I wanted to set the record straight about what the Church taught about what we sometimes now call “polyandry” throughout the 20th century. I will probably need to do more research to build a full timeline about how the Church understood such marriages differently over time — as happens when histories get passed down through the generations. But here is a stark example of how it got taught.
Many of you — if you didn’t even know until recently that Joseph Smith was sometimes sealed to women that were already civilly married — might be surprised that the church did have a teaching on the subject. In fact, I have been aware of these “polyandrous” marriages since I was a fairly young adult. Why? Because I went down to my local Deseret Books store and picked up a copy of John A. Widtsoe’s Evidences and Reconciliations and read it.
Widtsoe was a famous scientist that also happened to be a Mormon apostle. He had a column in the Improvement Era called “Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day” where he answered people difficult gospel questions, not unlike the answers to questions column in the modern Ensign magazine or even these new essays that the Church is putting together. These columns were then collected into a rather famous book called simply Evidences and Reconciliations. I had been eyeing the book for years since my mission hoping to eventually buy it and read it.
One of the questions posed to Widtsoe was “Did Joseph Smith Introduce Plural Marriage?” And as part of his response, he says the following:
Another kind of celestial marriage seems to have been practiced in the early days of plural marriage. It has not been practiced since Nauvoo days, for it is under Church prohibition. Zealous women, married or unmarried, loving the cause of the restored gospel, considered their condition in the hereafter. Some of them asked that they might be sealed to the Prophet for eternity. They were not to be his wives on earth, in mortality, but only after death in the eternities. This came often to be spoken of as celestial marriage. Such marriages led to misunderstandings by those not of the Church, and unfamiliar with its doctrines. To them marriage meant only association on earth. Therefore any ceremony uniting a married woman, for example, to Joseph Smith for eternity seemed adulterous to such people. Yet in any day, in our day, there may be women who prefer to spend eternity with another than their husband on earth.
Such cases, if any, and they must have been few in number, gave enemies of the Church occasion to fan the flaming hatred against the Latter-day Saints. The full truth was not told. Enemies made the most of the truth. They found it difficult to believe that the Church rests on truth and virtue.
The literature and existing documents dealing with plural marriage in Nauvoo in the day of Joseph Smith are very numerous. Hundreds of affidavits on the subject are in the Church Historian’s office in Salt Lake City. Most of the books and newspaper and magazine articles on the subject are found there also. (For a fairly condensed but complete discussion consult Andrew Jenson, Historical Record, Vol. VI, pp. 219-236; Joseph Fielding Smith, Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage, pp. 67-94; Woman’s Exponent, Vol. III and IV; The Deseret News, especially in 1886)
Now first of all, this is a pretty stark example of how the church has taught about polygamy, and even to some degree so-called “polyandry,” continuously from Joseph Smith’s time until today. I am not sure if this is still in print or not, but buy your own copy e-copy at Deseret Book online. It’s available in hardback on Amazon. Its such a classic, however, that it will likely see more re-prints in the future. Note also that Widtsoe actually tells people where to find other publications that discuss polygamy. Andrew Jenson’s historical record in particular is an extremely meaty history about the history of Joseph Smith’s polygamy.
However, Widtsoe doesn’t get all the facts right, though this is a fair representation of what was honestly believed by the church at the time in the 1940s when this was published (and republished in the 1960s even). In fact, I have it on good authority that this is still more or less believed by many very knowledgeable people high up in the upper echelons of the Church Office building. As well see in my upcoming post, depending on how you choose to interpret the historical record, this might just be fairly close to the truth.
I am preparing a post that recounts my history surrounding this whole affair and I’m going to make the case that Widtsoe’s view that Joseph Smith’s “polyandrous sealings” were not really marriages was quite prevalent amongst church leaders and even the last generation of church historians. Given that they honestly believed this, of course they thought it a point hardly worth mentioning.
At some point — specifically 1997– that all changed. Interestingly, we’re starting to swing back to thinking that perhaps Widtsoe isn’t far from the mark.
But until I can do the whole write up, this will have to suffice to make my point that the Church hasn’t been entirely sitting on this for centuries. In fact, it didn’t really become an issue at all until 1997 (I’ll explain why in my future post) and then it took years for the knowledge to start causing problems and then to flow up to the general authorities. So at most the church has really only known about the possibility of full “polyandrous marriages” for 17 years now.
And it is probably not an accident that they waited for a faithful scholar (Brian C Hale) to find counter evidence — published only in 2013! — before they made their response. For now, this will have to suffice. More to come.
New Post: What the Church Taught About “Polyandry” in 1960: I wanted to set the record straight a… http://t.co/3Op1Lt2irp #LDS #Mormon
RT @Millennialstar: New Post: What the Church Taught About “Polyandry” in 1960: I wanted to set the record straight a… http://t.co/3Op1Lt…
TheMillennialStar: What the Church Taught About “Polyandry” in 1960 http://t.co/FOOkh85HbT #lds #mormon
Looking forward to your full write-up, Bruce.
RT @ldsblogs: TheMillennialStar: What the Church Taught About “Polyandry” in 1960 http://t.co/FOOkh85HbT #lds #mormon
As far as I can tell, the assertion that children of married women who were sealed to Joseph had been engendered by Joseph was hinted at by some in the 1800s, but exploded on the world stage with Fawn Brodie’s book, No Man Knows my History. Fawn conjectured that Joseph had over 50 wives (thus she does not appear to be one the Church believes performed careful research).
Why would women in the 1800s hint that Joseph had produced children in Nauvoo? Perhaps some honestly believed that their friends had been intimate with Joseph and the children had been the mistake. Perhaps they had heard the children referred to as Joseph’s covenant children, and thought that meant he’d been the biological father. Certainly in the case of Josephine Lyon [Fisher], Josephine believed her mother’s deathbed testimony proclaimed her Joseph’s biological daughter, DNA proof (or lack of proof as the case appears to have been) not being available.
By the 1900s it became inconceivable to most who studied the topic that Joseph hadn’t been a sexual partner in his sealings. Yet few who weren’t directly involved understood how many individuals Joseph had been sealed to, despite the excellent research of Andrew Jensen and Joseph F. Smith.
Various anti-Mormon ministries stirred up the story of Joseph’s alleged libidinous past. Most notably, the Tanners established their Lighthouse Ministry to tell the truth about Joseph Smith, as they saw him. Samuel Taylor published Nightfall at Nauvoo and Orson Scott Card published a similar treatment of Nauvoo and polygamy titled Saints. Val Avery and Linda Tippetts published their treatment of Emma Smith, Mormon Enigma, which discussed the betrayal Emma “must” have felt when she found her friends were sleeping with Joseph. Despite all these records and books, there was no encyclopedic listing readily available to most people.
In the 1990s Todd Compton proposed writing a book about Eliza R. Snow. However as he warmed to his topic, the book expanded to encompass the entire scope of women Todd believed to have been married/sealed to Joseph Smith. Todd’s 800-page work, the 1997 In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, exhibits a thoroughness that had not been applied to the topic of Joseph’s plural wives before. Fans of Todd’s book purchased the domain wivesofjosephsmith.org and put up concise summaries of each plural wife mentioned by Compton. They also added information about Ugo Perego’s DNA investigations. The website mirrored Compton’s presumption that several of the marriages/sealings had involved sexual relations. In my correspondence, when I thought Elvira Annie Cowles was a conjugal wive to Joseph Smith, I provided information from Elvira’s daughter circa 1939 that hinted Elvira had testified to being Joseph’s wife in very deed. Thus I myself appear to be responsible for the idea that one married women (Elvira) had sex with Joseph.
In 2006 when I solicited readers for my initial draft novel about Nauvoo polygamy, one non-Mormon friend googled Elvira. He immediately found the wivesofjosephsmith.org site and learned how Elvira’s story would end.
George Smith and Gary Bergera have been adding to the picture of Nauvoo polygamy for decades, mainly publishing in venues like Dialogue. Michael Quinn has also been adding to the story, most notably conveying the testimony implying Mary Heron had been the “first frigging.”
With the internet, the original text for hundreds of relevant newspapers and journals began to appear online. It became possible for random individuals to access original reports, individuals who often had no context for understanding the background biases that might shape the reports. Hundreds and thousands of people, both Mormon and non-Mormon, thus became seeming experts in the topic of Joseph’s polygamy. Pithy soundbites about Joseph bedding 14-year-olds and other men’s wives became the standard fare for online commenters who wished to tar Mormonism as ludicrous. Ironically, well-regarded Mormon historians will often demur about Joseph and polygamy, insisting this is not their area of speciality.
Into this we also add efforts of individuals such as the Ostlings, Alex Beam, and John Dehlin, who have presumed that Joseph was a scamp and include evidence to that effect in their books or other media offerings.
Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, did not portray Joseph as a libidinous cretin, yet he approached Joseph’s life by topic, making the treatment of polygamy confusing to those unfamiliar with the subject.
Brian Hales’ recent addition, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, is the work of an amateur historian (a title I too am proud to embrace). Stung by the hold post-manifesto polygamy had on his family, Brian had devoted enormous effort to compiling information germane to the story of Joseph’s polygamy, enough for a 1500-page, three volume treatment of the subject. It was my Amazon review of Hale’s books that brought me to the attention of Bruce Nielson.
Prior to speaking with me, Bruce had presumed that only naifs could possibly hope that Joseph was the faithful individual the Church believed in the 1960s. So he was dismissive when I said Joseph could have been faithful to Emma Smith. As Bruce reports, I proceeded to bury him with the supporting facts and possibilities I had amassed in my study of the original documents, as well as a thorough reading of the texts listed above. My Faithful Joseph series was written to explain to Bruce and others what I believed I had found. As I wrote the series, I would research each planned ‘chapter’ afresh each week, using books such as those mentioned above, along with information available to all on the internet. In the course of this research, I discovered even more support for my hypotheses, including the images of Eliza Snow’s journal that clearly includes content and shows modification consistent with my hypothesis that she could have been taken in by Dr. Bennett and been considering accepting a “pretend” husband to hide the source of her pregnancy.
Right now establishment Church historians are pinioned between the 1960s belief in a righteous Joseph and the disturbing facts coming to light regarding certain of Joseph’s possible marriages. They are, as a body, mostly unable to accept my hypotheses, as to do so would force them to accept the possibility that honored individuals such as Eliza Snow and Vinson Knight were potentially duped by Bennett, the possibility that Brigham Young and Heber Kimball initially took in as plural wives women who had been seduced by Bennett’s Strikers.
Most would rather imagine a fallen Joseph than consider that their own cherished ancestors and Church heroes were implicated in the mess that was Bennett’s spiritual wifery.
Of course, this would have been exactly why those participants were so careful about how they discussed polygamy. To admit Joseph was faithful to Emma would be tantamount to broadcasting they had been Bennett’s victims.
I am accused by some of fabricating tales, twisting the facts to fit my fore-drawn conclusions. Others have begged me to not besmirch the name of good people, specifically Eliza Snow and Vinson Knight. Yet I cannot un-write what William Clayton wrote in his diary regarding Bishop Knight. I cannot erase Eliza’s own record regarding the wretch who took innocence, side by side and face to face.
This matter of Joseph’s polygamy is far from “settled,” if by settled we mean there is consensus. Yet I am hopeful that when we know Joseph as he was known, we will see in him a man worthy of honor, a man we will be pleased to own as our friend.
Meg, while I still don’t buy into your theories, let me just add that if you are right then another reason that your theory would be difficult to accept is precisely because the early Mormons had the exact opposite problem: they were accused that Joseph Smith had no sexual interest in his wives whatsoever (or hadn’t even taken them as wives) and that it was all just ceremonial. Given the then public practice of polygamy of the church at that time, of course they were anxious to lay such thoughts to rest.
I think your theory will continue to be difficult for many to buy into unless some piece of evidence your theory predicts and others do not comes to light. If that happens, I’d expect you’d go mainstream fast. Until that happens, the big stumbling block for most (including myself) with your theory is that so many of the wives of Joseph Smith (granted in court desperate to prove they were full wives) do seem to insinuate sexual relations with Joseph. I think that is the most difficult part to overcome for many that your theory seems “more complicated” then simply assuming that their insinuations actually meant exactly what they seemed to mean.
The thing I love about your theory, though, is that you make a good case that even ‘historical truths’ that no one seems to question can be questioned not due to lack of knowledge, but due to having more knowledge than most on the subject.
In any case, this post was what I was previously commenting about. The church leaders and even many of the historians, for an extended period of time, did believe the “polyandrous” marriages were not moral marriages at all (as Widtsoe states). In my upcoming post I’ll share some additional details about that. I suppose the short version of the story is that if you’re a church leader prior to 1997 (When Todd Compton’s book comes out) and probably even for a while afterwards as the evidence really starts to be understood, and you wanted to know what all this “polyandry” is about, you’d probably go to a respect church historian and the generation before the current one (many of whom are still active) would very likely tell you “Oh, don’t worry, those weren’t even real marriages here on earth. They were eternity only sealings.” And that would seem like a satisfactory answer given the state of the evidence at the time.
I’m sure there was never a consensus even back then. At least from the 1940s on (when Fawn Brodie’s book was published) the specter of polyandry existed, even if it was for the most part and my most church leaders and historians dismissed as mere anti-Mormon rumors (and most of it is just that) and misunderstandings — just like Widtsoe does.
The argument that “the church should have told us” is often predicated on a false assumption that the church was even aware of the issue. What I’m suggesting is that their awareness rarely went further than that quote from Widtsoe up until 1997. And when Todd Compton published his book, he has evidence that seemed to very strongly suggest sexual polyandry. As I’ll explain in my upcoming post, it was actually primarily rooted in what we now know was faulty evidence.
Note: not because of any dishonesty on Todd Compton’s part. He had in fact fallen into the reverse trap that the Church had fallen into. He was quite anxious to prove that polygamy couldn’t have come from God and he let that desire blind him, just like it blinded the church leaders in reverse. When Compton found evidence to support his thesis, he no longer felt the need to keep exploring it further and looking at it closer. It took the also very biased Brian C Hale, wanting to find a better interpretation of Joseph Smith that members could buy into to re-look at the evidence and finally notice the problems in Compton’s analysis.
Karl Popper believed that our biases aren’t necessarily a bad thing. We see that here. We have a much more nuanced view of Joseph Smith today precisely because one scholar (Compton) wanted to make polygamy look bad and convince church members to no longer believe that it was a revelation from God and another (Brian Hale) wanted to salvage Joseph Smith’s reputation for the faithful. It precisely the *combination* of biases that caused the nuance to come out. But that takes time! In this case, 17 years!
Also, Meg, I may not buy into your full theory, but you’ve convinced me on some of your points.
I actually don’t have a problem with Joseph having sexual relations with Emily Partridge and Malissa Lott. They were both 19 and in the case of Emily we know Emma specifically gave her permission. Malissa was one of the later women to marry Joseph, and was trusted to walk Emma’s children to school. There is no reason to suspect that Emma had not also granted permission in the case of Malissa, aside from the kind of arguments people have about whether or not Schroedinger’s cat is dead.
I did predict that Eliza Snow had modified her poem. It wasn’t modified the way I presumed, but the poem shows clear and atypical modification.
Since there are so many discrete points in my hypothesis, I don’t know which part of it you are questioning. Could you be more precise? Feel free to send the list in e-mail if you feel it would be off topic for this post.
As you know, Meg, there are a lot of sources that seem to either insinuate or outright claim that Joseph’s marriages were sexual in nature. Discounting all the anti-Mormon ones at the get go, there are still a lot of friendly one’s left. You’ve done a good job demonstrating alternative possible interpretations for all of them as far as I know. But I think the pure weight of them will always cause some people (including myself) to feel that “well, probably *some* of these are referring to actual sexuality in marriage.”
You have a few times (including above) mentioned that you have your own suspicions on some of the marriages. I think this admission strengths your interpretation considerably. It takes it from looking like a comedy of errors where well meaning people that aren’t against Joseph keep falsely implying Joseph was sexually involved with other women to at least *some* were and others maybe not. If *some* were then its easier to figure out where the ‘rumors’ kept coming from, i.e. that some weren’t merely rumors. It makes it easier for me to feel like I can discount some of the others.
But in the end, you are mistaken to think you can truly convince me of anything. I tend to reserve judgment these days. I’m still considering the (in my opinion) possibility that some of the polyandrous marriages were sexual. I have a friend who — believe it or not — in part had her testimony *saved* by discovering the polyandrous marriages (which at the time she assumed were sexual.) Finding out that what was good for the goose was good for the gander was a positive to her, not a negative. For her sake, I actually want to find out that the polyandrous marriages were sexual (at least for her, that would probably be bad for others of course).
My point being, its complicated! Different people want different things to be true and there is no way to satisfy everyone. Or maybe there is! Maybe the way we satisfy everyone is to admit that there is a huge amount of unknowns and that there are legitimate ways to interpret the history such that it fits your needs. This is — as are all things in religion, faith, and even scholarship — a matter of choice. Even when all the evidence is known and all possible interpretations are on the table, you can rationally and with good justification choose from a variety of interpretations. And you can choose to see it as from God or not from God and choose to believe or not believe.
Just to be clear, Widtsoe died in 1952. His book was published in 1943. 1960 was a posthumous reprint.
. . . my hypothesis that she could have been taken in by Dr. Bennett and been considering accepting a “pretend” husband to hide the source of her pregnancy.
Meg, this is one of the things I don’t quite get about your theory. How does Joseph’s marrying Eliza in secret serve in hiding the source of Eliza’s pregnancy or otherwise preserving her public image?
(Bruce, apologies if this is too much of a threadjack.)
I was going off the reprint date, apparently. I’ll update. That’s actually good. It strengthens my point that the church soon lost its memory of the nature of this sealings and started to interpret them as not being marriages in mortality. That also means this was published before Brodie’s book. Interesting. Gives you a good idea of how the Church looked at and continued to look at this ‘issue’ at the time — i.e. as a non-issue.
I think the following happened – the steps with stars are undisputed history:
*1) Eliza drafted a charter for the women’s organization that would become the Relief Society.
*2) Eliza became one of two secretaries for the Relief Society, the other being Phebe Wheeler . Elvira Annie Cowles was the treasurer.
3) Eliza is approached by someone suggesting she become their secret spiritual wife. Based on Eliza’s poems, I feel moderately confident this individual is John C. Bennett. Bennett’s purpose could have been to gain inside information on the Relief Society or its membership, as Relief Society was waging a campaign against the seducers.
*4) Eliza writes a poem, promising the bride will not betray the secret of being married to her husband.
5) Eliza is bedded by a wretch, presumably Bennett.
* 6) Bennett is exposed. The day Bennett leaves town, Eliza’s father decides to leave the Mormons. Eliza begs to stay behind with the Saints.
*7) Sarah Cleveland accompanies Eliza to visit Joseph. Sarah Cleveland has been one of the women Emma and Joseph trusted to investigate the series of seductions. During this visit Eliza covenants with Joseph, a day she will later characterize as the day she is sealed to Joseph.
8) Eliza discovers she is pregnant.
*9) Eliza’s poem, promising secrecy, is published in the paper William Smith runs. William Smith had been one of Bennett’s cronies, though Joseph no doubt hoped his brother would reform. Eliza’s poem, under the circumstances, appears to imply Eliza is Joseph’s secret wife. Sarah Cleveland evicts Eliza from her home.
*10) Emma invites Eliza to stay in the Smith household.
11) An Eliza in the early stages of pregnancy is offered a public husband, in the person of Jonathan Holmes. Jonathan is promised that for this sacrifice, he will be sealed to his departed wife, Rosetta Marietta Carter.
*12) Eliza writes a poem titled Conjugal. In the original, it appears to speak of “two angels that kiss in the presence of the sun.”
13) Eliza falls down a staircase, resulting in a miscarriage.
*14) Eliza modifies her poem Conjugal. She scrapes one word entirely off the page, a word that we can see started with a and ends in s, which is roughly the length of “angels.” The poem now reads “two rays that kiss in the presence of the sun.”
*15) Eliza writes four poems during the period of a couple of weeks in late November 1842. The first is about death. The second speaks of a lying wretch who fed himself on the blood of innocence, side by side, face to face. The third speaks of conscious innocence, regaining that state of grace though reputation be blasted. The fourth speaks of being alone, Eliza and I.
*16) Eliza begins to teach school in the Masonic Hall. She teaches every day through March 17, 1843.
*17) Joseph’s mother moves into the homestead. This same day Eliza moves her residence to the home of Jonathan Holmes (who by now has become the public husband of Elvira Annie Cowles, based on oral tradition directly via the family and also conveyed to a Brother Wright before Elvira’s death).
So it was Jonathan Holmes, not Joseph, who was to have been the public husband. And he did end up being a public husband. As the family tradition continued, he promised Joseph he would agree to care for Elvira, if she would have him, upon the event of Joseph’s death. It appears Jonathan and Elvira felt no need to tell their children and convert neighbors that Joseph Smith had performed a marriage ceremony joining Jonathan and Elvira more than a year before Joseph’s death, but after Eliza’s poems about death and seduction and repentance.
I should mention that there is significant oral history regarding the assertion that Eliza was pregnant and that she lost the child in an incident involving a fall down a staircase. Decades after Emma Smith died, the tale portrayed Emma pushing Eliza down the steps, her face the very image of hell or some such. But this is even more suspect than the tale that Eliza was pregnant, given that Emma was widely despised for refusing to travel west and had raised her sons without teaching them their father had taught plural marriage.
All very interesting. I have enjoyed the “Faithful Joseph” series very much. Polygamy has always been a difficult issue/doctrine for me to understand, and I still struggle. Meg, I am curious. In your research about Joseph, you seem somewhat motivated to show that Joseph’s relationships with most of his wives was not sexual, and that those relationships weren’t was a good thing. However, I believe history to show that Brigham Young and quite a few other church leaders and some members after Joseph did indeed have sexual relationships with plural wives. Is the motivation to show that most of Joseph’s relationships were NOT sexual to show the faithfulness to Emma, who wouldn’t come west and wouldn’t acknowledge to the children she had with Joseph any polygamous activities from their father?
I guess I am wondering why it is important that it wasn’t as much sexual on Joseph’s part, but it absolutely was with Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and many others? I am thinking that it isn’t a problem with sexual polygamy itself, but Joseph’s relationship with Emma? I thought I saw you comment that you weren’t really interested in researching Brigham Young’s polygamy. I’m just curious about the reasons for the importance of the sexual or not sexual marriages of Joseph.
But, thank you so much for all the posts and comments. Lots of food for thought. Good stuff.
I can understand the impulse to not want JS’s “polyandrous” sealings to result in sexual relationships. It is, however, widely accepted that, for example, BY had sexual relations with ZDHY after he was sealed to her. Is that simply an unrelated issue for you?
My motivation was being inspired to write “about these women,” meaning Elvira, her three biological daughters, and the two of her grand-daughters who married John W. Taylor after the manifesto.
I originally accepted without question that Joseph had been sexual in many of his plural marriages. With Elvira there was a quandary because the family history and compiled books indicated that Jonathan had only married Elvira after Joseph’s death at Joseph’s request. Yet the documents from Nauvoo clearly show that Joseph performed a marriage ceremony uniting Jonathan and Elvira in December 1842, more than a year before Joseph’s death and six months before Elvira affirmed via affidavit that she had been sealed to Joseph.
In 2006, despairing of ever having done enough research to support an actual historical treatment, I decided writing “about these women” could be satisfied by writing historical fiction, a midrash, in other words a speculation about sacred events. My only self-imposed condition was that this midrash had to be plausible in the presence of all known facts.
The “midrash” initially portrayed the relationship between Elvira and Joseph as celibate even thought I thought it wasn’t (celibacy being OK because it is plausible in the face of reproductive and documented evidence). Then those reading my drafts made comments that caused me to shift. At one point I even produced two versions of the scene involving the sealing between Joseph and Elvira. In once version, Joseph explains to Elvira that he won’t be consummating their relationship. In the other version, Joseph and Elvira get to the intimate business of discovering each other at a level appropriate for spouses. In those days I had written a scene where Elvira and Eliza Snow converse about Eliza’s pregnancy with Joseph’s child, including a scene involving Eliza being forced to leave the August heat of a Relief Society meeting because of morning sickness.
I’d have to go to my website to see when, but at a certain point I because convinced that the only reasonable explanation for the data I had for Elvira was that she had not been having sex with either Joseph or Jonathan. Though Elvira is not the most outstanding case of the difference between fertility during Joseph’s life and fertility after Joseph’s death (that award would have to go to Louisa Beaman), it is very clear that she was sufficiently fertile that I might have joked with her she would get pregnant if her husband so much as breathed on her.
The novel treatment of Elvira turned into the story of a woman loved by four men (Joseph Smith, John C. Bennett, Jonathan Harriman Holmes, and Justin Books), yet is not able to achieve intimacy with any of them. After Joseph’s death her public husband, Jonathan, still refuses to touch her out of duty to his first wife who was killed by a mob in Nauvoo in 1840 (factual, not made up, that death). Even so, my fictional Elvira refused Brigham’s attempt to “collect” her, willing, if necessary, to live a celibate life with the man Joseph joined her to rather than go the route we know Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Young took.
One of the minor delights was my fictional conceit that Elvira and Jonathan consummate their marriage the night Emma asks Jonathan to secretly re-bury Joseph’s remains. Something about the ordeal of re-burying Joseph’s body and prompting Jonathan to finally overcome his reluctance to be “unfaithful” to his dead wife, I felt, would make great drama. My problem was that the stories I’d read put that re-interment in the fall of 1844, where I had reason to suspect that Elvira and Jonathan’s first child was conceived in February, 1845.
Then on a trip to Nauvoo, the friendly folks at the Community of Christ visitor’s center (located across the forgotten road from Jonathan Holmes’ long-razed homestead) pointed me to a memoir written by one of the two Huntington brothers about the night Joseph’s remains were relocated. And Huntington had written that the re-burial occurred in February 1845. The local CoC guides confirmed that in February the springs run heavily, making the ground in the basement of the Nauvoo House (where Joseph’s remains had been hidden in June 1844) soft and easy to excavate. This, therefore, would have definitely made sense as a time that Emma became desperate to move Joseph’s remains, before any of the men striving to capture Joseph’s followers, could find the body and use the remains as a rallying point.
In 2010 I spent ten days aboard a ship, with little to do during transit other than read. I took with me Rough Stone Rolling, Mormon Enigma, and In Sacred Loneliness. Having thoroughly refined my mental concept of Elvira’s possible activities during the Nauvoo years, I revisited all that was contained in those books about the other women. As I read, I could see the ways in which each woman’s story was consistent with the midrash I had developed around Elvira. I had hypothesized that a woman had been attacked, alerting Joseph to the fact that seducers were predating on women, as the Expositor had alleged Joseph was doing. When I re-read the history of Nancy Winchester, it was eery how well she fit as a victim of abuse/rape by the seducers. In particular was the fact that Heber Kimball never slept with her, even though she was only fifteen when she married him after Joseph’s death and remained his wife in name until roughly her forties. Even then, she lived with her parents for the remainder of her life, even after finally having a child by her final husband.
Since 2010 numerous additional findings have continued to be completely consistent with my hypothesis of a Joseph who was unusually deferent to Emma, given the command to marry other women. Continually I have encountered challenges to my timelines, and each time the findings that resulted have further strengthened the structure of my alternate interpretation.
For the past year I have been blogging about the history and how it is consistent with this alternate explanation. All have been free to comment. On occasion someone made a point that I hadn’t considered, but none of these altered the integrity of my underlying conceptual framework. Even though I established the list of chapter titles in early January 2014, each week I approached the next article completely from scratch, going afresh to my books and the internet. Every week I found more information than I had known existed, and all of it was consistent with that underlying conceptual framework.
You must also remember that I am an engineer. There is a joke I love to tell about engineers. It is set in France during the time of the revolution, and three men are in line, awaiting execution via guillotine.
The first is a lawyer. He puts his head in the device and the blade crashes down, only to halt just shy of his neck. The lawyer proclaims that he must be freed, that to put him through the ordeal again would be contrary to law. [It’s a joke, I don’t care if it’s believable that a lawyer would be able to talk his way out of execution.]
The second is a priest. He puts his head in the device and the blade crashes down, again halting just shy of his neck. The priest is pulled away from the guillotine, and the authorities inform him that he, like the lawyer, is free to go. The priest goes away rejoicing.
Finally the engineer approaches the guillotine. He looks up at the wicked blade, and then smiles. “I see your problem!” he exclaims. [And of course the joke is that this complete honesty allows them to fix the guillotine, and the engineer dies because of his innate intellectual curiosity and honesty.]
As an engineer, I am trained to hold multiple hypotheses in my head, from the most terrible that would involve massive casualties, to the most optimistic, which would allow significant “market advantages.” This approach has been applied throughout my life, even in the case of my son’s illness which eventually led to his death.
I really don’t care if Joseph was sleeping with every woman in Nauvoo. And yet I do care about pointing out that Joseph appears to have been faithful to Emma because only that scenario appears to actually fit the mountain of data, it is only this hypothesis that continues to be consistent with all the additional data, that has remained valid as I scoured the internet and as I continue to read more about what happened.
You may doubt me because you have recently run across a story or five framed to evoke an image of a sensual and predatory Joseph. But I have read those stories, each one of them, dozens if not hundreds of times. I have tossed them around, laid them over one another, assessed the probability that these thousands of individual events could be arranged this way or that. And the only version of the tale that makes sense is one where Joseph contracted dozens of “marriages” yet slept with few, if any, of these plural wives.
You are always free to simply veto. You can just decide I’m deluded and walk away. Yet I am the only woman of late who is looking at all the recent data. Where Todd Compton could only write about a woman losing a child and stating “that must have been hard,” I have watched while a sister died, keened at the death of my son, felt my heart tear when I learned my first husband was unfaithful, been threatened by a man obsessed with possessing me, a man willing to kill others to win me, if necessary. I have loved a sweet man who is honorable to a fault. I have presided over congregations. I have preached to priests sitting in confessional booths in Rome. I have felt the joy of seeing wayward friends return to the gospel and be embraced in the arms of the gospel. I have had my priesthood leader decide I needed to face a Church court for slander. And I have witness an apostle speak in tongues.
In short, I have lived a life that equips me to plumb the depths and breadth of the experience of these early women as none of the men who have explored this topic can. And with all deference to Val Avery and Linda Tippets, they were too horrified by Joseph’s supposed betrayal of Emma to see any other possibility.
The short answer to the matter of Brigham Young is that his polygamy is pretty well documented, complete with children. When a kid shows up, it’s a pretty positive sign that the woman has had a conjugal relationship.
In my series I do cover the beginnings of Brigham’s decision to embrace and enforce the idea of conjugal actuality in marriages with plural wives.
He wasn’t sealed to Zina Diantha Huntington, he had been married to her as part of the process of standing proxy for Joseph when Zina was re-sealed to Joseph after Joseph’s death. He simply decided to pull rank on poor Henry Jacobs, and Zina was persuaded that he had that right and she would go along with him.
I think one of the most overlooked historical factoids is that Henry’s rather painful letter to Zina establishes that he understood culturally that it was Zina’s decision, not BY’s. He acts as if BY has no real say in it. My honest opinion anyhow. Minority interpretation I suppose.
Meg. Thanks for the background on your Faithful Joseph series. I am finding that too often the truth lies in possibilities we just haven’t thought to consider yet. Kudos to you for researching those possibilities and sharing.
“As an engineer, I am trained to hold multiple hypotheses in my head, from the most terrible that would involve massive casualties, to the most optimistic, which would allow significant “market advantages.” … I have lived a life that equips me to plumb the depths and breadth of the experience of these early women as none of the men who have explored this topic can.”
As a fellow engineer, these are two of the reasons I await the full write up, with all the footnotes, that I can put on my shelf.