I’ve thought long and hard about the propriety of this essay. It is a sensitive subject and one that is so easy to misunderstand. It is also a sacred subject that I have seen dragged through the dregs of the ex-Mormon sites, and yet presented well on some Internet resources. Although some may claim otherwise, it is not a secret subject. It is just not taught in your basic church curriculum.
In today’s Internet age, this information is readily available. It was readily available when I was growing up but you just had to know where to look. The best official source for this information is on the Church’s Family Search site. Just enter Joseph Smith and his birth date of 1805 in the state of Vermont, click on search and then click on his ancestral file entry. There are his wives.
The list is not complete and includes a few wives who were sealed to him after his death. A more complete list can be found at the website appropriately titled, wivesofjosephsmith.org. The summaries presented of the wives are well done and quick, easy reading. If you want a more detailed treatise, read the book, In Sacred Loneliness, published by Signature Books in 1997.
The doctrine of celestial marriage
There is no way you can understand this unique aspect of the beginnings of the LDS Church without considering this a doctrine of the restoration. That’s an important concept to us and puts everything into perspective. Without this understanding, it is easy to think of Joseph Smith as a libertine and an adulterer. In fact, that is how the anti and ex-Mormons want you to view him.
It has always been the claim of the LDS Church that we are a restored religion. We believe that our doctrines and practices are a restoration of things known, taught, believed and performed by the patriarchs of the Old Testament. One of those beliefs and practices is what we call celestial marriage. It is also referred to as plural marriage by some but as polygamy by most people.
Although the revelation on celestial marriage, also called the new and everlasting covenant was recorded in 1843 as section 132, it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831. We believe in the restoration of all things, and the practice of celestial marriage is just one of those things.
It is not viewed as adultery
A close reading of section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is still very much a part of the canon of the LDS Church reveals that the Lord appointed Joseph to restore all things (v 40) and was commanded to go and do the works of Abraham (v 32). The Lord affirmed that Joseph had the sealing power (v 46 & 48) and that the Lord had already given him plural wives (v 52).
Verses 61 and 64 point out that the first wife holds the keys of this power and therefore, she is the one who administers or allows her husband to enter into additional marriages. It is she that gives them to him. However, verse 65 makes it clear that if she doesn’t believe and accept the doctrine when taught, that he is justified to receive any additional wives the Lord gives him.
And that is exactly the situation Joseph was in. Emma didn’t like plural marriage although she did try to make it work on a couple of occasions. She accepted Eliza and Emily Partridge for a short season as well as Maria and Sarah Lawrence. Joseph and Emma were sealed during one of her periods of acceptance. However, it was short-lived and she then threw his other wives out.
Not practiced openly, denied publicly
Joseph taught this doctrine to his counselors in the First Presidency and to the Twelve Apostles. It was difficult for most to accept at first, but just as he did with the additional wives to whom he proposed, he invited his trusted associates to obtain a revelation and witness for themselves that the doctrine was true, ennobling and exalting. Most did and many of them followed his example.
However, the doctrine was not taught openly, and was, in fact, denied when it came up as it did quite often during the later Nauvoo period. Now that is a difficult thing for many of our critics to accept. It is bad enough that Joseph and a few other leaders participated in the practice of plural marriage clandestinely, but to then deny it and to publicly preach against it is just hypocritical.
The problem was that there were some who took license with this practice and then turned it into something that it was not meant to be. They called it “spiritual wifery,” and enticed women into adulterous relationships claiming that Joseph approved and sanctioned it. Joseph was forced to preach against it publicly because John C. Bennett was teaching and practicing it unlawfully.
Our critics are shocked
When people investigate the church and the subject of plural marriage comes up, most are familiar with Brigham Young as being the primary example of the practice among the early Latter-day Saint church. However, many are surprised when they learn that the Prophet Joseph Smith was the originator of the doctrine and the practice. Joseph had at least thirty wives.
I suppose that is shocking to learn because Joseph figures so prominently in the story of the restoration. The missionaries teach of the sacred experiences of Joseph in the First Vision, the visits of the angel Moroni, the appearances of old testament prophets in the Kirtland temple and of Joseph’s vision of the three degrees of glory, including his glorious testimony of the Savior.
Our critics have capitalized on this and delight to point it out with fervent zeal and language that makes it obvious that there is no acceptance or desire to understand that this could possibly be something that really was revealed by the Lord as a part of the restoration of all things in the last days. They do not want you to see celestial marriage as anything other than base carnal desire.
Not practiced today
I have written in a previous essay that I hold strongly to the idea of plural marriage still being an eternal doctrine. Latter-day Saints no longer practice it, and have not for over a hundred years. Of course there are those who claim to be Fundamentalist Mormons who live in polygamy, and are mostly in Utah, but they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This topic will continue to be of interest to those who learn about the LDS Church, and will be for a long time to come. It is a curiosity because it is not the social norm in the United States or in most of the Christian world. It has been in the news a lot lately with the FLDS raids in Texas and with the show Big Love on HBO portraying polygamy as a big part of Utah life. It’s not.
The church goes to great lengths to point out that Mormons do not practice polygamy. There are numerous entries on the subject in the Newsroom and even a one page website that gives a great summary of the message that we want to get out to the world. You can find it on my sidebar. The doctrine may still be in our scriptures, but we do not practice it. Those who do are cut off.
Summary and conclusion
As I noted at the beginning, I have been hesitant to write this essay but have had it on my list to do for a long time. I want to have it available on my blog to refer readers to it as it comes up in dialog. I do not like the language our critics use to describe Joseph’s difficulties because he was the first to begin this practice in the last dispensation. Brigham Young had it much easier.
Yes, Joseph Smith had many plural wives. He entered into the law of celestial marriage by way of commandment from God. No, it was not easy for him to obey this commandment. His wife, Emma, who loved him dearly and believed in him as a prophet, nevertheless had a very difficult time accepting this revelation and did not want to share Joseph with the other women in his life.
You can read a lot more about this on various Internet sites listed below, and even the Wikipedia articles about each of his wives are presented fairly accurately. The church is not trying to hide this information and has not for many years. It is a part of our heritage and history. It is a sacred part of our religion that was restored through the prophet Joseph Smith in these, the latter days.
For additional information:
01. Remembering the Wives of Joseph Smith website
02. Origin of Latter-day Saint Polygamy – Wikipedia
03. In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton – Signature Books
04. Review of In Sacred Loneliness from FARMS
05. SHIELDS review of In Sacred Loneliness
06. FAIR – Joseph’s marriages to young women
07. FAIR – Joseph Smith and polyandry
08. FAIR – How Emma felt about plural marriage
09. FAIR – Charges against Joseph of lustful motives
10. FAIR – Resources – Joseph Smith and polygamy