A number of historians of Mormon history have tried to explain the rationale and motivation behind Joseph Smith’s teachings about “plural marriage.” Although it’s not unreasonable to assume a sexual motivation, Smith’s primary motivation may have been his expansive theology–a theology, in this specific case, that his wife would not accept.
After establishing his new church in 1830 and while continuing to study the Bible, Smith’s far-reaching religious vision to restore “all things” from previous ages made him open to reinstating Old Testament polygamy, explains historian Richard Van Wagoner. Perhaps the timing was right: Americans had won the Revolutionary War and were open to “the surprising and unusual in religious life, according to historian Merina Smith, and in the early 1840s, a core group of Joseph Smith’s believers accepted his developing “exaltation narrative” that included “new family forms.” Joseph Smith biographer Richard Bushman explains that Joseph Smith began to imagine “ecclesiastical and family kingdoms that would persist into eternity.” University of Richmond professor Terryl Givens explains that Smith sought to establish a “timeless and borderless web of human relationships” among his followers, just as the great appeal of first-generation Christianity in the ancient world was “the feeling of entering into an extended family community.” For Joseph Smith, marriage “sealings” joined people, and he was even sealed to some married men and women.
Although there’s evidence that Joseph Smith seemed most interested in creating an interconnected web of believers that could be exalted together, Bushman says Smith “never wrote his personal feelings about plural marriage” and, according to historian John G. Turner, “whether [he] was motivated by religious obedience or pursued sexual dalliances clothed with divine sanction cannot be fully resolved through historical analysis.” We don’t know to what extent Joseph Smith pursued sexual relations with his wives, and according to Bushman, although “nothing indicates that sexual relations were left out of plural marriage, not until many years later did anyone claim Joseph Smith’s paternity, and evidence for the tiny handful of supposed children is tenuous.” But his wife Emma’s negative reaction to his additional marriages may indicate that she, at least, felt his ideas, if not his actions, went too far.
In the early 1840s as Smith secretly began marrying additional wives and encouraging his closest confidantes to do the same, of course he feared “wrecking his marriage,” as Bushman explains it. During this time, according to Emma Smith’s biographers Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery, Smith repeatedly tried to explain “plural marriage” to his wife Emma, sometimes taking her alone on long buggy rides to talk to her about it. In May 1843 after much convincing, Emma finally gave her consent to a polygamous marriage and participated in her husband’s marriage to two sisters, giving her “free and full consent.”
Not long afterwards, however, according to Bushman, “Emma began to talk as firmly and urgently to Joseph about abandoning plural marriage as he had formerly talked to her about accepting it.” In the spring of 1843, “the recovery of his domestic life” became “almost impossible.” As Bushman explains, “They were in impossible positions: Joseph caught between his revelation and his wife, Emma between a practice she detested and belief in her husband.” Evidently fearing the legal and financial ramifications of many wives, Emma requested half ownership of a steam boat and “sixty city lots,” and Joseph evidently agreed “to add no more” wives. If he did, he told friend and secretary William Clayton, Emma “would divorce him.” Under these conditions, Joseph and Emma reconciled. Tragically, in 1844, he was murdered by an angry mob, and Emma deeply mourned his death.
Starting in 1852 in Utah, polygamous marriage was openly encouraged by Smith’s successor Brigham Young, and about 25 to 30% of Mormon men, women, and children lived in polygamous families. In 1876, Smith’s revelation on “celestial marriage”–marriage which endures after death and which could include “plural marriage”–was canonized in a Mormon book of revelations called Doctrine and Covenants. In 1890, Mormons officially gave up polygamy but not the larger belief in celestial marriage. Today Mormon marriages still encompass the essence of Smith’s original theology–celestial, or eternal, marriage–as monogamous couples continue the practice of sacred marriage “sealings” to each other and to their ancestors, fulfilling Smith’s desire to vertically, horizontally, and everlastingly connect Latter-day Saints.
Featured image: IFlickr.‘ by British Library (1870). Public domain via