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. [Read more…] about On the origins of polygamy (or, What did Joseph know, and when did he know it?)