Ep 190 – Joseph Fought Polygamy
On this episode, we discuss Joseph Smith’s public and private denials of polygamy. It was a controversial practice in Victorian-era America and he had concluded by the final year of his life that it would lead to the next mass-exodus of Mormons, or possibly the ruin of the sect altogether. Some have used his statements to claim he never engaged in polygamy. We deal with a few of the arguments and discuss the context surrounding his multiple statements against polygamy to inform a skeptical reading of the sources. Yes, he fought polygamy, but only when it got out of his control. We also discuss Jacob Cochran and the free-love sect referred to as the Cochranites, as well as the many parallels between it and Mormonism.
Joseph Smith polygamy denials
Publications about Cochranites
Jacob Cochran legal troubles 1819
Exposes of Cochranism
Orsimus F. Bostwick and Buckeye’s Lamentation for Want of More Wives
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We try to deal with issues on this show chronotopically. It’s a serialized history and we progress chronologically, but episode to episode tends to focus on singular topics. It’s a balance to keep things simple and comprehensible, but it also means a little context is lost as we shift from topic to topic within the timeline. An issue which constantly plagued Nauvoo Mormonism was polygamy. We can’t ignore or forget how much drama and tension was created by practicing polygamy among the highest-ranking Mormon elites while trying to keep outsiders from knowing too much.
Rumors of polygamy would inevitably result while the practice was spreading. For the leadership on the inside, those rumors could be useful if kept in check. It’s much easier to approach a prospective polygynous wife with a proposal if she’s already heard that celestial marriage is going on. This was her ticket to the New and Everlasting Covenant of marriage, the highest circle of Mormon ascendency. Once you’re on the inside, you’re guaranteed exaltation and your own planet with your new husband.
In these cases, allowing rumors of polygamy to propagate helped the practice grow and prepped people to accept the new model of families. However, the negative consequences couldn’t be separated from the positive. This Victorian era of American history balked at the idea of adultery or any kind of relationship outside the standard one-man one-woman model of nuclear family. Contradicting those societal norms came with differing levels of conflict and accusations of polygamy were a constant thread in the church.
But, it wasn’t just in the Nauvoo church. As we’ve discussed on the show before, Jo was accused of adultery as far back as 1829 and other church leaders, including Martin Harris were accused of the same in the first 2 years of the church. The first official circular published by the church became part of the canonized revelations which included a decree that “one man should have but one wife; and one woman, but one husband”.
During the year of 1838, when the church was headquartered at Missouri, Jo published “Answers to Sundry Questions” in the Elders’ Journal. The seventh question he answered was to answer these accusations. It is notable that Jo had recently been removed from the Kirtland church for the Fanny Alger incident among other things and had likely taken Lucinda Morgan Harris to wife.
Seventh–“Do the Mormons believe in having more wives than one?”
“No, not at the same time. But they believe that if their companion dies, they have a right to marry again. But we do disapprove of the custom, which has gained in the world, and has been practiced among us, to our great mortification, in marrying in five or six weeks, or even in two or three months, after the death of their companion. We believe that due respect ought to be had to the memory of the dead, and the feelings of both friends and children.
Polygamy was an accusation and common issue in Missouri during the 1838 war, but other issues were more pressing and polygamy seemed to take a back burner as criticism against Joseph Smith and the church in light of them openly waging war against state militias.
Nauvoo, however, provided opportunities for the fledgling kingdom to make its own rules and deal with polygamy the way it saw most fitting.
I should mention here that there are some folks who believe Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy. The standard historical work which claims this is titled Joseph Fought Polygamy written by Richard and Pamela Price, two members of the RLDS church who were integral in forming their own faction of orthodox RLDS church as the RLDS religion was distancing itself from its unique and orthodox roots in the 1970s and 80s. It’s here that the school of people who believe Jo never practiced polygamy assert that the Quorum of Twelve introduced the practice after their mission to England where polygamy was more prevalent.
From Chapter 5:
Some of the Apostles Increased Their
Interest in Polygamy While in England
It was shown in the previous chapter that Brigham Young testified that he had polygamous manifestations while serving as a missionary apostle in England. Elder Edwin Stafford testified that he was satisfied that Brigham Young was in adultery while there. It should be remembered that the missionaries who went to the English Mission were idolized by many of their converts, which had a tendency to increase polygamous desires. An example of their popularity is revealed in the following account:
Elder Kimball, accompanied by Elder Fielding, walked to Chatburn and Downham for a last farewell. In Chatburn, the people left their work and flocked to the streets to greet them. Children followed them from place to place, singing. "Some of them said that if they could but touch us they seem better. They evidently believe there is Virtue in Brother Kimball's Cloake," Elder Fielding wrote. (The Ensign of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 17 [July 1987]: 26)
In this setting, in a country where polygamy was a subject of discussion, as it was in America, it was natural for the apostles and the other missionaries to develop theories to justify their polygamous desires. There is evidence that these brethren added to their desires for polygamy, and belief in it, as a result of their experiences in England.
As mentioned previously, Brigham Young stated that "While we were in England, (in 1839 and 40), I think the Lord manifested to me by vision and his Spirit things [concerning polygamy] that I did not then understand.... [T]here had never been a thought of it in the Church that I ever knew anything about at that time" (Messenger 1 [June 1875]: 29; Deseret News, July 1, 1874). Lorenzo Snow, also a missionary to England and a brother to Eliza Snow (who became a plural wife of Brigham), stated:
There is no man that lives that had a more perfect knowledge of the principle of plural marriage, its holiness and divinity, than what I had. It was revealed to me before the Prophet Joseph Smith explained it to me. I had been on a mission to England between two and three years, and before I left England I was perfectly satisfied in regard to something connected with plural marriage. (Deseret Semi-Weekly News, June 6, 1899; italics added)
Later in the same chapter the Prices continue to point the introduction of polygamy to the new converts from England, using as their data points the wives taken by church leaders in Utah.
It is more than coincidence that many of the women who later became plural wives of the missionaries to England were women from the British Isles. This is another evidence that the English avenue helped bring polygamy into the Church. A list of a few of the missionaries sent to England and their first plural wives demonstrates this connection:
Apostle Parley P. Pratt married a total of twelve wives. His first plural wife and four other plurals were from the British Isles (see Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, 462–464);
Apostle Heber C. Kimball married forty-three wives, eight of whom were from the British Isles (see Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball—Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer, 307–316);
Apostle Orson Hyde married a total of six wives, and his first plural wife was of English birth (see Howard H. Barron, Orson Hyde—Missionary, Apostle, Colonizer, 323);
Apostle John Taylor married fifteen wives (Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, A Book of Mormons, 354). His first plural wife's birthplace was the Isle of Man, England (see Utah Genealogical Magazine 21 : 105).
Thousands of devoted English Saints joined the Church, and it is tragic that the American missionaries, who should have been godly shepherds over the flock, ensnared some of them in the evil net of polygamy.
I’m not sure how the ratio of English immigrant wives versus American citizen wives goes to bolster the argument that the Prices are making here because it seems like the majority of the church leaders they listed had the majority of their wives from American members. Their argument, however, is essentially that the accusations of polygamy that were aimed at the prophet were actually just an extension of the other leaders practicing polygamy while Smith actively fought it, knowing such accusations would lead to the ruin of the church.
The next chapter of their book illustrates multiple data points of public and private statements by the self-proclaimed prophet when he openly denied polygamy, denied accusations, and met with church leaders to stamp out the practice. Before getting to those data points, it should be noted that none of these preclude Jo’s participation in polygamy, just illustrate that he repeatedly denied it. I, personally, am not inclined to believe anything Jo ever said, but his public statements mean more to other people than they do to me.
From the very beginning, the Lord gave warnings against the invasion of polygamy into the Church. As early as 1831 He warned the Saints:
And now I show unto you a mystery, a thing which is had in secret chambers, to bring to pass even your destruction, in process of time, and ye knew it not, but now I tell it unto you.... And again I say unto you, that the enemy in the secret chambers seeketh your lives.... And that ye might escape the power of the enemy, and be gathered unto me a righteous people, without spot and blameless: wherefore, for this cause I gave unto you the commandment, that you should go to the Ohio; and there I will give unto you my law. (RLDS DC 38:4, 6–7; LDS DC 38:13–14, 28, 31–32; italics added
Polygamy was the "thing" about which the Lord warned the Saints. It was "had in secret chambers" among the Cochranites at the time of the Church's beginnings. Also, it almost brought the Church to "destruction, in process of time." No other factor nor problem has been so devastating to the Lord's work in these latter days. Some of the apostles and their friends began to practice it secretly in the early 1840s (in "secret chambers"), and they knew it had to be denied and covered with falsehoods. Therefore, the polygamists banded together and conspired more and more to cover their secret acts.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think we’ve ever discussed the Cochranites on this show before. Cochranite was the term used to refer to “The Society of Free Brethren and Sisters” like Mormon refers to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was led by a guy named Jacob Cochran who was born in 1782 in New Hampshire. The parallels between Jacob Cochran and Joseph Smith are pretty remarkable. They claimed miracle-working and exorcism, check and check. Claims of raising the dead, check. Dancing and holy frenzies, check when we talk about the Kirtland church. Visions and personal revelation, check again. They had special committees and books that only the trusted elites could see and use, that’s another check. They talked about separating the wheat and the chaff, burning the chaff once sifted, check on that similarity to Mormonism too. They tried forms of communalism like the Mormon United Order, there’s another check. And… they practiced polygamy, so there’s another check. Notably, they practiced free-love within the community and often the leaders would assign people their partners with ecclesiastical influence, so even more parallels, but they would also deny it when asked by an outsider. From a contemporary named Ephraim Stinchfield who spent a couple days with the community and wrote an expose:
That each brother and sister in this fraternity, has a spiritual husband, wife, mate, or yoke fellow, such as they choose, or their leaders choose for them. These spiritual mates, dissolve, or disannul, all former marriage connections; and many of them bed and board together, to the exclusion of all former vows. Such conduct as this, had not become general, and many of them would deny that such things existed among them, though proved by the most solemn declarating of persons of undoubted veracity.
Stinchfield goes on to decry the immorality he witnessed there and wished he could shake all the Cochranites out of the delusion their holy leader had constructed for them.
I had, before I left this place, such a discovery of the mystery of iniquity, working to the subverson of all social ties, between husband and wife, parents and children, rulers and ruled, ministers and people; the rising generation corrupted by the introduction of such vicious practices, under a cloak of religion, that it seemed as if I should be constrained to run from house to house, and cry day and night, against the abomination that maketh desolate.
The Cochranites were yet one more of the wacky religious cults of the burned-over district, they just openly practiced free love instead of Mormonism that only approved of it for the highest-ranking initiates. There were Cochranite settlements located very close to early Mormon congregations. People like Warren Cowdery, William Marks, and the Wild Ram of the Mountain Lyman Wight, and a number of other early converts all lived within a couple miles of these settlements in New York and Maine before they converted to Mormonism.
Those who claim Joseph was never a polygamist point to the conversion of these folks as the people who actually introduced it to justify adultery and that the rumors of polygamy simply followed these people from their geographic proximity to the Cochranites to their following Joseph Smith. The very first thing a reader consumes from the Price’s book, Joseph Fought Polygamy, is this from the first paragraph of chapter one.
For over a century and a half, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, have claimed that the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., received a revelation in July 1843, which commanded the Saints to practice polygamy. The truth is, however, that polygamy in the Church had its beginnings, not with Joseph, but with a man named Jacob Cochran. About 1816 Cochran started a denomination in the area of Saco, Maine, in which he introduced polygamy. Some of his polygamous practices were later adopted by Apostles Brigham Young, John Taylor, Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Hyde, and others. These Church leaders secretly practiced polygamy in Nauvoo before Joseph's death, without his approval.
What is notable about Jacob Cochran is his death in 1836, which left the sect without a leader. An historian named Ridlon published a history of the area in 1895 taking some interviews of older folks living at the time who’d had personal experience with both Cochranism and Mormonism. The Price book quotes extensively from Ridlon to intertwine the early Mormon missionaries with the followers of Cochran, all of who were Utah practitioners of polygamy, many practitioners in Nauvoo, and of course none of them doing so with the approval of Joseph Smith.
The Cochran craze paved the way for a Mormon invasion in the Saco valley. A full-blooded Cochranite made a first-class Mormon saint. [This statement by Ridlon was printed in 1895 when the controversy over polygamy in Utah was receiving national attention and was at its zenith. It applies to the Mormon Church in Utah at the time, and not the Latter Day Saints during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, Jr.] Jake Cochran was a John the Baptist for the Mormon apostles, who appeared on his old battle-ground and gathered up the spoils. The inhabitants of the river towns, as well as some in the interior, were afflicted with Cochranite grasshoppers, followed by Mormon locusts. Scions cut from the decaying trunk of the old Cochran tree were readily engrafted into Mormon branches, but the fruit was not the same; when these had become firmly united, they were transplanted bodily to new soil, considered more congenial to their development, in the state of New York.
Some of the old people, now living, confound the two movements, and we have found insuperable difficulty in sifting the chaff of error from the wheat of truth. It seems to have been a most remarkable coincidence, which has the appearance of concerted action between Cochran and his successors. Almost as soon as he vacated the field, the founders of the Mormon hierarchy invested it. The history of the Mormon church makes Brigham Young come to Maine in 1832 or 1833. The doctrine preached by [Samuel] Smith, Pratt, and Young, in York county, was not of an offensive nature; it was, properly speaking, Millenarianism.
An apocalyptic millennialist Christian free-love anti-establishment cult with a supreme leader instantly becomes leaderless; those people are going to be searching for a new apocalyptic millennialist Christian free-love anti-establishment cult to join. These missionaries were smart to travel to the Cochranites in search of converts as Jacob Cochran was probably showing signs of old age and waning health.
The names of any Cochranites who converted to the church for any amount of time has proven elusive, at least to my search. What matters though is they held national notoriety. Here’s a Nashville Gazette article out of Tennessee in Jul 1819 and please just listen to how the papers talk about Cochran and think of how similar these things sound to dozens of articles we’ve read on the show before.
From the Boston Centinel of June 5.
“Saco, May 25, 1819.
The county of York, particularly this town Kenebunk, Buxton, &c. has long been infested by a religious impostor, named Jacob Cochran, who pretended to have a mission to spread a new religion. His process was, to gull a few men, then to seduce the women, married and single, to attend his ministrations, swear them to secrecy, and then induce them to commit the most lascivious and criminal practices. This conduct had become notorious; and the grand jury of the county, at the late term of the supreme court, found no less than five bills of indictment against him. On one of these for lascivious behavior he was cleared, the Jury after being up all night, not agreeing one of their number, a disciple, refusing his assent. He was then tried on an indictment for adultery, and convicted; but having been admitted to bail, and not having been surrendered into court, he hopped the twig, and has not since been heard of, leaving his sureties to pay 1800 dollars. He has thus probably escaped a three years visit to the State Prison. Jacob Cochran is about thirty-five years old, common size, well built light complexiod [sic], rather sandy hair, dresses well, and has the manners of a half gentleman.”
We have seen, says the Newbury port Herald, a pamphlet, published by a Baptist Minister of regular standing in New Gloucester, giving an account of Cochran and his deluded followers,--It appears that under the guise of religion, they have committed the most indecent and abominable acts of adultery in every possible shape human depravity could devise. One of their leading tenets was to dissolve the ties of matrimony, as suited their convenience, and a promiscuous sexual intercourse was tolerated, by each male being allowed to take seven wives! It seems Cochran, the High Priest of iniquity, had nearly half his female followers for wives, in the course of his ministration, which has been two years standing. Where has been the vigilance of the civil authority all this time?
Cochran made national headlines repeatedly but this one sticks out as quite remarkable. This was printed all over the nation: The Kentucky Gazette, Pittsfield Sun out of Massachusetts, The Vermont Journal, The Evening Post in New York, The Susquehanna Democrat from the county Emma Hale lived in when she was 15 years old, all over the place. The facts of the case are certainly interesting. Cochran was indicted on multiple charges including lascivious activity with women, adultery, and I would assume probably counterfeiting and disturbing the peace and a few other similar accusations. The jury wouldn’t decide because one of his followers was on the jury. He was tried for adultery alone, got convicted to a three-year sentence then got out on bail of 1800 dollars and skipped down. All of those same facts hit Jo at some point in his life as well and were largely the reason he had to flee Kirtland, Ohio for Missouri in the first place. The parallels between Jacob Cochran and Joseph Smith are simply remarkable and were even recognized by contemporary newspapers.
The Unitarian, published out of Boston, wrote an article about the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith in February 1834 and here’s just a short excerpt.
It is well known to most of our readers, we presume, that, some years since, the Cochran delusion, as it is called, prevailed in and around Saco, a village in the State of Maine. What gave that delusion success? Why, Cochran spoke with great fluency, warned sinners with great earnestness, and poured forth his prayers with great fervour. The people were much affected. Many were in tears, many were sobbing aloud, many cried out for mercy, and some were even prostrated upon the floor. "Surely, then," those under the influence of the delusion we speak of would say, "the Spirit of God was powerfully and visibly present." "Surely," they would say, "the doctrines advanced by Cochran must be true, the measures adopted by him are 'owned of God.'" So with the Mormon delusion. The preachers are fluent, they warn sinners with earnestness, they pray with fervour; the people are affected, the Spirit of God is especially powerfully, and visibly present, and, consequently, the opinions advanced must be correct, the measures adopted are "owned of God." In this way, men, of sound judgment in other respects, are carried away, through the influence of their erroneous views of the operations of the Spirit, and become the dupes of the delusion.
It should be noted that when this was published, Jacob Cochran would be dead only 2 years later, and his movement would quickly lose steam and die out soon after. Mormonism in 1834 was gaining steam. When Cochran died he apparently had “thousands of followers” which has a lot of variability, but in 1834 Mormonism also had thousands of followers. The sects were very similar in many ways and those parallels didn’t escape contemporary commentators.
The entire reason for discussing the Cochranites here is to exhibit the movement as a contemporary religion with incredible numbers of similarities to Mormonism. The Book of Mormon illustrates that Joseph Smith was a synthesizer of thoughts and philosophies; his ministry and doctrines similarly show his ability to snatch up ideas and practices that were floating through the air and make them his own. The consequences Jacob Cochran faced for running a free-love polygamy ring were very similar consequences Jo had to deal with throughout the majority of his ministry.
The people who believe Jo never practiced polygamy are quick to call on the Cochranites as the corrupting influence on various church leaders that practiced a system of “spiritual wifery” as the term was a Cochranite-specific term and many of the accusations against Mormonism used the same term. In the Price’s book Joseph Fought Polygamy, they point not only to the Cochranites repeatedly, but to John C. Wreck-it Bennett as the transmitter of that knowledge to the Nauvoo Empire.
Chapter 7 lays out their argument.
Though the Church was exposed to polygamy by the Cochranites, the practice of that evil doctrine at Nauvoo had its beginning through the instrumentality of a young medical doctor named John Cook Bennett.
Doctor Bennett taught that Joseph had received revelations from God on the subject of polygamy, and that "it was one of the mysteries of God, which was to be revealed when the people was strong enough in the faith to bear such mysteries" (see Times and Seasons 3 [August 1, 1842]: 870). This is the same doctrine that the Mormon Church uses as its basis for the practice of polygamy. It is also the doctrine which Jacob Cochran used twenty-five years earlier when he founded the Cochranite sect at Saco, Maine—which is proof that Utah Mormon polygamy originated with Jacob Cochran and not with Joseph Smith. Jacob Cochran provided material for Bennett to use in laying his polygamous foundation, and Brigham Young built upon it.
They continue later in chapter 7
The young doctor came to Nauvoo posing as a single man and was soon engaged in secret illicit sexual activity. Quickly he gathered a group around him (the majority were young men and women) and secretly taught them that "promiscuous intercourse between the sexes was a doctrine believed in by the Latter Day Saints." When they asked how such could be possible when they had heard Joseph preach much against polygamy, Bennett had a ready answer. He claimed that he was in a position to know exactly what was going on because he was boarding at Joseph's home—and was acting as a temporary member of the First Presidency in place of Sidney Rigdon, who was ill. He explained to them that Joseph was preaching so much against polygamy because of the prejudice of the public and Emma's strong opposition to that doctrine. (Emma's opposition to polygamy was well-known by the Saints.) Bennett's assurances were so convincing that his secret circle of friends accepted his lies as truth, and they began practicing spiritual wifery. Among those ensnared in his web were Sarah Pratt, wife of Apostle Orson Pratt; Nancy Rigdon, daughter of Sidney; Chauncey and Francis Higbee, sons of Church Historian Elias Higbee; and others.
These are all true statements but all of them are contextualized to remove any of Jo’s involvement in any of these matters which is troubling because all of the women looped into the scandal pointed at Jo as the instigator and Bennett as the beneficiary, instead of Bennett being instigator and beneficiary.
As Wreck-it Bennett began to go supercritical and the Bennett meltdown happened, that’s episodes 119-134, allegations flew all around Nauvoo that tie Jo to the sex ring in ways that simply cannot be interpreted to show he was fighting the actual practice, so much as fighting the media storm resulting from Bennett. One of these events that exhibited the major issues with Mormon polygamy was Martha Brotherton. We’ve talked about what happened with her on this podcast as well as My Book of Mormon but suffice it to say, Bloody Brigham really like 17-year-old Martha Brotherton, a British convert who’d recently migrated to Nauvoo. He wanted her as a wife so Heber Kimball brought her to the Red Brick Store where Bloody Brigham confronted her with his proposal. He couldn’t seal the deal because Brotherton wouldn’t accept it. Brigham brought Jo in to push her and Jo came in and locked the door behind him and continued to push Martha to accept Brigham’s proposal. She continued to resist and eventually agreed to never tell anybody about the interaction. She was only released after she agreed to give Bloody Brigham a kiss and swore to be secret. She went home and immediately told her friend of the interaction, wrote it down, and gave the information to Wreck-it Bennnett who was collecting information for his forthcoming expose on Joseph Smith titled History of the Saints. Patrons of the show got that entire book with my commentary. If you want to listen to it, toss us a buck a show at patreon.com/nakedmormonism and you get a bunch of extra content. Suffice it to say, when this story got out, people were astonished that Bloody Brigham and Jo would lock a teenager in a room and basically force her to either agree to becoming a spiritual wife, or swear to never tell anybody about it. The entire interaction is incredibly disturbing and the pattern it reveals is even more disturbing.
Jo published carefully-worded denials that anything of the sort happened.
He [Hyrum Smith] then spoke in contradiction of a report in circulation about Elder Kimball, B. Young, himself, and others of the Twelve, alleging that a sister had been shut in a room for several days, and that they had endeavored to induce her to believe in having two wives …
Pres’t. J. Smith spoke upon the subject of the stories respecting Elder Kimball and others, showing the folly and inconsistency of spending any time in conversing about such stories or hearkening to them, for there is no person that is acquainted with our principles would believe such lies, except Sharp the editor of the “Warsaw Signal.”
An August 1842 Warsaw Signal article by ThomASS Sharp really points out the issue here.
A man who, under the garb of religion, can commit the most villainous swindling operations, not only upon the poor dupes whom he has induced to follow his standard, but also upon the whole community; who can commit muder and rapine under the pretended sanction of Heaven, and sacrifice hundreds of his devoted band, for the accomplishment of his unholy purposes, is capable of any act of enormity, to which human nature is equal. The testimony of Gen. Bennett, then, although of no weight if it stood alone, has force and effect, when taken in connection with that of Dr. Avard, W. W. Phelps, and others, as given before the Court of Inquiry in Missouri, and the direct corroborations of Col. Higbee and Miss Martha H. Brotherton. All go to show the point arrived at, viz.: that Joe Smith is a most consumate villain and knave.
That’s a really important point. Wreck-it Bennett wasn’t really known to be a trustworthy guy, but when his expose is taken in the context of all the corroborating statements from other people in and out of the church, it simply cannot be claimed that Jo fought polygamy. He was an instigator, accessory to, and beneficiary of the practice from its start to his death.
The Bennett Meltdown instigated numerous articles, sermons, and public statements with hundreds or thousands of signatories denying that anything of the sort was happening. August, September, and October articles in the Times and Seasons all denied polygamy or any practice of “plurality of wives”. During all of these statements, Jo was taking more and more wives. An important detail throughout all these was the perceived difference of celestial marriage and sealings compared with plurality of wives and spiritual wifery. The latter terms were used in derision. The former terms were divine commandments of Jo’s personal god. In function, the labels didn’t much matter because they looked the same, but the difference was Joseph Smith. If a certain plural marriage received his personal approval, it was celestial marriage and the participants were sealed together. As 1842 progressed into 1843 and Jo took another dozen women into his harem, crackdowns were necessary.
In October of 1843, Jo had his eyes on the presidency and needed to rein in some of the rumors as he expected his persona would be more scrutinized than ever before. He met with William Clayton, or Quilliam Claypen as we call him, to discuss what to do and how to approach the issue. Claypen recorded in Jo’s journal for that day:
Evening at home and walked up and down the street with my scribe. Gave inst[r]uction to try those who were preaching teaching or practicing the doctrine of plurality of wives. on this Law. Joseph forbids it. and the practice ther[e]of— No man shall have but one wife.
These directions were followed with only the anointed quorum excepted. Soon after this, a man named Orsimus F. Bostwick accused Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith of teaching polygamy and Hyrum sued the man for slander. The case was thrown out of the Nauvoo Municipal Court with Jo as chairman because of course it was, and Jo threatened Bostwick’s attorney, Francis Higbee, telling him if he takes it to the district court in Carthage that it’ll bring the whole state down on Nauvoo. This was out of fear because Jo knew that the case wasn’t fair and Hyrum had actually been preaching polygamy and had 3 wives of his own at the time. If the case was heard outside of Nauvoo then Hyrum may be forced to testify which would reveal troubling facts about what was really going on in Nauvoo. We discussed the details of this on episode 173 – Emma’s My Hero, along with a poem published in the Warsaw Signal titled Buckeye’s Lamentation for Want of More Wives. What this case revealed to the leadership, and Jo specifically, was that they needed to tighten the requirements for who was taught about celestial marriage or else the word might leak out to an extent that wasn’t actually controllable like this case with Bostwick and Hyrum Smith had been. Jo’s meeting with Quilliam Claypen was for this purpose, to spread the word among the general leadership that “No man shall have but one wife.” But then, of course, there were always the closed-door meetings with the most trusted elites where they could take more wives at the approval of Jo.
This represents a dividing point in the church. While having over 30 wives of his own in early 1844, Jo went on a crusade to show that the church publicly had a strict no-tolerance policy on anything like spiritual wifery. A man named Hiram Brown in late January 1844 was a trusted elite who’d been taught about celestial marriage, but apparently leaked it to the wrong person or wasn’t delicate enough in his proposal because Hiram Brown was publicly excommunicated on February 1, 1844 because he “has been preaching Polygamy… he has been cut off from the church, for his iniquity.” This public face Jo put on the church didn’t scrub the previous accusations from the record. It was all too little too late.
What is extremely notable at this time is that historians can’t demonstrate that Jo took any wives in 1844. Any women we have evidence for a relationship with Jo in 1844 is very scant and hard to verify. I’ll quote briefly from Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness for this timeline.
As we trace the trajectory of Smith’s marriages, we see that he apparently experiemented with plural marriage in the 1830s in Ohio and Missouri. Detailed records are not extant, but the evidence, when weighed carefully, suggests that these were probably authentic plural marriages. In 1841 Smith cautiously added three wives. But in 1842 he married eleven wives in the first eight months of the year. New marriages then stopped for five months—a significant gap—perhaps caused by the John Bennett expose in which Smith’s former right-hand man published a series of lurid articles chronicling Joseph’s alleged misdeeds, including polygamy. However, during the first half of 1843, Joseph married fourteen more wives, including five in May. After July his marriages stopped abruptly, with only two exceptions in September and November. He took no wives during the last eight months of his life—a striking fact, especially when contrasted with the number of women he married during the previous two years.
This seems to illustrate that Jo was smart enough to bring things to a close. In fact, the Price book claiming Jo never practiced polygamy, and even fought it, uses a meeting Jo held with the Stake President of Nauvoo, William Marks, about the topic as evidence he fought it until his death.
I met with Brother Joseph. He said that he wanted to converse with me on the affairs of the church, and we retired by ourselves. I will give his words verbatim, for they are indelibly stamped upon my mind. He said he had desired for a long time to have a talk with me on the subject of polygamy. He said it eventually would prove the overthrow of the church, and we should soon be obliged to leave the United States, unless it could be speedily put down. He was satisfied that it was a cursed doctrine, and that there must be every exertion made to put it down. He said that he would go before the congregation and proclaim against it, and I must go into the High Council, and he would prefer charges against those in transgression, and I must sever them from the church, unless they made ample satisfaction. There was much more said, but this was the substance. The mob commenced to gather about Carthage in a few days after, therefore there was nothing done concerning it.
After the Prophet's death, I made mention of this conversation to several, hoping and believing that it would have a good effect; but to my great disappointment, it was soon rumored about that Brother Marks was about to apostatize, and that all that he said about the conversation with the Prophet was a tissue of lies. (RLDS History of the Church 2:733)
Marks was always opposed to polygamy and his vote during the schism crisis after Jo and Hyrum’s death provided to be one of the sharpest dividing lines through the membership. We’ll discuss him more as we near August of 1844, but suffice it to say, William Marks was a guy with his head on straight and later became a primary leader in the RLDS church once Joseph III was old enough to take the mantle. The Prices use this meeting and Jo’s statement during it as evidence that he was struggling with all the polygamy accusations and was beginning a crusade to bring the practice to an end once and for all. That, of course, is predicated on the assertion that Jo himself never practiced it which I find to be very flawed, especially in light of other statements by many other church leaders, including William Marks. Like this one I’m reading from Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness:
When the doctrine of polygamy was introduced into the church as a principle of exaltation, I took a decided stand against it; which stand rendered me quite unpopular with many of the leading ones of the church… Joseph, however, became convinced before his death that he had done wrong; for about three weeks before his death, I met him one morning on the street, and he said to me, “Brother Marks… We are a ruined people.” I asked, how so? He said: “This doctrine of polygamy, or Spiritual-wife system, that has been taught and practiced among us, will prove our destruction and overthrow. I have been deceived,” said he, “in reference to its practice; it is wrong; it is a curse to mankind, and we shall have to leave the United States soon, unless it can be put down and its practice stopped in the church.”
Jo wasn’t wrong. Plural marriage was a scourge on the church and Jo had only been able to barely keep it from going public multiple times by this point. With his name in national headlines in light of his presidential campaign, the nation collectively turned their skeptical eyes to his past and ministry as Mormon prophet; they didn’t like what they saw. Our discussion last week reveals that Jo was actively shopping around for the next Mormon settlement because all this was coming to a head sooner or later. By May of 1844, Jo could see the only possible answer was fleeing beyond the boundaries of national politics and policing. Congress wouldn’t recognize Nauvoo as a sovereign territory so Texas, Oregon territory, California, Mexico, Canada, anywhere that laws could be flaunted or simply didn’t exist was the only place Jo could comfortably run his church with impunity. The fact that he didn’t take any new wives throughout 1844 is evidence enough that Jo knew his current system may be fun and rewarding and probably full of instant gratification, but it wasn’t sustainable.
His private statements alone reveal that the lines historians use today to distinguish between celestial marriage and spiritual wifery are presentist. They’re lines used determine the difference between god-sanctioned marriage, and just rampant free-love, but those lines are people today imposing value judgements on the people of the past based on how we can interpret the evidence today. Just like with people leveraging the Cochranite movement to somehow prove a transmittal of ideas to Joseph Smith, it’s completely unnecessary. Jo didn’t learn that he could have multiple women as partners from another religious leader. It was something he and many other people want in their relationship and he found a religious justification for his conduct, just like every immoral religious leader has for all of human history. Claiming Jo got polygamy from somewhere else, or that he fought it, places causality in the wrong direction and ignores evidence. These intellectual exercises in futility are done to scrub Jo’s name of anything we may construe as immoral through our lens today and I would argue it’s all for nothing. Place the judgement of his morality where it belongs by evaluating his conduct to acquire multiple partners, not on the fact that he had multiple partners. Instead of thinking Joseph Smith and other early church leaders may have been immoral because they had sex outside of marriage, consider how they acquired those relationships. Religious coercion, grooming, lying and deception, and calculated schemes of integrating certain women into certain classes of ranking by their attractiveness and willingness to engage in the system. Jo isn’t immoral because he had multiple partners, he’s immoral because he used his contrived position to coerce his subordinates to give him their teenage daughters so he could rape them. That’s what this issue really boils down to. Anybody defending him, his legacy, or his carefully devised doctrine about celestial marriage bears the weight of his evil on their own shoulders. Those claiming he never practiced polygamy are few and far between but they do so only by ignoring the voices of his victims which is reprehensible in and of itself. No matter which way you slice it, no matter what angle you look at it from, no matter how much you cherry-pick evidence from it, Joseph Smith’s legacy isn’t something to revere, but abhor. He was dishonest, vile, and completely depraved and every single person alive who suffers as a result of his life’s creation are victims of a completely corrupt and exploitative system with absolutely no moral code. Mormonism isn’t just wrong, it’s wrong.
This podcast is produced with the help of Julie Briscoe as Social media manager, Brian Ziegenhagen as audio engineer, and Andrew Torrez of the Opening Arguments podcast and the Law Offices of P. Andrew Torrez as Legal counsel. Music is written and produced by Jason Comaeu of Aloststateofmind.com and used with permission. Naked Mormonism is a production of Ground Gnomes LLC copyright 2020 all rights reserved.
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