Some Thoughts for LDS Members Who are Surprised and Upset about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy

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There has been a lot of discussion and media attention about articles recently published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints detailing the history of the practice of Plural Marriage in the church.


The media has focused on what they characterize as a “shocking” disclosure by the church that founding prophet Joseph Smith was sealed to multiple women– including women who were already married to other men and a few young women, the youngest of whom was 14 years old.

I want to talk to those members of the church who are feeling surprised and upset by this new information and who may feel betrayed or deceived.

First of all, I want to let you know that your reaction is understandable. You had built up expectations about Joseph Smith that appear to have been contradicted. It is normal to feel upset when that happens.

You have probably seen headlines and blurbs like this one from the New York Times:

“It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had Up to 40 Wives”

“Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, portrayed in church materials as a loyal partner to his loving spouse Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old.”

Or this one from the Washington Post:

“The Mormon church finally acknowledges founder Joseph Smith’s polygamy”

“Many Mormons have mixed feelings about a recent disclosure from the church, acknowledging for the first time that the religion’s founder Joseph Smith had as many as 40 wives in his lifetime, including teenagers.”

As I discussed at length in my recent two-part podcast, it is times like this that it is important to be a critical consumer of information. You should take the time to analyze what it is that the church has actually said in its articles and not rely only on how that information has been characterized by the media or bloggers. Don’t draw any hasty conclusions. And don’t accept the headlines at face value. Headlines are by their nature an oversimplification.

Take the time to carefully read the actual articles published by the church on their official website:

Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo
Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah
The Manifesto and the End of Plural Marriage

Another thing to keep in mind is that the headlines and articles you have seen may have conditioned your mind to read the articles with certain assumptions. In other words, you have been told what the church has said so that when you do read these articles for yourself you will see what they have told you to see; this is a technique that stage magicians use all the time to influence what people perceive by predisposing their audience to see things a certain way.

Read the rest of the article at Sixteen Small Stones

18 Replies to “Some Thoughts for LDS Members Who are Surprised and Upset about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy”

  1. To be honest, I think in some ways it’s a good thing. Living in Utah, I have long been a little disgusted at the way members tend to treat Joseph Smith like a god. There is a type of idol-worship that centers around Joseph Smith here, and I prefer to think of the Prophets as human — INSPIRED, yes, but still human. Deifying someone (other than, you know, an ACTUAL deity 😉 ) only leads to a lot of heartbreak.

    1. So he was wrong to marry teenagers and other men’s wives under coercion of losing one’s salvation? Or is that not a bad thing?

  2. I find no fault in Joseph. He did what was required of him because it had to be. He also did it reluctantly and even tried not to get involved until he it was made abundantly clear. Most of his sealings were for eternity only, meaning no sexual relationships and it is not known if any of his time and eternity, earth life, marriages resulted in any sexual relationship other than with his wife Emma. As far as history tells, there is no mention of other children of Joseph except those bore to him by Emma. Joseph Smith was a good man.

  3. Nothing changes the fact that Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son and restored the true Church to its proper order. And there’s no denying that he loved Emma. She was still his wife in every sense of the word and nothing can convince me that he wasn’t a good and faithful husband. I still get warm fuzzies reading that story about the time they had a quarrel, and Joseph couldn’t do any more translating until he had humbled himself and made things right with his wife.

    1. He did give very different versions of the first vision. The earliest was 12 years after when the event was said to have occurred and it said he only saw an angel.

  4. It’s really hard to try and convince people that Joseph was still a great man, despite his many wives. Especially if they don’t believe in God. I once tried to tell a friend of mine that Joseph was strongly adamant against The Lords Commandment of pologamy and he couldn’t really back down because, well, it’s God. Ruler of the universe and whatnot. But my pal doesn’t believe there is a higher power, so he thinks that the revelation of polygamy, among st others Joseph had, are all whimsical thinking’s by the First prophet. Now, I don’t blame him, if I were a non member and weren’t sensitive to spiritual prompts, i’d believe it’s a load of hogwash too. But I don’t.

    1. True. There is no common basis of belief between the two of you. One believes there is no god and other is certain. It would be difficult to convince anyone that Joseph talked to someone they don’t believe exists. Classical Christians are working very hard to eradicate a similar common belief and that is that we believe in Jesus Christ. If they can convince the world that our Jesus is different than their Jesus, they will have removed yet another common ground. The only way to bridge this gap then is to get them to honestly read the Book of Mormon and test it’s principles. Then you may be able to convince them that Joseph Smith was and is a great man.

  5. I must admit, when I learnt of Joseph’s polygyny a few years ago, it did bother me quite a bit. The fact he had other wives wasn’t much of an issue, but the fact that he had married other men’s wives. In some cases he even sent the men on overseas missions, then married their wife while they were gone. There is evidence that these marriages were not just “spiritual” – one of the wives, I can’t remember at the moment which, made the comment that anyone who thought they weren’t sexual didn’t know Joseph.

    So to someone who had grown up with the church treating Joseph as this near God-like figure, this was quite a challenge to faith. For all intents and purposes, it appeared that Joseph had committed the same sin as King David. How could a prophet commit what we are told is the sin 2nd to murder only, and still be a prophet, when we’d excommunicate a regular member for a fraction of what Joseph did. My first response was to question whether Joseph really did marry these other wives, but the evidence was pretty compelling – they are after all listed as extra wives on familysearch! My faith in the church was collapsing like a house of cards.

    But then one evening as I was pondering and trying to work out where my spirituality stood in the light of what I felt was clearly a false church, it struck me. Our prophets are, as we know, called for life. Our prophets are also not perfect, and have to go through the repentance process. So what would happen if a prophet did start committing a serious sin, a sin that would require his removal from his calling? Is it not feasible, that Christ, standing as head of the church, would remove him? And isn’t that exactly what happened? Joseph’s martyrdom was very soon after the polygamous marriages, and the trigger for it was that he destroyed a press that was to publish details of his polygamy.

    Suddenly things became very clear. Joseph’s actions weren’t God flip-flopping on acceptable sexual behaviour, they were simply Joseph making mortal mistakes. The church was still led by Christ, in fact very much so, because it demonstrates that when the church is being led astray it will be put back on the path. So why were Brigham and many others allowed to continue the practice and how does it fit with this statement from Wilford Woodruff – “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place”. Well, as the others were doing as instructed by the prophet, they were not sinning. The prophet was removed from his place for doing the wrong thing, and the wheels were set in motion to have it removed. In the meantime, as the church’s practice of polygamy moved closer to the requirements set out in D&C 132, it did fill the needs of the church at that time. Ultimately though, polygamy is an exception rather than a rule in the Lord’s church, so right from when the Saints started going to Utah, the wheels were being set in motion for its removal.

    Those are my thoughts on the topic, and sit very well with me. The church was no longer a house of cards, but it became clear that it is the Lord’s church. He still allows the church to be subject to the errors of men (within reason), because to not do so would violate the principle of agency, but whenever the church needs steering back in the right direction, He takes the necessary action to keep it pointed toward him.

    1. I strongly disagree with you, for a lot of reasons. But I think one of the greatest reasons is the King Follett Discourse that Joseph preached just around 2 months before he was murdered. Honestly, go read the King Follett Discourse, (which is, in my opinion, easily the greatest sermon that Joseph Smith ever gave) and then try to say that the Spirit of the Lord had withdrawn from the Prophet. You won’t be able to. I like the work that Brian Hales has put together:

    2. I hear what you’re saying Doug, and I can understand how your thought process could make sense. Maybe what you’re saying is true, maybe it’s not. I just want to say be careful stating it as fact or doctrine. You said “the prophet was removed from his place for doing the wrong thing,” and other similar statements. We really don’t know if that was the case, so putting it forward as fact seems dangerous. I in no way intend this to be a criticism of you, Doug. It’s obvious you have thought and studied a lot about this. I just felt like I should share my own thoughts, not aiming for a debate, but for an open discussion on what is true. What a blessing it is to know what we know. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughtful comment!

      1. Hi Brian,
        You are of course dead right that I should have prefaced my comment as purely being my opinion. I do not present it as doctrine, I present it as an alternative opinion that (I believe) fits with the core doctrines (although it clearly doesn’t fit with the usual narrative as taught at church).

        When I reached these conclusions it was during a time of intense questioning about how the church could possibly be true. The standard apologetic points (things like Joseph acted reluctantly doing what he was commanded, it was necessary for the women’s eternal salvation to be sealed, etc), just didn’t cut it for me. The apologetic lines either mean God is wishy-washy when it comes to sexual morality, or they denied some of the basic truths of what happened. Let’s face it, Joseph’s actions were actually in violation of the rules of polygamy as laid out in s132. The nearest biblical precedent for sending another man away, then marrying his wife in his absence is Kind David, and things didn’t go well for him.

        I don’t believe that God would be so variable as to say that it is ok for his prophet to have sexual relations with other men’s wives, when it is a serious sin for everyone else.

        I do not mean to say that my conclusion is the only one possible, nor that it is necessarily what happened, but I felt at peace with the church when I came to that conclusion, and it meant that the very strong doubts I had evaporated. It is a fact that Joseph fell far short of the pseudo-deification that he is given in the church, but it is also a fact that he restored the gospel, including many wonderful truths about the nature of God. Without some reconciliation between these 2 sides of him, it is all too easy to say Joseph was just a fraud, and throw the church in the bin – I know because I’ve been there.

        I share my perspective not pretending it is the hard and fast truth, but as a perspective that may help someone else who is struggling reconcile their faith in the church. Even if someone says “hey, that’s not right because…” and in their rebuttal they find a greater testimony of the gospel then that is a good thing. I am in no way tearing down the church – I have found greater testimony that it is indeed led by Christ. As for Joseph, I have no doubt that he has fully repented, and has been washed clean by the atonement – I just feel that he had reached a position where that could no longer happen in mortality without bringing down the church. I know there are some who will say Joseph did nothing wrong in the eyes of the Lord with regards to the polygamy, and if you can reconcile it that way, then more strength to you. My testimony had eroded to the point where I could no longer say that.

        What I can say with an absolute certainty, is that Christ does lead the church, and EVERY prophet, from Joseph to Pres Monson, has had a reason to be there. None have been perfect, but they have been the right choice for the church at the time they were there.

    3. That is the fallen prophet theory which I’ve heard before. But you have to be careful which (supposed) wife you are listening to for facts. I’m pretty sure the woman who said, “if anyone said he wasn’t having sex, they didn’t know the prophet”, didn’t know the prophet. There is one wife that was married to another man at the time of their sealing that may have claim to having bore a child by Joseph. Evidence suggests that the previous marriage had been dissolved prior any conjugal interaction between them. I’m pretty confident that he is not a fallen prophet. Where history and other pseudo sciences are concerned all you have to do is wait a bit and additional research will support the prophet.

    4. Very insightful. I appreciate your comments. As a descendant of Cordelia Morley Cox I appreciate your thoughts. Cordlia was one of Joseph Smiths wives who was sealed to him and also her husband.

  6. To those who are just figuring this out, seriously, you didn’t know about this already? It’s amazing how nobody though that Brigham Young practicing polygamy was a big deal but the idea that Joseph Smith (the one who actually received the revelation) practicing polygamy is some sort of trial of their faith.

    1. Polygamy isn’t the only stumbling block here. Marrying other men’s wives troubled me. The age didn’t bother me because at that time 14 was a marrying age. When I researched the “other men’s wives” part, I discovered that those were eternity only marriage which non-Mormons would have difficulty understanding, but within the LDS faith it made “some” sense. At least it meant that they weren’t sharing husbands. After that, all that mattered to me was how did the husband feel about it and if he was okay with it, for whatever reason then who am I to pass judgement.

      1. So I’m no doctrine-expert, but the story I heard was that Joseph received revelation a certain woman should be sealed to him, and instead she ended up civilly marrying another man in the church. When the husband found out about all of that, however, he pretty much marched her over to Joseph Smith and had them sealed. This could be an inaccurate telling of things, but I THINK that’s mostly correct.

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