As a personality of the nineteenth century, Joseph Smith stands out as extraordinary. While many writers have been critical of him and his teachings, most historians are impressed with at least some of his accomplishments, even those who believe he was a charlatan.
He published a five hundred-page book of scripture, organized a new religion, dictated more than a hundred revelations, founded at least three cities, built one temple and began others, and revealed a remarkable theological framework that both expanded and contradicted Christian thinking of the era.1
Of all of Joseph Smith teachings and practices, none has been more controversial than his introduction of the practice of plural marriage among his followers. He reported that an angel commanded him not only to establish it but also to teach it as a doctrinal mandate to other Church members.2
In the decades that followed, most writers criticized him and the practice using the harshest of terms. Scores of nineteenth century writers saw Joseph Smith’s libido as the sole driving force pushing the establishment of plural marriage forward.
Providing a contrasting view to the abundant anti-polygamy indictments are reports from Nauvoo polygamists themselves. While those accounts contain many more details, they are not nearly so numerous.
The best source of information would be Joseph Smith; however, he left only one document specifically discussing the subject: the revelation recorded on July 12, 1843, on celestial marriage, now Doctrine and Covenants Section 132.
The only additional pertinent contemporaneous statements are found in William Clayton’s journal.3
Beyond these historical sources, everything learned about Joseph Smith’s polygamy is second-hand, coming from later recollections and reminiscences, which may suffer from their own credibility problems.
Researchers seeking to understand the details surrounding Joseph Smith’s personal practice of plural marriage must acknowledge that the only individual who knew definitively about the Prophet’s motives, intentions, and practice of polygamy left no record about these central matters.
Given the plethora of accusations from antagonistic writers and the paucity of contemporary documents from participants, authors have been challenged in their attempts to reconstruct the process through which Joseph Smith established the practice of plural marriage.
In approaching this task, we acknowledge that indisputable conclusions are probably impossible to draw without additional documentation that may never have existed or has not survived the decades since the 1840s.
- John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), xvi. (back)
- Brian C. Hales, “Encouraging Joseph Smith to Practice Plural Marriage: The Accounts of the Angel with a Drawn Sword,” Mormon Historical Studies vol. 11, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 23–39. (back)
- William Clayton’s journal restricted; held in the First Presidency’s vault, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Administration Building, Salt Lake City. The most widely distributed copy is probably George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1995). This version contains excerpts compiled by George D. Smith from several sources, but primarily consists of excerpts copied by D. Michael Quinn in the 1970s from a transcription (made by an unidentified transcriber) held in the Church Historian’s Office. Excerpts can also be found in James B. Allen, No Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 385–413; and Jerald Tanner and Sandra Tanner, eds., Clayton’s Secret Writings Uncovered: Extracts from the Diaries of Joseph Smith’s Secretary William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co., ; Robert C. Fillerup, comp., “William Clayton’s Nauvoo Diaries and Personal Writings,” http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/clayton-diaries (accessed December 12, 2009). (back)