At least one woman sought to be sealed to Joseph Smith during his lifetime. (Scores more were sealed to him posthumously.) At the time that eternal and plural marriage was being introduced in Nauvoo, apparently some women had a choice about the man to whom they would be sealed for eternity.

Researcher Rex E. Cooper observed: “In some instances … women might have just preferred to be sealed eternally to Joseph Smith rather than to the man that they had married by civil authority.”1

Andrew Jenson interviewed many Nauvoo polygamists in 1886–87 in preparation for his 1887 Historical Record article identifying Joseph Smith’s plural wives. In his collected papers at the LDS Church History Library is a scrawled note in his handwriting that one of the Prophet’s plural wives, Ruth Vose Sayers, initiated her sealing to Joseph.2 Ruth died three years earlier and Jenson did not identify his informant, but the information is obviously secondhand.

It is apparent from this documentary record that at least one of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages was for eternity only — that is, without sexual relations during mortality. Historical data that is quoted to support the presence of sexual polyandry in any of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages is problematic and the contradictory evidence is compelling.3

With one exception, the exact wording used to perform any of Joseph Smith’s plural ceremonies was not recorded.4 Therefore, it is not possible to confirm or deny that ceremonies were performed during Joseph’s lifetime using the language “eternity only.”5

In addition, none of the participants claimed to recall the exact phrasing.6

Andrew Jenson’s notes regarding Ruth Vose Sayers’s sealing to the Prophet suggest that it was a union operational only for the next life and would not include conjugality on earth. Likely other plural sealings were similar.

For several reasons, women may have considered the Prophet attractive as an eternal mate, even if they remained with their legal husbands until death. In light of the documented case of Ruth Vose Sayers, assuming that the Prophet initiated every plural marriage proposal may not be justified.

The precise dynamics underlying Joseph Smith’s incentives for being sealed to so many plural wives remain unclear. It would oversimplify the situation, to identify only a single motivation, especially since he left no record concerning his personal thoughts and feelings regarding plural marriage.

  1. Rex E. Cooper, “The Promises Made to the Father: A Diachronic Analysis of Mormon Covenant Organization with Reference to Puritan Federal Theology” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, June 1985), 321.  (back)
  2. “Ruth Vose Sayers Biographical Sketch,” Andrew Jenson Papers, Box 49, fd. 16, Document 5, transcribed by Don Bradley.  (back)
  3. See Brian C. Hales, “Joseph Smith and the Puzzlement of ‘Polyandry,’” in The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy, eds. Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2010), 99–151.  (back)
  4. Joseph Smith, Revelation for Newel K. Whitney, July 27, 1842, quoted in Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Revelations, 315–16; see also “Revelations in Addition to Those Found in the LDS Edition of the D&C,” in New Mormon Studies: A Comprehensive Resource Library, CD-ROM (Salt Lake City: Smith Research Associates, 1998).  (back)
  5. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 298; see also 295. See also Gary James Bergera, “The Earliest Eternal Sealings of Civilly Married Couples Living and Dead,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 3 (Fall 2002): 51, 59; Quinn, “Organizational Development and Social Origins of the Mormon Hierarchy,” 154–55; Quinn, “The Mormon Hierarchy, 1832–1932,” 64; Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 183.  (back)
  6. See for example, Malissa Lott, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, pages 95–96, questions 54, 70; Emily Partridge, Deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, Respondent’s Testimony, part 3, page 359, question 198.  (back)

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