Question: Why did Joseph Smith say "I had not been married scarcely five minutes...before it was reported that I had seven wives"?

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Question: Why did Joseph Smith say "I had not been married scarcely five minutes...before it was reported that I had seven wives"?

The Laws sought to have Joseph indicted for adultery and perjury

This statement refers to Joseph's well-known declaration on 26 May 1844 in his "Address of the Prophet—His Testimony Against the Dissenters at Nauvoo". Significantly, this address was given the day after the Laws sought to have Joseph indicted for adultery in the case of Maria Lawrence. (They also sought to indict him on a charge of perjury.)

Many have criticized or been concerned by the secrecy with which Joseph instituted plural marriage without appreciating the realities of the dangers involved. Illinois law only criminalized adultery or fornication if it was "open". Since Joseph was sealed to his plural wives for either eternity, or for time and eternity, he did not view these relationships as constituting adultery or fornication. Therefore, under Illinois law, as long as Joseph and his plural wives did not live in an "open," or "public," manner, they were not guilty of breaking any civil law then in force in Illinois. Furthermore, this reality explains some of Joseph's public denials, since he could be truthfully said to not be guilty of the charges leveled against him: he was not committing adultery or fornication.

Joseph was refuting the charge of adultery, not the fact that he had "seven wives"

History of The Church 6:410-411:

I had not been married scarcely five minutes, and made one proclamation of the Gospel, before it was reported that I had seven wives. I mean to live and proclaim the truth as long as I can.

This new holy prophet [William Law] has gone to Carthage and swore that I had told him that I was guilty of adultery. This spiritual wifeism! Why, a man dares not speak or wink, for fear of being accused of this.[1]....

A man asked me whether the commandment was given that a man may have seven wives; and now the new prophet has charged me with adultery. I never had any fuss with these men until that Female Relief Society brought out the paper against adulterers and adulteresses.

Dr. Goforth was invited into the Laws' clique, and Dr. Foster and the clique were dissatisfied with that document,[2] and they rush away and leave the Church, and conspire to take away my life; and because I will not countenance such wickedness,[3] they proclaim that I have been a true prophet, but that I am now a fallen prophet.

[Joseph H.] Jackson[4] has committed murder, robbery, and perjury; and I can prove it by half-a-dozen witnesses. Jackson got up and said—"By God, he is innocent," and now swears that I am guilty. He threatened my life.

There is another Law, not the prophet, who was cashiered for dishonesty and robbing the government. Wilson Law also swears that I told him I was guilty of adultery. Brother Jonathan Dunham can swear to the contrary. I have been chained. I have rattled chains before in a dungeon for the truth's sake. I am innocent of all these charges, and you can bear witness of my innocence, for you know me yourselves.

When I love the poor, I ask no favors of the rich. I can go to the cross—I can lay down my life; but don't forsake me. I want the friendship of my brethren.—Let us teach the things of Jesus Christ. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a downfall.

Be meek and lowly, upright and pure; render good for evil. If you bring on yourselves your own destruction, I will complain. It is not right for a man to bare down his neck to the oppressor always. Be humble and patient in all circumstances of life; we shall then triumph more gloriously. What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one.

I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers. I labored with these apostates myself until I was out of all manner of patience; and then I sent my brother Hyrum, whom they virtually kicked out of doors.[5]

Note the rejection of the term "spiritual wifeism". Note that "spiritual wifeism" likely refers to John C. Bennett's pattern of seduction and sexual license, which the Saints were always at pains to deny.

Joseph was not merely bluffing, nor was he lying—he literally could prove that the Laws were perjuring themselves on this point

In light of the circumstances under which they were spoken, Joseph's words were carefully chosen. Joseph was not merely bluffing, nor was he lying—he literally could prove that the Laws were perjuring themselves on this point in the charges brought only the day before.

Bradshaw cites a portion of Joseph's above statement, and then concludes:

A review of Joseph's remarks in light of the circumstances under which they were spoken shows that Joseph's words were carefully chosen. In this speech, Joseph was specifically reacting to the indictments for perjury and adultery that were presented by the grand jury the day earlier. Thus, when Joseph affirmed during the same speech: "I am innocent of all these charges," he was in particular refuting a claim that he and Maria [Lawrence] had openly and notoriously cohabitated, thus committing the statutory offense of adultery. He was also refuting the perjury charge. While the overall tone of Joseph's remarks may seem misleading, it is understandable that Joseph would have taken pains to dodge the plural marriage issue. By keeping his plural marriages in Nauvoo secret, Joseph effectively kept them legal, at least under the Illinois adultery statute.[6]:413

Notes

  1. Note that "spiritual wifeism" likely refers to John C. Bennett's pattern of seduction and sexual license, which the Saints were always at pains to deny.
  2. That is, the Relief Society document condemning adultery, which Foster had engaged in under the tutelage of John C. Bennett.
  3. Again, Joseph is denying the spiritual wifeism of Bennett, which he calls "wickedness" and was quick to oppose via Church discipline.
  4. Jackson was another witness against Joseph Smith, and would go on to write an anti-Mormon tract: Joseph H. Jackson, The Adventures and Experiences of Joseph H. Jackson in Nauvoo, (Printed for the Publisher: Warsaw, Illinois, 1846).
  5. 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), 6:410-412. Volume 6 link
  6. M. Scott Bradshaw, "Defining Adultery under Illinois and Nauvoo Law," in Sustaining the Law: Joseph Smith's Legal Encounters, edited by Gordon A. Madsen, Jeffrey N. Walker, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2014), 401–426.