Polygamy: Origins

Once upon a time, no one except critics wanted to talk about LDS polygamy. But TV shows, court cases, and four Gospel Topics essays on the subject — which run to 32 pages of material when I printed them out — have changed the game. Now everyone is talking about polygamy. The current LDS position, however, is still as murky and convoluted as ever. Historical explanations, doctrinal justifications, and even simple factual descriptions of LDS polygamy remain controversial (see earlier posts at T&S, BCC, JI, M-Star, FMH, and most recently Kiwi Mormon). To this expanding conversation on polygamy, add the new aggressiveness some bishops are showing to threaten or initiate discipline based on posts or comments on Facebook or blogs (see here for a recent example) and it is clear we have a problem. This is particularly true given that the average bishop really doesn’t know much about the history and practice of LDS polygamy, and half of what he does know is wrong. So it’s a good time to review a few sources.

Which brings me to B. Carmon Hardy’s Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: Its Origin, Practice, and Demise (2007), part of the Kingdom in the West series published by Arthur H. Clark. The book is a collection of source documents, each introduced and explained by the author. Let’s look at three documents from the first chapter that address the origin of LDS polygamy (or plural marriage, as the Church generally refers to it):

  1. An 1861 letter from W. W. Phelps to Brigham Young recounting an alleged 1831 Joseph Smith revelation on polygamy.
  2. The revelation on plural marriage (our D&C 132), recorded in 1843.
  3. William Clayton’s notarized 1886 statement giving details of how the 1843 revelation was recorded, copied, and transported to Utah, where it was eventually published in 1852.

An Early Revelation?

It is well established that Joseph Smith was aware of polygamy and the possibility of practicing it in the early 1830s. As noted in the current introduction to D&C 132, “Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, evidence indicates that some of the principles involved in this revelation were known by the Prophet as early as 1831.” A letter written by W. W. Phelps to Brigham Young in 1861 recounts what Hardy describes as “an early revelation allegedly given in Missouri [that] told Mormon Elders to marry among the Indians, a directive subsequently interpreted as condoning plural relationships” (p. 34-35). Phelps relates the substance of a revelation dated July 17, 1831, delivered by Joseph Smith to a group of LDS elders “over the boundary, west of Jackson Co., Missouri” (p. 36). In his letter, Phelps relates the revelation verbatim, in enumerated verses, concluding with:

Verily I say unto you, that the wisdom of man in his fallen state, knoweth not the purposes and the privileges of my Holy priesthood, but ye shall know, when ye receive a fullness by reason of the anointing: For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and just; for even now their females are more Virtuous than the Gentiles … even so: Amen. (p. 37; ellipsis in original.)

Phelps closes his letter by relating a later 1834 conversation with Joseph posing the natural question how those married men addressed in the revelation could take Indian wives. Phelps gives Joseph’s response as, “In the same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Keturah; and Jacob took Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah, by revelation: the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation” (p. 37). Joseph’s 1831 revelation (as related by Phelps) is not a revelation that was ever canonized or published. But the date corresponds with what the Church now acknowledges in the D&C 132 introduction as the period when Joseph developed ideas about the modern practice of polygamy. The scenario described in the letter corresponds to how Joseph delivered new doctrinal concepts in the early Church, and the context — relating polygamy to Book of Mormon and North American Indians — seems right for 1831.

D&C 132

Fast forward to Nauvoo in 1842: Joseph has commenced his private practice of polygamy and extended the practice to a few close associates. The current introduction to Section 132 describes a “Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843.” The text of the revelation printed at pages 61-66 of Hardy’s volume is from the Joseph Kingsbury transcription, one of two early manuscripts in the LDS archives (the other is a copy made by Willard Richards). I’m guessing most readers are familiar with the text. Here is the first verse from the Kingsbury transcription, as presented by Hardy:

Verily thus saith the Lord, unto you, my Servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have enquired of my hand to know and understand wherein! [sic] I the Lord justified my Servants, Abraham Isaac and Jacob; as also, Moses, David and Solomon, my Servants, as touching the principle and doctrin of their having many Wives and Concubines: Behold! (p. 61; bracketed insertion in original.)

Even just this first verse raises interesting points. First, the biblical record does not clearly show either Moses or Isaac to be polygamists. Second, we don’t hear much about concubines in later commentary or practice. The revelation distinguishes them from wives but appears to include them in its description of the practice to be restored. As expressed later in the text: “Abraham received Concubines, and they bare him children …. David also received many Wives and Concubines …” (p. 64; ellipses added). I know better than to speculate further on the topic of concubines, so I will simply note that I know of no example in the literature of a Mormon plural wife self-identifying as a concubine or being so identified by a third party.

What William Clayton Said

William Clayton recorded the original text of the 1843 revelation as it was dictated by Joseph Smith. We no longer have Clayton’s transcription, but his account of the reception and transmission of the text provides important context. Hardy includes a long excerpt from Clayton’s 1886 notarized statement about the revelation and the early LDS practice of plural marriage. Clayton recounts:

Hyrum very urgently requested Joseph to write the revelation by means of the Urim and Thummim, but Joseph, in reply said he did not need to, for he knew the revelation perfectly from beginning to end. Joseph and Hyrum then sat down, and Joseph commenced to dictate the revelation on Celestial Marriage, and I wrote it, sentence by sentence, as he dictated. After the whole was written, Joseph asked me to read it through, slowly and carefully, which I did and he pronounced it correct. He then remarked that there was much more that he could write, on the same subject, but what was written was sufficient for the present. (p. 59)

Clayton states that Joseph Kingsbury made his copy of the Clayton text the following day and that two or three days later Joseph allowed Emma to take and then destroy the original document (the one Clayton had recorded). But Clayton states: “The copy made by Joseph C. Kingsbury is a true and correct copy of the original in every respect. This copy was carefully preserved by Bishop Whitney, and but few knew of its existence until the temporary location of the Camp of Israel at Winter Quarters, on the Missouri River, in 1846” (p. 60).


Just a few quick thoughts. First, the accounts by Phelps and Clayton are later statements made by Utah Mormons eager to trace the doctrine and practice of polygamy back to Joseph Smith. Their strong statements, such as Clayton’s assurance that the Kingsbury transcription is “a true and correct copy of the original in every respect,” must be weighed accordingly. Second, it is easy to see why the story about the Kingsbury manuscript — a secret copy of a secret revelation, not published until almost ten years later, in Utah — and its attribution of the text of the revelation to Joseph Smith was rejected by Midwest Mormons, those who did not follow Brigham Young to Utah and who largely rejected the practice of polygamy.

What about the Gospel Topics essay “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo“? Regarding origins, the essay states: “The revelation on plural marriage was not written down until 1843, but its early verses suggest that part of it emerged from Joseph Smith’s study of the Old Testament in 1831.” That’s about it. Regarding the text and transmission of the 1843 revelation, the essay merely states: “In the summer of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation on marriage, a lengthy and complex text ….”

Somewhat surprisingly, the essay does not actually tell the reader that the 1843 revelation was only circulated to a rather small group of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo. Reading a paragraph like the following, you would think everyone in town had a copy and talked about it with their neighbors:

In the summer of 1843, Joseph Smith dictated the revelation on marriage, a lengthy and complex text containing both glorious promises and stern warnings, some directed at Emma. The revelation instructed women and men that they must obey God’s law and commands in order to receive the fulness of His glory.

Not that I’m complaining — the essays are a big step forward and have both legitimized and accelerated the current discussion of polygamy. But there is more to the story. There is always more to the story.

48 comments for “Polygamy: Origins

  1. You cite Kiwi Mormon’s re-posting of the Mormonverse.com’s blog post, but not Mormonverse.com’s blog post itself?

    What a shame.

  2. We didn’t start the fire. According to a post over at W&T on traditional marriage, polygamy had been all the rage around the world for thousands of years and it wasn’t until some do-gooder Christians came along in the early centuries AD that monogamy became “a thing.” Why all the fuss about LDS polygamy?

  3. I’d go beyond “must be weighed accordingly” and say should be dismissed outright. Perhaps its the dearth of early documents relating to polygamy, but I will never understand the trust placed in the Phelps letter. Most historians seem to offer lip service caveats that yeah, it was written 30 years(!) later, but let’s just take a looksie anyway.

    The only corresponding evidence to Phelps’s claim of a revelation is the Ezra Booth letter that suggests Joseph told missionaries to intermarry with American Indians, but Booth says nothing about polygamy. It seems unlikely that it would slip his mind to mention that the prophet advocated plural marriage. On the other hand, the Phelps letter was written near the height of the practice of polygamy, with Mormons on the defensive, especially with the recent founding of the Reorganized Church which claimed Joseph never practiced polygamy. It seems plausible that Joseph did say something about marrying Natives, but that Phelps later recalled it as being about polygamy after Latter-day Saint identity was largely based on the practice of plural marriage.

    What we know about memory says we should be, at best, incredibly skeptical of Phelps’s claim and his letter to Brigham Young.

  4. IDIAT,
    Actually, scholarship shows polygyny usually happens when there is mass migration and or war–in other words, when there is a shortage of men. Mormon polygyny is unique in that 1. It is believed to be a commandment, 2. There was no shortage of men.
    Of course there were always sultans and wealthy and powerful men who had lots of wives. But I don’t think Mormons are comfortable making that analogy (Brigham Young, cough cough).

  5. Echoing John Hatch: if you want to see a good example of determining the professional nature of a historical work on polygamy, look at how they use reminiscences like Phelps’s. Put simply, the letter cannot be trusted in its own right. Only so far as things can be confirmed through contemporary documents can it be given any weights. So, for instance, the Booth letter confirms that interracial marriage between white Mormon men and native women was being discussed in 1831, so that part of Phelps’s letter can be given some credence. (And that’s how Paul Reeve’s excellent book mentions–not relies upon–the Phelps letter.) But the polygamy part of it cannot be confirmed anywhere in the early 1830s, so it should be tabled.

    I think it is safe to say that the polygamy in the Kirtland period (if there was any) was substantially different from the Nauvoo period, because the former era lacked the theological grounding of the latter. *If* the sexual experimentation in Kirtland can be categorized as “polygamy,” it was of a much different sort than the consanguineous practice of the 1840s. And so even the linkage found in D&C 132 and the biblical revision of 1831 should be looked at with severe skepticism.

  6. Thanks Dave. This line in particular read as though in Neon lights:

    “Somewhat surprisingly, the essay does not actually tell the reader that the 1843 revelation was only circulated to a rather small group of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo.”

    This caught my attention because just today I read for myself the actual text of the Nauvoo Expositor. In short, all my life I had been led to believe it was published by a bunch of apostates spreading lies about Joseph Smith. Today I learned the truth for myself. Paradigm change. These were good guys! They were people of conscience who like any whistleblower were more concerned about truth. They go out of their way to reassure their commitment to goodness, righteousness, and peace, and yet they were declared a public nuisance! They believed in the pure doctrines of Mormonism, including the Book of Mormon, but they had reached the end of their tolerance of privately urging Joseph to repent of the secret polygamy and when they felt he had gone off the rails they felt they they owed it to tell the public the truth. In essence, they print affidavits that they had knowledge of the secret polygamy AND of the revelation we now call Section 132! The problem is that Joseph was concerned about this becoming public knowledge. So he had the Nauvoo Expositor declared a public nuisance and destroyed.

    Yikes. It’s even messier than that. They indeed accuse Joseph Smith of corning young women who had come long distances for the truth only to be told secretly by him that there was this “higher law” they needed to live, marry him, or be damned. They print his rationale:

    “It was right anciently, and God will tolerate it again: but we must keep those pleasures and blessings from the world, for until there is a change in the government, we will endanger ourselves by practicing it – but we can enjoy the blessings of Jacob, David, and others, as well as to be deprived of them, if we do not expose ourselves to the law of the land. She is thunder-struck, faints, recovers, and refuses. The Prophet d*mns her if she rejects. She thinks of the great sacrifice, and of the many thousand miles she has traveled over sea and land, that she might save her soul from pending ruin, and replies, God’s will be done, and not mine. The Prophet and his devotees in this way are gratified.”

    The whole premise, that it was “right” anciently, is false. Even the Book of Mormon says it was anciently abominable before the Lord:

    Jacob 1:15
    And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son.

    Jacob 2:24
    Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.

    And so the secret revelation that is now Section 132 that was only canonized during the heyday of Utah polygamy (in 1876 I believe) screams out to me as one that is completely off and needs to be addressed deeper rather than put on the shelf, exactly as Kirk Van Allen has done on his Mormonverse blog. We need to come clean about this practice. Our Church cannot afford to dig in and defend this when it was so obviously wrong. We need to choose truth and what’s right over painting a false narrative. The essays try to tell us the practice was commanded by God. That was their big mistake in what have otherwise been very good essays. They should have made room for the fact that the truth might actually be more complex. At worst, Joseph allowed his power/position to do wrong. At best, he misunderstood that polygamy was never commanded by God at all and was overly committed to “restoring” a practice that didn’t need to be restored. If we’re actually going to believe in a God that truly works in simplicity and plainness unto his beloved children (as the Book of Mormon makes clear) than we need to be frank that the secret Nauvoo polygamy was anything but. God obviously allows things to happen, but I can’t buy that he willed it. The only saving grace is that we finally corrected course before it completely destroyed the church.

  7. Ben, I argue in my diss that DC 132’s references to the polygamy of the biblical patriarchs was an outgrowth of events happening in 1842-43 and not 1831. I also argue that the earlier hints of the practice were different than that explain in DC 132.

    But I do wonder about some sort of practice early on with Booth’s charge that Cowdery was courting two women at once coupled with later leaders saying that Cowdery had jumped the gun on polygamy.

  8. Steve, which events in 42-43 are you referring to? You mean it’s a post-hoc justification of the polygamy already going on and not an inspiration for starting the practice up? That seems to be the key point of debate usually. Whether OT polygamy is the catalyst for starting the practice or the justification to excuse the practice.

  9. And I just realized that by pointing out my sincere findings and sharing them here I will now be lumped in with apostates attacking the church when in reality I love the church, but I love the gospel and the truth more than a false church narrative. I want us to have correct narratives that embrace grace and the messy truth so that we can become all we’re meant to be. But in order to succeed we as a church collectively still must overcome all the false teachings and ideas that are still with us.

  10. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    John H (#5) and Ben P (#7), certainly contemporaneous documents would be ideal, with claims supported by two or more independent sources. Alas, this is not an ideal world, particularly with the early practice of polygamy, where participants went out of their way to avoid creating contemporaneous documents. But Phelps’ late account is partially corroborated by Booth’s contemporaneous statements. And polygamy being a “topic of interest” to Joseph is well corroborated: its overt treatment in the Book of Mormon narrative, Joseph’s detailed exposure to early biblical narrative during his Bible project with Sidney Rigdon, contemporaneous social experimentation that Joseph was certainly aware of, and whatever you want to make of the Fanny Alger episode. So an early 1830s genesis has support and is plausible, which is about as good as one can get absent reliable contemporaneous documents.

    You should consider proposing a more plausible alternative in terms of timing and support. That is tougher than it sounds.

  11. Clark, I argue that the original system was one were both men and women could have multiple spouses (most of JS’s earliest wives were already married, I call this “composite marriage”) but that with the blowup with Bennett and Orson Pratt in spring 1842 (as well as other push back) JS switched to polygyny. But polygyny was condemned in Jacob 2 (though not composite marriage, “raise up seed” verse 30) so in section 132, I argue, JS in now asking about the polygyny of the patriarchs.

    I argue the original catalyst was Jacob 2:30 “raise up seed” which is used in the Bible when referring to instances of a woman marrying multiple men. (The question of the Saducees to Jesus on the woman with 7 husbands). So I don’t argue that 132 is ad-hoc justification, but I instead argue that it is a change in policy (a change to polygyny).

    Here’s a quick summary, I go into more details in the diss.

  12. Clean Cut, your earnestness and sincerity are evident. There are going to be very earnest and sincere people arguing on the other side as well. In my case, I have ancestors thoroughly involved in this early secretive polygamy. I have encountered historical documents that support the family’s established “story,” and I’ve also encountered historical documents that run totally counter. It’s so incredibly frustrating. Every public document from this period needs to be taken with a grain of salt. There was a lot of propaganda, a lot of arguments made by people who felt it was okay to bend truth in order to either (1) right the wrong of polygamy or (2) defend an institution that they felt was established by divine decree. I’m not sure that we can comfortably declare anyone’s actions spotless when it comes to the turmoil surrounding early polygamy.

  13. That’s interesting Steve. Of course theologically what’s good for the goose as good for the gander makes sense. As well it deals with the problem remarriages after death of one spouse in the afterlife. I’m not sure how to make sense of it historically though.

  14. Steve: “Ben, I argue in my diss that DC 132’s references to the polygamy of the biblical patriarchs was an outgrowth of events happening in 1842-43 and not 1831.” That seems right to me. I look forward to reading your work on it.

    Dave: I respectfully think you are reaching with your attempt to find contemporary evidence for vindicating Phelps’s letter re: polygamy 1831-1832. Portions of the letter can be vindicated (native intermarriage) while others can’t. That’s how it is. It’s not a lump sum. The section of the letter that deals with polygamy is clearly working within a post-Nauvoo theological context. The evidence from 1831-1832 not only fail to validate those sections of the letter, but they contradict it. The politics of memory allow certain elements to be embeleshed, revised, or invented (sincerely or otherwise) while others seem intact. That’s what seems to be going with the Phelps letter. Most credible historians from the last decade acknowledge that fact, which is why the Phelps letter is largely dismissed or marginalized to an interesting footnote. Scholars still see the letter as important, but important in that it demonstrates the state of Phelps’s thinking in 1861–not what took place in 1831.

    The biblicism that Kirtland-era polygamy grew out of—if it grew out of something at all during that time—is very different from the framework Phelps depicts in his late reminiscence. It seems mostly a form of biblical mimesis, a primitivistic urge to copy what the ancient patriarchs performed. The origins of a salvific polygamous web in which families are goined together through sealing bonds–the framework that Phelps evokes in his letter–seems to have seeds in the growing temple theology of early Nauvoo that came on the heels of the trauma of Missouri.

    History is tricky, and flawed interpretation based in emotion and superficial historical skill can lead to creative yet problematic depictions of the past. This is often the case with Mormon history, and especially the case with polygamy studies, as seen in the debates on the topic that have taken (and still is taking) place in the bloggernacle over the past eight months since the Church’s new essays.

  15. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Clean Cut, I think once upon a time, before feminism changed the way we look at this sort of thing, a fairly simple narrative was adequate for active Mormons: God told Joseph to practice polygamy, he did, then Brigham Young and others did, and then God told them to stop the practice. And when no one inside the Church talked about polygamy (thank you, no thank you, Correlation) no one ever really had to use that narrative.

    But that simple explanation won’t work for many Mormons, who now ask a question few earlier Mormons would have asked: Why would God tell anyone to practice polygamy? The LDS essays are sort of a first attempt to respond tothat question, which the Church has never really had to address before. A better description might be that it puts out a lot of information so individual Saints for whom this is a big issue can construct their own working answer. The existence of fundamentalist Mormons who keep the practice alive for all to see makes the whole process more difficult, of course.

    Final point: we Mormons are tough on ourselves. I don’t think many Southern Baptists beat themselves up because their religious predecessors practiced slavery and supported Jim Crow. I don’t know many Catholics who beat themselves up over the Inquisition. But Mormons feel compelled to own up to all our historical doctrinal errors. It’s nice that we own our history (no one else seems to do so), but maybe we are being too harsh on ourselves.

  16. Ben P, obviously Joseph Smith didn’t have a fully developed procedural plan for how the modern practice of polygamy would work in the early 1830s. Even the 1843 revelation, as long and detailed as it is, does not present a workable detailed plan and was quickly superseded. Once Joseph initiated the actual practice in Nauvoo in the early 1840s, the practice quickly generated its own procedures, practices, and justifications. The practice drove the doctrine more than a pre-planned theology drove the practice.

    The question about the origins is a simpler question: when did Joseph get the idea that the modern practice of polygamy was desirable or feasible or required of Joseph himself, a small cadre of close associates, or the Mormon membership as a whole?

    There is a parallel with the law of consecration, where what was spelled out on paper in the revelations was quickly rendered moot when the actual practice of consecrating property and getting a deed back from the bishop for some or all of the consecrated property was found to be unworkable. (See Hearken, O Ye People.) Likewise the Word of Wisdom, which in practice bears some relationship to D&C 89, seems to generate its own practical distinctions that have little to do with the text (caffeine and soda pop) and sometimes simply ignores the text (eat meat sparingly, or at every meal, whatever).

    So suggesting Nauvoo polygamy somehow grows from a different theology of polygamy, as if there was an early version floated in the 1830s and a new, distinct, and more sophisticated theology developed in Nauvoo ignores the fact that the actual practice drove the development of the doctrine. Idea-implementation-elaboration is the real-world process at work.

  17. Dave: in no way am I arguing that it was merely implemented by ideas. I’m just arguing that it was understood within a particular prism, and reconstructing that context is the historian’s job. And the context that Phelps’s letter gives is ahistorical given the evidence we have from 1831-1832. The context Phelps gives does not make any sense when it comes to Fanny Alger. The practical origins of polygamy seem, to me, more rooted in the reaction to the Missouri War.

  18. Dave, I think we’re harsh on ourselves because how we perceive our connection to God is somewhat different. We’re supposed to be living by continuous revelation. Or at least a fair bit. That means when there’s a mistake it says something about how we as a community are living up to the source. Protestants just have to say how well they are reading their Bibles but the whole grounding is just different for us. So I think we should beat ourselves up a bit more when we fail.

    Ben, why do you say the Missouri war (late 1830’s) rather than the production of the JST where Joseph clearly was reading the Bible, particularly Genesis, quite closely? I mean if we’re giving theories for where there is silence that seems most likely. You have a theology already claiming a restoration of all things. Admittedly the “restoration” language tends to pick up more in the 1840’s but it’s there in the 1830’s revelations. (Honest question by the way – while the data is pretty lacking the JST theory seems to make a lot of sense even if we’ll likely never know)

  19. In short, I don’t put much credence into the JST framework because there isn’t much evidence that such a connection was actually made. That is, they didn’t start practicing polygamy for years after it. Perhaps it played a role with Fanny Alger, but that situation is so obscure that it is a stretch. It probably planted a seed, but a seed that didn’t sprout for quite some time. On the other hand, the tumultuous aftermath of the Missouri War witnessed JS and the Mormons struggling to find an answer to death, separation, chaos, and the general excesses of democratic culture. In response to this, we see a concerted effort to frame life, practice, belief, and ritual in a way that solidified relationships and belonging. Polygamy was one element of that multi-pronged attempt to bring stability that transcended the here and now, which also included proxy salvation, sealing rituals, and everything else attached to the evolving temple theology.

  20. Dave, again, I argue it starts with Jacob 2:30, not the patriarchs in Genesis (polygyny), but a more radical reading of the Bible.

    Ben, I agree that the Missouri expulsion had major effects and made JS really want to get things in line for the afterlife. He suggests such in his March 20 letter. But I argue that prompts on marital experimentation go back to the Book of Mormon translation.

  21. From a sociologist’s point of view, polygamy was a flawed practice for many reasons. Children had limited access to their father, widows in a polygamous household were often left destitute when the first wife inherited all of her husband’s property, women were too often coerced into unhappy and lonely relationships, and family were not strengthened. As the great-grandchild of polygamous ancestors, I am fully aware of the negative consequences of this practice. It does not increase happiness, spirituality, or peace of mind. Coercive marriage of an older man to a younger woman often constitutes sex abuse and in today’s view, would be considered rape. There is no justification for the practice during pioneer times since, as has been mentioned, the ratio of women and men were fairly equal. Sadly, the Church still has not accepted responsibility for the amount of human suffering that resulted from this often inhumane practice which is still perpetrated by FLDS followers and other fundamentalist LDS religious groups.

  22. What are we to make of people claiming that 132 is cobbled together from at least 4 different revelations? I believe Hales makes this claim. What evidence do we have for this, especially if it was all dictated from memory by Joseph on demand?

  23. Ben, it seems that however one takes Alger – whether a believer as the first plural marriage or a skeptic as an affair – it has to play into Joseph’s understanding of relationship. So I don’t think we can just discount it as quickly as you do simply because we don’t know its explanation. Even if one buys into the skeptical view then that would seem to push towards polygamy as a kind of religious justification for the practice to absolve him of adultery. Admittedly the Cowdery/Smith dispute is later in 1838 and thus starting to be in the Missouri War era.

  24. Dave, I also think we need to be hard on ourselves when it comes to this issue. It is still very much part of the doctrine. The Baptists, as far as I know, are not claiming that there will be a renewal of slavery in heaven. We continue to seal men to multiple women. We say it is part of the eternal order of things. This is not just historical navel gazing.

  25. Very interesting sharings here, with some documentation–helps me understand what the controversies are and what they are based on. My wife’s GGGfather was polygamous–he came in Brigham Young’s wagon to Salt Lake. Occasionally we meet cousins from a different wife. We have never heard any gossip or rumors or complains from any of the women in this large family, and my wife grew up with an aceptance of polygamy as “inspired” & she hasn’t had issues about it. My main thought in reading these posts—which are review in some instances–is that we really can’t imagine what relationships are like in the next life. For example, my daughter is “sealed” to me yet she is “sealed” to her husband and his patriarchal order, in some way that she is still sealed to me in my patriarchal order. Same with my wife and her dad. So the term “sealing” is one which doesn’t have an earthly definition that works for me. Celestial Love in these “sealed” circumstances may trump all the other concerns we have here. We are told the The Proclamation that Gender has eternal significance, and supposedly we are resurrected in perfect detail—anatomically correct I suppose—does a gestational period in the celestial kingdom have any significance? That’s a practicality on earth if you look at polyandry vs polygyny. In the next life a divorced woman on this earth “loses” her children to her husband, if he is faithful. If she is faithful, do you think really that her relationship with those children will be diminished in the Celestial Kingdom? Be glad to hear any thoughts in in response to these 3 or 4 thoughts–thanks for sharing here

  26. I wish Fanny Alger were mentioned more explicitly in discussions of polygamy. She seems to clearly be the earliest known example of Joseph’s sexual experimentation, and I feel there are probably more answers in her story than anywhere else. Although, to be honest, I am unsure what those answers are. I think it is a mistake to assume that relationship was necessarily the same as Joseph’s polygamous ones in the 1840s, or motivated by the same things.

    I also wish Joseph had lived another ten years, for many reasons, but one of which is so we could have seen where his revelations led him. I feel like so many things were just beginning in the 1840s, but with Joseph’s death they were all frozen in stasis by Brigham, since he didn’t really know where to take them or the motivation behind them.

    I think Joseph’s polygamy would have turned out very different than Brigham’s, assuming Joseph continued with it at all.

    But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

  27. Regarding the celestial gestation period- if something is infinite and eternal, why would you need two of them? Infinity times two is still infinity. Why wouldn’t one exalted female- a goddess- be sufficient?

  28. “with Joseph’s death they were all frozen in stasis by Brigham, since he didn’t really know where to take them or the motivation behind them.”

    I’d argue that with Joseph’s death and the brief isolation in the west Brigham took them exactly where he knew Joseph desired to take them — building self-sufficient communities, focused on living (trying to) the united order, preaching the gospel to the saints, sending out missionaries abroad, and building temples to lay the foundation for the endowment and eternal families. Was he perfect in doing it? Of course not, but he carried Jospeh’s vision off on his shoulders in a way that was certainly not frozen in stasis, but quite the opposite really. It was a lived continuation of Joseph’s revelations.

  29. Steve Fleming,
    You bring up an interesting hypothesis with your Jacob 2:30 idea, however, I’d love to know what historical evidence you have to support it. I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that the early saints used Jacob 2:30 as any kind of justification for polygamy. The scant evidence I have seen shows that this interpretation of “raise up seed” wasn’t introduced until the late 1800s and wasn’t in the air during the early years. I’ve also seen some compelling evidence that our modern interpretation about the phrase “raise up seed” is actually a misreading of the meaning of that phrase. Thoughts?

  30. Good points, hft. My argument on that point is sort of difficult to summarize as it’s linked to a larger argument I make in my dissertation about texts and ideas that I think influenced JS. But to make an attempt, as I argue in a post that I linked to in comment 14, I think JS’s original plan was one of shared marriages but that JS switched to polygyny with DC 132. Shared marriages fits a larger pattern that I note in my dissertation. Further, I argue that the phrase “raise up seed” also suggests shared marriages since the phrase is used in the Bible to refer to a woman having more than one husband.

    I have found no instances of JS or anyone else using it as justification in the early years. However, the verse does suggest some kind of exception. Furthermore, there was an awful lot the early Mormons, especially JS kept quiet in the early years, particularly in regards to polygamy. So my argument in using Jacob 2:30 is it fitting a larger pattern of Joseph’s actions and teachings.

  31. Steve do you have any positive arguments for shared marriages? Beyond levirate marriage phraseology parallels? I admit that I find the notion interesting theologically. However for history I suspect you’ll need more positive evidence than mere rhetorical parallels. The problem is that we lack much by way of evidence so we’re left drawing big conclusions from rather limited data. That tends to entail our theories being rather weak.

  32. Most of JS’s first wives were married. That’s begged some explanation for some time. For the most part, they did not leave their first husbands for JS. JC Bennett reported that JS told Nancy Rigdon that if she married JS she would be “free” to marry another man also. Hannah Ann Dubois seemed to have married Philo Dibble after she married JS. Stuff like that.

  33. Both my Maternal Grandmother and Paternal Grandmother were granddaughters of polygamists. I heard nothing but love from each of them as they described their experiences growing up with polygamy. Coincidentally, they both called the “other” grandmothers “aunt”. I once made the mistake (during my teenage rebellious years) of saying to my Maternal Grandmother (born in 1888) that I suspected most practicing polygamists did so because they were a bunch of “horny old men”. Boy, did she let me have it! She said they were wonderful men who married widows and other women who were in need of a companion. She referred to all of the women in the relationship as strong, good-hearted women who helped raise her.

  34. Steve (37) Like I said, I’m not disagreeing philosophically. I’ve actually thought that for a very long time going back to college. The “good for the goose, good for the gander” approach is the only thing that really makes it make sense IMO. So I believe it. I’m just not sure that Joseph’s marriage pattern is quite enough to establish it. Likewise Bennett is more than a little biased in his accounts to be trustworthy. I think it also has to be put up against the dynastic explanation of Sacred Loneliness etc. I think we can systematize to try and figure out a rational basis for things, but establishing that was actually what Joseph was thinking at the time seems a bit more difficult to do.

    Susan (38), I don’t think anyone is saying all polygamists were bad. It was a difficult situation for all involved and some managed it much better than others. I think the sociological aspect is more that it incentivizes certain types of bad behavior by some. We see that sort of bad behavior among the 19th century Mormons. Although to be fair we should also compare it with broad relationships at the time which frankly were pretty horrific in general from a modern perspective. Polygamy might have been harder than monogamy but people in that era generally treated women quite poorly – a point feminist historians have made for a long time. (I’m not a feminist, but it’s hard to argue with most of their data here)

    Of course there are plenty of bad relationships today too. But I think in general we have a more flourishing society in terms of women’s place in it and how they live. Perhaps not in all areas, but I’d definitely rather live today than then. What I think we see though is that good people often are good even in difficult societies.

  35. That was just a brief explanation, Clark. Like I said above, I go over this in more detail in my diss. Take a look if your interested. 351-85.

  36. And in terms of Compton’s dynastic explanation, I agree that the marriages were meant to link people together (that’s pretty clear) but that shared marriages (or what I call in the diss. “composite marriage”) would work better than polygyny since it would allow for more linking. Again, I argue that was JS’s earlier intent. And see my discussion of Helen Kimball (377-79) since she’s the one whose marriage people usually apply the term “dynastic” to.

  37. Plural marriage practices in the early Restoration seem to be most controversial among those who wish to provoke controversy.

  38. I’m intrigued by the ideas about the intersections of doctrine and practice that Dave brought up and of the ambiguous place polyandry holds in all of this. According to Church practice, and arguably doctrine, a living man cannot be sealed to more than one living woman and vis-versa. If a woman dies, as I understand it, her living widower can be sealed to another woman, with the assumption that polygamy exists in the afterlife. A living widowed woman cannot be sealed to another man if she remarries following the death of her first husband without annulling the initial sealing. However, in performing vicarious work for the dead, we are permitted to seal a woman to multiple husbands, provided all involved parties are deceased. (See https://www.lds.org/manual/members-guide-to-temple-and-family-history-work/chapter-7-providing-temple-ordinances).

    In this latter case, I think the implied assumption is that we don’t know which husband and woman wanted to be with and that everything will be sorted out in the eternities. I wouldn’t be surprised if church policy was changed at some point to allow a living widowed woman to be sealed to her second living husband in addition to her first. I’m not suggesting that there should be a doctrinal basis for polyandry in the afterlife. It just looks like a good example of how Church practice is grappling with the complexities of life and our cultural frameworks are interacting with our understanding of revelation and doctrine in changing ways, all while trying to be sensitive to the emotional and familial baggage that accompanies the merging of families and of processing the demands of life and death.

  39. Aaron I would like to see the policy change for a variety of reasons. (Contrast it with say work for the dead where the Church tends to adopt a “seal them and let the Lord work it out in the Millennium view) However to be quite fair to the brethren it would require a revelation. And I doubt people are pushing for new revelations on polygamy. (grin) Still I do hope the sealing rule becomes a bit more even in the future.

  40. Aaron, a living man can be sealed to more than one living woman. If he is divorced and receives a sealing clearance, he can be sealed to a new wife. A divorced or widowed woman must have her first sealing canceled in order to be sealed to another man.

  41. In DC 132 –the 3 laws governing polygamy–1. wife consent 2. virgin 3. not espoused–all 3 broken by Josesph.

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