I was recently browsing the internet and came upon Brian C. Hales’ post of May 21 titled “Yes, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph Smith Practiced Polygamy.” After listing the numerous testimonies gathered across the years regarding Joseph’s involvement in plural marriage, Brian concludes his post with the following:
“Plural marriage is an uncomfortable topic and understandably so. However, denying Joseph Smith’s involvement is not useful to the discussion. The evidences supporting his polygamous sealings to create time-and-eternity unions that included sexual relations is too great to ignore.”
I’m not sure Brian is responding to me in this post, since I don’t deny Joseph was involved in polygamous sealings. Nor do I deny that many were willing to imply that Joseph had been sexually intimate with women to whom he was sealed.
I simply question whether the data support a conclusion that Joseph necessarily consummated the ceremonial plural marriages he personally entered into.
Joseph Smith absolutely taught plural marriage in the context of the New and Everlasting Covenant
It is impossible to ignore the vast numbers of affidavits from first-hand participants attesting to the fact that Joseph Smith taught them plural marriage in the context of the New and Everlasting Covenant. There has not been a credible theory to explain how these many affidavits would have been given, sometimes in the handwriting of the women in question, if Joseph had not been involved.
Some have called into question whether the revelation now canonized as D&C 132 was dictated by Joseph Smith. However William Clayton, Joseph Kingsbury, and Leonard Soby all testified that the revelation contained in D&C 132 was dictated by Joseph Smith (Clayton), copied (Kingsbury), and read to the High Council (Soby) in 1843.
There should be no question that Joseph taught plural marriage. There should be no question that Joseph both officiated as men were married to plural wives and had others officiate as Joseph was married to plural wives.
But does the fact of a marriage mean sex occurred?
I would not be terribly bothered if irrevocable proof arose that Joseph had consummated some of his marriages. However I do not consider the current testimonies proof of sexuality.
Emily Partridge – The most unassailable relationship is the one between Joseph Smith and Emily Partridge, to whom he was secretly sealed in March 1843 and more openly re-sealed in May 1843. In the 1890s, during the Temple Lot trial, Emily testified that she had roomed with Joseph several times. She also answered “Yes, Sir” when asked if she had carnal intercourse with Joseph.
However I am not convinced. In the 1890s, Emily believed that proving Joseph Smith taught plural marriage was crucial to preventing Joseph’s sons from laying claim to the Missouri temple lot. After having testified to rooming with Joseph, there is no way she could have answered the carnal knowledge question in any way other than “Yes, sir,” without fundamentally damaging the entire case against the claim of the Smith brothers.
Emily lived in Nauvoo for fully two years as Joseph’s plural wife during his lifetime. And yet she never conceived while Joseph lived.
Sylvia Sessions – When Sylvia was dying, she confided in her daughter Josephine that Josephine was Joseph Smith’s daughter. On the face of it, this seems rather persuasive evidence. However there is an alternate explanation for Sylvia’s deathbed confidence.
Once Sylvia had been sealed to Joseph Smith, all her subsequent children would be understood to be Joseph’s, even if engendered by other men. This is in keeping with the Old Testament practices, where a child was raised up to the name of a dead father even though engendered by a levirate husband (e.g., Ruth’s son Obed should have been accounted the son of Mahlon even though engendered by Boaz).
We know that in at least some cases, a child conceived well after Joseph’s death born to one of Joseph’s plural wives would learn of this relationship on the event of their marriage and sealing. This occurred in the case of Marietta Holmes, whose name was initially recorded as Marietta Smith, before someone (presumably Marietta) struck out the name Smith and replaced it with Holmes.
Sylvia’s daughter, Josephine, was the only one of Sylvia’s children to survive to adulthood to marry without initially being sealed to her spouse. Though Josephine was subsequently sealed to her spouse, it may be that she never learned in that venue of her covenant relationship to Joseph as daughter.
DNA analysis cast further doubt on the interpretation of Sylvia’s dying testimony as necessitating a biological relationship with Joseph, as the genetic similarity between Josephine’s progeny and the progeny of Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr is tenuous, at best, and fully explainable by the legally-acknowledged common ancestors between Josephine’s ancestors and the ancestors of Joseph Smith, Jr.
Lucy Walker – Lucy Walker is suspected of having borne Joseph’s child due to the record of her child’s death at Winter Quarters. Here, however, the death record contradicts itself. A date is given for the child’s birth (early 1845) which suggests the child was conceived in 1844 before Joseph Smith’s death. However the child’s age at death is given as 17 months, which would place birth in 1846 and conception in early 1845, after Lucy Walker had married Heber C. Kimball as a levirate husband.
Olive Frost – Brian Hales asserts Olive Frost bore a child to Joseph Smith because it is said that she bore Joseph’s child. Again, this terminology could have referred to the covenant relationship between the child and Joseph, independent of who had been the biological father. Olive and her child died in October 1845, more than a year after Joseph died. Therefore there was plenty of time for a levirate husband (Brigham Young) to have engendered a child that was termed “Joseph’s child.” No date is given for the actual birth of Olive’s child.
Fanny Alger – Decades after the debacle in Kirtland involving Fanny Alger, Chauncy Webb asserted that Fanny had been pregnant while staying in his home after leaving the Smith household and before leaving Kirtland in September 1836. However when Chauncy alleged Fanny had been pregnant, Chauncy had left the Mormon Church over the matter of his daughter’s divorce from Brigham Young. Chauncy’s daughter had written an expose of her polygamous marriage. Thus it must be considered that Chauncy’s assertion regarding sexual behavior between Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger might have been at the very least colored by his loss of faith.
As I have elsewhere expained, stress can cause a woman to cease menstruating. Such a lack of monthly menses could have led Chauncy to presume his house guest was pregnant. There is no record of Fanny bearing a child until well after her marriage to Solomon Custer in November 1836.
Eliza Snow – Of interest, Brian Hales does not include Eliza Snow in his list of women who were sexually intimate with Joseph Smith. Yet there is a substantial oral history regarding a pregnant Eliza Snow falling down a set of stairs and losing a child engendered by Joseph. This oral history is bolstered by Eliza’s response to questions regarding whether she was intimate with Joseph Smith.
Scholars have pointed out that the presumed February 1843 date for the incident is not possible, given Eliza’s journal record of teaching school continuously from December 1842 through dismissal of classes in March 1843.
However a date of November 1842 for the incident is possible and is suggested by poetry Eliza writes in her journal. However Eliza’s poetry talks of a vile wretch who was side by side and face to face with innocence. Thus if Eliza had been pregnant, her poetry suggests the possibility that the father was someone other than Joseph Smith.
As to Eliza’s later response, she stops short of actually asserting a sexual relationship, though it is clear that the person conversing with her inferred that she was asserting a sexual relationship, as this conversation was related to Joseph Smith III as proof that Joseph Smith Jr. had been a practicing polygamist.
Mary Heron – Brian Hales has included the hapless Mary Heron in his list of women who were intimate with Joseph Smith Jr. This is based on the records of the Church discipline of Joseph Ellis Johnson for having gotten Lorenzo Snow’s estranged wife pregnant. Joseph Ellis Johnson was attempting to be reconciled with the Church so that he could be sealed to this woman (Hannah) and the children he expected to engender with Hannah beyond the first. Joseph Ellis Johnson had apparently reconciled with Lorenzo Snow before submitting himself for Church discipline.
As the fact of Joseph Ellis Johnson seducing the wife of an apostle resonated with the rash of seductions that took place in Nauvoo circa 1841-1842, Johnson was questioned about whether he, too, taught that it was right to engage in illicit intercourse as long as no one knew about it (a specific teaching promulgated by the 1841-42 seducers). Johnson denied that he had taught this. To emphasize how abhorrent such a teaching was to him personally, Johnson related the tale of his mother-in-law, Mary Heron [Snider], where she had been the victim of the “first frigging” which had occurred in Johnson’s home in Nauvoo.
When asked a question related to this reported intercourse with Mary Heron, Johnson answered “By Joseph.”
Brian and others have presumed the question was “By whom was your mother-in-law frigged?” and that the answer “By Joseph” necessarily referred to Joseph Smith.
However Joseph Ellis Johnson had a character witness at the proceedings, a Brother Joseph Kelly. Kelly’s record of the court proceedings indicates that he could have been the one who seduced Mary Heron, and that he did so with the knowledge of John (possibly Mary’s husband, John Snider, or Nauvoo mayor, John C. Bennett).
It is also possible that the question being asked was “By whom were you told about your mother-in-law being frigged?” and the answer “By Joseph” could have then been identifying an informant (Joseph Kelly being much more likely than Joseph Smith) rather than the extra-legal sexual partner of Mary Heron.
Other accounts – There are various other accounts that some woman was Joseph’s wife in very deed, that Joseph was sealed to some woman for time and all eternity, that Emma knew about the fact that these other women were Joseph’s wives, that some relative said the marriage was tacitly admitted or that Joseph and the woman in question spent time together behind closed doors.
A reading that “time and all eternity” meant “sex in this life as well as a covenant relationship in eternity” is imposing meaning on terms that it isn’t clear was being imputed by the persons originally using the terms. The same is true for “wife in very deed,” where it is inferred that the deed in question is sex.
To illustrate how language can be misleading, there was a radio interview in the 1970s of a Mormon who was in some position of authority. They were being interviewed regarding the temple. At some point in the interview, the non-Mormon radio host asked “Is it true that marriages are consummated on the altars of the temple?” The sweet Mormon man, apparently not understanding what was meant by this question, answered “Yes, indeed. Marriages are consummated on the altars of the temple.” By which I can only assume he meant to convey that the consummate solumnization of marriage occurs as couples hold hands while kneeling at the altar.
Why would Joseph Smith refrain from intimacy with his plural wives?
Mormon men and non-Mormons tend to presume Joseph was intimate with his wives. 1 After all, Joseph taught that plural marriage was permitted and even commanded, he had himself ceremonially united with plural wives, and he produced a revelation providing a divine rationale for intimacy with plural wives.
Yet I contend there are a series of reasons that Joseph might have refrained from actually consummating the plural marriages into which he entered.
- First, these marriages were not recognized by the law. After Joseph’s death, Brigham Young and others went ahead and engendered children with plural wives. But prior to Joseph’s death, there are only two children born to plural wives who are known to have been the offspring of the respective polygamist husband. Two other children are likely engendered prior to Joseph’s death, after the 1844 births of the first two. Given that roughly 30 men had ostensively become polygamists in the years prior to Joseph’s death, the entire group of them appears to have largely avoided the intimacies that produce children.
- There had been widespread illicit sexual behavior in 1841-1842. Thus women who had been intimate with the seducers might have been infected with venereal disease, independent of any spiritual effect of the illicit sexual intercourse. It would be downright foolhardy to engage in intimacy with women based solely on their word that they were pure. Venereal disease of the day was known by the terms ‘the pox’ (syphilis) and ‘the clap’ (gonhorrea). We see the concern about purity in D&C 132, along with the tacit admission that a woman might lie about being pure.
- Emma was reportedly willing to participate as women were joined to Joseph in ceremonial marriage, but she was consistent in her opinion that plural wives were not to be gotten pregnant. The most striking report of this opposition was Emma’s conversation with Lucy Messerve, who was George Albert Smith’s plural wive. Lucy was pregnant, and Emma told her that men were not supposed to be sexually intimate with their plural wives. When Lucy claimed she didn’t know what Emma was talking about, Emma retorted, “Yes you do. It’s sticking out plain enough,” apparently referring to the fact that Lucy was visibly pregnant. At any rate, Emma’s unwillingness to agree to Joseph consummating his ceremonial marriages with women of unknowable virtue would have been a factor.
There are other possible factors that could have presuaded Joseph to refrain from personally consummating his plural marriages, but these suffice for the moment.
Joseph Smith taught plural marriage was an acceptable eternal construct. He entered into ceremonial marriages during his lifetime. He taught his followers that plural marriage was to involve engendering/conceiving progeny.
Yet there is no living proof that Joseph Smith ever engendered progeny with any of his plural wives.
There is only assertion that he engaged in the kind of behavior that can engender progeny.
Finally, there are strong reasons why he might have personnally declined to engage in intimate behavior with his plural wives, including his first wife’s opposition to such intimacy and the later uncertainty regarding whether women might have been involved in the widespread illicit intercourse of 1841-1842.
- Modern Mormon women who think Joseph was intimate with his plural wives tend to be rather scandalized by the thought, and rarely argue that it must necessarily have occurred. ↩