Joseph Smith’s Sexual Polyandry and the Emperor’s New Clothes

Brian C. Hales August 2012

Joseph Smith’s Sexual Polyandry and the Emperor’s New Clothes: On Closer Inspection, What Do We Find?

I’m very privileged to present here at FAIR. I admire all of the officers and those that put these conferences together each year. Again, I feel it a privilege to discuss a few things. I hope what I say will be helpful to you. I apologize for the plug that I have put on the screens in front of you. The final work will end up being three volumes, because volume one was going to be over a thousand pages. We’re just getting to the type setting, so by the end of the year, hopefully, these volumes will be published.


The title is “Joseph Smith’s Sexual Polyandry and the Emperor’s New Clothes: On Closer Inspection, What Do We Find?” People often ask me “Brian, why are you so interested in polygamy?” I have others say (low, whispered voice) “Brian, why are you so interested in polygamy?” To those, I can’t even “monog”, so you don’t need to worry about me wanting to “polyg”. Actually, there is some history there. I have a member of my family who was excommunicated in 1989 for joining a polygamist group. She has since left that group. She hasn’t rejoined the church, but she is no longer with them.

In 1991 I wrote the book, “The Priesthood of Modern Polygamy, an LDS Perspective.” I’m an anesthesiologist and I tell people my books are, part of my full anesthesiology services. We have this problem: we’ve just had a nice snack and there’s a thing in medicine called post prandial narcolepsy. “Post prandial” is after you eat, and “narcolepsy” is inappropriate sleeping. I’ll be honest with you, if you fall asleep during my talk, I won’t be offended, but I have spent this entire morning putting people to sleep and sending them bills for that service. So, just be aware.

I do have three other books. They aren’t on polygamy, but they have some pretty good doctrinal basis regarding their individual titles. In 2006 I wrote other books on Mormon Fundamentalism and over half of the questions people would ask me about polygamy had to do with Joseph Smith’s polygamy. I just didn’t know the answers. So, in 2007 I returned to the topic which actually got me involved with polyandry. I just couldn’t figure out how Joseph could be married to somebody else’s wife. It didn’t click for me. Five years and a lot of time and monetary expenditure later, we are coming together with some ideas you will hear today.

My research supports that fourteen of Joseph Smith’s plural wives had legal husbands. It could be that in Joseph Smith’s history, polygamy is the most difficult thing to understand. Within polygamy, Joseph Smith’s sealings to legally married women is the most difficult. So, we’re talking about a pretty tough subject today. I can tell you already, that if it were easy, someone would have already explained it decades ago. But I think we’ve got it figured out.

There are two questions: “Why did he do it?”, and “Did the women really have two husbands?” Answering the question of why he did it requires us to introduce some new topics. Joseph taught that marriage can be eternal and that everyone must be sealed to be exalted. These are not new to us, we’ve all heard these. But outside of Mormondom, these are new ideas. Emmanuel Swedenborg had talked about eternal marriage and he died in 1772. But really, nobody talked about eternal marriage. The idea that you had to be married to obtain the highest salvation, that’s a new and different teaching.

To answer the question why, is simply that the fourteen women, when they learned about eternal marriage, chose Joseph Smith to be their eternal husband. It’s that simple. They chose him over the men to whom they were married. Four of the women couldn’t be sealed to their legal husbands because those husbands were not active Latter-day Saints. But the remaining ten, whose husbands were active LDS, chose Joseph. It’s kind of weird that a woman would be married to an active LDS man, but be sealed to Joseph Smith for an eternal marriage. Joseph could be criticized that he was insensitive to those ten husbands, but none of them ever complained. We have no complaints from any of them. There could be suspicions that Joseph coerced the women, but these are not supported by any kind of documentation. None of the women complained and we have good documentation that Joseph taught that the woman’s desires should be respected in every case. There are at least five cases where women turned him down, and the only reason we know about it is because those women later talked about it. Joseph didn’t talk about it. He didn’t try to destroy their reputation. He didn’t castigate them. He just let it go, because that was their choice.

The question is did the women really have two husbands after their sealing to Joseph Smith? According to his teachings, the answer is “no”. Joseph Smith taught that celestial and plural marriage were part of the “new and an everlasting covenant” (D&C 132:4). He also taught: “…that all old covenants have I caused to be done away in this thing; and this is a new and an everlasting covenant” (D&C 22:1). The covenant that was then being discussed was baptism and we have no record of Joseph Smith applying this principal to the new and everlasting covenant of marriage. But we also have no record of him contradicting it, or saying that it didn’t apply. The revelation simply says “all old covenants are done away in the new and everlasting covenant.”

Accordingly, a sealing in the new and everlasting covenant would supersede a legal matrimonial covenant, causing it to be “done away”. A woman who contracts both a legal covenant and an eternal sealing for “time and eternity”, would not thereafter have two “lawful” husbands, lawful in God’s eyes, with whom she could experience sexual relations. If a woman did not have two husbands after being sealed to Joseph, were their civil husbands suddenly disfranchised from the marriage? The answer again is “no.” But to understand how this works, we’re going to introduce some new ideas.

Historical evidence shows that legally married women could be sealed for “eternity only” to someone other than their civil husband. The sealed marriage covenant would not apply until the next life. If you’ve read Compton, if you’ve read Quinn, they both say “no, these never happened, there’s none recorded in the nineteenth century.”


Well, guess what? Since those books were written, there is evidence. This is the writing of Andrew Jensen who was an independent researcher at the time. He later became an assistant church historian. He’s interviewing one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives. We don’t know which one, and this is occurring in early 1887. He is interviewing this wife and it’s probably Eliza Snow, but we don’t know. “While the strongest affection sprang up between the Prophet Joseph and Mr. Sayers,” Mr. Sayers is the legal husband of Ruth Vose Sayers, one of Joseph’s plural wives, “the latter [Mr. Sayers], not attaching much importance to the theory of a future life, insisted that his wife, Ruth, should be sealed to the prophet for eternity, that he himself should only claim her in this life. She was accordingly sealed to the prophet in Emma Smith’s presence, and thus became numbered among the Prophets plural wives.”

There are other evidences. Eternity-only sealings, as strange as they are to us today, because we don’t do them today, only occurred a few times in Nauvoo. But the new and everlasting covenant allows a sealing for this life and the next, or just the next life. There were a few of those performed.

The women who were sealed just for the next life, like Ruth Vose Sayers, are on Joseph’s list of wives, but technically, they don’t belong there until we get into the next realm. But we have to deal with it today. So, were all fourteen of these women sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity only? No. It’s not that easy At least three of the sealings were for time and eternity and in a covenant that superseded the legal covenant. In other words, after the sealing to Joseph, the legal husband was not going to be able to experience conjugality with her. They are special cases and there are not a lot of parallels between the three. We’re going to talk about all three of them.

The first one is Sylvia Sessions Lyon. If you’ve read Todd Compton’s book “In Sacred Loneliness” you know that he elaborately unfolds a plausible case. But new evidence suggests that he is in error. I talked to him, I emailed him this past week about it and he still defended it at Sunstone when we presented this a week ago. He was the respondent. But you just can’t do it and you will see why in a minute. Sylvia married Windsor Lyon on April 21, 1838 in a legal ceremony performed by Joseph Smith. “In Sacred Loneliness” uses the date February 8, 1842 as their [Joseph Smith-Sylvia Sessions] sealing date. That’s the first problem. The daughter was conceived over a year later, on May 18 1843. This daughter, I believe, is Joseph Smith’s actual daughter. The assumption is that Sylvia experienced sexual relations with both Windsor and Joseph Smith during this period. There’s no evidence for that, for either one of them during the period up until Josephine was conceived, but the willingness of people to assume these things is very high, as we’ll talk about in a minute.

The problem is that Todd uses this date of 1842, in the same set of documents, and didn’t know this when he wrote his book, because he didn’t have time to get to this, there is an 1843 date. They’re equally valid or invalid. They are not signed. They talk about this marriage, but we don’t know how close Sylvia Sessions Lyon was to the creation of these documents, and they just cancel each other out. The whole timeline presented by Todd, I would argue, is not reliable.

But there is one other evidence that Todd will cite, that Sylvia Sessions was sealed to Joseph early, and she witnessed the sealing of her mother in March of 1842. That clearly indicates that Sylvia was a polygamy insider. But the problem is that I’ve identified seventeen other men and women who are not polygamous, who did witness these marriages. (They are: Fanny Huntington, Cornelius Lott, Permelia Lott, Joseph Lott, Amanda Lott, Benjamin F. Johnson, Elizabeth Whitney, Sarah Godshall Phillips, Julia Stone, Hettie Stone, Mary Ellen Harris Able, James Adams, Joseph B. Noble, Dimick B. Huntington, Brigham Young, Willard Richards, and Newel K. Whitney.) It’s just not strong evidence. The whole timeline that Todd presents, which is more or less a plausible course of sexual polyandry, just falls apart.

Windsor was excommunicated in November of 1842. We have three evidences that the sealing occurred after this, and that the excommunication of Windsor caused him and Sylvia to part. They were already separated. So they are legally married but they separate. Then Joseph is sealed to Sylvia after the excommunication. In a document undoubtedly used to write his 1887 historical record article on plural marriage, Andrew Jensen wrote “Sylvia Sessions was married to Mr. Lyon. When he left the church she was sealed to the prophet Joseph Smith.” Elsewhere he refers to Sylvia as “formerly the wife of Windsor Lyons.”

In 1915, Josephine, the child, related that back in 1882, just months before her mother died, she told Josephine in a very dramatic fashion, that she had “been sealed to the prophet at the time that her husband, Mr. Lyon, was out of fellowship with the Church”, and that Josephine was actually Joseph Smith’s daughter. Josephine married a man named Fisher and there’s a whole Fisher family in Bountiful that descend from this marriage. I have been in contact with some of the descendants, and they are starting to say maybe we need to make a claim that we’re actually coming from Joseph and not from Windsor Lyon. From my research there are only two children from the plural wives. Josephine was one. The other is Olive Frost’s daughter, or son, we don’t even know the gender, as both Olive Frost and the child died before they left Nauvoo. That’s all. There are references to a third, but we don’t know. Maybe some new evidence will come up and we will find out.

Looking at the timeline, we find that Windsor and Sylvia married in 1838. She conceives three children, then he’s excommunicated and that’s when they separate. It’s not a legal divorce, but she is then sealed to Joseph in a marriage that I argue would have superseded the legal marriage anyway, which would curtail any conjugality between Sylvia and Windsor. Josephine is conceived. Joseph Smith is killed. Windsor is rebaptized and then they come back together and the legal marriage is still intact.

Now, is this weird? Yeah, this is weird. Is it sexual polyandry? Is it immoral? Is it breaking the law of chastity that Joseph taught? No it isn’t. We are going to see more of this kind of thing, but it’s real people like you and me, struggling with a really tough commandment.

The second case of the fourteen is Mary Heron. She will be new to most here because the only people that even mention her are Quinn in the back of one of his publications, and she’s also mentioned briefly by Compton. It’s a little complicated and we don’t have a lot of information. But Joseph Ellis Johnson was involved in an adulterous relationship. His membership status was discussed in a council meeting September 2nd, 1850 in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young was presiding. In his defense, Joseph E. Johnson reported that “He was familiar with the first frigging [slang for sexual relations] – that was done in his house with his mother-in-law by Joseph.” Joseph E Johnson’s mother-in-law was Mary Heron Snider. Despite intensive research, I have found no additional evidence linking Mary Heron Snider with Joseph Smith.

John Snider, Mary Heron’s legal husband, was on a mission to England from March of 1842 to January of 1843. Joseph E. Johnson did not build his house in Ramus, Illinois until 1843, so to say that Joseph sent him on a mission so that he could have this rendezvous and marry Mary Heron is not supported. But there are several interpretations that are possible, depending upon what you are willing to assume, because we have so little data.

The first is a willingness to assume that Joseph E. Johnson was accurate and accurately quoted. Joseph E. Johnson was Benjamin F. Johnson’s brother. They were a very prominent family in the church. I think he’s telling the truth. I believe it. I’m willing to make this assumption. But, the next assumptions you are willing to make are very important. If you assume there was no plural sealing, that Joseph is just involved with Mary Heron without any kind of marriage, then it’s adultery. If you want to assume there was a plural sealing and that she was also having conjugal relations with her legal husband, then it’s sexual polyandry and this is what Michael Quinn is promoting and believes happened.

If you believe a plural sealing did occur, causing the legal marriage to be done away, the civil husband thereafter serving as some kind of a front husband for Joseph Smith, then the relationship is a consecutive marriage. Here are some observations. None of the leaders who heard Joseph E. Johnson’s 1850 statement seemed concerned. There’s nothing in the notes to tell us that there are any problems. John and Mary endured long periods apart after leaving Nauvoo. John and Mary stopped having children in 1833, either due to Mary’s infertility, or to the absence of sexual relations because after her death, John Snider remarried and had children. Mary died in 1852 and was never sealed to John Snyder during their lifetimes. John lived to 1875 and had plenty of opportunities to seal either while they were both living or by proxy. This did not occur.

Lastly John Snyder lived in Salt Lake and was a devout believer throughout his life. John Taylor wrote his obituary, extolling how good of a member he was. So you could argue that he knew nothing about what was going on, which was unlikely, or that he knew what was going on and it didn’t shake his testimony.

Going back to the assumptions, just take your pick. We don’t know. It’s a real puzzler. Because of the lack of historical documentation, the exact nature of Joseph Smith’s relationship with Mary Heron is currently indefinable. Maybe we will get some more information in the future.

The case of Sarah Ann Whitney, who is the legal wife of Joseph C. Kingsbury is much better documented. You may have heard of her. She married Joseph Smith in a time and eternity sealing in July of 1842. They may have been involved sexually, we don’t know. There’s no actual reference to it, but we have the prayer that was used to seal them, and it refers to the possibility of progeny. So, it could have happened. She is on my list of twelve women that I think probably were sexually involved with Joseph.

Nine months later, after the sealing and for reasons we still don’t know, Joseph went to Joseph C. Kingsbury, a bachelor in Nauvoo, and asked him to legally marry Sarah Ann, and to portray themselves as a married couple throughout Nauvoo, and they did. They moved in under the same roof, they went around as if they were married, but Kingsbury later referred to the nuptial as a pretended marriage, indicating that it was never consummated and, kind of comically, in 1880 he submitted a bill for $8,000 to the church for his financial support of Sarah Ann. We don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t appear that John Taylor paid the bill.

Based upon the best assumptions, and again I apologize, I wish we had more evidence, but if we go over the fourteen women who had legal husbands, here’s my take, and again we have to make some assumptions. These three women are married to nonmembers. Norman Buell was an antagonist and the context of this marriage was that it was eternity only. So, I think these were eternity only sealings, these top five are pretty clearly eternity only. We have these three at the bottom that we just talked about, which are not eternity only, they are actually time and eternity where the husbands can serve as a front husband like Kingsbury. Windsor Lyon was out of the picture and we don’t know anything about John Snider.

These six in-between are interesting because these six husbands are devout Latter-day Saints. You have to ask the question, if their wives had chosen Joseph over them for eternity, would they also have been willing to let the women marry Joseph for time and eternity and just hang around as a “front” husband? I don’t think so for these top three: Patty Bartlett, Elizabeth Davis, Lucinda Pendleton. I think these were eternity only as well. But for these three, Elvira Cowles, Marinda Nancy Johnson, and Zina Diantha Huntington– we have two sealing dates for Marinda and Zina–it wouldn’t surprise me if the first sealing date was actual and it was an eternity-only sealing and the second sealing date was “You know, I’m going to be with Joseph in eternity, I think I’d just rather be with him for time and eternity too.” Both of these husbands, Orson Hyde was an apostle, and Henry B. Jacobs said, “Whatever Joseph commands is right,” so I think both of them would have been willing. Jonathon Holmes, there’s a very dubious late account of Joseph coming up to him and saying, “Will you marry Elvira and be a front husband for me?” Just like with Joseph Kingsbury. It’s late, it’s not credible. I can’t find anything about the person who said it, but it’s just so spot-on in the request that it’s hard to totally ignore.

What do we know? Not as much as we’d like. But this is the way that I would put the pieces together. The question comes up “Did Joseph Smith practice sexual polyandry?” Well, guess what? I feel kind of alone. What is sexual polyandry? Polyandry means “many men”. It doesn’t necessarily mean “many husbands.” When we talk about it in reference to polygamy, usually the implication is many husbands. It occurs when a woman experiences sexual relations with more than one man in the specific time period, or in this case, with more than one husband.

If you take that table and present it to virtually everybody who has written on this topic, they would like to throw out all this eternity-only and front husband stuff. All these authors want to say “Joseph was sleeping with these women and so were their legal husbands. This was, emphatically, sexual polyandry.”

What did Joseph Smith teach about sexual polyandry? Does anybody think he taught about sexual polyandry? We are getting into these ideas I mentioned earlier that are going to be new. Yes, he did. He describes in D & C 132, three possible sexual polyandrous situations. One of them is verses 61 to 63: “…as pertaining to this law of the priesthood–if any man espouse a virgin, and… if one… after she is espoused, shall be with another man,”- could be a legal husband, could by anybody, another man, “she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed, for [she is] given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth…”

In other words, if a woman is sealed in an eternal marriage and afterwards is with even a legal husband, she commits adultery, and shall be destroyed. It doesn’t seem to matter if you reverse the order, which would apply to all but one of these marriages, where she is legally married first, but then she is sealed, and then after the sealing she’s with her legal husband. Doesn’t seem to make any difference according to my reading, but maybe someone has a different meaning, but the words are very clear.

We have three of them described there, we have verses 41 and 42 are the other two. We won’t discuss those, but if there’s a question in the question-and-answer period, we can discuss them. But they label them all adultery. This brings up the question that I would have for all those people on the list, saying that he did it or he might have done it. The question is, if he did it, did he do it in accordance with his teachings? Or, was it in contradiction with his teachings? Whichever answer they choose, there are many questions to explain.

Let’s look at the evidence supporting and contradicting sexual polyandry in Joseph Smith’s sealings to legally married women. Two categories of supportive evidence can be identified. Some authors – and this is real late, just in the last three or four years – assert that sexual polyandry is required to fulfill “the reproductive purpose of plural marriage.” One author said that Joseph Smith’s polygamy was all about sex. Well, not really. Joseph Smith gave three reasons for the establishment of plural marriage among the Latter-day Saints. The first was a restoration of Old Testament polygamy. If somebody comes up to you and asks you “why did he do it”, that’s the answer you give because it’s easy, you can just point to Abraham, you can point to Jacob in the Old Testament. Joseph was a prophet restorer. He restored it.

But Joseph gave two other reasons. One is to multiply and replenish the earth. There are all of these noble and great pre-mortal spirits, and they need devout families to be born into on this earth. If you tell that to a regular Christian, they are going to look at you like you are crazy, so that doesn’t really work in that setting. But it works for us. It’s true. He mentioned this several times and it’s in section 132.

The last one, which will be even less understood by even some Latter-day Saints, but certainly anybody out of the church, is that it will provide spouses for all worthy women. When Joseph taught that exaltation is only given to couples, either you have to have an exact same number of worthy women and men at the judgment, or you have to provide for the option of there being more men or more women. In this case the only thing provided for in section 132 is that there will be more worthy women than men.

Historically, in the 19th century, Americans considered nontraditional sexual relations, which included polyandry, as diminishing “fecundity” (fertility). They wouldn’t have looked at sexual polyandry as a way to multiply and replenish. In his 1841 book, Elements of Obstetric Medicine, Dr. David D. Davis wrote: “It is a general opinion, and would seem well founded, that excess in the use of the means of impregnation is upon the whole unfavorable to the interests of fecundity, hence, the almost uniform sterility of the more public prostitutes.” Actually, they were sterile because of sexually transmitted diseases. In other words, in Nauvoo, sexual polyandry would not have been viewed as a way to multiply and replenish the earth, to increase fertility. It would have been viewed as a way to decrease it. So this argument just needs to go away. Physiologically, the second sperm donor does not enhance a woman’s fertility.

Let’s look at the historical evidence. Michael Quinn is writing an article, defending the position that Joseph practiced sexual polyandry, and I hope whatever editor decides to publish it, they will let me respond. Because I’ve heard his arguments, and he’s been very kind in exchanging emails with me, but the evidence is just not there.

This is from my website, This is all the evidences I could come up with. There’s just not a lot of good stuff here. There’s no solid evidence. There are a few things you might call secondary evidence, or supplemental evidence. Let’s talk about a few things that are coming up that I know Michael and Todd Compton have addressed. This is the case of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. In a letter written by Joseph F. Smith, he mentioned that “there are some things which she [Mary Rollins] would be unwise to make public….” The implication was “it must be sexual polyandry”, or something like that. Well, no it wasn’t. If you read the letter, she receives her endowments in Parley P. Pratt’s house, then a second time in the Nauvoo Temple. That’s what Joseph F. Smith didn’t want her to address.

In 1892, Mary Elizabeth Rollins wrote to John Henry Smith, who was a member of the Twelve, “If I could have an opportunity of conversing with you, and Brother Joseph [F. Smith] I could explain some things in regard to my living with Mr. Lightner [her legal husband], after becoming the wife of another, which would throw light, on what now seems mysterious, and you would be perfectly satisfied with me.”

It seems that if Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner had reported to Apostle John Henry Smith that she had experienced sexual polyandry with Adam Lightner and Joseph Smith, the Apostle would not have been “perfectly satisfied.”

In a speech before the missionaries at BYU in 1905, she said “I know he [Joseph Smith] had three children. They told me. I think two are living today, but they are not known as his children, as they go by other names.” Michael Quinn affirms that she is talking about children of polyandrous wives. There is absolutely no justification for that interpretation anywhere in this discourse that Mary Elizabeth Rollins gave. This is just misrepresentation.

The case of Flora Woodward is interesting. Flora was married to Joseph in the spring of 1843, but we don’t have a date. On the 22nd of August, she has a confrontation with Emma. Joseph had given her a gold watch. Emma took the watch and stamped it underfoot. I guess Emma wasn’t pleased with the plural marriage. The next day Flora goes out and marries a non-member. Was this a reaction? I think absolutely it was. What she was thinking is hard to know, but then three days later, she and her mother converse with Joseph in the home of William Clayton and it says they “conversed for some time.”

She also meets Joseph on the 28th and the 29th in Clayton’s home and several authors have said “Well, that was probably for sex.” Michael Quinn in his response to my paper in Calgary said it was such good sex that it made her immediately regret her marriage to Carlos Gove. That’s a bit of a stretch. If you look at Flora’s situation, I don’t think that marriage was ever consummated. If you look at Flora’s behavior, even after the sealing in the spring, the evidence that she wasn’t respecting it is really high. I argue that it wasn’t consummated. But if it was, this verse that we read earlier applies directly to her. A virgin who is married according to that law of the priesthood, if she is with another man, Carlos Gove, in this case, if Flora was with her legal husband, she has committed adultery and shall be destroyed. It’s my position, that instead of having rigorous sex, according to some interpreters, these are talking about her status as far as her membership in the church. You can honestly argue if you are going to see sex in something like this, this is very neutral language, where will you not see it? We need some evidence from those who want to promote that position.

Now, the case of Esther Dutcher, the legal wife of Albert Smith [not George Albert Smith], is another new name. I accept all thirty-three of Todd Compton’s plural wives, and I’ve added two more: Mary Herrin and Esther Dutcher. I’m grateful to Michael Marquart who put me on to this. In a letter from Daniel Wells to Joseph F. Smith in 1888, he wrote “It seems that she [Esther Dutcher] was sealed to Joseph the Prophet in the days of Nauvoo, though she still remained his [Albert Smith’s] wife.

There is no sealing date, so we do not know when the sealing occurred. I think the context of that letter is eternity only. But that’s all that we have. There is a son that was conceived during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. He was born on September 21, 1844. His name was Joseph Albert Smith. It’s been argued that because the child was name Joseph Smith, that it must have been Joseph’s son. I doubt it. I think that’s really an extreme interpretation and why would you give it the middle name of the legal husband, if that was the case? In addition, you are trying to hide these marriages. We didn’t know about it. Nobody did until this letter popped up. If you are trying to hide a relationship between Esther and Joseph Smith, why would you name the son Joseph Smith?

The table below shows all the evidence from Michael Quinn. It’s just assumption after assumption.


The case of Mary Ann Darrow Richardson is another one that’s promoted by Larry Foster. He mentioned this in his presentation in Calgary at MHA. In 1840 Mary Ann Dorrow marries Edward Richardson. Sometime prior to 1853 they become members of a church that says two children are all that you should have, and he submits to a sterilization procedure. They are baptized, and in 1857, they are sealed. In 1858 Edward and Mary Ann want to have children in the covenant. Brigham Young says the only way you can do that, is to get a civil divorce, where Mary Ann marries Fredrick Cox legally. Fredrick Cox didn’t want to do it, by the way. But Brigham prevailed upon Fredrick to do this, and Edward moves out of town. The evidence is strong that she’s not living with both husbands. She has two children by 1861, there’s a legal divorce from Fredrick Cox, and then there’s a legal marriage to Edward Richardson.

Is this weird? Yes, this is really weird! Are there people like you and me trying to deal with a really hard commandment? I think that really explains it. There’s stumbling, there’s challenges there.

Let’s look at the contradictory evidence. This is something that none of the proponents have addressed, this contradictory evidence. Observation 1 is that sexual polyandry is eyebrow-raising today. We all agree it’s weird. In Illinois in the 1840s, and afterwards in Utah, it would have been scandalous. When asked in 1852, “What do you think of a woman having more husbands than one?” Brigham Young answered, “This is not known to the law.” Six years later Orson Pratt instructed: “God has strictly forbidden, in this Bible, plurality of husbands, and proclaimed against it in his law.”

Everything written about plurality of husbands in the 19th century condemns it. There’s nothing that would support this behavior, in any of the writings of the leaders. When we run into these statements like Nettie Corey Smith who asserted in 1860 she heard Presendia Huntington say afterwards in Utah, that she did not know whether Mr. Buell [her legal husband], or the Prophet was the father of her son. Another anti-Mormon: Ann Eliza Webb alleged in 1875 that Zina Huntington said “the greatest trial of her life was, to live with her husband and Joseph at the same time.” Another anti-Mormon, Sarah Pratt claimed in 1886 that Lucinda Pendleton stated in 1841, “Why I am his [Joseph Smith’s] mistress since four years.”

The problem with these types of statements is that they would have been saying “I’m an adulteress!” That is the only way the hearers could have interpreted these kinds of statements. For that reason, we have plausibility issues with which to deal. Also, there are individual problems with all three of these quotations, whether they would have been in a position to hear it, and many other things. The fact that they are all anti-Mormons doesn’t help their credibility either.

John Bennett in 1842 listed several of Joseph Smith’s plural wives. Three of them were married: Mrs. Durfey, Mrs. Sessions, and Mrs. Buell. Therefore, people knew. They were asking the same questions then that you and I are asking today. Yet, according to all available documents, Joseph Smith did not explicate or defend it. No polyandrous wives personally reported it, defended it, or complained. No polyandrous husbands reported it, defended it, or complained. None of the officiators or witnesses reported it, defended it or complained. Anti-Mormons did not complain until 1850, nine years after it reportedly began. It’s easy to understand why devout women would not have complained. But it is less obvious why participants would not have defended it if they had been practicing it. However, it is impossible to prove a negative. That nobody mentioned it in any sense is an important observation.

Observation 2 is that twenty months after the first polyandrous sealing and after dozens of people were aware of Joseph Smith’s sealings to legally married women, he dictated D&C 132 to explain why he introduced plural marriage. The first polyandrous sealing is October 27th, 1841 and in the table below are all 14 of the women; the ones in italics, we don’t have the date of their sealings. He dictates section 132 in 1843. If Joseph Smith had been practicing sexual polyandry, he might have authorized that behavior in a verse in the revelation. Doesn’t that make sense, especially if he’s just making this stuff up for opportunities to expand his sexual involvement? Instead, the revelation describes at least three potentially polyandrous situations. All define sexual polyandry as “adultery” (D&C 132: 41-42, 63). That’s kind of curious behavior, isn’t it?

Observation 3 is that throughout the nineteenth century, polyandry was a non-issue when discussing Joseph Smith’s plural marriages (e.g. 1869, 1887). Some of you are familiar with the affidavit books. These are what the two documents are from dealing with Sylvia Sessions Lyon. There were four of them. Joseph F. Smith kept two in his personal possession. Two were kept with the church. They were identical. When you go through them to try and figure out whether or not they were trying to hide polyandrous unions, were they trying to explain them, or defend them? There’s nothing. The yellow ones are the ones that are polyandrous and they are just plopped in there. Let’s understand that Joseph was sealed to other women. That seems to be the focus. Then fast forward 18 years to 1887, the plural marriage article that was the first attempt by anybody in the church to put the pieces together and it didn’t happen until 1887, which is really curious because a lot of time had passed.

If you go through the individuals who left their testimonies and their statements, there’s no attempt to segregate the relationships that were polyandrous from those that were not. Of the 25 wives named by Jenson, nine were polyandrous. Five were identified by their maiden names, two by their married names. Elvira A. Cowles is inaccurately identified as “afterwards the wife of Jonathan H. Holmes.” Ruth D. Vose was identified as “known as the wife of Edward Sayers.”

The observation that polyandry was a non-issue in the 19th century could be explained several different ways. One being that sexual polyandry was not practiced in Nauvoo.


Observation 4 is that in 1892, the RLDS Church claimed to be the successor to Joseph Smith’s true church and sued the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) to gain possession of the Independence, Missouri temple site. This is the stone church of the RLDS church and the temple lot. The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) sought to show that Joseph Smith taught and practiced full sexual polygamy and since the RLDS did not, they were not the actual successors. The Utah LDS Church supported the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) and arranged for witnesses to testify of their polygamous relationships with the Prophet. The issue of sexual relations was paramount. Spiritual marriages, “eternity only” sealings, and unconsummated plural unions would have played right into the RLDS attorneys’ hands.

When you go through, there were nine of Joseph Smith’s plural wives still alive in 1892. Three had been polyandrous wives. The first wife that they called was not a polyandrous wife. It was Melissa Lott who lived 30 miles south in Lehi. She testified of carnal intercourse with Joseph. The second plural wife called was Emily Partridge who lived in Salt Lake City. She was not a polyandrous wife, and she too testified of having sexual relations with Joseph. The RLDS attorneys were very direct. If you read it, it’s remarkable testimony.

What’s interesting is that after this, they skipped all three of the polyandrous wives. Yet they were very available. Zina Huntington was the church’s general Relief Society president. She lived blocks away from where the depositions were being taken in Salt Lake. They also skipped Patty Bartlett, but she was 97. They also skipped Mary Elizabeth Rollins, who lived 38 miles north in Ogden. She was well-known to the brethren. These women were available, if they had wanted to call them.

Instead, they called Lucy Walker who lived 82 miles north in Logan. She also testified of sexual relations with Joseph. Just as a sidebar, Helen Mar Kimball was not called even though she lived in Salt Lake City, had written two books defending plural marriage, and would have been an excellent witness. If you read her diary, which was transcribed by Todd Compton, she knew that these people were in town. Her daughter went to hear them speak the Sunday night before the depositions were taken. She was totally available. They didn’t call Helen Mar Kimball to testify of her sexual relations as a plural wife of Joseph Smith. She was only 14 when she was sealed to Joseph and it’s still debated whether there was conjugality in that union. This is strong evidence that it was not.

You could argue they ignored Zina Huntington and Mary Elizabeth Rollins because they wanted to avoid the embarrassment generated by testimony of polyandrous sexuality. That’s a logical conclusion. I disagree. In 1898, RLDS Elder John Wight asked to interview Zina and she consented in an interview that was later published. During the interview he asked her point-blank: “Then it is a fact… is it not, that you married Mr. Smith at the same time you were married to Mr. Jacobs,” her legal husband. Zina responded: “What right do you have to ask such questions? I was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity.”

In 1905, Mary Elizabeth Rollins was confronted with the same question. They had the same questions we have today. Her response: “My husband [Adam Lightner] did not belong to the Church. I begged and pled with him to join, but he would not. He said he did not believe in it, though he thought a great deal of Joseph… After he said this, I went forward and was sealed to Joseph for Eternity.”

In other places both of these women said that they were sealed for time and eternity using the standard language of the day. But isn’t it interesting when they were point-blank asked about their polyandrous relationships, they said they were sealed for eternity only.

If we look at the historical timeline, what we find is the first report is 1842, the first complaint is 1850. Nobody complains about it for eight years. That’s kind of weird if it was actually happening. Every reference to plurality of husbands by all of these people, some leaders and prominent members, condemns it. But something happens in 1945. Fawn Brodie wrote in her book “No Man Knows My History:” “Joseph Smith could with a certain honesty inveigh against adultery in the same week that he slept with another man’s wife, or indeed several men’s wives, because he had interposed a very special marriage ceremony.”

What was the aftermath? This is a sad chapter in Mormon history. There was no request from her to produce her evidence. Hugh Nibley, one of our best apologists, confronted her on the polygamy issue, but not the polyandry issue. There was nothing but silence. I would assert that Fawn Brodie introduced an elephant into the church history living room. The elephant is that Joseph Smith practiced sexual polyandry. Nobody wanted to touch that. For decades, nobody wanted to acknowledge it.

In 1975, Dan Bachman, a great guy, church educator, and a good friend, wrote his remarkable and detailed thesis. From whom did he take his cue? From the church leaders who condemned it for a hundred years; or from Fawn Brodie? Well, he left the door open for the possibility and everybody since has been following suit.

Now is the time for transparency on this issue to investigate whether the elephant is real or an inflatable decoy. Fawn Brodie’s version of Joseph Smith paints him as a cartoon character and the people around him as dupes that could not possibly pass the test of plausibility in their behavior. I’m venting a little bit, but it’s just so silly how they portray our ancestors.

I do not seek to prove that Joseph Smith did not practice sexual polyandry. Such is impossible to do. You can’t prove a negative. But what I want to show is that the evidence supporting it is less credible and less voluminous. The evidence contradicting it is more credible and more voluminous. People continue to believe it. Richard Bushman hit the nail on the head. He observed: “Polygamy is an interesting thing because it serves as a Rorschach test. People project onto Joseph Smith and polygamists their own sense about human nature.” In other words, they readily assume that sexuality was involved.

I’m going to quote myself: “”The only people who can believe God commanded Joseph Smith to practice plural marriages are those that believe God was talking to him in the first place” which aren’t very many people. Everybody else is going to assume it and they are going to be very willing to assume it. These assumptions are going to easily eclipse all the contradictory evidence. That arrow just keeps going up on how willing people are to assume.

So, getting back to my title, “Joseph Smith’s Sexual Polyandry and the Emperor’s New Clothes: On Closer Inspection, What Do We Find?”

  • Assumptions
  • Can’t prove a negative
  • No solid evidence
  • Passionate convictions
  • No accounting for Joseph Smith’s teachings on polyandry
  • No accounting for contradictory evidence

Joseph Smith’s sealings to legally married women are difficult to understand. By our standards, they are strange, but they did not break the strict law of chastity that Joseph Smith taught. According to available documents, the faith of the participants in Joseph Smith and his teachings was unaffected by these plural unions.

Thank you.

Q. How could DNA testing answer some of these questions?

A. How many of you are sticking around for Ugo’s presentation? Actually, he is not going to talk about plural marriage today, he already told me. I don’t want to steal his thunder, but he has examined six, and he has shown them all to not be applicable.

The one real important one is Sylvia Sessions Lyons’ daughter, Josephine. He has studied that and there is a correlation. The problem is when they do the genealogy there is cross-marrying before Joseph and Sylvia come together. So we can’t say if the correlation is from Joseph and Sylvia or from some of this cross-marrying before. I don’t want to misquote you, Ugo, but he says that we will just probably never know. And it is hard to do father-daughter. That is the most difficult one to do, but he has done it. Unfortunately we have got this other complicating factor. If you go to my website, I have got about eighteen possible children. As I said, six of those he has disproven. The evidence for the others is just not strong. I don’t think any of them are right except for the two that are in another category.

Q. The scripture about adultery references another man, not a husband. This is also true when it comes to a man having relations with another woman as opposed to another wife. Why is it any more shocking for a woman to engage in sexual polyandry with Joseph than for Brigham Young to engage in sexual polygyny? Can you justify beginning with this assumption in a scholarly analysis?

A. I was asked almost this same question at Sunstone a week ago. It is a toughy. If you look at Section 132 it allows sexual polygamy in the form of polygyny. “Polygyny” is “poly-““-gyny”. It is more than one woman, or in this context, more than one wife. If you read Section 132 it tells us that Abraham is already on his throne, with his wives, so there is polygamy in that form in the celestial kingdom, but there is nothing mentioned about polyandry in Section 132 except the three situations. Maybe we want to cut hairs that it says, “…be with another man…” asterisk, “that doesn’t include a legal husband,” but I don’t read it that way. I think another man includes a legal husband or any other kind of a man. It doesn’t matter what kind of hat we want to put on him. She is not allowed to be with him. All I can say is that Section 132 allows for a man to have more than one wife. It does not allow for a woman to have more than one husband. That may not be satisfactory, but the only documents we have from Joseph Smith discussing polygamy are Section 132 and a few excerpts in William Clayton’s journal and that is it. People complain, “Brian, go get better documentation.” Help me, but I don’t think there is any. I don’t think it was ever made. I don’t think it exists today. We are stuck with just what we have. But Section 132 is quite clear on what is allowed in heaven and on earth, at least as I read it.


[Editor’s note: This presentation has been lightly edited for clarity.]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *