Brigham Young/Polygamy

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Brigham Young's statements regarding polygamy

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Question: Did Brigham Young and Joseph Smith say that polygamists were allowed to go beyond normal bounds of social interaction?

Joseph’s point is clear—men, like Brigham, who have reached a certain degree of faithfulness may be asked to do even more difficult things

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

It is claimed that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young admitted that the practice of polygamy meant they were "free to go beyond the normal 'bounds'" and "the normal rules governing social interaction had not applied to" Joseph.[1]

“Sometimes Joseph phrased the matter [of polygamy] in terms of being free to go beyond normal ‘bounds,’” G. D. Smith announces. As evidence, he presents Brigham Young’s account of being taught plural marriage. Brigham worried out loud that he might marry a second wife but then apostatize, leaving his plural family “worse off.” In Brigham’s account, Joseph replied, “‘There are certain bounds set to men, and if a man is faithful and pure to these bounds, God will take him out of the world; if he sees him falter, he will take him to himself. You are past these bounds, Brigham, and you have this consolation.’ But Brigham indicated that he never had any fears of not being saved” (p. 364).[2]

Joseph’s point is clear—men, like Brigham, who have reached a certain degree of faithfulness may be asked to do even more difficult things. They need not fear that they will lose their eternal reward if they falter in these Abrahamic tasks, for God “will take him to himself” before they reap damnation. But G. D. Smith seems to be reading “bounds” in the sense “a limit by which any excursion is restrained; the limit of indulgence or desire.”[3] This is why he conceives of it as being “free to go beyond normal bounds”—that is, beyond normal limits or restrictions. This is clearly not Brigham’s meaning. Bounds should be understood as “the line which comprehends the whole of any given object or space. It differs from boundary.”[4] These bounds are not a limit beyond which one may not go—they encircle and enclose all that one must do. Before polygamy, Brigham had already striven to be faithful to the whole of his duty to God. Having done so, he would not be damned. But he was now being asked to fulfill a task not asked of most. The circumference of his bounds—or duties—was enlarged.

Brigham was thus past the bounds because he had done all that God required and more, not because he would violate moral limits

Unfortunately for G. D. Smith’s reading, polygamy cannot be “the bounds” referred to since Joseph told Brigham that he was already (before practicing polygamy) “past these bounds”—that is, the duties required of all men by God—and thus “you have this consolation.” Brigham was thus past the bounds because he had done all that God required and more, not because he would violate moral limits. He had crossed the finish line; he had not gone “out of bounds” or offside.

G. D. Smith argues that Brigham gave “a telling concession that the normal rules governing social interaction had not applied to [Joseph] Smith as he set about instigating polygamy.” But Brigham is not conceding anything like this. His “bounds” are not limits beyond which one may not go, but duties that one must fulfill before anything else might be asked. The bounds are divine duties, not social rules. G. D. Smith caps his argument by citing Brigham’s belief that Joseph “passed certain bounds . . . before certain revelations were given” (p. 365). Thus G. D. Smith wants to paint Brigham as admitting that polygamy required one to transgress social or moral boundaries.

Brigham was clearly making the same claim about Joseph that Joseph made about Brigham. In Brigham’s view, Joseph had not been challenged by the command to practice plural marriage until he had proved sufficiently faithful to guarantee his salvation. For its first practitioners, the challenge of plural marriage was such that a merciful God would not, in Brigham’s mind, require it of those whose salvation would be at risk in the event of their failure.

Brigham sees the matter as a command that he does not wish to fulfill—he would prefer to be dead—but that God confirms as his will

Immediately preceding the language quoted by G. D. Smith, Brigham tells an apostle that

the spiritual wife doctrine came upon me while abroad, in such a manner that I never forget. . . . Joseph said to me, ‘I command you to go and get another wife.’ I felt as if the grave was better for me than anything, but I was filled with the Holy Ghost, so that my wife and brother Kimball’s wife would upbraid me for lightness in those days. I could jump up and hollow [holler?]. My blood was as clear as West India rum, and my flesh was clear.[5]

In this passage, Brigham sees the matter as a command that he does not wish to fulfill—he would prefer to be dead—but that God confirms as his will. His bounds are duties to fulfill, not limits that he is now free to exceed.

Further evidence: Heber C. Kimball

That this reading is correct, and that G. D. Smith is in error, is confirmed by Heber C. Kimball’s similar doubts and reassurance: “Finally [Heber] was so tried that he went to Joseph and told him how he felt—that he was fearful if he took such a step [to practice plural marriage] he could not stand, but would be overcome. The Prophet, full of sympathy for him, went and inquired of the Lord. His answer was, ‘Tell him to go and do as he has been commanded, and if I see that there is any danger of his apostatizing, I will take him to myself.’”[6]

Kimball’s bounds—the commandments given him—had increased. But having already proved his faithfulness, he would not be damned for failure. Kimball apparently clung to this promise and would soon write to his wife that “my prayer is day by day that God would take me to Himself rather than I should be left to sin against Him, or betray my dear brethren who have been true to me and to God the Eternal Father.”[7]

The Kimball data is absent from Smith’s analysis, but one wonders if it would have helped. To accept it would require a modification of the thesis that polygamy was driven by lust and a violation of barriers, and that Joseph knew it.


Question: Did Brigham Young boast about his ability to get more wives even though he was married to 50-60 women?

The references do not support the claims

As is often the case, the references do not support the claims, and the worst possible interpretation is placed on what are likely innocent remarks, or remarks intended to teach a spiritual point.

The Tanners cite multiple sources for this claim. They are examined below.

Journal of Discousces 5:210

Brigham is here discussing Thomas B. Marsh's return to the Church, and it is inaccurate to describe him as "boasting."

In conversing with brother Marsh, I find that he is about the same Thomas that he always was—full of anecdotes and chit-chat. He could hardly converse for ten minutes without telling an anecdote. His voice and style of conversation are familiar to me.

He has told you that he is an old man. Do you think that I am an old man? I could prove to this congre[ga]tion that I am young; for I could find more girls who would choose me for a husband than can any of the young men.

Brother Thomas considers himself very aged and infirm, and you can see that he is, brethren and sisters. What is the cause of it? He left the Gospel of salvation. What do you think the difference is between his age and mine? One year and seven months to a day; and he is one year, seven months, and fourteen days older than brother Heber C. Kimball.

"Mormonism" keeps men and women young and handsome; and when they are full of the Spirit of God, there are none of them but what will have a glow upon their countenances; and that is what makes you and me young; for the Spirit of God is with us and within us.

When brother Thomas thought of returning to the Church, the plurality of wives troubled him a good deal. Look at him. Do you think it need to? I do not; for I doubt whether he could get one wife. Why it should have troubled an infirm old man like him is not for me to say. He read brother Orson Pratt's work upon that subject, and discovered that the doctrine was beautiful, consistent, and exalting, and that the kingdom could not be perfect without it. Neither can it be perfect without a great many things that the people do not yet understand, though they will come in the own due time of the Lord.

See Quote mining—Journal of Discourses 5:210 to see how this quote was mined.

Journal of Discourses 8:178

Brother Cannon remarked that people wondered how many wives and children I had. He may inform them that I shall have wives and children by the million, and glory, and riches, and power, and dominion, and kingdom after kingdom, and ..

See Quote mining—Journal of Discourses 8:178 to see how this quote was mined.


Question: Why did Emma Smith and Brigham Young dislike one another?

The animosity between Brigham Young and Emma had multiple grounds: personal, religious, and financial

In the October session of General Conference 1866, Brigham Young made these comments:

..."To my certain knowledge, Emma Smith is one of the damnedest liars I know of on this earth; yet there is no good thing I would refuse to do for her, if she would only be a righteous woman; but she will continue in her wickedness. Not six months before the death of Joseph, he called his wife Emma into a secret council, and there he told her the truth, and called upon her to deny it if she could. He told her that the judgments of God would come upon her forthwith if she did not repent. He told her of the time she undertook to poison him, and he told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked than she. He told here where she got the poison, and how she put it in a cup of coffee; said he 'You got that poison from so and so, and I drank it, but you could not kill me.' When it entered his stomach he went to the door and threw it off. he spoke to her in that council in a very severe manner, and she never said one word in reply. I have witnesses of this scene all around, who can testify that I am now telling the truth. Twice she undertook to kill him. ( 6-8 Oct 1866, 36th Semi-Annual Conference, Bowery, G. S. L. City. [Deseret News Weekly 15:364, 10/10/66, p 4-5 and 15:372, 10/17/66, p 4-5; MS 28:764, 774]) off-site

The animosity between Brigham Young and Emma had multiple grounds: personal, religious, and financial. Brigham, for all his strengths, had little patience for anyone who would betray the prophet, which he perceived Emma doing on multiple levels. This made the poisoning accusation plausible for him. The episode seems to have been a family quarrel between Joseph and Emma—two mortals living in something of a fishbowl, under enormous pressures and strains.

Emma certainly made errors in judgment, as do we all. Her judgment lies in God's hands, not in ours or Brigham Young's.

If Brigham Young had one constant character trait, it was his absolute faithfulness to Joseph Smith. Brigham had very little patience for those who demeaned or rejected Joseph; the difficulties that Joseph experienced with Emma can only have frustrated the loyal Brigham.

Following Joseph's murder, Emma refused to go west with the Saints. She seems, among other things, to have been worried about providing for her children, as well as protecting them from the violence which had claimed Joseph. Emma and Brigham also disagreed about which parts of Joseph's estate were personal property, and which belonged to the Church.[8]

Brigham also doubtless considered Emma dishonest and a liar because she continued to insist that her husband had never taught the doctrine of plural marriage

Brigham also doubtless considered Emma dishonest and a liar because she continued to insist that her husband had never taught the doctrine of plural marriage. So adamant was Emma on this point that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held it as an article of faith, and Emma's children never accepted the idea that Joseph had instituted plural marriage. Given that Brigham was blamed by Emma for being the inventor of plural marriage, he probably felt rather ill-used by her. Brigham, after all, saw Emma as fighting against the man Brigham revered as the Prophet, and he knew that Emma knew that Joseph taught plural marriage.

Finally, Brigham was Joseph's successor, and Emma challenged that succession by supporting her son, Joseph Smith III, as the 'proper' leader, and as one who would not teach the hated doctrine of polygamy (which Emma falsely claimed Brigham had foisted on the Church).

Richard Bushman writes of the poisoning accusation:

Through the late fall and winter of 1843 and 1844, Joseph and Emma's relationship broke down only once. During Sunday dinner on November 5, Joseph became ill, rushed to the door, and vomited so violently that he dislocated his jaw. "Every symptom of poison," Richards noted in Joseph's diary. That night at the prayer meeting, Richards, wrote in code that Joseph and Emma did not dress in the usual special clothing, a sign they were too much at odds to participate. The next day, Richards wrote that Joseph was "busy with domestic concerns." Years later, in the anti-Emma atmosphere of Utah, Brigham Young spoke of a meeting where Joseph accused his wife of slipping poison into his coffee. Brigham interpreted Emma's refusal to answer as an admission of guilt.. Though there probably was an argument, the poisoning accusation was unfounded. Joseph was susceptible to vomiting anyway. He had even dislocated his jaw while vomiting once before; and five weeks after the 1843 dinner episode, he was sick again, vomiting more violently than ever. During this last bout, Joseph said gratefully, "My wife waited on me."[9]

Brigham and Emma did not agree on the disposition of Joseph's estate

Furthermore, Brigham and Emma did not agree on the disposition of Joseph's estate. Illinois law at the time held that no church could hold more than ten acres of property, and so much of the church's properties were held in Joseph's name. At the same time, much of the Church's debt was held by Joseph as a private citizen—thus, Emma was liable for Joseph/the Church's debts, but had a less clear claim on the Church's lands that Joseph held as Trustee-in-Trust.[10]

This difficult situation was complicated by the immense demands on Brigham Young's time. He delegated a great deal of the Church's interaction with Emma to Almon Babbitt, a man greatly lacking in tact:

Almon Babbitt's air…bordered on the pompous...Babbit provided Joseph with legal advice that resulted in the destruction of the Expositor, then he refused to help when Joseph was jailed in Carthage saying, 'You are too late. I am already engaged on the other side.'[11]

Either Brigham Young was not aware of Babbitt's propensity for alienating those around him or, like Joseph before him, he overlooked his faults because he needed his legal knowledge. In the future Brigham would have his own falling out with Babbitt and the rift would become so widely known that, when Indians killed Babbitt on the Western plains in 1856, Eastern newspapers erroneously reported that Brigham had ordered him killed.

In the meantime, Emma assumed that because these men represented the Twelve they acted on direct orders from Brigham. And Brigham, his relationship with Emma strained at best, did not bother to separate the inflammatory rhetoric of Babbitt's letters from the less dramatic probabilities. Babbitt would make Brigham's requests to Emma sound abrupt and thoughtless, and her responses to him selfish and defensive.[12]


Question: Why did Brigham Young say that women "have no right to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom of God"?

Brigham's intent has been distorted

Brigham Young said women "have no right to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom of God". This is used to portray Brigham as authoritarian and sexist. However, Brigham's intent has been distorted, and those who cite this have used presentism to bias the reader against him.

Sally Denton uses this quote, and uses D. Michael Quinn, as her source. Unfortunately, Denton omits the context which Quinn's volume provides:

[women] have no right to meddle in the affairs of the Kingdom of God[—]outside the pale of this they have a right to meddle because many of them are more sagacious & shrewd & more competent [than men] to attend to things of financial affairs. they never can hold the keys of the Priesthood apart from their husbands. [13]

Brigham then continued, "When I want Sisters or the Wives of the members of the church to get up Relief Society I will summon them to my aid but until that time let them stay at home & if you see females huddling together veto the concern." [14]

Brigham's statement about "meddling," then, in no way reflects on women's competence or skills—he insists that many know better than men. Brigham's point is that women have no right to priesthood government. This statement was probably precipitated by Emma Smith's use of her role as head of the Relief Society to resist Joseph's teachings, especially plural marriage. [15] Brigham is signaling that those without priesthood power may not dictate to ordained priesthood leaders about priesthood matters.

The author relies on presentism, since Brigham and virtually all of his contemporaries (men and women) likely had attitudes about women's roles which would strike us as "sexist"

Though the quote seems offensive and exclusionary, we need to remember the context of the time. Attitudes toward women during that time, and even 100 years later, were far from our current attitudes. It is unreasonable to expect people living in a different time to fit 21st century perspectives. Brigham was, however, quite liberal for his day—he encouraged women to get an education: for example, he even assigned several to travel to the eastern United States to get training as physicians.


Question: Did Brigham Young believe that one could not enter the Celestial Kingdom unless they were a polygamist?

Wilford Woodruff: "President Young said there would be men saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God with one wife with Many wives & with No wife at all"

I attended the school of the prophets. Brother John Holeman made a long speech upon the subject of Poligamy. He Contended that no person Could have a Celestial glory unless He had a plurality of wives. Speeches were made By L. E. Harrington O Pratt Erastus Snow, D Evans J. F. Smith Lorenzo Young. President Young said there would be men saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God with one wife with Many wives & with No wife at all.[16]

Wilford Woodruff: President Young...said a Man may Embrace the Law of Celestial Marriage in his heart & not take the Second wife & be justified before the Lord

Then President Young spoke 58 Minuts. He said a Man may Embrace the Law of Celestial Marriage in his heart & not take the Second wife & be justified before the Lord.[17]


Brigham Young and plural marriage

Summary: It is claimed that the Church's manual, The Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, attempts to "hide history" by portraying Brigham Young (a well-known polygamist) as having only one wife.

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Brigham Young 8 October 1861 discourse on plural marriage

Summary: Notes on BRIGHAM YOUNG's Unpublished Sermon of 8 October 1861.

Joseph Smith's Polygamy: "Brigham Young Seeks a Plural Wife", by Brian C. Hales


(Click here for full article)
  1. George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 364–365. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  2. Citing Brigham Young Manuscript History, 16 February 1849, LDS Church Archives. The quoted material is on pp. 19–20.
  3. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "bound."
  4. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "bound." (Compare article for "boundary.")
  5. Church Historian’s Office, History of the Church, 1839–circa 1882, DVD 2, call number CR 100 102, vol. 19 (19 February 1849), 19.
  6. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 325-326.
  7. Heber C. Kimball to Vilate Kimball, “My Dear Vilate” (23 October 1842), cited in Augusta Joyce Crocheron (author and complier), Representative Women of Deseret, a book of biographical sketches to accompany the picture bearing the same title (Salt Lake City: J. C. Graham & Co., 1884). (accessed 2 December 2008).
  8. “Memoirs of Joseph Smith III (1832–1914),” ed. Mary Audentia Smith Anderson, The Saints Herald (2 April 1935): 431–434.
  9. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 498.
  10. See discussion in Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 199–209. The laws against churches holding property is discussed on page 258.
  11. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:660. Volume 6 link
  12. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 230.
  13. D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994), 650.
  14. Seventies Record, 9 March 1845, holograph, LDS Church Archives (cited in Beecher, see below).
  15. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, "Women in Winter Quarters," Sunstone no. (Issue #8:4/15) (July 1983), note 37. off-site
  16. Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 6:527 (journal entry dated 12 February 1870). ISBN 0941214133.(emphasis added)
  17. Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 7:31 (journal entry dated 24 September 1871). ISBN 0941214133.(emphasis added)