After book group this Tuesday, one of my friends mentioned she’d been reading about the various presidents of Relief Society. Knowing of my interest in early Mormon polygamy, my friend said she wanted to talk with me sometime about Zina Diantha Huntington [Jacobs Smith Young], who served as General Relief Society President after the death of Eliza R. Snow.
Zina was one of the first women to covenant with Joseph Smith, one of the few who was told Joseph had only acted because an angel threatened him with a sword. According to other accounts, the angel had appeared to Joseph repeatedly since 1834, but it would only be in 1841 that the angel implied lethal force might occur if obedience to the commandment was not forthcoming.
Following the 1844 death of Joseph Smith, Zina would undergo a uniquely unusual marital shift, leaving the ostensibly faithful/believing father of her children to become the conjugal wife of Brigham Young.
Here is my explanation for why a married and pregnant Zina entered into a covenant marriage with Joseph Smith, and why after Joseph’s death she abandoned her believing husband to become one of the many conjugal wives of Brigham Young.
Blessing and Marriage
In September 1840, Joseph Smith’s father died.
In the final moments before Joseph Smith, Sr., died, he pronounced patriarchal blessings on his loved ones. I mark this as the moment when Joseph Smith, Jr., finally understood that he would not be permitted to leave restoration of Old Testament marriage and eternal sealings to someone else. 1 Father Smith blessed Joseph that he would live to fulfill all that was ordained. And in response, as recorded by Mother Smith, Joseph would cry out, “Will I? Will I?”
Sometime in the fall of 1840, Joseph confided in Zina’s brother, Dimick, telling him of eternal marriage. However original documents from the life of Zina and Dimick fail to indicate whether Joseph talked with Zina herself about becoming a plural wife at this time.
Joseph and Dimick appear to have kept their peace as Zina agreed to marry Henry Jacobs. 2 The newly-elected Mayor of Nauvoo, Dr. John C. Bennett, would perform the ceremony wedding Zina to Henry Jacobs on March 7, 1841, when Joseph Smith failed to appear to perform the ceremony as scheduled. Approximately a month later, Zina conceived her first child. 3 Zina’s grand-daughter, Oa Cannon, wrote that Joseph failed to appear for the ceremony because “it had been made known to him that [Zina] was to be his Celestial Wife and he could not give to another one who had been given to him.” 4
Around the time Dr. Bennett performed the ceremony marrying Zina to Henry Jacobs, he was courting his own “young woman.” Unknown to Bennett’s associates in Nauvoo, Bennett was still married, though he was separated from his wife Mary and had clearly attempted to secure a divorce.
It may have been Bennett’s attempt to secure a divorce that prompted someone to write to Joseph Smith, accusing Dr. Bennett of being a fraud. At any rate, it appears Joseph assigned George Miller, newly ordained as a Bishop, to discover the facts behind the accusation.
By the beginning of March, the rumor that Dr. Bennett had a secret past had been confirmed by Bishop George Miller. 5 Bishop Miller’s letter almost certainly reached Joseph Smith by the end of March. A year later, Joseph would describe how he urgently persuaded Dr. Bennett to end his courtship. 6
Once the courtship was ended, Dr. Bennett could have remained an honorable bachelor. However in subsequent months he proceeded to initiate a sexual relationship with Sarah Pratt, wife of absent apostle Orson Pratt and laundress and seamstress for Dr. Bennett. By July Bennett had also begun to have sex with Catherine Laur Fuller, widow of one of the men killed at Haun’s Mill by a Missouri mob. 7
By July 5th the affair with Sarah Pratt had been discovered, apparently by Bennett’s colleague in the Nauvoo Legion, non-Mormon Jacob Backenstos, who also happened to be Sheriff of Hancock County.
At this time Joseph hauled Bennett in and loudly chastised him, a conversation that was reported in 1842 by Joseph’s nephew, Lorenzo Wasson. Because matters relating to official Church discipline are held private, armchair historians of the day presumed that Joseph’s chastisement was related to a June letter written by Hyrum Smith and William Law, who had stumbled across the story of Bennett’s past.
Sometime during the summer of 1841, Bennett began teaching others that there was a secret doctrine that permitted men and women to freely engage in sexual activity, as long as it remained secret. From Catherine Laur Fuller’s testimony it is clear that other men were pressing her to have sex with them by mid-Jul 1841. One of those who had sex with her was this same Jacob Backenstos, leading to the possibility that Bennett was attempting to persuade his colleagues that he was not a fallen man, but instead an initiate into secret mysteries.
From diaries and contemporary testimonies delivered to the Navuoo High Council, it appears that the idea that sexual promiscuity was acceptable spread like wildfire throughout the Mormon city. Bennett and his acolytes called this extramarital misbehavior “spiritual wifery,” a term that original documents use specifically to indicate illicit and promiscuous behavior. 8 By the summer of 1841, Bennett had convinced family members of Judge Elias Higbee of this “new” doctrine, and by their example the teenaged son of newly ordained apostle, Lyman Wight, became “fully indoctrinated” into this new form of “marriage.” Others who appear to have been persuaded of spiritual wifery by the winter of 1841/1842 include William Smith (Joseph’s brother), Robert Thompson (Joseph’s clerk), Chauncy Higbee, Joseph Kelly, John Snider, Vinson Knight, “B. Y” (presumably Brigham Young), 9 Gustavus Hills, and many others named in the High Council testimonies.
I contend that other histories are consistent with the possibility individuals had been approached about spiritual wifery, with varying levels of acceptance and rejection.
Yet it appears during this summer and fall of corruption that no one asked Joseph whether or not he agreed with the doctrine that promiscuous liaisons were permitted between multiple men and multiple women (Mormons and non-Mormons), with pregnancy prevented by means of some sort of medicine. 10
The Angel and the Sword
Joseph’s doctrines regarding marriage featured eternal union, with strict fidelity between married partners and celibacy for both men and women who were not married. Unfortunately, the doctrine of eternal union is inconsistent with pure monogamy. 11
Zina would report in later life that it was her brother, Dimick, who came to her with the proposal that she become a plural wife to Joseph Smith. When questioned, she re-iterated that Joseph had told Dimick that an angel had appeared with a drawn sword, commanding Joseph to marry Zina. Joseph never spoke with her directly about the matter until after she had already told Dimick she was willing.
Zina was pregnant at the time with her son, Zebulon. DNA analysis has confirmed that Zebulon was the biological son of Henry Jacobs. After Zina covenanted with Joseph on October 27, 1841, she does not conceive until after Joseph’s death. It is impossible to prove Zina refrained from sexual intercourse during this period of time, while married to Henry and in a covenant union with Joseph, yet it is similarly impossible to prove that she engaged in sexuality. 12
Less than a year after Zina covenanted with Joseph, Dr. Bennett had been exposed as the ring leader of those teaching illicit intercourse was correct. Zina, her sister, and her brothers would remain intensely loyal to Joseph through the last years of his life. After Joseph’s death, Zina’s brothers would serve as Joseph’s pall bearers when Joseph was secretly interred in the basement of the Nauvoo House construction site and again in February 1845 when Emma asked four highly trusted men to move Joseph’s remains to her garden.
Zina Marries Brigham Young for Time
After Joseph’s death, the primary focus of his followers was completion of the temple, the edifice in which they believed they could enter into covenant with one another to form eternal relationships.
Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball made another key decision. None of the otherwise single women with whom Joseph entered into covenant appear to have conceived children prior to Joseph’s death. 13 Emma Smith makes several statements after 1842 indicating that she didn’t feel “plural wives” should conceive children. Yet the revelation Joseph had written down discussing eternal marriage (including the possibility of plural marriage) makes it clear that a purpose of marriage is to bear children. Specifically, Joseph had been promised “I will bless him and multiply him and give unto him an hundred-fold in this world, of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, houses and lands, wives and children, and crowns of eternal lives in the eternal worlds.” 14 It appears that Brigham and Heber determined that they would raise up children to Joseph’s name, with ten otherwise-unmarried women with whom Joseph had covenanted. 15
Zina was not one of those who were ‘collected’ by Brigham and Heber in the year after Joseph’s death. But this action on the part of Brigham and Heber (and Amasa) to care for Joseph’s unprotected widows informed policy as the temple neared completion. For the three months during which the Nauvoo temple was in operation, widows could not simply be “sealed” to their dead spouses. As the unprotected widows of Joseph Smith were provided living husbands, all widows who sought to be joined to their dead husbands for eternity were subsequently married for time to the man who stood proxy for the dead husband.
The vast majority of women who sought to be sealed to Joseph Smith in the temple were taken under the protection of senior leaders of the Mormon Church, even when the woman already had a husband, and even when her existing husband was a faithful member of the Church. 16 This may explain why Emma Hale did not choose to have her sealing to Joseph re-solemnized in the Nauvoo temple. She clearly disagreed with how Brigham and Heber had married Joseph’s unprotected widows and proceeded to father children with most of them. 17
Thus on February, 1846, Zina technically becomes married “for time” to Brigham Young. Again she is pregnant at the time with a child engendered by Henry Bailey Jacobs. Following her marriage “for time” to Brigham, Zina does not conceive again while associated with Henry Jacobs.
This, however, is not terribly noteworthy. Zina was pregnant until March 22, 1846, when she gave birth to a son near the Chariton River in Iowa. Henry and Zina named their son Henry Chariton Jacobs. In May 1846 her husband, Henry Bailey Jacobs, was called to serve a mission in England.
When Henry left on his mission, Zina moved in with her ailing father, William, until his death in August 1846. Then, alone, she took protection in the household of Brigham Young, the man who had stood proxy for Joseph Smith when Zina was sealed to Joseph.
I contend that Zina would have had every expectation of reuniting with Henry Jacobs upon the successful completion of his mission to England. But Henry would come home under a cloud of suspicion and disgrace.
Sealings in the Mission Field
A little-known but highly significant episode occurred after Joseph’s death involving Joseph’s brother, William. As may be seen in the High Council testimony, several people indicated that William Smith had been involved in the Spiritual Wifery of John C. Bennett. Though no woman at that time confirmed that William had actually engaged in sex, he was described as the “authority” who had confirmed that Spiritual Wifery was a valid doctrine. He had also asked the widow Catherine Laur Fuller to be his particular spiritual wife. We also have an account indicating that Joseph had asked Brigham Young to formally accuse William of being involved in Spiritual Wifery, but that Joseph then burst into the proceedings and demanded that Brigham withdraw the charges. Some have presumed that this meant William was not actually involved, despite the damning testimony of so many women. I submit, however, that William was exactly as involved as the testimonies indicated, but he was not the ultimate ringleader. If William was not the ringleader but merely one of dozens who had been duped by John C. Bennett, it is not inappropriate for Joseph to have extended the same forgiveness to his brother that so many others had been offered.
William was subsequently taught about the New and Everlasting Covenant, which allowed eternal covenants to exist between a man and a woman. But for the most part, William was kept away from Nauvoo and entrusted with leadership of the Church’s eastern branches, near Boston, Massachusetts.
Out east, unsupervised, William took it upon himself to teach about eternal marriage, offering to seal people to one another outside of the temple. He also continued to teach variations of the Spiritual Wifery heresy, that it was acceptable for men and women to engage in sexual intercourse even if there was no marriage involved. Hints of this heresy were first brought to the attention of the rest of the Apostles when Wilford Woodruff visited the east. 18
Parley P. Pratt was sent to the east, where he discovered the full extent of the wrongful teachings and actions of William and his ecclesiastical subordinates. Parley would attempt to instruct the eastern Saints on the proper manner of being sealed to one’s spouse, along with the fact that “sealing” wasn’t license for licentiousness:
How frequently a man and his wife, or a young couple about to be married, present themselves to me, with a request to be sealed to each other; that is, married for eternity. Do I ever grant their request? No; for the best of all reasons. –I have no authority so to do under present circumstances; and, where I to do it, it would only be deceiving them; as such a sealing would not stand, or be recognized in the resurrection; unless performed according to the strict law of God, and of the keys of the sealing powes, and in connection with the ordinances of endowment which brings to God’s sanctuary [temple], and no where else.
[The sealing power allows for] no confusion, unlawful connection, or unvirtuous liberties.] 19
The full extent of confusion is beyond the scope of this post, but the overall matter was of grave concern to the leadership of the Church.
Zina wrote in her diary about the situation following an address William Smith made on August 17, 1845, in Nauvoo. At that time William openly advocated Spiritual Wifery and indicated that he practiced it. The discourse caused such distress and disgust that women put their handkerchiefs over their faces to show how much they disagreed. Apostle John Taylor attempted to rebutt the sermon, if gently. 20
Zina wrote, “Wm Smith spoke to the people [and] Elder Ta[y]lor made an appropriate reply, [because] it was needed.” 21
Zina was clearly aware of the error of William’s teachings, and so it seems reasonable that Henry also should have been aware of these errors.
In the months following William’s outrageous sermon, William would leave the Church. Henry appeared to be fully supportive of Brigham and the other apostles, as well as Joseph’s legacy. He was present when Zina was sealed to Joseph Smith in the temple. He was similarly a witness as Zina was sealed “for time” to Brigham Young, who had stood as proxy for Joseph in the sealing that had immediately preceded the “for time” ordinance.
And then the temple was abandoned as the Saints fled Nauvoo.
It was one thing for Parley Pratt to declare in May 1845 that it was necessary for couples to receive their sealings in the temple. The temple in May 1845 was in process of being built. By May 1846, however, the temple was no longer an option for couples who wished to be married for eternity.
Thus when Henry Jacobs found himself in England and William W. Phelps desired to be married to additional women, Henry presumed that there was no wrong in his performing the marriages.
When Henry and Elder W. W. Phelps rejoined the Saints in Utah, however, they learned that this sealing, performed by Henry without appropriate authority, was not viewed as acceptable. In fact, it was seen as so unorthodox that Elder W. W. Phelps was excommunicated in December 1848, despite the fact that other leaders were involved in conugal polygamy.
If Elder Phelps was excommunicated for entering into marriages that were not appropriately administered, how much more severe would have been the punishment for the man who led Elder Phelps into error? 22
I contend that this error on Henry Jacobs’ part, presuming not only to seal couples up as though for eternity, but knowingly sealing a married man to other women, was the reason Zina was taken from him. 23
If Zina hadn’t been Joseph’s covenant wife, Henry’s period of disgrace might have passed without impact to the family situation.
If Zina hadn’t agreed to let Brigham stand as Joseph’s proxy when the sealing was re-solemnized in the temple in February 1846, Henry’s period of disgrace might have passed with Zina still as his wife.
If Zina had been a whiny burden during the year she spent in the Young household during the latter portion of Henry’s mission, Brigham might have been perfectly happy to insist that Zina return to Henry’s side after the period of disgrace.
But Zina was a great and good lady who had been anointed with portentious value by virtue of the revelation where Joseph was commanded to covenant with her. She had agreed to allow Brigham to serve as Joseph’s proxy in the temple. 24
Thus when Henry Jacobs ran afoul of authority and doctrine, it was not at all clear that such an unworthy individual should be allowed to retain the hand of Zina, an unusually valued member of the religious community.
According to Oa Cannon, her mother had been effectively adopted by Zina when Oa’s mother married Henry Chariton Jacobs. The relationship was so close that apparently Zina confided things to her daughter-in-law that she wasn’t even wiling to tell her own daughter, the daughter Brigham Young engendered with Zina in 1849. When Oa learned Henry Jacobs had been present when Brigham was married to Zina for time, Oa’s mother begged her to keep this information secret, apparently reflecting Zina’s own feeling that such knowledge was best kept buried.
Yet Zina did not conceive a child during the 36 months after she had theoretically become Brigham’s wife “for time.” She would not conceive Brigham’s child until six months after Henry Jacobs would have been excommunicated along with William Wines Phelps.
Even in this six months there is a clue. One imagines that Henry might well have exercised the privilege of a husband as soon as he returned from England, before it was known that he had exercised the sealing power in error. Six months would be a reasonable amount of time to wait, to ensure that there was no question of the paternity of any children born by Zina after Henry’s disgrace.
Rumors and exposés have clouded Zina’s history, as has Zina’s apparent desire to avoid speaking ill of the father of her two sons. Perhaps it was deemed better for them to imagine Brigham usurping Henry’s rightful place, as the most poweful man in the community, than for them to know Henry had erred unto excommunication, even if his error is something no one outside of Mormonism would find problematic compared to other accepted ‘excesses,’ such as the sheer number of women with whom Joseph covenanted.
I find that each step in Zina’s confusing marital history is understandable in context, context that has been kept silent for reasons that made sense at the time, but which have become largely irrelevant in our day.
In our day the procedures associated with entering into eternal covenants have been regularized. No one in our day would imagine that a simple missionary could legitimately perform a sealing. Individuals who are legally married are not permitted to marry additional living people. Therefore none of the odd circumstances in Zina’s marital history could possibly happen today in a Mormon context.
I hope this tale of the circumstances surrounding Zina’s marriages might help someone find peace regarding this most unusual marital journey.
And here’s hoping I have correctly inferred the reason(s) for my friend’s unease regarding the story of Zina.
- It appears Joseph had first been commanded to restore the more complex form of marriage as early as February 1831, at the time he was “translating” Genesis. ↩
- Brian C Hales explores the oft-repeated assertion that Joseph proposed to Zina prior to her marriage to Henry Jacobs. The original “autobiography” where this history is allegedly contained is not extant, and it is not certain that the document was actually written by Zina. See Zina Diantha Huntington at josephsmithpolygamy.org, available online at http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/history-2/plural-wives-overview/zina-diantha-huntington/, retrieved 28 August, 2015. ↩
- DNA investigations into the biological parentage of Zina’s first child, Zebulon Jacobs, positively confirms that he is the child of Henry Jacobs and not Joseph Smith. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- D&C 128 calls George Miller to tend to the Nauvoo House. The urgent mission to discover Bennett’s past must therefore have commenced after D&C 128 was given. ↩
- George Miller’s letter and Joseph’s account of his interaction with Dr. Bennett were printed in the Times and Seasons on July 1842. ↩
- In Catherine Laur Fuller’s testimony before the Nauvoo High Council in May 1842, she would testify that Bennett was the first of the six or so men she allowed to have sex with her, based on Bennett’s teachings. She reported that Bennett had lain with her 10-12 times during the previous year. ↩
- Tragically, many of the secondary sources replace the term “spiritual wifery” with “polygamy” or even “plural marriage,” making it very difficult to differentiate conclusively which behaviors were inspired by direct teachings by Joseph Smith and which incidents were inspired by Dr. Bennett’s teachings regarding spiritual wifery. This confusion is slightly enhanced by instances where innocents such as Emily Partridge presumed that the adjective “spiritual” used to denote the children produced by “spiritual” wives was merely a euphemism for the doctrines they’d been taught regarding eternal marriage. ↩
- According to one reading of William Clayton’s diary where “BY” and transgression are mentioned, BY may not have ever acted on his initial inclination to embrace transgression (presumably of spiritual wifery). It appears Joseph learned of BY’s corrupted understanding and worked long and hard, praying mightily to bring him back to a knowledge of truth, fearing that BY risked death if he continued to embrace the heresy. ↩
- The likely “medicine” used would be seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace or wild carrot, which is ubiquitous in North America. These seeds are eaten after intercourse and are moderately effective at preventing pregnancy with few side effects, as reported in modern websites by self-medicating naturopaths. ↩
- The reasons a doctrine of eternal marriage requires at least an allowance for plural marriage is discussed in my post of 23 December 2013, Why Would a Loving God Demand Polygamy? ↩
- I am persuaded that Joseph Smith rarely engaged in sexual activity with his “plural wives,” with the possibility that he did not consummate any of the covenant unions he contracted with plural wives. For more information on this reasoning, see my series, A Faithful Joseph. ↩
- Some contend that Lucy Walker and Olive Frost conceived prior to Joseph’s death. However when Lucy’s child died, the reported age at death indicates the child was conceived after Lucy married Heber C. Kimball. It was said Olive Frost bore Joseph’s child, and that child and mother died together in October 1845. But no date of birth is documented, and a child engendered by Brigham Young after Joseph’s death with a woman who had covenanted with Joseph would have been appropriately described as Joseph’s [levirate] chld. ↩
- D&C 132:55. ↩
- In the year after Joseph’s death, Brigham Young married five of the women who were otherwise unmarried (Louisa Beaman, Eliza R. Snow, Emily Dow Partridge, Maria Lawrence, and Olive G. Frost), Heber Kimball married four of the women (Nancy Winchester, Martha McBride, Sarah Lawrence, and Lucy Walker), and Amasa Lyman married one (Eliza Partridge). It is worth noting that the number of these women corresponds to the number of “virgins” mentioned in D&C 132:62-63. Of these ten, Martha McBride was a widow with children and Eliza Snow was rumored to have been pregnant during Joseph’s lifetime, with her November 1842 poetry indicating that the father could have been one of John Bennett’s acolytes, if not Bennett himself. ↩
- The two exceptions to this were Elvia Annie Cowles, whose legal husband was allowed to stand as Joseph’s proxy in the temple, and Helen Mar Kimball, who married Horace Whitney, the twenty-two year old son of Bishop Newell K. Whitney. ↩
- When Emma speaks of her disagreement with how Joseph’s successors were proceeding, I think it is sufficient to consider these relatively few conjugal marriages and disagreements over inheritance of property as the causes of Emma’s disagreement with the new Church leaders, rather than supposing that Emma fundamentally disagreed with the New and Everlasting Covenant or that Brigham and his followers simply made that part up. ↩
- There is a tantalizing possibility that Joseph had learned of William’s wrongful understanding during William’s 1844 springtime visit to Nauvoo. This would explain Stake President William Marks’ later report that Joseph confided mere weeks before his death that polygamy or spiritual wifery would be the undoing of the Mormon people if it were not rooted out and prosecuted. ↩
- Parley P. Pratt, “This Number Closes the First Volume of the ‘Prophet'” Prophet 1, no. 52 (May 24, 1845): 2. ↩
- At the time it was still hoped that William might reform his views and take a righteous leading role in the Church. William was offered an inordinate amount of sympathy, as he had recently suffered the loss of his wife and was the sole surviving biological brother of Joseph Smith. ↩
- Diary of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs, repeated in Beecher, “All Things Move in Order in the City: The Nauvoo Diary of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs,” BYU Studies 19, no. 3 (Spring 1979): 318. ↩
- Discussion of this episode is contained in Connell O’Donovan’s article, Black Priesthood and Priesthood Denial, in The Persistence of Polygamy, Volume II (pp. 48-86) ↩
- Since originally posting this, I have talked with two descendants of Zina Huntington who affirm that Henry Jacobs was, in fact, excommunicated in 1848 because of his actions in the mission field. ↩
- The two contrasting instances of Joseph’s “wives” refusing to allow a high Church official to serve as proxy involve Emma Smith and Elvira Annie Cowles. Emma ultimately refused to have her sealing to Joseph resolemnized at all, rather than accept a man of the hierarchy’s chosing as her future husband (along with the expectation that such a man would insist she leave Nauvoo, where Joseph’s body and Joseph’s debts would remain). Elvira Annie Cowles insisted on having her legal husband, Jonathan Harriman Holmes, stand as proxy for Joseph Smith, so such a stance was possible. ↩