To be clear, I’ve never been a practicing polygamist. You could say I’m a polygamist in the same sense that I’m a nutritionist. I know nutrition is out there, I’m told it’s good for me, and I always figured that one day I would probably get around to practicing good nutrition.
That’s kind of how I’ve thought about polygamy most of my life. It was out there in the future somewhere, but not necessarily all that relevant to me at the moment.
Those of you new to the church in the last couple of decades may be surprised to learn that when we old timers were growing up, we were taught that “someday they’ll bring back polygamy” and at that day the faithful among us would finally jump back into the pool. Plural marriage is, after all, an eternal principle, the suspension of which, we were frequently told, was only temporary.
When I was a young single man, my attitude toward polygamy was somewhat ambivalent. What did I care whether I ended up with one wife or seventy, just as long as I got to do it with somebody. Just gimme that first wedding night and we can discuss numbers later.
So while growing up, whenever someone spoke up in Sunday School or Seminary with the reminder that someday we would all be required to practice “The Principle,” I was okay with it. Sure. Fine. Whatever.
Then one day I met my soul mate.
Sorry Girls, He's Married
Few men actually have the good fortune to meet and marry their actual soul mate the first time out. Some guys find her eventually, but it often takes a second marriage, or a third. Most never do. I hit pay dirt the first time out. I knew Connie was The One the moment I saw her; I recognized her from my dreams. I've known from the beginning that after finding her there was no possibility of my ever wanting to take on any additional wives. Just not gonna happen. Ever. Connie is my one and only, my kindred spirit. We're one couple, indivisible.
And we ain’t sharin’ our bed with nobody else.
Luckily for us, we’ll never have to, because I’m happy to announce that while I’m firmly devoted to most of the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I no longer believe in the doctrine of plural marriage.
I'll bet you don’t really believe in it either; not enough to start living it right now if you were told to. As for me, I’ve had a real paradigm shift in my thinking, and it came to me after reading a book by Richard and Pamela Price entitled Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy: How Men Nearest the Prophet Attached Polygamy to His Name in Order to Justify Their Own Polygamous Crimes.
The first time I was made aware of this book, I did what every good Mormon boy would do. I ignored it. After all, everyone knows that the doctrine of plural marriage came to us through Joseph Smith, right? (Spoiler alert: No it didn’t.)
I own Todd Compton’s book, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, wherein he traces the lives of the estimated 33 women who are believed to have been secretly married to Joseph Smith at Nauvoo. There may have been some disagreement among scholars about the exact number of wives the Prophet had, but surely no one doubts the basic story. We all know Joseph kept the practice secret so as not to give his enemies cause and to mollify his jealous first wife, Emma.
But to suggest that Joseph Smith may have actually fought against the doctrine of plural marriage was, to me, an absurd supposition. It was not even worth thinking about.
But I had an experience a couple of years ago that convinced me to take a second look at this hypothesis. I was reading Richard Van Wagoner’s biography of Sidney Rigdon, and something on page 292 jumped out at me. The Author was discussing how often and adamantly the Prophet Joseph Smith attacked polygamy and those who promoted it:
Those are some pretty strong words coming from a guy who is supposedly getting a little on the side. They leave no room for equivocation. Joseph Smith was unmistakably condemning to hell any man who advocated polygamy, even if that man was the prophet himself.“The Prophet warned against ‘iniquitous characters [who] say they have authority from Joseph or the First Presidency’ and advising them not to ‘believe anything as coming from us, contrary to the established morals & virtues & scriptural laws...’ The sisters were urged to denounce any man who made polygamous proposals and to ‘shun them as the flying fiery serpent, whether they are Prophets, Seers, or Revelators; Patriarchs, Twelve Apostles, Elders, Priests, Majors, Generals, City Councilors, Aldermen, Marshals, Police, Lord mayors or the Devil, [they] are alike culpable & shall be damned for such evil practices.” (Page 292)
Who's Putting Words In Joseph Smith's Mouth?
The author of Sidney Rigdon’s biography is also the author of Mormon Polygamy: A History, which was the first major overview of the practice, and he knows the subject well. Van Wagoner does not question the widely held belief that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage, but like many who write about him, he finds Joseph’s apparent schizophrenia baffling. Further down on the page we read this:
What really popped out at me was Van Wagoner’s footnote to the above quote, on page 303“The Prophet’s most pointed denial of plural marriage occurred on 5 October 1843 in instructions pronounced publicly in the streets of Nauvoo. Willard Richards wrote in Smith’s diary that Joseph ‘gave instructions to try those who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives...Joseph forbids it and the practice thereof. No man shall have but one wife.’”
“When incorporating Smith's journal into the History of the Church, church leaders, under Brigham Young's direction, deleted ten key words from this significant passage and added forty-nine others so that it now reads:
"Gave instructions to try those persons who were preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives; for, according to the law, I hold the keys of this power in the last days; for there is never but one on earth at a time on whom the power and its keys are conferred and I have constantly said no man shall have but one wife at a time, unless the Lord directs otherwise." (Emphasis mine)
It is not commonly known that the seven volume History of the Church, which purports to have been written by Joseph Smith himself, was substantially added to and edited after the Prophet’s death. After all, Joseph Smith did leave great gaps in the narrative, and if his history was to be complete, the account required additional input from subsequent church historians. Editions of the massive work were still being tweaked by B.H. Roberts as late as 1912.
Still, it struck me that the passage above had been substantially doctored so as to completely change its meaning. It put words into the Prophet’s mouth that he simply had not spoken, words that in fact contradicted what he had said. The added words I’ve highlighted in bold italics above could incline the reader to conclude that Joseph equivocated on the subject, but it’s clear from his original words that he did not. Missing entirely from Joseph's statement in the official history is the primary imperative, “Joseph forbids it and the practice thereof.”
This is not editing for clarification. This is prevarication, a lie; a calculated attempt to change church history.
I felt it was high time I found out for myself what Joseph Smith had actually said about plural marriage in his own words, so I ordered a copy of Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy from RestorationBookStore.org and read it through. I admit to approaching the book with skepticism. I consider myself pretty well read in the history of the Missouri-Nauvoo period, so I figured I’d spot the flaws in this thesis right off the bat.
But the startling conclusion I came to is that most historians, both Mormon and non-Mormon, who have taught that Joseph Smith was a secret polygamist, were proceeding from a false assumption. Several false assumptions, actually; not the least of which was that the many women who claimed to have been Joseph Smith’s plural wives had no reason to lie. The truth is the precise opposite. They had some very good reasons to lie.
The True Origins of Mormon Polygamy
You have probably never heard of the Cochranites, because this odd religious community simply vanished from history sometime in the late 1830's. While they were on the scene, though, they stirred up quite a fuss and enjoyed no small amount of notoriety. Richard and Pamela Price, the husband and wife authors of Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy reproduce several articles from books and newspapers of the era that tell of the charismatic leader Jacob Cochran, who convinced some two thousand supporters that what he called “the Patriarchal Order” -that is, polygamy- as practiced by Father Abraham, was the proper mode of marriage, and that this “spiritual wifery” was ordained of God. By the time of Jacob Cochrane’s death in 1829, there were still upwards of a thousand dedicated polygamists in the movement he founded, and they settled themselves up and down the borders of Maine and Massachusetts, with the main body in Saco, Maine.
When the first Mormon missionaries arrived in the area in 1832, they found the Cochranites to be extremely receptive to the message of the Restoration. Accustomed as they already were to following in the traditions of the ancient patriarchs, it was not difficult for them to accept the message that the ancient church of Christ had been restored with all its gifts. The missionaries tarried among the Cochranites for several months and won many converts. No doubt during their prolonged interaction with each other, the Cochranites shared their philosophy of plural marriage with the Mormon Elders.
The Cochranite stronghold was such a fruitful place for converts that the young Church of Christ held a conference in Saco in 1834. Nine of the twelve apostles were in attendance.
Although the Cochranites vanished from the history books by the end of the decade, they hadn’t really disappeared. They had simply been folded into Mormonism, selling their farms and shops and moving to Kirtland and eventually Nauvoo, bringing their polygamous families and teachings with them.
A Cancer Is Detected
Some of these converts to the church continued to practice their polygamous lifestyle discreetly, while others openly sought to recruit other Mormons to “the patriarchal order”. Before long church leadership took notice, and denouned the practice in short order. The 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants included this article on marriage in section 101:
If you turn to section 101 in your D&C today, you won’t find that passage. It was removed when the Doctrine and Covenants was reprinted in 1876.“Inasmuch as this church has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy; we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband.”
The Quorums of the Seventy at Kirtland also made it known that polygamists would not be tolerated within that body when they adopted a resolution which stated that they would have no fellowship with any Elder "who is guilty of polygamy."
The practice of polygamy was becoming an open secret among some of the Saints in Nauvoo, and Joseph was continually being asked by non-members if Mormons believed in having more wives than one. He published his official response to this question in The Elders' Journal: “No, not at the same time. But they believe that if their companion dies, they have a right to marry again.”
While imprisoned in Liberty Jail, Joseph denounced polygamy in all its manifestations in a letter he wrote to the Saints in Caldwell County, ending with the warning that “if any person has represented any thing otherwise than what we now write they have willfully misrepresented us.”
Joseph Smith’s denunciations of polygamy were frequent and fervent. He considered the practice a plague that must be stamped out or it would eventually lead the church to the very brink of destruction. But even he was not prepared to learn that some of his best friends were seducing women by claiming the authority to do so came from him.
With Friends Like These...
It’s not unusual for many of us today to assume that when the church was young, Joseph Smith knew everyone in town and everyone knew him. But this wasn’t true. Some members lived their entire lives without having personally met the Prophet. Thus it was with a young lady by the name of Sarah Miller who was a member of the choir during one of Brother Joseph’s sermons condemning polygamy.
Sarah became immediately alarmed at what she heard, and quickly confessed to church authorities that she had been engaging in illicit sexual activities under the belief that Joseph Smith himself had authorized it. The gullible girl told a tale of having been seduced by Chauncey Higbee, a prominent Nauvoo attorney, who told her, she said, that “it was no harm to have sexual intercourse with women if they would keep it to themselves, and continually urged me to yield to his desires, and urged me vehemently, and said he and Joseph were good friends, and he [Joseph] teaches me this doctrine, and allows me such privileges, and there is no harm in it and Joseph Smith says so.”
Higbee duped the innocent girl into believing that she was Higbee's “spiritual wife,” and that in time they would be married. Several other women soon came forward telling similar tales. It turned out that Chauncey Higbee, his brother Francis, and several others were having their way with many women using the line that Joseph Smith sanctioned such seductions.
As these women came forth to the Nauvoo High Council with their affidavits, a common thread emerged that astonished even the Prophet himself. It seems that if any of these men encountered resistance to the claim that Joseph Smith approved of their actions, they merely took the young lady to see the second most prominent citizen in Nauvoo, and he would assure them that yes, it was alright, Joseph Smith says so. This unethical cad was seducing many women himself by telling them that Joseph Smith had received a revelation which allowed men to have plural wives.
A Scoundrel In The City Of The Saints
I’ve long felt that if ever there was a Mormon whose life story would make a fascinating movie, John C. Bennett was that guy. But the movie would have a very, very bad ending.
It’s very likely that Nauvoo never would have become the impressive city it was had it not been for the able assistance of Dr. Bennett.
Bennett arrived among the Saints precisely when he was needed most, just after the Saints had been expelled from Missouri and were now gathering weak, sick, and destitute on the Illinois side of the river. He appeared like a knight on a white horse, and Joseph Smith was grateful and relieved to be offered assistance from such a capable personage as the well appointed Dr. Bennett.
A one-time colleague of Sidney Rigdon’s, Bennett joined the church at Nauvoo and immediately took charge of things, supervising the draining of the swamps and the mapping out of city plots. “Joseph welcomed the assistance of Dr. Bennett, who came prescribing a miracle medicine, quinine, for the malaria which was killing the Saints; and also bringing great visions and expertise in city planning, schools, a university, commerce, a militia, a Masonic Lodge, and political stability.” (Pg 70)
The grateful citizens of the city he built elected John C. Bennett their first mayor of Nauvoo.
Bennett’s credentials were impressive. In addition to being a medical doctor, Bennett had also been a brigadier general, a quartermaster general, the dean of one university and the president of another, a horticulturalist, a postmaster general, a preacher, and an attorney. And now he was the mayor of the fastest growing city on the Mississippi.
If anyone had shown up on the scene today with a resume like that, he would instantly be pegged as a fraud and an impostor, which, it turned out, Bennett was. But Bennett was brilliant and capable, and he actually knew his stuff, so no one in Nauvoo thought to question the handsome savior who had appeared in their hour of need. Nauvoo grew prosperous and impressive under Bennett’s rule. He became easily the most prominent citizen of the city next to the prophet Joseph Smith himself. Bennett lodged with the Smiths and became fast friends with the prophet, and when Sidney Rigdon took ill, Joseph even made Bennett First Counselor in the First Presidency of the church.
When it was revealed that Bennett had been using Joseph's good name in order that he and his friends could bed unsuspecting Mormon women, Joseph quietly conducted an investigation. He sent Bishop George Miller to Ohio to look into the good doctor’s background. Miller reported that Bennett had lived in twenty towns in as many years, that he “has the vanity to believe he is the smartest man in the nation; and if he cannot at once be placed at the head of the heap, he soon seeks a situation...always push[ing] himself into places and situations entirely beyond his abilities...and the next thing his friends hear of him he is off in another direction.” Joseph Smith was coming to the realization that his “friend” had cleverly maneuvered himself into positions of importance at Nauvoo for one purpose: he was building himself a personal empire.
Bishop Miller reported one more thing. John C. Bennett, the most popular and eligible bachelor in Nauvoo, had a wife and children whom he had abandoned back in Ohio.
When Joseph confronted Bennett with the evidence of his crimes, Bennett wept and blubbered and promised to repent, begging the council not to make his sins public, for fear of how such news would affect his poor mother. But it wasn’t his mother that Bennett was concerned about, it was the damage that exposure would mean for his broader political ambitions.
Mercy may have ultimately been Joseph Smith’s undoing, for he agreed that as long as Bennett was sincerely repentant, he would not make public his sins. Joseph made similar agreements with the Higbee brothers when they wept and blubbered and begged.
So without fanfare or publicity, The High Council of the church quietly withdrew the hand of fellowship from John C. Bennett. He resigned as mayor of Nauvoo, and Joseph Smith took his place. Bennett made an official statement before the City Council in which he stated that Joseph Smith was “strictly virtuous," and he also provided Joseph with a lengthy affidavit swearing that at no time did Joseph Smith suggest or give him authority to hold illicit intercourse with women. Bennett further stated in the affidavit that he hoped “the time may come when I may be restored to full confidence, and fellowship, and my former standing in the church.”
But poor Doctor Bennett just couldn’t keep his breeches buttoned. When it was discovered weeks later that Bennett was continuing his illicit activities, Joseph Smith preached a public sermon against Bennett and his false teachings. That was the end of it for John Cook Bennett. He was finished, and so, he knew, was any chance to be elected to the Illionois state legislature, a position he desired very much, and for which he had no hope of attaining without the support of the Mormons.
General Bennett was cashiered out of the Nauvoo Legion and expelled from the Masonic Lodge he himself had founded. He was also expelled from the church. He left town in disgrace, but he vowed that neither Joseph Smith nor the citizens of Nauoo had heard the last of him. He would get his revenge against them all.
Bennett ended up in Carthage where he began to write a series of letters that were printed in newspapers far and wide “exposing” Joseph Smith as a polygamist and charging him with seduction, murder, treason, and other crimes. A few months later Bennett published a book entitled The History of the Saints; or, an Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism. It was largely the inflammatory charges contained in those letters and that book that got the non-Mormon populace so riled up against Joseph Smith that in the end some were even willing to murder him.
As Doctor Robert D. Foster said of Bennett, “He tried to father all his own iniquity upon Joseph Smith.” Ironically, many of the things faithful Mormons today believe about Joseph Smith concerning polygamy can be traced to the ugly lies originally promoted by the vindictive Dr. Bennett.
A Testimony Against The dissenters
Although John Bennett gave Joseph Smith no end of grief, he was by no means the only person close to the Prophet discovered to be practicing plural marriage. Joseph continued in his resolve to stamp out the spreading plague.
The group that included Bennett and the Higbees and their “spiritual wives” proved to be only part of the problem. The philosophy of the patriarchal order introduced to the church through the Cochranites proved very appealing to many of the Saints, with the result that even some within the Quorum of the Twelve had come to believe in it and were secretly taking additional wives. Joseph told William Marks that he intended to expose and root out this disease from even his closest associates. But the Prophet never accomplished the task, because three weeks later he was dead.
It is a common belief within the church that Joseph Smith died defending his testimony of the Book of Mormon. While that impressive work was clearly the crowning achievement of his short life, he left no recorded evidence that the Book of Mormon was foremost on his mind either on the eve of his death or in the weeks leading up to it. If you’re looking for a truly fiery testimony from Joseph Smith just prior to his martyrdom, you’ll find it in his vigorous defense of his singular marriage to Emma and his castigation of those advocating polygamous unions, as well as his vehement denunciation of those accusing him of impropriety.
Less than a month before Joseph’s martyrdom, thousands of Saints gathered to hear him denounce for the umpteenth time the evil doctrine and those who would accuse him of promulgating it. You can find that address in The History of the Church under the title “Address of the Prophet-His Testimony Against the Dissenters at Nauvoo.”
“I am innocent of all these charges,” he declared, “and you can bear witness of my innocence, for you know me yourselves.”
It was Joseph Smith at his fiery best. You can read excerpts from that sermon here. As Richard and Pamela Price state in their book, Joseph “wanted to get the whole matter out in the open and to put a stop to the polygamous activities which some of the apostles and their friends were practicing at the time.”“What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.”
The book is filled with examples of Joseph Smith decrying the practice in his many sermons, as well as numerous newspaper articles and affidavits by those close to the Prophet disproving the charges against him. You can read the entire book online here, as well as the yet unpublished volume two. I highly recommend, however, that you buy yourself a hard copy of the book, because it contains sketches, photos, and copies of documents vital to a full appreciation for the thirty years of research the Prices' put into this effort.
In the last three years of his life Joseph took the precaution of having scribes and male companions with him at all times recording his actions and whereabouts in order to make it impossible for his enemies to continue to contrive illicit affairs where none existed. There are absolutely no contemporary records of any woman being married to Joseph Smith except one: Emma Hale Smith. Virtually no one came forward during Joseph Smith’s lifetime claiming to be married to him. As Joseph said in mocking reference to these phantom wives, “I wish the grand jury would tell me who they are.”
How We Got From From There To Here
So what about Section 132? Isn’t that a revelation in Joseph Smith’s own hand calling for the institution of plural marriage?
Well, no it isn’t. That is, the revelation does clearly call for plural marriage, but it isn’t in Joseph Smith’s hand. And no one had ever heard of it during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. It showed up as if by magic eight years after his death.
After the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum, the Nauvoo Temple was eventually finished, and some were soon putting it to use performing secret ceremonies wherein men were being sealed to multiple wives. This was a purpose for which the first and only other Mormon temple, the one at Kirtland, had never been used.
In the original 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the church had issued strict rules under which all marriages were to be performed, rules which are consistently violated by faithful members of the Lord’s church even today:
“All marriages in this church of Christ of Latter Day Saints,” the declaration stated, “should be solemnized in a public meeting, or feast, prepared for this purpose..."
“...The persons to be married,” are to be “ standing together, the man on the right, and the woman on the left...” (Emphasis added)
You can read the entire rule here in the church newspaper, the Times and Seasons where you’ll see that “the above rule is the only one practiced in this church,” and that the words of the ceremony leave no room to suppose that it was ever intended that another spouse join the marriage at any future time.
The Mysterious D&C 132
Once the Saints were safely ensconced in Utah, plural marriage gradually became an open secret. Still, before making it official, church leadership needed to present it with a stamp of authority to assure the Saints that the practice was legitimate. That mark of legitimacy would have to come from Joseph Smith, as Brigham Young did not claim the gift of revelation. “I don't profess to be such a Prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel,” he admitted, “but I am a Yankee guesser.”
So eight years after Joseph’s death, at a special conference called for the purpose, President Brigham Young (a polygamist) asked Apostle Orson Pratt (now also a polygamist) to read aloud a document purporting to be a revelation from the Lord to Joseph Smith, later to be incorporated into the Doctrine and Covenants as section 132. The document revealed that plural marriage was not merely approved by the Lord, but now actually required for any good Latter-day Saint man or woman not wishing to be damned.
Brigham explained that this revelation of Joseph's, which Brigham called “the New and Everlasting Covenant” had been kept locked in a drawer in his desk all this time, but he didn’t explain why it hadn’t been released sooner. Joseph Smith had been publicly declaiming against the very things contained within it for a year after it was reported to have been received. Why would any prophet withhold a revelation that came directly from God? Surely any information the Lord sees fit to reveal to His people would be intended for immediate dissemination.
More curious yet, this revelation is purported to have been given in July of 1843, just three months before Joseph, as both Prophet and Mayor, angrily took to the streets of Nauvoo and threatened to prosecute any who were “preaching, teaching, or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives” and further warning all citizens that they are forbidden from engaging in it. In order to accept that Joseph Smith would engage in an impromptu tirade like this after having received such a revelation, you would have to believe that he was not just an outrageous, overwrought liar; you’d have to believe he was completely insane.
Nor does the excuse hold that Joseph had to be careful because of his many enemies. His enemies already believed he was practicing polygamy. This would not be news to them. Joseph Smith was not the type of man to limp around a controversy, especially if delivered from God. On the question of whether, supposing he had believed in plural marriage, would he have shied away from declaring it, he stated, “I have taught all the strong doctrines publicly, and always taught stronger doctrines in public than in private.”
Brigham’s later explanation for why the revelation was not in Joseph Smith’s handwriting was that this one was actually a copy of the original revelation, as “Sister Emma burnt the original.”
When Emma Smith, back in Nauvoo heard this claim, she replied that she had “never saw such a revelation until it was published by Pratt in The Seer.”
This “copy” of a very lengthy revelation was in the handwriting of William Clayton, formerly a scribe of Joseph Smith. He was also now a polygamist.
What I wonder about is this: was it the practice of Joseph Smith to have his scribes immediately create a second copy of all of his revelations, or did Brigham Young simply ask Clayton to “recreate” this one from memory?
Here Come The Brides
So how is it that today we know the names of at least thirty-three of Joseph Smith’s alleged wives, when during his lifetime no one seemed to be able to suggest more than a couple of possible ones?
After Joseph Smith’s sons were grown, the three of them made the long journey to Utah to challenge the polygamous system and attempt to restore their father’s good name. They met a wall of resistance. Out of nowhere appeared a number of women declaring that they had all been plural wives of Joseph Smith while at Nauvoo. Most prominent of these women was Eliza R. Snow, a well-known woman of letters and now a plural wife of Brigham Young.
Eliza claimed to have been married to Joseph on June 29th, 1842, but this would mean she was married to him three months before she had led a thousand women in promoting a petition stating that Joseph Smith was not guilty of polygamy as Dr. Bennett had charged. So was she lying then or was she lying now?
Eliza was sitting pretty as the wife of the prominent Governor of the Territory. Certainly she had much to lose if polygamy was exposed as a fraud and Brigham’s empire crumbled. Besides, it’s very likely that most Mormons by then firmly believed in the principle whether it could be proven to have originated with Joseph Smith or not. The Saints felt constantly under attack from the gentiles for their peculiar ways, and didn’t Brigham constantly preach that “lying for the Lord” was not a sin, but the duty of every faithful Latter-day Saint?
Curiously, Eliza Snow held the honored seat, at home and in public, at the right hand of Brigham Young. This position of honor was ordinarily reserved only for a man's first wife. How was Eliza Snow able to shunt wife number one out of the way and take her place? What did she know? Or what could she threaten to tell?
Nearly all of the other women who claimed to have been married to Joseph Smith at one time were also in polygamous marriages to prominent church leaders. It certainly wouldn’t have taken much to persuade these women to make a public statement in order to protect the society they had struggled so hard to attain. When you examine the statements of these women, you find some of their claims to be a real stretch.
To their credit, some of these women went out of their way in their declarations to maintain that their marriage to Joseph had been for eternal purposes only, and that they had never been physically intimate with the Prophet. So I give these ladies props for at least having the decency not to thoroughly besmirch a dead man’s memory.
Also, most of these women neglected to sign their names to their declarations, a clever way of protecting themselves from being called up on charges of perjury if the statements were to be challenged in a federal court. As legal affidavits, these documents are worthless.
Besides, these women were soon marched through the temple to be sealed to Joseph Smith a second time, in order that their marriages would now be on record. So they weren’t really lying. In their minds they now truly were sealed to the prophet Joseph Smith for time and all eternity.
Why Not Simply Admit It Was All A Big Mistake And Move On?
Personally, I don’t mind polygamists. In fact, I like all the ones I've met. Over the years I’ve been privileged to have several friends who chose to live that lifestyle, and I say more power to them. The women in these relationships tell me they are happy not only to have the responsibility lifted of being the sole entertainment for their husband, but they enjoy the company of other women in the house with them. I wouldn’t for a moment tell them I disapprove or try to intervene. Why should I? To each his own. Live and let live. Besides, I don’t belong to their church.
But I find it curious that the church I do belong to has expressed an unusual disdain for those who practice the religion my religion used to practice.
I was intrigued by the reactions of many of my fellow Mormons a while back toward the FLDS polygamists in Texas. Members and leaders alike scrambled to distance the church from what they considered "those wacky fundamentalists." “Those aren’t real Mormons,” I’d often hear people say.
Of course, those people say the same about us.
I've long wondered why, since Joseph Smith prophesied that the gospel of this church was destined to "fill the whole earth", that we would adopt a practice so repugnant to the earth's other inhabitants that it virtually guaranteed we would never gain any more converts. It seemed to me that if Satan himself ever wanted to bring the momentum of the restoration to a screeching halt, he couldn't have devised a more effective scheme than declaring plural marriage a mandatory program. Growth from outside the church was stagnant for almost a hundred years, from the 1850's to the 1950's, only beginning to pick up steam when David O. Mckay took determined steps to shake off our unsavory reputation.
Still, the prospect of the future return of "the principle" still hung in the air like the sword of Damocles.
Then one happy day during an interview with Larry King, I saw Gordon B. Hinckley make it clear that we won't be dusting off that doctrine for another go 'round. “As far as we're concerned,” Hinckley said, “it's behind us, a long ways...I condemn it as a practice because I think it's not doctrinal."
Well, that’s a relief, and something our womenfolk especially can all be grateful for. Most of us wouldn't wish to be forced to live under that system even if we did still believe in it.
Which brings up a question: If the church today rejects polygamy, and since the evidence is undeniable it wasn't actually sanctioned by our founder, why can’t we simply declare it was all just a big, silly mistake, a diversion from the true path that our misguided ancestors trod in error, but that now we’re solidly back on track?
I’ll tell you why. It's been said that Mormonism is a religion constantly running from its own history. If we let Joseph Smith off the hook by copping to this blunder, we'll just open a whole 'nother can of worms to contend with.
For we would then have to address the matter of a certain missionary of the church in 1834, one of our early apostles, who insisted he was exempt from the scriptural admonishment that missionaries are to travel two by two. Instead he traveled alone, and after the first missionaries had left Maine, he tarried for months on his own as a guest among the Cochranites; lodging in their homes night after night, taking his meals with them, chatting with them by the fire, gradually assimilating the strange religion of his hosts while sharing the message of the Restoration with them. And when he left, he took with him a woman from that community who abandoned her own husband and children to return home with him and become his second plural wife.
When John C. Bennett was to be tried before the Nauvoo High Council for spiritual wifery, Bennett asked that this particular apostle accompany him to the hearing and intercede on his behalf.
And at the time of Joseph Smith’s death, this apostle was already secretly married to four women living in Nauvoo.
Of course, you’ve already guessed the identity of this guy. His name was Brigham Young.
Update: For a further exploration of why the testimonies of the women who claimed to be Joseph Smith's plural wives cannot be trusted, see the follow-up piece here.