Voices from the Exponent Backlist on the Joseph Smith Polygamy Essay

On October 22nd, a new essay appeared on LDS.org under the topic of “plural marriage.” (read it here ; subtopics are also here about the beginning of plural marriage in Kirkland, and here about plural marwomanriage in Utah and here about the end of polygamy.) The essay soon made rounds on the internet, including facebook and the Exponent backlist, stirring up feelings and even more questions about Joseph Smith, the practice of plural marriage, and what it means for men and women in the church. Below are a few of the responses of the Exponent bloggers on this very controversial and painful topic.


Em: I thought the essay published by the church was mostly okay, and definitely more than we usually hear.  Then I saw some comments from a friend of a friend regarding the article.  She wanted to know where it says Joseph had sex with his wives.  I pointed her to the section that differs between marriage for Time & Eternity vs. Eternity only.  I realized that the church’s language is deliberately slippery, and it really annoyed me.  Essentially it says that marriages for time included sexual relations, and it says Joseph engaged in these unions as well as eternity only ones.  I also don’t understand why people are so defensive about the concept that Joseph Smith had sex with more than just Emma.  Why is it non-controversial for some that Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff etc were prophets who had sex with multiple women but somehow not Joseph?  I find the whole thing appalling, but to me it would in some ways be worse if Joseph had taught non-sexual plural marriage, that it was purely religious and formal and in no way carnal, and subsequent prophets changed it for their own ends without saying so and expanded the system? Wouldn’t that be evidence of carnality and corruption far worse than simply accepting and following in faith a system that already had precedent? I don’t know.  The inconsistency baffles me.  I personally think it was wrong start to finish, but why the two different standards?

Another thing I think is strange about the article is that it seem to speak more to those already familiar with the church history regarding polygamy.  That is, if you already knew all about this topic, you would read it and see between the lines on a lot of things.  Yes, Emma was just a wee bit miffed on this topic.  But as my experience last night chatting some more conservative members taught me, if you don’t already know a lot on this topic, you’re free to skate over it and not believe the things that make you uncomfortable.  It doesn’t SAY Joseph was having sex.  It just implied it.  It doesn’t SAY women were ostracized for agreeing, it just implied it.  It doesn’t SAY Emma was heartbroken, but it implied it.  It said nothing about sticky things like how it related to the Relief Society or the martyrdom.  If you already know, then it says a lot, but it is slippery and that makes me a bit sad.

One issue that comes out of this for me is how important it is to learn how to read and think historically.  Understanding what constitutes a reputable source, or a plausible source, and how to read critically is very important and is not a skill I think is applied enough in the general readership.  Yes, Emma later stated on occasion that Joseph never practiced polygamy.  But should that be taken at face value, or did she have compelling reasons to say what wasn’t true?  One of the people I was talking with asserted that she had heard none of the sources on polygamy in Nauvoo were reliable and there was no real evidence.  Well, read the evidence.  Think critically for yourself and accept or reject!  Don’t rely on someone else to tell you.  Don’t even rely on the church to tell you.  God gave you a mind and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and you can learn truth for yourself both by study (learn to read evidence!) and by prayer.


Tophat: For a while I was “ok” with polygamy because my husband is a great person (caring, loving) and I thought that while it would be a sacrifice, it would be good for a woman who would otherwise not have such a loving, committed partner, to have that. It would be like a gift I could give her (a la law of Sarah). But the part that made me recoil was the idea that somehow men have the capability to love many women, but women don’t have the capability to love many men. To me polygamy implied that God made men’s and women’s hearts fundamentally different in capacity to love and I can’t believe that. Women can love just as much as men so systematically limiting their spousal partners while giving men unlimited spousal partners is wrong.


Spunky: Four thoughts:

Going with Em’s question re: Why is it okay and non-controversial to TBM that Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff etc were prophets who had sex with multiple women but somehow not Joseph? I think that many people like to deify Joseph. I mean, the man claimed he could walk on water and I think people believed he could. I think people still do believe this, and maybe he could! I think back to something my father taught me once– and that was that prophets are NOT perfect. We would be fools to think that men– Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Spencer Kimball or even Thomas Monson — are perfect, They might be perfect for the calling, but not perfect people. Only Christ was perfect, and so long as we deify prophets we will live in delusion without real testimony of Christ. In other words, it is as though we are worshiping false Gods in thinking that Joseph was something other than what he really was.

I personally think– on days when I believe that polygamy was commanded– that God knew Joseph (and other devout church members) were being tried beyond the ability to resist sexual temptation. Because Joseph was called of God, God compensated for Joseph- and others’ failures/weaknesses- in creating plural marriage, i.e., rather than having the prophet and the entire church fail due to mass sexual infidelity, the rules privately changed to protect the church. I do not buy the line about “increased seed” as a necessary factor in polygamy; it makes women into the same as breeding cows. I find a tiny bit of satisfaction imagining women with the choice of having multiple sexual partners, and the possibility that some women had crushes on other men, so had their sexual fantasies realised through polygamy, even if by appearance, the men were the ones being sexually satisfied (be assured, this is not comfortable for me, but something I do to cope with the concept of polygamy)

I *hate* the idea that men will have multiple wives in heaven; it makes me think that God hates me, and therefore made me female. It makes me think that God hates women, or in the least, that women are less than men. I’ve heard too many men in the church say things akin to this thought (I had a friend’s mission president once tell her literally that women were less valuable than men in God’s eternal plan– laid it out for her in a chart, positioning women between men and animals.) This concept is a deal-breaker for me and I do not believe it. If a prophet were to come out and state this openly, that women are lesser than men, then I would resign my church membership.

My mother always told me that she was fine with plural marriage, and I have had another friend tell me that the concept suits her as well. When I press for reasons why they feel okay with it, the best of what I can gather from them is that they see themselves as the “first wife” who grants permission for her husband to marry again (a concept not compatible with the secret marriages of Joseph Smith), and sees additional these additional wives as women who bring more children to be sealed to the fold of the first wife, so sees these additional wives somewhat as “lesser spirits,” perhaps as those who rejected the gospel on earth or similar. This concept makes me rage even more against the whole thing; it just seems dirty all around.


Violadiva: As a child, the only thing I knew about a man having multiple wives was the little blurb Yul Brennar gives in The King and I —  “It is like old Siamese saying. A girl is like a blossom, with honey for just one man. A man is like a honey bee and gathers all he can. To fly from blossom to blossom a honeybee must be free. But blossom must not ever fly from bee to bee to bee.”

This always bugged me! It’s like Tophat said, how can our hearts be so different? Does the fact that a woman can only carry the child of one man at a time, while a man could impregnate a different woman every night, change what love, marriage, sex and intimacy are all about? Does polygamy inherently deny the sexual needs/desires of women, regardless of their ability for procreation?

I am glad for the ways the Nauvoo/Kirtland essay paints the emotional turmoil of both men and women.  It also points out that men today can still be sealed to more than one woman (stated as after death of the first — but what about that weird “temple clearance” for divorced men, rather than “cancellation” for divorced women?), and that both men and women may be sealed to all of their earthly spouses after death.  Too bad the current policy is imbalanced toward women. A lovely woman from my ward lost her young husband many years ago, remarried a single man who raised her children who then died of cancer, and is now married to man #3. She is sealed to her first husband only. The other 2 men are sealed to nobody. Even though they love her and want to be sealed to her,  she cannot be sealed to them until after she dies. She will have to leave instructions in her will for her children to do the sealings for her. She loves all of the men, wants to be sealed to all of them, and is heartbroken at the thought of husband #2 being up in Heaven, attached to nobody.

I can accept the fact that a man could love more than one woman, just like a woman could love more than one man. But I do not think this particular attribute is cut along gender lines. Many people from both genders would prefer monogamy. According to the teachings and practices of early church polygamy, it was only allowed in one direction (apart from those few married women who were also sealed to JS….now those stories are a bit confusing).


April Young Bennett: The new essay on polygamy said that “the challenge of introducing a principle as controversial as plural marriage is almost impossible to overstate.”  Let me try. Joseph Smith tried to interpret the will of God to the best of his ability. He knew his calling was to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the Bible, but failed to realize that the ancient practice of polygamy recorded in the Bible did not come from God, but from ancient culture, and so he made a grave error and reintroduced polygamy in modern times.

See, that wasn’t so hard.

The reason defending polygamy is so challenging to the church is because the practice is indefensible. The new essay has the same flaw as all other official defenses of Mormon polygamy. It starts with the premise that Joseph Smith must have been right to institute polygamy because he was a prophet.  So whom can we blame for the devastating results of Smith’s actions, if we must acquit Smith?

Women make good scapegoats because women have no spiritual authority in our church and therefore, a flawed woman is no threat to anyone’s testimony. This essay does that explicitly when it blames Emma Smith for polyandry, claiming that Joseph Smith married other men’s wives to preserve her feelings. It does that implicitly when it skips details about Smith’s relationships with some of his wives that would show that not all of them entered into marriage with Smith voluntarily.

More often, the essay blames God, portraying God as a wicked master who forced Smith to institute polygamy in spite of the misery it brought on Smith, his legal wife, his plural wives, and many others who followed.  Someday, the church will need to decide whether it is really more important that church members have a testimony of Joseph Smith as an infallible prophet than that they have a testimony of a perfect and just God.


Heather: Newell and Avery’s book, Emma Hale Smith: Mormon Enigma is excellent and helped me to understand why Emma spent so much energy in her later years trying to deny that Joseph practiced polygamy. She was always against it, and it was a source of great humiliation for her. As Relief Society president she’d go to meetings and publicly denounce the practice of “celestial marriage” and almost every woman in the room knew that Joseph had already married several of the women present, some of whom were Emma’s dearest friends. Brigham resented her refusal to “get on board” and it was humiliating to Joseph to have his wife so upset. Some speculate that section 132, which was “received” at the time that Joseph was pushing Emma to accept polygamy, was a bit of spiritual blackmail (here’s verse 54: “And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.”). When it had been written down Joseph told Hyrum to show Emma and Hyrum refused. I think Emma denied it ever happened because it was such a painful part of her marriage that it was easier, once Brigham left Nauvoo and took polygamy with them, to just erase that part. And Mormons have seemed happy to do that too. But even the RLDS acknowledge that Joseph had physical relations with other women. Linda Newell was the keynote speaker at Midwest Pilgrims two years ago and she and the RLDS historian got in this hilarious argument when someone asked if the story about Emma pushing Eliza Snow down the stairs was true. Linda said it was true, and he said, “No it’s not. It was Eliza Patridge who she threw down the stairs.”

Ok so that’s my two cents on the history of polygamy. Here is the gospel according to Heather on it. I don’t think it’s an eternal principle. The Garden of Eden (pre fall) is set up as the ideal, harmonious place were humans chatted with God and the beasties were all besties. And there were two people in that relationship. Not Adam and Eve and Martha and Katie. And in the Bible polygamy is always portrayed as a mess. And it seems telling to me that it is not found in any of the peaceful, righteous groups of people in the BoM. Only when the society is super jacked up. It’s a sign of corruption and self-indulgence. Even when the BoM talks about “sanctioned” polygamy like David & Solomon, it’s hardly an endorsement: Jacob 2:24 “Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.”  So maybe I’m living in la la land but I don’t think I’m going to be expected to be part of a threesome (celestial orgy?!) in the next life. And any sane man wants no part of it.


What are your thoughts on Joseph Smith and his practice of polygamy?

Do you think his secret practice of polygamy undermines his religious authority?

Should the church come out and clearly state: ‘Joseph Smith had sex with many of his wives, not just Emma’ as a means of stopping the confusion on this topic?



Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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12 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I love all y’all’s thoughts!

    Em, I think this is a really good point you made:
    “Another thing I think is strange about the article is that it seem to speak more to those already familiar with the church history regarding polygamy. That is, if you already knew all about this topic, you would read it and see between the lines on a lot of things. Yes, Emma was just a wee bit miffed on this topic. But as my experience last night chatting some more conservative members taught me, if you don’t already know a lot on this topic, you’re free to skate over it and not believe the things that make you uncomfortable.”

    I think this unfortunately means the essays succeed in doing exactly what the people who commissioned them wanted. That is, they give people who have concerns something to point to and say, “See? The Church is dealing with this.” But at the same time, they’re careful to actually *say* as little as possible straight out, so that someone who doesn’t know the background and who encounters them won’t have cause to be concerned. I wish the Church hadn’t gone this obscure-and-hide route, but I’m not surprised that they did.

    April, I think you totally nailed it. The question is whether the idea of a just God is more important, or a perfect Joseph Smith. It kinda makes sense that Joseph is what makes Mormonism different from Christianity more generally, so that’s the way the Church would go, but I’d think it would give them at least some pause to throw *God* under the bus in the service of Joseph’s image. Yikes!

  2. Chris says:

    An an active Latter-day Saint, what disturbs me most is Joseph Smith’s practice of polyandry, marrying women who were already married. To me, this goes against everything that seems virtuous, honest, good, or righteous. Some of his marriages to trusting, underage girls is deeply troubling as well. I have put my concerns about Joseph Smith’s sexual history on a shelf, so to speak, along with Noah’s getting drunk, Abraham’s treatment of Hagar, Peter’s denial of the Savior, and other mistakes that prophets have made and turned judgment over to the Lord.

    If the Lord allows flawed men to lead his Church, surely God loves me unconditionally–despite the teachings of Elder Nelson–and will show mercy to be as I seek to love and serve Him with all of my heart, might, mind, and strength.

    My great-grandmother was a polygamous wife and knew great sorrow in that relationship. After her husband died, she was left destitute since the first wife inherited everything. And yet, without her, I might not enjoy my beloved Mormon heritage, warts and all. I am grateful that I have learned to love God and love others because of my experiences in the Church and my years of scripture study–especially studying the New Testament. I believe there is much yet to be revealed in the Church, continue to be a faithful member, and have a current temple recommend.

    • Em says:

      I really appreciate you offering your perspective on this. I think good things came of polygamy — namely people like you being exposed to the Gospel. I think part of what makes this hard is we just know a lot more about Joseph than we do about ancient prophets. We have one perspective on those old scripture stories — whoever it is who wrote it. The Gospels are an exception in that we have multiple perspectives on the same events, but they center on the Savior and not prophets. What would our perspective on Nephi be if we heard all the brothers’ perspectives? Would we still have a testimony? I like to think so. (Not that I’m saying Nephi had anything sketchy — but we just have no way of knowing about any of the ancient prophets). It is easier to dismiss ancient flaws precisely because the culture and time is so foreign that even their heroic deeds often seem very weird. But our modern prophets are more recent and we know about their feet of clay, and the culture and time is too close for us to say “oh well, a different time. Still did good things.”

      I guess I think that ancient prophets probably also did things that would make me uncomfortable — in some cases, definitely. But we value their fruits, and honor them as prophets in the moment they acted as such — receiving the ten commandments, building a boat, crying repentance, testifying. That is how I feel about Joseph Smith. I honor him as a prophet when it comes to the First Vision, the book of Mormon, the organization of the church etc. This other stuff? If it doesn’t lead me to Christ, if it makes it harder to stay, then I don’t feel obliged to justify it as being Godly. Maybe it was, but for now it makes it harder, not easier to do the necessary mental gymnastics.

      • Rachel says:

        Em, I love this followup comment so much. It is one of the best, clearest things I have read on prophets and fallibility I think. Thank you. And thank you Chris, for your thoughtful comment above. 🙂

  3. Starla says:

    thank you all. This was very thoughtful. April, once again you have a way with words and explaining difficult concepts.

    Upon reading the essays this week I cried. I guess some naive and idealistic part of me thought that there would be some repudiation of polygamy. And I thought I would finally have that conversation with my TBM mother about polygamy that I have wanted to have for years. Neither happened. It is so disappointing.

  4. Patty says:

    My parents promised each other they would not remarry if/when one of them died first. They also both expressed an opposition to polygamy. My dad’s grandfather was polygamous. After my mother died, my dad did very poorly on his own. He met and married a lovely woman and was sealed to her and her children (she was a divorced convert). He was folded happily into her family. He forced me to listen to him describe how happy the 3 of them were going to be in the hereafter. Very unpleasant. My mom and stepmom are really nothing like each other. Dad died recently, hope the explanations are going well ;).

  5. mylifeintune says:

    I, too, hated the slippery language:

    “The youngest wife 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.”

    She was 14. Just say it. 14.

    “The revelation on marriage required that a wife give her consent before her husband could enter into plural marriage.42 Nevertheless, toward the end of the revelation, the Lord said that if the first wife “receive not this law”—the command to practice plural marriage—the husband would be “exempt from the law of Sarah,” presumably the requirement that the husband gain the consent of the first wife before marrying additional women.43 After Emma opposed plural marriage, Joseph was placed in an agonizing dilemma, forced to choose between the will of God and the will of his beloved Emma. He may have thought Emma’s rejection of plural marriage exempted him from the law of Sarah. Her decision to “receive not this law” permitted him to marry additional wives without her consent.”

    How convenient.

    I was most disturbed by the last paragraph; the omission of current practice, which I didn’t even know about until recently (that a man can be sealed to another woman while his divorced wife is still alive without canceling the original sealing, but that a woman must have her sealing canceled when she remarries even if her first husband is already dead), makes me think that they KNOW how hypocritical and sexist current policy is.

    The article made me nauseous.

  6. Mae says:

    I really appreciate your points of view (both those from the original post, as well as comments). This is a complicated and emotional issue for lots of people, and I’m no exception. I think any step toward openness and transparency is a good thing, and am overall pretty satisfied with the new essays.

    Polygamy as an eternal principle is hotly debated amongst LDS women, and as much as I feel like it’s not something I would choose for myself, there are lots of things I wouldn’t choose for myself that have turned out to be wonderful aspects of my life. And as much as I want to hate the institution of polygamy, when I read about actual polygamous families (those of my ancestors, or of people in the Middle East), a lot of them sound like they have or had incredibly happy lives. And, when I’ve asked myself the question of whether or not I could share my husband to help another woman get into heaven, the answer has always been, since the time I was small, a resounding “yes, if I loved her enough”.

    Also, a large part of me has always been comforted by the idea that if polygamous families from other cultures wanted to accept the gospel, that God wouldn’t turn them away. I hate the idea of the church breaking up a family that is otherwise happy, and it gives me hope that God accepts other kinds of families, too; that he is more broad-minded than most people who believe in him think he is.

    (*Note: I am not defending abusive polygamous marriages. That happened and happens, but I don’t think those marriages should or can cut it in heaven).

    • Paula says:

      I suppose the issue with your comment that I see is that YOU are the decider. You have all the power. I just have to wait around to get chosen, hoping some other man’s wife is able to love me. You were lucky enough to be chosen in this life, therefore you have extra power in the next one. Benefits of being the first wife? Being worthy enough to be married and remain so?

      I have worked through a lot of my issues with polygamy, at least I thought I have until this week. But seeing wives

      It makes me feel bad. What if no other wife loves me enough? What if no other woman approves? I’ve already been accused of ruining my parent’s eternal family because of my faith crisis and my husband left me.

      I don’t want to spend this life hoping someone loves me enough in the next life. Based on my experience here, the answer is no. No one will love you enough.

    • spunky says:

      Interesting thoughts, Mae.

      I agree that some women seem suited to be one of many wives, but I can’t help but wonder if they were given the choice if they would chose to be the only wife, or choose to not be married at all. Seems like many of the polygamous marriages were hollow. I know from my personal experience that when my husband is away for work for long periods of time, our relationship does not feel as close. I cannot imagine what it would be like to share a husband permanently, and can only imagine that the women would have to close friends in order to make up the emotional loss of a spouse who is also a confidant.

      I am troubled by your idea that you might “grant” your husband a second wife is you loved her enough. What if your husband failed, and you found yourself as second or third or fourth wife to someone else? I think this is something married women fail to consider; when we are divorced, or single in the church, there is the nagging sense that perhaps, we too, might be forced to be a second wife. But what if eternal marriage is not based on chronology, and because you “had” your husband first in this life, then a righteous, unmarried women then becomes his “first” wife in the eternities? Clearly Emma did not give Joseph permission regarding plural marriage; so I wonder for those women who find plural marriage as something acceptable if they were never given rank or permission in marital order, if that would be as comfortable for them to accept. I don’t mean to imply that you like polygamy, but intend to invite the idea that as a second or third or fourth wife, would your feelings be different?

  7. James says:

    The elephant in the room is that this had been known for decades but church members were discouraged from “going there.” I asked my bishop and was told it wasn’t helpful information, was anti Church propaganda, and outright lies. This is what Fawn Brodie was excommunicated for. I find the essays lacking in an apology to members ostracized for looking into the truth.

  8. CG says:

    April, as always your comments are articulate and succinct. I always love to read your posts, and I couldn’t agree more with what you said.

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