The plural wives of Joseph Smith

I’ve thought long and hard about the propriety of this essay. It is a sensitive subject and one that is so easy to misunderstand. It is also a sacred subject that I have seen dragged through the dregs of the ex-Mormon sites, and yet presented well on some Internet resources. Although some may claim otherwise, it is not a secret subject. It is just not taught in your basic church curriculum.

In today’s Internet age, this information is readily available. It was readily available when I was growing up but you just had to know where to look. The best official source for this information is on the Church’s Family Search site. Just enter Joseph Smith and his birth date of 1805 in the state of Vermont, click on search and then click on his ancestral file entry. There are his wives.

The list is not complete and includes a few wives who were sealed to him after his death. A more complete list can be found at the website appropriately titled, The summaries presented of the wives are well done and quick, easy reading. If you want a more detailed treatise, read the book, In Sacred Loneliness, published by Signature Books in 1997.

The doctrine of celestial marriage

There is no way you can understand this unique aspect of the beginnings of the LDS Church without considering this a doctrine of the restoration. That’s an important concept to us and puts everything into perspective. Without this understanding, it is easy to think of Joseph Smith as a libertine and an adulterer. In fact, that is how the anti and ex-Mormons want you to view him.

It has always been the claim of the LDS Church that we are a restored religion. We believe that our doctrines and practices are a restoration of things known, taught, believed and performed by the patriarchs of the Old Testament. One of those beliefs and practices is what we call celestial marriage. It is also referred to as plural marriage by some but as polygamy by most people.

Although the revelation on celestial marriage, also called the new and everlasting covenant was recorded in 1843 as section 132, it is evident from the historical records that the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831. We believe in the restoration of all things, and the practice of celestial marriage is just one of those things.

It is not viewed as adultery

A close reading of section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is still very much a part of the canon of the LDS Church reveals that the Lord appointed Joseph to restore all things (v 40) and was commanded to go and do the works of Abraham (v 32). The Lord affirmed that Joseph had the sealing power (v 46 & 48) and that the Lord had already given him plural wives (v 52).

Verses 61 and 64 point out that the first wife holds the keys of this power and therefore, she is the one who administers or allows her husband to enter into additional marriages. It is she that gives them to him. However, verse 65 makes it clear that if she doesn’t believe and accept the doctrine when taught, that he is justified to receive any additional wives the Lord gives him.

And that is exactly the situation Joseph was in. Emma didn’t like plural marriage although she did try to make it work on a couple of occasions. She accepted Eliza and Emily Partridge for a short season as well as Maria and Sarah Lawrence. Joseph and Emma were sealed during one of her periods of acceptance. However, it was short-lived and she then threw his other wives out.

Not practiced openly, denied publicly

Joseph taught this doctrine to his counselors in the First Presidency and to the Twelve Apostles. It was difficult for most to accept at first, but just as he did with the additional wives to whom he proposed, he invited his trusted associates to obtain a revelation and witness for themselves that the doctrine was true, ennobling and exalting. Most did and many of them followed his example.

However, the doctrine was not taught openly, and was, in fact, denied when it came up as it did quite often during the later Nauvoo period. Now that is a difficult thing for many of our critics to accept. It is bad enough that Joseph and a few other leaders participated in the practice of plural marriage clandestinely, but to then deny it and to publicly preach against it is just hypocritical.

The problem was that there were some who took license with this practice and then turned it into something that it was not meant to be. They called it “spiritual wifery,” and enticed women into adulterous relationships claiming that Joseph approved and sanctioned it. Joseph was forced to preach against it publicly because John C. Bennett was teaching and practicing it unlawfully.

Our critics are shocked

When people investigate the church and the subject of plural marriage comes up, most are familiar with Brigham Young as being the primary example of the practice among the early Latter-day Saint church. However, many are surprised when they learn that the Prophet Joseph Smith was the originator of the doctrine and the practice. Joseph had at least thirty wives.

I suppose that is shocking to learn because Joseph figures so prominently in the story of the restoration. The missionaries teach of the sacred experiences of Joseph in the First Vision, the visits of the angel Moroni, the appearances of old testament prophets in the Kirtland temple and of Joseph’s vision of the three degrees of glory, including his glorious testimony of the Savior.

Our critics have capitalized on this and delight to point it out with fervent zeal and language that makes it obvious that there is no acceptance or desire to understand that this could possibly be something that really was revealed by the Lord as a part of the restoration of all things in the last days. They do not want you to see celestial marriage as anything other than base carnal desire.

Not practiced today

I have written in a previous essay that I hold strongly to the idea of plural marriage still being an eternal doctrine. Latter-day Saints no longer practice it, and have not for over a hundred years. Of course there are those who claim to be Fundamentalist Mormons who live in polygamy, and are mostly in Utah, but they are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This topic will continue to be of interest to those who learn about the LDS Church, and will be for a long time to come. It is a curiosity because it is not the social norm in the United States or in most of the Christian world. It has been in the news a lot lately with the FLDS raids in Texas and with the show Big Love on HBO portraying polygamy as a big part of Utah life. It’s not.

The church goes to great lengths to point out that Mormons do not practice polygamy. There are numerous entries on the subject in the Newsroom and even a one page website that gives a great summary of the message that we want to get out to the world. You can find it on my sidebar. The doctrine may still be in our scriptures, but we do not practice it. Those who do are cut off.

Summary and conclusion

As I noted at the beginning, I have been hesitant to write this essay but have had it on my list to do for a long time. I want to have it available on my blog to refer readers to it as it comes up in dialog. I do not like the language our critics use to describe Joseph’s difficulties because he was the first to begin this practice in the last dispensation. Brigham Young had it much easier.

Yes, Joseph Smith had many plural wives. He entered into the law of celestial marriage by way of commandment from God. No, it was not easy for him to obey this commandment. His wife, Emma, who loved him dearly and believed in him as a prophet, nevertheless had a very difficult time accepting this revelation and did not want to share Joseph with the other women in his life.

You can read a lot more about this on various Internet sites listed below, and even the Wikipedia articles about each of his wives are presented fairly accurately. The church is not trying to hide this information and has not for many years. It is a part of our heritage and history. It is a sacred part of our religion that was restored through the prophet Joseph Smith in these, the latter days.


For additional information:

01. Remembering the Wives of Joseph Smith website
02. Origin of Latter-day Saint Polygamy – Wikipedia
03. In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton – Signature Books
04. Review of In Sacred Loneliness from FARMS
05. SHIELDS review of In Sacred Loneliness
06. FAIR – Joseph’s marriages to young women
07. FAIR – Joseph Smith and polyandry
08. FAIR – How Emma felt about plural marriage
09. FAIR – Charges against Joseph of lustful motives
10. FAIR – Resources – Joseph Smith and polygamy

16 thoughts on “The plural wives of Joseph Smith”

  1. For some people, this seems to be a high hurdle. The hardest thing I think, is to understand the underlying ideas behind some of the things that took place. That’s precisely because Joseph spoke practically nothing on the subject, so we don’t have any notes from his public speeches.What we have are journal entries of his wives – and some, who were deeply repulsed by the idea then, and they do not necessarily answer the questions that come to mind to a 21st century reader.They understood some things differently than we do now. That much is obvious. The links you listed lead to sources, where there are enough to start a journey into the world of the Nauvoo-era saints. Sadly, even some things that the most clearheaded people have said about it in the 19th century isn’t immediately clear to us, as to their meaning.

  2. Peripheral Visionary

    It is a high hurdle indeed, and a challenge for many Church members and investigators. But then, this isn’t the first time God’s people have had difficulty reconciling the private lives of the prophets; ref. Numbers 12: 1 And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman.Numbers 12 is worth a full read on this subject. The unmistakable message of the Lord’s response is that the prophet’s private life is not open to public criticism; note that the Lord does not even deign to provide a justification for Moses’ action.6 And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. 7 My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. 8 With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?

  3. Peripheral Visionary

    [Edit: Link fixed]One other point on your article, I would say that while the law of celestial marriage holds open the possibility of plural marriages, it does not require them. Note that while D&C 132 is typically cited in this discussion, Jacob 2 is also canon, and while Jacob 2 does hold open the possibility of plural marriages, the stated preference from the Lord is for monogamy. Note Jacob 2:30 For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things. Plural marriages (duly authorized) appear to be the exception, not the rule; and this scripture makes it clear that plural marriage can be instituted (and, by implication, revoked) as circumstances demand. Jacob 2 and 3 also beautifully highlight the Lord’s sensitivity to the feelings of women and children in family matters, which is why the instructions on marriage were, and are, extremely strict.

  4. In The Doghouse

    Very good post on a very delicate subject. We are taught that everything points to Jesus Christ. He is in all things and through all things. Polygamy symbolically teaches a very important lesson concerning Christ and the effects of the Atonement. There is always only one husband, that is Christ. There will be many wives, but only one husband. When you ponder the symbolic teaching of this concept it shows how everyone will have a portion, or a position in His family, through Jesus Christ, because of the Atonement.

  5. have you read threewatches blog where he says that Joseph Smith teaching polygamy was a false doctrine that the Lord allowed to be taught because the saints rejected zion with the apostasy at kirtland, if you have read his blog, what are your comments

  6. Alison Moore Smith

    On a number of points, I disagree with your post.(1) To say that something is “readily available” as long as you “know where to look” is like saying that the golden plates weren’t really hidden, as long as you had a map to where they were buried.I grew up in the church. In Utah. I graduated from seminary and attended church every week. I graduated from BYU where my dad was a math professor. I went to all the church sites, including the Lion and Beehive houses multiple times.Still, it wasn’t until after I moved to Florida and read Mormon Enigma that I ever heard that Joseph was also a polygamist.That information simply was not acknowledged.(2) Discussing the fact that we claim to be a restorative church doesn’t explain the distinctions between men and women in polygamous relationships. In other words, it only helps one “understand this unique aspect of the beginnings of the LDS church” in that is says, “Well, they did it before, so we can do it, too.”(3) The idea that the first wife “holds the keys of this power” is ludicrous. We all know that the supposed consent rule means nothing. “Consent or burn in hell” isn’t much in the way of choice. And “consent or burn in hell AND your husband will marry more women anyway” means even less.(4) The current leadership has simply chosen to ignore the issues around polygamy. The standard response is, “It’s in the past.” Of course that is untrue given the general idea (as you, yourself expressed) that it is “still an eternal doctrine.”(5) Given that Joseph not only married myriad women, but also married MARRIED women, his case is particularly troubling and worthy of explanation.

  7. Hi Alison,Thanks for visiting my blog and adding to the dialog on this essay. I appreciate what you have shared about your experience in learning about Joseph’s plural wives. You are not alone. Many others have related the same thing to me over the years as the subject has come up in comments on previous essays. They were shocked when they discovered this.In fact, this is one of the main difficulties expressed by some in the Bloggernacle whom I greatly admire and respect. For people like John Dehlin, the discovery of this and other difficult issues caused a serious crisis of faith. You can read more on his Mormon Stories Podcasts. My latest essay relates a little more about how he dealt with this issue.Until I started blogging a couple of years ago I thought everyone’s experience growing up in the church was similar to mine in regards to their exposure to the difficult issues. As I have related in other posts here, I recognize that many of these issues are simply not a part of the approved curriculum for Sunday school, Seminary or Institute classes.I learned about Joseph’s plural wives from books that my mother had in the home library. She encouraged us to read and made readily available books that presented both sides of the issues. In particular, I think I first learned about this subject through reading No Man Knows my History by Fawn Brodie or Nightfall at Nauvoo by Samuel W. Taylor.I remember distinctly bringing the subject up in Seminary and was clearly told by the teacher that Joseph did not have plural wives. I was confused. I knew otherwise. I had read it in several books. I asked mother about it and she helped me understand that there are many people in the church who do not know the full story of our LDS History.So I’m going to stick with my assertion that the information was readily available. After all, No Man Knows my History was first published in 1945. In it, the prophet’s niece quotes from several sources that were published in the late 19th century. Admittedly, the published material was not found in most LDS homes back then any more than now.But I totally agree with your point that the material was not acknowledged. My Seminary experience illustrates that. I learned to keep my mouth shut about sensitive issues. I did not bring them up in Seminary or Sunday school or in the mission field. I and some other missionaries knew about these sensitive items and were told to not share or discuss them.The fact is that there are elements of our history that we were simply not taught growing up in the church. I do not think it was an attempt to deny or whitewash our history. I can only conjecture that it was felt by the Brethren that it was best to present only the most favorable view of our history without all the warts. I think this may have been a mistake.Your point #1 is well made and I agree with it. I’ll respond to your other points later.

  8. Hi again Alison,I’ve been pondering your second point about the doctrine of plural marriage being a part of the restoration. I’m not sure if I would characterize the reasons for plural marriage as being one of permission. We teach that it was a commandment. Also, can you elaborate on what you mean by the “distinctions between men and women in plural marriage?” I’m going to disagree with your take on the third point where you claim that the idea of the first wife “holds the keys of this power” is ludicrous. That phrase is a direct quote from verse 64 of section 132. If we accept this section as being canonized, and we do, then we accept that phrase as being the word of the Lord. She does hold this power.In other words, if I read that verse correctly, the onus is on the man to teach the doctrine correctly. He has not taught it correctly if his wife does not understand and accept it. But this is a moot discussion because we don’t practice plural marriage in this life unless it is authorized by the living prophet. I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime.Carol and I have discussed this several times. Let me make this clear that our discussion has been theoretical only and in reference to life after the resurrection. She has made it clear that she does not like the idea of plural marriage and will not allow it. I simply say that’s fine but we’ll have to wait and see how we feel about it after we are resurrected.I hold the consent rule to be scripture and the will of the Lord. If Carol says it’s not going to happen, then it’s not going to happen. The Lord commands us to be one in our marriages. How could the Lord sanction a man taking another wife in the hereafter without the consent of the first? I can totally understand the way you phrased it.Was this ideal followed perfectly when plural marriage was practiced by the church? Of course it wasn’t. Joseph and Emma were a perfect example. She hated it and would not consent except on a few very rare occasions. It was extremely difficult for her. I imagine it must have been especially tough because he invoked his privileges from verse 65.Frankly, I do not understand verses 64 and 65. It is so contradictory to what our prophets have taught for as long as I have been listening to prophets. I am much more inclined to believe what David O. McKay taught, that the first thing the Lord will ask when we get to the other side is how well we did in helping our wife find happiness and fulfillment.In summary on point three, I hold that phrase to be valid and in full force if we are going to live this law perfectly. Early church leaders did not live it perfectly and I am glad that I am not required to live this law because I doubt that I could either. I would be very concerned that the natural man tendencies in me would cause me to make poor choices.Thanks for helping me think deeply. More on your last two points in another comment.

  9. Response #3 to Alison on points 4 and 5:I think I get what you’re saying in point four that we do not talk about plural marriage within the church or to the media. I think the Brethren would rather that we not do so because at this point all is just conjecture since it is not currently practiced. I think they themselves would rather not talk to the media about it but are forced to do so on occasion.We have no lessons on the subject in our currently approved curriculum. I take that back. The D&C Institute manual has some commentary on section 132 but very little to nothing about some of the key verses. There is a lot of good material on other principles there. The seminary manual is equally oblique and only refers to plural marriage in passing.I like this next paragraph that was taken directly from the Sunday school instructor’s manual for the Church History lesson on celestial marriage. It is preceded by this warning: “The following information is provided to help you if class members have questions about the practice of plural marriage. It should not be the focus of the lesson.“The revelation to practice plural marriage in this dispensation: In this dispensation, the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by this command, but they obeyed it. Church leaders regulated the practice. Those entering into it had to be authorized to do so, and the marriages had to be performed through the sealing power of the priesthood.”Thus, the Gospel Doctrine teacher is authorized to teach the principle if it comes up, that Joseph Smith had plural wives. We just don’t elaborate on it or go into details like you can find when you research it on your own. I think that’s as it should be. There are just too many people who are not mature in their testimonies who might struggle with this.I don’t think the leadership of the church is ignoring the issues of plural marriage. They are just not emphasizing them as they are focusing on other, more urgent and important issues, like helping the members of the church come unto Christ and learn to live in the world but not partake of the sins of the world like pornography, divorce and abuse.And finally, in regards to your last point, I agree with you that explanations are needed as to why Joseph married women who were already married to other men. I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows and can only offer conjecture, which many writers have done. I figure it will all be made clear when we get to the other side and can ask Joseph himself.Thanks again for your thoughtful comments, Alison. The subject of plural marriage and of Joseph’s plural marriages in particular could fill volumes and indeed already have. It is not a subject on which I spend much thought except as it comes up in dialog with those who struggle with shock, dismay and feelings of deception when they first learn about it.As I wrote in the essay, this subject will continue to generate interest and curiosity among people as they learn about the church through their own research efforts on the Internet. We can help them by providing factual information and allowing them to draw their own conclusions. Hopefully, they will be sympathetic to what little explanation we can offer.

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  13. While modern views on plural marriage influence many of our perceptions, the biblical view is that marriages entered into under the laws of God are valid. Jacob is a good example of someone who was in a plural marriage. An honorable man, Jacob accepted Leah as his wife despite her trickery in trying to steal him from Rachel, his betrothed. Rather than disgrace Leah, Jacob gave her a name and a place in his family. Jacob’s other two wives were his wives’ handmaidens, given to him at their insistence.

    From the Bible, it seems clear that Jacob considered Rachel to be his beloved wife, but he treated his other wives with fairness. The Lord told Joseph Smith that Jacob did no wrong, but upheld his covenants, and would be rewarded for his obedience to God’s law. Joseph Smith, like Jacob, obeyed the Lord in all things. I know a lot of criticism is hurled at him and at Brigham Young, but have we stopped to consider that they followed the will the Lord in their marriages, and many of us today go directly against the Lord’s counsel?

    Today, many people marry, divorce, and remarry. Is this not having multiple spouses? So before we condemn plural marriage, maybe we ought to think about how often it is practiced in modern society, and that without the approval of the Lord, who told us that men should not break asunder what he has put together.

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  15. I don’t know if I will even get a response to this- I seem to be a couple of years late to the discussion- but I would like to offer a differing opinion.
    I don’t believe that Joseph Smith was ever a polygamist.
    This seems to be a very shocking statement from someone who grew up in Utah and a firm member of the LDS church- plus having descended from a line of polygamy.
    This is not something I say because I don’t want to believe in polygamy- I have done my research(yep, even seen the websites listed above that tell all about his “other wives”)
    Here is a book I read :
    They seem to have done an excellent job on their research- and I know that they are a different sect of LDS- I believe they are RLDS(or were before that church split in the 80’s) and the RLDS has always been kind of a curse word in the LDS world- kind of like the dis-owned, black sheep brother no one mentions.
    Anyway, that was part of it.
    Another part was if Joseph Smith had so many wives, where are all the kids from these unions? He obviously didn’t have any problems with that part concerning Emma- how many kids did they have? Wasn’t she pregnant at least 10 times? I know not all of their kids survived- but not one other child from any of those women?
    Plus- and here is where it really hits home to me- The Book of Mormon was brought forth by God- and shared by Joseph Smith through his testimony- his testimony of seeing Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, his testimony of the angel Moroni, his testimony of the truthfulness of the BoM and how it was translated. Who would trust the testimony of a man who would purposely lie about polygamy? and not just once, but on numerous occasions he condemned polygamy and vowed that he was only ever married to one woman!
    I think there are a lot of things that Joseph Smith could have gotten away with(well, could be over looked while he was doing God’s work) but I really don’t think God would have kept him in his post as prophet if he was a liar- because it would cause EVERYTHING else he had EVER said to be called into question.
    This does not mean that he was unable to lie, or that prophets cannot lie- it is just that I think God would’ve taken him out pretty darn quick if he had even thought about it.
    Does this mean that everyone else who claimed that Joseph Smith was a polygamist(including those “other wives”) were liars. yes and no.
    (sorry the long post- I really do hope you respond- I would like to discuss more)
    How many of those women were “sealed” to JS after his death? Weren’t they all? So, they could claim that they were wives of JS and truly believe it.
    What about his most famous other wife, Eliza R Snow?
    Read the above book and it explains it pretty well. I will sum up though. She was a new member, seduced by a high ranking member of the church( can’t recall his name at the moment- a Dr. someone, I believe) He seduced many girls- and was eventually excommunicated- she became pregnant and really had no place to go. You think it’s hard being an unwed mother today? this was the 1830’s! She didn’t have a chance. Joseph and Emma took her in so they could help her out and she could help Emma out with the kids. She miscarried at 6 months.
    Why would she agree to say she was married to JS later then? someone who helped her? Well, there was still the fact that she had been pregnant and the stigma that went with that. Maybe she was offered shelter with the new leader in return for claiming to be married to JS? I am just speculating here- I really have no idea- but it seems plausible. After marrying BY- she never had any kids- so I don’t think there was any love in that one.
    Well, enough for now- if you would like to discuss further- I will check back in within the next couple of days and weeks- but you really should read that book.
    ps -I really enjoyed the mendenhall books- you should check out 9 days in heaven about a girl in the 1840’s who went to Heaven- awesome book!

    1. Hi Carrie,

      Ultimately, what does it matter to you or me if Joseph practiced plural marriage or not? Does it affect your ability to believe he was a prophet if he did participate in polygamy and lied about it in public? For me, it is an old topic that is closed. My mind is made up. I was not there but I believe the reports I have read, especially those who have gathered the evidence found on I have read much of Todd Compton’s book In Sacred Loneliness. There is simply too much evidence to refute. Yes I checked out the online book that Joseph Smith fought Polygamy from the Restoration Bookstore. I’m sorry. I’m not convinced.

      I understand why Joseph could not and would not disclose the doctrine or practice in public. I understand how much damage was done by John C. Bennett. I understand why Joseph preached against the practice, specifically because of what Dr. Bennett had done with his seducing of women through his false doctrine of “spiritual wifery.” What more can I say than what I have already written? Read what Denver Snuffer has to say on the subject, especially in part 3 of his writings on section 132. He describes in detail why it was such a difficult test for Joseph to practice it but teach against it publically:

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