Sorry for taking so long to get this posted! I’ve been putting in more than 60 hours a week at work lately, and I just didn’t have time to properly research this post until now.
This week, the topic under discussion is Joseph’s wives and the way that he personally practiced plural marriage. It’s true that some of the circumstances a little unusual compared to how later members practiced it, and it’s also true that sealing practices in general were unusual compared to how we practice them today. The world was also very different in the 1840s than it is today in the 2020s.
All of that means that it can be very difficult for us to understand what was going on and why. I’m going to do my best to break this all down so that it makes sense, but just remember, it’s okay if it makes you uncomfortable. It’s okay if you don’t like the idea of plural marriage. It’s okay if you don’t ever want to practice it. I don’t, either.
But I do have a firm testimony that it was commanded by God. That testimony didn’t just magically appear one day. I had to earn it. I had to get on my knees and pray, and I had to ask Heavenly Father whether He instituted it or not. I had to study the issue and the circumstances surrounding it. More importantly, I had to ask Him to help me understand the reasons why He instituted it.
That’s the only way to really know for yourself.
So, having said that, let’s get into Faulk’s claims.
- The Women
Due to the secretive nature of Joseph’s affairs, the actual total number of wives Joseph took is unclear. Written records, primary accounts and second hand accounts puts the number between 29-65 women.
They were not affairs, they were sealings. Sixty-five is also a pretty exaggerated number. Most reputable sources put it at around 30-35. And again, remember that sealings are different than marriages, even though we often perform them together today. Many of those sealings were for eternity only, not for both time and eternity the way that sealings are done today. In fact, some of those wives, such as Cordelia Morley and Rachel Ivins Grant, did not have any kind of union with him at all while he was alive, and were sealed to Joseph for the very first time after he was already dead.
One thing to remember is that the sealing power is to seal us all together as one giant family. It’ll be one unbroken chain connecting all of us together. Many of these sealings of Joseph’s were done for that specific reason, to bind families together in the next life. That’s why there were things like adoption sealings, where people would be “adopted” into each other’s families through the sealing process. Siblings were sometimes sealed together. Women who were married to men who were not members of the Church would sometimes to be sealed to righteous Priesthood holders for the next life.
Also, it drives me batty that Faulk keeps repeating that Joseph took wives. None of them were married to him against their will. They all had a choice in the matter.
Most disturbing was the fact that many of these women were already married, much younger and related to each other.
Why is that “most disturbing”? The women were all of legal marriageable age, and there is no evidence of any sexual relations between Joseph and any of the civilly married women, or with any of the youngest wives.
One of the reasons it’s believed that Joseph was sealed to so many women who were already married is because he was trying to satisfy God’s commandment while not hurting Emma. If he was sealing himself to married women, he wouldn’t have to actually marry them and live together as husband and wife. As the Gospel Topics Essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” says:
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.
Joseph’s youngest wife, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, was sealed to Joseph when she was fourteen. We’ll discuss her in some detail a little later in this post. But that union was done for dynastic/adoptive reasons at her father’s request, to join Heber C. Kimball’s family to Joseph’s in the eternities.
And, believe it or not, some of the women who practiced plural marriage probably found it easier to do so when the other wife was biologically related to them. After all, they already loved them and knew how to live together with them in harmony.
- Married: Between 8-11 women were married to other men at the time Joseph took them for his wives.
And every single one of them remained married to their husbands after they were sealed to Joseph. That’s because, again, sealings and marriages are not the same thing, and sealings for the next life had no bearing on their marriages in this one. Joseph did not live with these women as husband and wife.
He sent several men on missions for the Church then married their wives, or married their wives in secret and then sent the husbands on missions afterwards.
Many of the husbands in question knew about the sealings and some even participated in them. Joseph also did not send the husbands on missions so he could marry their wives in secret.
- Marinda Nancy Johnson-Hyde-Smith
In September 1831, Joseph and Emma Smith moved in with the Johnson family while Joseph and Sidney Rigdon worked on translating the Bible. While staying with the Johnsons in March, 1832, Joseph Smith was dragged out by a mob and tarred and feathered. Marinda’s brother Eli led the mob because he felt that Joseph had been too intimate with Marinda.
Um. No. Eli Johnson was Marinda’s uncle, not her brother, and he wasn’t the leader of the mob. The mob also didn’t attack him for that reason. Marinda herself said that Joseph had never acted inappropriately while he was staying in her father’s home. This accusation was first introduced during the infamous 1884 Braden-Kelley debate, and repeated without investigation by Fawn Brodie, Grant Palmer, Jon Krakauer, and a host of others.
The mob was led by Symonds Ryder and Ezra Booth, because they thought he’d try to steal their property under the Law of Consecration. They’d both already apostatized for various reasons, then led a smear campaign against Joseph and the Church through local newspapers for a while before leading the fatal attack. The only evidence that Eli Johnson was even involved are brief reports that he was the one who provided and heated the tar. According to at least one account, he may not have even been an active participant, but just left it out for them to use. The mob tried to castrate then murder Joseph and nearly did kill Sidney Rigdon, and were unsuccessful in all attempts.
However, as we all know, Joseph’s infant son tragically died from the effects of the frigid weather that night. Pretty tough bunch of guys, right? Gathering up a violent mob to go murder a baby.
Soon Marinda married apostle Orson Hyde. On April 6, 1840, Orson was sent on a 3 year mission to Jerusalem. Shortly after his departure, Joseph married his wife Nancy Marinda Johnson-Hyde while Orson was gone. In Joseph Smith’s journal, in a list of his marriages he wrote “Apr 42 Marinda Johnson to Joseph Smith.” In 1858 Orson and Marinda separated.
The separation of Orson and Marinda Hyde had nothing to do with her sealing to Joseph, which had happened 15 years before the separation. The rest of this is also pretty heavily distorted. 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 his 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. They were not sealed “shortly after his departure” at all. In fact, even the earliest sealing date is closer to the date he returned than the date he left.
- Zina Diantha Huntington-Jacobs-Smith-Young
Zina was 18 when her mother died and after went to live in the Smith’s home. Soon she met Joseph’s friend, Henry Jacobs. Joseph was to officiate their wedding, but never showed. Instead, bishop John C. Bennett performed the marriage. Later, Zina asked Joseph why he didn’t show, *“He told her it had been made known to him that she was to be his Celestial Wife and he could not give to another one who had been given to him.”* (Henry Jacobs, History of Henry Bailey Jacobs)
During Henry and Zina’s marriage, Joseph sent Henry on 8 missions. At one point Joseph sent a message to Zina through her brother Dimick. It read, “Tell Zina I have put it off and put it off until an angel with a drawn sword has stood before me and told me if I did not establish that principle and live it, I would lose my position and my life and the Church could progress no further.” After four proposals and pressured with the responsibility for the life of the prophet, Zina finally accepted. (Brian C. Hales, Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 69–70.)
That last line there is a pretty big exaggeration of what the cited article actually says. The article doesn’t even discuss Zina Huntington at all. The only place she’s even mentioned is her inclusion in a chart of the different accounts of the angel with the drawn sword. I’ve included a screenshot of the only three mentions of her from Faulk’s cited source. In fact, that sentence is actually a paraphrased line from In Sacred Loneliness.
Zina, however, clarified that she came to accept the principle through searching the scriptures and praying, and that she received an answer from God that it was from Him. It was not because she felt pressured into it.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to pin down exact details when it comes to Zina’s timeline, as there are a lot of discrepancies. When I wrote my response to the CES Letter, I cited liberally from a book titled 4 Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier. This book used to be housed on the Internet Archive, but has since been taken down. Forgive me that I can’t show exact pages anymore on those specific citations.
Many years after all these events took place, Zina gave testimony saying that she first learned of the principle of plural marriage from her brother Dimick, who had heard it from Joseph. Other sources, seemingly reliant on her diary, say that she learned it from Joseph while she was staying at his home. Some sources say that Joseph proposed to her three times while she was living at his home and that she refused him each time out of respect for Emma. Other sources say she declined to give him an answer and kept putting him off, also out of respect for Emma. Some sources say that Joseph wrote Zina a letter saying he’d been threatened by an angel with a drawn sword, while others say that it was a verbal message passed to her by Dimick, who had been sent to offer her another proposal (even though she was already married to Henry Jacobs at that point). Some sources say that Henry was present for that initial sealing to Joseph, but absent from the other resealing to Joseph for eternity and sealing to Brigham for time. Others say Henry was there for the sealing to Brigham, but are silent on whether he was there for the first sealing to Joseph. Zina said in her later testimony that it was just Joseph, her, and Dimick present at their initial sealing, but that Brigham later resealed them after he returned from a mission to England, meaning that she would have been sealed to Joseph three times in total. However, in signed affidavits collected by the Church, Zina, Dimick, and Dimick’s wife Fanny all verified that Fanny was there at the sealing, too. Etc.
Because of all of this, it’s difficult to know exactly what happened, who was aware of what, and when and how they all became aware of it. However, Zina did say that the Lord had prepared her for the doctrine prior to her hearing it:
I will tell you the facts. I had dreams — I am no dreamer but I had dreams that I could not account for. I know this is the work of the Lord; it was revealed to me, even when young. Things were presented to my mind that I could not account for. When Joseph Smith revealed this order I knew what it meant; the Lord was preparing my mind to receive it.
Additionally, Henry was called on his first mission in May of 1839, before he ever even met Zina. The guy was a prolific missionary who served repeatedly throughout his life. None of those missions overlapped with Joseph’s sealing to Zina.
In fact, according to family tradition, he was present when Joseph told Zina that the reason he hadn’t officiated their wedding is because she was meant to be his plural wife. Henry accepted the news because he was close to Joseph and trusted him. Zina was the one who hadn’t received an answer yet and still had reservations at that time.
After Joseph’s death, Brigham Young also took Zina for his wife while she was still married to Henry Jacobs. Brigham called Henry to serve a mission in England and told him to find another wife. While Henry was in England, Zina began living at the Young house with her children and soon bore a child with Brigham.
Let’s walk through all of this. First, many of Joseph’s sealed wives who were already civilly married to someone else just stayed married to their husbands after his death. They had the choice on whether to re-seal themselves to Joseph or not, and the single wives had the choice of which members of the Twelve they wanted to be sealed to for time. Zina wasn’t forced to leave her marriage to seal herself to Brigham. She chose to do that. He didn’t take her from Henry; she voluntarily left him.
Brigham supposedly told Henry to find another wife, though that can’t be corroborated. He also supposedly had to tell Henry to stop writing love letters to Zina after they were married.
But here’s the thing. Brigham eventually had several dozen wives and 57 children, in addition to being the leader of the Church and the governor of Utah Territory, owning multiple businesses, and directing the settlement efforts across a very large area. Dude was a busy guy, just saying. Zina did not live with him and did not spent tons of alone time with him. She lived for a time in a separate home with her children, and for a time in a house with several of his other wives. The time she spent alone together with him was sporadic and infrequent.
How would Brigham know that Zina was getting love letters from Henry Jacobs unless she told him? And if she enjoyed receiving those letters, why would she tell him? Why not hide them from him? It would’ve been pretty easy to do so—all she had to do was keep her mouth shut. It’s not like Brigham was snooping through all of his wives’ things in his limited free time. The only reason for her to bring the letters to his attention was if she didn’t like receiving them.
Imagine it from her point of view. You get divorced and move on. You describe that marriage as an unhappy one at several points throughout the rest of your life. You marry someone else and even have a child with them, but your ex keeps contacting you, telling you how much they still love you and still want to be with you. How uncomfortable would that be? It’d be an extremely awkward situation for anyone.
To me, it’s far more likely that Zina went to Brigham and asked him to intervene because it was making her uncomfortable than it is that Brigham found out on his own and flew into a rage and forbade Henry from contacting Zina despite her protestations.
Aside from a very few notable exceptions, most of Brigham’s wives and children spoke of him in glowing terms. Zina herself mentioned his kindness repeatedly.
Henry, meanwhile, was married three more times and all four of his marriages ended in divorce. I don’t know what led to the end of the other three marriages, but I do know that Brigham Young wasn’t the common denominator in all of them.
It seems clear that Zina left Henry in what is sometimes called a “folk divorce.” This was an arrangement in the 19th Century where the man and woman decided to dissolve their marriage and go their separate ways, leaving each of them free to marry again. She chose to marry Brigham for time, and Henry struggled to move on afterward…for a time. Brigham asked him to back off, and he did.
- Vilate Kimball
Shortly after Heber’s return from England, he was introduced to the doctrine of plural marriage directly through a startling test. 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 never intended to take Vilate. It was all a test.” (Heber C. Kimball, Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer by Stanley B. Kimball, p.93)
Yep, because blessings come after the trial of our faith. Heber and Vilate were sealed for time and eternity that same night as a reward for their faithfulness. Theirs was one of the very first sealings of this dispensation.
Teenagers: Ten of Joseph’s wives were teenagers.
Here, Faulk posts another little chart, which I have also linked.
- Helen Mar Kimball-Smith
Instead of taking Heber C. Kimball’s wife, Vilate, as Joseph had done with others, he married Heber’s 14 year-old daughter, Helen, in May of 1843.
This is presented somewhat disingenuously. Joseph and Helen were sealed two years after Heber and Vilate were sealed. The two incidents are not connected at all. And, as mentioned earlier, Joseph and Helen were sealed at Heber’s urging. He wanted to link his family to Joseph’s in the eternities.
“The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph’s close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was sealed to Joseph several months before her 15th birthday.” (Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, LDS.org, Oct. 2014)
In a letter written by Helen Kimball, her father had asked her if she would be willing to be sealed to Joseph Smith, Joseph himself came to her and said,
“If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.” She talks of her mother’s hidden grief “to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path [of polygamy].” “I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it.” (Helen Mar Kimball, Mormon Polygamy: A History, by LDS Historian Richard S. Van Wagoner, p.53)
Ooh, this is super dishonest framing! The first two lines in quotation marks are indeed taken from an autobiographical letter written by Helen to her children in 1881. The first is from page 482 of a book titled A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History, and the second from page 486.
But that third quotation, about how she’d never have been sealed to Joseph if she knew it was anything more than a ceremony? That’s taken from page 19 of an early anti-Mormon pamphlet called Narrative of Some of the Proceedings of the Mormons: Giving an Account of Their Iniquities by Catherine Lewis, published in 1848. She claimed to have heard Helen say this to her mother at some point, though everything in the book is suspect. It’s all pretty badly distorted from reality, which you can see for yourself just by reading it.
Helen herself certainly never backed up its claim. She did admit to being upset as a 15-year-old at being prevented from going out to dances with her friends because of the sealing, so it’s possible she said something like that at one point in her frustration and disappointment. But the circumstances surrounding it are certainly skewed, since Catherine reports it in the context of Helen refusing, after Joseph’s death, to be sealed for time as her father’s plural wife. That surely never happened. And in fact, after a few more years, Helen became a very vocal defender of plural marriage and of Joseph Smith for the rest of her life.
So, I’d take that statement with a very big grain of salt. That Faulk presents it here as if it was a direct quote from Helen’s own letter to her children is repulsive.
Joseph told a reluctant Helen Mar Kimball that if she married him it would ensure her salvation and the salvation of all her family. Imagine the burden on a 14 year old girl’s emotions of the salvation for her entire family riding on accepting Joseph’s proposal.
Except that Helen herself admitted that she didn’t understand what he was trying to teach her, and neither of her parents, who were there at the time of the proposal, understood it that way at all.
- Nancy Winchester Smith
While records show Nancy was married to Joseph, no dates were written. At the time of Joseph’s death, Nancy was 15 years old. It is possible that, like Helen Mar Kimball, Nancy could have been 14.
It’s not confirmed that Nancy Winchester was a plural wife of Joseph Smith, though evidence leans that way. We also have no idea when that sealing would have taken place, because no records of the sealing exist. We don’t know much about her at all. Her brother Benjamin was a known and rather hostile critic of Joseph’s who never mentioned the fact that they were sealed, so either he didn’t know about it, he didn’t see anything wrong with it (which is highly doubtful), or it never happened and her inclusion on the list was a mistake.
Eliza R. Snow listed her as one of his wives, and so did Orson Whitney, the son of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney. Helen was one of Nancy’s good friends so there’s solid evidence to believe it, but it’s not confirmed.
Unlike what is commonly taught in Sunday school lessons, marriages to young teenagers were not “common in pioneer days.”
Not true, and Faulk’s evidence for this claim doesn’t even say that:
“In 1890, when the U.S. Census Bureau started collecting marriage data, it was recorded that the average age of a first marriage for men was 26 years, and the average age of marriage for women was 22 years.” (http://classroom.synonym.com/agemarriage-us-1800s-23174.html)
Note that this quote says the average age was 22 years old. That means that some women were much older and some were much younger. 1890 is also half a century later than 1840, and society can change a lot in 50 years.
Craig Foster wrote a great article for the Interpreter a few years ago which demonstrated that in frontier America in the 1800s, females often married quite young, and their husbands were usually older and more settled. It was much less common in the cities and towns along the East Coast, but on the frontier (which included Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and especially Utah), it was relatively common. Men in their 20s-40s marrying teenagers was not unusual.
Even today, it’s legal for teenagers to get married. Let’s not forget that most of Joseph’s teenaged wives were 17-19 years old. Many of us in this church know women who got married at 18 or 19. While they are technically still teenagers, calling them teen brides is implies that they were underage.
The entire concept of “underage” did not exist in the 1800s. In fact, the concept of “teenagers” didn’t even exist back then. You were either a child or an adult, and there was no in-between.
Applying our societal standards to a past society and judging them for their lack of adherence to our norms is a logical fallacy known as “presentism.” I get it—today, it’s unusual and it makes us squirm to hear of girls aged 14-16 getting married. But it was also not out of place in that day and age. And, most importantly, there is no evidence of any sexual activity between Joseph and his youngest wives.
- Mothers and Daughters: Joseph married a mother and daughter pair.
- Patty Bartlett Sessions (Mother – already married to David Sessions)
Patty was sealed to Joseph for eternity while her husband was a faithful member of the Church. Though she and her husband both later received their endowment, they weren’t sealed at that time. She also didn’t re-seal herself to Joseph in the temple after his death the way that many of his other plural wives did. The reasons why are unclear. After her husband’s death, she was sealed for time to another man. Around 1867, after submitting an affidavit concerning her plural marriage to Joseph, she was offered the chance to be re-sealed to Joseph again, though I’m not sure if she accepted or not.
We don’t know the reasons for this sealing, just like we don’t know the reasons behind many of Joseph’s sealings to civilly married women.
- Sylvia Sessions Lyon (Daughter – already married to Windsor Lyon).
Windsor Lyon was excommunicated from the Church in November of 1842. Joseph and Windsor remained good friends for the rest of Joseph’s life. There are conflicting dates from two unsigned affidavits saying that Sylvia’s sealing to Joseph either took place in early 1842 or early 1843. Brian Hales favors the later date.
If he’s right, this appears to be one of those sealings where Joseph was sealed to a woman so that she could still obtain exaltation because her husband wasn’t (at the time) a faithful member of the Church.
Sylvia bore children with both husbands; three children with Windsor and one with Joseph. (Josephine – February 8, 1844)
No, no, no. She most certainly did not have a child with Joseph. For a long time, it was considered an unproven possibility, but was never definitive. However, even the possibility was ruled out by DNA testing in 2016, seven years ago.
The fact that this is still in the LFMW after all this time caught me by surprise. We know the LFMW has been updated since its first posting, since the original FAIR rebuttal addresses differently worded accusations. There was plenty of time to correct the inaccuracy. In fact, this particular objection appears to have been added to the original text at a later date, rather than removed.
- Pairs of Sisters: Joseph married 3 pairs of sisters.
- Emily Dow Partridge and Eliza Maria Partridge.
- Sara Lawrence and Maria Lawrence.
- Zina Huntington Jacobs and Presidia Huntington Buell.
Yep, he sure did. Zina and Presendia (her name is not Presidia) were both sealed to Joseph for eternity only, with no marriage in this lifetime. But Emily and Eliza Partridge and Sarah and Maria Lawrence were all sealed to Joseph for time and eternity.
Again, though, I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a point of scandal. None of them were married against their will. They all had the choice, and they all agreed to these arrangements. Is it unusual? Sure. It’s weird, I think we can all agree with that. But is it sinful? Nope. When God commands polygamy, it’s not sinful, and levirate marriages have been around for thousands of years. This is somewhat similar to that practice, particularly in the case of Mary and Mercy Fielding and Hyrum Smith. Or even, one could argue, between Zina Huntington and Brigham Young.
Remember, when plural marriage was first introduced, they weren’t really given a rule book. There are some directions and guidelines given in D&C 132, but they only cover certain situations. In the Nauvoo days, they were basically winging it. They had to adjust to the new commandment that completely upended their entire lives and then figure out the best way to live it. There was trial and error, heartache, sacrifice, and suffering involved. It was not easy for any of them, and they did the best they could. If they made mistakes, they need our grace, not our judgment.
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.