Joseph Smith had 30-40 Wives?

A few weeks ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) published a series of articles on the history of polygamy in the church. The articles made a small Mormon splash at the time, but today the story got picked up by the major news outlets–it’s high up on the home page of CNN, for example. Fox also has a story up on it. This isn’t anything that I wasn’t aware of, but it seems like it was news to quite a few people for a couple of reasons:

  1. The number of wives–I think a fair number of members would sort of gloss over polygamy with a general shrug of the shoulders and a “That ended more than a hundred years ago” excuse. Brigham Young also got most of the attention, with Joseph flying under the polygamy radar, so to speak. (Now there’s a mental image you don’t think of every day.) So to find out that Joseph had so many wives takes many people off guard. This isn’t a hang up for me. If you’ve accepted polygamy as part of the church’s history, I actually think it makes more sense that Joseph was practicing it than that he wasn’t. I always assumed that he was, and that it was fairly extensive–and all articles I’d read about it supported this assumption. (A general note: when I hear people lobbing accusations against the church, I typically will track down the accusations and investigate them. Probably another reason these articles didn’t catch me off guard.)
  2. The age of the wives–Joseph’s youngest wife was 14 years old (though the church points out that in this case–as in a number of others–the marriage was for “eternity only,” which essentially means he was married to her for the life to come, not the current life. No marital relations in the here and now.) From a  modern sensibility, this is certainly shocking. Then again, the age of consent (age when society deemed marriage appropriate) in the US at the time was much younger than it is today. From the article I just linked: “When historian Magnus Hirschfeld surveyed the age of consent of some fifty countries (mostly in Europe and the Americas) at the beginning of the twentieth century, the age of consent was twelve in fifteen countries, thirteen in seven, fourteen in five, fifteen in four, and sixteen in five.” Going back in history and applying today’s societal norms just doesn’t work.
  3. The fact that some of the wives were already married to other men at the time–That does tend to raise a few eyebrows. The article states that there’s not a ton of information about this, and that in the cases where there was, most of the information tends to indicate that these marriages were also for “eternity only.” I have no idea why this would happen, but I do know from reading one of my own ancestor’s journals that she was proposed to by Smith. She turned him down, but was later married to him after his death. This baffles me, but not in an “and so I must leave the church” sort of a way. More of an “I wonder what in the world was going on back then” sort of way.

I for one am very glad the church is publishing these essays. They’ve been well received by historians (both Mormon and non-), and they’re much better researched and referenced than the tripe you’ll find on anti-Mormon websites which are only a Google away at any moment. The fact that the church is recognizing this and presenting the issues to its members is a good thing. Of course, there are quite a few who want the church to be pushing this even more. I’m not sure what they’re expecting–a letter to be read at every pulpit? These issues are (for me) tangential to the religion. They give historical context to events in the past, but the core of the religion remains in the basics: faith in Christ and God.

I suppose one of the reasons the articles on CNN and Fox rub me the wrong way is the way they’re phrased. “Mormon leaders admit church founder Joseph Smith practiced polygamy.” “New Mormon essay: Joseph Smith married teens, other men’s wives.” You typically don’t “admit” something good. You admit something you’re ashamed of. Something you’ve been trying to hide. Is the church ashamed of what Joseph Smith did? It should only be if what he did was wrong. That said, I can see how outsiders could view it as wrong, and so the article would warrant the “admit” verb.

The natural question some of you might be asking is, “Why in the world do you believe in a religion that did so much strange stuff, Bryce?” The answer for me, as always, comes down to the fact that I’ve studied this faith (and others), I’ve prayed about it, and I’ve received personal revelation that it’s true. I’ve followed it’s teachings, and they’ve brought me every happy thing I can point to in my life. (Well, except ice cream.) Are there things about the religion I don’t get? Yes, but that’s what truth looks like to me. Truth is thorny. Complicated. It’s not straightforward and easy all the time. The same applies to science and mathematics. When I was in physics, for the first while we did all our calculations without things like “air resistance” getting in the way. And then there came a day when my teacher admitted (there’s that verb again) that it’s more complicated than we were thinking it was. That’s a basic example, but just try looking at some of the scientific issues of today. They’re just as thorny.

Atheists like to trumpet how they don’t need a god in their view of the universe, but they end up stumped by many of the same questions. It’s just that their explanations differ slightly. “God didn’t create the universe! Science tells us it happened as part of the Big Bang.” Okay. What existed before the Big Bang? “We don’t know. It’s one of the mysteries of the universe. One day, we might figure it out.” I’m not meaning to slam science here. I believe the Big Bang happened. I believe it’s mysterious. I just also believe the explanation to that mystery likely comes back to rest at God’s doorstep.

Truth is thorny. Truth is complicated.

So to all my Mormon friends who are reading these articles and scratching your heads, my advice is to take a deep breath. There’s no “smoking gun” here that invalidates an entire religion. People are complicated, and the more we know about a person, the more complicated they become. It’s easy to present history as being smooth and simple. Motivations are clean cut and easy to understand. Reality doesn’t work like that. That’s a universal principle, and the sooner you acknowledge that, the sooner you stop demanding simplicity from your answers.

If anyone has questions, I’m open to field them. But remember, this is a sensitive issue to many. Keep things clean and on the up and up, please. If not, don’t be surprised if your comment gets automagically deleted.

16 thoughts on “Joseph Smith had 30-40 Wives?”

  1. Spot on Bryce. Sad that a great chapter of American History, is now being subjected to sensationalism. The modern media has no objectivity anymore, They just want to create controversy for its own sake.

  2. I am a Mormon and these essays are troubling me for a number of reasons. The main concern for me has to do with the last sentence in your second point. I agree that when today’s norms are applied to history’s actions, one is usually left with a sour taste. However, the argument seems to fall apart when we remember that Joseph and other past church leaders were considered prophets, individuals who spoke with God. Should they not be held to a higher standard? Should they not be the ones who are pushing society to a higher level of morality? If they are truly communicating with God, I would hope so. Instead, we seem to be excusing the fact that Joseph practiced polygamy/polyandry and subsequently lied about it or that Brigham Young was a racist because they were “products of their times”.

    Sure, I understand they were still men and fallible. But at what point do we acknowledge that some of their actions were more than simple mistakes? When do we judge their fruits and say that is not what I would expect from a prophet of God?

    The most disturbing idea for me is not that Joseph practiced polygamy/polyandry or that Brigham considered blacks to be a lesser race than whites. Instead, it is that these men attributed their beliefs/actions to the will of God. I’ve been taught many times that God does not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. So which is it? Has God changed or did the founders of our faith step outside of their authority?

  3. I (personally) am not sure Joseph’s actions in this case *were* mistakes. In general, I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, recognizing that I know very little of what actually happens in the world. I have a hard time judging anyone, even if I’ve had a chance to sit down with them and get to know them–something that’s hardly possible in this case. Trying to reconstruct history is a tricky thing, and trying to understand a person’s motivations and thoughts is even trickier.

    To me, the fact that people–any people, prophets or not–had flaws isn’t a sign that God has changed. It’s a sign that people are universally consistent. Should prophets be held to a higher standard? No idea. It’s not my place to judge other people. Did Joseph lie? Did Brigham Young have racist tendencies? No idea. Does it impact my relationship to God? Nope. I’ve prayed about it and am at peace with it. I don’t think I have a right to expect anything more than that, though that’s just my take on it.

  4. I think reason #3 would be less of a puzzle if one were to study the doctrine of adoption, as it was in Joseph’s day. Just a thought.

    Nice post.

  5. God’s ways are not our ways and our ways are not His. Infinite and eternal is very hard to comprehend by the finite. Joseph stalled on this for almost 10 years. It took an angel with a drawn sword to get him to practice it. I think we should all cut him a ton of slack for restoring one of God’s ways that is so controversial because we don’t understand God’s way. The blessing that the LDS church is to the world goes mostly unnoticed. The fruits that pour forth from Christ’s church will continue until any rational thinking human being will not be able to deny that it is the greatest force for good in the world. From the mouth of Jesus Himself “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
    Were it not for this practice I would not have my wife as she is a direct descendant of Brigham Young who also practiced it under command. I have been to one of his family reunions. Thousands upon thousands of faithful, tithe paying, missionary producing forces for good are the result of Brigham’s sacrifice. They truly did raise up a righteous seed. But the world will never see that, nor grasp it. I am an eye witness of the faithful descendants produced by this command by God and I am constantly reminded of their faithfulness because of my dear wife. She truly has faithful, believing blood flowing in her veins! I for one am so grateful for the obedience of a few faithful stuggling pioneers who practiced this ancient misunderstood order through untold trials and tribulations. Thanks Bryce!

  6. Like Frank, I want to push back a bit on point #2, but from a different perspective. I take issue with your statement: “Going back in history and applying today’s societal norms just doesn’t work.” Although I agree with that idea in general, I don’t think you can necessarily apply it here. It wasn’t a societal norm in the 1840’s for a man in his mid-thirties to marry a girl who was 14. The average age of marriage for women at that time was about 23. Your statement leads me to believe you’re conflating what was “legal” with what was “normal” and it’s hard for me to argue that what Joseph Smith did (twice!) by marrying girls at 14 was normal. Less than 1% of brides in the 1840s were 14 (with 3% being between 15-17). And we’re not even talking about marrying multiple women or the fact that he was old enough to be their father. So to me, your argument that the age of consent was much lower than today doesn’t sit well with me when we’re still talking about an age that even for that time, is justifiably shocking.

  7. I disagree the issue is tangential to the religion. Celestial Marriage remains doctrine for eternity, which makes it highly relevant, especially to women.

    As far as raising up a righteous seed, I see it as something that was possible in spite a despicable practice that led to an untold amount of heartache, not because of it.

  8. Cliff–Thanks for pointing that out. I’d never heard of it before.

    Steve–Interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    Farrah–My understanding from my research (brief as it was) is that the average marriage age is a squishy number. Many marriages weren’t officially recorded, and the ones that were were often second marriages with older couples. I’m not saying this discounts your point, merely that it’s not as cut and dried as we might like it to be. It certainly wasn’t a societal norm for a man to marry 30-40 wives, especially when many of those marriages were never consummated. The age of consent being much younger than it is today is still a valid point, I believe. But no, it’s not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card on the issue.

    Kimberly–I’m not sure what was and wasn’t possible when it comes to raising up a righteous seed. Celestial Marriage is certainly highly relevant. Specifically how many wives Joseph had? Not so much, in my view. Either he was a prophet or he wasn’t, and that’s a subject left to the individual to develop a testimony of.

  9. I appreciate the effort to avoid judgement of other individuals. In rereading my first comment, I can see where it may come off as passing judgement. I should have provided sources for my claims. Here they are; not in an attempt to argue, but merely to provide information.

    Joseph lying about his participation in polygamy. This was said by Joseph in 1844. The essay states that Joseph engaged in polygamy in the mid 1830’s, at the latest.

    “I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made one proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives. I mean to live and proclaim the truth as long as I can. This new holy prophet [William Law] has gone to Carthage and swore that I had told him that I was guilty of adultery. This spiritual wifeism! Why, a man does not speak or wink, for fear of being accused of this…I wish the grand jury would tell me who they are – whether it will be a curse or blessing to me. I am quite tired of the fools asking me…What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.”

    (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 410-411)

    In case it was missed, Joseph stated in 1844 that he only had one wife. The essay, and the historical record, contradicts that statement.

    In regards to Brigham Young’s racist beliefs, I chose this statement out of many for its short length.

    “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.”

    (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 10, page 110.)

    Finally, let me address my suggestion that Joseph’s polygamous/polyandrous acts were mistakes. I turn to D&C 132. Part of this section outlines the law of polygamy as given to Joseph through revelation. It explains the requirements before a man may take an additional wife. Verse 61 is particularly interesting.

    “61 And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.”

    The essays concedes that Emma did not know about all of Joseph’s wives, meaning he did not receive her consent let alone seek it. And what about the part where the new wives “have vowed to no other man” or that they should be virgins? To me it seems clear that a married women does not fit either of those requirements.

    Despite what I have said in my comments, I am not trying to persuade anyone to lose their faith or ditch the Mormon church. In fact, I am still here. Instead, I want to echo the author’s original idea that “Truth is thorny. Truth is complicated.” Just because we accept some of Joseph’s “fruits” as coming from God does not mean we have to accept them all as coming from God.

    The Church has disavowed the racists remarks/beliefs held by many early church leaders and yet they are still regarded as prophets of God. Can we not do the same with Joseph Smith?

  10. Bryce, you commented, “Did Joseph lie? Did Brigham Young have racist tendencies? No idea. Does it impact my relationship to God? Nope. I’ve prayed about it and am at peace with it. I don’t think I have a right to expect anything more than that…”

    I just want to point out that you are in a very privileged position to be able to say that. Many church members find that these issues do, in fact, greatly affect their lives and their view of god and the church. I suspect that if you were a woman, who had to break a sealing to a beloved deceased husband in order to marry again, or a member of African descent who was denied priesthood and temple blessings (these policies/doctrines are a direct result of teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young), you may have cause to feel differently. As a white male, these teachings did not discriminate against you.

  11. Frank–Thanks for the sources. Always appreciated. I agree that it’s a complicated issue, and if these statements are accurate, it’s clear Joseph lied and Brigham Young had some serious racist views. Of course, Nephi was also a murderer, Peter lied very publicly about his connections to Christ, and let’s just leave the Old Testament alone for the time being. Your point is spot on: prophets aren’t perfect, and shouldn’t be regarded as such.

    Ashley–I can only speak from my point of view, and it’s definitely a white male approach. I certainly can see how some of these issues would be very important to others, and I didn’t mean to casually dismiss them. I apologize if it came across that way.

  12. It is important to realize the prophets of any generation are imperfect human beings who make mistakes like all the rest of us. Peter denied the Savior 3 times, Jonah tried to run away from his responsibility to teach at Ninevah and then got mad because they repented and were spared, Nephi lamented over his sins…. Point is, they make mistakes and are not perfect.

    Regarding Frank’s point about D&C 132:61, it appears there are inconsistencies in what the essays indicate about Joseph Smith and this verse. This revelation was received in 1843, less than 1 year before Joseph was killed at Carthage. Based on the essays, most of the plural marraiges likely occurred before this revelation (although, of this, I am unsure). It was clear that Joseph was reticent to practice polygamy in the first place. Personally, it would be abhorrent to me if I were ever in his position. I can imagine that he knew nothing about how this plural marriage thing was supposed to work but just that he was supposed to practice it. As he went about it, I’m sure he made some mistakes in implementation. Then later, maybe realizing the heartache people were facing, maybe he was facing serious heartache about it, he inquired of the Lord and received the revelation in D&C 132 to clarify implementation.

    I don’t know if that’s how it happened, but it is just an example of how someone (particularly a relatively uneducated farm boy) could bumble through and make errors in judgement on this issue.

    Regarding lying about plural marriage, I can’t say I blame him. It was certainly a sensitive issue for him at the time. He’s human. He made a mistake.

    I hope I’m never famous. I would hate for people to dig up every word I ever said or every thing I ever did that was questionable and then magnify it in the media in front of the whole world. Rather, I would hope people would notice the good decisions I made and use those for examples for others to follow.

  13. One point I forgot to make in my previous post is that because prophets are not perfect, it does not mean that they are not prophets. It is true (addressing Ashley’s point) that sometimes their mistakes can hurt a lot of people. That is unfortunate and difficult to deal with for a lot of people.

    It is common for people to confuse Church policies with Doctrines of the Gospel. Jesus told the people in Zarahemla that his doctrine consisted solely of Faith, Repentance, Baptism & receiving the Holy Ghost, and then continuing these throughout your life (see 3 Nephi 11). Keep in mind that Baptism means always remembering Him (pray always), keeping His commandments (self explanatory), and taking upon us His name (do what He would do – serve others). These items consist of the entire requirement for returning to the Lord’s presence.

    Many other things that people get offended over and worry about are simply policies adopted by the Church. Some of these policies are wrong (eg. blacks not being able to have the priesthood) and should be corrected (thank heaven that this one was!).

    The important thing is to have unshakable Faith in Jesus Christ, repent of your sins, and then keep the authorized Baptismal covenant. Then you will be filled with the Holy Ghost and have joy in this life and in the life to come. Don’t sweat the other stuff. Put your trust in the Savior and He will speak peace to your soul!

  14. Hi Bryce, apparently you know my sister JaNeal who says you expressed her feelings exactly on this issue. That does not surprise me as there aren’t really many ways to feel about this issue if one wants be okay with. Certainly the, “I’ve prayed about it and am okay with it.” line was going to be there. It’s a standard response where other faiths would say “God works in mysterious ways.” Mormons (speaking as a X-Mormon) would say, “I don’t know why but I prayed about it and I feel good.” I’d say that sometimes even when I hadn’t really prayed. I’m wondering how many people actually do sit down and pray something like this, “Dear…there is something troubling me about this whole polygamy thing. I don’t understand A, B, C and X, Y, Z seems wrong. I want to understand how I can make sense of all this. Please help me understand it?”
    I’m guessing no one really considers the utter lack of objectivity in this method but I’ll leave that for a minute. How does the answer come that makes you or anyone “feel” okay with it? Do you get any specifics? Does the God who is all powerful and all knowing communicate to you a response that in any fashion resembles what you would consider communication from lesser beings such as mortals – other humans? What I mean is, if a person knows that it means to communicate with others they will be very clear using spoken word, email, text, etc. In order for communication to take place the message must be clearly received. So does God ever communicate in these very clear methods that…what?…”Just trust me polygamy was all on the up and up and Joseph was my prophet about my business so be okay with it.”
    I’m asking this question seriously – not sarcastically. How does a prayer give anyone clarity on something like this? Or even the truth of a book. The proposition is inherently biased. Someone hands you a BOM and says if you want to know if God exists you just have pray and ask him because here Moroni promises you God will answer. BUT, you have to do it sincerely believing he will answer. So I kneel down and ask God if he is real the way he has instructed me to. Don’t you see that the very act sets me up to believe? Furthermore, as a missionary I would instruct people that good “feelings” were the answers they should rely on for major life changing moves. Then I would tell them how special they were, how much God loved them that he sent to them, how important they are the the BOM was written for them, how special and wonderful their families are, how much we wanted them to join us, and then I would ask them to pray and see if they felt good. Who wouldn’t?
    But if I told you anything serious would you rely on a prayer? For example, suppose a friend tells you your spouse is cheating on you. Would you rely on your feelings at the time to confirm it? Would you merely pray and rely on your feelings then? Or would you look for real and verifiable answers?
    Also, I totally reject your truth is thorny statement. That is precisely what someone would say if they were struggling with cognitive dissonance and reconciling conflicting beliefs. Let me ask you, was your physics teacher Mormon too? Never mind, it doesn’t matter. The truth is not thorny (whatever that means) it is absolute. That is what the denotation of the word means. You can’t rewrite the meaning of a word to make your beliefs more comfortable and expect the rest of us to go along with it. The truth might be obscure sometimes until we uncover it. Once we do we have to incorporate it or try to reconcile it. It’s that reconciliation that makes it seem thorny. The truth on this issue is not pretty and it leaves one with no choice but to ask some serious questions or somehow make it okay. A person who has made a huge investment in the church in terms of time and money is more often then not going to seek to validate that. They will work backward thinking, “I know there must be a good explanation for this so I will look till I find that. Oh, here is a journal entry from some person I never heard of that says it was all good. Okay.” Or “I prayed or I am sure if I did pray I would feel okay about this.” You get my point. Statistically speaking, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.
    I challenge you to look at this issue from a different perspective. Sit down and make an honest list of your biases. Be really truthful. 1. I really want this to be okay because I have invested a lot into the church. 2. If this isn’t okay it calls into question Joseph as a prophet. I really don’t want that to happen. 3. And so on. Then do your research with your extreme bias in mind and see what you come up with. Then cross check your conclusions with your biases and see if they aren’t perfectly aligned. If they are, then ask some questions and perhaps involve a third party. OR…you could just pray and see how you “feel.”
    One other little thing…you mentioned Nephi being a murderer in responding to Frank. That doesn’t really sum up at all what was wrong with that story. 1. Bronze age swords likely would not have been able to remove a head in one blow. It would have required a few strikes and caused a huge mess. It would have been extremely traumatic for a very young Nephi who would have to carry the image for the rest of his life. 2. God made him do it. A father, made a son go through the experience of chopping his other son’s head off and then dressing in his bloody (probably feces and urine soaked) clothes. 3. God could have done it himself easily and mess free. Better still he could have just made Laban do it. To those of you who would invoke the free will argument here I would point out Nephi ended Laban’s free will when he killed him upon God’s instruction. 4. Why didn’t God, the author of the book they were trying to get, make a copy or dictate to Lehi? Why did they have to go get it and kill Laban at all. Why did God force Nephi to go through that? As you are thinking of all the reasons such as the lessons Nephi learned I would ask you to consider your bias on paper before you reconcile it all.

  15. Aaron–Thanks for dropping by and for the comment. I’ve been in the middle of running a statewide library conference for the past few days, so my brain is a bit on the mushy side. There’s a bit of a laundry list of questions and issues you brought up, and it’s enough to warrant a conversation, not a blog post or a blog post comment response. So while I’ll respond to some of the general ideas, I’m not really interested in getting into the nitty gritty at this point. You might see that as a dodge, and I respect that if you do. What it really is (in this case) is “I’m exhausted at the moment and don’t feel up to that much typing, especially when I’m not sure it’s going to allay any of the concerns you raised.”

    It seems from your comment that the polygamy issue is a big thing for you–that you’re coming from a perspective that what Joseph did was definitely wrong, and that any sensible person would be able to recognize this–that “I prayed about it and am okay with it” is a sidestepping of the issues. For me (and I can’t answer for anyone else), prayer isn’t a sidestep. I get some really profound answers through prayer–answers about what I need to do in my life and how I should handle certain situations. If, to use your example, someone were to tell me my spouse was cheating on me, I’d certainly investigate the matter (well–depending on who’s making the claim). But for guidance on how to respond to the situation? I’d turn to prayer for that.

    Joseph Smith was a polygamist. This isn’t shocking or new to me. Some of his wives were young, some were already married, and there were some Emma wasn’t aware of. I’ve never been a member of the Church of Joseph Smith, I’ve known he had his issues, and I’ve investigated them. The fact that a person wasn’t perfect–even a prophet–doesn’t invalidate my faith.

    To say that truth isn’t thorny and complicated seems to be reductive to me. In my experience, when you start looking at people–who they are and why they do what they do–then the concept of absolute truth is thrown out the window. People do things for a variety of reasons. Complicated, hard to understand reasons. I have a hard time understanding why some of my friends do the things they do–how in the world could anyone presume to know the motivations of a person dead for almost 200 years? I’ll stand by my statement that truth is thorny. I don’t believe it’s a cop out in any way shape or form. (And my physics teacher was decidedly non-Mormon, though I have no idea how this might be relevant to the situation.)

    You’re a former member of the church, and you clearly have your reasons for leaving. I respect that. This isn’t the venue for dealing with whatever those reasons were. In my experience, that’s something for a sit down conversation with people who know you and know your history. There are stereotypes about ex-Mormons just as there are stereotypes about current Mormons. Both are about as useful as any stereotype–meaning not at all. I try not to make assumptions about ex-Mormons and their reasons for leaving the church, and I appreciate the same in return. Implications that I believe because I have blinders on or am trying to do some mental acrobatics to make it all make sense are less than useful in this discussion.

    And . . . I’m out of time and energy to write today.

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