Joseph Smith Polygamy: Plural Marriage Trouble Involving John C. Bennett, Hyrum Smith, and Emma Smith
As Joseph Smith quietly practiced plural marriage in Nauvoo in 1842 and ’43, all was not well. Three people in particular complicated things for Joseph about Joseph Smith polygamy. The first was John C. Bennett, a highly gifted convert whose meteoric rise to civic and church leadership in Nauvoo abruptly ended when he was exposed for his secret practice of “spiritual wifery,” which was nothing more or less than illicit serial adultery. Following his excommunication, Bennett’s defamatory opposition was fierce and directly impacted Joseph’s own private practice of plural marriage. And surprisingly, Joseph’s own brother and member of the first presidency, Hyrum Smith, was openly opposed to polygamy during this time and sought to use his influence to put down any hint of it in Nauvoo, all the while suspecting that his brother and others of the apostles may be living it. Yet amidst his opposition, in one key moment everything changed for Hyrum. And Joseph’s wife Emma Smith was the third and most important person in his life to complicate his practice of plural marriage. Although she sought for a time to embrace it, Emma struggled mightily with this practice on many levels to the point that it almost ended their marriage. In this episode of Church History Matters, we discuss each of these three individuals, John C. Bennett, Hyrum, and Emma Smith, and how each factored into the complexities and troubles of living plural marriage in Nauvoo.
This is a series of discussions we’re having about some special issues in church history, and today we’re starting one of the most controversial issues in the history of the church, that is, plural marriage.
I found that Joseph Smith polygamy and plural marriage is kind of a hard topic to discuss because I feel like we’re kind of uncomfortable with our polygamous past, you know what I mean? It’s been over 120 years since plural marriage was legal in the church, right? But it’s still the brunt of jokes of anti-LDS material. It’s easy, kind of low-hanging fruit. You know, sometimes I liken it to if religion is like TNT and sex is like fire, you know, when you put sex and religion together, it’s bound to be an explosive topic. There’s just too many examples in history where religion has been the pretext for sexual misconduct, you know? So I think people are rightfully suspicious from the get-go on a topic like this, and there’s just so much spin and innuendo about it. And so we don’t know how to talk about it comfortably. So we’re going to try to do that today, and during this series, over the next several episodes, to just try to talk about it, go right to the heart of the matter, and dig into it in a respectful, scholarly, historically faithful way.
That’s what we’re trying to do, and I always tell my students, “If you feel weird about plural marriage, you’re supposed to feel weird about it.” It’s not a commandment for us. It hasn’t been for over a century, and it’s something that we’re forbidden to practice. And so, you know, if you’re praying to know if plural marriage is right for you, you’re asking the wrong question. What you have to do is contextualize it and go back to the time when it was practiced and look at the evidence of if they did this for spiritual reasons and if the Lord was telling them it was right for them. So there’s a little weirdness just built into the fact that our church emphasizes chastity and fidelity so much, and they did emphasize chastity and fidelity back then, but it was a different marriage system and that—I’m going to pull the old “The past is a foreign country” card and say that even a culture that happened in the same place where most of us live but happened over a century ago is going to be very, very different from the culture we live in right now.
This practice of polygamy is revolting to their sensitivities, their cultural sensitivities at that time, much like it is still today, but if we could magnify that even more in that day. Anything beyond man-woman marriage, traditional marriage, was looked at with suspicion in that day for sure, and we should point out that Latter-day Saints weren’t the only ones with unconventional marriage practices. There was the Oneida Community and a couple other people, but it seems like we were the largest and received the most attention in the 19th century. Yeah, and exactly like you pointed out, any Latter-day Saint that’s had interactions with someone usually has to, at some point, answer questions about plural marriage, “How many moms do you have?” or “Does your family practice plural marriage?” There was an episode of an HBO show that was broadcast that had innuendo about Mormons, Latter-day Saints, having more than one wife. So if this is really sensational, and we’ve got to separate sort of myth from the actual facts, where are the sources that a person would go to start understanding the factual practice of plural marriage?
I think that’s the right question because Jopseh Smith polygamy such a volatile issue, sensitive issue. There’s so much spin and innuendo about it. It’s hard to find solid, trustworthy resources on the topic. The first place you’d probably want to start is the church’s Gospel Topics essays. They have, I think, three different essays on this topic, different time periods, and we’ll—we’ll hit on some of that. And there’s kind of a general overview of plural marriage. And then they have sub-essays of Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, Plural Marriage in Utah, and the end of plural marriage. So you can do a shallow dive and just read the plural marriage essay, or you can do a deep dive, and it’s probably around 25 pages or so. If you explore in depth each one of those eras, where would you go once you’ve read the Gospel Topics essays?
The two websites I’d recommend are josephsmithspolygamy.org and mormonpolygamydocuments.org, which is a compilation of Brian Hales. So the first one, josephsmithspolygamy.org, is Brian and his wife, Laura. They’ve done a great job going through the history of plural marriage. They’ve got biographies on every one of Joseph Smith’s confirmed polygamous wives. It uses as the primary sources those who were involved, like Joseph Smith’s wives and others who Joseph Smith taught the practice to. Anytime you’re doing history that—I mean, the closer you can get to the original source, the better. They’ve done a nice, kind of curated job on josephsmithspolygamy.org. But if you want to get to, like, all the raw sources, that’s what he’s done over on mormonpolygamydocuments.org. And my understanding, he paid Don Bradley $50,000 to be his research assistant, to just go out and find every stinking document out there on Joseph Smith’s polygamy: good, bad, incriminating, whatever he could find. And that’s all now available for free on mormonpolygamydocuments.org. You can go look at everything. And so I just love Brian’s transparency. His scholarship has been awesome on this. And so those are the two sources I was thinking of. There’s also a three-volume work called Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. There’s two volumes that cover the history and one volume that covers the theology. And again, these are excellently written, expertly sourced. And one of the things that I really appreciate about those books and those websites is that a lot of times our explanations for plural marriage come from men.
I remember the first time I breached the topic, I was sharing quotes from Brigham Young and John Taylor and church leaders. They’ve gone out of their way to find the voices of women. People like Eliza R. Snow or Lucy Walker or Helen Mar Kimball and why they entered into it. I think the best sources out there on Jopseh Smith polygamy would be his wives.
It doesn’t get better than that. You don’t get more to the source than those who Joseph married, and yeah. That’s what the Hales do a good job of is quoting from the wives. These are conservative, Victorian people who sometimes don’t want to go there. But they were also anxious to help people understand that they weren’t coerced into this system, and to help people understand its real origins, and so, you know, sometimes it’s best to just skip the middle man and go straight to one of those sites, like you pointed out, and read the words of the actual people that participated in it, so that you can get a feel for what was actually happening.
We’ve got a basic feel for sources, so let’s dive into it, and maybe let’s start talking about the origins of plural marriage. So in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 132 is the section that explains plural marriage. One of the things the section heading says is that that revelation itself was given in 1843 but that plural marriage and the principle surrounding it may have been known as early as 1831.
Why do we fix 1831 as the date when plural marriage may have first been revealed?
I’ll just share an example: Orson Pratt, he said, “Lyman Johnson, who was very familiar with Joseph at this early date, Joseph living at his father’s house,” So this is when Joseph Smith was living in Hiram, Ohio at the John Johnson home. So “Lyman Johnson … told me,” Orson Pratt says, “that Joseph had made known to him as early as 1831, that plural marriage was a correct principle. Joseph declared to Lyman that God had revealed it to him, but that the time had not come to teach or practice it in the church, but that the time would come.” So that’s an interesting source, right? That’s Orson Pratt learning it from Lyman Johnson, who heard it from Joseph Smith. So it’s a thirdhand account, but he fixes as early as 1831. But we also have another corroborating source here, Joseph B. Noble, a friend of Joseph Smith, he said that the prophet Joseph Smith told him “that the doctrine of celestial marriage was revealed to him while he was engaged on the work of translation of the scriptures. But when the communication was first made, the Lord stated that the time for the practice of that principle had not yet arrived.”3 So we actually know that in 1831, in February and March of 1831, Joseph would’ve been working on the book of Genesis still, in his Bible translation project. And it would’ve been during that time period where he would’ve encountered the accounts of polygamous patriarchs like Abraham in Genesis 16, where he marries Hagar a few chapters later. Genesis 29 we’ve got Jacob marrying Rachel and Leah, later Zilpah and Bilhah. During that kind of early biblical translation work, this would’ve agitated the question in Joseph’s mind. And that’s what Joseph B. Noble says, and the timing lines up perfectly.
Joseph Smith finishes translating the Book of Mormon, and then, in 1830, commences on his next project, which is to translate the Bible, and this is also the most fruitful period for revelation. This is when most of the Doctrine and Covenants is received. We’re talking, oh, just about everything from section 29 up to 100 or so is linked in some way to this biblical translation project. So 1831 hits a lot of the right marks. You’ve got these two external sources, and we’ve got dates because we have the manuscripts of the Joseph Smith translation that say this was around the time he’s studying the Book of Genesis. So one thing to keep in mind is that Joseph Smith very much takes seriously everything that he finds in the scriptures. And if you’re studying the Book of Genesis, the Old Testament in general, you’re going to run across plural marriage and have to maybe grapple with the consequences of that.
And that’s exactly what Joseph was doing. That’s—as you read Section 132 today, the first few verses are about that. He actually specifically asks about Abraham, right? Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David. He actually mentioned some by name, and from there flows the response and the revelation.
The other thing that we’ve got to add on here, too, is that 1831 is really early. Speculatively the earliest plural wife is around 1836-37. The practice itself isn’t really fully initiated among church members until almost a full decade later. So are there indications there that Joseph Smith was struggling with this. That he may have had a hard time accepting it just like everybody else did later on.
When Joseph first learns about this, and let’s be transparent about our sources on Jopseh Smith polygamy here: What I’m about to share comes from Joseph Smith’s wives. This is one instance where it’s very helpful to have what Joseph told his wives about this. For instance, Lucy Walker, she said that when Joseph first learned about this, I’ll use her words, “He had his doubts about it, for he debated it in his own mind.” Eliza R. Snow, another wife of Joseph’s, said that Joseph was afraid to teach it, afraid to promulgate it. She also said that, and this is a good one, she said, it was in a “private interview [with my brother, Lorenzo Snow] that the prophet Joseph unbosomed his heart, and described the trying mental ordeal he experienced in overcoming the repugnance of his feelings, the natural result of the force of education and social custom, relative to the introduction of plural marriage.“ Joseph is talking to some of those he trusts the most and telling them how much of a wrestle this was for him to overcome the repugnance of his feelings.
She goes on, “He knew the voice of God—he knew the commandment of the Almighty to him was to go forward—to set the example, and establish Celestial plural marriage. He knew that he had not only his own prejudices and prepossessions to combat and to overcome, but those of the whole Christian world stared him in the face.” So when he learned the truthfulness of this principle when God first revealed that to him in response to his biblical translation work, this was not an easy thing for him to accept. I mean, he was wrestling mightily here, it sounds like.
One of the prominent stories that emerges from the people that he confides in is that he was sort of told, “You’re going to do this, or you’re going to be removed from your calling.” Another source that we’ve got here is Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, who’s pretty well known to church members: She’s the little girl that saves the manuscript to the Doctrine and Covenants, runs in the field, the moment most of us have heard of, but she becomes a key player in later church history. She said an angel came to him, and the last time he came with a drawn sword in his hand.
“Joseph said he talked to him soberly about it and told him it was an abomination and quoted scripture to him. He said In the Book of Mormon it was an abomination. [Joseph said] the angel came to me three times between the years of 1834 and 1842 and said I was to obey the principle or he would slay me.” And that is strong stuff. And apparently a lot of people have sort of borne a similar testimony that Joseph Smith had related that story to them. Either he’d be removed from his position or he’d be outright slain if he didn’t obey this principle.
Can we just talk about the fact that he, like, scripture debated the angel? You’ve got an angel there, and you’re like, “Well, have you read Jacob 2” or something. Like, “Come on, don’t you know about Jacob 2? He calls it an abomination in there, man. Come on, angel. Don’t you know your scriptures?” That is so awesome.
But, I mean, Mary’s not the only person that shares this story. I think if you look at the sources, there’s somewhat around 20 people or so that relate some version to that story. Another one is Erastus Snow. He’s Lorenzo Snow‘s cousin, and he said that the angel accused Joseph of “Being neglectful in the discharges of his duties regarding this principle.” After the angel had taught and encouraged him and commanded him to go forward, and Joseph deferred and hesitated. And so he says that the angel now accuses him of being neglectful in the discharge of his duties. And he said that Joseph had to plead on his knees before the angel for his life. Another one from Benjamin F. Johnson, a close friend of Joseph, he says “Joseph waited,” right? This is super uncharacteristic of Joseph Smith to wait and defer on keeping a commandment, right? You know, what’s the story? When—after he got tarred and feathered February of 1832 at the Johnson Farm he said to Sydney Rigdon, “I think it’s time to go to Missouri.” He’d been—hesitated a little bit to go to Missouri, but after that happened, he said, “I made this my motto: When the Lord commands, do it.”
But not on plural marriage. This one, he uncharacteristically resisted and deferred and delayed. So Benjamin F. Johnson said that Joseph “waited until an angel with a drawn sword stood before him and declared that if he longer delayed fulfilling that command, he would slay him.” So there’s, yeah, another account of not just, you’ll be dropped from your calling, but you will be killed. Removed from this Earth. Another account says he’ll be destroyed. I’ve got that quote from Eliza R. Snow. “The prophet hesitated and deferred from time to time until an angel of God stood by him with a drawn sword and told them that unless he moved forward and established plural marriage, his priesthood would be taken from him and he should be destroyed. This testimony, he not only bore to my brother,” that’s Lorenzo Snow, “but … to others.” So there is a period of hesitancy, and that might explain the years—he knows about this in 1831. But it’s much, much later that the practice is begun.
We’ll talk about Jopseh Smith polygamy our next episode: Joseph’s first plural marriage, which is likely 1834-36 in Kirtland. You know, that’s not going to go super well. Just a little spoiler alert there. But yeah, then he’s not going to do anything until 1841. And so, yeah, this is about a decade from the time he first learns about it until he fully embraces and lives in earnest. One more quote from Helen Mar Kimball Smith, another wife of Joseph. She said, “Had it not been for the fear of [God’s] displeasure, Joseph would have shrunk from the undertaking and would’ve continued silent, as he did for years until an angel of the Lord threatened to slay him. If he did not reveal and establish this celestial principle,” and then she says, “Joseph put off the dreaded day as long as he dared.” I feel for him.
You know, from all the eyewitnesses that were involved in this, Joseph was, at the end of the day, a reluctant polygamist. I think we could say it like that. He’s reluctant. He’s hesitant, but he does it at the instigation of God and a threatening angel. Now, beyond all this just “God commanded it,” there is kind of a rationale behind it, too. A lot of times if we talk about why plural marriage was put in place, because that’s probably the most common question is to just say, “Why?”
We’ll sometimes defer and say, “I don’t know.” Or I’ve often heard people give maybe faulty explanations, things like, “Hey, there were more women in the church than there were men.” We don’t really have evidence that that’s the case at that point in time. Or that they were crossing the plains and it was more difficult to find good husbands or things like that. “There’s more righteous women than men.” “There’ll be more women in the Celestial Kingdom than men”, that kind of thing. Rather than diving into those, I think the best approach is probably just to go to Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where the Lord in revelation clearly gives several reasons for why this is supposed to happen.
To listen to the full podcast episode, visit https://doctrineandcovenantscentral.org/podcast-episode/plural-marriage-troubles-part-1-john-c-bennett-hyrum-smith-emma%e2%80%8b.
By Dr. Scott Woodward, Source Expert
Dr. Scott Woodward has dedicated his professional career to educating within the Church Education System for almost twenty years. Currently, he serves as an esteemed faculty member in the BYU Idaho Religion department. He also holds the role of a managing director and content producer at Doctrine and Covenants Central, an affiliate of Book of Mormon Central. He shares his knowledge his Youtube channel titled “D&C Stories with Scott Woodward“. Dr. Woodward earned his PhD in Instructional Psychology and Technology from Brigham Young University.
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Dr. Casey Paul Griffiths received a B.A. in History from Brigham Young University and went on to complete an M.A. in Religious Education and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Foundations at BYU. Before joining the faculty in the Department of Religious Education at BYU, Brother Griffiths spent eleven years at Seminaries and Institutes, serving as both an instructor and curriculum developer. He is joyfully married to Elizabeth Ottley Griffiths, and together, they reside in Saratoga Springs with their three delightful children.
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