Joseph was sealed to fourteen women with legal spouses. Ceremonially, these women may have experienced a “plurality of husbands,” which is called “polyandry,” but there is no unambiguous evidence that any women was involved with two men in a marital arrangement at the same time. Regarding these sealings, two important questions emerge. First, why did Joseph Smith and the women enter into these relationships? Second, did Joseph ever practice “sexual polyandry”? That is, were any of his plural wives experiencing conjugal relations with Joseph and their civil husbands during the same time period?
Before answering these two questions, the relationships themselves must be explored because they were of two types. Most of them, probably eleven of the fourteen, were eternity-only sealings, meaning only for the next life. The women were married for “time” to their civil husbands and for “eternity” to Joseph Smith. The sealings did not represent simultaneous marriages, but rather consecutive marriages.
The remaining three of the fourteen sealings were for time and eternity, meaning they could have included sexual relations. However, they too were not simultaneous marriages. This confusing concept is discussed more fully later.
So returning to the two questions, the answer to why these sealings occurred is simply because the women chose to be sealed to Joseph Smith rather than their legal husbands. In other words, Joseph asked and they said, “Yes.”
This seems strange to us today, especially considering these types of sealings are no longer performed.
The answer to the question of whether Joseph Smith practiced sexual polyandry is “no.” Admittedly, unanswered questions still exist, but there is no evidence to support that Joseph Smith experienced conjugal visits with a woman who was also having sexual relations with her legal husband.1
Few things are more confusing to observers than Joseph Smith’s sealings to legally married women. Due to limitations in the number and types of documents available, understanding what transpired is difficult. The topic itself is very complex. Nevertheless, sufficient evidence is available to discern why these sealings may have taken place and whether sexual polyandry occurred.
Why Were Legally Married Women Sealed to Joseph Smith?
As discussed above, the answer to why these sealings occurred is simply because the women chose to be sealed to Joseph Smith rather than their civil husbands. This first generation of females to learn of eternal marriage was given a choice regarding who would be their spouse in eternity.2
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.3
While Lee’s declarations cannot always be taken at face value, his description may have been accurate.4
Polyandry was Universally Condemned
The beginning of 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 knew Joseph and were personally taught by him 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.”5
Five years later Heber C. Kimball taught, “There has been a doctrine taught that a man can act as Proxy for another when absent – it has been practiced and it is known – & its damnable.”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
Pratt further explained:
Can a woman have more than one husband at the same time? No: Such a principle was never sanctioned by scripture. 8
On October 8, 1869, Apostle George A. Smith taught that “a plurality of husbands is wrong.”9
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.”10
All of these individuals were involved with Nauvoo polygamy and several were undoubtedly aware of Joseph Smith’s sealings to legally married women.11
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.”12 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith reiterated in 1905: “Polygamy, in the sense of plurality of husbands and of wives never was practiced in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah or elsewhere.”13
The Apostle Paul denounced polyandry in the New Testament, calling it “adultery”:
For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. (Rom. 7:2–3.)
The New and Everlasting Covenant Causes “Old Covenants” to be “Done Away”
A second applicable theological principle is found in an 1830 revelation, now D&C 22:1, which 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 generally that the new and everlasting covenant causes all old covenants to be done away.
Thirteen years later Joseph recorded another revelation dealing with his question about Old Testament patriarchs who practices a “plurality of wives” (D&C 132:1). As part of the revelatory reply, Joseph dictated: “For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant.” The revelation continues declaring that this new and everlasting covenant allows the marriage of a man and a woman to be “valid … [and] of force when they are out of the world” (v. 18; see also 19–20). The question is whether the earlier statement that “all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant” (D&C 22:1) applies to all “new and everlasting covenants” mentioned in D&C 132:4.
The 1830 revelation states “all old covenants” are “done away” by “a new and everlasting covenant.” If “all” means “all,” then new and everlasting covenants revealed later would be subject to the same constraints as those revealed early. Sealings in the new and everlasting covenant would cause old legal marriage covenants to be “done away.”
In 1854, Jedediah M. Grant recalled that when eternal marriage was revealed in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith taught that “all covenants are done away, and none are binding but the new covenants.”14
These verses have important ramifications for the practice of sexual polyandry. They support that from a religious standpoint, a woman previously legally married and subsequently sealed would not have two husbands with whom she could experience sexual relations after the sealing ceremony. The new and everlasting covenant of marriage would supersede the legal covenant of marriage causing it to be “done away.” Thereafter, going back to her legal husband would be adultery because in the eyes of the Church, that marriage ended with the sealing.
Non-Sexual Eternity-Only Sealings Fulfilled the Primary Purpose of Polygamy
Another doctrinal consideration pertinent to sexual polyandry regards the fact that both time-and-eternity and eternity-only sealings were performed in Nauvoo. This supports that eternity was a focus (if not the primary focus) of plurality in Joseph Smith’s marriage teachings rather than sexuality.
The recently discovered research notes of Andrew Jensen, an independent historian, written in 1887 as he was interviewing an unidentified Nauvoo polygamist, but likely Eliza R. Snow or Malissa Lott, record:
[handwritten] 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. …
[typed] Sister Ruth/ Mrs. Sayers was married in her youth to Mr. Edward Sayers, a thoroughly practical horticulturist and florist,15 and though he was not a member of the Church, yet he willingly joined his fortune with her and they reached Nauvoo together some time in the year 1841
[handwritten] While there the strongest affection sprang up between the Prophet Joseph and Mr. Sayers.16 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.17
D. Michael Quinn, who previously wrote that no eternity-only sealings were performed in Nauvoo, recently acknowledged: “Despite my decades-long expectation for those specific words to be in the written records of sealing, Brian Hales has recently persuaded me that Joseph Smith was sealed during his lifetime to one already-married woman in a ceremony that she, her non-Mormon husband, and the Prophet all regarded as applying only to the eternities after mortal life. This was Ruth Vose Sayers.”18
Any of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages where sexuality is not documented could have been an eternity-only sealing including eleven of his fourteen sealings to women with legal husbands.
Joseph Smith gave four reasons for the restoration of plural marriage with one of them being much more important than the other three.
The first was restoration of Old Testament polygamy as a part of the “restitution of all things” prophesied in Acts 3:19–21.
The second reason was to provide a customized trial for the Saints (see D&C 132: 32, 51).
The third reason was to “multiply and replenish the earth” in order to provide additional devout families to receive noble pre-mortal spirits who would be born into them. Unfortunately, some researchers have portrayed sexual reproduction as the primary reason for plural marriage.19 They imply that non-sexual sealings could not fulfill the principal purpose of plural marriage (in Joseph Smith’s teachings), so sexual polyandry must have occurred. These assessments are incomplete and potentially misleading because the fourth reason is vastly more important because it deals with eternity.
The revelation on celestial and plural marriage (D&C 132) explains the fourth reason as it declares that exaltation is available only to married couples who are sealed by proper authority and live worthily (D&C 132:15–20).
Individuals who are not sealed are “appointed angels in heaven” to be “ministering servants” to more worthy resurrected beings. They “remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity” (D&C 132:16–17). This is damnation within the context of the revelation (vv. 4, 6). So, both nonsexual eternity-only sealings and those for time and eternity allow worthy women to be sealed to a righteous husband and become candidates for exaltation. Both are capable of fulfilling the eternal purpose of the plurality of wives without any need for a plurality of husbands.
Allegations of Sexual Polyandry
It has been alleged that Joseph Smith practiced sexual polyandry. It is interesting to note that although John C. Bennett claimed that Joseph Smith was sealed to civilly married women, he did not exploit this alleged sexual polyandry even though it would have been an explosive charge.
In his dramatic efforts to discredit Joseph Smith, he never focused upon these alleged relationships or approached the presumably offended husbands who, logically speaking, would have been prime candidates to join his crusade against the Prophet in order to protect their family’s honor.
Sylvia Sessions Lyon
Of all of Joseph’s marriages to legally married women, his sealing to Sylvia Lyon is held up most often as an example of sexual polyandry.
As support of this contention, authors point to a 1915 affidavit signed by Josephine Lyon, claiming to be Joseph’s daughter:
Just prior to my mothers death in 1882 she called me to her bedside and told me that her days on earth were about numbered and before she passed away from mortality she desired to tell me something which she had kept as an entire secret from me and from others until now but which she now desired to communicate to me. She then told me that I was the daughter of the Prophet Joseph Smith, she having been sealed to the Prophet at the time that her husband Mr. Lyon had was out of fellowship with the Church. She also told me that she was sealed to the Prophet about the same time that Zina D. Huntington and Eliza R. Snow were thus sealed. In conclusion mother told me not to make her statement to me too public, as it might cause trouble and arouse unpleasant curiosity. I have followed her advice, and I am relating the facts to-day practically the first time, responding to the request/ desire or desire of one of the assistant Church Historians.20
Dating Sylvia’s sealing to Joseph is difficult because we have two dates. First, there is a document found in the affidavit collection accumulated by Apostle Joseph F. Smith in 1869.
Territory of Utah
County of Salt Lake
Be it remembered that on this [blank] day of [blank] A.D. 1869 personally appeared before me James Jack a Notary Public in and for Said County Cylvia Lyon [sic], who was by me sworn in due form of law and upon her oath Saith that on the eighth day of February A.D. 1842, in the City of Nauvoo, County of Hancock State of Illinois She was married or Sealed to President Joseph Smith by [blank] in the presence of [blank]21
The document is unsigned A close look at the notebooks containing the document shows that a second version exists, apparently written at the same time. It contains similar wording and also is unsigned but gives the year as 1843 for Sylvia’s sealing to the Prophet.22
Clearly neither document is more reliable than the other, and reconstructions that preferentially quote one while ignoring the other are problematic.
While circumstantial evidence and one unsigned document supports an early 1842 sealing date for Joseph and Sylvia, several other more credible manuscripts indicate that Windsor and Sylvia separated after Windsor’s excommunication (November 19, 1842), and she was sealed to the Prophet after that date. Josephine was conceived approximately May 18, 1843; thus, the plural marriage most likely occurred between the excommunication and that date.
In 1886 and 1887, Andrew Jenson interviewed several of Joseph Smith plural wives and other Nauvoo polygamists. His handwritten notes refer to Sylvia as “formerly the wife of Windsor Lyons.”23
He also penned:
Sessions, Sylvia Porter, wife of Winsor [sic] Palmer Lyon, was born July 31, 1818, in Bethel, Oxford Co, Maine, the daughter of [blank] Sessions. sister of Perrigrine Sessions Became a convert to ‘Mormonism’ and was married to Mr. Lyons When he left the Church she was sealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith.24
Hence, three documents support a physical separation or effectual divorce between Windsor and Sylvia, with two of them placing it after his excommunication. In contrast, no researcher has produced evidence to show that Sylvia Sessions cohabited with Joseph Smith and Windsor Lyon in sexual polyandry.
No discussion of Joseph’s relationship with Sylvia would be complete without a discussion of the obvious. Why didn’t she simply obtain a legal divorce before marrying Joseph Smith for time and eternity?
Several factors could contribute to this decision including the difficulty in obtaining a legal divorce and the financial non-status of women in Jacksonian America.
Many couples simply separated in what became known as a “pioneer” divorce, where one or both parties simply ignored their former marriage vows and moved on with their lives. Indeed when Sylvia decided to cease her relationship with Ezekiel Clark, her fourth husband contracted for time, in the mid-1850s, they took this route. Ezekiel later remarried without processing legal paperwork despite his position as a state legislator.
It is also possible that Joseph Smith who had performed the marriage of Sylvia to her legal husband Windsor Lyon in Missouri felt he could use the same authority to dissolve that union without involving the state.
No Unambiguous Evidence of Sexual Polyandry
Studying polyandrous relationships is complicated for several reasons: the number of pertinent documents is limited, available historical data contains ambiguities, and contradictory evidence may be found for many interpretations. Nevertheless, no unambiguous evidence has been found supporting that Joseph Smith engaged in sexual polyandry.
The lack of solid documentation may be important because demonstrating its existence could be done rather easily by quoting a single credible supportive statement, if such existed. One well-documented testimony 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.
Even a passing reference to a polyandrous triangle in a letter or journal would be impressive. Also, a revelation or other theological justification traceable to Joseph Smith (or any other Church leader) authorizing those relations would be very convincing. No documentation of this type has been found.
The absence of any solid evidence of polyandrous sexuality contrasts the abundance of solid evidence establishing the practice of non-polyandrous sexuality in Joseph Smith’s plural marriages. Sexual relations in traditional “polygamy” (technically “polygyny”) is explained and defended in multiple documents from numerous Nauvoo polygamists and other insiders.
A review of the documented behaviors of the alleged sexual polyandry participants reveals that none of them corroborated that such relationships existed. We find no declarations from other polygamy insiders they were taught that sexual polyandry was acceptable for Joseph or anyone else. No credible accounts from any of the fourteen wives exist wherein they complained about it. This could be because it didn’t exist or because the women were very devout.
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. In addition, none of those Church members who apostatized criticized Joseph for such behavior. In short, the historical record reads as if sexual polyandry in any approved form did not exist and would never have been countenanced.
A comparison of the available documentation of Joseph Smith’s practice of a “plurality of wives” and his alleged practice of a “plurality of husbands” demonstrates some noteworthy contrasts:
Examining Joseph Smith’s Fourteen Sealings to Legally Married Women
Looking specifically at Joseph Smith’s marriages to women with legal husbands, three were for time and eternity (Sylvia Sessions, Mary Heron, and Sarah Ann Whitney) and included sexual relations with Joseph Smith (or may have included it). Documentation of sexual relations with the legal husband during the same period is absent and the third woman’s story (Mary Heron) is too poorly documented to draw any reliable conclusions.
The lack of evidence of sexual relations in their sealings to Joseph Smith for the remaining eleven civilly married women is consistent with eternity-only sealings. The husbands of four of the women (Ruth Vose, Mary Elizabeth Rollins, Presendia Huntington, and Sarah Kingsley) were not active Latter-day Saints, so their sealings to someone else is not surprising. However, the remaining seven women’s spouses were active Church members. Why they would have chosen Joseph over their legal spouses as their eternal husband is unclear.
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.
- See Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013) 1:277–474 for the most detailed look at the women and the relationships. (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)
- Brigham Young, August 1, 1852, Journal of Discourses, 1:361. (back)
- Minutes of the Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1835–1893 (Salt Lake City: Privately Published, 2010) 160; see also 157. (back)
- Orson Pratt, July 11, 1875, Journal of Discourses, 18:55–56. (back)
- Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer 1 (April 1853): 60. (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)
- In a May 30, 1877, letter to RLDS Elder Daniel Munns, Eliza R. Snow wrote: “You refer to the ‘origin’ of Polygamy, (more properly Plural Marriage –polygamy includes plural husbands as well as plural wives) to which I answer. Its origin is divine; but no one can accept this testimony without admitting present revelation.” (Eliza R. Snow to Daniel Munns, May 30, 1877, Community of Christ Archives; emphasis added.) The statement could refer to sexual polyandry if such was permitted, or more likely to a woman like Eliza who was sealed to one husband (Joseph Smith) while being married on earth to another (Brigham Young). (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)
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Blood Atonement and the Origin of Plural Marriage (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1905), 48. (back)
- Jedediah M. Grant, February 19, 1854, Journal of Discourses, 2:13. (back)
- “Horticulture,” Times and Seasons 3 (February 1, 1842): 678. (back)
- 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)
- D. Michael Quinn, “Evidence for the Sexual Side of Joseph Smith’s Polygamy,” December 31, 2012, privately distributed, 5. (back)
- See, for example, Gary James Bergera, “Vox Joseph Vox Dei: Regarding Some of the Moral and Ethical Aspects of Joseph Smith’s Practice of Plural Marriage,” The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 31, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2011): 42. (back)
- Josephine R. Fisher, Affidavit, February 24, 1915. See also Daniel W. Bachman, “A Study of the Mormon Practice of Plural Marriage before the Death of Joseph Smith,” (master’s thesis, Purdue University, 1975), 141; Richard S. Van Wagoner, “Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 78n12. (back)
- Joseph F. Smith Affidavit Books, 1:60, MS 3423, CH; bold mine (back)
- Joseph F. Smith Affidavit Books, 4:62, MS 3423, CHL. (back)
- Andrew Jenson Papers, MS 17956, CHL, box 49, folder 16. (back)
- Biographical Information on Windsor and Sylvia Lyon, undated sheet in Andrew Jenson Collection, MS 17956, Box 10, Folder 81,CHL. (back)