The Apostles and Their Wives

[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]

Vilate Murray [Kimball]
(Daughters of Utah Pioneers)

There are various stories recounting that Joseph told men to give their wives to him. Alternately, there are instances where a woman who was married to another man then entered into a covenant relationship with Joseph Smith.

For the moment we will deal with events that appear to have occurred prior to January 1843. In my prior post, The Angel, the Sword, and the Heron Seduction, I discussed Joseph covenanting with three women who were married to other men. These ladies were Zina Diantha Huntington [Jacobs], Presendia Huntington [Buell], and Mary Elizabeth Rollins [Lightner]. DNA analysis of descendants shows none of the children these women birthed[ref]Obviously DNA analyses are only possible for those children who lived long enough to have children themselves. However those wishing to imagine Joseph as a sexual partner to these women are left with no data to support their hypothesis.[/ref] is actually related to Joseph Smith. Therefore it is reasonable to speculate that these “marriages” were ceremonial in nature. Joseph’s “marriage” to the Huntington sisters appears to have been partially based on the command from the angel with the sword and partially inspired by Dimick Huntington’s desire to link the Huntington family to Joseph Smith in eternity. Mary Elizabeth Rollins’ “marriage” to Joseph was based on the command from the angel with the sword and the urgency caused by Joseph’s early fears about the seductions taking place in Nauvoo.

In 1842, Joseph “marries” four additional women who are already married:

Sylvia Sessions [Lyon],
Patty Bartlett [Sessions],
Elizabeth Davis [Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee], and
Sarah Maryetta Kingsley [Howe Cleveland].

As discussed in Wives of Sorrow, it appears these women acted as detectives during the hunt for the men seducing women in Nauvoo. These “marriages” then were a combination of Joseph teaching the correct doctrine and swearing these women to secrecy in pursuit of the men and women teaching or believing false doctrine about the nature of marriage and sexuality.

By summer 1842 Bennett had been exposed as ring-leader of the sexual predators. Bennett counter-attacked Joseph in the press, claiming Joseph was the one who had been propositioning women. As with all the most effective lies, there was a kernel of truth. Joseph had been talking with women about the New and Everlasting Covenant. However Joseph’s aim does not appear to have been the easy sex Bennett and his ring of Strikers had elicited from the hapless women of Nauvoo. This easy sex was the kind of sexual misconduct Bennett was accusing Joseph of seeking. Bennett supported his assertion by telling a story alleging Joseph had made improper advances to Sarah Pratt, wife of his apostle, Orson Pratt.

Bennett’s tale about Sarah Pratt would prove a double-edged sword for the apostles in Joseph’s church, as well as their wives. Continue reading

Sangamo and Pratt

[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]

Orson Pratt, 1851 Engraving

Orson Pratt has figured only lightly in the account until now. But the events following John C. Bennett’s departure from Nauvoo would throw Orson painfully into the spotlight.

After the Church publicly withdrew fellowship from Dr. Bennett, Bennett approached the editor of the Sangamo Journal, a Whig newspaper in Springfield, Sangamon County, Illinois, the State Capital. The editor of the Sangamo Journal, one Simeon Francis, had ruthlessly assailed Bennett in the press only weeks before. But Bennett convinced Francis that an expose against the Mormons would help the Whigs defeat the Democrats in the upcoming election.

The initial letter was a kitchen sink of accusations, containing allegations of treason, political tyranny, attempted murder, sexual misconduct, and about every other un-American deed Bennett could think of. But the stories Bennett knew best were stories related to sexual intrigue. These stories also appeared to capture the imagination of the public. The most damning of these was Bennett’s tale alleging Joseph had attempted to woo the wife of one of his own apostles, Orson Pratt.

Orson Pratt

Orson Pratt was one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Joseph Smith’s Church, ordained to his position in 1835. Many in the original Quorum apostatized due to the turmoil of the financial collapse in Kirtland and Oliver Cowdery’s allegations regarding Joseph and Fanny Alger. One was killed in the mobbings in Missouri. Those who survived and remained faithful had been sent on missions abroad.

Orson had been in Europe as a missionary during the first months of John C. Bennett’s presence in Nauvoo. While John C. Bennett was putting in place the Nauvoo City Charter, Orson was in England, preaching and publishing in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Manchester. While Orson Pratt was preaching without purse or scrip, Bennett was having Sarah Pratt wash his clothing, sew his shirts, and make his outer clothing.[ref]Rick J. Fish, Orson Pratt in Nauvoo, 1839-1845, May 1993, available online at, retrieved 27 March 2014.[/ref]

It is likely during this period of time (May-July 1841) that Bennett formed the opinion that Sarah Pratt “made a first rate go.”[ref]“Affdavit of J. B. Backenstos,” Affidavits and Certificates, Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett’s Letters. Nauvoo, Illinois, Aug. 31, 1842, “Personally appeared before me Ebenezer Robinson acting Justice of the Peace, in and for said county, J. B. Backenstos, who being duly sworn according to law, deposeth and saith, that some time during last winter, he [Backenstos] accused Doctor John C. Bennett, with having an illicit intercourse with Mrs. Orson Pratt, and some others, when said Bennett replied that she made a first rate go, and from personal observations I should have taken said Doctor Bennett and Mrs. Pratt as man and wife, had I not known to the contrary, and further this deponent saith not.” Available online at, retrieved 27 March 2014.[/ref] Continue reading

Wives of Sorrow

[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]

Lucy Ann Decker around 1850

Lucy Ann Decker around 1850

The most comprehensive treatment of plural marriages during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, to my knowledge, is Gary Bergera’s article “Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44” in Dialogue during 2005.[ref]Bergera, Gary, Identifying the Earliest Mormon Polygamists, 1841-44, available online at, retrieved 22 March 2014.[/ref] Unfortunately, Bergera’s article was written before publication of the DNA results that have consistently debunked the rumors that Joseph fathered children[ref]All children believed to be Joseph’s children who survived to have children themselves have been evaluated.[/ref] by his plural wives – a belief that prevented Bergera and prior scholars from considering the possibility that early plural marriages could have been primarily ceremonial with little or no sexual element. Specifically, no one has seriously examined the possibility that some of these marriages could have been inspired by a need to care for the victims of Bennett’s sex ring.

Let’s start by looking at the first plural marriage that didn’t include Joseph Smith: the marriage of Theodore Turley and Mary Clift in early 1842. Continue reading

The 1831 Revelation Regarding Plural Marriage


Joseph Smith's Translation of the Bible

Smith’s Translation of the Bible

[This is the fourth post in a series. To read the series from the beginning, go to A Faithful Joseph.]

You might be scratching your head, wondering what 1831 revelation I am referring to. After all, Joseph did not write down any revelation on plural marriage in 1831. It is not part of the correlated discussion regarding Joseph’s teachings on marriage. The histories of the church published in 1858, 1922, and 1930 don’t talk about it.[ref]An exception to this is B. H. Roberts’ mention of the timing of the first polygamy revelation in his introduction to History of the Church, V:XXIX[/ref] And many contributing to New Mormon History take the view that Joseph was contorting doctrine to justify his libido-driven actions, without trying to find a revelation that might have caused those actions.

It appears Joseph received the first revelation regarding plural marriage while translating the Old Testament prior to 7 March 1831.[ref]Multiple early historians suggest this timing, including B. H. Roberts (History of the Church V:XXIX), Joseph F. Smith (1882 funeral address), and Hubert Howe Bancroft (1889, History of Utah).[/ref] When we consider this revelation occurred at that time, the historical and revelatory record comes to life.

Continue reading

Precursors to Joseph’s Polygamy

[This is the third post in a series. To read the series from the beginning, go to A Faithful Joseph.]

Protovisionary, Robert Carter III of Virginia

It is impossible to truly understand Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding plural marriage without understanding the environment in which he was operating. Medicine was primitive, histories could be hidden, weird sex was rampant, and visions abounded.

Having explored a possible doctrinal purpose for restoring the possibility of plural marriage, let me share three stories that capture the environment that existed prior to Joseph Smith that also inform my hypotheses about Nauvoo in the 1840s.

Old-Fashioned Medicine

We modern folk forget how primitive medicine was in the first half of the 1800s. Even as late as the Civil War, medical procedures were barely more advanced than the medicine practiced during Christ’s lifetime. Alleged advances included practices like injecting tobacco smoke into the orifices of an unconscious person to revive them – literally blowing smoke into their, er, large intestine.