Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, primarily taught his followers doctrines of faith, repentance, and baptism that are familiar throughout the Christian world. However Joseph Smith’s teachings regarding mankind’s relationship to God and the responsibility of individuals to their children and ancestors were radical in his day, and remain controversial today. Beyond Joseph Smith’s teachings, Joseph Smith’s actions with respect to marriage have long been shrouded in mystery. Detractors and those not familiar with the faith allege Joseph Smith was motivated by mere carnal desire.
Many who embrace the faith don’t study the origins of Mormon marriage practices, content to cherish their own monogamous unions and the hope of continuing those unions in eternity. However emerging research and analysis allow us to understand the terrific struggles that gave birth to modern Mormon marriage practices. This emerging body of historical data contradicts traditional speculation about Joseph Smith’s marriages that painted him as a seducer, abuser, deceiver and fraud.
Why does any of this matter? The mere fact Joseph Smith married plural wives leads many to presume the Mormon founder was a fraud and opportunist. Joseph Smith alone, of early church leaders, was the oracle through whom the commandment to establish celestial marriage (and the possibility of plural marriage) was introduced.
Those who don’t learn about Joseph’s wives inside the faith tradition feel betrayed when they encounter the massive body of salacious accusations and inferences accepted by those outside the faith tradition. Shocked about the possibility that Joseph’s teachings on marriage were fraudulent and corrupt, these individuals sometimes feel they must reject the entire faith tradition as suspect.
Those outside the Mormon faith are left with the impression that Mormons must be a collection of gullible fools to follow such a “fraud.” This stifles serious discussion of the merits of Mormonism, and the Mormon faith is considered a safe target for all manner of disrespectful treatment, treatment unbecoming civilized peoples, no matter their belief system.
What was gained by embracing “plural marriage?” Strict monogamy is a relatively recent development. As late as the 11th century, western civilizations openly embraced the possibility of a man having more than one wife. Saint Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093) played a significant role in changing the nature of marriage, one of the 5 saintly acts cited when she was canonized. However a large number of men during the intervening centuries would marry again, after a wife had died (often in childbirth). When Joseph Smith began to believe that family and marriage relationships could be eternal, it was clear this would necessitate a form of eternal polygyny for men who had remarried after their earlier wife or wives had died.
Why did Joseph Smith marry so many plural wives? A growing number of scholars believe the majority of Joseph Smith’s marriages were merely ceremonial. Those wishing to understand Joseph’s motives must consider the devastation caused by John Bennett’s “Spiritual Wifery” heresy, where John Bennett and his acolytes seduced unknown numbers of women during 1841-1842. John Bennett and his acolytes taught their victims that “it was right to go to bed to a woman if not found out.” Each of the women Joseph either married, sought to marry, or is accused of having married falls into one or more of the following categories:
Levirate wives. These are women whose first husband had died. Joseph married them to provide for them and protect them, whether temporally or merely spiritually. This sort of marriage is outlined in Leviticus and illustrated by the stories of Tamar and Ruth, ancestresses of King David and Jesus Christ.
Wives of Commandment. These are women Joseph married based on a reported commandment, most notably being threatened by an angel with a drawn sword. Some claim Joseph’s legal wife, Emma, was not aware of these marriages.
Detectives. Joseph taught these women about “Celestial Marriage” and asked them to enter into covenant with him in connection with the search for the men teaching “Spiritual Wifery.” As Emma was also one of these detectives in her role as Relief Society President, it is possible or even likely that she knew about these “wives.”
Victims. These women appear to have been seduced or raped by John Bennett and/or his acolytes. No children born to possible victims during this time frame are known to have survived to adulthood. Joseph or other church leaders appear to have spoken with or “married” these women to provide for them and to protect them. In the case of one of these victims, Emma actively participated in helping protect the woman.
Dynastic wives. These two women were daughters of faithful church leaders who wished to create a familial link between themselves and Joseph Smith. In each case, the daughter’s marriage to Joseph Smith was associated with the leaders’ extraordinary devotion and celestial marriage to his own legal wife. The celestial solemnization of the civil marriages of these two sets of parents are the only ones to occur prior to the celestial solemnization of Joseph’s own marriage to Emma.
Handmaids. These are women Joseph married in 1843 who were relatively young and unmarried. In all these cases, Emma was not only aware of the relationship between these women and Joseph, but in some cases is undeniably documented to have given Joseph permission to marry these women.
Hagars. These four women were evicted from the Smith household by Emma. Though it is inferred that the rejection of these four means Emma Smith was unable to condone her husband’s plural marriages, there are many more wives Emma continued to associate with closely, despite knowing they were at least ceremonially linked to Joseph Smith.
Where are the Children? Recent research calls into question to common assumption that Joseph Smith married additional women for the purpose of sex. DNA research has confirms that only the descendants of Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma Hales, can confidently count Joseph Smith as a biological ancestor. Most birth control techniques, including the rhythm method, are inventions that post-date 1910, long after Joseph Smith was killed.
Who are Taylor and Shazia? My two beautiful friends married in the summer of 2013. Taylor is a descendant of one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, six other women involved in plural marriages, and John Taylor, the last Mormon prophet to die still preaching plural marriage was to be practiced. Shazia is a descendant of Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother and co-martyr, and Joseph F. Smith, the Mormon prophet who finally ended plural marriage and declared it an offense that warranted excommunication. Taylor and Shazia are also among the tens of thousands of Mormons each year who marry for “Time and All Eternity” in Mormon temples throughout the world. For Taylor and Shazia, Joseph Smith’s doctrine that marriage can be eternal is precious and joyful. I ask you to join me in exploring the fascinating individuals and experiences that gave birth to this unique marriage tradition.