There are 48 thoughts on “Separated but not Divorced: The LDS Church’s Uncomfortable Relationship with its Polygamous Past”.

  1. Hello,
    I enjoyed your writing. I wanted to let you know what my grandmother once told me . Her grandmother was Mary Rollins Lightner, the daughter of Mary Elizabeth. This is second-hand so you can take it for what it’s worth, but she told me that she had asked her grandmother if her mother had ever had sexual relations with Joseph Smith to which she answered in the negative.

  2. Dear Craig
    Thanks for the article, I thought it was addressing some of the real issues that effect us in the Church.
    I am not an American and have been a member of the Church all my life, I am now 65 all of which I think is important in what I have to express in this reply.
    I would like to comment on the reasons why ‘The Church’ has not addressed the more difficult issues that are now swamping our membership, with little real addressing from “The Church”.
    I see it largely as cultural, not as many propose that the Church is lying.

    I have been in contact with people from Utah since I joined the church aged 8. I have studies and lived in the east of the US and lived in Utah. What I found and still do, is that Western American Culture is highly romantic, it just loves the ‘unicorn and rainbow’ view of the world, with more than a hint of what I call ‘threatening guilt’ from many who have come to Australia in Leadership positions form the US, particularly the West. Coupled with this is “The Church’s” (US) profound interest in ‘business modelling’ as a means for operation as opposed to a ‘religious model’ or even a real ‘pastoral model’.
    What I have also found is that when saying this, it is viewed as ‘negative’ and anti American. This is in fact the issue; that asking difficult questions does not seem to be part of the Church culture. As an Artist/ Art Professor in a former life, perhaps the Kantian idea of “disinterested interest” might be exercised in Church Culture (including my Australia Church culture too) when evaluating issues where we come to a issue without a preconception, so we can have an “aesthetic’ (Kantian), spiritual experience…..where truth might be revealed.
    With lack of any real critical review and indeed little action, the Church seems to skip over the ‘difficult and unpleasant’ to simply focus on the ‘dumb down’ version of our history and have a mania for ‘business’….. to just get ‘it’ done. No nuisance or subtlety.
    I have taught the YSA Class and the Adult Sunday School class for many years now and am mystified, especially by the lack of history in the ‘Doctrine and Covenants and Church history’ (this is NOT the only manual that need urgent attention). I think the Church is failing its membership poorly here! We are playing directly in the hands of anti Mormon propaganda and the question that come to my mind is “Are we afraid of the truth”?. I think not! BUT we are doing our best to fake it!
    Craig, I think information on these matters is not of greater interest to just some areas of the US, I had letters from friends in the UK and Italy on these matters and as I served as a Senior Missionary in Poland recently, investigators were VERY much into these topic which I must admit surprised me as English is not always there second language…but they found plenty of anti Mormon internet information.
    My only hope is that we do have some forums in the Church (Sunday lessons is the obvious) to discuss these issues, there needs to be a REAL rewriting of sections of our lesson manuals dealing with these issues and others. As an educator all my professional life I am excited as the possibilities of curriculum development in our manuals. We could integrate with the internet….. talks from our leaders, academic articles, visuals, interactive with phones, iPad’s etc…..we could have a breath of serious information and it could be presented in such a way that it could address the ‘new’ and those who require much more in formation. I only hope and assume, this is on its way?
    Many Thanks

  3. Some feel that the Church could have done things like include discussion of polygamy in more of the teachings. Even if it was along the line of “was a necessary teaching because of the need to re-establish the legitimacy of sealing all wives and children in eternity” There’s a brilliant explanation for polygamy given by Brigham Young to a Southern professor on 9 July 1843. That could certainly have been more widely taught, along with then an explanation of why polygamy had to be stopped in 1890/1904 (because it isn’t sustainable long-term as a mortal practice).

    I imagine some would question why modern manuals have avoided mentioning the prophets’ multiple wives, if polygamy hasn’t been hidden.

    My youngest daughter (15) is rather amused because she knows all about polygamy and Bennett and all that. There is nothing anyone can “tell” her at some future time about our Church’s history that will rock her world. But in many families and congregations, there is no one able to explain the history in a faithful manner. I’ve seen a beloved friend who is a patriarch wave his hands about how Joseph’s work was true despite his “imperfections.” Another friend has been going through a severe faith crisis after being “exposed” to various historical facts, even though his father is a general authority.

    Omission of facts is understood by many to constitute lying. So while I agree that the Church has not actively told falsehoods, through omission false representations of the past have arisen, and this appears to be the “lying” folks are referring to.

    On the other hand, they are sometimes lying themselves. But to people like me who were taught about the fact of polygamy from childhood, the charge of “lying” was never persuasive.

  4. Being an older, lifelong, active Mormon I have a very firm testimony of Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon etc. BUT never,the,less I’ve been disappointed/dismayed at some of the less than forthright presentation by the church of some of our past history. The hiding causes me more concern than the events being hidden. Anything God directs or allows one of his propthets to do is OK with me even though I may not understand it -nor does it have to be justified to my limited understanding of the entirety of God’s perspective or intentions. But that’s different than just hiding it or even worse denying that it happened. (is this justified so that non or new members won’t be lost before the seed is planted and germinated—-what then when they discover it later, thru an antagonist slant–and it’s been hidden from them by LDS members [or Church] that they’d trusted). {note: Though I didn’t interfere to correct others’ desire to entertain my children with the Christmas fable of Santa Claus–I DID NOT LIE TO THEM ABOUT IT EITHER!!! I did wonder though when these same fable tellers lamented that we didn’t seem to have enough of the TRUE meaning of Christmas!}

    • There is a fascinating narrative “out there” that suggests that the church has lied about its history. I think that, at best, that is a misunderstanding of the nature of history and organizations. At worst it is simply a fabrication that selectively picks up on information that people may not have known and used that as part of the narrative. I have seen the work of artists as evidence that the church hides information.

      I am certainly not a historian of the modern church, but with what I have seen of the development of various teachings and explanation, lying just doesn’t fit what happened. The church, like pretty much any institution, was interested in its history and created ways to present that history. What I have seen doesn’t suggest anything different than other histories. Even if the way things were understood a century ago differs from the way we think we understand the church today, I can’t see lying as a proper description of history. It is certainly very difficult to suggest in the current environment.

    • Critics routinely accuse the Church of suppressing and hiding uncomfortable historical facts from its own people. Church members, Church leaders, and even Church historians are constantly improving their understanding of Church history as historic documents, diary’s, journals, etc… continue to be studied and better understood. Just because a clearer understanding comes forth does not mean that prior leaders or historians were lying. They were often just using the best information they had at the time.

      Regarding denials of plural marriage see this site:

      The Church’s’ primary mission is to testify that Jesus Christ is the divine Savior of the world and the Son of God and that His Church is restored to the earth. During regular Sunday church meetings there is not time to delve into all the nuances and details of Church history. That’s why, in addition to Sunday Services, the Church has publications which discuss church history in further detail and that’s why the Church makes the information available to researchers and allows them to publish the information. Members often do not avail themselves of this additional information.

      It is remarkable; however, how many of the issues which critics charge the Church with “suppressing” are discussed first in Church publications. You might be surprised to find out that many of these “hidden” facts are actually hidden in plain sight in Church publications and other scholarly research made available by the Church. The members just don’t read them.

      Elder Dallin H. Oaks discussed this issue in the context of polygamy:
      “Some have suggested that it is morally permissible to lie to promote a good cause. For example, some Mormons have taught or implied that lying is okay if you are lying for the Lord… As far as concerns our own church and culture, the most common allegations of lying for the Lord swirl around the initiation, practice, and discontinuance of polygamy. The whole experience with polygamy was a fertile field for deception. It is not difficult for historians to quote LDS leaders and members in statements justifying, denying, or deploring deception in furtherance of this religious practice. “ (Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teachings About Lying,” BYU Fireside Address, 12 September 1993, typescript, no page numbers; also printed in Clark Memorandum [of the J. Reuben Clark School of Law, Brigham Young University] (Spring 1994). All references to Elder Oaks in this wiki article apply to this speech, unless otherwise indicated)
      Elder Oaks then then points out that sometimes there will be situations when two moral ideals clash. Sometimes, people who wish to make moral choices are faced with difficult choices. For example:
      • if a rapist breaks into your house, and demands to know where your teenage daughter is hiding, are you morally obligated to tell him?
      • if you are a French Christian hiding Jews from the Nazis in 1941, are you obliged to tell the SS about the whereabouts of the Jews if they ask? Is it wrong to lie to them?
      • if the government seeks to destroy families formed under plural marriage, is breaking up those families appropriate? Should one abandon wives and children without support, or avoid telling the whole truth?
      In all these examples—and there are many more like them—one cannot be both completely honest when confronted with a hostile questioner and meet other very real ethical demands. Doing both is simply not an option. Elder Oaks notes:
      “My heart breaks when I read of circumstances in which wives and children were presented with the terrible choice of lying about the whereabouts or existence of a husband or father on the one hand or telling the truth and seeing him go to jail on the other. These were not academic dilemmas. A father in jail took food off the table and fuel from the hearth. Those hard choices involved collisions between such fundamental emotions and needs as a commitment to the truth versus the need for loving companionship and relief from cold and hunger.
      My heart also goes out to the Church leaders who were squeezed between their devotion to the truth and their devotion to their wives and children and to one another. To tell the truth could mean to betray a confidence or a cause or to send a brother to prison. There is no academic exercise in that choice! “

  5. My father told me that while he was in the mission home in the 1940’s, the assembled missionaries were addressed by a member of the twelve who asked all those who were descended from polygamous families to stand. About 3/4 of those present stood. The apostle then went on to tell them that plural marriage had fulfilled its purpose by raising up a seed that was distinguished for its fidelity to the gospel and to the Church.

    My uncles told of a similar poll being taken when they were in the mission home in the 1950’s. I was given to understand that this was a routine practice. So, when I entered the mission home in the 1970’s, I expected to be asked the same question, but it was never mentioned. Apparently being descended from a polygamous family was no longer considered an honorable distinction.

  6. Craig

    Thanks for the article, which I completely agree with. Our virtual refusal to discuss certain elements of our polygamous past, while understandable, has certainly had its downsides.

    I do (kind of) agree with some of the comments that talk about our current practice of eternal polygamy – i.e. a living man may be sealed to more than one wife if the first has died. So while we don’t currently practice mortal polygamy, we do appear to be practicing eternal polygamy. In saying that, given it is not a requirement for me to live the principle, I am not expecting any explanation that will help me understand it (based on a rather tenuous interpretation of D&C 132:3), and so while I would like to understand the principle itself, that desire is more out of curiosity than anything else and I’m content enough where I am on the subject.

    In relation to Meg’s articles on the un-named “other” website, I have personally found her narrative to be the *only* one that actually makes any kind of sense from a faithful perspective, tying up all sorts of loose ends. Yes there are some assumptions that are made because clear records appear not to exist in some instances, but all historical narratives contain assumptions – as Richard Bushman noted, no history is truly objective. I certainly don’t consider any of the women mentioned to have been besmirched by the narrative. In fact, my love and admiration for Joseph, Emma, and the one woman of whom I assume you are referring have been *increased* through reading Meg’s posts.

    Just my thoughts anyway. And thanks again for the excellent article.

  7. Your reaction to the necessary realignment of the history, which potentially identifies several early polygamist women as victims of John C. Bennett, is exactly why Joseph and Emma and 172 years of Mormon history would have avoided this possible interpretation of the data.

    Is it so shameful for these women to have been misled that we will continue to imagine Bennett had no identifiable victims, while imagining that it was Joseph and his faithful followers who were the sexual reprobates?

    For that matter, in the case of the women who did come forward, why has no one else ever identified Catherine Fuller as a widow whose husband had been killed at Haun’s Mill, and wondered whether that might shed light on Sister Merrick, another widow who was allegedly an approved wife of Bishop Vinson Knight? Why has no one else mourned the fate of Margaret and Matilda Nyman, daughters of the woman who prompted the revelation on baptism for the dead?

    You react negatively to one woman I have proposed might have been seduced. What of all the other faithful women we do know were seduced? Or are we not to believe the accounts published in the Times and Seasons in May 1844 (not to mention the handwritten testimonies of the women as delivered to the High Council)?

    The only one I can find who has seriously studied that portion of our history is Gary Bergera, and he fundamentally believes that Bennett was doing the same thing Joseph was doing, except without benefit of proper authorization.

    Do we believe that Bennett was only doing that which Joseph taught him to do?

    • Meg, I am not trying to be rude as I realize you feel strongly about your theory, but I am not going to make this comments section a forum for your theory.

      Suffice it to say that I find your theory, as well as any legitimate documentation of such, to be seriously lacking. There is no evidence that any of Joseph Smith’s plural wives were seduced and/or impregnated by John C. Bennett. And I personally find it a slap in the face to honorable women like Eliza R. Snow for such a suggestion.

      I think Brian Hales and other historians who have spent a significant amount of time and effort researching plural marriage would agree that there just isn’t any legitimate documentation to support your theory.

      But again, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss your theory.

    • Even though Craig L. Foster “disagrees with your questionable theories,” any historian who is willing to admit their own biases, has to agree that Meg’s theories are just as plausible as the “accepted” tales advanced by other historians. I for one do not think that there are sufficient facts to be able to just dismiss Meg’s theory whole cloth.

      • Joey:
        The issue isn’t whether or not one can come up with a theory, but whether or not data support the theory. If we ignore historical data we are free to make history feel better in ways that make us feel better. History typically doesn’t go along with the easy theories. Although historians have biases that they frequently admit, the bias toward having evidence to support a hypothesis is a bias for which they do not need to apologize.

        • I look forward to mid-summer, when time will permit me to compose an article where I may present the data to the rigorous standards appropriate to the Interpreter audience.

          You talk of ignoring historical data and having an “easy” theory. I’m not sure you’re referring to me, so I will presume I have no reason to be offended.

          I think Craig makes the case that the current reality where LDS individuals ignore and suppress their history is deleterious to truth, and makes effective apologetics impossible. Ignoring historical data so we can “feel better” ultimately leads the ones we love to feel betrayed when they encounter historical data, particularly given how that historical data is currently couched in almost all venues.

          • The presentation of the data will certainly be important, particularly when historians who have strong control of the documents do not believe that the data you suggest exists. I confess that I get very nervous when I am told that competent historians misunderstand history because they misunderstand historical data. I am even more nervous when it is suggested that competent historians are ignoring and particularly suppressing data. Knowing some of the people working in this field, it would be really shocking had that happened. That is an accusation that should never be made lightly, and really should not be made at all without the presentation of the data to back it up.

            History is revised with every historian who writes. That there are different ideas is part of the reason we keep doing history. Still, when a theory contradicts all known facts, it really must be supported before it is acceptable.

          • Hi Brant,

            I think there is a limit to how many nests this comment string will allow. So this may not appear as a response to your response.

            I don’t think I have suggested that the historians are suppressing data, per se. Rather that they are operating under a paradigm that does not permit them to see certain alternatives that are also supported by the data.

            You keep referring to a theory that contradicts all known facts. That statement is rather sweeping.I’m not sure what part of my alternative interpretation of the facts you refer to.

            As for an alleged accusation that the current historians have suppressed facts, I don’t believe that is what I did. Merely, I indicated that no one had previously noted that Catherine Fuller, the most widely courted and bedded of the women testifying against Bennett, Higbee, and others before the High Council, was almost certainly Catherine Laur Fuller, widow of a man who had been killed at Haun’s Mill. No one suppressed that information, but no one prior to me had noticed that connection, as far as I can discern. Failing to note that connection prevented an understanding of a link to another widow of Haun’s Mill, Sister Merrick. The possibility that Catherine Fuller and Sister Merrick were part of the same circle sheds light on Vinson Knight, a possible reason for Joseph marrying Vinson’s widow after Vinson’s death, and an explanation for why none of the women Vinson wedded or bedded in life deigned to be sealed to him when the Nauvoo temple was available for them to do so. There’s also the matter of Joseph Smith’s statement to William Clayton regarding Vinson. None of which would contradict the kind words Joseph said at Vinson’s funeral – one can imagine King David saying similarly expansive words at a funeral for Absalom, for example.

            All the same facts. Merely seen in a different light.

            My training is in physics and advanced technology. So I am used to paradigm shifts that allow us to fundamentally change the nature of our interaction with nature. It’s not only common in my normal field of endeavor, we positively rely on paradigm shifts to maintain our competitive advantage. And that is in the field of physics where wishful thinking simply won’t ever make a new product “work.”

            History is fundamentally a matter of attempting to fit the extant facts to a working model of what could have happened. I simply have a slightly different working model. The facts are the same.

  8. Interesting and excellent article.
    –Being a descendant (third-great-grandparents) of polygamy, I’ve never worried too much about polygamy in the Church. I haven’t always understood it, but not to the degree of ever questioning my testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith or of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, even though I don’t understand everything about polygamy, nevertheless, I have always resolved that even as it existed (by God’s commandment) in the Bible of the Patriarchs, so has it existed in the Church found in the Latter-Days. This has always been more of a proof of restoration and truthfulness than its opposite for me. For a long time now I have known about Joseph’s polyandrous marriages. I believe that prior to all the nuances of the sealing covenant being ironed out, many women were sealed to the Prophet without physically consummating the sealing. In fact, for awhile until the sealing covenant became better understood, many women were sealed to the Prophet AFTER his martyrdom. Some of these women had current spouses at the time that they were sealed to the Prophet. As I mentioned, the sealing covenant was not fully understood by all members at that time. As with all commandments, guidance and understanding came line-upon-line, precept-upon-precept.

    –Accordingly, I was very surprised to learn that one of my recently married daughters was struggling with the notion and principles of polygamy. Not having intended not to explain the principle to her (the time just hadn’t ever introduced itself for the discussion,) I realized that indeed I hadn’t done well in neglecting to broach the subject. In a similar manner, another daughter expressed difficulty regarding the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Again, having been raised in the immediate vicinity, the issue had never really percolated enough to affect my testimony, so even though I was somewhat educated about both events, I hadn’t bothered to share my understanding with any of my children. Until, that is, they suffered their mini-crisis of faith and I was forced to do so at that time.
    As this article so aptly expresses, it would have been so much better if I would have taken the opportunity as a caring and loving parent (and especially one who had somewhat intimate knowledge regarding both events) to introduce and later explain my understanding of the events from my own perspective. As sloppy as it might have been, it certainly would have been better than what the anti-Mormon’s would do.

    • Thank you Timothy. I hope it was not too late for either daughter as the gospel has so much to offer. You are certainly not alone with your example and hopefully other readers will learn not only from the article but from what you shared with us.

      Thanks again.

      • Thank you, I appreciate your expressions of concern. My daughters are slowly working things out, and I can’t ask for much more than that. Truly we all have to work out our own salvation. I see progress in their everyday decisions regarding the church. I have high hopes in their innate capability to obtain their own testimony and “errand from the Lord.”

        That being said and as an after-note, I happened to read the “Joseph Smith” article found in Wikipedia today. I was amazed at the ability of the Prophet’s detractors who are able to slant the Wikipedia article away from everything good Joseph accomplished and instead leave the taste in one’s mouth that everything he did was somehow inappropriate, insufficient and ultimately devoid of any Heavenly inspiration. The opinions and expressions obviously have to be acceptable to the wardens on both sides of the aisle, both pro and con. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the contra editors had managed to insert their implied doubts and incongruities much more subtly and more successfully than the Prophet’s defenders. Naturally, this bias against the Prophet spilled over even further when the subject of polygamy was introduced. Even with this sour taste in my mouth left over from the Wikipedia editors, I remain convinced that we just don’t have enough information to know exactly what was going through Joseph’s head. Even more important, we really have no idea as to the depths of the intimate conversations which he must have shared with the Lord before commencing down the Polygamous path.
        –The only thing I do know with a surety is that Joseph Smith was and is a Prophet and he did talk to the Lord. If the Lord told him to marry Fanny Alger or a half-a-hundred other women, then who am I to second-guess the Lord? I’ve read Joseph’s words; I’ve read the scriptures he left. I’ve participated in the sealing covenant and felt to shout “Hallelujah” for the promises I received; those which anyone who chooses can receive if they desire them enough. I’ll take the Gospel of Jesus Christ restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith any day over the hecklers who are yelling for my attention from the large and spacious building across the way. The blessings available to each and every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are worth far more than anything the hecklers and detractors could ever provide. And these blessings come restored to us through a modern-day prophet, of this I am sure.

        • Hi Timothy and Craig,

          The challenge we have with Joseph Smith is that many, perhaps even the majority, of the faithful have come to accept that the detractors are telling the truth. After all, the detractors thread their plausible tale through numerous facts that are not discussed in Church. Therefore, it seems to many, the detractors are telling the truth and the Church is hiding a terrible past.

          However, there is another explanation for all the facts. The comment policy of the Interpreter won’t allow me to tell you where you can find that explanation, however. And since my initial explanation of this alternative was prompted by a plan to write a fictional treatment of Nauvoo, my initial posts about this on a different site have left the impression with some casual readers that I’m just making stuff up.

          So I am left with the choice between stopping my series of posts at this alternate site so I can craft an article for Interpreter that meets the Interpreter’s high standards, or I can continue writing the other series until it completes and then write the article(s) for Interpreter.

          I have folks on the other site who actively want to hear what I’m saying, I’ve made the decision that I should finish the series first.

          Just to say that there is a way to take all the facts and find an honorable Joseph. And I hope you will eventually be able to read about it here at Interpreter, but for now that information is at another site that Interpreter policy won’t let me tell you about in a comment.

          • Meg, this comment area is not the place to have free advertising for other websites and posts. That is one of the reasons your original comments were not allowed.

            Furthermore, your comment that your theory was started as a fictional treatment of Nauvoo is a good description. From what I have read, your theory is not only not supported by available evidence, I found it to be extremely offensive as you have besmirched the good reputation of several early Mormon women — one in particular.

            In your attempt to needlessly save the reputation of Joseph Smith, you have potentially added fodder to anti-Mormon arguments.

            I am not alone in disagreeing with your questionable theory as other historians of early LDS polygamy have also expressed concern.

  9. There’s an interesting book coming out from Oxford University Press next month, Paula Kelly Harline’s The Polygamous Wives Writing Club: From the Diaries of Mormon Pioneer Women.

    Having had a chance to read an advanced copy of this book, which touches on 29 relatively obscure diarists and autobiographers who were lived polygamy and remained faithful the the Church, it is clear that “the principle” demanded significant sacrifice from everyone involved, particularly the women.

    I’m not discounting the difficulty faced by a man torn between multiple wives, but you can’t have a heart and think the women got the better end of the stick on this one.

    • Practicing plural marriage was difficult for all parties involved but I agree that the greater sacrifice was on the part of the wives and only those who have practiced plural marriage can truly understand the magnitude of faith these women must have had and the depths of trial and pain many of them experienced.

      • I don’t know that we need to say only practicing polygamists can understand the faith of these women. Some of us are old enough to have suffered a variety of analogous challenges.

        Researching a bit more on those 29 ladies (i.e., looking up their records in Family Search), I’ve decided Mary Ann Weston [Davis Maughan] is my hero. What a great and good woman she was! Ironically, she only gets 4 lines of text in Ms. Harline’s book, because she never gripes about polygamy (indeed, apparently doesn’t really mention the other two ladies who were married to Maughan during her marriage to him). But when you read about her first husband being beaten for the faith (eventually dying of his injuries) and the way she, as a teenaged widow, became mother to Mr. Maughan’s five motherless children, you can see why the simple matter of sharing Mr. Maughan with another widow and a fellow-convert from Gloucester might not be considered newsworthy.

  10. Also, denying or doubting that any plural marriages can exist in the eternities seems, to me, a bad approach akin got putting on blinders. First, are we really to believe that the plural marriages for “time and eternity” or “eternity” of so many in the early days of the Church or of the ancient prophets and patriarchs are invalid? If so, than wouldn’t all of our marriages for “time and eternity” be equally meaningless? The Lord says” “…if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood… and if ye abide in my covenant . . it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world…(D&C 132:19)

    Do we believe the Lord or not?

    • Certainly this is a very difficult principle for both the men and women involved. But the stereotype that it is a man’s doctrine, or that the doctrine is male centric, is not justified by the historic information we have on the attitudes of Joseph Smith and the other brethren who were required to practice it.

  11. Another concern: The assumption that plural marriage was a temporary test for Abraham, or Joseph Smith, or temporary for their time, may be comforting to those who don’t want to worry about its return but Isaiah chapter 4 seems pretty clear on that issue. Several years ago when I listened to the FAIR podcast interview with Valerie Hudson, and in several other treatments of the topic in recent years, Isaiah 4 seems to be deliberately left out of the equation.

  12. Craig L. Foster’s treatment of the issue is right on! Just what needs to happen in my view. The reaction to plural marriage which results in sweeping it under the rug needs to end. A much better approach is that the Church and its members are taught about it early and regularly, in Church classes by qualified teachers as part of second and third hour curriculum. It should be embraced as a part of Church history and nothing to be ashamed of. It was practiced by Bible prophets and patriarchs and righteous kings. It was commanded by God through the Biblical prophet Nathan. The restoration would not have been a full restoration without it and, therefore, plural marriage in the church is a positive. It is evidence that Joseph Smith was really restoring the ancient Biblical practices and that he is on par with the ancient prophets.

  13. The current (May 5, 2014) Wikipedia entry on the subject emphasizes that Church leaders have not discussed any doctrinal implications of polyandrous sealings for the dead:

    “Church doctrine is not entirely specific on the status of men or women who are sealed by proxy to multiple spouses. There are at least two possibilities:

    “Regardless of how many people a man or woman is sealed to by proxy, they will only remain with one of them in the afterlife, and that the remaining spouses, who might still merit the full benefits of exaltation that come from being sealed, would then be given to another person in order to ensure each has an eternal marriage.
    “These sealings create effective plural marriages that will continue after death. There are no church teachings clarifying whether polyandrous relationships can exist in the afterlife, so some church members doubt whether this possibility would apply to women who are sealed by proxy to multiple spouses. The possibility for women to be sealed to multiple men is a recent policy change enacted in 1998.[citation needed] Church leaders have neither explained this change, nor its doctrinal implications. It should be noted, however, that proxy sealings, like proxy baptisms, are merely offered to the person in the afterlife, indicating that the purpose is to allow the woman to choose the right man to be sealed to, as LDS doctrine forbids polyandry.”

    • Speaking as one who is involved in family history and work for the redemption of the dead, I can honestly say that we have heard nothing from General Authorities to give us the idea that polyandry will be practiced in any form in the Celestial Kingdom.

      We, of course, have precedence scripturally and through the spoken words of the prophets to believe that polygyny will be practiced in the Celestial Kingdom but do not have such for polyandry.

      The change in allowing deceased women to be sealed to all known spouses was to ease the dilemma of descendants in trying to decide which husband should be sealed and why. The accepted assumption is that those involved will decide in the hereafter as free will is an eternal principle.

      • There’s an interesting historical situation related to this with the widows of Apostle John Whitaker Taylor. Once he was excommunicated, his sealings to his wives were understood to be null and void. He died of stomach cancer five years after his excommunication.

        John’s widows were aware that Alice Ann Kimball’s first husband (a son of Charles Coulsen Rich) had been excommunicated (bank robbery) and the situation caused Alice Ann to divorce her first husband. Even though her children by Rich had been born in the covenant, when Joseph F. Smith married Alice Ann he had the Rich children sealed to himself. I understand Spencer Kimball, asked about the situation, opined that Joseph F. Smith erred in doing this. Anyway, John’s widows were aware of this, that their children by John could become sealed to any subsequent husband they might marry. Even without the sealing aspect, they were aware that their children could grow to love and prefer a second husband who wasn’t the public symbol of Church disobedience.

        John’s widows were beautiful, powerful women. Every one of the six of them had suitors. In the case of my own direct ancestor, the suitor was a banker who could have provided for the destitute family, since none of John’s inheritance was permitted to be shared with his plural wives.

        However all the widows refused to remarry. Samuel Taylor romantically opined that no other man could compare with the dashing, incomparable John. But I think the widows were also concerned that their children might not realize their complete devotion to John Taylor, and might seal them to some other man. So John’s widows accepted grinding poverty for the remaining decades of their lives rather than allow their descendants any opportunity to think they might choose someone other than John.

  14. Hi Craig,

    I see polyandry as the biggest problem. Even if you are able to convince people that Joseph married other men’s wives for eternity only (no earthly sex), this still leaves the even more atrocious idea that Joseph Smith was stealing women away in the eternities from the husbands they loved, with whom they lived and bore children, and adding them to his Celestial harem. Much like the parable the prophet Nathan gave to David, about the rich man with many flocks, who stole the poor man’s only land to give to a hungry traveler.

    But there is an easy solution to this paradigm. What if God allows these women to keep the husbands they loved for eternity, as well as being married to Joseph Smith in heaven? In this paradigm, both women and men have more than one husband eternally. It would be a sort of sexual law of consecration among more extensive marriage groups.

    This explanation has the advantage of eliminating the patriarchal element of polygamy, which is often the primary objection: it is unfair to women. In eternal polyandry, men and women are equal. I think this theory has some potential. I’ve already used it to great effect among non-Members, who, when it is explained this way, stop seeing Joseph Smith as a patriarchal, creepy Warren Jeffs type, and instead as an egalitarian, an admirable sexual revolutionary.

    So my question to you is: is there any evidence at all, that any of these polyandry women had any understanding that perhaps they would get to stay with their earthly husbands in the next life, in addition to Joseph Smith? Are there any polyandrous sealings? If so, jackpot! Proof of the sexual Law of Consecration!

    This theory might not help most members, who are more puritanical in their sexual views, and would just see that as a celestial orgy. But it might help younger more educated Mormons who are leaving the church.

    • Hi Nate,

      I guess I can see why you think this poly-every-which-way kind of arrangement is attractive. I don’t agree with you, but then again, I do see early Church practice in this as supporting the idea that a woman gets to choose. So if her husband married her and kept her pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen against her will, she gets to dump the guy in eternity if that’s what she chooses to do.

      As for Joseph’s alleged polyandry:

      Several women Joseph married had prior husbands. It seems Joseph married them as an eternal levirate husband, to establish the primacy of the first husband, all other things being equal. This occurred with Agnes Coolbrith [Smith], and may have occurred with Mary Ann Frost [Stearns Pratt], Sarah Scott [Mulholland Mullinder Kimball]. The case of Mary Ann Frost is most suggestive, since Joseph cancelled the sealing Hyrum had performed between Mary Ann and her second husband, Parley P. Pratt.

      There were women Joseph maintained were to be his wives in order to establish Celestial marriage. Some were single, like Lucy Walker. Others had married while Joseph hesitated, then agreed to be sealed to Joseph while remaining with their legal husbands, like Zina Huntington [Jacobs Smith Young]. There are two instances where Joseph allowed an actual or intended plural wife to marry another man (Sarah Whitney [Smith Kingsbury Kimball] and Elvira Annie Cowles [Holmes Smith]). I am not aware of any of these cases where the women expected to be with multiple husbands in eternity. That said, I think at least Elvira Annie Cowles was inclined to hope that Joseph would allow her to be with her legal husband, Jonathan, in eternity. On her deathbed Elvira comforted Jonathan, who expected she would forever be Joseph’s once she died, suggesting that Joseph would do all that was right.

      Several alleged polyandrous marriages are less certain than portrayed by folks like Compton and George D. Smith. In particular, I question whether Sarah [Cleveland] and Elizabeth [Durfee] were ever sealed to Joseph in mortality. You already know that I disagree with those suggesting Joseph was involved with Mary Heron [Snider].

      The Old Testament marriage practices clearly served as a foundation for Joseph’s intended implementation of plural marriage, despite how messy his own marital situations ended up being. The Old Testament marriage laws attributed a woman’s children to her first husband, and the property of the first husband to the man who stepped up and supported the woman and her children (Tamar, Ruth, the law expressed in Deuteronomy 25:5-10). We see this same marriage practice evident with the Queen of the Lamanites, indicating that this law was also practiced amongst Book of Mormon peoples.

      So while it may make Joseph Smith’s marriage practices seem all avant garde and polyamorous to postulate that individuals could be sealed to all their earthly spouses, I don’t believe there is anything in the scriptural or historical record that supports your hope.

      As for me, I’m plenty happy to deal with only one man in eternity, thank you very much.

    • Hi Nate:

      I do not think any of the women nor Joseph Smith and other church leaders would have anticipated polyandry in the full sense existing in the Celestial Kingdom. That concept would not only have been foreign to them, it probably would have been rather unsettling.

      The LDS Church today allows proxy sealings to all known husbands a woman had while in mortality. The idea, however, is that on the other side and with a greater understanding of what is best, the woman will choose one husband. There will not be, as far as I understand, polyandry in the Celestial Kingdom.

    • Yes to what Craig says.

      Early leaders in the Church condemned polyandry. Brigham Young stated in 1852: “What do you think of a woman having more husbands than one? This is not known to the law.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:361, August 1, 1852.)

      On October 8, 1869, Apostle George A. Smith taught that “a plurality of husbands is wrong.” (George Albert Smith, Journal of Discourses, 13:41, October 8, 1869. )

      Six years later Orson Pratt instructed:”God has strictly forbidden, in this Bible, plurality of husbands, and proclaimed against it in his law.” (Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, 18:55-56, July 11, 1875.)

      Pratt further explained:

      “Can a woman have more than one husband at the same time? No: Such a principle was never sanctioned by scripture. The object of marriage is to multiply the species, according to the command of God. A woman with one husband can fulfill this command, with greater facilities, than if she had a plurality; indeed, this would, in all probability, frustrate the great design of marriage, and prevent her from raising up a family. As a plurality of husbands, would not facilitate the increase of posterity, such a principle never was tolerated in scripture. (Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer, 1:4 (April 1853) 60.)

      Bathsheba Smith, wife of Apostle George A. Smith, was asked in 1892 if it would “be a violation of the laws of the church for one woman to have two husbands living at the same time…” She replied: “I think it would.” (Bathsheba Smith, Testimony given in the Temple Lot Case, part 3, page 347, question 1142.)

      Importantly, all of these individuals were involved with Nauvoo polygamy and several were undoubtedly aware of Joseph Smith’s “eternal” sealings to legally married women. Hyrum Smith’s son, Joseph F. Smith, wrote in 1889: “Polyandry is wrong, physiologically, morally, and from a scriptural point of order. It is nowhere sanctioned in the Bible, nor by the law of God or nature and has not affinity with ‘Mormon’ plural marriage.” (Joseph F. Smith to Zenos H. Gurley, June 19, 1889, CA. Richard E. Turley, Jr. Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Provo, Utah: BYU Press, vol. 1, DVD #29.)

      Charles W. Penrose wrote in the Utah Church’s publication, the Millennial Star, in 1867: “Polyandry is contrary to nature, that it strikes at the foundation of the object of marriage – the propagation of the race, that, if it be productive of any increase whatever, the paternal identity is destroyed, or made so doubtful, as to annihilate those natural sympathies which properly should exist between the father and his offspring.” (Charles W. Penrose, “Why We Practice Plural Marriage,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, N. 37 (September 14, 1867) XXIX, 578. [577-80])

      All of these people clearly state that polyandry is strictly forbidden in the church and wholly against the commandments of God. Yet these people would have likely known about Joseph Smith’s eternal sealings to women who had living husbands. They clearly did not view these marriages as concurrent or as polyandrous marriages. I think the historic record indicates that they understood these marriages to be for “time” only to one husband and for “eternity only” to Joseph with no concurrent conjugal privileges allowed.

  15. While modern Mormons of the mainstream church have forsaken plural marriage, we have never forsaken the fundamental concepts Joseph Smith taught – that marriage can endure into eternity.

    Projecting our mortal marriage relationships into eternity will result in some interesting marriage arrangements. I honor the sacrifices my early forebears made to ensure we knew it was right to embrace all our ancestors, not just those who were “first wives.”

    • Thank you Meg. Your comments are clear and well founded. I, also believe that your understanding of the role plural marriage played in our (the Latter-Day) day is spot on. I’m always comforted (a needful thing for us all) when someone expresses themselves and in doing so reflects my very thoughts/feelings. I actually love this topic and believe it is an essential part of the restoration. Rather than shy away from this critical topic, we should embrace it, understand it and teach it (by the Spirit).

  16. I recall learning about Joseph Smith’s plural marriages in the context of my seminary church history class discussion of the plural marriage aspects of D&C 132 and the role it had in leading to the apostacy of the people who printed the Nauvoo Expositor, which in turn led to Joseph and Hyrum being taken to Carthage where they were assassinated. The identity of Eliza R. Snow as a plural widow of Joseph and her marriage to Brigham Young was an essential part oif her biography. The role of plural marriage in affecting Emma Smith’s decision to not leave Nauvoo was also part of this basic history. The story of the “Abrahamic test” of Heber and Vilate Kimball was also part of the Nauvoo period history, along with a quote from Brigham Young describing how he envied a corpse at a funeral when first taught the he should enter into plural marriage.

    As I attended Institute classes at the University of Utah, I took additional courses in LDS history that included the Federal persecutions and the Manifesto that enabled Congress to give Utah statehood. There was review of the Smoot hearings in the US Senate, the excommunication of apostles for performing new plural marriages, and the continuation of living in polygamous unions for Heber J. Grant, who opened the Japan mission in 1901, and led the Church until the end of World War II. One of his visionary experiences was based on his mother being sealed for eternity to Joseph Smith, as a reason wy he was called at a young age to serve as a stake president and then an apostle.

    Plural marriage is intertwined into the why’s and wherefores of LDS history, through its most significant events and most important people. It needs to be understood in order to understand that history. It was part of the package I learned in Seminary and Institute, and in the detailed historical reading I did on my own. Later on, as I spent most of a year researching in the Church Archives for an article I published in the Utah Law Review, polygamy was part of the background of the 19th Century Church. I learned the basics as a Seminary and Institute student in the 1960s and 1970s, and heard more about it during tours of the Beehive House and Lion House. (Our guides were quite frank about the polygamous nature of the household and the industrial scale of food preparation that entailed).

    I am frankly amazed that anyone who grew up in the Church in Utah or Idaho could be.ignorant of these facts, with all the friends and neighbrs around with polygamous ancestors, but I guess it is possible they weren’t paying attention, and if they didn’t take Institute classes while in college, or did.not go to college, and did not bother learning more on their, then I can barely see how they might be ignorant now. But I learned all these basic facts as a Baby Boomer, through official Church education programs. People whose ignorance persisted into their 30s, 40s, and 50s cannot blame the Church, but only their own lack of self education through available channels. The fact that some of their Sunday School teachers or even Seminary teachers were ignorant is not the fault of the Church. I taught Seminary as a calling in Omaha in 1984-88, and another instructor in our stake was Colin Mangrum, law professor at Creighton and coauthor with Ed Firmage of Zion in the Courts, a legal history of the Church in the 19th Century.

  17. As a descendant of erring apostle John Whitaker Taylor, I would assert that merely having apostles continuing to practice plural marriage doesn’t mean the Church itself was lying about putting an end to the practice of plural marriage.

    Going back to Joseph, I find it fascinating that two of Joseph’s plural wives (Agnes Coolbrith Smith and Mary Elizabeth Rollings Lightner) hinted that there were things Joseph F. Smith knew nothing about, things they could tell him. Alas, they don’t appear to have ever communicated their secrets to him, and he doesn’t appear to have asked.

    We live in a great age when so many original documents from Joseph’s era are being made available. I look forward to the talented minds of Mormonism plumbing those documents to find the secrets Agnes and Mary Elizabeth knew.

    I assert Joseph’s mission was to fulfill Malachi’s promise of turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers. Given the strict monogamy in place when Joseph was attempting to restore this, however, I think God required a brief reinstatement of the practice of plural marriage to effect the salvation of all mankind Mormons believe to be associated with Malachi’s promise. As for why plural marriage in Joseph’s time was so fraught, I suggest there are reasons that had nothing to do with Joseph Smith’s sexual desires.

    Regarding why we allow all males (not just general authorities) to be sealed to all their wives or procreative partners, the point is to tie the entirety of mankind together. No woman and no child should be remain cut off merely because we prefer to insist on strict monogamy.

  18. One other nitpick. You’ve proposed the LDS divorce from polygamy (which I appreciate), but failed to mention the current practice (especially among General Authorities) of being “sealed for eternity” to more than one wife.

    “What is the doctrine?” Nobody knows…

    • Hi Mark:

      I actually was saying that we cannot divorce ourselves from our polygamous heritage and, therefore, should embrace the fact that we have that heritage, be proud of the sacrifices made by our ancestors and accept that we have modern prophets who teach and guide us by revelation. God has commanded us through these prophets to no longer practice plural marriage but that does not mean that we should feel uncomfortable or ashamed of our early ancestors, leaders and church members who did what God commanded at that time and practiced this difficult principle at great personal sacrifice.

  19. Interesting essay, but you do not say what the doctrine IS. Until that is clarified, we can teach the history all we want to children, youth, and adults, but that will solve no problems–instead, it will create them. The doctrine must be clarified first, and this essay does not provide that information.

    • Exactly my thoughts. Discussing this topic more openly would be helpful, but how to resolve all those concerns by faithful members about the eternal nature of polygamy? Several of our current apostles are sealed to more than one woman since their first wife died earlier, and presumably they plan to be married to both in heaven, so we have a de facto current doctrinal belief in eternal polygamy.

      • The real question comes down to the title–whether we’re separated and getting divorced, or separated and getting back together?

        • Hi Anita:
          My argument is that we can never divorce ourselves from our polygamous history. We are separated from it because we no longer practice it, but we cannot divorce ourselves from it.

          Therefore, we need to come to terms with it, try to understand it so we do not have our testimonies hurt by information such as Joseph Smith having plural wives. Joseph Smith was a true prophet and was inspired to introduce plural marriage even as later prophets were inspired to cease practicing it.

    • The doctrine is what is found in Doctrine and Covenants 132 and what the modern prophets teach. We have Doctrine and Covenants and we have Thomas S. Monson who, as the prophet, seer and revelator, will teach what God wants the members of the church to do here and now.

  20. Craig,

    I enjoyed your article. The first 3/4 had an apologetic tone, but never advanced any apologetics. I appreciated the neutrality.

    I wish everyone in the church would read this so we could just get past it all. But I am nervous about mainstreaming these ideas. The FLDS also inoculate their children to certain ideas that most would consider unhealthy.

    One question, I recall VanWagoner’s book being emotionally detached (unlike Compton and others). Where has he “built upon some of this sensational and inaccurate stereotyping” (footnote 8)?



    • Hi Mark,

      Thank you for your comments. Regarding Richard Van Wagoner’s book, Mormon Polygamy: A History, in general I like the book and feel that it has a lot of good information. The reason it is included in the list is because there are parts where Van Wagoner seems to dwell on the sensationalistic, especially when casting a negative image of Joseph Smith where the sources, including some he even listed, paint a different picture. Page 4-5 of Van Wagoner’s book is an example of such.

      Gregory L. Smith’s FAIR Conference address, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage* (*but were afraid to ask),” gives some more detailed examples of this. I used Greg as a source for some of my comments and so heartily refer you to his talk.

      Thanks again.

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