The 1831 Revelation Regarding Plural Marriage


Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible

Smith’s Translation of the Bible

[This is the fourth post in a series. To read the series from the beginning, go to A Faithful Joseph.]

You might be scratching your head, wondering what 1831 revelation I am referring to. After all, Joseph did not write down any revelation on plural marriage in 1831. It is not part of the correlated discussion regarding Joseph’s teachings on marriage. The histories of the church published in 1858, 1922, and 1930 don’t talk about it.[ref]An exception to this is B. H. Roberts’ mention of the timing of the first polygamy revelation in his introduction to History of the Church, V:XXIX[/ref] And many contributing to New Mormon History take the view that Joseph was contorting doctrine to justify his libido-driven actions, without trying to find a revelation that might have caused those actions.

It appears Joseph received the first revelation regarding plural marriage while translating the Old Testament prior to 7 March 1831.[ref]Multiple early historians suggest this timing, including B. H. Roberts (History of the Church V:XXIX), Joseph F. Smith (1882 funeral address), and Hubert Howe Bancroft (1889, History of Utah).[/ref] When we consider this revelation occurred at that time, the historical and revelatory record comes to life.

The Context for the 1831 Revelation

Most of you are familiar with key historical events leading up to the late winter of 1831:

  • Joseph marries Emma Hale over her father’s objection (January 1827).
  • Joseph obtains the gold plates and begins to translate them (September 1827).
  • Emma’s first child dies when Martin Harris loses the first 116 manuscript pages (June 1828).
  • Joseph starts attending the Methodist church, but Emma’s uncle kicks him out (summer 1828).
  • Translation resumes and The Book of Mormon is published (May 1829–March 1830).
  • The Hale family decides to let Joseph farm a parcel near their home (summer 1830).
  • Joseph forms the Church of Jesus Christ [of Latter-day Saints] (April 1830).
  • Joseph is commanded to tend to the Lord’s work. He neglects the farm (summer 1830).
  • Joseph comes home to find Emma talking with her father and uncle. Hale kicks Joseph off the farm, demanding that Emma leave the good-for-nothing (September 1830). Emma stays with Joseph. Unbeknownst to Hale, Emma may have been pregnant when the confrontation occurred.
  • Joseph begins his translation[ref]This was not translation in the modern sense of the word, but rather Joseph making edits to what he felt the text ought to have said, based on revelation.[/ref] of the King James Bible (NLT Dec 1830).
  • Joseph and Emma travel to Kirtland, Ohio (February 1831).

It is with this background that I take the liberty of spinning a bit of midrash. Imagine Joseph holding the largely-pregnant Emma and discussing baby names after several days of translating Genesis. I can almost hear Joseph suggesting the name Abigail, thinking only of colonial women like John Adam’s wife.

My imagined Emma, however, was warned about all the weird things other religious innovators have done, like the spiritual wifery of Jacob Cochran. She knows her Bible, and she knows Abigail was one of the polygamous wives of King David. We women who have been pregnant know that emotions run high, especially when a prior child has died and we have been severed from any association with the family of our birth. And Joseph has been translating the part of the Bible dealing with the plural marriages of the patriarchs.

Joseph is stunned, he tries to reassure Emma. Perhaps Jacob 2 even enters into the discussion, since it’s mostly an anti-polygamy discourse. Finally, he promises to ask God, to put Emma’s mind at ease.

This background, a heated argument between Joseph and Emma about polygamy, seems sufficient background for the question God answers:

Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines—

Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter.

Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same.

For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.[ref]From D&C 132:1-4. Even though D&C 132 was formally received in 1843, Joseph indicated the initial part of the revelation was well known to him and that he could write it again if destroyed.[/ref]

If this revelation came as a result of an argument between Emma and Joseph, it seems natural that Joseph would have shared something about the answer with Emma. There is no indication Emma agreed to the requirements of this revelation and covenant at this time, however.

Arguing with God

Even though Joseph refused to write down the revelation at that time, we do see the continued argument Joseph and God engage in after this point. D&C 45 is the first revelation that hints of the turmoil Joseph would have been experiencing at receiving word of the New and Everlasting Covenant:

…I have sent mine everlasting covenant into the world, to be a light to the world, and to be a standard for my people…to prepare the way before me [Jesus Christ]…in the day when I shall come in my glory in the clouds of heaven, to fulfil the promises that I have made unto your fathers… [ref]D&C 45: 9, 16[/ref]

After several pages describing the terrible events that will precede the time when Christ will come in glory, the Lord tells Joseph:

“[It] shall not be given you any further concerning this chapter, until the New Testament be translated, and in it [the New Testament] all these things shall be made known… I give unto you that you may now translate it, that ye may be prepared for the things to come. [Verily], great things await you. [ref]D&C 45: 60-62[/ref]

At this point Joseph immediately stopped translating Genesis and began working on the New Testament. As per direction in the revelation, Joseph moved his family from the Whitney home in the center of the village to a cabin on the Morley Farm. Here Emma’s pregnancy continued. On April 30, 1831, Emma gave birth to twins, Thaddeus and Louisa, who died hours later.

While I don’t believe God takes children from parents as punishment, Thaddeus and Louisa were the second and third children taken from Joseph and Emma when they could be interpreted as flouting commandment. Joseph and Emma may have therefore seen these deaths as a rebuke from God.

Take Unto You Wives

It is only after the likely revelation in early 1831 that we see mention of men having more than one wife. The first instance is a revelation remembered by William W. Phelps in July of 1831, where seven missionaries being sent to preach to the American Indians are told to “take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites.” [ref]From H. Michael Marquardt’s book, The Joseph Smith Revelations Text and Commentary, p. 374-376, see excerpt retrieved online 5 Jan 2014.[/ref]

Apparently Saints then were as willing to selectively obey as at any time–Phelps didn’t even bother asking Joseph what he’d meant in July 1831 until three years later. There is no indication that any of the men present in July 1831 even considered courting or marrying an Indian woman, or any other plural wife for that matter.

In the New Testament These Things Shall be made Known

Joseph worked his way through translation of the New Testament Gospels until he got to John. At this point Joseph was working on his Bible translation with Sidney Rigdon in an upper room of the Johnson home in Hiram, Ohio. A little less than a year had passed since Joseph was told to shift his translation work to the New Testament. That day Joseph and Sidney were translating John chapter 5 and came to verse 29:

Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, concerning those who shall hear the voice of the Son of Man:

And shall come forth; they who have done good, in the resurrection of the just; and they who have done evil, in the resurrection of the unjust.[ref]Wording as recorded in the Joseph Smith Translation, also D&C 76: 16-17. c.f. John 5: 28-29[/ref]

Joseph and Sidney proceeded to record one of the most important visions in the formation of Mormon eschatology, or beliefs regarding the ultimate destiny of mankind. The vision describes a heaven of many degrees based on earthly faith and works. The highest, or celestial, level of heaven would be reserved for those who were baptized and sealed[ref]The original interpretation of the term sealed was different from the sealing between family members performed in temples today[/ref] by the Holy Spirit of promise.

The 1832 revelation recorded as D&C 76 answered some of Joseph’s questions about the New and Everlasting Covenant he’d been asked to restore the year earlier. Clearly this, more than any other revelation associated with the translation of the New Testament, was the answer Joseph had been promised in D&C 45, about the fate of mankind when the end would come, an initial answer to Joseph’s turmoil about the revelation regarding plural marriage.

Thus by 1831 and 1832 plural marriage had become convolved with Joseph Smith’s beliefs regarding the salvation of mankind and the terrible happenings predicted for the end of times.

It would take Joseph years to act on those beliefs.

The next post will discuss my conceptual framework for Joseph’s marriages, after which I will talk about plural marriage during the 1830s.

Mormon eschatology would evolve further after 1832, to include proxy ordinance work on behalf of the dead,[ref]Sermon delivered at the funeral of Seymour Brunson on August 10, 1840, also D&C 127 and D&C 128. See also a poetic version of D&C 76 in 1843 attributed to Joseph Smith but possibly written by William W. Phelps which softens the original 1832 D&C 76 implication that an individual can only merit the afterlife earned by their works prior to death.[/ref] multiple degrees of glory within the Celestial Kingdom,[ref]See D&C 131 and D&C 132.[/ref] and the sealing of all mankind together via biological and adoptive family lines.[ref]April 1894 revelation received by Wilford Woodruff, see Wilford Woodruff journal for 5-6 April 1894 and Deseret Evening News report of General Conference Proceedings of 14 April 1894[/ref]

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

13 thoughts on “The 1831 Revelation Regarding Plural Marriage

  1. Really interesting stuff, Meg. I think we (or at least I) too often just look at the major revelations without thinking about the background or context, especially when it comes to Joseph Smith and his family personally. I loved your midrash. Thanks!

  2. Meg,

    Great post.

    I don’t know if you’ve researched this, but what were attitudes at the time to inter-racial marriages? I had always thought that people were against them back then, but maybe that came later.

    I am just wondering if this isn’t a bit odd for the time to suggest that inter-racial marriage is to be encouraged.

    Also, do you have the full text of what was said about the 1831 revelation. I’ve read it before, but I don’t have it any where. I seem to remember that it actually used the white/pure delightsome verbage suggesting that the way the Lamanites in the BoM that has their skins ‘change color’ in fact did so via Inter racial marriages not some strange miraculous process. The is further strengthened due to the idea that eventually they were all one people.

  3. Hi Bruce,

    Yes, the link in the notes has WW Phelp’s recollection of the revelation (years later, as I recall). Though someone else referred to the revelation later that same year, so no one seriously doubts it happened.

    With regards to interracial marriage, there were so few people back then. Without data to the contrary (though having done lots of indexing), I’d guess that most of the time white women married white men. Children were engendered between men of various races and women of various races. DNA research has been fascinating in this regard.

    My impression is that white men at odds in the wilderness were not opposed to having an indian wife. Similarly, men tended to not mind getting a mulatto child with a black woman. The instances of a man of color engendering children with a white woman are not as frequent.

    Even when I was growing up, it was surprising to many people that my father was the one from China, rather than my mother.

  4. This is interesting. I have a question and a comment.

    When Joseph Smith, according to Phelps’ memory, spoke to seven men telling them to take wives, is there a clear record of the other men remembering or reporting that as well? I ask because 1) it’s always good to get a second witness on things remembered years later, 2) if it is accurate, assuming that it implies plural marriage is not certain as not all of the men called were currently married, so the words, if spoken, may have been directed at those who were not (your good footnote includes an excerpt from David Whitaker’s excellent discussion of another view of that directive that Phelps reported) and 3) Phelps’ history of plural marriage is fraught with problems and abuse (excommunication for taking three young women as wives on his mission to the eastern states, a wife divorcing him for reasons of abuse in the 1850s). He may have been a well known poet and a willing church member, but his view of women and marriage, for whatever reason, was less than stellar.

    “The new and everlasting covenant” is a term that has been discussed for a long time. And whether it is the same thing as “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage” is a good question. Joseph Fielding Smith, whose father had multiple wives, made a clear distinction between the two (Answers to Gospel Questions 1:65) saying the former refers to any gospel covenant sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise under priesthood authority (baptism, sacrament, etc. etc.). So though the phrase may have included plural marriage in section 45, it also may have been used legitimately prior to any understanding of plural marriage. So, though your premise is possible and interesting to consider, I think that its use in section 45 is not good enough evidence to use in a thesis that reception of a revelation on the subject of plural marriage had happened by that point in time.

  5. Hi MB,

    There are multiple sources suggesting the July 1831 discussion about taking wives from amongs Native Americans (sic Lamanites and Nephites) actually occurred.

    Similarly, there are various sources above my paygrade suggesting a February 1831 date for the initial revelation regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant. It does not depend in the language in D&C 45. Rather, the language in D&C 45 becomes fraught if Joseph is wrestling with an unrecorded revelation commanding him to abide by the terms of a covenant that includes plural marriage.

    Although I agree that the New and Everlasting Covenant doesn’t uniquely refer to marriage (much less plural marriage), this is the usage that we see in D&C 131 and that was clearly in use circa 1886 when John Taylor was told he couldn’t end the New and Everlasting Covenant (since it appears that’s what he asked, rather than asking to end plural marriage).

    Joseph Fielding Smith is speaking many decades after even John Taylor, much less Joseph Smith.

    It’s sufficient for my purposes that a February 1831 revelation is plausible.

  6. Hi, I appreciate you taking up this issue and helping explain it. However your cutting off of vs 38 in Sec 132 lead to confusion at first. It made it sound like it was contradicting to what was said in Jacob 2:24. Thank you again for your work and have a good one.

  7. Hi Jacob,

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by your comment.

    Recall that Jacob (in Jacob 2:24) is speaking to a particular population (an extremely small population) where men are taking multiple wives based solely on the Biblical examples. I don’t expect his characterization of David and Solomon to necessarily conform to God’s eternal viewpoint on the matter.

    I wish the 116 manuscript pages hadn’t been lost. It would be fascinating to have a parallax view of the first several hundred years of Nephite history, as we do of the era of kings in the Old Testament.

  8. Hi Meg, thanks for responding. It was my lack of making sure I had all the facts before posting. Silly mistake, I know. Keep up the good work.

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