The Decade of Delay

[This post is sixth in a series about Joseph Smith and polygamy. To read the series from the beginning, go to A Faithful Joseph]

Liberty Jail by C.C.A. Christensen

We all have excuses for avoiding an overwhelming task. Despite my mind being full of trivia supporting the possibility of a faithful Joseph, I found myself dreading laying out his decade of delay. Add arctic chill, snowfall, illness, the five jobs I have at work, and my several volunteer positions. I began to be anxious indeed. In my desire to have it all go away, I sensed the merest whisper of the dread I imagine Joseph felt–faced with an impossible commandment he honestly didn’t want to obey.

The decade between the unrecorded initial revelation regarding plural marriage in 1831 and Joseph’s plural marriage to Louisa Beaman in 1841 must be addressed. In this post I summarize the series of disasters that I believe made the ever-obedient Joseph delay implementation of plural marriage. Some of you may experience cognitive dissonance as you read my view of these incidents. I encourage you to embrace the possibility that your long-cherished version of events is as speculative as the one I am putting forward. If you have hard facts that contradict my tale, please include your comments to that effect.

Marinda, Tar, Feathers, and Death

On February 16,1832, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had a glorious vision of a tiered heaven [ref]D&C 76[/ref]. This appears to be the answer to the question Joseph had asked in 1831, the answer God had promised in D&C 45:60-62. Joseph’s question may well have involved plural marriage, inspired as it was by the Genesis account of the Abrahamic Covenant. Thus the February 1832 revelation would mark the beginning of when we might expect to see Joseph seeking a plural wife.

In the winter of 1831/32 Joseph and Emma were living in the Johnson home in Hiram, Ohio. The most “convenient” marriageable single woman at hand was Marinda Johnson, then 16. It seems logical that Joseph could have talked about plural marriage with Marinda or  Marinda’s father.

A late rumor appears to substantiate such a conversation and even the possibility that a dowery or division of property was being discussed. Todd Compton[ref]Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p.231[/ref] and others mention this as a possible cause for the mob attack on Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in March 1832. Accordign to Clark Braden, who Compton describes as “a late, antagonistic, second-hand witness,” Marinda’s brothers allegedly led the attack, having arranged for a physician to castrate Joseph, a further hint that the attack was inspired by some sex-related provocation.

Mormons are familiar with the outcome of this mobbing. Emma was particularly terrorized by the brutal attack and the resulting death of their adopted son. Sidney Rigdon was badly beaten and would be slightly addled from then on. Joseph escaped castration, but the mob broke his front teeth in the beating. When Emma saw her tarred and feathered husband, she though he was covered in blood and near death.

Imagine, then, if Joseph and Emma thought this attack was a direct result of an early attempt to practice plural marriage. It would be no wonder that they both would approach plural marriage as though it would lead to Joseph’s death.

The Black Sheep

According to the public record, Miss Hannah Dubois married a John F. Smith and bore him two children during the 1830s. Mr. Smith allegedly dies circa 1840 in Nauvoo, and Hannah Dubois marries widower Philo Dibble, to whom she is sealed in the Nauvoo temple in January, 1846.

Despite this history, rumors have persisted that there was no John Smith and that certain of Hannah Dubois’ children were the result of liaisons between Hannah and Joseph.[ref]I first became aware of this in conversation with one of Hannah’s descendants. Hales also recounts one such story from an earlier generation, though he thought the liaison was supposed to have produced one of Hannah’s 1840s children.[/ref] Historians have typically discounted Hannah as a wife of Joseph Smith, focusing on the children born in the 1840s during Hannah’s marriage to Philo Dibble.[ref]Compton lists Hannah as one of the supposed wives where he did not believe the data supported the earlier claims[/ref] It is the descendants of the mysterious John F. Smith who believe they are actually descended from Joseph Smith. They cite the inability to find a John F. Smith [ref]Examination of the death records for Nauvoo shows no one who matches the particulars for the supposed John F. Smith[/ref] and the close relationship between Hannah’s oldest children and members of the Smith family, such as Lucy Mack Smith. There is also a patriarchal blessing Joseph’s brother, William, pronounced on the head of one of these early children, a blessing allegedly close held at Church Headquarters.

If “John F. Smith” is a euphemism for one of Lucy’s sons, I think the most likely candidate is Lucy’s youngest son, William. My reasons are as follows:

  • Hannah does nothing other bona fide wives of Joseph would do, such as be sealed to him in the temple.
  • It is William Smith who gives voice to the allegedly problematic blessing (presumably pronouncing great privileges and powers on the child).
  • William would become involved in the Bennett sex ring circa 1841/1842, indicating he was willing to “sleep adventurously.”
  • When William is sent to Tennessee in disgrace, circa 1842, Philo Dibble and Hannah accompany him.
  • Had Joseph successfully entered into a plural marriage relationship that produced children with a woman who remained part of the LDS community in Nauvoo and beyond, it is extremely bizarre that Hannah is a mere footnote in only the most complete histories of Joseph Smith’s polygamy.
  • Rumors regarding Joseph Smith’s sexual behavior during this period of time appear to be from distant observers (who may have presumed the practice of holding property in common extended to wives) or are generic rumors of inappropriate behavior that needn’t involve sexual impropriety.[ref]Brian Hales devotes Chapter 3 of his Joseph Smith’s Polygamy to this lack of contemporary sexual rumors. Neither Todd Compton, George Smith, nor Richard Bushman lend credence to the idea that Joseph was sexually opportunistic during this early time frame.[/ref]

If William was the father of Hannah’s children, there is no indication his activities were guided by a correct understanding of the “New and Everlasting Covenant,” which had yet to be fully restored. William’s extra-marital dalliance with Miss Dubois would have been a horrific family secret. Such a family secret would account for the abhorrence all of Joseph’s other brothers expressed regarding the idea of plural marriage as late as the mid-1840s.

A secret, long-term affair between William and Hannah would have been a huge complication for Joseph Smith with respect to restoring the idea that plural marriage was permissible. How could he move ahead without his closest acquaintances and family members believing the teaching was merely to cover the illicit behavior of his baby brother?

Unfortunately, it appears unlikely the mystery regarding the father of Hannah’s children will be something DNA analysis can unravel, unless the mysterious John F. Smith and his descendants didn’t share ancestors with the sons of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack.

Exchange of Women

At some point Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger were understood by some to be together. The date of the initial involvement between Joseph and Fanny is in question, with some hypothesizing dates as early as 1833 and others favoring a date as late as summer 1836.

Compton makes a solid circumstantial case for the involvement being an actual marriage, an example of what anthropologists might refer to as trading women. Allegedly Joseph offered to help Levi Hancock win the hand of Clarissa Reed if Levi would “get Fanny Alger” for Joseph as a wife.[ref]Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, p. 32.[/ref] In 1836 when Fanny fled the Smith household, the family with whom she stayed (Chancy Webb’s family) characterized Fanny’s relationship with Joseph as a marriage.[ref]Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Vol.s 1 & 2, Chapters 4-6 and Appendix D.[/ref]

The marriage between Levi Hancock and Clarissa occurred in March 1833, supporting an early date for the alleged marriage between Joseph and Fanny. It does appear that Fanny began to work as a servant in the Smith home around this time.

However this would be around the time that the possible scandal with Hannah Dubois began, a cause for deferring any ceremony between Joseph and Fanny at this earlier date. Further, we see God reprimand Joseph during this period in a fashion that doesn’t seem to jibe with Joseph’s presumed extra-marital proclivities, as in May 1833:

And now, verily I say unto Joseph Smith, Jun.—You have not kept the commandments, and must needs stand rebuked before the Lord;

Your family must needs repent and forsake some things, and give more earnest heed unto your sayings, or be removed out of their place.[ref]D&C 93: 46-47[/ref]

It’s tantalizing to think that God’s chastisement might have been related to Joseph’s avoidance of plural marriage or the wayward habits of a youngest brother. If we conceded the possibility that God’s priority was establishing the New and Everlasting Covenant and would see any delay as a problem, it isn’t suprising to see God return to his theme a few months later, in August 1833:

Therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children;[ref]D&C 98:16[/ref]

Zion’s Camp, Cholera, and Wishful Thinking

Meanwhile tensions had arisen in Missouri, prompting Joseph to raise a group of men to defend the members of the Church in Missouri, or Zion. Zion’s Camp was important for many reasons, but a little known event was the death of John Sims Carter from cholera.

John Sims Carter was a widower, so his death cast the responsibility for his seven orphans (six of them girls) on his surviving brothers, Gideon and Jared. Jared appears to have caught wind of plural marriage and possibly the exchange of women idea. He had a double family now, with several young women. If he could get a second wife, he would have another set of adult hands to handle the young people. Supposing he believed providing a wife in exchange was required, he was blessed with an abundant selection of teenaged female charges.

Jared was so confident that he could procure a second wife that he build a second home in preparation. But his hope was ill-founded. In September 1835 Jared was chastised.[ref]Compton, Sacred Loneliness, p. 39.[/ref] Interestingly, Jared’s ward Rosetta Marietta Carter is sometimes listed as one of Joseph Smith’s wives.[ref]The identification of Rosetta Marietta Carter as Joseph’s wife may have arisen from the fact that her husband, Jonathan Harriman Holmes, would later marry one of Joseph’s wives, Elvira Annie Cowles. Certainly Rosetta Marietta isn’t included as a wife of Joseph Smith in any of the recent scholarly books.[/ref]

Visions and Apostasy

On Easter Day in 1836 Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received a great vision in the Kirtland temple, in which Elijah appeared and conferred the power to seal things on earth. This vision was recorded by Warren Cowdery and would not become public knowledge until Joseph was dead and the Cowdery brothers had separated themselves from the Mormon faith.[ref]D&C 110[/ref]

Though it is not known if Joseph and Fanny were married, much less when they were married, it makes sense that receipt of the sealing power would prompt Joseph and Fanny to become ceremonially joined. Certainly the fall-out from the involvement between Joseph and Fanny would not occur until 1836.[ref]Compton devotes the first chapter of Sacred Loneliness to Fanny (pp. 25-42). As mentioned earlier, Hales devotes three chapters and an appendix to Fanny Alger.[/ref]

Many assume Fanny and Joseph were intimate and that the relationship was a secret to Emma. However lack of solid documentation in this case can cut multiple ways. I propose Emma knew of and agreed to the marriage with the stipulation that it remain platonic until some future “safe” time.

At some point around 1836 Emma found Joseph and Fanny together in the barn, but this needn’t have been bouncy illicit sex or even sex at all. Two people in love, even if not sexually intimate, can project an impression of togetherness that would be misunderstood by others unaware of the possibility of plural marriage. I submit Emma had a post-traumatic stress disorder reaction – not that she didn’t know of the marriage, but what she was seeing could so easily be misunderstood and result in a repeat of the mobbing in Hiram, Ohio.

Joseph tried to calm Emma by having Oliver Cowdery intervene. Oliver had know the Smiths for almost ten years and was possibly Joseph’s most trusted associate. But Oliver was predisposed to suspect immoral behavior from a religious leader, based on the experience his brother, Warren, had as a neighbor of Jacob Cochran.

Oliver, without having seen anything, inferred a sexual and inappropriate relationship between Joseph and Fanny. Oliver’s belief in an affair eventually caused Oliver to break with Joseph and the Mormons. Oliver moved to Missouri. Meanwhile Fanny left the Smith household. In September, 1836, the Algers left Kirtland and spent a year in Indiana en route to Missouri. While in Indiana, Fanny married Solomon Custer and remained in Indiana for the rest of her life. When asked about Joseph Smith in later years, Fanny would neither confirm nor deny whether she had been married to or intimate with Joseph Smith. Neither Joseph Smith nor Emma would ever document the nature of the situation with Fanny.

Certain members of the Church, including Jared Carter and Sidney Rigdon, believed Oliver’s alienation was dangerous to the cause of the Gospel. They decided that Oliver must be driven from the society of the Saints and even killed. The hostility between members of the Church and residents of Zion, including apostates like Oliver Cowdery, would lead to the extermination order, the Haun’s Mill massacre, the siege of numerous homesteads and Mormon towns, and the Battle at Crooked River.

Joseph was taken into custody, as ostensible instigator of the Missouri troubles. Though General Doniphan refused to execute Joseph in cold blood as ordered, Joseph was imprisoned in a cramped jail in Liberty, Missouri.

As Joseph languished in Liberty, he cried out,

Oh God, where art thou?[ref]D&C 121:1[/ref]

In answer, Jesus responded,

Peace be unto your soul… you are not yet as Job.[ref]D&C 121:7, 10[/ref]

God shall give unto you knowledge… that has not be revealed since the world was until now, which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed… which their minds were pointed to by the angels. A time to come in the which nothing will be witheld.[ref]D&C 121:26, 27[/ref]

I like to think of this imprisoned Joseph as a man who had as yet not consummated a plural marriage–a man who was, rather, traumatized by the thought of entering into plural marriage and the failed and unconsummated proposal to Marinda and marriage with Fanny. My Joseph is a man whose dearest hope was to return to the side of his beloved Emma and forever relinquish the horrific requirement of plural marriage.

And yet between March 1839 in Liberty Jail and April 1841 in Nauvoo, something would convince Joseph to attempt obedience again. I believe that “something” consisted of Six Funerals and a Blessing.

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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.

10 thoughts on “The Decade of Delay

  1. Excellent work, Meg!

    Okay, so I think your ideas here are quite different than any history currently out there. And since most of us layman get our history from secondary sources, it is a bit disorienting to try to realign to the point of view you are proposing. But I agree your point of view fits the facts as well as the one I have normally accepted.

    That being said, let me argue a few points, if only to get some discusison going.

    First of all, I have real issues with Compton’s “anthropologist’s trading women” idea. Compton is open in his book that his main thesis is that Joseph Smith’s polygamy was NOT a revelation from God and that Joseph Smith, perhaps sincerely, made it up himself and it failed so miserably that obviously it didn’t come from God. Further, Compton goes to great lengths to imply a connection here to the modern church. Specifically, he makes a big deal out of the idea that if we will bravely face history we will not have to repeat it. (This is a quote promiment on Compton’s website and I’ve had him quote it at me.) At first I was confused by this. Did Compton honestly believe there was some sort of danger of polygamy returning to the LDS church that he felt a need to write a book specifically to stop this pending reoccurance into polygamy?

    However, a more careful reading of Compton’s book reveals what his actual concern here is. Specifically Compton is trying to advance the doctrinal idea that revelation from “God” (however you define God personally) is always imperfect and difficult to correctly interpret. Thus it is unreliable without first comparing it to a proper moral code. And if a prophet such as Joseph asks you to practice polygamy, you should not assume he has in fact received any sort of actual revelation until you compare it to the proper moral code. Since the proper moral code shows that polygamy is inequitable to women ane therefore hurtful, the proper thing was to assume Joseph Smith had not received a revelation from God. (This is why Compton emphasizes and over emphasizes that, in his opinion, the early Mormons didn’t understand that Joseph Smith was an imperfect human that could make mistakes and thought him instead to be infallible. Compton entirely rejects the idea that any of these individuals might ahve actually sought their own revelations and received an answer from God before proceeding with the practice of polygamy.)

    I confess, Compton’s view is probably pretty common both within and without the church. So I can hardly argue that there isn’t a logic to his argument. Further, I really don’t care to argue whether or not polygamy was or wasn’t from God. People will have to decide that for themselves.

    But I think the point is that Compton had set out to write his history with a specific religious political goal in mind and he sought to build that case as strongly as possible. And I think he did a good job of that. For those that mistakenly think ‘scholarship’ is supposed to be neutral and thus Compton’s ‘bias’ is a problem, frankly I think you just don’t understand the actual nature of scholarship. The whole point is to take a thesis that you come up with from reading the historical record (as we falsely call it) and then present your case as strongly as possible. This is precisely what Compton did and he was right to do so. This is why Compton is such an excellent scholar.

    But once you do understand what his biases are and what ‘axe he has to gind’ so to speak (I do not mean this in a negative way at all – I honestly consider this the basis for good scholarship) we know to take statements like ‘swapping of women’ with a great deal of caution. Compton would consider any two people discussing romance with another peer and getting their help ‘swapping of women’ and try to liken it to ancient tribes so long as it’s also plural marriage. Heck, I once helped a friend in jr. high get together with a girl. If it has been polygamous girlfriends and Compton was doing my history, I have no doubt that incident would quickly be framed as “primative tribal selling of women as posessions” or something like that.

    Compton then goes on in the same chapter to be nearly shocked when it turns out the Fanny Alger gets to actually decide to marry Joseph or not for herself! He can barely make sense of it. Wasn’t she just being sort of given away against her will in some sort of swap? He comes up with the idea that it was mere conincidence that she was given a choice and that it is some sort of irony given that she was really just supposed to have no say in the matter.

    All in all, it’s an amazingly gigantic stretch in my opinion. You can so easily take the same facts and choose to set them in a far less nefarious light if you so choose.

    Since Meg then uses this idea later with Jared Carter, I am not sure if my counter opinion on this matters or not. If Joseph asking from Levi Handock. Perhaps if we soften the wording here and see it as a more natural process — it just isn’t that uncommon to help each other out in romances and marriages going both ways — I might be able to buy into the argument still. But I think I would need some more convincing on this point.

    Now as for Miranda Johnson. You bring up some facts I didn’t know about so I’ll have to rethink that. Since (if I remember correctly) the mobbers themselves explained the purpose as being more economic (they felt swindled by Joseph’s claims and no longer believed them?) I always felt it was as thin case. But on the other hand, Joseph does end up sealed to her, so maybe this isn’t such an impossiblity after all.

  2. “Specifically Compton is trying to advance the doctrinal idea that revelation from “God” (however you define God personally) is always imperfect and difficult to correctly interpret. Thus it is unreliable without first comparing it to a proper moral code. And if a prophet such as Joseph asks you to practice polygamy, you should not assume he has in fact received any sort of actual revelation until you compare it to the proper moral code. Since the proper moral code shows that polygamy is inequitable to women ane therefore hurtful, the proper thing was to assume Joseph Smith had not received a revelation from God.”

    I find the idea of recognizing a “proper” moral code for revelation to be situated into, to be rather interesting. Whose propriety? Whose code? Which morality? And why does God have to conform to our proprieties?

    It is problematic for us mere humans to try to pigeonhole a divine revelation into any particular moral paradigm. I also think the assumption that when we get revelation from God it’s some kind of murky sentiment devoid of certainty is in itself extraordinarily problematic. Yes, some inspiration and revelation give hints. But other revelations are like a bright flashlight in a dark room. I think that people who restrict revelation to only the first variety have never personally experienced the second.

    In essence, Compton using the word “always” betrays his own kind of fundamentalist perspective.

  3. I somewhat agree with Compton’s assessment that “revelation” needs to be received cautiously, particularly when it is so grossly in conflict with extant mores.

    On the other hand, Christians had redefined marriage and subsequently forgotten they’d changed things. Therefore the extant mores were arguably not God’s mores. That might not have been a problem had it not posed a fatal impediment to the success of God’s “strange act,” to effect the salvation of mankind across all generations of time by means of eternal family lines.

    As for trading women, that is an element only involved in the situation with Fanny, and then only allegedly. I like to think Jared’s actions (as I imagine them) showed Joseph the dangers of even appearing to trade women.

    Beyond Joseph allowing Fanny to choose whether to enter into the relationship, I propose that Fanny chafed under Emma’s insistence that Fanny wait to become a true wife. I like to imagine Fanny and Joseph were actually arguing in the barn, with Fanny demanding to either be granted full conjugal rights or be set free. This is an image delightfully plausible and delightfully at odds with the typical interpretation. At the time of this incident, Fanny was still a bit younger than Emma had been when she married Joseph, another potential reason for Emma to request Fanny and Joseph refrain from intimacy.

  4. @MT: Why is it that personal revelations that tell me to do something I want to do anyway are like a bright flashlight, but personal revelation that tells me to do something difficult or something I don’t want to do, seem to be so “murky” ? 😉

  5. I can’t answer a question that only you can answer, right?

    My point is that I hear the assumption — that revelation is dark, mysterious, borderline incomprehensible — all the time. And I disagree with that characterization. I am not saying that it isn’t ineffable. I am not saying that revelation isn’t challenging or stretching. But I strongly disagree with the notion that God lacks the capacity to make His messages understood clearly by His children.

  6. I submit that when the revelation is within expected bounds (e.g., “Call Suzy now” or “Visit John in hospital before going grocery shopping”) it’s all fine.

    It is when revelation is about going against a personal or cultural expectation that it becomes particularly hard. I remember an experience when learning a foreign language when I refused to “hear” anything unless it was conveyed in that foreign language. It isn’t that God can’t talk in all languages, but my brain wasn’t adequately wired to get the message in that language. So much more got through when I stopped insisting on hearing in a language with which I wasn’t fully conversant.

    Similarly, when the revelation is predicated on nuances the recipient hasn’t yet mastered, it’s hard to understand what is intended. I’m sure Joseph would have loved to be him in 2010, when others had laid the groundwork. But he was him in 1830, laying the groundwork. And that made things hard.

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