Review: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy – Toward a Better Understanding

JSP_LauraAnd now for the review that matters this month, the delightfully concise book about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy written by Brian C. Hales with the support of his bride, Laura Harris [Hales].

The main text of this book captures the heart of the point Brian C. Hales made in his three volume, 1500+ page master work titled Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. Some of these points are:

  1. Joseph was not the skank he is so often portrayed to be.
  2. Polygamy in our day is not required. The New and Everlasting Covenant itself does not require polygamy.
  3. Bennett was there, but he does not appear to have actually been instructed regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant. Thus his accusations and actions should not be presumed to accurately reflect Joseph’s teachings.

To my mind, Laura is the star of this effort. The essentials of the argument Brian C. Hales has been trying to make are here, in roughly 100 pages of text in the body of the book. Laura brings to the project a fine sense of when to stop talking. For example, this book doesn’t contain three chapters and a large appendix discussing Fanny Alger. Laura gets it down to one chapter that is only six pages long.

In writing there is a skill called “cutting.” It is amazing when performed by those who are experts, who have the ability to cut pages and paragraphs and words from an original document and yield a text that is more understandable and even more powerful than the extensive original from which it arose.

I am in awe that Laura was able to wrangle Brian’s original thoughts down from 1500+ pages to roughly 100. I was able to consume the book in just two hours after finding it in my mailbox today.[ref]Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding, Greg Kofford Books, 2015. Currently sold out but available in Kindle format from[/ref]

Evolutionary rather than Revolutionary

For those who have followed my Faithful Joseph series, you will be aware that I don’t agree with everything that Brian C. Hales has written. In this, he returns the favor. But when I step away and view the two of us from afar, we are like twins arguing over which side of our heads to part our hair.

My approach involved attempting to come up with a single coherent story that accounted for all the facts. And if that single story involved gut-wrenching possibilities (and even sex and terrible misunderstandings), I was good. I felt completely free to take advantage of all the freedoms the extant documents and surrounding culture allow me, and I have constantly adjusted my core narrative as I became aware of additional information. But I did not feel constrained to conform my narrative to the unfounded hypotheses of the evasive, underinformed, ignorant, or malicious raconteurs of the past. In my opinion, a possible history where Joseph consummated few, if any, of his plural marriages is intellectually satisfying and completely defensible. Ultimately, the history of Joseph’s last years could only have been one history, not a series of multiple choice options. Recognizing that truth, I think, is as important to unraveling Joseph Smith’s history as discovering an oft-repeated phrase was important to unraveling the German Enigma codes during World War II.

Brian (and Laura) have carefully built on the foundation of all that was written before. Though they admit that the record is imperfect, they lay before us what they believe to be “a reliable reconstruction of what likely took place.”

I hate to criticize where I feel they have uncritically accepted hypotheses. Because this work is much more important than the times I couldn’t help myself from scrawling comments in the margins. After all, it’s been 173 years since I think Joseph and Emma worked together to discover the identity of the particular individual who preached a “gospel” of secret illicit intercourse to a staggeringly large congregation. In all those 173 years, no one else writing about those events has documented what is so clear to me. But I will note a few areas of inattentional blindness and even learned wrong thinking that I perceive perpetuated in this concise (and therefore liable to be highly influential) text:

  1. The Hales portray Emma as largely uninformed regarding Joseph’s plural marriages. By contrast, I contend that there’s only one covenant marriage that Emma obviously was not aware of before Joseph entered into it, his impromptu covenant with Fanny Young in November 1843. When it comes to the other relationships, we merely have a lack of data, not the inferred absence of disclosure. Even the repeated ceremonies with the Partridge sisters have an alternate explanation that does not demand an ignorant Emma.
  2. The Hales do not tie together the persistent history of illicit sex with the conspiracy that killed Joseph, much less with the sordid history of illicit sex and ministerial abuse practiced by select men after Joseph’s death (yes, I’m talking about you, William Smith). Having just read the second volume of The Persistence of Polygamy, I found this link impossible to ignore. Then I took a hot shower to get rid of the shuddering disgust I felt.
  3. Failing to tie together the tentacles of illicit intercourse and deadly conspiracy, the Hales see the stories regarding Emma’s reactions as her rejection of Joseph’s practice of acquiring covenant wives. This includes presuming that Emma evicted Eliza Snow, Flora Woodworth, and the Partridge sisters from her household due to their relationships to Joseph rather than considering the possibility that Emma was protecting Joseph by distancing him from the women Joseph’s enemies had identified as “wives” (see the 1893 letter of Orange Wight, who had been “fully initiated” in summer 1841 when surrounded by girls calling themselves spirituals, Wight revealing he knew about these four specific women around the same time (late summer, early fall 1843) these women distanced themselves from Joseph’s circle).
  4. Failing to see 1842 in light of an epidemic of illicit sexuality, the Hales do not question why Joseph and Brigham approached Martha Brotherton and Nancy Rigdon. They present these “proposals” as portrayed in Bennett’s exposé, without suggesting that Joseph and his key deputies (male and female) were attempting to identify the boundaries of the vast sea of illicit sexuality eventually discovered to have been created by Dr. John C. Bennett between early summer 1841 and spring 1842. After all, if a girl had been proposed to by Joseph or with the explicit involvement of Joseph, she definitely wouldn’t believe a random schmoe who told her “You’re my exclusive spiritual wife, a cloistered saint, by virtue of my special request to Joseph for your favors. Now sleep with me.” c.f. Bennett, History of the Saints, p. 223.
  5. Again failing to acknowledge the sea of illicit sexuality, the Hales perpetuate the impression that the angel bearing a flaming sword was threatening Joseph for something Joseph had done wrong. “It is possible that by February of 1842, Joseph Smith had provoked the heavens as never before in his life.”[ref]ibid. p. 19.[/ref] More like ‘Bennett had to be stopped in God’s way, a way that would not destroy the New and Everlasting Covenant, and if Joseph wasn’t going to do it, Joseph would be removed from his place. And Joseph’s beloved friends and family (and legacy) would be destroyed by Bennett’s heresy.’
  6. The Hales repeat the assertion that twelve of Joseph’s covenant wives had been sexually involved with Joseph, asserting Olive Frost and Mary Heron [Snider] had been Joseph’s conjugal wives despite incredibly weak information. In proactive explanation for why Joseph cannot be proved to have engendered any children with his plural wives, the Hales insert the explanation in George Reynolds’ 1892 letter, repeating that “the reason generally assigned by the wives themselves is, that owing to the peculiar circumstances by which they were surrounded, they were so nervous and in such constant fear that they did not conceive…”[ref]ibid. p. 68.[/ref] Todd Akins would be proud. I mean, I know that stress can cause amenorrhea (skipped periods), but amenorrhea in three dozen women over the period of three years in some cases? Nah…

Quirks of this Book

When I reviewed Alex Beam’s American Crucifixion, I commented on his footnotes. In that vein, let me make a couple of comments about a few minor issues in Toward a Better Understanding:

Endnotes – Comment 1 – I use footnotes/endnotes extensively when I am seeking to understand why an author is asserting a conclusion. I even do this when studying conference talks and lessons in Church. Footnotes are extremely important to establish context and credibility. I give the Hales great credit that they rarely assert a conclusion without providing a footnote. However, their footnotes are unusually likely to point to some secondary source that tells the reader nothing about the circumstances or timing of the original statement. Perhaps this is a ploy on the part of publishers to promote book sales. ‘If you want to know that information, my dearie, you will have to buy that other book…’ Would it not be possible to say something like “Miller, George, letter of 3 March 1841, republished in Times and Seasons July 1842, summarized on page 159 of Random Book about Polygamy, 1986.” A footnote that tells me “Random Book about Polygamy, 1986, p. 159,” is obviously far less informative.

Endnotes – Comment 2 – I appreciate having all the endnotes collected at the back of the book. This makes it easy to just find the notes section one time and keep a book mark back there. However, it would have been useful if the main text contained an indication of what numerical chapter I was reading on each set of pages or if the end notes had contained an indication of the titles of the chapters (or at least a range of pages). I spent far too much of my two hours reading the book trying to figure out which set of end notes belonged to the particular chapter I was reading.

Biographies – Comment 1 – It took me the longest time to figure out how the section containing biographies of different wives was arranged. I finally determined that it was an alphabetical arrangement based on the first name of each wife. I found that particular organizational principle to be perhaps the least helpful of the alternatives, though I suppose last names would have begged the question of whether one used the woman’s maiden name or her last name at the time Joseph married her (which would have again begged the question of why some of these women weren’t still “maidens” when Joseph married them). Given the lack of precision regarding when some of the women became Joseph’s plural wives, my preferred method (arranging the women by order of marriage, as done by Todd Compton in his 1997 Sacred Loneliness) would have been similarly controversial.

Biographies – Comment 2 – Since I’ve studied the reproductive history of these women, I was frustrated that the biographies do not include information about the reproductive history of the women following Joseph’s death, particularly in the case of the women who were otherwise single during their covenant relationship with a living Joseph. Most of them were quite fertile once Joseph was dead. This while the wolf hunts were going on, the people were fleeing across Iowa, starving at Winter Quarters, and fending off rats and crickets around the Old Fort in the Salt Lake Valley.


Stepping away from the details I don’t agree with, this is a fine book on a topic that many find troubling. I appreciate the manner in which Brian and Laura attempt to get us to see Joseph’s introduction of polygamy in a new light. In the Introduction (p. xvi), the Hales provide an illustration of how description can be technically correct and yet entirely misleading. The vignette describes a masked man who enters a room at midnight where a woman is sleeping. He plunges a blade into the woman’s chest. Minutes later, she dies due to loss of blood.

As Brian is an anesthesiologist, I wonder if this event occurred in his presence. For the man was a surgeon in an operating room. The mask was a surgical mask. The woman had been sedated in preparation for surgery. The blade was associated with a scalpel. The blood loss was due to internal injury, which was the pre-existing condition that had prompted the need for surgery. The haste with which the surgeon had inserted the blade was an attempt to save the woman’s life. And this emergency surgery occurred when it was midnight somewhere in the world (maybe even locally).

Thus, I believe, it is with Joseph and Nauvoo. The facts of that time have been inferred to support the idea of an abusive man who betrayed his wife, treating himself to sexual intimacy with dozens of women. But when one drills down to the bare facts, shorn of inference, the possibility of a vastly different story emerges.

This book that Laura and Brian produced goes a good part of the way in that direction. I just wish they had further challenged the “facts” from which they construct their “reliable reconstruction of what likely took place.” Inasmuch as they failed in some cases to fundamentally question their assumptions, I think their book will similarly fall somewhat short in the intended purpose of bringing comfort and understanding to their audience, as seen from the reaction to the Hales’ Q&A with Ralph Hancock published in Meridian’s series on polygamy this past year.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Review: Joseph Smith’s Polygamy – Toward a Better Understanding

  1. Interesting review. :x. I can understand how you spent most of it contending the bases of their conclusions since you seem to feel that much is based on prior inaccurate if not outright slanderous (to Joseph Smith) writing. I really liked the example of the man with the knife who plunges it into a sleeping woman at midnight. It is all in knowing the facts of any situation versus first impressions. While some would take comfort in your version of events that yields a Joseph who consummated few if any of his extra unions, you seem to depict him as deceiving everyone but Emma. I just read I Corinthians 7 in which Paul sets the stage for two millenia of confusion over whether marriage is good or just a second choice adopted by those who ‘burn’. The words and actions of God’s chosen have consequences that can leave the rest of us with only one valid option. We must find out for ourselves through prayer, pondering and being open to the Holy Spirit. I personally am satisfied that Joseph was truly chosen of God to restore as much of the truth (and sometimes more) that most of us can comprehend. I applaud the Hales for their efforts and appreciate your work as well.

  2. The masked man with a blade metaphor is all Brian and Laura. It’s a beautiful metaphor. The ethnographic research book I studied in graduate school should have included that example, rather than the example of the emaciated man in baggy clothes (initial presumption would have been that he was a bum, but the “truth” was that he had suffered from cancer, which had drastically changed his body and the fit of his wardrobe).

    I am reminded of a time in the past when I was working on something at work. Configuration management for a series of model experients had gotten completely messed up, so I had to figure out what had occurred to produce the data. I did my forensic analysis, and then briefed the team. They didn’t take it well, because there had been a large number of screw ups to produce the vast array of variation (a data set I would never have been approved to collect had I proposed it up front). Ultimately, I discarded my brief and simply provided the team an updated configuration table. They were happy to not have to overtly acknowledge the screw-ups and I was happy because the formal tabular history for configurations was correct and adequate to form a solid scientific basis for future research.

    Alas, when it comes to the historical possibilities of Joseph Smith’s teachings and activities regarding eternal marriage, it isn’t possible to simply correct a tabular listing and set it on a reference shelf. Bennett’s legacy has left such confusion that (I believe) it is necessary to aggressively challenge the areas where unsupportable and damning allegations have been left to fester.

    Perhaps the perception that such remained was the more obvious in this great little book because the few remaining damning allegations (scuro) stood out in contrast to the delightsome grace (chiara) of the Hales’ fundamentally positive view of Joseph Smith.

  3. If I understand part of your difference, is it that you see the lack of direct textual evidence of Joseph informing Emma of various marriages to mean that he did keep her involved (for apparently atypical plural marriage reasons – ie no consummation), while Hales sees lack of evidence to mean Emma was frequently not involved? Did that sentence even make sense…

  4. I attempted to post a long response to this. But that was a new device, so maybe it doesn’t work the way I thought it should.

    Hi DQ, yes, your question made sense. There are numerous unquestioned inferences that have been perpetuated by those writing about the origins of Mormon polygamy.

    In science there is the phenomenon of bimodal phenomena. When it comes to the facts regarding the origins of Mormon polygamy, researchers have presumed for decades that there was only one fundamental historical hypothesis that made sense. And so their differences tend to be minor variations regarding the presumption that Joseph was sexually active with many of his covenant wives, that he kept Emma fundamentally uninformed, and that all manifestations of polygamy in Mormon circles arose from Joseph’s teachings regarding plural marriage.

    I perceive this hypothesis as only one of at least two that can adequately explain the data. My hypothesis, which I feel fits the data better than the “Joseph as deceiving sexual being keeping his wife ignorant” hypothesis is the “Joseph reacting to gross sexual abberrance and fighting against it with his wife, Emma” hypothesis.

    Richard and Pamela Price had championed the “Joseph and Emma fought polygamy” hypothesis, but as they denied Joseph had any involvement in the origins of plural marriage, it is easy to destroy their logic. But there are gems in the largely discredited information they bring forward in support of their hypothesis.

    I see Brian and Laura as attempting to show us a good Joseph, but they fall short inasmuch as they continue to include the unquestioned inferences regarding how they believe Joseph deceived Emma and how they presume Joseph engaged in sexual relations with at least a dozen women other than Emma.

    The presence of sexual disaster, against which Joseph and Emma fought, is obvious in the documents, once one is looking for it. Ironically, the most important of these documents (demonstrating the extent and nature of the sexual disaster) are the testimonies of the women who had been seduced, letters that are not generally available, but which Brian Hales actually sent me back when I was writing my Faithful Joseph series.

    Getting back to the bimodal character of the possible interpretations of the data, I am objecting that Brian and Laura anchor themselves in certain unquestioned inferences that fundamentally tie them to the prevailing “Joseph deceived Emma and had lots of extra-legal sex” hypothesis. They’ve cleaned Joseph up, but they have not allowed themselves to go far enough, in my opinion.

    It is as though a pool had been corrupted by numerous young children. If someone comes to me and shows that they’ve removed all but two of the brown “logs” floating in the water, I will appreciate their efforts. But I won’t proclaim the pool clean merely because it contains less corruption than was originally in the pool.

    It is possible to see the metaphorical pool as completely clear. Those who are resigned to floating logs in their conceptual pool are content to shrug and say that Joseph was human. But given that there is a conceptual pool that both acknowledges all the data and finds no actual floating logs, I would like to see us test out the merits of that log-free conceptual pool.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with your Comment 2. My own passion is military history, but the principle is the same: When each page of endnotes specifies the range of main text pages to which it corresponds, I rejoice. Second best is when each pair of pages of the main text gives the chapter number. When neither is present, so I have to go flipping through pages to see which chapter number I’m on so I can find the right end note, I confess I sometimes experience murderous fantasies regarding the author and publisher.

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