Joseph’s DNA test

The most exciting, newsworthy event at the 2016 Mormon History Association meetings was the announcement of the DNA test of Josephine Lyons.  As the story goes, Joseph Smith had more than 30 polygamist wives.  Except for Emma, none of these wives had children via Joseph.  There had been a few rumored children but John Reed Hancock was ruled the child of Levi Hancock back in 2011.  By 2007, genetic researcher Ugo Perego had ruled out 5 other children rumored to have been fathered by Smith:  Mosiah Hancock, Oliver Buell, Moroni Llewellyn Pratt, Zebulon Jacobs, and Orrison Smith.

Despite these reports, Brian Hales believed that Josephine Lyon was the genetic offspring of Joseph Smith and Sylvia Lyons.  The association is rather convoluted.  Many have claimed that Sylvia had 2 husbands at the same time.  The reality is that her husband Windsor Lyon was excommunicated from the LDS Church.  Hales claimed that this excommunication was a spiritual divorce in the eyes of Joseph, though there was no legal divorce.  Here is how it is worded on the FAIR website.

Sylvia Sessions married Windsor Lyon on 21 April 1838. Joseph Smith performed the ceremony. She was sealed to Joseph Smith on 8 February 1842. Her husband Windsor’s reaction is not recorded, but he was a faithful, active member of the Church at the time.

Windsor was excommunicated on 7 November 1842 because he sued stake president William Marks for repayment of a loan (Church members frowned on using secular courts to settle disputes between themselves).[54] Despite his excommunication, Windsor remained on close terms with Joseph; tradition holds that he was “a true friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith.”

Sylvia gave birth to a daughter, Josephine, on 8 February 1844, and there is evidence that Joseph was the father (see here). Regardless, Windsor Lyon remained a close friend and ally of Joseph’s—he was called as a witness at the trial of Joseph and Hyrum’s assassins.

Brian Hales has recently published work demonstrating that Todd Compton likely worked with incomplete data on Session’s first marriage. In Hales’ view, Sessions considered herself divorced from her husband, and Joseph is the only viable father for her child. If so, Sessions’ marriage to Joseph was not polyandrous, and the evidence for Josephine Lyons being Joseph’s child is even stronger.[55]

Windsor was rebaptized on 18 January 1846, and Sylvia was sealed to Joseph by proxy with her husband’s permission. She was then sealed to Heber Kimball for time, though she continued to cohabitate with Windsor, who also took a plural wife.[56]

Apparently on Sylvia’s deathbed, she told Josephine that she was the offspring of Joseph, and told here “In conclusion, mother told me not to make her statement public, as it might cause trouble and rouse unpleasant curiosity.”  You can see the family history published in this book, and Josephine’s sister Phebe also believed she was offspring of Joseph, even though she was born after Joseph died.   Hale’s co-author Don Bradley notes that the history written in that book is problematic because it was published after Phebe’s death.

The origin of the Phebe Jane Clark ‘autobiography’ is under some question, since it uses a source that post-dates Phebe’s death. Since the source was significantly expanded, if not entirely composed, after Phebe’s death, its account doesn’t tell us with any certainty whether Phebe was really present at Sylvia Lyon Clark’s deathbed confession or whether Phebe saw herself as a child of Joseph Smith in the same sense as Josephine. What we _can_ tell, however, from the Myron Carr blessing, is that the next generation of Phebe’s family (her son-in-law Myron Carr, and presumably her daughter Sylvia Ellis Carr) understood Phebe’s female descendants as “granddaughters of the Prophet.”

Enter Ugo Perego, the genetic researcher who has ruled out Joseph as father to the other 6 children mentioned above.  Once again, he has ruled out Joseph, and ruled in Windsor as the father of Josephine.  This calls into question Hales’ interpretation of events.  Hales postulated that in Sylvia’s mind, the spiritual sealing was more important than the physical heritage, and Josephine may have simply misunderstood Sylvia, thinking she was physical offspring when Sylvia meant spiritual offspring.  (Or perhaps Sylvia had sex with both men and didn’t know who the father really was.)

Following Perego’s presentation, Hales said there are four options to explain the sealing of Sylvia with Joseph.

  1. The sealing between Joseph and Sylvia was a non sexual eternity only.
  2. Polyandry-Sylvia really did have 2 husbands simultaneously (Joseph Smith and Windsor Lyon)
  3. There was a short separation from Windsor, subsequent sealing to Joseph, and then she resumed her marriage with Windsor.
  4. Sylvia was in transgression because she had sex with Windsor while sealed to Joseph.

When I told my wife about the DNA test, she was happy that the test was negative for Joseph.  It is possible that Sylvia didn’t know who the father really was because of sexual relations with both men in a short window of time.  Obviously if Joseph was the father that would confirm sex, but without paternity, we’ll never be able to prove that Joseph had sex with Sylvia.  Apparently there is a letter claiming that Sylvia may have had sexual relations with another man by the name of Markham.  If that’s true, it almost seems like a free-love movement of the 1960s and she was sleeping around with a number of men.  And what’s up with Heber Kimball’s sealing while she continued to live with Windsor?  That sure sounds like a second case of polyandry.

I spoke with one conference attender who believes that Joseph didn’t have sex with anyone except Emma.  If that’s the case, it seems that Joseph wasn’t following that admonition that polygamy was to “raise up seed unto me” (Jacob 2:30.)  I’m not sure which option Hales’s favors, but I’m pretty sure it’s not option 2.  If you’d like more detail, here’s Ugo Perego’s website, and Brian Hales website.  Here’s also a short video of Brian and his wife Laura Hales explaining their position.

What do you think happened?  Why would Joseph be sealed to other men’s wives?  What are your thoughts?


5 comments on “Joseph’s DNA test

  1. MH,
    I am pretty well convinced that Joseph had conjugal relations with some but not all of his plural wives. The affidavits in the Temple Lot Case are pretty convincing. I am not convinced that Joseph had intimate relations with any of the so called polyandrous marriages.
    Even before the new DNA evidence was produced, I felt that the gist of the communications that Sylvia conveyed to Josephine was that Josephine had been born under the covenant, and as such was Joseph Smith’s daughter.
    The DNA evidence bolsters that feeling. There are other possibilities, but I am TBM’ing this all the way.


  2. For those interested in Reader’s Digest version of Ugo’s test, I wanted to give some very basic details. I’m not a geneticist, so I’m going to explain this the best I understand. A child has half of each parent’s DNA. A grandchild has 1/4, great grand child 1/8, so finding genetic material gets diluted pretty fast. The best test for paternity is autosomal DNA. There are something like 6800 centiMorgans of DNA material. A centiMorgan (named after a geneticist Morgan who invented the method) is something like 100 pairs of DNA. Given that Joseph has no known DNA left from 200 years ago, known descendants of him, Sylvia, and Windsor Lyon were compared.

    Lyon descendants had no genetic material from Joseph; 0 is within the margin of error, so that alone does not totally exclude Joseph. However, there was some genetic material from Windsor through Josephine’s descendants, so it is nearly certain that Windsor was Josephine’s father.

    I did link to Ugo’s website for those who want to understand the technical details of the test. Ugo did a great job explaining this to lay people, but it was a highly technical presentation. In my post, I decided to simply report the results “Was Joseph the father?” instead of getting into the weeds of the test results. By all means, check out the link to Ugo’s website. It’s got lots of details.

  3. […] that Josephine’s mother Sylvia had 2 simultaneous husbands: Joseph Smith and Windsor Lyon.  Brian Hales has argued that following Windsor’s excommunication, Joseph Smith was sealed to Sylvia Lyons, and they […]

  4. […] that Josephine’s mother Sylvia had 2 simultaneous husbands: Joseph Smith and Windsor Lyon.  Brian Hales has argued that following Windsor’s excommunication, Joseph Smith was sealed to Sylvia Lyons, and they […]

  5. […] that Josephine’s mother Sylvia had 2 simultaneous husbands: Joseph Smith and Windsor Lyon.  Brian Hales has argued that following Windsor’s excommunication, Joseph Smith was sealed to Sylvia Lyons, and they […]

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