Mormon historian Richard Van Wagoner paints anything but a flattering picture of Joseph Smith in his book Sidney Rigdon, Portrait of Religious Excess. In his chapter titled “Between Friends and Family,” he notes that “perhaps the most scandalous manifestation of Smith’s lust for manly achievement was his inclination toward extra-martial romantic liaisons, which he believed were licensed by the Old Testament and countenanced by God’s modern revelation” (pp.290-291).
Van Wagoner recounts the story of how the 37-year-old Smith attempted to persuade 15-year-old Helen Mar Kimball (the daughter of Heber C. Kimball) to be sealed to him as his wife. The young Kimball stated that Smith told her, “If you will take this step, it will insure your eternal salvation and exaltation and that of your father’s household and all of your kindred” (p.293). Helen would later regret that she acquiesced to Smith’s proposal. “I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young and they deceived me by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it” (p.294).
Smith certainly proved himself an opportunist when he took Nancy Mirinda Hyde as a plural wife. Van Wagoner feels that Nancy was “a clandestine facilitator for spiritual wifery” as a means to “amend for her husband’s 1838 apostasy.” He notes that the “conditions imposed on Orson Hyde to obtain his former standing, according to one account, were to relinquish his money and his wife to Joseph Smith ‘as a ransom for his transgression'” (p.294). Orson Hyde was on a mission in the Holy Land when Smith took Nancy to be his wife in April, 1842.
Smith also attempted to seduce Nancy Rigdon, the young daughter of Sidney Rigdon. Ushering her into a “private room,” Smith locked the door and proceeded to tell Nancy of his “affection for her” and that “the Lord was well pleased with the matter.” Writes Van Wagoner, “Despite her tender age, she did not hesitate to express herself. The prophet’s seductive behavior shocked her; she rebuffed him in a flurry of anger” (p.295).
Not willing to take no for an answer, Smith later had a letter delivered to Nancy that insisted, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.…Everything that God gives us is lawful and right; and it is proper that we should enjoy His gifts and blessings.… Blessings offered, but rejected, are no longer blessings.… Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive” (p.295).
When Nancy’s father Sidney confronted Smith with the note, he at first tried to deny it. Van Wagoner quotes George W. Robinson, who wrote that Nancy “‘told the facts with so much earnestness, and the fact of a letter being present, which he had caused to be written to her, on the same subject, the day after the attempt made on her virtue,’ that ultimately ‘he could not withstand the testimony; he then and there acknowledged that every word of Miss Rigdon’s testimony was true'” (p.296).
According to Van Wagoner, “Robinson wrote that Smith, after acknowledging his proposition, sought a way out of the crisis by claiming he had approached Nancy ‘to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts!’ But Sidney found that rationalization feeble. Convinced of Smith’s involvement in the ‘spiritual wife business,’ as Sidney later termed it, Rigdon concluded that Smith had ‘contracted a whoring spirit'” (pp.296,297).
“The bedeviling paradox for many regarding the Nancy Rigdon incident,” says Van Wagoner, “is that while Smith’s fame as a prophet of God makes the charges against him hard to believe, her steadfast reputation makes them difficult to dismiss” (p.299).
History shows that Smith’s amorous advances were rebuffed by at least three other women besides Kimball and Rigdon. These included Sarah M. Kimball (no relation to Helen Mar Kimball), Sarah Pratt (the wife of Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt), and Martha Brotherton. “Inevitably,” writes Van Wagoner, “Nancy Rigdon, Sarah Pratt, and Martha Brotherton saw their reputations impugned by an avalanche of slander. The prophet labeled Sarah a ‘[whore] from her mother’s breast.’ Martha Brotherton was branded a ‘mean harlot.’ while Nancy was tagged a ‘poor miserable girl out of the very slough of prostitution'” (p.299).
Bear in mind that all of the above took place while Smith was already married to Emma, his wife since January of 1827. The irony to all of this is, while modern-day Mormons tend to vilify sexual deviance and scorn marital infidelity, they tend to turn a blind eye to the sexual behavior of their founding prophet.