New Mormon essay: Joseph Smith married teens, other men’s wives

First Published      Last Updated Feb 20 2017 04:37 pm

Religion » LDS founder introduced the practice of polygamy to select members in the 1840s.

Mormon founder Joseph Smith took his first "plural wife," Fanny Alger, in the mid-1830s. He later married many additional women — including young teens and some who already were wed to other men — and introduced the practice of polygamy to select members in the 1840s.

But Smith and his church distinguished between bonds for this life, which included full matrimonial relations, and partnerships that would exist only in eternity — though it was not always clear which type of marriage the LDS prophet was practicing in every case.

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These are some of the conclusions in a new Mormon essay, "Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo," added Wednesday morning to one already posted about polygamy in Utah on the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is one of several articles aimed at helping devout members, skeptical outsiders and even committed critics better understand the sometimes-sticky theological and historical issues surrounding Mormonism. The scholarly postings appear on the LDS Church's website under the heading "Gospel Topics."

Polygamy, especially in its earliest phases, is difficult to understand and fraught with controversy, the essay says. "Many details about the early practice of plural marriage are unknown. Plural marriage was introduced among the early Saints incrementally, and participants were asked to keep their actions confidential. They did not discuss their experiences publicly or in writing until after the Latter-day Saints had moved to Utah and church leaders had publicly acknowledged the practice."

Mormon polygamy emerged, the essay says, from Smith's study of the Old Testament in 1831.

"The same revelation that taught of plural marriage was part of a larger revelation given to Joseph Smith," it explains, "that marriage could last beyond death and that eternal marriage was essential to inheriting the fullness that God desires for his children."

Most of those sealed for eternity to Smith were between ages 20 and 40, the essay notes. "The oldest, Fanny Young, was 56 years old. The youngest was Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Joseph's close friends Heber C. and Vilate Murray Kimball, who was [14.]" Marriage at such a young age was legal at the time.

The article does not state how many plural wives scholars believe Smith had, but researcher Todd Compton pegged the number at about 33 and possibly more (not including Alger, who separated early on from Smith).

Whatever the facts and figures may be, the history and context of polygamy are crucially important for every Latter-day Saint to study, says Mormon writer Lindsay Hansen Park, who has spent a year profiling LDS polygamist women for Feminist Mormon Housewives, an online blog.

"Polygamy has shaped who we are as a people — including some of our policies and our theology," Park says. "We can't escape it."

Park views the article as "mostly fair" and praises the Utah-based faith's effort to come to grips with a troubling element of its past.

"I really, really appreciate that it acknowledges some of Joseph's unions were sexual," she says. "It also validates the voices of women who risked their reputations and dedicated their lives to express their experiences."

Still, Park believes the piece reflects a male perspective — mostly Smith's.

That might be especially true in its description of the Mormon prophet's relationship with his first wife, Emma Smith.

The article asserts that "Emma approved, at least for a time, of four of Joseph Smith's plural marriages in Nauvoo, and she accepted all four of those wives into her household. She may have approved of other marriages as well."

"But Emma likely did not know about all of Joseph's sealings [for eternity to other wives]," the essay adds. "She vacillated in her view of plural marriage, at some points supporting it and at other times denouncing it."

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From blacks to Brigham — previous Mormon essays

They have tackled touchy topics:

Did Mormon leader Brigham Young order the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Do Latter-day Saints believe a man can become like God? Was the faith’s now-abandoned ban on black males holding the priesthood rooted more in racism than revelation?

These are just some of the prickly questions confronted in a string of provocative essays released during the past 11 months or so by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

To read summaries of past articles and view links to Salt Lake Tribune stories and the essays themselves, click here on The Salt Lake Tribune’s Following Faith blog.

Joseph’s young wives

Author Todd Compton’s list of 33 plural wives of Joseph Smith includes 10 women under age 20.

» Helen Mar Kimball, 14

» Nancy M. Winchester, 14

» Flora Ann Woodworth, 16

» Sarah Ann Whitney, 17

» Sarah Lawrence, 17

» Lucy Walker, 17

» Fanny Alger, 16-19

» Emily Dow Partridge, 19

» Maria Lawrence, 19

» Malissa Lott, 19

Source: Todd Compton’s “In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith”