Siring Gods

In my last post I noted that a paper I wrote on pre-Utah fertility rhetoric and theology for the Maxwell Institute’s Summer Seminar was no longer available on their website, and that this was discouraging because I hadn’t kept a final copy because I assumed it would always be available on their site. After scrounging around my email I found what I think is a final copy, so I am posting it here so that it has some online presence. It is meant to be a prototype first chapter for a book on Latter-day Saint fertility norms, theology, behavior, and rhetoric that I’ll probably get to sometime after I retire. It was written a while ago now, so forgive the occasionally cringe academic-ese writing. 

Siring Gods: The history of Mormon fertility patterns and theology

Chapter 1: Then shall they be Gods, for they have no end: The roots of Mormon fertility theology and the beginning of polygyny.


The pre-Nauvoo LDS Church was theologically conventional relative to its later manifestation. During their time in New York (1830-1831), Ohio, (1831-1838) and Missouri (1838) Mormons had particular beliefs about the theological disputes of the day such as the gifts of the spirit or baptism by immersion, but these positions were within the realm of acceptable variation for the general religious milieu of the day (with a few obvious exceptions that helped contribute to tensions with the surrounding environment such as a new line of priesthood authority).  While many of the more visible aspects of Mormonism were considered idiosyncratic, early Mormon cosmology was for the most part congruent with traditional Christian cosmology.

This congruence with the background social and religious environment extended to fertility attitudes and rhetoric. Mormons had not yet differentiated themselves by their exotic family forms, high fertility, or radical post-life cosmology. In this natural-fertility era, fulfillment of the command in Genesis to multiply and replenish the earth was seen as the natural outcome of living a traditional married life, and as such was largely taken for granted. While the Genesis passage commanding “multiplying and replenishing the earth” was occasionally mentioned in the official Church publications Evening and Morning Star and its successor The Messenger and Advocate, it was always in passing and was not heavily emphasized. At one point a documented disagreement arose between early Church leaders Oliver Cowdery and William Phelps and Lorenzo Young when the latter two harshly disagreed with Lorenzo Young’s statement that “It is a pity that women, whose husbands cannot do any thing for their comfort, should be obliged to bear children every year,”[1] but this attitude reflected the common gendered attitudes of the day, an in general fertility issues were not salient in early LDS concerns or discourse. In a temporarily canonized article on marriage written the same year by Oliver Cowdery, children are only mentioned twice: once when children are commanded to obey their parents, and once when parents are commanded to not mistreat their children.

Early Mormon Church membership was in a constant state of flux, with both high apostasy rates and high conversion rates, making it unlikely that any kind of Mormon-specific fertility norms could settle and take hold. Mormon fertility during the New York, Ohio, and Missouri era were probably not significantly different from the background fertility rate (although quality Mormon demographic data from this era are not yet available), as theologically there was no more reason for Mormons to get married and have children than there was for their traditional Christian neighbors.

Nevertheless, while the strongly pronatalist doctrines that would characterize later Mormon discourse were not explicitly disseminated throughout the Mormon population, the seeds of these later developments were put in place during this time.

Polygamy had been practiced before Nauvoo, but the theological structure supporting the practice was not written down until then, making conjectures about early LDS polygamy/fertility theology somewhat speculative[2]; however, some of the pieces interconnected with the later Nauvoo developments fell into place at this time.

Foreshadowing later distinctive Mormon family patterns, the Book of Mormon published in 1830 justifies polygamy only in cases where it is commanded by God in order to “raise up seed unto [God],” thus providing the initial scriptural support for the demographic justification for polygamy that would arguably become the primary explanation for polygamy within the Mormon community, and also foreshadowing a more contemporary pronatalist perspective among Mormons that it was incumbent on them to reproduce in order to raise up faithful progeny that would be assets to God.

There is some scanty evidence that fertility-based justifications for polygamy were disseminated within an elect inner-circle pre-Nauvoo. In an account written nearly 30 years after the fact in a letter to Brigham Young, W.W. Phelps claims that he received a revelation from Joseph Smith 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 morte virtuous than the gentiles.” Several years later W.W. Phelps asked for a clarification and received more specific instruction that this would require polygamy.

In another late (1896), second hand source Levi Hancock’s son reported that “as early as the spring of 1832 Bro Joseph said ‘Brother Levi, The Lord has revealed to me that it is his will that righteous men shall take righteous women even a plurality of Wives that a righteous race may be sent forth Uppon  the earth preparatory to the ushering in of the Millenail Reign of our Refeemer For the Lord has such a high respect for the nobles of his kingdom that he is not willing for them to come through the Loins of careles [sic] People.”[3]

Both of these accounts reflect the sentiment of the Book of Mormon polygamy passage; however, since these statements are all many years after the fact, when the more developed post-life theology, it is unclear to what extent these statements reflect evidence of early innovation of Nauvoo-era theology, or later backward projections of current polygamy-related belief and practice.

During the Kirtland era a revelation (later to become D&C 49) was published stating that when a opposite-sex pair are married “they twain should be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation; and that it might be filled with the measure of man, according to his creation before the world was made.” Similar lofty language, placing the reproductive imperative at the very existential center of the earth’s history, would be later used in the liturgical reenactment of the earth’s creation as part of the Nauvoo-era temple endowment. However, the pronatalist imperative was not the focus of the revelation (which was responding to very particular doctrines taught by the shakers); being sandwiched between a condemnation of religious vegetarianism and a call to receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Later when the role of creation itself was placed in the center of LDS afterlife cosmology the theological structure hinted at in this revelation became more developed.

Fertility is about creation, but it is also about relationships. The fertility theology of early Mormonism was a natural extension of the theology of perpetuation and multiplication of afterlife relationships[4] that, while finding its full manifestation during the Nauvoo-era, also had roots in pre-Nauvoo developments. Joseph Smith himself craved relational sociality. He often noted in his diary his emotional reactions to being able to spend time with his wife and children, and in his letters to his wife reminded her of his need to hear from her. His attitude towards his children were similarly emotional, and reveal the importance of the parent-child relationship in his worldview.[5] In a priesthood blessing (a Mormon ritual where a man places his head on an individual and pronounces a divinely inspired blessing) given to his father, Smith again emphasizes the high relational value of offspring:  “blessed, also, are my fathers <brothers> and my sisters, for they shall yet find redemption in the house of the Lord, and their offsprings shall be a blessing, a joy and a comfort unto them.” Joseph Smith craved sociality, logical that an eternal perpetuation and multiplication of those relationships found a central place in his afterlife cosmology.

While later and somewhat hagiographic, an 1892 account by Louisa Littlefield, who was baptized at 14 in Kirtland suggests that this sentiment extended to children in general:

In Kirtland, when wagon loads of grown people and children came in from the country to meeting, Joseph would make his way to as many of thewagson as he well could and cordially shake the hand of each person. Every child and young babe in the company were especially noticed by him and tenderly taken by the hand, with his kind words and blessings. He loved innocence and puryt, and he seemd to find it in the greatest perfection with the prattling child.[6]

Mormon cosmology eventually incorporated the perpetuation and multiplication of these valued relationships, making them central to the whole theological edifice. On multiple occasions Smith stated that he would prefer to go to hell with his friends than to heaven alone.[7] The theological developments of the Kirtland era allowed him to have his friends and family in heaven as well. In a discourse during the Kirtland period, he expressed his desire to earn “a crown, to enjoy the society of father mother Alvin Hyrum Sophrona Samuel Catherine Carloss Lucy [his immediate family] the saints and all the sanctifyd in peace forever.” [8] In about 1835, he began teaching his close associates marriage could be perpetuated beyond the grave,[9] opening up a space for the possibility of partnered reproduction in the afterlife. This maintenance of familial relationships beyond the grave was theologically formalized and authorized by a vision in 1836 in which Elijah the Hebrew prophet purportedly visited Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and gave them the authority to “seal” family relations together for posthumonous continuation. This new doctrine congealed these earlier expressed desires for celestial sociality and family into a more formal theological framework, and provided the foundation for the eternal creation-centered theology that would undergird later specific pronatalist imperatives. While in contemporary Mormonism the focus of the Elijah episode is on the “turning of the hearts of the children to the fathers,”—generally interpreted as a call for genealogical work, the Elijah episode also sacralized the parent-child bond in “turning the hearts of the parents to their children,” giving it eternal permanence, raising the benefits of having children in this world, as there was a possibility of enjoying the relational benefits of children in the hereafter, presumably without the temporal costs of children incurred on earth.

At around the same time in Kirtland, Joseph Smith performed his first wedding ceremony for Newell Knight and Lydia Bailey, during which he emphasized the reproductive function of marriage by invoking the Adam and Eve archetype: “I then pronounced them husband and wife in the name of God and also the blessings that the Lord conferred upon adam and Eve in the garden of Eden; that is to multiply and replenish the earth, with the addition of long life and prosperity;”[10] While the documentation is scarce, it appears that this was the beginning of the inclusion of the injunction to “multiply and replenish the earth” in the Mormon marriage ritual that has continued until the present day. On January 20, 1836, Joseph married Apostle John F. Boynton to Susan Lowell, pronouncing upon them “the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and such other blessings as the Lord put into my heart.”[11] Given the association Smith was later to make between fertility and Abaraham’s blessings, it is likely that this blessing was referring to numerous posterity.

While the Kirtland era introduced foundational concepts, it was not until Nauvoo (1840) the basic principles planted during that time (polygyny to increase fertility, continuation of relationships after death) were developed into a full-blown creation (and therefore, fertility)-centered theology that ultimately affected Mormon fertility patterns.


While pre-Nauvoo the model of heaven as the eternal perpetuation of social and familial relationships was formulated, in Nauvoo it was more openly taught and emphasized, becoming absorbed into the collective Mormon religious consciousness that would eventually go on to affect family structures, fertility patterns, and the rhetoric that would typify later family-centric Mormon discourse.

In 1840, Parley P. Pratt, an early Church leader, met with Joseph Smith in Philadelphia for a few days while he and some of his colleagues were preparing for missions to England. He later recounted:

During these interviews he taught me many great and glorious principles concerning God and the heavenly order of eternity. It was at this time that I was received from him the first idea of eternal family organization, and the eternal union of the sexes in those inexpressibly endearing relationships which none but the highly intellectual, the refined and pure in heart, know how to prize, and which are at the very foundation of everything worthy to be called happiness. Till then I had learned to esteem kindred affections and sympathies as pertaining solely to this transitory state, as something from which the heart must be entirely weaned, in order to be fitted for its heavenly state.[12] [Emphasis mine].

This instruction conveyed the notion that people whose hearts were in the right place (the “highly intellectual, the refined and pure in heart”) would crave familial sociality the same way Joseph Smith did, and religiously legitimated the unapologetic fulfillment of this yearning.  In a discourse given in the unfinished Nauvoo temple in 1843, William Clayton recorded that Joseph Smith taught that after he had died “when the voice calls, suppose I am laid by the side of my father.—what would be the first joy of my heart? Where is my father—my mother—my sister. They are by my side I embrace them and they me.” [13] In the King Follet Discourse given in next year, he gave his most explicit, public advocacy of the radical doctrine that men may become Gods (a teaching that was later to contribute to his downfall, being cited in The Nauvoo Expositor, the paper whose destruction led to his ultimate arrest and death, as one of the evidences of his status as a fallen prophet). Re-emphasizing the eternal continuity of earthly relationships, and specifically emphasizing the parent-child connection:

Mothers you shall have your children, for they shall have eternal life; for their debt is paid, there is no damnation awaits them, for they are in the spirit.— As the child dies, so shall it rise from the dead and be forever living in the learning of God, it shall be the child, the same as it was before it died out of your arms. Children dwell and exercise power in the same form as they laid them down. [14] In his own hastily recorded transcript of the discourse, Wilford Woodruff also included, “Eternity is full of thrones upon which dwell thousands of children reigning on thrones of glory.”[15] In a later recollection, Joseph Kingsbury stated that Joseph Smith had promised him that he and his deceased wife “shall be crowned and enthroned together in the Celestial Kingdom of God Enjoying Each others Society in all the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ & our little ones with us.” [16] The emphasis on relationships was canonized in a revelation that later became  Doctrine and Covenants 130, stating that “the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.” For Joseph Smith, “relationships were the ontological glory.”[17]

During the Nauvoo period, childbearing and marriages were seen as methods of multiplying these relationships, thus multiplying the glory derived from these divine associations. The first and only canonized treatment of polygamy addressed it in these terms, telling Joseph that God 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.”[18]

The continuation and multiplication of social relations was conceptually interconnected with the emerging Mormon concept of deification. Exaltation radically broke from the traditional Christian concept of enjoying the presence of God in heaven to becoming a God, complete with the ability to create children and worlds. It was in the power of creation that Godhood itself was defined. In the polygamy revelation the fate of the exalted is explained in detail: “and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fullness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. [Emphasis mine.] Then shall they be Gods, because they have no end.” [19] The phrase “continuation of seeds” was unanimously interpreted by Smith’s contemporaries as describing eternal reproduction in an exalted afterlife. In a Mormon scripture published near the beginning of Mormonism in 1830, God reveals that his “work and [his] glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” The 1844 scripture brings this full circle by explaining that the glory of exalted individuals is to generate more children of their own. Future theological exegesis rooted in Nauvoo-era theology would expand on this notion to include the concept that those children would then have the opportunity to be exalted to God’s status and so on, siring and endless, interconnected chain of creating, reproducing Gods.[20] A hymn by William Phelps published shortly after Joseph Smith’s death that remains in the LDS hymnal explicates this concept:

Do you think that you could ever,

Through all eternity,

Find out the generation

Where Gods began to be?

Or see the grand beginning

Where space did not extend?

Or view the last creation

Where Gods and matter end

There is no end to glory

There is no end to love

There is no end to being

There is no death above. [21]

With the 1844 revelation the end all of Mormonism became clear: eternal reproduction and creation. Mormonism became, at its theological roots, fundamentally about fertility.

In a pamphlet published in Nauvoo, Church leader Parley Pratt explained,

Heaven…is composed of an innumerable association of glorified worlds, and happy immortal beings, beaming with an effulgence of light, intelligence, and love, of which our earth, small and insignificant as it is, must form some humble part. Immortal man…will by no means be confined, or limited in his sphere of action to this small planet; but will wing his way, like a risen Saviour, from world to world…The continued ceasless [sic] exertions of creative goodness will, by the acquisition of new creations, form a sufficient field for the exercise of his priestly and kingly powers.[22]

While implied in the Pratt statement, post-life reproduction and its connection to this-life relationships is more explicitly delineated in Warren Foote’s account, “we learned that the celestial law binds for time and eternity, and our connexion as husbands and wives, parents, and children never ceases in time nor all eternity, and we will continue to increase while eternities roll around.” [23] Finally, “increase” is very explicitly identified as post-mortal reproduction by Joseph Smith’s secretary in his diary: “Except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity while in this probation by the power and authority of the Holy priesthood they will cease to increase when they die (i.e. they will not have any children in the resurrection), but those who are married by the power and authority of the priesthood in this life and continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost will continue to increase and have children in the celestial glory.” [24]

As Mormonism believed that relations in this life continued into the next one, and that the one’s glory was commensurate with the number of relations in the next life, these theologies combined to create a powerful pronatalist theological imperative. In a later (1903) quotation, Benjamin Johnston reported that “The First Command was to ‘Multiply’ and the Prophet taught us that Dominion & powr in the great Future would be Comensurate with the no of Wives and Childin & Frends” that we inheret to take with us. To the increase of which there would be no end.”[25] In an expose written after he was excommunicated and after Joseph Smith’s death, Oliver Olney wrote that Church leaders “believe it is their privilege before God to raise up as many children here in the flesh as they can, that they may have a greater kingdom to rule over in eternity; and on being asked how many women it is one’s privilege to beget children with, the answer is, ‘as many as you can maintain.’ “[26]Joseph Smith directly identified post-mortal reproduction as a mirror of earthly fertility, suggesting that a form of the glory that can be derived from numberless posterity in the afterlife can be derived in a more limited fashion on earth “The earthly is the image of the Heavenly[.] [It] shows that [it] is by the multiplication of Lives that the eternal worlds are created and occupied.”[27]

Reproduction was an essential characteristic of Godhood, but this-life reproduction was also a practical requirement to provide enough bodies for pre-mortal spirits to pass through the fallen mortal state required for eventual exaltation. The more children one had, the more premortal spirits had the opportunity to be raised in a practicing Mormon home. While this line of reasoning would find its apogee in the later Utah era, it began in Nauvoo. Nauvoo member Charles Lambert recalled that Joseph Smith told him that “there are thousands of spirits that have been waiting to come forth in this day and generation. Their proper channel is through the priesthood, a way has to be provided. But the time has come and they have got to come away.”[28] In her later life public defense of polygamy, one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives wrote that “It was revealed to him [Joseph Smith] that there were thousands of spirits, yet unborn, who were anxiously waiting for the privilege of coming down to take tabernacles of flesh, that their glory might be complete.”[29]Once again, this logic mirrors the original justification given in the Book of Mormon, that the purpose of polygamy was to raise up seed unto God.

The reproduction rhetoric during the Nauvoo era merged with the deification rhetoric. Whereas conventional Christians would speak about gaining eternal life, Mormon discourse would invoke “eternal lives,” reflecting the eternal expansion of one’s self their eternally exponentially increasing offspring. When some of the New Testament writers write of their hope for a crown in the hereafter, Mormons would refer to their hope in “crowns,” again suggesting rulership over multiple domains due to the fundamentally interconnected nature of afterlife kinship structures formed by offspring. The fourteenth chapter of John in the King James Version that the early Mormons used, Christ refers to the mansions in heaven, and says that he will prepare a place for his Apostles. In Mormon scripture, people inherit not just “a place,” but multiple mansions.[30]  Even when directly addressing offspring Mormon scripture uses the term “seeds”[31] instead of simply seed, again emphasizing the exponentially growing, multi-nucleated structure of the grand interconnected chain of Gods. In a Nauvoo entry in his journal, early Mormon leader and Smith confidante Heber C. Kimball wrote “I love my dear family, and may it increase more and more, that now [no] power can sepperate us from Each other, that we may dwell to gether through all Eternity, and thare be in thrond [enthroned] on worlds, to propogate that thare may be no end to us or our Seeds.”[32]

In a natural fertility era, fertility was itself controlled largely through marriage, and polygyny was seen as a way to increase a man’s fertility.[33]The one extant written record of the language used in a Nauvoo-era plural sealing ceremony is between Joseph Smith and Sarah Anne Whitney mentioned the presence of offspring (“all those powers to concentrate in you and through to your posterity forever.” [34]), clearly indicating that offspring was expected from the union.

Finally and most definitively, the one revelation on the subject of plural marriage directly identifies the reproductive imperative as the rationale for polygamy, saying that Joseph Smith’s wives “are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment…and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men; for herein is the work of my father continued, that he may be glorified.”[35]

In another verse (v.31), Joseph is told that a massive, Abrahamic-size progeny both in this life and the life to come would assist “the continuation of the works of my father, wherein he glorifieth himself.” Once again, the “work of my father” (LDS revelations are generally are spoken in the first person, with the purported speaker being Jesus) is reproduction. While there is a theology of Heavenly Mother in Mormonism[36], the language here suggests that the Godhood is a patrilineal process, and that therefore it is the male fertility that matters.

It is also clear that the revelation is not only directed towards this-life fertility.

Abraham received promises concerning his seed, and of the fruit of his loins—from whose loins ye are, namely, my servant Joseph—which were to continue so long as they were in the world; and as touching Abraham and his seed, out of the world they should continue; both in the world and out of the world should they continue as innumerable as the stars; or, if ye were to count the sand upon the seashore ye could not number them. This promise is yours also. [Emphasis mine]

For our more this-life fertility interest, it is worth noting that it is considered a blessing for Smith’s offspring to continue as innumerable as the stars in the world in the world (i.e. biological offspring on the earth). While this new cosmology opened up the possibility of numberless offspring in the hereafter, it still strongly emphasizes biological offspring in the here and now.

Earlier in the revelation the fate of people who do not follow “the law” is outlined[37], “they are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight and glory. For these angels did not abide my law; but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever.”[38] The theological implications are clear. The ultimate rungs of exaltation are reserved for couples with children. While single people are in a “saved condition,” they are not exalted to Godhood. While the traditional Christians of then and now may tend to support traditional family mores and structures as a matter of general ideological and theological conservativism[39], for Mormonism one’s family and relationship status literally becomes a dealbreaker for exaltation. While the possibility of such relationships formed in the afterlife opens up a theological space for the exaltation of people who die childless or single, in common LDS discourse then and now this option is exclusively reserved for people who remain childless or single due to circumstances beyond their control.

To say that there’s no space in the highest rung of LDS heavenly glory for the voluntary singles or childless is missing the point; people who prefer singleness and childlessness wouldn’t enjoy the highest Mormon heaven even if they were let in. By its very definition the highest rung of LDS heavenly glory (the “Celestial Kingdom”) is the very antithesis of childlessness or singleness, as the eternally increasing creation engendered by an opposite sex spouse or spouses and children is its defining characteristic.

During the Nauvoo era the centrality of offspring was also emphasized in the temple ceremony, a liturgical drama and initiation ceremony where the creation and Adam and Eve’s fall from God’s presence is reenacted, after which participants (symbolically representing Adam and Eve) move through rooms representing gradated, increasingly higher levels of holiness, culminating with the ceremonial re-entry into the presence of God. Before the fall, Adam and Eve are commanded to multiply and replenish the earth, that they might have joy in their rejoicing in their posterity [my emphasis]. Again, the sanctified, holy sociality that exists in the parent-child bond is the reason given for multiplying and replenishing the earth. During the creation portion of the ceremony, every living thing is commanded to “multiply in its sphere, that every form of life may fill the measure of its creation and have joy therein.” However, this line is only used for the creative periods when plants and animals are created, and are not used for the 6th period when humans are created.

Nauvoo set up the theological framework for a strongly creation and relationship-centered, pronatalist culture through multiple angles. Having children itself was considered the definining characteristic of divinity that Mormons aspired to, as celestial glory was defined as enjoying, expanding, and multiplying relationships. Having children was also a practical necessity to provide enough bodies for premortal spirits who were waiting to come down and pass through the required mortal stage on their way to deification, and creation and reproduction itself as placed in the existential center of the earth’s and humankind’s existence in the sacred temple rituals.

However, the strong pronatalist theology notwithstanding, it is likely that Nauvoo-era fertility rates did not differ significantly from the background fertility rate, or that it was even lower than average. In a natural fertility setting, options for increasing fertility are limited. The one mechanism that can be manipulated are marital rates. While the practice of polygyny does indeed raise aggregate fertility rates in a society by increasing the marital rate.[40],[41], due to the surreptitious nature of Nauvoo polygamy, sexual intercourse between husbands and their plural wives was probably infrequent at best. Consequently, while some of these same women would later go on to bear many children as plural wives post-Joseph Smith, hardly any Nauvoo plural wives bore children during Joseph Smith’s life. There is solid documentation for only two births from Nauvoo plural wives before Smith’s death, with some evidence for a handful more. [42] During a time when there were approximately 50 plural wives and 29 polygamous husbands.[43] Due to polygamy, it appears that during this time some women who otherwise would have been exposed to intercourse were not, thus decreasing the overall fertility. However, the portion of women in Nauvoo who were practicing polygamy was very small, and it is unclear to what extent the newfound emphasis on eternal family structures within the Church affected monogamous marital patterns.

There are some accounts from Nauvoo-era members that seem to indicate the presence of a surplus of women, suggesting that Nauvoo-era polygamy may have simply soaked up the excess women that would not have been married or consistently sexually active anyway, thus not significantly affecting the fertility rate.[44] Later historians have been generally dismissive of these claims, but there isn’t any quantitative evidence to challenge these early accounts, and the idea of women joining in disproportionate numbers comports with the finding that women in general tend to be more religious than men.[45]Ultimately the data are not good enough to either confirm or disconfirm these conjectures. Susan Easton Black has compiled a list of early Church members from 1830-1848. I’ve web scraped the gender column in the data and have found a relative surplus of men; however, this is probably due to systematic bias, as men are more likely to appear in the record because they simply have more opportunities to do so due to records kept on priesthood rituals and ordinations. Future research would only include men and women who had a recorded baptismal date, and as of yet the data are not clean enough to do such an analysis.

There is an ongoing Nauvoo Community project being conducted at BYU that is attempting to create at least a somewhat accurate and representative listing of people who lived in Nauvoo, but it will still be a few years before the data are good enough to perform demographic analyses with.[46]

In the aftermath of Joseph Smith’s death an interesting historical event occurred that illustrates a cultural internalization of the strong pronatalist norms set up by the Nauvoo-era theological framework. In the days before artificial contraception, fertility was largely controlled through marital status. Therefore, more children= more wives. An inherent limitation to fertility is the time that it takes to conceive and bear a child. After the death of Joseph Smith the offspring-preoccupied early Mormons started employing the new theological mechanism of spiritual adoption in order to bypass this limitation and even more quickly add to their progeny in the afterlife.[47] Brigham Young had 48 different people sealed to him in one day, and approximately 300 couples sealed to him total, whereas Heber C. Kimball had approximately 200 couples sealed to him. [48] There was a scramble among different church leaders to adopt as many adults as children as possible in order to expand their kingdom in the hereafter. [49] It is worth noting that these adoptive relationships were not exclusively focused on the afterlife; Brigham Young attempted to nourish something like a traditional familial relationship with his adopted sons and daughters, holding large adopted family-clan meetings in Winter Quarters[50], and adoptive relationships were taken seriously in terms of appropriating land in the later Utah era.[51] Eventually, however, the conflicts that arose over the competition for offspring, as well as the practical concerns in incorporating such a massive adopted family, led to this practice being largely abandoned. However, this scramble for children episode illustrates the hypernatalist attitudes of the early Mormon Church from which the current unique Mormon fertility patterns have their historical genesis.

After Smith’s death the Mormons left Nauvoo for temporary way stations on their way to Utah. With the pressure off, polygamy boomed; from a small cadre of the most loyal women, the number of plural wives would increase until it reached 1,134 after the westward migration. [52] Now plural wives could bear children, and the increase in marital rates would have implications for fertility. It is during this era that we get the first quantitative evidence of a Mormon fertility effect. Specifically, Garden Grove, a Mormon way station in Iowa between the Mormon base at Winter Quarters and Nauvoo, has been shown to have relatively high birthrate compared to its surrounding area.[53] However, these numbers are non-representative of the Mormon community because Garden Grove was often used as a waystation for women giving birth to children, so it is difficult to know how much of the difference was a Mormon effect per se, or was simply the natural consequence of pregnant women staying longer to avoid delivering on the prairie.

The exodus from Nauvoo was the beginning of the reality of the high Mormon fertility and large, polygamous patriarchal clans that would come to define Mormon family structures for the next 50 years.


[1] Jessee, Dean C., Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008-2014. History, 1838-1856, vol. B-1 1 Sept 1834- 2. Nov 1838: Addenda, Note F. 29 September 1835.

[2] It is not the purpose of this paper to provide a history of the development of Nauvoo-era polygamy theology. For a comprehensive treatment, see Hales, Brian C. Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Vol. 3 (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2013).

[3]As cited in Hales, Brian C. Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, Vol. 1 (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2013) 89.

[4] For a more in-depth history of the Mormon doctrine of afterlife relationships, see Brown, Samuel Morris. In Heaven as it is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death. Oxford University Press, 2011.

[5] In an 1832 letter to Emma he writes “the thaughts  of home of Emma[Hale Smith] and Julia [M. Smith] rushes upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for [a] moment to be with them my breast is filled  with all the feelings and tenderness of a parent  and a Husband and could I be with you.” In a letter later that year he writes that he would “See little  Julia [M. Smith] and once more take her on my knee and  converse with you on the all the subjects whi ch concerns us” . In 1834, “short were it not at every now and then our thoughts linger with inexpressible  anxiety for our wives and our children our kindred according to the flesh who  are entwined around our hearts; And also our brethren and friends;  …  We learn this journey how to travel, and we look with pleasing anticip ation for the time to come, when we shall retrace our steps, and take this journey  again in the enjoyment and embrace of that society we so much love, which  society can only cause us to have any desire or lingering thoughts of that which is below… Continue to pray to the Lord to hasten the day when we shall be permitted to behold  each other’s face again and enjoy the blessing of the family circle in peace and in  righteousness, and be prepared to meet every event that awaits us in life.” His children appear to have reciprocated in some degree his affections, as in an April 1837 letter from Emma reports their anxiety at him being gone, and a letter a month later reports that Emma could “hardly pacify Julia and Joseph when they found  ou[t] [Joseph] was not coming home soon.”

[6] As cited in Anderson, Karl. Joseph Smith’s Kirtland: Eyewitness Accounts. (Deseret Book, 1996) 46

[7] As cited in Brown, 208.

[8] Ibid

[9] Hales, Vol 2, 202.

[10] JSP, Journals, vol. 1: 1832-1839, 109-10.

[11] Hales 1, 200.

[12]Proctor, Scot Facer and Maurine Jensen Proctor (ed.). Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt. (Deseret Book) 329-330.

[13] Ehat, Andrew F. and Lyndon W. Cook. Words of Joseph Smith (Grandin Book Co., 1991), 195-6.

[14] King Follet Discourse.

[15]Ehat and Cook, 347

[16] Hales, Vol. 1, 510.

[17] Brown, 208.

[18] D&C 132: 55.

[19] D&C 132:19

[20] For a more detailed report and analysis of these theological developments, see Brown.

[21] LDS Hymns.

[22] As cited in Hales, Vol 3, 124.

[23] As cited in Hales, Vol.2, 178.

[24] Smith, George D. An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Signature Books, 1995), 102.

[25] As cited in Hales, Vol 3, 165.

[26]As cited in Hales, Vol. 3, 166.

[27] Ehat and Cook, 232.

[28] As cited in Hales, Vol. 3, 53.

[29] Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Why we Practice plural marriage, 7.

[30] D&C 72:4; D&C 76:111

[31] D&C 132:19

[32] As cited in Hales, Vol 3, 117.

[33] There has been a long, ongoing discussion about the personal motivations for Joseph Smith to establish polygamy. Many informally assume that polygamy was all about sex. This belief is based not so much on the available evidence, as it is on an inductive conclusion based on a priori suppositions about Joseph Smith.  However, the story was undoubtedly much more complicated, as by introducing this radically new family form Smith risked not only followers but ultimately his life. As Joseph Smith polygamy expert Lawrence W. Foster observed, “If Smith simply wanted sexual outlets, he could have found them through easier and more simpler means.” Similarly, noted playwright George Bernard Shaw stated that “Now nothing can be more idle, nothing more frivolous, than to imagine that this polygamy had anything to do with personal licentiousness. if Joseph Smith had proposed to the Latter-day Saints that they should live licentious lives, they would have rushed on him and probably anticipated the pious neighbors who presently shot him.” Whatever other personal motives may also have existed, there’s no evidence to not take at face value the theological motivations that compelled Smith and his followers to practice polygamy. Polygamy fits into a sophisticated theological edifice, and it is this theology that ultimately formed the framework around which Mormons built their family structures and fertility patterns around, and that is therefore the emphasis of this book. Within the polygamous community it was creation and reproduction, not sexuality, that was sacralized, as opposed to other New Religious Movements that have additionally sacralized the sexual component of multi-partnered sexuality such as The Family or the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[34] Hales 1: 505.

[35] D&C 132: 64.

[36] Paulsen, David L., and Martin Pulido. “A Mother There.” BYU Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): 71.

[37] “The law” referred to in D&C 132 is either plural marriage and/or eternal marriage. LDS commentators have mixed opinions and it isn’t completely clear in the text itself.

[38] D&C 132: 16-17.

[39] Hayford, Sarah R., and S. Philip Morgan. “Religiosity and fertility in the United States: The role of fertility intentions.” Social Forces 86, no. 3 (2008): 1163-1188.

[40] Chojnacka, Helena. “Polygyny and the rate of population growth.” Population Studies 34, no. 1 (1980): 91-107.

[41] Tertilt, Michele. “Polygyny, fertility, and savings.” Journal of Political Economy 113, no. 6 (2005): 1341-1371.

[42] Hales, Vol. 2. 174-5.

[43] Hales, Vol.2, 165.

[44] Hales, Vol. 3, 44-47.

[45] Bradshaw, Matt, and Christopher G. Ellison. “The Nature?Nurture Debate Is Over, and Both Sides Lost! Implications for Understanding Gender Differences in Religiosity.” Journal for the scientific study of religion 48, no. 2 (2009): 241-251.

[46] “The 1840 federal census enumerated Hancock County, Illinois, but there is no distinction as to who was in Nauvoo and whether they were members of the LDS church. It also didn’t list names other than the head of household… Every-name listings didn’t begin until 1850, and relationships (to determine children for fertility purposes) were not recorded until 1880.”[46] Although number of children in household has been used as approximate indicator of fertility in religion/fertility studies dealing with more modern populations, this assumption is probably less warranted in this historical context. “The 1845 Illinois state census only enumerated Cass, Putnam and Tazewell counties, so there is no information about Hancock County. The 1842 Nauvoo branch records are a list of names, and without other evidence of relationships and who the people were, you can’t determine fertility from that record. They are somewhat listed in family groups, sometimes they indicate “under 8”, sometimes they indicate that the person died, but there is no information on when or where that occurred. Ages and relationships are not recorded.” (Personal correspondence with author, December 18, 2013).

[47] The historical roots of this belief are a matter of some dispute.

[48] Richard E. Bennett, We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus, 1846-1848 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), 82.

[50] Turner, John G. Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. Harvard University Press, 2012.

[51] Hales 3, 178.

[52] Smith, George Dempster. Nauvoo Polygamy:”… But We Called it Celestial Marriage”. Signature Books, 2008, Appendix B.

[53] Crandell, Jill N. “Garden Grove, Iowa: From Mormon Way Station to Permanent Settlement, 1846-1852” (MA Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2010).

13 comments for “Siring Gods

  1. Eternal procreation has always seemed off to me because it appears to contradict one of Joseph Smith’s pivotal revelations: intelligences. We learn in D&C 93 and Abraham 3 that we were not created from nothing. Instead, we co-eternally existed with the Father as individual intelligences. He organized spiritual matter and placed our intelligences into them, and thus began our pre-mortal tutorage. So instead of perpetual procreation, I think that as part of our exaltation, we can learn how to identify intelligences around us and organize spiritual matter to create their spirit bodies (just like our Heavenly Father did with us).

  2. Southern Saint,
    How did he organize them? In a test tube on a stove? In his hands like a snowball? Are those any more ridiculous than through his body? I would hope the later would be seen as the most human and beautiful possibility.

    Recall Joseph’s teaching that blood is replaced in a resurrected body, “all will be raised by the power of God, having spirit in their bodies, and not blood”.

    Is it strange to imagine that a spirit child would be created from body with a spirit flowing through it that’s been endowed with power from the almighty God?

    I get the hunch that certain ideologies that disfavor gender as a essential characteristic conveniently build an ideology that disfavors embodied eternal procreation by magnifying an alleged distinction from spirit children from eternal intelligence as being mutually exclusive.

    It’s no less ridiculous to assume spiritual life is created in a pattern that follows embodied life than it is to describe the mechanisms of how life is created in mortality already.

    The fact is, Joseph saw an embodied God. Do we really think he looked like a Ken doll under his robe? Why is that necessary to think? I’m more concerned with the potential for human-hating ideology that lurks beneath the surface of believing God is essentially a eunuch in order to demonstrate some kind of.. social justice? (Not saying this is you).

    What is more beautiful than eternal truth that men and women are literally built for each other, two incomplete halves that when physically joined not only create a united whole, but infinite lives without end in the process. That the physical reality we see here across the generations is but a small glimpse and shadow of the eternal potential?

    There are those that would mock us with vulgar accusations of spiritual sperm and genitalia; but all that reveals is their disdain for their own bodies and their ignorance and unworthiness to live up to even their mortal potential, let alone their eternal one.

    We ought to be in reverence and in awe at where we’ve literally and physically come from. The lack of respect for the holiness of life and how it’s created and how we (as mankind) have abused, misused, and manipulated that process for short-term gain is a tragedy. Life is certainly a miracle. One that will continue for worlds without end.

  3. Sute,

    “How did he organize them? In a test tube on a stove? In his hands like a snowball? Are those any more ridiculous than through his body? I would hope the later would be seen as the most human and beautiful possibility.”

    Look at how Christ was born. When many prophets and apostles stressed that Jesus was the literal son of God, many critics of the Church twisted that to mean that Elohim literally came down and had sex with Mary, which is absurd since all of the standard works reference Mary as a virgin. Jesus was both a God and a man due to him coming from the seed of his father (exalted being) and his mother (mortal being), which allowed Jesus to take on the sins of the world while still having the capacity to die. How did the seed of his father enter his mother if his mother was still a virgin? Creation can come in many forms that we do not understand yet.

    FAIR-LDS provided a great analysis of eternal procreation (, with the stand out quote being:

    “It is pointless to speculate on the exact manner in which “spirit children” are produced, and to assume that this occurs through “Celestial sex” and being “eternally pregnant” is to apply a worldly mindset to a spiritual process. The bottom line: Latter-day Saints do not know the mechanism by which “spirit children” are produced, and no LDS doctrine claims that “celestial sex” and being “eternally pregnant” are the means.”

  4. Given that Joseph at times used the terms “spirit” and “intelligence” interchangeably, I’m not so sure that viviparous spirit birth is really what he is suggesting. Smith indicated in his final year or so that he did not believe that God had the power to create spirit or intelligence.

  5. Quantity v quality. My wife and I have been marries for 52 years, and our relationship continues to improve. Or put another way, improved after the children left. I enjoyed my 4 daughters and hopefully contributed to the people they became.

    Imagine if I had 30 wives and 120 children. So I spend 1 day a month with each family. They are effectively single parent, fatherless families, and I have very little relationship with any of the mothers or children.

    And when the children are grown? What relationship do I have with my wives?

    Quantity v quality

  6. This article is really interesting and actually reaffirms my belief that polygamy is not of God. I appreciate all the quoted material here. Men making themselves kings and having their godly status be determined by their number of possessions (wives and children) is so amazingly ungodly. David and Solomon’s numerous wives and concubines were an abomination to God. Women, made in God’s image, His daughters, being reduced to eternal breeding stock for the glory of men is absurd. Women deserve the same fidelity, equality, and sexual satisfied in their marriages as men do. This is impossible with polygamy.

  7. Mary,
    The only thing that is sad is your characterization.

    Eternal breeding stock? Is that how you view women now? I know you don’t, but the insults you presume apply to women in eternity are no different than what you’d observe across the eons of morality.

    I do not belittle, scorn, or reject the eternal line of mothers stretching across moral probations in worlds without number. Do you realize how insulting would be? Do you see that if you are right, for your view to be correct, there is an eternity of women stretching backwards in time who would still be viewed in your perspective as eternal breeding stock? Blah!?!

    That paradigm is like a virus infecting too many. It’s a twisted view of motherhood in morality and eternity. If you reject eternal motherhood as unjust, you reject a literal eternity of mothers who made you and infinite others possible!?! I don’t seek to rise above and beyond motherhood (or fatherhood) but praise it and argue we MUST change the perspective on it.

    Regarding how the Savior was birthed, I have no insight there. If you want to to force me to guess, Brighams view doesn’t bother me, and I have no problem with her still being called a virgin in that definition. She knew no man, that’s for sure. Your point doesn’t undermine mine though — when God wanted son, he came to earth though womb — not a stork bringing in a basket. What God has made holy let’s not demean as breeding stock and unholy.

    I have no problem with authorities not engaging this topic be because it only invites condemnation on those who scorn it. But I think amongst ourselves we run away from it too quickly.

  8. In Mormonism, one member’s doctrine is another member’s folklore. I have not adopted the idea of heavenly mothers as doctrine, as God has revealed nothing on the matter — nothing through scripture and nothing through prophets — it seems to me that everything we claim to know on this topic is our own human imagination and philosophies as we continually try to re-create God in our own image — our own itching ears are not satisfied with what God has revealed and lead some among us, in my opinion, to look far beyond the mark.

  9. “…our own itching ears are not satisfied with what God has revealed and lead some among us, in my opinion, to look far beyond the mark.”

    Yes–or cause some of us to fall short of it. :D

  10. Sute,
    You don’t actually engage with the substance of my post. If you did, you would realize it is because I view women as human beings that I am against polygamy.

    “As Mormonism believed that relations in this life continued into the next one, and that the one’s glory was commensurate with the number of relations in the next life, these theologies combined to create a powerful pronatalist theological imperative. In a later (1903) quotation, Benjamin Johnston reported that “The First Command was to ‘Multiply’ and the Prophet taught us that Dominion & powr in the great Future would be Comensurate with the no of Wives and Childin & Frends” that we inheret to take with us.”

    According to this article, a theology was developed where number of wives (and consequently number of children) = greater Godhood status and glory. In this system, women cease to be human and individual and become a resource to be acquired. Their value is reduced to their ability to provide children for a male God. The article also talks about how only male fertility was important in terms of a patrilineal line. So we have a male God at the center of his own kingdom with numberless wives and children.

    As a woman and human being, I wholeheartedly reject this gross mischaracterization of my humanity, dignity, and potential, not because I reject motherhood, but because I deserve everything in a marriage that a man does. As stated in my previous post, women deserve fidelity, equality, and sexual satisfaction. Polygamy offers none of these things. I do not exist as a possession to enhance a man’s eternal glory and nor does any woman.

    The idea of more wives = more status has been around for thousands of years and is evil.

    31 For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my people, because of the wickedness and aabominations of their husbands.

    32 And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters of this people, which I have led out of the land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts.

    33 For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for they shall not commit whoredoms, like unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts.

    34 And now behold, my brethren, ye know that these commandments were given to our father, Lehi; wherefore, ye have known them before; and ye have come unto great condemnation; for ye have done these things which ye ought not to have done.

    35 Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.

    Emma’s heart was pierced and wounded, as were so many others. Polygamy is incompatible with women’s happiness and humanity.

  11. I am with Mary on this one. The polygamous heaven doesn’t sound like a place I would want to be. This patriarchal doctrine is not good for men or women. I think we should reject it as a church.

  12. I’m with Mary too.

    In the middle of your article you say the important thing is relationships.

    I have been married to my husband for 52 years and our relationship continues to improve.

    Had I been one of 30 women married to that man my relationship would be very different. He would perhaps have come to visit once a month. If his interest was in creating children, he would have stopped coming 20 to 25 years ago.

    In an article you wrote recently, you noted that the number of older brothers a man had seemed to be a factor in how likely he was to be gay. Having 8 brothers got to about 40%. If this is caused by how many sons a father has sired and he sires 50 sons how many of the gods he sires are gay?

    There are conservatives on this site who are concerned that chi,dren raised in single parent families are the cause of many of the ills in the world. If father visits once a month, is it still not a single parent family? I think so.

    Most wives in polygamous marriages were left to fend for themselves with little or no help from the husband.

    So these gods that are being sired by this method are from single parent families and half of them are gay?

Comments are closed.