Ch 3: Polygamy and Polyandry

It “is a repulsive anachronism, a dangerous plague spot, a gross offense to the nation’s moral sense,” said the New York American in 1904.

One would think these comments are current statements against gay marriage but in fact they are arguments made against the Mormon practice of polygamy in the nineteenth century. Interesting that Mormons now find themselves on the wielding end of the same sword in light of their vigorous prior defense of their right to marry any way they saw fit. Hypocrisy in action.

The church has tried to divorce itself from the polygamy issue, but it can’t remain completely absolved when its early leaders extolled polygamy’s virtues, taught it as God’s higher law and even preached the evils of monogamy from the pulpit at general conference. Even today, the doctrine remains in the Doctrine and Covenants.

That Mormons practiced polygamy in the early days of the church is well known. What a lot of people don’t know, though, is that Joseph Smith was heavily involved in polygamy himself. This included taking at least 11 women that were already married to other men at the time (i.e., polyandry). These women stayed married to their first husbands while at the same time being married to Joseph. In his book, In Sacred Loneliness, Dr. Todd Compton wrote:

“Polyandry is one of the major problems found in Smith’s polygamy and many questions surround it. Why did he at first primarily prefer polyandrous marriages? A common misconception concerning Joseph Smith’s polyandry is that he participated in only one or two such unusual unions. In fact, fully one-third of his plural wives, eleven of them, were married civilly to other men when he married them. If one superimposes a chronological perspective, one sees that of Smith’s first twelve wives, nine were polyandrous. So in this early period polyandry was the norm, not the anomaly…

“Polyandry might be easier to understand if one viewed these marriages to Smith as a sort of de facto divorce with the first husband. However, none of these women divorced their ‘first husbands’ while Smith was alive and all of them continued to live with their civil spouses while married to Smith…

“In the eleven certain polyandrous marriages, only three of the husbands were non-Mormon (Lightner, Sayers, and Cleveland) and only one was disaffected (Buell). All other husbands were in good standing in the church at the time Joseph married their wives. Many were prominent church leaders and close friends of Smith. George W. Harris was a high councilor…a position equivalent to that of a twentieth-century general authority. Henry Jacobs was a devoted friend of Joseph and a faithful missionary. Orson Hyde was an apostle on his mission to Palestine when Smith married his wife. Jonathan Holmes was one of Smith’s bodyguards and served as a pallbearer after Smith’s death. Windsor Lyon was a member in good standing when Smith united with Sylvia Lyon, and he loaned the prophet money after the marriage. David Sessions was a devout Latter-day Saint.” (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, pp. 15-16)

How could Joseph’s marriage to women who were already married to upstanding members of the church possibly be justified? It all sounds so very Warren Jeffs and David Koresh like. According to Brigham Young, the purpose of polygamy was to propagate life through worthy families:

“There are multitudes of pure and holy spirits waiting to take tabernacles, now what is our duty. To prepare tabernacles for them; to take a course that will not tend to drive those spirits into families of the wicked, where they will be trained in wickedness, debauchery, and every species of crime. It is the duty of every righteous man and woman to prepare tabernacles for all the spirits they can. This is the reason why the doctrine of plurality of wives was revealed, that the noble spirits which are waiting for tabernacles might be brought forth.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 1977 edition, p. 197)

Clearly this could not have been the purpose for many of Joseph’s marriages, since Joseph’s wives were already married to righteous men. Perhaps the purpose of polygamy was instead, as Jedediah Grant (Second Counselor to Brigham Young) claimed, a trial of faith:

“What would a man of God say, who felt aright, when Joseph asked him for his money? He would say, ‘Yes, and I wish I had more to help to build up the kingdom of God.’ Or if he came and said, ‘I want your wife?’ ‘O yes,’ he would say, ‘here she is, there are plenty more.’…If such a man of God should come to me and say, ‘I want your gold and silver, or your wives,’ I should say, ‘Here they are, I wish I had more to give you, take all I have got.’ ”

“Did the Prophet Joseph want every man’s wife he asked for? He did not…the grand object in view was to try the people of God to see what was in them.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2 (1855), p. 13-14)

As a father of daughters, I personally have no use for that kind of prophet or that kind of God.

When Joseph Smith III grew up, and accepted leadership of the RLDS movement, he went to Utah to find out for himself whether or not his father was polygamy’s instigator. He interviewed dozens of leading Utah Mormons, including many of Smith’s “plural widows” and most intimate friends, who all informed him that Smith was the instigator, and that the relationships were indeed sexual. Several of them swore legal affidavits to that effect, and some swore that Smith had fathered children by them. Those testators included such leading Mormons as Eliza R. Snow, Angus Cannon, Zina Huntington Jacobs, Sylvia Sessions, Benjamin F. Johnson, and Mary Rollins Lightner. In short, those Utah Mormons testified to Smith’s plural relationships to combat Emma’s claim that Young, not Smith, began polygamy.

After the 1890 Manifesto, and after most of Smith’s original polygamous wives and friends had died, church leaders began to reverse their hard-line pro-polygamy rhetoric. It became politically expedient to advance the notion that Smith’s “plural marriages” were not sexual at all—that they served a noble purpose, such as providing husbands for widows whose original husbands had been ‘murdered by persecutors,’ or that Utah had a shortage of men, so Mormons simply combined women and children with a single husband. There’s not a shred of truth to either of those ideas. Not a single one of Smith’s “plural wives” was a widow, and in fact, at least eleven of his well-documented “wives” were CURRENTLY MARRIED TO OTHER MEN AT THE TIME THEY WERE ‘SEALED’ TO SMITH. Also, Smith’s first documented attempts at “plural marriage” came in 1833 (with 16-year-old Fannie Alger) and 1838 (with the married Lucinda Morgan Harris) long before any Mormon men died leaving widows to be cared for.

Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, the wife of Adam Lightner, testified:

“Joseph said I was his before I came here and he said all the Devils in Hell should never get me from him, I was sealed to him in the Masonic Hall…by Brigham Young in February 1842 and then again in the Nauvoo Temple by Heber C. Kimball…” (Affidavit of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, as cited in No Man Knows My History, p. 444)

In a speech given at Brigham Young University (see Mormonism-Shadow or Reality? pp. 215-216), Mrs. Lightner said that Joseph claimed an “angel” came with a “drawn sword” and told him that if he did not enter into polygamy “he would slay him.” She frankly admitted that she “had been dreaming for a number of years that I was his [Joseph’s] wife.” Since both Joseph and her were already married, she “felt it was a sin.” Joseph, however, convinced her that the “Almighty” had revealed the principle and while her “husband was far away,” she was sealed to him.

In a “revelation” received through Joseph, his wife Emma was told that:

“…if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord they God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.” (D&C 132:54)

Is it not rather obvious this was Joseph attempting to convince his wife Emma to allow him to be with other women – with her consent – and doing it through a supposed revelation?

His other wives documented in their diaries how Joseph Smith proposed and the events surrounding the plural marriages. Joseph fairly consistently involved the woman’s family by promising salvation to all her relations if she accepted his proposal. If she was already married, he sent the husband away on a mission before proposing. The decision usually had to be agreed upon within a day or fairly quickly after being told that God had revealed to him that He had “already” given her to Joseph and that God would smite them both if she refused his advances. Imagine being a 15-year-old girl being put under this pressure by a man you revered as a prophet and who was making you responsible for your entire family’s salvation! This happened to Helen Mar Kimball.

Emma had a very difficult time with Joseph’s polygamy. It is no surprise that she chose to separate herself from the Saints prior to their exodus to Utah.

Plural marriage, the secrecy of its early practice, and the ensuing social and political circumstances that emerged from its practice, are probably the greatest factors leading to the murders of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and the subsequent upheaval of that era of Mormon history. Subsequent litigation and national disenfranchisement would force (or heavily induce) the church to abandon the practice of plural marriage.

I don’t see God in any of the methods in which it was carried out. It left a trail of suffering on the part of polygamous wives who dreamed of romantic love with one man only to be told that they were unreasonable in their expectations and left them to settle for a lonely existence. They had to satisfy themselves with occasional conjugal visits from a man who was more like an acquaintance than a provider and loving companion.

Particularly heart wrenching is the story of the husband who lost his wife to the prophet. The whole lifestyle as practiced by Joseph Smith and those who came after him is disgusting and I find it offensive to be associated with it even if only historically. In fact the actual doctrine has never been abandoned by the church only the practice of it has (D&C 132).

*See the “Why I Left Mormonism” link in the menu above for the rest of the story.

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