Most historians who have written of the matter have concluded that Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, taught that polygamy was a divine commandment, and practiced it personally, by some accounts marrying as many as 30 wives before his death. This position is supported by "sealing" records, public marriage licenses (in many cases notarized), affidavits, letters, journals and diaries. Smith, and the leading quorums of the church, denied publicly that he preached or practiced polygamy. Smith's son Joseph Smith III, widow Emma Smith and most members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS, now called the Community of Christ) refuted the evidence presented and taught that Joseph Smith opposed the practice of polygamy.
The exact origin and date that polygamy was introduced into the Latter Day Saint movement is uncertain.
Among Cochran's marital innovations was 'spiritual wifery'. Ridlon wrote in 1895 that "tradition assumes that (Cochran) received frequent consignments of spiritual consorts, and that such were invariably the most robust and attractive women in the community". Some of the newly converted Cochranites remained polygamists and moved from the east coast onward to the Mormon community of Kirtland, Ohio. Murmurings of polygamy associated with the Mormons began to become public, enough to be denied in Mormon publications and mentioned in Mormon scripture in 1835, which noted that
"Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy, we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife, and one woman but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.
Some scholars believe that a revelation proclaiming polygamy for Smith and his followers was given on July 17, 1831. This alleged revelation is found in a letter penned by early Mormon convert William W. Phelps in a letter to Brigham Young written in 1861 (thirty years after the revelation was allegedly given)—a time period where church leaders were justifying the practice and origins of plural marriage, particularly to Mormon splinter groups who did not agree with or believe in the practice.
The key portion of the revelation proclaims:
[I]t is [Jesus Christ's] will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites [i.e., Native Americans], that their posterity may become white, delightsome, and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.
This wording is comparable with a passage from the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 30:5–6, that when Native Americans receive the gospel, they will become a "white and a delightsome people. Unlike the 1831 revelation, the 1830 version of the Book of Mormon does not specify that the Native Americans would become white and delightsome through plural marriage. A note from W. W. Phelps in same document explains how the conversion of the Native Americans coincided with Joseph Smith's plan for a new system of marriage:
About three years after this was given [i.e., about 1834], I asked brother Joseph, privately, how "we," that were mentioned in the revelation could take wives of the "natives" as we were all married men? He replied instantly "In the same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Keturah; and Jacob took Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah; by revelation—the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation.
A reference to this revelation five months after its alleged date was written in a letter by Mormon apostate Ezra Booth to the Ohio Star on 8 December 1831, where he refers to the "revelation [that the Mormon Elders] form a matrimonial alliance with the Natives" but makes no reference to polygamy. This letter is important because it tends to confirm the authenticity of the revelation, but some think it problematical since had it mentioned polygamy, Booth would have mentioned it in his anti-Mormon agenda. Three authors assert that a second record of the revelation exists, believed to be in the LDS Church Historical Department, though its existence is not confirmed.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never published Phelps' note or letter, nor has it been canonized as part of Mormon scripture, as was done with many of Smith's other revelations. The Church has never had an institutionalized policy of requiring its members to marry Native Americans, either in polygamous or monogamous relationships. Critics allege that the LDS Church has suppressed this revelation due to its controversial nature regarding the topics of race and polygamy.
Though the revelation is cited by Mormon historians, non-Mormon historians, and critics as the originating point of the practice of polygamy in the Mormon Church, there are some dissenting opinions, and no consensus has been reached.
[At age 12 in 1831], [Smith] told me about his great vision concerning me. He said I was the first woman God commanded him to take as a plural wife. … In 1834 he was commanded to take me for a Wife … [In 1842 I] went forward and was sealed to him. Brigham Young performed the sealing … for time, and all Eternity. I did just as Joseph told me to do[.]Pratt reported that Smith told some early members in 1831 and 1832 that plural marriage was a true principle but that the time to practice it had not yet come. Lyman Johnson also claimed to have heard the doctrine from Smith in 1831, Mosiah Hancock reported that his father was taught about plural marriage in the spring of 1832.
William Clayton, Smith's scribe, recorded some early polygamous marriages in 1843, including unions between Smith and Eliza Partridge, Emily Partridge, Sarah Ann Whitney, Helen Kimball and Flora Woodworth.
Clayton wrote that day in his journal:
Wednesday 12th This A.M, I wrote a Revelation consisting of 10 pages on the order of the priesthood, showing the designs in Moses, Abraham, David and Solomon having many wives & concubines &c. After it was wrote Prests. Joseph & Hyrum presented it and read it to [Emma] who said she did not believe a word of it and appeared very rebellious. [Joseph]...appears much troubled about [Emma]
In the text of the revelation, Christ commands the practice of polygamy or plural marriage in a “new and an everlasting covenant” and declares that anyone who rejects the new practices will suffer damnation and will not “be permitted to enter into my glory.” The 1843 revelation also states that the first wife's consent should be sought before a man married another wife, but also declares that Christ will "destroy" the first wife if she does not consent to the plural marriage, and that the husband is exempt from asking his wife's consent in the future.
The revelation states that plural wives "are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfill the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men.
The revelation was not made public to the church as a whole until 1852 by Brigham Young, who claimed that the original had been burned by Smith's widow Emma Smith, though Emma denied that the document ever existed and said of the story told by Brigham Young: "It is false in all its parts, made out of whole cloth, without any foundation in truth; Published affidavits by eyewitnesses accusing Church leaders of following the teaching and engaging in polygamy initiated a sequence of events that resulted in Smith's murder by a mob in 1844. The revelation was codified in Mormon canon as part of the Doctrine and Covenants The Doctrine and Covenants/Section 132 in the 1870s, though rejected by the RLDS church as not originating with Smith. Emma Smith claimed that the very first time she ever became aware of the 1843 polygamy revelation was when she read about it in Orson Pratt's booklet The Seer in 1853.
[My father] asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph … [Smith explained] the principle of Celestial marriage … After which he said to me, ‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.[‘] This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. … [After the marriage] I felt quite sore over it … and thought myself an abused child, and that it was pardonable if I did murmur.Written accounts of Smith's liaisons are recorded as early as 1831, including Smith's well-known relationship with Fanny Alger (age 16), as well as Jon Krakauer's account of Smith's relationship with Marinda Nancy Johnson (age 16) in 1831,
In the summer of 1831 the Johnson family took Joseph and Emma Smith into their home as boarders, and soon thereafter the prophet purportedly bedded young Marinda. Unfortunately, the liaison did not go unnoticed, and a gang of indignant Ohioans—including a number of Mormons—resolved to castrate Joseph so that he would be disinclined to commit such acts of depravity in the future.
Smith was accused by Sarah Pratt in an 1886 interview with "vitriolic anti-Mormon journalist W. Wyl of allowing John C. Bennett, a medical doctor, to perform abortions on polygamous wives who were officially single, which she alleged limited Smith's progeny from these wives. She based this on statements made to her by Bennett. Orson Pratt, Sarah Pratt's husband, considered Bennett a liar
J.C. Bennett has published lies concerning myself & family & the people with which I am connected....His book I have read with the greatest disgust. No candid honest man can or will believe it. He has disgraced himself in eyes of all civilized society who will despise his very name,whereas Sarah Pratt herself said, "[I] know that the principle statements in John C. Bennett's book on Mormonism are true,
Joseph Smith broke with short-lived church leader Dr. John C. Bennett in 1841 over the public scandal that arose when Bennett's 'spiritual wifery' conduct became known, and Nauvoo "rocked with tales that connected Joseph with Bennett's scandals. Bennett accused Smith of subsequently introducing new code words for polygamy — 'celestial marriage', 'plurality of wives', 'spiritual wifeism' — to conceal the controversial practice, which Smith and the leadership of the church publicly denied in statement after statement, endorsed by whole councils of the church. Pratt claimed in an 1886 interview that, while in Nauvoo, Illinois over forty years earlier, Joseph Smith, Jr. was attracted to her and intended to make her "one of his spiritual wives. According to Bennett, while Pratt's husband Orson was in England on missionary service, Smith proposed to Pratt by invoking the 1843 polygamy revelation: "Sister Pratt, the Lord has given you to me as one of my spiritual wives. I have the blessings of Jacob granted me, as he granted holy men of old, and I have long looked upon you with favor, and hope you will not repulse or deny me", to which Bennett claimed Pratt replied: "Am I called upon to break the marriage covenant … to my lawful husband! I never will. I care not for the blessings of Jacob, and I believe in NO SUCH revelations, neither will I consent under any circumstances. I have one good husband, and that is enough for me.
Published allegations of adultery against Sarah Pratt and Bennett appeared in local and church publications with signed affidavits from her neighbors Stephen and Zeruiah Goddard and others. Dr. Robert D. Foster made the following allegation against Bennett and Pratt:
Alas, none but the seduced join the seducer [Dr. Bennett]; those only who have been arraigned before a just tribunal for the same unhallowed conduct can be found to give countenance to any of his black hearted lies, and they, too, detest him for his seduction, these are the ladies to whom he refers his hearers to substantiate his assertions. Mrs. White, Mrs. Pratt, Niemans, Miller, Brotherton, and others.Pratt later claimed that Zeruiah Goddard told her these testimonies were made under threat from Joseph's brother Hyrum Smith:
It is not my fault; Hyrum Smith [Joseph's brother] came to our house, with the affidavits all written out, and forced us to sign them. Joseph and the Church must be saved, said he. We saw that resistance was useless, they would have ruined us; so we signed the papers.Van Wagoner concluded that the adultery charges against Sarah Pratt are "highly improbable" and could "be dismissed as slander. In addition to Sarah Pratt, Van Wagoner states that Nancy Rigdon and Martha Brotherton, "also suffered slanderous attacks because they exposed the Church's private polygamy posture. Orson Pratt stood by his wife Sarah in preference to the denials of Smith, who told his disciple Orson that "If [Orson] did believe his wife and follow her suggestions he would go to hell". Wilford Woodruff stated that "Dr. John Cook Bennett was the ruin of Orson Pratt". Van Wagoner and Walker note that, on August 20, 1842, "after four days of fruitless efforts at reconciliation, the Twelve excommunicated Pratt for 'insubordination' and Sarah for 'adultery'".
However, after a brief period of estrangement from Smith and the church in 1842, Orson Pratt labeled Bennett a liar:
"J.C. Bennett has published lies concerning myself & family & the people with which I am connected....His book I have read with the greatest disgust. No candid honest man can or will believe it. He has disgraced himself in eyes of all civilized society who will despise his very name.
It is a fact so well known that the Twelve and their adherents have endeavored to carry on this spiritual wife business … and have gone to the most shameful and desperate lengths to keep from the public. First, insulting innocent females, and when they resented the insult, these monsters in human shape would assail their characters by lying, and perjuries, with a multitude of desperate men to help them effect the ruin of those whom they insulted, and all this to enable them to keep these corrupt practices from the world.
According to Van Wagoner,
(Smith's) most pointed denial of plural marriage occurred on 5 October 1843 in instructions pronounced publicly in the streets of Nauvoo. Willard Richards wrote in Smith's diary that Joseph "gave instructions to try those who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives...Joseph forbids it and the practice thereof. No man shall have but one wife".
Rumours of Smith's involvement with polygamy continued to circulate in Nauvoo to which Smith responded on May 26, 1844:
A man asked me whether the commandment was given that a man may have seven wives...I am innocent of all these charges, and you can bear witness of my innocence, for you know me yourselves...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...
A group of former members of the church were in open conflict with Smith for various economic and political reasons and because Smith had disciplined some of them in church courts for adultery, thievery, and other crimes. William Law, a member of the First Presidency, joined this group and became the head of it. Accusations of church leader involvement in polygamy were published by the group in the Nauvoo Expositor on June 7, 1844, in which several signed and notarized affidavits from eyewitnesses about the revelation were duplicated; the affidavit by William Law stated, "Hyrum Smith [read] a revelation from God, he said that he was with Joseph when it was received. … The revelation (so called) authorized certain men to have more wives than one at a time." The affidavit by Austin Cowles stated "In the latter part of the summer, 1843, the Patriarch, Hyrum Smith, did in the High Council, of which I was a member, introduce what he said was a revelation given through the Prophet [containing] the doctrine of a plurality of wives." The group continued to use polygamy as its primary focus of attack on Smith, but increased the animosity of its rhetoric so that in a court case in which one of the group sued Smith, A.B. Williams gave an affidavit warning "Joseph H. Jackson said that Doctor Foster, Chauncy Higbee and the Laws were red-hot for a conspiracy, and he should not be surprised if in two weeks there should be not one of the Smith family left in Nauvoo".
Both Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith, days before their murder by a mob, spoke about the accusations of polygamy being made against church leaders at a Nauvoo city council meeting of June 8, 1844. The purpose of this meeting was ostensibly to address accusations of Mormon licentiousness inter alia made in the Nauvoo Expositor, though after two days of consultation, Smith and the Nauvoo city council voted on June 10, 1844 to declare the paper a public nuisance and ordered the paper's printing press destroyed. The published minutes quote Hyrum stating references "to the Revelation read to the High Council of the Church, which has caused so much talk about multiplicity of wives; that said Revelation was in answer to a question concerning things which transpired in former days, and had no reference to the present time [original emphasis]. Following Hyrum, Joseph Smith said "they make a criminality for a man to have a wife on earth while he has one in heaven" and that "the Revelation was given in view of eternity": "He received for answer, men in this life must marry in view of eternity, otherwise they must remain as angels, or be single in heaven, which was the amount of the Revelation referred to[.]"":
In author H. Michael Marquardt's opinion, "this was an attempt by Smith to obscure the real intent of the revelatory message," and W. E. La Rue emphasizes the contradiction between the statements of the two brothers. J. L. Clark writes that Hyrum's statement "appeared in the Nauvoo Neighbor of June 19, 1844, but was omitted from [B.H. Roberts' book] History of the Church, published years later in Utah."
Joseph and Hyrum Smith were subsequently jailed and charged with treason against the state of Illinois for declaring martial law in Nauvoo. On June 27, 1844, in spite of a promise of protection from Illinois governor Thomas Ford, a mob attacked the prison and killed both brothers, an event that prompted Smith's successor Brigham Young to lead the Mormon Exodus to Utah in 1846–47.
The Mormon doctrine of plural wives was officially announced by one of the Twelve Apostles Orson Pratt and Smith's successor Brigham Young in a special conference of the elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints assembled in the Mormon Tabernacle on 28 August 1852, and reprinted in the Deseret News Extra the following day, where Pratt announced: "It is well known, however, to the congregation before me, that the Latter-day Saints have embraced the doctrine of a plurality of wives, as part of their religious faith. … I think, if I am not mistaken, that the Constitution gives the privilege to all inhabitants of this country, of the free exercise of their religious notions, and the freedom of their faith, and the practice of it. Then if it can be proven … that the Latter-day Saints have actually embraced, as a part and portion of their religion, the doctrine of a plurality of wives, it is constitutional. … There will be many who will not hearken, there will be the foolish among the wise who will not receive the new and everlasting covenant [plural marriage] in its fullness, and they never will attain to their exaltation, they never will be counted worthy to hold the sceptre of power over a numerous progeny, that shall multiply themselves without end, like the sand upon the seashore."
Brigham Young would go on to expound on Orson Pratt's words later that day. Young's proclamation began: "The doctrine which Orson Pratt discoursed upon this morning was the subject of a revelation anterior to the death of Joseph Smith. It is in opposition to what is received by a small minority of the world; but our people have for many years believed it, though it may not have been practiced by the elders. The original of this revelation has been burnt. William Clayton wrote it down from the Prophet's mouth; it found its way into the hands of Bishop Whitney [father of Smith's 16th wife Sarah Ann Whitney], who obtained Joseph Smith's permission to copy it. Sister Emma burnt the original. I mention this to you because such of you as are aware of the revelation, suppose that it no longer exists. I prophesy to you that the principle of polygamy will make its way, and will triumph over the prejudices and all the priestcraft of the day; it will be embraced by the most intelligent parts of the world as one of the best doctrines ever proclaimed to any people. You have no reason whatever to be uneasy; there is no occasion for your fearing that a vile mob will come hither to trample underfoot the sacred liberty which, by the Constitution of our country, is guaranteed to us. It has been a long time publicly known, and in fact was known during his life, that Joseph had more than one wife. A Senator, a member of Congress, was well aware of it, and was not the less our friend for all that; so much so, as to say that were this principle not adopted by the United States, we would live to see human life reduced to a maximum of thirty years. He said openly that Joseph had hit upon the best plan for re-invigorating men, and assuring a long life to them; and, also, that the Mormons are very good and very virtuous. We could not have proclaimed this principle a few years ago; everything must abide its time, but I am now ready to proclaim it. This revelation has been in my possession for many years, and who knew it? No one, except those whose business it was to know it. I have a patent lock to my writing-desk, and nothing gets out of it that ought not to get out of it. Without the doctrine which this revelation makes known to us, no one could raise himself high enough to become a god." }}
Though the LDS church teaches that Joseph Smith taught plural marriage, some of the smaller branches of the Latter Day Saint movement reject this position. The strongest support for this rejection comes from Latter Day Saints that are currently or formerly associated with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The first leader of the RLDS Church, a different denomination than the Utah-based LDS church, was Joseph Smith's oldest son Joseph Smith III. Smith III's ideas about his father and polygamy evolved throughout his life. However, at one point in his life, he stated,
"If it be true that Joseph Smith did teach and practice polygamy contrary to the law of the Church, he was most certainly a transgressor. Nor would his sanction of the doctrine make it a legitimate ordinance in the Church of Christ. In proof that Joseph Smith did teach and practice such a doctrine I should want more reliable testimony than can be had from the polygamous wives of Brigham Young."
Joseph Smith III was an ardent opponent of the practice of plural marriage throughout his life. For all of his tenure as Prophet-President of his church, Smith denied that his father had been involved in the practice and insisted that it had originated with LDS Church leader Brigham Young. Smith III served many missions to the western United States where he met with and interviewed associates and some of the alleged wives of his father who attempted to present him with evidence to the contrary. In the end, Smith concluded that he was "not positive nor sure that [his father] was innocent" and that if, indeed, the elder Smith had been involved, it was still a false practice.
“A careful reading of the revelation on plural marriage should convince any honest man that it was never written by Brigham Young, as it contains references to Joseph Smith himself, and his family, which would be utterly nonsensical and useless if written by President Young. The fact is, we have the affidavit of Joseph C. Kingsbury, certifying that he copied the original manuscript of the revelation within three days after the date on which it was written. I knew Joseph C. Kingsbury well. Furthermore, the revelation was read by Hyrum Smith to a majority of the members of the High Council, in Nauvoo, at about the time it was given, to which fact we have the sworn statements of the members of the High Council
One of the founders of the Reorganization, Jason W. Briggs, a presiding elder in Wisconsin during the early 1840s, maintained throughout his life that Joseph Smith, Jr. had originated polygamy and that God would punish Joseph Smith, Jr. for his "transgressions." The church needed to simply deal with the issue and move on, stated Briggs. The editor of the earliest official RLDS periodical, Isaac Sheen, similarly affirmed Smith's involvement. He wrote that Joseph Smith, Jr. gave a revelation, committed polygamy, but repented of this "sin" before his death. Sheen's statement was affirmed by William Marks, the stake president of Nauvoo during Joseph Smith, Jr.'s lifetime and a close counselor to Joseph Smith III. Marks claimed to have seen Hyrum Smith read the polygamy revelation to the High Council in 1843. Marks also affirmed that Joseph Smith, Jr. had repented of the practice two to three weeks before his death in 1844. Similarly, James Whitehead, an RLDS member and clerk for Joseph Smith, Jr. affirmed that Emma Smith gave plural wives to Joseph Smith, Jr. on several occasions that he witnessed. Early in his life, Joseph Smith III could not affirm Marks and Whitehead despite the eye-witness nature of their statements.
The Community of Christ, formerly RLDS, has not made a definitive statement that Smith taught and practiced polygamy. Instead, their approach has been to stress their historical abhorrence of polygamy, that members of the church and the leadership are open to continue their "ongoing quest for truth", and that "the Community of Christ takes into account the growing body of scholarly research and publications depicting the polygamous teachings and practices of the Nauvoo period of church history (1840–1846)". Further,
The research findings seem to increasingly point to Joseph Smith Jr. as a significant source for plural marriage teaching and practice at Nauvoo. However, several of Joseph Smith’s associates later wrote that he repudiated the plural marriage system and began to try to stop its practice shortly before his death in June 1844.
A segment of church members vehemently deny Smith's complicity although the church no longer sees the issue as important. For people concerned about the topic and related to the RLDS tradition, the issue remains as much about current liberal/conservative church politics as it does an issue of history.
There is disagreement as to the precise number of wives Smith allegedly had. Fawn M. Brodie lists 48, D. Michael Quinn 46, and George D. Smith 42. One historian, Todd Compton, documented at least thirty-three plural marriages or sealings during Smith's lifetime. The discrepancy is created by the lack of documentation of the marriages to some of the named wives. Among the more notable wives of Joseph Smith are Fanny Alger and Eliza R. Snow. Historians think it is without question that Joseph had multiple wives; but, as Compton states multiple times in his work, little is known of these marriages after the ceremony. There are allegations that Smith had at least one child born to a plural wife, but this remains unproven. Statements by William Law and Eliza R. Snow indicate that the marriages included sexual intimacy.
Some of the tallies include sealings to Smith that occurred after his death, with the wife being sealed to Joseph via a proxy that stood in for him. Mormon apologists tend to emphasize a perceived difference between a 'sealing' (which is a LDS priesthood ordinance that binds individuals together in the eternities), and a 'marriage' (a social tradition in which the man and woman agree to be husband and wife in this life). In those early days of this religion, common practices and doctrines were not yet well-defined. They speculate that many, if not all, of the arrangements between Smith and these women were more in alignment with the concept of sealings, not marriages, in the sense that Smith did not join with any of these women, except for Emma, in a family unit.
As of 2007, there are at least twelve early Latter Day Saints who, based on historical documents and circumstantial evidence, have been identified as children of women sealed to Smith at the time of the births. In 2005 and 2007 studies, a geneticist with the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation showed that five of these individuals were in fact not Smith descendants: Mosiah Hancock (son of Clarissa Reed Hancock), Oliver Buell (son of Prescindia Huntington Buell), Moroni Llewellyn Pratt (son of Mary Ann Frost Pratt), Zebulon Jacobs (son of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith), and Orrison Smith (son of Fanny Alger). The remaining seven have yet to be conclusively tested, including Josephine Lyon, for whom current DNA testing cannot provide conclusive evidence either way. Lyon's mother, Sylvia Sessions Lyon, left her daughter a deathbed affidavit telling her she was Smith's daughter.