Voices of the Wives of Joseph Smith

Plural marriage in Nauvoo continues to be one of the thorniest issues when discussing the life and legacy of Joseph Smith.  One of the major works that helped shed greater light on the roots of plural marriage and the women who practice it with the Prophet is Todd Compton’s book, In Sacred Loneliness, published in 1997.  Not too long ago, a sequel or companion volume called In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents was published by Signature Books. Todd Compton recently discussed this latest volume in an interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk.

In describing the original book, In Sacred Loneliness, Compton wrote that:

For those who haven’t read the book, I should mention that it deals with Joseph Smith’s polygamy in Nauvoo. However, it mainly provides chapter-length biographies of his plural wives. The book takes them from birth, through the Latter-day Saint migrations, and into Utah (or California or other states, in a few cases).

Their lives were mixed: sometimes very tragic, sometimes generally happy. The women often lived in large polygamous families in Utah, and experienced what I call “practical polygamy.” It could be difficult.

It’s very powerful to understand the lives of some of the first women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to agree to practice plural marriage and what they went through.

The effort to write a follow-up volume 20 years later came in connections with another writing project.  As Compton explained:

Joe Geisner had the great idea to edit a book in which authors of books of Mormon history told about how they’d written the books. Sometimes, they also shared responses to their books. It turned out to be a great publication (Writing Mormon History: Historians and Their Books), with essays by the above-mentioned Gregory Prince, as well as D. Michael Quinn, Linda King Newell, Will Bagley, and John Turner.

There were also really interesting chapters by people not as famous. So, Joe asked me to write a chapter about writing In Sacred Loneliness.

While I was writing that essay, I went back into my computer files from the time I was writing the book, looking for letters I’d written and received. I found my transcriptions of many texts written by the women in In Sacred Loneliness.

When I wrote that book, there were no primary historical texts on the internet, so you had to visit library after library, sit down with your laptop, and take notes and type transcriptions. If a document was fairly short, you could transcribe the whole thing. So, I had a lot of documents on my computer that had never been published that I thought were important.

While I had quoted from them in the first In Sacred Loneliness, I felt it would be valuable to publish these documents in full. So, I mentioned the idea to Gary Bergera at Signature Books, and he was very positive about doing a book such as this.

So, strangely enough, I started work on In Sacred Loneliness: the Documents while I was trying to explain how another book came into being.

It began as he came in contact again with the documents that were behind the original volume and grew from there.

I am generally grateful when the primary sources are made more available, because it helps to evaluate the interpretations that historians have placed on the lives of the people who are involved.  It seems to be similar feelings that spurred Compton to publish this latest volume:

It’s great to have the full document. When you’re dealing with something that might be controversial, it’s helpful to have the full context for a quote. In addition, the woman’s voice comes through more fully. You will know her better if you read a full document rather than isolated quotes.

For the first In Sacred Loneliness, I selected quotes carefully, depending on if they were dramatic, funny, or historically valuable. But it’s wonderful to read the whole letter, autobiography, or interview.

For example, when I do readings in live appearances to support this new book, I often share a letter from Ina Coolbrith that includes her negative evaluation of polygamy. I do that because it illustrates vivid and funny writing from a precocious 16-year-old girl.

But in her 1857 letters to Joseph F. Smith, she also gives a great description of early Los Angeles and the violence of that town during the Gold Rush era. It’s fascinating to someone like me who is a California resident interested in California history. But it also gives you greater insight into what life was like for Ina and her mother, Agnes, in that time and place.

He shared more of the story from Ina Coolbrith elsewhere in the interview:

Here is the anti-polygamy quote by Ina Coolbrith that I mentioned previously. She went on to become a famous poet in nineteenth-century California. She was also a friend of Bret Harte, John Muir, Mark Twain, and Jack London.

“Ina Coolbrith” was a pen name. Her full name was Josephine Donna Smith (Carsely). She was the daughter of Don Carlos Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother, who died in Nauvoo. Her mother, Agnes Coolbrith (Smith Smith Smith Pickett) married Joseph Smith after Don Carlos’s death and then went on to marry lapsed Latter-day Saint William Pickett before the family came to California in the Gold Rush era.

We have wonderful letters by the teenage Ina in Los Angeles writing to her cousin, Joseph F. Smith, who was on a mission in Hawaii. This letter was written on July 22, 1857:

Is it right for a girl of 15 and even 16 to marry a man of 50 or 60. Can there be any love there? and has not God willed a woman to love honor and obey her husband? And can it be right thus to pledge false vows at the altar, in perfect mockery of all that is good, and pure in Gods most holy laws? I think I see myself, vowing to love and honor, some of old driv driveling idiot of 60, to be taken into his harem and enjoy his fav the pleasure of being his favorite Sultana for an hour, and then thrown aside, whil’st my Godly husband, is out Sparking another girl, in hopes of getting another victim to his dep despotic power. Pleasant prospect, I must say. And this, Joe, this is of God, is it? No, never, never, never! You may preach, you may talk to me from now, to Eternity, but you never will make me believe that polygamy is true.

While Ina was a niece of Joseph Smith, she did not believe that it was a true principle.

Not everyone who was involved agreed with Ina, though.  As Compton shared:

To give a contrasting view of polygamy, Eliza Partridge Smith Lyman spoke at a “Mass Meeting of Ladies in Fillmore to Protest Against the Proceedings of the Anti Polygamous Ladies of ^Utah^” in 1879, and copied her speech into her diary:

It is now about thirty one years since the Prophet Joseph Smith taught to me the principles of Celestial marriage. I was then married by that order and have raised a family of both sons and daughters in what is called Polygamy, and I am not afraid to say that it is one of the most pure and holy principles that has ever been revealed to the Latter day Saints, and one that is necessary to our exaltation. The Anti-Polygamists say the laws of Celestial marriage are a curse to our children. Will they be kind enough to tell us where it is any disadvantage to them? We are not afraid to compare our children with those born and raised in Monogamy. Perhaps they do not know that the Lord reserved some of the most noble spirits to come forth in the last days, to perform the great work which he has begun on earth, and which he will consummate in spite of all opposing influences. . . . Then let us rejoice my Sisters, that we are numbered with the People of God, that we have embraced the Celestial Order of marriage, and happy shall we be in a coming day if we have never spoken lightly of sacred things.

So, some of the women who practiced plural marriage were very willing to defend the practice as a sacred principle, difficult though it was.

To read more about Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage and In Sacred Loneliness, head on over to read the full interview with Todd Compton.  It’s a very fascinating interview with a lot of material that wasn’t shared here, including more quotes from and information about women like Emily Partridge Smith Young, Louisa Beaman, Fanny Alger; information about things that have come out in the 20+ years between the books; Todd Compton’s relationship with faith; the biggest question about Joseph Smith’s plural marriage; and more.

15 comments for “Voices of the Wives of Joseph Smith

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Chad. Now I’m excited to read *Writing Mormon History: Historians and Their Books*; looks great. A number of years ago, I really enjoyed Bushman’s book *On the Road with Joseph Smith,* where he described the reactions to Rough Stone Rolling. It’s a quick read but I found it insightful.

  2. Chad, thank you for posting this interesting explanation of the 2nd book. I do have one question regarding your description of Ina Coolbrith. You write:
    “Her full name was Josephine Donna Smith (Carsely). She was the daughter of Don Carlos Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother, who died in Nauvoo. Her mother, Agnes Coolbrith (Smith Smith Smith Pickett) married Joseph Smith after Don Carlos’s death and then went on to marry lapsed Latter-day Saint William Pickett.”
    I get that Agnes’ maiden surname was Coolbrith, and her first married surname would be ‘Smith’ from Don Carlos. Then her second married surname would be ‘Smith’ from Joseph. But whence the third ‘Smith’ surname ?
    TIA – RW

  3. That’s a great question, Raymond. I suspect it was just an error during the interview process, since what you point out makes sense. I’ll check, though.

  4. I have to agree with Ina/Josephine here—glad to see that faithful women have long seen how ridiculous it is to claim polygamy as a doctrine of God! And how wonderful to have a book of those source documents. To me, it definitely demonstrates that a select group of people taught polygamy was of God, and a secondary group absolutely believed them. But that’s all the evidence there is that it’s of God.

  5. Gwendolyn Wyne,

    Many of the women’s testimonies who believed polygamy was an inspired practice are so powerful that I can’t disbelieve them. I don’t know what that means for the future — and I’m certainly glad that we don’t practice polygamy today — but to deny their witness kinda means (IMO) that we’re left with having to believe they we’re delusional. They were so emphatic as to the sacred nature of their witness that it’s difficult to find a road between the extreme interpretations of their experience.

  6. The difficulty with interpreting the sources are that the people practicing polygamy had a lot invested in the principle (i.e., their lives had become structured around it). So, there are biases that drove them to stridently defend plural marriage.

    Another confounding factor is that you can also see some differences between how women practicing the principle wrote about their experience for public consumption and for private records. Women who had horrible experiences with it and felt that it was not from God stand as a counter to those testimonies as well.

    Because of those factors, it is possible to present a more middle of the road interpretation between delusion and inspiration, even after reading those testimonies.

    Now, I don’t know the full minds and hearts of the people involved and I’m personally indebted to those who practiced the principle (as a descendant of a few women who chose to be plural wives). So, I generally try to present a balanced account. But sometimes, while looking at the pain and sacrifice that were involved, I do wonder if Gwendolyn might be on to something.

  7. Chad, that opens a logical can of worms–IMO. I don’t know if difficulty with the practice can act as a counter balance to inspiration. Otherwise we may find ourselves doubting monogamy because of how unhappy people are in their marriages nowadays.

    That said, I admit that I could be reaching a bit–but even so it seems to me that when there is an entire group witnessing that they’ve received knowledge that is too sacred to recount there is little room for a milder interpretation. Either they were suffering from some kind of wacky social contagion or they we’re truly inspired–IMO.

  8. Jack,

    It was while studying the Old Testament this year that I thought more deeply about the Israelites who sacrificed their children to Molech. What kind of religious conviction would it take for someone to sacrifice their own child? I can only imagine the testimony that a mother would have to have to be willing to allow her own child to be murdered—by fire! It was also interesting that the Israelites didn’t need a restoration of authority following that abominable behavior. They had the Priesthood authority; they just needed to repent/stop sacrificing their children to Molech (and probably change the way they viewed their children).

    To me there is a strong parallel to be made with polygamy in that example. We have stopped the behavior itself but have retained what it taught us about women. We have thus far directed all our polygamous truth-seeking efforts to how true/essential polygamy is based on what this small group of believers testified to. Over the past few years I’ve tried to see if there is any other possibility—if the gospel can be true, the church can have divine authority, but polygamy doesn’t have either. I posted this before so sorry for the repeat but I do make the case for that in my paper, “An Enemy Hath Done This: the Seed and Weeds of Polygamy” (can be accessed by clicking on my name above).

    Ultimately I think those women’s testimonies—even Brigham et al’s testimonies—are not enough to invalidate God’s word. And wouldn’t it be the most wonderful thing in all of eternity if the gospel of Jesus Christ was actually founded upon the absolute equality of men and women, from the foundation all the way to the pinnacle, without any caveats or exceptions? I mean, talk about good news!

  9. Thanks for the response, Gwendolyn.

    Re: Offering Children to Molech: Yes those parents would’ve been dealing with some serious deception if they felt they were doing the right thing. And so it is with polygamy–if I’m understanding you correctly. Those who claimed to have received a powerful witness of its truthfulness would be in the same boat with those who sent their children through the fire–that is, if we know for a fact that polygamy was wrong.

    But my sense is that it was right–that it was precisely what the Lord wanted the saints to do at that time. Of course, that’s not a challenge I would wish upon anybody. But here’s the problem–as it relates to this conversation: How do we know for certain that polygamy was wrong? I don’t think we can. And, moreover, I think there’s a lot of evidence that get’s us thinking in the other direction–that it was inspired. And so, somehow we’ve got to nail down the “wrongness” of polygamy as a fact — at least to the degree that we believe child sacrifice to be wrong — before we can liken to other abominations set forth in the scriptures.

    Re: Equality in the Eternities: You may be talking with the wrong guy here. I’m a firm believer in an eternal complimentary relationship between men and women. And that, if anything, it is the men who’ll be sitting on the sidelines while the women do the more sacred work of the Kingdom.

  10. I am with Ina about polygamy. Everything about how it was done – the secrecy, the lies, lack of consent, the age differences, power dynamics, and the obvious misogyny underlying the doctrine and the practice. My own family history of polygamy mostly it’s tales of heartbreak and poverty with women and their children suffering.

    I had a dream once where at church they announced a return to polygamy. In my dream my wife and I talked about it and I decided I would take another wife. I met someone and we got married and afterwards there was this awkward moment where I realized we had never figured out sleeping arrangements. My wife invited the three of us upstairs and I thought oh. Then she said – this was a test and you failed. None of us are going to touch anyone else aver again. And I woke up feeling devastatingly lonely and guilty.

    Definitely not an inspired practice. Nothing sacred about it.

  11. I think polygamy, albeit the pinnacle, is like all other doctrines/principles/policy/traditions in the church. Some hate it, some embrace it. Tithes come to mind. Missions. Endowment. Male leaders. Ministering. LGBTQ. Scouting. Cleaning church buildings. Seminary. Church sports. Revelation.

    There is a case for hating and loving all of these things based on perspective, experience, personalities, etc.

    Either team can make a good case, hence the hot mess polygamy is.


    I read your paper and enjoyed it. Have you read the book Sinners and Saints by Phil Roberts written in 1883? Or Twelve Mormon Homes by Elizabeth Kane?

    Polygamy was either from God or was not. Add to that, JS seemed to have a different version of it than BY. I dont think we can ever prove either way by the words of those who liked it or hated it. Scriptures are a hot mess too so not sure we can use that source 100% I have not done the deep dive you have regarding polygamy, so I respect your beliefs.

    Are you saying if polygamy was false the church is too or JS just got that one wrong? I think JS made up the endowment. Doesn’t mean he was not a prophet IMO.

  12. Jack, on one hand I agree that we shouldn’t condemn polygamy as an abomination unless we really know, for certain, that it is. On the other hand, there is something to be said for faith, and where we want to direct ours (individually and as a church). The fear/faith that I had for decades was that words like Eliza’s above were true, that polygamy is “one of the most pure and holy principles that has ever been revealed to the Latter day Saints, and…is necessary to our exaltation.” But that faith yielded terrible fruit for me personally, for my marriage, and for my understanding of who I am as a woman. Redirecting my hope and then faith in the Adam + Eve model of marriage has just grown in compounding light. It’s a massive relief. I think most church members would be relieved if the big reveal in eternity was that this relationship structure that none of us understand, and even fewer of us want to live in, turns out to NOT be the order of heaven–and that leaders in this dispensation actually can lead the church astray (but redemption has always been ours if we want it). I mean, thinking of it like that, it is no contest what I hope is true. I think what we hope for should really inform what we choose to have faith in.

    Rec911, Thank you for those book recommendations–I haven’t read them and would like to! And I also really appreciate you reading my paper and considering that perspective. To answer your questions, I believe polygamy was false/not of God, but those who indoctrinated it sincerely believed it was of God. They set aside the equal partnership of women, and instead of asking their sisters “is this true?” they emphatically told them it was true and that their salvation depended on it. That’s a short version of one of the weaknesses that I believe allowed it to happen. The history is so murky, and the fact that the Church hasn’t released all the documentation from that time exacerbates that. I think perhaps first we should try to discern (using our hope and faith) whether polygamy is of God, then we can ask how mixed up Joseph was in this abomination.

  13. Ina sounds like an absolute heroine. Her description is spot on. Prior to 1978, a lot of inspired church leaders and faithful members had fervent testimonies that Black men didn’t deserve the priesthood because they were “Cain’s seed.” Of course these beliefs continued many decades after until the church’s essay. I believe it’s the same for polygamy.

    A man can’t leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, if he has more than one. God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and 2 or 3 or more Eves. Jacob said God brought His people to a new land, with higher laws, so his sons wouldn’t commit whoredoms like David and Solomon. God said he would not suffer the cries of his fair daughters; instead He would curse His children when husbands don’t love their wives. Many hearts died in Jacob’s time because of polygamy. How many hearts died in the 19th Century? We know Emma’s did. The current Family Proclamation gives dire warnings about those who abuse their spouse. Many women who are abused defend their husband and his actions. The same is true for polygamy. Many women who defended it were obligated to in some way. Others probably did have what they thought were spiritual confirmations of it, just like how others received spiritual confirmations that Black saints were to be cursed.

    The only thing really holding up polygamy these days is an appeal to authority because church leaders won’t renounce it. Renouncing polygamy would be a huge challenge to modern prophetic authority, so leaders would like the past to stay in the past. But that can’t happen when polygamy continues in temples today.

  14. I think further access to first person accounts would be wonderful, and as a UK resident I have little or no knowledge of reliable titles, so would love to have any suggestions.
    Here in the UK it was possible to promote the idea that polygamy was a rumour spread by enemies of the church right up to 2010s, and many still choose ignorance.
    Once I’d taught Doctrine and Covenants seminary in the mid 80s though, I had a fair idea of what I was dealing with. It nearly broke me and other intelligent well informed women I know. How could a loving God who cares for all his children equally require such behaviour. Husbands proclaimed their intention to live the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ in it’s fullness, effectively announcing their intention to be sexually unfaithful. Mostly, they were.
    How I make sense of the information that has latterly come to light is to think about it in terms of female deaths in childbirth and the figures which I have no way of interrogating as I’m not an academic, seem to indicate there were fewer pregnancies per woman in polygamous households, thus freeing women and making it more likely they would raise their own children for longer, creating better mental health in consequent generations. I think it’s explicitly said in scripture that God wanted to increase the lds population which has all kinds of social and emotional benefits for following generations and creates wealth, advantage, and political leverage. I’ve seen that happen in my life time.
    Sadly though, my next generation are too woke to consider this acceptable, which I very much understand. I bought this religion as a convert, and they don’t want to inherit it.

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