‘Marrying a 14-year-old was not a wise thing to do’ — a look at the 33 ‘secret’ wives of Joseph Smith

Scholar says the Mormon founder was intent on “restoring” biblical practices, including the polygamy of the ancient patriarch Abraham.

Joseph Smith, top left, and some of his wives, clockwise from top middle: Emma Hale Smith; Eliza R. Snow; Martha McBride (Knight Smith Kimball); Marinda Nancy Johnson (Hyde Smith); and Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs (Smith Young).

The polygamy of Mormonism’s second prophet, Brigham Young, is well known. Until the late 1990s, however, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had no idea that church founder Joseph Smith had taken dozens of women as his plural wives.

Unlike with his first wife, Emma Smith, he didn’t live with the women (polygamy was secretly practiced during the early faith’s years in Nauvoo, Ill.) and how intimate he was with them remains in dispute among historians.

Scholar Todd Compton was among the first to fully document Smith’s wives in his 1997 book, “In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith.” Now he has a second book, “In Sacred Loneliness: The Documents,” that shares the women’s perspectives in their own words.

Here are excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast in which Compton discussed Smith, his wives (some in their early teens and some married to other men), what their marriages were like, their level of intimacy, whether any children resulted and more.

How many of Joseph Smith’s wives were you able to document?

I ended up with 33 wives that I felt could be really well documented. I had another little list of possible wives, and then I had another list of wives who had early proxy marriages to Joseph Smith. But there were these 33 that I concentrated on that I felt were really solid.

How many of Smith’s wives were married to other men?

Polyandry is where one woman is married to two men at the same time. When I was starting my research, I found out this was going on in a number of Joseph Smith’s marriages. I was really interested in documenting it and finding out what was really going on here. I found out that the women always stayed with what I call “the first husband.” They had children with their first husband and continued to live with him at the same time they were married to Joseph Smith.

How many of the 33 fell in that category?

About a third. And it’s really interesting when you get the chronology. I found out that the first 10 were polyandrous with a couple of exceptions. After that, Joseph Smith married single women with a couple, again, exceptions.

Who was the youngest in the 33?

Helen Mar Kimball, daughter of Heber Kimball and Vilate Kimball. She married Joseph Smith when she was 14. I think she was three months away from 15. Later, after Joseph Smith’s death, she married Horace Whitney. So she’s known as Helen Mar Whitney. … [People want to know]: Was there a consummation [with Joseph Smith]? I don’t think there’s any good evidence for consummation. I don’t think there’s evidence against consummation, you know, but my personal feeling is probably it wasn’t consummated. I used the parallel from Utah history where sometimes a very young girl married into a polygamist family and then there were no sexual relations for a few years.

Critics have used that marriage to Helen and a few other young ones to say that Joseph Smith was a pedophile. Do you see him that way?

No, I don’t. I think that marrying a 14-year-old was not a wise thing to do … Her father wanted the marriage because it would tie the Kimball family with the Smith family. I think that was one of the main motivations for the marriage.

Were there some eternity-only marriages among Joseph Smith’s 33 plural marriages?

Some modern historians have pursued the idea that all of these marriages that I call polyandrous marriages to Joseph Smith were for eternity only. I have not found [convincing] evidence myself that supports this adequately.

Have you been able to document that Joseph Smith had sex with some of these plural wives? If so, how many and did any children ever result?

Again, here’s the issue of evidence. I put the burden on people to document that there were no sexual relations. You expect it in a marriage…. It became an issue later in Utah when the RLDS church [Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now Community of Christ] rejected the idea that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. And so, they sent missionaries out to Utah. These were often sons of Joseph Smith [who believed] that maybe sometimes he had these marriages, but they weren’t real marriages and there were no kids as a result. The Mormon church felt that it had to document that there were some children. And so, there were some affidavits [where]… some of the wives of Joseph Smith that were still alive documented it. There were attorneys who were asking these questions. They said, yes, we had sexual relations with Joseph Smith. Not in those words. It isn’t all 33. You know, many of them had died by this time. One of the polyandrous wives, Sylvia Sessions, told her daughter Josephine that she, Josephine, was the daughter of Joseph Smith. Nauvoo polygamy, as I said, was secret polygamy. And Joseph Smith was not living in the same home with these wives. He was not having frequent sexual relations with these wives, and Emma was not sympathetic to polygamy. And so, as a result of all these things, he did not have many plural children. However, one, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner said that she knew three or four of Joseph Smith’s children who grew up under other names.

How many of the women in the 33 documented wives of Joseph Smith wrote favorably about their relationship with him, and how many wrote critically?

It’s hard to answer that numerically. But when I think about some of the women who wrote about Joseph Smith, the one who stands out for me is Emily Partridge Young. She had a difficult experience being married to Joseph Smith. She and her sister were living in the house with Emma and Joseph Smith. And after they married Joseph Smith, even though Emma knew about it and had actually selected them, she required that Joseph Smith kick them out of the house, and Joseph Smith went along with it. Emily Partridge always resented him for not defending them. On the other hand, she was a good member of the church and viewed Joseph Smith as a prophet. And so, it’s this difficult situation of seeing Joseph Smith as a prophet and as a husband who has disappointed you.

After all your research, what’s your assessment of Smith’s motivation for plural marriage? Was it based on theology as he claimed, or was it for a more earthy reason?

I think it was very biblical. He loved the Old Testament so much, and he was very into restoring all these things from the Bible and especially the Old Testament, like prophets and temples. He was very close to Abraham as a prophet, and Abraham was a polygamist. So, I think it definitely was theologically driven.…And you have all these interesting motivations like connecting prominent families. You know, the Kimball family and the Smith family, which I call dynastic. [Still], I believe in any marriage, the physical and sexual relationship should be there also.

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To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a complete transcript and receive other exclusive Tribune religion content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.