On October 22, 2014, the past practice of polygamy by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made for colorful headlines in national media outlets for the third time in less than a decade. This time the frenzy centered on the release of two essays written in conjunction with the Gospel Topics project. Elder Snow, the Church Historian, explained the intent of this initiative: “There is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history.”
Ten months after the release of these essays, the national press has quieted, losing interest after exhausting the mileage obtained from sensational soundbites. Among many in the Latter-day Saint community, however, the topic is proving to have a much longer shelf life, as some members wrestle with deep concerns and an inability to embrace and understand the Church’s relationship with polygamy.
Instead of acting as a much needed salve, the essays may have reopened a deep wound prevented from festering only by the thinnest of scabs—denial and neglect. Polygamy is a topic that has been mostly ignored, brushed aside, and minimalized in Church discourse for nearly a century. With the release of the essays, long-existing concerns about the practice of polygamy in the early Church and its enduring legacy have been pulled off the proverbial shelf and some members are re-examining their significance.
Not all members are equally troubled by this issue, though. Recently I was approached by an acquaintance who asked a simple and sincere question. “Why,” she asked “do people get angry about polygamy?” Another friend e-mailed me after hearing a news story about members leaving the Church over the issue and asked, “Why now? This information has been around for years.” In both cases, I did my best to explain the factors I see contributing to the distress felt by many members of the Church—both male and female—over this most painful topic.
I don’t remember when I first learned that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, but my knowledge of it expanded uncomfortably after reading Brian Hales’ overly comprehensive, 1500-page treatise on the topic. What I learned on those pages was informative, but also at times discomforting, disappointing, and even shocking. There were clandestine marriages, pretend husbands, young brides, already married brides, altogether too many brides, Abrahamic-like tests, and surprising interactions between Joseph, Emma, and his plural wives, coupled with a doctrine that I struggled to understand.
As I grieved the loss of the Prophet Joseph I thought I had known, I embarked on a quest to not only answer lingering questions but also attempt to develop sympathy and respect for the characters in a drama played out nearly 175 years ago. Perhaps as I share a few thing I have learned, you, too, will be able to gain better understanding and maybe even feel a little more empathy—for those early Saints who practiced “the principle” and for those who anguish over it today.
Joseph Smith’s Personal Practice of Polygamy
It is plausible the Prophet married up to thirty-six women. Descriptions of these marriages have been the subject of dozens of books, scores of scholarly articles, and more than one master’s thesis. The most popular theory promoted for this string of marriages is a zest for unfettered sexual conquest, but that doesn’t hold up under careful scrutiny any more than another popular theory that Joseph only acted because of repeated prodding from an increasingly frustrated angel. Discarding completely the merits of either of these opposing theories might lead to error. What I propose it probably something in between.
Processing Polygamy through a Monogamous Mindset
While doing research for his landmark article “Plural Marriage,” published in 1887, independent historian Andrew Jenson interviewed Eliza Snow, who wrote the name Fanny Alger on a list of Joseph’s plural wives. Fanny is widely considered to have been Joseph’s first plural wife. Of this union, Benjamin F. Johnson, one of Joseph’s good friends, wrote: [I]t was whispered among the residents of Kirtland that Joseph loved Fanny.” The thought that Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration, would love any other woman but his legal wife Emma may be uncomfortable to think about, but it is likely he did.
Lucy Walker, another of Joseph’s plural wives, said on one occasion that Joseph told her: “Men did not take polygamous wives because they loved them or fancied them or because they were voluptuous, but because it was a command of God.” Another time she mentioned that Joseph “often referred to the feelings that should exist between husband and wives, that they, his wives, should be his bosom companions, the nearest and dearest objects on earth in every sense of the word.” Though plural marriages may not have been initiated for carnal reasons, after the nuptials, there was every expectation a plural marriage for time and eternity would eventually contain the same elements of affection as that of a monogamous marriage.
For some, it might be more comforting to see Joseph marrying mostly widows and spinsters or stepping up to the plate because of a supposed shortage of marriageable males in Nauvoo, but that is not what happened. The creative marital dynamics Joseph engaged in, left unexplained, appear odd to most, even with favorable historical gap-filling. While eternity-only sealings to civilly married women with non-member husbands may be more understandable, similar sealings to women with active husbands may always defy explanation. Time-and-eternity unions to five women of prime marrying age, who had come to live with the Smith family in the Mansion, has caused some to cry foul, despite the lack of any accusations of coercion from the women. And the Prophet instructing trusted associates such as Joseph Kingsbury that a man “had the privilege of having more than one wife . . . if he was considered worthy,” somehow does not make one feel better about the thirty-five wives. Though we know Joseph was not infallible, we may naively expect him to always have behaved with wisdom beyond his years, knowledge beyond his education, and social enlightenment beyond his time — lofty accomplishments even for a prophet.
Marriage to Helen Mar Kimball
Regarding one plural marriage, though, further context may quiet an often-repeated criticism. Joseph married Helen Mar Kimball, his youngest bride, “several months before her 15th birthday,” which means she was fourteen. One morning in May of 1843, Helen’s father, Heber C. Kimball, who was preparing to leave for a mission to the East, casually asked Helen “if she would believe him if he told [her] that it was right for married men to take other wives.” Helen’s first impulse was anger as she thought her father was testing her virtue. She replied “emphatically, No. I wouldn’t!” Her reaction seemed to please her father, but then he started talking seriously and explained to her the principle of plural marriage, and why it was again to be established upon the earth, but he did not tell her then “that anyone had yet practiced it, but left [her] to reflect upon it for the next twenty-four hours.”
In her writings, Helen shared some of the thoughts she had that night. Mostly they centered on her repugnancy for the doctrine in contrast to her belief that her father “loved her too well to teach [her] anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous and exalting in its tendencies.” The next day she was taught the principle by the Prophet and was sealed to him for time and eternity. Helen mentioned that the sole reason she accepted the marriage proposal was because of her father’s teachings, who loved the Prophet and wished to bind his family to Joseph’s for eternity.
In a letter composed for her children late in life, Helen speaks of her youthful marriage in an often quoted poem. Her words mention thoughts that this union was for “eternity alone,” sadness at being “bar’d out from social scenes,” and feeling like a “fettered bird.” She also shares that she did “brood and imagine future woes.” Less frequently quoted is a line in the middle of the poem where she speaks to the young Helen and gives her counsel: “But could’st thou see the future & view that glorious crown, Awaiting you in Heaven you would not weep nor mourn.” Those don’t sound like the words of a mature woman crying victimhood but rather those of one documenting spiritual growth over time.
In February 1846, following the Prophet’s death, Helen was sealed for time to Horace Whitney in the Nauvoo temple. After the death of her second child in as many years, Helen fell into a deep depression, lamenting she “hated polygamy” because of the trials she had seen her mother go through. Helen had been sealed to Joseph Smith in 1843, but there is no evidence that the marriage was consummated, though it could have been as it had been performed with her agreement and the permission of her parents. Her sealing to Joseph Smith appears to have been more similar to a betrothal than a marriage.
In time, Helen would gain a testimony of the “principle” and not only give two plural wives to her husband Horace but also write much in defense of polygamy and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s teachings on the topic. She respected and loved her father and didn’t resent the things he taught or asked of her. While we may not understand Heber’s desire to bind his family to Joseph’s through the marriage of his young daughter, let’s be careful not to exaggerate this episode into something it was not. Helen was not “underage” according to legal codes or social mores and brokering of marriages in the nineteenth century was not that unusual.
Doctrine and Covenants 132
Joseph Smith’s practice of polygamy has not been the sole object of enhanced scrutiny and discussion. Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which discusses plural marriage, has some people questioning its validity and value as scripture. Though it has the unique distinction of being the only modern-day revelation to appear in two books of canonized scripture simultaneously, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of members didn’t linger there long until recently.
Several factors could contribute to its lack of appeal. First, it is a confusing revelation. Extracting exact meaning from some passages is impossible and getting even close requires a large amount of historical context. President Brigham Young explained why some scripture, like this one, may be particularly difficult to comprehend: “When revelations are given through an individual appointed to receive them, they are given to the understandings of the people. These revelations, after a lapse of years, become mystified to those who were not personally acquainted with the circumstances at the time they were given.”
The revelation now known as D&C 132 was recorded for the benefit of Emma Smith. In 1842, Joseph, who up to that time had been the sole male participant in plural marriages, began authorizing and encouraging the practice among trusted associates and the twelve apostles. Counterintuitively, his confidants did not include members of his first presidency, his brother Hyrum, or his legal wife Emma. Somehow the secret was kept despite rumors. It is hard to imagine Emma, so upset by the Fanny Alger incident in Kirtland, not having at least a suspicion, but the human mind is an interesting thing. It is often loath to follow the breadcrumbs when it is not capable of accepting where they may lead.
We don’t know when Joseph told Emma about his plural wives. He may have done it in stages: first introducing the concept of eternity-only sealings and later revealing sealings that included marriage for time and eternity. By May of 1843, Emma was, at least temporarily, on board with the prospect, participating in the unions of the Partridge and Lawrence sisters to Joseph. Soon thereafter, she changed her mind, and what ensued was the most difficult period in Joseph and Emma’s marriage, with divorce, after having passed through so much together, becoming a serious possibility.
William Clayton recounted that he wrote “the revelation on Celestial marriage given through the Prophet Joseph Smith on the 12th day of July 1843. When the revelation was written there was no one present except the prophet Joseph, his brother Hyrum and myself. . . . It took some three hours to write it. Joseph dictated sentence by sentence. . . . After the whole was written Joseph requested me to read it slowly and carefully which I did, and he then pronounced it correct.”
From William Clayton’s journal, we learn what happened next:
After it was wrote Presidents Joseph and Hyrum presented it and read it to E[mma] who said she did not believe a word of it and appeared very rebellious. Joseph told me to Deed all the unencumbered lots to E[mma]. And the children. He appears much troubled about E[mma].
This was not the first revelation that was directed at Emma. Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants was dictated in July 1830. Emma treasured this first revelation, which instructed her to compile a hymnal and referred to her as an elect lady. The words of this revelation are loving, affirming, and gentle in their reproving. If Emma was expecting something similar from this second revelation, she was most surely disappointed.
The tone of the two starkly contrast each other. A comparison of verses from both sections, which impart essentially the same meaning but in diverse manners vividly illustrates the difference. In section 25:15, Emma is reminded: “Keep my commandments continually, and a crown of righteousness thou shalt receive. And except thou do this, where I am you cannot come.” In section 132:54, the Lord warns: “But if she [meaning Emma] will not abide this commandment [plural marriage] she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.”
Of the canonized scripture revealed through Joseph, section 132 is singular for its harsh tone and frequent use of the word “destroy.” In section 19:7, the Lord reveals that the term “eternal damnation,” which the term “destroy” could plausibly equate to in the context of its usage in section 132, may be used so “that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men.” This could account for the abundant use of the word in the revelation. Joseph preached that he had been commanded of God to practice polygamy, and Emma was rebelling and impeding his ability to comply with that commandment. It is also conceivable there were additional factors that affected the framing of the revelation as it currently reads.
The Process of Receiving and Printing Revelations
Elder Orson Pratt, who lived with the Smiths for a period of time, described the manner in which the Prophet received revelations: “Joseph . . . received the ideas from God, but clothed those ideas with such words that came to his mind.” Authors at The Joseph Smith Papers further elaborated on the process of receiving and recording revelations:
Joseph Smith and his followers considered his revelations to be true in the sense that they communicated the mind and will of God, not infallible in an idealized sense of literary flawlessness. “The revelations were not God’s diction, dialect, or native language,” historian Richard Bushman has written. “They were couched in language suitable to Joseph’s time.” Smith and others appointed by revelation . . . edited the revelations based on the same assumption that informed their original receipt: namely, that although Smith represented the voice of God condescending to speak to him, he was limited by a “crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.”
Wilford Woodruff once wrote of Joseph Smith that he was “full of revelation,” which he defined as “the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to man.” In the early days of the Church, the revelations were written down and circulated among the members. Because of the inaccuracies that inevitably were introduced into copies, members voted to print the revelations and make them available for distribution. Orson Pratt described the compilation process:
Joseph, the Prophet, in selecting the revelations from the Manuscripts, and arranging them for publication, did not arrange them according to the order of the date in which they were given, either did he think it necessary to publish them all in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, but left them to be published more fully in his History. Hence, paragraphs taken from the revelations of a later date, are, in a few instances, incorporated with those of an earlier date. Indeed, at the time of compilation, the Prophet was inspired in several instances to write additional sentences and paragraphs to the earlier revelations. In this manner the Lord did truly give “line upon line, here a little and there a little.”
Section 132 never went through this process because the Prophet was killed on June 27, 1844, and it was not added to the Doctrine and Covenants until 1876.
Even in 1878, there was some controversy about the revelation and its language. Elder Joseph F. Smith remarked in a conference that year:
When the revelation was written, in 1843, it was for a special purpose, by the request of the Patriarch Hyrum Smith, and was not then designed to go forth to the church or to the world. It is most probable that had it been then written with a view to its going out as a doctrine of the church, it would have been presented in a somewhat different form. There are personalities [Emma Smith specifically] contained in a part of it which are not relevant to the principle itself, but rather to the circumstances which necessitated its being written at that time. Joseph Smith, on the day it was written, expressly declared that there was a great deal more connected with the doctrine which would be revealed in due time, but this was sufficient for the occasion.
The decision to include the revelation in the Doctrine in Covenants without further clarification and editing has rendered some verses “mystified,” leading to much debate about their meaning.
Polygamy Is Not Commanded of Everyone
Several questionable interpretations have gained traction. For example, some mistakenly assume that plural marriage is commanded to the general membership in this section. In its 66 verses, there is discussion of Abraham and other Patriarchs righteously participating in plural marriage when commanded (v. 34, 35; 37–39), that Joseph was authorized to permit its divinely sanctioned practice (v. 48), and that if the holder of the sealing keys (in this case Joseph) taught his wife the principle then she (in this case Emma) was obliged to accept plural marriage or be destroyed (v. 64). No other group is mentioned specifically.
The Section Is Not a Rule Book for Polygamy
Others have asserted that the revelation is meant as a rulebook for the practice of polygamy. Verses 61–62 are particularly singled out in this discussion. They state in part:
And again, as pertaining to the law of the priesthood [plural marriage]—if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouseth another, and the first give her consent, and if he espouse the second, and they are virgins, and have vowed to no other man, then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.
. . . [A]nd if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.
Some contend this verse specifies that a man must have the permission of the first wife to marry another and that that woman must be a virgin.
The principle of Occam’s Razor, which states that the simplest explanation is usually correct, may be helpful in evaluating this argument. If verse 61 contains the requirements for all plural marriages, Joseph would have dictated a revelation that went counter to his own behavior and those of other Nauvoo polygamists. Heber C. Kimball, most probably the second sanctioned polygamist in Nauvoo, took Sarah Noon as his first plural wife in the spring of 1842. Sarah’s husband had deserted her and returned to England leaving her and her children penniless. At Joseph’s encouragement, Heber married Sarah, a non-virgin, without his legal wife’s knowledge. This would clearly be in violation of the supposed rule.
Another interpretation of the references to virgins and the first wife’s consent, which has the added benefit of comporting with history, is that this may have been a reference to Joseph’s marriages to Emily and Eliza Partridge. After Emma had placed their hands in Joseph’s, she almost immediately regretted the decision and began pestering them into divorcing Joseph and marrying other men. References to marrying up to ten virgins could have been included to address the number of wives Joseph had married and Emma’s desire to reduce that number. It reflects his teachings to early polygamists as captured by William Clayton: “It is your privilege to have all the wives you want.”
The Giving of Virgins
Another criticism of these verses is that they reference virgins being “given” unto men. One young woman mentioned that the phrase gave her cognitive dissonance because on the one hand she was told she was a daughter of her Heavenly Father, who loves her, and on the other she reads in this section that she can be given to another. It made her feel like chattel. This is definitely an overly literal reading. “Given” was a common term in marriage rituals of the time. Even today, the word “give” is commonly used in wedding ceremonies in and out of the Church. But that is only part of the story.
In a recent address before the Mormon Historical Association, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich noted that women were indeed considered chattel, or property, if you will, in the nineteenth century, both legally and socially, and marriage was considered to be for life, making divorce an undertaking of the rich or of those with connections. If anything, Joseph Smith was sympathetic to the cause of women caught in unhappy marital relationships. According to Ulrich, “about 20 percent of plural wives in Nauvoo before Joseph Smith’s death were legally married to other men. . . . Their splits were either consensual or the wives left through folk divorces or desertions, sometimes by the husband.” Joseph began marrying couples in an anachronistic “idealized notion both spiritual and sentimental.” In Ulrich’s estimation, “relationships are too important not to marry where there is affection. You don’t want to be bound for eternity with someone you can’t get along with.” In no case, are we led to believe that a woman was married against her will to Joseph. In fact, many of the women who married Joseph left testimonies of their personal struggle to first accept the concept of plural marriage and then to accept Joseph’s proposal. If the “virgins” (or non-virgins) were “given” in marriage, it was because they chose to give themselves.
And as you would expect, not all virgins chose this option. In 1908, Almira Hanscom, daughter of Martha McBride Knight, was asked if she had ever received a proposal to be a plural wife. She looked startled and answered, “Yes and No.” She recalled, “One day mother and I were in the front room and Joseph Smith came walking down the street and turned in at our gate. I had a hunch and as he entered the front door I went out the back and remained until he left. When I returned my Mother told me that Joseph had come at the request of his brother, Hyrum, to ask me to be his wife. And also asked Mother to ask me, seeing I wasn’t in. So when my mother said, Almira what do you say about it?” I said, “No.”
The Law of Sarah
In verse 65 of section 132, there is a reference to the “law of Sarah,” which is not fully defined. It is the only specific reference to such a concept in all of scripture. Of anything in the section, this, I have found, tends to raise ire. The distress seems to be of a two-pronged nature. First, comparing the Old Testament practice of polygamy in a land where progeny were necessary for survival and polygamy was socially and legally acceptable to a needed practice in nineteenth century Nauvoo where both of those elements were missing seems incongruous. Second, some women feel the law of Sarah is unfair, with the first wife only given power to participate in polygamy rather than to veto polygamy.
Verse 34 states that “God commanded Abraham and Sarah gave Haagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law.” Notice different motivations are given for Abraham and Sarah’s behavior. Abraham was commanded, but Sarah was following the “law.” Why not just say that both were commanded? The distinction seems deliberate.
Abraham and Sarah were governed by laws preserved in the Code of Hammurabi, which is the Babylonian law of ancient Mesopotamia, discovered and translated at the beginning of the twentieth century. Parts of this code were later incorporated into the Law of Moses. Under the Code of Hammurabi, if a man’s wife was childless, he was allowed to take a concubine, a wife of lesser social status, and bring her into his house, or the first wife might give her husband a servant. Interestingly, the husband needed to obtain the permission of the first wife unless there were special circumstances such as barrenness, illness, or misconduct on the part of the first wife. The law was actually designed to restrict a husband from taking additional wives without good reason or his first wife’s blessing.
In section 132, we learn that monogamy is the marriage standard and plural marriage is divinely sanctioned only when it is commanded of God and authorized by his representative on earth who holds the sealing keys. Why was Sarah not commanded to give Abraham a plural wife? A reasonable interpretation could be because she was already compelled to do so by the law of the land.
Why does a wife become a transgressor and lose the ability to administer unto her husband when she does not obey a command to practice plurality? Because her dominion would impede his ability to obey the commandment and would therefore limit his agency. In this analysis, the mention of the law of Sarah is not an offering of any great power to an obedient first wife, but more of a guarantee that a wife cannot exert her will to force her husband to disobey a direct command from God. Historically, this could be a reference to Emma’s rejection of Fanny Alger years earlier as Joseph’s first plural wife and his subsequent sanctioned secret plural marriages later in Nauvoo.
As mentioned earlier, this revelation was not very popular with Emma. At her request, Joseph allowed the original manuscript of the revelation to be burned. If it were the only copy, then we wouldn’t be here talking about its meaning. It wasn’t. A copy was shared with dozens of individuals in Nauvoo including Lucy Walker, Mercy Thompson, the Laws, and the Nauvoo High Council and then quietly disappeared from circulation for the next nine years.
Polygamy Is No Longer a Secret
By the fall of 1851, federal officers appointed by the president of the United States had hastily left the Utah territory after extended verbal skirmishes with the seated governor. Their reports of the practice of polygamy, especially by Brigham Young, were published around the country, and one LDS missionary in particular felt the need to respond not only by publishing an affirmation on the purported size of Governor Young’s family but also by promoting the practice of plural marriage as a moral band aid to a “false ‘Christianity.’” Parley Pratt, ever zealous, concluded his publication by proclaiming, “The law of God, from Zion, in the top of the mountains, when taught to the nations, will provide the means for every female to answer the end of their creation; to be protected in honor and virtue; and to become a happy wife and mother, so far as they are capacitated and inclined.” With that, he tacitly acknowledged the worst-kept secret in the Utah territory.
Whether it was in response to this article or simply a matter of convenience, the decision was made to present plural marriage to the general membership of the Church in conjunction with the next conference. On August 21, 1852, a notice appeared in the Deseret News that read: “Special Conference of the elders of Israel, to commence, Saturday 28 Aug. 10 a.m. at the Tabernacle. All elders, within reach, read and attend.”
A week later, President Heber C. Kimball announced the business of the conference to the nearly two thousand men in attendance: “We have come together to-day, according to previous appointment, to hold a special conference to transact business, a month earlier than usual, inasmuch as there are elders to be selected to go to the nations of the earth and they want an earlier start than formerly.” Before adjourning for the day, over 100 men had been called to missions to such diverse locations as China, Ireland, New Orleans, and the Sandwich Islands.
When the conference commenced the next day Elder Orson Pratt timidly began the meeting with these words:
It is quite unexpected to me brethren and sister to be called upon to address you this forenoon; and still more so, to address you upon the principle which has been named, namely, a plurality of wives. . . .
It is rather new ground for me, that is, I have not been in the habit of publicly speaking upon this subject: . . . we shall have to break new ground.
It is well known however, to the congregation before me, that the Latter Day Saints have embraced the doctrine of a plurality of wives, as a part of their religious faith. It is not, as many have supposed, a doctrine embraced by them to gratify the carnal lusts and feelings of man; that is not the object of the doctrine.
We shall endeavor to setforth before this enlightened assembly, some of the causes why the Almighty has revealed such a doctrine, and why it is considered a part and portion of our religious faith.
He then continued with what turned out to be a prediction of a battle that would play out over the greater part of the remainder of that century and into the next:
And I believe that . . . the government of the United States [will not] try us for treason for believing and practicing our religious notions and ideas. . . . [T]he constitution gives the privilege to all the inhabitants of this country, of the free exercise of their religious notions, and the freedom of their faith, and the practice of it. Then, if it can be proven . . . that the Latter Day Saints have actually embraced . . . the doctrine of a plurality of wives, it is constitutional.
In explaining the doctrine to the congregation, he started by recounting the first eternal marriage—that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They were immortal beings; therefore, their marriage was eternal. In the final dispensation of time, all things needed to be restored. Thus, eternal marriage needed to be restored because that ordinance had been lost. Here was offered some much needed clarification on what essential ordinance needed to be restored as part of the restitution of all things.
In Acts 3:21, we are taught the Savior will not be received in heaven “until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” Of course, “all things” didn’t need to be restored as we have not adopted the Law of Moses, which was fulfilled with the atonement of Christ. The essential covenants and ordinances of the gospel are what needed to be brought back. The first of these to be restored was baptism through the Aaronic priesthood, which occurred on May 15, 1829. The second was the oath and covenant of the Melchizedek priesthood given to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by Peter, James, and John shortly thereafter. No additional authorities with their associated ordinances or covenants were restored until the Kirtland Temple was dedicated on April 3, 1836. On that date, three angelic messengers appeared, Moses, Elias, and Elijah, restoring keys and authorities that apparently could not be bestowed without a temple and are used to officiate in temple ordinances.
While the keys restored by John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John allowed for the establishment of an earthly church organization, the keys restored in the Kirtland Temple authorized the sealing of families that will continue after death in the celestial kingdom. The framework for building eternal families begins by laying a foundation through an eternal marriage covenant, the uniting of a husband and wife together forever. Plural marriage can be considered a part of the “restitution of all things,” but only so far as a practice sometimes allowed within the larger doctrine of eternal marriage. There has never been a covenant or ordinance of plural marriage in the modern Church, though the first wife sometimes participated, the words to the plural marriage ceremony did not divulge whether the man had been previously sealed to another woman.
Though Elder Pratt would later preach on the necessity of allowing plurality to ensure the exaltation of all righteous women, on this occasion he encouraged the taking of plural wives for different reasons. In addition to his brother Parley’s argument that it would curtail sexual sin in society, he added that it would provide homes for noble spirits to raise up a righteous generation, and allow men to claim the blessings of Abraham, namely “a promise of seed as numerous as the sand upon the sea shore.” The revelation dictated for Emma in Nauvoo was read to the congregation that day and later distributed in pamphlet form, making plural marriage the new marital expectation in the Church.
Consistent and Changing Themes
Slightly over a decade after the Prophet Joseph Smith introduced plural marriages to select Church members, the rhetoric had already started to change. In part, the theological defense became more nuanced, but in other respects, leaders began to promote the practice with dialogue not traceable to Joseph in a somewhat parallel evolution with the justifications for the priesthood and temple ban. No longer was plural marriage described as an onerous burden that must be borne. Instead it was a blessing that came with righteousness, though it was difficult. The menacing angel with the sword, so familiar today, was only referenced twice in recorded priesthood discourses of the period.” In its place, other themes were regularly emphasized: plurality provided for more noble spirits to come to righteous homes and all members were at that time under the obligation to obey or their reward would be of less glory. The last item was emphasized with more and more rigor as the century progressed.
Monogamy Is Once Again the Standard
With the issue of the Manifesto in 1890, monogamy once again became the standard in the Church. Members began the slow process of accepting a new dialogue regarding marriage, which included changes in understanding and vocabulary. Celestial marriage, patriarchal marriage, and the new and everlasting covenant of marriage, once associated mainly with plural marriage now equated to monogamy. Some critics would dwell on statements of past leaders, uttered under a different divine dictate, holding them up as if they had efficacy today. The utility in debating what past leaders preached in light of what current leaders now preach is an exercise in historical curiosity rather than an indication of current doctrine. On May 4, 2007, the Newsroom of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released this statement: “Because different times present different challenges, modern-day prophets receive revelation relevant to the circumstances of their day. . . . [T]he Church does not preclude future additions or changes to its teachings or practices. This living, dynamic aspect of the Church provides flexibility in meeting those challenges.”
Eternity and Agency
The practice of earthly polygamy has not been sanctioned by the Church since 1904, so why are we still talking about it? Polygamy on earth does not sit well with what the majority of twenty-first century members envision as an optimal marital dynamic and its practice in heaven is nearly as impossible to embrace. Current Church dialogue centers on the marriage of one man to one woman for time and eternity. Nevertheless, this only eliminates the performing of plural marriage in part, as a widower is allowed to marry another woman in the temple for time and eternity. The fear that some women retain is that they will pass away prematurely, and their husbands will remarry, making them eternal polygamists independent of their agency. The common response that no woman will be forced to stay in a relationship may provide little comfort because none of the choices seem optimal from our current, earthly perspective. Her spirit world options would include leaving her husband, accepting the plural union, finding a new man to be sealed to, or remaining separate and single without exaltation for the rest of eternity.
One situation that seems to be of increasing concern is created by the single feature that is most desirable about a marriage performed in a temple: eternal marriage is eternal. Elder Nelson has emphasized that “celestial marriage is a pivotal part of preparation for eternal life. It requires one to be married to the right person, in the right place, by the right authority, and to obey that sacred covenant faithfully.” This task is not as easy as it sounds. Even in conservative Victorian America, Brigham Young recognized the difficulty in finding a companion for eternity. He once gave this enlightened advice:
[W]hen your daughters have grown up, and wish to marry, let them have their choice in a husband, if they know what their choice is. But if they should happen only to guess at it, and marry the wrong man, why let them try again; and if they do not get it the right place the second time, let them try again. That is the way I shall do with my daughters, and it is the way I have already done. . . . Take this or that man if you want them my girls, I give you good counsel about it, nevertheless you shall have your own agency in the matter, even as I want mine.
When a couple is married in the temple, at least in the United States, they receive a marriage certificate that indicates they were joined in the holy bond of matrimony for time and eternity. The Church considers that bond valid even if a legal divorce ensues. In a case of a couple who divorces legally then remarries later; their temple ceremony does not need to be repeated. Should a couple divorce legally and a woman desire to marry another man in the temple, a cancellation of the sealing needs to be obtained first to avoid polyandry. The marriage bond is considered intact without a cancellation.
If a divorced man desires to marry in the temple, he needs to receive clearance to marry another in the temple. After receiving that clearance, he is free to be married for time and eternity to another woman, with the marriage for time and eternity to two living women remaining intact until such time as a sealing cancellation is granted. Obtaining that sealing cancellation is a long and invasive process. In fact, now that the Church has computerized the cancellation application process the choices offered for “reason for request” do not even include the possibility that a man may want to cancel a sealing to a legally divorced wife simply due to the reasons the divorce occurred in the first place.
Some members find this theologically problematic. The second sealed wife of a legally divorced man may struggle to ignore that, on paper at least, she is a polygamous second wife unless that first sealing has been officially cancelled by the first presidency. Assurances that all will work out in the end seem to be the only comfort that are now being given. While acknowledging that these sealings are solemn and are designed to be eternal, and divorce is undesirable for many reasons, perhaps someday this type of ceremonial polygamy will be more easily addressed than at present.
So why is there so much recent outcry about polygamy? One reason could be that the details of Joseph Smith’s plural marriages are new to many, peculiar, and readily available on the Internet with varying degrees of accuracy. Finding this information outside of traditional channels has left some members thinking they have been betrayed or were taught a false narrative. Many grieve at the loss of perceptions held dear. Passing through the grieving process can lead to greater understanding or hopelessness, with the person feeling they are in the midst of a crisis that needs immediate resolution. Richard Bushman cautioned against panicking. He noted:
We are in a period of transition with regard to our history. The narrative is in the process of reconstruction. Right now that means there is the standard, comforting story, and then a series of controversies. . . . In time I think this problem will go away. All the controversial questions will be absorbed into the standard narrative, and we won’t have a sense of two tracks. . . . There are already lots of surprising things in the standard narrative. We will simply flesh that out.
Such patience like Dr. Bushman advocates may not be an easy sell to a Google generation accustomed to answers at a click of the mouse, but it might go over better if peppered with affirmation, support, empathy, and, importantly, more accurate information. Increased engagement of the Church membership in discussing our collective history and theology can be a good thing as we go through these growing pains together. If members feel safety in sharing concerns as they progress through the initial shock, fear, and panic of learning information that challenges their belief, they will better weather the nadir if there is a faithful member holding their hand in empathy. Encouragement, validation, and direction will provide needed support as they grieve. If members don’t find this care within their congregations and families, they may feel their only option is to turn to other communities for support.
Better information will help inoculate members, reducing additional distress. The essays on polygamy are a good step in that direction, but the Church’s efforts to inform have not stopped there. The Gospel Topics Essays have been incorporated into Institute curriculum, and the Church History department continues to add new information to such websites as The Joseph Smith Papers and nine other associated websites that provide context to Church history. For this wound to fully heal, though, more must be done by rand-and-file members in spreading this information; creating a safe environment for family members, friends, and ward members to explore, and showing empathy. In this way, we can all work toward a better understanding of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. History is in the past, but the future is what we make of it.
Question: With many more adult females than males in the church today, would plural marriage be a viable solution?
Answer: Gratefully, I am not the key holder, so I don’t need to contemplate that question.
Question: How do we reconcile the sealing commandment with the dearth of lack of eligible male suitors on the church?
Answer: I think if we look at what we’re doing in the temple, sealing past, people who didn’t have the opportunity to have the gospel, the same type of thing we’ve been told and taught will happen in the Millennium. So that’s how I would reconcile it.
Question: What do you think of LeRoi Snow’s account of Emma throwing a plural wife of Joseph’s down some stairs?
Answer: I would say it didn’t happen. And actually in our book, we cover that in two pages. LeRoi Snow’s account is fourth hand. And actually if you look at pictures of the homestead where – Eliza Snow was the plural wife who was supposedly thrown down the stairs – the way that LeRoi Snow described it, it could not have occurred, so I don’t believe it.
That doesn’t have to do with plural marriage.
Question: In the age of DNA why do you think there is not a documented offspring from Joseph Smith’s many marriages?
Answer: Well, actually, quite a bit of DNA work has been done by Dr. Ugo Perego who currently lives in Italy but used to work out of Salt Lake – and you’re probably aware that the world of genetics has exploded over the last 20 years and the last time a study was run on expected progeny of Joseph Smith, there was only one that came even close and that’s one we expect to be positive, though it came up equivocal, and that is Josephine Lyon. There is technology now to determine more closely if the DNA will prove conclusively that there is a tie, and Dr. Perego has a GoFundMe going right now and you can contribute to that to fund that study.
Question: What reasons do we have for thinking Joseph and Helen’s marriage was not consummated?
Answer: Well, we have no reason to believe — I’ve read everything written by Helen herself on the topic — that they were actually alone together. I think her statement that she hated polygamy because of her mother’s suffering is very telling. Helen did not testify in the temple lot case. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it was in 1892. They were trying to prove that polygamy started with Joseph Smith and so that the Utah church was the legitimate church rather than the Reorganized Church. So several of Joseph Smith’s plural wives were still alive at the time and were called to testify, three in particular. And they lived, some of them, quite far away. One was in Logan. Helen lived a few blocks away and she was not called to testify, and you would think, if it had been consummated, that it would be easier for her to testify. So that is probably another clue that we have that it wasn’t consummated. Plus, in Utah, men were instructed, sure, you can marry younger brides, but wait until they grow a little bit older before you consummate their marriages. We assume that policy started in Nauvoo.
Question: This is so difficult, losing sons and grandkids over it. Please help us.
Answers: It is a difficult topic. We are losing people over it. I think part of the problem is that we came into the game late. We let other people tell the story with varying degrees of accuracy and that is part of the reason why, though I don’t really choose to talk about the topic of plural marriage out of a delight in it, it’s out of a necessity to make sure the facts are clear. Because I have found they become conflated, stories get mixed up, they get blown out of proportion and Brother Otterson talked about presentism. We look at it from our perspective now and it doesn’t make sense. I think for me the most helpful thing is to have read the testimonies of the plural wives who married Joseph. They’re powerful and they give me something to hold onto. Also, Brother Bushman — I quoted him earlier – said how important it is to base our testimony on Christ. We do love the prophet of the Restoration. We’re grateful for all he did. But also he wasn’t a perfect man. He never said he was a perfect man. We may have done things differently and we just need to separate that from our testimony in Christ. I believe that is the most helpful.
 The first time was in 2008, during Warren Jeffs’ trial and the invasion of the YFZ ranch in Texas; the second time was during the 2012 Presidential campaign, where Mitt Romney’s religion was brought up in this discussion as well as his credentials.
 “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, accessed July 9, 2015, https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-kirtland-and-nauvoo.
 Laurie Goodstein, “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had up to 40 Wives,” The New York Times, November 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/us/its-official-mormon-founder-had-up-to-40-wives.html.
 Brian C. Hales and Laura H. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 103–04.
 Dean R. Zimmerman, ed., I Knew the Prophets: An Analysis of the Letter of Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs, Reporting Doctrinal Views of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon, 1976), 37–38.
 Lucy Walker Smith Kimball, “Talks of Polygamy,” Salt Lake Tribune, December 24, 1899, 4.
 Lyman Omer Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints: Giving An Account of Much Individual Suffering Endured for Religious Conscience (Logan, Utah: Utah Journal Co., 1888), 45–46.
 Joseph Kingsbury, deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, respondent’s testimony, part 3, pp. 209–10, questions 681–89, 714.
 “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” para 19.
 “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” para 19.
 Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, “Autobiography, 30 March 1881,” MS 744, CHL; italics added. See opening paragraph and last two lines of poem.
 Jeni Broberg Holzapfel & Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, A Woman’s View (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1997), 486 (1881 Autobiography); italics added.
 Holzapfel and Holzapfel, A Woman’s View, 327.
 Augusta Joyce Crocheron, Representative Women of Deseret (Salt Lake City: J.C. Graham & Co., 1884), 112; italics added.
 Holzapfel and Holzapfel, A Woman’s View, 198.
 From 1879 to 1891, the revelation appeared in both the Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price.
 Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 3:333.
 Emily D. Partridge Young, autobiographical sketch, CHL. See also Almira Hanscom statement, 1908 in “Autobiography of Hyrum Belnap,” from a compilation by Della Belnap titled “Biographies of the Belnap and Knight Families,” copied by BYU library 1958; copy at BYU HBLL Special Collections—Amer BX 8670.1 .B41. This statement is found on page 55 of whole compilation or page 20 of Hyrum Belnap Autobiography.
 Eliza R. Snow, “Sketch of My Life,” Utah and Mormons Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley; microfilm copy in CHL, MS 8305, Reel 1, item 11, 7.
 Emily D. Partridge Young, “Incidents in the Life of a Mormon Girl,” MS 5220, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, 186, 186b.
 George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 117.
 William Clayton, letter to Madison M. Scott, November 11, 1871, William Clayton Letterbooks, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.
 Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle, 110.
 Matt Grow, “Thou Art an Elect Lady,” January 9, 2013, accessed July 6, 2015, https://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-emma-smith?lang=eng.
 Minutes of the School of the Prophets, Salt Lake Stake, December 9, 1872, CHL. Quoted in Robert J. Woodford, “The Story of the Doctrine and Covenants,” Ensign, December 1984, accessed July 8, 2015, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1984/12/the-story-of-the-doctrine-and-covenants?lang=eng.
 The Joseph Smith Papers, “Introduction to the Manuscript Revelation Books, accessed July 21, 2015, http://josephsmithpapers.org/intro/introduction-to-revelations-and-translations-volume-1?p=1&highlight=revelation.
 Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 174.
 [Introduction to?] “The Conference Minutes and Record Book of Christ’s Church of Latter Day Saints,” Minute Book 2, 1838, 1842, 1844. CHL.
 Millennial Star, October 12, 1891, 642.
 Millennial Star 17, April 25, 1857, 260.
 Joseph F. Smith, in Journal of Discourses, 20:29 (July 7, 1878); brackets in original.
 Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 3:333.
 Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, “Scenes and Incidents in Nauvoo,” Woman’s Exponent 10, no. 10 (October 15, 1881): 74.
 Emily D. Partridge Young, “Incidents in the Life of a Mormon Girl,” 186–186b.
 Affidavit by William Clayton, February 16, 1874, CHL, MS 3423_1_30; also quoted in Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record 6 (July 1887): 225–26.
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Young Women Theme,” accessed July 23, 2015, https://www.lds.org/young-women/personal-progress/young-women-theme.
 See D&C 132:62.
 See Paul F. Bradshaw, New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Norwich, UK: SCM Press, 2002), 306.
 Great Officiants, “Ceremony Samples,” accessed July 23, 2015, http://www.greatofficiants.com/design-your-ceremony.
 Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Bad Marriages Had Women Running to and away from Mormon Polygamy, Historian Says,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 1, 2015, accessed July 17, 2015, http://www.sltrib.com/home/2626102-155/bad-marriages-had-women-running-to.
 Brian C. Hales, “Stories of Faith: Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives,” Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, accessed July 23, 2015, http://josephsmithspolygamy.org/stories-of-faith-joseph-smiths-plural-wives/.
 Almira Hanscom statement, 1908 in “Autobiography of Hyrum Belnap.”
 Walter Scheidel, Sex and Empire: A Darwinian Perspective (Stanford: Stanford University, 2006), 21, accessed July 21, 2015, http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/scheidel/050603.pdf.
 Scheidel, Sex and Empire, 21.
 See D&C 132:34, 38–39.
 See Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer 1, no. 2 (February 1853): 16; Steven M. Murphy, ed., L.D.S. Conference Report Extracts: 1852–1886 (Wendover, Utah: Peace Mountain Publishing, 1998), 474 (September 21, 1856).
 “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo,” para 28.
 Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 13:193 (October 7, 1869).
 Affidavit by William Clayton, February 16, 1874, CHL, MS 3423_1_30; also quoted in Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record 6 (July 1887): 225–26.
 Lucy Walker Kimball, deposition, Temple Lot Transcript, respondent’s testimony, part 3, p. 452, questions 66–68.
 Jed Woodworth, “Mercy Thompson and the Revelation on Marriage,” Revelations in Context, accessed July 22, 2015, https://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-eternal-marriage, para 30.
 William Law, “Affidavit,” Nauvoo Expositor, June 7, 1844, 2.
 Fred C. Collier, ed., The Nauvoo High Council Minute Books of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 114 (August 12, 1843).
 Parley P. Pratt, “‘Mormonism!’ ‘Plurality of Wives!’ An Especial Chapter, for the Especial Edification of Certain Inquisitive News Editors, Etc.,” San Francisco, July 13, 1852, accessed July 22, 2015, https://ia600801.us.archive.org/28/items/mormonismplurali00smit/mormonismplurali00smit.pdf.
 Conference notice, Deseret News, 2, no. 21, Saturday, August 21, 1852, 3.
 Heber C. Kimball, Deseret News—Extra, September 14, 1852, 1.
 Orson Pratt, Deseret News—Extra, September 14, 1852, 14.
 Orson Pratt, Deseret News—Extra, September 14, 1852, 14.
 Orson Pratt, Deseret News—Extra, September 14, 1852, 15.
 Orson Pratt, Deseret News—Extra, September 14, 1852, 17–18.
 See 3 Nephi 9:17.
 D&C 13:1.
 D&C 27:12.
 D&C 110:11–16.
 Russell M. Nelson, “Celestial Marriage,” Ensign, November 2008, 92.
 Orson Pratt, “Celestial Marriage,” The Seer 1, no. 2 February 1843.
 Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 6:358–59 (July 24, 1859).
 Orson Pratt, Deseret News—Extra, September 14, 1852, 19–20.
 The original was preserved, but the copy was kept by Bishop Whitney who gave it to Brigham Young at Winter Quarters. Brigham Young, Deseret News—Extra, September 14, 1852, 25.
 See Erastus Snow, St. George Utah Stake Conference General Minutes, June 17, 1883, LR 783611, Reel 1, CHL; Joseph F. Smith, in Journal of Discourses, 20:29 (July 7, 1978).
 Joseph F. Smith, in Journal of Discourses, 20:24–31 (July 7, 1978).
 See, for example, James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75), 5:329.
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Newsroom, “Approaching Mormon Doctrine,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, May 4, 2007, accessed July 10, 2015, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine.
 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Lesson 19: The Doctrine of Eternal Marriage and Family,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2015), 84–88, accessed July 23, 2015, https://www.lds.org/bc/content/ldsorg/manual/institute/Foundations_of_the_Restoration.v2_eng.pdf.
 Russell M. Nelson, “Celestial Marriage,” Ensign, November 2008, 94 (quoting Bruce R. McConkie); italics added.
 Richard S. VanWagoner, The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2010), 2:782.
 A temple marriage is only considered “intact” or valid if it is sealed with the “Holy Spirit of promise,” which requires worthiness of both parties. See D&C 132:19. If the man remarries without a formal cancellation of the first sealing, a second wife might worry that a once unworthy first wife would repent and the ordinance would become valid again. In a second case, both women may be worthy, but presumably the “Holy Spirit of promise” would not bless the first sealing because of the reasons for the legal divorce. Paperwork reflecting the long-term status of the first marriage that ended in divorce would alleviate confusion.
 “Richard Bushman AMA, 3 pm to 6 pm, Eastern Time,” accessed July 25, 2015, https://www.reddit.com/r/latterdaysaints/comments/3dnmfn/richard_bushman_ama_3_pm_to_6_pm_eastern_time/.