Perhaps the most important event associated with the establishment of eternal (and plural) marriage occurred during the dedication of the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836. Joseph and Oliver Cowdery recounted an impressive vision, a visitation from Jesus Christ, Moses, and Elias (D&C 110:2–12).1
Their account then described the appearance of the prophet Elijah. Joseph Smith taught that Elijah was the last prophet of the Old Testament to hold the keys of sealing authority: 2
The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened.
We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber …
After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said:
Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi–testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come–
To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse. (D&C 110:1–2, 13–15.)
Shortly after the April 3 vision, Joseph Smith recorded a first-hand account of the vision in his own personal journal.
That original record has not been found and is probably lost. Nonetheless, these important visitations were documented in other contemporaneous records. Within a few days, the Prophet’s secretary Warren Cowdery transcribed Joseph’s first-hand account into a third-hand account to be used in the Church history then being composed.
The Sealing Keys Bestowed by Elijah Lay Dormant
Even though the visitation was important, it appears the Prophet did not widely circulate the knowledge of it. W. W. Phelps wrote a letter to his wife on April 3 mentioning the Lord’s visit and Malachi’s prophesy concerning Elijah:
On Sunday, April 3 , the twelve held meeting and administered the sacrament. It was a glorious time. The curtains were dropt [from the ceiling] in the afternoon. And there was a manifestation of the Lord to Brother Joseph and Oliver [by] which they [were told] thus the great and terrible day of the Lord as mentioned by Malachi, was near, even at the doors.3
Most Kirtland Latter-day Saints were either unaware of the visitation or at least uninformed regarding its significance, and it was not published at that time.
This is curious because other revelations and accounts of important historical events, like the ordination from Peter, James, and John, had been published.4 In fact, the Church membership would not be notified of the vision in any printed venue until November 6, 1852, in the Deseret News in the Utah Territory.5 Orson Pratt converted the narrative to first-person and included it as section 110 of the 1876 Doctrine and Covenants.
Despite the importance of Elijah and the Kirtland Temple visitations, Joseph Smith did not publicly teach eternal marriage for perhaps six years after he received the authority to perform those ordinances. On first glance, the doctrine of eternal marriage seems to be an innocuous teaching that could provide comfort to couples who were deeply in love.
From Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835 to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841
Although Joseph didn’t teach polygamy or encourage others to practice it in Kirtland, there is some evidence that he was plurally married by priesthood authority to one woman for time. Joseph Smith’s first plural marriage to Fanny Alger, which is discussed in another essay, ended in 1836 just weeks after he received the sealing priesthood authority from the angel Elijah in the Kirtland Temple that allowed him to solemnize eternal marriages.
The period between the Alger plural marriage and the Saints settling in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the early 1840s were eventful in many ways. Forced to flee apostates in Kirtland in 1837, Joseph found himself incarcerated in Liberty jail in early 1838. After his escape and relocation to Nauvoo in 1839, the Prophet began teaching selected Latter-day Saints about eternal plural marriage, but he did not enter his first plural marriage in Nauvoo until 1841.
To read more about the practice of polygamy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, check out Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding.
- See discussion in Cynthia Doxey, “Elijah’s Mission, Message, and Milestones of Development in Family History and Temple Work,” in W. Jeffrey Marsh, Chair, Joseph Smith and the Restoration: The 34th Annual Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 157–71. (back)
- See 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 (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980), 43; see also “Elijah,” Bible Dictionary, LDS Edition of the King James Version of the Bible (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979), 664. (back)
- William W. Phelps, Letter to Sally Phelps, April 1–3, 1836; quoted in Steven C. Harper, “A Pentecost and Endowment Indeed: Six Eyewitness Accounts of the Kirtland Temple Experience,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations 1820–1844, eds. Jack W. Welch with Erick B. Carlson (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2005), 349. (back)
- See 1835 D&C 50:3, David Patten, Elder’s Journal 1 (July 1838) 3: 42. (back)
- “Life of Joseph Smith,” Deseret News 2, no. 26 (November 6, 1852), 101. (back)