Question: Why was Joseph Smith sealed to young women?

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Question: Why was Joseph Smith sealed to young women?

Joseph Smith's polygamous marriages to young women may seem difficult to understand or explain today, but in his own time such age differences were not typically an obstacle to marriage

Some of Joseph Smith's polygamous marriages were to young women.

  • Were these marriages to young women evidence that he was immoral, or perhaps even a pedophile?
  • One critic of the church notes, "Joseph Smith married over 30 women, some as young as 14 years old..." [1]

Joseph Smith's polygamous marriages to young women may seem difficult to understand or explain today, but in his own time such age differences were not typically an obstacle to marriage. The plural marriages were unusual, to say the least; the younger ages of the brides were much less so. Critics do not provide this perspective because they wish to shock the audience and have them judge Joseph by the standards of the modern era, rather than his own time.

The information we have on Joseph Smith's plural marriages is sketchy, simply because there were few official records kept at the time because of the fear of misunderstanding and persecution. What we do know is culled from journals and reminiscences of those who were involved.

The most conservative estimates indicate that Joseph entered into plural marriages with 29–33 women, 7 of whom were under the age of 18. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of LDS apostle Heber C. Kimball, who was 14. The rest were 16 (two) or 17 (three). One wife (Maria Winchester) about which virtually nothing is known, was either 14 or 15.

Helen Mar Kimball

Some people have concluded that Helen did have sexual relations with Joseph, which would have been proper considering that they were married with her consent and the consent of her parents. However, historian Todd Compton does not hold this view; he criticized the anti-Mormons Jerald and Sandra Tanner for using his book to argue for sexual relations, and wrote:

The Tanners made great mileage out of Joseph Smith's marriage to his youngest wife, Helen Mar Kimball. However, they failed to mention that I wrote that there is absolutely no evidence that there was any sexuality in the marriage, and I suggest that, following later practice in Utah, there may have been no sexuality. (p. 638) All the evidence points to this marriage as a primarily dynastic marriage. [2]

In other words, polygamous marriages often had other purposes than procreation—one such purpose was likely to tie faithful families together, and this seems to have been a purpose of Joseph's marriage to the daughter of a faithful Apostle. (See: Law of Adoption.)

Critics who assume plural marriage "is all about sex" may be basing their opinion on their own cultural biases and assumptions, rather than upon the actual motives of Church members who participated in the practice.

Evidence from the "Temple Lot" case of non-consummation of Helen Mar Kimball marriage

Hales has identified a further line of evidence which suggests that Helen's marriage was not consummated. In 1892, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS, now Community of Christ) brought suit against the Hendrickite, or "Temple Lot" break-off group. They claimed that the Independence, Missouri temple site was rightfully RLDS property, since they were the direct heirs of Joseph Smith's original religious group.

Although not embracing plural marriage themselves, the Temple Lot group was anxious to demonstrate that Joseph Smith had taught plural marriage--for, if this was so, then the RLDS (who denied that Joseph had practiced it, and certainly did not embrace the doctrine) would have difficulty proving that they were the direct successors to the church founded by Joseph.

Hales reports:

Nine of Joseph Smith's plural wives were still living when depositions started at Salt Lake City on March 14, 1892. Three were polyandrous wives (Zina Huntington Jacobs Young, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, and Patty Bartlett Sessions) and six were nonpolyandrous (Helen Mar Kimball, Martha McBride, Almera Johnson, Emily Partridge, Malissa Lott, and Lucy Walker.) Factors evidently affecting the choice of witnesses involved the health and travel distances for the women, and importantly, whether their polygamous marriages to the Prophet included conjugality. Non-sexual sealings would have been treated as spiritual marriages of little importance and would have played right into the hands of RLDS attorneys....

Among nonpolyandrous wives who were not summoned was Martha McBride who lived in Hooper, Utah (thirty-seven miles to the north). McBride's relationship with Joseph Smith is poorly documented, with no evidence of sexual relations....Also passed by was Salt Lake resident Helen Mar Kimball who had written two books defending the practice of plural marriage. Her sealing to the Prophet ocurred when she was only fourteen and the presence or absence of sexual relations in her plural marriage is debated by historians.

Throughout the length question-and-answer sessions with Malissa Lott, Emily Partridge, and Lucy Walker, the details of their polygamous marriages with Joseph Smith were paramount; the physical aspect of sexuality was a core issue. If [Helen or others] could not testify to such relations, their testimonies as the Prophet's polygamous wives could hurt the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) cause. [3]

Helen's personal account

Helen "took pen and paper in hand before she died to describe vividly her ties as a member of the Latter-day Saint Church during its first two decades of existence in a series of articles published in the Woman's Exponent" in the 1880s. [4]:ix Some of her articles dealt with plural marriage: "Her personal remembrances of those days constitute an important source that, taken together with other first-hand accounts by participants, provides a more complete view of the introduction of one of the most distinctive features of nineteenth-century Mormonism." [4]:xvHelen Mar's writings, an important source of LDS history, were published by BYU's Religious Studies Center in 1997 in a book entitled A Woman's View: Helen Mar Whitney's Reminiscences of Early Church History. The book also includes her 1881 autobiography to her children wherein, concerning her marriage to the Prophet Joseph Smith, she wrote:

I have long since learned to leave all with [God], who knoweth better than ourselves what will make us happy. I am thankful that He has brought me through the furnace of affliction & that He has condesended to show me that the promises made to me the morning that I was sealed to the Prophet of God will not fail & I would not have the chain broken for I have had a view of the principle of eternal salvation & the perfect union which this sealing power will bring to the human family & with the help of our Heavenly Father I am determined to so live that I can claim those promises.[4]:487

Fanny Alger

One of the wives about whom we know relatively little is Fanny Alger, Joseph's first plural wife, whom he came to know in early 1833 when she stayed at the Smith home as a house-assistant of sorts to Emma (such work was common for young women at the time). There are no first-hand accounts of their relationship (from Joseph or Fanny), nor are there second-hand accounts (from Emma or Fanny's family). All that we do have is third hand accounts, most of them recorded many years after the events.

Unfortunately, this lack of reliable and extensive historical detail leaves much room for critics to claim that Joseph Smith had an affair with Fanny and then later invented plural marriage as way to justify his actions. The problem is we don't know the details of the relationship or exactly of what it consisted, and so are left to assume that Joseph acted honorably (as believers) or dishonorably (as critics).

There is some historical evidence that Joseph Smith knew as early as 1831 that plural marriage would be restored, so it is perfectly legitimate to argue that Joseph's relationship with Fanny Alger was such a case. Mosiah Hancock (a Mormon) reported a wedding ceremony; and apostate Mormons Ann Eliza Webb Young and her father Chauncery both referred to Fanny's relationship as a "sealing." Ann Eliza also reported that Fanny's family was very proud of Fanny's relationship with Joseph, which makes little sense if it was simply a tawdry affair. Those closest to them saw the marriage as exactly that—a marriage.

Historical and cultural perspective

Plural marriage was certainly not in keeping with the values of "mainstream America" in Joseph Smith's day. However, modern readers also judge the age of the marriage partners by modern standards, rather than the standards of the nineteenth century.

Within Todd Compton's book on Joseph Smith's marriages, he also mentions the following monogamous marriages:

Wife Wife's Age Husband Husband's Age Difference in age
Lucinda Pendleton 18 William Morgan 44 26
Marinda Johnson 19 Orson Hyde 29 10
Almira McBride 17 Sylvester Stoddard 40s >23
Fanny Young 44 Roswell Murray 62 18

And, a variety of Mormon and non-Mormon historical figures had similar wide differences in age:

Husband Husband's Age Wife Wife's Age Difference
Johann Sebastian Bach 36 Anna Magdalena Wilcke 19 17
Lord Baden-Powell (Founder of Scouting) 55 Olave Soames 23 32 [5]
William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) 37 Julia Hancock 16 21 [6]
Grover Cleveland (22nd, 24th US President) 49 Frances Cleveland 21 28
Thomas A. Edison 24 Mary Stillwell 16 8
Thomas A. Edison 39 Mina Miller 20 19
Martin Harris (1808) 24 Lucy Harris (1st cousin) 15 9 [7]
Levi Ward Hancock (7 April 1803) 30 Clarissa Reed 17 13 [8]
Andrew Mellon 45 Nora Mary McMullen 20 25
John Milton (Paradise Lost) 34 Mary Powell (1st wife) 17 17
John Milton 55 Elizabeth Minshull (3rd wife) 24 31
Edgar Allen Poe 26 Virginia Clemn (his cousin) 13 13
Alexander Smith 23 Elizabeth Kendall 16 7 [9]
David Hyrum Smith 26 Clara Hartshorn 18 8 [10]
Frederick Granger Williams Smith 21 Annie Maria Jones 16 5 [11]
Joseph Smith, III 66 Ada Rachel Clark 29 37 [12]
John Tyler (US President, 1844) 56 Julia Gardiner 24 32[13]
Almonzo Wilder 28 Laura Ingalls (Little House) 18 10

Statistical information for marital ages is available from the 1850 census. [14] Using a 1% random sample of individuals, 989 men and 962 women indicated they had been married within the last year. The plot below breaks these individuals down by census age.


Of note is that 41.7% of women married as teenagers compared to only 4.1% of men. The mean age for men was more than five years older than that for women (27.6 vs. 22.5). For young women, marriage in the early to mid teens was rare, but not unheard of as both the anecdotal and statistical evidence above show. Teenage brides married a husband that averaged 6.6 +/- 4.7 (std) years older. To put that in perspective, 13% of the time the husband was over 10 years older than his teenage wife.

The 21st century reader is likely to see marriages of young women to much older men as inappropriate, though it is still not uncommon. In the U.S. today, in most states, the "age of consent" is set by statute to be 18. This is the age at which a person can consent to sexual activity or to marriage. However, even today, the "marriageable age," the minimum age at which a person may marry with parental permission or with a judge's permission, is 16 in most states. In California, there is no minimum marriageable age; a child of any age may marry with parental consent. [15] So Joseph Smith's marriage to Helen Mar Kimball, having been done with her parents' permission, would be legal in California even today, except for the polygamous aspect of it.

But the modern age limits in most states represent only the modern attitude. The age of consent under English common law was ten. United States law did not raise the age of consent until the late nineteenth century. In Joseph Smith's day, most states still had the declared age of consent to be ten. Some had raised it to twelve, and Delaware had lowered it to seven! [16]

It is significant that none of Joseph's contemporaries complained about the age differences between polygamous or monogamous marriage partners. This was simply part of their environment and culture; it is unfair to judge nineteenth century members by twenty-first century social standards. As one non-LDS scholar of teenage life in American history noted:

Until the twentieth century, adult expectations of young people were determined not by age but by size. If a fourteen-year-old looked big and strong enough to do a man's work on a farm or in a factory or mine, most people viewed him as a man. And if a sixteen-year-old was slower to develop and couldn't perform as a man, he wasn't one. For, young women, the issue was much the same. To be marriageable was the same as being ready for motherhood, which was determined by physical development, not age....

The important thing, though, was that the maturity of each young person was judged individually. [17]

In past centuries, women would often die in childbirth, and men often remarried younger women afterwards. Women often married older men, because these were more financially established and able to support them than men their own age.

Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, "Assessing the Criticisms of Early-Age Latter-Day Saint Marriages"

Craig L. Foster,  Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, (February 22, 2019)
Critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have accused Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saint men of pedophilia because they married teenaged women. Indeed, they have emphatically declared that such marriages were against 19th-century societal norms. However, historians and other experts have repeatedly stated that young people married throughout the 19th-century, and such marriages have been relatively common throughout all of US history. This article examines some of the accusations of early Latter-day Saint pedophilia and places such marriages within the greater historical and social context, illustrating that such marriages were normal and acceptable for their time and place.

Click here to view the complete article


  1. John Dehlin, "Questions and Answers," Mormon Stories Podcast (25 June 2014).
  2. Todd M. Compton, Response to Tanners, post to LDS Bookshelf mailing list, no date. It should be mentioned that many reviewers of Compton's work do not agree with all of his conclusions, even though he has collected much useful data; see the reviews of In Sacred Loneliness, linked under "Printed material," below.
  3. Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith's Polygamy Volume 1: History (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 404–405.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Jeni Broberg Holzapfel and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, eds., A Woman's View: Helen Mar Whitney's Reminiscences of Early Church History (Provo: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1997).
  5. "...such an age difference was not uncommon at the time." Baden-Powell, (accessed 21 January 2006) off-site
  6. "...Clark also met and married Julia Hancock, several years his junior, whom he met when she was 12 years old, and he decided he would marry her on her fifteenth birthday." Biography of William Clark, (accessed 31 May 2006) off-site
  7. Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, "For the Sum of Three Thousand Dollars," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2005): 4–11. off-site wiki
  8. Susan Easton Black (editor), Who's Who in the Doctrine and Covenants, 114; Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 32.
  9. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 360, footnote 27.
  10. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 287.
  11. Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 2nd edition, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 274.
  12. Roger D. Launius, Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 333–335. ISBN 0252065158. ISBN 978-0252065156.
  13. "Julia Gardiner," Wikipedia (accessed 2 May 2015).
  14. Steven Ruggles, Matthew Sobek, Trent Alexander, Catherine A. Fitch, Ronald Goeken, Patricia Kelly Hall, Miriam King, and Chad Ronnander, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 3.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor] (2004), accessed 14 July 2007. off-site
  15. "Marriage Laws of the Fifty States, District of Columbia and Puerto Rico," a Cornell Law School web site. off-site
  16. See Melina McTigue, "Statutory Rape Law Reform in Nineteenth Century Maryland: An Analysis of Theory and Practical Change," (2002), accessed 5 Feb 2005. off-site
  17. Thomas Hine, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager: A New History of the American Adolescent Experience (HarperCollins, 1999), 16.