Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Cochranites

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The "Cochranites" and their potential influence on Mormon plural marriage

Summary: Did another religious group from the 1830s--the "Cochranites"--act as the source for plural marriage in the LDS faith?

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Question: Did the "Cochranites" influence Joseph Smith or other Mormons to introduce plural marriage into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

There is no contemporaneous or late evidence that the Cochranites influenced LDS ideas about plural marriage

There is no contemporaneous or late evidence that the Cochranites influenced LDS ideas about plural marriage. The little mention made of the Cochranites by Latter-day Saints was all negative.

Brain D. Hales has written an extensive essay on this claim. In it, he writes:

The interpretation that polygamy entered the Church in the 1830s through a Cochran connection is problematic because there is no contemporary evidence or even late recollections to support it. It appears that if polygamy was mentioned in Kirtland meetings, Church members undoubtedly would have condemned the practice and mentioned it in the journals and letters. The local press would have had a heyday exploiting such a controversial practice. Writers often point to the denials of polygamy from this period as evidence, but at that time, the Church was denying a lot of allegations. Oliver Cowdery wrote in the Messenger and Advocate in 1836: “It would be a Herculean task to point out the innumerable falsehoods and misrepresentations, sent out detrimental to this society. The tales of those days in which Witches were burnt, and the ridiculous inconsistencies of those who directed the building of the funeral pyre, could be no more absurd than the every-day tales, relative to the conduct and professions of the ‘Mormons.’” Proponents of Kirtland polygamy never quote the rumormongers because no such rumors have been found in private or published documents. Only the denials which they have distilled from longer lists of things Church leaders then denied are mentioned.[1]

Readers should consult the entire essay for further details.

Observations on method

The way this works is that

A) someone finds a parallel that comes earlier, and
B) then claims that the earlier event must be the source of the later one.

What makes this sound a little believable isn't the fact that there is any evidence for a connection, rather, the two practices largely come into existence for the same reasons. Cochranism seem to fit into the Restorationist movement which is a group of religious movements that shared the idea that a restoration of the gospel was necessary, a return to the practices of the Bible. As part of this, there is the idea that this (complete) restoration was necessary before the Second Coming, and that the adherents to these movements could speed up the advent by actively working to fulfill prophecy required before the second coming.

In this regard, both Cochranism and Mormonism engaged polygamy in the same way—as a restoration of something practiced earlier in the Bible. The same idea sits behind Mormonism's attempting to start the United Order and a number of other early teachings of the church (several of which were mirrored in other Cochranite teachings).

Because of its theology of restoration—coupled to real evidence of visions and priesthood (the Book of Mormon was considered one of these evidences)—Mormonism was quite popular among those who already participated in the Restorationist movement. Sidney Rigdon, for example, was a prominent preacher within the Stone-Campbell movement (another Restorationist church) when he joined Mormonism. One of his major disagreements with Campbell was over the extent to which modern Christians needed to follow the patterns that seemed to be laid out in the New Testament.

The connection between Mormonism and the Cochranites seems to be first suggested in 1877 by a Samuel D. Greene

At any rate, the connection between Mormonism and the Cochranites seems to be first suggested in 1877 by a Samuel D. Greene. Greene was a Spalding theory advocate. His account makes a number of mistakes, including asserting that Solomon Spalding was still alive in 1827 and perhaps as late as 1829—the references which Greene had to Spalding refer not to the writer of the text that is sometimes suggested was a source for the Book of Mormon but rather to his cousin with the same name (the writer died in 1819). Among other things, Greene suggested in 1877 that:

"He [Spalding] had written some chronicles on the ruins of Central America and some Bible truths mixed up together. Some early history of the character of the inhabitants, connected with bigamy, etc. Joe Smith and Cochrane got some knowledge and borrowed it, and from the help of Spaulding's manuscript they made the Mormon Bible... After Mr. Spaulding died, his wife came east to Munson, Massachusetts, while I lived there, to visit her friends or relatives, Dr. McKingsbury's family, my near neighbor."[2]

McKingsbury was really named Oliver W. McKinstry, and his wife (Matilda) was the foster daughter of Spalding (the writer). Additionally, there was a preacher named James Cochran living in Batavia, New York between 1825 and 1830, who seems to be the source for the Cochrane mentioned here by Greene - but this Cochran had received his degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and cannot possibly be the same Jacob Cochran from Maine who is the founder of the Cochranite movement. So, the source of this idea is very problematic. Despite historical problems, most of those who want to connect the two move forward with little concern for the details or plausibility of their reconstruction.

Mormonism did not arise in a vacuum

One thing we often forget is that Mormonism doesn't appear out of thin air. By 1840, there are more than 30,000 Mormons - and all of them had been something else prior to their becoming Mormon (we don't yet have any second generation Mormons). Many of the early converts came from this restorationist movement - they were looking for a church that was restored, and that claimed to be a restoration. When Cochran was arrested, most of his followers abandoned him. When many of these former Cochranites encountered Mormon missionaries years later, they joined the LDS church. But the same is also true of members of the Stone-Campbell movement (like Sidney Rigdon and much of his congregation) and others.

So on the one hand, we have some things in this claim that are accurate. We do have former Cochranites who join the church. Missionaries arrive in Maine first in June of 1832. And, in fact, between 1835 and 1847, more than 500 members of the church moved West from Maine (and it's likely that many of these were Cochranites—although it is hard for us to tell). The remaining members were asked to come to Utah by Brigham Young in 1850. But, against this backdrop, we also have the suggestion that Joseph first encounters biblical polygamy in his new translation of the Bible, and so starts to discuss this topic privately as early as 1831.

Summary

  1. Both the Cochranites and the Mormons seemed to have similar views on polygamy as an institution. This view sits within a collective religious view that was popular at the time, and which is generally labeled the restorationist movement. But, this isn't the only point of similarity. Mormonism also shares a number of other views with Cochranism that aren't so controversial, and where Mormonism certainly doesn't get them from Cochranism. It was these other similarities (and not polygamy) that drew the former Cochranites to Mormonism (just as they drew members from the other restorationist movement churches as well).
  2. There is no historical connection between Mormonism and Cochranism prior to the missionary work in Maine. We don't have Mormon documents that discuss Cochranism (let alone its polygamy) save in negative terms. Because of this, everyone who makes this sort of claim must do so by building a case out of circumstantial evidence. Further, they have to discount the evidence that points to discussions on polygamy within Mormonism beginning in 1831 and 1832 (before missionary work in Maine had even begun)—and that evidence grows as we get closer to the 1834-5 time frame when the members in Maine began to move west.
  3. The implementation of polygamy within Cochranism and Mormonism is radically different. Within Mormonism, it is closely connected to the idea of an eternal marriage, temple worship, and priesthood. All of these elements do not exist within Cochransim. The polygamy of Cochranism most closely relates to the spiritual wifery concept that was fabricated by John C. Bennett in Nauvoo. Bennett was excommunicated for it. So while it works very well to label both polygamy as a way of making the comparison stronger by sleight of hand, when you actually describe the two in contemporary language, they come across as very different things. Language has always proved to be a bit of a problem in these situations. The Cochranites did not call it polygamy, Mormonism did not like the use of the word polygamy. But, when we have modern use of the term, without a description of the way in which it is implemented, it hides how different these practices really were.
  4. Work by RLDS fundamentalists Richard and Pamela Price (often invoked in these discussions) tries to explain how polygamy came to be in a way that allows them to exclude Joseph Smith from the equation.[3] The 1877 source, as well as a history of Saco, Maine (which the Price's use and which gets quoted quite a bit in the discussion) are very much interested in connecting Joseph Smith personally to the idea of polygamy as taught by the Cochranites. Therefore, the Prices and others become very selective readers of their source material. They take what they want to use, they ignore and discount the rest, and they weave it into this narrative that supports conclusions they have already determined. It is the wrong way to go about creating history.


See also Brian Hales' discussion: Polygamy In Other Religious Sects in the 1810s
First, there is no contemporary evidence to support that early missionaries viewed the Cochranites marital pluralities favorably. In addition, it is unclear why Joseph Smith or other Church leaders needed the Cochranite example to introduce them to plural marriage. They were unquestionably already aware of Old Testament patriarchs who married polygamously without apparent condemnation. Also, it appears that if polygamy was mentioned in Kirtland meetings either because of a Cochranite connection or for any other reason, Church members undoubtedly would have condemned the practice. Lastly, Parley Pratt related that he did not learn of the restoration of the practice of plural marriage until after his return from England in 1841. (Link)
1830s Accusations of Polygamy Against Joseph Smith and The Church
It appears that beginning in 1811, accusations of polygamy were leveled at the Church in general. Based upon assumptions that the law of consecration included a community of wives as one of its tenets, several of these charges were published. Understandably, Church leaders actively denied such allegations. (Link)
The Church’s Strict Moral Standard Against Sexual Immorality
During the 1810s, several individual members were guilty of immoral practices that may have been labeled as “polygamy.” Their activities were not ignored by their non-member neighbors or their Church leaders. (Link)


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Brian Hales, "A Review of Rock Waterman’s 'Why I’m Abandoning Polygamy'," rationalfaiths.com blog (24 September 2013).
  2. [citation needed]
  3. Richard and Pamela Price, Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy: How Men Nearest the Prophet Attached Polygamy to His Name in Order to Justify Their Own Polygamous Crimes, Volume 1 (Price Publishing Co, 2000), Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3.