Bottom Line Up Front: Brigham Young accomplished a great work, defeating spiritual wifery. But he did his work so thoroughly that it has been difficult for later generations to comprehend what was going on.
In my recent post about giving Joseph Smith a break, there were those who asked for a similar discussion of Brigham Young.
In my “Faithful Joseph” construct, I argue Joseph Smith and his righteous followers predominantly refrained from consummating plural marriages prior to Joseph’s death. If true, then what happened under Brigham’s leadership? There is no question that plural marriages were widely consummated after Brigham Young assumed leadership of the Mormon Church.
Recap of Events Leading Up to January 1842
Joseph initially received a revelation regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant just prior to March 7, 1831. It appears this 1831 revelation commanded Joseph to restore the knowledge that marriages needn’t be restricted to monogamous unions. Joseph may have entered into a covenant with Fanny Alger in 1836, but Fanny left the Mormon community and married a non-Mormon in Indiana by the end of 1836. Fanny’s first known child was born in 1840.[ref]For the best treatment of the history related to Fanny Alger, read Don Bradley’s article in The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. I. Alternately, consider Todd Compton’s chapter on Fanny Alger in his masterwork, In Sacred Loneliness.[/ref] In April 1841, roughly ten years after receiving the initial revelation, Joseph entered into covenant with Louisa Beaman, who would remain childless until well after Joseph’s death. After being threatened by an angel wielding a sword, Joseph covenanted with Zina Huntington, who was pregnant with her first child, Zebulon. DNA analysis proves Zebulon was the child of Zina’s legal husband, Henry Jacobs. Zina conceived no children between the time she covenanted with Joseph and Joseph’s death in June 1844.[ref]See Dr. Ugo Perego’s article on the DNA analysis of children born to women who covenanted with Joseph Smith, contained in The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. I. Also see Brian Hales’ online summary of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs for discussion of Zina’s reproductive history.[/ref]
From 1839 to 1841 Brigham Young was in England on a mission. Allegedly there is an indication he had a premonition regarding plural marriage while in England.[ref]I have read somewhere that Brigham had a prompting about plural marriage while in England. If you know the credible source for that assertion, feel free to point me to it in the comments. I probably read about this on one of the exmormon threads I tumble across from time to time in my searches.[/ref] Certainly Joseph Smith wrote to Brigham regarding baptism on behalf of the dead, hinting there was more. Brigham’s first wife, Miriam Angeline Works, died in 1832 and Brigham remarried in 1834, wedding Mary Ann Angell. So there were elements in place to support reflection on the possibility that marriage to all the women a man had married in life might endure into eternity.
Once Brigham returned to Nauvoo, he and his fellows spent much time with Joseph. Helen Mar Kimball, then 11, would reflect in later years on this period of time in late 1841 and suppose her father and his associates were discussing plural marriage with Joseph Smith.
However there were other matters of concern. The highly capable Dr. John Bennett, who had risen to the position of Joseph’s right hand man during the absence of the apostles, had been discovered to be still married in March 1842 [edit – this occurred in 1841] while openly courting a young woman. Bennett had subsequently fallen further from grace due to a reported affair with Sarah Pratt, wife of Orson Pratt. Joseph learned of the affair in early July 1841, just as Brigham Young and other apostles returned from England. A few weeks later it appears Bennett attempted to commit suicide. Thus there was cause for Joseph to deputize the returning apostles to assist in managing the Church, beyond any discussion at the time of plural marriage, per se.
During the summer of 1841, Dr. Bennett began teaching that it was permissible for men and women to engage in sexual intercourse as long as the deed remained unknown, based on the 1842 testimony of Catherine Laur Fuller. The list of those involved in the spate of illicit intercourse is filled with people Bennett would have known through his service in the Nauvoo Legion, his ecclesiastical duties, and his mayoral duties.
Bennett’s heretical teachings regarding illicit intercourse convinced William Smith, Joseph’s brother. William is documented to have assured others that illicit intercourse or spiritual wifery was a valid “teaching” of the Church.[ref]Nauvoo High Council Minutes.[/ref] We know Joseph’s other brothers were approached with tales that it was permissible for a man to be with women other than his legal wife. Both Don Carlos Smith and Hyrum Smith were adamantly opposed to such behavior, even though their informants had told them their brother, Joseph Smith, was the source of the “doctrine.”
It appears possible, however, that Brigham Young was initially taken in, along with Heber Kimball.
We have two reasons to suspect Brigham Young was involved in at least an attempt to engage in extra-monogamous behavior in 1841/1842:
- Martha Brotherton accused Brigham Young of pressuring her to become his. According to Martha’s letter, written to Dr. Bennett in July 1842, Brigham had said, “…have not you an affection for me, that, were it lawful and right, you could accept of me for your husband and companion?” Heber C. Kimball, and Joseph Smith feature in Martha’s tale. William Clayton is mentioned. Martha knew Brigham Young, William Clayton and Heber C. Kimball. She had never met Joseph Smith, making it possible that William Smith was the person she actually met. Martha’s interaction with Brigham likely happened in 1841,[ref]I was unable to find the date when the Brotherton family arrived in the United States, but Martha pins the incident as occurring roughly three weeks after the family arrived in Nauvoo. It appears her initial outraged tale had a chance to be sent to England and return in time to cause enough of a scandal to prompt a formal response in April 1842. There are Brothertons who arrive in New Orleans in May 1842, too late to be the Brothertons involved in the Nauvoo scandal.[/ref] before January 9, 1842, when we see Brigham participate in a sealing ceremony.[ref]Brigham performed the ceremony sealing Joseph Smith to Agnes Coolbrith, widow of Joseph’s dead brother, Don Carlos Smith. Like Louisa Beaman and Zina Jacobs, Agnes Coolbrith would not conceive while in a covenant relationship with a living Joseph Smith.[/ref]
- Wiliam Clayton’s journal on June 23, 1843, describes a conversation with Joseph Smith. Joseph recounted how three of his disciples had transgressed, including “BY,” Knight, and Thompson. Of these, it appeared Knight[ref]The Knight who had died by the time of the journal entry was Bishop Vinson Knight (died July 31, 1842).[/ref] and Thompson[ref]Robert Thompson (died Aug 27, 1841) was Joseph’s clerk and Hyrum Smith’s brother-in-law.[/ref] had died. BY had transgressed yet not transgressed. Ultimately, BY had been redeemed from his transgression. I am unaware of anyone other than Brigham Young with initials BY who would have caused Joseph the anguish described in Clayton’s diary.[ref]See George Smith, An Intimate Chronicle, p. 108.[/ref]
If Brigham had attempted to coerce Martha Brotherton to become his spiritual wife, he had transgressed. And yet Martha fled, preventing Brigham transgressing to the point of engaging in illicit intercourse or spiritual wifery. Martha’s identification of Joseph as one of those involved is problematic, as she had never met Joseph before.
Heber, the Obedient
In the story told by Martha Brotherton, the other man she knew well who she cast as a participant in the scene was Heber Kimball.
It’s possible that Martha was making this story up. But for a moment, let us consider that Martha was telling the truth as she knew it. And let us consider the possibility that Brigham and Heber were involved in spiritual wifery rather than celestial marriage.
Brigham, in allegedly approaching Martha Brotherton, was approaching a young woman he knew, for whom he felt he could be affectionate, a woman he felt might feel affection in return for him.
Heber, when considering to whom he might reach out, decided that his selection should reflect his concern for his wife, Vilate. So he selected the Pitkin sisters, spinsters who had cared for him when he was leaving America for his mission in England. Heber felt that not only could he feel affection for these sisters, but that they would not be as threatening to Vilate as a younger woman might be.
Here Heber made a crucial choice. If he had been involved in the Brotherton incident, implying involvement in the coercive practice of spiritual wifery, he would have been told that spiritual wifery was secretly sanctioned by Joseph Smith.
Thus Heber went directly to Joseph, confiding in Joseph the plan to take on the Pitkin sisters as his secret “wives.”
We know that Joseph forbade Heber from following such a course. We also know this was before Heber Kimball was ordered to take Sarah Peak Noon under his protection.
Sarah Peak Noon had a child in October 1842 that is widely believed to have been engendered by Heber Kimball. If so, the Pitkin incident could not have happened later than January 1842.
I think Sarah Peak Noon had been a victim of some other man persuaded of Bennett’s spiritual wifery heresy and therefore time Heber’s role in becoming Sarah’s protector as occurring in the summer of 1842. Yet I remain persuaded that Heber talked with Joseph about the Pitkin sisters in the November/December 1841 timeframe.
Joseph told William Clayton that when B[righam] Y[oung] transgressed his covenant (yet denied having transgressed), Joseph pled with the Lord to spare him [Brigham].
By January 6, 1842, Brigham appears to have fully regained Joseph’s confidence. Brigham wrote an entry in his journal on that day in Masonic code that translated reads: “I was taken into the lodge. J. Smith was Agness.” Todd Compton suggests that “was” stood for “wedded and sealed [to].” Based on this record, some presume that Brigham was the one who officiated at the covenant between Joseph and Agnes Coolbrith [Smith].
Meanwhile the Nauvoo High Council minutes of January 18, 1842, show the council taking into consideration the affairs of the Church, “that they may have a knowledge of… the situation of the Church.” Hyrum instructed the leaders that it was necessary to “go from house to house – to his house – and to every house and see that every family done their duty… to teach those who would not hearken [that they] should be severed off.”[ref]SeeThe Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger, editor, pp. 399-401.[/ref] It certainly seems reasonable that Joseph could have been the author of the concern voiced by Hyrum. This charge that the Church counsel every household morphed into a city-wide census, which was delivered to the City on March 1, 1842.
By late February, Brigham and Heber are undoubtedly part of Joseph’s most trusted circle. They both participate in the ceremony where Joseph covenanted with Mary Elizabeth Rollins.
Both Mary Elizabeth Rollins and Agnes Coolbrith would later say there were things going on during the life of Joseph Smith that Joseph F. Smith (Hyrum’s son and the one investigating the origins of plural marriage decades after these events) knew nothing about.[ref]See Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 166-167 & 226.[/ref] It does not appear that Joseph F. Smith ever took advantage of the offer to learn what these two ladies had to say. I suggest that they could have told him that covenant marriage, as practiced by Joseph Smith in the midst of investigating the horrific heresy of spiritual wifery, was not the sexually consummated affair Joseph F. Smith and his contemporaries believed it to have been.
Brigham staunchly stood by Joseph’s side as the investigation into the sexual heresy unfolded. By the last weeks of May 1842 it became clear William Smith had played a key role in convincing women to surrender their virtue, assuring them spiritual wifery was a true principle of the restored gospel, allegedly secretly taught by his brother, Joseph Smith.
Joseph asked Brigham to charge William with this sin. Many had been guilty of being involved at some level, including Brigham. The sins of those who repented would never be revealed publicly. But the ringleader had to be taken down. And it seems Joseph believed William had been that ringleader.
Then Catherine Laur [Fuller Warren] testified to the Nauvoo High Council, on May 25, 1842. She detailed a sordid history where she had been seduced again and again by several different men. By April Catherine had determined these seductions were not lawful, based on Joseph Smith’s public sermons condemning such behavior. She agreed to become married to William Warren. But on the morning of her marriage, William Smith had come to her home, proposing what she termed “unlawful connexions.” Catherine refused. William “insisted very much that I should not marry and proposed [to keep Catherine well supplied] with food & if I would remain unmarried and grant his request…”
But when Catherine was questioned about which man had been her original seducer, she replied, “John C. Bennett was the first man that seduced me – no man ever made the attempt before him.”
According to later accounts, Brigham was in the midst of arraigning William of involvement in adultery and seduction. Joseph burst into the room and demanded that Brigham withdraw the charges. The later raconteurs presumed that Emma or some other member of the Smith family had explained to Joseph how damning it would be for William to be openly charged with wrong-doing. I suspect the actual cause of the reversal was Joseph’s new-found knowledge, based on Catherine’s testimony, that John C. Bennett, not William, had been the author of the heresy at a time many months before William had arrived in Nauvoo.
Tension like an electric charge ran between Joseph and Brigham. Then Brigham yielded and withdrew all charges against William Smith.
Wives of Sorrow
As discussed in my March 2014 post, Wives of Sorrow, the women who became plural wives in 1842 appear to have predominantly been either 1) involved in the investigation to root out the seducers or 2) victims of the seducers. Brigham’s June 1842 plural marriage to Lucy Ann Decker [Seeley] appears, to me, to have been one of providing protection to an abandoned mother with three small children to feed. While Joseph Smith lived, Lucy did not conceive a child engendered by Brigham Young.
Similarly, I suggest that Sarah Peak Noon had been a victim of the seducers, one of those who had conceived despite the medicine offered to the women to prevent pregnancy.[ref]A description regarding the use of medicine “for abortion” was provided as part of Mary Clift’s September 4, 1842 testimony regarding how she was seduced by Gustavus Hills. See The Nauvoo City and High Council Minutes, ed. Dinger, pp. 424-426, both text and footnotes. While others indicated they understood such a medicine would be provided, the Clift/Hills deposition discusses the medicine as being offered and asked for.[/ref]
Revelation and Retraction
By 1843 Joseph Smith apparently felt the sexual scandal had sufficiently died down that he could risk moving forward as commanded in 1831. A spate of covenants, including many plural “marriages” are solemnized. Brigham was one of those joined or “sealed” to his living spouse in June 1843.
In early July 1843, before Joseph Smith wrote down the revelation now canonized as D&C 132, Brigham was questioned by a University professor regarding whether or not Mormons taught that a man may have more than one wife. No doubt informed by his own position as a widower who had remarried, Brigham replied:
“We see in this life, that amongst Christians, ministers and all classes of men, a man will marry a wife, and have children by her; she dies, and he marries another, and then another, until men have had as many as six wives, and each of them bear children…
“Now, in the resurrection this man and all his wives and children are raised from the dead; what will be done with those women and children, and who will they belong to? and if the man is to have but one, which one in the lot shall he have?”
[The professor replied, he did not believe those women and children would belong to any but those they belonged to in this life.]
“[If] it is right for a man to have several wives and children in heaven at the same time, is it not an inconsistent doctrine that a man should have several wives and children by those wives at the same time, here in this life, as was the case with Abraham and many of the old Prophets? Or is it any more sinful to have several wives at a time than at different times?”[ref]Watson, Manuscript History of Brigham Young, July 9, 1843, pp. 134-136.[/ref]
Joseph may have wished to be the first to live openly as a righteous patriarch with several wives and children. But Emma Hale [Smith] was highly conflicted over the matter. In June 1843 a major conflict had erupted between Emma and Joseph over the matter. As late as August Joseph was still feeling the conflict sharply, expressing to William Clayton concern that if he did accept “E[liza] and E[mily] P[artridge],” as Emma had offered that day, Emma would “pitch on him and obtain a divorce and leave him.”[ref]Clayton, An Intimate Chronicle, ed. Smith, p. 117.[/ref]
A week later we see letters from Eliza Snow being passed to Joseph Smith and Flora Woodworth being told to return a gold watch Joseph had given to her. Sometime around this Eliza and Emily Partridge were sent away from the Smith household and Eliza Snow left Nauvoo entirely for several months. Flora Woodworth (secretly one of those who had covenanted with Joseph) abruptly married Carlos Gove, a non-Mormon. Possibly precipitating these re-arrangements in Joseph’s covenant relationships was the revelation that Orange Wight knew these specific women were Joseph’s “wives.” Orange may have also conveyed the information that he had been “fully initiated” into the mysteries of “polygamy” in the summer of 1841, when the only “polygamy” being spread abroad was the illicit intercourse/spiritual wifery variety taught by John C. Bennett and his cronies. If mature teens had been widely initiated into spiritual wifery, as evidenced in the case of Orange, it clearly wouldn’t yet be safe for Joseph to publicly proclaim the acceptability of plural marriage.
As 1843 came to a close, a new danger loomed. William Law, an Assistant President of the Church, and Austin Cowles, prominent member of the Nauvoo Stake Presidency, turned against Joseph. William Law may have been soured by Joseph’s belief William was an adulterer. On this basis, Joseph refused to perform the ceremony uniting William Law to his wife, Jane, for eternity. Austin Cowles publicly proclaimed that his reason for breaking with Joseph and resigning from his position in the Nauvoo Stake Presidency in September 1843 was the revelation indicating “persons [could be sealed up] to eternal life, against all sins, save that of sheding innocent blood… [and] the doctrine of a plurality of wives… I dared not teach or administer such laws.”[ref]The Expositor, June 7, 1844, available online at http://en.fairmormon.org/Primary_sources/Nauvoo_Expositor_Full_Text, retrieved 12 Oct 2015.[/ref],[ref]It is possible that Austin had also been guilty of sexual sin, simply because of the known depravity of those with whom he associated. However I am not aware of any positive indication other than the conspiracy itself that he was other than an honorable man. Certainly he was widely known for his strict moral conduct.[/ref]
1844 was consumed in dealing with the dissident threat, which bloomed into full conspiracy by March 1844. Around this time William Smith returned to Nauvoo, where Joseph likely learned that his baby brother had not learned the difference between eternal marriage and spiritual wifery.[ref]The recent biography of William Smith provides detailed information on William’s questionable actions in the year after Joseph’s death, see my review. William’s misbehavior in Boston is more graphically explored in Connell O’Donovan’s article on Blacks and the Priesthood in The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. II, pp. 48-86.[/ref]
According to William Marks, still at the time Nauvoo Stake President, Joseph confided in Marks that polygamy or spiritual wifery[ref]Emphasis mine.[/ref] would be the undoing of the Mormon people if it were not rooted out and prosecuted.[ref]‘We are a ruined people,’ Marks quoted Smith; ‘this doctrine of polygamy, or Spiritual-wife System, that has been taught and practiced among us, will prove our destruction and overthrow. I have been deceived . . . it is wrong; it is a curse to mankind, and we shall have to leave the United States soon, unless it can be put down, and its practice stopped in the Church.’ Marks said that Smith ordered him ‘to go into the high council, and I will have charges preferred against all who practice this doctrine; and I want you to try them by the laws of the Church, and cut them off, if they will not repent, and cease the practice of this doctrine . . . I will go into the stand and preach against it with all my might, and in this way, we may rid the Church of the damnable heresy.’ When Marks related what Smith had said after Joseph was killed, Marks’ testimony ‘was pronounced false by the Twelve and disbelieved.’” From Zion’s Harbinger and Baneemy’s Organ, 7 July 1853, pp. 50-55, cited in Richard S. Van Wagoner, “Mormon Polygamy: A History,” Chapter Seven, [Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1986], p. 77; see also, Bibliography, p. 294.[/ref] Marks made his statement shortly after learning that both the Brighamites and Strangites had publicly announced they were practicing plural marriage. Given that Marks used the term spiritual wifery (implying illicit and coercive intercourse without benefit of any ceremony) rather than eternal marriage (technically illegal but associated with eternal covenants), I see no reason to doubt he was telling the truth. Brigham, however, rejected Marks’ interpretation. Brigham was confident that the statement, as relayed, did not mean Joseph wanted the root out the New and Everlasting Covenant. Merely that spiritual wifery was not dead, as some (e.g., William Smith) had led Joseph to believe in 1842.
Brigham Returns and Assumes the Mantle
Joseph Smith was killed at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. The presumed killers were members of a mob, many of whom had blacked their faces to prevent recognition. Most of the apostles, including Brigham Young, had been on travel spreading Joseph’s political platform as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States (in those days merely a way to obtain an audience for one’s views rather than a serious bid for the highest office in the land).
Brigham returned to a people in shock. Brigham was supposed to meet with the other apostles in the office of Willard Richards on the morning of August 8, 1844, but the meeting in Richards’ office completely flew from his mind. Instead he found himself in the grove, where Sidney Rigdon had been preaching, leading up to a vote sustaining Rigdon as guardian of the Church.
Brigham Young took the stand. and announced to the assembled parties that a vote on the matter of succession would be held that afternoon at 2 pm. At the meeting Brigham taught a sermon that emphasized the right of the apostles to lead. Parley P. Pratt followed, also supporting the Twelve. Sidney Rigdon was exhausted from his morning sermon and asked William W. Phelps to plead his case. Instead, Phelps supported the claim of the apostles.[ref]Walker, Six Days in August: Brigham Young and the Succession Crisis of 1844, in A Firm Foundation, available online at http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/firm-foundation/8-six-days-august-brigham-young-and-succession-crisis-1844, retrieved 7 July 2014.[/ref]
Wedding the Ten “Virtuous and Pure”
Based on the births of children to plural wives starting in the summer of 1845, Brigham appears to have given the go ahead for men to engender children with plural wives married in the New and Everlasting Covenant. In addition, Brigham and Heber between them married nine of ten women who had covenanted with Joseph during his lifetime.[ref]The tenth woman was Eliza Partridge, who became the wife of Amasa Lyman.[/ref] It appears Brigham may have felt these ten were the women referred to in D&C 132:62, which stated, “And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.”
If, as I suspect, Brigham and Heber had been initially misled by those teaching spiritual wifery, they knew better than most how perilous the future would be for women lacking protection. All the women Brigham, Heber, and Amasa married in the immediate wake of Joseph’s death were vulnerable women, with the possible exception of Nancy Winchester.
|BRIGHAM YOUNG||HEBER C. KIMBALL||AMASA LYMAN|
|Louisa Beaman[ref]By rights Louisa should not be counted as one of the women who married Brigham or Heber immediately after September 1844, as she did not become Brigham’s wife until January 1846, while the Nauvoo temple was in operation. By then there are many more women who accept a mortal husband in pursuit of getting sealed to their deceased husband.[/ref]||Nancy Winchester||—|
|Eliza R. Snow||Martha McBride||—|
|Emily Dow Partridge||—||Eliza Maria Partridge|
|Maria Lawrence||Sarah Lawrence||—|
|Olive G. Frost||Lucy Walker||—|
Of these ten, six would bear children within a year of marrying one of the three apostles. Only one of these six children would survive infancy. The one survivor was Emily Partridge’s son Edward. Little Edward died the month after his seventh birthday.
The scar of spiritual wifery was still raw. Emily Partridge reported Edward was scorned and referred to as a “spiritual child,” though she never appears to have understood there was a strong association between the terms “spiritual wifery” and “illicit intercourse.”
Preparing for the Temple and Exodus
There were two overriding priorities under Brigham’s initial leadership. First was to complete the temple so Joseph’s people could receive the saving ordinances of Initiatory, Endowment, and Sealing to spouse and parents under the New and Everlasting Covenant. The second was to remove themselves from Nauvoo as soon as possible after receiving the saving ordinances.
Concern for the removal from Nauvoo may have informed Brigham’s policy regarding temple ordinances. Specifically, women wishing to be sealed to a deceased spouse in the New and Everlasting Covenant were apparently required to enter into a temporal covenant with the man who stood proxy for her deceased husband. Ideally this would mean that any widow desiring the saving ordinances of the temple would be provided a support who had covenanted before God to protect the widow.
On the other hand, there were relatively few men willing to take on responsibility for these widows and their children.[ref]In my own family history, Mary Leamon [Bell] sought to find a proxy in February 1846 to allow her to be sealed to her husband and to allow her deceased daughter to be sealed to her young husband. An obvious option was for Mary Leamon’s son-in-law to participate in the ceremony sealing him to his deceased wife and then stand proxy for his father-in-law. But apparently the son-in-law couldn’t wrap his head around being “married” to his mother-in-law. So Mary Leamon (in best Scottish fashion) appears to have badgered her Bishop into standing proxy for the two ordinances. For more, see Making It Up versus The Scientific Method.[/ref] Again Brigham and Heber would often step forward, offering themselves as proxy to various women in need.
Perhaps Brigham hoped that through this requirement, he would be able to persuade Emma Hale [Smith] to take on the protection of one of his followers. If so, he was sorely disappointed. Emma refused to leave Nauvoo or Joseph’s debts. She retained certain important properties as Joseph’s personal property, including the Egyptian mummies and papyri, the manuscript of the Book of Mormon, and the text of Joseph’s revisions to the Bible. Emma also jealously guarded the remains of Joseph and his brothers.
Furthermore, Emma was horrified to see Brigham implement the doctrine of “a plurality of wives” in a sexual sense. Lucy Meserve wrote “I worked for the Prophet Joseph Smith’s wife Emma Hale Smith in Aug & Sept. 1845. […] Sister Emma bore testimony to me that Mormonism was true as it came forth from the servant of the Lord Joseph Smith, but said she the Twelve have made bogus of it. She said they were living with their wives and raising children and Joseph never taught any such doctrine, they [plural wives] were only sealed to them [husbands] for eternity.”[ref]See Brian Hales November 2013 response to Michael Quinn, available online at http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/dialogues/hales-quinn/, retrieved 13 October 2015.[/ref] The timing of Emma’s comment to Lucy Meserve would be shortly after the first children engendered by Brigham and the apostles were born to plural wives. Lucy had reason to hope that Emma was wrong: Lucy was a secret plural wife to George A. Smith, Joseph’s cousin, and was carrying his child at the time of Emma’s statement.
Yet Brigham knew, as Emma couldn’t, the potential downfall of leaving large numbers of women without a partner. If I am right, he had been temporarily persuaded that spiritual wifery was correct. He knew that those who were plotting against Joseph included those who had seduced unknown numbers of women, and that these were setting up a Church under James Strang. The specter of possible abuse was made flesh in the person of William Smith and the leaders William had “trained” in the Boston area.
Despite Emma’s post-martyrdom recasting of her history with Joseph, there was no doubt that the written revelation regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant (now D&C 132) permitted men to take on more than one wife, if certain rules were adhered to. In the case of Brigham and Heber, accepting responsibility for additional plural wives was not fueled by a desire for sex with the women, though sex did occur. It was an onerous responsibility, but a responsibility that protected the women from dire poverty and known predators.
George Smith’s 2008 book Mormon Polygamy: But We Called it Celestial Marriage documents the hundreds of men who took responsibility for women in addition to their legal wife in response to Brigham’s lead. The people thronged the temple, willing to do whatever it took to obtain their eternal blessings. In that time, the requirement was caring for all the believers, making sure it was possible for all these to flee Nauvoo in 1846.
Guarding Over Marriage
For those who have not studied the history, it might be reasonable to presume that marriages in Utah would be celebrated in the diverse communities that grew up across the intermountain west.
However Brigham’s obsession with preventing a resurgence of spiritual wifery continued.
In the 1850 case of Joseph Ellis Johnson, we observe this guardianship over marriage and the power of parenthood to keep people in the Church or bring people back to the Church. Joseph Ellis Johnson had engendered a child with one of Lorenzo Snow’s estranged plural wives. Johnson came before the disciplinary council of leaders (including Brigham) in order to set the record safe. Despite Johnson’s transgression, he wished to beg for forgiveness that he might be sealed to the woman he had lain with and then sealed to their children.
In the transcript, we see the members of the council asking whether or not Johnson taught that it was acceptable for a man and woman to have intercourse as long as it was not known (the long-winded description of spiritual wifery or illicit intercourse). [Johnson denied he taught any such doctrine. He had merely slept with the young lady and things were as they were.]
As the western settlements took shape, Brigham insisted that couples who wished to marry come to Salt Lake City. You could not be married by Church authority outside of Salt Lake without specific written permission from Brigham Young.
My ancestor Albert Delong faced the challenge this could pose. He loved Elizabeth Houston, but Elizabeth’s mother refused to grant permission for her daughter to travel to Salt Lake City. This effectively prevented the marriage. Delong went to Brigham Young and explained the situation. With good humor, Brigham wrote out the permission for the marriage to be performed locally. Whenever Brigham saw the Delongs after that, he would rib them about the situation.
This central management of marriage created various folkways in response. One thing that occurred was regular formation of marriage parties, where all the folks from a particular town who wished to marry one another would travel together to Salt Lake City. Based on my research into my own family, it appears that Brigham used this central control of marriage along with the sacred secrecy surrounding the initiatory/endowment/sealing to control who became informed of covenant relationships the next generation had with Joseph Smith.
[Divorces were also managed centrally by Brigham. According to Michael Quinn, the man had to pay the $5 fee, no matter which party desired the separation.]
Brigham’s Final Challenge
By 1870, less than a decade before Brigham’s death, the rules of marriage were thoroughly established among the Mormons. There was no risk of spiritual wifery regaining a foothold as Joseph’s doctrine. Women who wished to be married and have children had ample opportunity to do so, and could pick from a pool of steady and righteous men without concern that a good man already had a wife.[ref]Not all women desired to be married. Some widows wished to mourn their dead husband in peace rather than take on the protection of a second husband. Likewise, some women broke with their mortal husband, adequately supported by other relatives and secure in the knowledge that they were sealed in eternity to another. We see this in the case of Nancy Marinda Johnson [Pratt].[/ref] The combination of rigid rules yet allowance for divorce resulted in widespread adherence to the marital standards. Beyond embracing marriage with strict rules of fidelity, the pervasiveness of the unique Mormon form of marriage can be seen in the large number of women who had been a spouse in a polygamous household. By 1870 that number reached 50% of all adult women in the community.
Late in Brigham’s tenure, a new challenge arose. Joseph’s sons presumed that their father never taught any form of plural marriage, despite warnings from older members of the RLDS community that Joseph’s sons were not correct in this stance. In their zeal to save the Utah Mormons from what they believed to be corruption, Joseph’s sons embarked on missions to the west.
There were those who had been intimately involved in the history of 1842 Nauvoo who personally refuted Joseph sons, affirming that Joseph had taught eternal marriage, including a plurality of wives.[ref]Agnes Coolbrith, aunt to the Smiths and located in California was one of these who tried to tell Joseph’s sons they were wrong about their father. See Compton, In Sacred Loneliness.[/ref] But those who had only ever known the open and methodical polygamy administered by Brigham Young sought to prove that Joseph had been a practicing polygamist.
Joseph F. Smith and Andrew Jenson were the two who particularly took it upon themselves to research the matter. They sent numerous letters and interviewed all the survivors they could find. The scandal of spiritual wifery had been dead for decades, and all who had been involved in 1842 Nauvoo “polygamy” wished to keep it that way. Neither Joseph F. Smith nor Andrew Jenson questioned whether or not Joseph had consummated his relationships with plural wives. They assumed that he had. The fact that covenant relationships did exist between Joseph and numerous women other than Emma Hale [Smith] was without doubt, as attested to by the many affidavits collected separately by Joseph F. Smith and Andrew Jenson.
Heber C. Kimball had died years before. Brigham Young and Eliza R. Snow[ref]I suspect Eliza Snow was one of the victims of the seducers. She was widely rumored to have been pregnant in Nauvoo, with the pseudonymous Wilhelm Wyl asserting both that she had been impregnated by Joseph Smith and had fallen victim to John C. Bennett. Her November 1842 poems suggest she had been seduced by a deceiver. See Eliza and the Stairs.[/ref] declined to explain how spiritual wifery and plural marriage were different. Though there is reason to suspect each had been involved in spiritual wifery in 1841/2, they were each at the pinnacle of their ecclesiastical power and believed in the atonement of Christ. Surely they felt there was no good to be gained from detailing the extent to which they had been misled in the past at the risk of resurrecting the heresy. I challenge anyone even today to prove that they would have been wrong in this judgment.
Brigham killed the heresy of spiritual wifery. He did this by tightly controlling marriage, openly promoting plural marriage, and making it so no woman was left in a vulnerable position that invited the possibility for spiritual wifery to regain a hold.
But the decade following Brigham’s death demonstrated the challenge of using plural marriage to kill spiritual wifery. Like a patient who is cured of cancer but dies of chemotherapy, Brigham had accomplished a great good by implementing a programme of questionable long-term value.
Polygamy, as administered by Brigham Young, allowed the outstanding men of that generation to pour out their lives in building the kingdom of God, often involving extended absences from home, yet still produce large families to carry on their legacy. Similarly, polygamy allowed the women raising those children to have a rich support system of adults (including sister wives and the vast interfamilial network polygamy produced) during the absence of their husbands. Yet the long-term effect of pervasive polygamy results in the phenomenon known as throw away youth, where young men have no chance to compete for the desirable young women in the community.
The United States, having won the civil war and conquered the pillar of barbarism known as slavery, concentrated on destroying polygamy, the twin pillar of barbarism. The people, desperate to retain their right to eternal blessings, as taught by Brigham Young, tried valiantly to prove that this form of marriage was their religious right. But by 1886, Brigham’s successor, John Taylor, pled with the Lord to take away the heavy burden of polygamy.
But Brigham’s indoctrination had been so successful that John Taylor did not request to end polygamy, but asked to end the New and Everlasting Covenant. This God could not permit, even if He weren’t the author of the 1886 revelation John Taylor received.
It would take the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act and the near-loss of the temples themselves to force the Church to renounce plural marriage in 1890, under the administration of Wilford Woodruff.
Thus a scant two generations after plural marriage was implemented, it ended in all but the most fanatical corners of Mormonism. Brigham killed spiritual wifery and birthed the reality of eternal covenants which Joseph had only been able to promise in secrecy to a handful of trusted intimates.