Apparently Joseph Smith did not attempt to practice polygamy in the early 1830s.
Apostle Orson Pratt reported that when the Prophet learned that plural marriage was sometimes divinely sanctioned, he was not then allowed to practice it:
In the fore part of the year 1832, Joseph told individuals, then in the Church, that he had inquired of the Lord concerning the principle of plurality of wives, and he received for answer that the principle of taking more wives than one is a true principle, but the time had not yet come for it to be practiced. That was before the Church was two years old. The Lord has His own time to do all things pertaining to His purposes in the last dispensation; His own time for restoring all things that have been predicted by the ancient prophets.1
In an 1886 article published in the Deseret News, Joseph F. Smith, then a member of the First Presidency, noted, “plural marriage was first revealed to Joseph Smith in 1831, but being forbidden to make it public, or to teach it as a doctrine of the Gospel at that time, he confided the facts to only a very few of his intimate associates.”2
1831 Revelation: “Ye Should Take Unto You Wives of the Lamanites”
On June 19, 1831, Joseph Smith, W. W. Phelps, Martin Harris, Sidney Rigdon, and several others traveled to Jackson County, Missouri, on a missionary journey arriving there a few weeks later. On February 27, 1845, Thomas Bullock reported the comments of W. W. Phelps referring to that group: “Phelps s. [said] 6 or 8 went over the boundaries of the U.S. to preach – Jos.[eph Smith] went to prayer – he then [indecipherable] a revelation. That Martin [Harris] was to marry among the Lamanites – that I was to preach day- &c &c it was a long revelation.3
The contents of the described revelation are relevant to polygamy. In 1861, thirty years after the revelation was reportedly dictated, W. W. Phelps wrote a letter to President Young sharing the substance of the revelation.4
Phelps wrote in part:
Verily, verily, saith the Lord your Redeemer, even Jesus Christ, the light and the life of the world, ye can not discerne [discern] with your natural eyes, the design and the purpose of your Lord and your God, in bringing you thus far into the wilderness for a trial of your faith, and to be especial witnesses, to bear testimony of this land, upon which the zion of God shall be built up in the last days, when it is redeemed. …
Verily I say unto you that the wisdom of man in his fallen state, knoweth not the purposes and the privileges of my holy priesthood. but ye shall know when ye receive a fulness by reason of the anointing: For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.” (Italics added.)5
The details found in the revelation raise questions whether Phelps was actually recalling its content or was working from contemporaneous notes or from some other source. His statement that he was providing only the “substance” of the revelation is confusing because the text seems detailed and complete.
That Phelps would bring this to the attention of President Young so many years after it occurred is curious and appears somewhat random as well.
Phelps ended his letter to President Young writing:
About three years after this was given, I asked brother Joseph [Smith, Jr.] privately, how “we,” that were mentioned in the revelation could take wives from the “natives”—as we were all married men? He replied instantly “In th[e] same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Katurah [Keturah]; and Jacob took Rachel Bilhah and Zilpah: by revelation—the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation.”6
Corroborating Phelps’ recollection is a contemporaneous letter from Ezra Booth who wrote to Ira Eddy on December 6, 1831 saying: “It has been made known by revelation, that it will be pleasing to the Lord, should they form a matrimonial alliance with the natives. … It has been made known to one, who has left his wife in the State of New York, that he is entirely free from his wife, and he is at pleasure to take him a wife from among the Lamanites.”7
Whatever Joseph taught at that time regarding plural marriage apparently did not make much of a stir among the early Saints who heard it because no other contemporaneous accounts are found. In addition, when the practice was started in Nauvoo, it appears that no one recalled it, and the Prophet never referenced the incident.
While “Translating” the Book of Genesis
Nauvoo polygamist Joseph B. Noble recalled in 1883: “That the Prophet Joseph told him that the doctrine of celestial marriage was revealed to him while he was engaged on the work of translation of the scriptures [Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible], but when the communication was first made the Lord stated that the time for the practice of that principle had not arrived.”8
The Prophet was working with Genesis in February and March of 1831.9 There he would have encountered the accounts of polygamous patriarchs like Abraham (Genesis 16:1–6) and Jacob (Genesis 29:30). Three months later he started on his missionary journey to the Lamanites.
1830s Accusations of “Polygamy” against the Church
Novel religious groups were common in the 1830s. Elizabeth A. Clark and Herbert Richardson observed: “Nineteenth-century America abounded in utopian societies; as many as five hundred such communities may have flourished in this period.”10 Some experimented with marital and sexual practices, which focused suspicion on all of the groups.
Early Latter-day Saint efforts to live the law of consecration, which sustained traditional monogamy, were misunderstood. The Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, Utica, N.Y., reported in their February 5, 1831 issue: “They [the Mormons] have all things in common, and dispense with the marriage covenant.”
Henry Carroll, who was in the Kirtland area in 1832 recalled in 1885: “It was claimed all things were common, even to free love, among the Mormons at Kirtland.”11
Historian Mark Staker observed: “As late as 1835, Joseph was still trying to counter outside rumors that had apparently arisen as a result of the Morley Family and early Mormonite confusion before his arrival in Kirtland.”12
Allegations of matrimonial improprieties followed the LDS Church, inciting a variety of denials. Erastus Snow and Benjamin Winchester printed a plainly worded denial in 1841 in An address to the citizens of Salem and vicinity: “It has been stated in public journals that we hold all things in common, or that we have a community of good, also of wives. These charges we positively deny: for we hold no such things nor never did. … The rules of the church forbid anything like unvirtuous conduct, and they are righteously enforced.” 13
The April 1833 Evening and Morning Star clarified: “It has been reported that the church had settled in this country [Independence, Missouri], and were living as one family. This is not so.”14 Eventually Joseph Smith addressed this concern in an 1840 article in the Times and Seasons:
When we consecrate our property to the Lord, it is to administer to the wants of the poor and needy according to the laws of God, and when a man consecrates or dedicates his wife and children to the Lord, he does not give them to his brother or to his neighbor; which is contrary to the law of God, which says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not covet they neighbors wife” “He that looketh upon a woman to lust after her has committed adultery already in his heart.” — Now for a man to consecrate his property, his wife and children to the Lord is nothing more nor less than to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the widows and fatherless, the sick and afflicted; and do all he can to administer to their relief in their afflictions, and for himself and his house to serve the Lord. In order to do this he and all his house must be virtuous and “shun every appearance of evil. Now if any person, has represented any thing otherwise than what we now write they have willfully misrepresented us.15
Though the practice of plural marriage may have been on Joseph Smith’s mind during the 1830s, he did nothing toward instituting it among the members until their move to Nauvoo. Except for a few recorded, vague statements regarding the practice, it was a notion left unexplored.
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.
- Orson Pratt, October 7, 1869, Journal of Discourses, 13: 193. (back)
- Deseret News, May 20, 1886; quoted in Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record 6 (July 1887): 219. (back)
- “Council Meeting Minutes,” CR 100 318, Box 1, Folder 29, page 5, January 10 to March 24, 1845, CHL. The revelation continued: “we have a living constitution – there is enough for every day – if we die let us all die together, c there will be a jolly lot of spirits dancing into the next world – it won’t be to hell, for there is no fiddles there.” (back)
- W.W. Phelps to Brigham Young, August 12, 1861, Young Collection, CHL, copy of holograph in possession of the author. See Michael Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 374. (back)
- W.W. Phelps to Brigham Young, August 12, 1861, Young Collection, CHL, copy of holograph in possession of the author. Reproduced in Fred C. Collier, Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Collier’s Publishing, 1981), part 10, verse 4, page 58; see also Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism Like Watergate?: An Answer to Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, 1974), 6–8. (back)
- W.W. Phelps to Brigham Young, August 12, 1861, Young Collection, CHL, copy of holograph in possession of the author. Reproduced in Fred C. Collier, Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Collier’s Publishing Co., 1981), part 10, verse 4, page 58; see also Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism Like Watergate?: An Answer to Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, 1974), 6–8. (back)
- Ezra Booth to Ira Eddy, December 6, 1831, Ohio Star 2 (December 8, 1831): 3. See also Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painseville, Ohio: by the author, 1834), 220. (back)
- Joseph B. Noble speaking at a quarterly Stake conference held at Centerville, Davis Co, Utah, June 11, 1883. Quoted in Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record 6 (July 1887): 232–33. See Brigham H. Roberts’s introduction to volume five of the history of Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1960), 5:xxix; see also Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Utah (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft Co., 1889), 161–62. (back)
- Mark Staker, Hearken O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009 ), 117n22. (back)
- Elizabeth A. Clark and Herbert Richardson, eds., Women and Religion: The Original Sourcebook of Women in Christian Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper, 1996), 201. (back)
- Henry Carroll, “Statement,” in Naked Truths about Mormonism, 2 vols., Arthur Deming, ed. (Oakland, California: Deming & Co., 1888), 2:3. (back)
- Mark Staker, Hearken O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009 ), 107. (back)
- E. Snow and B. Winchester, An Address to the Citizens of Salem and Vicinity, by E. Snow and B. Winchester (Salem, Mass.: F. Nickerson, 1841 [not paginated]. (back)
- “Rise and Progress of the Church of Christ,” Evening and Morning Star 1, no. 11 (April 1833): 84. (back)
- “Communications,” Times and Seasons 1, no. 6 (April 1840): 85. (back)