News Coverage of the Plural Marriages of Joseph Smith

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The New York Times released an article about the recent article The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted to provide an authoritative but brief history of plural marriage (usually referred to as polygamy) in Kirtland, Ohio and Nauvoo, Illinois. The NY Times article, while largely correct, misrepresents some of the issues (in contrast, CNN has a more balanced article). First, while it has not been taught openly during church (church services and teachings are largely focused and supposed to be focused on the core doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ), many church members were already familiar with Joseph Smith’s plural marriages (I first learned about them while a young teenager). The information was available for those who took the effort to look or study church history. The information was not hidden or suppressed. Oh, it has been ignored by people (including church leaders) who found the topic uncomfortable, but ignoring is not suppression. The posting by the Church of the article of plural marriage is, however, a welcome and concise source of information regarding historical matters that many view as controversial.

Here’s the start of the NY Times article: “Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, portrayed in church materials as a loyal partner to his loving spouse Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old.”

As I discuss later, this is not the first time church leaders have acknowledged the fact that Joseph Smith had multiple wives. Also, the author implies that Joseph was not loyal to “his loving spouse Emma” – he was, fiercely so. She was also fiercely loyal to him. So right away the NY Times article is 0 for 2. I’ll address the rest of the paragraph later.

One of the biggest misrepresentations is that the author of the NY Times article never mentioned how much Joseph Smith resisted the command from God to receive plural wives. From the article: “Smith probably did not have sexual relations with all of his wives, because some were ‘sealed’ to him only for the next life, according to the essays posted by the church. But for his first wife, Emma, polygamy was ‘an excruciating ordeal.'” Yes, it was excruciating for Emma but what the NY Times article doesn’t mention is that it was also a significant challenge for Joseph Smith, going against much of what he believed: “When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.” Joseph Smith had halfheartedly followed the command by marrying Fanny Alger (she, her parents, and presumably Emma had given consent, although Emma might not have know about some of the later sealings to Joseph) but was later rebuked and threatened by that angel because of his reluctance. Most church members had a hard time accepting plural marriages. It was hard for some of the parties involved, particularly some of the women (this isn’t the time or place to cover that topic; The whole topic of polygamy/plural marriage is difficult with our cultural biases. Many people throughout history and currently in the world would see little controversy regarding polygamy. There is a good post on Keepapitchinin.org about why it might be difficult to post and write about polygamy/plural marriage).

Like many news articles, the author of the NY Times article made a big point of one of Joseph’s wives being 14 (she was nearly 15, not that that is much of a difference) but failed to mention that “Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.” Actually, depending on what part of the United States someone lived in, marriages at age 14 or 15 occurred with some regularity (refer to Fischer, D. H. (1989). Albion’s seed: Four British folkways in America. Oxford University Press; visit this website for short selections from the book – look under Backcountry Marriage Ways {there is no quotation about youngest age of marriages but with females getting married on average at 19, marriages at younger ages are in the distribution of ages}). Further, this marriage was a sealing “for eternity alone” meaning that they did not “[engage in] sexual relations.” Yes, that sealing occurred but Joseph and the girl (Helen Mar Kimball) were not married as most in the world would understand – it was a relationship in name (ordinance) only.

This issue of “marriage” versus “sealing” can be confusing to those who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and even to church members). All sealings are marriages but not all marriages are sealings. A sealing is performed by priesthood authority (in today’s church these take place in LDS temples). Sealings performed in LDS temples will last – through faithfulness – beyond this life (wife and husband are married for “time and eternity”). A number of the marriages of Joseph Smith were simply sealings “for eternity”, which means that there was not a married life or marriage relationship “in time” (during this life), in effect making a number of the marriages procedural. I am not downplaying the significance of the sealing ordinance – it is a vital ordinance for eternity: “And in order to obtain the highest [heaven – the Celestial kingdom], a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it.” (Doctrine & Covenants 131:2-3); however, ordinances can be performed without much ceremony (and usually are not), making them utilitarian but sacred events.

I’m going to quote at length from the Doctrine and Covenants so I’ll provide a summary (tl;dr) of the verses below: Marriage (sealing) performed through authorized priesthood authority (in the temple) will remain in effect (no “until death do you part”) after this life should both husband and wife remain faithful in the gospel of Christ.

“Therefore, if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not of force when they are dead, and when they are out of the world; therefore, they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world. Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever. And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife, and make a covenant with her for time and for all eternity, if that covenant is not by me or by my word, which is my law, and is not sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, through him whom I have anointed and appointed unto this power, then it is not valid neither of force when they are out of the world, because they are not joined by me, saith the Lord, neither by my word; when they are out of the world it cannot be received there, because the angels and the gods are appointed there, by whom they cannot pass; they cannot, therefore, inherit my glory; for my house is a house of order, saith the Lord God. And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them—Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths—then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” (Doctrine & Covenants 132:15-19).

These types of marriages hold in the next life because of the sealing power and authority restored to Joseph Smith (and passed to each subsequent church president): “And verily, verily, I say unto you, that whatsoever you [Joseph] seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever you bind on earth, in my name and by my word, saith the Lord, it shall be eternally bound in the heavens.” (Doctrine & Covenants 132:46).

That is some of the context that the NY Times article did not and could not provide in a limited article space. Now for some context regarding the statement in the NY Times article stating that “some [of Joseph Smith’s plural wives] were already married.” We as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that in order for woman and man to return to live with God again and be exalted with Him, they must be sealed to one another through God’s priesthood by someone authorized to do so. This is why Mormons don’t just “baptize dead people”; in addition to performing vicarious baptism ordinances for deceased individuals, we also perform other necessary ordinances including sealing of husband and wife together (if they were married when alive). There have been instances, particularly in the early days of the restored church, when a woman who was either unmarried in life or even married to a man who was not a member of the LDS Church (or who became disaffected with the Church) was sealed (while living, in the case of a few of the “wives” of Joseph Smith, or vicariously after the death of the man or woman) to someone other than her spouse. That was quite rare and is not a sanctioned practice today. The belief (in my opinion) behind such actions was that the ordinance (the sealing) was of maybe greater importance than the relationship between a particular man and woman. In fact, sealings are performed vicariously without regard to the relationship between husband and wife during life; we believe that only God should judge so the ordinance is performed so the individuals might have the opportunity to accept it, should they choose.

Further, “Consistent with Joseph Smith’s teachings, the Church permits a man whose wife has died to be sealed to another woman when he remarries. Moreover, members are permitted to perform ordinances on behalf of deceased men and women who married more than once on earth, sealing them to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married. The precise nature of these relationships in the next life is not known, and many family relationships will be sorted out in the life to come.” (Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo).

In other words, there is a lot we do not yet understand. That’s the nature of faith. That’s the nature of science (as I scientist something I get to say a lot is, “I don’t know.” Sometimes that’s followed by “That’s what we’re trying to figure out” or “That’s a great question, I’d love to study it more.”). Not understanding a lot is part of life. I’ll not pretend that this isn’t a difficult topic. It can be challenging to understand why the Lord required plural marriages. We can come up with hypotheses that sound reasonable, we can study it for years but I don’t think we’ll really understand it until the next life. That’s one of the great things – we get to live forever (our spirits don’t die and someday all will be bodily resurrected) so we have a lot of time to learn things.

The Mormon Newsroom (offers press releases for the LDS Church) posted a brief article covering these recent news responses to the plural marriage article (and others). In this article is the following helpful clarification: “Much of what you’ll find in the essays on polygamy has been published in diverse sources and known among long-term and well-read members, historians and Church leaders for many years. The Church has now gathered this information into a single location as a convenient means of placing these resources in the hands of all members. The fact that Joseph Smith had plural marriage relationships is not new, of course. Indeed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly asserted Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy—over a century and a half ago, especially in debate with other faith groups who traced their origin to Joseph Smith and who asserted that he did not practice plural marriage. But although polygamy was practiced among early Church leaders and members, its practice was officially discontinued more than 100 years ago.” (emphasis added)

This is why the headline of the NY Times article: “It’s Official…” is also misleading (but headlines are often written to be catchy or inflammatory, if not always correct). That Joseph Smith had plural wives has been “official” for more than 150 years. It was never a secret. Abraham, Jacob (Israel), Moses (likely, although there is a lot that is unknown about Moses’s married life), and other Old Testament patriarchs/prophets had multiple wives. A number of my ancestors even participated in plural marriages because they were commanded to by prophets of God. My point is that if we accept them as God’s chosen prophets, we accept their plural marriages as God’s will. The same is true for Joseph Smith.

The article posted by the Church is excellent. Take time to read the footnotes – there is good information in them. If you are interested in learning more about plural marriages in early LDS Church history, the Church has two other posts regarding its practice in Utah and its later ban. There are also a number of other books and articles on the topic (check the footnotes to the posted article).

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