Road to Carthage 5 - Polygamy
On this episode, we examine many facets of polygamy throughout early Mormon history.
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
What makes somebody a serial criminal? I’m not talking about John Harvey Kellog who invented pressed corn flakes everybody eats for breakfast and also convinced generations of Christians to mutilate the penises of their babies for generations, I’m talking about a different kind of serial criminal.
Serial criminals operate patternistically. If a serial thief, they hit similar places in similar ways, a serial murderer usually targets specific people and has a specific method of killing their victims. Serial criminals commit their crimes in a series by developing a system with which they’re comfortable to continue to commit those crimes for as long as possible.
Career criminals can be serial criminals, but not all serial criminals are career criminals. The subject of our focus was both. Whether treasure digging in New York, stealing people’s business and printing money in Kirtland, waging war against the state of Missouri, or inciting insurrection in Illinois, Joseph Smith was a career criminal. He was also a serial criminal.
From an early age he was able to identify marks and exploit them through deliberate fraud. It happened in a serial fashion and it enabled him to do some incredibly illegal and abusive things. It enabled him to grow a following of 6 people to 16,000 people, bleed them dry of every resource they had even to the point of giving up their lives for the cause, and become an exalted figure, a god among humans. He wielded complete and total control over these people because he was a serial predator; and yes, his serial predatory behavior is nowhere better revealed than when we talk about polygamy.
Polygamy and the attendant sexual dynamics are complicated topics, especially when we consider the public image and morality of a man who claimed to speak for god; a god which evolved from the puritanical roots of Western Christian protestantism. This isn’t an easy topic to navigate and I’m going to do my best to allow the people to speak for themselves as we tell their stories. Yes, you see the right timestamp, there’s no error. We have 42 pages of script to get through today and I’m not even making you wait 9 months for each episode that’s 3 hours long like some other history podcasters. We’re going to get into some controversial material today. We’ll be talking about coercive and destructive practices, sexual abuse, grooming, and child rape, sex trafficking, as well as some of the complexities that came along with the social structures of clandestine polygamy. Fair warning, this may not be everybody’s favorite episode and there may be material you don’t want to hear, but I’ll warn before getting into the more disturbing content. That said, not every story today is an abusive fiend we’ll dredge from the pits of historical infamy because we’ll also discuss some success stories and people who probably enjoyed and certainly socially benefited from the practice. Not all these stories are alike.
Let’s get started at the beginning, when Joseph Smith began to enter the public consciousness in the early 1820s.
In 1823 the angel Moroni first appeared to Joseph Smith and told him about a set of gold plates buried in a nearby hill. This much you probably know from Joe’s official history. But you probably don’t know the details of his failed attempt to get the plates the following day unless you’ve listened to this show from the beginning or read a few of the best books on the subject.
According to several different accounts, from both Mormon and non-Mormon sources, the story went something like this. When Moroni appeared to him in a vision on the night of September 21, 1823, he told Joe “not to lay the plates down, or put them for a moment out of his hands, until he got into the house and deposited them in a chest or trunk, having a good lock and key.” Unfortunately, Joe didn’t follow this instruction. He went to the hill in the early hours of the morning on September 22 and dug up the plates. He lifted them out of the stone box they had been buried in, and then he set them down on the ground and turned around to see if there was anything else in the box. When he turned back to the plates, they were gone.
Turning back to the box, Joe found that the plates had teleported back inside. Also in the box was the angel in the form of a toad. Joe tried to pull the plates out of the box again, but the angel prevented it. According to Joseph Knight, Joe found the plates immovable. Lucy Mack Smith says the angel knocked him down with a wave of invisible force. Oliver Cowdery says the angel shocked him three times. Willard Chase says the toad struck him on the head and knocked him down multiple times. Orlando Saunders says the toad transformed into a giant “flaming monster with glittering eyes, until it seemed to fill the heavens, and with a blow like lightning it swept [him] from the mountain into the valley beneath.”
At this point, Joe asked the angel “why can I not get these plates?” The angel, which by this point had transformed back into human shape from it’s magic amphibian origins, explained that he couldn’t have them right now because he hadn’t followed the instruction not to set the plates down. Joe asked, “when can I have it?” And the angel answered, “come one year from this day, and bring with you your oldest brother, and you shall have them.”
Obviously Joe told a lot of different stories about this attempt to get the plates, which isn’t surprising because Joe never bothered very much with trying to be consistent about these visionary experiences in the woods. But the different versions of the story share some common elements, and the instruction to bring Alvin to the hill the following year is mentioned by both a Mormon source, Joseph Knight, and a non-Mormon source, Willard Chase. The instruction to bring Alvin to the hill became a problem, because less than a month later, Alvin unexpectedly died in his mid-twenties. Here the story takes a dark turn, because it kind of seems like Joe may have dug up his brother’s body, or some portion of it, in order to take him to the hill. On September 25, 1824, Joseph Smith Sr. published an article to refute rumors that someone had stolen Alvin’s body. It seems way too coincidental that this was published just a few days after Joe was supposed to take Alvin to the hill. There’s plenty of mystery surrounding what exactly happened here and reasonable historians disagree but Jo exhuming Alvin for this magic ritual is how I tend to interpret the evidence.
For the next couple years, Joe continued to insist that in order to get the plates, he needed to take “the right person” to the hill. For a little while he thought it might be treasure seer Samuel T. Lawrence, but he changed his mind about that pretty quickly as Lawrence possibly wanted a larger cut of the gold plates loot than Jo was willing to part with. This disagreement infected the entire treasure-digging group as Jo eventually cut all of them out. Sally Chase and Luman Walters attempted to steal the plates after Jo had made the set without success.
And by this point you’re probably asking yourself, I thought we were going to talk polygamy this episode. What does this story have to do with anything, especially considering that we’ve already discussed all of it earlier in the series? Well, I implore you, dear listener, to be patient. It’s about to take a turn toward sexual elements, because in fall 1825 Joe met a desirable woman named Emma Hale when he boarded for a few months in her father’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania during the Stowell treasure dig. When he returned to New York, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. And so, as Joe was wont to do, he searched his toolbox of manipulation to find the exact implement to accomplish his heart’s desires.
Step 1. According to Lucy Mack Smith, Joe took his parents aside one day and said he’d been lonely since Alvin died, and he wanted to get married, and he thought Emma Hale was the woman who would make him happy. His parents were delighted and invited Joe to bring Emma home to live with them.
Step 2. In fall 1826, the same year of the first U.S. patent for an internal-combustion engine, Joe told fellow treasure seer Samuel T. Lawrence that he had discovered a rich vein of silver in Pennsylvania, and he wanted Lawrence to take him there. Lawrence didn’t believe him, but Joe pinky swore and told Lawrence that if there was no treasure, “I will bind myself to be your servant for three years.” So Lawrence agreed, and he not only provided transportation but also covered all expenses of the trip, because Joe was broke. On the way, Joe insisted they stop at the Hale home, and he successfully badgered Lawrence into vouching for Jo to the Hales, claiming Jo was a good guy and fit to marry their daughter. Lawrence begrudgingly did so. When they finally went onward to look for the silver mine, of course they found nothing and went home.
Step 3. Joe went to live and work with Joseph Knight in Colesville, New York so that he could be closer to Emma. He periodically visited her, and eventually asked her father for her hand in marriage. Her father, Isaac Hale, refused because Jo followed a lifestyle unfit for his daughter.
Step 4. Joe’s former employer Josiah Stowell arranged for Emma to visit his house so that Joe could clandestinely meet with her away from the scornful eyes of Isaac. Emma later told her son, “I had no intention of marrying when I left home; but during my visit at Mr. Stowell’s, your father visited me there. My folks were bitterly opposed to him; and being importuned by your father, aided by Mr. Stowell, who urged me to marry him, and preferring to marry him to any other man I knew, I consented.” In other words, Joe enlisted the help of an adult she trusted, and then ambushed her with a marriage proposal, and the two men badgered her until she said yes. Emma settled on Joseph Smith and one can’t help but wonder how she regarded that memory later in her life. To wonder what was and what could have been had things been different, I can only imagine her mind carried these thoughts from time to time.
Step 5. Joe showed up on January 17, 1827 while Isaac was at church and absconded with Emma to South Bainbridge, where they were married on January 18. To escape the withering castigation of Isaac, Jo and Emma eloped.
There’s a detail in this courtship which escapes examination. When Joe had that meeting with Emma at Josiah Stowell’s house, part of his argument to her was apparently that the angel had told him she was the new “right person” to come to the hill with him to get the plates. According to Joe’s neighbor Lorenzo Saunders,
Joseph’s wife was a pretty woman; as pretty a woman as I ever saw. When she came to the Smiths she was ~~very much~~ disappointed and used to come to our house and sit down and cry. Said she was deceived and got into a hard place. Joe said in our house to my mother, the angel said he must get ~~married~~ him a wife and take her and go and and get the plates. (EMD 2:132)
Mormon Joseph Knight and non-Mormon Henry Harris also confirm that Joe told them the angel required him to marry Emma and bring her to the hill (EMD 2:76, 4:14). This helps explain why both Samuel Lawrence and Josiah Stowell may have been willing to recommend Joe to Emma; because they were invested in Joe getting the plates, and he told them this was a necessary step. Emma’s opinion in the matter seemed to be an obstacle to overcome instead of a human being’s feelings necessary to take into consideration and to respect.
Right here in Joe’s very first marriage proposal, he laid the groundwork for all the toxic tactics he would use in his later marriage proposals: he insisted that an angel required the woman to marry him, and he recruited friends to help him convince the woman to go along with it. That story about how Emma always came over to the Saunders’ house to cry and complain that she was deceived is a harbinger which foreshadowed patterns which would emerge in Mormon polygyny over a decade and a half later.
At this point the story takes an interesting turn. On September 21, 1827, Joe loaded Emma into a wagon with a blanket, and he took her to the hill at night to get the plates. The angel also had other magical requirements for the trip. Joe had to wear all black, and he had to ride a black horse. We don’t really have any detailed accounts of what happened up there that night, except that Joe left Emma in the wagon about 40 rods away while he went and got the plates and hid them in a hollow oak tree. What we do know is that Joe took his hot young bride up the hill in a wagon with a blanket, and they were gone all night, and Emma delivered her firstborn son exactly 268 days later. That’s an interesting period of time because it’s precisely the average gestation period of a human. Sexual consummation isn’t an uncommon sealing or binding method in magic practices and the newlyweds rarely had any time alone in the crowded Smith home. A malformed Alvin was born and lived for a few hours just nine months after that night. Yes, acquisition of the plates very likely included a performative sexual act between Jo and Emma on the hill that night. The Angel Moroni must have been a peeping Tom.
After the plates were supposedly acquired, Jo’s definitions of sexuality and divinely-sanctioned relationship seems to have expanded. Historians spend a lot of time bickering over Fanny Alger and what probably happened between her and Jo sometime from 1832-36. Jo’s sexual experimentation predates Fanny by half a decade.
The first evidence we have of this is Jo’s attempted seduction of a girl named Eliza Winters during the translation of the Book of Mormon in Harmony, Pennsylvania in 1828. Harmony resident Levi Lewis said he was acquainted with both Joe and Martin Harris during this period, and “has heard them both say, adultery was no crime. Harris said he did not blame Smith for his (Smith’s) attempt to seduce Eliza Winters &c.” Rumors and public charges of adultery plagued Mormonism even while the Book of Mormon itself was being authored 2 years before the church was started.
We don’t know very much about this incident, but Rhamanthus M. Stocker confirms that Eliza Winters spent a lot of time at the Smith household during this period, and at age 70 Eliza gave a short interview to the Broome Republican newspaper in which she said that confirmed that she had lived in the neighborhood. We also have a court document in which Eliza Winters sued Martin Harris for defamation for saying she’d had a bastard child. Apparently she asked for $1000 in damages. Now, it could totally be the case that Eliza had Joe’s bastard child, but I’m not really thinking that. Levi Lewis refers to Joe’s “attempt” to seduce her, which suggests that Joe didn’t actually succeed in seducing her. We know from later events that Joe’s modus operandi when women rejected him was to smear them and destroy their reputations, so I have to assume that that’s what he did to Eliza Winters. I doubt she’d have risked taking him to court if the allegation were actually true.
However, women he was able to convince he usually remained silent about unless specific events required his public statements to assassinate their characters. We don’t have any statement from Jo concerning Eliza Winters. It’s very complicated and a subject with a lot of speculation.
The other incident from the New York era that we need to talk about comes from Joe’s 1830 trials for glass-looking. 1830 is also the year the city plat for Chicago was drawn up. This is from Joe’s own History of the Church:
After a few more such attempts, the court was detained for a time, in order that two young women, daughters of Mr. Stoal, with whom I had at times kept company, might be sent for, in order, if possible, to elicit something from them which might be made a pretext against me. The young ladies arrived, and were severally examined touching my character and conduct in general, but particularly as to my behavior towards them, both in public and private; when they both bore such testimony in my favor as left my enemies without a pretext on their account.
Somebody apparently suspected Joe of being sexually involved with Stowell’s daughters during the time he lived with Stowell, but they were called as witnesses and they denied everything. Of course they’re going to deny everything, because their reputations were on the line as much as Jo’s. I acknowledge there’s nothing provable here, but honestly even just the rumor that something was going on is enough for me. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, especially where Jo’s sexual conduct is concerned. Ep 21
I want to take a minute to talk about this in the abstract. Puritanical social structures during this Victorian era meant sometimes dire consequences for those who stepped outside the boundaries of cis-hetero monogamous relationships. As is the case today, the rules applied differently to the proletariat as opposed to those individuals in the upper crust. Speaking broadly, it wasn’t uncommon for wealthy men, especially if they were well-connected and socially powerful, to have plenty of sex outside their marriage while their wives were expected to remain faithful to their unfaithful husbands. For those men not in the wealthy and powerful elite class, the tendencies to step outside of monogamy were just as present, but were far more likely to be prosecuted for adultery. When I say prosecuted, I mean actually prosecuted. As of 2020, adultery is still illegal in 19 of 50 states. In Florida, it was technically illegal for unmarried folks to live together until 2016. Adultery laws being on the books doesn’t mean much because it’s almost never prosecuted today. But, in the 19th-century, adultery was a surprisingly common and resulted in imprisonment, fines, castration, and on rare occasions, capital punishment; although I will point out that those more extreme forms of punishment really only happened in Colonial America before the revolution and for a short time thereafter and usually only in extreme cases, which isn’t excusing the conduct, simply contextualizing it. Laws only apply to those upon whom they’re enforced, meaning laws are almost always weaponized against the most poor and marginalized in society. So, let’s talk about adultery laws and women because by far the majority of people prosecuted for adultery in American history were women. The value of women, societally speaking, has largely centered around their sexuality. It’s a system of purity that largely impacts only women, even to this day. Because female sex is viewed largely through commodification, as soon as a woman is “seduced,” which is a loaded term, she’s no longer valuable to the man she’s supposed to marry. In adultery cases, it benefits every person accused to lie about what happened. This trend is even more insidious when we consider assault and rape, and please take this as a content warning for the rest of today’s show, we’re going to navigate some pretty dark waters for the next 25 pages of show notes here. Broadly speaking, when someone is raped, it’s culturally viewed as if the perpetrator somehow defiled that person’s purity, thereby nullifying the person’s value in society. With female sex commodified, the man who takes that purity away has devalued the victim. When the survivor chooses to press charges or even try to speak up, far more often their credibility is brought into question and the attack dogs are unleashed. This man is a standup member of polite society, he would never do such a thing! What were you wearing, you must have been asking for it! Why were you in that situation? Why did you allow yourself to get so drunk? The cycle of a survivor becoming the victim of character assassination continues; society never evolves. When it’s a matter of he said, she said, society says we believe him and she’s a liar trying to tarnish this good man’s reputation. What we see today is merely the modern iteration of social structures which have existed for millennia. Adultery laws in America have largely served to protect wealthy men and oppress women; they’ve also been heavily weaponized against racial and ethnic minorities, especially when a white woman is involved in the situation. Think what you will about the metoo movement and the various evolutions of feminism working to change these societal constructs, but to ignore that these ills exist is to be wilfully ignorant. And we wonder why sexual assault and rape is almost never reported and exceptionally rare to reach any criminal convictions.
Understanding the commodification of female sexuality, purity doctrine, women being the gatekeepers of sex, men having uncontrollable sexual appetites being a self-fulfilling prophecy, and women’s reputations being tied to their sexual worth are concepts we have to juggle as we consider Mormon polygamy. To complicate matters further, any system seeking to upset or overthrow these cultural ills can be a very appealing social movement. There are ways to see a conceptual polygamist society as progressive and egalitarian, making the proposition very appealing to people who reject societal constructs of strict monogamy and punishments for stepping outside those boundaries. As an idea, Joseph Smith’s polygamy was an appealing option to people who were ready to move beyond the confines of Puritanical relationship and gender structures. Let’s keep that thought in a mental compartment for a moment while we discuss the way the actual practice played out. Polygamy as an ideal is far from real-world practices and consequences. The fact is, polygamy in practice ended up becoming a viciously patriarchal system that created a wake of heartbreak, abuse, rape, and death in its path. With the top-down, exclusively male structure of Mormon leadership, the abusive system that resulted was inevitable and the prophet himself often preyed on orphan children or convinced their parents that godhood awaited should they give their teenage daughter to him. In order for us to understand polygamy and all of its complexities, we need to understand that while simultaneously keeping in our mind the fact that it was appealing for a lot of people as an ideal who wanted to push against or even overthrow the structures of puritanical sexuality. How do we deal with the fact that Jo raped teenage girls while understanding that some of his older wives were the ones responsible for convincing those children that the abusive encounter was not only acceptable in the eyes of god, but necessary for everybody’s exaltation? Those concepts are very difficult for us to juggle in our minds, especially if we try to fit Mormon polygamy into convenient little mental boxes, but it’s absolutely necessary in order to understand some of the nuances of today’s discussion. Oh, and anybody concluding most of these “marriages” didn’t include sex, or that libido wasn’t a factor in the practice and hatching of the polygamy revelation, is a hack and they should work to extricate their heads from their own anuses before they work on researching this subject.
After moving to Kirtland in 1831, Joe met one of his future polygamous wives, a girl named Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. She was 12 years old at the time. She remembers her magnetic attraction to him on their first meeting, and the way he stared at her. This is from Todd Compton’s book In Sacred Loneliness, page 207:
Mary wrote, ‘I was sent for; when he saw me, he looked at me so earnestly, I felt almost afraid [and I thought, ‘He can read my every thought,’ and I thought how blue his eyes were.] after a moment, or too he came and put his hands on my head and gave me a great Blessing, (the first I ever received) and made me a present of the Book.’ . . . ‘And his countenance Shone, and seemed almost transparent—it seems as though the solemnity of Eternity rested upon all of us…[He] seemed almost transfixed, he was looking ahead and his face outshone the candle which was on a shelf just behind him. I thought I could almost see the cheek bones, he looked as though a searchlight was inside his face and shining through every pore. I could not take my eyes from his face…’ . . . She regarded this as the first time she was “sealed” to the Mormon Prophet.
What Mary Elizabeth Rollins’s accounts do for historians is document a trend in Joseph’s sexual practices. The guy carried clout wherever he went because his reputation preceded him for both good and evil. Wherever he went, people expected to meet a man pious and worthy of the office he claimed, the mouthpiece of god. This has an incredible ability to break down barriers and create expectations in the person’s mind; it’s a master manipulation tactic and Mary Rollins was yet another victim of Jo’s predation.
From the time they first met, Mary held a certain reverence and affinity for the prophet and it seems he was drawn to her in her early pubescent phase. As she matured into womanhood, Joseph would seem to never take his eyes off her, which is how predators operate. Joseph would later tell Mary that he was commanded in 1834 when she was 15 years old to take her as his wife, but he couldn’t as she was living in Missouri a thousand miles from Kirtland after obeying Jo’s revelation for the Mormons to settle there. She soon married a young man named Adam Lightner, a non-Mormon from Pennsylvania. Mary continued to keep the idea of being married to the prophet in her mind, and finally in early 1842, he would propose to take her as his polygamous wife, which she agreed to while living with her non-Mormon husband who apparently thought highly of Jo but couldn’t believe in the church. A unique situation indeed.
The Church started to experience its first major apostasy in late 1831 with the defections of Ezra Booth and Symonds Ryder, among other people. Booth wrote an expose of Mormonism in the form of a series of newspaper articles, and Symonds Ryder participated in a mob that covered Joe and Sidney Rigdon in tar and feathers in 1832. Should it be of interest, you can listen to the Ezra Booth letters on the patreon exclusive feed when we read through Mormonism Unvailed with commentary.
The tar and feather incident is interesting because the mob’s motives aren’t totally clear. Apparently Symonds Ryder believed that Joe and Rigdon were attempting a land grab in the Kirtland area, and he stirred up the mob partly on that basis. But according to a Church of Christ member named Clark Braden who interviewed a bunch of people in the 1880s, the mob also had another motivation. Braden says, “The mob was led by Eli Johnson, who blamed Smith for being too intimate with his sister Marinda, who afterwards married Orson Hyde. Brigham Young, in after years, twitted Hyde with this fact, and Hyde, on learning its truth, put away his wife, although they had several children.”
Now, there are definite problems with this account. It’s a pretty late source, and we don’t know who Braden got this information from. Also, Eli Johnson was Marinda’s uncle, not her brother. However, there are a couple pieces of circumstantial evidence that support it. For one thing, Marinda was living in the same house as Joe at the time. We know Jo’s patterns of predation often involved women with whom he lived. For another thing, we know Joe was interested in Marinda, because he later married her as a plural wife in Nauvoo; she was 15 or 16 at this time. And finally, we know from an account written by Apostle Luke Johnson that the mob tried to castrate Joe and even brought a doctor to perform the deed who ended up losing his nerve before completing the act. Why would they to castrate him unless their motivation had something to do with sex? And, of course, at the time, Emma and Jo had just lost their twins and had adopted the Murdock twins who were less than a year old at this point.
1832 also happens to be the year that Orson Pratt pointed to as the time when Smith told certain individuals that “the principle of taking more wives than one is a true principle, but the time had not yet come for it to be practiced.” Mosiah Hancock dates the doctrine to 1832 as well. He says Joe approached his father Levi Hancock in spring 1832 and said, “Brother Levi, the Lord has revealed to me that it is his will that righteous men shall take Righteous women even a plurality of Wives that a Righteous race may be sent forth uppon the Earth.”
The very few documents which exist about this are late and come from members of the SLC church, but what historians generally believe is that these statements are in reference to the Native American missions. A righteous race of Mormons with multiple native wives to raise up a white and delightsome race.
Rumors about something like Mormon polygamy apparently circulated in 1831 and 1832. The Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate reported in their February 5, 1831 issue: “They [the Mormons] have all things in common, and dispense with the marriage covenant.” Henry Carroll, who was in the Kirtland area in 1832, recalled in 1885: “It was claimed all things were common, even to free love, among the Mormons at Kirtland.”
Let’s put this on hold for a moment to discuss the concept of free love groups. The Cochranites predated Mormonism and were into some form of free love. The Oneida group would follow the next decade of being openly polyamorous, all members are married to each other. It was an appealing concept, albeit very controversial. A lot of people wanted to explore what love looked like outside the strict confines of heteromonogamous marriage. With so many accusations of polygamy invading early Mormonism, surely some converted just to learn about how true the rumors were or to have the possibility of open relationships. This early Kirtland church was an era of experimentation. However, that experimentation can only go so far before some hard lessons are learned and the church evolved into what it needed to become in order to be competitive. Those other free-love sects never had more than a few hundred adherents because the beliefs were so counterculture and fringe. If you want your religion to grow in a puritanical world, you have to remain on the very edge of controversy to be distinct, but not so controversial as to be relegated to the fringe. Jo recognized that an openly free-love religion would be too hard for a lot of people to swallow and would never have the numbers necessary for his Mormon revolution of the world. You can either be a free love sect on the fringes, or a more mainstream sect with thousands of followers, you can’t have both. What Kirtland reveals to us is a few signals that Jo wanted to take the early church towards free love but once he realized he wanted to continue to expand the religion and keep it out of the fringes, an openly polygamist sect wasn’t possible. But then, that doesn’t work really well for Jo cuz he wants to have his cake and eat it too so the only possible way to satiate his sex drive was to create inner circles of leadership who could practice polygamy, while keeping the doctrine from the lay membership. This created a tension. How does Jo make sure to keep the practice as nothing more than shadows and rumors about the elite while leveraging those rumors to bring initiates into the fold? How does he ensure compliance and silence to keep from his church becoming a fringe free-love sect? Many of Jo’s hierarchical evolutions can be explained by his greed, be that greed for wealth or for possessing more women.
Continuing on, W. W. Phelps first heard about polygamy about 1834, when he asked Joe about a revelation that Joe had received three years earlier, in 1831. The actual text of this revelation didn’t survive, but we know from several descriptions of it roughly what it said. The occasion was that the US government had expelled the Church’s first missionaries to the Native Americans in Indian Territory and had denied them missionary permits to preach there. The revelation authorized the missionaries to marry Indian women so that they could enter Indian Territory with the 19th century equivalent of a spousal visa. According to W. W. Phelps, “About three years after this was given, I asked brother Joseph [Smith, Jr.] privately, how ‘we,’ that were mentioned in the revelation could take wives from the ‘natives’—as we were all married men? He replied instantly ‘In th[e] same manner that Abraham took Hagar and Katurah [Keturah]; and Jacob took Rachel Bilhah and Zilpah: by revelation—the saints of the Lord are always directed by revelation.’” This marks the first time Joe cited examples of biblical polygamy as justification for taking multiple wives.
Benjamin Johnson says he heard about plural marriage by 1835. Here’s an excerpt from his autobiography:
In 1835, at Kirtland, I learned from my sister's husband, Lyman R. Sherman, who was close to the Prophet, and received it from him, “that the ancient order of Plural Marriage was again to be practiced by the Church.” . . . After this, there was some trouble with Jared Carter, and through Brother Sherman I learned that “as he had built himself a new house, he now wanted another wife,” which Joseph would not permit.
And then, the following year, Joe got into his most famous sexual scandal: the Fanny Alger affair. Born in 1816 in Massachusetts to Samuel Alger and Clarissa Hancock, Fanny Alger moved into the Smith home in 1832 as a domestic servant. According to Ann Eliza Webb Young, Emma was very fond of Fanny and treated her like an adopted daughter, so “it was with a shocked surprise that the people heard that sister Emma had turned Fanny out of the house” in spring 1836. “By degrees it became whispered about that Joseph’s love for his adopted daughter was by no means a paternal affection, and his wife, discovering the fact, at once took measures to place the girl beyond his reach.”
According to Apostle William McLellin, Professor Bill as we called him many moons ago, Emma later explained to him how she found out. Noticing that Joe and Fanny were missing, she went looking for them. “She went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone. She looked through a crack and saw the transaction!!! She told me this story too was verily true.” Emma’s comments confirmed what McLellin had earlier heard from Oliver Cowdery.
Now, some scholars think Joe and Fanny began the affair as early as 1832, but there’s no way to prove it, as is the case with most of these relationships. Most historians think it started about 1835, when Benjamin Johnson says he heard the first rumors that Joe loved Fanny. Obviously Emma learned about it in spring 1836, when she caught them into the barn together and kicked Fanny out. Fanny ended up being kicked not only out of the Smith home, but completely out of town.
Ann Eliza Webb Young says Emma was so mad at Joe that Joe called upon Oliver Cowdery to mediate between them. Ollie was livid about the affair, and it eventually caused him to apostatize from the Church. Ollie spread rumors about the affair to some other people, and Joe called him a liar had him brought up on disciplinary charges. On January 21, 1838, Ollie wrote a letter to his brother Warren A. Cowdery to clarify that “I never confessed[,] intimated[,] or admitted/ that I ever willfully lied about him [Joseph Smith]. When he was here we had some conversation in which in every instance, I did not fail to affirm that what I had said was strictly true[.] A dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Algers was talked over in which I strictly declared that I had never deviated from the truth on the matter, and as I supposed was admitted by himself.”
Ollie obviously viewed this whole thing as an extramarital affair, but there’s some debate about whether it was an extramarital affair or an early plural marriage. In the book Persistence of Polygamy, friend of the show Don Bradley argues pretty persuasively that there was, in fact, a marriage ceremony. Mosiah Hancock claims that Joe came to his father, Levi Hancock, and said,
[“]Brother Levi I want to make a bargain with you—If you will get Fanny Alger for me for a wife you may have Clarissa Reed. I love Fanny” “I will” Said Father. “Go brother Levi and the Lord will prosper you” Said Joseph—Father goes to the father Samuel Alger—Father’s Brother in Law and [said] “Samuel[,] the Prophet Joseph loves your Daughter Fanny and wishes her for a wife[,] what say you[?]”—Uncle Sam Says—“Go and talk to the Old woman about it[,] twill be as She says” Father goes to his Sister and said “Clarrissy, Brother Joseph the Prophet of the most high God loves Fanny and wishes her for a wife what say you” Said She “go and talk to Fanny it will be all right with me”—Father goes to Fanny and said “Fanny[,] Brother Joseph the Prophet loves you and wishes you for a wife will you be his wife?” “I will Levi” Said She—Father takes Fanny to Joseph and said “Brother Joseph I have been successful in my mission”—Father gave her to Joseph repeating the Ceremony as Joseph repeated to him.”
This account is definitely consistent with how Joe usually went about proposing to women by using male intermediaries. But some historians reject this account, because it’s a very late, secondhand source from somebody connected with the Brighamite polygamous church. That said, I don’t really think it matters that much whether there was a marriage ceremony or not, because regardless, Joe lied about it to Emma. This relationship was concealed from Emma and everybody else and its discovery catalyzed a major rift in the Kirtland and Missouri churches, causing numerous excommunications and eventually the prophet’s own exile from Ohio. The incident of discovering the affair was instructive to Jo, his people would reject anything smacking of non-monogamy. Just a year before the church had voted to canonize what later became D&C 101, which was removed in the late 1870s because it openly denies polygamy was happening, claims all the rumors about it are false, and says Mormonism is a strictly monogamous religion. Even if he himself was to practice polygamy, Jo learned that he’d need to be very guarded about who would be admitted into the holiest of holy marriage doctrines.
According to the rest of Mosiah Hancock’s account, some dissenters locked Fanny in an upper room of the temple, intending to trot her out to testify to the high council about Joe’s adultery. Joe went to Fanny’s father Samuel Alger and asked him to do so something to prevent this. Alger climbed up to a second-story window and helped his daughter down, and then the Alger family rode away to Indiana, where Fanny married a guy named Solomon Custer two months later, perhaps to provide cover for a pregnancy. Having people skip town in order to avoid having to testify against him was pretty common for Jo, especially when he controlled the Nauvoo court system. If Fanny was pregnant, then unfortunately we don’t know what happened to the baby, because there’s almost no documentation of her life after 1837. Ep 33.
Another allegation against Joe from the Kirtland period concerns Nancy Rigdon. Joe famously later proposed to Nancy in Nauvoo, when she was 19 years old and gave her what’s known as the Happiness Letter, which we’ll discuss in a little while. But a few sources date Joe’s first interest in Nancy to the tail end of the Kirtland period, when she was 15 or 16. William C. Smith, who went to school with Nancy’s sister Athalia in Kirtland, thought he remembered some talk at school about Joe and Sidney Rigdon fighting because Joe wanted to marry Nancy, but he wasn’t positive that he remembered this correctly. Clark Braden, who interviewed some old residents of Kirtland in the 1880s, reported the same thing but didn’t name his source. The best piece of evidence for this, however, is a September 1837 letter published by Ollie Cowdung’s brother Warren Cowdery. Warren had heard that rumors were afloat in nearby towns which claimed that Joe and Sidney Rigdon had a falling-out. Warren doesn’t say specifically what the rumors related to, but he refutes them by saying that the “females'' of Rigdon’s family are “young[,] innocent, unsuspecting, without reproach[,] and for ought we know, above suspicion.” The rumors were afloat in 1837, but what those rumors actually were is a subject of speculation. We also know that Jo targeted a number of teenage girls during the Kirtland era who he’d later convince to give in to his desires in Nauvoo and Nancy fits those patterns perfectly.
Eventually the Kirtland Safety Society was started and murmurings blew completely out of control. I know I mention this Mormon bank a lot but it was really important because it marks a turning point in church practices from ecclesiastical to overtly corporate. After its collapse and the dissenting groups forming in Kirtland, Jo and the Quorum of Apostles fled to Missouri. This resulted in the Missouri-Mormon war of 1838 as Jo waxed militant. Eps 39-49. The Mormons surrendered and Jo was taken with his buddies to Liberty Jail. Ep 50.
While he was there, the Mormon exodus to Illinois commenced and he attempted to retain control over his followers from the prison cell via messengers carrying personal letters. Many of these were about affairs concerning the church and directing minutia of the exodus. However, some personal letter from the prophet also made their way to various people.
The first one was a letter to Emma. He wrote it in reply to a beautiful letter she had sent him, in which she expressed her love for him and her absolute anguish for what he was going through. He wrote back, expressing sympathy for her troubles as well, and promising that “if God will spare my life once more to have the privelege of takeing care of you I will ease your care and indeavour to cumfort your heart.” He went on to say, “my Dear Emma do you think that my being cast into prison by the mob of renders me less worthy of your friendsship no I do not think so.”
Now, wait a second. What’s this about “friendship”? Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it took two weeks for Joe to reply to Emma’s heartfelt letter, and instead of love he expresses his “friendship”? Meanwhile, during that two week period he sat on Emma’s letter… apparently he was too busy sitting in a jail cell to get around to it, he also wrote a letter to Norman Buell’s wife Presendia Huntington Buell. The Buells had visited him in prison, and Joe wrote this letter to thank them for the visit. “I want him and you to know that I am your true friend[.] I was glad to see you[;] no tongue can tell what inexpressible Joy it gives a man to see the face of one who has been a friend after having been inclosed in the walls of a prison for five months it seems to me that my heart will always be more tender after this than ever it was before.”
Okay, he calls her a friend too, so no big deal, right? Sure, except that her husband was reading this letter too, so obviously he had to be discreet. Presendia would become one of Jo’s wives in December of 1841. Keep in mind: as we discussed last episode, Joe had just recently taken his very first polyandrous plural wife, Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, in Missouri in 1838. “Polyandrous” meaning that she already had a husband when he married her. So when Joe wrote this letter to Presendia, he was already in the mindset that a prior husband wasn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. Notably, Lucinda, the widow of William Morgan who wrote the expose on Masonry and disappeared, was one of Jo’s wives who took his death particularly hard, but that will have to wait until the end of this series.
The bros escaped from prison and made their way to the Mormon refugee settlement in Quincy. Soon after, they began settling Commerce, which was eventually incorporated to become Nauvoo once the charter was passed. Ep 66.
Each era of Mormonism preceding Nauvoo relies on speculation and fragmentary evidence when it comes to polygamy. From the New York era we have a legal complaint, a couple court hearings, and some later interviews which allude to some sexual experimentation. In Kirtland the evidence expands a bit but really we only have one solid name, Fanny Alger. In Missouri the evidence surrounding Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris is pretty significant and trustable, but she’s really the only name we have for the Missouri era. Nauvoo is a completely different ballgame. The evidence for polygamy grows from a few fragmentary claims to mountains of journals, affidavits, structural changes in the church, documented sealings, the polygamy revelation itself, and so much more. Anybody claiming Jo didn’t practice polygamy, or even more asinine, claims he fought polygamy, is wilfully ignorant. Ep 190.
I’ll also point out another stunning claim from the recently-published anthology of Mormon historians titled Writing Mormon History, edited by friend of the show, Joseph Geisner. A Mormon apologist named Brian Hales wrote his chapter and I want to deal with a passage from it on page 109 where Brian is recounting his time doing the research for his volumes Joseph Smith’s Polygamy. He hired Don Bradley to help do some research and they had a conversation.
Don had given me some information regarding Fanny Alger, whom Joseph Smith had reportedly married in the mid-1830s in Ohio, and I asked him whether anyone had accused Smith of polygamy prior to John C. Bennett in 1842. (Bennett had left the church in 1842 and before the end of the year had written a book attacking Smith and the Latter-day Saints.) Writers such as Fawn Brodie and Jerald and Sandra Tanner had asserted that throughout the 1830s Smith was deflecting polygamy allegations. [Don and I] both paused and pondered for a few seconds. We then realized that our research didn’t support this. It seemed that no one had accused Smith using that specific word (or anything similar implying plurality of wives) throughout that decade or in connection with Alger. I asked Don to search for any contemporaneous charges of polygamy, which both he and I were never able to find in the historical record.
Nobody charged Jo with polygamy until Wreck-it Bennett in 1842? Brian Hales is a careful apologist and he would never write something easily proved wrong, would he? Why don’t we take a look at Doctrine & Covenants section 101 printed in 1835, the same year the Fanny Alger affair was happening.
4… Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.
Not only had numerous newspaper articles been written and Ezra Booth had claimed polygamy was going on in his 1831 letters, but the rumors and charges were so rampant that an entire section of the D&C was dedicated to responding to the charges. Simply put, I can’t imagine any amount of tortured language, semantic arguments of polygamy, vs spiritual wifery, vs adultery, vs fornication, or any other words associated with it, where Brian’s assertion is true. But, unfortunately for him and other apologists who study polygamy, they have to fit the practice into a comfortable little box that makes Joseph Smith a wonderful man who never harmed a fly. They create false distinctions between spiritual wifery and celestial marriage, which was a distinction invented by Jo to assassinate John C. Wreck-it Bennett when the practices looked exactly the same. The apologist claims there’s a difference between time, time and eternity, and eternity only sealings, with sex being the contingent factor; and argument made by the church’s own gospel topics essay about polygamy. The apologist sees Jo as a holy man who would never commit adultery unless god commanded him to practice the new and everlasting covenant. They’re placing their own value judgments on a maniacal serial criminal from 185 years ago and it’s sophistry. It’s factoring out evidence that conflicts with our modern sense of Mormon sexual purity and it’s a matter of torturing the evidence to be what you want instead of simply going wherever the evidence leads. I hate intellectual dishonesty, especially when the apologist is this brazen and unapologetic. Religion poisons everything.
That leads us into a discussion of a controversial figure in Nauvoo history. In August 1840 Joe received a letter from John C. Wreck-it Bennett, informing him that Bennett had “come to the conclusion to join your people immediately and take up my abode with you.” A brigadier general of the Illinois militia, Bennett laced his letter with militant language: “[Let us] adopt the means to the end and the victory is ours—The winged warrior of the air will not cease to be our proud emblem of liberty, and the dogs of war will be forever chained.” Bennett showed up the next month and was baptized into the Church. Joe quickly recognized Bennett as a talented kindred scoundrel, Ep 115, and put him to work drafting the Nauvoo charter. Bennett soon became a key leader of the Church, the Nauvoo Legion, and the city government as mayor of Nauvoo. John C. Bennett was a grade-A, all-American bastard, which is why he and Joe got along so well.
Two months after his baptism, Bennett gave his very first sermon to the Church at General Conference. Among other things, he “remarked that it was necessary for the brethren to stand by each other, and resist every unlawful attempt at persecution.” Bennett was an opportunist and he knew what needed to be said to gain the sympathies and support of his audience. Bennett also “said that many persons had been accused of crime, and been looked upon as guilty, when on investigation it has been ascertained that nothing could be adduced against them. Whereupon, on motion, it was resolved, that no person be considered guilty of crime, unless proved so by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Obviously he sold this to the Church under the pretense of preventing persecution, but the real effect was to lay the groundwork for polygamy. Now nobody could come after Joe in a church court for adultery unless two or three witnesses had seen him do the deed. Now, anybody caught in the act of adultery would need to have a friend or two when they happened upon the situation in order for the evidence to be considered valid. As we’ll discuss soon, it became a common refrain that if nobody knows it but the two engaging in polygamy or spiritual wifery then there is no crime in it. If you don’t tell anybody about me raping you then we won’t have any problems.
In April 1841, the same month the first European-American wagon train left Missouri to settle California, we have the first indisputable documentation of Joe taking his first Nauvoo polygamous wife, Louisa Beaman. Louisa was the daughter of one of Joe’s old treasure digging buddies, Alva Beaman. She was 26 when she married him, and he was 35. According to page 59 of Todd Compton’s book In Sacred Loneliness, Joe approached Louisa’s brother-in-law Joseph Bates Noble in fall 1840 and,
taught him “the principle of celestial or plural marriage, or a plurality of wives,” saying that an angel had given him a revelation on the subject and that “the angel of the Lord had commanded him (Smith) to move forward in the said order of marriage.” Smith then asked Noble to officiate in marrying Louisa to himself. The prophet said, “In revealing this to you, I have placed my life in your hands, therefore do not in an evil hour betray me to my enemies.”
A quick way to gain a person’s confidence is to be vulnerable and this was Jo’s M.O. in nearly every plural marriage like this. We don’t know how Noble’s conversation with Louisa went, but according to a family tradition, she prayed about the proposal and received a spiritual witness, and was married to Joe on April 5, 1841 with Noble performing the ceremony. Noble believed this was “the first sealing ceremony in this Dispensation.” which certainly functions as a great answer to modern apologists claiming the sealing power existed all the way back in Kirtland before the Fanny Alger scrape. It was performed “under an Elm tree in Nauvoo. The Bride disguised in a coat and hat.” Most other Nauvoo plural marriages were performed in the Red Brick Store, but that was still under construction when Joe married Louisa; thus the need for a disguise to maintain the secrecy of this outdoor wedding away from prying eyes within any of the few overcrowded buildings in the burgeoning city.
According to testimony that Noble gave in court after the marriage ceremony, Joe and Louisa went right across the river after the ceremony to Noble’s house, where they slept together and consummated their relationship. Noble saw them in bed together, and Joe afterward told him that the couple had consummated the marriage. But no, of course, polygamy was never about sex, it was about god ushering in the new dispensation and participants, especially the pious prophet himself, only begrudgingly acceded to the practice after being chastised by angels with flaming swords.
Not long after his marriage to Louisa Beaman, Joe also married Zina Diantha Huntington in summer 1841. Originally from New York, Zina had converted to Mormonism at age 14 in 1835 and eventually became a bit of a celebrity in Utah Mormonism. She frequently sang in tongues and exercised the gifts of healing and prophecy. (Her mother, Zina Baker Huntington, even briefly raised someone from the dead!) Zina was a compassionate and wonderful person, traits which would elevate her to elite status in Utah and usher her into the position of third President of General Relief Society. When she met Joe at age 15 (he was 30), she found his features striking. “He was 6 feet light auburn hair [and a heavy nose] blue eyes the [eye]balls ful & round rather long.”
In 1839 Zina’s mother died, and the Huntington teenagers moved in with the Smiths. As he often did with wards who lived in his house, Joe took the opportunity to start courting Zina as a potential plural wife. As usual, he used a male intermediary: her brother, Dimick B. Huntington. Dimick taught his sister about polygamy. And then, according to a biography by one of Zina’s grandkids, “Joseph pressed Zina for an answer to his marriage proposal on at least three occasions in 1840, but she avoided answering him.”
Instead she married a young man named Henry Jacobs on March 7, 1841. Zina and Henry asked Joe to perform their marriage ceremony, but he didn’t show up. In O. A. Cannon’s biography of Zina, we read:
When the couple arrived the Prophet was not there. After a wait, they decided to ask the clerk, John C. Bennett, if he would perform the marriage, which he did. When the couple later met the Prophet, Zina asked him why he hadn’t come as he had promised. He told her it had been made known to him that she was to be his Celestial Wife and he could not give to another one who had been given to him.
If there was ever something for Jo to be petty about, you know it has to be a woman he wanted but refused his advances 3 times. This jealous reaction caused Zina to reconsider her rejection of Smith’s proposals. By her own account, she searched the scriptures prayerfully and obtained a testimony of the doctrine of plural marriage. Henry Jacobs accepted the doctrine as well, although it reportedly broke his heart. On October 27, about six months pregnant with her first child, twenty-year-old Zina became Joe’s polyandrous wife with Henry’s full approval. Zina later wrote, “I mad[e] a greater sacrifice than to give my li[f]e for I never anticipated again to be looked uppon as an honerable woman by those I dearly loved.”
According to George D. Smith’s book Nauvoo Polygamy, “Henry and Zina’s first child, Zebulon, was born on January 2, 1842. Two weeks later, Smith sent Jacobs on a mission to Chicago, from which he returned the following March.” So not only did Joe marry Henry’s pregnant wife, but then he also sent Henry off on a mission even though he had a newborn son. I’m sure Zina, as a 20-year-old new mother, was well cared for during her husband’s mission. I’m sure her life was great. Over the next few years Henry served two more missions, as well. After Joe’s death, Bloody Brigham Young married Zina as a plural wife and Henry obediently married someone else in 1846. Why did Zina and Henry agree to this arrangement? Why did any of these people agree to be manipulated like this? Religions, especially religious cults, poison everything.
In late 1841 and early 1842, Joe targeted several more women. First let’s cover Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, the girl whom Joe had first noticed when she was 12 years old in Kirtland to whom he gifted a Book of Mormon. According to Mary’s own account, Joe proposed to her in early February 1842. After introducing the idea of plural marriage, he told her that God had instructed him to marry her in 1834, but he had been in Kirtland and she in Missouri. He had been frightened of the idea, but an angel had appeared to him three times in eight years “and said I was to obey that principle or he would [s]lay me.” He also told her that she “was created for him before the foundation of the Earth was laid,” and that God had authorized him to guarantee salvation for all his wives. That alone reveals the trouble with Jo’s system. Look, I’m all for everybody loving and playing with anybody they want as long as they’re consenting adults with an equal power dynamic. These targets believed that Jo was the mouthpiece of god; anything he said was divine law. In basically every case of polygamy, Jo leveraged that power, stemming from people’s credulity, to accomplish rape. When somebody tells you that god commands you to submit to whatever they’re going to do to you, you’re being manipulated to serve selfish desires.
The proposal was a shock to Mary and at first she didn’t agree to the marriage, and asked him if it might not have been a devil rather than an angel that had appeared to him. That’s a reasonable first instinct. For a young girl growing up in a puritanical Christian society and practicing a religion that’s unquestionably monogamous to be approached by the prophet of god with such a proposal understandably caused some conflicts in her mind. He assured her that it was an angel and told her to pray about it and she would receive a witness. At the end of the conversation, he asked her if she would turn traitor and speak of this to anyone. She replied, “I shall never tell a mortal I had such a talk from a married man!” Mary did pray about this, and a few nights later an angel appeared to her in her bedroom. Her aunt awoke and saw “a figure in white robes” go out the window, so apparently the angel was an actor, not a hallucination. After this vision, Mary agreed to marry Joe and he finally collected his prize at the end of February 1842. Even calling these situations “marriages” is a troublesome concept when we consider the many factors which played into each of them, but I digress.
Next let’s talk Martha Brotherton, because her story illustrates how much polygamy permeated the top echelons of Mormon leadership. Brigham Young and Heber Kimball were some of Joseph’s greatest allies and wingmen when it came to acquiring more wives. And Joseph was happy to return the favor, as he did for Brigham Young with Martha Brotherton. Brigham had converted the Brotherton family during his mission in Europe, and they had immigrated to Nauvoo. Their 17-year-old daughter, Martha, caught Brigham’s eye. Here’s how they ambushed her, from H. Michael Marquardt’s book Rise of Mormonism:
Going upstairs with Heber C. Kimball to the second floor of the Red Brick Store she [Martha] found Brigham Young and Joseph Smith alone. Martha was introduced to the Prophet Joseph Smith by Brigham Young. Joseph offered Martha his seat after which Smith and Heber Kimball left the room leaving Martha alone with Apostle Young. Brigham Young arose, locked the door, closed the window, and drew the curtain. He then came and sat before Martha Brotherton.
Brigham then explained to her the doctrine of polygamy, that if she were “willing to take up the cross” of being married to him as a plural wife that very day, then he could take her “straight to the celestial kingdom.” Lucky her, amiright? She explained that she wasn’t of legal age, and she didn’t want to be married without her parents’ permission. He urged her to make her own decision without consulting her parents, “for I know it to be right before God, and if there is any sin in it, I will answer for it.” She told him she wanted time to think about it. At this point he kissed her and Joe came back into the room.
Joe said to her, “Well, Martha, it is lawful and right before God. I know it is. Look here, don’t you believe in me? Well Martha, just go ahead and do as Brigham wants you to, he is the best man in the world except me. . . . Yes, and I know that this is lawful and right before God; and if there is any sin in it I will answer for it before God.” Martha said again that she wanted some time to think about it. Joe and Bloody Brigham weren’t taking that for an answer, and they continued to pressure her. Every time she asked for time to think, they got more and more defensive. Finally, Joe told her she could have some time if she would promise not to tell anyone, which she did. Ultimately she refused the proposal. When she went public with her story, the Church smeared her as a prostitute, and her own sisters published letters accusing her of being a liar. Luckily, she did have an advocate in the form of John C. Wreck-it Bennett who was collecting data for his forthcoming expose of Jo Smith and the church, who printed her story in his book published near the end of 1842. Supporters of the show can listen to that entire audiobook with my commentary on the patreon exclusive feed.
Next, let’s talk about Nancy Rigdon. As I already mentioned, a few rumors connect Joe with Nancy all the way back to the Kirtland period. That makes her another girl that he sexually groomed from childhood, just like Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner. When he proposed to her in Nauvoo in early 1842, she was 19, and he was nearly twice her age at 36. He would have first met Nancy when she was only 8 years old. Jessie Rigdon Secord said she was “more than good looking, she was as beautiful as a Greek statue.”
Rather than approach Nancy directly, he offered John C. Bennett either $500 or the best lot on Main Street if he succeeded in getting Nancy to marry Smith. Bennett declined because he and Hingepin Sidney Rigdon were friends and out of concern for Nancy’s innocence. Joseph retorted that her innocence would remain intact, because God had authorized it. Bennett still declined.
So instead, Joe sent Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde. Marinda was Orson Hyde’s wife, but as we discussed on the last episode, Joe had married her in December 1841, while Hyde was away on a mission to Israel. According to Ebenezer Robinson, John C. Bennett, and Sidney Rigdon, Marinda also had a sexual relationship with White-out Willard Richards. She and Richards moved into the printing office together after her sealing to Joe.
Joe had given Marinda a revelation commanding her to hearken unto his counsel in all things, and that’s what she did. Among other things, she helped him recruit new plural wives, including Nancy Rigdon. She approached Nancy at a funeral and invited her to come meet privately with Joe in the printing office. Prior to the meeting, she mentioned the strange request to her boyfriend Francis Higbee, who mentioned it to John C. Bennett, who warned Higbee what Joe intended. Nancy went to the meeting, but she went forewarned by her boyfriend and her guard was up. According to Bennett, Joe locked the door, swore Nancy to secrecy, and then told her that he loved her and that she had been the “idol of his affections” for several years, and proposed marriage.
Nancy was not amused. She said that “if she ever got married she would marry a single man or none at all,” and she threatened to scream and alert the neighbors unless Joe immediately opened the door and let her out, which he did. Joe and Marinda tried to reason with her a bit more, but she stormed away. Ep 117.
In an attempt to salvage the situation, Joe dictated a letter to Nancy known as the “letter on happiness.” colloquially referred to as “the happiness letter” today. Willard Richards delivered the letter and told her to burn it after reading.
We need to spend some time on this letter. Friends of the show Jonathan Streeter, Christopher Smith, and Bill Reel did a 2.5 hour broadcast on the letter on the Thinker of Thoughts YouTube channel so I’ll recommend that as a resource and we’ll do our best to navigate the letter briefly here. The Happiness Letter is a masterclass of religious coercion, moral relativism, and alternations between the words of god as commandments and permissions.
Happiness is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God; but we cannot keep ALL the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to KNOW ALL, or more than we now know, unless we comply with or keep those we have ALREADY RECEIVED!
The manipulation is established in the first paragraph here; Jo knows the only way to true salvation, and thereby happiness. But, we can’t keep all the commandments if we don’t know them so Jo is simply trying to help Nancy achieve happiness by proposing this new commandment of polygamy. He’s doing it for her sake and she should consider herself lucky to be a candidate for true happiness that Jo is about to teach her. It continues:
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, Thou shalt not kill; at another time he said, Thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of Heaven is conducted, by REVELATION adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.
Here, Jo jumps into the viewpoint of whatever god commands is good, even if we feel it isn’t right. The implication is if God commands us to do something we don’t feel right about, it’s a failing on our part because we don’t fully understand the circumstance which makes it permissible or an explicit commandment. This is a dodge of the old Euthyphro paradox. Is murder wrong because god doesn’t like it, or does god not like murder because it’s wrong? It’s an argument from moral relativism by divine decree and it so happens that whatever god commands must be transmitted through his prophet who is the one offering this polygamous marriage proposal to begin with. God merely wants his people to be happy. If that happiness happens to involve the prophet raping teenagers then god knows the fulness of the circumstances which makes that right, even if it feels wrong to the person victimized by the act. Good thing the true kingdom of god operates by these means of revelation that completely nullify our inherent human morality evolved over millions of years. One guy in the 19th-century completely overthrows millions of years of evolution by a simple “thus saith the lord”.
Whatever God requires is right, NO MATTER WHAT IT IS, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon; first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it EVERY DESIRE OF HIS HEART; even things which might be considered ABOMINABLE to all who understand the order of Heaven ONLY IN PART, but which, in reality, were right, because God gave and sanctioned BY SPECIAL REVELATION.
Given the basis of the argument, I can’t find a flaw in Jo’s logic. For the sake of understanding his argument, we have to grant the existence of the God of the Bible, which provided a safehaven for stoning unruly children, purchasing and beating slaves, stealing the wives and daughters of civilizations the Israelites plundered and enslaving them, drowning the entire planet because of a hissy fit, burning cities to the ground, human sacrifice as burnt offerings, committing genocide of people who simply live on land god gave to his people or for simply believing in the wrong god; countless other atrocities are not only seen as morally good, but as commanded by god. People are punished for not committing these atrocities in the Bible because they didn't follow god’s commands. With that line of logic, Jo’s arguments are absolutely sound. What can’t be accomplished when your god commands you to do whatever you want? He then leans really hard into this moral relativism with a relatable story.
A parent may whip a child, and justly too, because he stole an apple; whereas, if the child had asked for the apple, and the parent had given it, the child would have eaten it with a better appetite; there would have been no stripes; all the pleasures of the apple would have been secured, all the misery of stealing lost.
I wonder what the apple thinks about the situation?
This principle will justly apply to all of God’s dealings with his children. Every thing that God gives us is lawful and right, and it is proper that we should ENJOY his gifts and blessings, WHENEVER AND WHEREVER he is disposed to bestow; but if we should seize upon those same blessings and enjoyments without law, without REVELATION, without COMMANDMENT, those blessings and enjoyments would prove cursings and vexations in the end, and we should have to lie down in sorrow and wailings of everlasting regret.
Once again, moral relativism is at play. We can do stuff that’s sinful if god commands it. If we do it without gods command then it’s sin, but if god commands we do that sin and we disobey then that’s a sin which will be a cursing and vexation. Who tells us what god commands? The guy who’s making the proposal to begin with.
Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive, and, at the same time, is more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of his punishments, and more ready to detect every false way than we are apt to suppose him to be; he will be inquired of by his children; he says, Ask and ye SHALL RECEIVE, seek and ye SHALL FIND; but, if ye will take that which is not your own, or which I have not given you, you shall be rewarded according to your deeds;
Jo switches into mouthpiece of god mode for this section, marking a shift from pontificating on god’s ways and will to articulating it for himself. This is dangerous no matter what the subject is, and this subject so happens to be about Jo justifying raping a teenager. Any person wielding this amount of power over anybody never leads to more good for more people.
But no good thing will I withhold from them who walk uprightly before me, and do my will in all things; who will listen to my voice and to the voice of MY SERVANT WHOM I HAVE SENT; for I delight in those who seek diligently to know my precepts, and abide by the laws of my kingdom; for ALL THINGS SHALL BE MADE KNOWN UNTO THEM IN MINE OWN DUE TIME, and in the end THEY SHALL HAVE JOY.
There’s overt coercion taking place in the form of commanding by the voice of god to do what Jo says, but there’s also the subtle and covert coercion that if you don’t follow these commands by Jo then you won’t have joy in the end. If you’re feeling anxious, depressed, or somehow devalued as a person it’s because you simply aren’t following god’s words. Those bad feelings are your own fault so you better follow god’s commands and submit to the advances of the lord’s servant and thereby abide in the laws of god’s kingdom. If you do, you shall have joy and all things shall be made known to you in god’s own due time. This provides a window into Jo’s manipulation tactics and his overall charisma. It’s yet another aspect of his leadership which self-selects those who will follow. Whoever doesn’t believe this load of hot, coercive garbage simply doesn’t believe it. Those who do become marks of the conman and he holds their lives in his hands. The argument didn’t convince Nancy, probably because the thought of being Joe’s side piece didn’t give her happiness. Or, maybe she didn’t believe he was the mouthpiece of god because she’d watched firsthand the evolution of Jo from prophet of god to revolutionary madman and didn’t want any part of it.
Nancy told her parents, and her parents told other people. Joe complained to a friend that “she had to go and blab it.” Hingepin Rigdon confronted Jo about it in the Rigdon home and, of course, Jo denied the whole thing to her parents’ faces. Nancy overheard this and stormed from the next room, declaring, “Joseph Smith[,] you are telling that which is not true[.] you did make such a proposition to me and you know it.” Next Joe admitted that the proposal had happened, but said he had done it in order to test Nancy’s virtue because every conman worth his salt always knows where to find the nearest exit. Sidney Rigdon wasn’t fooled and he and Joe never fully repaired their relationship again after this. Joe told the Rigdons to keep their mouths shut, and he worked to discredit Nancy by spreading rumors that she was a whore. Eliza Snow, another Joe’s wives, wrote a nasty poem about Nancy called “the tattler,” which was pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a poetic call for women to shut the up about polygamy and keep Joe’s secrets. Eliza had become Jo’s wife just a couple months before this confrontation so she was an insider who proved an invaluable resource to insure compliance during the Utah era. We’ll discuss Eliza R. Snow in a few minutes.
What I do want to highlight here is a trend we’ll see come through as we continue to go through these proposals into later and later Nauvoo history. This trend existed in every aspect of Jo’s life, not just polygamy, but it bears mentioning because it’s most easily understood with respect to polygamy. The trend is escalation. Jo got bored easily and he always wanted to chase after the next forbidden fruit. What started as an affair with the maid turned into a massive and far-reaching system of dozens of wives with theological justifications that extend from eternity to eternity. Fanny Alger was a teenage housemaid in 1835 when the affair likely occurred, but by 1844 Jo had assaulted over half a dozen teenagers, had a dozen wives with living husbands, and probably even pursued his niece and his own sister. No matter how far he went, it was never far enough to be satisfied. He would burn every bridge, he would ruin every friendship, he would send men on missions to spread the gospel, and he might have even had people killed to get more, more, MORE! What may have started as a liberal free-love ideal evolved into a vicious, structured, and deliberate system of consolidating power, acquisition of women as property, and serial rape. He devised an entire female organization with the help of his wives to cull through the women who’d agree to the system and maintain their silence. It was always a matter of how far he could push boundaries before somebody would make him pay. He could never be satisfied; just like his religion he was young, scrappy, and hungry and he would not throw away his plot for more power, wealth, and control. Keep this concept of escalation in mind as we progress through more of these stories.
Next let’s talk Sarah Pratt. As with Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde, Joe approached Sarah Pratt while her husband Orson Pratt was away on a mission to England. According to John C. Bennett, Joe had had his eye on Sarah for at least two years before he approached her in mid-1842. Bennett and Smith went together to the home where Sarah was staying during her husband’s absence. According to Bennett, Smith said to her,
“Sister Pratt, the Lord has given you to me as one of my spiritual wives. I have the blessings of Jacob granted me, as he granted holy men of old, and I have long looked upon you with favor, and hope you will not deny me.” She replied: “I care not for the blessings of Jacob, and I believe in no such revelations, neither will I consent under any circumstances. I have one good husband, and that is enough for me.”
Joe went off to take out his sexual frustration on Louisa Beaman instead as she lived nearby, but he subsequently returned three more times to try his luck at convincing Sarah, and each time she rejected him.
she at last told him: “Joseph, if you ever attempt any thing of the kind with me again, I will tell Mr. Pratt on his return home. I will certainly do it.” Joe replied, “Sister Pratt, I hope you will not expose me; if I am to suffer, all suffer; so do not expose me. Will you agree not to do so?” “If,” said she, “you will never insult me again, I will not expose you unless strong circumstances require it.” “Well, sister Pratt,” says Joe, “as you have refused me; it becomes sin, unless sacrifice is offered;” and turning to me he said, “General, if you are my friend I wish you to procure a lamb, and have it slain, and sprinkle the door posts and the gate with its blood, and take the kidneys and entrails and offer them upon an altar of twelve stones that have not been touched with a hammer, as a burnt offering, and it will save me and my priesthood. Will you do it?” I will, I replied. So I procured the lamb from Captain John T. Barnett, and it was slain by Lieutenant Stephen H. Goddard, and I offered the kidneys and entrails in sacrifice for Joe as he desired; and Joe said, “all is now safe—the destroying angel will pass over, without harming any of us.”
Unfortunately for Joe, he just couldn’t take “no” for an answer. He’d won the encounter by virtue of getting Sarah to agree not to tell anybody, but that wasn’t good enough for him because he still wanted her.
Time passed on in apparent friendship until Joe grossly insulted Mrs. Pratt again, after her husband had returned home, by approaching and kissing her. This highly offended her, and she told Mr. Pratt, who was much enraged and went and told Joe never to offer an insult of the like again.–Joe replied, “I did not desire to kiss her, Bennett made me do it!”
Consider the manipulation at play in that story. In order to defend himself, Joe smeared both Sarah Pratt and John C. Bennett by this one little act. He weaponized this kiss and Orson Pratt’s jealousy and effectively destroyed multiple relationships by using this as the opportunity to begin a character assassination campaign against Sarah which lasts to this day. He did so by claiming that he had found Pratt and Bennett in bed together. To go a step further and gain more credibility in the public eye, he also recruited Stephen Goddard’s wife to back up the allegation. Mrs. Goddard claimed that she witnessed Bennet touching Sarah’s breasts. Mrs. Goddard also asserted that “Mrs. Pratt stated to me that Dr. Bennett told her, that he could cause abortion with perfect safety to the mother, at any stage of pregnancy, and that he had frequently destroyed and removed infants before their time to prevent exposure of the parties, and that he had instruments for that purpose, &c.”
Sarah Pratt herself backed up Bennett’s version of events. She confirmed Mrs. Goddard’s claim that Bennett performed abortions, but in her version, Bennett was doing it on Joe’s behalf rather than his own. published in 1886 by Wilhelm Wymetal, adds a new salacious detail: that Joe had Bennett performing abortions for him! She says,
“I observed that he held something in the left sleeve of his coat. Bennett smiled and said: ‘Oh, a little job for Joseph; one of his women is in trouble.’ Saying this, he took the thing out of his left sleeve. It was a pretty long instrument of a kind I had never seen before. It seemed to be of steel and was crooked at one end. I heard afterwards that the operation had been performed; that the woman was very sick, and that Joseph was very much afraid that she might die, but she recovered… You hear often that Joseph had no polygamous offspring. The reason of this is very simple. Abortion was practiced on a large scale in Nauvoo. Dr. John C. Bennett, the evil genius of Joseph, brought this abomination into a scientific system. He showed to my husband and me the instruments with which he used to “operate for Joseph.” There was a house in Nauvoo, “right across the flat,” about a mile and a-half from the town, a kind of hospital. They sent the women there, when they showed signs of celestial consequences. Abortion was practiced regularly in this house.”
Lucinda Morgan Pendleton Harris added this detail in the same conversation with Wilhelm Wymetal. “Many little bodies of new-born children floated down the Mississippi.” Lucinda and Sarah were good friends. When Jo first propositioned Sarah, she went to Lucinda to talk about it. Lucinda’s reply “To my utter astonishment, she said, laughing heartily: “How foolish you are! I don’t see anything so horrible in it. Why, I AM HIS MISTRESS SINCE FOUR YEARS!” Lucinda’s reaction is yet another complication to the narrative of polygamy and I’ll do my best to deal with that near the end of today’s episode.
Lucy Walker Smith Kimball, another of Joe’s plural wives, once wrote that Joseph’s sons “seem surprised that there was no issue from asserted plural marriages with their father. Could they but realize the hazardous life he lived, after that revelation was given, they would comprehend the reason. He was harassed and hounded and lived in constant fear of being betrayed by those who ought to have been true to him.” She may have simply been saying that Joseph didn’t have much opportunity for sex with his wives. On the other hand, she may have been implying that he took medical measures to prevent unwanted pregnancies with the help of Wreck-it Bennett.
Sarah Pratt, by the way, went to Utah with her husband Orson, but she remained an unbeliever in Mormonism for the rest of her life, and she quietly taught her children not to believe in it either. She eventually left her “grey-headed” husband Orson in 1868 after he married a sixteen-year-old girl in what Sarah considered to be a “mockery of marriage.” Because of her lack of faith in the church, her unvarnished view of the situation, and her claims about abortion to conceal the doctrine, faithful historians today completely write her off and tend to believe everything she said was just salacious rumors and therefore untrustworthy. They’re all using motivated reasoning and there’s simply no good reason to discount anything Sarah Pratt ever said even in her later life. People who disbelieve Sarah are intellectual hacks who write off any evidence that contradicts their pet narratives.
As for John C. Bennett, he only lasted in the Church for a couple years before he and several other men got excommunicated in May 1842 for “illicit intercourse” with various women. The trial record is fascinating, because the several men involved in this practice weren’t doing polygamy; they were just having extramarital sex and giving religious justifications for it which they attributed to Joseph Smith. For instance, they told women that the prohibition against adultery “did not mean Single women, but Married women,” and that Joseph Smith had privately taught them that extramarital sex wasn’t a sin, particularly if they kept the secret to themselves. Several of these men gave money or food in exchange for sex, effectively treating the women as prostitutes. Bennett’s and Jackson’s exposes reveal how horrible the living conditions for these women actually were and I believe Nauvoo prostitution to be the origin of what was called “widow’s row,” essentially a line of small log cabins in the downtown district used as rent-by-the-hour boarding rooms. Eps 67, 141.
The trial record also gives additional support to Sarah’s claim that John C. Bennett performed abortions. Catherine Fuller says that when Bennett sexually propositioned her, “If I should become pregnant he said he would attend to that. I understood that he would give medicine to prevent it.” Sarah Miller says that when Chauncey Higbee propositioned her, he told her that Bennett “would come & take it away if there was [a pregnancy].” She also added that Bennett wanted to carry her off and he gave her medicine which she could administer to her husband that would cause him to die.
Once it became public that Bennett was propositioning so many women to have affairs, it required Jo and the other elites to distance themselves so as not to be looped in with the Saintly Scoundrel, as he’s been labeled by believing Mormon historians since he broke off from the Church. Thus, the term spiritual wifery was used as a derogatory label against Wreck-it Bennett, William Smith, and any other Mormon elite who was exposed, while the terms “celestial marriage” and “new and everlasting covenant” were manufactured to label just those celestial polygamous marriages which were sanctioned by Jo. The line historians use to delineate between spiritual wifery and celestial marriage was born out of necessity of assassinating Bennett’s character and casting his sexual exploits into the category of sin. This was post-hoc labeling as those lines didn’t exist until Bennett defected and exposed all the salacious practices existing in the underbelly of Nauvoo.
Prior to spring of 1842, Jo and Bennett were best buds with similar goals in mind. We can’t escape that fact. But their relationship started to fall apart for complicated reasons, and by May 1842 Joe was paranoid that Bennett was trying to kill him, which very well may have happened. We can’t be sure of the reasons for their alienation, except that Joe had let Bennett accumulate way too much power and was starting to see him as a threat. Eps 115, 119, 120.
So when Bennett’s adultery ring exploded, Jo was ready to be rid of him. Bennett had been too open and brazen with his spiritual wifery system, which threatened the fragile system of secrecy Jo had been constructing for the past 6 years which was known as celestial marriage. Honestly, considering the women Jo had propositioned leading up to spring of 1842, he’d been cultivating relationships and grooming most of these women for years. Bennett had been there for about 2 years and was suddenly hitting up women all over town to sleep with him. Bennett was a threat to everything Jo had been working on for over a decade. Add in to the mix the fact that Bennett was running a brothel in Nauvoo to connect any of the elites or any visiting wealthy men with quick satisfaction of their lusts, Bennett was completely rogue and could no longer be trusted. Eventually he was removed over infighting and disagreements ranging from politics to polygamy to Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell pulling the trigger on Lilburn Boggs. Bennett meltdown eps 119-134, Porter Rockwell and Boggs Ep 109.
Sarah Pratt discusses a Mrs. White who worked as a madame, probably in Bennett’s brothel.
I have told you that the prophet Joseph used to frequent houses of ill-fame. Mrs. White, a very pretty and attractive woman, once confessed to me that she made a business of it to be hospitable to captains of the Mississippi steamboats. She told me that Joseph had made her acquaintance very soon after his arrival in Nauvoo, and that he had visited her dozens of times. My husband (Orson Pratt) could not be induced to believe such things of his prophet. Seeing his obstinate incredulity, Mrs. White proposed to Mr. Pratt and myself to put us in a position where we could observe what was going on between herself and Joseph the prophet. We, however, declined this proposition… Next door to my house was a house of bad reputation. One single woman lived there, not very attractive. She used to be visited by people from Carthage whenever they came to Nauvoo. Joseph used to come on horseback, ride up to the house and tie his horse to a tree, many of which stood before the house. Then he would enter the house of the woman from the back. I have seen him do this repeatedly.
Hmmmmm… soooo weird that faithful Mormon historians don’t trust Sarah Pratt. It’s like she left behind abundant information that makes them feel yucky inside so they choose to completely disregard anything she ever said. Just because somebody says something with which you disagree doesn’t mean they’re wrong; it could mean that you’re wrong and you don’t like what they say because it doesn’t mesh with what you understand the world to be. This statement reveals a troubling and rarely-discussed aspect of Nauvoo polygamy. We have solid documentation on over 30 wives of Joseph Smith, but that says absolutely nothing about the number of sexual partners he actually had when he could go to any of the brothels in Nauvoo to satisfy his urges without going through the whole rigamarole of courting women in the elite class of the city. So, if he could satisfy his sexual urges, then why go after the wives and daughters of his friends? Prostitutes were play things to him, the women he actually knew were games. Somebody you give money to for a night of fun doesn’t include the thrill of pursuit. It’s slimy, but it isn’t taboo the same way any of the women we have documentation for were. Apologists will claim that polygamy wasn’t motivated by sex, but by a divine mandate to which Joseph Smith and others in Nauvoo begrudgingly complied. I would agree that polygamy wasn’t motivated by sex… alone… It wasn’t just about sex, it was about power. It was a game. It was the thrill of chasing the forbidden fruit and seeing how far he could push boundaries. If it were only about sex then Jo would have taken care of his urges in any of the brothels around town and we wouldn’t have much to discuss on today’s episode. So, when the conversation comes up about how much sex was involved in polygamy, the question doesn’t matter much in my mind because the conversation should be about power and control. Nauvoo was a kingdom of sex. A KINGdom of sex. But, in a few rare instances, it was also a Queendom of sex. We’ll talk about that with Eliza R. Snow in a second.
Meanwhile, on May 3, 1842 Joe introduced the Mormon Temple endowment ceremony. According to an 1846 expose by a woman named Maria Van Dusen, at the beginning of the ceremony, Maria and her husband were separated and directed down two separate hallways. At the end of the hall, a female conductor met Maria and divested her of her outer clothing, all but her undergarments and stockings. Then she proceeded to another small room, where she met another female conductor, who required her to strip off the rest of her clothing, leaving her “in a perfect state of nakedness.” According to Maria, the conductor “next takes this nude female into a bath of water, and washes her all over, from head to foot, with a similar ceremony to what follows:--I wash you for purposes thus and so.” Then the officiator dumped a cow’s horn of perfumed oil over her head, and rubbed it by hand all over her body. Then she was seated, “ordained to be a queen from this time forth and forever,” and presented with a new undergarment that had Masonic symbols cut into it.
At this point, the man and wife are reintroduced to each other, and there’s a dramatic re-enactment of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the President of the Church in the role of God. In Maria’s ceremony, Brigham Young played God and Orson Hyde played the devil. In 1842 it would have been Joseph Smith as God and W. W. Phelps who played the devil. At the point in the ceremony where Adam and Eve realized they’re naked, the initiates were given small white aprons with green silk fig leaves pasted on the front.
After this dramatic portion of the endowment, there was some instruction by the Church president. Among other things, he told the woman that her husband would rule over her and explained the meanings of the marks cut into her garment. The initiates took oaths of secrecy, under penalty of death should they break the oath. Then the husband and wife were symbolically ushered into the celestial kingdom, crowned a king and queen, and instructed in the doctrine of plural marriage. Eps 100, 110, 111.
Under Brigham Young, thousands of Mormons rushed through this ceremony in the Nauvoo Temple before heading West to Utah. But under Joseph Smith, it was only a small handful of elites, the inner-circle members of the “Holy Order” or “Quorum of the Anointed.” These were vetted members of the Church who could be trusted, and he used the endowment ceremony to bind them to secrecy before ritually introducing them to the mystery of plural marriage among other things. I’ll take this moment to say that the temple ceremony has gone through multiple evolutions with elements added, removed, or changed throughout the decades as societal pressures have dictated. Most recently the language was altered to be far less sexist and we’re currently waiting on seeing how COVID-19 will affect the temple ordinances once the temples reopen. It’s a living ceremony in that it changes as situations necessitate. With that said, the original endowment introduced by Jo has been lost to history. The reason for this is the people who went through were all vetted members who could be trusted and they kept tight lips. Once the Nauvoo Temple was completed under Bloody Brigham’s direction the secrets couldn’t be kept among the thousands of people who were processed through the ceremony and we know almost exactly what it looked like from contemporary exposes. Jo’s ceremony, however, can only be reconstructed to about 80-90% accuracy with the few documents we have that describe it. We’ll discuss a few details of the temple ceremony near the end of today’s episode because it reveals some troubling details ripe for speculation.
In June of 1842, the same month John Freemont left for his first expedition of the Oregon Trail, Joe married Eliza R. Snow, who was living as a boarder in the Smith home and working as Emma’s secretary. Eliza was 38 years old at the time, so actually one of his more age-appropriate wives. She was also single, so no troublesome husband to deal with. We don’t know the details of Joe’s proposal to her, but Eliza did write about her reaction:
When first plural marriage was suggested to me, … I would not listen to the matter. The idea was repugnant, abhorrent. I was like any other young woman who had beaux and suitors for her hand. I wanted to share a husband with no woman. But I was told it was God’s command, and I went to God and asked God to enlighten me, and he did. I saw and felt that plural marriage was not only right, but that it was the only true manner of living up to the gospels, and I quenched my womanly emotions and entered the order.
According to Eliza, “As I increased in knowledge concerning the principle and design of Plural Marriage, I grew in love with it.” Her marriage to Joseph Smith was “one of the most important circumstances of my life,” and one “ I have never had cause to regret.”
Alright, let’s unbox Eliza and some lesser-discussed aspects of Mormon polygamy. I’ve made no qualms about the fact that Eliza R. Snow is my historical crush, but needless to say our relationship is complicated and she’s not one I’m writing home to momma about. For some women, polygamy was an opportunity to break away from the incredibly repressive and abusive system of monogamy; an idealized version without patriarchal power structures still is to this day. Eliza R. Snow was somebody who flourished in polygamy. Her success story provides a unique window into trends polygamy created, and still creates today in fundamentalist sects. Mormonism is a high-demand and viciously competitive cult. This is felt equally by both accepted genders in the confines of the theology. For men it forces holier than thou competition to rise through leadership ranks. For women it forces competition with the women around them to be most active in the church, have the most kids, attend the most meetings, bake the most cakes, visit the most fellow sisters in the Relief Society, and wear the nicest clothes. Any metric of cultural competition is exacerbated by the Mormon hierarchical structure.
For women like Eliza R. Snow, and independent and progressive thinker who’s also power hungry, polygamy presents an alternative to a life of subservience to her husband of doing chores and raising kids. Eliza, especially because she didn’t have any children of her own, was allowed to use her time to write, organize, preach, coordinate, and evolve the society of Utah, tendencies which were developed and fostered in Nauvoo polygamy. When women aren’t forced to stay home every day raising kids, they get stuff done, often much to the chagrin of the men who hold dominion over them. For women who don’t like their husband very much because they were forced into a marriage, every night he spends with another of his wives is a night she doesn’t have to tolerate a man she doesn’t love or maybe even doesn’t like. Maybe she was given to this man by her father as a business deal. Maybe he was the best option and she settled like Emma did with Jo. Maybe she’s not all that attracted to men to begin with. Maybe he’s abusive. Or maybe, her intelligence is better utilized in organizing society, offering services of midwifery, making herbal remedies, teaching school, or anything else women were allowed to do at this time. If her sister-wives are helping raise the kids, suddenly a couple days every week open up for her to engage in these other pursuits where she finds more fulfillment instead of just cooking, cleaning, and raising kids. With enough women who have free time, they can organize support networks, build hospitals and orphanages, construct curricula for schools where they teach, write their own periodicals focused on women’s issues, and do lots of other stuff that they otherwise couldn’t do without polygamy. It was in this societal structure where people like Eliza R. Snow, Zina Diantha Huntington, Emmeline Wells, and many other women flourished and eventually contributed to the larger women’s suffrage movement at the turn of the 20th century.
None of what I’m saying here should be construed to ignore the abuses and disturbing misogyny of polygamy; that’s been the entire focus of the episode, most of our polygamy episodes, and is the focus of most books discussing the history of polygamy from a critical lens. I’m merely discussing this now to further contextualize some of the many complexities polygamy provides. In addition to this, polygamy in Utah was different than polygamy in Nauvoo but to some extent women had say in who their sister-wife would be. Husbands were to consult with and gain the approval of their first wife before they took another. There was always the Law of Sarah dodge where if she didn’t approve she would be damned, but the actual practice, especially in Utah, contained a great deal of variability with respect to the letter of the law and how it was actually implemented and practiced. This is to say that the many societal benefits gained through progressive and egalitarian polyamory today were also captured to some degree in Mormon polygamy. I’m skeptical that the criteria of informed, consenting adults can ever be truly achieved in a religious polygynous system because the theology requires a man to lord over his wives. By its very design it’s incapable of achieving the criteria. The issue is very complicated and we shouldn’t discount or ignore the experiences of women who not only preferred the system of polygamy, but flourished within in like Eliza R. Snow.
I’ll probably say more about this at the end of the episode today but I wanted to spend a little time on that tangent here. The following month, in July 1842, Joe married Bishop Newel K. Whitney’s 17-year-old daughter Sarah Ann Whitney, with Newel performing the ceremony. Joe had first met Sarah in 1831, when Sarah was five years old. As usual, Joe brought his marriage proposal to Newel rather than directly to Sarah. According to Helen Mar Kimball,
The Bishop, with his wife, who had for years been called Mother Whitney, retired together and unitedly besought the Lord for a testimony whether or not this principle was from Him; and they ever after bore testimony that they received a manifestation and that it was so powerful they could not mistake it. The Bishop never afterwards doubted, and they willingly gave to him their daughter, which was the strongest proof that they could possibly give their faith and confidence in him as a true Prophet of God. . . . Sarah Ann took this step of her own free will, but had to do it unbeknown to her brother [Horace Whitney], which grieved her most, and also her mother, that they could not open their hearts to him. But Joseph feared to disclose it, believing that the Higbee boys would embitter Horace against him, as they had already caused serious trouble, and for this reason he favored his going East, which Horace was not slow to accept.
Joe thought Sarah’s brother was going to be a problem, so he sent him on a mission. Sarah eventually did tell Horace about the marriage when he returned from this mission, and he accepted the doctrine as well instead of aligning with the Higbee brothers who published the Nauvoo Expositor as was feared.
This presents another painful question worth exploration. What kind of parents give their seventeen-year-old daughter away to be the secret mistress of a middle-aged man? Sarah Ann’s mother Elizabeth Whitney later explained in the Women’s Exponent magazine how they came to their decision:
We pondered upon the matter continually, and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us; He revealed unto us His power and glory. We were seemingly wrapt in a heavenly vision, a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own bosoms that God heard and approved our prayers and intercedings before him.
I wonder if they’d had dinner at the prophet’s house before this hallucination… The Whitneys were certainly not the only parents who gave their daughter to the prophet. Helen Mar Kimball, who we’ll talk about in a minute, said about her parent’s agreeing to Jo’s proposition when she was 14 years old “My father had but one Ewe lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter”. The thing is, Jo drove a hard bargain. You have eternal salvation if you just give your teenage daughter to me and keep your mouth shut. Yeah, I know it hurts right now knowing your daughter is going to be traumatized, hate you her entire life, and not even have the language to understand what’s happening to her, but all that discomfort you two will have to live with will all be but a moment of suffering for an eternity of bliss. What does Helen think about it? Why would we care, this is a transaction between adults and she’s only a commodity with which to purchase your exaltation. The Kimballs really believed this, the Whitneys really believed this, every parent couple who gave their daughter to the prophet, every man who gave his wife to the prophet, they all believed that they were choosing short-term discomfort and suffering in exchange for an eternity of godhood.
A brief anecdote to drive this home. Super duper content warning here because I’m about to share some Warren Jeffs stuff, the modern Joseph Smith. During my first visit to Short Creek I was allowed to tour the former home of Warren Jeffs, the currently-incarcerated leader of the FLDS. His home was something like 27 bedrooms, 2 massive kitchens, multiple huge living spaces, 3 stories; altogether it’s something like 35,000 square feet. The person giving us the tour took us into the entry way and pointed to a room just off the entry way which served as Jeffs’ personal office. Parents would bring their daughter to this home, wait in the entryway, and Jeffs would go about describing the daughter’s sins and proceed to tear down her physical appearance. After that he’d take her across the hall into his personal bedroom where the tour guide pointed out to us the heavily padded carpet for the purposes of sound-deadening. This would all happen while the parents sat in the entryway of the home, 23 feet from the bedroom door. Now, I don’t share that story to be gratuitous, I share that because it is simply the harsh reality of what this actually looks like in practice and to illustrate that what happened in Nauvoo in the 19th-century isn’t some foreign land or distant memory. That stuff happens to this day in fundamentalist sects. And, because polygamy is a criminal charge, banned by most state constitutions, the people who suffer these abuses believe they have nowhere to go and nobody to turn to. Not all prophets are like this, but every prophet has the capacity to become this. It slides under the radar of the justice system because religions enjoy incredible exemptions from basically any laws ever while never paying taxes. Everything that Joseph Smith did in Nauvoo is happening every day in the shadows of the monolith that is religion. The episode doesn’t get much more pleasant from here.
A month after the ceremony with the teenaged Sarah Ann Whitney, Joseph Smith found himself hiding in Carlos Granger’s basement after some law officers from Missouri came looking for him to bring him back to trial for treason, arson, and murder. That’s a sentence you’ll never hear in church. While Joe was in hiding, Emma worked to keep the church running in Jo’s absence, wrote a letter to the state governor on his behalf, took care of the kids, and clandestinely kept him apprised of the situation. Despite Emma’s champion efforts on his behalf, Joe apparently used the downtime to meet with his new plural wife behind Emma’s back. Joe wrote a letter to the Whitney family to set up the encounter. The letter, one of the few we have in Jo’s actual handwriting, explained where he was hiding, and then assured the Whitneys,
I have a room intirely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect saf[e]ty, I <know> it is the will of God that you should comfort <me> now in this time of affliction . . . the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty . . . I think Emma wont come to night[;] if she dont[,] [then] dont fail to come to night[.]
Maybe Jo was just really lonely and wanted some good long-time friends as company while in hiding. But, if this is just a letter about Jo wanting the company of the three Whitneys, why did he ask them to avoid Emma? Why does he stress the fact that he has a private room? Jo and Emma’s first friends upon their arrival in Kirtland was the Whitney family, why would he want to keep the visit from her?
According to the book Mormon Enigma, “The evening after Joseph wrote the letter he went home under cover of darkness and spent the night with Emma, returning to his hiding place after conducting some business the next day.” So he spent the evening with Sarah Ann and then spent the night with Emma as if nothing happened. What does it say about Joseph Smith that he could molest a teenager and still go home to Emma and look her in the eye? By the way, have I mentioned that Emma was pregnant at this point?
Emma continued doing a lot of business for Joe throughout the rest of her pregnancy, although in October she fell severely ill, probably from malaria or something to do with the pregnancy. On December 26, 1842, amidst the throes of a fever, she delivered yet another stillborn child, her fourth failed delivery. We… we can’t imagine what this was like. Maybe some of you can empathize with what it’s like to lose a child in birth but considering everything else going on, we can never put our minds where Emma’s must have been during the end of 1842. Fortunately for Emma, she had some boarders living in her home who helped her out during her recovery, including Sarah and Maria Lawrence, Lucy and William Walker, Emily and Eliza Partridge, Eliza R. Snow, and Jane Manning James. Unfortunately for Emma, Joe had married Eliza R. Snow in June 1842 and was busily grooming all the rest of the girls to become his wives as well.
By the end of 1842 Joe had married over a dozen women, including Agnes Moulton Coolbrith, his widow sister-in-law, Sylvia Porter Session Lyon, Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Patty Bartlett Sessions, Marinda Nancy Johnson, Elizabeth Davis Brackenbury Durfee, Sally Ann Fuller, Sarah Maryetta Kingsley Howe Cleveland, Delcena Johnson, Eliza R. Snow, Sarah Ann Whitney, Martha McBride, and Sarah Bapson. Once again, these are the women we have good documentation for, it says nothing about any of his stops at the city brothels.
About February 1843, an altercation is supposed to have happened between Emma Smith and Eliza Snow. The details of this altercation are shrouded in mystery and clouded by oral history folklore. This is one of those stories in Mormon history that historians have been wrestling with for over a century to figure out exactly what happened. The gist of the story is that Eliza was noticeably pregnant, and Emma witnessed Joe kissing her and that was a breaking point in the somewhat peaceful tension in the home. In a fit of rage and jealousy, Emma either pushed Eliza down the stairs, or beat her with a broomstick, or both, and as a result of this violence, Eliza miscarried and lost her unborn child and was kicked out of the Smith home.
Unfortunately, the accounts of this incident are all third-hand or fourth-hand and written long after the fact, and they also contradict each other in some of the details. There’s also nothing in Eliza’s journal to corroborate the story, and in fact the journal leaves little room for Eliza to have ever been pregnant. Probably neither the stair-pushing nor the miscarriage actually happened. The part about Emma catching Joe and Eliza together, however, seems to have been true, and Emma kicked Eliza out of the house just as she had done with Fanny Alger six years earlier. Ep 137.
Over the next few months, Joe and Emma fought a lot about polygamy, and eventually they came to a couple compromises. First, as we discussed last episode, Emma agreed to let Joe mess around as long as she could mess around too. Joe eventually rescinded this part of the deal when he received D&C 132. Second, Emma also agreed that Joe could marry younger women, as long as Emma got to vet them first. In the Bible, Abraham’s wife Sarah had chosen her maidservant Hagar to be Abraham’s concubine. Emma wanted the same veto power over her husband’s partners as Sarah had. This came to be known as the law of Sarah. The first wives that Emma approved under the new compromise were the Partridge sisters and the Lawrence sisters, all of whom lived in Joe and Emma’s home where Emma could keep an eye on things. What Emma didn’t know when she and Joe hammered out this agreement in May 1843 was that Joe had already married the Partridge sisters two months earlier.
According to Emily Partridge, Joe had first approached her in 1842 and asked her if she promise to burn a private letter after reading it if he wrote one to her? She initially agreed to do so, but then she had second thoughts and asked him not to send her any private letters. For the time being, he agreed not to.
Later, in February 1843 after the Partridge sisters had seen Emma kick Eliza Snow out of the house for being Joe’s plural wife, Emily received a visit from Elizabeth Durfee. Durfee was one of Joe’s plural wives and knew all about polygamy, but Emily didn’t know that. Durfee played dumb and pretended to have heard rumors about polygamy, and asked Emily if she had any information. Emily successfully passed Durfee’s test by keeping Joe’s secrets.
Mrs. Durfee then set up a meeting between Emily and Joe at Heber the Creeper Kimball’s house. When she showed up for the meeting, Heber made a show of turning her away from the front door, but then he caught up with her and quietly took her around back to meet up with Joe. Joe told her “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.” She agreed to the marriage, and “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 Joe married Emily’s sister Eliza Partridge as well. Mrs. Durfee filled the role of Mother in Israel, an adult woman liaison to teach the doctrine and help Jo acquire younger wives.
Then, two months later, Joe and Emma reached their compromise that allowed Emma to choose Joe’s plural wives, and she chose the Partridge sisters. Joe didn’t dare tell her that he’d already married them, so according to Emily, “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.”
Joe wasn’t satisfied with just the Partridge sisters, so Emma also selected the Lawrence sisters for him. Originally from Canada, Sarah and Maria Lawrence had moved to Missouri and then to Nauvoo with their father, Edward, who died about March 1840, when Maria and Sarah were seventeen and fourteen years old. Joseph Smith became their legal guardian in June 1841, because their mother wasn’t legally eligible to manage Edward’s estate unless she was married. She eventually married Josiah Butterfield, who petitioned to become the girls’ guardian and take over management of the estate, but Joe refused to even meet with him and even threw him out of the Nauvoo Mansion by kicking his backside. We don’t know exactly what happened to the girls’ inheritance money, but it kind of seems like Joe stole it. At the very least, he seems to have wanted the girls to continue living in his home to be sexually groomed. He finally married both his wards in spring 1843, when Maria was nineteen and Sarah seventeen. Unfortunately we don’t know any other details about this marriage. Ep 213. What we do know is at age 23, “Maria Lawrence died of consumption or one might more truthfully put it of a broken heart.” likely due to depression from the PTSD she experienced from her encounters with the prophet.
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.”
Over the next months, Emma watched the girls’ rooms in an attempt to prevent Joe from sleeping with them. From Mormon Enigma again,
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.
In July 1843, Joe dictated the plural marriage revelation, Doctrine & Covenants Section 132. This is Joe’s single most controversial revelation. It lays out the doctrine of sealing and what it terms as “The New and Everlasting Covenant.” It also lays out the path Mormons take in order to literally become gods of their own planets after death, which was further solidified by the King Follett Discourse. Eps 148, 149, 158, 193-95.
During the Nauvoo period, Joe received very few written revelations. He was obsessed with secrecy, so he couched his new doctrines in things like the secret temple endowment or the Council of Fifty. D&C 132 was delivered, but it wasn’t a public revelation. Only a few Mormon elites in Nauvoo were privy to the content of 132. The revelation wasn’t actually publicly printed until 8 years after Jo’s death in 1852 in Utah by Orson Pratt under Bloody Brigham Young’s direction when Utah became an openly polygamist territory. And it wasn’t officially voted to be canonized as church scripture until the October 1880 general conference in Utah, 3 years after Bloody Brigham’s death when polygamy was under heavy fire from the United States Government.
The revelation is directed to Emma Smith. By July 1843, Jo had about 2 dozen wives, which had put tremendous strain on his relationship with Emma. In the 1870s, William Clayton swore out an affidavit that explained the circumstances of Joseph receiving this revelation.
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.
So infuriated was Emma with this revelation that she actually burned the original copy. 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.
The revelation begins by saying that Joe has “inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines.” God promises to answer the question, “For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.” The phrase New and Everlasting Covenant had been around for a while. In Kirtland, it had simply meant the gospel of Mormonism. But D&C 132 reinterpreted the phrase, which now came to mean the system of eternal plural marriage.
The revelation goes on to explain that only one person on earth-- the president of the Church-- has the power to perform eternal sealings. All baptismal and marriage covenants not authorized by Joseph Smith end at death. Those who aren’t married for eternity can’t become gods; at best they can become angels, bound to eternal servitude. This is because godhood requires the power of eternal reproduction; the gods’ “glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” What the prophet binds on earth is bound in heaven, all else is lost.
After a long discussion of adultery which basically says that sleeping with more than one person isn’t adultery if God has authorized it, the revelation finally gets to the part addressed to Emma:
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; . . . 54 And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law. . . . 64 And again, verily, verily, I say unto you, if any man have a wife, who holds the keys of this power, and he teaches unto her the law of my priesthood, as pertaining to these things, then shall she believe and administer unto him, or she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord your God; for I will destroy her; for I will magnify my name upon all those who receive and abide in my law.
Emma was commanded to believe in plural marriage, accept Joe’s plural wives, and be faithful to Joe, or God would destroy her. The revelation also threatened that unless Emma behaved herself, the “Law of Sarah” would no longer apply. Jo’s revelations always included some kind of stopgap like this and of course the polygamy revelation would be no different. People either abide by every aspect of his laws or their die is cast, their lot is sewn, and they shall have their reward.
Next we’ve got to talk about Helen Mar Kimball, famous for being Joe’s youngest plural wife at age 14. Helen was born to Heber and Vilate Kimball in New York in 1828, and she was just 3 years old when they converted to the Mormon faith in 1832. As a child in Kirtland, Ohio, she attended school in a wing of Joe and Emma’s home. In 1839 she moved with her family to Nauvoo. Helen didn’t have many interactions with Joe during these years, although she saw him preach quite a bit, and he came to the Kimball home to administer healing blessings when the family got malaria. Although, it could be argued, this was young enough that most of her memories from this period were lost by the time she was older recounting the events in Utah.
A brief interaction occurred when Jo came over to the Kimball home sometime in 1842, when Helen was about 13. 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. He squeezed the doll too hard and the head fell off while it was in Joe’s hands. Joe remarked: “As that has fallen, so shall the heathen gods fall.” Helen’s reaction is priceless: “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.” Because of course that’s what she’d think, she was THIRTEEN!
Joe married Helen the following year, in May 1843, as the church itself puts it “several months before her 15th birthday”. According to Helen, her father came to her one day and “taught me the principle 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.” I’m deeply skeptical of the claim that it was Heber and not Joe who came up with this idea, especially since it was Joe who told her so. Maybe it was because Jo asked Heber for Vilate and Heber instead struck a deal to give up Helen instead. But anyway,
[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.
The next morning, Joe came to the house
& with my parents I heard him teach & explain the principle of 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.”
Whew.... that’s a heavy quote. What could Vilate say? The decision had been made between Jo and Heber, nothing either of them could say would change that fact. Helen agreed, but what choice did she really have? Her parents had decided her fate. She also may not have realized that the marriage would include sex. Catherine Lewis later remembered Helen telling her, “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.”
Helen was married to Joe in May, and in the following months she had lots of reason to regret that decision when her parents treated her like a caged bird. Apparently the Prophet instructed Heber and Vilate not to let Helen go to any dances or associate with young men her own age. She hated being so locked up, because she loved dancing. She eventually got over it and became a full believer in polygamy, but she was quite bitter at the time. Fortunately her captivity didn’t last too long, because Joe was soon killed. Good riddance, sentient skidmark.
In late 1843, Emma Smith felt more and more like a prisoner too. Joe was shutting her out of the Church’s business because of her vascilation about polygamy, and many of her old friends were keeping secret from her that they had become Joe’s plural wives. Emma filled too many roles of running Jo’s business affairs, keeping a lid on the secrets of polygamy and the rumor mill that was the Relief Society, raising the kids through sickness and health, fending off constables trying to arrest the prophet, and dozens of other tasks never to be known or recorded. One wonders why Eliza was pushed down the stairs instead of Jo. Finally, in August, Emma played her strongest card: she threatened divorce, which spelled disaster for the power couple of Mormonism. Think of the optics! According to William Clayton, Joe “had to tell her he would relinquish all for her sake”-- in other words, that he would stop practicing polygamy and give up all his plural wives. But he confided to Clayton that he didn’t intend to keep his word.
Here’s Mormon Enigma again:
Five days after Joseph agreed to “relinquish all” Emma found two letters in his pocket from Eliza [R.] Snow, who was still at the Morley settlement [after her quick removal from the homestead]. . . . Emma had said some “harsh words.” . . . Still smarting from finding Eliza’s letters to Joseph the previous day, Emma went for a short carriage ride with her husband on August 22. She called on the Lucian Woodworth family while Joseph attended to some businsess at the temple. Emma apparently did not know that the Woodworths’ sixteen-year-old daughter Flora had been Joseph’s plural wife since spring. What probably began as a casual social visit resulted in a confrontation between Emma and Flora when Emma discovered that Joseph had given Flora a gold watch. She would have recognized the implications of such a gift, since he had also given one to Eliza Snow. Joseph returned just as Emma “was demanding the gold watch” from Flora, and he reprimanded her. Once in the carriage, however, Emma vented her own frustrations. Joseph told Clayton she continued “her abuse” after they arrived home, and said he finally had to employ “harsh measures” to stop her.
What those “harsh measures” were, we’ll never know. Apparently by the end of the summer, Emma’s opposition to polygamy weakened. Allen J. Stout overheard a conversation between Joe and Emma and reported that Emma ping-ponged between “moments of passionate denunciation” and “tearful repentance.” Maria Jan Johnston told a similar story:
Emma “was crying and in trouble about something.” . . . Emma invited the young woman to sit down on the bed. Emma “looked very sad and cast down,” but remarked, “The principle of plural Marriage is right, it is from our Father in Heaven.” Maria Jane reported, “Then she again spoke of her jealousy… ‘What I said I have got [to] repent of. The principle is right but I am jealous hearted. Now never tell anybody that you heard me find fault with that principle we have got to humble ourselves and repent of it.’”
Jo……... had finally worn Emma down. In late 1843 and early 1844, her behavior became more and more erratic. Finally Emma said “Joseph should give us up or blood would flow.” It’s unclear who she was threatening to kill; maybe she meant that she would commit suicide, but this was also concomitant with Jo’s stomach ulcers where he thought Emma had poisoned him. Or, maybe she did poison him, we don’t know but I wouldn’t really blame her for everything Jo put her through. Regardless, this threat seems to have given her the upper hand again in her fights with Joe.
At last, Emma convinced Joe to end his marriage to the Patridge sisters, and she turned all of the female boarders out of the Smith’s family’s Mansion House. According to Emily Partridge, Joe became surprisingly submissive during all of this. John Taylor records that Emma said Joe had admitted to her that the plural marriage revelation was false. Emma told a non-Mormon visitor that the doctrine of polygamy came straight from hell. In the end, Emma took a strong stand against polygamy, and Joe allowed her to because he probably didn’t have any other options. After his death, the message of anti-polygamy became her legacy when she led her children and several Mormon factions away from Joseph’s teachings on marriage and toward coalescing into the RLDS Church. She denied, even on her deathbed, that polygamy ever occured in the church. She remarried 3 years after Jo’s death… on his birthday. Yes, I’m sure that was deliberate.
I know, dear listener, I’ve kept you for a long time today. 42 pages of script doesn’t really fly by even if you listen at 1.5x speed. I know this was a grind to get through and there was some really ugly subjects we trudged through to get here. But please, allow a brief conclusion in an attempt to tie these threads together.
There’s a reason this has been our longest episode in this Road to Carthage series and that’s because Mormon polygamy is just a complicated topic. The information we discussed today has been systematically suppressed since before Jo even died. “Polygamy was only practiced because so many men died on the trek west and the women needed to be cared for.” “Joseph never practiced polygamy.” “I’ve read my scriptures and I don’t remember reading anything about polygamy.” These are generational lies that live to this day. I see posts nearly every day from people who are amazed at the fact that Emma wasn’t Joseph’s only wife; all I can think is… just you wait, young grasshopper. Be careful, there be monsters in this here rabbit hole.
With that said, I can’t help but recognize the dogma on both sides of this issue. I experienced the manifestation of that dogma firsthand this previous weekend during Sunstone when a heated debate ensued among some history junkies about the morality of polygamy. It’s a heated topic among historians and hobbyists alike and the fact is that nobody can actually understand it in its completeness. On one hand we have Brian Hales making up presentist interpretations of evidence that time means sex and eternity means no sex, and on the other hand we have people posting in all caps Jo-bro raped a teenage girl and they can’t name any of those survivors or have any idea what any of them did after his death; many of them went on to be the most vocal proponents of polygamy in Utah.
So let’s peel back the dogma and look at the Naked Mormonism polygamy. It’s really complicated. It started as a progressive system to buck the trend of puritanical family dynamics. I can appreciate the hell out of that. As the practice expanded and included more people, controls needed to be put into place and power had to be consolidated in the prophet. He was the only one who could approve the people who knew about it and practiced it. Once that happened, women, much like Jo’s revelations in New York and Kirtland, became a commodity, as if they weren’t perceived as such to begin with.
The endowment as introduced by Joseph Smith isn’t fully understood by historians today. It involved people getting naked and drenched in oil with some plants infused into it, a passion narrative of the creation, an ascendency ritual, and a holding chamber for the initiates to enjoy in privacy after the ceremony was complete. The majority of people he brought through the endowment were practicing polygamy or were being groomed to practice it. Suffice it to say, the Nauvoo Temple, had it been completed before Jo’s death, would have become a rape castle. Once Bloody Brigham took over and ran thousands of people through in the space of a few months before heading west, it served only ritualistic purposes and we have no evidence any sexual encounters actually occurred there. But, this was also Victorian Puritanical America so I don’t know what evidence we ever would expect to find. The women may have confided in one another about their abuses, but they never wrote any of it down without coding their language. The few extant exposes we have of the Brigham endowment are troubling at best, but people didn’t speak up about this because the Danites were an ever-present threat. They’d notice if anybody sent a letter to Warsaw or Carthage that told about what was going on inside the theocracy of Nauvoo and they’d come knocking.
The need for secrecy is one of the many factors which went into the formation of the Relief Society. Bennett’s expose discusses a hierarchy within the Relief Society of women ascending based on criteria like how attractive they were, how well they could keep a secret, how open they were to being sealed to other men and engage in an open marriage, and some other criteria. They were first, The Cyprian Saints, then The Chambered Sisters of Charity, then finally “the highest degree in the Harem,” were The Consecratees of the Cloister, or Cloistered Saints.
According to Bennett, “The members of the Female Relief Society, who are ever upon the watch for victims, have the power, when they know, or even suspect, that any Mormon female has,... lapsed from the straight path of virtue without the sanction of the Prophet, of bringing her at once before the Inquisition. This body is solemnly organized in secret and select council, and by its members, the poor, terrified female is questioned and threatened, until she confesses the crime she has committed, or perhaps, in her confusion and terror, accuses herself of what she was never guilty of.” This pattern of grooming, mind control, and abuse eventually results in the young Cyprian Saint’s spirit being broken, her autonomy abused out of her, she is terrified and alone, castigated by women she considers friends and family and she has nowhere else to turn. If she’s shows enough tenacity and fortitude to withstand this abusive onslaught, she ascends to The Chambered Sisters of Charity.
“This order comprises that class of females who indulge their sensual propensities, without restraint, whether married or single, by the express permission of the Prophet.” This group of women, when approached by a man they seem to like, the couple goes to Jo and he gives his approval and they’re clandestinely married. Understandably, some women enjoyed the liberties afforded by polygamy and they would fall into this category, but there was the highest degree in the Relief Society, the Cloistered Saints.
This degree is composed of females,... who, by an express grant and gift of God,... are set apart and consecrated to the use and benefit of particular individuals as secret, spiritual wives. They are the Saints of the Black Veil, and are accounted the special favorites of heaven,... Their spiritual husbands are altogether from the most eminent members of the Mormon Church, and participate in the holiness of their consecrated wives.
The Relief Society was formed to create a hierarchy, a structure of control; checks and balances within the massive system of polygamy. These Cloistered Saints were often just as criminal as Jo himself, they were the older and more trustworthy women who convinced younger women that polygamy was commanded by god and they should submit to being raped. These were the women who, according to a conversation Jo had with Jackson were, “great captains, in his service to carry his design, and remarked that through them he could get any stranger’s money. I asked him how he would work the matter; to which he replied, that he had only to tell certain of his spiritual wives, that such a mand had been in the Missouri war, and that he should be put out of the way, and his property and money consecrated to the use, of the church; then said he, it is damned easy for them to g[e]t on his good graces, and to mix a white powder with his victuals, and put him out of the way.”
These women had a lot of power to help build the kingdom of god; they were granted that power by showing special favors to the prophet and his best friends. They flourished in a system of overt and brazen criminality. They all became victims of that system, and still were able to flourish.
Jo was a serial rapist and serial criminal. He constructed entire theologies and ritualism for that purpose and everybody who participated in it was victim to his religious abuse. He was a cult leader and cult leaders can accomplish incredibly dangerous and abusive things under the guise of religion. He promised exaltation and eternal rewards for submitting to this system. If you bring even one soul to this gospel of polygamy, great shall be your glory, and many people flourished from that inherently abusive power dynamic.
Which is also to say, there was a tremendous amount of variability; some didn’t see anything wrong or maybe even enjoyed the sexual liberty afforded by polygamy. It’s a very complicated matter and why we took 42 pages to get through it today.
There are so many more stories I could tell you about polygamy, but I was notified by a tweet from another polygamous cult leader, Russel M. Nelson.
Dear friends, the road ahead may be bumpy, but our destination is serene and secure. So, fasten your seatbelt, hang on through the bumps, and do what’s right. Your reward will be eternal.”
He’s the mouthpiece of god and we’re lucky to have a modern-day pious fraud to tell us what’s right. I’ve talked at ya for long enough, Imma go plan my wedding.
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