During the nineteenth century, members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, leaders, and missionaries, repeatedly affirmed the Joseph Smith was not a polygamist. They pointed to the lack of offspring from his polygamous wives as evidence that sexual relations were not included in his plural marriages.
Common Belief: Joseph had No Plural Children
Several late testimonies from Joseph’s plural wives indicate that the common belief held by most Church members after the martyrdom was that the Prophet had no children with his plural wives. When Malissa Lott was asked if she knew of any children born to Joseph’s polygamous wives. She answered: “I couldn’t swear to any body else’s children but my own.”1
Emily Partridge was similarly questioned and responded: “No sir, I don’t know of any.”2
Lucy Walker recounted in the 1870s her experience talking with the sons of Joseph and Emma: “[They] seem[ed] surprised that there was no issue from asserted plural marriages with their father. Could they but realize the hazardous life he lived, after that revelation was given, they would comprehend the reason. He was harassed and hounded and lived in constant fear of being betrayed by those who ought to have been true to him.3
An 1892 letter from George Reynolds, secretary to President Wilford Woodruff, apparently responded to questions stemming from RLDS claims that if Joseph Smith had plural wives, then he ought to have had children born from those unions.4 Reynolds wrote:
The facts you refer to are almost as great a mystery to us as they are to you; but the reason generally assigned by the wives themselves is, that owing to the peculiar circumstances by which they were surrounded, they were so nervous and in such constant fear that they did not conceive. It is known, however, that one at least did, become pregnant, but miscarried.5
It appears that, officially at least, Church leaders were unaware of any polygamous offspring born to the Prophet, although privately they may have heard rumors.6
Brigham Young died in 1877, but his thoughts on the matter were recorded by his daughter Susa:
Father and the Twelve Apostles felt the death of the Prophet far more keenly than did the people; and as we believe that children are a part of the glory we inherit hereafter, it seemed a cruel thing that the beloved leader and Prophet should be stricken down in the prime of life, and left without issue in this Church.7
After the Prophet’s death, Brigham Young was sealed to eight of the widows: Louisa Beaman, Emily Partridge, Zina Huntington, Eliza R. Snow, Maria Lawrence, Olive Frost, Mary Elizabeth Rollins, and Rhoda Richards. There are rumors Brigham may have also approached Fanny Alger and possibly Emma Smith. Heber C. Kimball was sealed to seven: Sylvia Sessions, Nancy Winchester, Sarah Lawrence, Martha McBride, Lucy Walker, Sara Ann Whitney, and Presendia Huntington. Nancy Marinda Johnson was married to Orson Hyde. Eliza Partridge married Amasa Lyman.
Joseph F. Smith, who cataloged Joseph Smith’s wives, embraced the belief that his uncle, the Prophet, had no children with his plural wives. 8
The existence of nonsexual eternity-only and even platonic time-and-eternity relationships could explain the disparity between the number of women both Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball married and the fraction of them that bore children to the marriage. Brigham Young is credited with up to fifty-six wives, but he fathered children with only sixteen of those women.9 Similarly, Heber C. Kimball married forty-three wives, but had children with less than half of them.10
While these are still incredibly large numbers and sexual relations do not always result in pregnancy, this research suggests that being sealed as a wife to a man does not necessarily equate to having a connubial relationship with him.
Limited Evidence Supporting Offspring
A few historical references support that a child or two may have been born to the Prophet’s plural spouses. Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner stated: “I know he [Joseph Smith] had three children. They told me. I think two are living today but they are not known as his children as they go by other names.”11 On another occasion, she declared: “I don’t know about his having children, but I heard of three that he was the father of.”12
A second-hand account from Lucy Meserve Smith13 (wife of Apostle George A. Smith) in Nauvoo recalls that her husband “related to me the circumstance of calling on the Prophet one evening about 11 o’clock, and he was out on the porch with a basin of water washing his hands, I said to him what is up, said Joseph one of my wives has just been confined and Emma was midwife and I have been assisting her. He said she had granted a no. of women for him.”14
In the past, multiple researchers have speculated that plural wives Sylvia Sessions and Olive Frost each bore Joseph Smith a child. Recent DNA testing has shown the Sylvia’s daughter, Josephine Lyon, was fathered by Windsor Lyon. Also, the release of the typescript of an interview between Joseph Smith III and James Whitehead essentially eliminates the other child, who was born to Olive Frost.
It is possible that the expanding DNA database will eventually identify a child being born to Joseph Smith and one of his plural wives. One reason Joseph gave for plural marriage was to “multiply and replenish the earth” (D&C 132:63). Currently, however, none have been genetically identified.
The chart below discusses all of the children that have been mentioned as possibly being Joseph’s offspring:
- Malissa Lott, deposition, Temple Lot transcript, respondent’s testimony, part 3, page 99, question 141; Malissa was referring to her own children by her husband, Ira Jones Willes, whom she married on May 13, 1849. (back)
- Emily D. P. Young, deposition, Temple Lot transcript, respondent’s testimony, part 3, page 388, question 861. (back)
- Lucy Walker statement, quoted in Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints: Giving an Account of Much Individual Suffering Endured for Religious Conscience (Logan: Utah Journal Co, 1888), 50. (back)
- See Joseph Smith, III, “Plural Marriage in America,” The Arena, 29 (May, 1903) 465. (back)
- George Reynolds to H. Neidig, June 7, 1892, Wilford Woodruff Letterbook, MS 1352 Vol. 10 page 350, CHL. (back)
- In 1903, Church President Joseph F. Smith wrote: “[Joseph Smith, III] makes the bald assertion that there was no issue to any of these marriages. That is a mere assumption, which he is not able to prove, and which cuts no important figure in the dispute; for lack of offspring can scaely be viewed as disproof of the marriage relation.” (Joseph F. Smith, “The Real Origin of American Polygamy,” The Arena, 28 [Nov. 1902]: 493-94. (back)
- Undated statement in Susa Young Gates, papers, USHS, Box 12, fd 2, page 78. (back)
- Joseph F. Smith Journal, entry for November 1, 1879, Richard E. Turley, Jr. Selected Collections from the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2002): 1: DVD 26. (back)
- Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 420–21) identifies sixteen plural wives by whom Brigham Young had children and nine other by whom he did not. In contrast, Stanley P. Hirshson lists seventy wives for Brigham Young. (The Lion of the Lord (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969), 190–221. (back)
- Stanely B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 99. (back)
- Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, “Remarks” at Brigham Young University, April 14. 1905, vault MSS 363, fd 6, Harold B. Lee Library, Special Collections, 5. Mary Ann Barzee Boice stated in her “History,” that “some” of Joseph Smith’s plural wives “had children.” (Quoted in D. Michael Quinn Papers—Addition—Uncat WA MS 244 [Accession:19990209-c] bx 1. (back)
- J. D. Stead, Doctrines and Dogmas of Brighamism Exposed (Lamoni, Iowa: RLDS Church, 1911), 218. (back)
- For a history of Lucy Meserve Smith (1817-1892) see Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1982), 261–71. (back)
- Meserve Smith, Lucy, Statement, Wilford Wood Collection of Church Historical Materials, Microfilm at CHL, MS 8617, Reel 8, Internal reference within collection—4-N-b-2. For a very similar handwritten statement, dated May 18, 1892, signed by Lucy M. Smith, see copy of holograph in Linda King Newell Collection, Marriott Library. See also Todd Compton, “A Trajectory of Plurality: An Overview of Joseph Smith’s Thirty-Three Plural Wives,” Dialogue 29, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 16. (back)