By George D. Smith
George D. Smith is the award-winning author of Nauvoo Polygamy “. . . but We Called It Celestial Marriage” (Signature Books, 2011).
On 22 October 2014, the LDS Church published its most frank essay on the 19th-century origins of Mormon plural marriage, practiced in secret among nearly 200 families in Nauvoo, Illinois, during the 1840s. The headline in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s Salt Lake Tribune article read: “New Mormon Essay: Joseph Smith Married Teens, Other Men’s Wives.”
For many Latter-day Saints, this was a big headline to digest.
Most Mormons at the time of the essay’s online release knew little about Joseph Smith’s polygamy. But now it was being revealed that the Church’s founder, for decades portrayed in official Church manuals as a loyal partner to his first wife, Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some of whom were already married. The essay noted that one of his brides, Helen Mar Kimball, was only 14, or as the essay put it, she was “sealed” to Smith “several months before her 15th birthday.”
Church historian Steven E. Snow explained the thinking behind releasing such revealing essays: There is “so much out there on the Internet, we felt we owed our members a safe place to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.”
Indeed, information available on the Web had already drawn many away from the Church. In “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt” published in the 20 July 2013 edition of the New York Times, Hans Mattsson, a former Swedish LDS Church leader, spoke of finding information on the Internet that contradicted the Church’s public presentation of its history. In the article and accompanying video he enjoins the Church to be more forthcoming with all its history and to be more accepting of those who have doubts.
The notion of plural marriage was introduced to the Mormon community at its foundation, being discussed in The Book of Mormon, which forbad the type of plural marriage found in the Hebrew Bible unless God “will command my people” (Jacob 2:15).
During the first decade, as the Church moved from New York and Pennsylvania to Ohio, to Missouri, and then to Illinois, Joseph had met many of his future brides, some of them still quite young, such as Louisa Beaman at age 12, Zina Huntington at age 15, Mary Elizabeth Rollins at age 12, Sylvia Sessions at age 19, Marinda Johnson at age 16, and Sarah Ann Whitney at age five.1
Louisa Beaman met the prophet around 1827, and then at age 26 became his first Nauvoo plural wife on 5 April 1841. Eliza R. Snow waited from age 28, when she met the prophet, to age 38 when they married in 1842. Joseph was then age 36.
Soon an “inner circle” of 32 select followers began to practice plural marriage.
While the Book of Mormon authorized polygamous unions only when God commands it, Joseph Smith did not reveal that he had received such permission until 12 July 1843. And then his revelation on “celestial marriage” was not made available to the general Church membership until eight years after Smith’s death (in the 14 September 1852 edition of the Deseret News). Indeed, Joseph ordered the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper press destroyed when it printed an article revealing the secret polygamy going on in Nauvoo. This act led to Joseph’s arrest and eventual death at the hands of a mob.
From 1869 to 1915, seventy-five affidavits were collected from eyewitnesses of Nauvoo polygamy. The first nine affidavits were from Zina D. Young, Presenda Kimball (the Huntington sisters became the second and third wives in 1841), Ruth Vose Sayers, Emily D. P. Young, Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde, Rhoda Richards, and Fanny Maria Huntington. Joseph Bates Noble—the man Joseph Smith secured to marry him to Louisa Beaman, Joseph Smith’s first Nauvoo plural wife (Noble’s sister-in-law)—provided affidavits 17 and 18 on 25 June 1869.2
Through the last half of the 19th century, Nauvoo celestial marriage lived on in the memory of the Latter-day Saint community headquartered in Salt Lake City. In fact, polygamy became a marker of high standing in the Mormon community.
But then a reason arose to forget the whole episode. Under threats by the U.S. government to take control of Church assets, Church president Wilford Woodruff met in San Francisco with U.S. senator Leland Stanford and reached an agreement to conclude the practice of polygamy. In the autumn of 1890, plural marriage was ended by “manifesto,” a decision approved by vote at that year’s fall general conference.
Of course, ending polygamy was not much easier than introducing it in Nauvoo some half-century earlier. This took a “second manifesto” issued by Joseph F. Smith in 1904, and, some would say, a “third manifesto,” as the revolutionary Mexican government expelled Mormon polygamous colonies in Colonia Juarez and Colonia Durban in 1910–12.3
Soon, mainstream LDS Church members, eager to assimilate into American culture, assisted the United States in locating and arresting those “true believers” who preferred to be outlaws rather than give in to “Gentile” oppression. Simultaneously, Latter-day Saints allowed their memory of plural marriage to erode until, by the 21st century, Sunday school teaching manuals glossed over the fact that early Church leaders had wed many wives.
Indeed, for decades the most accessible official source of historical information had been the Church History in the Fullness of Times Student Manual (2003) which presents approximately 600 words on plural marriage in Nauvoo, casting Joseph Smith as a mere tool in God’s hands to bring about the new marriage practice. In the Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (2001), the same thing happens: Joseph is briefly portrayed as the reluctant receiver of the plural marriage revelation. Little other information is given on the topic.
It was in this context that Church president Gordon B. Hinckley asserted in a 1998 broadcast of CNN’s Larry King Live that plural marriage was not a practice identified with the Mormon people.4
But even during this collective forgetting, curious historians recovered the erased realities of Nauvoo and Salt Lake polygamy—exploring letters and documents, and locating affidavits which describe a polygamous Nauvoo society—and then published their findings.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, historians Stanley Snow Ivins, Dale Morgan, and Fawn McKay Brodie exchanged letters about these recent discoveries. And then in 1945 Brodie published a book based on their research: No Man Knows My History.5 Bernard DeVoto, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, called this the “first honest and intelligent biography of Joseph Smith . . . the best book about the Mormons so far published.”6
Following Brodie, Ivins published his “Notes on Mormon Polygamy” in the summer 1956 issue of Western Humanities Review. This research was often rejected by Church members as “anti-Mormon.”
Other researchers followed such as Danel Bachman in 1978, Lawrence Foster in 1981, D. Michael Quinn in the 1980s and 1990s, Richard Van Wagoner with his landmark Mormon Polygamy in 1986, B. Carmon Hardy in 1992, Martha S. Bradley, Todd Compton, and myself in the 1990s, and Gary J. Bergera, Brian Hales, and Merina Smith in the early twenty-first century.
Much has changed over the decades. I remember approaching the LDS Church Archives in the 1970s only to find a prominent sign declaring “No Admittance.” But one can now look up “Joseph Smith” on Wikipedia and find the names of all his wives, including their ages at marriage and how many of them were already married.
In a recent op-ed for the Salt Lake Tribune, historian Gary Bergera urged LDS Church leadership to allow further access to primary manuscript sources, including specific documents such as the diaries of George Q. Cannon, Francis M. Lyman, and Heber J. Grant.7
As difficult as such rediscovery might be, LDS institutions may become stronger as the community informs itself about the realities of its past.
- George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: “. . .But We Called it Celestial Marriage” (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2011), Appendix B: “Nauvoo Polygamous Families,” 573–656.
- Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy, “Affidavits by date and provenance,” Table 8.2, 474–78.
- B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 389 ff. See also D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 9–105.
- Larry King Live, 8 September 1998, quoted in “On the Record: ‘We Stand for Something,’” Sunstone (December 1998), 70–72.
- Fawn McKay Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Knopf, 1945; 2nd ed. 1971).
- Benard DeVoto, “The Case of the Prophet, Joseph Smith: First Dependable History of Mormonism Written from the Inside,” New York Herald Tribune, 16 December 1945. Orville Prescott of the New York Times credited Brodie’s work as “scholarly, comprehensive and judicial . . . a masterly job of scholarly research.”
- Gary J. Bergera, “Smith Polygamy Essays Commendable, but Still Not the Full Story,” Salt Lake Tribune, 3 November 2014, http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/1764594-155/essays-church-smith-polygamy-plural-mormon (accessed 21 August 2015).