Joseph Smith always required a priesthood sealing ordinance to create an eternal marriage, either monogamous or polygamous. Thereafter, the man and the woman were married with all the obligations incumbent upon husbands and wives including the revelation that specified: “Women have claim on their husbands for their maintenance” (D&C 83:2).
While little is known concerning Joseph Smith’s day-to-day interactions with his plural wives, they later wrote that they viewed him as their eternal husband. Detailed analysis of the living conditions experienced by all of Joseph Smith’s plural wives in Nauvoo is impossible due to a lack of documentation, but it appears that the Prophet accepted his husbandly responsibilities seriously.
Historians Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery wrote: “No evidence exists that [Joseph Smith] assumed the support of his wives in the traditional sense of providing them with food, clothing, and shelter, except for the young women in his house.” That is, Joseph’s plural wives did not all live together.
However, King and Avery also noted that their material needs were met: “Some remained with their parents; others lived with other plural wives; a few lived with other families where plural marriage was also practiced. Their personal accounts attest that, for the most part, they felt Joseph cared for them, and they felt important to him.”1
Typically the Prophet would arrange for the woman to live with a friend, relative, or other provider, thus allowing their material needs to be met. His friends were willing to lend support and keep secrets.
Reportedly, Joseph asked members of the Quorum of the Twelve to marry and care for his widows in the event of his death.2
Oa J. Cannon, a descendant Zina D. H. Young and her first husband Henry Jacobs, and an energetic family historian, wrote: “There is a family tradition that Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and the rest of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles approached the widows of Joseph Smith and offered themselves as husbands. Smith reportedly had asked the apostles to do this if he should die.”
Cannon added, “Thus Young and Kimball, in approaching Smith’s wives, were not simply adding numerous wives to their own polygamous families as quickly as possible; they may have been acting out of a sense of responsibility to their fallen leader.”3 If this tradition is true, it would constitute additional evidence that the Prophet considered his plural wives to be genuine spouses for whom he felt real concern and obligation.
- Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery. Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1984), 147. (back)
- Brigham Young told Amanda Barnes (who had married two men, both named Warren Smith) that if she had been a plural wife of Joseph Smith, “in Nauvoo, I would have taken you into my family as I did others of the Prophet’s wives.” Amanda Barnes Smith, quoted in Hulda Cordelia Thurston Smith, “O My Children and Grandchildren,” Nauvoo Journal, 4 (1992) 7. Catherine Lewis recalled: “The Apostles said they only took Joseph’s wives to raise up children, carry them through to the next world, there deliver them up to him, by so doing they should gain his approbation, &c.” Catherine Lewis, in Narrative of Some of the Proceedings of the Mormons; Giving an Account of Their Iniquities (Lynn, Mass: By the author, 1848), 19. (back)
- Oa J. Cannon, “Zina Diantha Huntington Young,” 23, Church History Library. (back)