Joseph was sealed to perhaps thirty-five women during his lifetime. Documenting intimate behavior can be difficult, but it appears the Prophet experienced sexual relations with less than half of the women sealed to him.1
Kathryn Daynes observed that any assertion that most of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages included sexual relations is “a conclusion that goes beyond documentary evidence.”2 No data supports sexual relations between Joseph Smith and three subgroups of plural wives: (1) fourteen-year-old wives, (2) non-wives—women to whom he was not married, and (3) women with legal husbands who were experiencing conjugal relations with their legal husbands). (Click on names below for links to evidences.)
There is some evidence of conjugality between Joseph and his plural wives:
- Fanny Alger: Several accounts record that Emma Smith witnessed Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger together,3 and one source asserts that Fanny became pregnant.4
- Louisa Beaman: Providing a deposition in the Temple Lot case, Joseph Bates Noble was asked: “Where did they [Joseph Smith and plural wife Louisa Beaman] sleep together?” His response: “Right straight across the river at my house they slept together.”5
- Emily Partridge. When under oath in a deposition in the Temple Lot case, Emily Partridge was asked, “Do you make the declaration that you ever slept with him in the same bed?” to which she answered, “Yes sir.”6
- Eliza Partridge: Concerning Emily’s sister Eliza, Benjamin F. Johnson wrote in 1903: “The first plural wife brought to my house with whom the Prophet stayed, was Eliza Partridge.”7
- Lucy Walker: Lucy Walker’s niece, Theodocia Frances Walker Davis, reported to Joseph Smith III in 1876, “Lucy Walker told her that she lived with Joseph Smith as a wife.”8
- Almera Johnson: Benjamin Johnson also affirmed his sister Almera Johnson experienced sexual relations with the Prophet: “He [Joseph Smith] was at my house … where he occupied my sister Almera’s room and bed.”9
- Sylvia Sessions: In a 1915 statement, Josephine Lyon declared that her mother, Sylvia Sessions told her in 1882 that she (Josephine) was Joseph Smith daughter.10
- Maria Lawrence: On May 23, 1844, William Law, who had apostatized months earlier over plural marriage, charged Joseph Smith in a Carthage court with living “in an open state of adultery” with Maria Lawrence.11
- Sarah Lawrence: Several other statements document that her sister, Sarah Lawrence, also lived with the Prophet as a plural wife. For example, Lucy Walker attested in 1902: “I know that [Emma] gave her consent to the marriage of at least four women [Emily and Eliza Partridge and Maria and Sarah Lawrence] to her husband as plural wives, and she was well aware that he associated and cohabited with them as wives.”12
- Malissa Lott: In an 1893 interview with RLDS Church President Joseph Smith, III, Malissa Lott when asked if she was the Prophet’s “wife in very deed,” answered, “Yes.”13
- Olive Frost: One source states that Olive Frost had Joseph Smith’s baby. Another source states the baby’s father was Brigham Young, who married Olive after Joseph’s death. Both Olive and her child died before the Saints left Nauvoo.14
- Mary Heron: A single document supports a plural marriage with sexuality between Joseph Smith and Mary Heron. Unfortunately, no additional evidence is available to provide further details.
Evidence of sexual involvement between Joseph Smith and three other wives exists but suffers from ambiguities or other credibility problems. Contradictory evidence exists regarding Eliza R. Snow. In addition, single accounts for both Sarah Ann Whitney and Hannah Ells imply sexuality but without adequate secondary verification.
Children from Joseph Smith’s Plural Marriages
During the nineteenth century, anti-polygamous RLDS Church leadership repeatedly pointed to the lack of offspring from Joseph Smith’s polygamous spouses as evidence that sexual relations were not included in his polygamous marriages; thus they were not true marriages. Supporting this, plural wife 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.”15
Emily Partridge was similarly questioned and responded: “No sir, I don’t know of any.”16
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.17
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.18
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.19
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.20
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.”21
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. 22
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 women.23 Similarly, Heber C. Kimball married forty-three wives, but had children with less than half of them.24
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.
Charting the Alleged Children
Evidence supports the birth of two, possibly three, children to Joseph Smith and his plural wives.
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.”25 On another occasion, she declared: “I don’t know about his having children, but I heard of three that he was the father of.”26
A second-hand account from Lucy Meserve Smith27 (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.”28
The best evidence supports the birth of a daughter, Josephine Lyon, to plural wife Sylvia Sessions, his plural wife, in 1844.29
The second is a child to Olive Frost that did not live long or may have miscarried.30 Joseph E. Robinson wrote: During the afternoon I called on Aunt Lizzie … she knew Joseph Smith had more than two wives. Said he married … Olive Frost [and] had a child by him and that both died.31
In addition to two or three probable children, at least eighteen other children have been promoted as the offspring of the Prophet.
The chart below discusses the identities of these children and their circumstances:
Sexual Relations with Plural Wives Were a Rarity for Joseph Smith
It is impossible to accurately determine how often Joseph Smith spent time with his plural wives, either in conjugal visits or otherwise. He never appeared with any of them in a public setting as openly acknowledged plural wives. Accounts of him parading through Nauvoo with plural wives in tow or anything similar are fictional.32
All public interactions were conducted without divulging the clandestine sealed marriages. While it is not possible to establish an accurate picture of his relations with his polygamous wives, several observations suggest that sexual relations occurred infrequently, at best.
As discussed above, current evidence supports the births of two or three children to Joseph Smith’s plural wives. Even if that number were doubled, it would still represent a surprisingly small number of children by thirty-five wives if sexual relations occurred often, considering that nineteenth-century monogamous families not infrequently produced from six to twelve children.
Out of the thirty-five women identified as wives, thirty were under age forty and, therefore, could be capable of conception if the timing was right. The Prophet was virile, having fathered eight children with Emma despite long periods of time apart and challenging schedules.33
A review of the child-bearing chronology of Joseph Smith’s wives after his death and their remarriages demonstrates impressive fertility in several of the women.
Most of them married within two years after the martyrdom and prior to the Saints leaving for the West.
Three of the women became pregnant within weeks after remarrying. Sarah Ann Whitney, who was sealed to Joseph Smith for twenty-three months, married Heber C. Kimball on March 17, 1845, and based on the birth date of their first child, became pregnant approximately June 15.34 She bore Heber Kimball seven children between 1846 and 1858.
Lucy Walker, who was sealed to the Prophet for fourteen months, also married Kimball. About three months after their February 8, 1845, marriage, she became pregnant.35 She gave birth to nine of Kimball’s children between 1846 and 1864.
Malissa Lott who was sealed to Joseph Smith in September 1843 married Ira Jones Willes on May 13, 1849. Their first child was born April 22, 1850, with conception occurring approximately July 30, 1849 (or eleven weeks after the wedding ceremony). Seven Willes children were born between 1850 and 1863.
Emily Partridge bore Brigham Young seven offspring between 1845 and 1862. Her sister Eliza married Amasa Lyman and together they had five children between 1844 and 1860.
Several other plural wives, like Louisa Beaman, Martha McBride, and Nancy Winchester, also remarried and became pregnant. In light of the obvious fertility of many of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, it seems that they either bore him children who are unknown today or that sexual relations in the marriages did not occur often.
It is possible that some of Joseph Smith’s plural children were raised by other families and carried other surnames. However, after the Saints arrived in Utah, there would have been little motive to keep the paternity secret. Any child of the Prophet would have been given special attention and perhaps have been looked upon as a legitimate future leader, similar to Joseph and Emma’s sons who had remained in Nauvoo.
In the 1860s and 1870s, when RLDS missionaries in Utah emphasized lineal succession in the Church presidency, LDS Church leaders would have been motivated to produce Joseph’s offspring, not only to establish his role in Nauvoo polygamy but also to dilute the succession claims of the three surviving sons of Joseph and Emma. LDS Church leaders never took such a step.
A review of Joseph Smith’s hectic life in Nauvoo identifies several possible obstacles to achieving privacy where sexual intercourse was likely. He had heavy ecclesiastical and civic responsibilities as Church president and city mayor, entertained visitors and journalists, had parenting responsibilities in the Smith household, and intermittently went into hiding to avoid Missouri lawmen. He also managed a complicated real estate business, preached at weekly services, and was even a candidate for US president, which would further have limited his time.
In addition, secrecy was a major concern. Rumors of “spiritual wifery” were rampant after John C. Bennett wrote his mid-1842 letters accusing Joseph Smith of sexual improprieties. Joseph had nothing to do with Bennett’s marital system, but the Prophet’s teachings of restored Old Testament polygamy were still concealed, even from devout members except in private settings.
The scrutiny of the Latter-day Saints, supplemented by the stares of dissenters and unbelievers, heightened everyone’s sensitivities to any extralegal intimacies and would have created challenges to the slipping away with a plural wife unnoticed.
Another huge obstacle was Emma Smith’s vigilant and mostly intolerant eyes.36
According to Joseph Lee Robinson, who turned thirty-two in 1843 and who supervised a school in Nauvoo, Emma even commissioned spies to prevent Joseph from having private moments with his plural wives.37 Emma ostensibly sought total control over his plural marriage activities after July 12, 1843.
An important consideration is the phenomenon of diminishing returns. In other words, after a certain point, the addition of new plural wives did not necessarily increase Joseph’s opportunity for more numerous sexual relations with each plural wife since a critical constraint would have been scheduling conflicts that prevented opportunities for private intimacies. Such a dynamic would, inevitably, have curtailed chances for conception on the part of his plural wives.
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 Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 4–7 for the most accurate list although he does not include Esther Dutcher (eternity only) and Mary Heron Snider (time and eternity) on his list of thirty-three plural wives for the Prophet. Also, Compton does not differentiate the types of sealing ceremonies the women most likely experienced, which is paramount in discussing the possibility of sexual relations being included as part of the relationship. (back)
- Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System, 1840–1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 29. (back)
- William E. McLellin, to President Joseph Smith [III], Independence, Mo., July 1872. Also printed in Stan Larson and Samuel J. Passey, eds., The William E. McLellin Papers, 1854–1880, 488; J. H. Beadle quoting William McClellan, “Jackson County,” Salt Lake Tribune, October 6, 1875, 4; Benjamin F. Johnson in Dean R. Zimmerman, ed., I Knew the Prophets: An Analysis of the Letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs, 38. (back)
- Wilhelm Wyl quoting “Mr. W.” [Chauncy Webb], Mormon Portraits, 57. (back)
- Joseph B. Noble, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, page 426, question 683. (back)
- Emily Partridge, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, page 384, question 752. (back)
- Benjamin F. Johnson, Letter to Anthon H. Lund, May 12, 1903; emphasis mine. (back)
- Joseph Smith III, Journal, November 12, 1876. (back)
- Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review, 96. (back)
- Josephine F. Fisher, Certificate, February 24, 1915. (back)
- People vs. Joseph Smith, May 24, 1844, Circuit Court Record, Hancock County, Book D, 128–29. See also William Clayton, The Nauvoo Diaries of William Clayton, 1842–1846, Abridged, May 23, 1844, 49; Thomas Gregg, History of Hancock County, Illinois, 301; Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 375. (back)
- Lucy Walker [Smith] Kimball, “Oath of Lucy Walker Smith: Wife of Joseph Smith, Jr.,” October 24, 1902, in Robert B. Neal, “Sword of Laban,” no. 10 (1905): 2. Its wording is identical to the December 17, 1902, Joseph F. Smith, Affidavit, October 24, 1902. (back)
- Malissa Lott Willes, Notarized Statement, August 4, 1893, to Joseph Smith III. Quoted in Raymond T. Bailey, “Emma Hale: Wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” 99-100; see also 100n9. (back)
- Joseph E. Robinson, Diary, October 26, 1902 (Ms 7866); James Whitehead, interviewed by Joseph Smith III, April 20, 1885. Original notes of interview in possession of John Hajicek. (back)
- 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)
- See affidavit of Josephine R. Fisher, February 24, 1915, CHL, Ms 3423, folder 1, images 48–49; see also Danel Bachman, “A Study of the Mormon Practice of Plural Marriage Before the Death of Joseph Smith” (master’s thesis, Purdue University, 1975), 141. See discussion in “Mormon Polyandry in Nauvoo,” Dialogue 18, no 3 (Fall 1985): 78n12. See Ugo A. Perego, “Joseph Smith, the Question of Polygamous Offspring, and DNA Analysis, in The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, eds. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2010), 50–55. (back)
- Joseph E. Robinson, Diary, Entry for October 26, 1902, MS 7866, LDS Archives. Olive Frost died October 6, 1845. (back)
- Joseph E. Robinson Autobiography, recounting October 26, 1902, Ms 7866. See also James Whitehead, interview conducted by Joseph Smith, III, April 20, 1885. Original in possession of John Hajicek (back)
- Reverend Samuel F. Whitney, Statement, p. 3, col. 7; Samuel M. Smucker and H. L. Williams, Life Among the Mormons, or the Religious, Social, and Political History of the Mormons, 148. (back)
- These children were: Alvin Smith (b. and d. June 15, 1828); twins Thaddeus and Louisa (b. and d. April 30, 1831), Joseph Smith III (November 6, 1832-December 10, 1914); Frederick Granger Williams Smith (June 29, 1836–April 13, 1862); Alexander Hale Smith (June 2, 1838-August 12, 1909); Don Carlos Smith (b. 1840, died at fourteen months); and David Hyrum Smith (November 17, 1844–August 29, 1904). (back)
- Sarah’s first child, David Kimball, was born March 8, 1846. (back)
- Rachel Sylvia Kimball was born January 28, 1846; assuming a full term birth, conception occurred on approximately May 7, 1845. (back)
- See Emily Dow Partridge Young, “Incidents in the Early Life of Emily Dow Partridge,” 5, written between December 1876 and January 7, 1877; see also Emily D. P. Young, Autobiographical Sketch: “Written Especially for My Children, January 7, 1877.” (back)
- Oliver Preston Robinson, ed., History of Joseph Lee Robinson, 54. (back)