This second volume of the Persistence of Polygamy series deals with polygamy following the death of Joseph Smith. And yet it includes a surprising amount of content that those wishing to understand polygamy during Joseph’s life ought to know.
Thus I didn’t find this volume boring, contrary to my expectation.
I did find that this volume is much more eclectic that the first volume. Not only are the topics included eclectic, the individual articles themselves often wander away from what appeared to be “the point” into strange historical nooks and crannies. Reasonably, since these are all original essays, there isn’t a sense that the different essayists benefited from academic discussion with the other writers. Thus we learn graphic details of William Smith’s misbehavior in one article, while other articles portray William as merely a former polygamist who eventually relinquished plural marriage for monogamy within the RLDS faith tradition.
With my perspective that there were two distinct forms of “polygamy” practiced in Nauvoo during Joseph’s lifetime, I would have arranged the essays differently. In an introduction, I would have distinguished between the secretive covenant marriages Joseph and select followers entered into and the not-so-secretive instances of illicit intercourse (termed spiritual wifery) that occurred under the direction of Dr. John C. Bennett. I then would have listed all the individuals who were named in association with the 1842 High Council investigation in the introduction, noting where in the subsequent history these same names re-emerge.
I would have divided the book into three sections:
- Legacy of Smith’s Polygamy among the Mountain Saints
- The Factions who Didn’t Gather to Utah
- Forces of Change
Legacy of Smith’s Polygamy among the Mountain Saints
These are essays that talk about what happened in Utah after Joseph’s death. Here I would have liked an introduction to the overall topic. And I could wish there had been a couple more essays to round out this portion, specifically an essay discussing the polygamous experience of the leaders of Mormon women, including the leadership of the Relief Society through the final painful experience of Amy Lyman in the 1940s. However that essay was not written. Below are the essays as I would have arranged them.
RLDS Joseph vs. LDS Joseph
Don Bradley and Brian C. Hales (pp. 202-243)
In this delightful essay, Don Bradley and Brian C. Hales document the manner in which Joseph Smith III’s attempt to “exonerate” his father of the accusation of polygamy actually prompted an unprecedented level of documentation regarding Joseph’s covenants with women other than his legal wife, Emma Hale. The first major effort, largely unknown until recent times, was the affidavit collection Joseph F. Smith assembled in 1869-1870, while many of the wives were still living. Andrew Jensen followed this up a decade later with his own independent documentation of Joseph’s wives, publishing his work in 1887. Added to this were the proceedings from the Temple Lot trial, where the RLDS Church asserted ownership of the Missouri Temple Lot as the true religious heritage of Joseph Smith, Jr. The case was eventually dismissed by the higher court, leaving ownership of the property with the Hendrickites. But in the mean time, hundreds of pages of testimony, much of it related to polygamy, was recorded.
As Bradley and Hales conclude, the “compiled affidavits and testimonies provide evidence that Joseph Smith’s extralegal [marital] relationships were formed under the auspices of a religious system of eternal plural marriage, rather than being clandestine assignation d’amours.” They also acknowledge that, due to the circumstances under which the affidavits and testimonies were collected, there was “little motive to… distinguish relationships that were truly conjugal from those that were merely ceremonial.”
Brigham Young: Ambivalent Polygamist
George D. Smith (pp. 31-47)
George D. Smith puts forward a relatively short essay documenting the way Brigham Young both had dreaded the idea of plural marriage and claimed an indifference for women, while becoming the most-married man of the entire Mormon tradition.
The Wives of the Prophets
Craig L. Foster (pp. 113-147)
Craig Foster goes genealogist on us and explores the marital history of the six LDS Church Presidents who followed Joseph Smith: Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, and Heber J. Grant, with extensive tables containing the names and key data for wives and children for these six men. Craig Foster doesn’t mention (that I noticed) that of these, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Heber J. Grant were not practicing polygamists when they were Church President. Here again Craig reprises the categorization of wives according to one view of the rationale behind the marriages: to provide assistance (spiritual or temporal), to create dynastic links, to honor friendships between the woman or her family and the husband, and lastly merely because the man and the woman were in the same place at the same time (proximity).
Where Have All of Brigham Young’s Wives Gone?
Newell G. Bringhurst (pp. 87-112)
Dr. Bringhurst takes us through the confusion regarding the number of wives Brigham Young actually had, a number which varied widely, from the implication of only two in the Presidents of the Church manual published in 1997 to nearly one hundred.
Apparently the number should be rightly understood to be 56, but only sixteen bore children engendered by Brigham. Along the way, Dr. Bringhurst treats us to a frank assessment of the writings that attempted to define or disguise the number of wives Brigham had over time.
The Complex Brigham Young Polygamous Household
Jeffery Ogden Johnson, (pp. 17-30)
Jeffery Johnson focuses on the household of Brigham Young, including the iconic homes that were presumed to represent a typical arrangement for Mormon polygamists. This essay gives us a great sense for the human interactions between the members of Brigham’s extensive family, compared to the essays written by Craig L. Foster and Dr. Bringhurst.
I would have appreciated a comparison of Brigham’s household to other polygamists, particularly much-married John Taylor (who built separate homes for his various wives in Taylorsville and followed Brigham as LDS Church president) and Heber C. Kimball (who with Brigham married the vast plurality/majority of Joseph’s covenant widows).
The Factions who Didn’t Gather to Utah
These are essays that primarily talk about the polygamous practices of the Mormon sects who did not gather to Utah Territory. I include here the essay about the beginning of the denial of Black Priesthood and Temple Ordinances because to me it is so obviously associated with the corrupting influence of apostasy. To various degrees, all the Mormons sects that were not led by Brigham Young were in some way impacted by the illicit intercourse that had been practiced among the Mormons during the time Dr. John C. Bennett was Mayor of Nauvoo in 1841-1842.
The Essay that No One Wrote
There should have been an essay that examined the history of illicit intercourse in Nauvoo, and specifically discussed the immense distaste for “spiritual wifery” and “polygamy” this left with most Saints who didn’t gather to Utah. Specifically, this should have talked about the Nauvoo dalliances and anti-Joseph conspiracy of individuals, such as William Smith, William Law, and Austin Cowles, who were prominently involved in various break-away groups.
Vast numbers of known conspirators allied themselves with Strang after Joseph’s death. Though Strang himself does not appear explicitly connected to either the conspiracy or the period of illicit intercourse, membership in the denomination is almost a “tell” that a prominent member had been involved in either illicit intercourse or conspiracy.
This would have been a great time to summarize the gross sexual liberties William Smith took. Oh. My. Freaking. Heck.
This would also be a good time to explore the timing of Orange Wight’s introduction to polygamy, which strongly suggests he had been “fully initiated” into illicit intercourse (aka spiritual wifery) rather than Joseph’s teachings regarding the New and Everlasting Covenant.
Even the apparently stalwart Justus Morse, who married three unknown women in Nauvoo, had been named as one of the many men who tried to get Catherine Laur Fuller to sleep with him.
And with this summary, then, we could have examined the impact of illicit intercourse on the various small Mormon sects that did not gather to Brigham’s Mountain Zion.
Black Priesthood and Priesthood Denial
Connell O’Donovan (pp. 48-86)
Even though this essay ostensibly deals with Brigham’s decision to deny Blacks the priesthood, allow slavery in Utah Territory, and bar Black members from the temple, the most striking factor of this essay is the bizarre sexuality involved. The only prominent Black priesthood holder that wasn’t affected by weird sexuality (even if only by implication) was Elijah Able, who had been baptized and ordained to the priesthood in the 1830s with the full approval and involvement of Joseph Smith.
O’Donovan does not shrink from telling all the graphic sexual details. For some reason, this seems appropriate for a person who is a prominent LGBT activist in Salt Lake City (besides a magnificent genealogist).
O’Donovan discusses Warner McCary at length, son of a half-Black man by that man’s full-Black slave. McCary was larger than life, at least in his own mind. McCary had apparently abandoned a wife in St. Louis en route to inserting himself into the LDS community at Winters Quarters to “gull” the Mormons. McCary portrayed himself to be an Indian, which won acceptance from Mormons always open to embracing a believing “Lamanite.” After a relatively short time McCary was presiding over a congregation in Cincinnatti, where he proclaimed himself to be various famous people from the past, including Jesus Christ. He would hold services separately for men and women, and when with women, he would introduce them to a “sealing” in the presence of his white Mormon wife, this sealing consisting of engaging in copulative union three separate times. Even though McCary wasn’t associated with the illicit intercourse scene in 1842 Nauvoo, he had almost certainly heard all about the claims of sexual licentiousness being flung by John C. Bennett, Joseph Smith, and their various adherents. McCary, as the most negatively outstanding example of a Black man engaged in bedding white Mormon women, clearly had an impact on Brigham’s opinion about the entire Black race.
A trio of other Black men are brought into the Church while William Smith is presiding over the eastern mission. The rules of William’s polygamy appeared to be “I can have sex with everyone I want, whether or not I am married to them.” At least one of the new Black converts, Joseph Ball, was schooled in William Smith’s manner of sexual behavior. Wilford Woodruff reported that “Elder Ball has taught [the girls of Lowell, Massachussetts] that it is not wrong to have intercourse with the men what they please & Elder Ball tries to sleep with them when he can.” This description of Joseph Ball’s behavior is entirely consistent with the several affidavits against John C. Bennett, Chauncy Higbee, and others in 1842, at which time William Smith had been named as being one of the “others.”
[O’Donovan sometimes uses the word “literally” when he means “figuratively.” But apparently during this timeframe William Smith’s laundry was literally “aired” as John Hardy tried to give proof of the sexual stain on the sheets and therefore substantiate his accusation against William Smith and Joseph Ball. Alas, William Smith was the presiding authority and Ball was conducting the trial, so Hardy ended up being excommunicated. William claimed the stains were from a bad case of boils… Ew. Where is DNA analysis when you need it?]
Parley P. Pratt wrote Brigham Young “I have no Confidence whatever in the virtue, honesty and integrity of Elder Ball… Nor have Br. B [Ezra T. Benson], and myself any Confidence in any promises he may make to do better…” Joseph Ball had apparently promised to repent several times, with no subsequent evidence of repentance or reformation.
The other two Black men who joined the Church in Boston under William Smith’s influence were Walker Lewis and his son, Enoch Lewis. Boston had recently legalized inter-racial marriage, and Enoch Lewis had taken advantage of this fact to marry a Mormon woman who returned his affection. His new wife was white. Seven months after they persuaded a Baptist minister to perform the marriage, Sister Mary Matilda Webster [Lewis] gave birth to a son. Connell O’Donovan presumes Matilda was pregnant at the time of her marriage to Enoch Lewis. I decline to presume this was the case.
However it wasn’t the possibility that Matilda was pregnant before marriage that upset the local presiding Mormon authority, a William Appleby. It was the fact that the marriage was inter-racial and that the couple had reproduced. In an openly bigoted correspondence, Appleby informed Brigham Young of this marriage between a “coloured brother” and his blushing white bride.
Had Warner McCary and Joseph Ball not been involved in gross lewdness, and had Walker and Enoch Lewis had the privilege of learning the gospel from a more trusted source than William Smith, it’s possible that Brigham Young might not have reacted so negatively. And if Brigham had already had to deal with the fact of a Black Jane Manning who was sealed into Joseph Smith’s family, he might have been prepared for “amalgamation,” as they called inter-racial marriage.
Walker Lewis, aware that the possibility of obtaining temple blessings was slipping away (if not already gone) by 1852, came to Salt Lake City and tried to persuade the married Jane Manning James to be sealed to him as an eternal spouse. One presumes Jane didn’t know why she should agree to being sealed to Walker Lewis, when the father of her own children was a member of the Church. As it was, Brigham proceeded down the historical path of bigotry and denial that is our shared history without ever having performed a sealing ceremony involving either a Black man and/or a Black woman.
One gem in this essay is information regarding Henry Jacobs’ involvement in sealing William W. Phelps to three women without proper authority. Todd Compton in his master work In Sacred Loneliness presumes that Jacobs wife, Zina, had already become a connubial plural wife of Brigham Young prior to this time. But encountering the tale in this sea of crazy weirdness where men were inappropriately taking it upon themselves to “seal” women and get sex wherever they could find it, it seems almost reasonable that Brigham would have punished Jacobs for his involvement in the Phelps “adulteries” by giving Jacobs faithful wife to another. As the wife in question (Zina) was already sealed to Joseph Smith and since Brigham Young had stood as proxy for that sealing, and since Zina had already availed herself of the protection of the Young household during Jacobs’ absence, it would make sense that Zina and/or Brigham might decide that a fitting replacement for the disgraced Jacobs might be Brigham Young. Zina’s child by Brigham Young isn’t born until 1850, making a later date plausible for the union between Zina and Brigham (prompted by Jacobs’ gross liberties).
Family Relationships Among the Strangites
Vickie Cleverley Speek (pp. 148-167)
Ms. Speek gives us a carefully polite description of the marriage practices and official beliefs of the Mormon sect headed by James Jesse Strang. As for William Smith, he is merely mentioned as a Mormon insider who practiced polygamy (mentioned along with John C. Bennett, as though Bennett’s practice of polygamy was legitimately representative of Nauvoo polygamy).
James Strang’s group began to practice polygamy a few years after forming (and years after excommunicating William Smith for polygamy), ostensibly starting with Strang’s own marriage to a second wife in 1851. Strang produced additional scripture, called the Book of Commandments. This additional scripture gave instructions for how marriage was to be regulated, including polygamous marriages. He had accumulated several other wives by 1857, when he was murdered. Unlike Joseph Smith, Strang had not in any way designated how his priesthood authority (required for the plural marriages performed in the Strangite sect) would be transferred in the case of his death. Thus, Strang’s death ended solemnization of additional polygamous marriages among those who belonged to the sect.
Strang’s death coincided with an attack on the Strangite community. His followers scattered, many of them eventually aligning themselves with the RLDS Church. Today, there are apparently less than a hundred Strangites.
William Smith, Lyman Wight, and Alpheus Cutler
Christopher Blythe (pp. 168-201)
Christopher Blythe’s essay discusses three men who had been close to Joseph Smith at the time of his death, yet who failed to follow Brigham Young to Utah, spawning their own Mormon sects.
As discussed, William Smith had gotten himself excommunicated from the LDS Church (October 1845). After his excommunication, he allied himself with Strang’s group in Wisconsin, but was excommunicated for adultery in October, 1847. From 1848 to 1851 William had the loyalty of Lyman Wight’s community in Texas, where Lyman Wight recognized William Smith as President of the Church, pro tem, until Joseph Smith III might come of age. By December 1851, Lyman Wight had rejected William Smith’s leadership.
The essay does not specify why Lyman Wight broke with William Smith, but suggests the reason by quoting Jason Briggs’ description of a confidence in October 1851 where he was inducted into a council called the Priest’s Lodge. There Briggs contends William Smith’s “true character was discovered by many of us.” As Joseph Smith III would later relate of his uncle’s variant of polygamy, it existed as “a sort of promiscuity of affinities under the guiss [sic] of a ‘priestess lodge.'” The RLDS were viciously critical of Brigham Young’s form of polygamy, but singled out the practices of William Smith as “the fouler system (of whoredom)…” Effectively, William Smith thought it was fine to sleep with an unmarried woman as long as they were “sealed” afterwards, he considered that civil marriages were of no validity (so such women were also game for intercourse), and if a woman had been sealed to another, but was unequally yoked and disunited in spirit (as manifested by being willing to sleep with another), then that marriage was null and void. To recap, it seems that if William Smith could get a woman to yield to him, she was fair game. By April 1853, William was brought before the circuit court, arrested for impregnating one of the female members of his church, having told her she had to be his spiritual wife to attain salvation. He fled the county and his church dissolved. [In 1878 William Smith became a member of the RLDS Church, where he was recognized as a High Priest for the rest of his life.]
Alpheus Cutler had remained with the LDS Church long enough to participate in the temple rites, being endowed and sealed to his wife and a plural wife he had married the summer previous. The day Brigham Young threatened to shut the temple down (so the Saints could flee), Alpheus was sealed to an additional five women. Cutler became head of one community and eventually decided to remain in the midwest. For a few years he had three wives living in the community, but by the time he formally founded his own Mormon sect, he was again a monogamist. The Cutlerite sect became devoted to a revised history in which Brigham Young had invented polygamy and Cutler had fought polygamy, a neat trick, given that some had memories of the years when Cutler lived with three wives. Over time the Cutlerite Church of Jesus Christ lost the concept of marriage that could be sealed for time and all eternity. By 1890, the concept was in doubt. In modern times, the idea that marriage can last into eternity is rejected by Cutlerites.
Lyman Wight was an apostle, but after Joseph’s death he prioritized his final assignment from Joseph (to establish a community in Texas) rather than support the rest of the apostles in completing the temple. Lyman Wight was eventually excommunicated in 1848 when he published a pamphlet urging others to gather with him in Texas, rather than gathering to Utah Territory. It was at this time that he briefly accepted William Smith as President of the Church, pro tem.
With regards to polygamy, it is not clear when Lyman Wight married additional women, though one plural wife appears to have given birth to a son in 1845, leading to a marriage date in May 1844. Lyman’s son, Orange Lysander Wight, was initiated into spiritual wifery in the winter of 1841 and 1842 after learning that John Higbee (uncle of Francis and Chauncy Higbee) had two wives. As mentioned elsewhere, I find this dating for Orange’s initiation into polygamy indicative of illicit intercourse rather than Joseph’s teachings regarding Covenant marriage. About 18 months later, Orange proposed to Flora Woodworth, who he was disappointed to learn was Joseph Smith’s wife. Orange eventually married girls he met while working the Wisconsin Pineries. [Of personal interest, two of Orange’s wives were first cousins to Jonathan Harriman Holmes’ first wife.] Orange would remain in Texas for the remainder of his life, even though most of those who had followed Lyman Wight eventually migrated to the RLDS community after Lyman’s death.
Polygamists Who Became RLDS
Lewis M. Weigand (pp. 244-262)
Despite the strong anti-polygamist stance of the RLDS Church, at least twenty members of the RLDS Church had been polygamists before aligning themselves with Joseph Smith III. Lewis takes us through the histories of those former polygamists who eventually abandoned polygamy and united under the leadership of Joseph Smith III.
Forces of Change
These last essays document the pressure the Church (both LDS and RLDS) experienced leading up to changes related to polygamy.
Polygamy and Women’s Rights
Andrea G. Radke-Moss (pp. 263-297)
Ms. Radke-Moss tells us about the female activism that led to Utah being the first state in the nation where women exercised the vote. Leaders of the suffrage movement were torn, since they despised polygamy. But the women of Utah fought strenuously for the right to be heard.
Once the Manifesto ended polygamy, the desperate need for political activism waned. Utah women did fight to regain the right to vote when Utah became a state, but the intense activism of those days in the late 1800s would not return.
Prisoners for “The Principle”
Lorie Winder Stromberg (pp.298-325)
Contrary to my expectation, this essay focuses on the women who were incarcerated by the Federal Government during the attempts to punish polygamists. The first woman so punished (for contempt) only spent a day in the penitentiary with her baby. Following this were two women who refused to testify against their husbands and spent months locked up, their plight closely covered by the media from both sides of the matter. Belle Harris was incarcerated along with her baby. Nellie White was an attractive and spirited librarian believed to be the wife of Jared Roundy. This essay reminded me that there hadn’t really been a good explanation of the Godbe role in creating The Salt Lake Tribune, though Godbe’s dispute with Brigham Young was somewhat discussed in the essay on Utah suffrage. The sniping of the Trib at the Deseret News during these incarcerations was classic.
In time the laws were strengthened to allow Federal prosecution of men largely without forcing the women to testify. In addition, the women became subject to harsh legal sanctions for their refusal to cooperate, beyond the privations of incarceration. Belle Harris and Nellie White had faced their time behind bars with courage and pluck. But as the battle intensified between the Mormons and the government, some husbands preferred to go to jail rather than allow their wives to suffer. One woman was nearly raped by a drunk guard. In another case, the woman finally answered the privileged questions in hopes of saving the life of her infant, who had become ill in jail. The infant died anyway.
Ultimately, the ten women who served jail time for refusing to betray their husbands would pale in number to the over one thousand men who would be locked up in the penitentiary for “cohabitation,” an accusation which required no proof of ceremony or sex, though it was defined to not apply in cases of “traditional” extramarital intercourse (as in the case of the then-legal prostitution in Utah).
[Though none of the women were mentioned to have died as a result of their time in jail, it is known that at least one well-known Mormon man died due to his incarceration: George Manwaring, author of the hymn Oh How Lovely Was the Morning, died of pneumonia days after being released from the penitentiary. He was only 35 years old.]
Baptism of Saora Tribal Polygamists
Richard P. Howard (pp. 326-357)
In 1967, RLDS church apostle Charles D. Neff was baptizing individuals near the Saora tribal villages in India when a polygamist presented himself for baptism. Polygamy was a common form a marriage in the Saora tribe. Troubled at the thought of denying baptism to one who had legally entered into marriage according to local customs and in a culture where asking the man to abandon his extra wife and children would be cruel and unChristian, Neff consulted with the leadership of the RLDS church.
This was a time when many doctrinal adjustments were occurring within the RLDS faith, which Howard outlines. The laity was feeling that the leadership was no longer conducting themselves as had traditionally been the case. When the RLDS Church leadership announced that it would permit Saora polygamists to be baptized, outrage was swift and vocal.
Ultimately, the original stance prevailed, whereby a man who had more than one wife could be baptized, but could not marry additional wives without incurring church discipline (e.g., excommunication). The expectation was that the children would be raised to value monogamy, and that thus allowing baptism of a polygamous people would in a short time eradicate the practice of polygamy among the faithful.
Given that Richard P. Howard’s biography is not included in this volume, let me remind those who don’t know that he is historian emeritus of Community of Christ, after serving as world church historian for the RLDS/CoC church from 1966–1994. He was the first professionally trained scholar to occupy the position of church historian. Along with Leonard J. Arrington, Howard pioneered the New Mormon History. His research into the origins of polygamy is largely responsible for the way the modern Community of Christ embraces the polygamy-related facts they fought against for so long.