The Latest Polygamy Controversy

You may think that we know all there is to know about polygamy in the LDS church.  However, historians continue to debate the issue.  A press release from Signature Books a few days ago let me know about some interesting developments.  In 2008, George D Smith released a book called Nauvoo Polygamy – …but we called it Celestial Marriage.  Apparently, the 2nd edition was just released with new charts and corrections.

As I understand it, the 2008 book caused a few waves among the Foundation or Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS–now known as the Neal A Maxwell Center).  According to the release, FARMS reviewer “Gregory L. Smith criticized Nauvoo Polygamy for assuming the founder had sex with his plural wives.”  The release notes the irony that “the reviewer then admitted Joseph Smith did had sex with at least nine women.”  Signature has hailed the review as the “landmark 2008 review [that] constituted the first-ever admission in an LDS publication that Smith was sexually active with his wives.”

One of the other controversies on polygamy deals with the age of Joseph Smith’s wives.  Apparently some people view the book edited by Newell Bringhurst called Persistence of Polygamy as a response to Nauvoo Polygamy.  It has been noted that 30% of Joseph Smith’s plural wives were teenagers, yet the average age of a woman’s first marriage in the 1840’s was usually in their 20’s.

In attempting to assert that people married younger in the 1830-40’s, Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith wrote a chapter in Bringhurst’s book defending the young marriage ages.  The chapter is titled, “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context.” But Joe Geisner, an LDS blogger noted some very different interpretations of these graphs.  The press release states,

“The parts that are understandable do not seem to support the authors’ thesis or conclusions.” Geisner found that two charts show how, in the 1840s, only about 1 percent of American women married at fifteen years or younger. Another chart shows that in New England, only 9 percent of men of Joseph Smith’s age (34-38 years old) married teenagers.

Additional charts show that the age of Joseph Smith’s wives put him in company only with the southwest region of the country comprising Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas and the western region of the United States at a time when it was dominated by Mormons, who tended to marry much younger than other Americans.

“In addition to that,” says Geisner, “the authors treat Joseph Smith as if he were his own region of the country, marrying teenagers 30 percent of the time rather than classifying him as one 38-year-old individual who married teenagers.” A final chart shows that in the 1840s, most women in the United States married in their twenties.

I haven’t seen the chapter in question, but Geisner’s point about making Joseph Smith his own demographic seems to be an abuse of statistics.  Richard Bushman has noted that Joseph turned societal norms on its ear when introducing polygamy.  I’m not sure if this is more or less troubling, but these types of revelations about early polygamy make me very uncomfortable.

Have any of you read the books in question?  What do you think?

I added this table on 7/5/2011 to answer Glenn’s comment about teenagers.  This list is derived from the website http://www.wivesofjosephsmith.org/

Wife Date Age Husband* Joseph age difference
Helen Mar Kimball  May 1843  14 NONE  37              23.00
Nancy Winchester  1843  14 NONE  37              23.00
Fanny Alger  1833  16 NONE  27              11.00
Flora Ann Woodworth  Spring 1843  16 NONE  37              21.00
Sarah Ann Whitney  Jul 1842  17 NONE  36              19.00
Lucy Walker  May 1843  17 NONE  37              20.00
Sarah Lawrence  May 1843  17 NONE  37              20.00
Emily Dow Partridge  Mar 1843  19 NONE  37              18.00
Maria Lawrence  May 1843  19 NONE  37              18.00
Melissa Lott  Sep 1843  19 NONE  37              18.00

Now, here is a list of the other wives.  As you can see Joseph was 21 years younger than Rhoda Richards.  You mayor may not know that Joseph was sealed to women currently legally married to other Mormon men.  I didn’t realize that Joseph was younger than Emma.)  His marriage practices are hard to comprehend.

Wife Date Age Husband* Joseph age difference
Zina Huntington Jacobs  Oct 1841  20 Henry Jacobs  35         15.00
Emma Hale  1/1/1827 22 NONE  21         (1.00)
Eliza Maria Partridge  Mar 1843  22 NONE  37         15.00
Sylvia Sessions Lyon  Feb 1842  23 Windsor Lyon  36         13.00
Mary Rollins Lightner  Feb 1842  23 Adam Lightner  36         13.00
Louisa Beaman  Apr 1841  26 NONE  35           9.00
Marinda Johnson Hyde  Apr 1842  27 Orson Hyde  36           9.00
Olive Frost  Mid 1843  27 NONE  37         10.00
Hanna Ells  Mid 1843  29 NONE  37           8.00
Elvira Cowles Holmes  Jun 1843  29 Jonathan Holmes  37           8.00
Almera Johnson  Apr 1843  30 NONE  37           7.00
Presendia Huntington Buell  Dec 1841  31 Norman Buell  35           4.00
Desdemona Fullmer  Jul 1843  32 NONE  37           5.00
Agnes Coolbrith  Jan 1842  33 NONE  36           3.00
Ruth Vose Sayers  Feb 1843  33 Edward Sayers  37           4.00
Lucinda Morgan Harris  1838  37 George W. Harris  32         (5.00)
Delcena Johnson  Jul 1842  37 NONE  36         (1.00)
Martha McBride Knight  Aug 1842  37 NONE  36         (1.00)
Eliza R. Snow  Jun 1842  38 NONE  36         (2.00)
Patty Bartlett Sessions  Mar 1842  47 David Sessions  36      (11.00)
Elizabeth Davis Durfee  Jun 1842  50 Jabez Durfee  36      (14.00)
Sarah Kingsley Cleveland  Jun 1842  53 John Cleveland  36      (17.00)
Fanny Young Nov 1843 56 NONE 37      (19.00)
Rhoda Richards  Jun 1843  58 NONE  37      (21.00)

23 comments on “The Latest Polygamy Controversy

  1. Are these available in iBook or Kindle format?

  2. Bringhurst’s book is for sure. See http://www.amazon.com/Persistence-Polygamy-Joseph-Origins-ebook/dp/B004GNEDIM/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2&s=digital-text&qid=1308535135&sr=8-2

    (It’s MUCH cheaper on Kindle.) I think Signature is still trying to get several of their books on the Kindle.

  3. It seems a little disingenuous for Signature to claim this is the first time that FARMS has admitted that JS was sexually active with his plural wives because an earlier review of Compton’s book, also published by Signature, makes that claim.

    Also, I am not sure that the critique of the review is fair. Assuming that Joseph slept with his plural wives is a very different position to claiming that their is evidence for a specific number of women he had sex with.

    Thirdly, I think it is worth noting what one of the authors thinks regarding the press release.

  4. Aaron, thanks for the links. It is apparent from your first link that FAIR did say “Joseph was sealed to twenty-one women who were unmarried or widowed. Nearly all indications of sexual relations pertain to these marriages. “ I wonder if FAIR is considered “part” of the church in the same way FARMS/Neal A Maxwell Institute is? I’m just thinking out loud.

    I was surprised to get mentioned in the comments on the FAIR blog–that was cool. I didn’t know they were reading my stuff. Cool!

    It gets so expensive to keep buying all these books so I can read them. Perhaps I should start a book fund? Anyone willing to contribute or send me free books???

  5. MH, the article also notes that JS is likely to have had children from those of those sealed marriages as well. Esp. as someone who likes to mark books, the library is not really an option.

  6. […] point, but, then again, neither is a psychopathic father figure. In history, we’re exploring polygamy, revelation, and evolution. In Theology, let’s explore Mormon concepts like exaltation and […]

  7. For the record, The Persistence of Polygamy, Vol. 1, was definitely not published in response to George D. Smith’s book. The JWHA Journal regularly receives more high quality submissions than we are able to publish. Since 2007, John Whitmer has begun taking groups of original articles by theme and publishing them as stand-alone volumes, instead of publishing them in the journal. Scattering of the Saints was the first example; The Persistence of Polygamy arose because we found ourselves in possession of a large number of exciting new studies on the topic of polygamy. (We should also note that George D. Smith’s book won JWHA’s Best Book Award for the year it was published.)

    On the demographic article that Joe Geisner mentions, there are actually two different articles on the subject of underage wives in The Persistence of Polygamy: the one mentioned was written by more conservative, practicing LDS members; the second one is by Todd Compton. Like Geisner, Compton also has issues with Foster, Keller, and Smith’s interpretations — and these are brought up in his article in the volume. The unique aspect of the volume is that it contains multiple (in this case, even opposing) views on some of these controversial subjects.

  8. FAIR is not on the same basis as FARMS. FARMS is a (now) correlated research and writing group that started as a table in Professor Welch’s office in the law school.

    FAIR is an apologetics group that has its roots in an AOL user group. Massively different, FYI.

    Both good groups, FYI as well.

  9. Please define teenagers in this context. Are we talking 13 -14 or 18 – 19?

    I would hope Joseph had sex with is wives. Why should that even be an issue?

  10. Glenn, I updated the post with 2 tables to directly answer your question. In brief, Joseph married Helen Mar Kimball and Nancy Winchester, both age 14. Joseph was age 37. The age gap is astonishing. Additionally, Fanny Alger’s sealing is hard to date exactly. I’ve heard she was anywhere between 14-16. I used 16 for this table. (These dates are approximate; no numbers should be considered 100% accurate, though they should be reasonably close.) Joseph had been married to Emma for about 6 years when Fanny Alger was “sealed”. Obviously Oliver Cowdery questioned the legitimacy of this and has referred to it as an affair.

    Don Bradley has done some cool new research on Fanny Alger. Apparently Joseph and Fanny were discovered by Emma in a compromising position in a barn. It may have appeared to Emma that Fanny was pregnant. Fanny was ushered out of Kirtland in a hurry, and Oliver accused Joseph of adultery. A cynic will claim that polygamy was a cover for an illicit romance. I’m not trying to be cynical, but I can sympathize with the cynics. There was no revelation written down until the 1840’s, so if Joseph was commanded to practice this early (fanny is generally acknowledged as the first plural wife), there is no evidence of the revelation prior to Fanny Alger.

    At any rate, all of these teenage (14-19) brides were considerably younger than Joseph. It doesn’t look good. On the other hand, Joseph was 21 years younger than Rhoda Richards, so the age gap goes the other direction too. But I think it is more acceptable for a 58 year old woman to marry a 37 year old man than for a 14 year old girl to marry a 37 year old man. If it happened today, Joseph would easily be prosecuted for all girls under age 18, even if polygamy doesn’t get court challenges today.

  11. Thank-you for the list. I can understand now why my second comment about sex with wives may seem frivolous. In our mortal, North American (I’m Canadian) society, mature adult marriages with young teens is inappropriate. However, assuming some true basis to the “Fiddler On The Roof” story (circa 1920??), May/December marriages may not have been unusual. Has that statistic been researched for Joseph’s time period?

    I do wonder at the spititual age spread.

  12. I don’t understand the may-december reference to fiddler on the roof.

  13. In the movie version, one of Tevya’s (sp?) daughters was being married off to the much older butcher. Tevya “repented” and concocted the dream scene to convince his wife that the daughter should mnarry the young tailor, the daughter’s true love.

  14. We don’t have evidence that Joseph Smith had sex with Helen M. Kimball, but we do have pretty good reason to believe that he did have sex with Fanny Alger…so, I am not certain that having no evidence automatically yields giving J.S. the benefit of the doubt. What evidence we do have is that: 1) Joseph Smith did have sex with some of his wives, more than just Emma; 2) He did in fact Marry H.M.Kimball. We also know that Helen was forbidden by her father, on more than one occassion, from socializing with similarly aged members of her peer set (I believe this is mentioned in both Mormon Enigma, and In Sacred Loneliness) because she was already married to J.S. So, it begs the question. Did Heber C. Kimball and J.S. expect that Helen was to live sexless for the remainder of her life? In other words, even if he didn’t have sex with her at age 14, was it his intention to wait until she was at least in her early twenties? Doubtful I think.

    Regarding Fanny Alger, this is another case where I think Joseph Smith is just given the benefit of the doubt to save face for the Church. The Gospel Doctrine manuals contain oblique mentionings that perhaps Joseph Smith was aware of marriage sealings as early as 1832. What they don’t mention is that this is an inference drawn from the Alger affair. I am not aware of any written doctrines dated before about 1836 – 37 that show this. Instead, we assume that Joseph Smith was sealed to Alger because it sits better than admitting that it was what it looked like…a simple extramarital affair devoid of any true religious/theological significance. Even if Joseph Smith was aware of “sealings” he didn’t recieve the keys until 1836 – so even in the context of Mormon Priesthood, suggesting that he and Fanny Alger were married/sealed is out of the question.

  15. Glenn,

    There is an interesting story about Nancy Rigdon (perhaps with some similarities to Tevya). (I previously blogged about this event when discussing Sidney Rigdon.) To be brief, Joseph tried to proposition 19 year old Nancy. Quoting from my other post,

    In 1842, Smith tested Rigdon’s friendship when Joseph proposed plural marriage to Sidney’s 19-year old daughter, Nancy. Nancy was summoned on two occasions to meet Joseph, and was repulsed by the idea, threatening to “raise the neighbors” if Joseph didn’t let her go. Through his scribe Joseph wrote an apology to Nancy, which she handed to her boyfriend, Francis Higbee. The letter got out, (and was published in John C. Bennett’s expose on Mormon Polygamy–more on Bennett later) and eventually got to Sidney’s attention.

    At first, Joseph denied all to Sidney. Nancy stormed into the room saying,

    “Joseph Smith you are telling that which is not true[.] you did make such a proposition to me, and you know it.” Another unnamed person said, “Nancy are you not afraid to call the Lord[‘s] anointed a cursed liar[?]“ “No”, replied Nancy, “I am not for he does lie and he knows it.”

    [Rigdon’s son-in-law, George] Robinson wrote that Smith, after acknowledging his proposition, sought a way out of the crisis by claiming he had approached Nancy “to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts.” But Sidney found that rationalization feeble. Convinced of Smith’s involvement in the “spiritual wife business,” as Sidney later termed it, Rigdon concluded that Smith had “contracted a whoring spirit.” This is why, according to Wickliffe [Sidney’s son], Rigdon told family members immediately after the prophet left their home that Smith “could never be sealed to one of his daughters without his consent as he did not believe in the doctrine.”

  16. Cowboy, Welcome!!! I’m not sure you’ve ever been to my blog before, but it’s good to have you. Yes I agree with most of your sentiments.

    What evidence we do have is that: 1) Joseph Smith did have sex with some of his wives, more than just Emma; Aaron’s comment #3 has 2 links to church sources that do not dispute that Joseph had sexual relations with other wives. From the same Sidney Rigdon post,

    Although Emma apparently countenanced two of her husband’s 1843 sealings–to Emily and Eliza Partridge–she recanted within a day and demanded that Joseph give them up or “blood should flow.” Her change of heart came after she found Joseph and Eliza Partridge secluded in an upstairs bedroom at the Smith home. The realization that the sealing represented more than a “spiritual marriage” or “adoptive ordinance” devastated her. [From page 293]

    That’s just one example, but I’m sure I could come up with others. As for Helen Mar Kimball, she claims to have been sealed to Joseph–there’s quite a bit of info on her. The Wikipedia article discusses Todd Compton and Fawn Brodie quite a bit. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Mar_Kimball#Marriage_to_Joseph_Smith_Jr.

    I don’t think Joseph ever expected her or any of the “polyandrous” marriages to be sexless. Brigham Young married many of Joseph’s plural wives (most notably Eliza R. Snow.) Honestly, as much as early polygamy really bugs me, the book by kathryn Daynes made me feel better. I reviewed her book, which discusses divorces in polygamy. It seems that Brigham Young was very pragmatic, and felt that women should be granted divorce freely if they asked for it. With Brigham Young, it was very beneficial for poor women to join rich husbands, and was a way to “share the wealth.”

  17. Where is the Sidney Rigdon incident documented? Thanks.

  18. Richard Van Wagoner documented the incident in his biography called Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess. I reviewed the book in several parts–Part 4 contains this specific incident: http://www.mormonheretic.org/2009/03/27/sidney-joseph-a-strained-friendship-part-4/

  19. Assuming you agree with the doctrine of polygamy (I don’t BTW), then it should not be a problem to accept that JS had sex with his wives…even they younger ones. They were after all, his wives.

    But what about the wives that were currently married?
    Did he have sex with them too?
    Its hard to reconcile that, even if you believe in the doctrine.

  20. Many (if not all) apologists defend the practice of Mormon polygamy by citing Old Testament examples as a divine precedent. However, they fail to place its practice in a cultural context. At that time there were no political or moral sensibilities rendering it unacceptable – wives even provided their “handmaids” to their husbands to augment progeny. That, as well as numerous other practices, were regarded as acceptable, even praiseworthy.

    Thankfully, contemporary society has established standards of morality transcending those of ancient times. For JS to use Biblical history to justify his wanton sexual exploits in a culture that regarded them as immoral and reprehensible is an egregious and pathetic defense, the same defense now championed by the church and their apologists.

    Lastly, would they have any reasonable person believe an all-knowing god “restoring” such a practice when its inevitable result would quickly become the source of a religious and political debacle that would bring hardship to otherwise innocent (and unaware) members of the church, the suffering of children, and the eventual dissolution and displacement of families?

  21. @Mormon Heretic
    Today a man could marry a girl of age 15 assuming parental consent and consumate that marriage and it would be legal. As short a tima ago as 1999 a man could have married a 14 year old with the same result ( This would apply to several states including Utah). The questions to me would be: 1. Legal or not, is it moral (and was it moral), and.. 2. Did Mr. Smith have sex with either of the 14 year olds before marriage.

  22. Regarding #2, I don’t believe there is any evidence of sex with any women before sealing. (If someone knows of something, please let me know.) I know that Brian Hales does not believe there was ever sexual polyandry. See http://www.josephsmithspolygamy.com/JSPolyandry/MASTERSexualPolyandry.html I don’t know his position on these 14 year olds, but I suspect he would argue that there is no evidence for sexual relations. Rather these sealings were more of an adoptive type ordinance. My memory is weak on Helen Mar Kimball’s experiences….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: