New Book Addresses Mormon Polygamy’s Controversial Origins
Hot off John Whitmer Books’ Press, Joseph Smith and the Origins of Polygamy is the first of three volumes that Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster have planned for The Persistence of Polygamy series. The editors are known as the Mormon Studies odd couple for their synergy despite contrasting liberal and conservative viewpoints.
They have successfully recruited a likewise diverse cast of contributors for their latest project. Presenting exciting new findings and analyses, this book should make a lasting impact on how some controversial aspects of polygamy’s origins are framed and discussed. With a second planned volume covering an intermediate time period (1844-1890), the third volume will explore the persistence of the practice by splinter groups even after official manifestos called for its cessation.
This book is composed in an anthology of eight essays appearing between a foreword by Linda Newell and an afterword by Jesse Embry. Five of the essays deal with the nature of Joseph Smith’s relationships with important subsets of his plural wives.
- First plural wife: Don Bradley asserts that Fanny Alger should be recognized as such and not just as an extra-marital affair. A pair of new discoveries indicate that Oliver Cowdery wrote that the episode as a “dirty nasty filthy scrape” (changed by a copyist to “affair”) and that the marriage’s end should be dated to 1836 (rather than a prior consensus of 1835), respectively.
- Polyandrous wives: Brian Hales argues 13 “ceremonial polyandrous” wives were not “sexually polyandrous.” Information surrounding a newly discovered plural wife, Esther Dutcher, is used to support his contention. He sees the case of Sylvia Lyon as the exception that proves the rule. She had separated from her excommunicated husband, Windsor before the time her daughter, Josephine, was conceived, likely with Joseph.
- Plural wives alleged to be mothers of Joseph Smith’s offspring: Ugo Perego delivers the latest DNA testing results. Y-chromosomal analysis has successfully rejected 5 hypothesized sons (Oliver Buell, Mosiah Hancock, Orrison Smith, Moroni Pratt, and Zebulon Jacobs). Autosomal analysis for the case of Josephine Lyon is inconclusive and may remain so. Presently “considerable discrepancy” is observed to exist between Smith and Lyon family genetics, but this can be attributed to genetic drift or other factors.
- Teenage wives: Craig Foster, David Keller, and Gregory Smith find marriages to 10 teenagers within the norms of statistics and inherited biological and legal traditions in Joseph’s environment. In contrast, Todd Compton disagrees that early marriages to brides as young as14 are statistically defensible. However, he presents evidence that marriages such as that to Helen Mar Kimball were dynastic (binding prominent families) rather than sexual.
Three additional essays offer diverse perspectives on the plural marriage revelation contained in section 132 of the current Utah-based Latter-day Saint (LDS) version of the Doctrine and Covenants. Newell Bringhurst places its original 1843 recording against a backdrop of Joseph’s reflections on biblical polygamy in the early 1830s, but more immediately with Joseph’s struggles to get his first wife, Emma, to accept his practice of plural marriage.
His first essay also covers how LDS leaders transitioned away from emphasizing plural marriage aspects after the manifestos were issued. A second essay covers a similar transition by the Reorganized branch of the restoration (RLDS) when historians and leaders considered evidence that countered long held official positions that Joseph Smith had not authored the revelation.
Craig Foster, on the other hand, suggests section 132 went beyond just plural marriage and emphasized the importance of celestial marriage and the concept of the eternal family. Section 132, Foster, writes, was the culmination of Joseph Smith’s expanding development and understanding of the importance of family in Mormon theology.