Did Emma Smith ever approve of polygamy?

By Eric Johnson

Some Latter-day Saints may rationalize Smith’s behavior. After all, some might think, his wife Emma must have been a believer in this practice.

Actually, Emma Smith approved of plural marriage for only a short time–maybe a few weeks–but she otherwise always despised polygamy and her husband’s involvement with this practice. In their book Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, LDS researchers Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery clearly show this to be a fact. Consider some quotes from this book and see if you think Emma approved of polygamy:

From April 29, 1842, from a Miss Jacques: “She [Emma] told me she had asked her husband, the prophet, about the stories which were being circulated among the women concerning such a doctrine being taught, and that he had told her to tell the sisters of the soceity that if any man, no matter who he was, undertook to talk such stuff to them in their huses, just to order him out at once, and if he did not go immediately, to take the tongs or the broom and drive him out, for the whole idea was absolutely false and the doctrine an evil and unlawful thing.” (p. 114)

“The issues accompanying plural marriage seemed to disappear from Emma’s life during the late summer, fall, and winter of 1842 and 1843. Joseph quietly solemnized at least two more marriages without her knowledge. But the peace was not destined to last. Whether the new quarters created a false sense of security for Eliza (Roxy Snow) and Joseph, or whether it simply was beyond their power to remain discreet indefinitely, Emma somehow discovered the liaison between the two, probably in February 1843. When the full realization to the relationship between her friend Eliza and her husband Joseph came to her, Emma was stunned. She unquestionably reacted strongly, but the incident is so shrouded in Mormon folk tale and legend that it becomes difficult to determine what actually happened. Although no contemporary account of the incident between Emma and Eliza remains extant, evidence leads to the conclusion that some sort of physical confrontation occurred between the two women.” (p. 134)

“A fourth story, attributed to LeRoi C. Snow, Eliza’s nephew, is an oral family tradition that tells of Emma knocking Eliza down the stairs with a broom, the fall resulting in a miscarriage for Eliza.” (p. 135)

“The incident between Emma and Eliza forced the issue of plural marriage into the open. Emma could no longer believe that Joseph was not involved, and he could no longer deny it.” (p. 137)

“Late in April 1843 Emma boarded a riverboat bound for St. Louis. Because Joseph feared arrest he sent her to purchase store goods and supplies for the hotel wing under construction on the back of their house. Lorin Walker, who lived with the Smiths, traveled with her. His sister Lucy helped Emma with the housework and attended school with the Smith children. Young Joseph remembered her ‘marshalling’ them to and from school like an elder sister. A second brother, William, reported that the prophet asked him for permission to marry Lucy. Joseph married seventeen-year-old Lucy Walker on May 1 with William Clayton officiating, while Emma and Lorin Walker were in St. Louis. Lucy said about her marriage, ‘Emma Smith was not present and she did not consent to the marriage; she did not know anything about it at all.'” (p. 139)

“Until Emma could be obedient to Joseph and give him plural wives, she could not participate in the endowment ceremonies, yet he taught her that the endowment was essential for exaltation–as opposed to salvation, which Joseph taught was available to all through the atonement of Christ. Joseph wanted Emma to serve as the example, the Elect Lady, the ‘disseminator of the endowment blessing,’ to other women. Thus her rejection of plural marriage would have blocked her admittance into the Endowment Council, because she had not obeyed her husband, and therefore prevented other women from entering as well.” (p. 140)

“For two months, from March to May, Joseph appears to have talked with Emma about plural marriage. he apparently used their rides together to teach her the necessity of the endowment and sealing. There is no evidence that she ever opposed him on any doctrine but plural marriage. Convinced that it was necessary for her salvation and essential to their continued relationship, she may have decided to compromise with Joseph. In May 1843 she finally agreed to give Joseph other wives if she could choose them. Any of Joseph’s other wives, who by now numbered at least sixteen, would have been more comfortable if they had had Emma’s approval. Emma chose the two sets of sister then living in her house, Emily and Eliza Partridge and Sarah and Maria Lawrence. Joseph had finally converted Emma to plural marriage, but not so fully that he dared tell her he had married the Partridge sisters two months earlier. (p. 143)

(After Smith married the Partridges a second time in a ceremony attended by Emma)

“Emma’s capitulation, however, was only momentary. Emily wrote that ‘Emma seemed to feel well until the ceremony was over, when almost before she could draw a second breath, she turned and was more bitter in her feelings than ever before, if possible, and before the day was over she turned around or repented what she had done and kept Joseph up till very late in the night talking to him.'” (p. 143)

“Emma began to talk as firmly and urgently to Joseph about abandoning plural marriage as he had formally talked to her about accepting it.” (p. 145)

“Joseph’s choice of women as plural wives gradually put a wedge between Emma and her friends as long as she remained either ignorant of the practice or opposed it. By late summer 1843 most of Emma’s friends had either married Joseph or had given their daughter to him. Her sister-in-law, Agnes Coolgbrith, was married to Joseph; another sister-in-law, Mary Fielding, had consented to the marriage of her husband Hyrum Smith and her sister Mercy. At least five women in her own household were Joseph’s plural wives. Whether Emma knew about them or not, the women would not have been sympathetic to Emma while she opposed plural marriage. As a result, she became isolated from her friends and associates, and through the next four years this isolation would become more and more acute.” (p. 147)

“On the morning of July 12 (1843), two days after Emma’s birthday, Joseph and Hyrum entered the office in the brick store talking about plural marriage. William Clayton wrote that Hyrum said, ‘If you will write the revelation on Celestial Marriage, I will take and read it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.’ Joseph retorted, ‘You do not know Emma as well as I do.’ ‘The doctrine is so plain, I can convince any reasonable man or woman of its truth, purity and heavenly origin,’ said Hyrum. ‘Well, I will write the revelation and we will see.’ . . . Joseph ‘dictated the revelation on Celestial Marriage,’ while Clayton wrote it, ‘sentence by sentence, as he dictated.’ Hyrum then took the document to Emma. Joseph and Clayton waited for his return. When Hyrum came back Joseph asked, ‘How did you succeed?’ ‘I have never received a more severe talking to in my life. Emma is very bitter and ful of resentment and anger,’ Hyrum answered. Joseph quietly remarked, ‘I told you you did not know Emma as well as I did.’ Joseph then put the paper in his pocket, and the brothers left the office.” (pp. 152-153)

(Referring to the succeeding revelation) “Although the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traces the revelation’s beginning back to Kirtland in 1830-1831, it is clear that fifteen verses directed to Emma dealt with the Nauvoo period and particularly Joseph’s immediate problem with Emma. One modern-day scholar states: ‘The burden of [the revelation] was to inform Emma that although she had been eternally married to her husband. . . the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ of marriage must be ‘sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed the power and the keys of this priesthood.’ In other words, only by receiving the fullness of the priesthood could Emma Smith have claim on her husband in the eternities.’ . . . Contrary to the tone of the 1830 Elect Lady revelation, the new revelation was threatening and strident . . . Emma could either accept more wives willingly or she could have them forced upon her. . . . But the message of the revelation seemed clear: whatever discomfort might result, Emma’s place was at Joseph’s side.” (pp. 152-153)

(After the “revelation” was burned in a fire) “The incident raises several questions. Did Joseph burn the plural marriage revelation or did Emma? Did Emma deny that she put a paper in the fire at all, or was she saying that she did not believe that the paper she burned contained an authentic revelation from the Lord?” (p. 154)

“No matter what its origin, she opposed the doctrine. She was not without power in the struggle with Joseph over it. Four days after her return from St. Louis Emma exerted her strongest leverage. She threatened divorce.” (p. 158)

“In the most serious crisis of their marriage, Joseph backed down. He told Emma that he would give up his wives. but he confided to Clayton that he did not intend to keep his word.” (p. 158)

“In the past Emma had compromised her feelings, had concealed the practice of plural marraige from public knowledge, and had even cooperated in giving Joseph other wives.” (p. 172)

Emma denied her husband’s polygamous ways to her deathbed. For instance, she was interviewed by her children in 1879. They asked her, “What about the revelation on polygamy? Did Joseph Smith have anything like it? What of spiritual wifery?” She answered:

“There was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives. There were some rumors of something of the sort which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was of it was, that, in a chat about plural wives, he had said, ‘Well such a system might possibly be, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven. No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband’s death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of.” Question: “Did he not have other wives than yourself?” Answer: “He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.” Her son Joseph pressed: “Did he not hold marital relations with women other than yourself?” She answered, “He did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge.” (p. 301)