Matthew Bowman: Why more and more Mormon types are denying Joseph Smith practiced polygamy

Most historians say the evidence shows he did, but others pin it primarily on Brigham Young.

The friends I went to high school with are generally a good barometer for what news, gossip and stories about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are reaching the radar of people who don’t track such things. So I should perhaps have done a bit more digging when, a few years ago, one of them asked me whether historians had discovered that church founder Joseph Smith was not a polygamist.

I knew about these arguments, but thought they were marginal. So I laughed and moved on. Maybe I shouldn’t have. In the past few years, popular YouTube channels, podcasts and documentaries have been spreading the story among Latter-day Saints.

Before the past decade or two, the arguments against Smith’s practice of polygamy came out of what was then called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Now, members of the Utah-based church have appropriated them. The reasons point to many of the strains that the church is feeling in the United States today — some of its members distrust centralized institutions, even the church itself. Others feel under siege in a nation with increasingly diverse marital practices. All want a Joseph Smith that validates them.

The origins of polygamy denialism

It is true that the evidence for Smith’s polygamy is spotty, and the sources are at times contradictory.

This doesn’t surprise historians. The evidence for a great deal of the past is spotty and contradictory. For instance, in 1835, a 22-year-old Illinois woman named Ann Rutledge died. Thirty years later, lawyer William Herndon said she was the first love of his close friend, Abraham Lincoln. Maybe. But Lincoln never mentioned her in writing, and the people closest to him told frequently contradictory stories. Rutledge remains a point of controversy for Lincoln scholars.

In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised when the history of our intimate relationships are not cleanly or clearly documented — even with someone as prominent as Abraham Lincoln.

Or, for that matter, Joseph Smith.

The evidence is sufficient that most historians agree Smith appears to have begun practicing polygamy in earnest after his church relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1839. He likely married around three dozen women in secret over the next five years. But he lived with and acknowledged publicly only his first wife, Emma Hale Smith. Those involved in the practice — about 25 families in a city of more than 20,000 — kept the secret for a time, but it eventually leaked out. In spring 1844, Smith’s former friend William Law published the rumors in a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. And, of course, Smith died that summer.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Emma and Joseph Smith.

This is the common historical consensus.

Polygamy deniers point to a number of documents in which Smith or those closest to him denounced the practice and denied participating in it. After his death, Smith’s several sons — the oldest 12, the youngest yet unborn when he died — were reared believing their father rejected the practice. Their mother, Emma, told her boys that Smith never had a wife other than her.

The earliest leadership of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (today called Community of Christ) included the Smith sons, and for years their church asserted it was Brigham Young and his friends who began the practice of polygamy.

In the middle of the 20th century, Pamela and Richard Price, married members of the RLDS Church with LDS ancestry, began researching polygamy to prove that Joseph Smith not only rejected it but also actively struggled against it. They eventually published three substantial books called “Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, Volumes I, II and III.”

The Prices proposed that polygamy came from two primary sources. The first was John Bennett, an erstwhile companion of Smith. He began a practice people in Nauvoo called “spiritual wifery.” Bennett told women in Nauvoo that Smith taught that faithful men and women could have sex without marriage. Then Bennett would sleep with them. Smith caught wind of this, excommunicated Bennett and threw him out of town in 1842.

The second culprit the Prices fingered was the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. According to the Prices, the quorum was influenced by the followers of Jacob Cochran, a Maine prophet who taught that Christian men should have multiple wives because the biblical patriarch Abraham did. The Prices found evidence that several apostles preached to Cochranites in the early 1830s and converted some of them. The Prices say that the quorum members were themselves converted to polygamy.

It’s important to note that today the leadership of Community of Christ and the LDS Church acknowledge that Smith was a polygamist. But the work of people like the Prices remains influential.

Evidence from historians

(Utah State Historical Society) This photo of Brigham Young with many of his wives is from 1898.

Most historians find the Prices’ arguments flawed and ill-supported. They note, for instance, that despite the apostles’ encounters with Cochran in the early 1830s, none mentions polygamy as a desirable practice until 10 years later in the Nauvoo period of Mormon history, when other evidence indicates Joseph Smith began the practice.

In addition to noting weaknesses in the Prices’ arguments, historians also point to several Nauvoo-era documents that indicate Smith’s involvement in polygamy.

I will mention one (although there are others). Perhaps most important are the diaries of William Clayton, Smith’s close friend and personal secretary. Clayton’s journals were not publicly accessible throughout most of the 20th century. They include some important entries, several of which deal with plural marriage. I note two significant ones below.

• On May 1, 1843, Clayton writes that he performed a marriage between “J” and “LW,” likely Joseph Smith and Lucy Walker. Later sources indicate the two married that day.

• On July 12, 1843, Clayton describes writing a revelation about Moses and Abraham having many wives. This is probably the revelation now known as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a compilation of writings that Latter-day Saints view as scripture.

There is also a bulk of evidence that emerged after Smith’s death. Over the rest of the 19th century, dozens of people involved in polygamy at Nauvoo gave affidavits to historians, lawyers and LDS Church leaders. Many of those were women Smith married.

Some of these testimonies came out of U.S. courtrooms during legal battles among the various churches in the Mormon tradition over significant sacred sites, like the temple lot in Independence, Missouri. Many women testified under oath that they married Smith as plural wives, giving details like time and date and the nature of their interactions with Smith.

Strategies of denial

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Denver Snuffer, shown in 2021, is leader of the Remnant movement.

The fact that some of these affidavits emerged from trial is important to polygamy deniers.

Denver Snuffer, one of today’s most prominent polygamy deniers and the leader of the Remnant movement, has argued that Brigham Young pressured these women to say they were married to Smith to give the LDS Church plausible claim to Smith’s legacy and therefore legal ownership of land and property.

For Snuffer, polygamy was the product of Young’s seemingly inexhaustible appetite for gain and power — sexual and material. It was part of a larger conspiracy that Snuffer believes enmeshed the LDS Church in a morass of backstabbing and authoritarianism. Though Snuffer is a major advocate of these beliefs, they are not his alone. The documentary “Who Killed Joseph Smith,” for instance, posits that Young had Smith killed as part of his Machiavellian schemes to defend polygamy and extend his power. The makers of the documentary promote the theory that the Clayton diaries — or at least those sections about polygamy — are forged.

Deniers such as Snuffer exhibit an impulse quite powerful in American culture right now — a generalized suspicion of institutions of any kind that arose in the cultural unrest of the 1960s. Such distrust can lead people like Snuffer into conspiratorial belief — for instance, that someone like Young was all-powerful, capable of bending women as strong-willed as some of Smith’s wives were to his will.

Snuffer’s movement embraces a smaller-scale, individualized Mormonism that emphasizes personal charismatic spirituality and rejects most forms of organized authority above each local gathering. For these followers, polygamy denialism justifies suspicion of the LDS Church as an organization.

There are other types of polygamy deniers as well for whom the belief serves different needs. Snuffer’s followers have largely abandoned the LDS Church. Those deniers who remain in it reflect the church’s own turn in the past 40 years toward a glorification of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman and a romanticized view of the nuclear family.

They might acknowledge that Smith may have had plural wives, but they insist that he remained celibate with all but Emma — an assertion that the affidavits complicate. Still others reject that he even was married to multiple wives.

These deniers can be read as the product of the LDS Church’s own evolution in the late 20th century. Scholar Stephen Taysom has shown how the legacy of Emma Smith was rejuvenated in those years. She starred in a romantic book series published by a church-owned press, appeared in church-made films and generally emerged as Joseph’s complementarian partner. All of this work made a polygamous Joseph Smith awkward.

Polygamy deniers of any sort nonetheless find Joseph Smith a powerful, compelling and legitimating figure. That is why the battles over his legacy are so bitter. Claiming him is a way of claiming Mormonism in total, and the work of polygamy denial is the work of making Joseph Smith a useful tool for the sort of religion the deniers wish to practice.

(Matthew Bowman) Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of 2023′s “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America” and 2012′s “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

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