According to available documents, Joseph Smith was sealed to ten women under that age of twenty. Four were nineteen, three were seventeen, one was sixteen, and two were fourteen. Since marriages of women in these ages groups are rare in today, concerns have been understandably expressed by modern-day observers.
Young Wives were not Scandalous in the 1840s
Evaluating marriage practices in the mid-nineteenth century requires readers today to set aside current cultural traditions. L. P. Hartley observed: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”1 Marriages for young women sixteen and older were not uncommon in the mid-nineteenth century. Matrimonies for females fourteen years of age were eyebrow-raising, but not scandalous in the 1840s.
Helen Mar Kimball 14
Nancy M. Winchester 14?
Flora Ann Woodworth 16
Sarah Ann Whitney 17
Sarah Lawrence 17
Lucy Walker 17
Fanny Alger 19
Emily Dow Partridge 19
Maria Lawrence 19
Malissa Lott 19
Sometimes accusations of “pedophilia” have been raised, but such are always leveled by either uninformed individuals or critics attempting to deceive their audiences. The term pedophilia means a sexual interest in girls under the age of thirteen and could never be accurately applied to Joseph. As discussed below, there is no evidence of sexuality with the three youngest wives and several indications those plural unions were not consummated.
In the United States during the nineteenth century, the average female age for first marriages was around twenty.2
Polygamy researcher Kimball Young wrote: “By present standards  a bride of 17 or 18 years is considered rather unusual but under pioneer conditions there was nothing atypical about this.”3
LDS scholar Gregory L. Smith explained:
It is significant that none of Joseph’s contemporaries complained about the age differences between polygamous or monogamous marriage partners. This was simply part of their environment and culture; it is unfair to judge nineteenth century members by twenty-first century social standards. … Joseph Smith’s polygamous marriages to young women may seem difficult to understand or explain today, but in his own time such age differences were not typically an obstacle to marriage. The plural marriages were unusual, to say the least; the younger ages of the brides were much less so. Critics do not provide this perspective because they wish to shock the audience and have them judge Joseph by the standards of the modern era, rather than his own time.4
Helen Mar Kimball Sealing
Joseph Smith’s marriage to Helen Mar Kimball when she was just fourteen is most commonly discussed in conjunction with the topic of Joseph’s young wives. Her father brokered the union in his desire to bind his family to the prophet’s for eternity. Helen wrote: “He [her father—Heber C. Kimball] taught me the principle of Celestial marriage and having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth.”5
Richard Anderson observed: “Helen says several times that her father took the initiative to arrange the marriage and very possibly he did so with a view to committing her to the Prophet before her budding social life produced a choice or a proposal” from someone else.6 Joseph’s role was not completely passive because he was willing to teach Helen Mar concerning the principle after Helen’s father, Heber, introduced her to the topic.
Helen’s sealing was for both time and eternity, so sexual relations in the relationship were authorized. However in Utah, Brigham Young instructed polygamous men to wait to consummate their sealings to younger brides until they were at least eighteen. 7 While it is is impossible to document, it appears this policy began in Nauvoo with Joseph Smith.
Evidences Helen Mar Kimball’s Sealing was not Consummated
Michael Marquardt surmised: “Helen Kimball’s sealing to Joseph Smith was a spiritual one unlike other wives who had sexual relations with the prophet.”8
The primary document referring to the relationship is an 1881 poem penned by Helen that has been interpreted in different ways:
I thought through this life my time will be my own
The step I now am taking’s for eternity alone,
No one need be the wiser, through time I shall be free …
They saw my youthful friends grow shy and cold.
And poisonous darts from sland’rous tongues were hurled …
And like a fetter’d bird with wild and longing heart,
Thou’lt dayly pine for freedom and murmor at thy lot;9
One year after writing the above poem, she elaborated:
During the winter of 1843, there were plenty of parties and balls. … Some of the young gentlemen got up a series of dancing parties, to be held at the Mansion once a week. … I had to stay home, as my father had been warned by the Prophet to keep his daughter away from there, because of the blacklegs and certain ones of questionable character who attended there. … I felt quite sore over it, and thought it a very unkind act in father to allow [my brother] to go and enjoy the dance unrestrained with others of my companions, and fetter me down, for no girl loved dancing better than I did, and I really felt that it was too much to bear. It made the dull school still more dull, and like a wild bird I longer for the freedom that was denied me; and thought myself a much abused child, and that it was pardonable if I did murmur.10
Helen went on to write more about plural marriage than any other female author in the nineteenth century, defending it and Joseph Smith. Included were two books, Plural Marriage as Taught by the Prophet Joseph: A Reply to Joseph Smith, Editor of the Lamoni Iowa “Herald” (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882) and her second, Why We Practice Plural Marriage (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1840). Helen also kept a detailed journal throughout much of her life.11
Through those pages, Helen never describes even one time being alone with the Prophet without a chaperone. References to intimate relations would not be expected. Yet, if the two spent time together as husband and wife, Helen might have made a passing reference to the interactions. None are found.
A second explanation, which is corroborated by Helen’s poignant poem, is that the ceremony prevented her from associating with her friends as an unmarried teenager, causing her dramatic distress during their thirteen month plural marriage (May 1843 to June 1844). Her verse: “Bar’d out from social scenes by this thy destiny / And o’er thy sad’nd mem’ries of sweet departed joys / Thy sicken’d heart will brood and imagine future woes, / And like a fetter’d bird with wild and longing heart / Thou’lt dayly pine for freedom and murmor at thy lot” reflects frustrations from her inability to laugh, dance, and socialize with her peers, who subsequently shut her out from their group enjoyments and good times.
It seems that if Helen were sexually involved with the Prophet as a plural wife, her anticipation of pregnancy and other wifely responsibilities might have made it clear she was no longer single. In view of the conservative sexual standards embraced at that time, her longings to dance with teenage boys and otherwise socialize may have been subdued as she submitted to her wifehood.
Yet, if no physical intimacy was included because of her physical immaturity, the marriage would seem more symbolic than real, except it prevented her from associating with her friends, causing much consternation.
Helen Not Invited to Testify in 1892
In 1892, the RLDS Church led by Joseph Smith III sued the Church of Christ (Temple Lot),12 disputing its claim to own the temple lot in Independence, Missouri. The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) held physical possession, and the RLDS Church took the official position that since it was the true successor of the church originally founded by Joseph Smith, it owned the property outright.13
Although the LDS Church was not a party to the suit, it provided support to the Church of Christ (Temple Lot). The issue was parsed this way: If the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) could prove that plural marriage was part of the original Church, then the RLDS Church was obviously not the true successor since it failed to practice such a key doctrine.14
During the proceedings, three plural wives of Joseph Smith (Lucy Walker, Emily Partridge, and Malissa Lott) were deposed.15
Why was Helen Kimball not also called to testify in the Temple Lot trial regarding her marriage relations with Joseph Smith? She lived in Salt Lake City, geographically much closer than two of the three witnesses, Malissa Lott (thirty miles south in Lehi) and Lucy Walker (eighty-two miles north in Logan), who were called.
A likely reason is that Helen could not provide the needed testimony. All three of Joseph Smith’s wives who did testify affirmed that sexual relations were part of their plural marriages to the Prophet.16 Testifying of either an unconsummated time-and-eternity sealing or an eternity-only marriage would have hurt the Temple Lot case. Such “spiritual” marriages would have been easily dismissed as unimportant.
If Helen’s plural union did not include conjugality, her testimony would not have been helpful. If it did, the reason for not inviting her to testify is not obvious. Not only was Helen passed over, but Mary Elizabeth Lightner, Zina Huntington, and Patty Sessions, who were sealed to Joseph in eternity-only marriages, were similarly not deposed.
The lack of evidence does not prove the lack of sexual relations, but several observations support that Helen’s marriage to Joseph Smith was not consummated.
The second fourteen year old sealed to Joseph Smith was Nancy M. Winchester, born August 10, 1828. She may have been fifteen.17
Two late sources support that at some point she might have been sealed to Joseph Smith. The first is Eliza R. Snow as documented in Andrew Jenson’s polygamy notes recorded in 1886 and published in the Historical Record article, “Plural Marriage” published in July 1887.18
The other piece of evidence supporting Nancy’s position as a plural wife of the Prophet comes from Orson F. Whitney, who was the son of Joseph Smith’s plural wife Helen Mar Kimball. It seems likely that Orson would have received information from his mother who was still living at the time Andrew Jenson’s list was published. However, the year after Jenson’s publication was printed Orson wrote that Nancy Maria Winchester was one of nine “wives of the Prophet who wedded Heber C. Kimball.”19
While it appears that Nancy Maria Winchester was fourteen or fifteen when she was sealed to Joseph Smith, no documentation exists suggesting that she was sexually involved with the Prophet at any time.
In summary, while Joseph Smith was sealed to two fourteen year olds, such marriages at that time and place were not that unusual. Although available historical data is limited, accusations Joseph personally sought these unions go beyond the evidence. Several observations support that Helen Mar Kimball’s sealing to the Prophet was not consummated. Claims that sexuality drove these sealings to younger brides are unfounded and unsupported.
This is a brief overview of Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy. If it has piqued your interest, then please check out Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding.
- L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953, 1. (back)
- See Nancy Osterud and John Fulton, “Family Limitation and Age at Marriage: Fertility Decline in Sturbridge, Massachusetts 1730–1850,” Population Studies 30, no. 3 (November 1976): 484; James M. Gallman, “Determinants of Age at Marriage in Colonial Perquimans County, North Carolina,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 39, no.1 (January 1982): 179–80; see also R. B. Outhwaite, “Age at Marriage in England from the Late Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, 23 (1973): 64. (back)
- Kimball Young, Isn’t One Wife Enough? (New York: Henry Hold, 1954), 177. (back)
- Gegory L. Smith [uncredited], “Joseph Smith’s marriages to young women,” Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR), accessed November 1, 2009, http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith_and_polygamy/Marriages_to_young_women#Historical_and_cultural_perspective. (back)
- Typescript and copy of holograph reproduced in Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, eds., A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1997), 482–87. (back)
- Richard L. Anderson to Dawn Comfort, May 9–15, 1998, copy of letter in Scott H. Faulring Papers, box 93, fds 1–3, (accn 2316), Marriott Library. (back)
- See discussion in Eugene E. Campbell, Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West 1847-1869 (SLC: Signature Books, 1988), p. 198 note 5. (back)
- Michael Marquardt, The Rise of Mormonism: 1816–1844 (Longwood, Florida: Xulon Press, 2005), 609. (back)
- Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, “Autobiography, 30 March, 1881,” CHL. Typescript and copy of holograph reproduced in Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, eds., A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1997), 482–87. (back)
- Woman’s Exponent 11, no. 12, November 15, 1882, 90; see Holzapfel and Holzapfel, eds., A Woman’s View, 224. (back)
- Charles M.Hatch and Todd M. Compton, eds. A Widow’s Tale: The 1884-1896 Diary of Helen Mar Kimball Whitney. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003. (back)
- Known colloquially as “Hedrickites” after Granville Hedrick, who was ordained the church’s first leader in 1863. They prefer the title of “Church of Christ (Temple Lot).” (back)
- S. Patrick Baggette II, “The Temple Lot Case: Fraud in God’s Vineyard,” 136. (back)
- The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) were staunchly opposed to plural marriage and seemed to have pursued polygamy as a line of inquiry only for strategic purposes. See R. Jean Addams, “The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) and the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints: 130 Years of Crossroads and Controversies,” Journal of Mormon History 36, no. 2 (2010): 29–53. (back)
- The Temple Lot case transcript, as it is popularly known, comprises more than 1,700 pages. It can be accessed here: https://archive.org/details/TempleLotCaseTranscript. (back)
- Malissa Lott, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, page 105, question 227; Lucy Walker, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, pages 450–51, 468, 473, questions 29–30, 463–74, 586. (back)
- While it is possible that Nancy Maria was sealed to the Prophet after August 10, 1843, making her fifteen not fourteen, such a sealing would have been contrary to Joseph’s apparent agreement with Emma on July 13 to stop marrying plural wives. (back)
- Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record 6 (July 1887): 233–34. (back)
- Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 9th ed. (Salt Lake City: Book Craft, 1945), 418–19. (back)