Ep 150 – Helen Mar Kimball
On this episode, we seek to humanize a controversial and fascinating figure of Nauvoo Mormonism. Helen Mar Kimball has been leveraged as an attack against Joseph Smith for decades. The person at the center of those attacks is a wonderful and dynamic woman who was torn with following the prophet and her parents, or living the life of a teenager with her friends. Let’s inject the human element into the historical enigma, Helen Mar Kimball.
Helen Mar Kimball Smith Whitney autobiographical sketches
Life of Heber C. Kimball by Horace Whitney
In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton
MORMON HAPPY HOUR!!!
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
I thought through this life my time will be my own
The step I now am taking’s for eternity alone,
No need to be the wiser, through time I shall be free,
And as the past hath been the future still will be.
To my guileless heart all free from worldly care
And full of blissful hopes and youthful visions rare
The world seamed bright the thret’ning clouds were kept
From sight and all looked fair but pitying angels wept.
They saw my youthful friends grow shy and cold.
And poisonous darts from sland’rous sacrafise,
Thou dids’t not weigh the cost nor know the bitter price;
Thy happy dreams all o’er thou’st doom’d alas to be
Bar’d out from social scenes by this thy destiny,
And o’er thy sad’nd mem’ries of sweet departed joys
Thy sicken’d heart will brood and imagine future woes,
And like a fetter’d bird with wild and longing heart,
Thou’lt dayly pine for freedom and murmur at thy lot;
But could’st thou see the future & view that glorious crown,
Awaiting you in Heaven you would not weep nor mourn.
Pure and exalted was thy father’s aim, he saw
A glory in obeying this high celestial law,
For to thousands who’ve died without the light
I will bring eternal joy & make thy crown more bright.
I’d been taught to reveire the Prophet of God
And receive every word as the word of the Lord,
But had this not come through my dear father’s mouth,
I should ne’r have received it as God’s sacred truth.
-Helen Mar Kimball
Today’s show will be focused on one person, Helen Mar Kimball. Helen’s story has been told a number of times in a number of places and every time that story is taken from the same sources. I’m going to be relying on those same sources to tell her story here because those sources are from her own hand. Helen Mar Kimball Smith Whitney is an interesting figure in Mormon history. She was the youngest of all Joseph Smith’s wives, but so often she’s only boiled down to just that, Jo’s 14-year-old wife. But she’s so much more than a common jab at the supposed piety of the prophet. She was a faithful member of the church her whole life. She was an advocate for polygamy while wrestling with her own internal conflicts concerning celestial marriage. Her entire family were some of the highest-regarded members of the Mormon elite. She had 11 children in her 68 years of vital life. She was a prolific writer and occasional poet. She authored two pamphlets defending the practice of the New and Everlasting Covenant of Mormon polygynous marriage. She loved music and dancing and respected her parents even through disagreements with them. She was allowed by church leaders to marry for love, but only for time, not eternity. Her daily life and eternal destiny were coopted and spoken for long before she had any say in what her future held. She also played the hand she was dealt, and did so masterfully.
But time and time again, Helen Mar Kimball is reduced to an attack point against Joseph Smith. Jo married a 14-year-old, he was a pedophile! First off, there’s no evidence Jo was a pedophile so please stop saying that. The technical term is ephebophile, a person who’s attracted to teenagers. Second, what does it say about Helen Mar Kimball, a human being with her own desires, story, flaws, and beliefs, when we reduce her to an attack point against her victimizer? I’ve done it, I’m sure many of you have done it. So, let’s correct our approach. Let’s humanize this attack point and understand her true story. Let’s understand who Helen Mar Kimball was as a person, instead of reducing her to a pithy jab.
I’m going to send you to chapter 22 of Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness to understand Helen’s story. Also, Lindsay’s Year of Polygamy podcast episode on Helen is particularly outstanding. All of us are working from the same sources because they’re firsthand and incredibly revealing. Helen is one of the best-documented of Jo’s polygamous wives and she left a lot of autobiographical information of her early life in Mormonism, including a detailed diary with nearly daily entries from 1884-96, which was transcribed and edited into an over 900-page volume of A Widow’s Tale in 2003. She spent nearly her entire life in the highest strata, the uppermost layer of the Mormon hierarchy crust, a status she enjoyed solely because of the men she was joined to through family and marriage. With that said, let’s try to understand Helen as best we can, from her own hand.
Helen was born into the Kimball family as the only surviving daughter in August of 1828. The Kimballs lived in a little town called Monroe, New York, just a day’s journey from the organization place of the church in Fayette, New York. Her parents, Vilate and Heber had married in 1822 and built a small farm in the town. The Kimball family and the Brigham Young family were very close. Helen sometimes called Bloody Brigham Young’s sister, Fanny Young, “Aunt Fanny”. In early 1832 the Kimball and Young family came across a Book of Mormon and were converted to the faith. A year later both families made their way to Kirtland, Ohio, where the church had recently taken up headquarters. Helen was 3-years-old when her parents were baptized into the church.
Being an only daughter of a large family, it’s clear that Heber favored Helen from her earliest days. The family was also reasonably well-off and Helen rarely wanted for food.
“I remember the cunning little dishes and toys [father] would make for me, which I generously divided with my mates who were less fortunate.”
Helen also revered her parents as wise and pious, remarking on how her parents seemed to be saints. She didn’t share the same penchant for religious aspirations, instead thinking in her young age that a deathbed-type conversion would suffice for salvation.
“I used to think it impossible for me to ever become a Saint. I looked upon my parents as such, but thought that nothing short of perfection could take us to heaven, which I could never attain to, as I was so fond of fun and amusement that I could not possibly give them up, though I often had very serious reflections upon the subject, and used to think if I could only know just a little time before I was to die, I might be able to sober down and prepare myself.”
Like Zina Huntington, Helen remembered Kirtland as an idyllic time, and left descriptions of the beauty of the surrounding groves. At Sunday schools, she wrote, “I used to love to go and recite verses and whole chapters from the New Testament, and we received rewards in primers, etc…. At ten o’clock we would form in line and march with our teachers up to the temple.”
When Eliza Snow was baptized into the church in late 1835, Snow began teaching school in Kirtland for the brief time before the Mormon removal to Missouri. Young Helen, just hitting elementary school age, attended Snow’s schoolhouse, which was a wing of the Kirtland Joseph and Emma Smith home. In a rare example of the Book of Mormon being used for instruction, Helen learned to read using the Book of Mormon, among other common schoolbooks of the day, as a textbook of instruction.
When young Helen was only 5 years old, her father, Heber the Creeper Kimball, left with Jo, Bloody Brigham Young, and nearly 200 other men on their mission to redeem Zion, known as Zion’s camp, the first military campaign in Mormonism. Zion’s camp fizzled out, but as a consolation for a mission incomplete, many of the Mormon hierarchy were called from participants in Zion’s camp. Heber was one of these men called to the Quorum of Apostles. From that time forward the Kimball family would enjoy elevated status anywhere Mormonism had a presence.
Heber was called on another brief mission in 1836 to the eastern states. Vilate travelled to meet Heber on his return. Helen remembered their return when she was 7 years old.
“I… remember the morning when [mother’s] sweet face peeped into the door, I was just kindling the fire and how quickly I dropped the wood and flew into her loving arms. They had returned late the previous evening and she could hardly wait till morning to see me… The first object that met my eye as we entered the door of our sweet home was my little brother, who had been very sick and was reduced in flesh previous to taking the trip, standing with both hands full of something to eat; my father had not yet rison but our meeting was a joyful one. The wood fire was burning brightly on the andirons and our old fashioned tin oven stood before it filled with sweet apples and Aunt Fanny [Young] was preparing breakfast.”
Helen was baptized in the winter of that year.
I was baptized by Uncle Brigham Young in a branch of the Chagrin river, my father cutting the ice for that purpose. He & Brigham Young then belonged to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles.
Later that year Heber the Creeper left for a mission to England, which didn’t turn up any respectable number of converts, but laid the foundation for the Quorum of Apostles to have a successful mission there from 1839-41. The Kimball family was again left alone in Kirtland without their father as Heber’s prominence in the church continued to grow. He returned in May 1838.
During this mission, the church had undergone many problems and changes. The Kirtland Safety Society had been formed and failed. Joseph and Hingepin Sidney Rigdon had absconded to Missouri to escape incarceration and the lawsuits that were piling up against them in Ohio. Brigham Young and most of the remaining apostles had made their way to Missouri as well. Rebel factions opposed to Jo’s leadership had formed. The city of Kirtland was in turmoil. Helen, approaching 10 years old and completely ignorant or insulated from what was going on around her, departed Kirtland with her parents in July of 1838, writing
When we started for Missouri I was delighted, as children commonly are, at the prospect of a change… although some of my little mates tried to frighten me with awful tales about being eaten alive by the Missourians, who were cannibals with horns.
When the Kimball family arrived in Far West, Missouri a month later, they took brief lodging in the home of the Pattens. Here Helen made friends with David and Phoebe Patten, along with their children. They eventually moved to another small log home in downtown Far West. David Patten was one of the few casualties of the Battle of Crooked River during the 1838 Missouri-Mormon war. Helen remembers coming to the Pattens’ home when David had just been slain, providing a brief sketch of the strength and resolve of Phoebe.
I can never forget her fearless and determined look… Around her waist was a belt to which was attached a large bowie knife [and she intended to fight] if any of the demons came there.
When Helen and the Kimball family arrived in Missouri, the Mormons weren’t long for that state. It was less than 6 months that the Kimballs were there before the Extermination order was signed by Governor Lilburn Boggs and the prophet, along with his closest acolytes, were imprisoned.
During the winter of 1838-9, the Quorum of Apostles took the lead in coordinating the Mormon exodus from Missouri to Illinois. Bloody Brigham Young, with his right-hand man, Heber the Creeper Kimball, took the mantle of acting presidents while Jo and his other fellow leadership languished in Missouri jails. While Heber and Brigham directed the affairs of the church and its members, Vilate and Fanny took care of the Kimball and Young families. Helen remembers their journey from Missouri to Illinois, which began in mid-February, 1839. The journey was rough, the cold climate in the Missouri winter made trudging through the snow a challenge, and every household harbored potential anti-Mormons, requiring them to take refuge in houses under false pretenses.
The day we started the weather was terrible, and my mother and Sister Young, with their children, stopped at a [non-Mormon] house and asked the privilege of warming themselves. [They were admitted.] There were no men, only women there, but they began talking about the horrible “Mormons” and eyed us very closely. Sister Young and my mother appeared to believe all they said, and looked horrified, and we children imitated them.
Another detail Helen provides was her older brother, William, nearly freezing to death. He was riding on a horse and fell off into the snow unconscious. Dr. Levi Richards saw this and jumped from his horse to reanimate the teenage boy. Richards rubbed young William all over to keep the blood flowing then when William regained consciousness Richards smacked him around a bit making William “angry enough to fight, started the blood to circulating and saved his life.”
When the journey was over, the hardships truly began for Helen and the Kimball family. They were forced to make their way to building a small log home in Nauvoo while Helen’s mother, Vilate, was once again pregnant with a young brother to Helen, who they named David Patten Kimball in honor of the fallen warrior from the Battle at Crooked River. They suffered through untold trials as they built a new life in Nauvoo. Helen later remembered the picturesque Nauvoo with fondness in one of her biographical sketches, reminiscing about the
Green woods and hills and delightful views… and most of all… the view of the broad Mississippi, where we could see and hear the steamers as they plied up and down its quiet bosom… those rich prairies covered, as far as the eye could reach, with tall waving grass, and decked with wild flowers of various hues.
Memory has a way of idealizing the past during troublesome times. She remembered Nauvoo with kind memories, but also recounts how poor the Mormons were and how rough life really was.
In the month of July,  father [Heber C. Kimball] moved us up to Commerce; he pulled down an old log stable belonging to a Brother Bozier, about one mile from the river, and laid up the logs at the end of the Bozier house (which had a number of rooms and contained several families). He put on a few "shakes" to cover it, but it had no floor or chinking. When it rained, the water stood nearly ankle deep on the ground. The chimney of the other house, being built on the outside, served us as a fireplace. My mother, not liking the dirt floor, had a few little boards laid down to serve as a substitute.
I remember the evening of the 23rd of August, 1839. We were visited by a heavy rain storm, and those boards floated on the water. My mother [Vilate Kimball] had bread light and ready to bake in a tin oven or reflector, and it had to be propped up so as to bake the bread before the fire, which was built upon andirons. Under these peculiar circumstances I was allowed to go and stop with one of our neighbors, and when I returned in the morning, I was informed that a little stranger had arrived that night. This was truly a wonderful event and created quite a sensation in our midst. He was named after David Patten and although born in a stable, he was a prince in our estimation. This was their sixth child, four of whom were then living. Father purchased five acres of woodland from Hyrum [Hiram] Kimball, and Brother Parley P. Pratt purchased the same number of acres adjoining. They went to work and cut logs and invited a few of the old citizens, viz., Brother Bozier, Squire Wells, Louis Robinson and others, to assist in putting up their houses, as our people were mostly prostrated by sickness. Brother Pratt soon sold out his improvements and went with his family on a mission to England.
Helen also details how sick the family was constantly with malaria in that first and second summer of Nauvoo life. As was a common mindset in her time, Helen believed severe sickness to be caused by evil spirits inhabiting the hosts of the sickness. Church leaders believed similarly, explaining why they frequently coupled folk herb remedies with exorcisms to heal the afflicted. Helen details when the malaria ravaged her family. The Kimballs were even favored with visits from the prophet to help heal them from time to time.
Father was building his chimney and had just gotten to the ridge of the house when he was taken down with chills and fever. The hardships and exposures consequent on being driven from Missouri in the winter had made the Saints easy subjects for the ague to prey upon in that swampy country. Nearly all were taken down, one after another, and the ones who were not shaking or delirious with fever would do their best towards waiting upon those that were. Many had to see their dear ones die and not one of the family able to follow them to their last resting place. Hundreds were lying sick in tents and wagons. The Prophet visited and administered words of consolation and often made tea and waited upon them himself and sent members of his own family who were able to go, to nurse and comfort the sick and sorrowful. He was often heard to say that the Saints who died in consequence of the persecutions were as much martyrs as the ones who were killed in defense of the Saints or murdered at Haun's Mill. There are many living martyrs who remember those days and some will yet wear a martyr's crown. The powers of darkness seemed to have combined to put a stop to the work of the Almighty, but Satan's plans have always been frustrated and they always will be.
One night while we were living in the Bozier house, we were awakened by our mother who was struggling as though nearly choked to death. Father [Heber C. Kimball] asked her what was the matter. When she could speak, she replied that she dreamt that a personage came and seized her by the throat and was choking her. He lit a candle and saw that her eyes were sunken and her nose pinched in, as though she were in the last stage of cholera. He [Heber C. Kimball] laid his hands upon her head and rebuked the spirit in the name of Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Priesthood commanded it to depart. In a moment afterwards, some half a dozen children in other parts of the house were heard crying as if in great distress. The cattle began to bellow and low, the horses to neigh and whinny, the dogs barked, hogs squealed, and the fowls and everything around were in great commotion. And in a few minutes my father was called to lay hands on Sister Bentley, the widow of David Patten, who lived in the next room. She was seized in a similar manner to my mother. They continued quite feeble for several days from the shock…
Heber the Creeper Kimball went with the Apostles on their mission to Europe from 1839-41. Helen remembers when they departed Nauvoo, leaving the Kimball family behind to make their own way in the ailing and destitute little town that would soon become Nauvoo.
Although too young to sense the deep anguish which our parents felt yet we children wept bitterly when our father came to bid us farewell, not knowing that we would ever see him again in the flesh. Both he and Brother Young were going away so sick they were unable to get into the wagon without assistance. The scene is so vivid before me that my eyes are blinded with tears as I try to write, but words fail to describe it. Our grief for a time was very great, but the knowledge that they were messengers of the Almighty to carry glad tidings to those who were in darkness that they also might be partakers of the blessings of the gospel of salvation, sustained those who were left.
Helen’s memory is vivid and detailed in what transpired in Nauvoo. Her pen has proven invaluable in understanding some of the context of Nauvoo Mormonism and what the practice of sealing and celestial marriage looked like under Joseph Smith’s leadership once Helen was targeted and marked by the prophet.
Helen has revealed a lot of her early life and early teenagehood to the record of history. We should understand the perspective from which she wrote these memories. She was a Mormon elite living in Utah in the early 1880s when most of this information was initially written. She was daughter of the elite Heber the Creeper Kimball, sealed for time and eternity to Joseph Smith, then resealed for time to her similarly aged, Horace Whitney, son of Mormon elites Newell and Elizabeth Whitney, the first family to take the Smiths in to their home in the early Kirtland years. Helen was poised as truly one of the most elite women of Mormon nepotism when she wrote most of her memories of Nauvoo Mormonism because she didn’t keep a contemporary journal at the time. Also consider what was going on in Utah when she wrote this information in the early 1880s. The state was coming under heavy scrutiny by the federal government for their practice of polygamy. The government was seizing any property over $50,000. Many Mormon elites including Lorenzo Snow and John Taylor were constantly in hiding, moving from safehouse to safehouse to escape the law. Utah was trying to become a state, but was barred from gaining statehood until they outlawed polygamy. Helen wrote her first pamphlet defense of polygamy in 1882 as a response to Joseph Smith III when he was prophet claiming polygamy was never practiced by his father in Nauvoo. The second of her pamphlets was written just two years later in 1884 titled “Why we Practice Plural Marriage,” which was printed in the Utah Juvenile Instructor. She died in November of 1896, living just barely long enough to see Utah become a state after the first manifesto was created and published by Wilford Woodruff in 1890 putting a hold on polygamy until the second coming.
Needless to say, her memory of Nauvoo polygamy and Jo’s proposal to her certainly had some complex motivations and slants to it. With that said, the words and phrases she uses to describe the doctrine and practice, at least in her reminiscences, don’t read like a polygamy apologist, but sincere recitations of the passage of events. She is very clear and unabashed in her retelling of her teenage years in Nauvoo. She provides a colorful perspective of everything the marriage entailed, telling of her own frustrations and inner-conflict stemming from the introduction of celestial marriage by her own father. Compton amply summarizes her writings of her own memory and the practice by saying:
[Helen Mar Kimball] is perhaps the classic example of a woman whose conversion to polygamy was difficult but complete, coming only after a period of severe cognitive dissonance.
Helen’s interactions with Jo had likely been infrequent prior to 1843. She’d seen Jo and her father meet from time to time when Jo would come over to the Kimball house to conduct business or speak with her parents for any reason. She’d seen Jo preach repeatedly and must have revered him as the holy and pious prophet the majority of Mormons thought him to be. A brief interaction occurred when Jo came over to the Kimball home sometime in 1842. He was talking to Heber and Vilate about some matter or another when he picked up a little doll that Heber had sent to Helen from Europe during his mission there a year and a half prior. Something or another happened and the head fell off the doll while it was in Jo’s hands. Helen remembers the scenario in her 1881 reminiscence and reports his reaction was typical Jo and her reaction is simply priceless.
He merely remarked: ‘As that has fallen, so shall the heathen gods fall.’ I stood there a silent observer, unable to understand or appreciate the prophetic words, but thought them a rather weak apology for breaking my doll’s head off.
That was probably sometime in 1842. At this time, Jo’s ephebophilic attractions toward Helen had likely engaged and she was marked. Sometime in 1841-3 she entered the realm of having absolutely no choice but to acquiesce to Jo’s will. Once she was marked, Jo put a plan into play. His true intentions aren’t made clear given the sequence of events, but it all ended with Helen being sealed to him so it seems he eventually got what he wanted.
I’ll lay out the plan and then we’ll go through the documentation used to form the historical model I describe. Jo decided to test Heber and Vilate Kimball. He wanted to know how loyal they were and gave them an Abrahamic test. He told Heber that the Lord had given Vilate to Jo. They pondered it for 3 grueling days, and eventually agreed. When they approached Jo in agreement to his demand, he told them it was a test and that they were now to be sealed together. After their sealing, Jo tested Heber again by teaching him about celestial marriage, telling Heber it was necessary to enter into polygamy himself. Heber thought he would select the wives he would take, but was sorely mistaken because Jo had already designated who his second wife would be. A short time after Heber was sealed to his second wife, Jo gave the Kimballs another test. He now wanted their 14-year-old daughter. They agreed. Heber taught Helen about the doctrine of celestial marriage and she went counter to every cultural and visceral inhibition and finally agreed to be sealed to the prophet. Then she came under Jo’s control and was barred from participating in the activities of her peers because Jo feared that a boy her age would snap her up. She was very bitter about this fact. Then, a year after she was sealed to Joseph for time and eternity, she became the youngest of Jo’s widows when he was assassinated in Carthage. During this time she developed an attraction to Horace Whitney, son of Newell and Elizabeth Whitney. After Jo’s death she was married to Horace for time, as her eternity had already been spoken for by the prophet.
That’s the sequence of events as the best polygamy historians have reconstructed. A bit dehumanizing, isn’t it? Almost as dehumanizing as attacking Mormon history by saying Joseph Smith married a 14-year-old girl and then forgetting her name. What did she think of all this? What was life like in the Kimball family as they were slowly initiated into the practice? It wasn’t easy. We’re going to read Helen’s own words about her conversion to polygamy in a minute, but first a passage from Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness to shed some light on Jo’s Abrahamic test of the Kimball family. Beginning on page 495. Much of this comes from Helen’s son, Orson Whitney, who wrote the biography of Heber C. Kimball published in 1888. You’ll find a link to it on Archive.org in the show notes along with an amazon link for Compton’s book. This is kind of a long read but it’s expertly constructed and very revealing.
The first chapter in the story of Smith, the Kimballs, and polygamy is that of Vilate’s offering, which Orson Whitney, Helen’s own son, recounted in his biography of Heber. In early 1842, apparently, Joseph approached Heber and made a stunning demand: “It was no less than a requirement for him to surrender his wife, his beloved Vilate, and give her to Joseph in marriage!” wrote Orson. Heber, naturally, was “paralyzed” and initially unbelieving. “Yet Joseph was solemnly in earnest.” Heber’s first impulse was to turn down the requirement with no further discussion. At that time, Orson surmised, he doubted Joseph’s “motive and the divinity of the revelation.”
For three days Heber endured agonies. Finally asked to choose between his loyalty to Mormonism and his intimacy with his wife, Mormonism and Smith won out. “Then, with a broken and bleeding heart, but with a soul self-mastered for the sacrifice, he led his darling wife to the Prophet’s house and presented her to Joseph.” “Joseph wept at this proof of devotion, and embracing Heber, told him that was all that the Lord required.” It had been a test, said Joseph, to see if Heber would give up everything he possessed. As so often with Joseph’s actions, he had an Old Testament parallel in mind—Abraham surrendering Sarah to the Pharaoh. The emotional trauma Vilate endured must have been indescribable also. Then Joseph married her and Heber for eternity, and said, “Brother Heber, take her and the Lord will give you a hundred fold.”
This prefigured the next test for the couple, which was nearly as difficult as the first: Smith now taught Heber the principle of polygamy and required him to take a plural wife. At first Heber thought of marrying two elderly ladies, the sisters Pitkin, who would cause Vilate “little if any unhappiness.” But Smith had already selected Heber’s first plural wife, Sarah Peake Noon, a thirty-year-old English convert who had left an allegedly abusive husband, Mr. Noon, before her conversion, and had two little girls. Heber reluctantly agreed. Finally, to add to the trial, Joseph commanded Heber to keep the plural marriage secret even from Vilate “for fear that she would not receive the principle.” Helen wrote, “this was the greatest test of [Heber’s] faith he had ever experienced… the thought of deceiving the kind and faithful wife of his youth, whom he loved with all his heart, and who with him had borne so patiently their separation and all the trials and sacrifices they had been called to endure, was more than he felt able to bear.”
Heber was understandably worried that Vilate would hear about the marriage from another source and balked at entering into polygamy under those conditions. Helen explained, “The Prophet told him the third time before he obeyed the command. This shows that the trial must have been extraordinary, for he was a man who from the first had yielded implicit obedience to every requirement of the Prophet.” According to Orson, “Heber was told by Joseph that if he did not do this he would lose his apostleship and be damned.” As so often, Joseph Smith taught polygamy as a requirement, and to reject it was to lose one’s eternal soul. Once one had accepted him as a prophet, one had to comply or accept damnation.
Compton’s reconstruction of events reveals certain patterns and tendencies Joseph Smith employed to bring people into the practice of polygamy. First, a test of fealty. Once the person passed, then Jo would begin a campaign probing into a deeper degree of coercion into something that person’s morals were fundamentally opposed to. Heber and Vilate Kimball had proved themselves church-broke and willing to sell out their system of Victorian morals to follow the word of the prophet. Church leaders today can say there’s no right way to do the wrong thing, but Joseph Smith is the paramount example of that which is wrong under once circumstance may be right under another. When he commanded something to be done, it was done, often with the looming threat of damnation should his followers run counter to his will. When it comes to the Kimball family, sure they enjoyed the utmost elite status in Mormonism throughout most of their membership, but that clearly came at a price.
Jo threatened damnation, the Kimballs fell into line, then it was time to really test how far Vilate and Heber were willing to go.
According to Compton, he discusses Vilate’s conversion to the principle of celestial marriage. He reports family folklore as follows:
Heber asked God to reveal the principle to Vilate, and soon after she was allowed a vision of immortal joy in celestial, plural marriage, and saw Sarah Noon as Heber’s wife. She came to her husband and said, “Heber, what you kept from me the Lord has shown me.”
Thus, according to family tradition, Vilate and Heber had complete conversions to Mormon polygamy, in spite of their Victorian predilections. What about Helen though?
We’re lucky Helen Mar Kimball left behind so much detail of this episode in her life, even if it was 40 years after it happened and she’d been living polygamy her entire life. So, I’ll let her tell the story for herself so we can further humanize this incredible and controversial woman of Mormon history.
This passage comes from a letter Helen wrote in 1881 to her children. The letter also included the poem I read at the beginning of this episode. The entire letter is fascinating. A little preface to it. This is written in the context of Helen alone learning of the doctrine of celestial marriage. It takes place after Heber and Vilate had gone through their Abrahamic trials and were practicing celestial marriage. Sarah Peake Noon may have been pregnant with Heber’s first polygynous child at this time.
Years passed away and we were living in the City of Nauvoo. Just previous to my father’s starting upon his last mission but one, to the Eastern States, he taught me the principle [p. 1] of Celestial marriage, & having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet, Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth. My father had but one Ewe Lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter: how cruel this seamed to the mother whose heartstrings were already stretched untill they were ready to snap asunder, for he had taken Sarah Noon to wife & she thought she had made sufficient sacrafise, but the Lord required more. I will pass over the temptations which I had during the twenty four hours after my father introduced to me this principle & asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph, who came next morning & with my parents I heard him teach & explain the principle of [p. 1] Celestial marrage-after which he said to me, “If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation and exaltation & that of your father’s household & all of your kindred.
This promise was so great that I will-ingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God & his angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart—when Joseph asked her if she was willing, she replied “If Helen is willing I have nothing more to say.” She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older & who better understood the step they were taking, & to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was as sure to come as the sun was to rise and set; but it was all hidden from me.
This was the carrot stick of Mormon theology. The greatest reward was to be sealed to the prophet in the eternities, the alternate resulted in eternal damnation. By virtue of giving their daughter to be sealed to Jo for time and eternity, Heber and Vilate, along with all their subsequent wives and sister-wives, were sealed to the prophet’s eternal lineage and their place was ensured in the celestial kingdom where they would create worlds without number.
Helen was given a 24-hour period to make her decision. What decision did she have though? Her parents had decided her fate, Jo had targeted her, Helen’s path was laid. Now it was merely left to whether or not she would walk it, or turn her back on it and suffer the label of apostate in this life and damnation for eternity.
[Father] left me to reflect upon it for the next twenty-four hours… I was sceptical—one minute believed, then doubted. I thought of the love and tenderness that he felt for his only daughter, and I knew that he would not cast her off, and this was the only convincing proof that I had of its being right. I knew that he loved me too well to teach me anything that was not strictly pure, virtuous and exalting in its tendencies; and no one else could have influenced me at that time or brought me to accept of a doctrine so utterly repugnant and so contrary to all of our former ideas and traditions.
Sometime in May of 1843, Helen was sealed to Joseph Smith a few months shy of her 15th birthday. Now she was spoken for, and Jo required Helen to no longer be in any social situation where she may be courted by any boys her age, which Helen became extremely bitter about, especially as she had already taken a bit of a liking to Horace Whitney, son of Newell and Elizabeth Whitney.
During the winter of 1843, there were plenty of parties and balls. … Some of the young gentlemen got up a series of dancing parties, to be held at the Mansion once a week. … I had to stay home, as my father had been warned by the Prophet to keep his daughter away from there, because of the blacklegs and certain ones of questionable character who attended there. … I felt quite sore over it, and thought it a very unkind act in father to allow [my brother] to go and enjoy the dance unrestrained with others of my companions, and fetter me down, for no girl loved dancing better than I did, and I really felt that it was too much to bear. It made the dull school still more dull, and like a wild bird I longed for the freedom that was denied me; and thought myself a much abused child, and that it was pardonable if I did murmur.
Those blacklegs and ones of questionable character could have been anybody, but most reasonably could be referring to other teenagers she may divulge her secret to, not understanding the gravity of what had transpired.
Soon after the marriage took place, Heber went on another mission to the eastern states. He sent a letter to Helen, she must have been on his mind and was likely exhibiting symptoms of anxiety or depression.
My Dear Helen.--… You have been on my mind much since I left home… learn to be meek and gentle… and always speak kindly to your dear mother and listen to her counsel… My child, remember the care that your dear father and mother have for your welfare in this life, that all may be done well, and that in view of eternal worlds, for that will depend upon what we do here, and how we do it; for all things are sacred… Let us seek to be true to our integrity wherever we shall make vows or covenants with each other… Now let us be careful that we do not make a breach.
Heber had but one ewe lamb, and this is what the offering looked like. Compton summarizes on page 500 of In Sacred Loneliness very well.
These lines present a bleak picture of Helen’s mental state in the months after the wedding. A sicken’d heart” broods; she is a “fetter’d bird with wild and longing heart” who pines for freedom every day. She must have been attracted to boys her own age, as would be normal. She certainly was already paying attention to Horace Whitney. The marriage to Smith coming so suddenly and blocking these growing feelings must have been devastating to her. These lines are the first evidence of depression in Helen Mar’s life.
Understandable. She was plucked from the flock of her peers at a young impressionable age, and given the secrets of a criminal empire to keep to herself. If I can borrow from the Handmaid’s tale, a rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays in the maze. Helen’s maze was laid out for her and from that time forward she could only live within those strict confines.
A final point to deal with here is whether or not this marriage included sex. Look, this is a thorny issue, as it is with all polygamous marriages, especially the teenage ones. There’s plenty of evidence Joseph Smith was a sexual predator, so this question shouldn’t really matter all that much, but it is important for some people and for some reasons so let’s touch on the issue. If you don’t want to hear about sexual assault or it may trigger you for any reason, maybe skip forward about 5 minutes.
Would Heber and Vilate have given their only teenage daughter to a 37-year-old man knowing full well he was going to rape her? Yes. As is the case in most religious sects that include a patriarchal polygamous dynamic, this is common, even today. What evidence would we expect to find from this Victorian era that this marriage included a sexual dynamic? None. We can only infer based on a few pieces of data.
First datum, Joseph Smith was a sexual predator and it’s entirely plausible that many of these polygamous marriages involved a sexual dynamic.
Second datum comes from a late antagonistic source named Catherine Lewis who claimed to be a friend of Helen at this time. Lewis claimed that Helen objected to the marriage after finding out everything it included, like maybe being raped by the prophet. Here’s the quote of Helen from Lewis:
“I would never have been sealed to Joseph had I known it was anything more than ceremony. I was young, and they deceived me, by saying the salvation of our whole family depended on it.”
Like I said, it’s a late antagonistic quote and there are issues with some of the other content before and after this actual line.
Third datum comes from the change in Helen’s mood and how worried her parents were with her wellbeing after the marriage. If the protectionist tone of Heber’s letters throughout 1843 and the poem she penned are evidence of her general shift in mood, it could imply she suffered a series of traumatic experiences associated with the marriage, which is entirely understandable.
The fourth and final point of data used to determine if sex was involved is a little complicated. It comes from the 1892 Temple Lot hearing. This hearing is complicated but suffice it to say, a few of Joseph’s wives were called to testify in court about their marriages to Joseph Smith. Eliza Partridge and Lucy Walker were called to the stand and testified that they, indeed, had slept with Joseph Smith. The fact that Helen Mar Kimball was alive at the time and wasn’t called to testify in that hearing lends itself to the possibility that there wasn’t a sexual dynamic because she would have been a star witness for the Hedrickites if she and Joseph had had sex. However, she was 14 when she was married to Joseph Smith, so her testifying in court that she was raped by the prophet at age 14 in 1892 when Mormonism was being squashed by the U.S. Government for their practice of polygamy really wouldn’t look good. That may explain why she wasn’t presented as a witness. There were plenty of other teenage polygynous marriages happening in Utah at this time and the Utah Mormons probably didn’t want that kind of attention drawn to their practices while their prophets and apostles were in hiding to escape arrest.
The resounding conclusion about historical evidence from Helen that any sex was involved is that she never would have recorded it in the first place. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, especially when it comes to private life-changing trauma like sexual assault by a person regarded as the gatekeeper to heaven. Helen was coerced and pushed into this marriage and she had absolutely no control over the situation. Her life and eternity were chosen for her and it would have been her fault if she abandoned those choices; only damnation awaited those who denied such proposals.
Now that we know some of Helen Mar Kimball’s story, and trust me folks, we barely scratched the surface, maybe we can take some lessons from her writings and experiences. Maybe one day Helen Mar Kimball will be more than just a common attack line against Joseph Smith after erroneously calling him a pedophile. I’ll go ahead and let her take us out for the night.
I can truly say that I feel an interest in the welfare of all, and if some of the incidents of my life could impress the minds of others as they have my own, I would feel amply repaid for writing them. There seems to be a great curiosity in the minds of strangers about the "Mormon" women, and I am willing, nay, anxious, that they should know the true history of the faithful women of Mormondom. In the brief sketches which have been given from time to time, the trials and sufferings of the Latter-day Saints have scarcely been touched upon.
Copyright Ground Gnomes LLC subject to fair use. Citation example: "Naked Mormonism Podcast (or NMP), Ep #, original air date 04/12/2019"