Joseph’s Wives – an Algorithm

imageA few weeks ago I proposed that I would be blogging this year about Joseph’s plural wives and such matters. Then I got distracted.

I think we  should establish guidelines for the importance we attribute to different women as wives.

For now, we’ll accept women where there is documentation or oral tradition either from contemporaries or their descendants. I think this gives us a list of women that includes roughly 40 individuals.

I’d like to start, then, with each such woman having a score of 100% (or 1.0). Then as we consider various factors, that score may be decreased. If there are mitigating factors, a “penalty” may be reduced. Thus, as I go forward to talk about the various women, we can focus on those individuals whose “score” gives us greatest confidence that she is of import. This scoring matter can also give structure to the discussion of each woman.

Here’s a proposed structure:


Factor Mitigation Score
Named as wife + 1.00
 Not accused by contemporary –  0.50
 No child(ren) –  0.25
 Used language suggesting sex occurred + 0.12
 DNA negative –  0.25
 DNA inconclusive –  0.12
Stated marriage was
only “for eternity”
Max 0.25
Credibility of report – 0.00
Strong support for statement – 0.00
Motive to lie – 0.06

Before we get into it, do you have any modifications to this scoring system?

By this scoring system, Emma would score 100%.

What other modifications would you like to see? What do we do for women who were sealed to Joseph after death but there is no evidence they were ever ceremonially linked to Joseph in life? What about women who were sealed to Joseph after death, but only Bennett’s accusations link them to Joseph in life?

What other factors come to mind that you’d like to see as a scoring factor across all wives? Do you think there should be different weights to the scores, or different mitigations. For example, what of women where a third party claimed the woman had roomed with Joseph? What of the credibility of the individual claiming such cohabitation. What of alleged statements by discredited third parties?

Part of my purpose here is to make sure that we don’t inaccurately pay more attention to any one woman merely because her life was long and she had a tendency to write a lot. I don’t want the record overly-distorted by the loudest voices in the room.

While we has out these scoring matters, I’ll work on a post that discusses the reproductive history of the women who became plural wives prior to Joseph’s death. My purpose here is to present the data others have long had in a manner that allows others to see what I am seeing.

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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.

32 thoughts on “Joseph’s Wives – an Algorithm

  1. I like it. You may want to add something pointing out that if a woman had a healthy reproductive history with other men she gets a negative score of some kind. We know Joseph was fertile.

  2. Currently there is an implicit ranking system, where women who lived a long time, wrote a lot, and had family members who were similarly voluble get a lot of attention.

    My background is in engineering and disciplines involved with distinguishing signal from noise. This we come up with algorithms to tell us whether, for example, a track on a scanner is caused by a human or human-made vehicle versus a bit of wind stirring up waves or tossing trees.

    Humans are not able to routinely process more than about 7-10 “things” at a time. Therefore it becomes necessary to attach stories and clump “things” into groups or classes.

    This grouping process does not diminish the humanity of the individuals involved. It does, in contrast, make it easier for most people to understand the individuals.

    I didn’t say I would rank them as cattle. That is your interpretation. I am saying that rather than accept every woman who was ever nominated as possibly being Joseph’s wife as necessarily his full sexual partner who secret bore him children (the initial uninformed assumption people make when they read that Joseph had 40 wives), we develop a nuanced approach that neither risks eliminating a woman merely because little is known about her or presuming that a well-documented woman necessarily dominates our assumptions about the less-documented women.

    Ironically, we live in a world were each of us is daily assessed, our personal data submitted to algorithms that maximize marketers ability to coerce the most money from our pockets. Some of these numbers are very, very good, like the numbers used to determine that my relative was (finally) going to be a good match for a donor heart. The use of those numbers does not diminish my relative. It enabled my relative to be served as they could never have been served if medicine was a bespoke science where only those doctors who had seen my relative were aware of their needs.

    I suggest that an additional set of factors should look at the woman’s importance as a representative of her family. In this sense, Elvira Cowles would receive a slightly lower score, as her extended family turned against Joseph and plotted his murder. This, for example, compared to someone like Delcena Johnson [Sherman], whose dead husband had been called to be an apostle (he died before learning of the call) and whose family had been critical in building up the Church in Kirtland.

    Unbeknownst to most of you, I already have a ranking system like this that I use to determine the reliability of witnesses. If an individual aligns themselves with the Strangite movement after Joseph’s death, I increase my suspicion that they were a member of the conspiracy to kill Joseph and was possibly someone involved in illicit intercourse (presuming of course that they aren’t one of the many Strangites who I have proof was a member of the conspiracy or involved in illicit intercourse).

    Profiling, prejudice, and other such terms, often used as perjoratives in modern discourse, are merely ways to sort the world into human-appropriate categories. Unlike God, we cannot consider the 60 billion members of humanity from the origins of time and understand each as an individual. It is one limitation of this human form. This is why it is so important that we arrange ourselves in families. It is perhaps not coincidence that the number of “things” we can hold in memory is roughly the same as the number of children a normally fertile woman from history would bear during her lifetime under peaceful conditions.

    In that vein, perhaps rather than a score, per se, it would be more appropriate to consider “attributes” each woman possessed. That’s fine.

  3. To demonstrate how the system can be gamed, I, Pat Chiu, am signing in with a different identity to second the suggestion I just made.

  4. I see the comment I was responding to isn’t here anymore. Nonetheless, it prompted a useful thought.

    An ideal wife, then, would have the following attributes:

    1) She and others would attest the marriage had occurred.

    2) She would bear offspring that are known to be engendered by the husband.

    3) She would affirm that the marriage was sexually consummated.

    3a) Failing explicit mention of sex, she would affirm that she had been her husband’s wife in very deed.

    4) She would remain part of her husband’s movement after his death including:

    4a) She would be sealed to him in the Nauvoo temple.

    4b) She would continue to remain with the Saints as they built the kingdom in Deseret

    5) Her family would remain part of her husband’s movement after his death or

    5a) Her family would have remained true to the husband’s movement until their death (assuming they predeceased the husband).

    As far as attributes, I find it useful to consider whether the wife in question was married, unmarried, widowed or other at the time of the putative marriage (since we don’t have firm marriage dates for all the women).

    I am also intrigued by the common presumption that Joseph engaged in sex with many of his wives, so I am trying to figure out a way to provide a confidence that such sex actually occurred. Except in the case of Emma Hale, I assert that there is no woman for whom the confidence that sex occurred reaches certainty (1.0 of 1.0). As my archetype for a woman where one can assert the confidence that sex occurred was 0.0, I put forward Ruth Vose [Sayers], whose husband agreed to the “sealing” between his wife and Joseph as she wished to have that ordinance in eternity, but he (Mr. Sayers) didn’t believe marriage would continue after this life.

  5. Hi Pat (Okishdu),

    I didn’t see your first suggestion? Maybe you are talking about a post on a different post?

  6. But your ranking system assumes that Joseph is the most important part of this equation, yet it ignores his own behavior entirely. He completely disrupted some of these women’s lives and broke-up already existing marriages. Why are his actions not a part of your calculations?

  7. Joseph as a historical character is not much in question. The meaning of his historical contribution is a matter of active debate (much as the side proclaiming him an abusive home-wrecker would like to declare their viewpoint the only valid one and close the discourse).

    This future series is focused on the women considered to have been Joseph’s wives. Joseph was not one of Joseph’s wives.

  8. “If an individual aligns themselves with the Strangite movement after Joseph’s death, I increase my suspicion that they were a member of the conspiracy to kill Joseph and was possibly someone involved in illicit intercourse (presuming of course that they aren’t one of the many Strangites who I have proof was a member of the conspiracy or involved in illicit intercourse).”

    There are so many things wrong with the above excerpt that I’m not even going to engage. Just a bit of advice: Passion about a topic is not a substitute for any actual knowledge of the past.

  9. But the women were not acting in a vacuum. Joseph’s actions had a direct bearing on how close they were to him and how much he was a part of their lives. For example, whether or not he told Emma about them would make a huge difference in how much time he could spend with them. It just seems like your equation is very unbalanced and not written in the spirit of “all are alike unto God.”

  10. Hi Pikersmor,

    Then suggest a different way of proceeding.

    It seems you would like to see an attribute or score regarding whether we have been told that Emma consented to the marriage.

    I would also like to see an attribute that shows how much time they spent living under the same roof as Joseph, or perhaps that is just an attribute that they lived in his home after their marriage to him. Perhaps that could be convolved with whether or not it is asserted that he shared a room (or bed) with them.

  11. I suggested that monitoring comments should be more stringent in cases of those who might be using alternate identities to maintain anonymity then demonstrated the use of an alternate identity by signing in with an alternate identity. I suspect that several of the comments on this post were made by the same person using alternate identities. I am distressed when posts like this one which make a serious attemp to address an issue begin to shred under the weight of acrimony from anonymous comments.

  12. Meg,

    I am grateful you continue to engage. The weighing of evidence is such a, well, weighty task. Few are willing to do the heavy lifting.

    Case in point:

    “Passion about a topic is not a substitute for any actual knowledge of the past.”

    The key phrase here is “actual knowledge of the past.”

    And so? To whom shall we look for this “actual knowledge”?

    “Actual knowledge” cannot be founded on the record. That this has been established or even can be done is the myth so many continue to embrace and you continue to bash away at Meg. Hurrah!

    I would agree with Bruce in other posts that Meg’s passion lends to an impression of claiming a different “actual knowledge.” But, I’m okay with vigorous, passionate advocacy for one’s position on how the evidence can be interpreted.

    To your metric you must add: “actual knowledge” proponents will require, man married to woman >> probability of sex 100% with no mitigation.

  13. Until there is actual DNA proof that Joseph Smith had children outside of Emma Smith, then I have to consider Meg’s hypothesis as an accurate possibility. Other than testimony that has turned out to be false leads, there is no proof Joseph Smith was intimately physical with all but his first wife. Not that such children would be a harm to his character, but certainly he was not what critics of polygamy think of him. There should be gobs of children, not shadow boxing implications.

  14. Jettboy said, “Other than testimony that has turned out to be false leads, there is no proof Joseph Smith was intimately physical with all but his first wife.”

    First off, testimony can never be proof. Are you asking for evidence or proof? If you are asking for evidence, women testifying under oath that they were physically intimate with Joseph is pretty strong.

    If you are actually asking for proof, then you can rest easy knowing that it is unlikely to be proved that Joseph had sex with anyone but Emma. However, if the evidence is strong enough, that becomes a weak argument.

    I don’t like polygamy, and I hope that Joseph was not intimate with anyone other than Emma. So, I have asked myself why I have commented on these posts. I guess in the back of my mind, I am concerned about what it means if polygamy meant something different to Joseph than what it meant to Brigham. If Emma and Joseph Smith III were telling the truth about Joseph’s relationships, then Brigham Young and his followers lied about them, either through commission or omission. In some cases, they would have suborned perjury. I really don’t like the path that leads to. How do you deal with that?

  15. DD is concerned that if Joseph was not a practicing polygamist, then it makes Brigham look like he did hijack the religion and run amok. That plus encourage perjury (though of course Brigham was long dead by the time the Temple Lot trial was going on).

    Here’s how it works in my head. Joseph was commanded to restore plural marriage as a prerequisite to being allowed to restore the New and Everlasting Covenant. In my mind, this is a bit like telling my children then have to do their chores before they can got to a friend’s birthday party. I don’t think Joseph wanted to have anything to do with plural marriage, however. But for anyone other than the founding prophet to restore plural marriage was going to be a problem, for exactly the reason we are concerned if Joseph wasn’t a practicing polygamist.

    Joseph taught others that plural marriage was part of the package. I particularly like Aroet Hale’s account of how Joseph taught the Hale/Harriman families regarding plural marriage, pointing out that Henry Harriman would never have children by his first wife, but that it was right that his first wife give him permission to marry a second wife, and the children from this second wife would raise up a faithful progeny to the Harriman name, and the first wife would receive glory for her part in allowing the Harriman legacy to continue because of the children of the second wife. I also credit Joseph with the explanation Brigham Young gave a traveler in early July 1842, talking about being in eternity with all wives and children who had loved a man, even though he had not been simultaneously married to them in life.

    But for Joseph himself, he had to wrestle with how to retain Emma as his bride in eternity. And Emma could have been acting based on what she felt would keep Joseph alive. I take into account Emma’s generosity later in life in taking in Bidamon’s mistress, raising the son of the mistress, and then arranging for Bidamon to make the mistress an honest woman after Emma’s death. These are not the actions of a woman who has an utter revulsion for sharing the man to whom she is married. Thus I think she knew Joseph would die if he became known to be teaching and practicing polygamy, and she therefore set conditions.

    So in my construct Joseph himself taught the women he would covenant with the true doctrine, but explained that in his particular case he was not going to be consummating the marriages. Or at least that the marriages would not be consummated until some future time when the Saints were safe. And I think this teaching, that sexuality in plural marriages was to be deferred, was similarly taught to the men entering into plural marriages.

    Except then Joseph Bates Noble and William Clayton didn’t get the memo. In Joseph Bates Noble’s case, this was partly because he honestly thought his sister-in-law had been having a fully sexual relationship with Joseph. I’m not sure what William Clayton’s excuse was, though we see him admitting that Joseph threatened to excommunicate him if the pregnancy caused public notoriety. Once children had been born to the plural wives of Noble and Clayton, we see two or three other men engender children with their plural wives, though these children will not be born until after Joseph’s death.

    Once Joseph was dead, Brigham Young and Heber Kimball acted to embrace the full implications of plural marriage. Unlike Joseph, they felt no personal loyalty to Emma and her scruples. For that matter, Emma probably didn’t much care if Brigham Young of Heber Kimball ended up dead as a result of their willingness to embrace plural marriage. At least she was not nearly as personally vested in their fates.

    A benefit of Brigham Young and Heber Kimball embracing fully procreative plural marriage would be the signal that illicit intercourse, where a woman risked pregnancy without any promise of support, was not the option. By being willing to take on dozens of women, they signaled to all woman that any man wishing to get a bit of sex on the side was a slacker. This was no longer the painful choice Joseph had offered, where a woman could be cared for and “legitimate” but at the cost of not having an option to raise up children. The full implementation of plural marriage under the administration of Brigham Young and Heber Kimball allowed women to become mothers as well as be cared for and be fully married in the eyes of the Mormon community.

    This move cut off those who wished to merely seduce at the knees.

    I see Brigham’s temple policy, requiring a widow to be civilly married to the man she could convince to stand as proxy for her dead husband, as a way to ensure that he didn’t allow women to become widows for the rest of mortality. And in this, I see an echo of the past where abandoned women and widows had become particular targets of the seducers, because being a widow in that day caused severe economic hardship.

    Anyway, I see Brigham’s policies as distinctly different, but still consistent with the overarching strategic vision Joseph had been operating under, even if Joseph personally didn’t consummate his plural marriages and possibly advised men who had plural wives to defer sexuality until some later “safe” time.

    One last comment on Joseph is my suspicion that if he had been actually being a full husband to all his wives, he would never have actually entered into so many marriage relationships. Not persuasive to those who like to imagine Joseph was constantly having sex with his many wives, but consistent with my framework. Those who attempted to be in marriages involving multitudes of plural wives found the effort a severe trial.

  16. Thanks Meg,

    Apparently my last comment has been deleted. Let me rephrase. To accept your account means that Brigham Young and those who followed him covered up the true nature of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. In other words, you are accusing them of lying. How do you deal with that?

    I do not believe they lied. I think Emma was under a lot of stress and her memories are different because of that. I think she remembered things the way her mind needed to, but I think the evidence is strong that her memories were incorrect.

  17. In my analysis, there is a very small group of people who were in on what was going on. Joseph knew, Brigham knew, and Heber C. Kimball knew. Possibly Amasa Lyman, with respect to whether or not Eliza Partridge was a virgin when he married her, after Joseph’s death.

    All the other men involved would need to have known is that it was not yet time, and it would have been easy to suggest that a separation was needed, lest the rumors of illicit intercourse linger and taint the children these men would beget with their plural wives.

    Wilford Woodruff does not enter into plural marriage until Winters Quarters, and those first marriages ended badly, with no evidence that Wilford had consummated the marriages to two young girls in a time of starvation, but with the girls refusing to harken his request that they not stay out all night with young men. I don’t think there was any hanky panky going on with the girls, but just teenagers out late talking about the world, with their buddies having left to serve with the Mormon Battalion (one of the girls marries one of these Mormon Battalion veterans afterwards). However the rumors of illicit intercourse, which the girls and the young men would not have necessarily been in a position to know about, would cast such behavior in a terrible light.

    We see almost all the otherwise single women who Joseph had married taken in as wives by either Brigham or Heber. It is not that Brigham and Heber forced themselves on these women – we have the example of Nancy Winchester, where Heber made a point of explaining he had never lain with her. Rather, they offered themselves as Joseph’s levirate brother, willing if the women desired to raise up children to Joseph.

    By the time of the Temple Lot trial, Joseph, Brigham, and Heber were all dead. Amasa Lyman was dead, though he had been excommunicated for creative theology long before that.

    In the days of Brigham, we see an unprecedented amount of control over marriage. No one married with Church sanction unless they got themselves to Salt Lake City, where it was often Brigham who performed the marriages. I am aware of this because of the case of Albert Delong, orphaned in Nauvoo during the timeframe of the Wolf Hunts. He grew up as the adopted son of the Perkins family, but when he learned his origin as a teenager, he took to ignoring anyone who tried to address him as Perkins. In addition, he was involved in commerce at a time when Brigham was discouraging commerce and fighting it out with Godbe. For some reason, the mother of the woman he loved didn’t want her daughter to marry Albert Delong. And so the mother refused to permit her daughter to travel to Salt Lake to be married.

    Faced with this and wanting to marry in the good graces of the Church, Albert traveled to Salt Lake City and presented his plight to Brigham Young. Amused, Brigham wrote out a note permitting Erastus Snow (I think) to perform a marriage there locally. Every time Brigham came to where Albert and his bride settled (in Panguitch, Utah), Brigham would joke with them about the matter. So clearly it was not common for people to marry locally. If you study Mormon lore for that era, you’ll hear about the marriage companies who would travel together to Salt Lake City to be married. Good times, but inexplicable, since there was not even a temple yet in Salt Lake City.

    Even by the time that Emily and Eliza Partridge had their respective children in 1845, Emily reports that the people referred to the babies as “spiritual children,” revealing that many presumed these babies were in the tradition of spiritual wifery (the alternate term for illicit intercourse) and the girls who would go around calling themselves “spirituals” in 1841 (see autobiography of Orange Wight). Despite Joseph’s likely fears that the Partridge girls had become involved in such matters, Emily’s writings tell me that she remained wholly unaware of the fact that “spiritual wifery” had nothing to do with the plural marriage she eventually entered into with Joseph. And in fact, her ignorance has been one of the reasons that people have had a hard time distinguishing between spiritual wifery and plural marriage.

    Regarding John Taylor, he was not read in, but close enough that had he been aware of more, he could have figured it out. But he clearly hadn’t figured it out, as evidenced by the 1885 revelation in response to his question of whether he could end the New and Everlasting Covenant. He wished to ask God to relieve the people of the requirement to practice plural marriage, but he thought plural marriage and the New and Everlasting Covenant were synonymous. God might have agreed at that time to end the requirement for plural marriage, but he wasn’t about to let John end the New and Everlasting Covenant. And you see this in the revelation that John received. God is practically apoplectic over the suggestion of ending the New and Everlasting Covenant. But God cites Isaac as one of those whose works must continue. We have no reason to think Isaac ever married anyone other than Rebecca, and yet John and those who embrace polygamy as a requirement today keep reading that revelation and presuming that God was talking about plural marriage.

    I was meaning to say here that a possible reason Brigham kept John Taylor out on foreign missions for so much of his time as president was to keep him out of the know. That or he hated John. Or he honored John. I will say that matters in Taylorsville, where John’s wives lived and worked together, were much more harmonious than matters in Brigham’s houses. So maybe it was just that absence makes the heart grow fonder, if you are John and his wives.

    Wilford, bless his soul, was able to sort out plural marriage from the New and Everlasting Covenant. He, with Lorenzo Snow, were those who obeyed the letter of the law and gave up their plural wives, living out the remainder of their days with only one of the women to whom they had been married.

    As to Joseph’s plural wives, they would regularly gather, particularly to celebrate Joseph’s birthday and the anniversary of Joseph’s death. Members of this group, Eliza Snow and Zina Huntington, would preside over the Relief Society until Zina’s death in 1901. Eliza (if I am right) had her own personal reasons to obfuscate the history of non-monogamous sexuality in Nauvoo. Zina was from a family who had proven time and again that they were entirely loyal to Joseph, including how her brothers William and Dimick were among the four who assisted in the secret reburial of Joseph’s body in February 1845. There is no suspicion that Zina had been caught up in illicit intercourse, but she was Joseph’s plural wife when it appears Joseph began investigating illicit intercourse.

    Just to say that the group of women who were Joseph’s wives had a support structure that would allow these women to collaborate on how to defend Joseph and the gospel, as they understood it. In their milieu, the threat came from those who didn’t believe that the New and Everlasting Covenant had originated with Joseph Smith. And so supporting the belief that Joseph had consummated his plural marriages was important.

    For those who wonder how I can possibly refute such well-known facts, recall that all the official organs of the Church for many decades would have been oriented towards sustaining the belief that Joseph had originated the New and Everlasting Covenant (which I don’t believe is in question) by asserting that he practiced the New and Everlasting Covenant by engaging in plural marriage that actually involved cohabitation and sexuality, as Brigham, John, and so many others had practiced it. This second part is what I call into question.

    But the main point is that there was a ring of seducers in Nauvoo teaching that it was permitted for women to engage in illicit intercourse. At the time this ring was operating, confusion reigned. After Bennett was excommunicated, there was much public discourse on the topic. After Joseph’s death, those engaged in illicit intercourse and/or generic doubters recorded stories telling that Joseph had been involved in the kind of debauchery associated with those practicing illicit intercourse.

    Another of my “too long, didn’t read” tldr comments. Sorry. 🙂

  18. DD, you are deliberately misunderstanding or twisting what we are saying. I see no difference between Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s version other than Joseph Smith didn’t consummate the marriages. At any rate, even today there are sexless marriages and yet still called such; most growing into that condition.

    Might as well ask if Joseph Smith’s more capitalist version of the United Order makes Brigham Young a liar for implementing what seems more communist ones. In fact, even different communities set up by BY practiced the U.O. differently than others, leaving inconsistencies. That doesn’t make BY or JS liars, but free will interpreters of the original revelation. Perhaps JS was meant to according to the revelations, but didn’t as fully requested out of personal reasons. There has even been speculation that God allowed Joseph Smith’s death to open up events leading to the full implementation of the Practice.

    Why then did witnesses claim to have had physical relationships with Joseph Smith when he didn’t? I think that Meg does a pretty good job of explaining that. There really weren’t that many witnesses, but plenty of second hand sources years later after the fact. Those few first hand witnesses that did say they had children fathered by JS were later through DNA evidence proved otherwise. In fact, all claims have scientifically been proven “liars.” The possibilities for reasons why they didn’t tell historical accuracies is lapse of memory, social standing, wishful thinking, and etc. As was implied, proof trumps evidence and the only proof that exists is JS had sex with Emma because we know who is related to them. Difficulties with mortality though there was, JS had fertility. With 40 or more possible wives there would be at least one or two provable children had JS been the philanderer he is supposed to have been. Meg’s ultimate point hasn’t been (although is a large part) that JS didn’t have intimate relations, but to account for the lack of children other than with Emma Smith and the strange events in the historical record she found.

  19. Hi DD,

    The “Emma was lying” and “William Marks was lying” and “Sarah Lawrence was lying” and “The women were just too nervous to conceive” and “Joseph just was spread too thin to engender children… except with Emma” explanations have been the standard fare.

    Now if you are going to assert that William Law was lying, I’m all with you.

    Emma was either actually lying or she was telling the truth. You don’t just forget that your husband died because of accusations he was a treasonous git who seduced women right and left if you were aware that the rumors of sexual activity were true and if you helped deliver the child of one of those alleged plural wives.

    This is what I mean by people ignoring data because it isn’t convenient to their framework for the events. Those wishing to imagine Joseph lying about Sarah Pratt have had to ignore Jacob Backenstos. Those wishing to imagine a Joseph who was frequently sexual with his plural wives have had to ignore the complete lack of children.

    By the way, Jettboy, I don’t know that the mothers of the children often presumed to have been Joseph’s get claimed he had fathered the children. There is the ambiguous statement from Sylvia Sessions which was interpreted as an assertion regarding paternity and the alleged statement from Delcena Johnson [Sherman] reported by V. Ettie Coray in her anti-Mormon exposé, but I don’t think the women themselves claimed the children were engendered by Joseph. Other women would hint that these children were Joseph’s children, but that was actually true from a covenant standpoint, so even these weren’t necessarily lying. When Mary Elizabeth Rollins (I think) said she knew of children who were Joseph’s but they went by different names, she doesn’t make it clear that she is necessarily talking about biological children. And her lack of specificity means that we can’t investigate what she might have meant. Patty Sessions apparently asserted Josephine was Joseph’s child when the Smith brothers were visiting (the business where she said she could introduce them to one of Joseph’s children, as I recall) but we have here the possibility that Patty only knew that Sylvia seemed to be Joseph’s wife, had been sealed to him after his death, and had born Josephine after Patty presumed Joseph and Sylvia to have covenanted with one another. Oddly, Josephine Lyons doesn’t look anything like a Smith, in my opinion. So I don’t know what Patty thought would be served by introducing the Smith brothers to a woman who Patty was alleging was their half-sister.

    We also have the descendants of Hannah Dubois, who like to style themselves as Joseph’s descendants. In which case, I would urge them to undergo the DNA testing that could possibly validate this claim.

  20. Jettboy,

    The only thing I am doing deliberately is ask how you deal with the fact that leaders in Utah apparently wanted people to believe that Joseph consummated his marriages, to the point of getting women to testify under oath to that effect. If Joseph in fact did not, then someone seems to be untruthful.

    If I am understanding you and Meg, you are saying that Brigham was not lying because he did not know that any of the Saints believed that Joseph had sexual relations with anyone other than Emma. He did not see any misunderstanding to correct. His successors were not lying because they did not know that Joseph did not have sexual relations with anyone other than Emma. Is that an accurate statement of your position?

    Your example of the UO is completely different, by the way. If Brigham Young had tried to teach that Joseph’s efforts along those lines were exactly the same as those enacted by him, then there would have been a problem. It would have been an obvious problem since so many people were aware of Joseph’s economic activities. They are not nearly as private as marital relations. It is clear that no one knew, or knows now, how to implement the UO in a way that works economically in our Babylonish world. Many things were tried; some had more success than others. I think the experimental nature of the efforts was obvious to everyone at the time. No lying is needed or really even possible.

  21. Meg: I fully agree that Joseph likely did not have sexual with most of his plural wives. However, I also know that nearly all scholars – even conservative, faithful scholars like Brian Hales – acknowledge that he had sex with at least a few. So you are out there on a limb, though I suppose you may be fine with that.

    I’ll even set aside the documented evidence that Joseph spent the night in bed with a number of plural wives, like Louisa Beaman and Eliza Partridge. This seems to have been generally understood in the nineteenth century as evidence that they had sexual relations, but for our purposes we can say that it’s possible to sleep in the same bed and not have sex.

    That said, I wonder what you would say about two pieces of evidence. In the 1893 Temple Lot case, Joseph’s plural wife Emily Partridge testified as follows. Notice the shift in terminology from “slept with.”:

    Q. Well had you slept with him?

    A. Yes sir.

    Q. [Had you] slept with him . . . before the fourth of March 1843 [their marriage date]?

    A. No sir. . . .

    Q. Did you ever live with Joseph Smith after you were married to him after that first night that you roomed together?

    A. No sir. Emma knew that we were married to him, but she never allowed us to live with him…
    Q. Did you ever have carnal intercourse with Joseph Smith?

    A. Yes sir.

    Q. How many nights?

    A. I could not tell you.

    The same year, Joseph’s son Joseph III had the following conversation with Malissa Lott:

    Q. Were you married to my father?

    A. Yes . . .

    Q. Was you a wife in very deed?

    A. Yes

    Q. Why was there no increase, say in your case?

    A. Through no fault of either of us, lack of proper conditions on my part probably, or it might be in the wisdom of the Almighty that we should have none. The Prophet was martyred nine months after our marriage

    This simply seems definitive.

  22. Hi James,

    Let me first talk about Melissa Lott. My home teacher is the grandson of Melissa’s grand-daughter. Melissa’s children and grandchildren tried mightily to get her to admit or refute intimate relations with Joseph. She never would do so. And this failure on their part to get any answer out of Melissa was then relayed to the next generations.

    Melissa was Joseph’s wife in very deed from the standpoint of being sealed to him. She is also one of the set of women who married Joseph who was acknowledged as being among the virtuous and pure. So Melissa would not have been one where Joseph would have been catting around.

    In Melissa’s answer to Joseph Smith III, however, the idea that she was Joseph’s wife sexually for nine months and never conceived, during the same timeframe that Emma did conceive, and that Melissa then went on to have six children with Ira Willes between 1849 and 1863, when Ira and her son, Cornelius, died in a terrible wagon accident. Melissa bore her first child in April 1850, less than a year after marrying Ira in May 1849, so she was able to conceive well within the first 4 months of marriage to Ira.

    So I don’t have a problem with Melissa having been a fully sexual wife to Joseph, except that she didn’t conceive, she refused to acknowledge to her own children and grandchildren that she had been Joseph’s sexual wife in an era when such a “fact” would have been a badge of honor, and Joseph Smith III was trying to claim Brigham Young was lying and had made up the entire business regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant. So a bit of “Joseph was virile, I was fertile. I guess it was just God’s will that we didn’t produce children together,” certainly implies very strongly that sex occurred, but is actually not false if sex didn’t occur.

    I’ve already addressed my opinion of Emily Partridge’s Temple Lot testimony elsewhere. Like Melissa, Emily would have been within her rights to have been a fully sexual wife to Joseph, as she was another one of those who Emma had given to Joseph. But like Melissa, she never conceives during Joseph’s life, and goes on to be normally fertile after Joseph’s death. Given the stakes, she was under huge pressure to do whatever it took to convey the impression that Joseph had been a practicing polygamist. They asked any number of questions that she could have answered in a manner that appeared to affirm sexual relations. Then they asked the carnal intercourse question.

    Unlike Lucy Walker, Emily hadn’t taken the tack of getting all angry and in their face about even asking such questions. Emily had agreed in the affirmative to all the lesser euphemisms for sex. Consider the stance of the Church’s attempt to refute the RLDS claim to the Temple Lot if Emily had said, “Well, actually, no. I didn’t have carnal intercourse with Joseph. Unless you count passing him the meat tray at dinner, and I don’t know how many dinners I had a chance to pass him a tray of meat.”

    Whether she was lying or being creative with the alternate meanings of carnal and intercourse, Emily answered “Yes, sir.” Yet I remain unpersuaded that her testimony was untainted by the enormous pressure she would have felt to prevent the Temple Lot from falling into the hands of the RLDS Church, presumably to never become available for construction of a temple wherein the true ordinances of the New and Everlasting Covenant (as she understood the true ordinances) could have ever been performed.

    We have words from men who never actually witnessed the acts (ignoring John Bennett’s obscene suggestion) and words from two women who both had a strong motive to affirm sexuality had occurred and who, if sexual wives of Joseph, would have been proper plural wives, openly acknowledged and approved by Emma, and most certainly of an age that is appropriate, if a tad young. But they didn’t conceive during Joseph’s life, they were normally fertile after Joseph’s life, and they were awfully coy about things.

    Delightful if those same testimonies could have been delivered in our day, on video, with no euphemisms, with such additional tests as would be fully convincing. After all, if we are going to have millions of individuals presume that Joseph was a sex addict (the presumed take away from the November front page headlines around the world), then it should be based on more than the statements decades after the fact of two women whose reproductive history doesn’t support their testimony.

  23. Very interesting exchange between Meg and some critics. As a “neutral” observer, I would say that those who want to say that Joseph probably had sex with at least one or two (or perhaps even several) women besides Emma are on pretty strong ground. However, those who want to say he probably didn’t have a reasonable pathway to taking that position as well.

    History is a messy business. People have vested interests very often in lying about things that happened in the past, especially intimate things related to a highly emotional time. It is simply not reasonable (in my “neutral” opinion) to go about saying you know what “really happened” with Joseph Smith. The historical record is just too fuzzy, and there are two many agendas at play to make definitive statements.

    (To be clear, the reason I say I am “neutral” on this is that I truly feel it doesn’t matter to me whether Joseph had sex with just Emma or with dozens of women — I am simply looking at the evidence presented as dispassionately as possible).

  24. I do assume that it matters whether or not Joseph was having sex outside of any marital construct (e.g., frigging Mary Heron or having affairs with random people for whom there never was any marriage relationship ever documented, such as Hannah Dubois). As far as all the other unprovable sex acts that are possible, I understand the particular record Hannah Dubois’ descendants link to a possible assignation between Hannah and Joseph is a record where he mentions meeting a young man. So if the young man was actually Hannah, they reason, then the math fits for the birth of one of Hannah’s 1830s children.

    Or maybe the young man was a young man. In which case I think most people would be horrified at the suggestion that this record is connected to an assignation.

    I have repeated that I am not persuaded, because as a woman who has been fertile, I am astounded that a virile man and dozens of fertile women could be having sex and the only one to produce children would be the legal wife of the virile man. Nothing about Joseph’s teachings suggest he would have engaged in non-procreative sex or abortive methods to prevent the birth of children while engaging in sexual relations with his plural wives.

    The more important issue, of course, is the band of individuals involved in illicit intercourse. The circumstances associated with that rash of non-monogamous activities is a big part of the reason that damning stories arise from that period of time.

    While I, like Geoff, would not be bothered if it were someday proven that Joseph had sex with some one or more of his plural wives, I will insist until that day to point out the lack of certainty regarding the data currently available. There are far too many people willing to condemn Joseph in pithy terms anytime any Mormon story makes the news. Even if no one outside Mormon circles ever listens to what I am saying, there are people who want to be Mormon, who need to know that Joseph may have been entirely physically faithful to Emma, and that there are alternate possibilities for all the individual circumstances that have long been interpreted as Emma being deceived.

  25. I am a friend of “Runtu” who, as you probably know, is currently trashing your work. I admire his as a person and generally admire his writing: he is intelligent, witty, and generally kind, restrained, and sensitive to other perspectives. Oh, that people would say the same about me! But in this case while I agree with many of his points I cannot agree with the overall tone. I just want you to know that not everybody in the ex-mo community thinks the same.

    I would have posted this on his blog, but I am a total coward. Er, I mean, the polygamy debate is like the abortion debate: polarized, and emotional. I have learned from experience not to answer every post I disagree with, unless I have several weeks to spend arguing and wish to lose friends. But I like what I have seen of your work. I do not want you to think that every ex Mormon is mocking or dismissive.

    Just to be clear, I am not an expert on this topic. I have seen the usual documents over the years, but have not read both sides in depth. So I go with the majority of scholars and they say that Joseph did have sex with his wives. Fair enough. But I also know that the majority of scholars can occasionally be wrong. (I could give examples, but that would make me too easy to identify.) So I welcome your posts.

    These are the three problems I have with Runtu’s approach:

    First, the insults. He has referred to you on other forums as “either delusional or incredibly dishonest, or both. I’m thinking it’s both” and described your posts as “comedy gold”. I respect his usual balance and restraint, but we all have off days (I certainly do). I don’t think this is Runtu’s finest hour. I do not think that insults or mockery have any place in serious discussion. They demean the writer. If an argument is weak then present a stronger counter argument. If readers cannot grasp the intricacies then we should not stoop to insults, but should find a better way to present our evidence. If we are taking among friends we simply have to say we have looked at the evidence and strongly disagree: our reputation will do the rest. The world has too much hate and not enough careful thought.

    The tendency of unbelievers to insult believers is embarrassing to me. That is precisely why religion survives and thrives: it teaches people to be get on with other (in general; there are of course exceptions). It is an irony that ex-believers cannot see that: they attack religion by weakening themselves.

    My second problem with Runtu’s attack is his apparent raising of evidence to be higher than its necessary masters, clarity and logic. Regarding clarity, he refers to your algorithm as “a complete misunderstanding of how historical evidence works.” This may be true in the sense that historians do not use algorithms, but maybe they should. I think most historians do not understand how algorithms work. Writing an algorithm is not a proof that a claim is true, it is simply a way to clarify what would otherwise take several paragraphs to write. If more historians could clarify their work then the world would be a better place.

    As for logic, those who worship evidence can easily forget that evidence must be the servant of reason. So it does not matter how many people said “I slept with Joseph” if all of these people only said it to protect the church and their own polygamous marriages 50 years later. Similarly it does not matter how many diaries at the time said “Joseph was horrible to me” if the sexual implication is dependent on the later confessions referred to. I am not saying that Runtu has ignored those points, I am just concerned at the naive implication that evidence can ever stand on its own.

    My third and final problem with the attacks on Joseph Smith is that they ignore the bigger picture. As Lindsay Park said on Feminist Mormon Housewives (and she is no supporter of Joseph), the sex is not the point. From the point of view of the girls, being unable to socialize with other boys (because the girls were technically married) would be far more serious. There are also bigger forces at work here, as I hope to show.

    As Adam Archer mentioned on the latest “Mormon Expression” podcast, what is it that exmos want? The destruction of the church, or to change it? And how do we think that change will happen, realistically? It seems to me that the only realistic hope for change is to expose the staunchest believers to all the evidence, but in a non threatening way. By saying “yes we can look at every document, without being scared by the word pedophile” you are easing the church in the right direction, in my opinion.

    So in the final analysis, keep up the good work. I generally side with your critics, but I am glad you do what you do. Your work is polite, succinct, and introduces information to new audiences and in a new way. Thank you.

  26. Hi Friend of John,

    Thank you for your comments. It’s not so much that I found John’s comments disheartening, but he was not exhibiting the willingness to engage at an honest level that I prefer. In this, he has compatriots, though the others I have found unwilling to engage have included those considered to be “staunch” defenders of the faith.

    As you point out, the “exmo” community looks at the data and wonders how in the world one can find a Joseph that could possibly have given birth to a true religion that is worthy of worship and loyalty in our day. Some staunch defenders of the faith are willing to use similar techniques and phrases to those John has recently used. For example, the phrase “Not to be rude, but…” is not a good sign in discourse.

    Regarding Lindsay, I am amused at the shift from “Joseph bedded a fourteen year old” to “It’s unfair that Joseph’s insistence on covenanting with young women curtailed their social lives.” If we were just talking about dances and flirting, that would be one thing. Helen Mar Kimball certainly objected at the time, assuming her later amendment to her teenage comments is an indication that her teenage comments actually occurred (I think they are recorded by someone who overheard her complaints). I curtail my daughters’ social life all the time. It’s like the way I “curtailed” my best friend’s “social life” the time we were together at the end of an evening with many friends with a young man in a car who had made it clear his hands wanted to wander all over her body (possibly mine as well, but I tend to yell and kick and bite when guys take liberties). When the young man decided to drop me off next, I told my friend I would have my Dad take her home. Being a polite person (and knowing my Dad), my friend wasn’t keen on the idea of waking my Dad. But since I had a pretty good idea that the young man driving that car would probably repeat his actions of parking the car and trying to get it on with the female(s) in the car with him, I grabbed by friend by the jaw and dragged her out of the car.

    Certain of the young women Joseph covenanted with appear not to have understood the danger involved in “socialization” in Nauvoo in those days. These young ones appear not to have realized that Joseph’s life was at stake (hello, I’m talking to you, Emily Partridge). Being young, these ladies are the ones most likely to still be alive in the 1860s when Joseph’s sons visited Utah and again still in the 1890s when the Temple Lot trial took place.

    I have worried, at times, that there might be some who are blissfully unaware of Nauvoo matters who will become exposed to these confusing times and be unable to see the honor and willing sacrifice I see. But since every Mormon topic gets spammed with the pithy “Joseph was a complete creep who bedded fourteen year old girls and married women” comments and any search of Mormon-related topics brings up anti-Mormon websites, I figure people who would come across my internet musings are already fully exposed to attacks. And if they have any sense of inquiry and honesty, they’ve already been exposed to some of the original documents that have caused the confusion.

    I don’t know your age, but I was a sexually active individual in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when the Disney movie Little Mermaid debuted. The posters were everywhere, and the image was repeated on the videos. After many months, if not years, someone pointed out that a disgruntled artist had used his/her (probably his) position to pull one over on Disney. Right there, in the middle of this sweet image of Ariel and her undersea companions was a phallus. It was a pretty anatomically correct phallus, so there was no question that this was intentional.

    Exmos tend to look at the convoluted history of Joseph’s later life and see nothing but an analogue to the phallus in the Little Mermaid poster. They simply can’t look at that image or think of the movie without remembering the phallus. Or in other words, they can’t abide sitting in Church and hearing vacuous repetitions of how wonderful the Gospel is, knowing what they’ve learned about Joseph.

    I look at the convoluted history of Joseph’s later life and see dozens (hundreds) of people who I believe I loved for an eternity before this life. I feel their anger, their disillusionment, their faith, their innocence, their lack of innocence, and it washes over me like a symphony, like a family reunion, like the worst nightmare of a parent seeing their children harm one another. I sit in Church and at times am bemused by the simplicity of certain statements of faith, but I honor the pain of my much-maligned and righteous forebears who chose to give up their legitimate anger and simply pull a cover over the past. The next generations therefore grew up with a cartoon, knowing only that the “enemies of the Church” had caused the mob attacks in Missouri, the death of Joseph, and the need for flight to a barren land no one else would desire.

    These young ones didn’t need to know that it was their grandfather who plotted Joseph’s murder, Joseph’s close friends who betrayed him in Missouri, and possibly even the man their mother had hoped to marry who had persuasively made the case to the world that Joseph was an abusive, treasonous, sexual deviant.

    Where exmos look at the Church and decry the ignorance, I look at a Church that is designed to pour oil over troubled waters. It is a Church that says to modern converts, “there may have been terrible abuse in your family in past generations. But you can overcome that. You can love those who led to your existence. You can give them, posthumously, a chance to embrace the Christ that they may have denied in the actions of their earthly life.”

    You disagree with me (so generously and politely), so I presume you will avail yourself, at times, of the chance to use my writings and arguments against belief and the Church. After all, I am looking in corners few if any have looked before, and some of the corners are rife with terrible facts. But I see the terrible possibilities of the past and I see dead Saints with life experiences that talk to our days. For example, a lonely and afraid Eliza Snow who had been seduced speaks to the experience of so many (mostly women). That such a woman could be embraced by the leading men and women of her day and eventually rise to become the most powerful and influential woman of all Mormonism speaks a hope and redemption of which we have been deprived by the cartoon approach to our past.

    As for the algorithm approach, I agree that too many people don’t live in a world where “algorithm” is a familiar and comfortable word. So I will use a “badge” approach instead.

  27. When you say ‘badge approach’ I had to go to the internet to find that you meant “balanced approach data gathering environment” which seems to me to be even more obscure than ‘algorithm’ to most readers. I like the organization of information into charts where possible. I recall that several of your readers have asked for such a device to make the complex events in Nauvoo more accessible.

  28. Meg,
    I do appreciate you arguing the limitations of historians in truly answering the questions regarding Joseph’s relations with his plural wives. But you seem to infer that in order for us to believe there were conjugal relations at all, Joseph was having frequent sex with each wife at the same regularity and consistency for a monogamous couple. Given what Joseph was dealing with during the Nauvoo period, and given his teachings and views towards women, I seriously doubt his libido was in hyper-drive. Also, I take from Hale’s arguments that the pool of women that Joseph could legitimately (in Joseph’s mind) have had relations with was smaller than the number of actual sealings. The opportunity for such relations even for that smaller group was also very, very limited, due to age of the wives, secrecy, living conditions, etc. While Joseph probably had conjugal relations with this pool of women, I suspect that it was on such an infrequent basis that pregnancy was not in the picture without a good deal of luck and timing.

    Also, I think you are really stretching yourself thin in your analysis of the direct testimonies of Joseph’s wives. Given who they were and what they endured, I seriously would never call their honesty into question. I think you are erring on the side of protecting Emma in your analysis. The evidence that Joseph did engage in conjugal relations with several other women simply overwhelms Emma’s statements to the contrary. And placing Emma into context, her actions and statements to others, her life situation, etc. make Emma’s accuracy much more suspect in my mind.

    Thanks again for pushing back against the rabid critics of the Prophet, and I do enjoy your posts.

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