Nauvoo Polygamy: “…But We Called It Celestial Marriage”
By George D. Smith
Reviewed by Eric Johnson
Polygamy (or plural marriage as it is also called) was a major issue for the LDS Church in 2014, as three different Gospel Topic essays on this topic were published. For many Latter-day Saints, the information disseminated by the church—including the fact that Joseph Smith had thirty to forty wives and even had sexual relations with many of them—was BIG news. As Kristine Haglund, the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, explained,
Some lifelong members have grown up with family history of polygamy and so they know about it. . . . But other members are just hearing now for the very first time and finding it very distressing.”(“Mormon Church grapples with origins and polygamy,” PBS NewsHour, November 11, 2014).
Based on the number of blogs and online discussions generated by this information, it is certain an exposed nerve has been hit. For example, the article “New Mormon Essay: Joseph Smith Married Teens, Other Men’s Wives” printed in the Salt Lake Tribune on Oct. 22, 2014 generated more than 6,800 on-line responses, many characterized by deep emotion.
It’s not as if this information was not previously available. For instance, there have been a number of books written during the past three decades that are easily accessible. (For examples of the best ones, see the links given at the bottom of this article.) In addition, the Internet is filled with plenty of source material, waiting to be found by anyone who is seriously looking for the truth of the matter. In addition, the website at mrm.org has had this information since its inception in 1995. Thus, nobody should have been surprised by what was released in the Gospel Topic essays.
If anything, it has to be wondered what took the Mormon leaders so long to admit the obvious. Could this be a way to deal with members who were shocked at the information now so easily available on the Internet? This surely caused plenty of trouble for a group of Swedish Saints in 2010. As Seventy Steven E. Snow explains on the lds.org website, the essays were meant to counter faulty information that he believes emanates from enemies of the church:
We understandably have not spent a lot of time in the past worrying about these issues because our mission is to promote faith and belief in the Lord Jesus Christ. But as the information age is now upon us, we feel with all of this information out there we owe it particularly to the rising generation to provide good reliable information about these matters. (“What about historical questions?”)
With the admissions made by the Mormon leadership, no longer can critics say this information presented on Mormon polygamy is nothing more than bad “anti-Mormon” argumentation.
Giving thanks to his wife and children for their patience, George D. Smith, one of the founders of Signature Books, shows plenty of scholarship in his almost-700-page book Nauvoo Polygamy that I think should be right next to Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness, Linda King Newell and Valeen Tipppetts Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, and Richard Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy as must-read books on the topic. Nauvoo Polygamy is very readable and would be excellent for the interested reader to get a better idea of the early stages of plural marriage.
In his introduction, George Smith acknowledges how the LDS Church has kept a distance from officially recognizing the important aspects of polygamy. On page xvii, he writes how “Smith’s wives remain unacknowledged in the official History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Later, on page 5, he explains,
When asked about polygamy on national television in 1998, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley dismissed its historical importance, positing that “when our people came west [in 1846-47], they permitted [polygamy] on a restricted scaled.” He failed to acknowledge how important the “law of celestial marriage” had been for the church’s founder and his followers. Particularly revealing was how the church president phrased his answer to exclude the entire pre-Utah period of church history. He made it clear he would not welcome any probing into the life of Joseph Smith and his wives or of Smith’s requirement that others embrace the practice.
At first glance this paperback book could feel daunting—it’s almost 700 pages in length—but it is quite readable. There are nine chapters dealing with different aspects of polygamy, which actually could be read out of order for a person who might be interested in focusing on particular aspects of this topic. In chapters 2 through 4, the author takes a closer look at Joseph Smith’s polygamy, with bios written on each wife. A total of 37 plural wives are credited to Joseph, a number larger than what is given by some scholars but not as many as others. (For example, the number I usually use is the more conservative 33 number based on Todd Compton’s book; this way nobody can say that I am trying to pad the total.)
Joseph Smith’s polygamous ways started very early, perhaps even further back than Fanny Alger (who many think was Smith’s first plural wife). George Smith writes on page 29:
Emma’s first son died in childbirth on June 15, 1828. While she was in mourning, her cousin Levi Lewis reportedly told Martin Harris that Joseph had tried to “seduce” one of Emma’s friends, Eliza Winters. Lewis said the response from the Book of Mormon financier was that he did not care if Joseph had “attempt[ed] to seduce Eliza Winters &c.,” thereby acknowledging the report.
Many who know about Smith’s philanderous ways may assume that the women Joseph Smith ended up marrying 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 Joseph Smith met the majority of his wives when they were just preteens or teenagers. As George Smith writes,
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 most cases, the women were adolescents or in their twenties when he met them. About ten were pre-teens, others already thirty or above. . . . He became acquainted there with some twenty-seven of the women who would later become his mates.
He adds on page 35:
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.
Over the years, Joseph Smith nurtured these girls 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.
On page 36, George Smith provides a list of the plural wives along with the age of their initial meeting. Consider that 9 of these wives (about a quarter) were 12 years of age or under, even as young as 5 (Sarah Ann Whitney) or 6 (Nancy Winchester)! This, I’m sure, would be news for the majority of Latter-day Saints who may have always thought that 19th century polygamy was all about rescuing widows and “old maids” from their dilemma of loneliness and their need to have someone take care of them.
He finishes chapter 1 by writing on page 51, “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.”
Biographies of each wife Joseph married are given, beginning with Louisa Beaman in April 1841. Each woman’s story is described in at least four or five pages. The details in Compton’s work is much deeper, but enough of the stories are given in Nauvoo Polygamy for the reader to have a good feel to better understand the circumstances.
Many may wonder how Joseph Smith was able to get so many women to agree to marry him. That issue is dealt with on page 229:
One question that inevitably arises, even a century and a half later, is how Smith persuaded so many teenagers and married women, all of Puritan New England stock, to become his wives.
The answer to this question is that marrying someone higher up in the LDS hierarchy was considered prestigious for blessings in the next life. George Smith writes,
This is why Presendia Buell, Zina Jacobs, and Mary Elizabeth Lightner risked their marriages to non-Mormons or church members of low ecclesiastical status for a secret marriage with the prophet. This took them to the head of the line at the gates of heaven.
On page 376, a quote is borrowed from Gary James Bergera who says that these women married Smith
primarily as a show of loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice to Smith, coupled with Smith’s assurance that blessings unimaginable awaited them. For Smith, plural marriage represented the pinnacle of his theology of exaltation: the husband as king and priest, surrounded by queens and priestesses eternally procreating spirit children. . . [for] additional glory, power, and exaltation—the entire process of exaltation cycling forever worlds without end.
Beginning in chapter 4, George Smith delves into issues involving general polygamy during the days in Nauvoo. The statistics are telling. For instance, by 1846 (the year Brigham Young took the Mormons out of Illinois) there were 521 wives married in Nauvoo to a total of 196 men. Add to that the number of first wives to these men and there was a grand total of 717 wives, or about 3.7 average women per polygamous man. As reported on page 289,
…since institutional histories have minimized the incidence and profile of polygamy, it is easy to imagine that most men who entered polygamy did so in a cursory way. In reality, the typical Utah polygamist whose roots in the principle extended back to Nauvoo had between three and four wives, with a higher incidence of large families.
The other players of early polygamy is dealt with in chapter 4, beginning with Brigham Young. Young ended up having 55 marriages, 15 that ended in separation or divorce. Fifteen of his wives had 55 of his children.
Nauvoo Polygamy is chock full of interesting charts and analysis about how polygamy worked during the first decade of Mormonism’s history. All in all, I recommend Nauvoo Polygamy as a worthwhile read, especially for the Latter-day Saint who has never done serious research in this very important matter.