Joseph Smith Polygamy: The Covenant of Marriage, the Abrahamic Covenant, and Laws Governing Plural Marriage
History tells us that Joseph Smith probably received the ideas of Section 132 as early as the early 1830s. But it took him quite a while to try to understand how it all worked, mainly the law of polygamy and of plural marriage. The revelations in this section help answer questions regarding Joseph Smith polygamy. Now, at the time, he had been translating the Old Testament and he learned about the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And here I think we need to understand what that Abrahamic covenant meant and what the House of Israel was.
What is the Abrahamic Covenant? It’s one of the most powerful, beautiful principles that saturate the totality of the plan of salvation. And this is crucial for understanding what’s going on as God reveals the truth about the marriage sealing. So let’s remind ourselves – Genesis chapter 12, God comes to Abraham and delivers these incredible promises. Verses one, two, and three, that Abraham essentially is going to have a grand posterity and property, priesthood, we might even say prosperity. So let’s also lay out that that promise that God gave to Abraham was repeated to Abraham on multiple occasions. Several times He came to Abraham and tried to reassure Abraham that God would fulfill these promises. When he said to Abraham, if you can count the number of stars, that’s how much posterity you’ll have. If you can count the grains of sand on the seashore, that’s the size of your posterity. Because Abraham had not yet seen the fulfillment of those promises.
So God makes these promises to Abraham – we call it the Abrahamic Covenant, and it is God offering unconditional promises to Abraham, things that God will do for Abraham. And it’s on account of enormous faith that Abraham had shown God over time. You can see this in the Book of Abraham. It’s incredible. And so God said, I will give you posterity, land, priesthood, and prosperity. Those blessings continue throughout the generations and all of us have access to these.
The other thing about that Abrahamic covenant is that the Lord wanted everyone to be a part of that everyone to join the House of Israel and be a part of the Abrahamic Covenant. And I know that Joseph felt that he was so eager to welcome everyone into his home, into his family, and into this House of Israel.
That’s a beautiful insight. The Gospel is for everybody and the Abrahamic Covenant is for everybody. We think about God’s chosen people. What were they chosen to do? They’re chosen to serve others. Not to be served by God, although he does do that, but to serve others and to share all that God has given.
Historical Background of Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants
So one thing I think is important to recognize about section 132 or what we know today as 132 is this is actually a private revelation given to Joseph and Emma regarding Joseph Smith polygamy. It was not meant for public consumption. Now, Brigham Young had it read in 1852 when plural marriage was made public and Orsonheide included it in the 1876 version of the Doctrine and Covenants. But for all intents and purposes, it was written for Joseph and Emma.
One of the things that helps with this particular difficult topic is to not give in to that easy road of putting on 21st-century lenses with all of our 21st-century sensitivities and cultural perspectives and then look back through the corridors of historical time and then judge them based on our standards today, but rather to go back, as you have been trained professionally, to do as a historian, to go back as a visitor in that time, that place, that setting, and try to understand what they were interpreting, what they saw, what they understood.
Joseph Smith initially saw it as bringing people into his family, into his priesthood, and his social network. Richard Bushman talks a little bit about this in Roughstone Rolling. He talks about how Joseph was so keen on this idea of the House of Israel and bringing in people that didn’t have a priesthood connection to share his priesthood connection. And then it would expand and it would become as the stars in the heavens and the sands of the sea. So I love this. I love this whole idea of this new and everlasting covenant. And we see that several times. We see it in verse section 131, verse two. We see it in section 132, verse four. We see it in verse six and probably several other places.
The New and Everlasting Covenant
What is the new and everlasting covenant and how does it relate to Joseph Smith polygamy? And I think part of it is marriage, but I think the other part of it is the larger part of it is Jesus Christ is the new and everlasting covenant and his ability to bring us back to the Father and to connect us with this power or the priesthood as a house of Israel. All as one big family.
In Verse 130 we’re taught that the same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean marriage, but that means our friends. Yes, and I love that I have such dear friends, and I’m so grateful that we can share the sociality that we have now in that larger priesthood network coupled with eternal glory. Better than what you have here. Way better. As good as it is here. That’s a beautiful promise.
I love the way I see Joseph talking with Emma as he’s learning these new things and gaining new insight, and I see her influencing him a little bit. So when you start to have all of these orphaned girls move into the Smith House, or women whose fathers are dead and they don’t really have an opportunity to get married, or women who have less than valiant stellar priesthood husbands. I think Joseph sees them and Emma, I would agree, as part of their family. They’re going to bring them into this house of Israel and make them a part of this new and everlasting covenant.
So I think that there’s a distinction that needs to be made here. I don’t think many people would have any problems with that covenantal that beneficent, let me reach out and bring you into this umbrella of power. I think the problem some people have with this particular topic is when there are physical relationships involved in some of those marriages.
I think that intimate marital relationship is a huge thing. So I think, first of all, maybe we should talk about what is the rule of marriage. And we learned that in the Book of Jacob, chapter two. So I don’t know of any place in Scripture that is clearer as far as establishing what the Lord’s rule is or what his pattern is and then giving the exception, I can’t find any better place than Jacob, chapter two, verses 27 through 30. So you’ll notice that the rule or we might call it the law, the Lord’s law of marriage In verse 27, “Wherefore my brethren, hear me and hearken to the word of the Lord.” Did you catch that? It wasn’t let me give you my opinion as your prophet. He says, “Hearken unto the word of the Lord. There shall not any man among you have, save it be one wife and concubines. He shall have none.” And then he gives some other information, but then he gives the exception. In verse 30 of Jacob, chapter two, “for if I will.” Did you notice those three words conditional on God willing, “if I will”. It’s not if you want it or if you think it’s a good idea, or if you’ve been reading the Bible and say, hey, I want to apply this. It’s if I will, saith the Lord of hosts, raise up seed unto me. I will command my people, otherwise, they shall hearken unto these things. So you could write law next to verse 27, an exception next to verse 30. Joseph and Emma may have been given this revelation as an instrument to lead them through the subject of Joseph Smith polygamy.
And I think even we know section 42 as the law, right? And even there, the Lord clearly delineates to Joseph in verse 22 “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart and shall cleave unto her and none else.” That is the law.
In section 49, verse 16, again, we get this wherefore it is lawful that he should have one wife and they twain shall be one flesh and all that this that the earth might answer the end of its creation.
Something that I think is interesting, and I think it’s important is it seems to me, from my perspective, this is just my opinion, that God seems to usually begin with the rule or the law and then deal with exceptions down the road as needs arise. So for me, it’s fascinating to read our earliest accounts in Scripture of two people in Eden, Adam and Eve. It wasn’t Adam and Eve and Alice. It was Adam and Eve. The rule, the law, let’s begin there. Let’s get that right. And then we’ll deal with exceptions, right?
And I actually think in a lot of ways we can see Adam and Eve in Joseph and Emma as they go through their own dreary wilderness and with noxious weeds and thistles, that they have to figure out how to make it all work. It’s an incredible metaphor. But I think also each of us has this experience of fall and redemption. And we certainly see this with Joseph and Emma absolutely.
Which, by the way, this idea, this motif of a creation fall and atonement kind of being an overlay for this whole story and the difficulties that Emma is facing and that Joseph is trying to figure out where God has given him some commandments. The what? But he didn’t give him a handbook. He didn’t say, here’s how to do it effectively. So Joseph is trying some things. And quite frankly, I think if Joseph were here today, I think he might say, give me a little bit of a break. I was doing the best I could with what I had at the time. In fact, look at what he says in verse 56. “And again, verily I say, let mine handmaid forgive my servant Joseph his trespasses.” Now, why would God need to tell Emma to forgive Joseph his trespasses if he had done everything perfectly? I think that’s beautiful that if God is willing to forgive him, then we should cut him some slack and say, let’s work through the messiness, the muddiness of the history, and try to see what happened, but not hold him hostage to his past. If we continue reading that verse, it reads, “And then shall she be forgiven her trespasses.” So I think it’s beautiful. And the Lord says at the end of that verse this is verse 56 “I, the Lord thy God, will bless her and multiply her and make her heart to rejoice.” Wow, that hearkens a lot back to section 25, doesn’t it?
So in section 25, she is told that she is the daughter of God and as his daughter, she can receive an inheritance. She is told that she needs to lay aside the things of the world and murmur not at the things that she cannot see or understand, but that she’s to cleave into her covenants. And I think that’s huge. And then at the end of the section, she’s told that she will receive a crown of righteousness and will be able to enter into the presence of the Lord.
Jenny Reeder’s Insights on Emma Smith and Joseph Smith Polygamy
Tyler’s Question for Jenny – “My question for you is, how do you feel about Emma, the woman, the daughter of God, based on that history and that research that you’ve done?”
I think I want to step back just a little bit. I think she really agreed with Joseph in expanding her house and welcoming people into it. I think the trouble arose when John C. Bennett, who had been a confidant of Joseph Smith, started using the ideas of spiritual wivery to manipulate young women into sexual encounters that Joseph did not in any way suggest or approve. And I think once that gossip started going around and it certainly came back to Emma, but this whole idea of marital relationships expanding beyond her own was really hurtful to her. I think she felt betrayed. And I think one of the reasons she felt betrayed was because she did not know about some of the marriages that Joseph had been engaged in, and some of them were her really good friends. Eliza R. Snow was the secretary of the Relief Society. Sarah Cleveland was the first counselor in the Relief Society whose husband was not a member of the church. Elizabeth Anne Whitney’s daughter was sealed to Joseph Smith, and all of these things were not made known. And I think Joseph gets called out for that in this section.
Now, Joseph is very concerned about adultery, especially as the subject of Joseph Smith polygamy arose, as we are today. And so we see in verses 40 through 44 some rules and commandments that the Lord gives about forbidding adultery. And this is exactly what John C. Bennett was doing. In fact, he was committing unadulterated adultery. And even committing because he was a doctor. So he was even performing abortions for some of the women who become pregnant. And this was something that really hurt Emma. This whole idea of not having the same intimate relationship that she had had. The correspondence that you have between Joseph and Emma over the years is so beautiful. And they consider themselves eternal companions. They use that word even within their afflictions. And so with that sort of switch into the idea of plural marriage, Emma and the sense of betrayal, Emma felt very me.
Let me ask this question. When Emma finds out about it, there are obviously those negative reactions. But Hiram Smith was convinced. The prophet’s brother was convinced. Joseph, I can go and reason with Emma and I can explain. If we just write down the revelation, I’ll go and I’ll talk her into it.
Emma and Hiram had a really they were good friends. They were good friends. And of course, it’s different with a friend than with a husband. So sweet. Hiram believed that he could help Emma understand this. And Joseph even said you do not know Emma like I do. So they had the revelation written out. Joseph had received it several years earlier, but it’s now written out, and he takes it to Emma. And it’s not a pretty it doesn’t go well for Hiram. No, it doesn’t.
And so a few years later, Joseph and Emma spent a couple evenings and maybe all night, I would say. Yeah. As I understand it, he goes back home and they’re in a very heated discussion about Joseph Smith polygamy when William Law, Joseph’s counselor, has to come in and kind of mediate that discussion. And then the next day, they go out for a carriage room. Yeah. So their house has a revolving open door, and they have religious meetings and political meetings and civic meetings, and there’s people coming in and out, so they don’t have a lot of private space. So often Joseph and Emma would ride horseback into the country. Emma was an excellent horsewoman. She learned it from her brothers, or they would take a carriage out into the country. And I think one of Emma’s concerns was how she would care for her children if Joseph had other children with other wives. And so the next day, they went and put some of their property in the names of her children, and she received half of the share of the steamboat on the Mississippi River. And this helped her a little bit.
I think it took a lot of talking, and if I can say this, Joseph never had children with any other women. And Emma was pregnant when Joseph died. So that tells us something without saying a lot. But also, I think this is really interesting. We know that Emma married a man by the name of Lewis Bidamon. And interestingly, she married him on Joseph’s birthday in 1846.
All the people in winter quarters heard about it and were all up in arms. They were married by a Methodist, and people thought that Lewis was marrying Emma for her money. Unfortunately, she had incurred all of the church’s debt. So it was at that time $70,000. And then when people were leaving Nauvoo, they would leave her the property that they couldn’t sell, which is super nice. But then she was responsible for the property taxes, so it wasn’t a matter of money. They actually had a very intimate relationship, a sweet relationship. Interestingly enough, Lewis Bidamon, while he was married to Emma, had an affair with a woman by the name of Nancy Abercrombie. And they had a son named Charlie. And Nancy wasn’t able to care for Charlie. And so Emma brought Charlie into her house and raised him as her own son. And then Nancy wasn’t able to find work, and so Emma brought her into her house and she became Emma’s nurse. And right before Emma died, she brought Lewis Bidamon and Nancy Abercrombie to her bedside and made them promise that they would get married after she had died so that Charlie would be raised as a legitimate son.
So sometimes I wonder if it took Emma that long to accept polygamy and Joseph Smith polygamy and to accept this idea of plurality. And I really think that may have led to her redemption at the end of her life. I love that Peter denied Christ three times and Emma denied plural marriage and several times throughout the end of her life. But I really think that at the end that she was able to see that the Lord did make “a way of escape”, as it says in verse 50 and in verse 49, “For I am the Lord thy God, and will be with thee even into the end of the world and through all eternity.” It’s beautiful and it’s redemptive and hope-filled. Emma Smith has an incredible story of redemption.
ABOUT JOSEPH SMITH POLYGAMY
Our purpose at Joseph Smith Polygamy is to provide a factual and objective look at the history and beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. With so much sanitized history, misinformation and falsehoods being put forth, we are here to provide facts and objectivity to those who are sincerely searching for truth.