Joseph Smith was sealed to perhaps thirty-five women during his lifetime. (For a list of names of these women visit the Biographies page.) Documenting intimate behavior can be difficult, but it appears the Prophet experienced sexual relations with some, but overall, less than half of the women sealed to him.1
No data supports sexual relations between Joseph Smith and three subgroups of his plural wives: (1) fourteen-year-old and fifteen-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.)
Evidences of Sexual Relations
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 (but not what they were doing together).2 One source asserts that Fanny became pregnant.3
- 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.”4
- 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.”5
- 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.”6
- 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.”7
- 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.”8
- 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.9 DNA testing has since revealed that he was not.
- 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.10
- 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.”11
- 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.”12
- 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. Many researchers believe this single attestation is insufficient to draw any definitive conclusions.
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.
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. A review of his hectic life in Nauvoo identifies several possible obstacles to achieving privacy where sexual intercourse was likely.
Joseph Smith 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.
Joseph Smith never appeared with any of his plural wives 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.
All public interactions were conducted without divulging his plural marriages.
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.13
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.14 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.
Joseph’s Wives’ Fertility after the Martyrdom and Remarriage
As discussed here, no children born to Joseph Smith and his plural wives have been documented. Rumors of children in those marriages have been found in the historical record, but DNA testing has always come up negative. This finding is surprising if intimate relations were a common occurrence.
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. A review of their 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 15.16 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.17 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.
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 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)
- 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)
- 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); Thomas Smith (b. and d. February 6, 1842); 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)