Question: When Joseph Smith performed the marriage of Newel Knight and Lydia Bailey, were they guilty of bigamy since Lydia had not been formally divorced from her previous husband?

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Note: This material is part of a collection of draft essays on LDS plural marriage. They are provided for the use of FairMormon and its readers. (C) 2007-2017 Gregory L. Smith. No other reproduction is authorized.

Question: When Joseph Smith performed the marriage of Newel Knight and Lydia Bailey, were they guilty of bigamy since Lydia had not been formally divorced from her previous husband?

Lydia and Newel were aware of the prohibition on bigamy, and Lydia refused to marry Newel until they approached Joseph for his counsel

Joseph's decision to solemnize marriages was in accord with Ohio state law. Because Lydia Bailey was not divorced, however, the critics have also charged Joseph with permitting a bigamous marriage, and thus flaunting the law.

Lydia and Newel were aware of the prohibition on bigamy, and Lydia refused to marry Newel until they approached Joseph for his counsel:

Broth[er] Joseph after p[ray]or & reflecting a little or in other words enquiring [of the] Lord Said it is all right, She is his & the sooner they [are] married the better. Tell them no law shall hurt [them]. They need not fear either the law of God or man for [it] shall not touch them; & the Lord bless them. This [is the] will of the Lord concerning the matter.[1]

Ohio law had, until just prior to their wedding, allowed spouses to remarry without formal divorce if they had been abandoned for three years

Ohio law had, until just prior to their wedding, allowed spouses to remarry without formal divorce if they had been abandoned for three years. This described Lydia's case, and Newel tried to so persuade her before speaking with Joseph. Lydia's concern about remarriage seems to have been motivated mainly by spiritual worries that it was wrong in the sight of God to remarry, even if the law might allow it.[2]

It was doubtless because of abandonment that Newel obtained the marriage license.[3] He was likely unaware—as, perhaps, were those who granted the license—that the law had recently changed the abandonment period to five years, and so the marriage might have been illegal on those grounds.

The Knights' predicament highlights an aspect of early nineteenth-century marriage which modern readers often ignore

The Knights' predicament highlights an aspect of early nineteenth-century marriage which modern readers often ignore. Communication in this period was difficult, travel was slow, and record keeping requirements varied widely across the United States. As a result, technical "bigamy" was a common state of affairs for all social classes at this period in American history.[4] This made the prosecution of bigamy rare, and in cases of abandonment some spouses had to simply remarry since obtaining a formal divorce was difficult or impossible:

Since bigamy was only prosecuted on the complaint of a spouse (one whose honor had been offended or for whom the loss of support was irremediable) and when the offending spouse could be found by summons, most bigamists were probably never arrested...From the standpoint of the legal historian, it is perhaps surprising that anyone prosecuted bigamy at all. Given the confusion over conflicting state laws on marriage, there were many ways to escape notice, if not conviction.[5]

Ohio law also required that persons seeking a divorce apply to the state supreme court, and be state residents for two years—so, on these terms Lydia would have been in violation of the law. But, it is not clear that she, Newel, or those who granted the marriage license were aware of this technicality.

Despite potentially violating some legal niceties, however, Lydia almost certainly did not engage in bigamy since her previous husband had died

Despite potentially violating some legal niceties, however, Lydia almost certainly did not engage in bigamy. Shortly after the Knights' marriage, she learned that her wastrel husband had died. The Knights viewed this as vindication of Joseph's prophetic gifts, since he had promised them that there was no moral or legal impediment to their marriage—and, he was right.[6]


Notes

  1. Newel Knight, Autobiography and Journal, LDS Church Archives, folder one, [45] in Hartley, "Newel and Lydia Bailey Knight’s Kirtland Love Story and Historic Wedding," 18.
  2. Lydia's history says that Newel "endeavour[ed] to show her that according to the law she was a free woman, having been deserted for three years with nothing provided for her support." – See Hartley, "Newel and Lydia Bailey Knight’s Kirtland Love Story and Historic Wedding," 15; citing Susa Young Gates [as "Homespun"], Lydia Knight's History: The First Book of the Noble Women's Lives Series (Salt Lake City, Utah: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883), 28.
  3. See Hartley, "Newel and Lydia Bailey Knight’s Kirtland Love Story and Historic Wedding," page [citation needed]
  4. See Hendrik Harlog, Man & Wife in America: A History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), 87; cited in Allen L. Wyatt, "Zina and Her Men: An Examination of the Changing Marital State of Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young," (Mesa, Arizona: FAIR, 2006 FAIR Conference).
  5. Beverly J. Schwartzberg, Grass Widows, Barbarians, and Bigamists: Fluid Marriage in Late Nineteenth-Century America (Santa Barbara, California: University of California at Santa Barbara Ph.D. dissertation, 2001), 51–52; cited in Wyatt, "Zina and Her Men."
  6. Hartley, "Newel and Lydia Bailey Knight’s Kirtland Love Story and Historic Wedding," 18.