Thanks to Tara, my recent post announcing my perspective on polygamy has received a recent boost of activity (and is my most commented post ever on this blog, currently with 97 comments.) We had been discussing some of the more controversial aspects of polygamy: (1) Was Joseph’s polygamy revelation really a disguise for his real motive as a womanizer (libertine)? (2) What is the true nature of the Fanny Alger relationship? (3) Was Eliza Snow pushed down the stairs by Emma? Let’s look at how does Richard Bushman, author of Rough Stone Rolling sees these issues.
(1) Was Joseph a Libertine?
I have never been especially fond of this position, and neither is Bushman. I don’t think it adequately explains Joseph’s actions. From page 323,
One of Emma’s cousins by marriage, Levi Lewis, said Martin Harris spoke of Joseph’s attempt to seduce Elizabeth Winters, a friend of Emma’s in Harmony. But the reports are tenuous. Harris said nothing of the event in his many descriptions of Joseph, nor did Winters herself when interviewed much later. Considering how eager the Palmyra neighbors were to besmirch Joseph’s character, their minimal mention of moral lapses suggests libertinism was not part of his New York reputation.
Was he a blackguard covering his lusts with religious pretensions, or a prophet doggedly adhering to instructions from heaven, or something in between?
Rumors of Mormon sexual license were circulating by 1835, when an “Article on Marriage” published in the Doctrine and Covenants said that Church members had been “reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy.” Coming from faithful Mormons, this evidence of marital irregularities cannot be ignored, but neither can it be taken at face value. From the Munster Anabaptists of the sixteenth century to the camp meetings of the nineteenth, critics expected sexual improprieties from religious enthusiasts. Marital experiments by contemporary radical sects increased the suspicions. John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida community, concluded that “there is no more reason why sexual intercourse should be restricted by law, than why eating and drinking should be.” With old barriers coming down, people were on the lookout for aberrations. What, if anything, lay behind the accusations of the Mormons is uncertain. They were apparently on edge themselves; the seventies resolved to expel their members guilty of polygamy.
… page 325
On that principle, the date when plural marriage was begun will remain uncertain. Todd Compton, putting the evidence together in his massive history, concluded that Joseph Smith began practicing plural marriage around 1833. The sources offer conflicting testimony on when the principle was revealed. When a plural marriage revelation written down in 1843, it referred to a question about Old Testament polygamy: “You have enquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I the Lord justified my servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; also as to Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines.” Joseph frequently inquired about biblical practices while revising the scriptures, and it seems possible that he received the revelation on plural marriage in 1831 while working on the Old Testament.
Because plural marriage was so sexually charged, the practice has provoked endless speculation about Joseph’s motives. Was he a libertine in the guise of a prophet seducing women for his own pleasure? The question can never be answered definitively from historical sources, but the language he used to describe marriage is known. Joseph did not explain plural marriage as a love match or even a companionship. Only slight hints of romance found its way into his proposals. He understood plural marriage as a religious principle….As Joseph described the practice to [Levi] Hancock, plural marriage had the millennial purpose of fashioning a righteous generation on the eve of the Second Coming.
… page 437
Joseph exercised such untrammeled authority in Nauvoo that it is possible to imagine him thinking no conquest beyond his reach. In theory, he could take what he wanted and browbeat his followers with threats of divine punishment.
This simple reading of Joseph’s motives is implicit in descriptions of him as “a charismatic, handsome man.” They suggest he was irresistible and made the most of it. Other Mormon men went along the way out of loyalty or in hopes of sharing power. But missing from that picture is Joseph’s sense of himself. In public and private, he spoke and acted as if guided by God. All the doctrines, plans, programs, and claims were ,in his mind, the mandates of heaven. They came to him as requirements, with a kind of irresistible certainty….
The possibility of an imaginary revelation, erupting from his own heart and subconscious mind, seems not to have occurred to Joseph. To him, the words came from heaven. They required obedience even though the demand seemed contradictory or wrong. The possibility of deception did not occur to him….
Joseph never wrote his personal feelings about plural marriage. Save for the revelation given in the voice of God, everything on the subject comes from people around him. But surely he realized that plural marriage would inflict terrible damage, that he ran the risk of wrecking his marriage and alienating his followers. How could faithful Emma, to whom he pledged his love in every letter, accept additional wives?…Sexual excess was considered the all too common fruit of pretended revelation. Joseph’s enemies would delight in one more evidence of a revelator’s antinomian transgressions.
… page 440
The personal anguish caused by plural marriage did not stop Joseph Smith from marrying more women. He married three in 1841, eleven in 1842, and seventeen in 1843. Historians debate these numbers, but the total figure is most likely between twenty-eight and thirty-three. Larger numbers have been proposed based on the sealing records in the Nauvoo temple. Eight additional women were sealed to Joseph in the temple after his death, possibly implying a marriage while he was still alive. Whatever the exact number, the marriages are numerous enough to indicate an impersonal bond. Joseph did not marry women to form a warm, human companionship, but to create a network of related wives, children, and kinsmen that would endure into the eternities…. He did not lust for women so much as he lusted for kin.
I found this last statement especially intriguing, because there is no DNA evidence that Joseph had any kin from wives other than Emma.
continuing on page 440,
Romance played only a slight part. In making proposals, Joseph would sometimes say God had given a woman to him, or they were meant for each other, but there was no romantic talk of adoring love. He did not court his prospective wives by first trying to win their affections. Often, he asked a relative–a father or an uncle–to propose the marriage. Sometimes one of his current wives proposed for him. When he made the proposal himself, a friend like Brigham Young was often present. The language was religious and doctrinal, stressing that a new law has been revealed. She was to seek spiritual confirmation. Once consent was given, a formal ceremony was performed before witnesses, with Joseph dictating the words to the person officiating.
Joseph himself said nothing about sex in these marriages. Other marriage experimenters in Joseph’s time focused on sexual relations. The Shakers repudiated marriage altogether, considering sex beastly and unworthy of a millenial people….
We might expect that Joseph, the kind of dominant man who is thought to have strong libidinal urges, would betray his sexual drive in his talk and manner. Bred outside the rising genteel culture, he was not inhibited by Victorian prudery. But references to sexual pleasure are infrequent. Years later, William Law, Joseph’s counselor in the First Presidency, said he was shocked to hear Joseph say one of his wives “afforded him great pleasure.” That report is one of the few, and the fact that it shocked Law suggests that such comments were infrequent. As Fawn Brodie said, “There was too much of the Puritan” in Joseph for him to be a “careless libertine.”
What was the nature of the Fanny Alger relationship?
Some people have wondered if Alger was ever pregnant. Bushman says there is no good evidence of this position. Many people often quote Oliver Cowdery (as does Bushman) as referring to the “dirty, nasty, filthy affair.” First, let’s provide some background on Alger. From pages 323-327,
Alger was fourteen when her family joined the Church in Mayfield, near Kirtland, in 1830. In 1836, after a time as a serving girl in the Smith household, she left Kirtland and soon married. Between those two dates, perhaps as early as 1831, she and Joseph were reportedly involved, but conflicting accounts make it difficult to establish the facts–much less to understand Joseph’s thoughts.
… page 324
Cowdery, long Joseph’s friend and associate in visions, was a casualty of the bad times. In 1838, he was charged with “seeking to destroy the character of President Joseph Smith jr by falsly insinuating that he was guilty of adultry &c.” Fanny Alger’s name was never mentioned, but doubtless she was the woman in question.
The Far West court did not accuse Joseph of being involved with Alger. Some councilors had heard the rumors, but concluded they were untrue. They were concerned only with Cowdery’s insinuations. He was on trial for false accusations, not Joseph for adultery. David Patten, an apostle, “went to Oliver Cowdery to enquire of him if a certain story was true respecting J. Smith’s committing adultery with a certain girl, when he turned on his heel and insinuated as though he was guilty.” Thomas Marsh, another apostle, reported a similar experience. “Oliver Cowdery cocked up his eye very knowingly and hesitated to answer the question, saying he did not know as he was bound to answer the question yet conveyed the idea that it was true.” George Harris testified that in conversation between Cowdery and Joseph the previous November, Cowdery “seemed to insinuate that Joseph Smith jr was guilty of adultery.” Eventually the court concluded that Cowdery had made false accusations, and cut him off from the church.
Cowdery denied that he had lied about Joseph and Alger. Cowdery had heard accusations against him when he wrote to Joseph in January 1838. “I learn from Kirtland, by the last letters, that you have publickly said, that when you were here I confessed to you that I had willfully lied about you.” He demanded that Joseph retract the statement. In a letter to his brother Warren, Cowdery insisted he would never dishonor the family name by lying about anything, much less about the Smiths, whom he had always defended. In his conversation with Joseph, Cowdery asserted, “in every instance, I did not fail to affirm that what I had said was strictly true,” meaning he believed Joseph did have an affair. His insinuations were not lies but the truth as he understood it.
Cowdery and Joseph aired their differences at a meeting in November 1837 where Joseph did not deny his relationship with Alger, but contended that he had never confessed to adultery. Cowdery apparently had said otherwise, but backed down at the November meeting. When the question was put to Cowdery “if he [Joseph] had ever acknowledged to him that he was guilty of such a thing…he answered No.” That was all Joseph wanted: an admission that he had not termed the Alger affair adulterous. As Cowdery told his brother, “just before leaving, he [Joseph] wanted to drop every past thing, in which had been a difficulty or difference–he called witnesses to the fact, gave me his hand in their presence, and I might have supposed of an honest man, calculated to say nothing of former matters.
These scraps of testimony recorded within a few years of the Alger business show how differently the various parties understood events…. On his part, Joseph never denied a relationship with Alger, but insisted it was not adulterous. He wanted it on record that he had never confessed to such a sin. Presumably, he felt innocent because he had married Alger.
After the Far West council excommunicated Cowdery, Alger disappears from the Mormon historical record for a quarter of a century. Her story was recorded as many as sixty years later by witnesses who had strong reason to take sides. Surprisingly, they all agree that Joseph married Fanny Alger as a plural wife.
Mosiah Hancock wrote in the 1890s about Joseph engaging Levi Hancock, Mosiah’s father, to ask Alger’s parents for permission to marry. Levi Hancock was Alger’s uncle and an appropriate go-between. He talked with Alger’s father, then her mother, and finally to Fanny herself, and all three consented. As in many subsequent plural marriages, Joseph did not steal away the prospective bride. He approached the parents first to ask for their daughter’s hand. Hancock performed the ceremony, repeating the words Joseph dictated to him. The whole process was formal and, in a peculiar way, old-fashioned.
Most of the other stories about Joseph’s plural marriage in Kirtland come from one individual without confirmation from a second source. Ann Eliza, for example, included a story of Fanny being ejected by a furious Emma, one of the few scraps of information about her reaction. Ann Eliza could not have been an eyewitness because she was not yet born, but she might have heard the story from her parents who were close to the Smiths. Are such accounts to be believed? One of the few tales that appears in more than one account was of Oliver Cowdery experimenting with plural wives himself, contrary to Joseph’s counsel. That pattern of followers marrying prematurely without authorization was repeated later when some of Joseph’s followers used the doctrine of plural marriage as a license for marrying at will. Stories like these, all of them partisan, must be treated with caution.
… page 437
After marrying Fanny Alger sometime before 1836, Joseph, it appears, married no one else until he wed Louisa Beaman on April 5, 1841, in Nauvoo. (Historian debate the possibility of one other wife in the interim.)
… page 326
The end of Joseph’s relationship with Fanny Alger is as elusive as the beginning. After leaving Kirtland in September 1836, Alger, reportedly a comely, amiable person, had no trouble remarrying. Joseph asked her uncle Hancock to take her to Missouri, but she went with her parents instead. They stopped in Indiana for a season, and while there she married Solomon Custer, a non-Mormon listed in the censuses as a grocer, baker, and merchant. When her parents moved on, Alger remained in Indiana with her husband. She bore nine children. After Joseph’s death, Alger’s brother asked her about her relationship with the Prophet. She replied: “That is all a matter of my–own. And I have nothing to Communicate.”
Was Eliza Snow pushed down the stairs?
Bushman doesn’t think so. From page 493,
One story told in Utah in the 1880s had Emma pushing one of Mormondom’s most honored women, Eliza Roxcy Snow, down the stairs upon discovering she was married to Joseph, but the evidence for the incident is shaky. Snow was a refined, intelligent woman who had been brought into the Smith household to teach their children. She joined the Mormons in 1835 along with her sister Leonora and moved to Kirtland, where she boarded with the Smiths and taught school. Slender and ramrod straight, Snow was the most intellectual of all the women converts. She wrote poetry and prepared a constitution for the Female Relief Society. Repelled at first by the practice of plural marriage, she concluded that she was “living in the dispensation of the fulness of times, embracing all the other Dispensations,” and so “surely Plural Marriage must necessarily be included.” Brigham Young performed the ceremony for Joseph and Eliza on June 29, 1842. She was thirty-eight, two years older than Joseph. She later spoke of him as “my beloved husband, the choice of my heart and the crown of my life.”
In August 1842, Emma invited Eliza to move back into the Smith household. In December, Eliza began teaching the Smith children and ran a school for them and others until March 1843. Eliza noted in her diary that on February 11, 1843, while still teaching, she moved out of the Smiths’ house without saying why, though the reason could well be that on the same day, Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, moved in. Later gossip blamed Emma. All the versions of the Eliza story, however, were attenuated. Most of them were tales told many decades after the fact and were second- or third-hand hearsay. Some had Emma pushing Eliza, others said she beat her. None hold up under scrutiny. They have to be read skeptically because of the widespread dislike for Emma among the Utah Mormons. Brigham Young never forgave her for breaking with the Church and not coming west. She was considered a traitor to Mormonism because she remained behind and denied, in carefully worded statements that skirted the truth, that Joseph took additional wives. When her sons, then leaders of a rival branch of Mormonism, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, came to Utah on missions in the 1860s, they tried to trace and discredit every claim that Joseph had multiple wives. In response, the Utah church secured scores of affidavits from people who knew of the practice in Nauvoo. Besides proving the existence of plural marriage, the affidavits attempted to refute the hypothesis that Joseph’s relations with his plural wives were purely spiritual. Some members of the Reorganized Church accepted ceremonial marriages but thought Joseph never slept with his wives. To rebut that view, the affidavits noted the occasions when Joseph occupied the same room with a wife, facts that might have been omitted had not the Utah Mormons been determined to prove the Joseph and his plural wives were married as completely as the later polygamists under Brigham Young.
Bushman gives so much detail, that it is hard to cover every aspect in a single post. But, given this information, what do you make of Smith’s practice of polygamy? Are you comfortable with it?