By Eric Johnson
It is no longer a secret to most Latter-day Saints that their church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was married to more than 30 women, meaning that Emma was not his one and only wife. Many who know about Smith’s lustful ways may assume that these women must have been widows or “old maids” and their prophet was doing a favor to them by marrying them. However, the idea that Joseph Smith somehow rescued his plural wives from being single is just not accurate. The fact of the matter is that Smith met the majority of his wives when they were just preteens or teenagers. In fact, about a quarter of Smith’s eventual wives (nine of them) were 12 or younger when Smith met them, even as young as 5 (Sarah Ann Whitney) or 6 (Nancy Winchester). Over the years, Smith nurtured these relationships until he married them, with the vast majority of these marriages taking place between 1841 to 1843. At least a quarter of his wives were no older than teenagers when Smith (who was in his late 30s) married them; the majority of his wives were under 30. Only an eighth of Smith’s wives were older than he was at marriage.
Historian George A. Smith explains,
When the Smiths moved to Ohio in 1831, Joseph there met the majority of his future wives. Most of them were still adolescents—the children of close associates. . . In other words, for a decade prior to Smith’s first plural marriages, he met and established relationships with those who would later become his wives. . . . By the time the Latter-day Saints settled in Illinois, the young women Joseph once met as pre-teenagers had become old enough for him to marry. (Nauvoo Polygamy, pp. 29, 30, 35, 51)
On page 36 of George Smith’s book is a table showing the interval between the first encounter and the Nauvoo marriage:
|Future Wife||Year Met||Age at meeting||Age at marriage|
|Mary Elizabeth Rollins||1831||12||23|
|Elizabeth Jane Davis||1831||40||50|
|Sarah Ann Whitney||1831||5||17|
|Flora Ann Woodworth||by 1841||14||16|
|Helen Mar Kimball||by 1836||8||14|
|Hannah Ells||by 1840||27||30|
|Mary Ann Frost||by 1837||28||34|
|Nancy Winchester||ca. 1834||6||14|
|Phebe Watrous||by 1841||36||38|
Let’s be honest, doesn’t this sound morally wrong? Of course it does. About a third of Joseph Smith’s wives were teenagers when he, a grown man more than twice their age, married them. About a third of his wives were already married to other men. (This is called “polyandry.”) Shouldn’t this information be bothersome?
Many Latter-day Saints have rationalized Smith’s marriages as being nothing more than platonic in nature. This is certainly not true, as even acknowledged by the LDS Church in their October 2014 “Gospel Topics” essay titled “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo.” This essay–found on an official LDS website–reports that Smith married between 30 to 40 women in marriages that “generally includ(ed) the possibility of sexual relations.” (We encourage you to check out the LDS official site for yourself!) This is in agreement with scholarship. Indeed, “Utah Mormons (including Smith’s wives) affirmed repeatedly that he had physical sexual relations with them—despite the Victorian conventions in nineteenth-century American culture which ordinarily would have prevented any mention of sexuality” (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 12). And “though it is possible that Joseph had some marriages in which there were no sexual relations, there is no explicit or convincing evidence for this.” (Ibid., 14-15) Mormon historian Richard Lyman Bushman adds that “nothing indicates that sexual relations were left out of plural marriages.” (Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 439)
Conjugal relationships would make sense according to the LDS scripture called the Book of Mormon. While God is portrayed in Jacob 2:24 as declaring plural marriage “abominable before me,” verse 30 adds that the practice could only be allowed to “raise up seed [produce children] unto me.” Yet if producing children legitimizes polygamy, why did Smith marry ten women who were already married to living husbands? Couldn’t these men have been satisfactory “seed” suppliers? In addition, Bushman says that “not until many years later did anyone claim Joseph Smith’s paternity, and evidence for the tiny handful of supposed children is tenuous.” If raising up “seed” was the lone exception to polygamy, it seems odd that there is little to no evidence that Smith ever produced children through his martial relationships with these multiple wives.
The Gospel Topics essay then rationalizes, “Marriage at such an age, inappropriate by today’s standards, was legal in that era, and some women married in their mid-teens.” The fact is that those in their mid-teens in nineteenth century America rarely married. Even if marriage at this age is legal, this doesn’t make it moral. For instance, while fifteen-year-old girls with parental permission are allowed to marry today in the state of Utah, a case could be made that the majority of girls this age are nowhere close to being mature enough—either physically or emotionally—for a lifetime commitment. Besides, few parents today would allow their teen-age daughter to marry someone like Smith who was more than twice her age. In addition, the essay failed to acknowledge that any union between a female of any age and a married man in the nineteenth century was illegal in every state, just as it is today!
Be brave and study this issue out. Could it be that Smith was not the “saint” many Latter-day Saints make him out to be? If he was not, then perhaps his words are not as good as gold and his teachings ought to be further scrutinized.
A great blog on this topic called “The Sweet Dream of a Pure-Minded Boy” and written by MRM’s Sharon Lindbloom is found here.
May we suggest that you pick up and read several good books on this topic that will support what I’ve said, including:
- In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Todd Compton
- Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery
- Nauvoo Polygamy: “…But We Called It Celestial Marriage” by George A. Smith
- Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard Van Wagoner
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