Mormon Polygamy and Joseph Smith

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During the past week, the Bloggernacle (a loose term for the Mormon blogosphere, and by extension, the online Mormon community in general) has been all abuzz about several new articles on the Church’s official website dealing with the topic of polygamy. Most Mormons have had the unpleasant experience of hastily explaining to intrigued or confrontational outsiders that polygamy happened a long time ago, and we don’t do it anymore, possibly followed by the assurance that the purpose of polygamy back then was to care for destitute widows and orphans.

As with most aspects of Mormon history (well, really most aspects of history in general), the truth is something more complicated. Here’s the Cliff Notes version, in case you’re not familiar with the Mormon church, or grew up like me, in a family and church community where these sorts of things were hushed up:

Joseph Smith married over thirty women. Most of these marriages were contracted without the knowledge and/or consent of his first wife, Emma. Several of the marriages were to teenage girls; the youngest was fourteen. Some of the women were married to other men at the time. The women were typically promised salvation and exaltation for themselves and their families if they married him. The whole thing happened in secret, as Joseph was simultaneously denying the practice publicly , and even preaching sermons against it.

Releasing these essays is certainly a step in the right direction. Sticky historical points ought to be acknowledged and talked about. The justificatory tone of the essays, as well as their glossing over of the worst bits, is somewhat disappointing. While there is plenty of discussion of the alleged nobility of Joseph Smith’s motives, there is relatively little about the women involved, many of whom entered into polygamy with him at great personal and social cost to themselves. In fact, most of their names are not even mentioned, which seems to me to be the ultimate insult–they made an incredible sacrifice for polygamy, and we honor their sacrifice by forgetting their names. On the bright side, at least now we are acknowledging their existence, which is a positive step. Church manuals focused on the early Mormon prophets up till now have often erased their polygamous wives from their biographies, sometimes choosing to include only the first wife, and mentioning successive wives only if they were married after the first wife had died. Perhaps this can be the beginning of remembering these women as well.

Bizarrely, the lds.org’s general section on Joseph Smith actually also includes a few paragraphs on his family life, but there is mention of only one unnamed wife (presumably Emma), and no discussion of the heartbreak and humiliation she experienced as he secretly married dozens of other women, many of them her friends, employees, and tenants. The article simply states rosily,

 

One of the later Prophets of the Church told the members, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” This statement came more than a century after Joseph Smith died, but Joseph exemplified this idea all his life.

. . .

Joseph lived the doctrine he preached—that strengthening our families should be an important focus of our lives.”

Hagiography at its finest. A more complete, balanced, and factual approach to Joseph Smith’s polygamy and its devastating effects on Emma and their marriage (as well as a great many other fascinating insights into his life and character) can be found in Richard Bushman’s excellent biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. If you would like to know more about the extraordinary and courageous women who married Joseph Smith, the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog recently did a beautiful, well-researched series called Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith. And while I can’t necessarily endorse the scholarship or impartiality of the new LDS.org articles, they can be found at the following links: Main article on Polygamy; Kirtland Period; Utah Period; The End of Polygamy.

I honor my many pioneer ancestors who accepted and lived polygamy out of the goodness and faith of their hearts. I am deeply sympathetic to the women who lived in loneliness because of it. I’m happy for those relative few who because of polygamy were able to break out of traditional 19th century norms for women and become doctors and other professionals while their sister wives were home minding the children (and only hope that the sister wives were also happy with the arrangement). All their stories should be told, and I’m glad we’re no longer hiding them away as if they were a shameful secret.

I’m not in a position to judge or even know about what all of the early women of Mormonism felt about polygamy. It is clear from the historical record that many of them were devoted to the principle of it, and some even found happiness in its practice, although others reported lives of loneliness, neglect, and conflict. Where polygamy really gets sticky for me is in its modern application, and with that I have some experience and firsthand knowledge. Mormons are quick to say that we no longer practice polygamy. However, when Mormons are sealed (married) in the Temple, it is intended to be for this life and for eternity. We tend to take “happily ever after” quite literally, at least for men. If a man gets a divorce or is widowed and decides to remarry, he remains “sealed” to the first wife, as well as being sealed to the second. The expectation, both implied and frequently stated in Mormon conversations, is that he will have multiple wives in heaven. “Eternal polygamy” is also invoked as a “solution” for women who never marry in this life. In a church that presently adulates “traditional” monogamous marriage, every unmarried Mormon woman I know has been told not to worry, because she will be added to the wives of a righteous man after she dies. Not surprisingly, not one of them has ever said that this assurance assuages any of their worries; on the contrary, it’s an additional source of pain.

The idea of eternal polygamy is obviously painful for single Mormon women. However, I can report from personal experience that it’s extremely disturbing to a married Mormon women as well to picture my husband eventually taking other wives. It’s not exactly the “happily ever after” I had in mind when I fell in love and promised my husband I’d be faithful to him forever. I’ve written about this at some length elsewhere, so I’ll just say that it’s extremely important that the Mormon church has decided, however stumblingly and however late, to start being more open about polygamy. It is a painful topic that has been talked and prayed and wept over in female spaces within the Mormon Church during all the time that I have been a member.

In fact, my impetus for writing this blog post was a post on Feminist Mormon Housewives today, entitled A Personal History of Polygamy. “Somehow polygamy comes up,” says the author. “(Why does it always come up when we LDS women talk?)” It’s a great series of snapshots showing the uneasy place polygamy occupies in the collective psyche of Mormon women. Her experience mirrors my own. We cope as best we can, with uneasy laughter and secret dread. We don’t tend to talk about it in mixed company, because at best we’ll be met with incomprehension, and at worst we’ll be served up misogynist platitudes by male authority figures. And I become more and more convinced that this constant specter of polygamy, which permeates even our most intimate relationships and holiest ordinances, is a microcosm of what it means to be a woman in the Mormon Church.

Weirdly, as I write this, I find myself falling more and more into the first person present. I’ve removed myself for the moment, and maybe forever, from the Mormon Church, but this conversation is so familiar, and so central to spiritual questions with which I have wrestled all my life, that I can pick it up in a heartbeat. I eventually discarded my belief in the divine origin of polygamy, but it took me many years, and a lot of anguished questions.

Thankfully, my daughter won’t have to deal with this particular brand of institutionalized sexism, or the resultant cognitive dissonance; that’s one of the reasons I’ve left. Even if she decides to go back to the Mormon Church sometime–and I’ll support her in it if she does, as I will in any religious choice she makes–she won’t have grown up with her parents, seminary teachers, bishops, and everyone she knows and trusts unconditionally justifying the polygamy of the early Mormon prophets as divinely mandated, and telling her she will, or at least might, have to be a polygamous wife herself someday. For the sake of all the other little girls growing up Mormon (and grown-up women like me, who really could use some closure), I hope that these new essays are the beginning of an increasingly honest and open discussion about polygamy in the Mormon Church, both past and present.

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10 thoughts on “Mormon Polygamy and Joseph Smith

  • November 21, 2014 at 11:18 pm
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    Don’t confuse doctrine with people’s ideas. They are two very different things. Just because members of the church, even high ranking leaders, say and teach certain things does not make them true.

    Personally, I have never been taught the “polygamy in heaven” idea. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I was taught in a BYU religion class that polygamy served its purpose (to raise a righteous generation according to that professor — not to take care of all the widows and orphans or men’s overabundant sex drives, etc. etc.). If that is true, there is no reason for polygamy to continue in heaven.

    The other thing I have been taught about polygamy is that ALL parties involved had to give their consent. I do know that ex-wives still have to give their okay for their ex-husbands to be sealed to another woman in the temple. Assuming the laws remain the same if there is polygamy in heaven, you would have to agree that your husband could take other wives.

  • November 5, 2014 at 3:46 am
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    As a single woman in the church, I have never been told or “assured” that I would be sealed to a man who is already married in heaven. I had never even heard this until I read your blog.

    What happens to the men who die unmarried?

    My LDS friends and I also do not end up talking about polygamy when we get together.

    I read your experiences and scratch my head wondering if we even belong (or belonged) to the same church.

    • November 5, 2014 at 7:41 am
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      It’s very heartening to find a woman who has had a different experience. I hope that as these types of misogynist ideas become less and less palatable to young people, they will fade away altogether, along with the institutional customs and doctrines that support them.

      Your question about the men is indeed the obvious one, and is typically answered with the old cliche that women are so much more righteous than men that there will be an overabundance of them in heaven.

  • October 28, 2014 at 9:03 am
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    I chose to let go of all the cognitive dissonance and stop making excuses for Joseph Smith a long time ago.

    Having affairs behind Emma’s back with 14 year old girls and house guests, pressuring married women by promising salvation and exaltation for themselves and their families if they married him… all while simultaneously denying and preaching against the practice publicly is…um … WRONG. To put it mildly.

    • October 28, 2014 at 9:20 am
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      So glad to hear someone say this! I read about these practices years ago, and found them as disgusting at King David’s sins recorded in the Bible. I often thought THIS was why Joseph Smith was murdered. Not that Protestant Americans have always been kind and tolerant of different faiths by any means (to our shame), but I do see the point of wanting to kill an adulterous man who claimed all this was OK because God told him it was His will. I’m wary of people who claim something is from God when it destroys families or it goes against morality OR if it highly favors men or the person who claims his orders are from God. Another example for me is Islam limiting men to 4 wives at a time whereas Muhammad gets an exception. And don’t me started on that story of him making adoption a bad thing so he could marry his adopted son’s wife.

      My God doesn’t condone adultery and hurting families in these ways.

  • October 28, 2014 at 1:24 am
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    Dear Sarah,

    As much as I myself don’t even like the idea of polygamy and have repetitively told Craig I have every intention to outlive him (jokingly and seriously), I just wanted to make a couple of clarifications on your comments and thoughts.

    First, any male who was sealed and then later divorced, yes he is still sealed to the first wife on paper but if he wants to remarry and be sealed to the second wife, he can only do this with permission from the First Presidency of the church and the first sealing is dissolved and no longer in effect. A divorced man will not be sealed to both wives. But yes, a widower can.

    Second, this statement:
    “Moreover, members are permitted to perform ordinances on behalf of deceased men and women who married more than once on earth, sealing them to all of the spouses to whom they were legally married”
    My take on this that both male and female can be sealed to more than one spouse. Or in other words both the female can be sealed to two males if she was legally married to both and the male can be sealed to two females if they were legally married. Both only if all parties are deceased.

    It is not perfect and I trust my Heavenly Father to work everything out. I don’t know how it will be worked out.

    Thanks for letting me share.

    • October 28, 2014 at 7:07 am
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      Hi Ellen,

      Thanks for commenting. On your second point, it is true that if a woman was married multiple times during life she can be sealed to all her husbands after all parties are dead. It’s just one of those weird chauvinist glitches in the church that a widow cannot be sealed to a second husband while one or both of them are alive, while a widower can remarry as often as he likes and be sealed to each new spouse. This disparity not only causes distress to a widow who is remarrying and loves her new husband, but also results in many LDS men refusing to date or marry widowed women, because they cannot be sealed. Very sad.

      Additionally, there is no teaching in the church that a woman will actually be able to live with both husbands after death. Instead, leaders typically teach that a woman sealed to two men will have to choose one in the afterlife, while a man will be able to have all the women to whom he is sealed.

      I’m not sure where you got your information on the first point. You may be confusing a sealing cancellation with a sealing clearance, which is simply permission for a man to be sealed to another woman without dissolving the first sealing. I know several men who are still sealed to divorced spouses, even though they have remarried. Dissolving the sealing requires consent from both parties as well as the First Presidency. Typically the First Presidency will not give their consent unless the woman is remarrying, because she cannot be sealed to multiple men while alive (see above). Women who ask for a sealing to be cancelled after a divorce are usually told that the sealing somehow “protects” them and their children even when the marriage is over, until they can find a new man to be sealed to. One of the strange and unfortunate consequences of this policy is that if a woman marries in the Temple, divorces, and then marries again outside the temple, her children with her new husband will be automatically sealed to her ex-husband. Imagine explaining that to those children after a lesson on eternal families.

      The idea that Heavenly Father will work everything out in the afterlife is often cold comfort for women when their male leaders who purport to speak in his name refuse to work it out in this life. But it’s typically the response given when someone brings up these issues and disparities, and I’m glad that it is helpful to you.

  • October 27, 2014 at 11:11 pm
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    Great post! I’m glad this topic has come out for discussion. I always felt one reason Joseph Smith and his new religion weren’t welcome by all (and he was killed!) was because he was marrying other men’s wives! Most faiths would consider this adultery, wouldn’t they?

    It was interesting to read your take as a former LDS who has had to deal with the thought of being one of Tony’s many wives in eternity. I hope you can move on from that disturbing thought now that you are out of the church.

    • October 28, 2014 at 6:51 am
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      Yes, polygamy definitely played in to the chain of events that led to the violence that took his life. The more direct cause of his death was that he ordered a Nauvoo printing press that was reporting on his sexual exploits destroyed.

      I actually gave up my belief in eternal polygamy before I left the Church. Part of me feels a little silly saying I used to believe it, because I know it sounds so weird and pathetic to people who didn’t grow up hearing it all their lives. But it is such a common and devastating worry among Mormon women that I feel like we need to talk about it. And because Mormons believe in continuing revelation, it’s not only something that might happen after death, there’s also the possibility, remote though it may seem, that at some time in the future the prophet might reveal that polygamy is to be reinstated here on earth as well. Mormon women think about these things, and talk about them. Many, like Ellen, are able to put it all on the shelf and just believe that God will make everything right eventually. But for some of us the idea is so abhorrent that it causes serious emotional distress and spiritual damage.

  • October 27, 2014 at 4:29 pm
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    Agreed on all fronts. This is a bit of history, with far too many modern-day implications, that really needs to be teased out and worked through.

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