Numerous accounts indicate that Joseph Smith initially resisted the directive of an angel who commanded him to marry plural wives.
Benjamin F. Johnson remembered that Joseph “put it off” and “waited untill an Angel with a drawn Sword Stood before him and declared that if he longer delayed fulfilling that Command he would Slay him.”1
Lorenzo Snow recalled that the Prophet “hesitated and deferred from time to time” and that he “foresaw the trouble that would follow and sought to turn away from the commandment.”2
Erastus Snow reported that the angel accused the Prophet of “being neglectful in the discharges of his duties” and spoke “of Joseph having to plead on his knees before the Angel for his Life.”3
According to Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, the angel was required to visit Joseph three times between 1834 and 1842 before he fully complied: “An angel came to him [Joseph Smith] and the last time he came with a drawn sword in his hand and told Joseph if he did not go into that principle, he would slay him. Joseph said he talked to him soberly about it, and told him it was an abomination and quoted scripture to him. He said in the Book of Mormon it was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, and they were to adhere to these things except the Lord speak. … [The Prophet reported that] the angel came to me three times between the years of 1834 and 1842 and said I was to obey that principle or he would slay me.”4
Three of Joseph Smith’s other plural wives recalled similar reluctance:
Eliza R. Snow described Joseph as “afraid to promulgate it.”5
Helen Mar Kimball Whitney remembered, “Had it not been for the fear of His displeasure, Joseph would have shrunk from the undertaking and would have continued silent, as he did for years, until an angel of the Lord threatened to slay him if he did not reveal and establish this celestial principle.”6 She also said that “Joseph put off the dreaded day as long as he dared.”7
Lucy Walker reported that Joseph “had his doubts about it for he debated it in his own mind.” 8
Accounts from those who personally heard the Prophet’s teachings concerning plural marriage consistently relate that his initial response to the practice was revulsion—a response similar to that of most Mormons in the 1840s and now.
Additional evidence supports that Joseph Smith understood plural marriage as a difficult principle for his followers to accept, especially women. Polygamy on earth expands the man’s emotional and sexual relationships (as a husband) as it simultaneously diminishes the woman’s emotional and sexual relationship (as a wife).
Bathsheba B. Smith remembered that he [Joseph Smith] recognized that it would be a “troubling” doctrine: “I heard the Prophet give instructions concerning plural marriage; he counseled the sisters not to trouble themselves in consequence of it, that all would be right.” Then he promised them that it “the result would be for their glory and exaltation.” Bathsheba also related: “I heard him [Joseph Smith] tell the sisters one time not to feel worried,—that all was right … all will be well in the end.”9
The Prophet apparently realized that plural marriage would create anxiety in participants and sought to assuage those concerns.
To help his potential plural brides overcome their initial disgust at the thought of polygamy, the Prophet promised at least two of them that they could receive their own spiritual confirmation that polygamy was divinely sanctioned.10
The Prophet’s contemporaries recorded that Joseph Smith reacted to the command to practice polygamy with dismay, and he afterwards sympathized with the challenge that plural marriage represented to Church members.
- Benjamin F. Johnson, My Life’s Review 1st ed. (Independence, Missouri: Zion’s Printing & Publishing Co., 1947 (rpt., Mesa, Ariz.: 21st Century Printing, 1992), 95–96, and Dean R. Zimmerman, ed., I Knew the Prophets: An Analysis of the Letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs, Reporting Doctrinal Views of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1976), 43. See also Zina Huntington quoted in “Joseph, the Prophet, His Life and Mission as Viewed by Intimate Acquaintances,” Salt Lake Herald Church and Farm Supplement, January 12, 1895, 212. (back)
- Lorenzo Snow, quoted by Eliza R. Snow in Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company, 1884), 69–70; Lorenzo Snow, Affidavit, August 18, 1869, in Joseph F. Smith Affidavit Books, 2:19, MS 3423, fd. 5, LDS Church History Library. (back)
- Erastus Snow, quoted in A. Karl Larson and Katherine Miles Larson, Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, 2 vols. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:611, June 17, 1883. (back)
- Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner Smith, “Remarks” at Brigham Young University, April 14. 1905, Vault MSS 363, fd. 6, 2-3. See also Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner Smith, “Statement” February 8, 1902, Vesta Crawford Papers, University of Utah, Marriott Library, MS 125, Box 1, fd. 11; original owned by Mrs. Nell Osborne; see also Juanita Brooks Papers, Utah State Historical Society, MS B103, Box 16, fd. 13; Mary E. Lightner, Letter to A. M. Chase, April 20, 1904, quoted in J. D. Stead, Doctrines and Dogmas of Brighamism Exposed ([Lamoni, Iowa]: RLDS Church, 1911), 218–19; Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Letter to Emmeline B. Wells, Summer 1905, MS 282; copy of holograph in Linda King Newell Collection, MS 447, Box 9, fd. 2. (back)
- Eliza R. Snow, quoted in J. J. J., “Two Prophets’ Widows: A Visit to the Relicts of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, August 18, 1887, 6/E. (back)
- Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, Why We Practice Plural Marriage (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884), 53. (back)
- Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, eds., A Woman’s View: Helen Mar Whitney’s Reminiscences of Early Church History (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1997), 142. (back)
- Lucy Walker, Deposition, Church of Christ in Missouri v. Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. 70 F. 179 (8th Cir. 1895), respondent’s testimony, part 3, page 474, questions 600; microfilm at CHL; hereafter cited as Temple Lot Transcript (back)
- Bathsheba Wilson Bigler Smith, Autobiography, holograph: MS 8606; typescript: MS 16633, LDS Church History Library; Bathsheba B. Smith, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, pages 291, 313, questions 14, 466. See also Barbara Fluckiger Watt, “Bathsheba B. Smith,” in Vicky Burgess-Olson, Sister Saints (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978), 206. (back)
- See, for example, Desdemona Fullmer, Autobiography, excerpted in D. Michael Quinn Papers, Addition, Uncat WA MS 244, Box 1, Special Collections, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Ithaca, New York; hereafter Quinn Papers. This source should not be confused with the Desdemona Fullmer autobiography catalogued as MS 734 in the Church History Library. See also Helen [Mar Kimball Whitney], Letter to Mary Bond, n.d., 3–4, Biographical Folder Collection, P21, f11 [Myron H. Bond], item 22, 23, 24, Community of Christ Archives. (back)