831.
You see, as Reddit user WooperSlim pointed out, in the 1981 edition—when the section headings were standardized—it originally said, “it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831.” All they did was clarify that it was some of the principles, and update some of the phrasing.
And, as I said earlier, some elements of the revelation may have come later.
There is no existing copy of any revelation on marriage given in 1831, though. There are two secondhand reports that there was some kind of revelation given that recommended marriage to the “Lamanites,” but they conflict on the details. More importantly, neither record purports it to be the same revelation as the celestial marriage covenant given in D&C 132.
The first record was a letter from Ezra Booth, a former member of the Church who had apostatized and turned critical of Joseph. This letter was printed in the Ohio Star on October 27, 1831, and claimed that Joseph was encouraging members of the Church to divorce their wives and marry Native American women instead. This was apparently so that the Church members could take up residence in what was then called Indian territory and proselytize that way.
The second record is the one mentioned by Faulk above, a letter from W.W. Phelps written on August 12, 1861, thirty years after the fact, in which he quotes the supposed revelation. It’s unknown what source he was working off when composing the letter, because if it was memory alone, it’s highly suspect because of how detailed it is. In that letter, Phelps tells Brigham Young that Joseph gave a revelation saying that some of the missionaries to the Indian territory should marry Native American wives. Phelps added that when he asked Joseph about that, since they were all already married, his response was that they should have more than one wife like Abraham did.
We have no way of knowing whether that report is accurate or not. That there were two people who claimed to know about it, even if the details differ, points to something of the sort being said. But Booth was not one of those missionaries who were supposedly given the revelation, so it would appear that he was just passing along information that he heard from someone else.
And it’s unknown whether Phelps was recreating it from memory 30 years later, or if he was working off of notes taken around the time, or a copy of the revelation, or what. By that point, he’d spent 30 years justifying and defending plural marriage, so it’s entirely possible his memories altered over time. He admitted right in the letter that nobody in the company at the time had paper or pen or ink to write with, so whatever notes he would have made would have been from several days later—or more—after the revelation was supposedly given.
None of the other missionaries ever mentioned it, so we can’t even say that this revelation was ever even given, let alone that it said anything about plural marriage. The certainty with which Faulk makes his declaration is just not warranted by the evidence.
In 1833 Fanny Alger became Joseph’s first marriage after Emma – ten years before the official revelation. At the time, Fanny was living in the Smith home, helping Emma with housework and the children.
This isn’t quite accurate. We don’t know much about Fanny Alger’s relationship with Joseph Smith, but we know some things. She went to live with Joseph and Emma as a servant in the household in 1833, but best estimates of the actual marriage date puts it sometime in late 1835 or early 1836.
It was also not “ten years before the official revelation,” as we just covered. It was about eight years before the revelation was written down, but it was approximately four years after it was revealed to Joseph that the practice would be restored. According to Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, it was also at least a year after the angel with the drawn sword first commanded Joseph to start practicing it himself.
It is true, however, that Fanny was the first of Joseph’s plural wives.
A family friend, one of Brigham Young’s plural wives, recalls:
“Mrs. Smith had an adopted daughter, a very pretty, pleasing young girl, about seventeen years old. She was extremely fond of her; no mother could be more devoted, and their affection for each other was a constant object of remark, so absorbing and genuine did it seem. Consequently it was with a shocked surprise that the people heard that sister Emma had turned Fanny out of the house in the night…By degrees it became whispered about that Joseph’s love for his adopted daughter was by no means a paternal affection, and his wife discovering the fact, at once took measures to place the girl beyond his reach. Since Emma refused decidedly to allow her to remain in her house … my mother offered to take her until she could be sent to her relatives” (Ann Eliza Webb, Wife No. 19, 1875)
Again, there’s some distorted information in all of this. Ann Eliza Webb Young wasn’t even born until 1844, well after Fanny had moved away. Categorizing Ann Eliza as a family friend of Fanny’s is a gross inaccuracy. They never even met one another.
Fanny stayed with the Webb family for a few months after moving out of the Smith home, but that was in 1836. You could possibly consider Fanny a family friend of Ann Eliza’s parents, but there’s not much evidence they kept in touch after she left town. Besides, that isn’t the claim that Faulk made.
Beyond that, listing Ann Eliza as a plural wife of Brigham Young without giving the rest of the details is seriously sketchy. She divorced Brigham after four years, sold off a bunch of his possessions from the house he set up for her, got herself excommunicated for apostasy, and then went on the lecture circuit telling wild, untrue stories about her time in the Church. She also wrote an autobiography that was later proven to be more fiction than fact, and no credible historian should take her word seriously without doing a lot of fact-checking. I won’t get into her personal life other than that, but she had a lengthy history of dishonesty, and using her as an unironic source tells me a lot about Faulk’s level of research.
Oliver Cowdery also addresses this situation when he noted his extreme displeasure regarding Joseph’s conduct with Fanny Alger while married to Emma. In a letter to his brother, Warren A. Cowdery, Oliver wrote:
“We had some conversation in which in every instance I did not fail to affirm that what I had said was strictly true. A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger’s was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deserted from the truth in that matter and as I supposed was admitted by himself.” (Oliver Cowdery, Far West, Missouri, January 21, 1839)
There’s been some interesting research done on this letter. First of all, we don’t have a copy of the actual letter. Back in the 1800s, it was common for people to have what they called letter books. They would copy their letters into them before they send them, so they’d have a full record of the correspondence. The copy of this letter is from Oliver’s letter book, which was maintained by his nephew.
Second, we need to focus on the word “affair.” According to the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, it wasn’t referring to a romantic or adulterous affair. It was using the other meanings of the word: “business” that was conducted, “matters,” or “concerns.”
But more importantly, Oliver didn’t even use that word. His nephew did. The word “affair” was written over the top of another word that had been crossed out. That word was “scrape,” which is “a low word” meaning a “difficulty” or “perplexity.” It being a low word meant that it was kind of a crass term, not something that people used in polite society. Because it wasn’t a polite word, Oliver’s nephew apparently felt it would reflect badly on Oliver for using it, so he edited it while copying it into the letter book.
Essentially, Oliver was referring to “a dirty, nasty, filthy situation,” something he didn’t approve of but not something he was willing to call adultery.
This is important because Oliver despised the entire idea of plural marriage. He did not believe it came from God, and he believed that Joseph was a fallen prophet for discussing it. It’s the main reason for the deterioration of his friendship with Joseph and for his excommunication. Only two years before rejoining the church and four years before his death, he wrote a letter in which he called the practice “an abomination.” That position likely didn’t change before he died. He viewed the practice as sinful and wrong.
Even with Oliver’s important role in the formation of the Church, Joseph could not allow his affairs to become public. The issue of polygamy divided Oliver and Joseph so wide that Joseph turned Oliver out of the Church after his unceasing disapproval of the practice.
It appears that Faulk took the word “affair” at face value. Oliver was not excommunicated to silence him, and it was not the only reason for his excommunication. He was charged with a lengthy list of things that included writing counterfeit checks and defrauding members of the Church, something that hurt his feelings deeply. He maintained his innocence on those charges until the end, because he highly valued his reputation as an honest man. And the reason he valued it so highly was because he wanted people to believe his testimony of the Book of Mormon:
But from your last [letter], I am fully satisfied, that no unjust imputation will be suffered to remain upon my character. And that I may not be misunderstood, let me here say that I have only sought, and only asked, that my character might stand exonerated from those charges which imputed to me the crimes of theft, forgery, &c. Those which all my former associates knew to be false. I do not, I have never asked, to be excused, or exempted from an acknowledgement, of my actual fault or wrong—for of these there are many; which it always was my pleasure to confess. I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony. I have been sensitive on this subject, I admit; but I ought to be so—you would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John, with our departed brother Joseph, to receive the Lesser Priesthood—and in the presence of Peter, to receive the Greater, and looked down through time, and witnessed the effects these two must produce,—you would feel what you have never felt, were wicked men conspiring to lessen the effects of your testimony on man, after you should have gone to your long sought rest. But, enough, enough, on this.
That lengthy list of charges included insinuating that Joseph committed adultery, but that was far from the only thing on the list.
In a chapter of a book titled The Persistence of Polygamy, Don Bradley shared his thoughts on the matter. I agree wholeheartedly with his characterization of Oliver:
Even the vehement oral accusations and letter by Cowdery, for instance, fall short of stating that Smith’s behavior constituted adultery. In his trial, Cowdery was charged with “insinuating” that Smith’s relationship with Alger was adulterous, accused of this in the testimony, and convicted of making insinuations rather than assertions that Smith had committed adultery. Though said to have given his verbal answer with incongruous body language, he stated “no” when asked point blank if Smith’s confessions to him amounted to an admission of adultery. There is nothing to indicate that “adultery” was his term. This reluctance to use the term “adultery” seems out of line with his emphatic condemnation of Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy” behavior and his insistence that his reports had been “strictly true” and “never deserted from the truth of the matter.”
Because Cowdery was alienated from Joseph Smith at the time of his trial and was being expelled from the church, it is not likely that the best construction was being placed on his words and actions. And Cowdery was not in attendance at his trial, rendering him unable to defend himself from exaggeration and misunderstanding. The wrong he saw in Smith might thus have not been adultery, but polygamy.
Evidence coincident with Cowdery’s return to the church eight years later indicates his revulsion to polygamy and his incredulity that it would be allowed as a religious practice. For Cowdery, polygamy was a sexual sin in itself, and perhaps arguably constituted adultery. Such an uncertain definition on Cowdery’s part would account for his curious mix of vehemence against Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy” behavior on the one hand and reticence to directly call it “adultery” on the other.
Though Cowdery’s letter, with its talk of Smith’s “dirty, nasty, filthy affair,” would seem to explicitly identify the relationship as an extramarital affair, it does not. The letter stops short of an accusation of adultery….
It’s an important point that Oliver wasn’t there for his trial, so he couldn’t rebut what they were saying about him. The testimonies against him easily could have been exaggerated or misconstrued. However, it also seems quite clear that he believed polygamy was an immoral sexual sin, even if it may not have technically been adultery.
He was found guilty and excommunicated at this trial, by the way, after Joseph got up and explained the truth of the situation between him and Fanny. The minutes of the meeting state that he addressed “the girl business,” but they’re deliberately brief and vague. It does not say what he told them, just that he gave an explanation that satisfied them. According to Bradley, though, the scribe of those minutes later wrote a letter where he said that polygamy first came to light in 1838, the year of the trial. It seems pretty clear that Joseph told the High Council about being commanded to practice plural marriage at that time, and that they accepted his explanation even if they didn’t fully understand or believe it at that time.
Additionally, Fanny’s uncle Solomon Hancock was on that High Council. So, her own family believed Joseph’s explanation and found Oliver guilty of, among other things, wrongly insinuating that Joseph had an affair with Fanny.
Whether he actually implied that openly or not, Oliver saw polygamy as something immoral and filthy. He viewed it just like he viewed any sexual sin. He may have hesitated to call it adultery outright, but he certainly didn’t approve and didn’t seem to see much difference, though he acknowledged that Joseph did.
The main accusation flying around during the Kirtland days was not of polygamy, it was of adultery. Joseph repeatedly and strenuously denied that he was engaged in adultery, and that was the crux of his argument with Oliver on the subject. Oliver was hesitant to call Joseph a liar, but he wasn’t shy about saying that he believed what Joseph was doing was wrong. He did not believe that something like polygamy could ever come from God. Joseph was equally forceful in saying that it wasn’t wrong, it was a commandment from God, and it wasn’t adultery. Joseph’s denials from this time period were focused on this point: he was not an adulterer and did not appreciate being called one.
But Oliver was not “turned out of the Church” simply for that reason, and it was not done to silence him. Nothing could have stopped Oliver from saying whatever he wanted to after he was excommunicated, but he didn’t make any further accusations. Instead, he continually reaffirmed his testimony of the Book of Mormon and the miraculous things he’d witnessed. He and Joseph had forgiven one another and were headed for reconciliation when Joseph died. Most importantly, he was rebaptized and died strong in the faith.
Oliver’s story is an exemplification of the pride cycle and the redemptive power of the Atonement. It’s not the story of a whistleblower being silenced for daring to speak the truth.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d 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.