A Faithful Joseph



Let me tell you about how I came to believe Joseph Smith was faithful to his beloved wife, Emma.

The subject of Joseph’s plural wives is not a topic casually broached in faithful Mormon circles, even among those who are aware of Joseph’s other wives. Correlated lesson materials tend to minimize discussion of important historical points relating to plural marriage in order to avoid offending those who do not have a firm grounding in the gospel.

Unfortunately, this has led to polarized versions of early Church history. One is the sanitized hagiography familiar to modern Mormons, featuring a Joseph who was monogamously devoted to his beloved Emma. The other is the bawdy and smug tale accepted by non-Mormons and some Mormons, where Joseph deceived Emma and his followers to justify slaking his sexual appetites on dozens of women.

Nightfall at Nauvoo

I was fourteen when I first came face to face with unpleasant possibilities regarding the life of Joseph Smith. My mother had just finished reading Nightfall at Nauvoo, then a newly-released novel written by her uncle, Samuel W. Taylor.

She put the thick paperback down and cocked her head. “I think Sam presents an overall positive view of Joseph Smith,” she said.

Presuming Sam’s book was therefore “safe,” I began reading. I was a child who was shocked to hear detractors had called Joseph Smith “Joe.” I was completely unequipped to deal with the salacious accusations made by John Bennett and Thomas Sharp, repeated in Sam’s book. My teenaged testimony was crushed. Though God seemed to opine that I should remain an active Mormon, I white-knuckled for two decades harboring serious doubts about Joseph and the Church.

I went on to graduate from Seminary, earn the Young Womanhood in Recognition Award, be a Relief Society President, serve a mission, and marry in the temple. In 1999 I realized that the God at the center of Joseph Smith’s theology is the God I have experienced in my life, but I still had no comfortable explanation for Joseph and polygamy.

Annie Cowles

In 2001 a friend asked me to present a 5-minute spotlight in Relief Society on a notable Mormon woman. As she rattled off a list, I heard her mention the treasurer Emma selected for the first Relief Society, Elvira Annie Cowles. Annie was my ancestor, so I picked her.

By 4 am that Sunday I had pieced together the fact that Annie (one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives) was mother of the three women who married Job Welling and grandmother of two women who married Apostle John Whitaker Taylor in 1901. In an example of the conversations Mormons sometimes have with God, I heard Him say:

“You must write about these women.”

“But I like being a Mormon,” I replied.

God, however, is persistent. I argued with Him for several years, certain that the story of Joseph’s plural marriages necessarily involved sexual relations. When Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped and other sordid polygamy stories emerged, I continued to think He was nuts.

In 2006 I decided to approach the story in novel form. I was then certain Joseph and Elvira had been intimate, but decided I couldn’t portray that in my novel. Revisions conducted with dozens of advanced readers forced the story to take on a life of its own. One reader criticized my villain, Dr. Bennett, as one-dimensional. Another said I should tell the story from a male standpoint to retain male readers. Another man (a non-Mormon) said the sexual tension between my heroine and Joseph Smith was uncomfortably intense. As I warped the story in response to these comments, I had to dig deeper into extant facts, delving beneath the facile understanding I’d had of events and motivations. Causalities emerged that I’d previously been blind to.

No Sex?

Some of my friends live without any form of birth control. I saw in their lives the typical pattern for most married couples in the 1800s. A child is born within the first year, and other children arrive every two years thereafter. Watching these friends, I realized something was wrong with Annie’s reproductive history.

Annie’s first child was born in October 1845, nearly three years after her public marriage to Jonathan Harriman Holmes and over a year after Joseph’s death. Annie continued to bear children regularly whenever Jonathan was around, her second daughter showing up nine and a half months after Jonathan’s return with his Mormon Battalion unit.

Clearly Annie and Jonathan were fertile. Joseph had children with Emma regularly. And yet Annie didn’t produce a child for years after the ceremonies I presumed would legitimize intimacies.

The other problem with my original (and faith-challenging) view of Joseph Smith’s sexual activities arose as Ugo Perego used DNA to investigate possible offspring of Joseph Smith by plural wives. Not a single suspected child can be proven to have been fathered by Joseph on a plural wife, not even Josephine Lyon. [The inconclusive results obtained in Josephine’s case result from known common ancestry between Joseph Smith and Josephine’s descendants.]

Presuming Joseph had wanted to avoid children, the few methods of birth control available to Joseph were largely ineffective. The rhythm method wouldn’t even be invented until 1910. While lack of children does not prove lack of sex, it leaves lack of sex as a potential cause for the extant data.

Modern belief in Joseph’s sexual activities with women other than Emma is based solely on written reports, only two of which were produced under oath. Both ladies who so testified were given to Joseph when Emma was part of the equation, at a time when they were single and of marriageable age. And they testified to save the Temple Lot from falling into the hands of Emma’s sons. In other words, they had a motive to lie.

Emma told her sons she was Joseph’s only wife shortly before she died. I invite you to explore how Emma might have legitimately been telling the truth, given the extant facts. I find it a compelling and tragic tale full of honor and sacrifice.

[To see the next post in this series, go to Why would a Loving God Demand Polygamy.]


Below is a list of the posts in this series.:

A Faithful Joseph (6:40)

Why would a Loving God Demand Polygamy (9:45)

Precursors to Joseph’s Polygamy (9:23)

The 1831 Revelation Regarding Plural Marriage (9:31)

Of Wives and Handmaids (5:13)

The Decade of Delay
Six Funerals and a Blessing
Winter of the Reluctant Virgins
Fall of the Doctor (14:58)

The Angel, the Sword, and the Heron Seduction (16:44)

Hunt in the City Beautiful
Arraigning the Band of Brothers
Wives of Sorrow (19:33)

Sangamo and Pratt (18:24)

The Apostles and their Wives (20:00)

Eliza and the Stairs (29:07)

Healing Wounded Hearts (16:57)

Emma’s Ultimatum (21:47)

Revealing the Revelation
Those Virtuous and Pure
Daughter of Hope
The Prodigal Returns
Conferring the Mantle
Collecting the Sorrowful
For Eternity and Time
Fifty Years in the Wilderness
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy

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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.

65 thoughts on “A Faithful Joseph

  1. Hey Meg, glad to have you here and I’m excited to see your posts and your interpretation. I have an advantage over the others because you’ve given me a preview. 🙂 Sorry, guys, Meg just likes me more than the rest of you!

  2. Adam, I find your comment offensive. How dare you say that!

    (Trying to start a web brawl because we all know that is how you get lots of comments.)

  3. Very interesting article. However, I am curious about one implication that isn’t treated.

    If Joseph Smith didn’t consummate any of his plural marriages sexually, then what was the doctrinal impetus that gave Brigham Young and the other top Mormon leaders space in which to father children from their numerous wives?

    In other words, what changed from Joseph to Brigham?

    As an amateur scholar of church history, I’m well aware of the careful attention that Brigham Young paid to Joseph. There is also the matter of Section 132 that, as I read it, gives obvious permission for sexual relations with plural wives.

  4. I agree that there’s a good chance Joseph didn’t have sex with any of his plural wives. I don’t think it’s a good idea, however, to store too much faith in it.

  5. SR, I was just thinking of you yesterday and was sad we hadn’t heard from you in a while. It’s good to talk to you again.

    For that it is worth, I happen to know that Meg does not store too much faith in it. In fact, that is why I said (in my introduction post) “few” and *possibly* “none.” But I don’t want to spoil anything for Meg.

  6. And they testified to save the Temple Lot from falling into the hands of Emma’s sons. In other words, they had a motive to lie.

    Some more detail about this conclusion would be appreciated. Also, if we take these relationships as the more dynastic – non sexual variety – do you have an opinion as to why they eventually became sexual relationships with later participants?

  7. Emma told her sons she was Joseph’s only wife shortly before she died. I invite you to explore how Emma might have legitimately been telling the truth, given the extant facts.

    My gut on this has always been denial, ignorance of the facts or mental gymnastics (her marriage was the only on recognized by the state?)

    Its even more interesting when you consider that Emma’s words to her sons became common wisdom in the RLDS. At least until they ventured to Utah to clear up the “myth” of Joseph’s participation in the practice – which resulted in personal accounts to the contrary. (if my memory is correct)

  8. I am a little skeptical on the no children equals no sex theory. First, if Joseph was seeing the many women listed as plural wives, he surely couldn’t have been doing so on a consistent basis. From all accounts, he was a very busy fellow, and lived in a time where cell phones and cars didn’t exist. Even if he snuck around, I imagine it would be difficult to spread himself so thin amongst so many responsibilities, much less romantic entanglements. Second, I have first hand experience that getting pregnant isn’t always a given, even if both parties are fertile. My wife and I have five children, but only one of which was an easy try. The rest we had to track her cycle and really put a serious effort into making pregnancy happen. Therefore, I can see where Joseph could have had haphazard sex with many women, but the law of probablity simply wasn’t on his side. I tend to have the same question as M. Towns – I imagine Joseph spent a fair amount of intimate conversation with Brigham Young and others and find it hard to believe Joseph was purely into dynastic relationships but Brigham and other leaders decided to run with the notion and make it physical.

  9. Christian J,

    The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) is a much smaller offshoot of the LDS Church and happens to (even today) own the Missouri Temple Lot. The RLDS tried to sue it away from them and they are so small they were worried about getting pounded. So they asked the LDS church to help, complete with more resources and more money. (But weren’t they in debt at the time?)

    Anyhow, when this case happened, the LDS church really didn’t want the temple lot to fall into RLDS hands, so they were pretty desperate to (amongst other things) show that Joseph Smith was plurally married, that the RLDS was not the true successor of Joseph Smith’s teachings, etc.

    So the LDS church leaders really wanted Joseph’s plural wives (if possible) to not only testify that they were his cerimonial wives, but wives in every sense possible. The women all knew this and therefore — Meg is suggesting — had incentive to try to make their marriages sound as real as possible even if they had in fact been unconsummated.

    Had it not been for the Temple Lot case, a lot of the existing quotes and affidavits that we have on polygamy from Joseph Smith’s plural wives would not have existed and a great deal of that history would have been lost entirely.

  10. Also, a quick question – did any of the other people close to Joseph in Nauvoo who had plural wives have sex with those wives? I don’t know enough about leaders living during the Nauvoo era who might have participated in plural marriage and in relationships that did, in fact, produce children.

  11. For immediate gratification, you can sample a few related posts from my website, megstout.com. Alas, I’m going to resist chasing down rabbit holes and allow you to see the organic development of plural marriage through a completely different lens from any I’ve found in the available literature (one week at a time – I do require sleep from time to time).

    Duty to our Kindred Dead
    Why Mormons Baptize the Dead
    Eliza and the Staircase
    Mormon Enigma, Ex-Ante
    A Short History of Jonathan Holmes and Elvira Cowles
    Plausible Explanations for 12 Conjugal Wives

    If you’re interested in the piece I provided my early readers to “prove” my bona fides, feel free to read my 1995 Sunstone Symposium talk.

    To read the reviews that caused Bruce Nielson to recruit me, click below:

    Review of Joseph Smith Polygamy, Volume 1
    Review of Joseph Smith Polygamy, Volume 2
    Review of Joseph Smith Polygamy, Volume 3

    I plan to publish the posts I initially publish here over at the website wivesofjosephsmith.com (no relation to wivesofjosephsmith.org, which synopsizes Todd Compton’s book and other information extant circa 2007).

  12. IDIAT,

    I don’t know much about this either, but certainly there were plural wives that consummated their marriages to various apostles and certainly Joseph Smith did teach that these were generally supposed to be real marriages. (Some marriages were clearly just ceremonial or dynastic.)

    The question is whether or not Joseph really fully followed through himself. Joseph had a lot going on and I think we see that he would often receive a revelation (say word of wisdom) and there would be some examples of real intent to do something about it to promote it (at one point requiring following the word of wisdom to hold certain offices) but then he couldn’t keep every single ball juggling in the air and some things would get dropped. (WoW doesn’t become really emphasized until BY’s time.) But Joseph was not going around teaching about purely ceremonial marriages.

  13. Meg, when I recruited you you didn’t mention anything about sleep! Where is this coming from? 😉

  14. SR, you know I’m a huge fan of your opinions.


    You express my own skepticism. My general feeling is that JS certainly did consumate some marriages and not others. Reading Meg hasn’t convinced me that he consummated none (and I’m not sure Meg is convinced of that either.) But it has started to force me to re-evaluate the evidence of who, how many, and what the probabilities were for each marriage.

    I am so skeptical of all opinions, including my own, that I’m pretty sure that no matter what interpretation we come up with it will prove wrong in some way. But the goal has never *really* been recreation of the Truth — we can never know that for sure — but to do our best to look at the evidence and form our own opinions. All while trying to keep an open mind to other possibilities. The back and forth between, as an example, believing and non-believing scholars actually forces both to consider the evidence more carefully and to adjust their views to points that each missed. I think both get ‘closer ot the truth’ through this process.

    So I predict that you’ll never fully agree with Meg, but that she’ll force you to re-evaluate a number of your previous assumptions and make adjustments to your own opinions.

  15. Intriguing possibilities. I’d first heard this idea a few years ago from Ugo’s work. I also echo Michael Towne’s question: Assuming this hypothesis is true, what changed from Joseph to Brigham? Perhaps it’s one of those things Joseph knew he needed to initiate, but since at the moment Emma was so unreconciled to it, he practiced his own personal muted form for the time being.

    At the very least, this is a great exercise to illustrate how provisionally we need to regard some of our historical certainties.

  16. Hi Meg. Very interesting take here. Do you have sources for your research? I’d love to dig through those and look at the content and context a little more. Thanks!

  17. Several of you have mentioned inability to track why Joseph might have refrained from consummating his relationships when he clearly taught others it was proper for husbands to be intimate with their plural wives.

    Joseph had his reason, and she was Emma. It’s a terrible thing to be required to restore full biblical marriage and eternal marriage if you risk losing the love of your life by doing so.

    I enjoy the thought that Joseph might have refrained from consummating any of his plural marriages. However I wouldn’t have a problem with Joseph being intimate with the women Emma “gave” him starting in May 1843. Do we consider Abraham unfaithful for lying with Hagar, given that Sarah herself gave Hagar to Abraham as a wife?

    What I don’t find credible are assertions that Joseph tupped wives behind Emma’s back. I also find no evidence that Joseph had sex with his “wives” who were married to other men (e.g., Elvira Annie Cowles), or very young (e.g., Helen Mar Kimball, Nancy Winchester). Brian Hales does a pretty good job explaining the way extant data argues against these liaisons, though I go farther than he does.

    I don’t have troves of private factoids, but I have the benefit of not ingesting those factoids solely from sources that viscerally believed in Joseph’s fundamental corruption. As someone versed in enthographic research, I am aware that you must examine the motive of an action to fully understand the meaning of that action. And a handful of facts I have become privy to over the years because of my detailed research have further bolstered my position that Joseph was not corrupt in his dealings with his plural wives.

  18. Thanks for the reply Meg. It gives me a good direction to explore.

    small note: the fertility practices of the ancient, nomadic family of Abraham aren’t a good comp for me anymore when discussing Mormon polygamy. Its tempting to use it when Evangelicals attack, but I think we all know better.

  19. “small note: the fertility practices of the ancient, nomadic family of Abraham aren’t a good comp for me anymore when discussing Mormon polygamy. Its tempting to use it when Evangelicals attack, but I think we all know better.”

    That’s an interesting take on it. How do you explain the prominent use of Abraham in Section 132? It’s in the Lord’s voice, and He’s clearly talking about Abraham in a plural wife context, in several consecutive verses.

  20. Blanking on what you mean when you talk about fertility practices in an ancient nomadic family.

    My mother got her MS in Anthropology, so we had about two solid years of learning (per force) the sexual and reproductive habits of tribes throughout the world and throughout time. I was going to say “bizarre” habits, but everyone else’s habit looks bizarre if it isn’t the one you’re used to.

    A factoid I recall from that time is 70% of the world’s peoples currently live in cultures that accept polygyny. Historically, when Christian cultures accepted polygyny (before ~1050), that percentage would have been even higher. Not the percentage of individual families that were polygynous, mind you. Just the percentage of cultures where that was an accepted family formation.

    For one example of polygyny, I offer King Harold Godwinson of England (1066). He had his royal wife, then he had his common wife. But they were both considered wives. The old Scots laws recognized something like 12 levels of marriage, where the definition of marriage had to do with assigning biological parents responsibility for their offspring. “Marriage” by virtue of producing a child after a rape was near the bottom of the hierarchy. The lowest status “marriage” was between two insane people. Theoretically, this marriage system could result in both monogamous, polygynous, polyandrous, and complex marriage situations at any of a variety of economic and social strata. But since these marriages were based on biological production of children and were pre-technology, I don’t think there was any allowance for same-gender marriage.

  21. The main thing to consider is JS wouldn’t keep this secret if it was just dynastic sealings. He’d proclaim publicly the sealing back to Christ via the priesthood line (similar to the priesthood line of authority) which goes from the prophet to the Lord, etc.

    It was secret because he knew the people, indeed the nation, would struggle with it as he himself (and Emma) did. In 132, the Lord specifically introduces the fact that JS wanted 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”.

    At the same time, I think its highly likely he wasn’t intimate with all of them based on the fact that dynastic sealings were also done. Combined with the issue of Bennett “going rogue” further complicated the matter for Joseph.

  22. Something to consider regarding none of Joseph’s plural wives not bearing him children, is that if there was lots of sexual intimacy going on, there would have likely been some pregnancies. Yet, we don’t even have evidence of miscarriages, etc., which were very common back then (and now). It would be coincidental if we were talking of only a few women, but when we talk about dozens of wives, the odds of having sex with all of them and not a single one becomes pregnant just really is doubtful.
    With that, I agree with Meg that he may have consummated a few of the relationships, but very few.
    I look forward to Meg’s discussion on John Bennett and how his spiritual wifery fits into this story.

  23. Meg, you pointing out the wide acceptance of the practice among the world’s cultures leads into what I was trying to suggest – that Abraham was not particularly unique in his lifestyle- and – even if God approved and commanded it (it appears he did in 132) – then it looks like it was for more practical reasons. Or at the very least, a practical means for fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham. Of course, populating Zion was always the reason I was given for polygamy in the Utah territory, but this is a post about JS doing the opposite of this right?

    Also, I admit that 132 has always puzzled me, because I don’t see God commanding it at all in the OT narrative (just silently approving). And, even if he didn’t command it, Abraham would have been doing it anyway, based on the time and place in which he lived right? But, now I’m rambling….If my thoughts seem disorderly, its me not you.

  24. Despite the language in Jacob, I don’t believe the period of polygamy in Mormon history was about population. Allowing women to migrate to more exceptional men, I’ll grant. But the practice of polygamy did not increase the population and some have pointed out the reduced availability of the exceptional men (nights at home, not to mention missions, etc.) actually led to fewer pregancies per wife in plural marriages. I’m not sure these analyses took into account women who might not have otherwise been able to be in reproductive marriages.

    Even though 132 mentions Isaac, why do we say he was a polygamist? The stories do not talk about more than Rebecca. The language in 132 lumps Isaac with Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon, but elsewhere it merely indicates Isaac did all he was asked (I think referring to seeking out a woman he could marry in the covenant even though she was unknown to him).

  25. It depends on what you mean by “increasing the population.” If we’re talking sheer numbers, then I doubt polygamy made a difference over all for the very reasons you cite.

    But if by “population” you mean “Believers” then in fact I think the evidence is strong that polygamy did increase the population.

  26. [Brawl…]

    Population. What we can’t know (for sure) is the number of potential converts who decided to revile Mormonism for polygamy rather than become “Believers.” However an indication of that number might be obtained from the numbers of British convert baptisms before 1852 and the number following the public acknowledgement of polygamy. Then we have the persistent US opposition to the Utah Mormons, with the economic damage incurred in the Utah war and subsequent to the various legislative actions (including incarcerations of the “exceptional” men). A more robust economy and less persecution would have led to more interactions with others, with a likely result of increased converts.

    Did you know the guy who wrote “Oh, How Lovely was the Morning” died as a result of the polygamy incarcerations? He was still young and hadn’t had many children yet. How many more offspring would he and the population he represents have had if they had lived?

    Polygamy was so reviled in the US that B. H. Roberts was denied his Congressional seat [no one else has been denied the Congressional seat they were elected to]. The petitions to ban him from Congress take up several shelves in the Archives, and include signatures from a higher percentage of the electorate than have voted for any of the US presidents in the past several decades.

    None of this mentions the number of modern Mormons who are leaving the ranks of “Believers” because of their distaste for the extant interpretations of Joseph’s polygamy.

    I think a serious tally of the pros and cons would yield an assessment that polygamy has been a serious drain on numbers of living Believers at any given point in time. However I contend that polygamy was essential to effecting the salvation of all mankind throughout all time.

  27. Meg,

    You make a good point. If by “church” we mean “any organization called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regardless of what their doctrines are” then I think you’d be correct. But your final line suggests that if “polygamy” is assumed to be literally part of what we mean by “LDS Church” or “The Restored Gospel” then in fact it did increase the overall population because we had fewer births over all, but far more in families that were likely to pass it along to the next generation. (i.e. your point about access to the more exceptional men)

  28. “I think a serious tally of the pros and cons would yield an assessment that polygamy has been a serious drain on numbers of living Believers at any given point in time. However I contend that polygamy was essential to effecting the salvation of all mankind throughout all time.”

    The delightful cognitive dissonance this brings to my mind is wonderful. I find that it is in the paradoxes we encounter in the universe that helps to distill the essential, hidden meanings of things. And Mormonism contains paradoxes not a few.

  29. One more point for consideration. There is good reason to believe that had we not practiced polygamy, the Church would not exist today at all. The reasoning behind this is based on a number of points, which of course can all be debated. But it was the polygamous group – that 4th tier of the strongest beleivers — that became the leaders and carried the church forward while a lot of others fell by the wayside when the going got rough. And for a long time, polygamy was the key defining point that allowed the LDS church to seperate itself from the world and define itself as a people — as all successful religions must. Starting a new religion is one of the single hardest things imaginable.

    So it is by no means clear to me that we’d even have an LDS church today minus polygamy. *But* if I assume that we somehow filled in those gaps another way that was maybe less contentious to the outside world, but without breaking our “peopleness” and with people still sticking together as a single religion once the charasmatic founder was dead, then I do agree with Meg’s view.

  30. Do you know that autism occurs when the brain fails to cull extraneous neurons? This is why symptoms typically occur around age 2, when the density of neurons becomes so great that they cannot function within the physical boundaries allotted.

    I agree some kind of culling was required. But Mormons circa 1830-1840 were sufficiently unique that Joseph hardly needed to invent something to “prove them herewith.” He didn’t need to originate a weird pattern of marriage we can’t even prove he, himself, lived.

  31. Meg, this was an excellent post. I love the way you report your conclusions. I agree with your assertion above that polygamy has been a drain. Although I have a strong testimony in Joseph the prophet pre-polygamy, I have never been able to gain a testimony that plural marriage was revealed doctrine. (Good thing we don’t get that granular in the temple recommend interview, eh?). I don’t like it, I hate that we did it, and I could never do it personally. Thus, I’m very interested to read why you think it was essential to the salvation of mankind.

  32. I would only add one thing. That there might be a difference between what was required to exist as a religion when Joseph Smith was alive than when he was dead. So the fact that I agree with you for specifically circa 1840-1840 doesn’t mean I agree with you thereafter. And if it was required thereafter, then whether or not he lived it doesn’t matter that much.

    Since I’m not God and have no prophecy on this subject, there is no certainty in my view. But there is definintely room here for multiple valid viewpoints because we don’t know enough to be sure. I, for one, do not believe the LDS church would exist today without polygamy. But I also accept that is just a speculative belief.

  33. Tossman, I plan to start addressing that in my next post (on Joseph’s birthday, BTW). However I have described my thinking before (in a Sacrament Meeting talk, no less). The link was posted above, but I’ll repeat it here for your convenience:

    Duty to our Kindred Dead

  34. “Despite the language in Jacob, I don’t believe the period of polygamy in Mormon history was about population. Allowing women to migrate to more exceptional men, I’ll grant. But the practice of polygamy did not increase the population and some have pointed out the reduced availability of the exceptional men (nights at home, not to mention missions, etc.) actually led to fewer pregancies per wife in plural marriages. I’m not sure these analyses took into account women who might not have otherwise been able to be in reproductive marriages.”

    Increasing the population of believers isn’t quite the same thing as increasing the *number* of believers. There are, say, 70k children of record born each year. If we could get +100k baptisms more each year by sterilizing ourselves and devoting the money and time saved to missionary work, should we? Of course not, because marriage, birth, and childrearing aren’t just a means to an end, but an end in themselves. I am fairly persuaded that there was a significant time period in Utah when polygamy increased the population born into believing homes.

    I don’t think Jacob 2 can be so easily dismissed either. Intuitively one would expect polygamy to lower population growth, ceteribus paribus, but we need to save the appearances, we can’t just dismiss that scripture.

  35. The funny thing is that we have two other religions that were based on strange marriage situations (Cochranites, Oneida Community) and one that denounced procreative marriage (Shakers).

    All of these are effectively gone now.

    As for Jacob 2:30, I have a lovely little midrashic ice cube (postulated possibility) about why Joseph even asked God about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon. It involves a pregnant Emma with a head filled with stuff her father and uncle said about Joseph, his audacity in reworking the Bible, and other wackos doing similar things (e.g., Cochran). Joseph innocently starts talking about baby names, and suggests the name Abigail. Nice name. Popular. But Emma freaks out, because Abigail is the name of one of David’s plural wives. When Joseph tries to comfort Emma, she refuses, citing Jacob 2:30. Joseph assures her he will get confirmation from God that she need not worry. In response, he gets D&C 132:1-3 plus the gist of the next several verses.

    Not what my midrashic Emma wanted. Given Joseph’s love for his wife, completely not what my midrashic Joseph wants either.

  36. I like that ice cube. er… I mean I like the irony of the ice cube.

    Yes, it’s true that if you’re going to have strange marriage practices, Mormons miraculously handled it right. First they introduce the practices right before the death of their charasmatic founder — the first big test of whether a religion will endure. They kept it as a means of identity after that for a few decades — the next big test. Then they got rid of it right at the needed mainstreaming phase after hitting a critical mass — the final big test. (Well, actually, there is one more ongoing test, namely trying to hold the tension permenantly between being mainstream and being different — or being in the world but not of the world.)

    And me thinks that the Shaker’s strange marriage practices are self explaning as to why they are still not around as a religion.

  37. Thanks for your interesting post, Meg.

    Looking more closely at Jacob 2, the verse says:

    For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.

    The idea that this means “increasing population of believers” seems imposed onto the text to me. Isn’t it possible that rather than increasing the total number of believers, this refers instead to increasing the intensity or dedication of believers? The total number of believers could decrease while the the level of conviction of those who do believe, in terms of covenant making and keeping and dedication to building the kingdom. Perhaps the goal is not to directly increase the number of believers, but to raise up a core generation of covenant bound, dedicated, faithful saints capable of the kind of dedication, sacrifice, and acts of faith necessary to bring the church out of obscurity?

    [As a tangent, your use of the word “tupped” in an earlier comment made me smile. It reminded me of Othello. However, I believe that, at least until recently, “to tup” refers exclusively to the copulation of goats, and is only applied to human beings in derogatory terms.]

    Looking forward to your next post.

  38. Tup. I guess my Shakespeare-trained forebears used the word as a rude term for sex and I presumed it was in broader usage as a rude but quaint term for inappropriate sexual activity. Several of them were shepherdesses, so they would have also used tup in the proper animal husbandry sense. Ah well, not worse than the other day when I compared something to a wrecking ball, not being aware of how that term is now visually associated with Ms. Cyrus.

    I read Jacob 2 as “You’re having more than one wife. Stop it. It’s seriously bad. It makes the ladies cry. It makes your children weep. God has sometimes allowed more than one wife, but that is by exception in times of dire need. So stop it. I haven’t told you you could do these things. This is way worse than any of the other sins you are commiting. It’s horrible that I have to tell you this in front of the ladies and your kids, but everyone needs to know this is bad. Seriously. Stop it. Now.”

  39. Michael Towns: “I find that it is in the paradoxes we encounter in the universe that helps to distill the essential, hidden meanings of things. And Mormonism contains paradoxes not a few.”

    That’s a great quote Michael. I agree.

    I’d be a bit disappointed to learn Joseph Smith never had sex with any of his other wives. How uncharitable. How neglectful. How selfish of Emma as the first wife to so thoroughly lord it over Joseph that she refused to allow him to do his familial duties to his other wives, wives which she had consented to in some cases. A sexless marriage is an abusive marriage.

  40. “A sexless marriage is an abusive marriage.”

    I’m sure Emily Partridge and Flora Woodworth agree. And I think that was what made Fanny confront Joseph in the barn circa 1836.

    Even in the case of John W. Taylor’s second wife, with whom he had had several children, there came a time when he knew that for Nellie to bear a child was for her to risk almost certain death. So he stopped risking her life. And she was really, really pissed about it. John W. pronounced a blessing on her, saying how she would teach and lead and be praised by prophets and presidents (or some such). When he was done, she turned on him and told him if he didn’t pronouce the blessing she wished (she wanted additional children) she would go the the prophet and get him to give voice to the blessing she wanted.

    John W. eventually relented and allowed Nellie to risk her life again. Sadly, a son Nellie had after this timeframe was killed by a railroad engineer, one who figured killing a polygamist’s kid was good riddence.

  41. In other words you’re saying Joseph was screwed (no pun intended) whether he did or he didn’t. Sounds a lot like life.

  42. Meg, since you can see this from the other wives perspectives, why do you choose to read the evidence in a way that minimizes Joseph’s sexual involvement? Brian Hales reads the same evidence and concludes that Joseph was sexually active with some of his other wives.

    Does your prejudice against this view stem from your own squeemishness about polygamy itself? Where is your outrage at the fact that a single woman would be “married” to a kowtowed Joseph Smith, who didn’t want to upset his first wife, and thus they are forced into the prospect of eternal celibacy? “Sacred loneliness” indeed. Which is more outragous, polygamy itself, or a neglectful, absentee polygamist husband?

  43. Nate,

    I don’t want to steal Meg’s thunder from future posts. But if you read between the lines a bit, you’ll see she’s saying Joseph didn’t have sex behind Emma’s back in her opinion. So if she has any ‘squeemishness’ it’s only over Joseph not working it out with her. Who exactly Emma knew about or agreed to is at least 4 but could be more. So there is always somewhat of an open question. But she making her best guess based on the evidence and her intepretation.

    Meg, kick me if I’m misrepresenting you.

  44. The Western tradition has always been that a marriage without sex wasn’t a marriage. At some points early on, sex + the intent to be married simply *was* the marriage ceremony. Even today, I believe that lack of consummation is legally grounds for annulment in some jurisdictions.

    Mormonism isn’t bound by that understanding, of course, but we’ve been moving towards it with our emphasis on philoprogenitiveness and our increasing discourse of sex as quasi-sacramental.

    Not an argument to anything M. Stout is saying, just a reflection.

  45. “God has sometimes allowed more than one wife, but that is by exception in times of dire need.”

    OK, but the specific example of a ‘dire need’ that Jacob 2 actually mentions is ‘raising up seed unto me.’

  46. Bruce, can I just kick you for the fun of it? LOL

    Women find Joseph’s purported behavior (dozens of women, young teens, married women) highly distasteful, as do many men.

    On the other hand we have several women (Fanny A.*, Elvira*, Eliza P., Emily P., Flora) where Emma actively encouraged them to go get married to a husband. I’m inferring in the cases of Fanny A. and Elvira, but we know it happened for the Partridge girls and Flora. As for the Lawrence sisters, the one who survived was up front about the fact the marriage was never consummated (the likely factoid that *really bothered* Martha Spence when she was traveling west to become a plural wife of Joseph L. Heywood).

    We have other cases of women where it isn’t known that Joseph married them in life who came to treasure the opportunity of being sealed in eternity (Sarah Kimball, Sarah Cleveland, Elizabeth Durfee).

    In later years many of these women would gather on Joseph’s birthday and bond. There was very much an inner circle aspect to the friendship between these ladies.

    The act of sex is nice, but the romance of being a part of something hugely important for the Kingdom of God (and being an intimate (rather than being intimate) is huge.

    And Joseph did die early enough that none of them was forced to live many years as a “nun.”

  47. Thanks for the insights Meg. Of course being married to Joseph Smith comes with a certain eternal cachee, “the romance of being a part of something hugely important for the Kingdom of God.” Is that really how you see it, or is that just how you imagine these poor sisters saw it?

    As long as we are celebrating the heavenly expression of these marriages, why would we be so reticent to celebrate their earthly expression, and so anxious to invalidate any evidence of its practice? Seriously, what’s the difference? In LDS theology we believe in intimate sexual relations both in this sphere, and in the next. Polygamy is part of the next life, and Joseph Smith is saying “on earth as it is in heaven.”

    Is it like Bruce suggests, your squeemishness is not about the sex, but about the fact that Joseph Smith was doing it behind Emma’s back because of her disaproval? If Emma had been cool with it, would we want to find more evidence of consumation in the other marriages, as it would show more respect to the other wives?

    Personally, I don’t know why we give so much defference and favor to Emma. She happened to be the first wife, but how does that make her superior to the others? Her disappointment at having her monogamous fantasies crushed is understandable. She was deluded by “modern” romantic notions, having defied her father’s wishes and eloped with her lover. But who did she think she was marrying? This was a prophet, communing with angels, revealing scriptures, larger than life. Where did she get the audacity to think that she could have all of him to herself, this man “second only to Christ?” Joseph was very patient, and loved her and tried to be sensitive to her feelings. But at a certain point, he has to accept the abundance that God bestows upon him: “I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.” He has to share his greatness with his other lawful wives, his greatness in every sense of the word, including his sexual greatness. The cancer of possessiveness destroyed Emma, and it destroys our ability to appreciate Joseph Smith’s sexual and spiritual abundance. It was a gift of God, and Emma took it and robbed it entirely for herself.

  48. Holy cow Nate,
    I thought I was privately harsh on Emma… I’d never attack her in public because…well none of us deserves to have our failings attacked in public. But you take it to another level!

    I quite frankly get pretty uncomfortable with how quickly even our own prophetic leaders disavow plural marriage. For instance, in the priesthood restriction, great lengths are gone to in order to point out there was no revelation. In the plural marriage topic, the revelation is mentioned only in a footnote.

    Anytime the subject is brought up, we say, well, we don’t understand it, etc. etc. and go through now great lengths to say it was for that time only. Completely nulling and voiding the time and eternity aspect that all participants thought they were apart of… (I’m actually ok with an apologetic interpretation that places their marriages in the concept of eternity based on their eternal, Abrahamic seed consequences — ie. thousands more potentially born into the covenant within certain lines.)

    But it’s just a shame how we run every which way and that from the issue. And yet, we teach a lesson on the fact that God went to Abraham and asked him to cut the throat of his son and burn his body. Riddle me that…

    Actually, I know why. We’re the ones who are kowtowed on this issue by those who feign offense and those who attack the church.

    All that being said in this little diatribe, I think there’s not much to be gained in debating the issue since the Lord’s servants are moving passed it. I don’t believe the Spirit can really back us up when we’re not “receiving” the Lord by receiving and (re)teaching and testifying what the Lord’s servants are teaching in his stead.

    So while I find the concept personally interesting and even various aspects faith promoting, I don’t see the spiritual value in digging too deeply publicly on this doctrine one way or the other since the church is quite specifically focusing elsewhere. If the highest leadership on the church isn’t focused on it in building up the kingdom, I’m not sure how much energy I ought to publicly pursue the issue with.

    All that said… people will still ask questions, so it’s good someone tries to summon the guts to answer them.

  49. “including his sexual greatness…”

    I’m trying to imagine a woman writing these words. Wait for it… wait for it… Nope. Can’t imagine it.

    I had a huge crush on Joseph when I was young. Even when I lost my testimony, I crushed on him, because I (thought I) knew that even though every other man in the world might reject me for having dry skin and being a half-blood, he would love me. So if there was an eternity and if marriage were part of it, I figured Joseph was my back-up plan.

    Then I found out he was my eternal great great whatever grandfather. Darn it.

    There are those wives where Emma asked him to delay, then demanded the wives depart the pattern. There are the wives he was commanded to propose to where he hesitated to speak until it was years too late and they were already married to others. There was his dead brother’s sister, but she had kids and didn’t need any raised up to Don Carlos’ name. There were the older ladies who were helping him investigate who was abusing women under cover of darkness and false doctrine, and the innocent abused ladies themselves. There were these daughters of his friends who were being thrust at him to create a familial link, and situations where the husband didn’t understand that a prior husband had claim on the woman (where Joseph was like an eternal levirate husband, making sure current husband didn’t think he had sole right to the woman in question). I think I forgot a few categories. Anyway, lots of reasons these relationships weren’t the kind of joyous marriages where sexual relations would be appropriate.

    I’m reminded of the scene in the Star Trek film where Sulu hasn’t released the parking brake. Then the brake comes off and the ship goes into warp. I think once Joseph and Emma were no longer in the loop, the pent-up energy from all the not-having-sex stuff accelerated the willingness of those who had been inner circle to proceed. By the time the temple is complete and ordinance work is being done, I think there were over a thousand people involved in at least ceremonial polygamous marriages.

    You’re thinking of Joseph as merely kowtowed, but he loved Emma, and she knew this teaching would kill him. And he knew it too. But he was under commandment to teach it to the people.

  50. “Anytime the subject is brought up, we say, well, we don’t understand it, etc. etc. and go through now great lengths to say it was for that time only. Completely nulling and voiding the time and eternity aspect that all participants thought they were apart of”

    Chris, I confess I have no idea what you are talking about here. I do not see how the fact that we were practicing polygamy then and don’t now in any way voids the time and eternity aspect of their marriages then.

  51. Hi Chris,

    You seem to be coming from a place where, I don’t know, where you think that somehow the actual doctrine related to marriage in eternity has changed? Not at all. In fact, Elder Oaks gave a conference talk addressing plural marriage in eternity (his first wife died of cancer and he has remarried).

    The leadership did finally get that the New and Everlasting Covenant wasn’t uniquely about plural marriage. The US did a really nice job oppressing the Mormons over the issue of “cohabitation,” so of course most people dropped it like a hot balloon when given a chance.

    Except for Lorin Wooley.

    As a descendent of so many folks who practiced polygamy and then the apostle who was the poster child for “we don’t do this anymore,” I am offended that Lorin Wooley took it upon himself to steady the ark (as he saw it). It’s as if the owner of the stable in Bethlehem decided to start a religion based on the fact that Jesus was born in his barn (The revelation to President Taylor to continue the New and Everlasting Covenant occurred in Lorin’s house, where President Taylor was hiding).

  52. Meg: “I’m trying to imagine a woman writing these words.” Don’t you think the Darger wives might say that about their faithful, equitable, sensitive husband? For a man to sustain equitable sexual relations with many women of various ages and desirability would no doubt require, not only a fantastic libido, but a Don Juan-like openness to experience and resistance to prejudice that few men have. It is God-like, because it embraces all equally, and all are known equally. “Don Juan” as a celestial type might sound scandalous to our puritanical sensibilities, but I think God is great enough to embrace sexuality on an expansive plane, and have it be something wonderous and holy, not promiscuous and lustful.

    The main objection to polygamy is that it is expansive for men, but diminishing for women. But Joseph Smith set the stage for expansiveness for women by engaging in polyandry, even if not sexually consummated here on earth.

    Or do you believe that polyandry will not be practiced in heaven, and that all these women sealed to Joseph will be eternally severed from the husbands and families they lived and bore children with, to be part of Joseph Smith’s exclusive harem?

  53. Hi Nate,

    A member of my family, hearing your comment, thought the line between who might write as you did not a division between male and female, but perhaps between a certain kind of arrogant and humble.

    The trouble with the internet is that so many nuances are lost when we restrict ourselves to only the written portion of our communications. If we were in a room together conversing, I would have a better understanding of what caused you to express yourself as you did. In fact, that gets to the point that we are interpreting what happened with Joseph and the women he covenanted with primarily based on written data. Which means there are far too many possible interpretations.

    As for heaven, I think any woman who is worthy to be in a place where marriage matters will be accorded her choice. Which is why guys should treat their women right. First so the men can even be in the place where they are eligible to be selected, and two so the woman they’ve loved will select them.

    Harem. Heaven. Two words I don’t see going together.

  54. Meg, I like your blogging style. You’ve pegged me 50%, yes the arrogant part, but no on the humble part.

    I agree with you on heaven: not a place of coersion, but a place where our deepest and truest desires are fulfilled (if we have become celestial by nature). So women who hate polygamy need not worry about it, because either it will not be asked of them, because it is antithical to their holy desires, or they will want it with a great burning desire, because their hearts will have changed. As Mahler wrote:

    O believe, my heart, O believe:
    Nothing to you is lost!
    Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
    Yours, what you have loved
    What you have fought for!

    But what of the Celestial desires God speaks of in D&C 132: “if any man espouse a virgin, and DESIRE to espouse another…then is he justified.”? What of the abundance promised to Joseph? “a hundred-fold in this world, of…wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.”?

    These are not unrighteous desires according to the Lord. This is the heaven promised to Joseph Smith, the heaven of his desires, for D&C 132 is written in the language of desire, not the language of commandment.

    I don’t know what heaven will be exactly, but I do have a feeling that our up-tight puritanical notions about sexuality will not be part of it, nor our romantic possessiveness. Polygamy and polyandry are generous practices that echo the Law of Consecration. I can’t imagine that heaven would not include them, and instead simply be a continuation of the tyranny of monogamy. But that obviously shows you where the desires of my heart are, quite different than others, content to share my wife, content to be shared.

  55. Love and marriage

    Love and marriage
    Love and marriage
    Go together
    Like ice cream and cabbage
    And i’ll tell you, brother
    If she don’t like sex
    Just blame the mother.

    David Keig

  56. Meg – I know it’s a bit off topic, and certainly not what it’s intended, but I had to smile at your use of “half blood”. Made me start wondering which of your parents could be resurrected (being flesh and bone).

    Welcome – really look forward to your future contributions.

  57. When I was born, it was illegal for my parents to become husband and wife in the location where they lived (he being asian). Due to reciprocity, there was no problem with them being man and wife given that the deed had been performed elsewhere. So my mother told me I don’t get to go around pretending I was illegitimate, even though the marriage laws in the state where I was born didn’t change until after my birth.

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