Joseph Smith was sealed to fourteen women with legal spouses. These are some of the most puzzling of all of his plural marriages. From a ceremonial standpoint, it appears that these women had two husbands at the same time. Based solely upon the ceremonies that were performed, multiple critics have claimed that Joseph’s participated in genuine plurality of husbands, called “polyandry.”
Such evaluations create confusion rather than helping observers understand what actually happened. A deeper dive into the historical evidences surrounding these ceremonies identifies important details that contradict the idea that Joseph practiced or ever would have tolerated polyandry. Important details include the following:
- Plural marriage ceremonies, called “sealings,” could be for this life and the next or they could apply only after death;
- No unambiguous evidence of genuine polyandry has been found;
- Genuine polyandry would have been an explosive practice; and
- Joseph’s teachings did not permit polyandry.
Plural Ceremonies Created Marriages of Different Durations
Plural marriage ceremonies in Nauvoo could be for different durations. That is, a woman could be sealed to a man for this life and the next, called “time-and-eternity,” or a sealing could be just for after death, called “eternity-only.” Andrew Jensen, who became an Assistant Church Historian in the 1890s, described an eternity-only sealing in his notes as he was interviewing an unidentified Nauvoo polygamist (likely Eliza R. Snow or Malissa Lott) in 1887:
Sayers (Ruth Daggett Vose,) daughter of Mark and Sally vose, was born in Watertown, Middlesex Co., Mass, Feb. 26, 1808, and baptized at Boston Ma in May, 183. …
While there the strongest affection sprang up between the Prophet Joseph and Mr. Sayers.1 The latter not attaching much importance to the/ theory of a future life insisted that his wife Ruth/ should be sealed to the Prophet for eternity, as he himself should only claim her in this life. She was/ accordingly the sealed to the Prophet in Emma Smith’s presence and thus were became numbered among the Prophets plural wives. She however though she/ continued to live with Mr. Sayers / remained with her husband until his death.2
Joseph’s sealings to legally married women seem to have been of this type–eternity-only. That is, they did not constitute marriages during this life, but applied only in eternity (after death). The participants themselves referred to them as marriages, which confuses the issue further even though the relationships were ceremonial in matrimonial nature only.
No Unambiguous Evidence of Genuine Polyandry
It is true that little is known regarding Joseph’s actual involvement with many of the fourteen women. This lack of evidence is sometimes exploited by critics who wish to fill in the gaps with allegations that sexuality occurred in both relationships, charging that the Prophet entered into one or more genuine polyandrous relationships.
The lack of solid documentation is important because demonstrating the existence of polyandry could be done rather easily by quoting a single credible supportive statement, if such existed. One well-documented account from a participant or other close observer (of which there were dozens) indicating that any of the fourteen women had two genuine husbands at the same time would constitute such evidence. No documentation of this type has been found.
Similarly, no declarations from other polygamy insiders have been found saying Joseph’s taught polyandry was acceptable. No credible accounts from any of the fourteen wives exist wherein they complained about it, even though many complaints about polygyny are recorded.
More remarkable is the lack of defenses of the practice. Dozens of people were aware of some of these fourteen sealings. That no explanatory texts or defensive references have surfaced is surprising.
The absence of any unambiguous evidence of polyandry contrasts the abundance of solid evidence establishing the practice of traditional polygamy (plurality of wives) called “polygyny“:
Polyandry would have been an Explosive Practice
The history of the LDS Church shows that nothing has been more controversial than the practice of polygamy, meaning a plurality of wives. Despite the fact that it purported to be a restoration of an Old Testament practice, as soon as it became known, printing presses blasted the news across the continent, Christians around the world took offense, congress labelled it a “relic of barbarism” vowing to stop it, and a stigma arose that remains to this day.
In contrast, if Joseph Smith practiced polyandry, a practice condemned in the Bible (Romans 7:2-3), it seems the push-back would have been at least as great, if not greater.
Polyandry is distinctly different from traditional polygamy because it involves a legal husband. No American law recognized the sealings as creating a genuine polygamous marriage. So if sexuality was involved in any of the sealings, the standard of frontier justice generally allowed the husband, or a father, brother, or son of a sexually involved woman, to exact revenge, even mortal justice, upon the perpetrator.
Several of the legal husbands were not active Mormons, so Joseph’s personal safety could easily have been threatened. The possible involvement of the husbands of the wives sealed to him would probably have increased the potential for public scandal from polyandry beyond that from accusations of multiple wives.
During his lifetime, even Joseph Smith’s enemies failed to exploit the charge. After his excommunication, John C. Bennett, identified several of Joseph’s plural wives in his 1842 publication, History of the Saints. Calling them “spiritual wives” and using asterisks to avoid embarrassing the women directly, Bennett wrote:
I will semi-state two or more cases, among the vast number, where Joe Smith was privately married to his spiritual wives – in the case of Mrs. A**** S****, by Apostle Brigham Young; and in that of Miss L***** B*****, by Elder Joseph Bates Noble. Then there are the cases of Mrs. B****, Mrs. D*****, Mrs. S*******, Mrs. G*****, Miss B***** etc. etc. (Emphasis added.)3
Five of the women are listed as “Mrs.” indicating they already had legal husbands. In his letters to the Sangamo Journal, Bennett appealed to dozens of individuals to join him against the Prophet. But Bennett never accused Joseph of polyandry, nor did he invite the husbands of the women listed above to join with him in persecuting Joseph.4
Similarly, William Law, who was a polygamy insider in Nauvoo, apostatized and went to Carthage on May 23, 1844, to charge Joseph Smith with adultery with one of his previously unmarried plural wives, Maria Lawrence. Law undoubtedly knew of Joseph’s sealings to legally married women, but he ignored the chance to accuse him of practicing polyandry.
That Joseph’s enemies failed to exploit these particular sealings in their crusades against Joseph Smith is puzzling. Their scandal-mongering missed an excellent opportunity unless they knew the sealings were only for the next life. No one made the accusation that Joseph Smith practiced genuine polyandry until several years after his death and then they were made by non-members who were not privy to details of the Nauvoo sealings.5
Joseph’s Teachings did not Permit Polyandry
Among Latter-day Saints the practice would have been equally controversial. The revelation on celestial and plural marriage, now section 132 in the Doctrine and Covenants, contains three references to sexually polyandrous relations (vv. 41–42, 61–63). All three label them “adultery,” with two cases stating the woman involved “would be destroyed” (41, 63).
Church members who were personally taught by Joseph recalled only condemnations of the practice. For example, when asked in 1852, “What do you think of a woman having more husbands than one?” Brigham Young answered, “This is not known to the law.”6
The following year Orson Pratt instructed: “God has strictly forbidden, in this Bible, plurality of husbands, and proclaimed against it in his law.”7
On October 8, 1869, Apostle George A. Smith taught that “a plurality of husbands is wrong.”8
His wife Bathsheba Smith, who served as Relief Society General President, was asked in 1892 if it would “be a violation of the laws of the church for one woman to have two husbands living at the same time.” She replied: “I think it would.”9
Similar denunciations continued as First Presidency Counselor Joseph F. Smith wrote in 1889: “Polyandry is wrong, physiologically, morally, and from a scriptural point of order. It is nowhere sanctioned in the Bible, nor by the law of God or nature and has not affinity with ‘Mormon’ plural marriage.”10
In addition, D&C 22:1 states: “Behold, I say unto you that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.” This revelation was given shortly after the Church was organized in response to a specific question about baptism, which is a new and everlasting covenant between a person and God. The revelation states that the new and everlasting covenant causes all old covenants to be done away.
Eternal marriage is also a part of the “new and an everlasting covenant” (D&C 132:4). So according to these scriptures, a woman married civilly to one man, but subsequently sealed to another in the new and everlasting covenant, would not thereafter have two husbands in the eyes of the Church. The old legal marriage covenant would be “done away.” It is unclear whether this dynamic ever occurred, but the principle prevents the authorized practice of polyandry in the Church.
Why Were Legally Married Women Sealed to Joseph Smith?
Despite the observations above, Joseph Smith’s sealings to legally married women may still seem rather odd. The cases where the legal husbands were not active Latter-day Saint are easier to comprehend, but most of the civil spouses were devout Church members.
Evidently, this first generation of females to learn of eternal marriage was given a choice regarding who would be their spouse in eternity.11
According to John D. Lee, when eternal marriage was introduced, Church members were “at liberty” to choose to whom they would be eternally sealed:
About the same time the doctrine of “sealing” for an eternal state was introduced [1842–43], and the Saints were given to understand that their marriage relations with each other were not valid. That those who had solemnized the rites of matrimony had no authority of God to do so. That the true priesthood was taken from the earth with the death of the Apostles and inspired men of God. That they were married to each other only by their own covenants, and that if their marriage relations had not been productive of blessings and peace, and they felt it oppressive to remain together, they were at liberty to make their own choice, as much as if they had not been married.12
While Lee’s declarations cannot always be taken at face value, his description may have been accurate.13
Why Joseph didn’t always require active Latter-day Saints to seek to be sealed to their legal spouses is less clear, especially regarding his own sealings to legally married women. Critics have assumed that sexuality played a role, but eternity-only sealings did not authorize sexuality on earth. Nor is there credible evidence that it was included or motivated these sealings.
Joseph might be denounced for his participation, but none of the legal husbands criticized him then or later. None of the fourteen women left criticisms of him either. Also, none of the officiators and others who understood the details accused him of impropriety or hypocrisy.
Without additional historical data, it appears that firm conclusions concerning the details of theses relationships may forever be beyond our reach.
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.
- Joseph Smith stayed with the Sayerses during August 11–17, 1842, while hiding from Missouri lawmen. Dean C. Jessee, ed. The Papers of Joseph Smith: Volume 2, Journal, 1832-1842 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 403–18. (back)
- Ruth Vose Sayers, Draft biographical sketch,” Document 5, Andrew Jenson Papers (ca. 1871–1942), Box 49, fd. 16, 1–2. Jenson apparently used the documents in these folders to compile his 1887 Historical Record article, “Plural Marriage.” This sealing is dated “February A.D. 1843” in Ruth Vose Sayers’s Joseph F. Smith, Affidavit Books, May 1, 1869, 1:9. However, the affidavit states that Hyrum Smith performed the sealing, which is unlikely because Hyrum did not accept plural marriage until May 1843. (back)
- John C. Bennett, The History of the Saints: Or an Exposé of Joe Smith and Mormonism. Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842, 256. (back)
- See John C. Bennett in “Bennett’s Second and Third Letters,” Sangamo Journal, July 15, 1842. (back)
- See William Hall, The Abominations of Mormonism Exposed, Cincinnati: I. Hart, 1851. 43. (back)
- Brigham Young, August 1, 1852, Journal of Discourses, 1:361. (back)
- Orson Pratt, July 11, 1875, Journal of Discourses, 18:55–56. (back)
- George Albert Smith, October 8, 1869, Journal of Discourses, 13:41. (back)
- Bathsheba Smith, deposition, Temple Lot transcript, respondent’s testimony, part 3, page 347, question 1142. (back)
- Joseph F. Smith to Zenos H. Gurley, June 19, 1889, CHL. 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 29. (back)
- Lucy Walker Kimball, “A Brief Biographical Sketch of the Life and Labors of Lucy Walker Kimball Smith,” CHL; quoted in Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints: Giving an Account of Much Individual Suffering Endured for Religious Conscious (Logan: Utah Journal Co, 1988), 46. (back)
- John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled (St. Louis: Bryan, Brand & Company, 1877), 146. (back)
- Historical evidence shows that John D. Lee’s Mormonism Unveiled was edited by his attorney, who was paid from the royalties of his book. On many points, it may not be reliable. (back)