Recently a small controversy ignited on Wikipedia over an article presumtively entitled “1831 polygamy revelation.” The original article doesn’t exist anymore (it’s since been merged into “Origin of Latter Day Saint polygamy“), but it raises an interesting and important question: When, exactly, did Joseph Smith start teaching plural marriage?
The trouble is that there are no contemporary first- or second-hand accounts of Joseph advocating polygamy [edit: in the early 1830s]. By that I mean there are no documents written by Joseph Smith himself (first hand), or by someone who personally heard Joseph say something (second hand) and wrote it down at the time (contemporary), that advocate the restoration of polygamy.
When it comes to verifying historical events, these criteria are important. Late reminiscences (things written from memory years later) and third-hand reports (“I heard Sidney Gilbert say that Joseph told him…”) are and should be treated with extreme suspicion. Memory is pliant and frequently influenced by later impressions and feelings, and stories passed from one person to another all too often take on a character remarkably unlike the original. One clear example of this is a late remembrance of W. W. Phelps of a supposed polygamy revelation received by Joseph Smith in 1831.
William Wines Phelps was converted to the restored gospel in 1830. He arrived in Kirtland from New York on 15 June 1831 and requested a revelation from Joseph. Joseph revealed that the Lord wanted Phelps to be baptized and ordained, and to accompany Joseph to Missouri to serve as a printer for the Church. (This revelation was canonized as D&C 55.) Phelps was baptized the next day, and on 18 June he left with Joseph, Sidney Rigdon, Martin Harris, Edward Partridge, Joseph Coe, and Sidney Gilbert for Missouri. The party arrived in Independence on 14 July 1831.
Joseph received several revelations while he was in Missouri, four of which are part of our Doctrine and Covenants (sections 57, 58, 59, and 60). In 1861 — thirty years later — Phelps wrote a letter to Brigham Young in which he revealed, word-for-word, a previously unknown revelation to Joseph, purportedly given 17 July 1831, proclaiming that the men in the group should eventually take Native American wives. The key portion of the document states:
Verily I say unto you that the wisdom of man in his fallen state, knoweth not the purposes and the privileges of my holy priesthood. but ye shall know when ye receive a fulness by reason of the anointing: For it is my will, that in time, ye should take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites, that their posterity may become white, delightsome and Just, for even now their females are more virtuous than the gentiles.
In a note appended below the revelation, Phelps explained:
About three years after this was given, I asked brother Joseph privately, how “we,” that were mentioned in the revelation could take wives from the “natives” — as we were all married men? He replied instantly “In the same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Katurah; and Jacob took Rachel Bilhah and Zilpah: by revelation — the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation.”
Phelps’ letter is in the Church archives, and was eventually published in H. Michael Marquardt’s book, The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text and Commentary. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, never ones to pass up an opportunity to beat the Church with any stick available, accuse the Church of “suppressing” the revelation, and triumphantly present the document as evidence of the inherent racism of Mormon beliefs.
The problem is that Phelps wrote this revelation, quoting Joseph Smith word-for-word, thirty years after the words were allegedly spoken. The Tanners try to dodge this by claiming, without any evidence, that there is an earlier transcript of the revelation, and Phelps was only quoting from it. But Phelps’ 1861 letter remains the only evidence of a July 1831 polygamy revelation.
I ask the reader, can you remember — word-for-word — any conversation you had thirty years ago? It quite obvious that this document is not a reliable record.
In fairness to Phelps, he had good intentions. In 1861 the Church was under pressure from Mormon splinter groups — including the Reorganized Church, formed just the previous year — to prove that polygamy was taught by Joseph Smith, and not an invention of Brigham Young. For various reasons, Joseph was very secretive about plural marriage, and the practice only became public when the Church announced it in August 1852. The Church responded to the charge that polygamy was a Utah creation by gathering affidavits from early converts who heard Joseph Smith teach it.
And that’s where we need to be cautious: It’s clear from eyewitness testimony that Joseph Smith was teaching the impending restoration of plural marriage in the early 1830s. But it’s irresponsible to go so far as to say that the Phelps document — written thirty years after the supposed events and colored by the necessity of defending polygamy in 1861 — represents the actual words of Joseph Smith on 17 July 1831.