Ep 149 – D&C 132 Pt. 2 the ConText
On this episode, we dive into the historical context of the polygamy revelation (D&C 132). We discuss the plight of Emma with Jo’s reckless libido. We cover the historical foundation for William and Jane Law possibly brokering a sex-swap deal with Emma and Joseph Smith, as well as their later denials of such scandalous accusations. The stories of Sarah and Maria Lawrence & Emily and Eliza Partridge are told through the lens of some of the foremost historians of the field, reconstructed from firsthand accounts.
Hales – Quinn “Evidence for the Sexual Side of Joseph Smith’s
William Law Letters to Wilhelm Wymetal
Joseph H. Jackson 1844 expose
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
Now that we’ve reviewed the text of D&C 132, the polygamy revelation, let’s discuss the context. A lot can be said and much more has been written about Nauvoo polygamy. Some historians have made it their sole purpose to document and understand everything that happened when it came to Mormon elites practicing polygamy throughout the first half of the 1840s. It’s a controversial subject. A few historians have tried to make the case that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy and that it was just his Mormon elite cohorts who were practicing spiritual wifery. But that’s nonsense which requires ignoring dozens of first-hand contemporary sources which corroborate polygamy by Joseph Smith and his closest acolytes. As far as historians can tell, it happened, so the question is, what did it look like? How was it practiced? What were the reactions of people when the doctrine was revealed to them?
We’ve explored some of these questions as the topic of polygamy has come up in our timeline. It’s not a simple subject and the idea of sharing spouses was so incredibly contrary to the Victorian Protestant ideals of the standard model of a nuclear family that polygamy required persuasion, coercion, and upon acceptance, the utmost secrecy, which was repeatedly built into the text of 132 itself.
The practice of polygamy had commenced years before the actual text of D&C 132 was dictated. It required verbal communication of the idea, and the scriptural justification of it, to those who would be initiated, but having an actual revelation which could be presented certainly helped to elevate the practice, thus legitimizing any proposal that Mormon elite men would propose. The tradeoff, however, was that there now existed a paper trail, removing any chance of plausible deniability. The existence of a paper revelation on polygamy factored heavily into the criticisms raised by the Nauvoo Expositor which led to Jo and Hyrum’s deaths less than a year after the revelation was dictated.
For today, I’m going to be relying heavily on some of the foremost historians of polygamy. Polygamy falls outside any field of knowledge that I have, and frankly it falls outside my specific field of interest, which is why we’ve spent comparatively little time on it with respect to political, military, and criminal aspects in Nauvoo Mormonism. Polygamy was an ever-present cloud hanging over Nauvoo and the practice of it influenced many decisions. It’s an important piece to the Nauvoo Mormonism history puzzle, but as a standalone subject, it’s a theological issue which doesn’t particularly interest me. That’s not to denigrate polygamy’s importance, only to reveal personal preferences. If polygamy, as a standalone subject, interests you, I’d recommend listening to Year of Polygamy podcast if you haven’t already. If you listen to it in conjunction with this show, your understanding of polygamy and how it impacted Nauvoo Mormonism will be much more complete and richer. Besides, it’s one of the best Mormon history podcasts out there and spectacularly well done.
With that said, let’s get into the historical context of the revelation and practice. By July 1843, Jo had about 2 dozen wives, most of which were probably unknown to Emma, first spouse to Jo of over 15 years. The portion of the text from D&C 132 we discussed last week will be coming into focus today. Verse 51 and 52 say:
51 Verily, I say unto you: A commandment I give unto mine handmaid, Emma Smith, your wife, whom I have given unto you, that she stay herself and partake not of that which I commanded you to offer unto her; for I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice.
52 And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me; and those who are not pure, and have said they were pure, shall be destroyed, saith the Lord God.
Verse 54 is where it commands Emma to “abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else.” Let’s get into this, what does it mean? The presence of these passages has caused some discord among historians with how to interpret the historical record. There may be evidence that a deal was brokered between Jo and Emma on equal rights, that she may have agreed that Jo could have wives if she could take another husband. No documentation exists that would unquestionably verify this, just old reminiscences of people. This possible “equal rights” deal has to do with Emma and a guy named William Law, who is controversial as a figure of Nauvoo Mormonism, especially given his role as a primary publisher of the Nauvoo Expositor, which led to Jo and Hyrum’s deaths.
A contemporary source for this possible polyandry comes from William Clayton, Jo’s primary scribe in Nauvoo. His journal entry for 23 June 1843 says this:
This A.M. President Joseph took me and conversed considerable concerning some delicate matters. Said [Emma] wanted to lay a snare for me. He told me last night of this and said he had felt troubled. He said [Emma] had treated him coldly and badly since I came…and he knew she was disposed to be revenged on him for some things. She thought that if he would indulge himself she would too.
If Jo would indulge himself, she would too. For further detail on this possible deal, we must turn to the Joseph H. Jackson expose of 1844, after Jo and Hyrum’s deaths. Remember, Joseph H. Jackson was the guy who joined the Mormons under false pretenses to expose Joe Smith and the deluded religious sect. He’d gained Jo’s favor and Jo called on Jackson to carry out a mission in Missouri to break Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell out of prison and finish of the botched Lilburn Boggs assassination, neither of which he was able to accomplish. Jackson’s expose is very controversial and divisive among Mormon historians, but this is what he tells of the situation between Jo and Emma Smith and William and Jane Law. It’s a bit of a long read but it’s so full of little goodies that we have to deal with.
It was shortly after the adventure I have related above,… that Joe informed me, in conversation, that he had been endeavoring for some two months, to get Mrs. William [Jane] Law for a spiritual wife. He said that he had used every argument in his power, to convince her of the correctness of his doctrine, but could not succeed. I then asked him how he dare preach such doctrines to virtuous and well meaning females, in the name of the Lord, and in relation to the particular course he was pursuing towards Mrs. Law, I remarked that it astonished me, to see him profess so great friendship for Law, while at the time he was endeavoring to destroy his happiness by the seduction of his wife. To this he replied, that Law was trying to seduce Emma, and he was determined to beat him. I then asked him if Emma know of his having so many spiritual wives; to which he replied that she did, and was knowing to every act of his life, and he believed she was the most virtuous woman on earth; and that she even would not be true to him if she could get a chance; but said he, "I watch her close and mean to, so long as I live." I then asked him if he could blame Law if he should seduce Emma. He seemed to think that Law would not do such a thing. I then reminded that he had just said that Law had tried to seduce Emma, in order to justify his own proceedings with Law's wife, but that now he contradicted himself by expressing so much confidence in Law. To get out of his dilemma, he said that the truth was, Emma wanted Law for a spiritual husband, and that she urged as a reason that as he had so many spiritual wives, she thought it but fair that she should at least have one man spiritually sealed up to her, and that she wanted Law, because he was such a "sweet little man." -- He then tried to persuade me to aid him in his purposes on Mrs. Law, and said that he would employ any stratagem, in order to accomplish his object, and went on to say, that he and Emma had both tried to persuade her of the correctness of the doctrine, but that she would not believe it to be of God. I told him that he must carry his plot himself, for I would have nothing to do with such things; but remarked, that if all parties were agreed, that he and Law had better swap wives. To which he replied that that was all Emma wanted.
It wasn’t long after this reported occurrence that William Law was excommunicated from the church, formed his own branch, published the Nauvoo Expositor, and Jo and Hyrum were both dead. Law was also first counselor in the church presidency and aide-de-camp to the lieutenant-General of the Nauvoo Legion. William Law was a lifelong friend of Emma Hale Smith Bidamon. He remembered this time as a man of nearly 80 years old, when he was living in Wisconsin. This came in the form of 3 letters by William Law when he responded to allegations of this wife-swap proposal in Wilhelm Wymetal’s 1886 expose:
On page 108 you speak of "swapping wives," and state that you have it from one who knows. Now let me say to you that I never heard of it till I read it in your book. Your informant must have been deceived or willfully lied to you. Joseph Smith never proposed anything of the kind to me or to my wife; both he and Emma knew our sentiments in relation to spiritual wives and polygamy; knew that we were immoveably [sic] opposed to polygamy in any and every form; that we were so[,] subsequent events proved. The story may have grown out of the fact that Joseph offered to furnish his wife, Emma, with a substitute for him, by way of compensation for his neglect of her, on condition that she would forever stop her opposition to polygamy and permit him to enjoy his young wives in peace and keep some of them in her house and to be well treated, etc.
The great mistake of my [life was my] having anything to do with Mormonism. I feel [it to] be a deep disgrace and never speak of it when I can avoid it; for over forty years I have been almost entirely silent on the subject and will so continue after his. Accept my kind regards.
William Law merely claimed that the allegations of a wife-swap proposition between the Laws and Smiths was patently false, but he did notably carve out the possibility that Emma may have been looking elsewhere than Jo to satisfy her needs in exchange for no longer hounding Jo about all of his wives. So where does that leave us? We have a contemporary antagonistic source making the accusation that Emma and Jo brokered some kind of deal with William and Jane Law, then we have a late antagonistic reminiscence, more than 40 years after the fact, by the accused completely denying anything of the sort with himself, but leaving open the possibility that somebody else may have been the subject of such a deal. Then he wrapped with saying he’s tried to forget any association he had with Mormonism as the greatest mistake of his life. Law’s letter from 40 years later taken into the context of the text of 132 commanding Emma to not partake of that which god commanded Jo to offer to Emma may exonerate his own name, but it far from alleviates any possibility of some kind of swap.
With that said, we also have Emma’s response to Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith reading to her the text of D&C 132. The interaction was recorded in William Clayton’s journal contemporary with the event, but he gave a detailed affidavit in the 1870s that provides much more detail and corroborates his brief journal entry of the day. The relevant piece of his affidavit is as follows:
On the morning of the 12 of July, 1843, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, came into the office, in the upper story of the red brick store, on the bank of the Mississippi river. They were talking on the subject of plural marriage. Hyrum said to Joseph, “if you will write the revelation on Celestial marriage, I will take, and read it to Emma, and I believe I can convince her of its truth, and you will hereafter have its truth, and you will hereafter have peace.” Joseph smiled and remarked, “you do not know Emma as well as I do.” Hyrum repeated his opinion and further remarked, “the doctrine is so plain I can convince any reasonable man or woman of its truth, purity and heavenly origin,” or words to their effect. Joseph then said, “well, I will write the revelation, and we will see.” He then requested me to get paper and prepare to write. Hyrum very urgently requested Joseph to write the revelation by means of the Urim and Thummim, but Joseph, in reply, said he did not need to, for he knew the revelation perfectly from beginning to end…
Hyrum then took the revelation, to read to Emma. Joseph remained with me in the office until Hyrum returned. When he came back, Joseph asked him how he succeeded. Hyrum replied that he had never received a more severe talking to in his life, that Emma was very bitter and full of resentment and anger.
Joseph quietly remarked, “I told you, you did not know Emma as well as I did.” Joseph then put the Revelation in his pocket and they both left the office.
And that copy of 132, the one Jo put in his pocket, was the copy he gave to Emma and consented to have it burned at her wish. But that’s okay, because Jo could recreate it any time necessary and we know it was recreated and given to Joseph Kingsbury and Newell Whitney, from which D&C 132 was printed. As a peripheral question I’ll ask, what does it say about Jo that he had his older brother try to convince his wife that polygamy was okay? Why couldn’t he do it himself?
The timing here is a bit complicated. When the revelation was actually dictated Emma was well aware of her husband spending a lot of time with other women in Nauvoo. Seeing the actual revelation in print doesn’t seem to explain her angered reaction unless Jo’s polygamy was a slow-rolling boil for her and presenting her with the actual text set her over the edge. Is there something more to the story?
What explains her reaction to me is the point in the revelation calling her to cleave to none other than Joseph and condemning her if she didn’t consent to the wives Jo proposed to with the Law of Sarah bit. According to the text itself, god commanded Jo to broker some kind of deal with Emma, but it was revoked by the text of 132 like the commandment of Abraham to kill his son, Isaac. Their deal was just a test for Emma’s faithfulness in the words of the lord. If you’re in an open relationship but only one member of that relationship is allowed to have friends with benefits, it’s understandable that other member would be a little mad that they couldn’t go get some too.
Regardless of what it was that infuriated her specifically, she eventually agreed to Jo taking some young women as wives, assenting to the Law of Sarah contained in the last 8 verses of the revelation. These wives were the Partridge sisters and the Lawrence sisters, and we’re about to dive into the details of these relationships with the help of some amazing historians.
A detail worth prefacing this information is that Jo had already taken the Partridge sisters, Emily and Eliza, to wife when Emma gave her consent in line with the Law of Sarah, but those first marriages were done unbeknownst to Emma. As a result of Emma giving her consent after Jo had already taken Emily and Eliza to wife, they performed a second ceremony under Emma’s supervision, and the tension during that ceremony is palpable, soon to be discussed.
Newell and Avery’s excellent biography of Emma, Mormon Enigma, reconstructs the passage of events expertly, so I’m going to read a fairly large extract from their book, with only small edits for continuity. I’m picking up a bit earlier in the year of 1843 for some context. It begins right after discussing the Eliza Snow staircase incident from about February 1843, which we discussed on episode 137 – Emma’s Stairway to Hell, then goes on to tell the stories of Eliza and Emily Partridge, largely taken from their own hand. Here we go:
After Eliza Snow’s abrupt departure from Emma’s house in February 1843, Joseph apparently resolved to pursue the establishment of plural marriage in spite of Emma’s strong feelings. He approached Bishop Edward Partridge’s daughters, who had lived for two years in his home. Emily was nineteen on February 28, 1843; Eliza would be twenty-three on April 20. “The first intimation I had from Brother Joseph that there was a pure and holy order of plural marriage,” Emily wrote, “was in the spring of 1842, but I was not married until 1843.” Emily recorded the events of that year in her reminiscences. “Joseph said to me one day, ‘Emily, if you will not betray me, I will tell you something for your benefit.’ Of course I would keep his secret, but no opportunity offered for some time to say anything to me… he asked me if I would burn it if he would write me a letter.” Emily promised to do as he wished. “I began to think that was not the proper thing for me to do and I was about as miserable as I ever would wish to be for a short time. I went to my room and knelt down and asked my father in heaven to direct me in the matter… I could not speak to any one on earth.” Emily remembered, “I received no comfort till I went back and watched my opportunity to say I could not take a private letter from him.”
“Do you wish the matter ended?” he asked.
“I do,” she replied. But as time passed Emily wished that she had listened and felt “as miserable” as she was before.
Soon after Emily refused Joseph’s letter she and her sister Eliza received an invitation from Mrs. Elizabeth Durfee <Mother in Israel comment> to spend the afternoon at her home. Emily described this visit: “She introduced the subject of spiritual wives as they called it in that day,” and wondered “if there was any truth in the report she heard.” Emily thought to herself, “I could tell her something that would make her open her eyes if I chose.” Not one to be drawn out by gossip, Emily said nothing. But on the way home she told her sister about Joseph’s conversation, which disturbed Eliza also. “But it served to prepare her to receive the principles that were revealed soon after,” Emily noted. Word that Emily would not betray Joseph was probably carried back to him by Mrs. Durfee. “I learned afterward,” Emily wrote, “that Mrs. [Durfee] was a friend to plurality and knew all about it.”
Let’s just pause there for a moment. Mrs. Durfee was one of the Mothers of Israel who was friendly to the idea of polygamy and would actually help Jo acquire more wives. She, among a few other older plural wives, would meet privately with younger women and teach them the idea of polygamy, or at least put a bug in their ear about it, then gauge how receptive they would be to the idea and report their findings to Jo. Then he would act based upon that information. In the case of Nancy Rigdon, he denied everything and minimized his own actions. In the case of the Partridge sisters, he knew they could be trusted and set up a meeting in a safe place, which Mrs. Durfee arranged on behalf of Jo, in the home of Heber the Creeper and Vilate Kimball. Emily’s recounting of events shows the personal turmoil caused by this controversial proposition that ran counter to everything she knew of church doctrine and her own personal morality.
Emily agreed to meet Joseph at Heber Kimball’s house in the evening. Some Kimball family members were present when she arrived. Heber explained to her, “Vilate is not at home, and you had better call another time.”
Emily wrote, “I started for home as fast as I could so as to get beyond being called back, for I still dreaded the interview.” Then she heard Kimball softly call, “Emily, Emily.” When he was about to overtake her she turned and went with him. “I cannot tell all Joseph said, but he said the Lord had commanded [me] to enter into plural marriage and had given me to him and although I had got badly frightened he knew I would yet have him.” Emily continued, “My mind was now prepared and would receive the principles.” In a reflective moment she added, “… that was the only way that [it could] be done then. Well I was married there and then. Joseph went home his way and I going my way alone. A strange way of getting married wasen’t it?” The date was March 4, 1843.
Four days later Eliza Partridge married Joseph. She kept a journal but burned it later because it was “too full.”
This is all taken from Emily Partridge because Eliza Partridge burned her journal because it was “too full.” I don’t think anytime in the history of the English language has anybody said so much by saying so little than what was said in those two little words. These marriages were apparently concealed from Emma, as they occurred 4 months before the revelation was dictated and the possible deal was brokered between Emma and Jo. The consternation captured by Newell and Avery here reveals a tendency that was a common thread among most of the women who were married into polygamy in Nauvoo. They became targets of Mormon elites and once that happened their paths were laid. They had no real choice in the matter. They were forced to shoulder rumors and drama through none of their own actions. They were given the prophet’s secretive burden to bear and they didn’t know who they could or couldn’t trust. When Elizabeth Durfee approached Emily to gauge where Emily’s mind was on the idea of polygamy, Emily had no idea that Durfee was a Mother of Israel and trying, at that very moment, to coerce her into polygamy. The secrecy must have been a heavy cloud over every initiate’s head. Newell and Avery continue to reconstruct the situation so well, I’ll let them continue to tell the story.
Emma had heard Joseph and Heber C. Kimball address the Relief Society and allude to a time when women would participate in the endowment. After being involved in the construction and design of the garments, the building of the temple, and hearing about their place in the endowment in the Relief Society, why had women not yet been admitted to the Endowment Council? Heber C. Kimball said it was because some women had led their husbands out of the church. Joseph taught that a man must obey God to be worthy of the endowment and that a wife must obey a righteous husband to merit the same reward. Until Emma could be obedient to Joseph and give him plural wives, she could not participate in the endowment ceremonies, yet he taught her that the endowment was essential for exaltation—as opposed to salvation, which Joseph taught was available to all through the atonement of Christ. Joseph wanted Emma to serve as the example, the Elect Lady, “disseminator of the endowment blessing,” to other women. Thus her rejection of plural marriage would have blocked her admittance into the Endowment Council, because she had not obeyed her husband, and therefore prevented other women from entering as well…
At the same time that Hyrum [Smith] was struggling with plural marriage, so was Emma. Joseph had apparently been relentless in his efforts to convince her. He was not master in his own home so long as Emma opposed him, and since Emma had discovered his relationship with Eliza Snow, the subterfuge and deception in their lives loomed larger. He wanted Emma to practice plural marriage and to lead forth as the example. It was this setting the example for other women to follow that was most difficult…
For two months, from March to May, Joseph appears to have talked with Emma about plural marriage. He apparently used their rides together to teach her the necessity of the endowment and sealing. There is no evidence that she ever opposed him on any doctrine but plural marriage. Convinced that it was necessary for her salvation and essential to their continued relationship, she may have decided to compromise with Joseph. In May 1843, she finally agreed to give Joseph other wives if she could choose them. Any of Joseph’s other wives, who by now numbered at least sixteen, would have been more comfortable if they had had Emma’s approval. Emma chose the two sets of sisters then living in her house, Emily and Eliza Partridge and Sarah and Maria Lawrence.
Joseph had finally converted Emma to plural marriage, but not so fully that he dared tell her he had married the Partridge sisters two months earlier. Emily said that “to save family trouble Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed… [Emma] had her feelings, and so we thought there was no use in saying anything about it so long as she had chosen us herself.” Emily also remembered that Emma “helped explain the principles to us.”…
But apparently Emma choosing the Partridge sisters for Jo wasn’t enough, because she also chose the Lawrence sisters. We’ll get back to Newell and Avery momentarily but first an extract about Sarah and Maria Lawrence from Compton’s excellent historiography, In Sacred Loneliness beginning on 474.
Zion called, drawing the Lawrences from Canada to Missouri in 1838, but they probably heard of the “Mormon War”” along the way and instead turned eastward to Illinois, settling in Lima, halfway between Commerce [soon to be Nauvoo] and Quincy. Here Edward [, Sarah and Maria’s father,] died in about March 1840, when Maria and Sarah were seventeen and fourteen, leaving a considerable estate for his family to inherit. Under his will, his wife received a third of the inheritance and the rest was to be split among the heirs. However, a legal guardian was required for the family.
Sometime in 1840 or early 1841 the Lawrences moved to Nauvoo. When we next hear of them they had become part of Joseph Smith’s circle, for in June 1841 he was appointed guardian of the minor heirs of Edward Lawrence and trustee for their estate. William Law and Hyrum Smith were made bondsmen to Joseph. This guardian relationship is not fully understood, though historian Gordon Madsen has discovered documents that give some insight into its legal complexities.
By 1841 or early 1842 Margaret Lawrence had remarried, uniting with Josiah Butterfield, a widower who had been a high councilor in Kirtland and a president of the first Quorum of the Seventy in 1837. [Also Jo’s legal council at the beginning of 1843 when he was under arrest and arraigned in the Springfield court]…
After Butterfield married Margaret, he began consulting with Joseph Smith concerning the Lawrence inheritance. Presumably the estate could now be transferred to Margaret and Josiah, who would act as Maria’s and Sarah’s guardian. But for unknown reasons, this did not happen. On April 4, 1842, Joseph’s diary reads, “Transacted business at his house with Josiah Butterfield concerning the Lawrence estate.” Two months later, on June 4, Smith “settled with the heirs of Edward Lawrence at his house. N. K. Whitney & Recorder present.” This may reflect payments to the wife and children from the interest of the estate. However, tension began to simmer between Joseph and Josiah Butterfield, until on March 28, 1843, it erupted into violence. According to the History of the Church, “Josiah Butterfield came to my house and insulted me so outrageously that I kicked him out of the house, across the yard, and into the street.”…
So, what do we make of this so far? Sarah and Maria Lawrence were at this time in 1843 17 and 19 years old. Their father had died three years previous and they took board with the Smiths in Nauvoo probably beginning in mid to late 1841. Edward and Margaret were wealthy and his will divided up his estate among his wife and children, leaving probably about $18,000 in the names of Sarah and Maria. Custody, in cases like this, usually went to men because women could only have custody of their children if they were married. Their mother, Margaret, married a long-time Mormon elite, Josiah Butterfield, who’d helped Jo push through his writ of Habeas Corpus in Springfield that we talked about on episodes 137 and 138 with the help of Andrew Torrez. Since Jo and Emma were granted legal guardianship, the estate was put into their control until Sarah and Maria came of age to use the money. However, when Josiah Butterfield sought a meeting with Jo to get the estate transferred to his and Margaret’s names, Jo literally kicked him out of his house and across the street.
After this unpleasant interaction, Jo’s Nauvoo journal has a few more entries until his death concerning the Lawrence estate, but very little is actually known of the fate of that money, in spite of numerous possibilities. One reasonable way to interpret the record is that the Lawrence money was put into Jo and Emma’s hands as they were the legal guardians. Jo probably thought he could use the money for now to make some investments, and when the time came to pay it out he’d have the money he made from those other investments to fulfill his duties as guardian and pay up. As we know, Jo was always behind the eight ball when it came to money. He was on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt at this point and $18 grand could have REALLY come in handy to relieve some of the pressure. Basically, what I’m saying is Jo and Emma probably stole that money from Sarah and Maria Lawrence, and then Emma gave her consent for Jo to take them both to wife. This shouldn’t be a surprising interpretation of the documentation because Jo screwed everybody with whom he came in contact.
No available documentation illuminates the actual fate of that money, but my explanation falls perfectly within the typical practices of Jo throughout most of his life. Picking up another paragraph from Compton’s book.
In the midst of this apparent dispute over the estate, Maria and Sarah began living in the Smith household, as were the Partridges, another fatherless pair. IN the late spring 1843 Joseph married both Maria, nineteen, and Sarah, seventeen, and soon after this he married the Partridge sisters the second time. Emily Partridge wrote, “Emma, about this time [May], gave her husband two other wives—Maria and Sarah Lawrence.” This was during the period when Joseph had convinced Emma to permit him to have plural wives on condition that she could choose them, so it is entirely possible that she gave her permission for these marriages, as Emily asserts. Little or nothing further is known of the Lawrence-Smith marriages.
I suppose an interesting question with no real answer would be, why would Emma choose these two sets of sisters for Jo to take as polygamous wives? We can’t actually know, just speculate, but the information before us leads to some reasonable possibilities. With the Partridge sisters, Emma had become like a second mother to them. Jo and Emma had been close friends with their parents for the decade before Edward Party-boy Partridge had died in 1840, when the Partridge girls weren’t even teenagers yet. They’d taken Emily and Eliza under their wings and had been caring for them ever since their father’s death. The Smiths had watched Emily and Eliza grow up, they knew the two of them to be good, trustworthy daughters in Zion who could probably keep the secret. Besides, they were already living in the Smith household and spending a lot of time with Emma and Jo, so if he was married to them people would think nothing more of seeing Jo with them, things were as they should be.
The same could nearly be said about the Lawrence sisters, although the Lawrence family had only converted in 1837 so they didn’t have the history with the Smith family that the Partridge sisters had. Regardless, they had a ton of money in their name and when Jo and Emma were named guardians of the Lawrence sisters, that money came into their control. If Jo and Emma were bound to the Lawrence sisters through marriage, they may never leave the custody of the Smiths and possession of that estate, and the actual fate of those thousands of dollars, may never come into question. Nobody in Nauvoo was more in-tune with Jo’s complex web of finances than Emma and marrying the Lawrence sisters may have alleviated some financial pressures that were continually closing in on the Smiths.
The sectarian or theological justifications may hold weight for some of these polygamous marriages for some people. But when you add in the details that Jo and Emma may have picked the Partridge sisters for their convenience and ability to keep a secret, and the Lawrence sisters for the Smiths own financial gain, those justifications from a higher power go right out the window. There is no excuse for this. What Jo and Emma did here was simply immoral, and all of it was a result of Jo’s terrible financial situation and his complete inability to be satisfied in a monogamous marriage, in spite of multiple hypocritical statements to the contrary.
Regardless of the reasoning behind it, Emma apparently gave her consent to these marriages, coming into accordance with the Law of Sarah. But all was not well. The tensions were felt immediately after the ceremonies were performed and only escalated from that time forward.
Back to Newell and Avery’s biography of Emma Smith, Mormon Enigma:
Emma’s capitulation [to these marriages], however, was only momentary. Emily wrote that “Emma seemed to feel well until the ceremony was over, when almost before she could draw a second breath, she turned, and was more bitter in her feelings than ever before, if possible, and before the day was over she turned around or repented what she had done and kept Joseph up till very late in the night talking to him.” Understandably, Emily and Eliza, whose marriages Emma had sanctioned one moment and disapproved the next, had feelings of their own. “She had, as it were, bound us to the ship and carried us to mid ocean, then threw us over board to sink or swim, as the case might be.”
And in case somebody wants to make the case that these marriages somehow didn’t include all aspects of typical marriages, I quote again from Mormon Enigma.
William Clayton’s diary entry for that same day explains why Emma was angry. Joseph told Clayton that he “had had a little trouble with sis. E.” He had been with Eliza Partridge in an upstairs room when he heard someone on the stairs and quickly shut the door “not knowing who it was and held it. [Emma] came to the door & called Eliza 4 times & tried to force open the door. Prest. [Smith] opened it & told her the cause etc. She seemed much irritated.” Why would Joseph have held the door until Emma had called Eliza Partridge’s name four times? Did Emma believe that Joseph and Eliza were hiding something from her? Emily remembered that Emma “kept close watch on us. If we were missing for a few minutes and Joseph was not at home the house was searched from top to bottom and from one end to the other and if we were not found the neighborhood was searched until we were found.”
Emma was not successful in keeping Joseph from meeting with his wives. Emily Partridge would one day testify under oath that she “roomed” with Joseph on the night of her second marriage to him while Emma, she believed, was in the house at the time. She also testified that she had “slept with him” between her first marriage and the second ceremony.
Emma’s thoughts on polygamy after Jo’s death leave absolutely no uncertainty that she hated the very idea of it. Polygamy had caused her so much trouble throughout her life, it fueled the persecution the Mormons experienced and ultimately led to the deaths of her husband and one of her closest friends, Hyrum. In 1843, she had no idea what the future held. Jo had a long history of stepping out on her and she probably knew that could never be stopped, but if she could approve of the wives he took and they were mainly women who were already living with the Smiths, she could exercise at least the smallest modicum of control over a situation she was ultimately powerless in stopping. Her reluctant acceptance of polygamy would sometimes go so far as to guard the door of a room that Jo and one of his teenage wives were hold up in, according to Emily Partridge, to deter any interested observers. Other times, she was staunchly against polygamy and her husband having teenage wives. But she was forced to operate under the doctrine of appeasement to keep from conflict, as she was an inherently nonconfrontational person; a general people-pleaser.
What else could she do? The reputation of her husband and her own self lay in the balance if the rumors of polygamy became anything more than just rumors. She couldn’t stop Jo, but she could cover for him to help from it being exposed. She didn’t know what would happen, Jo didn’t know what would happen, nobody had any idea what the future held should Jo go public with polygamy. The entirety of Emma’s interactions with Nauvoo polygamy strike me as somebody who’s biding their time when they don’t have any options or solutions.
I mean, she did have options and solutions, but the consequences of those were probably just too great to overcome. The Nauvoo Emma strikes me as somebody who was overcome with feelings of both grief and relief when Jo was finally killed. That’s probably an unpopular opinion, but just consider her plight and the possible consequences if she tried to change the hand she was dealt. Jo had EVERYTHING in his control. He had women coercing other women to become his wives. People were killed for not paying their tithing. He had a massive network of spies and nothing happened in Nauvoo without his knowledge. The legal system had repeatedly proven itself completely impotent in trying to curtail his growing power and he had politicians by the dozen in his pockets or filling the pews of his church. He was probably the wealthiest man in Illinois, even if every one of his assets had liens, the counterfeit business provided plenty of liquid money for him to live his preferred hard and fast life. He had an army in his control and an underground militia that lived in the shadows. Every street had a young man whittling with a bowie knife watching everything that happened in the city and funneling that information right back to their commander-in-chief. Anybody who opposed Jo wound up with either their character or their life assassinated. Even with all of these descriptions, words fail me in aptly describing how powerful and terrifying Jo truly was.
What could Emma do? Could she just divorce him? He’d destroy her character and she’d never recover. What would the kids think? Could she go public with the accusation of polygamy, and sue Jo for divorce on grounds of adultery? Where would the average everyday Mormon come down on this massively public battle? Could she poison him and her problems would be solved? Possibly, but from who would she procure the poison? How could she affect such a plan without Jo noticing? Could she organize a coup and have him assassinated? There would be absolutely no way to make that happen without Jo finding out and exacting some form of punishment or revenge. Could she plead to the Governor to have her husband arrested? She’d repeatedly plead to both Governor Carlin and Governor Ford to have her husband released from prison on multiple occasions, why would they believe her? What reasonable expectation did she have of them being successful in any kind of government action to bring Jo in and ACTUALLY get him sent to prison or the gallows?
You see, we have to look back and wonder, how could Emma possibly sign off on Jo taking teenage wives living under her own roof? I would ask, how could she NOT sign off? How could she do anything other than just pacify and appease without her life being threatened? She couldn’t break the system, it was too robust, so she played the game by Jo’s rules until it was over… and then she could make her own rules.
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