By Eric Johnson
Posted October 7, 2021
Note: The following was originally printed in the July/August 2021 edition of the Mormonism Researched, a bimonthly periodical of MRM that is free upon request. To request a free subscription to Mormonism Researched, please visit here.
Between October 2013 to December 2015, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published 13 official “Gospel Topics essays” covering controversial parts of its church history. Subjects covered by the unnamed author(s) include the Book of Abraham, the Book of Mormon, the First Vision accounts, and Mother God.
Three of the essays dealt with the issue of plural marriage (or polygamy):
- “The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage” (originally posted 12/23/2013)
- “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah” (originally posted 12/16/2013)
- “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo” (hereafter “Kirtland/Nauvoo”) (originally posted 10/22/2014)
After 2015 (but probably closer to 2019/2020), these three essays were temporarily taken off the official Gospel Topics Essays page. A condensed version titled “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (hereafter new essay) replaced the three articles. Some time after April 2021, church leaders decided to return the three pieces to the official essay’s line-up. Today a new bold-faced subheading on the main essay page is titled “Plural Marriage” and lists four articles, with the new essay on the top.
There are two original essays discussing the Book of Mormon (“Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” and “Book of Mormon Translation”). However, the other 10 articles in the series do not overlap with the same subject. So why was a fourth article on plural marriage needed? After all, the new essay provides no unique information. And why did the other three essays on plural marriage get temporarily moved out of the essay listings? There is nowhere to go for an explanation.
The introduction to the new essay explains how Joseph Smith was “commanded” by the “Lord” to “institute the practice of plural marriage in the early 1840s” and that this was in place for more than half a century “under the direction of the Church President.”
The new essay now provides three subheadings as well as links directing the reader to the original three essays; these links were not provided in the article before April 2021, as if the author(s) did not want the readers to know where the information originated.
The first main section of the new essay is titled “The Beginnings of Plural Marriage in the Church.” It is admitted that “monogamy was the only legal form of marriage in the Untied States.” Still, it says, “plural marriage, practiced by ancient patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses,” was an “ancient principle” that returned to the earth in the “latter days.”
The second subheading is titled “Plural Marriage and Families in 19th-Century Utah.” This section says that there were “challenges and difficulties” endured by the early polygamists.
In addition, it is claimed that there were positive aspects to plural marriage, such as how there was “love and joy the polygamists found within their families.” Those who practiced polygamy “believed it was a commandment of God at that time.”
It also states, “At its peak in 1857, perhaps one half of all Utah Latter-day Saints experienced plural marriage as a husband, wife, or child.” There was push-back against laws that they felt infringed on their rights, causing Latter-day Saints to become “engaged in civil disobedience by continuing to practice plural marriage and by attempting to avoid arrest.” (Was this “civil disobedience” supported by Romans 13:1-7?)
Finally, under the heading “Anti-Polygamy Legislation and the End of Plural Marriage,” the history of the laws against polygamy that were instituted by the U.S. government is discussed.
To show that the LDS Church no longer practices the “Principle,” the article points out, “Since President Smith’s day, Church Presidents have repeatedly emphasized that the Church and its members are no longer authorized to enter into plural marriage and have underscored the sincerity of their words by urging local leaders to bring noncompliant members before Church disciplinary councils.”
What the New Essay Left Out
Because these three original essays are filled with 19 printed pages of information, there was a whole lot of whittling down necessary to keep the new essay to three pages.
The Kirtland/Nauvoo essay contained the most powerful information of the three original essays, yet out of its eight pages, just three paragraphs are included in the new essay. While it is admitted that “Joseph Smith married additional wives and authorized other Latter-day Saints (the original essay reads “introduced the practice to close associates”) to practice plural marriage,” the crux of the important details went AWOL.
The Kirtland/Nauvoo essay explained how “Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward.” This angel “came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”
Could it be that this information was left out of the new essay because it appears to be a manipulative tactic on Smith’s part? After all, Smith was supposedly the only one to whom the angel appeared. For Smith to tell prospective plural wives that he could be killed unless he married them is a tactic that a sexual predator might use.
The statement in the original Kirtland/Nauvoo essay explaining how “most of those sealed to Joseph Smith were between 20 and 40 years of age at the time of their sealing to him” was not included in the new essay. Also left out is the fact that a third of Smith’s wives were teenagers as young as 14, including Helen Mar Kimball whom the essay references as a good example. Without providing her age, the Kirtland/Nauvoo essay said that that she “spoke of her sealing to Joseph as being ‘for eternity alone,’ suggesting that the relationship did not involve sexual relationships.”
However, many scholars believe that sexual relations did take place between Smith and the 14-year-old Helen. Todd Compton wrote, “Helen had expected her marriage to Joseph Smith to be for eternity only then discovered that it included time as well” (In Sacred Loneliness, 500). George D. Smith adds, “How surprised she was to discover ‘that it included [marriage for] time also’: a physical union at age fourteen with a thirty-seven-year-old man” (Nauvoo Polygamy, 201).
Another aspect missing in the new essay is how Fanny Alger married Smith in the 1830s while she worked in the Smith home. Oliver Cowdery, one of the Book of Mormon witnesses, did call this a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.”
Nothing in the last half of the original Kirtland/Nauvoo essay—including sections titled “Plural Marriage in Nauvoo,” “Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage,” “Joseph and Emma,” and “Trial and Spiritual Witness”—were included in the new essay.
Even more frustrating is how the church has changed the essay’s web pages so that the endnotes are difficult to read. Before, a researcher could look at all the endnotes together and even print them out on the same page. Now, however, each endnote must be looked at independently and cannot be printed.
Endnote number 24 in the Kirtland/Nauvoo essay was not included in the new essay. It says, “The exact number of women to whom he [Smith] was sealed in his lifetime is unknown because the evidence is fragmentary.” The footnote read, “Careful estimates put the number between 30 and 40.” A reader of the new essay will have no idea how many wives Smith really had.
To consider MRM’s take on the Gospel Topics essays as well as listen to Viewpoint on Mormonism podcasts reviewing the book The LDS Gospel Topics Series: A Scholarly Engagement that aired between April-June 2021, click here.