[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. As originally posted, this article was written without benefit of my normal stack of books and liberal access to the internet. References will be added at a later time.]
In D&C 132, The Lord tells Emma:
And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God. 1
The Lord then goes on to say:
Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph; for I will justify him; for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands for his transgressions, saith the Lord your God…
And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
…for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified. 2
Who were these virgins, virtuous and pure? There are many women who appear to fit this description, women Emma is in some cases known to have given to Joseph.
Why specify the number ten? And why call out “those who are not pure, and have said they were pure?”
I suggest the number ten came from the parable of the ten virgins of the marriage parable in Matthew 25. As for the concern with those who might be lying about being pure, recall the illicit sex and known presence of venereal disease among the practitioners of the illicit sex of Bennett’s era. Thus the purity of the women Emma was commanded to accept as Joseph’s wives was not merely a matter of morality, but potentially a matter of life and death.
If Joseph was ever intimate with any of his plural wives, I suggest we look to this group of ladies, those virtuous and pure.
The list of potential names for those “virtuous and pure” is overwhelming:
Louisa Beaman, Eliza Partridge, Emily Partridge, daughter of Vinson Knight, Sarah Lawrence, Maria Lawrence, Elvira Annie Cowles, Desdemona Caitlin Wadsworth Fullmer, Malissa Lott, Louisa Beaman, Flora Woodworth, Sarah Whitney, Almera Woodward Johnson, Eliza Snow, Lucy Walker, Helen Mar Kimball, Sarah Elizabeth Whitney, Hannah Ells, Rhoda Richards (b. 1784), Olive Grey Frost, Nancy Maria Winchester, Fanny Young [Carr Murray], as well as the many other covenant wives that have already been mentioned in this series.
This post could be a detailed history of each of these women, however the challenge we have is that so many of these women are either under-documented or had died before the major efforts attempting to document the nature of Nauvoo plural marriage (Joseph F. Smith’s collection of affidavits circa 1869, Andrew Jensen’s parallel effort stretching out to the 1880s, and the Temple Lot trial and associated testimonies of the 1890s).
Beyond the lack of document is the lack of details that would help us understand which of these women might have not be pure, presumably by virtue of being seduced by Bennett’s Strikers. I have dedicated past posts to this matter, and don’t have much new to say on that matter.
Parable of the Ten Virgins
The parable of the ten virgins is part of a set of stories describing how God will determine between those He welcomes into his kingdom and those He will reject.
In the story of the virgins, these women all wished to participate in the marriage ceremony when the bridegroom arrived. Based on our current marriage practices, we typically don’t think of all these women being the brides, however there is nothing in the statement of this parable that justifies demoting the women to the position of mere guest. These women were representatives of the kingdom of God, those covenanting with the Bridegroom.
Five of the women had been wise, and had provided stores in anticipation that the wait might be long, enduring into the darkness. Five others had presumed the bridegroom would appear while everything was bright and sunny. They were not prepared for darkness to fall. And when the darkness did arrive, they demanded that the ones who were prepared share.
In this parable, The Lord appears to justify the women who don’t share. We often interpret this to mean that the oil represents something that cannot be shared, such as testimony. Or perhaps it is that a lamp must be extinguished and cooled in order to safely share oil with another. This would risk the first having a darkened lamp with the Bridegroom arrived, and as stated would also surely risk that her lamp’s oil would have failed before the end of the darkness during which the Bridegroom might arrive.
In the second parable we hear of talents, and God’s wrath at those who cower in fear and do not improve upon the resources they are provided. This parable is sufficiently famous I don’t think it needs to be summarized here.
In the last parable of the set, God separates the sheep from the goats. While goats are good and useful animals, you never think of a goatherd (or pigherd for that matter) having the kind of care for his flock as the shepherd. I’ve been around sheep, so it isn’t that they don’t bite or butt. However the lore of sheep for millennia before Christ characterizes them as the faithful, productive animal. The goat is the animal upon which the sins of the community were cast, and this “scapegoat” became the symbol of sin. Christ characterizes the sheep as the ones who cared for others, while the goats did not care for their fellow man.
So the “ten virgins” cited in the revelation might have been a reference to the virgins that are the kingdom of God, rather than a command that Emma literally count out ten women.
Separating the Sheep from the Goats
We know of four women who Emma had embraced, only to evict them from her hearth.
The first of these was Fanny Alger sometime around 1836. What we do know of Fanny is that many of her friends and family considered her relationship with Joseph a marriage. Joseph himself in trying to thread the discord caused by Oliver Cowdery’s belief that the matter was a mere dalliance by saying that whatever Joseph did in the context of a marriage should be permitted.
Fanny ended up leaving the Smith household after Emma found Fanny alone with Joseph in the barn. The only source for what they were doing in the bard is rumor and Emma’s anger. But as we will see, Emma’s anger could be aroused for any number of reasons other than sexuality.
There is no reason to believe Fanny actually had a child by Joseph. As we’ve discussed regarding the revelation on plural marriage as it was eventually recorded, the children of a woman who has been sealed in the New and Everlasting Covenant are born into that covenant. So Fanny and Joseph and Emma may have determined that Fanny need not remain in the Smith household for the marriage to serve God.
Obviously any assertions about Fanny and Emma and Joseph are tentative at best. But the pattern set with Fanny becomes important because of how it manifests for the three women Emma casts out in 1843.
Eliza and Emily Partridge had seemed like they would be good wives. In fact, these were the two Emma specifically selected to be Joseph’s plural wives as a symbol of Emma’s acceptance of the New and Everlasting Covenant. However Eliza and Emily entered the complex marriage relationship between Joseph and Emma believing Joseph was lying to Emma, perhaps thinking this meant Emma could be safely disregarded. We have evidence of the Partridge girls forwarding the plural marriage agenda, serving at witness for plural sealings and trying to get the daughter of Vinson Knight to accept an interview with Joseph.
Emily certainly documents that shortly after the ceremony where Emma gave the Partridge women to Joseph, Emma became jealous and wouldn’t permit Joseph to be alone with the Partridge women. This is ironic, since Emily, by her record, spent the better part of the prior year avoiding being alone with Joseph.
In August 1843, Emma demanded that Joseph send the Partridges away from Nauvoo. Joseph didn’t send them away from Nauvoo, but he did send them away from the Smith household. There is no indication from Emily or Eliza that Joseph continued any sort of physical relationship with them after this departure from the Smith household.
Flora Woodworth had also become one of Joseph’s wives. As a token of the marriage, Joseph had given Flora a gold watch. When Emma learned of the valuable gift, she demanded Flora return the watch. This conflict obviously had to do with the distribution of wealth associated with Joseph having plural wives, rather than the possible sexual activity between Joseph and Flora. Flora almost immediately leaves and marries Carlos Gove, a man who was not affiliated with the Mormon Church, a story strikingly similar to the departure of Fanny Alger from the Smith household.
One potential key to the departure of the Partridges, Flora, and Eliza Snow from the Smith household might be the recollections of Orange Wight. It appears the teenaged Wight was “fully initiated” into the illicit sexual activities taught by Bennett and the Higbees at some point during the winter of 1841/42, first learning of the matter when he realized John Higbee had two “wives.”
By 1843 Orange was back in town, rather concerned with securing a wife for himself before they were all snapped up. In this vein he courted Flora Woodworth. When Flora’s mother revealed Flora was not available, Orange replied that he had known or suspected that the Partridges and Eliza Snow were Joseph’s wives, but he hadn’t known about Flora.
It is curious that we see Eliza Snow, Flora Woodworth, Emily Partridge, and Eliza Partridge, the four women Orange Wight knew of as Joseph’s wives, leave in the summer of 1843.
Were Flora, Emily, and Eliza “goats,” to use the parable metaphor? Or was their presence proximate to Joseph too great a risk, given the late discovery of Orange Wight as a member of the Striker community and his privileged knowledge that these women were Joseph’s wives?
Multiplying Talents: Joseph’s Plural Wives and Female Power
Most who learn of Joseph’s many plural wives see only an opportunity for Joseph to enjoy lots of sex. They don’t know the history of Mormon women in the 1800s, so they do not realize the power these women would come to wield.
Most obvious is the ascension of plural wives Eliza Snow [Smith Young] and Zina Diantha Huntington [Jacobs Smith Young] to preside over Relief Society through 1901. In those days Relief Society was a separate entity that reported to the Prophet but was not overseen by the priesthood as it is today. The youth ministry (Primary) and young women’s ministry (then the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association) were administered by the Relief Society, and the leaders of Relief Society collaborated with leaders of the national fight for female rights, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
In 1842 Joseph confirmed that it was right for women to perform blessings of healing, a practice Brigham Young also upheld, though most in the Church today are unaware of this history. The wives of Joseph Smith performed blessings and spoke in tongues, meeting together regularly amongst themselves, particularly on the anniversaries of Joseph’s birth and death.
With the deaths of Joseph’s wives, the pure and virtuous, there was no longer a living testimony of the power Joseph himself had granted to women in the early Church. What remained was a vast congregation of women who remembered such gifts. But this coincided with a time when the Church no longer solemnized new plural marriages, and huge cultural changes were taking place as a result. Adherence to the Word of Wisdom and focus on priesthood authority rose to fill the need of a performance that was unique in service of God and a rationale for why the Church was the one sole authorized organization to effect the salvation of all mankind. 3
One particular form of blessing performed by the women was to wash and anoint expectant mothers, a form of ceremonial blessing in some ways similar to ordinances now only performed in Mormon temples. Of all the blessings Joseph’s wives had performed, this one form of blessing could not simply be turned over to men who held the Melchizedek priesthood.
The practice of washing and anointing expectant mothers continued amongst those women aware of the practice until 1946, when Joseph F. Smith wrote Belle Spafford, newly called as the General Relief Society. While Smith agreed that the practice of washing and anointing expectant mothers was permitted, he reaffirmed the preference that the sick request blessings from priesthood brethren. Belle Spafford was one who as a mature teenager during World War I had never wanted to be a part of Relief Society, seeing it as old and outdated, a collection of fuddy duddy quilting circles. Ending the practice of females performing the washing and anointing blessing was part of many modernizations Belle implemented in her decades as General Relief Society president.
So the last vestige of female blessings, promulgated to the Church by the powerful examples of Joseph’s dozens of plural wives, was terminated in a new era where women in the Church were integrated into the larger body of the Saints, contributing to the overall mission of the Church rather than focusing preferentially on initiatives of the Relief Society. It was also an era where confidence in modern medicine had largely undercut the belief that a blessing of this nature could materially change the fate of mother and child.
Sexuality in Joseph’s Marriages?
For those who have studied the history, the clear fruit of Joseph’s plural marriages was the establishment of a cadre of women of power. These women nurtured the rest of the Church, particularly the women, and established the patterns of service and female community that resonates even today.
There don’t appear to have been any actual children produced by Joseph in these dozens of marriages to plural wives based on modern DNA research. In fact, Emma tried very hard to convince people that plural wives weren’t supposed to have children. Emma told an obviously-pregnant Lucy Messerve (secretly a plural wife of George A. Smith) that plural wives “were only sealed for eternity, they were not to live with [their husbands] and have children…” When Lucy said she didn’t know what Emma was talking about, Emma replied, “You do know. It’s sticking out too plain.” It appears this conversation must have occurred just before Lucy left Nauvoo, as she conceived her first child in November or December 1845.
Profoundly upset by the discussion with Emma, Lucy confided in her husband, George A. Smith. George comforted Lucy, telling of a time he happened upon Joseph washing his hands. Apparently to explain why he had blood on his hands, Joseph told his cousin “one of his wives had just been confined, and Emma was midwife and he was assisting her.”
Emma may have known the child she was delivering had not been engendered by Joseph, as could have occurred had Eliza Snow been seduced by Bennett before realizing the true nature of plural marriage or if Emma had served as midwife for one of Joseph’s ceremonial wives who was married to another man.
During the Temple Lot trial and in conversation with missionaries from the RLDS Church, the women who had been Joseph’s plural wives tried to explain that the conditions had not been right, that they had been nervous. Given that modern science has proven that even the anxiety associated with being raped does not inhibit conception, it seems unlikely that the “nervous” explanation is credible.
We have a lack of the fruit we would expect had sex been the activity, a lack noted even in the 1800s when Joseph’s sons were trying to convert the Saints away from polygamy. Though largely forgotten, we have a rich history of amazing spiritual works that were the fruit particularly of those women who had been Joseph’s plural wives, and who appear to have taught the rest of the female community of Saints. Given the lack of children, confirmed by DNA analysis, the most reasonable explanation is that Joseph was teaching these women rather than having sex with them during the times we know of him spending time alone with the women.
The Last Straw
The almost frenetic collection of marriages Joseph contracted as a result of the investigation into Bennett’s illicit sex was followed by a collection of marriages contracted with women suspected of having been hurt by Bennett or the investigation, and culminated in a last flurry of marriages associated with the introduction of plural marriage to an inner circle of faithful.
By then end of 1843, the need for entering into additional plural marriages appeared to be over. The requirement for Emma to grant Joseph ten virgins had been more than filled, even with the ladies Emma evicted from her home.
Then came a day when Joseph and Brigham were having a conversation with Brigham’s sister, Fanny. Fanny was a widow who was much older than Joseph or Brigham. In response to the discussion about the need for marriage, Fanny said:
“Now, don’t talk to me; when I get into the celestial kingdom, if I ever get there, I shall request the privilege of being a ministering angel; that is the labor I wish to perform. I don’t want any companion in that world; and if the Lord will make me a ministering angel, it is all I want.”
Joseph replied, “Sister, you talk very foolishly, you do not know what you will want.” Fanny agreed to be sealed to Joseph, with Brigham Young officiating.
Shortly thereafter, possibly that very evening, Joseph became violently ill after eating dinner. Unaware of another explanation for such a violent onset to illness, and possibly influenced by a dream Desdemona Fullmer had of Emma poisoning her, Joseph accused Emma of poisoning his food.
It is not hard to imagine how that would have gone over with Emma, who absolutely denied she’d done any such thing.
Why would Joseph even think Emma could have cause for poisoning him, if not the recent marriage to Fanny, which was clearly conducted without so much as secretly consulting Emma?
This ended Joseph’s career of marrying plural wives.
And yet though Joseph was married at least ceremonially to dozens of women, there was one more woman I wish he had married. There was one more person who, had she been added to the elite and powerful quorum of Joseph’s wives, could have fundamentally changed the history of Mormonism.
What’s more heartbreaking is how close she came to becoming part of Joseph’s incredibly complex family, and the pattern of misunderstandings that prevented her from being sealed to Joseph decades later.
Future Planned Posts:
Daughter of Hope
The Prodigal Returns
Conferring the Mantle
Collecting the Sorrowful
For Eternity and Time
Fifty Years in the Wilderness
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy