By Sharon Lindbloom
The following was originally printed in the Nov-Dec 2010 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith introduced the doctrine of polygamy to his followers, and led the way by example, wedding over 30 females. According to LDS author and researcher Todd Compton, the ages of Smith’s wives at the time of these marriages ranged from 14 to 56 years. (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 4-7)
Smith married ten teenagers; the youngest was Helen Mar Kimball. Helen married Joseph Smith, with her parents’ permission, in May 1843. She was 14 years old; the Prophet was 37.
The issue of polygamy aside, Smith is often criticized for his marriage to Helen Mar Kimball (and also to 14- or 15-year-old Nancy Winchester) because of the age of the young girl. But many Mormons argue that this criticism is unfair. They say critics are judging Smith’s actions by modern standards. In 21st century America, a 37-year-old man marrying a 14-year-old girl is generally considered perverted and punishable by law. However, Smith’s defenders argue, in the mid-19th century this was not the case. Girls married much younger then, and marrying at 14 was not at all out of the ordinary.
Those who argue in this fashion are misinformed. Taking Massachusetts as an example (at that time most Mormons originally came from New England), LDS researcher Todd Compton found that the average age of females at marriage was 24 years old; 3-4% married in their teens, and about .04% married at age 14 or 15. (“Teen Marriage Age in Mormon Polygamy and in American Culture: What Was the Norm?” Sunstone Symposium West, March 2009)
The Mormon apologetic website maintained by FAIR presents slightly different statistics, but even this site presents an analysis of a 1% sample from the 1850 U.S. Census that puts the average marrying age of women at 22.5 years (nation-wide).
In addition to marrying young girls, Smith’s aberrational marriage habits also included plural marriages to his friends’ and neighbors’ wives. Using Todd Compton’s 33-wife list, eleven of Smith’s wives were already married and living with their husbands at the time Smith married them. Contrary to what many Mormons suppose, all of these women remained married to and living with their legal first husbands while also married to Smith. (Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 15-16)
Statistics are not required in determining the abnormality of this behavior. In 21st century America, in 19th century America, and back through thousands of years, coveting your neighbor’s wife has always been recognized as aberrant (Deuteronomy 5:21).